Planning a new garden can be intimidating. There are infinite possibilities for colour, scale, and style. These helpful outlines will give you an explanation of some of the rudiments of garden design and can help make those tricky decisions a little easier, whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned gardener.
It should not come as a surprise that the colours you choose for your yard will play a major role in determining the mood your garden evokes. This is intended as an introduction to the use of colour in the garden, but it is in no way comprehensive. Many factors contribute to the ultimate appearance of your garden – colour is just one of the tools at your disposal. Remember that these are guidelines and not rules – the most important consideration should always be: “Do I like how it looks?” If you don’t like it, then don’t do it!
‘Warm’ and ‘cool’ is the simplest way to categorize the colours at your disposal.
Warm or hot colours include reds, oranges, and yellows. Warm colours (such as deeper reds and oranges) create a sense of security and, well, warmth. Hotter colours (bright reds/oranges/yellows) often stand out in the garden, drawing the eye and creating a sense of energy and excitement. A concentration of hotter colours can make an area appear slightly smaller or closer than it really is.
Cooler colours include blues, purples, and varying shades of green. Cool colours lead to a more serene, calming environment. Cool colours serve the opposite purpose – they can make an area of your garden seem more spacious and open than it really is.
The combination of hot and cool can create some interesting visual effects. For example, planting a number of hot plants at the front of a bed with cooler plants behind will make the entire garden bed seem larger – the hotter plants make the front of the bed appear closer while the cool plants make the back of the bed seem further away. Reversing these colours will trick you into thinking a bed is narrower than it really is.
White is a special colour that requires special consideration. White is equal to or perhaps more noticeable than hotter colours, especially in a shady environment. However, it can be used to contrast with darker colours, to separate conflicting colours, or can be used entirely on its own. White has almost limitless utility when used judiciously in combination with other colours. White (along with pale yellow) are also the most visible colours in the twilight hours of early morning and late evening.
Using Light and Dark
Light tints and dark shades of each colour also factor into the appearance of your garden. Paler hues in front contrasted with darker ones behind makes a bed appear smaller than it is, while the opposite effect is achieved by putting lighter plants at the back.
At first, single-colour gardens might seem boring, but this is certainly not the case! When a single colour dominates a garden bed, other subtler features are brought to the forefront. The texture, form and scale of your plant choices will become a major consideration and, no matter how drastically different these factors are, your plants will always be unified by your single colour choice. Playing with these other factors can create as much excitement in your bed as using contrasting colours might. Some of the most beautiful gardens are entirely white, or just a combination of different shades of green.
Analogous Colour Schemes
Analogous colours are those that are next to each other on the colour wheel — red and orange, blue and purple, orange and yellow – these colours are close enough to one another that they can be used in concert without looking busy or chaotic.
Complimentary Colour Schemes
Complimentary colours are found opposite one another on the colour wheel. Yellow and purple are complimentary, as are blue and orange. Use these colours together to create striking contrasts, or to highlight the colour of one plant over another. The greatest degree of contrast is achieved by combining a lighter tint of one colour with a darker shade of its compliment. For example: The pink blooms of a Flowering Almond with the dark green backdrop of a Hick’s Yew hedge, or perhaps the powder blue foliage of a Blue Mist Fothergilla against the deep orange of an Amber Jubilee Ninebark.
Your Opinion Matters
At the end of the day, do not use a colour scheme or a combination you dislike. It is your garden, and these are only guidelines, not rules. Sometimes understanding the rules is just the inspiration you need to break them and create something truly unique.
Form, balance, and scale are all fairly straightforward but crucial elements to address when you are selecting plants for your garden. Here we outline the role of each and highlight some of the potential pitfalls you may encounter while working with them.
Balance is just as it sounds: it is achieved when the elements on either side of an imaginary axis (most often a vertical one) are in equal proportion. A desire for balance is what necessitates planting a cedar on either side of your front entranceway, not just on one side. Imbalanced gardens cause the eye to be drawn much too far in only one direction. Sometimes you will want slight imbalance because it can create drama, but too much and you will find that half of your garden is ignored and neglected.
There are two types of balance: formal and informal. Formal balance can be most easily described as the creation of a mirror image: If you plant a daylily on one side, you should plant one on the other side. Informal balance, however, can be a bit trickier.
