36 Landscape Design Terms You Need to Know

Backyard Pavers

You may never have the need to slip words like architrave and entablature into conversation, but if you have a home and would like to surround it with beautiful landscaping, you should probably at least know the difference between a pergola and a portico.

If you are working with a landscape designer or landscape architect, knowing a few basic terms will help facilitate good communication and help you avoid an unfortunate situation where the end product is nothing like what you had in mind.

If you are taking on your landscape design as a do-it-yourself project, knowing the lingo will help guide your research and keep the clerks at the gardening center from looking at you funny when you try to order plants or materials.

Of course, sounding like you know what you are talking about (even when you might not) will just make you look that much cooler on the landscaping scene as well, so brushing up on a little backyard jargon couldn’t hurt.

There are lots of lists of landscaping terms online, but most of them have lots of words that you will probably never need to know.

The following truncated – or, shall we say, pruned – list includes the basics and slightly-above-the-basics that are likely to come up in most conversations that have to do with designing and installing landscaping.

Rather than organize them alphabetically, they are divided by category to help you find just the terms that will be most helpful to you during your particular project.

Plants, Flowers and Trees

1. Annual – Annuals are flowering plants that bloom for a single season and will need to be replanted each year.

2. Perennial – Perennials are flowering plants that continue to bloom each year after they are planted.

3. Barrier Plants – These plants have thorns or other unappealing characteristics that help keep bad guys out of your yard, keep kids from walking through your yard on their way home from the bus stop or keep your dogs from digging in your vegetable garden.

4. Self-Seeding Plants – This type of plant tends to sow its seeds as it sees fit, which means you might be surprised by the number of seedlings coming up the next season. This may be a good thing, if you do not mind that particular plant taking over part of your yard, but you may want to avoid self-seeding plants if you like a well-ordered garden that does not require the extra work of yanking out unwanted seedlings.

5. Underplanting – Underplanting is the practice of planting smaller plants and flowers close to the base of larger plants in an effort to fill out your space and add more color to your landscaping design without using up more space in your yard.

6. Deciduous – Deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves each year and are usually bare and dormant during the winter months. If you are strategically planting trees to reduce energy consumption and lower your utility bills, this is the type you want. The reason you want deciduous trees is that their leaves will help shade your home in the summer to help keep your home cooler, but their lack of leaves in the winter will allow your home to soak up the warming rays of the sun.

7. Evergreen – Evergreen trees and shrubs keep their foliage throughout the year, which is often appealing to homeowners in San Diego County and Orange County where we entertain outdoors whether it is summer or winter.

8. Monoecious – Monoecious plants and trees have both male and female sex organs, which means they are self-fertile and can produce their flowers or fruits without the need for cross pollination.

9. Dioecious – Dioecious plants and trees are either male or female and require cross pollination with an opposite sex plant in order to produce flowers or fruit.

Most of the plants you pick up at your local garden center are going to flower just fine – you really only need to know this tree sex stuff if you are planning on planting fruit trees and would like to make sure you actually get some fruit.


Garden Structures

10. Arbor – This type of structure has an open framework, is often made of wood and is sometimes shaped in an arch. The purpose of arbors is to provide shade and a trellis-type structure on which vines or plants can climb.

11. Trellis – This type of garden structure is quite common in landscape design and is used to support climbing vines and plants. It is often made of wood or lattice, but plastic and metal trellises are also widely available.

12. Pergola – A pergola is also an open framework structure – like a trellis or arbor – but they are often larger, sturdier and used to provide shade over larger areas, such as a pathway or patio. Pergolas are attractive options for providing shade over outdoor living areas.

13. Gazebo – Gazebos are free-standing, covered garden structures that are most often made of wood or latticework, but can be made with other materials. They are generally open on the sides with solid or lattice half walls and a solid roof.

14. Belvedere – A belvedere may be a gazebo-type structure or may be an open gallery in your garden, but the defining characteristic of this structure is that it emphasizes a remarkable view or focal point.

15. Privacy Screen – Fences, trellises, shrubs and all sorts of other things can be used to create this structure that is intended to block the view of a certain area or your entire yard to increase privacy or hide something unsightly.

16. Deck – A deck is generally a raised structure that is most often made of wood or a composite material made to look like wooden boards.


17. Patio – As opposed to a deck, patios are generally made from paving stones, river rocks, bricks, concrete or other hard materials. A patio may or may not be attached to your home and is usually not covered.

18. Terrace – Like a patio, a terrace may or may not be attached to your home and is made from hard materials. However, unlike a patio, a terrace is raised off of the ground.

