Landscape Design Basics and Resources

Picture of foundation plantings.
Picture of foundation plantings. David Beaulieu

It's not hard for do-it-yourself landscapers to learn the basic concepts implemented by professional landscape designers. And the easiest way to do this is to browse landscape design photos. Landscape design concepts can be broken down into three essential categories:

These concepts serve as building blocks for improving the look of any yard, and studying them will also help generate numerous ideas.

Color Schemes

When you consider the many colors of nature, it's no surprise that color schemes and color theory are critical aspects of landscape design. The use of color isn't limited to the bright, eye-catching hues of flowers or the green blankets of grass. It also includes the natural browns of fencing, the sandy tones of stone, and the dappled yellow light on sunlit foliage. As with interior decorating, using colors outdoors involves a balance of "warm" and "cool" colors as well as complementary and contrasting colors.

Plant Form and Texture

You may wonder what seemingly abstract terms like "form" and "texture" have to do with improving the look of your yard. You're not painting a masterpiece, after all; you're just putting plants in the ground. Yet, it is not coincidental that landscape design shares some terminology with the world of art. The backyard is your canvas, and your understanding of concepts such as form and texture will determine the beauty of the resulting picture.

Flowers are instrumental in achieving specific color schemes, but when it comes to form and texture, you'll find the need for other allies, such as ornamental grasses as well as trees and shrubs with interesting branching patterns and foliage.

Texture is perhaps the most frequently overlooked landscape design concept, but this oversight is easily corrected. It all starts with paying more attention to the leaves of your plants. Beginners are often so obsessed with the flowers of plants that they are blinded to the importance of foliage. But upon further reflection, it should become obvious that attractive leaves boast a selling point with which flowers cannot compete: namely, that they offer a display throughout the growing season (in fact, in the case of evergreen plants, the foliage display lasts the entire year).

Plants that are valued more for their leaves than for their flowers are often referred to as "foliage plants." Beginners are well-advised to look for such plants when shopping at the nursery. Once you've developed an eye for texture, start experimenting with how you juxtapose your plants. The juxtaposition that will probably excite you the most is one that features a striking contrast.

Focal Points, Scale, and Line

How do you direct the gaze of the viewer where you'd like it to land in the yard? That's something professional designers learn about in their training. A partial answer to the question lies in the use of focal points. Other tools for directing the eye or highlighting key features are scale and line. If you've ever admired the overall impact an effective hedge or a fence has on a yard, aesthetically, then you've seen examples of line at work (perhaps without even knowing it!). Discover the power of these classic landscape design ideas for yourself, concepts that can work their magic in the humblest of yards.