Neil Sperry

Here are the fundamentals that weave through almost all landscape designs

A great garden in a small space

Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.
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Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.

Landscapes are highly personal things. We all have our individual tastes in clothing and interior décor, and it’s only fitting that we’d have different preferences in how we arrange plants in our gardens as well.

Still, there are fundamentals that weave through almost all garden designs, and they’re the focus of our notes here today. Mind you, these are written from the mind and through the fingers of a horticulturally trained person, not a schooled landscape architect, so they reflect what is essentially a layperson’s interpretation of the terms.

Scale and proportion

The plants and non-living materials (“hardscape”) you choose for your design need to complement one another. In most cases you don’t want massive trees in courtyard designs, and you can’t count on short shrubs to carry their share of the visual weight if they’re planted alone in large spaces. Things need to be in balance with their surroundings.

Growth forms

Plants come in all types. Some are vertical, while others are prostrate. Oval and rounded growth habits are the most common, but some plants are decidedly weeping, while others have ascending branches. Our plants’ growth forms make critical statements to their impacts on our garden designs. Choose and use them to complement one another.


Every element you introduce into your landscape brings its own inherent texture in with it. Coarse textures make bold statements that stand out. They move forward in our vision, while fine textures disappear into the background. Examples of coarse textures: large-leafed plants such as elephant ears, oakleaf hydrangeas and bur oaks, but it also includes landscaping boulders and even trees’ bark, for example, with bur oaks and native persimmons and Mexican plums. Fine textures are represented by small-leafed plants such as ferns, dwarf yaupon hollies and nandinas, but they also extend to fine gravel and slick trunks such as you’ll see on crape myrtles.

Groupings and masses

It’s best that a landscape be viewed as a unit and not as a series of individual plants. Just as you’d want your living room to be seen as a coherent grouping of furniture that blends well together, not as samples of styles that stand out as dramatically different. Odd numbers of plants are more restful visually than even numbers. Think about that the next time you’re out driving through a nicely landscaped neighborhood. And consider planting them in curved sweeps rather than in elongated straight rows for a more natural look.

‘Rooms’ of your landscape

You probably will never see all of your landscape from any one place – just as you don’t see all the rooms of your house from any one spot inside it. Each “room” in your landscape can have its own personality. However, there needs to be continuity from one to the next, a sense of flow, just as there probably is inside your home.

Focal point

Each of those “rooms” of your landscape will have its own special highlight. It’s usually the front door for the entry design, but in the backyard it might be a fountain, the pool or a stunningly large shade tree. Some one element is probably going to dominate that part of the landscape, and you need to focus attention to it. Arrange your plantings accordingly. It might mean tall plants to the sides to create a visual funnel down to the prime point of interest. Add color or interesting textures near it to draw added attention. Let your landscaping work to support you.

Lines of sight

This is a feature we overlook when we start planting. Our trees grow too large and they block the view we once enjoyed. Or shrubs grow larger than we wanted and they keep visitors from having a clear view of the front door. Or perhaps you’ve had shrubs grow up over the windows so you couldn’t see out into the backyard. You need to think about each plant’s mature size as you’re doing your planning. Don’t count on pruning to save you. Choose plants that will grow as tall or wide as you need them with minimal pruning.

Color scheme

We do this with our clothes and we do it to the rooms of our houses, so it stands to reason that we’d want color schemes in our gardens as well. In the spring it might be bright pinks and yellows. Summer could feature cooling blues, whites and purples. Falls would find yellows, oranges and rusts. These colors could come from flowers, fruit, foliage and hardscaping elements, but they always require careful planning so that the changeovers can be relatively seamless. But it’s one of the exciting parts of garden design. Professional planners put their garden beds on grids, and they can tell you what plants they have scheduled for every square foot all through the growing season. And, with a little luck, nature cooperates and it all works out on time.

Neil Sperry hosts“Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: