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A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Landscape Design and Planning


Landscape design is all about shaping your outdoor space to reflect your personality and needs. Whether you’re looking to create a beautiful front yard, a cozy backyard haven, or both, understanding the basics of landscape design is essential. Here’s a quick snapshot to get you started:

  • Define Your Space: Assess your yard’s size and shape.
  • Choose a Style: Decide on a theme that suits your tastes.
  • Select Plants: Pick plants that match your climate and soil.
  • Incorporate Structures: Add paths, patios, or water features for interest.

Updating your home’s landscaping can greatly boost property value and provide a relaxing retreat. At Picano Landscaping, we pride ourselves on creating spectacular outdoor spaces that combine aesthetics and functionality, tailored to your needs.

Quick Landscape Design Basics Infographic - landscape design infographic infographic-line-5-steps

Understanding Landscape Design

Landscape design is more than just planting flowers and shrubs. It’s a blend of nature and culture, an art tradition, and an independent profession. Let’s dive into these aspects to understand how they shape your outdoor spaces.

Nature and Culture

Landscape design bridges the gap between nature and human culture. It’s about harmonizing natural elements like plants, water, and rocks with man-made structures such as patios, pathways, and furniture.

For instance, incorporating native plants into your garden can reflect local culture and support the environment. These plants are adapted to the local climate and require less maintenance, water, and pesticides.

Art Tradition

Landscape design is an art. It involves creativity and a keen eye for aesthetics. Designers use principles of art such as color, form, and texture to create visually appealing spaces.

Color: Using a color wheel helps in selecting plants that create a harmonious look. Combining warm and cool colors can add depth and interest to your garden.

Form: The shape and structure of plants and garden elements are crucial. For example, the weeping form of a willow tree can create a serene atmosphere, while columnar trees can add height and drama.

Texture: This refers to the visual and tactile quality of plants and materials. Mixing coarse and fine textures can make your garden more engaging.

Independent Profession

Landscape design is a specialized field that requires expertise and experience. Designers often work closely with architects, engineers, and contractors to bring their visions to life.

The profession is divided into two main roles: landscape designers and landscape architects. While both focus on creating beautiful and functional outdoor spaces, their scope and approach can differ.

  • Landscape Designers: They focus on the artistic and horticultural aspects. Their work includes detailed site involvement from conceptual stages to final construction.

  • Landscape Architects: They handle larger-scale projects like urban parks and city planning. They often delegate the construction phase to contractors after completing the design.

Understanding these roles can help you choose the right professional for your project. Whether you need a simple garden makeover or a complex landscape overhaul, knowing the basics of landscape design will guide you in making informed decisions.

Next, we’ll explore how to plan your landscape layout effectively.

Planning Your Landscape Layout

Planning your landscape layout is a crucial step in creating a beautiful and functional outdoor space. Here’s how to get started:

Outline Creation

Start with a rough sketch of your property or the area you want to work on. This doesn’t need to be perfect, but include any permanent features like your house, shed, large trees, or shrubs that will stay in place. Also, mark areas that are currently paved, patios, pools, etc.

Measure everything and note it on your sketch. Include windows and doors for views and traffic patterns, and note where water faucets and electrical outlets are located. This helps in planning the layout efficiently.

Transfer this map to graph paper and draw it to scale. This becomes your master copy. Make sure to note sun and shade patterns, wind-prone areas, and slopes. This detailed outline will be your guide throughout the design process.

Existing Features

Analyze the existing features in your yard. This includes:

  • Natural elements like trees, slopes, and water features.
  • Built structures such as patios, decks, and sheds.

Understanding these features helps in deciding what to keep, what to enhance, and what to remove. For instance, a mature tree might provide excellent shade and become a focal point, while a dilapidated shed might need replacing or removal.

Ground Cover

Choosing the right ground cover is essential for both aesthetics and functionality. Options include:

  • Grass: Ideal for play areas and creating a lush, green look.
  • Mulch or gravel: Great for pathways and low-maintenance areas.
  • Ground cover plants: These can add texture and color while preventing erosion on slopes.

