Design Element: Hierarchy

Hierarchy in landscape design is used to emphasize or highlight certain elements in the garden. Sometimes this emphasis is on an entry or another key feature. For hierarchy to be effective we need to set a standard, be it a size, material, color, or pattern, and then deviate from that standard to establish a differentiation. This can be achieved through several different methods that are detailed below.

Hierarchy - Wide Brick Walkway

A widening walk, change in materials and pattern plus colorful plants all indicate this is the place to go.


Use of scale is a common way to achieve hierarchy. Larger planters, taller arches and wider paths all serve as visual cues to what is most important in the landscape. Matching objects of a smaller scale can also provide contrast to the larger, more focal pieces creating the hierarchy. An example of this would be a 5-foot wide bluestone walkway to a front door contrasting with a 2-foot wide bluestone path of stepping stones to a side entry. Same material, but different scale.


Hierarchy - Bluestone Walkway

The wider bluestone walk leads to the front door while the 2′ x 2′ stepping stone path leads on to a secondary entry.

Level of Detail
More detailed and ornate elements will draw more attention to the areas we want to highlight. This can be done using a more elaborate material, or a more detailed pattern in a paving surface, or a contrasting texture in the leaves of the plants around an entry. This enhanced level of detail will help draw the eye and direct the user to the featured area. Often the more ornamental “specimen” type plants will be placed in a key location and more “common” plants will be used elsewhere to reinforce the hierarchy.

Hierarchy - Asphalt-Bluestone Walkway

A change in materials from asphalt to a more detailed bluestone walkway is an example of materials creating hierarchy.


By utilizing brighter elements or colors that contrast everything else in a composition, the focus can be placed on specific aspects of the landscape. A red-leaf Japanese maple placed by the entry of the home to contrast the green leaves of the rest of the plants in the garden is a prime example of using color to create hierarchy.

Hierarchy - Colorful Entry Garden

A colorful garden at the front entry draws the guest in as intended.


One of the simplest ways to highlight an object is to put it on axis or at the center of the composition. This is most common in a formal setting. As with most hierarchal strategies, the opposite is also true- you can de-emphasize a secondary entry or another less important element by having it off to the side.


By Ken Muellers, Lifetime CNLP

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