Landscape Design Basics: 5 Tips for Professional Results

Use these 5 principles when designing or evaluating a design for a landscape…

There are many principles that can and should be applied to designing a landscape. The particular space being designed, budget, site conditions, and client wishes all determine exactly how these principles will be used. Of course there are always exceptions to these rules, but it is important to consider these guidelines when evaluating a landscape design. Ignoring them can make an otherwise well-made landscape look “off”, boring, or just plain bad.

1)Stick to a Theme

Themes can be thought of in two different ways – style and plant selection. A few examples of style are modern, cottage garden, rustic, formal, or natural. These styles can certainly be blended to a degree, but it’s very important to define what the style will be and use that throughout the landscape.

On the same token, plant selection also needs to be cohesive. Choose to use plants that are primarily from one geographic region. For instance, it could be California Natives, South African, Mediterranean, or Australian. These plants are all from regions of the world with climates similar to ours, and they will do well here. It can be tempting to simply pick your favorite plants from each region and combine them all together, but that will not give you the best results visually. Even if the individual plants look nice, you would be missing out on a garden that looks like the plants were meant to be together, because they are. Plants that evolved in the same geographic region are often naturally complimentary to each other. This helps to give the overall landscape a unified look.

A theme is an important choice that must be made early on in the design process. Failure to choose a theme can cripple the design and undermine the final appearance of the landscape.

2)Use Odd Numbers

It is almost always preferable to use odd numbers of plants when designing a landscape. The reason is because it appears more naturalistic. Even numbers are easier for our minds to divide into equal halves, which gives the impression of a man-made setting. By planting in groups of 3,5,7, and so on, our minds can’t easily divide them into equal parts, and we view it as more of a flowing group of plants, which looks more natural.

The exception to this is if you desire a formal outdoor space. If this is the case, the symmetry of even numbers can help to create that effect. In most cases, however, people tend to desire a landscape that flows and has a natural appearance.

This rule applies equally to other landscape features. If a natural look is what you are going for, use odd numbers of planter pots, boulders, and even berms or mounds.

3)Use Texture, Size, Color, and Shape

Texture, size, color, and shape are visual elements that can make a drastic difference in the overall appearance of the landscape. If used effectively, they can work together to create a truly dramatic and interesting space. If used ineffectively, it can take away from the space’s potential beauty, or worse yet, can make an otherwise nice landscape bland or boring.

It takes skill to be able to harness the power of these elements to their fullest. It’s a balance of contrast, color schemes, scale, and space. All while keeping it simple enough to not appear as a cluttered mish mash. This is difficult to teach, rather it comes with experience and a wide knowledge of plants and other landscape materials.

Like subtle notes in a fine wine, these are the aspects of a landscape that can be tweaked to make the finished space extraordinary.

4)Simplify Hardscapes

Less can often be more when it comes to hardscape materials for patios, walkways, and retaining walls. This means you should consider using similar materials throughout these landscape features. For example, if you have an existing flagstone walkway and are building a patio. Your best bet will usually be to use the same flagstone for that patio. Having a flagstone walkway going into, say, a brick patio would look messy and not “flow” as it should. This doesn’t mean all of your hardscapes need to be the exact same material. There are plenty of materials that complement each other well, but they need to be chosen with care.

The goal is to present a landscape that is easy on the eyes. One where all of the individual features enhance each other. Hardscape material selection needs to be considered carefully or it can take away from the overall look of the landscape.

5)Direct the eye

The landscape needs to have an anchor point (or multiple anchors) so that when it’s being viewed, your eyes have something to hone in on. This directs the eye, telling the viewer what to look at first. It gives a sense of order and helps break up what could otherwise be a bunch of plants competing for attention.

This visual direction can be accomplished in many ways. Boulders, a specimen tree, a pop of contrasting color, a pathway, or even a bench can make all the difference. Anchor points give the eyes a place to rest, which makes the viewing experience much more pleasurable. They can also serve to highlight a particular area. For example, you can use an anchor point adjacent to where a pathway turns a corner, which will draw the eye towards that corner, enticing the viewer to go see where the path goes.

Directing the eye is a subtle yet critical aspect of a landscape design. It takes skill to be able to maximize the use of anchor points. If done right, it can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of your landscape.


There are many more aspects of a successful landscape design. Mastering them takes experience and practice, but even a little bit of knowledge about the basics can get you started on the right foot. When planning your landscape or working with a designer, keep these principles in mind to get the most out of your new outdoor space.