My Six Rules For Landscape Design

I often get asked what goes into creating a landscape design. Honestly, it’s a hard question to answer. Every space has so many variables!  The terrain and soil composition can vary wildly from property to property.  There is a dizzying array of plant and tree options, as well as material choices. The way the sun hits each spot in the yard must be taken into account when selecting plants, as well as considering the drainage situation in each area. Some slopes bring moisture to a space, while others take it away. Additionally, existing structures and trees will need to be incorporated into the new space.

Even after considering material options and environmental variance, there is then the question of personal preference. Just as every landscape designer has their signature trees, shrubs and perennials, most clients also have their own favorites. All these variables aside, there are still some general rules of thumb for landscaping that I apply to just about every space I design.

1. Future Size.

It’s very important to know how big those trees and shrubs will be at full maturity. I often see a River Birch (mature at about 25′ wide by 40′ tall) planted 5′ from the foundation of a home, or a Waxy Leaf Ligustrum (mature 10′ wide by 15′ tall) planted by the home under a window. I’ll see a Green Giant Arborvitae (mature 20′ wide by 40′ wide) right next to a patio or walkway, or a Sea Green Juniper (6′ wide by 5′ tall) planted in 3’x3′ space as ground cover.


I could go on and on about the misplacement of shrubs, perennials, and trees. A simple way to avoid these issues: check the tag! These plants can look fairly small coming from the nursery or store, but it’s important to adjust the layout to compensate for their mature size. Trust me- it’s better to consider carefully now than to deal with removing a large plant in 5-10 years.

2. Plan for the Seasons.

I try to avoid ‘downtime’ in the landscape. Typically spring, summer, and fall are easy to plan for and keep the landscape interesting. However, keeping a landscape looking sharp through the winter can be a challenge. Sometimes, I’ll use evergreens as a short hedge in the front to hide dormant perennials, deciduous shrubs, or flowering plants in back. Example: Endless Summer Hydrangeas in the back, with a row of Boxwood or Holly along the front. When the blooms fade and the frost sets in, the hydrangeas can be cut shorter- and out of sight behind your evergreen hedge. 

Staggering blooms is another great way to keep the landscaping interesting. An example would be Camellia for the late fall/winter bloom, Forsythia for early spring, Azalea for late spring, Drift Rose for summer, and the Hydrangea to span summer through fall. Add in a few different varieties of perennials, and the landscape will be set.

Foliage and berries can also be used to add interest. I like Winterberry, Chokeberry, Pyracantha, or Cotoneaster. They add plenty of berries to the landscape throughout the winter for wildlife, and add some attractive color. Blueberry shrubs (one of my favorites) have green foliage that fades to red in the fall, and of course berries for the occasional snack. Burning Bush Euonymus is another landscapers favorite, and the name says it all – green foliage that turns bright red before it falls. 

3. Quantity over Variety.

Most shrubs and perennials look lonely by themselves. Flowering plants will look especially lonely. Clump 7, 9, or 40 together in a mass planting. It makes an amazing first impression, and a huge impact. It draws the eye to your space and adds power.


I often will see lilies or geraniums planted across the whole front of a home. They look great, but lonely. This lack of a focal point can feel confusing to the eye. A bigger impact could be made if they were all clumped together by the front step. However, not everything should be in clumps; there are plenty of cases when a larger shrub or tree should be planted as a specimen. Generally, grouping larger quantities of just a few species, with a couple specimen pieces, will set a space up for success.


4. Golden Ratio.

We find the golden ratio throughout nature in shells, flowers, and fronds. It’s used in designs of all types because it’s considered aesthetically appealing. 
Mathematically, we find this ratio when a line is split into two parts. The longer section (X) divided by the smaller section (Y) is equal to the sum of X + Y divided by X which then equals 1.618. You can use this to create the golden rectangle, as illustrated by this picture below.  See how the curve fits neatly inside? I use the ratio as a general guide to laying out flower bed curves or the size of different spaces. If it’s 16′ long, I’ll shoot for 9-10′ wide. 

5. Keep it odd. 

I don’t like pairs of plants, or even four or six of a kind. Even numbers of plants just look odd.My rule: stick to odd numbers of plants/trees when the number is under 15.

6. Create an anchor.

A good (or bad) impression is a lasting impression. Often, the use a few large/small anchors is what creates that immediate impression. I love to use a multi-stem Redbud or Magnolia as a large anchor on the corner of a home, with a couple large boulders by the front steps for the small anchor. Once I know the location of these, I typically build out from there. I also tend to prefer an asymmetrical layout with the anchors; it’s easier for an organic flow and usually appears understated – unlike symmetrical designs. 



What questions can I answer about basic landscape design concepts?