Design Elements: Notes

Seven Primary Elements of Design

  1. Balance
  2. Emphasis
  3. Repetition
  4. Scale
  5. Sequence
  6. Simplicity
  7. Variety

For starters
read the article on Style and Design.

A quick way to gather together notes with design principles that I have scattered throughout my articles. Including short explanations and tips that don’t yet have their own pages and definitions from other sources that have been helpful to me (and hopefully for you). There are links noted for articles with more information on terms, when needed.

Design Terms


One term you sometimes hear in garden design is the word, “texture”. Like fabric texture, plant texture creates a visual feeling of something which is either coarse or fine. Small leaved plants, or a large array of small blossoms may create a fine textured accompaniment to medium or larger textured plants with larger smooth surfaces. Coarse texture is the effect of large leaves or large flowers such as hibiscus. Medium texture is between the extremes. This combining and mixing of textures creates interest visually. It is one way that plants contrast and complement one another.
Examples in Annual Plants.



Size of objects in relation to each other. In the garden the vista or lack of it creates scale, buildings in relation to the landscape plantings has a scale: a two story building holds a large scale – tiny plants along the foundation seem out of scale to the building’s height. Another way to express this is the proportion, or balance, of things in a design.


Plants come in forms such as mounded, spikey, trailing or vining, etc. I made a graphic to illustrate:
garden plant forms

Focal Point:

The human eye scans until somethings holds its interest. A focal point is that which draws the eye and holds the interest of the beholder. It may be a featured plant, or an object such as a birdbath, fountain, or sundial. It could be a large container of flowers, or simply a bright spot of flowers in an otherwise green landscape, etc. It is usually a singular feature- imagine a hodge-podge of features all competing for attention- that is not what is meant by a focal point and tends toward bad design- that is something most people would find displeasing and confusing. A focal point centralizes attention.


Usually referring to a tree or large bush, this means that the plant is set apart within the landscape for its ornamental value and interest. Rather than in groups or as part of a bed or border area, a specimen is set off within a lawn or similar space that doesn’t compete for attention. It is often a focal point in the landscape.

Full Stop:

Gertrude Jekyll often referred to this idea in her garden design advice. A full stop is a satisfactorily strong ending place visually. As the eye moves along an alleé or a border of flowers, a strong form will create a place for the eye to rest that the line of edging, or flowers leads or to which they point. A pathway that ends in a gazebo or at the foot of a fountain has come to a full stop; different from a focal point, it doesn’t have to be the central point of interest; simply an ending point like the period at the end of a sentence.

Garden Bones:

Designers refer to “the bones of the garden”, but what do they mean? Just like in the human body, the structure is outlined and supported by the skeleton, with the softer elements of the flesh and features upon it, so is the garden’s appearance. A good set of “bones” for a garden is made up of the hardscaping of paths, walls, and buildings, as well as strong plant elements such as trees and shrubs. These are the outlines of the garden in all seasons, fleshed upon with lush green garden growth and flowers during the blooming season. Winter is very telling when it comes to knowing whether your garden has good bone structure. If all you see are flat boring beds of earth, then you might design some structure into your garden that supports and showcases your plants.

Winter highlights the Garden Bones.

Genius Loci:

Places have personality, and often there are special idiosyncrasies of style that belong to a region.

Natural features of a location might be the quality of the light, tropical areas have very different light than northern climes, the presence of water, or lack of it, Mountain s and mountain views, these can help create the “spirit of a place”.

Cultural layers such as types of buildings and the local predilections for certain kinds of gardens or certain plants that have found their way into an areas landscape. These are what help create a sense of space and location with its own personality.

When finding the genius loci of your own place, you might have something uniquely different, and yet it is found within the context of the surrounding territory. This is what we mean by genius loci in the garden sense.

Referenced in The New American Garden Style., and Style and Design.


You know what repetition means, but in the garden the idea is that the same plant or combination of plants repeat a pattern throughout the border or garden. It gives cohesiveness and strength to the design.

Incorporating Garden Art

playful fountain

playful fountain is one form of garden art

You might look at a post on this topic, Garden Ornaments.

Garden art is highly subjective in both the actual objects people choose and how the art objects are used in the garden. Look over the guidelines suggested on the Ornaments post and plunge into giving surprise or whimsy to parts of your garden.

Experiment in a private part of the garden, and if it gives you joy to see these punctuation points, judiciously add more.

An Allée

An alley pathway lined with tall shrubs or trees on either side. Often of the same type, two beautiful examples are found in the Stan Hywet garden, the Rhododendron walk and the Birch Tree Allée .

…read on for color and style notes

Quick color Notes | Plant Forms | Design Concepts

…. also see Terms used for Plants

Color in Your Garden” for more about color theory and playing with color in your garden.

Quick Color Notes

HUE = another word for color
Hues are true colors
TINT = any color plus white
Tints are lighter colors
TONE = any color plus gray
Tones are subtle desaturated colors
SHADE = any color plus black
Shades are darker colors
VALUE = the amount of white, gray or black added to a color to create a new color
Values are the whole range of any color
TEMPERATURE = the overall impression or emotional impact created by a color (WARM AND COOL COLORS)
How colors make us feel emotionally.

