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Common Concepts of Landscape Design

Updated on January 25, 2012
Sustainable Sue profile image

In addition to having a masters degree in sustainable development, Susette works with water conservation and sustainable landscaping.

Planting native is the best way a person can help sustain the earth in their area. Redesigning a landscape to make it more sustainable requires utilizing as many local landscape features as possible in planning, including land forms, weather, water availability, and especially native plants.

Just as hills covered with flowers in springtime can be immensely attractive, so can well-designed native landscapes in residential neighborhoods. A designer's success, whether with single or blended types of gardens, will depend upon keeping the following landscape design elements firmly in mind:

  • Color - mixes of contrasting, complementary, or same color hues.

  • Texture - mixes of soft, rough, frilly, thick, round, pointed, fuzzy leaves, bark, or petals.

  • Scale - tiny to large, a few to en masse, short to tall.

  • Line - curved or straight, vertical or horizontal, short or long, direct or wandering.

  • Focal points - purposeful intent indicated by where the eye ends up.

Yarrow with oxalis.
Yarrow with oxalis.
Varying colors and sizes of grasses.
Varying colors and sizes of grasses.


Soft purple flowers with blue-green leaves can look gorgeous combined with bright yellow flowers, giving contrast to each. Small, delicate white flowers en masse can enhance a few large, showy white ones. A whole slew of pinks, or combinations of pink next to purple colors can be soothing and attractive at once. Leaf colors can be mixed to good effect, and colors changing with seasonal blooming can attract attention year round.

One color or shades of a color can be used to emphasize interesting textures or shapes, such as the clover-like leaves and yellow flowers of oxalis under the taller, bushy umbrels of yellow yarrow. Colors of blooms can be rotated by the season, such as pinks in spring, whites in summer, yellows and oranges in fall.

Using one color, you can play with texture and scale. Leaves can be included in the contrasting and complementary color combinations too. Using many colors, you can play with variations of the same theme, such as multicolored roses in one spot, or white ones next to pink ones next to red ones as the eye goes from prominent to more distant areas.

Three different textures mixed.
Three different textures mixed.
Baby palm tree growing up through wild strawberries.
Baby palm tree growing up through wild strawberries.


Texture is smooth vs rough, frilly vs thick leaves, fuzzy vs. smooth. Each shape plays a different role in nature and will be found naturally in different types of environments. For example, in the desert one finds a lot of thick, fat, fleshy shapes protected by sharp points. The points stop animals and birds from accessing the water stored by that plant within its stems.

In the tropics one will find mostly slick leaves that let excess water slide off, or tiny ones that let excess water fall through the spaces. Rough bark helps collect water and hold it for the use of insects and birds, or for arboreal plants whose roots search for such spaces.

In the planned landscape, whatever contrast in textures is used will work best (generally) if also found naturally in that area. In Southern California one can find different textures together like the smooth leaves of ivy or frilly vines of asparagus ferns climbing the rough bark of trees. In Florida one can find a combination of textures in types of ferns.

Color, shape, and scale in combination.
Color, shape, and scale in combination.


Large sizes contrasting with small, long contrasting with short, straight vs curved, small leading into bigger and then bigger, each combination creates a different effect. Scale uses size to lead the eye up, down, close, or far. Put big next to small to enhance both. Use small en masse to extend the size of a yard, or large en masse to decrease it. Use masses of small flowers to empower the effect, or just a few large ones to create interest, but not dominance.

Vines leading the eye up.
Vines leading the eye up.


Line is one thing leading to another, leading to another, leading to another. Lines can enhance the shape of an element by using another to emphasize, like ivy growing up a tall eucalyptus tree. Lines can be vertical as well as horizontal. They can lead to places like doorways, or direct the eye away from places (like the compost pile).

Focal Points

All of the above elements can be combined judiciously to create special focal points at different times of the year in any landscape location. They can also be used to create a blend or dissonance with neighboring landscapes - an overall harmony or contrast. I saw a business yesterday that had planted purple flowers growing up toward a neighboring business' pink bouganvillea hanging over the fence. It looked very attractive.


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