Consider the maintenance level you’re comfortable with. Grass requires regular mowing and care, while mulch and gravel need less upkeep. Ground cover plants can be a good middle-ground, offering beauty with moderate maintenance.

New Elements

Adding new elements can transform your landscape. Think about:

  • Structures: Pergolas, arbors, and gazebos can add shade and visual interest.
  • Water features: Ponds, fountains, or waterfalls can bring tranquility and beauty.
  • Pathways: Use materials like stone, brick, or gravel to connect different areas and guide movement.
  • Seating areas: Create cozy spots with benches, chairs, or built-in seating.

Plan these elements carefully to ensure they fit well with the existing features and the overall design. For example, a water feature might become a focal point, drawing the eye and adding a sense of calm.

By following these steps, you’ll create a well-thought-out landscape layout that’s both beautiful and functional. Next, we’ll dive into choosing the right landscape style for your space.

Choosing Your Landscape Style

Selecting the perfect landscape style is crucial for creating an outdoor space that meets your needs and reflects your personality. Here are some popular styles and how to choose the right one for you:

Relaxation Goals

If your main goal is to create a peaceful retreat, consider styles that emphasize tranquility and simplicity.

  • Zen Gardens: Inspired by Japanese culture, these gardens feature minimalistic designs, gravel paths, and strategically placed rocks. They promote calm and meditation.
  • Woodland Gardens: Mimic the natural forest with lush greenery and shaded areas. Use native plants to create a low-maintenance, serene environment.

Example: One homeowner transformed their backyard into a woodland sanctuary with ferns, shade-loving perennials, and a small water feature. This created a peaceful escape from their busy urban life.


For those who prioritize the environment, a sustainable landscape design is a perfect choice.

  • Native Plants: Use plants that are native to your region. They require less water and maintenance, and they support local wildlife.
  • Rain Gardens: Design areas that capture and filter rainwater. These gardens are not only beautiful but also help reduce runoff and improve water quality.

Example: A family in Denver replaced their water-thirsty lawn with a rain garden filled with drought-tolerant plants. This not only saved water but also attracted butterflies and bees to their yard.

Children’s Play Area

If you have children, designing a landscape that includes a play area can provide a safe and fun environment for them to explore.

  • Safety First: Use non-toxic plants and avoid sharp-edged hardscaping materials.
  • Interactive Elements: Include a sandbox, swings, or a small climbing wall to keep kids engaged.

Example: A Boston family created a backyard with a mix of grass and rubber mulch, a small playhouse, and a vegetable garden. This allowed their kids to play safely and learn about gardening.

Entertaining Space

For those who love to host gatherings, an entertaining landscape style is ideal.

  • Outdoor Kitchens: Incorporate a grill, countertop, and seating. This makes cooking and serving meals outdoors easy and enjoyable.
  • Dining Areas: Create a space with a large table and comfortable chairs. Add a pergola or umbrella for shade.

Example: A homeowner in Las Vegas designed their backyard with an outdoor kitchen, a fire pit, and a dining area. They used drought-resistant plants and artificial turf to keep maintenance low while still providing a great space for entertaining.

Choosing the right landscape style involves considering your lifestyle, personal preferences, and the specific needs of your space. Whether you aim for relaxation, sustainability, child-friendly areas, or entertaining spaces, there’s a style that will suit you perfectly.

Next, we’ll explore the differences between landscape and landscape design, diving into the technical and aesthetic aspects that make a landscape truly stand out.

Landscape vs. Landscape Design

When it comes to creating an outdoor space, understanding the difference between landscape and landscape design is crucial. While “landscape” refers to the physical outdoor space itself, “landscape design” is the thoughtful planning and crafting of that space. Here, we’ll break down the key components that separate basic landscaping from professional landscape design: technical knowledge, aesthetics, plant selection, and structural design.

