Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Landscape Design 101: Avoiding 10 Common Beginner's Mistakes

Designing a landscape can be a daunting task. In my previous article, Texas Natives and East Coast Transplants, I gave my readers several plants I love working with in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. I want to talk a little bit now about how to design with those plants and address common rookie mistakes so you can make your landscapes picture perfect. Here's ten tips to get you on your way:

1. Form follows function- This mantra of the design world simply means that the landscape must achieve its function or it won’t get used no matter how beautiful it is. Know the function first.
a. Do you want to entertain in your landscape? (How many do you need to plan for?)
b. Do you want something pretty to look at from your bedroom window? (You don’t need a large sitting area in this space!)
c. Is the primary function of the landscape to garden and get exercise? (Make it comfortable to work in!)
d. Do you NEED grass? If not, plan for a different ground cover that isn't so water needy.
2. Design in concept first, then move progressively towards details- Get to know your site first. Look at it with new eyes and ask yourself, "What's going on here?" Architecture is the thoughtful making of space. Look at your site and determine what you need before you ever start considering plant selection. Say things to yourself and record them on paper like, “I need a shade tree right here, a sitting area for this many people, a focal point there” and then refine those decisions. During the next step, you should ask yourself, “What are the shade trees which do well in this area (Red Oak or Pecan), what kind of sitting area fits into my budget (Concrete or Flagstone on concrete base), what do I want to express with this focal point (Sculpture or Specimen plant)?"

3. When everything’s important, nothing is important- When I tell people I design drought tolerant landscapes, people really do think that I plant cactus all over the place. There’s a place for these guys and I’m not against them, but they’re really bold and draw a lot of attention and focus. Use focal points sparingly.

4. Maximize interest with the use of contrast- Use contrast wisely. Placing a Lamb’s Ear next to a Rosemary creates a contrast in texture for instance. You may want to develop a contrast in color by placing yellow Zexmenia next to a more blue Russian Sage (complimentary colors). You can surround a focal point with a benign plant or place a tall shrub every ten feet of a low and level hedge. Contrast brings interest. The more contrast, the more interest.

5. Plan the hardscapes first and plants last- Know where you're going to place your paths, patios, and water features first. Only then can you know how much room you have for the plants. Know the full size of the adult plant and stick to it, even if it means having a sparse looking garden at first. It’s going to look empty at first. Expect it.
6. Design to the next level up and down- Simply put, before you select a plant, know what kind of a landscape you have. Before you select a landscape, know what kind of a house you have. Do you have a Spanish style home? Use plants that look like they're from the Mediterranean. Make sure that what you’re doing LOOKS appropriate for the space and neighborhood.
7. Take a good hard look at design principles- Knowing your design rules will help you develop the concept design from my second point above. Every form of art from dance to music to landscape architecture applies the same rules of scale, rhythm, contrast, series, hierarchy, focal point, texture, form, etc… (See how many you can spot in the building below.)

8. Don’t be afraid to fail- Thomas Edison said he didn’t fail a thousand times at making a light bulb, he just discovered how not to do it a thousand times. Don't be paralyzed by the fear of messing up. Plan as best you can, then go for it!
9. Not everything needs to be symmetrical- As we say in Texas, "Nuf said."
10. Don’t just plan what you can see- Take time to research the things you can’t see. How do you make a good patio? How far down does a footing need to go for a retaining wall? What kind of dirt do I have and what will grow here? Ask yourself these kind of questions and you may be surprised at what you answer.

One last bonus tip... Don't be afraid to call in the professionals when you're in over your head OR make up your plan and submit it to an experienced designer for review. For a small fee, you may be able to avoid big pitfalls.

Finis origine pende- The beginning determines the end! Plan well and you shall reap well. -Jason


  1. J,
    Can't wait for you to see the house and give us a few ideas re planting plans. Lots of topography, rolling land, mountains and trees in distance, fields, horses..it is beautiful, and very different from the "beach."
    Much as we loved the cool shade, the sun gives options we didn't have for 30 years!

  2. Great article in Thursday's paper about one of Jason's landscapes. DMN Living section.

    Dallas Fruit Grower

  3. What Pigs Don't KnowJune 3, 2011 at 8:08 PM

    Thanks for the shout-out DFG! I will be there (1935 W. Colorado - location #1) from 9am-3pm on Saturday answering questions. For anyone interested, here's the address to the Dallas Water-Wise Landscape Tour website:

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