Balance in Design - Good landscapes keep an even
- Luke MillerFrom Garden Gate Issue 18, December
I went to one of those seminars on success a few years ago. The
speaker stressed the need to find balance in one's life. It was
a good point all right. As a matter of fact, it could just as well
pertain to landscape design.
Successful landscape design is an art. So it's no surprise that
the process of designing a garden depends on the same principles
that govern the world of art. Those principles include accent, unity
and rhythm, as well as balance. They are vital to establishing a
For centuries, landscape designers have used balance to create
attractive, enduring gardens - from the geometric designs of ancient
Egypt to the naturalistic designs of the Orient. Despite the passage
of time, the fact remains: What worked 4,000 years ago still works
today. Understanding and using balance will help lead you to success
when laying out your own garden.
What is Balance?
Balance is like irony: It's hard to define, but you know when you
More to the point, you know when you don't see it. The dictionary
defines balance as a harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion
of parts in a design. What makes the arrangement satisfying is the
stability - real or imagined - that it carries.
Think of a tray resting atop the palm of a server. Too much weight
to either side and the tray will likely topple. Well, the mind's
eye picks up on imbalance in other situations, too, even if there
are no physical repercussions. That's why it's so important to strive
for visual stability in garden design. It puts the mind at ease.
Visual stability is attained when plants are strategically placed
in the garden with color, density, size and form in mind. All four
of these traits carry visual weight. For instance, dark colors often
appear heavier than whites and pastels while plants with fine-textured
foliage (yarrow) strike us as being lighter in weight than those
with coarse foliage (hibiscus).
However, density is also impacted by growth habit. Even though
it has coarse-textured foliage, winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus)
may seem lighter than a fine-textured boxwood (Buxus spp.). That's
because the euonymus has an open growth habit compared to the boxwood's
tightly packed foliage.
Size and form also affect the weight scale. For example, a tall
tree needs an equal mass to balance it - either another vertical
tree of similar size or a horizontal feature that's as wide as the
tree is tall. If there's not enough room for a wide-spreading feature,
you can simply move the more modest version away from the vertical
element, just as a lighter kid would move farther from a heavier
child on a teeter-totter.
Formal and informal
There are basically two roads to follow when seeking balance in
the garden: symmetrical and asymmetrical. Formal landscapes have
symmetrical balance. The viewer can determine a center line as well
as right and left sides that mirror each other. A formal design
is best used on flat ground or when working with a central feature,
such as a fountain or front door.
The asymmetrical balance of informal garden designs isn't as readily
perceived. It may seem random and natural, but it's well-organized
and quite stable. One side may consist of tall forms, dark colors
or rough textures. The other evens out the equation with a larger
grouping of plants that are shorter, lighter colored or more finely
textured. Informal designs are suitable for slopes, wooded areas
or landscapes around structures lacking symmetry.
Point of View
It's important to decide what setting you're trying to balance.
Do you want to balance the overall landscape picture or concentrate
on individual garden beds? Once you've answered that question, it's
time to pick a primary viewpoint.
If the garden will be viewed from more than one spot - say, from
the street and from your front window - decide which view is the
more important one. Once you're comfortable with the picture from
that angle, you can adjust the balance of elements to suit the secondary
view. Be patient because this may take some time and experimentation.
Plus, the balance may change as your garden matures.
Is it Balanced?
It can be a tricky matter to determine whether a landscape is balanced
or not. You'll probably rely more on intuition than conscious calculation.
While there are complex mathematical formulas you can follow, the
best solution may be to simply step back and take a good look, just
as a painter would do with a piece of art.Take a look at these examples
to get a feel for this design principal:
||A landscape takes on a formal look
when it has a centrally located focal point, such as this tree.
Elements on either side of the focal point are placed symmetrically.
||When a focal point is positioned
off-center, a design is asymmetrical and therefore informal.
In this case, the horizontal feature (shrubs) balances the vertical
||The gazebo balances the much larger
tree on the right. Although it is smaller in size, the gazebo's
stiff, solid form carries as much visual weight as the tree's
||Not only is this landscape unbalanced,
it also has too many competing focal points. The result is a
"busy" picture that is visually ambiguous and unsatisfying.
Snap a photograph from the primary viewpoint, then hold the photo
upside down. Does it look like it will tip over? If so, the visual
weight of the design elements - plants, structures, etc. - may be
out of whack. By balancing those elements, you'll make the composition
more peaceful and satisfying.
Take a piece of tracing paper and tape it to the photograph. Then
experiment by drawing in plants of various shapes and sizes. Once
you've determined which shapes and sizes improve the overall balance
of the picture, you'll have a better idea what kinds of plants to
use. After that, it's just a matter of picking those that grow in
your region and come in suitable colors. Leaf through some back
issues of Garden Gate for ideas. And prepare to bring balance to