Technical Knowledge

Landscape design requires a deep understanding of various technical aspects. This includes soil conditions, climate, and drainage systems. For instance, knowing the local climate and soil type helps in selecting plants that will thrive. Proper drainage systems prevent waterlogging and erosion, which are common issues in poorly designed landscapes.

“A well-designed garden can increase your property value, so view this as an investment,” says Picano Landscaping.


Aesthetics play a significant role in landscape design. It’s not just about planting a few trees and shrubs; it’s about creating a visually pleasing and cohesive look. This involves using elements like color, form, texture, and line to create a harmonious space. For example, combining flowers of warm and cool colors can create contrast, while sticking to a single color group can provide a unified look.

Plant Selection

Choosing the right plants is more than just picking what looks good. It involves understanding which plants are suitable for your specific environment. For coastal landscapes, salt- and drought-tolerant plants are essential. In mountain landscapes, plants need to withstand rough weather and high altitudes.

Native plants are often a good choice because they are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions, making them easier to maintain.

Structural Design

Structural design involves planning the hardscape elements like pathways, patios, and retaining walls. These elements not only add to the aesthetics but also improve the functionality of the space. For example, a straight row of trees can act as a natural wall, creating boundaries and directing the viewer’s gaze.

“A modern home that looks like it’s in the middle of a forest or something naturalistic creates a contrast that highlights the architecture,” notes landscape designer Gerstle.

In summary, landscape design is a blend of technical knowledge and artistic vision. It’s about creating a space that is not only beautiful but also functional and sustainable.

Next, we’ll explore some free tools and resources that can help you get started on your landscape design journey.

Free Tools and Resources for Design

When it comes to landscape design, having the right tools can make a world of difference. Here are three invaluable resources to help you get started:

PRO Landscape Companion

PRO Landscape Companion is a powerful app designed for both professionals and DIY enthusiasts. It allows you to:

  • Visualize Your Design: Upload a photo of your yard and start adding plants, trees, and other elements.
  • Extensive Library: Choose from a wide range of plants, hardscapes, and other materials.
  • Easy to Use: Drag and drop elements to see how they look in your space.

PRO Landscape Companion is perfect for those who want a detailed and professional-looking design without needing extensive design skills.

iScape App

iScape is another fantastic app that brings your landscape design ideas to life:

  • Augmented Reality: Use AR to see what your design will look like in real-time.
  • User-Friendly: Simple drag-and-drop interface makes it easy for anyone to use.
  • Plant and Material Database: Access a variety of plants, fences, and garden materials.

However, the free version of iScape is a bit limited, offering only 10 layers and a smaller database. For larger projects, consider upgrading to the paid version.

USDA Zone Map

Before you start planting, it’s crucial to know what will thrive in your area. The USDA Zone Map helps with this:

  • Climate Zones: Identify your zone to choose plants that will survive and thrive in your climate.
  • Plant Selection: Ensure that you pick plants suited to your local temperature ranges and growing conditions.

Using the USDA Zone Map can save you time and money by ensuring that you select the right plants from the start.

By leveraging these tools and resources, you can transform your landscape design ideas into a beautiful and functional outdoor space.

Next, we’ll dive into the core principles and elements that make up an effective landscape design.

Design Principles and Elements

When it comes to landscape design, understanding the core principles and elements is crucial. These principles help create a harmonious, balanced, and visually appealing outdoor space. Let’s break down each of these principles and elements to see how they can be applied.


Proportion is all about the size relationship between different parts of your landscape. Imagine a tiny shrub next to a massive tree; it wouldn’t look balanced. Proportion ensures that each element feels right in its space. For example, if you have a large house, opt for larger trees and shrubs to maintain balance.


Transition helps avoid abrupt changes that can make your landscape look disjointed. For instance, if you have a tall stone wall next to your house, adding gradually taller trees between them can create a smooth transition. This makes the space feel more cohesive.


Unity is achieved when all elements in the garden complement each other and follow a single overarching theme. For example, using the same type of small trees to flank a driveway can create a unified look. Repetition of similar forms or colors can also promote unity.