“The photographic color temperature is measured only on the relative intensity of blue to red” – Allan Engelhardt

Color Basics: The Color Wheel and Color Theory in the garden; a few examples of color harmony garden plans.

Plant Forms

  • Round, like a globe
  • Mounding, rounded but arranged like piled forms
  • Oval, flattened globular form
  • Oblong, blocky horizontal form
  • Spreading, growing horizontally
  • Compact, tightly branched in a more geometrical form. Smaller.
  • Vertical, growing strongly upwards
  • Fastigiate, erect with parallel branching giving a pencil form.
  • Columnar, like pillars, cylindrical.
  • Upright tending to be upright
  • Vase shaped, wider at top giving classic V-shape
  • Pyramidal, wide at base rising to pointed top
  • Weeping, usually drooping branches
  • Vining, weak or clasping stems that grow up through and are supported by other plants or structures.

Design Concepts

Tracy DiSabato-Aust describes a garden she designed using these concepts:

“Order through balance and mass collection —Symmetrical balance is accomplished through the pairing of Weeping Red Buds (Cercis canadensis ‘Covey’) at two main entrances into the garden. Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Endless Summer’ are also paired on either side of all the entrances. The two long borders mirror one another with smokebush, nearly wild roses, and peonies repeating through the center which also creates balance. Mass collection is accomplished through the drift of plants and particularly the mass of ‘Rozanne’ geranium which creates a low edging around all the beds and spill onto the walks.” …and more in her article,New plants, old style, timeless design

The Terms Defined

Order: the overall framework, mass collection.
Symmetry: balance often created with mirror effect.
Asymmetry: balance created with unequal forms.
Mass collection: the given visual weight of an element, grouping elements together.
Unity: achieving a oneness in the design, balancing simplicity and variety.
Dominance: prominence in comparison with surrounding elements.
Unity of Three: grouping in odd numbers.
Rhythm: using repetition to create a visual sequence.

…read on for more style notes…

Popular Garden Styles

Garden Style Elements

Japanese Garden

Did you know that fortune cookies originated in Japan as early as 1878? The first fortune cookies in the USA were served in the Japanese Tea Garden of SF, Calif.

  • water, symbolic of purity
  • rocks, symbolic of strength and endurance
  • island feature, symbolic of immortal and everlasting happiness
  • a bridge, when colored red symbolizes luck and wealth
  • stone lantern
  • plants and mosses, like the pines which are symbolic of longevity and happiness; bamboo is similarly auspicious; the plum symbolic of vigor and patience
  • teahouse or pavilion, embodying secluded quietness, stillness, and tranquility
  • borrowed scenery
  • raked gravel or sand, symbolic of water
  • pathway or stepping stones, symbolic of a “way”

There are several specific styles within the Japanese tradition. It is a study in itself.

Gardening Box Set #2 (Japanese Gardens, Japanese Garden Designs, Rock Gardens, Rock Garden Designs, Rock Gardening Book, Water Gardening, Water Garden Book 1)

English Garden

My page on English Garden Style delves into the elements of this style.

Cottage gardens as we think of them are a branch of the English Garden style. More about how to put together a Cottage garden and the design elements common to the look. “Cottage Garden Plants” is about the traditional plant material. As lifestyles changed through the years, so have these styles evolved. From humble plots growing foodstuffs mainly for subsistence into pretty flower displays, the character remains.

Cottage-y Characteristics

  • Abundant planting
  • Use of walls and barriers to create “rooms”
  • Strong Garden “Bones”
  • Skilled intermingling of flowers and foliage plants
  • Intricate use of forms and color
  • Often utilizing borders, sunken garden areas, and creating “natural” spaces within the design
  • Even large garden spaces have a strongly personal feeling to them

Victorian Gardens

This is a type of garden, strongly English and anchored within the reign of Queen Victoria, flourished during an age of plant exploration and collection. It fell out of favor in design circles when the great gardeners ofthe Arts and Crafts design movement advocated naturalistic gardens, of which these certainly were not. They are strongly connoted by the idea of “collecting” in much the same way the Victorians decorated their interiors, sometimes with curiosities and flights of fancy. There is a strong tradition of this style carried on in many venues simply because it strongly appeals to the senses. There is nothing quite like a pot of bright red geraniums… or rows of marigolds and red salvia to attract attention and create a pop of cheerfulness, whether you agree with the personal taste for it or not.

  • using plants, often brightly colored annuals, in a “bedding out” scheme
  • Specimen plants and specimen trees in the landscape
  • Can use exuberant color combinations and plant forms, but can also be subtle.
  • Love of ornament and features, such as grottoes
  • Forms that mimic exotic places, like alpine gardens were popular
  • Decorating porches with vines and containers of bright or unusual plants
  • Collections were important
  • Incorporated formality, sometimes with highly manipulated plant forms (vestiges of an earlier age, which the Victorians were enamored with i.e. romanticized Medieval estates)
  • Complex rather than simple

Emily Dickinson’s Garden Plants

If it weren’t rooted in plants and the good earth, Frederick Olmsted’s landscape ideas could be called “metaphysical”. An eye-opening read on concepts that shaped America’s sensibility of a garden, “Ten design lessons from Frederick Law Olmsted

A Comprehensive Architecture Design Glossary