What Makes A Garden? A Composition Of Elements

Ilona Erwin

Each property is made of components put together to make a garden from the outdoor spaces. No matter the style or the size, the climate or purpose, design elements function visually. Although called a “yard” or landscape, we mean something quite distinct when we call it a garden.

What Design Components Make A Garden?

A garden landscape is made up of two main parts: hardscaping and softscaping

The way in which we combine these parts gives the cultivated spaces their style; some having certain purpose, some displaying a theme. What will a home gardener put together to design their surrounding outdoors? What do landscape designers call the elements of the garden’s composition?

  • Hardscape– the permanent structures that form the gardens outlines and paths: walks, arbors,walls and fences, lighting, bridges, etc. Made out of rock or concrete? Large wood installations or structures? I t is part of the hardscaping.
  • Softscape– the plant life which consists of the flowers, shrubs, trees, lawns, hedges, and other malleable and moveable portions of the design.
  • Garden ornaments–  all those extras that bring a touch of art, pots and containers, fountains, and accents within the living garden.
  • Secondary Features– birdbaths, trellis and tuteurs, supporting wildlife or playtime in the garden.
A garden full of blooming flowers

Combine beautiful plants and striking permanent features to make a garden a work of art.

Define The Hardscape


Pathways begin the most basic hardscaping on any property. The need to traverse two points makes this most ancient way of directing egress or being directed by it. Paths can be simple or a beautifully decorative part of a landscape plan.

Purpose dictates the mode of pathway.

  • To allow for good entry and exit in all types of weather, sidewalks and drives need to be level and smooth. This helps ease of wheeling things to and from the house, safety and efficiency of movement.
  • Solid footing in much traveled areas from building to building or through an area of the garden.  Depending on whether it needs to be used comfortably for more than one person or shoveled of snow in winter, the way from house to street can be wide or narrow, stone or mulched.
  • Paths can purely decorative, and serve the purpose of only looking like they go somewhere.

Steps And Edgings

From a simple path of mown grass to the requisite suburban driveway, retaining walls or edgings line paths and entries. Edgings also trim terraced slopes or flower borders. Surface patios and stepping stones are paved with concrete, stone, and brick.

All these components come in many designs.

Create Enclosure

When enclosure is wanted, fences, walls, gates are all permanent restrictions made of lasting materials. A sense of enclosure can be made from living materials such as hedges, or temporary barriers.

Within the larger space of the garden small edgings of brick, or decorative border fencing can set off beds and paths.

Make a Garden: Structures

Anything from a practical shed to a frivolous folly structures give form to the garden. Buildings can be part of the garden which create elements of the hardscape. Gazebos are a favorite.

Water And Dry Beds

Water is necessary for the wellbeing of the plantings, but at times it is incorporated into ponds and fountains or diverted into streams. This all becomes part of the hardscape. When water is not used, but the implication of it is part of a design, dry beds of stone or pebbles are installed.

Natural streams, or manmade, are all a part of the year-round characteristics of the place.

My Little Pond

Make a Garden: Garden Seating

garden path, fence, and bench

The garden path leads to an awaiting bench.

While seating can be the most temporary of components, spaces for it or adding a bench or patio group is often a part of hardscaping. Combining two features, such as a low wall meant to sat upon utilizes materials of stone, concrete or brick to make a structure that serves more than one purpose.

The Well Placed Bench


Hardscape: the solid elements that stay the same for years

While many of the the other elements are decorative, gardeners often have some objects simply for ornament sake. This is art for the garden, imparting style and feeling in a wide range of things from natural stones to the Victorian gazing ball.

Ornaments, Have Or Have Not?

These myriad features all give the landscape form, and become part of the “bones” or skeletal outline of the garden. This outline is especially important in winter, when all the leafy interest and flower color is gone.



Bring The Softscape To Life

Planting is where most home owners start. We want color and beauty and plants are the main show as far as most of us are concerned. Grabbing brightly colored flowers from rows of perennial pots, shrubs forced into full bloom, and pretty ornamental flowering trees all compete for our attention and might find themselves shoehorned into the garden.

