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Alyssa Bronstein
Alyssa Bronstein

Backyard Design Elements

All design, whether in the landscape, on a canvas or in a magazine, draws upon common tools of composition. These elements of design include mass, form, line, texture and color. In the landscape, they are used to transform space and create a unique experience.

Backyard Design Elements

While color and texture add interest and richness to a design, it is mass, form and line that are critical to organizing space and providing structure. Understanding these key design elements is the first step in creating a harmonious, unified landscape.

Two similar designs for a patio garden can be used to explore the elements of design. The rectilinear design (top left) and angular design (top right) provide the same function and visual connection to the surrounding landscape.

Consider line when shaping beds and walkways, or in choosing hardscape elements such as fences. Visualize how a straight or curved line might direct the eye through the landscape toward a focal point.

In design, mass is a measure of visual size. Mass describes the space or area occupied by an object or group of objects. A planting bed, house, patio and arbor all have mass, as do individual plants in a garden.

The objective in design is to balance the mass of objects in the landscape. Individual components should be sized according to their surroundings. For example, planting beds are sized in relation to the adjacent lawn, house or hardscape. Likewise, the mass of individual plants or groups of plants within a bed need to occupy a space proportionate to the overall planting.

Landscape forms evoke emotions and create ambiance. Rectilinear forms feel structured and formal, circles are soft, triangles are strong, and irregular shapes are casual and free. We can take advantage of form in a design to set the mood of a landscape.

Too often, lawns, patios, or other voids are composed of leftover space. A more effective approach is to intentionally design the voids. When laying out bed lines or establishing new hardscape elements, try designing the empty space rather than the occupied. Planting beds, hardscape and focal points will fall into place around these intentional spaces.

Designing a landscape is a lot like creating a piece of art. In design, we use line, texture and form to transform space, just as an artist uses these same elements to compose a painting. The main difference between a piece of art and a landscape is that a landscape is experienced from within as you move through its spaces. Understanding the elements of design and the guiding principles used to bring those elements together is the first step in creating a harmonious, unified landscape.

There are five primary elements of design: mass, form, line, texture and color. Of these, mass, form and line are the main tools used to organize space in a landscape. Texture and color provide a supporting role, adding interest and richness. The elements of design guide us in selecting and organizing plants and hardscape elements in the landscape.

Lines direct the movement of the eye through a landscape. Line is one of the most important aspects of design; it determines the way beds and paths flow together. Much like form, different types of lines elicit various emotional responses. Straight lines are formal and direct, while curved lines are more gentle and natural, and jagged lines can be exciting or distracting. Consider line when shaping beds and walkways, or in choosing hardscape elements such as fences. Visualize how the straight line of a fence or a curved walkway might fit with the existing lines of the house, driveway, or trees.

Texture describes the physical characteristics of a material relative to other materials. Texture is generally determined by the relative size of parts or particles. A plant with a coarse texture has large leaves or flowers and a bold appearance. A fine-textured plant has small leaves and flowers and a soft, delicate, even elegant look. A hosta or plantain lily (Hosta spp.) is an example of a coarse-textured plant, while a fern has a fine texture. Other materials such as stones can have fine or coarse textures, again based upon the relative size of individual particles. Texture can also be created by rough or smooth surfaces, or by darkness or lightness. A landscape should include more fine than coarse textured plants and objects. Fine elements provide a soft background to contrast the more pronounced course elements in the landscape.

Color is an important design element, but is often given too much attention. Line, form and mass provide the bones of a garden; neglecting these structural elements will result in a poor design. Once the structure is established, color can be used to add interest and evoke emotion. Warm colors (red, orange, and yellow) give a feeling of warmth and excitement. Warm colors can make an object appear larger and closer to you. Cool colors (green and blue) are calming and make objects look smaller and farther away. Purple looks cool next to a warm color, and looks warm next to a cool color. White is used for contrast and to separate conflicting colors. Dark colors seem to move away from the viewer, while bright colors jump out. This can be used to create greater depth to a planting. Color can be used to direct the eye, but if used improperly, can also be distracting.

A landscape is composed of various combinations of masses, lines, forms, colors and textures. The principles of design guide the integration and composition of the various design elements into a cohesive whole. These principles include scale or proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis, simplicity, and sequence or transition.

The distribution of mass (visual weight) in a landscape creates balance. Balance can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical (Figures 4a and 4b). In a symmetrical design, one side of the landscape is essentially a mirror image of the other. If you divided a symmetrical design in half, both sides would share the same shape, form and plantings. Symmetrical designs are very rigid and formal, and do not work with many landscapes. In an asymmetrically balanced design, plant sizes and numbers are only relatively similar on both sides. The overall weight or mass may be similar, but the form of that mass differs. For example, one side of the landscape may have a very large component, balanced on the other side by two or three smaller components with a comparable combined mass.

Rhythm helps us to achieve unity in a landscape. Rhythm is the predictable repetition of materials and elements such as mass, form, line, texture and color. It is good to use a variety of materials and elements in the landscape, but repeating these elements provides harmony and movement. There is a fine line in balancing variety versus monotony. Too much of any one element can make a garden feel boring or uninteresting, while too many different elements can create clutter and confusion.

Emphasis can be a focal point, or it can be a dominant element or space (Figures 5a and 5b). A focal point can be any variety of objects such as a specimen tree, fountain or statue. An empty expanse of lawn can act as a dominant space, especially when surrounded by taller plantings or walls. The emphasis may be part of a structure like the entryway to a house, or it may be a view in the distance like a hilltop church or a pond. The design of the landscape or garden helps create emphasis by directing your eye. A landscape may have more than one emphasis in different areas or plantings.

The elements of design are used to organize space in the landscape. The way in which we bring these different elements together is guided by the principles of design. Together, these foundations of design guide us in selecting plant material and hardscape elements that will blend harmoniously with the surrounding environment. A successful design builds off the existing structures and natural features of a site to create a unified landscape.

Do you want to create curb appeal with your landscape? Do you want your neighbors to feel garden envy when they walk by your home? Make your home really shine with a beautifully designed landscape and flowerbeds.

When planning out your new landscape, these design elements help keep everything visual appealing and unified. Our design elements have encouraged a strong evolution from rows of flowers in a flowerbed to a stunning and artistic landscape design.

When you are still in the planning phase, create the lines of your design in your yard with a garden hose. This will allow you to see at scale how big you want to make your designs and the shape you want to create or where you want to place your edging for your flowerbeds.

Place taller growing shrubs and trees in the back of your design to avoid covering smaller plants and blocking their sunlight and try using groundcovers to fill space and create mass. Groundcovers offer great color and textures to any design.

Use annuals and perennials in your design. These will keep your landscape interesting and ever-changing throughout the year. You will need to replace annuals after their growing season, but this will keep your design fresh while allowing you to learn and experiment with different plants and colors as you evolve your design.

As color tends to truly capture the eye, it is a key element in landscape design. When incorporating color, it is important to consider the four seasons. While flowers and plants in varying hues make a wonderful summer garden, you will also want to be sure to include vegetation that will offer color during the other seasons, such as evergreens, conifers and holly. The color of hardscape also plays a role in the design. Are you looking for something that stands out like a crystal blue pool or something more subtle such as natural stepping stones?

Texture applies to both softscape and hardscape. By texture we mean whether the plant or design feature is hard, soft, fine, course, heavy, light, rough, smooth, etc. Leaf structure, flowers, bark, and stone surface all have texture. Incorporating a variety of plant and hardscape textures adds a layer of dimension to the design. 350c69d7ab


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