The Principled Gardener Part 7 – Scale

Part Seven? I’m beginning to feel like I’m writing the script for a “Rocky” movie. Anyway, we’re nearing the end of our months-long discussion on Landscape Design Principles – are ya bored yet?  Well hang in there, there’s only two more to go. Today we look at Scale.

The principle of Scale refers to the size of landscape elements in relation to their surroundings. There are two factors to consider – one is the size of your house, and the other is the size of objects in the larger landscape (existing trees in the community, size of your neighbour’s house etc.).

In the examples to the left, the top image illustrates a house that is visually overwhelmed by the landscaping – the shrubs next to the house are as tall, or taller than the house, with some even obscuring windows. And the shade trees are huge in relation to the house – this scale is too large. The middle example is the exact opposite. The trees and shrubs look like toys in comparison to the house – the scale of this landscape is too small. The bottom example is what we’re after. The landscape elements are well suited to the size of the house, hence this represents appropriate scale.

So what makes for proper scale? Well for one, the shrubs right up against the house shouldn’t be much more than about ¾ the height of the house (walls) and the trees that are out a bit further, not more than about twice the height of the house. It just looks “right”.

But what if you live in an older neighbourhood, like mine, where the houses are small, the lots are huge and so are the existing trees in the community? In this case, the large shade trees may indeed be in scale with the neighbourhood, but any plantings against the house will still need to be in scale with the house, like in the example below right. Note the larger shrubs bridging the scale between the smaller plants and the big trees.

I spend a lot of time exploring various communities while walking our dog, and what I see is yard after yard where scale is consistently ignored, even in the simplest landscapes – either the house is dwarfed by the landscape or the landscape is dwarfed by the house.

I think what happens is one of two things. Many newer communities boast large homes, but at the expense of usable outdoor space – the house takes up most of the lot, leaving very little room for landscaping. Homeowners then opt for groupings of smallish shrubs that take up less space, without considering their size relative to the house.

A large house on a small lot creates a design challenge in terms of good scale. Here, the small plantings in front of this house appear overpowered because they are too small for the house.

The use of a few tall narrow trees can be helpful here – they relate well to the height of the house without taking up too much breadth. With just the addition of a columnar tree or two, a whole composition can be brought into scale.

The two columnar trees flanking the house provide necessary scale to this landscape, relating the large stature of the house to that of the smaller plantings.

The same house, now with mature boulevard trees, illustrates proper scale in the context of the larger landscape, i.e. a neighbourhood.

The other thing that happens is illustrated on the left. In the top example, the diorama represents an older home with plantings typical of the time it was built – Cotoneaster hedge, Potentilla, and little Johnny’s ‘Arbour Day’ tree, a Colorado spruce (Picea pungens). Not particularly inspired I realize, but at least it’s in scale with the house.  Fast forward a few decades and the scenario depicted in the bottom photo has likely ensued. Little Johnny is forty years old now and so is this landscape. I guess nobody took into account way back when, that living things don’t remain static. They grow … and grow and grow. So what was once in scale is no longer.

Gardeners, let’s remember to consider future size – the mature size of the plants we choose – and locate them accordingly.  Let’s not plant Colorado spruce or the even larger white spruce (Picea glauca), in our small urban yards. They are for acreages and parks, and maybe very large residential yards, but too big for any other urban application.

There are smaller evergreens much better suited to our gardens, for example Picea pungens ‘Bakeri’ (Baker’s blue spruce) or Pinus uncinata (mountain pine).

In my own neighbourhood I see tall cedars (likely cv. ‘Brandon’) – planted decades ago to frame the entrance of tiny bungalows – that now tower above them. In fairness to whomever planted them, I suspect the literature at the time may have advised that these Thuja species would top out at about 15 feet. Yeah right – gotta laugh when I hear people exclaim ‘cedars don’t do well in Calgary’.

