A garden can be defined in many ways: a plot of land used for the growing of flowers, vegetables, herbs and trees; an area of fertile, cultivated property; even as a verb "to lay out, develop or tend." The key point in all these definitions is a plan. In other words, a garden has a design.
It's a constantly changing interaction between what the gardener wants and what the plants and the environment will support. But there are several design principles that you can use to get your garden to look its best. Once you have them down, a garden practically designs itself.
• Balance. Plants and other "hardscape" elements in a garden, like decks, paths or even rocks, have visual weight that needs to be balanced. It creates a formal look. Asymmetrical balance also has organization and stability, but looks more natural and random. A tall evergreen and low, mounded shrubs standing opposite a group of open, airy perennials around that same fountain would create a more casual look.
• Repetition. Duplicating forms, textures, colors or sizes makes a garden easier to look at. It can be an obvious repetition of the same alternating flowers marching down the front of a border, or more subtle, like repeating the shapes of shrubs or trees or even structures. Repetition sets the rhythm with which the eye moves around the garden.
• Focal point. A garden needs at least one object or area that is noticed first and most often. A focal point is the visual "hook" that demands attention and stimulates interest. A bright red, highly textured Japanese maple standing among smaller, more or less green plants, or a sparkling, splashing waterfall would instantly attract your gaze. A focal point leads visitors to a specific place in the landscape, and encourages them to explore the spaces around it and then return again and again.
• Contrast. In order to hold attention and create excitement, things have to stand out from each other. Use contrast sparingly, though. Choose one or two contrasting elements, like small green leaves against broad, variegated ones, or tall, vertical forms against low, mounding shapes. Too much individuality creates a confusing, unplanned jumble.
• Movement. Some gardens seem to invite you to come and explore every corner and curve; others invite stillness and reflection. The effect is created with different kinds of lines. Straight lines are typically found in very formal, geometric, symmetrical gardens. Curved lines are found in more natural, organic and informal gardens.
Imagine a path, bordered with gently rhythmic, repeating groups of plants curving toward a tall garden arbor focal point, enticing you to come and see what's waiting just around the corner out of sight. All those elements working together brings us to ...
• Unity. It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. All the garden's individual parts make sense together. They feel right.
Now that you know the principles of design, you'll find yourself looking for them in every landscape, and recognize why some gardens not only look better, but feel better than others, too.