Garden Designers Roundtable: Design on the Diagonal

Anyone who has tried to learn the art of garden and landscape design has had the unifying principles of rhythm, and repetition branded in their brains along with texture, form and color.  I always found this to be confusing and way too much to think about in the fluid process that is my creative workflow.

What is less discussed and a too often missed is a simple tool I call ‘Love the Diagonal.’ My landscape design students get this drilled into their brains before any of the others because it can unify a design and create an emotive design experience without any of the others. The rule is simple: Use the other principles, but place the same or similar elements (plants especially) diagonally through a design.

Simple diagonal plant repitition

It may seem counter intuitive, the geometry, that is, but in the design process, the act of placing and layering elements in diagonal sequences can lead to a complex solution that is both fluid and natural. Several examples below illustrate this process.

Diagonal repetition of key plants

These elements will be visual guideposts as well as unifying features.  It really doesn’t matter what they are.

diagonal textural plant repetition

Always imagine a human experience.  What will the eye see and how will the senses work in concert with the act of moving through a space?  How can sight beckon and be the first  of the garden’s experiential moments beyond a ‘Wow’?  Not a singular focal point, but a siren’s song of visual clues.  Changes in color and plant choices can be made without even knowing what they will be until the very end.  It’s then easy to go back and edit, identify, and apply the other design principles to the planting design.

multiple design layers diagonals


Diagonal design in practice is an opportunity to create visual experiences while moving through a garden or landscape.  Gardens and landscapes, after all are about human experience.  Geranium x Rozanne repeated diagonally on the path in the example below forms visual guideposts to the patio beyond.  Color repetition between the yellow Hemerocallis spp. and the Rudebeckia spp. across the path lift the garden experience upward.  The fine textural and color repetition of the burgundy Berberis and Acer disectum pull that visual experience through the space to it’s conclusion.

Diagonal garden designOnce mastered, every planting scheme will look good.  Try the diagonal, next time you’re planning a design and ignore the rule of odd numbers too…

To learn more about design principles today, visit other landscape designer’s posts from the Garden Designer’s Roundtable series.

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
David Cristiani : It’s A Dry Heat : Albuquerque, NM
Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN


12 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Design on the Diagonal

  1. Nicely illustrated lesson. I think I have been unconsciously doing this in my garden. I do it with my stonework as well. I’ll have to check when the sun comes up. I do like odd numbers though (but not always). You are making me think.

  2. Great illustration of this concept, Susan. I’ve always thought of in terms of planting on the points of a triangle — again that idea of the diagonal line. Thanks for a new way of thinking about the process!

  3. I love this. I’d always worked with the odd numbers/triangle method, but it still looked too contrived. Watching Wolfgang Oehme on planting day was just magic, and taught me the same lesson you describe. He would order everyone to lay things out in basic swaths, then spend his time shifting things around and plucking individual plants to create that important element of rhythmic movement. He called them punctuation marks. They were usually bold focal point plants, placed to lead the eye (and the person) through the garden.

  4. I agree, diagonals help lead the eye through space, hopefully taking the body along with it! I like how you’ve illustrated the use of this “tool” in the plan views and on a photograph as well. What software are you using these days to do so? Looks great.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *