What Is Landscape Design?

Definition, Handy Resources to Help Homeowners and Students

Image of alliums in fern bed, Thuya Garden, Maine.
"Texture" in a landscape design context usually refers not to how something feels, but to how it looks. Here, the texture of the alliums contrasts nicely with that of the ferns. David Beaulieu

Landscape design is the art of arranging or modifying the features of a yard, an urban area, etc., for aesthetic or practical reasons. For organizational purposes, it is often divided into two major parts: hardscape and softscape. Students of the field become acquainted with a number of concepts that deal with how the viewer perceives the layout of a landscape -- and how the designer can change that perception -- such as:

  1. Unity (harmony)
  2. Balance 
  3. Proportion
  4. Transition

Unity is the effective use of elements in a design to convey a theme. Unity is achieved by implementing a design consistently over a landscape, through mass planting or repetition. Whereas "balance" is a term of comparison between two segments of a landscape, "unity" pertains to the overall picture of a landscape. Unity has been achieved when the viewer senses that all the individual elements of a landscape fit together to form a coherent theme.

While striving for unity, do not forget to keep things in proportion. "Proportion" is the sense or requirement that the size of the individual components or groups of components in a landscape fit into the whole landscape harmoniously. One way to achieve proportion is through proper use of transition, applied to the size of the respective components. A landscape that fails to convey good proportion is one that is marred by abrupt transitions.

"Transition" is the gradual change achieved by the manipulation of the basic design elements of color, scale, line, form and texture. Unless striving to achieve a particular effect, avoid abrupt transitions.

For example, if the color of your flowers is repeated as you go from one part of the yard to another, there is a sense of a cohesive whole, which gives you a smooth transition.

Sometimes, successful transition is enhanced simply by adding a suitable landscaping element to a vast space, thereby breaking it up into segments that are more easily digestible for the viewer. One could say that a transition is created in such cases.

Included below are a few more of these concepts; follow the links to learn the definitions of these terms:

  1. Plant form
  2. Plant texture
  3. Line
  4. Color theory
  5. Focal point

To see these terms discussed more fully in a landscape-design context, read my full article, Landscape Design for Beginners. An alternative -- for those who are more action-oriented and learn better through pictures -- is my Landscape Design Photos piece.

A related word is "landscaping," but the two terms are not synonymous. "Landscaping" is the more over-arching of the two and is often self-taught. Studying landscape design can help you achieve superior landscaping because many aspects of landscaping profit greatly from a "designer's eye." Moreover, landscaping goes beyond the glamor of the "creative side" (that is, design) and includes landscape maintenance. Whereas the designer's job is to plan how the finished site will look -- and, often, execute the resulting landscape plan -- it is someone else who will be responsible for maintaining that site in good order.

Landscape Design More Art Than Science

Since plants are at the heart of landscape design, knowledge of the science of horticulture is one of its critical components. The field is, however, more of an art than a science. Some decisions will be based not on hard fact, but on personal tastes, intuition, or current consensus.

For example, in designing a foundation planting, there is no set of hard scientific facts to which one can point to make the case that a curved design is better than a straight one. Nonetheless, most of our contemporaries seem to agree that a gracefully curving design just looks better. On an unconscious level, we seem convinced that a curved foundation planting "works," because it does a better job of softening the overwhelming linearity of a house wall.

Precisely because landscape design is more art than science, reasonable people can disagree over what is best.

There is room for different tastes and opinions. These differences can be manifested in:

  1. Plant choices
  2. Choices in hardscape
  3. Formal vs informal styles

For example, in discussions on plant choices, you will occasionally encounter the notion that some plants are overused. In such cases, always remember that what is being stated is merely an opinion, even though it is being stated in a manner that sounds authoritative. I weigh in on this idea of so-called "overused" plants in my profiles on two of the most popular plants in North American landscapes:

  1. Impatiens
  2. Jackman's clematis

In debates over hardscape, the disagreement often centers on the material to be used. If you are having a fence built, for example, will you select a vinyl fence or a wooden fence? The answer may depend more on emotional preferences than on intellectual arguments. Likewise, when choosing a decking material, will you go with composite or wood? Some of the composites do a marvelous job of mimicking wood. But if you happen to be a homeowner who admires wood, every time you walk on a composite deck, you will be reminded that it's not really wood.

People disagree not only about individual components of landscape design, such as plants and decks but also regarding overall style. Read the following articles to decide which of these two landscape-design camps you fall into:

Both landscape designers and landscape architects practice landscape design. Read my interview with Paul Corsetti to find out the steps he took to enter the field, including education, if you are interested in becoming a landscape designer.