12 Principles of Garden Design

These universal principles have become the set of tools I use to create gardens that embody all the key elements of the world’s greatest landscapes but are scaled to each individual’s site, taste and budget. When woven into the plan of the garden, they are unifying components that magically transform the space into a place of enchantment and beauty.

For many of us, design of any kind is a daunting subject; it frightens us because we are afraid of making a mistake. In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the author’s brother, who has put off completing a school report on birds until the last minute, is paralyzed by fear as he stares at the blank sheet of paper before him. Feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, he is uncertain how to begin. The solution comes in some simple advice offered by his father. “Bird-by-bird, Buddy. Just take it bird-by-bird.”

In that same spirit, my 12 principles of design are a “bird-by-bird” method of tackling the project of designing a garden.

These principles divide naturally into two main categories. The first six focus on building the framework or bones of the garden.

1.  Enclosure – A garden room defined by borders of various materials

Fig tree enclosed by evergreen hedges and roses

  • Enclosures are vital elements in defining gardens as rooms. Enclosures anchor a garden to its location, giving both the house and the garden a sense of permanence and lasting beauty.
  • Enclosures unify house and garden into a cohesive whole, creating a virtually continuous living area.
  • Enclosures set the stage for a variety of moods and experiences.
  • Enclosures add a sense of security and comfort by providing familiar structures: walls, floors, doorways, and ceilings.
  • Enclosures establish order by creating manageably sized spaces.

2.  Shape and Form – The contour and three-dimensional qualities of individual plants or groups of plants in the garden, as well as the outline of a garden room itself

Tall arborvitae trees, chat path and an urn

  • Basic shapes stage the look of garden rooms.
  • Shapes have symbolic meanings.
  • Shapes convey “personality” that creates certain moods.
  • The arrangement of shapes in relation to one another defines certain styles.

3.  Framing the View – Directing attention to an object or view by screening out surrounding distractions while creating a visually balanced and organized composition

View through a gate to sheep in a field

  • The goal of framing a view is to draw attention to an object or scene.
  • Framing the view can be achieved by opening a sight line to the desired subject and screening out surrounding distractions.
  • Views inside or outside the garden room may be framed.
  • Windows and doorways inside the house serve as frames for outside views.

4.  Entry – A defined point of entrance into a garden enclosure

12 principles of garden design

  • A garden entrance is the first impression of a garden home.
  • Entrances serve as preludes to what lies beyond.
  • Entrances are symbolic signs of welcome.
  • Garden entrances that reflect a home’s architectural style create unity.
  • Entrances serve as directional guides and transitional points from one area to the next.
  • Certain key elements serve as components of an entrance.
  • Entries should be a part of each garden room.

5.  Focal Point – Positioning an object to draw the eye and to create a feature of attention

Moss Mountain Farm

  • Focal points give space a focus and direction.
  • Focal points visually organize an area.
  • Enhanced perspective adds to the power focal points.
  • Punctuation is another form of focal points.

6.  Structures – A variety of constructed features within the garden

Moss Mountain Farm

  • Structures serve both functional and aesthetic purposes.
  • Structures add to the sense of enclosure, screen views, and provide a center of visual interest.
  • Structures represent an anchoring element, a firm point from which we can begin to absorb the richness and diversity of the entire space.
  • Structures articulate the transition between the house and garden.

The second six principles add decorative or finishing touches to your garden as well as personality, charm and, last but not least, fun!

7.  Color – Orchestrating the color palette in the garden through the selection and arrangement of plants and objects

Colorful salvia, petunias and coleus

  • A green framework holds the garden together and serves as a background for other colors.
  • Colors create moods and illusions.
  • The intensity of light affects color.
  • Use no more than one color theme for each garden room. Greens and grays act as harmonizers between contrasting colors.
  • A garden’s color scheme should match the house and other predominant features.
  • Growing conditions of gardens may influence color schemes.
  • Broad sweeps of color are more effective than dabs and patches.

8.  Texture, Pattern, and Rhythm – Using surface characteristics, recognizable motifs, and the cadence created by the spacing of objects as elements of design

12 principles of garden design

  • Texture, pattern, and rhythm add layers of richness and interest to a garden.
  • Contrasting surface characteristics of plants and materials heighten the visual impact in garden rooms.
  • Repeating motifs create a feeling of continuum within a garden room and give harmony to the design.
  • The cadence created when three or more objects are equally spaced in an obvious pattern implies rhythm, order, and dependability.
  • Repeated objects placed closely together tend to quicken the rhythm and the same objects spaced farther apart slow it down.

9.  Abundance – An ample to overflowing quality, created by the generous use of plants and materials


  • Plants growing in a large drift or colonies appear more spontaneous and natural.
  • To gain its full effect, abundance has to be contained to the point where it is not a distraction.
  • A few “workhorse plants” used generously establish abundance without excess.
  • Generous plantings allow selective cuttings without diminishing the overall visual impact.
  • Staggered bloom times extend the impact of the display while maximizing the use of the bed space.
  • Ample plantings provide enough to share.

10.  Whimsy – Elements of lighthearted fancy

Indian Runner Duck

  • Whimsical touches personalize the garden.
  • Humor in the garden adds enjoyment to the outdoor experience.
  • Themes of whimsy running through a garden can add harmony, wit, and surprise.
  • Serendipity can also serve as a form of whimsy.

11.  Mystery – Piquing a sense of curiosity, excitement, and occasional apprehension through the garden’s design

12 principles of garden design

  • Mystery in a garden uses the unknown, the unseen, and the imagination as elements of design.
  • Mystery heightens the imagination of visitors, setting up the anticipation of surprise.
  • Intriguing paths invite exploration.
  • Various devices in a garden room that play on the senses–sound, sight, smells, or touch–stimulate emotional responses.

12.  Time – Various garden styles representing certain ages of design
Tulip filled urn

  • Garden styles reflect eras of design.
  • Well-designed gardens have features that are consistent with the age of the house and surroundings.
  • Manufactured reproductions of original materials often fail to blend in with the natural aging of the garden. The choice of materials is as important as the appropriateness of the object.

For more on garden design, check out the video below!