Design principles as applied to landscape and garden design

So first the principle, then some stories…


Garden has a sense of harmony between contrasting forces

there are two kinds of symmetry – bilateral and radial

bilateral is like a person –

if you cut em down the middle top to bottom

fold em,

the right is more or less like the left, more or less

radial symmetry is like an urchin or a sea star

you can cut it down the middle a bunch of ways, this way, that way

and it is symmetrical when you fold it

like a wheel with spokes – radial symmetry

symmetry is present  in the garden, for example –

hedges on the right are same as on the left

stone lion on both sides of the gate or doorway

the geometric star shaped fountain in the middle of the garden

as people, we like this, it makes us smile

it brings a certain sense of order and structure to the landscape

and yet, we also appreciate the slight wibble wobbles of things off kilter

just a little bit

that is the asymmetry in the garden

this can refer to space, to objects, to visual weight

this can be any sort of an imbalance that makes you pay attention and squint a little bit

one side is different from the other side

they say that is how a baby recognizes its parent

this is what distinguishes factory perfect forms from natural and organic forms

in the garden, a large rock balances the flat patio space

there are sun loving plants opposite shade loving plants

wind comes around one way blistering

then mellows out by the sheltered wall

the garden goes high and low in elevation, like hills and valleys

tall narrow trees are grouped with short wide shrubs on the sides

creeping ground cover with roses sticking up behind

this is asymmetry –

it is a way to embrace the tension inherent in,

and flowing through,

dynamic living systems


Indicates a good fit in the relationship between

people and the garden

for example

the garden gate and paths are right size for the yard

enough for a person or two and a wheelbarrow

the specimen tree is not too big and dominant

and shading out everybody else

the -scape is not too hard, not too soft (not all deck, not all plants)

its not just about flat usable spaces

or being a wanna be jungle

the garden is a magical happy place

for people and nature to hang out


a place that is somewhere between

an outdoor room and a nature sanctuary

small herb bed with easy access

(you can only use so many herbs, they are strong scents!)

big vegetable bed further back in the full sun

(give the carrots and swiss chard some room, the artichokes too)

no overgrown vines

make sure maintenance over time is in scale with the growth of plants

and boy do those vines take over if you fall asleep on your watch

necessary tools fit in the shed

with a table for propagation, a spot to store some pots

don’t want to haul dirt mucked shovels into the house

don’t want to be washing clay into the kitchen sink, backin it up

garden fits well in the neighborhood

it takes account of ecological and cultural criteria

scale and proportion

a garden ought to fit like a nice summer shirt or a snug wetsuit

comfy, looking cheerful and relaxed, does the job

good fit


The garden moves through time and space with a nice flow

there is the regular beat below, steady and syncopated

and the artistic/creative flow on top

you are playing with nature’s song, old man’s weaving, and grandma’s basket

use patterns and repetition

over and over and over again

slightly changed every time you go around again

but tweaked just a little bit to make it hum, make it kzam

brick herringbone, curved paths and beds, diagonals and triangles

more than one of each plant, preferably three or more…

here, then there, then here again

so that when they light up it goes pbam pbing pbong ping pong

theres borders on the hardscape, borders on softscape

the refrain, then back to the story, the refrain again

Sprinkle on variety and diversity

flowers for spring, for summer, for fall, for winter

leaves for year round color and forms

hanging baskets, containers on walls

imagine the garden as a song with an eternal loop and seasonal movements


its all in the timing


There are characteristics and ideas and features that link the garden together

so that it appears as one coherent unit

conceptual themes can include:

native plants and their communities

drought tolerant/xeriscape

cactus and succulents

a garden for meditation

a garden to awe visitors and host parties

an eclectic collection, Victorian party

or simply plants with similar ecological needs bunched together

You can also group with

forms and colors:

all shades of green

all white flowers

all red magenta leaves

all plants with that leafy exploding form, from sedges to rushes to grasses and palms and whoever else

gray blue slate from the roof tops to the patio

ceramic mosaics covering the tables and retaining walls

in a garden with unity

everything sticks together

twists and meshes as a whole

folds & tucks one into another, and curls into tight spirals

there are no tangles of inscrutable knots

nor scenes of empty abandoned flower beds

and crumpled plans

a unified garden

is accomplished with good design at the outset

followed by years of of steady sincere garden work

to sew the hems of tree branches

to gather the seeds of fallen nuts

and clean the pathways of rotten fruits and careless garbage

Some philosophies and principles around making of gardens, for further reading and contemplation:

Creating a garden is a spiritual act:

God Almighty first planted a Garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks. And a man shall ever see, that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection.   – Sir Francis Bacon (followers include Paul Comstock, Bill Evans)

The garden is useful and functional:

Any tendency to design for design’s sake, to create a pattern within which the owner must live according to rules set by the designer, is headed for frustration, if not disaster.  – Thomas Church

As social inequities become more complex, those who have more than the average, and more than they need, tend to express or flaunt such surpluses…. For the common man, dish gardens, patios or suburban backyards may provide symbols of memories of the paradise of the rich. – Garrett Eckbo

Garden is a creative embodiment of the designer.

