Landscape Design Basics: Everything You Need to Know

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Does your outdoor space need a makeover? Maybe you’ve been researching landscape design ideas and are considering hiring a landscape architect or designer. Maybe you hope to learn more about the overall concept of landscape design (which, in many ways, is similar to interior design). The first thing to know is that it’s essential that your landscaping project reflects your priorities. Do you need a pergola to help provide shade? Or maybe you envision flower beds overflowing with annuals and perennials? “Let your lifestyle and the way you want to use the space drive what you put in it, whether that means an outdoor kitchen for a cook, or a fire pit for someone who wants to entertain frequently,” says Melissa Gerstle, founder and principal at AD PRO Directory–listed Melissa Gerstle Design in Dallas. With your list in mind, you can really dig (pun intended) into the principles of landscape design.

Types of landscapes

Before you get too attached to a certain landscape design for your living space, says Kristin Monji, founder and principal at Birch and Basil Design in New York City, take a look at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine your local zone. “There is a huge variation even within a state, but if you know your zone, the staff at your garden center can direct you to plants that will be hearty in your space,” says Monji. You might consider ones that are low-maintenance or drought tolerant, for example, or choose to focus on only native plants. Here are some typical backyard landscaping design ideas to consider.

English

An English garden tends to have a more formal vibe, with sharply defined hedges, water features, walkways, and structures like pergolas and trellises covered with climbing vines. “You see a lot more plant material, such as perennials, and it’s going to feel a bit fussier,” says Gerstle.

Modern

A modern garden usually has a spare, uncluttered look. “It’s driven by shapes of spaces and the materials you use, and the number and types of plants—you really want to use a carefully curated selection,” explains Gerstle.

Woodland

Lush ground cover, dense foliage, and shade from trees help evoke the feeling of being in the woods. This type of garden may also attract more birds, and many people appreciate that its untamed look often requires less maintenance than a more formal garden. “Woodland gardens feel special because, when done right, they can transport you to a seemingly wild, secret garden,” says Candice Bertalan, founder and principal at Tropic of Capricorn in Austin. “There is something romantic about the lush, shady greenery I think we all long to get lost in.”

Eco-Friendly

Sustainable gardens come in all styles, but they tend to have eco-conscious features such as native plants, especially those that attract pollinators; rainwater barrels; vegetable plots; and untamed lawns, rather than ones that are heavily watered and manicured. You might also have heard the term “xeriscape” used for these types of spaces. “Xeriscaping is a style of landscape where plants selected are drought tolerant, reducing or removing the need for irrigation,” says Bertalan.

Meet the Designer Melissa Gerstle Design This Dallas studio creates landscapes that inspire “effortless outdoor...

Meet the Designer: Melissa Gerstle Design This Dallas studio creates landscapes that inspire “effortless outdoor living”—defined as spaces that are comfortable, enjoyable, and easy to inhabit. Find out more…

How to design a landscape

Admittedly, the design process can seem overwhelming at first—so here are three basic steps to help you get started.

1. Make a short list of must-haves

To avoid overwhelm, begin by making a list, but keep it short. “I ask people to come up with five things they really want,” says Monji. Anything past that can be marked as “nice to have,” Monji suggests, and a talented landscape architect or landscape designer can help you narrow down the list. “Besides the must-haves, I also consider what site-specific conditions someone has, their budget, and their personal taste, and ideally the final result is the sweet spot that incorporates all of these things,” she says.

2. Create a master plan

Gerstle always tries to tease out how someone imagines using their outdoor space over the long term, and create a full design plan that incorporates each area. “This road map helps you avoid backtracking and making costly mistakes. For example, let’s say you eventually want a fireplace or outdoor kitchen—we know you’re going to need a certain foundation and the space to run a gas line, so we can plan accordingly. Even if you don’t want it now, you can implement in phases,” she says.

As she plans, Monji tends to first consider what she calls “basic building blocks,” such as the hardscape, grass, and raised planting beds; then structures such as pergolas, water features, outdoor sheds, or extras like bocce courts; and finally the dining and seating areas. “The real design aspect is the spatial planning, just like interior designers who start with laying out the furniture because it dictates how the room is going to look,” she says.

Bertalan also emphasizes the importance of figuring out how much you can spend in advance.”The best way to start a project is to have a clear overall and starting budget. Your designer can then propose what your best options are,” she says.

3. Plan for plants

It’s best to choose plants at the end, after the landscape design plan is complete. “This surprises people, but we usually don’t know the exact placement of plants until we know where the planting beds, power sources, and seating will be,” says Monji. “[The client] might come into the first meeting saying ‘I really want lavender,’ but as we get to the end I might ask them, ‘Do you still need that, or are you open to something taller and more structural, like an evergreen that’s going to look as good in December as it does in June?’ Sometimes people are more flexible at this point in the process.”

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