Guide to Landscape Design

Large park with clean cut landscaping, round sidewalk with grass, pink and white flowers, and shrubs planted in the middle

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Students of landscape design 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.

What Is Landscape Design?

Landscape design is the art of arranging the features of an area of land for aesthetic and/or practical reasons. It is often divided into two major components: hardscape (the nonliving elements, such as pavers) and softscape (the living elements, such as flowers).

Some major concepts of landscape design include:

  • Unity (harmony)
  • Balance
  • Proportion
  • 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 a 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.

Here are a few more of these concepts:

A related word is landscaping, but the two terms are not synonymous. Landscaping is the more overarching 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 Is More Art Than Science

Because 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 contemporaries seem to agree that a gracefully curving design just looks better. On an unconscious level, people 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 the following:

  • Plant choices
  • Choices in hardscape
  • 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.

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 real wood.

People disagree not only about individual components of landscape design such as plants and decks but also regarding the overall style. There are two major camps you can fall in when it comes to style: formal landscape design and cottage-garden (informal) style.

Both landscape designers and landscape architects practice landscape design. To do so, you should know the steps it takes, including education.

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