Twelve Principles of Design*

I’m a big fan of garden designer P. Allen Smith.  No doubt some of you have seen his shows on public television, especially Garden Style.  

I’ve adapted and slightly modified these twelve principles of design from his best-selling book Garden Home, which is one of my all-time favorite garden books. 

I’d welcome the chance to help you apply these principles to your own “garden home.” 

*Adapted from P. Allen Smith

1. ENCLOSURE – A Garden Room defined by borders of various materials.

  • 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 virtually continuous living areas.
  • Enclosures set the stage for a variety of moods and experiences.
  • Enclosures add a sense if security and comfort by providing familiar structures: walls, floors, doorways and ceilings.
  • Enclosures establish order by creating manageable-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 the Garden Room itself.

  • Basic shapes stage the look of the Garden Room.
  • 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.

  • 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 outside and inside 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.

  • A garden enclosure 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 key parts of each Garden Room.

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

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

6. STRUCTURES – A variety of constructed features within a garden.

  • 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 the garden.

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

  • 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.
  • Growing conditions may influence color schemes.
  • 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 the other predominant features

8. TEXTURE, PATTERN AND RHYTHM – Using surface characteristics, recognizable motifs, and the cadence created by the spacing of objects as elements of design.

  • Texture, pattern and rhythm add layers of richness and interest to the garden.
  • Contrasting surface characteristics of plants and materials heighten the visual impact in Garden Rooms.
  • Repeating motifs creating 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’s 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.

  • 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.

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

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

12. TIME – Various garden styles representing certain ages of design.

  • Garden styles reflect eras of design.
  • Well-designed gardens have features that are consistent with the age of the house and surroundings.
  • The choice of materials is as important as the appropriateness of the object.