Proportion and Scale in the Garden

We have all been in outdoor spaces where we have felt cramped and uncomfortable or in a very large open space where we have felt vulnerable and could not relax. Both of these situations may have been due to the lack of proper proportion and scale of the space. We all dream about having the perfect outdoor space that is both comfortable and visually exciting. Harmonious, outdoor areas where we can entertain a group of close friends or spend time alone reading a book. Part of getting this dream space to work is making sure that the proportion and scale is correct.

Proportion and scale are two important principles to consider when designing an outdoor space. Proportion is the size of an object in relation to other objects in the garden. Scale, on the other hand, is the relationship of an object to a fixed object, usually the human body. Getting the ideal proportion and scale can be the most challenging concept to pull off correctly in the garden.

One of the first things to remember is that each feature or element in the garden is part of the whole. Each element needs to match in relation to the surrounding pieces. In addition, for the sake of comfort, the garden elements must relate to the human body. This is true when selecting plants, furniture, structures and hardscape elements.

Before: top heavy, slender post arbor

Before: top heavy, slender post arbor


After: Posts are in proportion to overhead structure

After: Posts are in proportion to overhead structure

Garden elements such as benches, tables and arbors are most functional when they fit the human body. Physical comfort in the garden can not be overstated. A person will feel more comfortable, function better and feel more secure in a garden when size is compatible to the human scale. Sitting back in a comfortable garden chair or dining outdoors under an ideally proportioned arbor are experiences we all appreciate. It is always a designer’s goal to create a space that is both visually exciting and physically comfortable.

A designer will consider proportion when selecting plant material. In the ideal situation, the plants are relative to people, existing plants and the house. A small café table next to a 60 foot Italian Cypress is not a recipe for a cozy corner. Even the balance between the space planted and open unplanted space is worth considering. When people, plants and the house are in proportion the compositions feels balanced and harmonious.

Before: Narrow entry walkway

Before: Narrow entry walkway


After: Wider entry walkway

After: Wider entry walkway

When it comes to hardscape, such as patios and walkways, they should not only be proportional to people but also to the house. A deck or patio should be large enough for entertaining but not so large that it is out of scale to the house. You want to be able to maneuver around a table of seated guest, yet the table should not feel like it is floating in a sea of hardscape. Just the same, an entry pathway should be wide enough for two people to walk side by side but not so wide that it loses the intimacy a home garden should have.

Before: Opportunity for sculpture does not exist

Before: Opportunity for sculpture does not exist


After; Sculpture set in the new landscape

After; Sculpture set in the new landscape

Proportion and scale are also important when selecting garden artwork, sculpture and fountains. The piece should be substantial enough so that it does not get lost in the garden yet it should relate to the garden around it. For example, you don’t want to place a large fountain in the middle of a small garden. This would cause the fountain to become a distraction instead of a focal point. On the opposite end, a small boulder placed in a large lawn would probably go unnoticed.

These are only a few examples of how to use proportion and scale when designing a garden. Proportion and scale are just one of several garden principles worth considering. When you are in a garden where the proportion and scale are correct the space will not only be exciting but also give a feeling of balance and harmony.