Landscape design hacks for your garden

mixing plant and rock heights and textures turn this flat surface into a work of art

Garden design is part-learned and part-dependent on an innate sense of design and balance.

The best designers are artistically trained and naturally visualize how everything will flow together when installed and, more importantly, will grow in successfully in the future.

Quality landscape companies are aware this is a special skill and either employ designers or adapt versions of proven generic designs to their clients’ sites.

Too many gardens are installed by people who have little creativity or artistic sense. These are the bland, easily forgettable gardens (and sometimes bad enough you wish you could forget them) that are seen everywhere.

A good design works with a harmony of line and a balance of shape. In the garden, the visual impact needs to be aesthetically pleasing, maintainable and functional. It uses a combination of practical, non-living materials and living plant materials. Events like walkways, patios, entertainment or sport areas, vegetable gardens, child and pet areas and so much more need to flow visually, function smoothly and be sustainable over a long period of time.

A focal point, like these horse sculptures, make the landscape into a show event

Once you know where all your events fit into your landscape (like placing pools and play areas for children in areas where they can be easily watched, or building herb or vegetable gardens close enough to the kitchen that they will be convenient to use), you may want to do your own designing. There are many ideas to spark your creativity online and in print publications. Here are some design hacks that might help.

  • Small trees will give the illusion of distance. To make a garden look larger, plant small trees in the furthest spaces.  Large trees will dwarf a garden unless the space is so small that the canopy has the effect of a roof and the trunk is like a wall — in which case the tree won’t register much as a tree, anyway. We tend to think of a tree as being large, even when it isn’t, so putting a smaller tree in the back of a landscape tricks the eye into thinking the tree is farther away than it really is.
  • You can create a rolling effect without having to move a lot of soil by planting gardens on areas of flat ground with cover plants that grow at different heights. The surface will be obscured by the variety of heights. Or you can use this same concept to accomplish the opposite by filling in lower areas with slightly higher growth to make the garden appear to be smooth and flat. This technique also works well to convert a featureless run of land into an illusion of peaks and valleys by grouping flowers and shrubs by height. It is a lot easier and less expensive than having to re-engineer the surface of your soil.
  • Create “windows” to look through to define special spaces or punch up a focal point.  Windows can be in the form of shrubbery or solid walls that are constructed with see-through holes. You can even use actual windows hung from patio overhangs or cut into barriers of any material. Windows teach you to design and put to use the spaces between objects or structures.
  • Distract the eye from something you want to down-play by drawing attention elsewhere. Creating a focal point with a water feature, sculpture or colorful garden bed will help pull the eye toward where you prefer your viewer to look.
  • Paint objects a bright color, grab attention with showy décor or plant hot-colored flowers in reds, yellows and oranges to make an area stand out.
  • Conversely, blend in areas you want to down-play with dull colors or masking walls, fences, vines or facades.
  • Use odd numbers. Group rocks and boulders or similar type plants so they make a natural-looking statement. Even numbers tend to look more contrived. Randomness looks more natural and, ironically, more balanced in a growing environment.
  • Unless you are designing a very contemporary or graphic look, avoid a lot of straight lines. Nature rarely designs with them.
  • Elongate short spaces by building a winding path that draws out the look of distance. This works particularly well where flat areas meet rising hillsides. Picture a meandering path across your property. It can even continue to wander up the hill creating a soothing design that allows you an easier access for slope maintenance. (A curving path up an incline is less steep to climb.) Plus, it can make an artistic statement at night if you edge the curving lines with solar or low voltage path lights.
  • Break up long or narrow spaces by dividing them with fences, structures, hedges or other items to partition off space and create rooms. You can create intrigue by inviting someone from one outdoor “room” to the next with an archway or decorative gate.

These are just some ways you can use illusion to change the shape of your garden. With some tricks of space and color you can make any garden look better. Illusion can allow you to separate different areas in a small garden, avoiding a cluttered look by creating cubicles.

bright colors can make even a tiny garden eye-catching

Sometimes it is better to incorporate problem areas into your design than try to remove them. Tree stumps, big rocky areas or unattractive views of surrounding property can be handled creatively. Turn them into table bases, retaining walls, seating or make an ugly wall into an artistic statement by dressing it up with a mural, building a vertical living wall in front of it, or converting it into a productive fruit stand by training vines and espaliered fruit trees over the surface.

If you are designing your own garden — or maybe have been stuck with one of those dreary, unimaginative landscapes you want to improve — spice things up with your own creativity. Some of us have artistic talent we’ve never explored. Try some of these hacks. Have fun.You may love what you create. And if you don’t, well, you can always call in a designer to tweak your ideas into success.

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