The Joy of Landscaping

A Gardening Blog

Serendipity in the Natural Landscape

The joy of experiencing the unexpected in nature.

Plum Island leaves on boardwalk

As I was going through my photos for inclusion in my last post, I came across one I had taken at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, Massachusetts last fall. We were walking along a boardwalk when I was stopped cold by the scene in front of me. The picture doesn't even fully capture how beautiful the walkway looked with the scattered multi-color foliage from the adjacent trees.

We have visited the Refuge several times, at different times of the year. Each season brought its own delights and it was interesting to see the changes in the landscape even though we walked the same paths each time. Notice how different the landscape looks in these 3 photos, even with homogenous plants lining the walkway, when experienced during spring, summer and fall.

Plum Island 1Plum Island 2

Plum Island 3

This last photo from the Refuge is one of my favorites. It makes me relaxed just looking at it!

Parker Refuge ducks on water

Central Park in fall

Since I was on a roll with thinking about more natural landscapes, I found some more photos from other locations for inspiration. This one, which is actually from one of the more "natural" areas you can find in Central Park, shows how sunlight or the angle of the sun can draw attention to a particular area in a landscape.

These two show how the contrast of natural materials can be pleasing to the eye. In this case, it's rocks vs. water, and rocks with vegetation.

Boulders and waterRocks, water, vegetation

Lastly, doesn't this pathway just invite you in? It's really a simple but pleasing landscape with the juxtaposition of the dark bark trees framing the path with the soft green vegetation underneath.

Canopy in woods

Admittedly, some could quibble that most if not all of the experiences above were in landscapes that are not totally "natural", i.e. where humans not had a hand in it. For example, the cut pathways and boardwalks were obviously created by someone. I guess I'm attempting to distinguish between the truly designed landscapes like we have in our yards, vs. those that minimize intrusion and attempt to let nature run its course (within reason).

How can we apply the things we see in the "natural landscape" to our own design process? Here's my take on why the landscapes above were so appealing. Think about these concepts when you do your own landscape or garden design, even if it is on a small scale.

Petals on the Boardwalk

Perhaps my impression of the petals on the boardwalk was heightened because it was so unexpected. Here we were walking along and the landscape had been fairly homogenous until we hit this spot. It's also beautiful because of the harmony of the color palette of the fallen leaves against the green and gray background.

Seasonal Changes

The 3 photos taken at about the same spot at different times of the year accentuate the advantage of multi-seasonal plants. Even when you have a mass of one plant type, if it changes its features over the year, your site will still be interesting. This implies that a landscape needs more than lawn grass and evergreens or it will become boring.


This view incorporates masses of varying elements that act in harmony. If you have a large site, consider using masses of a small number of plant types that have textural or color variation. To me, this landscape also inherently has a theme of relaxation. When designing your own yard, or a portion of it, consider starting with a theme and make sure the elements support that theme.

Lighting Effects

The photo from Central Park shows how much impact sunlight - its amount, angle or lack of - can influence the aesthetic of a view. Color perception is definitely affected by sunlight, so you may want to understand more about color theory before deciding color choices for your particular site.

Rock Pics

The photos with prominent rock formations shows how texture and materials can create interest in the landscape. You don't only have to use color to create diversity, especially when the contrasting attributes are very strong, like hard rock vs. water, or smooth rock vs. textural vegetation.

Lined Pathway

The site in this photo incorporates 2 important concepts: first, it demonstrates the feeling of safety and security people tend to have when there is a "canopy" or enclosure in the landscape. Secondly, the vertical dark tree trunks act as directional markers that make you want to enter and find out what's beyond. So, mystery with safety - a great combination!

Lastly, one common attribute of most "natural" landscapes that we should always keep in mind is simplicity. Sometimes we all, including myself, have tendencies to over design. When in doubt, take the simpler approach and see where that takes you. You can always add more later, but it just may surprise you the way it is!