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Landscape Design 101: Creating a Vision

Meredith Gaines — Mar 15, 2023

Download the printable Creating a Vision questionnaire and worksheet here!

Now that you have a good understanding of your space and have studied it in detail, the next step is to create your vision. The vision for your yard or space can be anything you desire, but envisioning your space is a lot more than just deciding what goes where.

Your overall vision should appeal to all the senses, not just sight. Consider things like touch, smell and sound, as well. How does the area move with wind? Do you want to hear leaves rustling and birds chirping? Are there certain fragrances or textures you’d like to achieve? Fostering an entire sensory experience, as well as considering the function and overall purpose of your intended space will be highly rewarding.

No time to spare? Jump ahead using the links below.

Focus on Function

To start, you’ll want to establish the functionality of your area since it’s much easier to design around function instead of the other way around. To help, we’ve put together some questions that will guide you as you determine your vision.

We recommend taking notes to keep things organized, and if you’re dividing your area into smaller areas, go one by one, establishing each area individually.

What do you want to use the space for?

Enjoying nature and feeling emerged? Entertainment area for friends and family? A recreational space so dogs and kids can run free? Do you want practical and useful with cutting flowers and fruits? Or privacy so you can create your own oasis? The choice is up to you!

Who will primarily use this space?

Note any special considerations like ADA accessibility, kid or pet-friendly plants, any present allergies to certain plants, wildfire risks, etc.

How do you want to feel when in your space?

Free? Relaxed? Inspired? Healed? Peaceful? Energized? The list goes on!

How frequently will the area need maintenance?

Who’s going to be performing the maintenance? Will it require hired help?

Will you need to install any structures like a fountain or patio fence?

Are you going to change the pathways, add new garden beds to the areas or change the land?

landscape design

The 5 Elements of Design

Now that you’ve considered the function of your space, let’s jump into the five elements of design. You don’t need to master each one to create a wonderful landscape, but they’re helpful to know as you’re nailing down your vision.

As you look around for inspiration, consider these five elements and incorporate them into your future design.

Color

Colors have the potential to make things blend in or stand out. The unique thing about working with color in your landscape is that it changes depending on the season. For example, the Royal Purple Smoke Tree is bright purple in spring, dark purple in summer with red flowers, orange in fall, and by winter, it has no leaves, just the elegant branch structure. By contrast, some plants, such as evergreens, stay the same color all year (and most hardscape materials, like wood or stone, won’t change either).

To Recap: Use existing structures and evergreen plants (or add new!) to develop a year-round foundation of color. Then, complement this base color palette with plant varieties that change with the seasons.

Form

Think of form in landscape design as another word for shape. Just like people, plants come in many different shapes and sizes. An evergreen tree might have a pyramidal form, while an ornamental flowering cherry tree’s canopy will have more of a vase shape.

It’s not just trees that make up form—pathways, garden beds, and other various landscape features can also influence this. The best landscapes will include a variety of forms through their plants and structures. Variation creates balance and prevents yards from looking too “heavy.”

To Recap: Be sure to consider the mature form or shape of plants when selecting them. Avoid grouping too many similar-form plants together.

Lines

Lines are what guide your eye through the space. It can take focus away from eyesores (ex. an HVAC unit) and draw your gaze towards the statement trees or colorful plants you want to highlight.

Some lines in landscapes are straight, curved, diagonal, horizontal, etc. Lines also influence the feel of the area. Formal spaces often have lots of straight lines that make the area feel regal (a la French garden style), while more natural areas feature lots of curves in both the plants and pathways.

To Recap: Notice the natural lines of your landscape and consider how you might arrange plants to emphasize/minimize any feature or to create a more structured/fluid space.

landscape lines

Texture

Texture is the element that adds depth and character to the space. Plants with thin leaves like willow or thin blades of grass are considered fine in texture and add softness. Plants with thick and sturdy leaves like a magnolia or thick blades of grass add coarseness to the landscape.

To Recap: Layer different textures in both plants and other hardscape elements (like smooth stone vs. rough brick) to bring life and dimension to your landscape.

Scale

If you’ve ever seen a very small house with large trees or a large house with very small trees, you’re noticing the scale. Scale is how certain objects appear when compared to other objects. In the landscapes, this is most noticeable with structures like houses and the structures surrounding it.

To Recap: To scale up your yard, focus on large trees and shrubs. To scale down, add dwarf or compact shrubs. Play around with proportions and notice what works with the existing home and landscape features.

Have questions? Leave them in the comment section below! We’ll respond to our most frequently asked questions during our live Instagram Q&A session this Friday, March 24. 

Incorporating Hardscapes

Hardscapes are the elements in your design that are not plants. They can be a concrete patio to a wooden deck and more. When landscaping and creating your overall design, don’t overlook the hardscape materials you want to incorporate.