I find this latter scenario (small house, big lot) to be more of a challenge than the reverse –precisely because there is often existing mature plant material that’s way too big, and homeowners are reluctant to part with it.  I don’t blame them. I have a huge Colorado blue spruce right in the middle of my back yard. Though we have a relatively large property, this mammoth evergreen has been difficult to design around. Every winter my husband and I contemplate removing it and every summer we remember why we, as of yet, haven’t done so – it provides much-needed shade from the late-day prairie sun. If you live on the prairies you’ll no doubt be aware, that our late-day sun can be hotter and more intense than our mid-day sun. So unless we decide to invest in central air conditioning, Mr. Spruce gets to stay.

The right side of this landscape is nicely in scale with the house. On the left side, a very large blue spruce precludes the possibility of correct scale for that area. It’s a lovely tree – healthy and very blue, so I understood why the clients wanted to keep it, but it typifies the design challenges of a mature neighbourhood. Photo: Sue Gaviller

If you’re planning a new landscape, or renovating your old landscape, remember to think about Scale. Then think like Goldilocks – you don’t want too big. Or too small. You want juuust right.

Til next time,
© 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.

15 comments on “The Principled Gardener Part 7 – Scale

  1. Maria Killam says:

    What a totally amazing post. Thank you for the time and effort that went into this with your wonderful illustrations and examples!! Maria

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      Hi Maria,

      Thanks so much for dropping by and for your kind comments. Sharing my landscape design knowledge is a ‘labour of love’ for me, as I’m sure is also the case with your interior design.
      Glad you enjoyed this post and thanks again for reading.


  2. Ad says:

    What do you recomend for a columnar evergreen (like the ones planted on either side of the new house in your diagram)?

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      Hi there,

      This depends somewhat on where you live. If you live in Calgary and have South or Southwest exposure, then Pinus sylvestris ‘Fastigiata’ is a good choice and is a true columnar evergreen. Or you could try one of the very narrow upright junipers like ‘Idyllwild’ (green) or ‘Skyrocket’ (blue), though they don’t grow as tall as the aforementioned pine.
      If you have East exposure, then Brandon cedar or Emerald Green cedar are worth a try – while growing cedars where I live can be tricky, these two do extraordinarily well in my Northwest Calgary neighbourhood. The Brandons around here are at least 20 feet tall.

      Good luck and thanks for reading!

  3. Very nice blog. I just started up a wordpress blog myself on zone 7 garden maintenance to go along with my other blog – Guide To Northeastern Gardening. I can appreciate your love of writing and I have really enjoyed your post. I just siged up as a follower and will be back for more!

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      Welcome aboard Lee!

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog and that you decided to become a follower. And congrats on your new blog – I’ll be sure to check it out.
      Good luck and thanks for reading.


  4. Ad says:

    Thank you Sue
    I’m in Chestermere and the location I’m thinking of has south exposure so I think Fastigiata will be a great fit. Can’t wait until spring!
    Any tips on a source in the Calgary area?
    Thanks for putting together such a great blog…I’m learning so much!

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      You’re Welcome!

      I know I’ve seen this pine at a number of Greenhouses here in the city, but I can’t say for sure which ones might have them next season. Golden Acres has had a nice selection of pines the last few years so you could start there as it’s likely the closest to you. If you have trouble sourcing them come spring, drop me a line and I’ll let you know if I’ve seen them anywhere.

      Thanks for your kind comments and being a faithful reader.


  5. Agnieszka Keough says:

    Hello Sue, I’ve been re-reading some of your design posts to help me with a foundation design of a large house. It’s scale reminds me somewhat of the scale of the house in your drawing above, except that it has another one story portion on the left and the right portion is also lower and extends to include a 3-car garage. On the left side of the house, near the corner, the planting bed extends only 3-4 feet past it and is 4-8′ deep (it then of course runs farther along the wall). The resulting space near the corner is only about 6′ wide and the depth is 4′ on the left and 8′ on the right (the bed curves and is deeper from that point). Could you please suggest a shrub that would fit this space? I’d like to connect the building with the landscape by using a vase shape, that would “reach out” to the mature maples that grow nearby (there is lawn in between). I thought of panicle hydrangea, lilac or ninebarks, but they might be too large. A narrow upright conifer might be not bulky enough in proportion to the large frame of the house. I don’t want it to look squished, but it can’t be too small and delicate either. It faces south-east. I’d very much appreciate your opinion regarding best shapes and sizes for this situation. Agnieszka

