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Elements of Design in the Garden
by Veronica Sliva
by Veronica Sliva


Veronica has been gardening for as long as she can remember. When other kids were reading comics, she was reading the Stokes Seed Catalog. In the past 25 years Veronica has written hundreds of articles about gardens and gardening for magazines and newspapers. She also develops online content for Internet websites. Her regular newspaper column, In the Garden is enjoyed by readers in Durham Region, and The Garden Party is read throughout the greater Toronto area. She is also a regular contributor to

When not consumed by her garden she enjoys photography, birding, spending time at the cottage and ballroom dancing.

Veronica makes presentations on gardening topics to a variety of groups including horticultural societies, garden clubs and service clubs.

Veronica owns Sliva Communications, a business that provides a full a range of writing services including business and marketing material, technical documentation and anything that requires a wordsmith. She is a seasoned technical writer with a post graduate diploma in Technical Communications.

Veronica is a Regional Director for Canada of the Garden Writers' Association, Chair of the Oshawa Valley Botanical Garden Task Force, and a past president of the Brooklin Horticultural Society.

July 17, 2011

The truth is that most gardens happen by chance whether we like to admit it or not. If however, you are someone who likes to consider your creative efforts as an art form, you might want to pay attention to some of the principles and elements of design. Artists and designers of all kinds embrace a universal definition of these “rules. Here are some basics:

Straight or curved, line is an important element in your garden because the eye automatically follows a garden’s line. For example, it might be the shape of your flower bed or the angle of a pathway. The lines that you create are bound to trigger responses from the viewer. Gentle, long, slow, curving lines are relaxing and restful. Sharp, jagged diagonals or verticals create more excitement and “tension”. Your garden reveals plenty about your character. So, not surprisingly, whatever lines you choose to work into your garden is likely to be an extension of your personality.

Form is defined as the shape of the different elements in your garden space. It is the outline of the various plants, trees and shrubs. As plants mature and develops their shape changes. A variety of shapes gives character to a garden and determines whether it adopts a formal or informal style. These shapes, whether spreading, columnar, weeping or round, play a major factor in defining the spaces in your garden.

Texture creates visual excitement in a garden. The differences in bark, foliage or flowers provide interest and establish a mood. The close-up view of a plant or flower evokes a different texture than if groupings of the same plants are viewed from a distance. How a plant catches the light at different times of the day changes the appearance of its texture too. Rough or course textures tend to create an informal atmosphere. Smooth, fine textured surfaces like that of a rose petal are associated with more a formal and elegant feeling.

Scent is often neglected in the planning of a garden. Introducing fragrant plants to a garden creates yet another dimension. Locate scented plants near a path or sitting area where you can appreciate them more. A simple tub of petunias can provide an intoxicating scent, especially in the evening hours.

Colour is to some the most important element in the garden. In fact, it may be the only element that is given any consideration. Most gardeners spend too much time worrying about complex colour rules that someone else has invented. Following nature’s lead is the wisest and easiest route to follow. For example, consider how the colours in a wildflower meadow are put together. Contemplate a wooded area. Here you most often see combinations of shades of green with the occasional splash of colour. If you can’t bring yourself to being that cavalier in your colour choices, head to an art supply store and buy a colour wheel. A colour wheel aids you in putting different colours together; then you can then decide what harmonies appeal to you most.

Using colour to manipulate space
If you have a large space to deal with, use flowers in warm colours like oranges, reds and yellows to make the landscape seem more intimate. On the other hand if you have a tiny space, the cooler colours like blue, purple, green and white, open it up and make the garden seem larger. In a small space limit the varieties and colours of plants you use. Masses of one colour are more effective.

Repetition in the garden often is the most overlooked element of all. We tend to want to cram in as much variety as possible, and in so doing give the garden what I call the “spotted” effect. There is no cohesiveness to a garden when this happens. It is far more pleasing to the eye to see form, line, colour and textures repeated several times within a space.

Create a Focal Point
Balance your garden with a focal point. You could choose an interesting shrub, bird bath, garden art, or perhaps a garden pond, a gazebo or a pergola, to create your garden around. Whatever you decide to make front and center, avoid having too many of these focal points or the effectiveness will be lost.

Personality Plus
While considering the elements and principles of design gives us some guidelines to follow in designing our gardens, you’ll probably be happiest if the outcome reflects your personal tastes. How you decorate your home will give you a clue as to what kind of garden design you’ll likely be comfortable with. Take a wander around your home and observe the décor. Are furniture pieces and objects arranged symmetrically or do you favour a more casual look? If you like a look that’s clean and sparse, you’ll probably want lots of open space in your garden design. Or, do you like to surround yourself with treasured keepsakes? If so, you might want to consider creating secret nooks and crannies in the garden by using winding paths and locating a surprise element around every corner. It could be something like a small, still pond or an obelisk or even a surprise planter.

Your use of colour in your interior spaces reveals a lot about your personality too. If you love bold, bright colours inside, chances are you’ll probably enjoy using hot colours like red, orange and purple in the garden.

Location, Location, Location
Make sure you put your garden where you can see and enjoy it, not in an out of the way corner or behind the garage. Start by looking out your windows and doors and take note of what you see. Is the view restful or can you see the compost heap or the neighbour's garbage bin, or maybe even moving traffic? If what you're looking at is less than ideal, consider a way to disguise the eyesore either with plant material or a hard structure like a screen of some kind.

Keep it in Proportion
Keep the size of the garden bed in proportion to what surrounds it. A small round garden in the center of a large yard will be very ineffective. Small gardens can be very challenging. When you have a small space to work with, consider using vines on trellises to give an extra dimension to the garden.

All-season interest
Try to plan your garden so that something interesting is going on year round. In the fall the garden often starts to look tired because we tend not to plant fall blooming plants in the spring (because they aren't in bloom in the garden centres then). But, if you make a special effort to plant a few fall blooming plants early in the season, you'll be rewarded with vibrant splashes of colour up until frost.

During the winter months ornamental grasses provide interest when everything else is dormant. Garden ornaments and statuary that can stay out of doors also spruce up the winter landscape.

Try something new
Gardens are never static and change and evolve over time. Be adventurous and try something new each season. Whatever you decide to do, your garden should be a personal expression of your personality. You’ll be happiest if you follow your instincts even if they don’t always align with the so called ‘rules’. Let your creative juices flow and use your garden to make a personal statement. You are only limited by your imagination.

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