Informal balance involves using different plants or colours to achieve the same ‘equilibrium’: for example, you might plant a tree on one side of your invisible axis, and balance this out with three moderately-sized shrubs on the other side. Or you might balance a mass of cool colours on one side with a small number of hotter colours on the other. Informal balance is best for gardens where you don’t want a lot of repetition, like a country or woodland garden.
Most gardens employ some of both types. Too much formal balance can sometimes make gardens look overly ‘contrived’. Too much informal balance in a garden might be balanced but will lack any continuity. A happy medium is usually the best approach.
As the name suggests, scale is contextual and involves the size as well as the perceived importance of an element in the landscape and how it affects the perceived importance of other plants.
Scale can be described in both an absolute and relative sense. Absolute scale relates the perceived value of a landscape element to a fixed structure, like a house. For example, if you live in a one-story home and plant a tree that reaches 50 feet at maturity, the tree will eventually make your house look tiny. Conversely, planting a lone six-foot Japanese maple in front of a 20’ x 20’ wall will make the plant look comically small.
Relative scale is a far more emotional, subjective matter. Colour and texture factor strongly into relative scale. Bright, hot colours or coarse-textured plants have a positive value – they make an area more prominent and can make nearby plants seem smaller and less important. Cooler colours or fine textures do the opposite, making an area seem more open, large, and less imposing. As an example, the sheer leaf size, colour, and overall coarseness of a Striped Maple in the fall (when it has bright orange foliage) makes all of the other plants around it seem mostly irrelevant.
As one might suspect, since it is often related to colour, the relative scale of a given plant can change from season to season. This is part of what makes gardening so intriguing – an unassuming plant at the back of the border can suddenly impose itself upon you when it is in full bloom or leaf, changing the entire dynamic of the garden.
Form mostly deals with the overall shape of a plant. Form is determined by the arrangement of leaves on the branches and in what direction they grow. Each shape is responsible for a different effect in the garden. Form closely relates to scale and both line and texture (which are described in further detail in their corresponding documents).
Rounded or oval shapes are very common and easy on the eyes. Plants with a round form (such as boxwood or spirea) are great when grouped together in clusters or masses. Their uses in the garden are almost endless.
Plants with a pyramidal or columnar form (such as a Linden or a Dawyck beech) lead the eye upward and for this reason are best used in small numbers unless they are part of a windbreak or privacy screen. They belong alone as specimens or at the back of a border where they form a natural wall, hedging the garden in. Naturally, plants with a weeping habit (like weeping willows or peashrubs) do the opposite, leading the eye downward. Make sure there is something of interest planted below them!
There are many more shapes than these – if you’re not sure how a plant’s shape is going to affect your garden, ask yourself: “where does my eye travel? What do I want to see at the destination?” Hopefully inspiration will strike and you will have your answer!
The use and effect of ‘line’ in garden design is an important consideration. ‘Line’ is an abstract concept that can be very subjective, but we’ve addressed the basics.
What Is A ‘Line’?
It seems like a silly question, but it is a legitimate one! When we talk about ‘line’ in a garden setting, we’re literally talking about visual lines that our plants and the hardscaping in our yard create – be it the curved edges of a pond, a straight stone walkway, the top of a wooden fence, or the tall, narrow profile of an old-fashioned street lamp. Strong ‘lines’ in a garden draw your attention and determine where your eyes (and your feet) are most likely to wander. There are four basic ways lines present themselves in a garden setting: straight, curved, horizontal, and vertical. No one line is inherently more important than another – it all depends on what kind of garden you are trying to create.
Using Straight Lines
The easiest line to use is a straight line. It is an all-business, no-frills affair. If your garden bed has a straight border, you are saying “this is the edge of the garden – nothing more, nothing less.”
Straight lines are great for very formal, well-manicured gardens. If your garden bed consists of a few architecturally interesting shrubs and little else, straight edges will give you a very clean, tidy look that you are undoubtedly already striving for.
Straight lines generally create a sense of order and stability. Think of raised beds in well-kept rows, or a well-pruned rectangular boxwood hedge.
There’s always room for a twist, of course: plant perennials that ‘spill’ over the straight edges like Japanese Forest Grass (hakonechloa macra). They provide the appearance that the garden is ‘overcoming’ the rigid border of the bed, as though nature is ‘reclaiming’ the area.
