Landscape Design: Getting Creative with Space


Covering a fence

Covered chain-link fence gives the illusion of a deep, informal, wildflower garden while blocking undesirable views. (Photo and design by Jane Gates)

Garden design is a science with a lot of different techniques to make your landscape into something that not only grows well, but functions practically and looks great. But there are many tricks to the trade. One element that can help any space accommodate a more scenic garden is to use space – to sculpt what exists and use illusion where it doesn’t. There are many ways to make your garden appear much more than it is. You can build illusion into your landscape to punch up the assets or to disguise any short-comings on your property. Here are some tips on getting creative with space in your landscape.



* Small trees will give the illusion of distance. To make a garden look larger, plant small trees in the furthest spaces. You can build illusion into a landscape to make a small garden look larger by using perspective. For example, a large tree will make the general area look even smaller. A small tree in a short distance will read as a larger tree viewed more distantly
* Large trees will dwarf a garden unless the space is so small that the canopy has the effect of a roof and the trunk is like a wall in which case the tree won’t register much as a tree from a perspective view anyway. But it can create a natural outdoor room.
* You can create a rolling effect without having to move a lot of soil by planting gardens or areas of the ground cover plants that grow at different heights.
* Create ‘windows’ to look through to define special spaces or punch up a focal point. ‘Windows’ can be in the form of shrubbery or walls that have spaces to look through, actual windows hung from patio overhangs or cut in walls, or the spaces between objects or structures. Creating window views adds an illusion of complexity.
* Distract the eye from something you want to down-play by refocusing attention elsewhere. Creating a focal point will help move the attention to where you prefer someone to be looking.
* Disguise ugly features by growing vines over them or surrounding them with decorative panels.
* Paint objects a bright color, grab attention with showy décor or plant hot colored flowers in reds, yellows and oranges to make an area stand out. Conversely, blend in areas you want to down-play with dull colors or masking walls, vines or facades.
* Elongate short spaces by building a winding path that draws out the look of distance. This works especially well when landscaping hills and slopes.
* Break up long spaces by dividing them with fences, structures, patios, hedges or other items to partition off space and create rooms. You can create intrigue by inviting someone from one outdoor ‘room’ to the next with an archway or decorative gate.
* Disguise utility areas with decorative fencing or handsome planter areas that will hide eye-sores.
* Paint murals behind narrow garden areas on walls or fences to add the illusion of depth.
* Hide smaller pipes and utilities under fake rocks or grow shrubs around them to disguise them.

Other things you can do are to use the overall effect of your landscape area to play with illusion. For example, lighting can transform the whole feel of your property. Use lighting at night to pick out features that will make your garden glow. You can spotlight only the areas you want creating the illusion of a whole new and different garden from the daytime view. Or you can be more subtle by simply highlighting certain gardens, your front door, a seating area or a single focal point in the garden.

You can divide space up by light or by passageways. Create pathways that meander to break apart areas. If your space is shallow, make the path start wide and narrow as it continues to form an illusion that it is stretching much further away.

These are just some ways you can use illusion to change the shape and effect of your garden. With some tricks of space and color you can make any garden look better.








Design a DIY Landscape

Landscape plan

You can design a landscape plan by hand or on the computer.

The most common mistake in gardening is failing to plan out a garden first. Even if you just scribble out your ideas on paper, you will be doing yourself an enormous favor. The more detailed and accurate your plan, the more money, frustration and regrets you will save yourself. You can call in an expert designer for the more complicated plans or even to coach you with your own design. Or you can design a DIY landscape plan for yourself.

The reason you want to start on paper is so you can see how things will flow together. Designing on paper gives you a chance to test out different ideas. It is much easier to change things with a delete key on the computer or a pencil eraser – and cheaper than having to make changes with heavy labor and expensive materials in the garden itself.

Start out by making a list of all the things you want in your DIY garden. Think of how you will be using your space: for exercise, pets, entertainment, growing edibles, relaxing etc. Then add appropriate items to your list like patios, swimming pools, lawns, pens, barbecues, raised vegetable gardens, water features, seating areas, driveways and patios and so on.

Sketch out how all these areas will work along with each other to form a useful yet decorative flow. Use walkways and paths to link events together. Remember safety and design areas like swimming pools and child play areas where they can be observed from the house. Place edible gardens like herb gardens and vegetables where they will be convenient to the kitchen. Designing wisely can then be made artistic and picturesque.

As you lay out a DIY plan place the permanent features – the hardscape – first. Also make sure you sketch out the important systems like drainage, irrigation and utility lines like electric and gas. Make sure you make provisions for future expansion – utility lines that can be capped but will be available for future use.

Once your overall design, hardscape and systems are in place, you can then start designing the living part of your design or the softscape. Start with the largest features; the trees. Plant the right kind of tree in the right location so it will fit properly when mature, the roots will not interrupt any of your hardscape as the tree grows. Consider the sun at different times of the year and plan shade from your tree so it enhances your garden. Then move on to specking out the different kinds of plants you will use. Always plan for the mature size. (You can always fill in with smaller plants and annuals while the newly-planted are too small to fill their space.)

