Elements of a well-designed garden

Turn your garden from a blank canvas into a work of art with a few tricks.
Elements of a well-designed garden

Despite the fact that I love our garden and have an emotional attachment to the dozen odd years of work that have gone into it, there are days when I yearn for a clean slate.

So I’m seriously envious of a friend who has just bought a house nearby, set right in the centre of 2000 lovely square metres of clean slate. I’d be utterly delighted at the prospect of planning a garden from scratch, but she is terrified.

“I don’t even know what garden designers mean when they talk about scale and proportion and contrast,” she says. Interestingly most “real” gardeners – the ones who love plants and soil more than design and hard landscaping – have no such issues. The plants they love dictate the design and whether or not they have an instinct for how to pull it all together or whether it’s just luck, who knows.

But for the sake of my friend – and others who want to at least recognise the elements of a well-designed garden – here’s a bit of a list.

RHYTHM is the repetition of an element in the garden, such as a row of trees alongside a path or driveway, or the rails of a fence. You can easily create rhythm by adding these elements, such as these pink structures (see main image at top of page), which were repeated on a smaller scale elsewhere. Then there are the more common elements that most of us understand and probably deal with regularly in the garden. Often we employ these techniques subconsciously without ever putting a name to them, but they’re no less useful than the designer rules.


FORM is the designer word for what we common gardeners call shape. Easily defined shapes, such as topiary or tall, slender cyprus, are distinctive and make for a stand-out garden. If that’s your aim, select a couple of forms (shapes!) and repeat them throughout your garden. They’ll also help to link together different areas and elements of the overall design, so it looks like one garden, as opposed to several gardens all designed by different people.

SCALE is something else again. It’s about the size of something relative to you. There is no rule of thumb for measurements, but the common sense rule is to build for your needs. If there are two of you for an alfresco dinner, don’t squeeze a 2 x 2m table into your 4 x 4m courtyard.


BALANCE is the sense you have what you can see on one side of a scene is of equal weight to what’s on the other side. If, for example, you have five tall conifers on one side of your entranceway, you could balance them with three lower, broader plants on the other side.

LIGHT makes the garden come alive and not just at night. Think about positioning shrubs with coloured foliage to catch the early or late sun. We have a stand of massive eucalyptus trees on our eastern boundary and when the trunks catch the western sun, it’s breathtaking. It’s also breathtaking in the wind, when dead branches fall off and embed themselves in the lawn. The entire family goes in fear of being impaled in a decent blow.


STRUCTURE provided by built elements – pergolas, trellises, walls and the like – adds interest to the landscape, especially in the winter when there might not be much else happening. For example a fence, deck and urn arrangement provides a focal point all year. Structures can also provide areas for you to plant against – a garden sited in front of a stone wall, for example, will look more interesting than a garden bed dug into a flat lawn.


CONTRAST keeps us alert and the more dramatic the change, the more visual excitement you’ll create. Using contrasting colours is a trick well-known to most of us, but there are many other opportunities to use contrast as a design tool, such as with hard landscaping materials. In terms of foliage, plants are divided into two main groups – those with coarse foliage, such as agave and those with fine foliage, such as grasses. Plant one next to the other and voilà – you’re a designer. I showed this list to my friend with the new house and asked if it was helpful. “Absolutely,” she answered. “How will I know what works?” Sigh.


COLOUR Well that’s easy, you might think, but many gardeners struggle with colour, despite the mountains of research. The key is to step back from the actual shades and look at the intensity. Bright, warm colours create a sense of action and excitement. Cool, pale colours and pastels lend a calm feeling. Single-colour designs are sophisticated, where as multicoloured designs can make an area look mad, yet also festive.


LINE Sounds like it has more to do with fashion than gardens, but in the outdoor context it’s about narrow elements – a path, a fence, a rill – that wanders through the garden. Lines, which can also be curved, can be used to encourage people to a certain area or attract attention to, say, a piece of garden sculpture you’ve slaved for weeks to buy.


UNEXPECTED Surprises will set your garden apart like nothing else, but it’s not as simple as plonking down a sculpture on your terrace. You want reaction, not indifference.



It’s the relative size of one element to another. So if you plant a 30m palm alongside a long, low house, it’ll look stupid. If you make a narrow garden bed, the height of the tallest plant should be no more than two-thirds the depth of the bed. So in an 8 x 2m garden, the tallest plant should only be 120cm. Here (above) it works because the plants come two thirds of the way up the door.

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