When a garden scene takes your breath away, it’s often hard to immediately identify why. If you look closer, something might pop out at you, revealing itself like a 3-D image. When that happens, the view in front of you most likely has good rhythm, appropriate scale, and is pleasingly balanced. Although it’s difficult to explain in words, you know it when you see it—a birdhouse near a birdbath or the pattern of various perennials and shrub heights pleasing the eye.
In design, rhythm refers to the illusion of motion created through the arrangement of landscape elements. If done correctly, a landscape design leads the viewer’s eye through the perspective, beyond the foreground to a more distant part of the landscape. If you start down a well-designed garden path, the rhythm of garden elements will lead you to where you want to go. When I redesigned my mixed border in Bee Better Teaching Garden, I paid special attention to the rhythm and balance (see more on balance below) of the plants added. I didn’t want to look out at a wall of plants of equal size and weight. I wanted the space to have rhythm, a feeling as if one was lightly floating along and through the garden beds—taking the eye from one end and weaving with a comfortable rhythm of movement to the other.
Scale is another crucial landscape element, and it serves to help rhythm along. My rhythm would be off if my scale was wrong. Consider it in the context of interior design: a petite table would not be in scale with a massive couch. Similarly, a very tall plant next to a short shrub or towering southern magnolia (Magnolia Grandiflora) planted at the corner of a single-story ranch home would dwarf the structure and create an uncomfortable feeling.
Balance in design is about equality. It is achieved when elements are carefully arranged to produce the same visual weight on both sides of a center point. Let’s consider the differences between symmetrical and asymmetrical balance.
Symmetrical balance is where the elements of design are equally divided. Most often this is the type of balance found in formal landscapes. A beautiful home with a centrally placed door and an equal amount of windows on each side, with a walkway leading through the middle of the front yard to the front door, is symmetrical. In such a design, plantings are typically placed to be mirror images, like the house itself, giving a feeling of stability and order.
Asymmetrical balance comes into play when working with structures that are not symmetrical. Asymmetrical gardens are usually more naturalistic and relaxed. The structure you may be working around might have the door off to the side, with the wall on one side taller or wider than the other. In these cases, it’s often suggested to add a tree on the opposite side to mimic the height of the taller or wider wall.
Both balances are right for what they do. It may be a matter of personal preference in what your design sensibilities naturally gravitate toward.
As you add accents to your existing garden bed, remembering these key elements will help you enhance your garden’s beauty. Keep the size and visual weight of an accent proportionate to bed plantings. A 10-foot tall statue or birdhouse, for example, could overwhelm a bed where the tallest plant only measures 2 feet. Add plants that will ground your accent and create rhythm and balance within the bed so that the accent comfortably blends in.
Take heart if you did not get the house that exactly matches your own design sensibilities. It shouldn’t stop you from creating a garden that does!
Even when we know what sort of balance suits us, it’s not necessarily what we have to work with.
My home is a two-story brick faux-Georgian. This was not at all my desired design, but it’s my home, nonetheless. To make matters worse, there are massive, imposing columns across the front, and the house sits high on a slope. It has a strong character, almost demanding a certain style of landscape. When I first started working with the design, I actually accentuated the things I liked least about the house. I made it more formal because I thought I needed to be true to the style of the house. Although I have often found myself in formal, symmetrical places and been very comfortable, I don’t personally care for this type of design; I find it too stuffy for my taste. It was up to me to incorporate my style with the home’s rigid symmetry and create a design that was less formal while still being complementary to the house.
At first it seemed like a tall order, but in the end, the plantings (and paint choices) toned down the stronger aspects of formality. Two trees were used as vertical foundation plantings on either side of the centered front door. Both happen to be deciduous, since I wanted to take advantage of the west-facing sun’s warming light in the winter while still providing shade against summer heat. The height of these trees added a welcoming transition between the imposing roofline of the house and the ground plantings. I also added a mixture of plants to the foundation beds, which lowered the towering scale of the house. Neither side looks alike. But the scale against the house is right; the balance on each side is equal; and seasonal plantings add rhythm to the design.
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