The final part of you plan can involve adding final details like décor, supplementary plant lists, edging materials and other practical and decorative elements. Do plenty of research. The more you know about design and the elements you include, the better your design will be. Like any do-it-yourself project the success of your project is directly proportional to the wisdom with which it is pot together. And one of the wisest things you can do in a DIY landscape design is a plan.

Designing steps or stairs into the landscape

staircase design

Stairway designed into the Holland Residence landscape

If you have a landscape that has areas of different levels don’t spend a lot of money grading it into a flat or even area unless you have a reason for doing so — like using it for a playing field. Instead, use the different heights to design steps or stairs in the garden. The transition from one level to the next can not only allow you to make different ‘rooms’ in your landscape, but create artistic effects in your garden.

Small transitions can be handled with decorative steps made of slabs of stone, chunks of wood or facing with interesting metal mesh materials or recycled building materials. Longer rises can become canvases for painting curved or meandering stairways. Re-use broken concrete, natural materials or permeable paving to create an informal design. Or pour concrete, carved stone or cast blocks to build a crafted set of steps. Use straight lines or geometric forms to create a contemporary or formal look.

If you want to design an artistic feel you can include stepping stones that are painted, sculpted or inlaid. Or you can put together different paving blocks, bricks, cast cement forms, stones, colored gravel or other materials to create your own mosaic design. Another way to create effects is to outline one material with another or fill the flat part of the step with one building material and the rises in another, contrasting material.

If anyone in your family has physical problems or you plan to remain in your home as you age you might want to consider using ramps rather than steps for ease of passage. Or you can build both steps and ramps to allow for a choice of passage. Ramps are also helpful in any area you might want to use a wheeled vehicle whether it be a bicycle, a wheelchair or a wheelbarrow.

So take a look at your property. You can turn different levels in the landscape into an artistic and practical way to design steps or stairs into your garden. With a little creativity hills and uneven ground can become an asset instead of a liability in your landscape design.

Landscape design: Garden edging that’s more than just practical

There are so many aspects to designing and putting together a landscape. It is easy to overlook some of the smaller details or forget that some of the more practical provisions in your garden can be made into ornamental assets. One of these details is how you handle the garden edging design materials that surround garden beds. Sometimes transitions are naturally defined by the surrounding walkways or buildings. Sometimes they need to be created out of undefined space. The way you outline your garden spaces will become part of your design.

If you have a theme in your garden, whether it is style, color, subject matter or anything else the materials you use can help accentuate the theme. Examples might be to use bricks to edge an English garden bed, bamboo to create a border for an Asian garden, or even sunken wagon wheels as a railing to line a section of a Western garden.

Rusted metal edging

Rusted metal forms an effective border edging

Here’s an example of how corrugated metal can create an interesting contemporary effect. It demonstrates how recycled materials can become artistic. 

Another example of how to illustrate an Asian theme is to use varied stone materials.

Asian stone effects

Stone textures create a painting of textures for this Asian edging effect.

Plants themselves can edge garden areas. Use neatly clipped shrubs for a formal look or low, sprawling plants for an informal edging.

Garden path

A path can harmonize with plants to delineate garden boundaries.

Rocks can form an edging — from neatly stacked walls to lined up chunks to vertical pieces stood on their edges. Large rocks can be set in place or a mixture of rocks, boulders and other stones can be designed into patterns or shapes.

Rock effects in the garden

Rocks can be used in many ways to define a garden edge.

These are just some ideas how you can turn plain garden edges into something exciting in your landscape. Have you seen any additional edging materials that you would like to share? Add your thoughts in the comments below so others can expand their own interpretations and blend these concepts to their own gardens

Tropical Landscape Design

Tropical garden

Rustic furniture accents this tropical garden

You can create a tropical-looking garden even if you don’t live in a tropical climate. Of course, if you already live in a warm, humid climate you can go native. But by designing in effects, materials and the right plants, you can still create the illusion of this kind of paradise even in areas that are decidedly not tropical.

Tropical gardens tend to be lush and you can ad that opulent look by planting thickly. Large-leafed plants are typical of tropical climates. Big, colorful flowers also create the feel you want to mimic. Check out the plants that grow well in your climate. There are usually a surprising number of them that have either large leaves or showy flowers. Even in the desert there are some natives that can be mixed with Mediterranean type plants to give a very tropical landscape design feel despite their drought-resistant lifestyles.

Don’t depend on the plants alone. Using construction materials that read ‘tropical’ will help build the illusion of a warm, humid paradise. Consider building with bamboo or rattan. You can find outdoor furniture, some of it constructed in vinyl or fiberglass for durability, that can help create the rainforest theme. You can add a water feature like a pond, a pondless waterfall or a fountain that is sculpted to enhance the sultry illusion of the tropics. Cluster closely planted greenery around your water feature to create an impinging jungle. Or perhaps you’d prefer to build a barbecue or bar with a roof thatched with palm leaves.

