Design First, Build Second – A Great Landscape Design is Always the Best First Step!

Scottsdale, Arizona is a great place to call home, and it was actually voted “Most Liveable City” in 1993!  With above average property values, and a huge desire to live life outdoors – Arizona pools and landscaping are a “must have”.  Some new homeowners can have a challenging time in the overall design of their outdoor environment – what they need, what they can afford, etc..   Whether you live in a city like Scottsdale, or one similar, choosing a good landscape or pool contractor can be a challenge.  A professional landscape design company recommends a few things you should find helpful when hiring a company to design a pool and/or landscape project:  

1.  A professional landscape design can be one of the best investments to start any substantial pool and landscape project – especially one that involves outdoor entertainment, landscaping, and hardscapes.   

2.  A experienced outdoor/landscape designer will take all aspects of what the client is trying to achieve, and incorporate that into a creative, effective, and useable pool and landscape plan.   

3.  A professional landscape designer usually excels in creating unique and sustainable outdoor environments, by considering the ways that the outdoor spaces will be used by his clients!  

4.  By combining unique features,  the latest technology, the latest fads, and a manageable budget – landscape and pool design is the single best investment in an outdoor project – meanwhile requiring the smallest monetary investment (A expert landscape plan can start with as little as a four hundred dollar investment – where as a more elaborate landscape plans can require closer to twelve hundred dollars – a small price to pay to have something professionally rendered into a presentation for customer approval and precise construction)  

5.  Fact:  Most landscaping firms are not very good at landscape design – and don’t understand the fundamentals of great architecture, layout, and quality.  Sometimes finding the right landscape planner can create or break your backyard project.   

6.  Most landscape designers have little experience in planning for some of the main features in larger outdoor projects – swimming pools, hot tubs, and shade structures.  Find an outdoor designer that understands both features and the function each has in your project.  

7.  Using a professional pool designer to recommend landscaping, plants, trees, fireplaces, masonry & entertainment areas is like having a SUSHI chef try to slow cook Texas Barbecue (it just doesn’t work!).  

“Overall, spend time & effort into making sure your huge investment integrates pool and landscaping into one great project!”, claims one Phoenix landscape design/build contractor.  “Find a designer that you feel comfortable with, one that can answer ALL of your challenging concerns, and that can recommend an installation contractor for the project.  

The Basic Principles Of Landscape Design

Whether you plan to “borrow ideas” or plan on creating your own landscaping design, you should have at the very least a basic understanding of the principles of landscape design.

Don’t feel that you have to apply every principle to every part of your plan. Just having an understanding of these principles can help you generate ideas and increase your creativity.

Great landscaping lies in the eyes of the its creator. So, while the principles of landscape design are great guidelines to follow, don’t feel like they’re the “have to rules” of landscaping. Abstract and creativity are allowed.

Unity should be one of your main goals in your design. It may be better understood and applied as consistency and repetition. Repetition creates unity by repeating alike elements like plants, plant groups, or decor throughout the landscape. Consistency creates unity in the sense that some or all of the different elements of the landscape fit together to create a whole.

Unity can be created by the consistency of character of elements in the design. By character, I mean the size, height, texture, color schemes, etc. of different elements.

A good example would be in the use of accent rocks and boulders. If you’ve ever seen a landscape design that had several different colors and sizes of boulders, then you’ve seen that unity wasn’t created by this particular element.

This is just one example but the principle applies to all other elements such as groups of plants and materials.

A simple way to create unity in your landscape is by creating theme gardens. Creating a theme garden is easier when it’s related to something you’re interested in or have a passion for.

If you’re interested in butterflies for instance, you could create a theme using plants that attract butterflies as well as using statues, ornaments, and other decor that are related to butterflies.

Unity should be expressed through at least one element in your landscape and preferably more. Using elements to express a main idea through consistent style and a specific theme is what creates harmony.

Simplicity is actually one of the principles in design and art. It’s one of the best guidelines you can follow as a beginner or do it yourselfer. Just keep things simple to begin with. You can do more later.

