Guide to Residential Landscape Design

To many homeowners, landscape design can be intimidating. This is understandable, considering the potential costs and complexity of landscape projects. At the same time, a little knowledge goes a long way in creating a yard design that meets your needs and an installation that realizes your vision.

Yardzen landscape design clients in their newly-installed Austin, TX backyard.

Bottom line: whether you intend to hire a designer or to do it all yourself, an understanding of landscape design and build fundamentals will serve you well.

Curious to learn?

Below, we’ll walk through some of the most commonly asked questions about landscape design and build, and share resources from our team to help you prepare for your project—from selecting paving and reducing water consumption to boosting curb appeal and creating that perfect backyard gathering space, we’ve got you covered.


Landscape Design Fundamentals

Landscape design is about balance: art with science, planning with serendipity, pragmatism with wonder. It’s a creative undertaking, but also a deeply practical one—the best landscape designs revive our spirits, but they also cut back on weeding, and make it easy to run inside for more ketchup.

WHAT IS LANDSCAPE DESIGN?

Landscape design involves the creation and arrangement of outdoor spaces. It applies to both softscape (planting) and hardscape spaces (patios, paths, walls, etc.)

Landscape design is practiced to achieve both functional goals (gathering space here, play area there, less maintenance, more privacy, etc) and stylistic goals (modern, traditional, formal, informal, etc).

WHAT IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER?

A landscape designer creates a vision for outdoor spaces, most often for residential clients in single family homes.

Some landscape designers focus primarily on planting design, but as a profession landscape design can deal with all aspects of designing exterior spaces, from paved patios and other hardscape areas, to retaining walls and drainage.

Landscape designers are not required to be licensed or receive a degree in landscape design, though many bring a wealth of academic and professional experience to their work.

WHAT ARE THE 6 PRINCIPLES OF LANDSCAPE DESIGN?

There is no definitive list of landscape design principles, but there are many commonly referenced concepts that landscape designers engage with, including:

Balance – Symmetrical and formal, or asymmetrical and informal? Balance influences the style and atmosphere of a space, as well its ease of navigation.

Balance is influenced by the use of a regulating line – effectively a projected line originating from a prominent feature (a door, a tree, a large window). Regulating lines act like a spine for spaces to organize themselves around. Whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, layouts tend to feel more orderly, logical, and artful when responding to a regulating line.

Scale and Proportion – The size of features – both in an absolute sense and relative to their surroundings – affects their prominence. Put simply, big things feel grander and command more attention than small things.

Scale and proportion apply to all aspects of landscape design; the relationship between different plants, different hardscape features and structures, and people interacting with all these landscape features are all influenced by scale and proportion.

Enclosure – Related to scale, the degree of enclosure dramatically affects the character of a space.

Officially, when the height of a vertical edge exceeds ⅓ the horizontal length of that space, that space will feel enclosed, ideally in a comfortable, cozy way.

Put more plainly, spaces that have barriers on their edges, particularly tall, dense barriers, tend to feel smaller, more enclosed, and less connected to adjacent spaces. Conversely, spaces with wide, barrier-free edges tend to feel larger (by “borrowing space” from adjacent areas), more open, and more connected to the surrounding landscape.

Learning how to manipulate the sense of enclosure is a crucial skill for landscape designers.

Sight Lines and Focal Points – Focal points draw the eye to key moments in a design. Typically, best practices call for limiting the number of focal points – the fewer the focal points, the more impact each will have.

Sight lines can end at a focal point, but they can also extend between more generalized, non-focal features, like gathering spaces or planting areas. Clear sight lines strengthen a sense of connection between spaces, and contribute to a feeling of expansiveness in a design.

Enclosure is heavily influenced by sight lines. Spaces feel bigger when they have a clear view across an expanse. Spaces feel smaller when views are cut short by a tall hedge at the edge of a patio.

Rhythm + Emphasis – Rhythm refers to the repetition of alternating elements. Think of the drums: boom-bap-boom-bap.

Emphasis calls attention to a particular element or moment: boom-bap-boom-bap-CRASH!

Planting designs commonly use rhythm in height (tall-short-tall-short) and density (full-sparse-full-sparse) to draw the eye through a space and establish a sense of narrative. Accent features like plant containers, trees, or various decorative elements can similarly engage rhythm.

Emphasis injects drama and clarity into planting by calling attention to certain spaces or features. This actually helps to establish a rhythm by creating an alternating push and pull between emphasized and non-emphasized moments.

Unity – Designs are at their best when all their various components make sense together. A cohesive planting and material palette is crucial to a strong design.