A garden is a result of an arrangement of natural materials according to aesthetic laws; interwoven throughout are the artist’s outlook on life, his past experiences, his affections, his attempts, his mistakes and his successes.  – Roberto Burle Marx

Structure is the most important component in a successful planting; colour is important too but it is a secondary consideration.  – Piet Oudolf

The garden is  the gateway to  inner designs.

As you work to heal your land, you will find that you will restore yourself.


We are drawn to certain locations where the land resonates with us and pulls us towards it.  People can spend their entire lives looking for the places where they belong, places where they feel at home, where they fit and can comfortably set down roots.

– Mary Reynolds

The following are some garden stories from around town and beyond.  They will be used to discuss the principles described.


This here is a housing development named Parkmerced by the west side of town near Lake Merced, the Harding Golf Course, the Oceanside water treatment plant, and the Ocean Beach surf break called Sloat.  It was designed by the renowned landscape architect Thomas Church, along with collaborators  Leonard Schultze and aided by Robert Royston.  All the streets radiate out from the circular park in the middle named Juan Bautista Circle.  It is a city within a city.  Radially geometric, so radial symmetry.    Do you like it?  What do you think it would be like to live there?  When I drive into this development it is easy to get lost or go in circles…


Along the lines of radial symmetry I carved this gourd for my mushroom teacher named J.R. Blair, who is currently the director of the Sierra Nevada Field campus of San Francisco State University.  Up in the mountains where the snow plants bloom and foxtail pines harken in the snows.  The gourd sits happy in the garden.  Funny thing is, JR says his favorite part is the weird crooked stem that looks like a sea horse or snake at the top.  Not the Mycena or the Conocybe or the Agaricus augustus or the Amanita!

mushroom gourd

In the dwarf conifer garden of the San Francisco Botanical Garden (established way back in the day with a donation from James Noble), there is a pond full of Nymphae water lilies surrounded by irises.  It is a favorite hunting ground of the herons and egrets.  Clear shallow pond full of life.


Ponds get weedy too.  Aquatic weeds.  So in order to keep the weeds from overtaking everything else and smothering the pond, the gardener has to wade into the pond and pull thousands of pounds of muddy plants out every year to  maintain the garden.  Thats what it takes.  Theres the balance.  Beauty and hard work and achy muscles.

pond weeds

Back in the day when I was a supervisor downtown, Union Square was one of my parks to maintain.  At that time, Justin Lyman was the gardener there and I would help out when needed.  Union Square is at the center of the shopping, theater, and gallery district here in San Francisco.

Okay hold up back up.  The city has various departments – Department of Public Health (General Hospital, neighborhood clinics), Department of Public Works (Streets and islands), Recreation and Parks (Golden Gate Park and all the little parks called Parks and Squares), San Francisco Unified School District (public schools elementary up to high school), Public Utility Commission (water department and also they make electricity with their hydroelectric dam up at Mocassin going towards Yosemite).  All these departments hire gardeners for their landscaped grounds.  So for Recreation and Parks, each distinct area has supervisors and gardeners.  The areas have names like North Beach Complex, Marina Green complex, Richmond complex, Sunset complex, Bayview complex, and so on.  Yes so very complex.  My beat was the Civic Center Complex, which at the time entailed all the parks and recreation centers from Civic Center through the Tenderloin to Union Square, South Park, SOMA, and south into Potrero Hill including Jackson Playground, Potrero Hill Recreation Center, Franklin Square.

As a supervisor, occasionally you make the design decisions.  Sometimes it is a collaborative decision, like a meeting with the Union Square landscape architect Michael Fotheringham and the head of the Union Square merchants association.  Other times, you work with what they give you, what they got at the city’s Park Nursery, what the funds can purchase at Pacific Wholesale Nursery down in Colma.  You try your best to make it look pretty and clean because tourists come from all over the world and they are spending good dollars downtown.  Make it shine!

Anyhow they had just finished the remodel of Union Square when I started working there.  The new design was formal and intensively symmetrical.  Go by there and look at it.


Landscape Architecture magazine liked how the Mexican feather grass looked in the corner flower beds as it waved and danced in the wind, and put it on their cover.  The palms are Canary Island date palms and at their bases was New Zealand flax in that yellowy pink hue.


