Getting Balanced: Symmetry And Asymmetry In Garden Design

A sense of order prevails in Kevin and April Beard's formally designed and planted patio garden. Classically inspired, the fountain benches are symmetrically arranged, surrounded by low hedges with crisp formal pruning. A classic urn matches the design style closely, but is the asymmetrical element in this garden.

Once you decide to plan a garden, you quickly see the design options are almost endless. Narrowing your choices starts with a clear vision of your future garden, including a decision about symmetry versus asymmetry. That is, will your design be strictly balanced and formal with simple identical elements, or will it be informal, embracing a flowing, yet balanced arrangement sans identical elements. It's your choice.

Begin your planning by giving equal consideration to asymmetry and symmetry. Don't limit yourself by thinking that asymmetry is unplanned chaos, or that symmetry is strictly boring, predictable order. Both directions have their own gratifying sense of balance. Nature gives us some breathtaking examples of formality, albeit in miniature, such as the amazing spiraling arrangement of a simple pine cone, or the pleasing symmetry of a sempervivum's foliar rosettes. These examples can inspire unique formal garden ideas. On the grand scale, asymmetry does rule in nature, and perhaps that is why most modern Rogue Valley landscapes reflect informality.

practicality must come into play

Planning a garden should start with a dreamscape. Listen to your creative mind; let your imagination soar. Envision what you would like to experience as you stroll around your house and lose yourself in your garden.

Then open your eyes. You can't escape the architectural style of your house. Does the style demand a symmetrical or asymmetrical landscape to enhance the architecture? Capitalize on your architecture, and pull its style into your landscape. Repeat architectural elements with plants that continue the flow of your structure. Enhance your entrance with plants, and use them to downplay the areas you wish to mask, or screen for privacy.

Then get really practical and answer questions such as: What is the best way to frame your home with trees, but not hide it? Where should the landscape provide shade, privacy and space for entertainment or play?

Furnish your garden with large and small landscape elements, just as you furnish your interior. It pays to enrich your outdoor living space as you do your indoor space. The results will be compatible with your home's style and the completed design will be just as pleasing as your original "dreamscape" garden.

Medford landscape architect Bonnie Bayard notes that a formal garden is often easier, and may be the best route for the first-time designer. A formal landscape with pairs of identical elements lends itself immediately to our sense of balance. And the "human-made" formal, symmetrical designs can be stunning as a sharp contrast to the informality of nature. For a good example, stroll through the grid-patterned sycamore grove in Ashland's Lithia Park.

To find that same sense of dynamic balance with unequal elements, it's helpful to use the notion of weight. If you conceive of the idea that garden elements possess different levels of weight, you will tend to balance the overall arrangement. Mentally assign an appropriate weight to the major elements in your design. This helps avoid lop-sided designs, where plantings of major trees and shrubs or other garden elements such as gazebos, are planted to one side, or are otherwise off-balance. Bayard says avoiding excessive busy elements and crowded curves, helps achieve a balanced, asymmetrical design.

Often the most memorable landscapes cleverly blend or combine symmetry and asymmetry. An established informal garden can be delightfully enhanced with the addition of a formal, symmetrical element or two. For instance, add a series of duplicate pairs of matching columns down a winding garden path, and place matching potted plants on each column. This will add a charming touch of unity and order into an otherwise free-form garden setting. Or take a very balanced, formal setting and add a singular focal point, such as a bonsai specimen, but place this focal point off-center. This will add an informal element that seems to be slightly at odds with the otherwise balanced arrangement.

Tonja Andreatta, owner of Andreatta Waterscapes in Central Point, has installed all sizes of water gardens throughout Southern Oregon, most of them very informal and as natural looking as possible, she says. Andreatta says occasionally a perfectly square or circular pond evolves during the installation and magically suits the site. However, she always softens the edges of those formal, geometric shapes with extra creative, informal rock work, bog and water plant surprises. Symmetrical, but asymmetrial around the edges, creates the aesthetic blend.

Once the permanent "heavy-weight" elements have been installed and your strong elements of symmetry or asymmetry make a powerful statement, you have arrived at the next stage for creativity. Dynamic interest in your design can be achieved by adding the right elements of variety; and again, you will see your options are almost endless. This is the stage to play with color, flowers, seasonal displays, to bring other changeable features into your garden. This allows to you to celebrate fresh and glorious changes in your personal garden world, all against the strong foundation established by your choice of symmetrical or asymmetrical surroundings.

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