Criteria for design unity must take client preferences into account – fans of cottage gardens see unity in highly diverse designs, while fans of minimalism prefer fewer variables.

Designs should always avoid being boring, but in general, a cohesive, unified feel can be achieved by limiting the different number of hardscape materials, plant species, and flower and foliage colors used in a design.

A GUIDE TO LANDSCAPING STYLES

Get a feel for what constitutes a landscape “style”, and take a look at designs from across the style spectrum to zero in on the look and feel you’d like for your yard.

HOW TO: XERISCAPING YOUR YARD

Xeriscaping doesn’t have to look like a desert. Take a look here to learn all about how to create low maintenance, low water planting designs in any style.

PET-FRIENDLY YARD DESIGN

Keep your pets safe from your yard, and your yard safe from your pets. Take a look here to learn the fundamentals of pet-friendly landscape design.

DESIGN FOR OUTDOOR ENTERTAINING

Learn some key tips for creating comfortable, stylish, functional, and adaptable outdoor spaces to entertain family and friends.

KID-FRIENDLY LANDSCAPING IDEAS

A modern, cedar wood playhouse

Learn the dos and don’ts of creating kid-friendly landscape designs that are fun, safe, and beautiful for the whole family to enjoy.

CREATING PRIVACY WITH LANDSCAPING

Hedges and fences are just the beginning. See fresh approaches to creating attractive, effective privacy features in your home landscape.

LANDSCAPING FOR SLOPED YARDS

Slopes can be challenging, but if you know how to approach them, they can be an asset. Get tips on how to get the most—and spend the least—when designing on slopes.

SMALL YARD LAYOUTS FOR TINY SPACES

Small yards are some of the most fun and challenging landscape design projects, requiring extra careful attention to the size and interaction of spaces.

ADDING FUNCTION TO LANDSCAPES

Landscape design is an essential tool for making outdoor spaces usable. See some basic suggestions with big impacts on the your yard’s usability in this post.

LOW-WATER LANDSCAPING IDEAS

With drought affecting huge swaths of the U.S., it’s more important than ever to conserve water in our home landscapes. Here are some tips to help you do that.

LANDSCAPING WITH AN HOA

How do HOAs affect landscape design and how can you best work with them? Learn about designing and building landscapes in HOA communities.

LOW-MAINTENANCE FRONT YARDS

We all have better things to do than mow lawns and pull weeds. Take a look here for our tips on designing a beautiful, functional, and low-maintenance front yard.

FUNCTIONAL FRONT YARD IDEAS

Get the most from your front yard—and help build community on your block—by incorporating some of these functional front yard ideas into your landscape design.

DESIGNING MODERN FRONT YARDS

Modern designs are among the most commonly requested landscape styles. With clean lines, texture-forward planting, and wide open spaces, we understand why.

FRONT YARD IDEAS (WITH NO GRASS!)

Lawns may be iconic, but they are high maintenance, unsustainably consume water, pollute the air and water, and have virtually no habitat value. See alternatives for your front yard here.

CREATING A WARM AND COZY BACKYARD

The weather beckons us inside, but our hearts want to stay outside. What’s to be done??? Here are a few design tips to keep you cozy when things turn chilly.

LANDSCAPING A SMALL BACKYARD

When space is limited, designs must distill down to the most essential features to achieve your goals. Stumped on what to do with your small backyard? Take a look here.

SIDE YARD LANDSCAPING IDEAS

Side yards are often ignored as little more than utilitarian corridors, but careful design can make them into so much more. Here are some beautiful, functional side yard designs.

WHY SHOULD I USE A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER?

Professional landscape designers are pros at reimagining yards, efficiently creating and communicating new landscape visions to achieve the look, feel, and function that homeowners want while remaining attuned to the local climate and landscape.

While DIY landscape or garden design can work for those with experience and time, it often leads to budget creep and higher final project costs. Too often, piecemeal design and installation results in hodgepodge spaces with poor flow, inconsistent style, and unhappy plants.

High quality landscapes can add up to 20% to your property value as well increase your quality of life at home and time spent outside, benefits that greatly outweigh the fee to hire a professional designer for your home improvement project.

Learn more about the benefits of using a professional vetted landscape designer.

HOW DOES ONLINE LANDSCAPE DESIGN WORK?

There are many benefits to online landscape design services like Yardzen including cost, accessibility, and convenience. Our clients often share that they were able to receive a higher quality design faster and at lower cost than what they’ve received working with busy local landscaping companies.

How are we able to do this? Using photos and videos of your property, your answers to our style and plant-preference quizzes, and satellite imagery to assess property and light conditions, we’ll create a landscape design tailored to your region, personal preferences, and unique property.