Using Curved Lines
Curved lines are more whimsical and are better for informal settings. Curved lines evoke a sense of evolution or change. If straight lines make a statement, then curved lines tell a story. Curved edges in a garden bed can also add an element of mystery; they create the appearance that there is more at work in the garden than meets the eye.
Curved lines suggest to the viewer that a garden path was “carved out of the wild” whereas straight lines imply that the wild was “brought into the garden”. They are well-suited for country gardens or large perennial beds.
Using Horizontal Lines
Horizontal lines create a feeling of stability, and when used on the ground they slow your movement toward and across them.
Strong horizontal lines usually present themselves in exposed fence-tops, metal siding, sidewalks, or the edge of a bed. You can also use a handful of plants such as the Pagoda Dogwood (cornus alternifolia) or the Summer Snowflake Viburnum (viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum) to create these lines. These plants have unusual near-horizontal branching habits.
Horizontal lines in the distance often imply a ‘horizon’, where two differing visual elements meet to form a natural border. When confronted with strong horizontal lines, we are usually forced to stop and instinctively look left or right, following the line off in either direction.
Using Vertical Lines
Vertical lines invoke feelings of power and movement. They also tend to draw the eye up and out of the garden or down toward the ground. Strong vertical lines are usually seen in upright trees, the corners of a house and fence posts. Weeping plants will lead the eye down to the ground.
Strong vertical lines can also be used as makeshift dividers. Narrow, upright plants like a Degroot’s Spire Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) or a Karl Foerster Feather Reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) can be used to visually ‘break up’ a single, continuous garden bed into more manageable pieces or ‘rooms’.
What Lines Do You See?
Being aware of what lines populate your garden space will help you understand why your eyes are drawn a certain way in certain areas. Once you know why, you can use this knowledge to your advantage to create interesting effects with each added plant!
The use of texture in the garden to create interest is arguably the most difficult concept to grasp but is invaluable once mastered. Provided is an outline of the use of texture in the garden, but there is so much to touch on that this is best used as an introduction – you’ll have to explore the wonders of texture further in your own garden! Remember: as with colour, in texture there are few to no right or wrong answers. Only you can ultimately decide whether something does or doesn’t work.
We don’t really concern ourselves with the actual physical texture of the plants — that is to say, it rarely matters how our plants actually feel to the touch – what matters is how they appear to feel, and this is visual texture. Visual texture is divided into three major categories: fine, medium, and coarse. The bulk of plants are medium-textured, but by working various finer or coarser-textured plants into your garden you can create very interesting effects.
Distinguishing between coarse and fine-textured plants is often a matter of observation. Look at the plant in question: does each leaf have very well-defined edges? Does the plant have a small number of large leaves or an abundance of smaller ones? Coarse plants are bold, and broad. You know exactly where a coarsely-textured plant begins and ends. Finer plants have wispy and thin qualities that make their edges less obvious.
Fine vs. Coarse
Coarse-textured plants often have bold and obvious features. They demand attention with large (often uniform) features, and in this way make areas seem heavy or full. Large concentrations of coarsely-textured plants can make a garden space feel smaller. Big-leaved hostas or saucer magnolias are examples of coarser-textured plants.
Conversely, fine-textured plants have an open, airy feel. They are unassuming and do not demand your attention like their coarser counterparts. A concentration of fine-textured plants can make your bed seem larger. Baby’s breath, hakonechloa, or lavender are examples of fine-textured plants.
It’s All Relative
Using texture is often a game of contrasts. A medium-textured rose looks coarse next to the wispy stalks of a maiden grass. Put the same rose next to the gargantuan leaves of an umbrella catalpa and it will look fine-textured instead. Playing with these optical illusions can help mask or improve various features of a given plant. Putting tall, coarse-textured plants at the back and shorter, finer plants at the front of a bed will make the area look small and closed. Or put tall fine-textured plants in the back to make the area look more expansive.
Plants are not your only textural concern. Many landscape features affect how a given shrub will appear when planted nearby. Large rocks, gazebos, and other stone or hard-edged items are usually coarse in texture and therefore make the plants around them appear softer than normal. On the other hand, a delicate wire arbor with a vine motif or a screen door will be fine-textured, and will have the opposite effect on nearby plants.
