Square One: Spaces and Shapes for Your Landscape

Whether you plan to follow existing angular boundaries, carve out curving paths or pair circles and squares for interest and flow, it's valuable to try out basic shapes and think about how they'll set the mood for your space.

A Modern Garden

A Modern Garden

Photo by: DK - Garden Design © 2009 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - Garden Design, 2009 Dorling Kindersley Limited

This modern garden features steel-edged rectangular trays as well as contemporary accessories. It is lined with different species of trees on all sides except the unique, silver feature wall.

From: DK Books - Garden Design

When choosing squares, rectangles or circles for a design, consider the size, shape and location of the space as well as surrounding buildings and boundaries. Small spaces are best fit with one simple shape, while larger landscapes have the room to host multiple forms.

Grab a pen and paper to experiment with different options in sketches. Try layouts based on existing features, the structure of the house and the way the garden will be viewed and used. In general, shapes with straight sides are easier and cheaper to build than circles and ovals.

Right-Angled Shapes

Straight-sided shapes divide the garden into separate areas, provide a strong sense of direction and highlight both long and short views. A long visual line running down the garden will lengthen it visually; a diagonal layout creates more interest. Blocks laid across the plot appear to shorten the garden and take the eyes to the sides, making the space feel wider.

Perpendicular lines and simple shapes give this plot a strong, unified feeling (image 1).

A diagonal layout directs the eye towards the corners (image 2). The overall design evokes energy.

A series of parallel paths tempts your curiosity to follow the paths to view the planting beds from close-up (image 3).

Circular Shapes

Circles are unifying shapes, suggesting harmony and calm. While combinations of circles can create interesting effects, they also leave awkward junctions that can be difficult to plant or fill with the right focal point. Rely on geometric principles to maximize the curvy appeal: for example, a path should lead you into the center of the circle, rather than the side. Ovals offer excellent alternatives to circles; their long central lines provide direction and orientation.

Three overlapping circles, aligned on a diagonal line, freshen classic principles of layout (image 1).

This design is a pleasing, asymmetrical take on the previous design. The shape evokes movement and whimsy (image 2).

Using ovals instead of circles adds a smoother flow by directing the eye along their lengths (image 3).

Mixing Shapes

Combining various shapes can create more interest, but at higher stakes: beware awkward areas carved out when a curve and a rectangle meet. There are a few general to follow when mixing shapes. Keep the layout simple. Experiment with scale and proportion to work out how many different shapes you can use at one time, and which ones. Use plantings as “glue” to bring cohesion to the mixing of shapes, and to focus attention away from awkward areas left by the design.

This traditional symmetrical layout achieves formal effect by using symmetry and concentric circles along a central line (image 1).

Replicating a shape, but changing its size and orientation, delivers a strong contrast (image 2).

This interesting and bold mixture of rectangles and curved hedge allows only one part of the garden to be seen at any time (image 3). In addition to inviting exploration and curiosity, this design strategy allows areas to have different themes.

Using Spaces

Think about how you want to use your space, and what mood you want to invoke, before planning it out. For example, densely planted spaces that fill the garden’s width and maximize its height, will make you feel wrapped in a cocoon; appealing to those who like feeling snug, this approach can be a real turn-off for people who tend to feel claustrophobic. On the other hand, sparse, airy planting around boundaries gives an open, spacious feel, a joy for some while not lush enough for others.

Spaces can also be used to disguise the size and shape of a garden. For example, letting tropical plants grow wild in a small garden can make the space feel larger by disguising the garden's outer edges, whereas exposing those same boundaries may make the garden appear smaller. Conversely, in a large country garden, open spaces can blend with the surrounding landscape, making the plot seem even bigger. When designing your garden, keep existing planting and structures in mind, too, and work with the spaces they create.

This garden is densely planted by the house, allowing close inspection of the flowers and plants. The perpendicular lines of the path are offset, pleasantly, by the diagonal placement of the picnic bench and the circular pond.

The Same Space, Three Ways

To demonstrate the impact design has on space, we offer sketches the same space, designed three ways. Try to figure out what you like or dislike about each of them, then bring those principles to your own design.

Creating narrow space within tall boundaries would feel oppressive and claustrophobic. Here, in a design dominated by a lawn or hard landscaping, low vegetation creates an area with more light, longer views and a connection to the sky above. In order to achieve an open feeling, this design must forfeit intimate areas (image 1).

Filling the same space filled with vegetation of different heights leaves it darker, much more enclosed and lacking views to the sides (image 2). The path will directs the visitor through the center, to different parts of the garden. These areas could be similar or different, depending on the planting and elements used.

The same path now moved to the side also creates a corridor-like effect, but this time views are retained to the right, under the tree canopy and across a narrower strip of planting (image 3). To the left, secret, intimate places can be created with a pergola or arbor placed among a mix of high and low planting.

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