Consider key principles when planning your outdoor living space |

Consider key principles when planning your outdoor living space

Marty Jones
Special to the Daily
Color is one of the most important landscape design considerations, as it is often thought to affect both mood and feeling.
Special to the Daily |

May is still early in the Vail area’s gardening and landscaping season, but it’s the perfect month for planning the dream landscape you’d like to develop this summer. Whether you hope to create a new bright-blooming bed of perennial plants or a rock garden, it’s important to consider key landscape design principles while planning a project.

Landscape design refers to the process of creating an outdoor living space that suits both practical and aesthetic needs. The fundamentals of landscape design can encompass a wide range of elements including unity, scale, balance, variety and sequence as well as those that involve line, form, texture and color. The design principles you choose to emphasize may depend on individual tastes, goals and landscape assets or liabilities, but an overview of a few key design elements can help you plan for an inspired summer landscaping season.

Goals, assets and liabilities

Before beginning any landscaping project, take some time to consider the ultimate goal of your creation. Do you simply want to hide an unsightly electrical box? Or is there a greater sensory or aesthetic experience you’d like to capture in your outdoor living space? Identify goals by writing down all possibilities, and then narrow your list to one or two key priorities that you can realistically address this summer.

When making goals, don’t forget to list your current landscape’s assets and liabilities. Assets are the components of your landscape that are already working and could be a stunning series of silver-trunked aspen trees along the edge of your property or a well-built rock wall. Liabilities are any areas that pose challenges and could be geographic features such as difficult-to-plant slopes or gangly shrubs that you’ve never been able to control. Ultimately, a landscape project should seek to enhance assets already present while minimizing the effect of liabilities.

Environmental considerations

Once you’ve identified goals and taken stock of assets and liabilities, it’s important to consider next the basic environmental elements such as light, soil and water that will help you determine what you can realistically grow — and where. Take note of areas in your landscape that receive full sun, partial sun or full shade, as it will be important to choose plants which flourish in these conditions.

Survey the soil in your landscape and determine areas that have rich soil versus areas with clay or sandy soils. Dark topsoil a foot deep is great, but if you pick around with a shovel and find that it only goes an inch into the ground, then the addition of organic matter such as compost is often needed for many plants to grow and flower well. Finally, don’t forget that anything you plant will need water to survive and thrive. Irrigation systems should be planned alongside new landscaping additions.

Once you’ve considered these landscaping basics, it’s time to plan with a few key design principles in mind:

Balance: Balance involves arranging items in a landscape to achieve equilibrium. Choose, for example, to arrange plants in groups of threes or fives. While formal balance repeats the same elements in an equal pattern, informal balance can be achieved with repeated shapes, sizes or overall textures even when a design is not replicated as a mirror image.

Emphasis: Emphasis involves the domination and subordination of elements in a landscape, and it can be achieved by arranging items so that some stand out from others. An anchor or a focal point, such as a well-placed juniper snag, can hold attention and create visual interest in a landscape. Achieve emphasis by adding an anchor, or arrange plants around a naturally occurring anchor to accent it.

Scale: Scale, sometimes referred to as proportion, refers to the size of landscape elements in relation to each other. When planting a large area of a landscape or even a small garden area, consider scale in length, width, depth, and height. Begin with bigger plans such as trees and shrubs in the background and then work down to smaller plants such as perennials and annuals in the foreground. Consider the mature height of any plants, shrubs, and trees that you plant in order to maintain scale over time.

Texture: Plants come in a variety of textures, from coarse to fine or heavy to light. In order to appreciate plants with fine textures, such as ferns, place them in the foreground and in areas where they can be enjoyed up close. Coarser textured plants often work better in the background of a design, as the perspective keeps large textures in balance with proportions in the wider view.

Color: Color is one of the most important landscape design considerations, as it is often thought to affect both mood and feeling. Plants can be grouped together in cool or warm colors to create a cohesive feel, or they can be mingled together for a more eclectic experience.

The Plant Select website is a great resource for learning more about bloom times, flower characteristics, and colors. Plant Select also lists plants that perform well in the mountains and, most importantly, conserve water. Of course, your local garden center is an excellent place to go for immediate advice whether you’re still in the planning stages or in the middle of summer planting season.

Marty Jones is the owner and manager of Colorado Alpines & Wildflower Farm in Edwards. Marty has lived in the Vail area since 1973, and his work with Colorado Alpines & Wildflower Farm has inspired extraordinary landscapes and gardens in the Vail Valley and beyond. Marty can be reached at

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