Harmony in the Garden Blog

Proportion and Scale in the Garden

scale and proportion

The concept of ‘proportion and scale’ in the garden can be tricky to get right, but when you do, you just know it

Well, that WASN’T the case when I moved into my new home a few years ago.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.

But as I’ve lived with the space, I’ve realized that one of the reasons why this place never felt inviting, was because things were so wildly out of proportion. 

There were tons of tall oak trees and the biggest granite boulders I’ve ever seen, with a smattering of plantings that were puny in comparison. 

The epitome of things looking out of proportion, however, was a huge basalt rock fountain.

Before I move on, though, let’s first briefly define proportion and scale – two terms that are often used interchangeably (even though there are subtle differences between the two.)

Scale is the relationship of an item to a fixed object, or a constant (ie: a nearby house.) 

Proportion, on the other hand, is the size of an object in relation to surrounding objects, to one another, or to the entire design (ie: how an object fits in with the garden’s space.)

Proportion and Scale in the Garden

Since it’s hard for many people to grasp the subtle differences between these two terms,  I thought it might be helpful to illustrate by showing you the fountain that was here when we moved in a few years ago.

I absolutely HATED it and couldn’t wait to get it out of here

Not only was it out of place, but it even seemed to emphasize the weirdness of that ginormous, saggy boulder at its feet!

In fact, except for the mature trees and the pond-shaped swimming pool, there wasn’t much at all that I liked about the back garden. 

Everything else was just so visually hot, visually cluttered, and visually oppressive – the polar opposite of ‘inviting.’

Proportion and Scale in the Garden


Lucky for me, the fountain weighed a ton (maybe two?) and was firmly secured in its spot, making it incredibly difficult to remove. 

And besides that, I had much bigger fish to fry as we were about to embark on a major remodel of our home. 

So there the fountain sat, staring at me like a giant, out-of-place eyesore all year long.

Proportion and Scale in the Garden

As I lived with this space over the next year, I began to realize that the colossal fountain was actually in scale with the fixed object (ie: my two-story home.)

However, it wasn’t in proportion with any other surrounding elements in the garden. 

In fact, there was no garden – only river rocks at its base (which were definitely not in proportion!)

This space needed something to bridge the gap between the top of the fountain and the house’s second story. 


proportion and scale

The solution was to add an arbor substantial enough to link together the house with the garden.

The arbor visually shrunk down the size of the fountain so it no longer stood out like a sore thumb. 

Now, with the arbor in place the fountain is in proportion and scale with the rest of the space.

We were fortunate to find a talented welder who made the pergola’s frame.

Next, we covered the top with two layers of textural bamboo.  It was one of the most challenging things we’ve done in a long, long time, but we love the look.  

 Ideally, we would’ve used willow or hazel twigs, but dang – they’re EXPENSIVE!!! 

proportion and scale

The next thing I wanted to tackle was the spatial gap between the concrete patio and the top of the fountain. 

And that’s where plants come in – to help soften that lower transitional space.  

Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, as the only available planting area was currently filled with layers and layers of river rocks. 

After the river rocks were removed, I could see that the planting space was quite small – only a few feet. 

And to make matters worse, this area is in the beating hot sun all day long with no feasible way to hook up irrigation.

So the plants I chose needed to thrive in these challenging conditions, besides relying on my erratic hand-watering.

In addition, the plants needed to be in proportion to the size of the fountain, as well as the giant boulder.   Which meant, no teeny, tiny plants.

Proportion and Scale in the Garden

I’m happy to say I’ve had incredible luck with the ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ leucadendron (which needs hand watering only once a month during the summer) senecio cineraria, bulbine, and ‘Platinum Beauty’ lomandra.

All of these plants are evergreen, require very little water, and most importantly, withstand the blistering summer heat. 

Proportion and Scale in the Garden

Thanks to the upper-layer pergola and lower-layer plantings, the fountain is now in perfect proportion to its surroundings.

Proportion and Scale in the Garden

Now, as I sit on my shaded patio, I love the fountain and can’t imagine living without it! 

Neither can Buddy, my trusty pup, or the hummingbirds who love their bath!

For more information on related topics, take a peek at these past posts:  25 Heat-Loving Perennials | Designing with Grasses | Late Summer Sizzle

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  • Aaaah! A new idea for the patio. I love our garden, but trying to decide how to provide shade over the patio by the pool has been a challenge. We tried sails (too hard to put up and take down), a canvas sheet (a bit tacky), and I thought perhaps an arbor of hanging wisteria (like the photo of an attraction in Japan) would be beautiful (until I remembered that at a previous residence the bees loved it). Now you’ve come up with another possible idea just in time for summer. Always something creative to think about.

