That Beautiful Landscape, There? Didn’t Happen By Accident

Next time you pass a front or backyard landscape that makes you stop and look, eyes full of awe and wonder, heart full of envy (probably,) remember—there is a lot of invisible action happening in that design. Whether it’s the work of a dedicated gardener, or that of a professional landscape designer, a well-designed garden takes talent, time and planning. And at least a passing knowledge of the principles of landscape design.

Part of a courtyard, one of Robinson Environmental Design's projects

Your professional landscape architect will of course be (or should be) very well-versed in these principles. This is why most spend years in school, and even more time in studying real gardens, always keeping up with both traditions and innovations in their field. But even casual gardeners can learn the basics of what to pay attention to when planning their own gardens, or viewing the work of professional landscape designers.

Here is a (very brief) overview of the major principles of landscape design:


Bold and sweeping, narrow and confined, curved, horizontal, straight and vertical… lines help the landscape designer define area, rooms and collections. Bedlines, the type that primarily surround and define plant areas, also serve to separate those areas from turf, gravel or hardscape lines, among other things.


Unity doesn’t mean that everything in the landscape has to match… in fact, if you think of it more as a sense of harmony, this concept may be easier to understand. There are various types of unity related to landscape architecture, including unity of dominance (as contrary as that may sound,) unity of three, and unity of simplicity or interconnection.


Form is all over a garden space— the shape of your plants, trees, ground cover, garden accessories, shape of your garden areas—all these, and more, contribute to a landscape’s “form.” Sometimes form is the clue to the type of garden you are viewing—for instance, a space with a lot of angles, straight lines and edges and carefully placed plant beds and trees is likely a formal garden.


Most of us are familiar with various types of texture, when describing hair or fabrics—fine, medium or coarse, for the most part. Landscape designers just take it a step further and apply these texture definitions to elements in your garden. Fine textured plants, like frilly, leafy ferns, or coarse textured hardscape elements—even trees with thick branches and glossy leaves get their own texture classification.


This garden view, a project of Robinson Environmental Design, frames and enhances the natural landscape.

Scale involves the relation of the garden space to its surroundings. Whether the landscape design is high scale, low scale, relative scale or a combination of these and more depends on where the eye needs to be drawn, and the personality of the garden itself.


Color is, of course, one of the most important elements of a landscape design. It’s what immediately draws attention, and can also influence mood and atmosphere in your garden. Lots of yellow and orange inspires happiness, for instance, while blue is a more serene, calming hue. Some landscapes are a riot of color, while others stick to just a few.

Of course, there is quite a lot more to designing beautiful, meaningful and effective landscapes. There is even more involved in the principles of landscape design than this very incomplete list can cover. But, hopefully, it will give you some idea of what is going on in any garden you view—though, really, the best thing to do with gardens is simply enjoy.