Rhythm involves the patterned repetition of elements to guide the viewer’s eye. Planting the same type of flowers in a row or creating a hedge can direct attention in a specific direction. Straight lines are particularly effective in controlling eye movement.


Balance ensures that no part of the garden feels heavier or more dominant than another. This can be achieved by evenly placing similar-sized plants or features around the garden. For example, placing a large tree on either side of your house can balance the visual weight.


Focalization directs the viewer’s attention to a specific focal point in the garden without being jarring. This can be done using balanced, consistent arrangements of elements. A well-placed statue or a unique plant can serve as an effective focal point.


Color is often the most noticeable element in a landscape design. Using a mix of warm and cool colors can create contrast, while sticking to one color group can provide a unified look. A color wheel can help you choose complementary colors for your garden.


Form refers to the shape and structure of plants and their branching patterns. Trees can be columnar, globular, or weeping, each adding a different visual element. The form of leaves and branches also contributes to the overall aesthetic.


Texture is primarily a visual element, influenced by leaf size and plant structure. Mixing plants with different textures can add variety without disrupting unity. For example, pairing coarse-textured plants with fine-textured ones can create an interesting visual contrast.


Line refers to how you arrange borders and pathways to guide the viewer’s eye. Straight lines can create a formal look, while curved lines offer a more relaxed feel. Lines can also indicate boundaries and direct movement through the garden.


Scale is about the size of one element relative to another. For instance, small shrubs may look out of place in front of a large house unless there is a transition. Conversely, they may be perfectly scaled for a smaller home.

By understanding and applying these principles and elements, you can create a landscape that is both beautiful and functional. Each choice should contribute to a cohesive and inviting outdoor space.

Next, we’ll explore the different types of landscapes and how to choose the best one for your needs.

Types of Landscapes

When it comes to landscape design, understanding the different types of landscapes can help you choose the best one for your needs. Each type has unique characteristics that can influence your plant choices, layout, and overall design. Let’s dive into some common landscape types:

Mountain Landscapes

Mountain landscapes are known for their rugged terrain and higher altitudes. The weather can be harsh, with strong winds and cooler temperatures. Plants here need to be tough. Think of evergreens, hardy shrubs, and native grasses. These plants can withstand the elements and add natural beauty to the landscape.

Flat Landscapes

Flat landscapes often consist of open meadows, farms, and flat lands. These areas usually lack natural protection from extreme weather. To design a flat landscape, consider using windbreaks like rows of trees or tall shrubs. Also, choose drought-resistant plants that can thrive even in less-than-ideal conditions.

Coastal Landscapes

Coastal landscapes are exposed to salty air and often have sandy soil. Plants in these areas need to be both salt- and drought-tolerant. Think of grasses, succulents, and coastal shrubs. These plants not only survive but thrive in such conditions, making your coastal garden both beautiful and resilient.

English Gardens

English gardens are lush and full of life. They often feature a mix of flowering plants, shrubs, and trees. These gardens are designed to look natural yet maintained, with winding pathways and quaint benches. If you love a traditional and romantic garden aesthetic, an English garden might be perfect for you.

Modern Gardens

Modern gardens have a sleek, uncluttered look. They focus on geometric shapes and a carefully curated selection of plants. Less is more in modern gardens, and the emphasis is on the shapes and materials used. This style is great for those who appreciate a clean, contemporary aesthetic.

Woodland Gardens

Woodland gardens evoke the feeling of being in the woods. They feature dense foliage, shade from trees, and a more untamed look. These gardens can attract more birds and wildlife, adding to their natural charm. Woodland gardens require less maintenance and can transport you to a seemingly wild, secret garden.

Sustainable Gardens

Sustainable gardens focus on eco-friendly practices. They often feature native plants, rainwater barrels, and vegetable plots. The goal is to create a garden that is both beautiful and good for the environment. Xeriscaping, which uses drought-tolerant plants to reduce water usage, is a popular choice for sustainable gardens.