A final way in which texture can change relative to a plant’s location is with distance. Viewed up close, a weeping white pine is decidedly fine-textured; it has long, thin needles that cover the bulk of the plant. Walk to the other side of the yard, however, and you can no longer see each individual needle – instead the plant’s appearance is defined by the shape of it as a whole, and now the pine will appear rather coarse.
Trying to address all of these considerations while planning a garden bed can be overwhelming, so it’s often easier to decide what you want to see, and then work around that. If you don’t like how coarse the pine looks from far away, then obstruct it from view with something else so that it will only ever be seen from up close!
Textures change with the seasons. When a weeping peashrub is out in full leaf, it is a fairly fine-textured plant. In the autumn when the leaves fall it becomes much coarser. Some hydrangeas are medium-coarse in texture but when they bloom become even coarser. Hydrangeas with lacecap-type blooms may decrease in coarseness when they bloom. Summer or fall berries may also affect plant texture. When deciding plants, think about how they will look in every season, not just the period of time when they bloom.
Too many competing textures can cause a bed to look rather chaotic. The bulk of your garden should be medium in texture, with more unusual plants used only with careful consideration. As well, try to avoid sharp changes in texture: surrounding a single large yucca (very coarse) with a mass planting of silver mound thrift (very fine) will exaggerate the coarseness of the former, making it look rather unpalatably jagged.
Keep in mind that there are countless other factors that can influence texture: leaf variegation, lighting conditions, leaf arrangement, how readily the plant sways in the breeze, and so on. Don’t expect to be able to control every factor or you will become frustrated quickly! Remember that it is your garden – only your opinion matters!
Below you will find information on many common garden design themes as well as a (very brief) overview on some of the work and budgetary considerations each type brings with it.
For many, a backyard garden is simply a collection of favourite plants arranged in no particular order, but others choose to design their garden with a very clear theme or style in mind. Of course, there’s more to consider than just your own personal preferences when designing a garden (though it is still the most important consideration!). Budgetary constraints, time commitments, labour intensity/difficulty and future maintenance are substantial considerations.
Many common garden design styles have advantages and disadvantages when we take these criteria into consideration. Below you will find brief descriptions of some popular garden styles, along with the practical pros and cons associated with them. If you’re unsure what style of garden will fit your needs, you can use this document as a starting point to help guide your decisions. Note that we’ve made no attempt to address the subjective nature of personal taste — that part is up to you!
These gardens generally require some amount of hardscaping, whether it is a retaining wall, large landscape stones, a patio, large amounts of sand, or the like, which increases the cost and complexity of the project. Thankfully, most of the plants used in this garden require little to no maintenance and are usually very drought-tolerant.
Classical gardens usually have a grand scale and highly symmetrical, ornate designs. They are perhaps the most impressive and expensive gardens owing to the need for topiary plants and hedges along with showy hardscaping like fountains, statues and other stonework. Since many of the plants used in this garden are well-manicured, the maintenance level is relatively high.
Contemporary gardens are often planned to appear as an outdoor extension of an indoor living space. This means furniture, the use of walls and screens to create discreet ‘rooms’ and (usually) extensive patio work, translating to high initial costs. Upkeep is usually minimal, owing to a lack of massive plant beds. If a raised veggie garden is planned then upkeep may be greater due to the care they require.
Cottage gardens are whimsical and flowing. This is an excellent choice for new gardeners or those who are budget-conscious. The amount of work required to create a country garden is minimal. There is a greater degree of upkeep required, however, as many older cultivars grow large and may need pruning. An abundance of flowering plants increases the amount of deadheading required.
Woodland gardens use simple, easy-to-grow plants (native plants tend to be very inexpensive, as well). The low initial cost and simplicity of this type of garden makes it appealing for budget-savvy gardeners. Generally, you will need a good-sized yard to properly execute this style of garden. In a large yard, maintenance should be minimal, but in smaller yards many native plants will require frequent pruning to control their size.
Zen gardens have a moderate upfront cost because of some of the hardscaping that may be involved: water features, stone basins, large rocks, and unique architectural plants are commonly used. Using sand as a metaphor for water instead of an actual water feature can greatly reduce costs and maintenance. Generally, this style of garden requires a great degree of forethought and every element must be chosen with painstaking attention to detail, making this a complex garden to plan. It is a great garden style for small or narrow yards where costs and upkeep will be greatly reduced without sacrificing aesthetics.