Finish off with some décor. A fallen tree stump, some large lava rocks or maybe a few tiki torches might fit in nicely. Don’t over-do the details or it will start to look artificial.

If you don’t live in a tropical climate, it is best to design a theme garden like this within a walled backyard or other area that is visually cut off from your surroundings. A tropical garden will look strange sitting in the middle of a tall-forested or barren chaparral landscape. Also make sure the tropical look blends sufficiently with the style of your house. You don’t want radically different styles to be fighting with each other.

Southern California landscape design for hills and slopes

Slope landscape

Use plantings, paths, steps and retaining walls to make a hillside garden exciting.

Southern California has plenty of hillsides and slopes. Although they can be a challenge to design, they can also become your landscape’s greatest asset. Even if your hillside is not exceptionally steep, water will roll down the hill without sinking in as deeply as it would on flat land. Soil and stones will also roll downhill. The idea of designing a hillside successfully is to keep soil in place while making the area as attractive as possible. Making slopes stable is half of the job. Making them into something beautiful to look at is the fun part. There are many ways to do both at the same time with creative landscape design for hills.

Keep soils in place by anchoring the surface with living roots. Choose plants that are drought-tolerant and will grow well with water that may not always seep deeply into the soil. You can plant a low-growing carpet of ground cover plants or you can design in trees, shrubs, bulbs or other plantings to make your hillside exciting. You can even use materials that are not living – like stone, shredded bark (go for the shredded rather than bark chips: they stay in place better), gravel contained with edging materials or patterns of block work, pavers, stepping stones, bricks or other interesting materials.

Another way to handle designing slopes is to terrace them. The concept of terracing is to make the hillside into flat steps that will allow for planting attractive gardens or ground cover. Not only is terracing a good way to stop erosion problems on a hillside, but it turns otherwise non-productive space into something decorative and useful.

To terrace a hillside, you will want to cut out very wide step-like areas. Usually this is done starting at the base. Create the bottom step like a stairway, but carved into your hill. Flatten out the top of a raised area, butting the front against some form of retaining wall. When the soil starts to pile up behind the flat area, build another retaining wall and start flattening out the second tier. This will continue up to the top. Depending on the grade of your slope, the terraced beds can be deep or narrow.

The barrier to keep soil from tumbling forward in the front of each ‘step’ needs to be solid and firm enough to keep the soil behind it in place. A retaining wall can be built of rocks, bricks, cemented blocks, interlocking blocks, railroad ties or many other materials. The more weight behind it, the more stable the structure needs to be. Any wall more than three feet tall will likely require a permit.

Since water washes down with gravity, provisions need to be made for any water that may build up behind the wall structure – especially if you are building solid walls that will fully block the downward flow of water. It’s a good idea to add a drainage pipe and gravel — or at least a buffer zone 10″ thick of gravel behind the back of each retaining wall. This will allow water to drain out from behind the retaining wall rather than press against it.

Hillsides can become areas for vegetable gardens, planted color patterns, or individual garden scenes. Design in effects that will enhance your whole garden. If your garden is formal, consider using a single ground cover type of plant or create symmetrical plantings that can be geometric or controlled. If you want a natural look, blend in natives or sprawling plants in drifts the way nature would. You can also use non-living materials to make a textural statement to fill in between plantings.

Add provisions for maintenance or to get to areas in or behind the hillside itself. This is a perfect opportunity to design in stairways. Stairs can be part of the aesthetic layout of your hillside as well as being a practical passageway. You can lay out steps in straight lines or curve them artistically up the hill. Re-use broken concrete, natural materials or permeable paving to create informal designs. Or pour concrete, carved stone or cast blocks to build a crafted set of steps. Use straight lines or geometric forms to create a contemporary or formal look. You can get as simple or creative as you want when it comes to materials for railings.

If you want to design an artistic feel you can include stepping stones that are painted, sculpted or inlaid. Or you can put together different paving blocks, bricks, cast cement forms, stones, colored gravel or other materials to create your own mosaic design. Another way to create effects is to outline one material with another or fill the flat part of the step with one building material and the rises in another, contrasting material.

You can naturalize your steps by setting large stones or chunks of wood into the ground. Or you could use formal, hewn rock, cast blocks or neatly designed wooden stairs to create other effects or designs. Edges can be hardened with straight borders or softened with plantings.

Landscaping hillsides can actually be an asset to your garden and offer opportunities you’d miss if you didn’t have slopes. So rather than seeing our Southern California canyon slopes as a challenge to the landscape, look at them as opportunities to expand your garden. Hills can be anything but wasted space. Use them for planting orchards, vegetable gardens, seating areas or just make them scenic.