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Strike a balance: Stuff vs. space in the garden

Zoom out to the big design picture before focusing on the little details, to create a garden with all the elements in balance.

I bet I know what you're doing right now. You're looking for ideas for your garden, hoping to find that one inspiring photo that starts your creative juices flowing. The one that results in an "ah ha!" moment and breaks a stubborn case of designer's block.

I encourage my students and readers to analyze and deconstruct the design principles that underlie gardens that inspire them. Humans have a strong attraction to color (we don't have 6 million cones in each eye for nothing), so it might seem logical to focus your design energy on conjuring up beautiful foliage and flower combos.

For me, that's the last step. Before you get carried away, zoom out and think about how that inspiring garden uses the overall space. Not to get too technical on you, but observe how much stuff is in the garden and how much space is left. "Stuff" is a not-so-sophisticated term for the plants, boulders, furnishings and constructed elements that you'll find in most gardens. "Space" refers to the unencumbered surfaces you can move through without bumping your shins or that you can look across: paths, lawns, paved areas or the surface of a pond. The principle of stuff versus space applies in many design disciplines; think of the way a graphic artist uses white space to bring visual balance to the text and images on a page.

Also, look at how these two complementary elements are arranged and balanced. Are the masses and objects formally aligned along an axis, or does the visual weight of the composition create a less-deliberate feeling? This simple but frequently overlooked design principle affects our fundamental spatial experience and needs to be considered whether you're designing an entirely new garden or simply revamping a few beds in your existing yard.

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