The Art of Landscape Design

Brian Daly | August 29, 2023 |


Hand drawing a well-designed landscape plan

Landscape design is an art form, and every art form has its own rules and principles that help to ensure a composition that both functions as intended and conveys a story or message.

Artists’ mediums certainly differ. A sculptor might use marble, a painter watercolors, a writer words, an architect masonry. But no matter the materials involved or the type of unique art created, all adhere to similar design rules and principles that serve a common purpose: they help our human brains make sense of what we see, hear, and touch.

A landscape designer uses principles and rules very similar to those a music composer might use, but rather than working with sound, we work with nature. A good designer takes the fundamental concepts of composition and works with the natural terrain and local climate to create functional and pleasing natural canvases that are painted with flowers, leaves, and branches.

A good designer knows how to work with nature to leverage all its colors and shapes to create a landscape design that stands the test of time.

One major difference between a landscape designer’s work and that of other artists is that the former needs to consider how the material will evolve over the years, as well as how it will look today. Because a plant that starts out in a pint-sized container could grow to several feet wide and high in a few years, having a deep understanding of plant material is extremely important.

Below are some of the principles that are top of mind for me when I survey a property and design a plan for a landscape:


Just like a painting needs balance in shapes and colors, so does a landscape. A beautiful garden will have a balance between its hardscape and softscape. It also needs to adhere to the requirements of the plant hardiness zone, sun exposure, soil composition, and rain expectations. Everything needs to be considered to place plant material in such a way as to create pleasing shapes and ensure it can thrive where it’s placed.


Another consideration for me when selecting plants that bloom is whether the flowers and colors are sequentially timed and what each season will bring to the overall composition. For example, daffodils and redbuds will bloom simultaneously, and their colors must work together. Like a song, there is a timing consideration with how the landscape evolves and creates a new painting each season.

Focal point

Every painting has a focal point where the artist drives your eyes. This resting spot for the eyes, so to speak, is comfort for the brain. In designing a landscape or garden, I also have to ensure that I don’t have too many elements competing for attention. Are there plants or other features that are dominant while other plants or features are subordinate? The focal point could be a specimen tree, a sculpture, a piece of art, or plant material that’s very showy. Whatever the focal point is, It should be something that remains constant.


As I design, I ask myself, “Am I applying repetition correctly and effectively?” There are repeating elements in all great artworks — a refrain in a song, a shape in architecture, a color in a painting. The Rule of Three requires that elements be placed in odd numbers. Our brains like repetition arranged in odd numbers. It’s pleasing. For this requirement, I consider types and sizes of plant material, and I also make sure I include continuity of lines to ensure my designs flow smoothly.


Whatever materials an artist uses in a creation, layers make it more interesting, create depth, and help guide the eyes as the designer intends. In landscape design, going from smaller plants in the front to larger and larger ones toward the back creates a flow and sense of greater space between the viewer and the plants in the back. Layers can also be used to camouflage air-conditioning units, some fences, or other functional items that need to exist but that you want to hide. The depth of your garden will determine how many layers are appropriate.


This is a truly fun part of landscape design — getting the right combination of colors. The decisions here are based on existing structures, like a house, and the mood my client wants to create. Some colors are soothing and some exude energy. Even when a client doesn’t want flowers, color is still an essential part of the landscape design. There are endless shades of green and brown that can be used to create layers and repetition. Even when I include an abundance of flowers, I still use a background design based on variations in leaf colors.


After planning for plants and structures, a major consideration is how the landscape will look in different seasons and parts of the day as the sunlight changes. Don’t let your garden sleep at night or during the long winter months. The proper lighting can extend the beauty and functionality of your landscape. It’s important to determine if you’ll be including lighting elements during the initial installation or intend to light the garden in the future. Do you have specific plant materials or features that will light up well? With hardscapes, you have to plan space, or put in chases to run wires later.

Like a symphony or an artist’s portfolio, a landscape must make sense. It must function properly for its users. And it must provide harmony. Do you have questions or want to discuss how we can work together to create a landscape that turns your property into a beautiful painting? I love helping people make their garden dreams come true. Let’s chat. I’m currently offering a free consultation.

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