Scale is the relationship of objects to one another. For instance, the height of the ceiling in your house may be 8, 9, or 10 feet. This is a comfortable space for an individual human or a family group. The h
eight of a ceiling in a department store may be 10, 12, or 15 feet. This is because the space accommodates many more humans and things, in this case merchandise. The space feels comfortable and appropriate for the use.
When designing your garden, you should consider scale in several ways. First, how much of the exterior space of your property will be garden compared to house size or lawn space? Second, what plants-due to their hight and width-will fit comfortably in your garden and work with the size of the house? Size of the house in particular being height, and secondarily mass. Third, which of the plants you choose will be massed to create one large form and how big will that form be to balance with the size of your house or property? In the example at right, the yard space between houses is narrow. The space was divided into different elements to create the illusion of a larger space. The ‘room’ area of the back deck is a space its own, and the size of the deck doesnot overwhelm the space as a whole. The pot on the terra cotta colored pedestal is just about eye level. This brings in a ‘layer’ under the
taller trees. It too is sized proportionately to the space, not too wide, not too tall. The amount of green groundcover around the pedestal balances the white patio stone and the size of the deck. The small fountain in the foreground complements the size of the entry to the garden. Any larger and it would take all the attention away from the other elements of the garden.
Let’s begin with the first consideration of garden size to house size. If this is a project you plan to implement yourself, meaning you are performing all the labor, then your garden may be predicated on how much work YOU can comfortably accomplish. My advice to everyone: start small, be reasonable. This will help you accomplish a goal in a reasonable period of time. It will also keep you from be overwhelmed if you have a large piece of property. With these thoughts in mind, where do you want to begin? Around the front door, around the mail box, at the end of the driveway, or across the front of the house? Take out your garden hose and outline the space you would like to design. Leave the hose in place for a few days and walk around it to see if this size feels comfortable. Take a digital photo of the area and its surroundings. I will give you instructions on how to use this later in the article.
Next, let’s consider the plants you may want to use. You may have seen plants in other yards in your neighborhood or on your travels around town. Write down all your plant names and begin to research their sizes. If you are in the central Texas area, the Landscape Guide to Plants produced by the City of Austin’s Grow Green program is a first, easy, free, resource for plant growth conditions. Here is where you want to consider height and width of plants in size and their relation to your house or other structures. A common example I use is to think of the size of a
bald cypress which can grow up to 60 feet tall. Now, if it were planted near a small cottage or bungalow style house, or any one story home which is commonly only 12-15 feet tall, that huge tree would feel completely out of place. (Unless you happen to live next to a river where these magnificent trees are growing naturally). If you want a tall tree for shade: monterrey oak, chinquapin, burr, etc., be sure you have the width to your property as well. Additionally, to bring these taller trees into scale with your house, plan for space for shorter trees and shrubs downgrading in size as they lead to the house or outdoor living space. Alternatively, if you are working on a plan for a courtyard, be sure of the mature sizes of trees and shrubs in relation to the amount of space you have.
In the example to the left, a standard southern magnolia is the shade tree and featured element of this front garden. This magnolia is in front of a two story house with a steep pitched roof. The roof reaches up tall next to this tall evergreen tree. The plants in this garden graduate in size from the magnolia giving the eye a full screen of interest from top to bottom. Next in size down from the magnolia is a bay laurel. At maturity it will be several feet taller than shown here, standing solidly next to the magnolia. Down from the bay are spring bouquet viburnums. Viburnums are large shrubs in this setting. And at the foot of all are bi-color iris.
Now back to the digital photo of the area you want to plan. Print out the photo and tape a piece of tracing paper over the photo. Draw in the outline of the garden bed and start to sketch in the new plants you want. Use nearby
plants in the landscape for scale, i.e., height and width as a reference for how big to draw your new plants. For instance, in t
he photo below we have a topiaried boxwood that is three feet tall. Now, if you want to plant a sweet olive next to it, by research you have found that this small tree can grow to 10 feet tall but is a slow grower and is going to stay about six feet tall. So you would draw an outline of the sweet olive about twice as tall as the boxwood. This reference from this point of view will give you a better feel for how your new garden will feel when full.
Here are some more photos representing scale. Notice how the structures are comfortable sizes compared to garden size. Also notice the ‘layering’ where there is plant interest throughout the
vertical plane. In the photo with the tiered fountain, there is a short picket fence in the background. The height of the fountain is approximately 5’. If this were a taller fountain with more tiers or wider, it would overwhelm the space it is in. The large fountain would be cumbersome, hard to work around, and take all the visual appeal up for itself. With this fountain sized just right, your mind is available to view the entire scene, to sit back and relax and see who else is visiting the flora.