Xeriscaping is all about water conservation. This type of landscaping uses plants that require minimal water, reducing or eliminating the need for irrigation. Native plants are often used, creating a natural and sustainable outdoor environment. It’s a great option for those looking to save on water bills and create an eco-friendly garden.

Each of these landscape types offers unique benefits and can be tailored to suit your personal style and the climatic conditions of your area. Whether you’re drawn to the simplicity of a modern garden or the eco-friendly aspects of xeriscaping, there’s a landscape design that can meet your needs.

Next, we’ll discuss how to implement your design, from hardscape planning to plant selection.

Implementing Your Design

Designing your landscape is just the beginning. Now, let’s dive into the practical steps to bring your vision to life. We’ll cover hardscape planning, grass selection, raised planting beds, structures, seating areas, and plant selection.

Hardscape Planning

Hardscape refers to the solid, non-living elements of your landscape. Think patios, walkways, and retaining walls. These elements add structure and functionality to your outdoor space.

Steps to Plan Hardscape:

  1. Visualize: Imagine your dream space. Do you see a cozy fire pit, a sleek outdoor kitchen, or a serene garden path?
  2. Budget: Understand how much you can afford to spend. While hardscaping can be a bigger investment upfront, it saves on long-term maintenance.
  3. Choose Materials: Pick materials like stone, concrete, or pavers. Each offers different looks and durability. For example, permeable pavers are great for areas prone to drought.

Grass Selection

Choosing the right type of grass for your climate can make a big difference in maintenance and appearance.

Types of Grass:

  • Climate-Specific Grass: Requires less water and fewer pesticides.
  • Native Grasses: Adapted to local conditions and more resilient.


  • Low Maintenance: Less mowing and watering.
  • Eco-Friendly: Reduces the need for chemicals.

Raised Planting Beds

Raised planting beds are excellent for growing vegetables, flowers, or herbs. They offer better control over soil quality and drainage.


  • Improved Soil Quality: Easier to amend soil.
  • Better Drainage: Reduces waterlogging.
  • Accessibility: Easier to manage and harvest.


Adding structures like pergolas, arbors, or trellises can enhance your landscape’s visual appeal and functionality.


  • Shade: Pergolas provide shaded areas for relaxation.
  • Vertical Space: Trellises and arbors allow for vertical gardening, saving ground space.

Seating Areas

Creating multiple seating areas can make your outdoor space more functional and inviting.


  • Patios: Great for dining and entertaining.
  • Benches: Perfect for quiet contemplation.
  • Fire Pits: Cozy spots for gathering on chilly evenings.

Plant Selection

Choosing the right plants is crucial for a thriving landscape.

Tips for Plant Selection:

  • Native Plants: Better adapted to local climate and soil.
  • Seasonal Interest: Select plants that offer year-round visual appeal.
  • Pollinator-Friendly: Attract bees and butterflies with the right plants.

Expert Tip: “Let your lifestyle and the way you want to use the space drive what you put in it,” advises Melissa Gerstle, founder of Melissa Gerstle Design.

By carefully planning your hardscape, selecting the right grass, incorporating raised planting beds, adding structures, creating seating areas, and choosing suitable plants, you can create a beautiful and functional outdoor space that reflects your personal style.

Next, we’ll explore some tips for successful landscape design, including outdoor lighting and budget planning.

Tips for Successful Landscape Design

Outdoor Lighting

Outdoor lighting can transform your garden. It extends the hours you can enjoy your space and makes everything safer at night. Use a mix of soft, ambient lighting and bright, focused lights. Soft lights create a cozy atmosphere, while focused lights highlight walkways and garden features.

Pro Tip: “Lighting is like magic for outdoor spaces,” says a Picano Landscaping expert. “It highlights your favorite spots and makes everything safer at night.”

Material Aging

Materials age differently outdoors. Think about how materials will look in five or ten years. For example, wood needs regular staining, while limestone develops a patina. Choose materials that will age gracefully and match your style.

Expert Insight: “Think ahead five or ten years: Do you want a porous limestone that will withstand wear and tear and patina over time, or something like porcelain tile that will always look clean?” advises Melissa Gerstle.

