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The basics of landscape design: Where to start when designing your garden

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A well-designed garden is much more than just pretty plants

Heidi’s Bridge

"Gardens are so much more than a collection of good design and good plants," says Lauren Hall-Behrens, landscape designer and founder of Lilyvilla Gardens in Portland, Oregon. She specializes in large-scale residential projects, oftentimes using modern hardscapes, custom furniture, and bold plant combinations in her designs.

For Hall-Behrens, designing a garden is ultimately about creating an experience. Here are her nine guiding principles for shaping that experience on your home site, wherever that may be.

1. Tap into your gut

First and foremost, Hall-Behrens encourages clients to identify the feeling that they want to have in their new digs. Ask questions: Do you want to feel safe and enclosed, or free to meander? Do you want to feel calm and reflective, or pleasantly stimulated?

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Delving into those desires—and what plants elicit specific responses—will offer a starting place for the whole design. "Defining that feeling and then applying a thematic layer to it is the beginning of everything," says Hall-Behrens.

Once she understands how clients want to feel in their landscape, Hall-Behrens outlines a thematic concept that establishes the aesthetic parameters. She arrives at this by asking more questions. "I'm interested in where people grew up, what kind of outdoor experiences they've had, if they like art and what kind of art do they like. Do they tend to like minimalism or something more eccentric?"

The answers, combined with the site-specific constraints, form a theme that drives every decision for the ensuing hardscape (things like walkways and retaining walls made from hard materials) and planting plan. "For instance, I can say, 'contemporary woodland garden surrounded by forested hillside,’ and then I can conjure up a plant palette that fits it," says Hall-Behrens.

2. Contextualize the garden

Different properties require different approaches. "Urban, suburban, and rural gardens are all very different," she says.

Since urban gardens are generally removed from a natural context and surrounded by an artificial built environment, city homeowners have more aesthetic leeway. "Stylistically there are a lot more options," says Hall-Behrens.

In contrast, suburban or rural properties tend to have more established natural settings. In these cases, Hall-Behrens meshes the landscape design with the existing terrain. For instance, she might place interesting non-native plants closer to the house and plant natives closer to the property perimeter. "We need to contextualize the gardens that we're creating so that it's not a jarring effect to be in the space," she says.

Raised planters help connect this garden to the house.
Josh McCullough

3. Scale, part 1: The landscape to the existing house

When designers talk about scale, they are referring to the size relationship of one entity to another. In landscape design, there are many scale relationships to mull over.

First, consider the garden to the existing house. "In urban gardens, oftentimes the house is very tall and the property is very flat," says Hall-Behrens. "Larger plantings and manmade structures, like pergolas and other architectural elements, help to step down the house."

For suburban or rural properties with more sprawling acreage, the opposite is true. Hall-Behrens uses plantings and hardscapes to build up the boundaries of the garden areas. To get the proportions right, she recommends applying the golden ratio.

4. Scale, part 2: Humans to the landscape

Then there is the human scale, or designing a garden that fits the human axis. Oftentimes this translates to creating a sense of enclosure in the space. "We want to feel contained and not just open and exposed," says Hall-Behrens.

Enclosure can be achieved by erecting any number of structures, such as a pergola, trellis, or shade sail. Even stringing lights overhead will achieve the effect. This is also why we build up walls in larger, more open spaces. "The immensity of being out in the open can be too much," says Hall-Behrens. "And not really relate to our human form."

Tall, leafy plants create a tunnel-like space that guides the visitor forward. Josh McCullough

5. Incorporate "pause and rhythm"

The straight lines of concrete sidewalks work as a virtual conveyer belt, moving human beings from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. But in the garden, the intent is to slow down and appreciate the surroundings. Hall-Behrens does this by thinking in terms of "pause and rhythm."

She explains the concept with an example from the garden at her 1904 home. There, she planted tall, leafy Chinese bananas at the entry. "When they're at the perfect height, they create the sense of walking through a lush tunnel," she says. The end of the tunnel then opens to a gravel patio. "That gives a sense of release after that compression," Hall-Behrens says. This strategic use of plantings and hardscape materials steers the way we move through the garden and experience it.

6. Look in every direction

Consider the views of the garden from multiple angles, starting indoors. "I typically ask what rooms are used in the home the most," says Hall-Behrens. She’ll then pay close attention to how the garden looks from those vantage points.

Once outside, sightlines are directed with deliberate focal points, anchored with what Hall-Behrens calls "structural plants." These can be bigger specimens, like trees or upright shrubs, as well as spherical, like boxwoods. Most importantly, they are plants with an "architectural" quality that provide visual interest year round, whether that’s a woody evergreen or deciduous tree with an interesting branch structure.

"Then I fill in with plant combinations that meet the requirements of the site and overall aesthetic and feeling of the garden," says Hall-Behrens.

A path zigzags to through the natural feeling entry garden of a John Storrs-designed midcentury home.
The garden of a John Storrs-designed midcentury modern home meshes with the natural landscape. Photo by Scott Weber.

7. Create consistency, not chaos

It happens to every newbie. "When we all start gardening, we buy one of everything that interests us and then put it all in a planting bed," says Hall-Behrens. "Oftentimes, we then can't stand the way it looks."

To achieve more consistency, she suggests repeating specific colors, textures, and forms. When doing so, you can still experiment. Hall-Behrens advises clustering similar plants together, such as massing varieties of ferns. The leaf structure differs, but the color and general forms remain similar. "It's a way to learn about plants and see how they grow," she says.

8. If space allows, build multiple seating areas

Planning for various spots to sit expands a garden's functionality. Different areas can then get used at different times of day, and for distinctive purposes. For instance, install a hammock in a quiet nook, a pair of seats for an intimate area to drink cocktails, and a table for larger, more social gatherings.

On smaller lots, having this variety spins the illusion of more space. To plan for this, says Hall-Behrens, it's important to factor in your lifestyle and how you’ll use the space. "Do you like to go outside in the morning and have a quiet cup of coffee? Or walk around and contemplate? Integrate that into the design."

9. Let the design evolve organically

Gardens grow and change, and so does the design. It's a fact of gardening that sometimes plants will need to be relocated. For instance, they may not like the conditions of their spot or you might not like how they look with their neighboring foliage.

Even professionals have to move plants around regularly. "In my own garden," says Hall-Behrens, "I'll just keep changing things and taking things away and learning what my eye wants to see."