The table below numerically breaks down the advantages and disadvantages of each design. Higher numbers indicate more difficulty, while lower numbers indicate less. Note that these are just general indicators – you can always scale your project based on your own preferences.
Arizona or desert-themed gardens are great for those of us in Canada concerned about excessive water use. However, it is also excellent choice when you prefer a virtually zero-maintenance garden that can be enjoyed throughout the summer with no fuss. When we picture an Arizona or desert-style garden we tend to think of innumerable cacti in a hot sandy area, with little else to look at. Truth be told, this is a very narrow picture of what can be done in this type of themed garden, the budget for which (compared to other styles) is the easiest to scale up or down depending on your level of commitment. This document will highlight some of the interesting things you can do with this landscape.
Principles of an Arizona/Desert Garden
Obviously the main goal of this type of garden is to conserve water while reducing the amount of time devoted to maintenance. You will want to choose plants and landscape features that further this agenda. This is not an absolute rule, however – nowhere does it say that every plant has to be rugged and drought-tolerant. It is easy to get Arizona-type gardens confused with Xeriscaping, which are actually quite different. Xeriscaping is a set of principles that when observed will help you to reduce the water needs of any garden with any plants. Arizona-style gardens often employ many of the same principles but are not bound by them.
Plants for an Arizona/Desert Garden
Arizona-style gardens are coarse and sparse. Don’t expect to plant large beds overflowing with a variety of lush plants. Leave lots of space between individual plants, especially for those that are big and spindly (cacti for instance).
Your plant choice may vary significantly depending on your yard conditions, but certainly there are a number of ‘staple’ plants that you can’t go wrong with. Cacti are the obvious choice, but there are many different kinds of cacti, all different shapes and sizes. Choose carefully: cacti are not winter hardy, so if you want them to survive year-to-year, ensure you have adequate indoor space to house them during the colder months. A massive cactus in a big clay pot might make a great statement outdoors, but it can turn into a spiky nightmare when you have to haul it inside in October.
Succulents are an incredibly popular and diverse plant group, some of which are cold-hardy: hens and chicks and just about any sedum (there are hundreds of kinds), for instance, can give you the fleshy texture of a cactus with decidedly fewer spines.
There are a number of other perennials and shrubs that can be used to simulate desert ‘scrub’, such as barberry, various fescues and oat grasses, junipers or pines, and of course, yuccas.
Below are five plants you might find in an Arizona/Desert garden:
- Yucca filamentosa ‘Golden Sword’ (Golden Sword Yucca)Popular choice, long pointed fronds with bright yellow variegation
- Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (Autumn Joy Stonecrop)Fleshy cactus-like perennial, bright pink-red fall flowers
- Caragana microphylla ‘Silver Spires’ (Mongolian Silver Spires Peashrub)Unusual lacy silver foliage on rigidly upright olive branches and a single central stem
- Helictotrichon sempervirens (Blue Oat Grass)Compact, spiky grass with bright blue foliage, great in odd-numbered clusters
- Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ (Blue Star Juniper)Dense, mounded evergreen with star-like steel blue foliage
Other Elements of an Arizona/Desert Garden
Many gardens of this variety have hardscaping that is dominated by terra cotta hues – faded reds, oranges, browns, and yellows, all used to blend in with the typical desert scape. Clay or stone pots planted with cacti are popular. A stone fire pit is another common addition. A small pond, or ‘desert oasis’ could also be added but remember that this will add a certain degree of maintenance to the garden, and may not be totally consistent with the theme you are trying to establish.
Dry stone riverbeds are another common element in many Arizona-style gardens. Use larger, coarser stones for this purpose, not pea gravel. Large boulders can also be used in concert with other plants to great effect.
Carefully-placed evening lighting can bring an Arizona-style garden to life after the sun goes down. A cactus or yucca backlit with white light can provide an intriguing effect. Warm mood lighting around a seating area can also be used. Consider using torches, braziers or lanterns.
There is almost no limit to the interesting ways you can go about creating your own Arizona-themed garden. Explore our store and you’re sure to find many exciting plants (as well as décor) that will help inspire you to create your own personal desert oasis.
The Mediterranean is home to many of the world’s most noteworthy ancient realms. Civilizations such as ancient Greece, Egypt, Byzantium, and Rome have had a profound influence on every facet of Western culture including many of our long-standing traditions in architecture and garden design. If you prefer a garden space that has a sense of grandeur and timeless elegance, then this style of garden is for you.
