Elements of Design

Normally there are only a few places from which you and others regularly view your yard. These spots may include a patio, kitchen window, or doorway. These are called “view positions”. View positions may occur at any level — from above, a second story window or the top of a slope looking down; from below, standing at the bottom of a slope or other depression looking up; and on level, looking out ground level windows or across flat areas. Each view level can impart a distinct feeling that may be exaggerated or modified. A view from above imparts power, from below can confer feelings of either security or imprisonment, and, since a level view is most common, it is the one that will normally be the most comfortable. Tall trees and buildings with strong vertical lines can emphasize height differences from lower areas while diminishing them from high ones. Keep these “view positions” in mind as the same area may appear differently from separate places. Largely, it is these views that your are designing, so it is from these places that your landscape should look its best.

Distance is another aspect of the view to keep in mind. In the area close to you, the foreground, quite a bit of detail is apparent that is lost at medium range, the mid-ground, and only general shapes, colors, and the coarsest of textures are perceptible at a distance, the background. Apparent distance can be adjusted by using simple techniques of perspective. Smaller objects seem farther away, so if an object is smaller than the eye expects, it is placed more remote. An example of this might be to construct a fence two feet high. The reverse is also true, large objects seem closer. The use of converging lines is another way to stretch distance, as with a path that gradually narrows or angling beds. Both techniques are most effective in the mid-ground and slightly beyond.

Form, shape, texture, and color are all things to keep in mind as you begin your detailed planning. Form and shape are closely related, form being more general, including angle, size, intricacy, and so on. Buildings, decks and patios, walks, even the lay of the land that you are planting have form. It is generally a good idea to stick to similar forms, as many varying angles and sizes detract from one another confusing the observer. Low, gentle slopes should not have tall, angular plantings. A small slow growing tree is lost at the corner of a two story house. The forms that you use should complement one another, including structures and ground contours, as well as blend with those of the general neighborhood. A curved lawn, for example, should be flanked by curved, rather than rectangular beds.

The angles that you use also should be kept to a minimum; and, to the extent possible, use only familiar angle groups like 45°-90° or 30°- 60°-90°. If you are forced to use odd angles, you may be able to conceal, or at least soften them with border plantings. Border plantings are often used to hide and soften barren or severe forms such as foundations.

Relative size of similar things can make a visual difference. For instance, a bed that is roughly ten feet long near one that is five feet, or twenty feet, long can add an interesting contrast. If a twelve or thirteen foot bed is too near, it may look as though you made a mistake. Even multiples of a size work best. Contrasts in shape, color, angle, and so forth must be obviously different to work.

Balance is important when you lay out various features. This does not necessarily mean symmetry, a given view is balanced if both sides of a focal point have the same visual “weight”. Generally, weight can be thought of as visual area. Two or more small beds or medium plantings may have the same weight as a single large one.

The surfaces that you use, such as walks, benches, decks, and walls along with lawns, mulch, and plants all have texture that evoke a sensation of touch, either directly through feeling or indirectly by sight. Fine textures, such as moss, lawns, or smooth surfaces tend to make excellent backgrounds, allowing the slope and other features to stand out. Boldly combining several contrasting textures can be visually interesting and very appealing. You should, however, avoid using so many textures as to be confusing.
Color has some interesting twists in landscaping. Along with texture, and occasionally shape, the color of many elements of your landscape will change with the season and the weather. Many materials look and feel quite different depending on whether they are wet or dry. Many plants show dramatically different seasonal coloration, occasionally from a full color flower display, to lush foliage, to a drab dormant state. Even the quality of light that changes during the day and from one bright sunny day to the next hazy or overcast day can have an impact on how things appear. As a designer, you must consider all of these phases.

The most effective use of color often occurs when it is used in masses. A random mixture of many colors can be attractive in the right setting, however no one color or pattern will stand out. The influence of color outside parallels its use inside. Warm colors are inviting, appearing closer than cool colors that tend to enlarge an area. Earth tones may tend to blend into the background, providing a good backdrop for bright, showy colors.

