Garden Designers Roundtable – Design Principles

Most designers of grand gardens and small spaces know an array of design principles: balance, axis, repetition, scale, mass, color, contrast, etc – all valid guidelines to stand by, and they work anywhere with most any hardscape or plant element!

There are also some generalities so evident, yet they are design principles that I didn’t learn in school!

Know Your Place (physical geography over cultural geography…people will be people, often following convention, whether appropriate or not). The EPA ecoregions are useful for Texas, and I’m in their “Chihuahuan Desert / Chihuahuan Basins and Playas” (but EPA’s mapping is not always as good for some other states; the AZ and CA pages are not finished yet) – Texas and the US

Design for February (Tara Dillard)
Design for February (Tara Dillard)…even taken on 2/2/2009! (Central New Mexico Community College, Albuquerque)
there are straight lines in nature
There are Straight Lines in Nature (even curves:-) – plants grow where there are gaps and fissures in bedrock (those usually are linear), where soil and rain (!!) collect for root growth; these Agave lechuguilla love that setting (Palisades Open Space, El Paso)
Mitigate and Revegetate – locally-native plants of natural spacing and arrangements used in general landscape areas, even a target golf course, with limited turf and preserved / revegetated roughs and outlying areas (golf course parking lot, Desert Mountain, North Scottsdale AZ)
Water Isn't a Nuisance (bad engineers are)
Water Isn’t a Nuisance (bad engineers are…so are old-guard technocrats) – passive water harvesting berms and swales capture gentle winter rain from fronts and summer monsoon deluges, slow the downhill flow, then allow it to percolate into our thirsty desert soils. As a result, native xeric plants can grow better or even without irrigation…small, new plants are concentrated in low areas (University of Arizona, Tucson)
Always Learn (never parrot)
Always Learn (never parrot) – like mother, like son?
Be True to You (and your physical geography) – Mojave Desert natives Dwarf Joshua Tree / Yucca brevifolia ssp. Jaegeriana, Apache Plume / Fallugia paradoxa and Firecracker Penstemon / Penstemon eatonii (UNLV Science and Engineering Building, Las Vegas NV)

What principles did you learn that helped you?

Are there any principles you wish to add?

Please join us at the Roundtable for more talk on design principles – here!

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ


7 Replies to “Garden Designers Roundtable – Design Principles”

  1. Awesome tips and grounded in reality (which are the best kind). Especially the know your place. There is nothing so jarring as seeing a recreated Italian villa garden in the middle of scottsdale. Beautiful gardens should be a reflection of the place that they are in.

    Thanks! I’ve seen that – many miss what oasis means in the dry Mediterranean, let alone brought to the desert. Spent 6+ hours today w/ a County Extension Agent to see how my work can do that, while meeting a developer client’s goals.


  2. Know Your Place is so important, and yet so challenging to gardeners, I believe. Every area has its own beauty, the trick is in being able to see it and make it mesh with the ideal garden in your own mind.

    Precisely! The natural place / ecoregion determines hardscape / plant choices, and the built place / architecture informs how those plants / hardscape are used:-)


  3. Thanks for these. Being an unprincipled kind of guy who plants one of whatever catches his eye at cool specialty nurseries, my garden looks far too much like nature with everything competing for light and space. Perhaps I’d better head on over to the Designers Roundtable for some therapy to see if I can be helped.

    Ahem, you *are* the outlaw, and I live in the vast outlaw lands between the Llano Estacado and the Sierra Nevada / Madre, so I’m on board! But you’d be surprised…all my principles and the others at the beginning I listed can be found in nature:-) We have some turkey legs for you.


  4. Ah, David, we can always count on you to bring some truly practical advise to the conversation. Be true to you…right on!

    Thanks, JC! I always go for the obvious…well, mostly…


  5. Thanks for these – so many solid principles illustrated here. I have no formal training and cannot currently afford the services of a professional, so am working to train my own eye and absorb lessons wherever I can. The design element I struggle with consistently is the idea of using negative space. I have an unfortunate tendency to want to fill-fill-fill every space and a lot gets lost in the process.

    You’re welcome, and pointing people in some good directions is part of why I have a website and blogs! You’ll do fine. Negative space…I really must do a blog post on what that means for different places, since the range from arid to wet locales it means different things.


Comments are closed.