The Principled Gardener

No, I don’t mean the gardener who has principles (though I’m sure you do); I’m referring to the gardener who uses principles – design principles that is. Last month (Good Lines Mean Good Designs Part 1 and Part 2) I discussed the first two stages of the design process – functional drawings and concept drawings. The final stage is a Planting Plan, but before we can complete this design process, a look at the principles that guide it is in order.

So what are design principles anyways?

Design principles are guidelines that help create pleasing relationships between the various elements of a composition. If you’ve ever picked up a garden design magazine or attended a garden design lecture, you will no doubt have been introduced to the concepts – they may not always be presented in exactly the same framework or use exactly the same terminology, but the constructs are nevertheless the same. I like to think of Design Principles not so much as rules that must be followed, but rather as a way of understanding how the human eye perceives its surroundings and using that to its best advantage.

Gardeners don’t always recognize when they’ve utilized a design principle. Though it may happen by accident, a well designed garden will most certainly have some or all of these principles incorporated in it. It would be so much easier though, if we knew what they were and how to use them, instead of the trial and error approach that most of us employ.

So let’s get started. As I mentioned, Design principles can be organized or categorized in numerous ways, but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to call these principles Unity, Balance, Movement, Scale and Proportion.


According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Unity is defined as:  Oneness, being one, interconnection of parts, coherence of parts. So how do we bring that ‘oneness’, that ‘coherence of parts’ into our gardens? There are several ways we can achieve this – repetition, dominance, unity of three and interconnection. Unity then, is an umbrella principle for all of these concepts. Today I look at Repetition.


Repetition refers to the repeated use of the same or similar elements throughout a composition.

Plant Material

One of the easiest things to repeat in your landscape is plant material – gardeners often do this unknowingly in their early gardening years, and then abandon it. For many of us our first gardening ventures are somewhat tentative and often constrained by budget limitations. We gladly accept our next door neighbour’s offer of perennials that she’s dividing or discarding. We take a few clumps of each, and spread them around the garden; hence many plants are repeated several times. As we get more adventuresome, we want to try all manner of new things and before we know it we’ve arrived at the ‘one of this and one of that’ scenario, which is anything but coherent.  It’s an expensive mistake and wasteful at that – in order to repeat you now have to reduce. Restraint people, restraint – you don’t need one of every plant in order to attain beauty and diversity in your garden. So, the next time you have some perennials that need dividing, don’t discard the extras, or give them away –  repeat them!

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Numerous plants, including creeping thyme, Goldmound spirea, blue oat grass and bugleweed, are repeated throughout my front garden beds. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Marg Gaviller

Hosta and red Astilbe are the recurring plant theme in this mature garden.
Photo: Marg Gaviller

Building Material

The repeated element can also be a building or hardscape material, for example; brick, wood or stone. Repeating this in the landscape allows house and landscape to appear as one entity. Conversely, using a material in the landscape that doesn’t also occur on the house, can result in a visual disconnect between house and landscape.

Incorporating a building material from the house, into the surrounding landscape, unites house and landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Incorporating a building material from the house, into the surrounding landscape, unites house and landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Stone pillars echo the stone facing on the house. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Architectural Features

You can also repeat an architectural line or feature. For example, the shape of an arched window could be repeated in the shape of a garden bed or in the arching branches of a weeping tree. A unique detail on the house could be the inspiration for a fence or arbour design.

repetition - line

The arches on the house are repeated in the arching form of this Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The diamond shape detail on the windows was the inspiration for the fence I designed for a client’s home. The fence is being installed as I write this, hence the computer generated image.


A colour can be repeated as well – bringing a colour from the house into the landscape or using a recurring colour within a garden composition, can unify your whole outdoor space. A purposeful colour scheme will allow you to do this with some real finesse (more on colour schemes in another post). Keep in mind that choosing a plant for its flower colour will provide colour repetition, but only when it’s in bloom – to achieve this throughout the season, choose plants with colourful foliage too.

The colour of the front door is seen again in the Chrysanthemums. Black is also repeated, as is the architectural detail of the columns, which is repeated in the planter pedestal. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Repeating a colour within a planting composition is very unifying – here the dark wine colour of emerging Acer palmatum leaves picks up on the same hue in the tulips.
Photo: Jane Reksten

By repeating elements that are the same, or have similar characteristics, the eye posits each recurrence into visual memory and ties them all together in one coherent theme – voila Unity!


© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

6 comments on “The Principled Gardener

  1. RJP says:

    Great article, had to read it asap I knew it would be relevent and well thought out! Also very timely for me, again.
    I would like to recommend your blog to other interested, homeowner gardeners whom I know will enjoy your posts, – with your permission first of course?

    • Wow – that was quick! I just posted and you’ve already read it. You must be a night owl like me.
      Anyways thanks Ralph for your always positive comments and of course you may recommend the blog to others – the more the merrier!


  2. Hi Sue,
    Thanks for another thorough and informative article, with beautiful pictures to boot! It is especially nice to have some local photos that illustrate good design, as so much out there on the web is not realistic for Calgary.
    Thank you again for sharing your knowledge,

    • Hi Janice

      Thanks so much for your affirming comments! Finding photographic material online that specifically illustrates a particular point was always a challenge. Hence I started to take my own photos, as well as enlisting the help of family and friends – nice to hear that readers are enjoying them.
      Thanks again for reading the blog.


  3. […] Repetition – repeating elements throughout a composition this can be with planting, colour, materials […]


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s