Every Christmas time the kindest and most generous lady named Helen Hilton Riser would donate cyclamens and we would plant them in the four corner granite beds.  In reds and whites.  The gardeners would ask me if she was related to Paris Hilton and I would be like shh I don’t know!  None of your business!  Just plant the cyclamens!  ( This was in early 2000’s).  Then they noticed that the engraving of all the mayors was sideways and hard to read and told me (the supervisor) to get it corrected.  So I asked and called the higher ups, the contractors, the folks in charge.  Nothing.  What is done is done.  Move on!


Scale and Proportion:

So sometimes things don’t turn out, don’t fit; not necessarily your fault.  Just cause.  So back in the day at Civic Center, or the Joseph Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, there was a flower plaque across from the Bill Graham Auditorium.  The auditorium is where many high schools host their graduation ceremonies, and also where Golden Gloves, professional wrestling, the Warriors, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones all happened.  Anyhow, we would plant the plaque from time to time with displays of flowers.  Sometimes flowers that spelled out words.  At one time in the past they had spelled out PEACE with hens and chicks succulents.  Somebody suggested LOVE, and I said okay, sure.  So we used the California native Armeria maritima, sea thrift, and spelled out love.  We were about to fill in the rest of the space with a contrasting plant with white flowers – sweet alyssum, when we got a call from the higher ups.  “Go out there RIGHT NOW and remove those flowers!”  I was a little bewildered but like, “Yes sir!” and so myself and gardener Neil Neilmeier dug em up and threw em in the compost.  Neil said, “That was the day they took the love out of civic center.”

Later I learned that that same day we took out the plants the state court across the way was deciding on the legality of gay marriage, and that somebody had complained vigorously that the LOVE in the flower plaque was obviously political and they did not like that.  So somebody had us remove it.  I was like????  Love is political?  What?!?!?!?  Maybe somebody did not like the capital letters or the choice of plant material.  But LOVE?!?!!??

love planting

So thanks to Kip Sip the nursery manager at the time we planted it like this.  She was the head of a movement to reduce plant waste and so encouraged the planting of perennials rather than stick em in throw em away annuals, as was the practice.  This was planted in an arc of mostly blues, purples and pinks – Limonium, Rosmarinus, Lavandula, Armeria, Cistus, etc.  Tons of blooms that lasted and lasted and lasted…

civic perennials planting

This is another funny and strange story.  When I got to Civic Center, there were (are) two children’s playgrounds.  So the backdrop is this – there’s always been design tension between the classical designers and the more modern utilitarian designers.  If you look at pictures of the elegance and grandeur of this plaza back in the day – it was amazing!  Ornately carved fountains, immaculate decorative flower beds, well mowed and edged lawns.  After all, it was (is) the  City Hall’s back yard; the plaza enclosed by the main library, the museums, the courts, and so on.  But, on the other hand, it is also the center of life for the commoners that dwell in San Francisco.  It is the site and gathering ground of numerous events ranging from Filipino Fiesta, St. Paddy’s day parade, Gay Pride, anti this and anti that rallies, and so on.  Civic Center.  So back in the day, when planners or people proposed putting in a couple of playgrounds at Civic Center for all the restless kids that had been to the museums and were waiting for the bus or having lunch, the classicists were like “Oh no!  No you don’t!”  But somehow, it passed through.  In this case, function and use won over aesthetic and formal concerns.  It is actually a difficult issue.  What do you think?  Whose side are you on?  There is no right or wrong answer!

Anyhow.  The fences around the children’s playground were rusted and peeling black and up for repainting.  Probably been several years or more.  I put in a request to the painter supervisor Joe Padilla and he sent his people out.  We thought it would be nice to paint it some colors to reflect the playful atmosphere and the kids themselves. The painter scraped, primed, and painted it nice.  Took a few weeks.  Done.

civic fence

Then I got a call from the higher ups.  They wanted it repainted.  I’m like but it was just done.  They said they wanted it opera blue like the lamp posts. I said okay.  “Yes sir!”.  But before the painters could come out again somebody, maybe a custodian, maybe a gardener, maybe a past supervisor, I don’t know, leaked it to the little newspaper in the Tenderloin.


So the playgrounds got a reprieve.  But a few years later, I went back to Civic Center and the fence had been painted.  Opera blue.   Nowadays, there’s a new playground there thats been put in and its got great reviews.  Again, a picture on a screen ain’t nothin, change is ever present.  So go check it out in person if you can!  If you can do it safely!



