A Question of Balance – The Principled Gardener Part 5

Life’s all about balance right? Well not all, but balance is vital to a happy healthy life – a balanced diet, work/life balance, even our ‘play time’ needs a balance of restful leisure vs. active recreation. My husband has been reminding me of this frequently of late: ‘Sue, you need more balance in your life – it’s not healthy to spend so many hours in front of your computer.’ Unfortunately, much of my work – designing, writing, preparing presentations, requires that I do just that. It seems the creative process may be good for the brain but not so good for the body. Hubby is right of course. I am however, better at bringing balance to a landscape composition than to my own life, so for now let’s deal with that.

Balance refers to a state of equilibrium – real or perceived.  Traditionally we think of balance in the landscape as being either symmetrical or asymmetrical, symmetry being elements arranged identically around a central axis, and asymmetry, when elements appear equally weighted but aren’t identically arranged.

Left: Symmetrya columnar tree and bird bath create a central axis with identical plantings on either side.
Right: Asymmetry – the mass of the larger shrub on the right is roughly equal to that of the 3 smaller shrubs on the left.

Though symmetry most often has a formal application, it has other uses that aren’t necessarily formal. For example, a long narrow space can benefit from the use of symmetry – the eye will always stop and rest at the centre point, often stopping there first before scanning the composition in either direction. This prevents viewing it in one uninterrupted scan. Symmetry is also appropriate for certain theme gardens, for example Colonial style gardens or Italian Renaissance style gardens.

Formal symmetrical design.

Symmetry is useful in a long straight planting, preventing the eye from reading the entire length in a single scan. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The Italian Renaissance garden at Hatley Park in Victoria B.C. is appropriately symmetrical. Photo: Jane Reksten

Asymmetry on the other hand, is more common than symmetry and is generally considered to be more informal in presentation. Ensuring proper balance in an asymmetrical design means planning your garden spaces in such a way that you can in fact create balanced plantings. If you’ve designed your yard with all or most of the planting space on one side of the yard and nothing but lawn on the other, then you simply won’t be able to bring balance to your landscape composition.

Asymmetrical landscape design

An asymmetrical design sometimes contains moments of symmetry – symmetry can be useful  in a corner planting to ‘anchor’ the corner, used around a focal point to help “stage” it, or at the deepest part of a curve.

Left: unbalanced asymmetrical design. Right: Balanced asymmetrical design – note the symmetry in the top right corner, anchoring it.

A brief moment of symmetry supports the dominant status of the bird bath. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Balance can be thought of in terms of more than just symmetry and asymmetry. There must also be balance of colour, weight and line. Okay what does that even mean? Well let’s look at colour – light colours draw the eye more than dark colours so to balance these, more of the darker colours need to be present. However, dark colours also appear more ‘weighty’ so their overuse can cause your garden to feel heavy. Colours of medium darkness then, should predominate – colours like green. Yup jus’ plain ol’ green. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – green should be the principal colour in your garden.  Bright colours too will draw the eye, so for the purpose of balance, muted colours need to outweigh vivid hues.

If we look at the concept of line, a vertical line (like that presented by an upright tree or tall grass), offers more visual punch than a horizontal line (such as that created by a mass of groundcover or low growing shrubs). Hence upright forms should be used as accents with lower forms predominating.

Balanced asymmetry - note the use of symmetry at the centre of this otherwise asymmetrical design. As well, the balance of colour, weight and line, creates a varied but balanced sight-line. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Balanced asymmetry – note the use of symmetry at the centre of this otherwise asymmetrical design. As well, the balance of colour, weight and line, creates a varied but balanced sight-line. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Ah yes, balance! Vital to both good health and good design – guess I better go find me some.

Yours in Good Health,
© 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.

3 comments on “A Question of Balance – The Principled Gardener Part 5

  1. Evee M says:

    Just found your blog via Pinterest. After reading this post I read back through your other posts in the Principled Gardener series. I love how simply you explain things with clear examples. I will defiantly be using these principles soon as we recently moved and I am trying to do some planning and prep for landscaping in the spring. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      Hi Evee,

      Welcome aboard! I’ll be continuing the Principled Gardener series for several more months so when it’s time to start planning your new landscape, you’ll be ready!

      Thanks so much for reading,

  2. Great work! Awesome way to express things.


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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s