We suggest looking to your house for inspiration for a cohesive look. For example, you can add brick elements to your landscape for a brick house or use stone materials as a feature.

Eco-Friendly Landscape Swaps

We think Mother Nature’s worthy of respect before, during, and after your dream landscape becomes reality. You can incorporate sustainability into your design no matter the look you want to achieve.

  • Choose permeable pavers or concrete over traditional ones. This allows rainwater to drain naturally and helps reduce runoff and flooding. You can also opt for a permeable surface like gravel to allow water to soak in evenly to the ground which makes your plants happy.
  • Work with your climate—not against it. Pay attention to what grows well in your area and what doesn’t. We suggest contacting your local extension office for a guide of which shade trees do well and which native plants would, if planted, benefit your local wildlife and pollinators. Oftentimes, native plants require less maintenance and are more resistant to issues than non-native plants.
  • Consider a ribbon driveway, or one that has a strip of green grass between the two concrete sections where your tires go. It’s less concrete for you to pour, and it helps prevent flooding and reduce runoff. If organic material isn’t your style, opt to place another permeable material, such as crushed stones, between the brick or concrete slabs.
  • Collect rainwater to use in your garden or landscape. Plants prefer rainwater, the practice is better for your water bill, and rainwater collection systems come in a range of styles and price points. But don’t forget to check your local regulations on collecting water!
  • Plant something other than grass! We’re serious about this one. If grass doesn’t grow well in your area or you’re under too many water restrictions to keep it green, try a plant alternative. One of our favorites is clover—it takes less water, it won’t turn yellow at your dog’s favorite “potty spot,” and it benefits the local bees. And yes, you can still mow it and enjoy that lush green lawn look!
  • Two words: rain garden.

    Garden Styles

    There are endless possibilities when it comes to styling your area. You can choose one of the popular designs below or go for something new altogether. The idea is to choose a theme or style and stick with it throughout your design process to make the area feel cohesive.

    Cottage

    Cottage gardens are as whimsical as they are useful. A mix of flowers and edibles is organized in a way to maximize flowers in tight spaces. Vines, herbs, and flowers are mostly what you’ll find organized into garden beds, but not in straight rows or even numbers. Instead, flowers are free to re-seed and grow as they please and attract a wide variety of pollinators. The asymmetry creates a cozy feel. These gardens are considered low maintenance, as all that’s needed is to make sure that the flowers stay in a set area.

    Go for cottage style if you want:

    • A whimsical, cozy aesthetic
    • Landscaping without much maintenance
    • To support local pollinators

      cottage landscape

      Formal

      Formal gardens often echo the structure they’re built around like statues or grand houses. They’ll feature largely symmetrical designs, hedges, highly structured and topiary plants with open green lawns. This garden style will take more work than others to upkeep due to the symmetry and clean lines, but the overall effect is worth it if you’re looking to highlight your architecture.

      Start a formal garden if you want:

      • A structured, symmetrical aesthetic
      • More time spent in the garden
      • To highlight your home’s architecture

        formal landscape

        Mediterranean

        Warm Mediterranean landscapes have the power to transport you to the coast since they feature sand, sun, shade, rocks, and white stucco. Due to their climate, expect evergreens like olives and hardy flowers like lavender to thrive. Expect a moderate level of maintenance with this style at the beginning, but once established, little watering and upkeep will be needed beyond a yearly pruning.

        Choose Mediterranean if you want:

        • A breezy, coastal aesthetic
        • Medium-level upkeep
        • To complement with your warmer climate (if you live in one)

          mediterranean landscape

          Natural or Woodland

          Natural or woodland spaces have a way of letting your mind freely wander as you walk along winding pathways or streams. In these gardens, plants are often native to the area and allowed to reseed and grow, inviting wildlife to the area. You’ll find higher walls or trees that create a sense of privacy with lots of wildflowers and not-overly structured trees or hedges. Letting nature shine is the best part of this style. Plus, it requires little maintenance for an easy-care and rewarding option.

          Explore a woodland style if you want:

          • A grounded, nature-forward aesthetic
          • Little-to-no maintenance
          • To focus on planting native species

            natural woodland landscape

            Tropical

            Tropical landscapes are full of large, green leaves and bright colors. Some plants featured are hibiscus or bananas. This style has a lush and full appearance, using different layers of plants to add dimension and privacy, as well as fun textures to create eye-catching allure. Sitting areas and pools or other water features fit well with this type of landscape. And this style typically only requires some seasonal maintenance and watering.