Theres a come and go, here and there aspect of the garden.  Among more modern architectural designs these days it is popular to use plants as sculpture. So the more the plant can look the same, look good ALL THE TIME, the more it is utilized.  Agaves and aloes big time, foliage plants like asparagus fern and horsetails.  For us old timers who like the dramatic contrasts and moods that the up and down and summer and winter bring, the highs are worth the lows.  We are at peace with the stark outlines and yet enjoy the billowy abundance.  Here is the California native plant garden in the San Francisco Botanical Garden in the springtime.  It is called the Arthur Menzies Garden.  When I was speaking on behalf of natural areas at City Hall then mayor Gavin Newsom was like Hey that is my grandfather.  I’m like okay cool.  In this scene, the annuals were grown by the extraordinary nursery person Jeanne Rich then planted out by the gardeners, at various times Terry Siefeld and Tyler Taunton.

ca nat spring

Now the same spot in the fall winter.  irises going dormant, not all brown yet. Annual meadow foam all faded to mulch. Perennial poppies still holding on. Rhododendrons looking haggard been through the cycle.  Leaves of the quaking aspen all spiraled and fallen.  Just bare trunks now.  What do you think? Does the design work?  Is it worth it?  This is the rhythm.  Theres no correct or incorrect answer.  Just.  Develop.  Your. EYE.

ca nat dry

So in creating the composition that is your garden design, it is helpful to stick to a basic simple palette.  Like sing in one style and gain fluency.  Mix and match and combine in complexity later, when you are thoroughly proficient in the basics.  This was a little table I got from goodwill that kids decorated with ceramic tiles for a school auction.  Its theme was bugs and different life stages during metamorphosis.  Theres inner details but as a whole its just big green circles, little blue circles, and bits of polygon yellows.  So ditto when you are planning plants.  Stick with a handful of herbaceous plants,  a few woody shrubs, and one or at most two kinds of trees.  Keep it simple, then do the variation. A few chords, switch em up.  Not a hundred layers of glazes, just one, or two to three.

mosaic table

Along the veins of movement and flow of ideas was these buses a gentleman artist named Todd Gilens came up with.  He wanted to decorate our city MUNI (municipal railway) buses with pictures of local endangered species.  That is how I got involved – because of my studies and photographs of butterflies in graduate school, specifically the Mission Blue butterfly.  So if you can, incorporate butterflies into your garden design.  Plant the plants they feed to their young, their larvae.  Also plant the plants they will feed and nectar on.

butterfly on bus


Underneath the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) tracks, at the end of a cul de sac was a park called Cayuga Park.  Like anyplace without a proper caretaker, it gets neglected and abandoned and taken over by somewhat malevolent forces.  In comes Dmitri.   A gardener which in our civil service system is class 3417.  He hedged, pruned, cleaned the paths, picked up the trash.  Had the park looking good.  Still something was missing.  He asked his supervisor if it is okay to do a little bit of wood carving.  At that time, supervisor being a cool dude, not a micromanaging clip board toting unsatisfied manager says  – okay.  Go for it.  Those are the key words.  GO.  FOR.  IT.  So the carvings grew out of stumps and logs and fallen chunks and broken branches.  Hundreds of them carvings depicting folks from the bible, old time indians, african orators, and so on.  Pretty soon the park comes alive, the neighborhood comes around, the community is together not apart.  And he is ‘just a gardener’.  Kinda like in those Steven Seagal movies where he is ‘just a cook’.  Funny.   So unity can come from a person, a little light shining and turning into the sun.

dem cayuga

My old landscape architect buddy John Bela was the designer for this scene.  You may know of his inspired works all over the world but not know his name.  I will say it again.  John Bela.  Remember the first person who stuck some coins in the parking meter, rolled out a strip of turf and plopped down a bench, making the first parklet?  Well that was John Bela.  Now there are parklets and parklet days all over the world.  Who started this? John Bela. And no, there was no copyright.  He made not even one dollar on that one… Still, he persisted and charges on.

Anyhow this was another one of his schemes.  His timing was perfect in that Slow Foods and Alice Waters and Victory Gardens all came together, enabling him to make this permaculture esque food garden in the middle of Civic Center Plaza.  The keyhole beds are edged with the erosion prevention straw rolls and set in place with wooden stakes.  The irrigation is drip.  The pounds and pounds of veggies and fruits went to the soup kitchen at St Anthony’s in the Tenderloin.  Good healthy food is a  design idea that everyone can unite around.

JB victory_garden

Lastly in the realm of unity is this flyer I done for a plot of land I was responsible for long time ago.  A corner lot sand dune at the intersection of Balboa and the Great Highway, across from the beach break known as Kelly’s Cove.  The plants have survived, albeit the look and aesthetic is a bit of the windblown dry and not lush cali native and if you dont know what you are looking at you dont understand it.  But… the metallic green halictid bees are buzzing in and out of the knotweed, the acmon blues and green hairstreak butterflies  are laying eggs on the chamisso’s silver leafed lupine, and its maintenance requirement is LOW.  Its irrigation and water bill is ZERO.  What matters in this garden is COMMUNITY.