How to Plan and Execute a Landscape Design

Katy Willis
Written by Katy Willis
Updated March 24, 2022
A brown brick house with a landscaped garden
Photo: pamspix / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Use simple techniques to make small spaces look bigger.

  • Borrow views from outside your yard's boundaries.

  • Position functional spaces with practicality in mind.

  • Combine ornamental and edible plants for a beautiful and productive landscape.

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Whatever the size or shape of your front or backyard, you can put together a landscape design that reflects your style and makes your garden a place you want to hang out. Whether you like clean, modern design or the seemingly (and charmingly) disordered nature of an English country garden, these tips will help you create your dream outdoor space.

Use Curves to Invite Exploration

A man mowing a shrub with an electric trimmer
Photo: Andrii Borodai / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Curves soften a landscape and draw the eye. The eye follows the curve, which invites and encourages exploration. The graceful nature of a curve also softens severe lines and structures, making the space more inviting. A curved flower bed with a riot of colorful blooms spilling over onto the lawn creates softness and playfulness in a space. 

Add Mystery With Hints of the Unseen

A little mystery makes a space more exciting and enticing. Plus, in a small space, creating a partially obscured mystery that's revealed as the onlooker gets closer helps you create a feeling of a much larger space in a small area. This technique, originally from Japanese design tradition, known as miegakure, or hide and reveal, is based on only partially obscuring an element in the landscape. This encourages people to get closer and makes the space feel larger than it actually is.

You can obscure design features by planting large, leafy foliage, angling a walkway to curve away from view, or by setting the angle of steps to lead away from immediate view.

Create Flow Around Your Space

You can move people through your landscape comfortably by using water as your design foundation. Think about how water flows. When in narrow channels, it moves rapidly then, when it reaches a wider spot, it slows and pools. 

Use this same design idea by creating narrow walkways between areas of interest and, at particular focal points or landscape features, create larger, round "pooling" areas. These calming areas encourage people to pause, even just for a few seconds, to take a breath and admire the view you've created for them.

Borrow a View to Trick the Eye

Another Japanese design technique, this time called borrowed scenery, is a smart way of making a small garden feel much bigger. Essentially, you borrow a focal point outside of your garden boundary and use that to create an illusion of extra space. 

You can choose anything, large or small, in the neighboring landscape, from a mountain in the far distance to a cute little summerhouse in your neighbor's yard. 

Use the Three Depths Principle

Most people only pay attention to the foreground and the background, but they ignore the middle ground, essentially neglecting a third of their landscape. But the middle ground ties together the foreground and the far distance. It adds depth and interest to the view. Plus, it gives the eyes a place to rest as they move from the foreground back to the far distance.

Use Long Lines That Invite Guests to Follow

When you see a long, straight line, your eyes automatically follow it. Whether it's a walkway, a hedge, a retaining wall, or the edge or a garden bed, use the long view to your advantage, setting a feature at the end, such as a firepit, a gate, or a seating area. 

In small spaces, you can use the same principle but cheat a little. When you look at two parallel lines, the further away they get, the closer together they appear. So, you can use this idea to make the space feel bigger than it is. If you're putting a straight walkway into a small yardscape, angle the sides in just slightly toward the far end. This tricks the eye into thinking the path is longer than it actually is. 

Choose the Right Plants for Your Location

Although you may love agave and cacti, they're not the best choice unless you live in a desert and are xeriscaping. Be smart and choose plants that thrive in your location. You need to go beyond just checking they grow well in your plant hardiness zone and make sure you choose plants that thrive in the microclimate of your garden. 

Chat with neighbors to see what grows well for them, as they'll probably do well in your front or backyard, too. Get a soil test to check on the health and composition of your soil and either make amendments to improve soil health, or choose plants that tolerate the current soil makeup. Talk to a local landscape specialist who will have good knowledge of the plants that thrive in your locale.

Position Your Outdoor Living Space Conveniently

If you plan to dine outdoors frequently and you don't have an outdoor kitchen, then you want to position your patio close to the kitchen so you don't have too far to carry food and supplies. If you want a secret escape where you can curl up with a book, create a patio toward the edge of the garden, maybe beneath the dappled shade of a mature tree or plant a hedge or a border filled with tall plants to create your secret garden.

Add Trees for an Instant Lift

Adding trees immediately brings height and drama. And, if you plant fruiting trees like cherries, apples, or nut trees, they do double duty as beautiful fresh food as well as lovely flowers when they're in bloom. One important thing to note about planting trees is that it's crucial you space them far enough apart to thrive as they mature. It's very easy to look at a young sapling and not realize just how big it'll be in 10 years.

Incorporate Edibles Into the Landscape

Why grow ornamental rhubarb when you can grow edible rhubarb? The same goes for peas, cherries, citrus fruits, cabbages, currants, strawberries, and many other plants. Why not make your outdoor space beautiful and productive by incorporating plants you can harvest and eat throughout the year. Many have beautiful flowers and foliage and then produce fantastic fresh food you can eat and preserve.

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