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Elements of Landscape Design: More than meets the eye.

Today’s post on on elements of landscape design comes from former classmate and colleague Heidi Wilk.  Heidi is a Landscape Designer, located in Stillwater, MN and holds a Master’s degree in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota.  Her company, Spruced Huis, is a women’s owned company, offers services including landscape design, seasonal container design and front porch styling.  Landscape design is something Heidi really enjoys.  She loves the challenge of creating a space of seasonal change, plant diversity, and admiration

Several years back, I worked on my thesis for my Landscape Design Degree.  I won’t bore you with the lengthy details, however, I wanted to share a few key principles that I learned from this project that I continue to find important today. As landscape designers and architects, we follow a few key principles that allow us to create unusual and interesting landscape designs.  For example, asymmetrical balance, seasonal interest, authenticity (materials and habitat), proportion/scale and simplicity.  In addition, I would like to share a few more unique design principles, often utilized in Japanese garden design.  They will surely add value to your curb appeal!

Hide and Reveal

One of the most prevalent elements of subtlety and mystery in the garden is the quality of “Hide and Reveal”.  The Japanese believe that in showing the viewer the whole garden all at once, the interest of the viewer is lost.  Gardens should be looked at from several different angles and viewpoints in order to discover the hidden treasures of the garden.  To best use the method of “Hide and Reveal” elements in the garden ought to be partially concealed, creating a sense of mystery and encouraging visitors to continue their journey.  It is the glimpse before the reveal.  For example, imagine walking along a winding path.  Around an upcoming bend you can see a branch sticking out with brightly colored blossoms, as you get closer and turn with the bend, the rest of the tree is revealed.  Off in the distance you can hear the bubbling sound of running water.  You follow the sound to discover a small waterfall or fountain.  “Hide and Reveal” can appeal to all of the human senses.  Your space is yours to create.  Try using “Hide and Reveal” with whimsical elements, such as placing a carved sleeping cat within a glade of ferns or under a low-lying tree, or place a small stone frog next to a pond.  You could even imprint little paw prints or leaf prints into a path.  The path through a garden is a journey.  “Hide and Reveal” makes the journey enjoyable and encourages you to keep looking.


Particularly in the dry landscape garden, communication through implication or suggestion, rather than direct statement, is important.  Sand or stones can be placed in a manner to imply water.  Implication is becoming more common in the form of dry creek beds.  These are designed to capture and guide rainwater to an area where the water is then dispersed.  A winding trench is dug out and replaced with river rock and boulders in the same pattern of a creek.  Dry creek beds can be very beautiful in the landscape.  Using implication is a low maintenance and inexpensive way to imply water in the garden.

 Inspiration from Famous Landscapes

Capture the essence of locally well-known scenery in the garden.  For example, you may want to create an impression of the local river valley, lake or sea shore.  To accomplish this, use materials and elements found in the region to make the scene convincing, such as rock, boulders, native plant material, wood, and metal.  A second example of a more common landscape might be a site with a pond.  To accomplish an authentic habitat, plant a weeping willow along the shore, aquatic plants in pond, scatter regional rock along the perimeter, and finish the site off with plants native to the area.  Be sure to interpret the most interesting points without literally copying them.  Copycat gardens are empty of significance and lack integration with the landscapes around them.

Signs of Maturation

Aged quality and time is an important concept in Japanese gardens.  Using materials or elements with mature characteristics help make Japanese gardens unique.  It is simple to include signs of maturation in the garden.  For example, encourage the growth of moss and lichens on trees and rocks, include rocks with water stains and striations, and use weathered wood with bleach marks in the landscape.  These subtle characteristics will give the garden an overall feeling of peacefulness and mellowness.


For many Japanese people, wabi-sabi describes a mind-set for how they live their lives.  Living a wabi-sabi lifestyle means living modestly, learning to be satisfied with life as it is, without materialism, and living in the moment.  Wabi-sabi is also the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection, accepting the natural cycle of aging.  When applied to outdoor spaces, creating a wabi-sabi environment means designing a humble and simple space using organic materials and elements that will show their wear with time.  The space should be uncluttered and well maintained.  Examples of elements in a wabi-sabi space would be a boulder with divots, scratches and moss growing on it, a wood fence made from weathered and twisted wood, or an old wheelbarrow or shovel with wear marks on the handles and rust on the metal sitting against a crooked shed.  It also includes plants, such as an old, gnarled, bur oak tree with large crevices in the bark, or a peeling river birch tree with lichens growing on it.

Regardless of the size of your garden space, try to utilize some or all of these ideas.  You will find that it will make your space more interesting and others will too.