Principles of Design in your Garden

My Garden Life
June 30, 2014
Table of Contents

Coming home from the garden center is exciting. You’ve spent time picking out a truckload of plants in various shapes and colours, you’ve imagined how great your garden will look after all the planting is done. But now you stand in front of a mass of plants in various sized pots on your lawn, and you wonder where to start. How do you make sense of the array of color and plant form that sits in front of you?

Gardening is a form of art, and in visual art there are 7 principles of design that make up any masterpiece: balance, movement, repetition, contrast, harmony, dominance and unity. Using these principals will turn that mess of pots into an eye appealing unified landscape!

Balance in gardening means to look at the landscape as a whole, and see that one side doesn’t look heavier than the other. It means that if you place a large plant or object on one side, you must make up that visual weight on the other side. Do this by placing another large plant or a number of smaller plants to create the balance. You can play with plant colours to achieve balance as well, darker colours appear heavier, if you have a large light green shrub or tree, you can balance it by using a smaller dark red plant or shrub. You can also use garden décor to establish balance.

Movement is also called eye flow, it allows the viewer to start by looking at a focal point and the designed movement draws the eye through the landscape. Use larger plants to the back of the garden and smaller plants in the front to establish perspective and a flowing design. You don’t want the eye to travel back and forth across the garden from focal point to focal point, it should visually make sense and draw the eye in a natural and flowing way.

Repetition creates interest. Using a color or shape in a properly spaced pattern gives the brain a sense of order and completeness. Repetition also helps with movement by drawing the eye through the landscape.

Contrast is the difference between two objects. It creates interest and keeps the garden from becoming monotonous. The juxtaposition of opposing elements causes the viewer to take time to really look at the landscape, noticing the details. In a garden, using texture and colour to create this is very effective. The contrast between the broad leaves of a large hosta and the thin feathery foliage of a cutleaf Japanese maple make an interesting combination. Be careful to not use too much contrast, as it can create visual chaos if used improperly.

Harmony in a landscape gives a visually satisfying feeling. Establish harmony by using colors that are located close to each other on the color wheel, never use colors from the opposite ends of the color wheel when trying to create harmony. Use similarly shaped plants and objects through the design.

Dominance is when a plant or object is used, giving the landscape a focal point to start from while viewing it. Use a shrub larger than others around it to lend it dominance. Or use a water feature or statue.

Unity is created by using related shapes and colors to portray a feeling. A cottage garden uses windswept daisies with wispy poppies and big fancy irises, while a contemporary modern garden uses clean lines, pruned boxwood with columnar oaks and stately blue spruce trees. Unity gives emotion to the landscape.

Together the principles of design work in unison to create a landscape that makes sense to the brain and gives the viewer a feeling of completeness. It takes the mess of plants in pots on the front lawn and turns it into a garden to be enjoyed throughout the seasons. It just takes a little planning, and planting on purpose.


  1. StanLee Hildebrand

    Very nice and informative overview of creating a garden. We Have created many large and small gardens over the past 30 years and are undertaking the creation of a pleasing garden at our new home.

    • My Garden Life

      Thank you, StanLee. We hope you’ll have fun designing your latest garden. It’s always a happy challenge to imagine and create a new garden!


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