Landscape Design 101: Creating a Vision

Meredith Gaines — Apr 04, 2022

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 of 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.

To narrow down all of your options and provide some inspiration, we’ll guide you through some considerations and several common styles and elements. This way, you can build your vision with confidence!

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 to consider that will guide you in determining 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.

Function Questions:

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.

What feelings do you want your space to emit? Free? Relaxed? Inspired? Healing? 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 beds to the areas or change the land?

landscape design

Elements of Design

Now that you’ve considered the function of your space, let’s jump into the design. There’s five main elements that come into play with 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 structure of the branches. This is just one example of a plant that has lots of color throughout the year. This is contrasted with plants that stay mostly the same color, such as evergreens or hardscape materials like stone or wood. Create a foundation of colors that match the existing structures and complement them with changing colors.

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. Most landscapes will include a variety of forms through the plants and structures included to create balance and prevent it from looking too “heavy”. Be sure to consider the mature form or shape of plants when selecting them.

Lines

Lines are what guide your eye through the space. It can take focus away from things like your HVAC unit, and draw your gaze towards the statement trees or views that you wish 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, while more naturalized areas feature lots of curves in both the plants and pathways. When looking at a landscape, notice the lines and see what you like the most and what echoes the structure that the landscape surrounds.

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. Layering different textures in both plants and other elements of your design like smooth stone vs. a rough brick can really bring life and dimension to the 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 scale up your yard, focus on large trees and shrubs. To scale down, add dwarf or compact shrubs. It's all about proportions, so play around and notice what works in your eyes with the existing features.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

desert landscape

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 easy!

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.

    Plant problems? We're here to help!
    We've put together the ultimate guide to diagnosing and treating common plant problems, from brown leaves to leggy growth, yellowing foliage and more. Download the guide below!