    • Hi Agnieszka,

      I’m having trouble envisioning the garden space as you described it, so I can’t guarantee any suggestion I make will in fact be appropriate. The 3 shrubs you mentioned may be too large, although there are dwarf cultivars of all of them – you might find one that fits the space. If you want a vase shape but have limited space, you could try Sutherland Caragana – or one of the vase shape ornamental crabs, like Gladiator. Again, without having a better feel for the space, I’m just throwing ideas out there. Also not sure how much height you are wanting in that space – the two I just mentioned are small trees, about 15 feet high and 4 to 6 feet wide. Your local greenhouse or nursery might be able to help you as well.

      Hope this helps – sorry I couldn’t be of more assistance.


      • Agnieszka Keough says:

        Thank you Sue for trying, I knew it would be hard without a picture or diagram. I checked Gladiator crab online and it seems that it can grow even larger (H=20′ S=10′), which would be too large. I came across Amur chokecherry “Goldspur”, which is a bit smaller and I could consider it for another spot. But as a general rule, how close to the foundation could a small tree like those you mentioned be placed? Is there a minimum depth of the foundation bed that can accommodate this size of tree? Regards, Agnieszka

      • Hi Agnieszka,

        It’s true, gauging the ultimate size of a particular specimen can be a crapshoot – literature detail varies, as does the plant’s performance in different locales; here in Calgary, due to higher altitude and colder winters, things tend to grow a bit smaller (but not always). In tight spots, it’s better to err on the safe side and assume the larger mature size – the general rule of thumb is that the planting space should, at the very least, equal the mature spread of the plant. For shrubs planted next to a foundation this same rule applies, but for single stem trees, I have learned the hard way that they like a little extra room when situated beside a house – at least a few extra feet. Otherwise they start to lean away from what they perceive as a competing entity, which looks pretty goofy.

        Not sure where this leaves you in terms of plant choices – small planting spaces adjacent to foundations are a regular source of frustration for designers and homeowners since hardscapes often define these spaces and make the opportunity for correcting them cost prohibitive. You could try Bailey Compact cranberry, Miss Kim lilac or Limelight hydrangea – these are all dwarf cultivars with somewhat vase shape. Again they are hugely variable in their growth habit but if they do outgrow the space they are all very forgiving of pruning.

        You mentioned in your first comment that you didn’t think a columnar conifer would be bulky enough – if you used an ‘Emerald Green’ cedar (which is upright, dense and bushy) and flanked it with a couple of the shrubs, the plant grouping as a whole might effectively anchor that corner (as best I can imagine anyway).

        As for the Goldspur Amur Cherry, I have stopped using any Amurs at all in my designs as they are almost 100% prone to ‘Southwest Injury’ in Calgary’s Chinook zone – as wonderful as Chinooks are after a cold spell, the freeze/thaw cycle can cause huge cracks to develop on the southwest side of smooth-barked tree trunks. You probably don’t experience this in Ottawa so the pretty Goldspur cultivar would definitely be worth a try (not necessarily in that corner though) – you just can’t beat an Amur Cherry for winter interest with their gorgeous bark.

        Hope this helps.


  6. Agnieszka Keough says:

    Hello Sue, thanks for your detailed response! I very much like the foliage of Bailey’s compact, but am concerned about viburnum beetle which is a problem in Ontario. Some varieties are apparently not affected, not sure about this one. I will stick with an upright cedar (Emerald or Degroot’s) in combination with another couple of roundish shrubs. As I look around our winter landscape, I really appreciate the conifers, especially the tough ones, which don’t need the burlap! Best, Agnieszka

    • Hi Agnieszka,

      Yes conifers really do enliven the winter landscape, reminding us that there is still life under all that snow.

      I love the Degroot’s Spire cedar – considerably narrower than the Emerald, but really cool texture, which creates an almost twisted/spiral effect. In Calgary I don’t find it quite as tough as Emerald (not sure whether it is the Chinooks, the cold, or the dry), but I suspect it does great in Ottawa.

      Best of luck,

  7. […] The Principled Gardener Part 7 – Scale […]


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