Lawn and Garden

Introduction to Landscape Design

By John Jett, WVU Extension Service horticulture specialist

Landscape design explores using plants to create useful and enjoyable outdoor spaces. Many design techniques are generated through one’s own experience, personal tastes, qualities of the site, and the plants and materials used.

While the benefits of good landscape design are obvious, the advantages of a well thought out landscape plan are not. Careful and deliberate landscape planning can avoid haphazard and rushed decisions that lead to costly mistakes. It is frustrating and expensive when mistakes are made in terms of incorrect construction of walkways or patios and plantings that are underutilized, undersized, or obstructive. Locating these elements in unsuitable areas (poor drainage, steep slopes, poor soils, etc.) can also lead to costly amendments. Maintenance problems can be more readily avoided with a plan.

Whether developing a full landscape master plan or simple planting near the house or structure, the designer should consider the long-term landscape development of the site. Landscape design is the art of organizing outdoor space by placing plants and structures in useful relationship with the natural environment.

The art of the design

Merely planting trees and shrubs is not landscaping. Designing a landscape is an art. Landscaping is a plan to make the best use of the space available in the most attractive way. It means shaping the land to make the most of the site’s natural features and advantages. It means building such necessary structures as fences, walls, and patios. Finally, it means selecting and growing the plants that best fit the design.

The smaller the house, grounds, and budget, the greater the need for correct and complete planning, because every square foot of space and every dollar must produce maximum results.
There is no need to develop the entire lot at once. However, there should be an overall plan so that any work done will be part of the general scheme. Carrying out the landscape plan generally takes years because plantings need time to grow.

Analyzing Site and Family Needs

The fundamental principle of landscape design is that each development should be based on a specific program and that this program should in turn be based on:

  • the people who will use the site, their cultural needs, individual desires, and economic abilities
  • the climate
  • the site, its immediate surroundings, topographic and ecological conditions, and all objects, natural and manufactured, now existing on the site or planned for the future
  • available materials and methods of fabrication

The landscaper must study the habits of people and what they do, understand their desires and needs, and determine what space and materials are available and how they may be used to accommodate these goals.

The first step in landscape design is to divide available space into use areas: the public area, the private area, and the service and work area.

  • The public area is the section that passersby view. It is generally in front of the house and should present an attractive public view.
  • The living or private area is for the family; it may contain a patio, deck, or porch for outdoor sitting, entertaining, or dining. A play area may be incorporated, depending on the family’s interest and the presence and ages of children.
  • A service or storage and work area should provide a place for garbage, oil tank, garden tools, etc., that is convenient for use but screened from the other areas. Also included here may be a cut flower bed or a vegetable garden if desired (Figure 16-1).

Factors Influencing Landscape Design

The Lot and Its Characteristics

In laying out a design, preserve all of the site’s best natural resources, including mature trees, brooks, ponds, rock outcroppings, good soil, turf, and interesting variations in terrain. These natural elements affect ease of construction and landscaping possibilities.

A careful survey of the area helps determine whether site conditions will be a deterrent or can be incorporated into a design plan. Examples of problems are thin, overcrowded trees that should be removed. A site may have micro-environmental problems that require consideration. Examples are low places with cold air drainage or a spot with poor soil and water drainage.

Changes in elevation can add interest and variety to the home landscape. The character of the land, its hills, slope, and trees should determine the basic landscape pattern. A hilly, wooded lot lends itself to an informal or natural design, with large areas left in their natural state. In such a setting, large trees can be retained.

Although natural variations in slope are an asset, avoid creating too many of them artificially. Retaining walls and excessive grading of terraces should be avoided. If these features are necessary to facilitate construction or control water drainage, they should be designed to detract as little as possible from the natural terrain.

Neighborhood Sights and Sounds

Keep good views open and screen out the undesirable. Often a shrub or two provides all the screening that is necessary. Provide plantings to act as noise barriers. The principal rooms of the house should look out on the lawn or the garden. Design special areas to be viewed from favorite windows.


Climate includes sunlight, all forms of precipitation, wind, and temperature. All of these affect the way a house should be placed on a lot, how the land is used, and what is planted. In planning the grounds, don’t fight the climate; capitalize on its advantages. In warm regions, enlarge the outdoor living area. In cold regions, plant so that the winter scene is enjoyed from the inside. Evergreens and hedges are picturesque when covered with snow.

Since people respond differently to sun and shade, it is important to study the amount and location of each on the lot. Sun and shade patterns change with the seasons and vary each minute of the day. The sun is higher and shadows are shorter in summer than in winter.

Northern exposures receive the least light and, therefore, are the coolest. Eastern and western exposures receive more light, western being warmer than eastern because they receive afternoon light. A southern orientation receives the most light and tends to be the warmest.

The principal rooms of a house should benefit from winter sun and summer breeze. This means the house must be correctly oriented. A plan suited to one lot will not be correct for a lot facing a different direction. Sunlight and shade can be controlled by the position of buildings, fences, and trees. Possible shade from neighbors’ trees and houses also should be considered.

Plan future shade from tree plantings with great care to keep sunny areas for gardening and provide summer shade for house and terrace. Deciduous trees (those that shed their leaves) shade the house in summer and admit the sun in winter. Place trees off the corners, rather than the sides, of the house. This way they will accent the house and not block views and circulating air from windows. Remember that an overplanting of trees tends to shut out sun and air.

Family Activities

Use of the land should be a determining factor in landscape design. Analyze the activities of the family. For example, small children need open lawn for playing, and gardeners need space for growing vegetables and flowers. Make allowances for future changes. Consider outdoor living, playing, gardening, and household servicing. Family routine follows a general pattern but varies with each family’s way of living.

Family Growth

A successful landscape should be able to age and mature with a family. Don’t plan a landscape whose use will remain static or will not function as a family’s needs change. A plan for a very young family calls for inexpensive plantings. There should be open areas for children and pets to play in. As a family reaches its middle years, more extensive and expensive plantings can be put in. The children’s play area can serve other functions; the sandbox, for example, can become a lily pool.

As children grow up, they require less play area and less parental supervision, allowing both the place and the time for more sophisticated landscaping. As the parents approach retirement, the landscape should become one requiring little maintenance. Mature trees and shrubs will carry the landscape theme; high-labor areas such as flower beds should be minimized. Ramps and walks may replace steps.

Cost-effective Maintenance

Decide on maintenance standards. For the person who enjoys puttering about the yard, landscape design may be elaborate. In general, however, the simpler the site, the less there is to maintain. Most homeowners prefer a low-maintenance plan. This may be achieved to a large extent in the planning stage by paying careful attention to the nature of the site. Existing trees, elevations, and the use to be made of the area should be prime considerations. Low maintenance may be achieved by adopting one or more of the following possibilities:

  • Have little lawn area.
  • Use groundcovers or compost, bark chips, and other mulches.
  • Use paving in heavily traveled areas.
  • Provide mowing strips of brick or concrete for flower beds and shrub borders.
  • Use fences or walls instead of clipped formal hedges for screening.
  • Design raised flower beds for easy access and to help control weeds.
  • Install an underground irrigation system in areas of low rainfall.
  • Have small flower beds.
  • Use flowering trees and shrubs for color.
  • Be selective in choosing plant materials. Some plants require much less pruning, spraying, and watering than others.
  • Use native plant materials.
  • Keep the design simple.
  • Use mulches for weed control, when possible. If herbicides become necessary, use caution and follow directions.