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Principles of Landscape Design

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Consult the Genius of the Place in all...

These are the words of the 18th Century poet, Alexander Pope, who, if he had any idea of how often they would end up being quoted, would probably wish that he hadn't written them. They are by far the most memorable part of his celebrated Epistle to Burlington, a commentary on the design of Stowe Gardens, Buckinghamshire, England.

Still, it is astonishing how often the 'genius of the place' is ignored and left to sulk in a corner somewhere, while gardeners drive themselves to despair trying to grow alpine plants in a bog, or woodland plants in a sandy crucible.

It is a natural tendency of gardeners - as with nearly all human beings - to construct a perfect mental model and try to impose it on their surroundings, to take an idea and try to make it fit. When you watch someone else doing it, it seems utterly absurd - and it is. But the urge, nevertheless, is almost irresistible. And it is never more irresistible than when the urge comes to gardening.

Genius Consultation

Consulting the genius of the place doesn't involve spending a lot of money and bowing to the greater wisdom of people who know how to use theodolites and scale rulers, or, worse yet, the insufferably smug neighbour whose 'Nikko Blue' Hydrangea really is blue1. It is simply a question of standing in the middle of the space where you intend to make a garden, and being receptive to what the site tells you about the plants which are likely to thrive there and those which are likely to cause you problems.

Know where the water goes

Knowing where the water goes is the first and most important rule of landscape design. This is what landscape architects ought to have tattooed in reverse on their foreheads. In some municipalities this is also the law. You can be held legally resposible for damage that you cause to neighbouring property by changing drainage. It is also common courtesy not to flood your neighbour's garden

Almost everything that you do to your garden affects the natural drainage pattern. So it is vitally important that you understand whether what you do will speed up drainage so much that you cause erosion or create areas where water will pool, unable to escape.

To know where the water will go you must study the type of soil, as well as the grade and contours of your site. Sandy soil will allow water to seep away, but heavy clay soil will require a greater consideration of surface drainage.

Know where the Sun shines

It will take several observations over a long period to really appreciate shade and exposure patterns, which change during the course of the day and vary according to season. Depending on which part of our quirky planet you intend to cultivate, the Sun's route through your garden may alter considerably at different times of the year.

It is important to know not only where the Sun will shine, but when and for how long. The Hostas you planted in the cool shade at the side of your house may look like they have been baked when you come home in the evening if the Sun beats them for two hours every afternoon while you are at work.

Know the micro-climate

Closely related to knowledge of where the sun shines is the need to know which parts of your garden will heat up quickly, radiate heat, or trap frost. Soil heats up quickly where it is exposed to afternoon sunshine; and fast draining soil warms more quickly than heavy soils, which retain water.

Buildings and garden structures, such as fences, radiate heat and act as shields against wind and cool air. This may allow you to grow marginally hardy plants or produce a very early Spring flower show, especially if you have planted Spring bulbs. On the other hand plants may be damaged by late frost if they are fooled into re-awakening too early in the year. Radiant heat can also cause wilting in the Summer.

Low places in your garden can form pools of frost when nighttime temperatures fall. This can be a problem for tender plants, which may be killed by early frosts. You can protect them to some extent by planting them on higher ground or providing channels to allow cold air to flow away.


Planting a garden is like hitting something with a stick: It can be music or it can be noise. There is nothing wrong with noise, if noise is what you intend to make - and the neighbours don't object too strenuously - but to be musical requires a little more sophistication. There are a few basic rules, which, like all rules, are for the guidance of the wise and the obedience of landscape architects.


The use of colour in the garden is rather a subjective thing, just as it is in the drawing room. Either you like a colour combination or you don't. If red is your favourite colour, you will be happier in a red garden than if it isn't. The great plantsman, Christopher Lloyd, is notorious for his use of magenta in his writing and in his famous garden, Great Dixter, in East Sussex, England. He has raised many eyebrows with his unorthodox planting schemes, which are scoffed at by lesser talents. But the overall impact of his gardens is glorious.

There are, however, some basic rules, meant to be bent by the courageous and the colour blind:

  • Complementary colours produce a quieter, more relaxing ambience than contrasting colours.

  • Contrasting colours look livelier, and can be used to draw attention to a particular focal point.

  • Limit your palette. The use of lots of colours sometimes works, but usually it is less effective than a few colours that work well together. What makes meadows beautiful has as much to do with scale and texture as colour. You may intend your composition to evoke the sense of a steaming paella in sunny Spain. But - be warned - it may just look like dog sick.

  • The quiet, unsung 'filler plants' are just as important as the prima donnas. An all-star version of Swan Lake, featuring a flock of competing Odettes would be ugly, chaotic, and salvageable only by the addition of a fifth act with mud wrestling at the edge of the lake.

