Language for Design, Part I

Language for Design, Part I

We've had a few compliments this spring...about how the yard looked in winter!  Spring is wonderful, of course, but the winter garden can illustrate the deficits of a design plan faster than anything. In order to talk about what works and what to watch out for, we'll start with some vocabulary.

Color. Shape. Texture. Line. Value. Form. Space.  Beginning art students learn these terms as the Elements of Design. They are used by every garden designer whether they intend to or not. Let's look at some examples of what these terms mean in the landscape.

Color is one of the things we shop for. It is obvious, and therefore we'll leave it until we discuss


to use it. Shape needs to be thought of as a flat, two-dimensional area--you use it when you plan the boundaries of a garden bed. Line is the edges of these areas, or wider, fatter "lines" that you make when you establish paths in the garden. Line is especially helpful in planning a garden's


--what leads you from one area to another.

Form is the three-dimensional shape of plants and other garden features. Space, as most used in garden design, is the "blank" areas of the garden that may be defined by grass or hardscape, but sometimes as access to sky or some other view. Value is defined as lightness or darkness--not just light green or dark green, but light and shadow. And finally, texture is the visual and actual impression of soft or hard, spiny or smooth or other "feel" of your garden's features.

One of the first design decisions we made in this yard was to create a bed that would hide damage to the lawn made by dogs and bicycles. A simple, 3' wide strip running alongside the drive would have done that job. What we chose to do, however, was use a wider brush--so we could create one long continuous curving line from the street, up to the front door and around. This linked the "new" bed with an older one that was already established across the front of the house. [

Photo at left shows the view from behind the original bed.


The advantage of a "big gesture" like this is that it simplifies the design, keeping the lines unified and smooth instead of chopped up. Since the house is a simple, ranch-style house, a design that featured multiple, isolated beds of flowers would have made the house even more plain. As it is, the one, long, sweeping bed embraces one other largish bed in the front yard--and the lines of grass between these two beds lead up to the front door, maintaining a very welcoming flow. The curving pathways of grass evident from the street are part of what others respond to when driving or walking by. They are, in our case, lined with rocks, so they are evident even in a light snow.

The other elements we have used to great winter advantage are texture and color. In describing the beds, I've used terms like "curving" and "smooth" and "flowing" to illustrate the element of line. The texture we have in place for winter is more upright and spiky. (This is an example of the design principle "contrast," but pretend I didn't mention that yet.) Grasses and sedges get to keep their hairdos until late winter/early spring, giving the winter gardener something to look at when all the perennials are in hibernation. These spiky clumps are framed by the more lumpish and smooth evergreen shrubs--think of them as punctuation. Even though some of the evergreens are hollies (with spiky leaves), the form of the shrubs leads to visual equivalent of a paragraph--a meaty mass. Grasses and sedges provide the punch.

Finally, at the driveway entrance, a mass of winterberry hollies got to show off this year--festooned with red berries suspended among the bare twigs of the shrubs. There is nothing like color to make folks look--especially cheerful color when everything seems white or gray.

Thanks for reading....

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