Design around the world and throughout the ages has utilized universal principles that apply to all art forms whether it be painting, music, architecture, or garden design. This is a look at some of these basic design elements and how they apply in the landscape.


One design element that is often forgotten in the landscape is negative space. Also called white space in the graphic design world and Ma in Japanese design, negative space is used to balance a composition. This principle has a variety of applications in the landscape that make for better garden design.

Landscape patio with Lawn

A section of lawn provides visual relief from the other elements of this small yard.

Why so negative?
When we speak of “negative space” we are talking about open, blank, calm spaces that balance other elements of the garden. Trees, plants, garden ornaments, patio furniture and other things in the yard are all positive elements that can create visual overload if there is no “negative space” to balance things out.  Positive and negative elements work in harmony like the yin and the yang, so to speak. Good use of negative space helps highlight the focus of the garden whether it be plants or hardscape features like your patio/entertainment area.

The interplay of positive and negative space creates balance in the landscape.

Creating balance in your garden
The most common form of negative space in the landscape is the lawn area. Besides providing a play area for the family, a uniform plane of green turf provides balance to plant beds and other elements in the garden. Clean flowing bed lines help define a lawn and give it form.

Backyard patio with lawn and gardens

A well-defined shape makes a negative space more distinct.

Alternatives to lawn
When a lawn is not the answer because of too much shade or maintenance concerns, ground covers or gravel areas can be substitutes to create negative space. Providing shape to these areas, instead of just filling in between everything else is the difference between good design and just sticking plants in the ground. Groundcover plants such as pachysandra and vinca minor both provide durable evergreen mats in shaded areas. Other “step-able” groundcovers such as mazus, thyme, and ajuga can survive some foot traffic and provide flowers to boot.

Gravel Path

A defined gravel path contrasts and balances this flower garden.

Gravel is another low to no maintenance alternative. Installing steel edging to contain the gravel helps define the space. The key to effective use of gravel, mulch, or whatever material you are using to form your negative space is a clean contrast to the other materials in the garden. It also must be proportionate in scale to the positive space (other elements) to provide balance.

Mulch Path with Stone Border

Mulch with a stone border serves as negative space in this garden.

So, when you are planning your garden and figuring out where to put everything, don’t forget to leave room for nothing!


By Ken Muellers, Lifetime CNLP

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