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Elements of a Successful Landscape

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Have you ever visited a well-designed garden – or saw a photo of one – and instinctively knew that the design worked, though you didn’t quite know why? Something (or things) is satisfying about the layout, even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is.

That’s because garden designers who know their stuff use the principles of composition and color, plus creative plant choices, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

If you know what elements to look for, you can identify the “why” of what it is you like about a landscape. Then you can use that knowledge in your own garden.

Here are five examples that demonstrate good garden design and why each works.

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Keeping A Space From Feeling Boxed In

This small garden is working hard, offering a place for dining, a firepit, benches and steps to sit on, as well as greenery. However, it doesn’t feel cluttered or crowded. Leaving the high fence exposed at the back and part of one side makes it easy to determine the end of the property, and its dark, neutral color keeps the focus on the monochromatic hardscaping, furniture, and plantings. Greenery on the long sides softens the look, and keeps the space from feeling walled in. The trees have slender trunks, and open canopies, which provide shade let allow for dappled light, which keeps the garden from feeling weighed down from above. Plant variety comes from leaf shape rather than color.

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The Materials Fit The Location

This garden plays up its rural site, starting with the choice of wood as the prime building material. It’s visible in the board and batten siding, the fence, bench, barrels, and the lumber of the raised beds. Even the pathways are covered in wood chips. There’s a clever use of repetition: The slope of the shed’s roof echoes the mountain in the background, while the shape of the two round boxwoods in the beds echo the arch of the shed door (as does the double arch of the bench). The rusticity of the surroundings is reflected in the galvanized water trough, cauldron, pails and watering cans, while the concrete pig, metal daisies, and “garden” sign over the door are just plain fun.

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Whimsical Use Of Color

Did the owners paint this house to match the hydrangeas, or did they plant the hydrangeas to match the colors of the house? Either way, the effect is lovely, visually satisfying, and historically appropriate. The hydrangeas don’t have a lot of botanical competition, and they don’t need it: Some vibrant emerald evergreens and two hanging baskets spilling over with yellow calibrachoa are all that’s necessary to create a welcoming front yard. Again, there’s repetition in that the shape of the baskets echo the shape of the hydrangea flowers. All that roundness draws the eye back to the house, and emphasize the pointy lines of the dormers and gingerbread trim.

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Letting The Plants Be The Focus

In this garden the foliage does most of the design work, not to mention act as a screen between the space and what lies beyond it. This well-thought-out mix of leaf texture, shape, and color provides visual variety in a small space. The yellow new growth on the arborvitae compliments the gold of the shrub in front of it, and the burgundy foliage of the Japanese maple is repeated in the leaves of the smokebush on the far right. Unobtrusive gray pavers, edging, and urns, as well as a wood and metal bench, keep the focus on the green, gold, and burgundy leaves. The mix of evergreens and deciduous plants – especially the bare branches of the Japanese maple and faded flowers on the hydrangeas – will provide texture and interest in winter. 

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A Strong Delineation Between Spaces

Large spaces need definition. The two outdoor rooms are both separated and united by the tall, green living fence, sheared to create a high, angular doorway between them. Using plant material to create walls and divide spaces is a cost-effective alternative to hardscaping. The round water feature and faraway bench line up with the opening, providing a destination and a satisfying view from one “room” to another. This is a formal, classically-designed (and high maintenance) garden, made up of large parterres filled with shrubs and flowers. Its straight lines are softened by the foliage of the ornamental grass at the fountain, and those colorful glass orbs. 


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Photos and story by Monrovia Nursery Company

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