Design Theories and Styles


To begin talking about landscape design and style, I’d like to review a few definitions.

  • A garden is the relationship between plants, people and materials over a specific time working within the framework of ones climate and conditions.
  • Garden design is a process of giving tangible substance and form to functional needs, hopes and desires and emotions using the raw materials of the landscape.Style.JPG To design your landscape, coordinate your expected use of spaces with plants and materials. You creatively shape specific spaces for specific reasons. Refer to your written statement and plan. We design every day. Everyday when we dress ourselves, we coordinate our clothes and accessories, with our emotion of the day and our expected daily activity. In designing a meal, we coordinate foods and dinnerware for specific health and taste needs and emotions arranged functionally and esthetically.
  • Style is the way elements in the landscape are arranged.Style fountain.JPG Style depends on a unifying choice of plants, hardscape and space and their placement in relationship to each other. Plants, hardscape (paths, benches, arches, pergolas, water features, pots, etc), aspect - the lay of the land, and degree of space between them represent feelings, emotions, uses, and needs. Similarities of plant form and objects and their arrangement denote meaning to us. Many are universal impressions, some are personal. Designers create their own style by repeating the scheme, with minor variations. A designer’s style is recognizable and familiar when viewing a collection of his work.


Two Design Theories

There are choices to be made all along the line of design. The first cross in the road occurs at the junction of the two theories of garden creation. Control oriented gardening and cooperative oriented gardening.

Control Oriented Gardening

In control oriented gardening, the gardener wishes to subject the plant to the gardener’s will. Control oriented gardens require higher maintenance.

Style formal.JPG

Control oriented gardening styles are formal styles (lines, geometric patterns), symmetrical (mirror images) and asymmetrical where controlling the size and shape of the plant by clipping, pruning and shearing are repetitive maintenance tasks. Examples of these garden types are knot gardens, topiaries, bonsai, gardens composed of bedding plants and themed gardens using plants not conducive to our climate and conditions. Any garden composed of just one plant species is control oriented. Lawns are control-oriented landscapes.

Cooperative Oriented Gardening

Cooperative gardening seeks to garden within the scope of the environment, climate and soil conditions. Cooperative gardening styles include the naturalistic style, and organic design style. Instead of the gardener forcing his will upon the plant, the gardener either gardens within his present environmental conditions (naturalistic style) or provides conditions conducive to the plant’s natural growth (organic design style). Cooperative oriented gardening requires a good deal less maintenance, often very low maintenance. Cooperative gardening frequently employs curves and sweeps and is more often informal than formal.

Organic design styles depend on soil amending to provide a more hospitable environment. The naturalistic design style depends primarily on native plants. Organic design uses plant allies that may not be native, but are adaptive to our area’s climate and conditions. Plant allies are plant species or varieties from the same genera or from related genera within a family that are more suitable to our area that will enhance your chosen styles. Using adaptive plants carries the drawback of unsuitability for our native fauna. Our local animal inhabitants may not be able to use the plant material for food or habitat.

Cooperative gardening is site oriented, capitalizing on garden microclimates. Features of site orientation are:

  • Positioning for sun and shade locations
  • Positioning for windy or sheltered areas
  • Positioning for the allowed space
  • Positioning for temperature variations
  • Positioning according to soil type, texture and drainage, pH and organic content.
  • Positioning for water conservation—Hydro-zoning

The trend today in gardening is cooperation with nature, the main benefit being much lower maintenance. But there are other benefits as well. Cooperating with nature, or gardening in harmony with nature, lessens problems such as disease and pest infestations. It is easier to be ecologically friendly with cooperative gardening, than control oriented gardening. When we garden paying attention to the will of the plant, rather than our own will, the plant is healthier and less susceptible to attack.

Naturalistic Style

Examples of the naturalistic style are wildscaping or habitat gardening using primarily native plants for your particular soil type, climate and conditions (riparian, montane, alpine, woodlands, semi-arid, desert, etc). It’s a concept based on mimicking native plant communities. The native plant communities attract native fauna that aid in a functional ecosystem. The naturalistic style includes groundcovers, low-growing perennials, shrubs and trees. Vines and climbers and their hardscape supports, tie them all together. Remember, in creating a style, there must be unity of plants and hardscape. Your choice of hardscape should match the plants and their arrangement.

Organic Design Style

Styles of organic design are varied, from rock gardens, water gardens, cactus gardens, cottage gardens, vegetable gardens and orchards to Japanese and Zen gardens, to name a few.Style Herb.JPG Organic design gardens use native, naturalized and adaptive plants suitable to climate and conditions. Initial soil amending to fit the plant expands our gardening possibilities.

Organic design unleashes the power of the plant, using a plant for what it is, not what we hope it would be (Ann Lovejoy’s Organic Garden Design School, Ann Lovejoy, Rodale Organic Gardening Books, 2001). The gardener cooperates with the plant by using plants that fit their space naturally at maturity, without repetitive maintenance tasks to keep them in check or shape. For instance, choose a shrub to be located under a window whose mature height reaches to the sill, and not higher. One way to look at cooperative gardening is: What conditions need to be present for the plant to just be itself? Conversely, you might ask yourself, this is the location and these are my conditions (refer to section on our area’s unique conditions), what plant will naturally work here?

Garden Management Statement

My Gardening Management Statement reads: “To create a beautifully thriving, low water-use, low maintenance, ecologically friendly garden composed of long blooming plants and plants of interesting and unusual foliage.” This falls under the cooperative oriented gardening theory, organic design style. I’ve decided not to limit myself to primarily native plants. Therefore, I am willing to prepare my soil for a wider range of plants requiring slightly different soil conditions than what is already here. The arrangement of plants in relation to my location and hardscape varies somewhat from bed to bed. Some mimic a rock garden, some beds mimic a cottage garden.

This website focus is on lower maintenance gardening. It is an information source more for the cooperative, than the control style of gardening. More for the organic design, than naturalistic design. The naturalistic design, though easier to implement due to less soil amending, requires knowledge of the interaction of animals with the plants.

Review your Garden Management Statement and determine which theory of gardening, control or cooperative oriented, you need to implement.

Countless books have been written about the design process and techniques, all of them better than what I can reiterate. Many of them will help you with design principles. Two books I have gained much insight from are Ann Lovejoy’s Organic Design School, by Ann Lovejoy and Natural by Design, by Judith Phillips.