Simplicity in planting, for instance, would be to pick two or three colors and repeat them throughout the garden or landscape. Keeping decor to a minimum and within a specific theme as well as keeping hardscapes such as boulders consistent is also practicing simplicity.

Balance in design is just as the word implies. A sense of equality. There are basically two types of balance in landscape design. Symmetrical and Asymmetrical.

Symmetrical balance is where there are more or less equally spaced matching elements, areas, and shapes of the garden design. With a garden equally divided, both sides could share all or part of the same shape, form, plant height, plant groupings, colors, bed shapes, theme, etc.

You may remember creating something like this when you were a kid in art class at school. Where you take a piece of paper, splash paint on it, fold it in half, unfold it, and then it magically creates an interesting symmetrical design. So symmetrical balance or design is somewhat of a mirror image or reflection.

Asymmetrical balance on the other hand is one of the principles of landscape design that’s a little more complex. While textures, forms, colors, etc. may remain constant to create some unity, shapes and hardscapes may be more random. This form of balance often has separate or different themes with each having an equal but different type of attraction.

Asymmetrical may be better understood as actually being unbalanced, abstract, or free form while still creating unity and balance through the repetition of some elements.

A good example of this would be where bed shapes or paths differ on both sides of the landscape dividing line while still sharing some of the same elements and plants. One side could be curved with a sense of flow while the other side is straight, direct, hard, and completely opposite. Again, unity and balance will be created through other elements.

Contrast can be very interesting and this type of form can create a neat contrast. Flowing lines are pleasing to the eye but the bold contrast of a curve combined with a straight line can be very interesting.

Asymmetrical balance isn’t dependent on the shape of your garden. It can be but generally it’s not.

An example might be where one side of the garden is mostly large shade trees while the other side is predominately a lower growing flower garden or even a mix of both examples. Like I stated earlier, the landscaping can be abstract while still maintaining unity through other elements such as rocks, plants, and decor.

Contrast and harmony can also be achieved using plants. Fine foliage verses coarser foliage, round leaves verses spiked leaves as well as color compliments and contrasts.

Plant height, color, and texture may be varied from one area to the next but each area should stay consistent within its own theme.

You’ll hear me talk about “themes” a lot. Many successful do it yourself designs follow a basic theme to achieve most of the principles of landscape design described on this page. It’s a simple starting point for do it yourselfers that can be added to later.

Color adds the dimension of real life and interest to the landscape. Bright colors like reds, yellows and oranges seem to advance toward you and can actually make an object seem closer to you. Cool colors like greens, blues, and pastels seem to move away from you and can make an object seem farther from you.

Grays, blacks, and whites are considered neutral colors and are best used in the background with bright colors in the foreground. However, to increase depth in a landscape, you can use dark and coarse textured plants in the foreground and use fine textured and light colored plants in the background.

Colors can also be used to direct your attention to a specific area of the garden. A bright display among cooler colors would naturally catch the eye.

Natural transition can be applied to avoid radical or abrupt changes in your landscape design. Transition is basically gradual change. It can best be illustrated in terms of plant height or color but can also be applied to all elements in the landscape including but not limited to textures, foliage shape or size, and the size and shape of different elements.

In other words transition can be achieved by the gradual, ascending or descending, arrangement of different elements with varying textures, forms, colors, or sizes.

An example of a good transition would be a stair step effect from large trees to medium trees to shrubs to bedding plants. This example is where a little knowledge of proper plant selection would come in handy.

Transition is one of the principles of landscape design that can be used to “create illusions” in the landscape. For example a transition from taller to shorter plants can give a sense of depth and distance (like in a painting), making the garden seem larger than it really is. A transition from shorter to taller plants could be used to frame a focal point to make it stand out and seem closer than it really is.

Line is of the more structural principles of landscape design. It can mostly be related to the way beds, walkways, and entryways move and flow.

Straight lines are forceful and direct while curvy lines have a more natural, gentle, flowing effect.

Proportion simply refers to the size of elements in relation to each other. Of all the principles of landscape design, this one is quite obvious but still requires a little thought and planning. Most of the elements in landscape design can be intentionally planned to meet the proper proportions.