To ensure you get the right plants for your project, our designers use our world-class plants database, which factors in everything from climate zones, light conditions, and water requirements to special characteristics like “deer-proof,” “pet-safe,” and “year-round interest”. Our designs are also reviewed by an expert horticulturalist who makes the final calls when choosing your design’s plant palette.

Our database also includes hardscape materials and popular amenities like water features, fire pits, pavers, patios, walkways, pergolas, outdoor kitchens, swimming pools, decks, and furniture for outdoor living spaces from partners like Crate & Barrel, Yardbird, TimberTech, and Solo Stove, allowing the dream yard in your design to truly come to life.

Exceptional customer experience is one of our core values. Our team is full of experts in everything from native plants in your zone to the cost of building the yard features you want. We can solve any question and will be with you from the start of the design process until the last plant is in the ground.

Unlike a DIY design software, Yardzen connects you with industry-leading landscape designers, who apply their skill and creativity to get you the design of your dreams efficiently and at a fraction of the price of traditional landscape design services.

HOW DO I FIND A GOOD LANDSCAPE DESIGNER?

While finding a landscape designer requires some homework, but a little vetting up front will pay dividends down the road.

These are traits we look and train for with our remote designers:

Expertise. If you want to include paving revisions along with planting design, make sure your designer is well-versed in both hardscape and softscape design. Look for client reviews to get a sense of the quality of a designer’s work.

Stylistic fit. Before you sign a designer on, look at their portfolio to ensure their work suits your style.

Strong communication skills. Good designers are good listeners, taking care to ensure they fully understand your goals and priorities. They‘re also excellent at describing their work through speech, writing, and visual means. Clear, productive communication is crucial to a successful project.

Collaborative approach. The best design outcomes come from a mutually-respectful, collaborative relationship between client and designer. Find a designer you trust and feel comfortable working with. Remember: collaboration is a two-way street. Do your part as a client to know when to defer to a designer’s judgment.

Professionalism. Good designers produce high quality work in a timely, efficient, and respectful manner.

It‘s also good to ask friends and neighbors for suggestions if they’ve worked with a landscape designer they are happy with.

While you can find a designer on your own, the process can be stressful and time-consuming. By instantly connecting you with a vetted, top-tier landscape designer, Yardzen removes this burden and gets you straight to the fun part: designing your yard.

Yardzen’s community of landscape designers are experts in their industry with proven experience creating high end custom outdoor spaces across a variety of climates and styles. We keep the bar high and only bring on designers that have demonstrated the excellent design, technical, and communication skills necessary to create custom landscape designs that meet our standards and that our clients will be thrilled with.

Designers take on projects based on how well their expertise aligns with your project details like region, style preference, and desired functionality. Collaboration with our customer success and project management teams ensures that you get continuous communication throughout the design process and receive a finished design that exceeds your expectations.

Yardzen is committed to the personal and professional development of our landscape designers, who participate in continuing education and coaching from experts in the design, horticulture, and construction fields.

If you’re searching for a local landscape designer on your own, be sure to vet them in a similar way. Ask about their credentials and references from past clients. See if they can share examples of past design deliverables for projects similar to yours, and what the design process and communication looks like from start to finish.


Landscaping Elements

Here are some resources that deep-dive into popular individual landscaping elements—including usable zones, amenities, and features.

GUIDE TO OUTDOOR KITCHENS

Well-designed outdoor kitchens are a veritable font of happy moments, but take care: poor kitchen design can chop up yards and leave chefs isolated in distant corners of the yard.

DESIGNING A FIRE PIT SEATING AREA

Fire pits are among the most commonly requested features in Yardzen designs. Take a look here to learn more about how to best incorporate fire pits into your landscape design.

LANDSCAPE LIGHTING DESIGN

Lighting can make yards safer and more attractive, but there is an art to lighting design. Get tips on best practices when adding lighting to your outdoor spaces.

PERGOLA LANDSCAPE DESIGN IDEAS

Pergolas provide comfortable, functional outdoor rooms that are cooled by breezes and dappled shade. Learn about applications and design options here.

PLUNGE POOL DESIGNS AND COST

Small backyard with tiled plunge pool and pool deck with lounge chairs

Learn all about designing and building plunge pools (aka cocktail pools) and to see examples of different approaches to plunge pool design, cost, and materials.

FENCE DESIGN IDEAS FOR EVERY STYLE

Fencing can be purely functional, purely decorative, or fall somewhere in between. Discover the need-to-knows of landscape fencing to get the look and function you’re aiming for.

