How Design Savvy Are You? The Answers.

Good morning class. This morning we’ll be taking up last month’s quiz (if you haven’t completed the quiz yet, stop reading, go do it and come back later).

So how did y’all do? Not as good as you thought you would…….or should? Wondering where you went wrong? Well let’s have a look…………….

QUESTION 1. The procedural steps for effectively designing a residential landscape are:

a) First determine what kind of outdoor spaces you require (e.g. patio, planting beds, pathways etc.). Then choose the best place to locate each of them. Next, give form and shape to these spaces. Finally add plant material where applicable.

If you’ve been to one of my design lectures or read the design series on this blog, or even January’s review, you should have it well implanted in your brain by now, that landscaping is primarily about manipulating space, not arranging plants – indeed the definition my own design instructor/mentor drilled into my head was this: “Landscaping means making the best use of the available space in the most practical and pleasing way.”  Designing the plantings comes much later – it is the final part of the process.

QUESTION 2. The Designer’s mantra is:

d) Form follows function.

‘Form follows function’ of course means that the functionality of a space must come first, before its form is considered, but it also means that the shape or form of a landscape space is often dictated, at least to some degree, by its function. I had an ‘aha’ experience regarding this many years ago when trying to redesign my front walkway – our front yard is quite wide and the walkway starts well over to one side then curves up to the front door. My biggest objection is that the walkway bifurcates the yard in lop-sided fashion – it’s too far to one side, which creates imbalance. I knew that moving it a little towards the centre, to the 2/3’s mark, would create more pleasing proportions, but I was having trouble giving the walkway pleasing form. Also constraining my design options was a big ‘ol island bed that spanned a good part of the larger side of the yard.

One morning while there was still snow on the ground I noticed a set of human footprints going up the front walkway, up the steps, back down, then angling across the lawn on the other side of the walk, and right through the aforementioned island bed. That’s rude, I thought. It’s one thing to traverse someone’s lawn, but who walks right through what is clearly a garden?  Maybe it was the newspaper delivery person? The mailperson? Or maybe someone delivering flyers? Fortunately a few days later I was able to catch the culprit during commission of the crime. It was our letter carrier and as she tromped through the garden, I stuck my head out the door and made my request as nicely as possible (considering I was annoyed I had to say anything at all). “Can I ask you to please not walk through there,” I requested. She looked at me puzzled. “Well where would you like me to walk?” she replied, slightly put-off. “Uh, on the sidewalk?” I responded incredulously.  For a few days after that I didn’t see any more footprints through there, but it wasn’t long before I noticed them again.  Grrrrrr.

Of course using the sidewalk when approaching the house was the most obvious route, but given the width of the lot and the positioning of the sidewalk, it was indeed quicker to walk back down across the lawn when going the other way – so I understood the temptation to choose this route.  I knew however, that once a path was worn everybody would use it – I really didn’t want that much foot traffic on the lawn, and none at all through the bed. I also knew I didn’t want to be that crazy lady who hollered at everyone who stepped on her lawn, or worse, put up a tacky ‘Keep off the Grass’ sign. This required a design solution. Hmmm. Maybe I could plant a line of thorny shrubs along the walkway to keep people on it. No, that would look goofy. How about putting a fence around the front yard so the only way on or off it was via the sidewalk? No, I didn’t want to fence in the front yard. So I thought to myself, if that’s the direction people want to walk, don’t fight it – work with it.  Aha – I had the answer to my design conundrum! I could make the walkway more functional by making it two-directional. Of course I’d also have to get rid of the island bed, which I was happy to do since it disrupted landscape unity. Before I knew it, I had completely redesigned my front yard (well on paper at least – the planting beds have all been redone, but budget constraints have prevented us from re-doing the walkway). So you see, what started with addressing a functional issue became a wholesale re-forming of my front yard landscape – indeed form follows function.

Improving the function of the sidewalk, also improved its form and afforded me the opportunity to redesign the whole front yard.

Improving the function of the sidewalk, also improved its form and afforded me the opportunity to redesign the whole front yard.

QUESTION 3. When experimenting with design lines, remember to:

c) Ensure all design lines intersect at an angle of 90 degrees or more.

Option a) is incorrect because complexity is the antithesis of good garden design – simplicity is the goal and is best attained using long purposeful design lines rather than short tentative lines. Option b) is incorrect because the aim is to maintain continuity of design theme rather than vary it. This doesn’t mean that a curvilinear design can’t benefit from the odd straight line, or a rectilinear design can’t include a single arc or circle for dominance, it just means don’t deviate from your chosen design theme more than once or twice – again, the key is simplicity. Option c) is correct; if design lines intersect at less than 90 degrees, acute angles are formed – and y’all know how much I dislike acute angles. Functionally these spaces are unusable and difficult to maintain (try fitting a lawn mower into one of those little pointy spaces).  Visually they are awkward. They’re the first feature I notice in a design – do we really want an awkward unusable space to be what first draws the eye? No of course not. And yet, they are blatantly applied by many who should know better – even when entirely avoidable. Alright, alright, I’m done my little tirade – I know acute angles can’t always be avoided, but at least try okay?

acute angles edit

Left: Acute angles are formed when design lines meet at less than 90 degrees. Right: Acute angles are avoided because design lines intersect at 90 degree angles. This results in spaces that are more functional and usable, as well as more attractive.

