Back in April, I introduced the Elements of Design. These elements are Line, Shape, Space, Color, Texture, Value and Form. I intended to continue with this discussion much sooner--but obviously that didn't happen. So here we are in September--and we're finally going to mention the Principles of Design. Then I might actually talk about how you use these intentionally!

The Elements are used whether you intend to or not. Principles, on the other hand, happen because you mean for something good to happen. They are the "rules" used to organize the elements. Some sources will list just a few Principles--Balance, Proportion (sometimes referred to as Scale), Rhythm, Emphasis and Unity. In the teaching of visual arts, you are likely to make use of a more expanded set which includes Pattern, Variety, Movement, Repetition and Contrast. Not all sources will use all terms, partly because some terms can be interpreted as functions of other terms--such as Repetition or Pattern being a form of Rhythm, or Contrast being a means of creating Emphasis. For clarity, I'm going to use an expanded set, but will select those I consider the easiest to implement for the home landscape: Balance, Contrast, Emphasis, Pattern, Proportion, Repetition, Rhythm, Unity and Variety.

Let's start with an example of garden paths. In my own yard, I have two basic types: smooth, curving paths of grass (between planted beds) or broken, curving paths of stone. Notice the repetition of one of the terms--curving. There is not a straight path anywhere. By repeating the Element of Line as represented by a curve throughout the landscape, I have created the Principle of Repetition. There, that was easy, wasn't it?

Curves are good in landscape design for a couple of reasons. First, they are friendlier. They feel more natural. Curves slow us down so that we don't march through our gardens at a break-neck pace but amble in a more relaxed, contemplative fashion. The are also indicative of another Principle of Design: Balance. There are two types of Balance: Symmetrical and Asymmetrical. Symmetrical Balance, also known as Formal Balance, is very structured--what happens on one side must happen on the other. Unless the front of your home is also very formal, I recommend avoiding Formal Balance as a governing Principle in your landscape design. It limits your options if you are the type of gardener who likes to pick up a single new plant at the nursery. However, if you do have a home with formal architecture, using symmetry can certainly make designing your landscape easier.

Asymmetrical Balance (also known as informal balance) can be thought of as a see-saw with the little guy out on the very end of the board and his big honkin' dad near the center fulcrum. In landscape design, a single, colorful plant might be balanced against a small group of more subtle plants that have more overall mass. The mass (which reads visually as a single, larger form) of the second type of plant balances the "pop" of the color of the first.

Variety is by far the easiest Principle to implement--just use lots of different types of plants! This will also help you ensure that you have different things "happening" in your landscape all year.  Now, let's pretend that you want to call attention to the entry of your home (good curb appeal is essential, after all!)--you want to emphasize your home's access. You could do this with color, size or structure--or all three--maybe choosing to use dense, evergreen hollies pruned into aggressively vertical cones beside your door (one on each side [formal balance] or a group of three on only one side [informal balance]) where most of the rest of your landscape is low, horizontal and having a looser structure. This setup would be a common example of Emphasis.

One of the more common Principles in my own yard is Contrast. I use it in nearly every bed. An example might be the use of yarrow and lamb's ear side-by-side. The yarrow has a delicate, fern-like foliage. The lamb's ear has large, silvery leaves with a fuzzy texture. These two types of leaves are very different--they stand out against each other, whereas the yarrow next to an equally delicate leaf like a grass or a salvia would not be as noticeable.

Now let's look at Rhythm. I'm sure you've been told that it is best to plant in groups of three, or some other odd number. The reason you do this is to establish rhythm. You just can't have rhythm with a single lonely beat that never repeats itself. You don't even have to have three of the exact same thing, if you can have three, say, shrubs, all of a similar size in relation to the rest of your plants in that area (this would also be an example of the use of Proportion). In one bed in our landscape, we have two ninebarks and one red chokeberry. All three of these shrubs are working their way up to large and drop their leaves in winter. It's a visual ba-da Bing, ba-da Bing, ba-da Bing--with these three shrubs providing the Bings. The bas and the das are smaller perennials. If I used the exact same shrubs for all the Bings and the exact same perennials for the bas and the das--it would be a Pattern. Which would look truly at home in a more formally balanced yard than mine. Since I like lots of Variety, my bas, das and Bings are all different--but the scale/proportion of the plantings creates the rhythm. See how these things all work together?

Which brings us to Unity, where everything is in harmony and nothing looks out of place. Differences in structure, color, texture, form--all look intentional and in sync with the rest of the landscape. Unity can be a little tricky, but by maintaining a few key elements and principles throughout the entire landscape you can do it. In my yard, the curving paths (lines) are a key to unity, as is the repetition of sedges and grasses or grass-like plants. Not a single bed is without some grass-like plant. This helps to unify the design, linking all the beds with a common element of blade-like shape. I can't count on bloom color, because the plants will not bloom all year long. But foliage color, shape, form... these are all good to use to unify your landscape.

In future design discussions I will go into more detail on individual concepts and provide visual examples. For now, you can practice using these terms as you look at your own landscape--identifying the Elements and Principles you see that you may have implemented just because you've seen many designs and have developed something of an "eye." This is called art education. Go out there and make some living art!
Typical Territorial White Squirrel

Typical Territorial White Squirrel

Fauna of the Week--Monarch Butterfly

Fauna of the Week--Monarch Butterfly