Softscape: the living part of a landscape

A well planned softscape can complement and fill out the front yard and foundation of the house. The plants can make decorative and useful food from your vegetable plots and herb beds. They can screen or direct foot traffic. All the while adding to the experience of nature’s beauty.

Putting in plants isn’t hard, but getting the right plant in the right place can be a challenge if you are new to gardening. It doesn’t need to be. So many articles and books instruct on every type of climate, landscape style, etc.

Grass and flower composition

Rudbeckia, pink phlox, and Miscanthus and Calamagrostis xacutiflora “Karl Foerster”

How To Sort Out The Information

When choosing plants, sort out your priorities:

  • Your climate (hardiness,rainfall)
  • Light requirements
  • Type of soil
  • Color schemes and space requirements

Almost every plant factsheet lists the necessary information on the plant. Most design books have lists of proper plants, and garden centers themselves have knowledgable employees to give guidance. I once used hardcopy catalogs for their stellar garden advice (most have been replaced with online sources).

Make your garden plan, work your planting plan.

How to Start a Garden

Accents And Ornaments Help Make A Garden

These items inhabit the space between permanent and more temporary fixtures of the garden. If I think of how I have my husband lumber the giant green glazed ceramic urn back and forth from the garden to garage during our change of season, it is apparent how the lines blur in what we call “permanent” in our landscape.

Make a garden with herbs

Bird bath makes a central focal point in this herb garden.

Many of my ornaments must be tucked away from frost for the winter. Even the resin urn suffered damage when I mistakenly left it out one year. However, even for me -a gardener who dislikes much in the way of statues, kitsch, and gewgaws in yards, I am drawn to placing decorative accents which catch my fancy.

I have found that they are important parts of bringing identity and personality into outdoor spaces.

What Constitutes Style?

Combine Design Elements To Make A Garden Style

An example of how the two main elements work in a themed design:
In a formal parterre garden the hardscaping could be edging stones around large circular beds and gravel fill, the paths that wind through the garden, a bench at the end of the garden. The softscaping would include the low plants that are clipped into the intersecting design, as well as any trees or shrubs surrounding the area or plantings filling the spaces between the clipped herbs.

Elements that make a garden


Style is constituted by the overall composition or look of a garden.

When regional, it is named for the characteristics in both hardscape and softscape elements that are indigenous to that place. French, Italian, and English gardens, as well as Chinese, Japanese, and New American all have styles named for them.

Keep The Hardscape In Harmony

Besides these, there may be specific uses that will require certain plants or structures to give them their style, and materials can add or take away from the look desired. I am thinking now of a wild and rustic public garden in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. It was a neighborhood garden with many lovely features, but at some  point a decision was made to install some very expensive polished granite benches. Their look was completely out of sync with the rustic nature of the rest of the garden and its hardscaping.

The effect was unpleasantly jarring, despite the fact that the benches were of highest quality and workmanship.

Softscape Choices Signal Style, Too

You can immediately envision style in terms of plants and how they are grown when you think of a wild garden, for example. By comparison, considering a formal design cause the structures and plants that seem to belong to those spaces spring to mind.

That is all part of the “style”.


The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden

Information on Style

donationDonate the cost of a coffee through Paypal for the work of publishing these pages. Please support my writing and webmaster efforts.
Disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Please consider supporting this site.

Shop shrubs at Nature Hills

Related Posts

Using Autumn Flowers in Containers

Using Autumn Flowers in Containers

Fall for Creative Containers Bring beautiful container creations to the end of the season, don't give up after summer! Autumn blooming flowers are...

I Wish My Garden Looked Like That

I Wish My Garden Looked Like That

Have you ever found yourself coming home after a visit to a lovely garden, and saying "I wish my garden looked like that"? I have, too. The trouble...

Grow Spectacular Clematis This Year

Grow Spectacular Clematis This Year

This is something of a guide to choosing some spectacular Clematis varieties, and tips on how to grow them well. For further, detailed information...

Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.