19. Veranda – This feature is a covered outdoor living area that is attached to your home.

20. Porch – A porch is also a covered outdoor area that is attached to your home; however, a porch is usually associated with a main front or back entry into the house.

21. Portico –A portico is most similar to a porch, since it is covered, attached to your home and associated with an entryway. In fact, portico is the Italian word for porch.

Porticos, verandas and porches are often confused and, really, you can almost use these words interchangeably, but there are just a couple of subtle differences.

Whether you use portico, porch of veranda as your term of choice now often depends more on the style of the home than any technical differences.

For example, ranch-style homes and bungalows have porches, homes with Mediterranean architecture have porticos, and if your house happens to be a Nantucket-inspired mansion, you are probably going to call it a veranda.

22. Retaining Wall – This important structure is a wall made of wood, concrete, paving stones, bricks or other materials with the intention of stabilizing slopes and preventing excessive erosion.

23. Raised Bed (aka Raised Garden Bed) – These handy garden structures are often seen in vegetable gardens, but can also be used for flowers and other plants. When creating raised beds, which are often bordered by large wood planks or railroad ties, the soil is built up higher than the surrounding earth. Some gardeners prefer the orderly look of these beds, while others use this technique to overcome a less-than-ideal drainage or soil situation.


Legal Stuff

24. Building Codes – When your landscape architecture says that she is not sure your latest landscaping idea would be up to code, what she means is that it might not pass inspection when the inspector comes around to make sure you are following the building codes – laws and regulations that tell you how, where and with what you can build your structures and features in your yard. One of the nice things about working with a professional landscape designer or landscape architect is that he or she will usually be well versed when it comes to building codes.

25. Building Permits (aka Construction Permits) – Some landscaping features require a permit from your local government. This will entail submitting plans to your city or county so that they can approve your project before you begin. Fences, patios, swimming pools and permanent structures are examples of some of the features in your design that will likely require a building permit.

26. Easement – You know that strip of land between the sidewalk and the curb in front of your house? That is called an easement. Depending on where you live and the zoning in your area, there may be other easements on your property as well. Basically, an easement gives someone land use rights for land that does not belong to them. For example, that strip of land between the sidewalk and the curb is most likely your responsibility as far as maintenance goes, but a utility company can most likely come in and dig it up any time they please to repair old lines or install new ones.

27. Set Back – Understanding set backs is very important in landscape design, and you need to be aware of any that may affect what you want to do with your yard before you begin a project. A set back is the required distance for placement of trees, plants or structures from houses and property lines. For example, most cities will not allow you to build a shed, chicken coop or other permanent structure within fewer than five feet from a property line.

General Landscaping Terms

28. Hardscape – Hardscape refers to walls, patios, walkways and other non-living structures in your landscaping design made from wood, brick, stone or concrete.

29. Softscape – Softscape refers to the natural components in your landscaping, such as plants and the soil.

30. Ground Cover – Ground cover is pretty much anything used to cover the soil, which may include low-growing plants, mulch, gravel, wood chips or bark.

Ground Cover

31. Landscaping Fabric (aka Weed Fabric) – This handy landscaping tool comes in rolls and can be placed over bare soil prior to installing your ground cover to limit weed growth.

32. Grading – This process is used to move earth to adjust the slope of the land to allow for proper drainage and functionality.

33. Terracing – Land with a significant slope may benefit from and become more usable with terracing, which is the process of creating multiple level areas in a stair-like fashion that often includes the use of retaining walls to control erosion and soil movement.

34. Xeriscaping – This refers to a type of landscaping that is most often used in areas that are prone to drought and focuses on reducing the amount of water used for landscaping by selecting native plants, improving the soil and designing the space with water conservation in mind.

35. Urban Farming – Urban farming can refer to different things, but for the purpose of landscape design it refers to the current trend of homeowners dedicating at least a small portion of their property for growing food or raising livestock.

36. Soil Test – When your landscape designer or landscape contractor says they want to do a soil test, they just mean they want to conduct a simple test on your soil to check out its nutrient levels and see which improvements they might recommend adding before they begin planting your plants.

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Landscaping Terms You Should Know: Final Thoughts

There are hundreds of terms related to landscape design, many of which are not used in any other industry.

It is nearly impossible for a layperson to become fully versed in landscaping vernacular, but most of us do not really need to know all of those big words to create functional outdoor living areas and attractive gardens.

Whether working with a professional or partaking in a little DIY landscaping, knowing the basics is an important first step in making sure you are heading down the path for success.

Photo Credits (in order of appearance): morgueFile, emlyn; morgueFile, jjulian812; morgueFile, jade; morgueFile, click; morgueFile, fieryn