Multiple Seating Areas

Create multiple seating areas to enjoy different parts of your garden. This can include a dining area, a quiet corner for reading, and a spot for morning coffee. Different areas make your garden more versatile and enjoyable.

Quick Tip: Use different types of seating, like benches, chairs, and hammocks, to create inviting spaces throughout your garden.

Budget Planning

Budget planning is crucial for a successful landscape design. Start by listing all the elements you want, such as plants, lighting, and seating areas. Then, prioritize them based on your budget.

Fact: “There’s more of a demand for low-maintenance spaces,” notes Gerstle. Consider this when planning your budget to save on long-term costs.

Spatial Planning

Consider how you will use the space and how different areas will flow together. Use pathways to connect zones and ensure easy access to all parts of your garden. Think about the scale of plants and structures to create a balanced look.

Design Insight: “In garden design, proportion refers to the size relationship of the different parts within a landscape plan,” explains Gerstle. Bigger is often better outdoors, as the sky and tree canopy provide a more open feel.

By focusing on these tips—outdoor lighting, material aging, multiple seating areas, budget planning, and spatial planning—you can create a successful and enjoyable landscape design. Next, we’ll answer some frequently asked questions about landscape design.

Frequently Asked Questions about Landscape Design

Is there a free app to design landscape?

Yes, there are several free apps that can help you design your landscape. iScape is a popular option. It allows you to upload a real photo of your site and layer different elements over it. You can also walk around your outdoor space and capture images from different viewpoints. The app’s augmented reality feature shows ideas in real time.

However, the free version of iScape has limitations, such as only 10 layers and a limited database of plants and hardscapes. For more extensive projects, you might still want to consult with a professional who can consider all aspects of your site.

How do I create a landscape layout?

Creating a landscape layout involves a few key steps:

  1. Outline: Start with a rough sketch of your property. Include permanent features like your house, shed, large trees, and paved areas.

  2. Measure: Take your rough sketch outside and measure everything. Note these measurements on the sketch. Include details like windows, doors, water faucets, and electrical outlets.

  3. Transfer: Transfer your property map to graph paper and draw it to scale. Mark sun and shade patterns, wind-prone areas, and slopes.

  4. Trace: Use tracing paper over your master copy to experiment with different designs. This allows you to try different ideas without altering your original plan.

How do I choose a landscape style?

Choosing a landscape style depends on your goals and preferences:

  • Relaxation Goals: If you want a peaceful retreat, consider a Zen garden or a woodland sanctuary.

  • Sustainability: For eco-friendly options, look into xeriscaping or a rain garden.

  • Children’s Play Area: Create a safe and fun space with durable ground cover and play structures.

  • Entertaining Space: Design an area with seating, dining spaces, and maybe even a fire pit or outdoor kitchen.

Consider your lifestyle and how you plan to use the space. Look at photos of different styles for inspiration and think about what elements resonate with you.

By understanding these basics, you can make informed decisions and create a landscape that fits your needs and style. Up next, we’ll delve into the differences between landscape and landscape design.


In landscape design, attention to detail is crucial. Every element, from plant selection to hardscaping, must be carefully chosen and placed to create a cohesive and beautiful outdoor space. We believe that by focusing on the small details, we can transform your yard into a stunning and functional area that you’ll love.

Our commitment to quality services sets us apart. At Picano Landscaping, we use high-quality materials and proven techniques to ensure that your landscape not only looks great but also stands the test of time. Whether it’s installing durable hardscapes or selecting plants that thrive in your local climate, we prioritize excellence in every project.

Enhancing your residential property through thoughtful landscape design can significantly increase its value and your enjoyment of it. A well-designed landscape provides a beautiful setting for relaxation, entertaining, and family activities. It also contributes to the overall curb appeal of your home, making it more attractive to potential buyers.

Ready to transform your outdoor space? Learn more about our hardscape services and how we can help you create a landscape that enhances your lifestyle and property value.

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