So you’ve got the resolve to whip your garden into shape and rework it into a beautiful design – but you’re not sure how to transform your sketchy ideas into a wonderful living reality? A great way to get your garden growing in the right direction is by using some basic design principles to help you with your planning.

Anderson Japanese Gardens

The basic principles of design tell a beautiful story throughout the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, IL

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Abstract sculpture

Low brick walls and backgrounds unite this garden seamlessly with the main building.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Waterworks Visual Art, Salisbury, NC

Sculpture in garden

Similar patterns in a hardscape of wrought iron and brick pavers provide a unified setting for this lovely statue.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Waterworks Visual Art, Salisbury, NC

Blue grass planting

Complementary colors and textures provide great interest to this grouping of plants.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

You’ve probably heard some of the terms before: unity, repetition, balance, proportion, rhythm, transitions, interest and simplicity – it almost sounds as if you’re choreographing a dance instead of planning a garden. Nevertheless, these lofty ideals really are easy to achieve. Just break them down into your own story. You get to decide if it’s funny, dramatic, romantic or all of the above.

Here’s how:

Unity is your reason for telling the story, and it sets the stage for eager ears to listen to what you have to say in your garden. Once you establish a theme, concept or activity, unity lets everyone know what your garden’s purpose is, and the rest of your design will flow much easier.

With unity, you create a bond between your home and your new design by using a common element throughout your landscape. This could be something simple, like patio pavers that mirror the pattern of your exterior walls or an arbor made from the same wood as your fencing. Uniting such materials creates an “outdoor room” and expands your living space.

Repetition means adding a few more elements so you can continue to tell the story without changing its meaning. As you duplicate certain plants throughout your garden, you build a sense of consistency and reliable comfort. These plants are your story’s main characters, making your tale more interesting and easier to understand.

Balance is as simple as it sounds: Use as many small plants as you do taller ones, and keep the adjacent sides of your farthest borders (like fences and walls) even, so the eye isn’t drawn to one versus the other. If your interest is drawn away for too long, the point of your story will get lost in the details. (How often have we found ourselves elaborating in a conversation, only to find we forgot what we were trying to say in the first place? It’s so embarrassing. We want to avoid doing this in our garden designs, too!)

Proportion is closely tied to “scale.” Creating a theme park in your back yard detracts from your garden’s story. Overloading a landscape with hot tubs, play equipment and big outdoor furniture leaves your plants competing for space in an area that’s no longer comfortably appropriate for a garden. Keep your visitors captivated with your beautiful garden room instead of too many outdoor amenities.

Rhythm is all about building momentum without physically moving a thing. Use the lines and shapes of walkways to create a sense of direction and movement. Gentle curves and horizontal borders seem restful, while vertical lines or pointed diagonals create tension and excitement. Think about what kind of response you want to create in all the corners and curves of your garden.

Transitions help us soften or avoid abrupt changes in our design, especially when we have plants that differ in height and color. Adding a buffer makes any changes in your design look like a natural progression. Consider using your “repetition” plants to help with your transitions.

Interest almost speaks for itself – it’s like adding some great one-liners. Interesting features draw attention to themselves and give your garden a dramatic, confident appearance. For instance, circles, arcs or circle segments have a strong connection with the human eye. We’re naturally drawn to the center, whether it’s complete or partial, and we expect to see something interesting there. Just like center stage, these spots are a natural for focal points.

Simplicity. I’ve saved the best for last! Eliminating unnecessary detail keeps your garden efficient – not only in principle, but in cost and maintenance. Use accents, but make them special. And use fewer types of plants, but use more of the ones you like in larger masses. Too much variety causes confusion. Think of this as using fewer, but stronger, words to tell your intriguing garden tale.

With any luck, the parallel between telling a story and good garden design will help you understand these basic principles so you can generate some new ideas and build on your creativity. No doubt you’ll be able to use them to design a landscape filled with character and distinction, as well as tell a story you’ll enjoy again and again with each stroll through your garden.