Rhythm and Motion: Animate Your Garden Using Design Elements

Kuhlmann garden design

Landscape designer Marilee Kuhlmann of Comfort Zones Landscape Design created a sustainable front garden for her client in Santa Monica. The repeated shapes of New Zealand flax move the eye through this fluid design scheme.

Guest Post by Debra Prinzing of Shed Style and contributor to the LA Times Home Blog

In landscape design, you can create a visual flow through the garden with the dynamic element of rhythm. As a beat is to music, as choreographed steps are to a dance, rhythm animates a garden. Even if the wind doesn’t blow, your garden can look and feel infused with energy.


ron radziner roof garden

The roof of architect Ron Radziner's house in Venice Beach, Calif., is planted with cape rush. Ocean breezes move through this grassy green roof and create gorgeous movement.

We experience a physical sensation when something rustles or sways in the garden. We pause to appreciate movements, subtle or dramatic – flowing water, rippling leaves, a billowing banner, or clanging chimes – because they signal life’s evanescent qualities. Such movements resonate as the garden responds to the earth’s vital elements.

By the very act of creating a garden, we embrace the external forces of nature, most of which are out of our control. In addition to rays of sunlight and rain showers, the kinetic presence of wind and breeze in our landscapes is important to channel – as movement – in a planting scheme. We can’t help but notice extreme gusts or light flurries flowing through branches and stems – they infuse an otherwise commonplace landscape with vitality.

The choices of plants that can catch the airflow, gently dance, or furiously shake are endless. Perennials with tall, slender stems ripple like the fringe on a canopy (think of a vibrant stand of daylilies or a swath of lavender). Fluffy inflorescences of maiden grass undulate above its finely-textured blades – and the overall effect is a seductive rhythm. The leaves of a California pepper tree shimmer like sequins on an evening gown. Agapanthus seedpods rattle and whisper as autumn arrives. The natural symphony energizes any landscape.


Stone Path

Movement can be implied in hardscape, as well. Here's a gorgeous, sinuous stone and pebble path designed by my friends Linda Knutson and Ron Sell, for their garden in Yakima, Washington

Beyond individual plants, the visual suggestion of movement can also be incorporated into the garden. The repetition of organic forms, the course of a sinuous path, or the sensual outlines of beds and borders suggest movement. Alternating shapes – the gradual widening or narrowing of a space, the regular spacing of trees – do as well.

When the tiny stones in a Zen garden are raked into concentric circles, movement appears. When a “stream” of large, smooth, river rocks fills a gully or trench, the sense of running water is implied. The sequence of stepping stones spaced through a cushioned ground cover of fragrant thyme invigorates the scene and helps direct the viewer’s eye through the garden. The scene is emotionally alive and visually pleasing.

Movement in a garden is essential. It’s the organic rhythm, the fluid characteristic that every garden needs in order to come to life for those who enjoy it.

Here are some tips for “animating” your garden:

  • Develop a repertoire of plants: Base your plant selection on the scale of your house and the natural setting around it. Once you’ve selected the primary plants – those that provide structure and have multiseason interest, such as ornamental grasses – you can choose a second wave of plants to “star” in specific seasons.
  • Create a basic framework for design: Choose a template and follow it consistently throughout the garden. One method is to mirror dominant lines of your house, such as repeating key architectural shapes in the landscape. Use these as a guide for shaping pathways and planting beds. For example, a home’s arched windows and doorways might be echoed in the contour of a border or patio. Alternately, you can borrow a framework for design from nature, such as the irregular rhythm of distant hills.
  • Consider the vertical dimension: Select plants that bring height, energy, and motion into the garden, and vary their placement for impact. Even if surrounded by buildings on every side, your garden will respond to daily and seasonal climate changes. Watch how breezes move through the garden, and capture that energy by placing fluid plants where currents flow. Notice where the sun rises and sets in relation to your landscape, and choose trees, shrubs, grasses, and other perennials that will reflect the morning light or absorb sunset’s glow. Red and purple foliage turns flame-like when backlit. As the sun’s rays shine through fringed tassels of fountain grass or pampas grass, the garden will shimmer in response.

Author contact: Debra Prinzing, 805-523-8706 or dkprinzing@aol.com

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3 Responses to “Rhythm and Motion: Animate Your Garden Using Design Elements”

  1. I wonder if Kuhlman ever did any work in Long Beach? Because there is a house there with a front yard that looks like it could be her style. I loved driving by that house…

  2. admin says:

    Hmm, I don’t know Fern. I will ask Debra Prinzing and see if she knows. I will post my response in this comment thread once I get an answer for you. Thanks for posting!

  3. Debra: Lovely article and so concisely put. I enjoyed the tour and reminder of some of the most basic principles of design. thanks

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