Shadows change the way things appear, can add interest and affect comfort. A shaded southern exposure is desirable to help keep houses cool in the summer. Likewise, it attracts groups seeking to avoid a hot sun. On the cooler days of Fall or Winter, the opposite may be the case. Noticing the interplay of light and shadow as it glides across your yard, marking the sun’s daily path, can help maintain interest. Even the same view changes from one moment to the next.

Perhaps the most important aspect of design is unity. Tying your landscape together and merging it with the neighborhood makes the difference between one that contains some interesting spots and one that is naturally beautiful. Generally the easiest way to maintain unity is to find one or more aspects of the neighborhood that are consistent: color, form, texture, style, and so on. Once you have determined what these commonalities are, maintain one or more of them throughout your design.

If there be no similarities, or none that you are willing to use, your job will be more difficult, but possible. Transitions can be set up to allow the eye to move easily from one area to another. Depending on how drastic the shift is, one or more intermediate steps create a smooth progression. If an abrupt transformation is dictated by space or desire, screens may be employed. As an extreme example, interior courtyards are usually isolated from the surrounding countryside and whatever is outside the house. Still, it will need to be consistent with the house and work with whatever view may be available. A wall that blocks the view beyond can accomplish much the same thing. Care must be exercised here to avoid a feeling of imprisonment, particularly if a canopy is used. Some amount of opening, either to your yard, or the sky, will almost certainly be called for.

Putting it together is a job that needs to be done with pencil and paper before it is attacked with shovel and rake. Though it may be difficult, restrain yourself; do not grab a shovel until the planning is complete. Often, the results are more an expression of planning than execution.

Completing the design may take you some time. A few people know just what they want, and how to go about creating it; this is rare. Most will find a methodical approach the best way to solutions. You may well find that you will contemplate various possibilities for months, or even years, before you finally resolve your plans to your satisfaction. It has even been recommended, only half in jest, that legislation be enacted that prohibits a new landowner from planting anything for their first three years of residence: “Until he has watched the sun rise and set on his land a thousand times . . . ” This is so that you can become part of the land before altering it.

Once satisfied with your total plan, and only then, is it time to begin installation. Check on any local building codes or community covenants to ensure that you are aware of any permits or clearances that may be necessary. You want to be sure to design generously, but now is the time to do a cost estimate. At this point your master plan should have enough detail from which to make a materials list. It may be helpful to make this list by area; that will make it easier to break the whole job into manageable pieces. When determining the number of plants, be sure to consider the size of the plants, both when you purchase them and after several years’ growth. You have no doubt been to nurseries and building supply houses, looking at materials, gaining insights and ideas. If you have not done it already, go back and collect prices and availability.

Your project may entail relatively minor adjustments to an existing landscape that you are fairly happy with, or perhaps you plan to remove much of what is in place and start over. The scope of what you are doing along with energy and budget constraints may dictate that you proceed in stages, remodeling a part of your yard at a time. This is fine.

The installation process will vary depending on the specific design. The general steps should occur in the same order, though you may not need to do them all. The following is a brief description of those steps in the order that they should be done.

Site Preparation Before you begin, spend some time cleaning any debris from the area to be worked. This is also the time to remove whatever shrubs, trees, or other plants that you will not be using. It is probably not the time to dig up plants that you want to move, unless you can move them directly to their new site. Moving plants should be done, if possible, during the planting phase. Any unwanted buildings, walks, fences or other materials also should be removed.

Rough Grading Once the site is clear, you can make whatever contour changes to the ground that is necessary. This can take the form of terracing to provide level planting areas on inclines, sloping the ground away from the house for drainage, or other adjustments. Soil can be added, moved, or removed. Underground drainage systems should be installed now.

Construction The list of features that you may want or need to include in your landscape is virtually endless. It could include such things as retaining walls, walks, fences, decks, pools, gazebos, trellises, or even bridges. Now is the time to construct these along with the basic plumbing for underground portions of irrigation systems.

Soil Improvement There are any number of problems that you can encounter with the soil that you have in place. It is a good idea to either purchase a good soil testing kit, or have several samples tested. Your agricultural county agent (listed in the phone book), will be able to tell you where to send samples for testing. Plants require different environments in terms of acidity, drainage, nutrients, and soil composition. Knowing what you will want to plant where and the existing soil conditions allow you to determine intelligently what, if any, alterations are needed. Now is the time to do this.