    • Hi Carol, It’s definitely an important decision to make as it’s somewhat permanent and you definitely don’t want messy flowers or something difficult to manage. I hope you find the perfect solution as shade is most definitely important in the summer!!! Especially when you’ll be using your pool! xoxo

  • I love your articles and eagerly await their arrival! Your lesson in scale and proportions hit home since I am working to tie in my huge, tall rose bushes with the low, short planting at the front of the bed. The relentless, hot South Bay sun seems to overcome my plants before they get established. Your selection of heat-tolerant plants caught my attention. I’m curious, from what I have read, Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’ will get very large at maturity. How are you going to tame it to your restricted space and keep it in proportion? Thanks for your wonderful, enlightening articles.

    • Hi Barbara, and thanks so much for your compliments! I’m so glad you enjoyed this article as I’ve quite often found that when someone tells me their planting bed isn’t working for them, proportion & scale is sometimes the culprit. Sounds like that’s exactly what you’re working with right now! Yes, that ‘Safari Sunset’ gets quite large but the space where mine is planted is very, very cramped, with concrete surrounding part of the roots, and a few large boulders sited within the bed (not sure if they were naturally occurring or not, but they were too large for me to remove.) Therefore, because of the tight constraints, I don’t think the plant will grow to its ultimate size. I use that strategy often when I want to control the size of a plant, manipulating the sunlight, or the amount of loose soil for the roots, etc.

  • Hi Rebecca,
    I always find your articles so interesting– a great story with a happy ending. Your yard is looking wonderful and inviting. You have magical talent! Stay cool.

  • Love the solutions you come up with problem areas. At Dawn Gardens in Grass Valley, Barry Friesen of Dawn Landscaping, Inc., introduced me to Lomandra grasses and I love them for my problem areas. His Blog is: inthegardenaroundtheworld.blog. Thank you for your time to post such fantastic articles.

    • Hi Judy, and thanks for sending me to Barry’s website. I’ve enjoying reading some of his blog posts and seeing the video of his garden. And yes, lomandras are the best, aren’t they? One of my new favorites is ‘Lime Tuff’ which has more of an upright habit (vs. the more common ‘Breeze’) and of course the variegated ‘Platinum Beauty’, which can’t be beat.

  • Thanks, Rebecca, for the great laugh — I have to agree that you have the saggiest boulder I’ve ever seen! Kudos to you for finding a way to draw the eye to plantings and proper proportion instead of the boulder, which now looks less sad.

    • I’m glad you liked my saggy boulder, Karen! Isn’t that the craziest thing? It’s extra weird, too, as every summer a couple of lizards live in the crack and dart in and out throughout the day.

  • That pergola frame and the bamboo covering instantly gave a unified and
    cozy look and was certainly the missing element. I wonder how long the bamboo
    covering will hold up in the hot sun you get there but I imagine it’s relatively inexpensive to
    replace (though may be a pain to physically do so).

    I love how creative and practical you are with your solutions. Turning something like the
    fountain you hated into something that totally works, along with the plantings was quite an achievement. Thanks for helping us think about solutions – the why and how.

    • Hi Linda – thanks for your compliments. We have the same concern with the bamboo’s longevity, but it’s been three years now and so far all is good (albeit some fading, which is just fine with me.) We put two layers up, hoping the top one would ‘take one for the team’, and help preserve the layer beneath. It was reasonably priced compared to the willow, but a monumental effort to get up there. My step-son will attest to that fact – ha! If it lasts 7 years, we’ll be happy and my husband has committed to replacing it again should it last that long. I’m holding him to it!

  • Great creativity to within so many restrictive circumstances and still come up with such a beautiful solution! I’m still struggling to incorporate the 5ft tall boulders that my husband had placed at our driveway entrance. They look like they fell from the sky! Restrictions include part sun and hungry deer. Shrubs and many irises and ground covers beginning to cover parts of the rocks are helping, but it’s still in the experimental stage.

    • Hi Jan – I love your comment, ‘fell from the sky‘ as that’s exactly how that fountain looked to me. It sounds like you’re on the right path with the shrubs and I hope some grow tall enough to help them blend in with the rest of their surroundings.

  • Oh so interesting Rebecca! I learn so much from you and just LOVE before and after pictures!! It’s always so fascinating to see how a great designer can totally transform a space! One of the hardest things for me is finding the right professional to create a design idea without breaking the bank. But when you can (as you did with your pergola) it’s what brings it all together!!

    • Thanks so much, Ronnie, I love a good before-and-after, too (as you can probably tell by my posts! Stay tuned, as I have lots more to share in the coming months as my garden fills in.) 🙂


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