For instance if you are creating a small courtyard garden, an enormous seven foot garden statue placed in the center would be way out of proportion and a little tacky to say the least. Or a small four foot waterfall and pond placed in the center of a large open yard would get lost in the expanse.

Don’t misunderstand this to mean that if you have a large yard you can’t have smaller features or garden decor. Proportion is relative and elements can be scaled to fit by creating different rooms in the garden. The goal is to create a pleasing relationship among the three dimensions of length, breadth, and depth or height.

A small water feature can be proportionate if placed in a corner or on the edge of a large area and becomes a focal point of the larger area while creating its own distinct atmosphere. An entire room, sitting area, or theme can be created around it. Other rooms and themes can be created as well. See small gardens for ideas on creating rooms and creating illusions.

Also, special consideration and study should be given to proper plant selection to avoid using plants that are out of proportion.

Repetition is directly related to unity. Its good to have a variety of elements and forms in the garden but repeating these elements gives variety expression.

Unity is achieved by repeating objects or elements that are alike. Too many unrelated objects can make the garden look cluttered and unplanned.

There’s a fine line here. It’s possible that too much of one element can make a garden or landscape feel uninteresting, boring and monotonous.

However, unity can still be created by using several different elements repeatedly. This in turn keeps the garden interesting.

Landscaping Design – The Primary Principles

Principles refer to standards or prescriptions for working with or arranging various elements to produce the intended landscape design. Good landscape design follows a combination of seven principles: unity, balance, proportion, focalization or emphasis, sequence or transition, rhythm, and repetition.

Unity refers to the use of elements to create harmony and consistency with the main theme or idea of the landscape design. Unity gives the landscape design a sense of oneness and interconnection. Unity in landscape design can be achieved by using plants, trees, or material that have repeating lines or shapes, a common hue, or similar texture. However, too much unity in landscape design can be boring. Therefore, it is important to introduce some variety or contrast into the landscape design.

Balance gives the landscape design a sense of equilibrium and symmetry in visual attraction. There are three ways by which balance may be presented in landscape design. Symmetrical or formal balance is achieved when the mass, weight, or number of objects both sides of the landscape design are exactly the same. Asymmetrical or informal balance in landscape design suggests a feeling of balance on both sides, even though the sides do not look the same. Asymmetrical balance in visual attraction may be achieved by using opposing compositions on either side of the central axis. Landscape design with radial balance has a center point. A sunflower, a wheel, and the cross-section of an orange all have radial balance.

Proportion describes the size relationship between parts of the landscape design or between a part of the design and the design as a whole. A large fountain would cramp a small backyard garden, but would complement a sprawling public courtyard. Additionally, proportion in landscape design must take into consideration how people interact with various components of the landscape through normal human activities.

Focalization or Emphasis directs visual attention to a point of interest or prominent part of the landscape design. This could be a hanging earth-forms sculpture, a stone-finished Corinthian garden fountain, a mass of architectural herbaceous perennials, or an elegant spruce. Emphasis in landscape design may be achieved by using a contrasting color, a different or unusual line, or a plain background space. Paths, walkways, and strategically placed plants lead the eye to the focal point of the landscape without distracting from the overall landscape design.

Sequence or Transition creates visual movement in landscape design. Sequence in landscape design is achieved by the gradual progression of texture, form, size, or color. Examples of landscape design elements in transition are plants that go from coarse to medium to fine textures or softscapes that go from large trees to medium trees to shrubs to bedding plants. Transition in landscape design may also be used to create depth or distance or to emphasize a focal point.

Rhythm creates a feeling of motion which leads the eye from one part of the landscape design to another part. Repeating a color scheme, shape, texture, line or form evokes rhythm in landscape design. Proper expression of rhythm eliminates confusion and monotony from landscape design.

And finally, repetition in landscape design is the repeated use of objects or elements with identical shape, form, texture, or color. Although it gives the landscape design a unified planting scheme, repetition runs the risk of being overdone. However, when correctly implemented, repetition can lead to rhythm, focalization or emphasis in landscape design.