Garden Design – An Elemental Overlook

Ilona Erwin

First, a little history…

“Consult the genius of the place in all things.” -Alexander Pope

Our Style and Design- Where Does It Come From?

Our sense of landscape design develops through historical trends, where we pick up one and layer on another, or completely discard all for something altogether different. Many of us appreciate the nineteenth century landscape sensibilities of Gertrude Jekyll and American counterparts, and I think it affects our sense of what is beautiful in the landscape even today.

“…Country estates designed by prestigious architects and landscape architects…[were] influenced by the picturesque approach of A. J. Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted, chief designer of New York City’s Central Park, and Beaux-Arts principles that accommodated an eclectic array of European-inspired features. Over time, landscape architects learned to integrate Downing’s and Olmsted’s ideas with increasingly imaginative formal elements, such as water staircases. The era’s most vibrant designs also celebrated the genius loci -the spirit of the place. They emphasized the natural beauty of the land. Today, most of the landscapes of the Country Place Era have been altered or consumed by suburban development and sprawl.”
Robin Karson, curator of the National Building Museum

If we garden, we often disassociate from today’s suburban blandness and integrate the style melded from our own tastes and ideas from contemporary designers. Yet, the styles of the past are the foundation and sometimes the springboard for our own gardening “genius”.

Ilona's side gardenformal herb garden

Examples of Country Place Style And Design

Vestiges of “The Country Place Era”, an important movement in American architecture and landscape design between 1900 and 1940, especially impacts us.

Even though we may not know the name for it, our general sense of a naturalistic and open landscape derives from this conscientious application of ideals in neighborhood, garden, and park planning of that time. I think it continues in the ‘New American’ style of incorporating grasses, creating urban meadows, and many of our people-friendly garden plans, both residential and commercial.

New American style

New American Style with Sedum, Rudbeckia, and Miscanthus

Whether we create formal or informal gardens, idiosyncratic or historic ones, we are mindful of the “spirit of the place”. Even if it is not conscious, we keep in mind the architecture, the background scenery, and the integration into our climate and neighboring surrounds. Very few of us garden without some relationship to these items.

Your Viewshed

A Look At Naumkeag, How It Came To Be

The lesson learned from the past is how enduring such mindful gardening can be. A few of the famous gardens to illustrate: Dumbarton Oaks, Stan Hywet Hall, Winterthur, Naumkeag.

Even though we may not know the name for it, our general sense of a naturalistic and open landscape derives from this deeply American “Country Place” style

Using Design When You Plan a Garden

One of the first things in design is the question: What do you want from your garden?

Components of Style

The composition of style consists of:

  • form
  • color
  • line
  • position
  • relationship

The many combinations of these artistic concepts create the feeling and the identifying marks of a particular style. They are concepts you will use when designing your own home landscape.

Form relates to the shape, such as mounded cushion mums, or pencil-thin uprights like certain Junipers. Garden objects also have form: globes, pedestals, rocks.

Color, the use of hues in flowers, leaves, and stems to not only imprint a mood, but cause features to receded or advance.

Line draws our eye, divides the spaces, is created by plants such as tree trunks or elements such as pathways.

Position makes for rhythm, variety, and depth.

Relationship provides repetition or contrast, sense of proportion, syncing buildings with the natural surroundings.

In a garden we choose formal/informal, enclosed/open, bright/muted, symmetrical/asymmetrical, straight/curving… and along with making choices we often follow a pattern of a named style: Cottage, Japanese, Colonial, English, Italian, etc. The method in which the components of design are combined outline general “principles” which make up specific garden styles.

To plan a garden we combine all these design ideas together, using plants and the hardscaping (paths, structures, features) into a harmonious whole. Style uses details that are considered characteristic of an era or place. Choose plants that grow well in your conditions, but combine them in the way that reflects the design flavor. Roses are part of many styles and designs, for instance.

Garden Notes on Named Styles

Plant Design

plant formsThe exciting thing about a garden is that it is made up of living things, constantly changing and growing. This means that no matter what the style there will always be something new about the garden, although in the negative sense it also means we have to accommodate to such things as weeds, disrepair, loss of plants to circumstance, and many such factors. This is the challenge to the gardener, to manage and create from ones own vision and gardening elements. This is what makes our garden.

Planning All Starts Here

With you! One of the first things in design is the question: What do you want from your garden? Encouraged to make a list, we might include a border of flowers, a vegetable area, a play are for children, a quiet seat with a serene scene.

The list is unique to you and your family. Map out spaces for such activities. A firepit? A sandbox or dining al fresco? a rose garden or espaliered fruit trees? Dream as much as you want in the planning stage, paint a big picture…. then break down the parts into a schedule of construction. You may not have all accomplished, but it will be a guide to your efforts and help to finish some of the important areas you envision.

So make a plan. Use a professional service, a guidebook, or a landscape software program to put it together. I liked to draw things out, some people like graph paper, and the landscaping software gives you virtual images to work with. Once you have worked on the bones of the place you are ready to give life to the vision with plants.

I like the idea of planting one area at a time, it is easier to manage and you have more satisfaction at getting a project underway instead of fits and starts all over the place.

Of course, if you are renovating, this is more along the lines of “prioritizing” the work. Prioritize one or two major areas to make the most progress in that season.


  • There is no such thing as a “maintenance free” garden, but there are differing levels in the amount of required work. An intensive garden such as an English perennial border may not be for you if you have limited time for your gardening efforts. Adjust your design plan to fit your interest level and ability to expend the energy necessary.
  • Sometimes this means time limitations, and sometimes physical limitations such as aging. It never means you can’t garden- it is more a matter that you change the plan to fit your needs.
  • Read more about incorporating the “genius loci” of a place in Country Gardens and Cottage style
  • Victorian style gardens, or Urban Gardens are styles with a strong connection to the architecture of the house.

All these ideas used in planning a new garden are as important when you recreate a historic place or when you inherit another gardener’s plan and vision. The very same concepts are how you understand, interpret, and express your own imprint on the landscape.

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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.