Garden Design: The Natural Palette

Well-designed gardens and landscapes, no matter how varied in style and period, all have certain basic design principles at their core. To create a masterful garden, there must be attention to: unity, scale, space division, light and shade, texture, and tone and color.

Garden designers must also consider maturation of plants and seasonal changes. Finally, there is time-a design principle not required by other fine and decorative arts.


Perhaps, it is a reflection of our contemporary era that unity is the most lacking in today’s garden. We live piecemeal, hurried lives and tend to patch together lives and gardens as we go along. But the goal of unity is to give a totality, or strength of purpose to the design. Tone and color or texture can be used as unifying elements, but they are not enough to create a garden whole.

Modern gardens tend to be inward looking as very few of us have country estates where we see the horizon over the hill. But even so, we can design our gardens to be progressive or static. The first leads the eye down an axis, while a static garden is built on a central open space where the eye is brought to rest.


In either design it is important to think about scale. Even an outdoor room must compete with the vastness of the sky. There is a need for ample proportion, and a nodding acquaintance with the laws of perspective. There must be a definition of the space, and it must relate to the human scale. If you have assets of gigantic proportion, like enormous trees, it is best to insert a transition or buffer of medium scale that then relates further to people in the landscape.

As for the scale of all the parts of your design, you have two choices. Either all the parts should fit together as one whole, or one (only one) should dominate. That is how you create a focal point. Consider also how your eye reacts. A view is shortened as you look uphill and lengthened as you look down. You can enlarge and blur boundaries by placing them in shade.

Division of Space

You must also divide your space to make it interesting. You create pattern by how you distribute, and the proportion of, open spaces and solid mass. A prime example is a colonnade of trees leading the eye forward. You must decide how many trees, of what size girth (when they mature) and how far apart to plant them.

In dividing your space, you can either use a firm, architectural style or a loose more organic style.

Light & Shade

Light and shade also are important additions to your palette with the potential to elicit emotional response. Think of the appeal of sunlight falling on an open spot in a glade. The sunlight is a wonderful surprise, and much more exciting when viewed from a shady area.

Keep in mind that texture can only be shown with light. For example, site something highly carved or intricately detailed where it will be illuminated. On the other hand, a structural element can be strengthened if it is sited to appear in silhouette, with little detail and only the shape apparent.


Texture itself becomes more and more important as pattern decreases. The use of texture is strongest in Japanese garden design. The classic garden, with a highly formal pattern, relies on simplicity of surfaces.

The more modern garden, particularly those of smaller scale, can successfully use textures to build pattern. This is especially appropriate where elements are seen at close range and texture can be fully appreciated.

Tone & Color

Finally, the most appreciated and least understood garden design element, is that of tone and color. We all think we can use tone and color successfully, but it is no surprise that most great garden designers were also artists. To fully utilize color, you need to understand the principles of color harmony. That said, we’ll all continue with our illusions, and have a wonderful time creating our gardens.

Basis For Expression

If all of these design principles are well employed, they create a wonderful basis for truly original expression. The basics of garden design are like the foundation for a house. Once in place, there is limitless opportunity for personal expression.