  • Using varying hues can be very effective. If you like red, combine a number of red-flowering plants for an interesting effect. The famous White Garden at Sissinghurst, in Kent, England, is a famous example of sophisticated restraint in the use of colour.

Garden designs which depend heavily on the use of colour demand careful consideration of the flowering periods of the plants you choose. After all, an 'Arnold Red' honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica 'Arnold Red') is only red for a week or so each Spring. Annual bedding plants, particularly the new introductions, nearly germinate in flower, and put on a consistent show until they are killed by frost. But they are expensive to produce (or purchase) each year, and, for many gardeners, less rewarding than perennial plants.

Beyond Colour

A garden is more than an arrangement of colours, just as a lastingly beautiful piece of music is more than a pretty melody. The colours in a garden are produced by living organisms with structure and form, which are subject to constant change. Most of what we see in a garden is leaf, stem, and even fruit; although we tend to devote most of our attention to flowers. This is rather like walking into a room full of handsome people and only noticing their genitals, if you stop to think about it, which isn't a very enlightened outlook. The point is that every plant in your garden has a lot more to contribute than merely its flowers. Any plant you add to your garden, any material thing, adds its own contribution of,

  • Size
  • Form
  • Texture

Size is important... at least in horticulture. Plants should be evaluated on this basis automatically, because, first and foremost, they simply have to be able to fit into the available space. And yet, astonishingly, this is very often overlooked. A classic blunder, which all gardeners have been guilty of, is planting something which is capable of far outgrowing the space we allow it. Few things can look more unhappy than a good old Pfitzer juniper crammed into a miserable little foundation planting.

Beyond the need for basic living space, the size of a plant in relation to its surroundings and to other plants is an important design consideration. Classical wisdom (and common sense2) tells us to plant the tallest plants at the back, the shortest in the foreground, and the medium height plants somewhere in between. This is a good governing principle to avoid creating flower beds that look as though they have been planted backwards.

Much more dramatic arrangements can be achieved by bringing certain taller plants closer to the foreground, and even placing them at the front edge. These become accent features! Exclamation points! Bold statements!... which become annoying if the technique is abused.

Placing taller plants, individually or in groups, in the mid-ground is also a useful method for altering the way a composition is viewed. A vista, which can be taken in completely from a single vantage point, can be made much more interesting by interrupting the sight line at well-chosen places. Selectively concealing the view of a garden in its entirety compels the visitor to move about, which creates a sense of narrative. This technique may also be used to make a small garden seem bigger.

Form can be used to establish a specific mood. The use of rigid, narrowly vertical plants can impose a sense of formality on a garden. This is even more pronounced when they are used in carefully conceived, repetitive patterns. But be careful. Such formality has to suit the space, and narrow columns can often simply look odd. If the genius of Capability Brown (1715-1783) had ever diminished to the point where he chose to feature columnar plants, like fastigate pines and Lombardy poplars, in his informal English landscapes, the result would have looked as uncomfortable as the early arrivals at a high school reunion party.

Open, spreading plants, such as tamarisk (Tamarix ramossisima) and Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), are much less suited to formal gardens. They can be used to create an airy, relaxed atmosphere, or even one of wild, bohemian abandon.

Pendulous forms create a sense of melancholy or even gloom. It is no accident that weeping trees, such as Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra camperdownii) and weeping birch (Betula pendula) have been such popluar selections for planting in cemeteries. It is much easier to imagine Byron in repose beneath a lugubrious willow than a rather silly lollipop tree, such as Globe maple (Acer Platanoides 'Globosum').

Texture is usually a quality of leaf size and the relative coarseness the overall appearance of a plant lends to a garden or landscape. Magnolias, for example, create a coarse textured appearance in the landscape, which, in their case, is mitigated by the fine texture of the bark. The great English plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll (1843 - 1932), revered as a colourist, well knew the value of texture in a garden. She understood that course textured plants, like yuccas, affect the play of light in such a way that it is possible to create an artificial sense of depth in a flower bed. On the other hand, uniformly fine-textured plants allow the eye to run unimpeded across a garden, which tends to make the overall effect seem more two dimensional. She was a genius.

The Essence of Design

Simplicity is the essence of good design

This statement has been repeated so often, in so many contexts, that it must surely have been printed somewhere on the label of the first human being to have walked the earth. To make a garden that you can feel happy with, even proud of, first consider what you really want; then work out how best to reach your goal; and, lastly, stop when you have achieved it. Many a good design has been ruined by fusspots, who just don't know when to quit.

1The flowers of 'Nikko Blue' Hydrangeas remain stubbornly pink in soil that is not acidic.2The rarest of all commodities.

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