GARDEN PATH IDEAS FROM OUR DESIGNERS

The size, shape, and composition of a path all have big impacts on the look and function of a landscape design. Find the right path for your style and space.

OUTDOOR SHOWERS IN LANDSCAPE DESIGN

From pet and kid de-muddifier to post-swim rinse, outdoor showers are as handy as they are luxurious. Get advice on how to integrate one into your landscape design.

WHY WE LOVE STOCK TANK POOLS

Stock tank pools are having a moment, thanks in no small part to their rustic charm and relatively affordable price tag. Learn more about installing and maintaining a stock tank pool.


Planting Design

Learn about planting design for landscapes, including popular varieties by category and region, as well as care and maintenance for specific popular plants.

DROUGHT TOLERANT PLANTS

By opting for plants that require less water, we can meaningfully impact water consumption, and save ourselves effort and expense to boot.

NATIVE PLANTS IN LANDSCAPE DESIGN

Sure native plants look great in your yard, but the benefits of these indigenous inhabitants go far beyond aesthetics.

LOW-MAINTENANCE PLANTS

Principles of easy-to-care-for softscape design that will keep your yard looking great with little human intervention and natural resources.

ORNAMENTAL GRASSES IN LANDSCAPE DESIGN

Ornamental grasses are an undisputed favorite among landscape designers and homeowners for their feathery texture and low-maintenance needs.

TREES IN MODERN LANDSCAPE DESIGN

Discover why trees are sustainability powerhouses, valuable real estate assets, and landscape design Swiss Army knives.

CREATING A POCKET GARDEN

We’re sharing how to achieve the look, feel, and function of a pocket garden in landscape designs for small spaces.

RAISED GARDEN BED DESIGN

Raised beds are popular not only for their functionality, but for their down-to-earth charm as a design element. Learn to incorporate them in designs!

TIPS FOR GROWING TOMATOES

Nothing beats home-grown tomatoes! Get tips from Yardzen’s Head of Horticulture on growing the best tomatoes in a home vegetable garden.

10 BEST OLIVE TREES TO GROW

We’ve included varieties here that work well in cool climates, drought conditions, and very poor soil and difficult terrain.

DELTA BLUEGRASS NO-MOW SOD

We love no-mow sod. It makes landscapes appear full and lush, and is a great replacement for water and maintenance-intensive lawns.

HOW TO CARE FOR ROSES

While some roses can be tricky, a great deal of them are no harder to care for than your average flowering shrub.


Hardscape Design

Hardscape is just as critical as planting choices when it comes to creating a landscape design. Patios, paths, decks, and other structures require thoughtful material and layout selection so these elements stand up over time and lend to a yard’s functionality and beauty.

GRAVEL LANDSCAPE DESIGN IDEAS

Cost-effective and super versatile, gravel is a material worth knowing about.

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO PAVING

Read on for a breakdown on different paving materials, their costs, their challenges, and their strengths.

WOOD VS COMPOSITE DECKING

Composite decking is a durable, beautiful, and sustainable alternative to natural wood decking.

HOW MUCH DOES LANDSCAPE DESIGN COST?

Traditional landscape design services commonly cost anywhere from $5000 – $8000 or more, with prices rising significantly with project size.

By comparison, Yardzen‘s design packages range in price from $649 to $5095. With Yardzen, you’ll get industry-leading design quality and a fun, efficient, and thorough design process – all at a fraction of what you’d pay to a traditional design studio.

Whether you’re looking to redesign your front yard, backyard, or entire property, focusing on landscape only or throwing in your home’s exterior design to boost curb appeal and overall style, Yardzen has a package to meet your needs.

HOW DO I CREATE MY OWN LANDSCAPE DESIGN?

While the precise steps you must take to fully develop a landscape design will vary with each project, this is a recommended general sequence to follow when developing a landscape design:

Set goals and priorities. Clearly articulated goals and priorities are a roadmap to keep a project on course from start to finish.

If you are DIYing, we suggest starting small – too often doing everything at once results in doing nothing. If you are working with a designer, you can safely expand your ambition, so long as it suits your budget.

Set a budget. It’s ok to adjust a budget to better suit goals and priorities, or to reduce scope to better suit a fixed budget.

Bottom line, get a realistic understanding of what you want to spend and what that can accommodate, and let that guide the scope of your design. Nobody enjoys having to reduce design scope due to surprise budget overruns.

Gather inspiration. Take time to clarify what you like, and what you don’t. As you hunt for inspiration, pay attention not only to individual elements, but to how different elements sit with one another.