Final Grading This step consists of bringing the soil to its final level, digging raised beds, and finish leveling of lawn areas. If the ground has not been settled by a good rainfall, soaking with a sprinkler will do the job. Depending on how deeply the earth has been loosened, you may still want to leave an extra inch of dirt for settling. Lawn areas should be finely raked level, or slightly crowned for drainage, then rolled smooth with a lawn roller. A final raking should be adequate for beds and other areas.

Planting Large Plants Begin by placing them, still in their containers where they are to be planted, using your plan as a guide. Closely look over your placement from many angles. Adjustments at this stage are much easier than after they are in the ground. Consider how they will look after growing for a few years; what might crowd what. Do not be alarmed if the plantings look a little sparse, they will fill in with time. Once satisfied with the placement of all of the plants, you can begin to plant them, following the nursery’s recommendation for each plant. Generally that will involve digging a hole the depth of the rootball and twice as wide, removing the plant from its container being careful to disturb the roots as little as possible, placing it in the hole, soaking the rootball with water, and back filling the hole with dirt, leaving a trough around the plant to hold future water. There are many variations on this quick description. Some, particularly bare root plants, should have their roots pruned. Others should be given an initial dose of fertilizer. Trees may require staking. The point is to get detailed planting instructions from the supplier about each type of plant you purchase and follow them.

Installing Beds, Borders, and Lawns After the large plants are in, add any other smaller plants around them to fill the beds. Once a bed is completely planted, finish it with whatever mulch, stone, or anything else needed to complete it. This should be done before installing surrounding lawns or ground covers as they will be to fragile to hold up to heavy traffic. Existing lawns should be protected with boards, if possible, to avoid wearing ruts into them. Finish planting and mulching remaining beds, then you may go to work on the ground covers. These should be done in a manner that permits you not to walk on newly planted areas. Installing the lawns is the last part of planting. This can include laying sod, seeding, or over seeding an existing lawn. Sod will need to be rolled, then refrain from walking on it for several weeks, until it grows into the existing ground. Seeds will need to be raked in, then lightly covered with peat moss or top soil to a depth of an eighth of an inch. The seeds should be kept damp until most of them germinate, and watered frequently after that, until the second or third cutting. Again, these are only general guidelines; obtain and follow your supplier’s recommendations.

Final Touches and Clean Up The job is almost finished. Now you can put the fish into the pools, set out the last ornaments, and do a bit of last minute touch up (this may go on forever!). Cleaning up may be an obvious step, but get it done. Excess materials may often be returned for credit. Remove it or it is apt to become a permanent feature.

Initial Maintenance Your new plants will need special care until they become established. The first couple of months will be critical. Check them regularly, daily in hot weather, to be sure that root balls do not dry out. After that, you can begin to reduce your constant attention, however, even drought resistant plants will need regular watering through their first dry season. Weeding is particularly important during this time. You may find some areas where additional mulch is needed; and, a plant or two may need to be replaced.

Ongoing Maintenance After the first year, maintenance can become routine. The various activities called for are determined by what you have chosen to include in your landscape. Regular trimming and watering may be a part of it, annual jobs like pruning, remulching, fertilizing, planting annuals, and so forth will almost certainly be included. The time spent here reward you with an attractive view that improves with age and maturity.

In truth, for most people landscaping begins and ends with their association with the land, not by the arbitrary boundaries suggested by the “cookbook” approach offered above. The methodology of the previous discussion has been included for reference and as a point of departure. No matter what you do, there will be surprises. Parts of your plan will turn out better than you could imagine, others less so. Things such as color or plant combinations will develop that you could never have anticipated. These discoveries maintain much of the wonder of the land. Anyone with even a mild interest in their landscape will constantly observe the land, evaluate what it offers, make changes, hopefully learn from it, and perhaps even begin to understand it. Throughout the process, the most important goals are to enjoy the landscape and to share that enjoyment with others.

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