            Create a tropical style if you want:

            • A bright, lush, exotic aesthetic
            • Intermediate maintenance needs
            • To complement your water features

              tropical landscape

              Asian or Japanese

              Asian or Japanese style gardens are feature-heavy, using water, sand, wood, and stone elements to create a symbolic and purposeful space. The concept often feels relaxing and open with the inclusion of straight lines. These straight lines are many times contrasted by the natural curving lines of the trees. It's all about showing off the structure of the plants, so there’s typically a smaller number of plants that are highly manicured, making this garden moderate to take care of. Plants like azaleas, rhododendrons, and Japanese Maples are all perfect for Japanese-inspired spaces.

              Design an Asian or Japanese style garden if you want:

              • A tranquil, less-is-more aesthetic
              • Moderate landscaping upkeep
              • To embrace simplicity and practice mindfulness in nature

                Asian landscape

                Urban/Modern/Contemporary

                Modern gardens, also known as urban or contemporary gardens, often bring you into the future, creating a place of creativity and many times showing artwork at the same time. They feature straight lines with raised beds and open areas of grass. And they can be symmetrical or asymmetrical, including a mix of metal, wood, and accent lighting. The overall feel of the space is clean, simple, and open with moderate maintenance involved.

                Strive for an urban, modern, or contemporary style if you want:

                • A futuristic, artistic, mixed-medium aesthetic
                • Intermediate upkeep
                • To add structure and form to your landscape

                  Modern landscape

                  Edible/Orchard

                  Who says you can’t grow your own food in the suburbs!? Orchards or edible gardens are the ideal mix of purpose and beauty. Micro-orchards, or smaller edible garden spaces, creatively balance fruit trees and shrubs with grassy areas to provide food and the family-fun activity of harvesting homegrown crops. These landscapes need a varying level of maintenance depending on the varieties you plant and your climate, but the reward of fresh food outside your door is well worth the work!

                  Plant an edible garden or orchard if you want:

                  • A functional, delicious aesthetic
                  • More time spent in the garden
                  • To grow your own fruits and vegetables

                    edible landscape

                    Desert/Arid/Southwest/Xeriscape

                    Despite popular misconceptions, you can still enjoy plants if you have limited water availability! There’s plenty of drought tolerant plants that will thrive in these conditions. Mixing rock textures with cacti, thick succulents, and grasses can create a paradise even in the hottest areas. This style conserves water and makes the most of the water it’s given. Since most of these heat-loving plants stay petite, this option is low-maintenance, while providing exceptional colors and textures.

                    Focus on desert, arid, Southwest, or xeriscape style if you want:

                    • A desert-like, hardy, rocky aesthetic
                    • Very little maintenance
                    • To leverage drought-like conditions in your favor

                      desert landscape

                      Secret Garden

                      This is for all the dreamers out there—if you’ve ever wanted to escape in your own yard, the secret garden is for you. Its key elements are privacy and wonder. You would design yours by creating walls in your space with tall hedges like laurels or yews. Then, you would decorate your new “rooms” with colorful plants. We highly recommend placing a bench or a garden table in the space so you can truly get “away.”

                      This style will likely take time to build up the hedge “walls,” and it would require yearly maintenance to keep them uniform and compact. With some strategic pruning, you can eventually create a door between two plants. Very simliar to the cottage garden style, the secret garden also may incorporate climbing flowers like roses or wisteria over an arch or trellises (a.k.a. the secret entrance).

                      Grow your own secret garden if you want:

                      • A magical, highly private aesthetic
                      • More intensive yearly maintenance
                      • To disappear into your colorful landscape

                        Permaculture

                        While permaculture is more a method of gardening, we still think it deserves consideration as an option for those who love the earth. Permaculture is focused on long-term thinking and doing things with purpose and intent. After all, “perma” stands for permanent. Its goal is to leave no waste, support the local ecosystem, and emphasize the natural features of your landscape. The best part—nature does most of the work once a permaculture-focused garden is established. Start small by minimizing resources like rainwater, reducing added chemicals like fertilizer, and creating a waste/composting plan for spent blooms, branches, and organic matter. Pair plants together so they’ll mutually benefit one another.

                        Establish a permaculture landscape if you want:

                        • An “I-love-the-Earth” aesthetic
                        • Work with nature
                        • To leverage plants’ naturally occurring processes

                          Vision Is Everything

                          Now that you know what your space will allow and the desired function of it, go out and look around! Next time you’re riding in the car or taking a walk, check out the landscapes around you and see what you like or dislike. And don’t forget the wide resources available to you online or in print, as well! Things like magazines and Pinterest are a great way to get your imagination going and help you formulate a vision for your own space. Remember to keep notes of what you want out of your landscape so that the next step of mapping out your yard will come easily!

                          Don't forget to download and print our Design Questionnaire & Worksheet to help create your landscape vision!

                          Plus, check out the rest of our Landscape Design 101 course to keep learning and transform your landscape! And be sure to shop our wide selection of trees and shrubs to really spruce up your space.

                          Meredith Gaines

                          Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

                          She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

                          Questions? Contact Meredith at information@fastgrowingtrees.com.

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