Cedar Valley Arboretum & Botanic Gardens

Garden Design Refresher

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There are design elements and design principles.  Design Elements = physical components of a garden.

Intention = an abstract notion around which ideas are developed.  For example, the general purpose of The Arboretum is to provide a public green space for the education about and enjoyment of our natural world.  So you see a lot of organic-styled material that blends with Iowa’s landscape, and also a tie to our agriculture background.  There is an overall theme, but each separate garden could also include its own identity.  In The Arboretum’s Children’s Garden, there are two dinosaur sculptures, but they still have a very organic feel to them.  It’s important in any size of garden to know your intention – to be very clear on this first thing – so your decisions moving forward are consistent.

In the private garden, your house architecture and personal style would need to be accounted for. 

Site = growing conditions, existing structures, borrowed views.  We are often very spoiled in Iowa, with such wonderful topsoil.  Not everyone has that luxury!  These pictures are from the Lurie Garden in Chicago, a 2.5-acre rooftop garden … all their soil was hauled in, and the horticulture staff has had to improve the soil through a several year process.  This would be similar to development sites in Iowa, where the topsoil is removed before construction and not returned.  You might have a thriving garden for a few years, but if you aren’t first taking care of your soil, you will eventually see declining plant material.

And being in the heart of the city, these pictures also show the power of existing structures and borrowed views.  In this situation, being surrounded by skyscrapers has a positive effect on the garden experience. 


Style = informal vs. formal.  This would be defined partly by our intention, and most everyone has a sense of an informal garden vs. a more structured, formal garden.

 The two final design elements are movement and structure; two elements that I would like to begin to focus on as we move forward at The Arboretum.  They are also unfortunately, two elements I often don’t consider photographing while visiting gardens, so I don’t have many good examples!   

Movement.  How you move through the garden.  What tone are you setting by the paths in your garden?  Are your paths curving, causing a visitor to meander and stop frequently to take notice?  Or are your paths straight with an ending focal point, creating more of a hallway from one destination to another?  Each has a purpose in the landscape – it’s just being conscience of these differences.

Structure.  What do you see in the winter?  How do your edges interact with the garden?  Every garden lacking some sort of structural component also lacks balance.  With only foliage and flowers to take in, there are no solid forms to rest your eye on.  It is refreshing and it also provides contrast.  Just like a frame on a picture, boundaries provide a border to focus our interest

Design Principles = guiding principles when composing the elements of a garden.  Almost everyone has design sense – what feels ‘right’ and what doesn’t – it’s just a matter of being conscience of it.  And for the example of defining the two concepts of elements vs. principles, these principles were worth mentioning.

Balance.  Asymmetry vs. symmetry.  Asymmetry provides a more informal garden, and tends to invite movement and surprises while symmetrical is often more formal and predictable.

Scale and Proportion.  Scale is the relationship between the size of an object to the objects within the same composition.  This is often what makes garden rooms so inviting … when there is a canopy above and plant material surrounding you, it’s relaxing, like a blanket wrapped around you.

Rhythm & Repetition.  Rhythm and repetition move the eye through the garden with order; it creates a sense of continuum and harmony to a design.  Close together repetition tends to quicken rhythm and spaced farther apart slows it down.

Contrast.  Contrast is the art of using opposing elements close together to produce an intense or intriguing effect.

Form, texture and color.  Form could be round, weeping, columnar, pyramidal, horizontal or vase-shaped.  Texture would be the feel and look of your plants and hardscape, while color could be warm vs. cool or monochromatic.

My big question would be how do you pull it all together?  It can feel overwhelming!  I have found that the more I am conscience of these fundamentals, the more often I can find them in the gardens I visit.  When you see a garden successfully accomplish one of these, you take note, and see how you can copy it in your own garden … with your own twist, of course.  And don’t be afraid to take risks, or even kill a few plants along the way.  It just takes patience and practice.

But I think most importantly, when in doubt, throw away all basics and do what you like best, what feels right.

See you in the gardens.


Written by cedarvalleyarboretum

March 23, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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