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Balance in Design - Good landscapes keep an even keel.

- Luke MillerFrom Garden Gate Issue 18, December 1997

I went to one of those seminars on success a few years ago. The speaker stressed the need to find balance in one's life. It was a good point all right. As a matter of fact, it could just as well pertain to landscape design.

Successful landscape design is an art. So it's no surprise that the process of designing a garden depends on the same principles that govern the world of art. Those principles include accent, unity and rhythm, as well as balance. They are vital to establishing a pleasing landscape.

For centuries, landscape designers have used balance to create attractive, enduring gardens - from the geometric designs of ancient Egypt to the naturalistic designs of the Orient. Despite the passage of time, the fact remains: What worked 4,000 years ago still works today. Understanding and using balance will help lead you to success when laying out your own garden.

What is Balance?

Balance is like irony: It's hard to define, but you know when you see it. More to the point, you know when you don't see it. The dictionary defines balance as a harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion of parts in a design. What makes the arrangement satisfying is the stability - real or imagined - that it carries.

Think of a tray resting atop the palm of a server. Too much weight to either side and the tray will likely topple. Well, the mind's eye picks up on imbalance in other situations, too, even if there are no physical repercussions. That's why it's so important to strive for visual stability in garden design. It puts the mind at ease.

Visual stability is attained when plants are strategically placed in the garden with color, density, size and form in mind. All four of these traits carry visual weight. For instance, dark colors often appear heavier than whites and pastels while plants with fine-textured foliage (yarrow) strike us as being lighter in weight than those with coarse foliage (hibiscus).

However, density is also impacted by growth habit. Even though it has coarse-textured foliage, winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus) may seem lighter than a fine-textured boxwood (Buxus spp.). That's because the euonymus has an open growth habit compared to the boxwood's tightly packed foliage.

Size and form also affect the weight scale. For example, a tall tree needs an equal mass to balance it - either another vertical tree of similar size or a horizontal feature that's as wide as the tree is tall. If there's not enough room for a wide-spreading feature, you can simply move the more modest version away from the vertical element, just as a lighter kid would move farther from a heavier child on a teeter-totter.

Formal and informal

There are basically two roads to follow when seeking balance in the garden: symmetrical and asymmetrical. Formal landscapes have symmetrical balance. The viewer can determine a center line as well as right and left sides that mirror each other. A formal design is best used on flat ground or when working with a central feature, such as a fountain or front door.

The asymmetrical balance of informal garden designs isn't as readily perceived. It may seem random and natural, but it's well-organized and quite stable. One side may consist of tall forms, dark colors or rough textures. The other evens out the equation with a larger grouping of plants that are shorter, lighter colored or more finely textured. Informal designs are suitable for slopes, wooded areas or landscapes around structures lacking symmetry.

Point of View

It's important to decide what setting you're trying to balance. Do you want to balance the overall landscape picture or concentrate on individual garden beds? Once you've answered that question, it's time to pick a primary viewpoint.

If the garden will be viewed from more than one spot - say, from the street and from your front window - decide which view is the more important one. Once you're comfortable with the picture from that angle, you can adjust the balance of elements to suit the secondary view. Be patient because this may take some time and experimentation. Plus, the balance may change as your garden matures.

Is it Balanced?

It can be a tricky matter to determine whether a landscape is balanced or not. You'll probably rely more on intuition than conscious calculation. While there are complex mathematical formulas you can follow, the best solution may be to simply step back and take a good look, just as a painter would do with a piece of art.Take a look at these examples to get a feel for this design principal:

A landscape takes on a formal look when it has a centrally located focal point, such as this tree. Elements on either side of the focal point are placed symmetrically.
When a focal point is positioned off-center, a design is asymmetrical and therefore informal. In this case, the horizontal feature (shrubs) balances the vertical feature (tree).
The gazebo balances the much larger tree on the right. Although it is smaller in size, the gazebo's stiff, solid form carries as much visual weight as the tree's spreading canopy.
Not only is this landscape unbalanced, it also has too many competing focal points. The result is a "busy" picture that is visually ambiguous and unsatisfying.

Snap a photograph from the primary viewpoint, then hold the photo upside down. Does it look like it will tip over? If so, the visual weight of the design elements - plants, structures, etc. - may be out of whack. By balancing those elements, you'll make the composition more peaceful and satisfying.

Take a piece of tracing paper and tape it to the photograph. Then experiment by drawing in plants of various shapes and sizes. Once you've determined which shapes and sizes improve the overall balance of the picture, you'll have a better idea what kinds of plants to use. After that, it's just a matter of picking those that grow in your region and come in suitable colors. Leaf through some back issues of Garden Gate for ideas. And prepare to bring balance to your life!