QUESTION 4. Unity through interconnection can be achieved by:

d) All of the above.


Arctostaphylos uva-ursi underplants an entire bed in this client’s garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Making sure all landscape spaces are connected generates continuity and good flow from one space to another, which in turn creates unity.

Sorry fellow gardeners – an interconnected, unified landscape necessarily means no island beds. Capiche?

As well, underplanting an entire area with a single type of groundcover connects the plants within a planting composition, hence further unifying it.

QUESTION 5. When grouping plant material it is important to:

d) None of the above.

The most obvious answer here seems to be ‘Always use odd numbers’, but the word ‘always’ makes the statement incorrect. There are times when arranging plants in odd-numbered groupings isn’t necessary, for example when plants are massed in groups of more than 7 or 8, the eye can no longer differentiate between even and odd numbers so it ceases to be of any significance.

This corner planting of daylilies is large enough that the eye cannot discern whether it consists of odd or even numbers. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This corner planting of daylilies is large enough that the eye cannot discern whether it consists of odd or even numbers. Photo: Sue Gaviller

QUESTION 6. In order for a landscape element to be dominant, it must be larger.

b) False

An element can be dominant because it is larger, but it can also express dominance in its unique form, its coarse texture and/or its bright colour – the key is it must differ significantly from surrounding elements. A hard (non-living) feature will also stand out as a focal point.

QUESTION 7. Symmetrical designs are more balanced than asymmetrical designs.

b) False

Symmetry is by definition balanced, but not necessarily more balanced. An asymmetrical design can be just as balanced if the weight is perceived to be equally distributed; for example, a tree planted on one side of the landscape can be balanced by two or three large shrubs on the other side – the visual weight of the smaller elements together approximates that of the larger element. Think of it this way: little Johnny and his grandpa are at the park trying to play on the teeter-totter, but to no avail – invariably Grandpa ends up sitting on the ground while Johnny is perched up high on the other end wailing “Let me down.” Along comes Johnny’s big brother Jimmy and hops up on the seat with his brother. Their combined weight is close enough to Grandpa’s that the teeter-totter can now move up and down in its intended fashion – balance.

QUESTION 8.  Reducing the number of different plants in your garden composition will create unity.

a) True

Reducing or limiting the number of different plants in your garden will allow for repetition, thereby creating unity (this of course means you can’t have one of everything). Many years ago, in one small area of my garden, I had all this going on……………..


Photos: Sue Gaviller

It was indeed one of everything and it was visual chaos, so………..bit by bit I simplified. I removed this and that until I had reduced enough that I was able to repeat some plant material. The result was a much more unified composition………………..


Photos: Sue Gaviller

QUESTION 9.   Planting a weeping standard on either side of an entrance creates a nice frame, inviting the viewer through.

b) False

No, no, no, weeping standards don’t make good frames – these are unique features that invite the eye to move upwards along the standard then down along the weeping branches. Placed on either side of a view or entrance the two unique forms will cause the eye to move up and down, and back and forth between them rather than viewing through them. So what does make a good frame? Plants with strong upright growth habit make the best frames – columnar forms, pyramids or vases (especially narrow ones) and even some grafted standards (those whose ‘standards’ are taller in relation to the grafted portion).

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Weeping Caragana has lovely bronze bark that looks very attractive against the dark brown house, but they don’t work well to frame the entrance. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Upright forms like juniper or cedar create a more effective frame. Photo: Sue Gaviller

QUESTION 10.   Coarse textured plants and fine textured plants should be present in equal numbers to balance a garden composition.

b) False

fine, medium and coarse texture

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Coarse texture is dominant to fine texture, which means less of it is required to achieve balance. Generally speaking, fine texture should outweigh coarse texture by at least 3 to 1 – this is a loose guideline depending on how large or small a plant’s leaves are relative to surrounding plants. A good rule of thumb is: the larger a plant’s component parts the fewer are needed to balance finer texture.

For example, in the photo to the right, rhododendron leaves appear coarse when seen next to the diminutive leaves of kinnickinnick, but much less so compared to the larger leaves of the hosta. Therefore I have planted only one hosta, three rhododendrons and a whole mass of kinnickinnick.

QUESTION  11.   What is the song I allude to in The Form of Things to Come – Part 2

While writing about the bottom heavy presentation of pyramidal forms I found myself singing a Queen song – now can you guess? That’s right,  ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ (check out this youtube video of some ‘Disney babes’ strut to Freddie’s vocals – too funny).

Well that’s all for today boys and girls – class dismissed!

Til next time,