A clear understanding of your inspiration allows you to set parameters for design decisions, and helps you to select elements that will feel cohesive together.

Function first. Make a basic bubble diagram, putting circles in various parts of the yard where you’d like each function to be located: kitchen here, hot tub there, fire pit over there.

Focal Points. Set your focal points – their position will influence the shape and orientation of gathering spaces, and in turn the routing of paths.

Add circulation + define spaces. Paths carry you through the yard, but they also define spatial boundaries. When you add a path, you also determine the size and shape of spaces along its sides.

Determine the size and shape you want for your spaces, and design paths to achieve those outcomes while also providing pleasant, efficient routes through the design.

Design hardscape. When choosing hardscape materials, aim for a compelling and cohesive palette that suits your budget, achieves your style, and will perform well in your local climate.

Look to your priorities to see which areas merit the most expenditure, and which can receive a more cost-effective approach.

Design planting. Planting design can be very complex, but above all, remember: right plant, right place. Choose plants that are suitable for the climate and light conditions of any given area on the site.

As lovers of the local climate, native plants typically require fewer inputs of water, fertilizer, and maintenance than species introduced from elsewhere. With natives, you’ll get great plant performance with less expense and fuss.

At the same time, native plants offer unmatched habitat value for local wildlife, and help designed landscapes feel connected to the broader regional landscape.

Talk to your local nursery or your designer to determine which native species are best for your landscape project.

Iterate. With an initial draft in place, review it with fresh eyes. Trusted partners are valuable for second opinions.

Few designs are perfect out the gate – have patience and embrace iteration.

Build. Once you land on your final design, you are ready to build!

Tip: when working with a contractor, the build process begins with cost estimation. This process can sometimes lead to further design changes. This is normal, and productive! It is far better to continue revising to get the design fully ready prior to installation than to have to reverse course midway through construction.


Landscape Budgeting and Installation

Your landscape design is your master plan, but your overall budget for your landscaping project determines what to include in that plan, what you’ll build when, and what you’ll DIY versus what you’ll rely on a trusted landscaping contractor to install.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER, ARCHITECT, AND CONTRACTOR?

Landscape architects must hold a degree in landscape architecture from an accredited university program and earn a license from their state by passing licensure examinations. Landscape architects work on a wide range of projects, often focusing on larger scale work like public spaces, campuses, and residential developments, as well as ecological restoration projects of all scales.

Landscape designers are experts at residential design, with deep knowledge of plant and hardscape materials underpinning strong skills in the creation of outdoor spaces for functional and aesthetic aims.

Landscape contractors or landscapers are experts at installing landscapes. Some contractors have certain specialties, like installing paving or planting, while others are comfortable executing all aspects of a landscape installation, from pools to decks to grading. Some contractors are comfortable developing landscape designs, but many prefer to receive designs from landscape designers or architects. Licensure requirements for landscape contractors vary between states, and can depend on the scope of work to be done, but as a rule of thumb, it’s advisable to work with a licensed contractor.

HOW MUCH DOES A FINISHED LANDSCAPING INSTALLATION COST?

The national average cost to build a landscape from our professional designs is $30,000, but that number depends heavily on what landscape features you include, the size and condition of your yard, and what existing features you may plan to repurpose. Because of this, we regularly work with budgets from $15,000 to $150,000 or more. Read more about understanding landscaping costs.

HOW MUCH DOES LANDSCAPING COST?

Your go-to guide for understanding the costs of landscape projects – including specific price ranges.

LANDSCAPE BUDGETS & FINANCING

Modern backyard with black pergola off back of home shading a fire pit seating area

Design for maximum value and take advantage of financing to achieve your vision without breaking the bank.

ONE BACKYARD, SIX BUDGETS (VISUALIZED)

See one backyard designed at six budgets, from $10,000 to $125,000, with itemized costs.

LANDSCAPING ESTIMATES GUIDE

How to read and adjust contractor cost estimates for your landscape design installation.

HOME EXTERIOR MAKEOVER COSTS

The specific costs you can expect to see when making changes to your home’s exterior and landscape.

DESIGN CHANGES DURING INSTALLATION

Inevitably, design changes happen after construction begins. Here is our advice on handling these pivots.

PREPARING FOR HOME RENOVATION PROJECTS

Set the stage for a smooth installation and productive relationship with your build team with these tips.

WHY TO LANDSCAPE IN FALL OR WINTER

Contrary to popular belief, the cooler seasons are a great time to get going on your landscape project.

LANDSCAPING AND HOME VALUES

Homeowners can add 20% to their home value with beautiful, functional landscaping for their property.