Principled Gardening – The Final Chapter: Proportion

Today is the last Monday of the month, the last day of the year, and the last installment in our Principled Gardener series – we have one last design principle to look at and that is Proportion.

Proportion is related to Scale – in fact the terms are often used interchangeably, but I consider them to be different enough to present separately. You may recall from Part 7 of this series that Scale refers to the size of landscape elements in relation to their existing surroundings, i.e adjacent buildings, neighbouring buildings/trees etc. Proportion on the other hand, is the size of landscape elements in relation to each other and to the design as a whole. It can also refer to the ratio of one dimension to another, such as width to length.

So how do we know if the various elements and dimensions in our design are proportionate to one another? To some degree this must be intuited, but there are a few guidelines that may be helpful.

For relatively simple designs, the rule of thirds, or an adaptation thereof, can be used. As it pertains to landscape design, this means elements or dimensions that relate to each other in a 1:3 or 2:3 ratio.

This is most effective when applied to linear dimensions. For example, in my own front yard the linear distance from the street to the house is roughly divided into thirds, one-third being garden space and two-thirds lawn space. (Please ignore the goofy little strips of lawn at the bottom on both sides – bad design.)

PROPORTION - front yard

If however, we look at the horizontal dimension of this same yard, the rule of thirds isn’t adhered to. The existing walkway is too far to the right, and more significantly, the overall or cumulative width of the side beds is only 14 feet – less than the 20 feet needed to satisfy the rule of thirds.

PROPORTION - front yard 2

Both beds would have to be wider to make up one-third of the total horizontal space, but the current position of the walkway and the two Cotoneaster shrubs preclude this option.

While these horizontal proportions may be less than optimal, the overall proportions are still quite favourable – at least on paper. However, because the yard slopes somewhat, the garden area in front of the house appears much shallower from the street. This makes the lawn look disproportionately large in both directions – a real source of frustration for me. It could of course be remedied, but not using the present design lines. I get tired just thinking about the work required to execute effective change, not to mention the expense. You can see why good design requires some forethought, preferably expressed first on paper. I suspect if I’d known what I was doing decades ago when I began this whole thing, I would have designed something very different. Sigh.

For now I’ll just have to resort to that hypocritical mantra of many a parent, teacher or boss: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

But enough about me.  Let’s look at a simple design that puts the rule of thirds to work. The example below illustrates a symmetrical design using the rule of thirds to achieve good proportion. You can see that all of the rectangular spaces relate to one another in a 1:3 or 2:3 ratio – the lawn area is 2/3 the width of the property, the dining area is 2/3 the width of the lawn and the seating area is 2/3 the width of the dining area.

Rule of ThirdsIn addition each rectangle is in itself proportioned such that the shorter dimension is two-thirds the length of the longer one. The result is a design with very pleasing proportions.

PROPORTION - plant material

The rule of thirds can also be applied to plant selection, albeit loosely as plants don’t reach an exact height, but rather a range – keeping this range in mind can help you achieve well proportioned planting arrangements.

In the photo on the right, two Syringa sp. together with Picea pungens, illustrate one such plant grouping.

Containers too can be arranged this way – many ‘nesting pots’ are trios that bear a 1/3, 2/3 relationship to each other. Planting them in a similar or identical manner is very effective.

These 3 containers on my client's front deck display good proportion based roughly on the rule of thirds. Photo: Pat Gaviller

These 3 containers on my client’s front deck display good proportion based roughly on the rule of thirds. Photo: Pat Gaviller

The rule of thirds is not always easily or realistically applicable – existing hardscapes, the shape of adjacent buildings, positioning of property lines, or even the design itself, can make this tool ineffectual. Many of the elements we add to our gardens – be they plants, focal points or furniture – don’t really lend themselves to the use of this ratio either. This is when we just have to rely on our intuition and common sense.

Consider a tiny bird bath or piece of statuary – it might appear lost in an expanse of trees and large shrubs, but be right at home amongst smaller perennials. Likewise, that gargantuan classical fountain may look ridiculous adorning a small urban patio, but fit perfectly into a more grandiose courtyard or terrace, as illustrated in the photos below.

Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia

Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Gardens at the Livadiya Palace, Crimea, Ukraine.

Gardens at the Livadiya Palace, Crimea, Ukraine. Photo Credit: Andrew Butko, Wikipedia

Another way we can ensure good proportion in our landscapes is with the use of a grid. To do this, draw a series of vertical and horizontal lines on some trace paper and place over a plan view of your property. It’s most effective if you can make the size of the grid square relate to the house in some way, but be careful not to make the square too small or the whole purpose will be defeated. In the example below, I’ve chosen a grid square that is the same size as the house indentation in the right corner.


The grid lines are then used as an outline for the design.


Your choice of design concept isn’t limited to straight lines as the grid is just a template – arcs could be inserted into some of the corners to create an Arc & Tangent design. Each arc would necessarily segment or bisect a grid square.


For circular or curvilinear designs a grid can still be used, but because there are no straight lines it must be more loosely interpreted. Ideally the outermost point of an arc or circle should extend to a grid line – since this isn’t always possible using up a half grid square is acceptable.

GRID - circular

Regardless of the concept, the spatial relationship that now exists between all design elements, is one of good proportion.



So ladies and gentlemen, there you have it – design principles in a nutshell. It’s been a long process – thanks for your patient reading.

Happy New Year to Y’all
© 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.