Principles of a Mediterranean/Classic Garden
The archetypal classic garden is very formal. Symmetry is of paramount importance. Almost exclusively, you will want to employ geometric designs and shapes when determining the layout of the garden as well as your plant selection. Concentric circles, squares and rectangles should form the bulk of your beds and walkways.
Remember that a formal garden will often require consistent upkeep if it is to remain that way. Staying on top of pruning and maintenance (especially with hedges, globes, and topiaries) will be critical. However, there is also merit in allowing a formal garden to grow wild over the years. It will create the impression of antiquity and mystery, suggesting that your garden has been somewhat lost to time. There is something innately humbling about seeing a marble statue or obelisk slowly consumed by a climbing vine over the years. It all depends on the effect you wish to create.
Though there are notable differences in what you’d find in an ancient Greek setting as opposed to, say, an Egyptian one, don’t tear your hair out trying to make sure your choices are historically accurate. Unless one of your friends is a Classics professor or an archaeologist, nobody will notice that you are blending styles. Many of these realms influenced one another at times, anyway; your goal is to use their design principles as inspiration, not as irrefutable rules.
Plants for a Mediterranean/Classic Garden
When used as hedges or as tightly-trimmed globes or squares, boxwood, yew, and privet lend themselves perfectly to the formal nature of the classic garden. Topiaries are a staple of this type of garden, and are usually pruned into tight squares or globes. Top-grafted shrubs are just as effective as topiaries for this same formal purpose. Upright, narrow evergreens work as taller screens. Try to pick cultivars that are dense and tidy.
Many classic gardens may also have areas employing what could only be described as ‘floral exuberance’. These areas still possess near-perfect symmetry but utilize masses of showy, large flowers such as roses or peonies. Even in the most chaotic mass-planting of this style, however, the numbers and sizes of flowers will be carefully mirrored along at least one visual plane in the garden.
Other Mediterranean-style shrubs that may find a place on the fringes of the garden include hardy figs, clematis, grapevines, rosemary, lavender, and many other herbs. Five trees/shrubs with which you could form the foundation of your classic garden are:
- Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey Compact’ (Bailey Compact Viburnum)Very tidy, compact, upright plant, dense maple-like leaves, excellent orange fall colour
- Rosa x ‘Radtko’ (Double Red Knockout Rose)Very compact for a shrub rose, re-blooms throughout the summer, very low-maintenance
- Buxus x microphylla ‘Green Velvet’ (Green Velvet Boxwood)Dense hybrid boxwood, ideal for hedges or topiaries, rich green evergreen foliage
- Thuja occidentalis ‘DeGroot’s Spire’ (DeGroot’s Spire Cedar)Very narrow, compact arborvitae, deep green fan-shaped foliage, no pruning required
- Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ (Dwarf Korean Lilac Standard)Top-grafted dwarf lilac, dense green foliage, pale purple fragrant blooms
Other Elements of a Mediterranean/Classic Garden
Often classic gardens have a decidedly white-grey-green palette because these colours are crisp, simple, and formal. Don’t be afraid to deviate from this but your hardscaping shouldn’t be exploding with bright colours (unless you use mosaics, which can be any colour you want!).
For formal pathways, the most cost-effective material is pea gravel, which has virtually limitless use. Flagstone is more expensive but also far more impressive. It can be used in a clean, straight rectangular fashion. Smaller stones can also be used and arranged in a variety of circular or arcing geometric patterns to great effect.
Stone, marble, and bronze form the backbone of a formal, classic garden. Hardscaping is usually extensive and epic in appearance. Elaborate fountains, stone basins, tall marble columns, and large statues are present in virtually any Greco-Roman design, but some of these features can be monumentally expensive – you will want to ensure that if you end up scaling down the size of one of these features that the plants around it are scaled appropriately. A two-foot fountain will look rather silly near a four-foot hedge.
Borrow from Egypt by using sundials and obelisks planted with clematis. Urns of any size will suggest a Greek or Byzantine influence. Using mosaic tiling will also lend a distinctive and beautiful ‘Constantinople’ look to your garden space. Have fun with it!
Contemporary gardens are sleek, simple and bold. They represent the perfect balance between aesthetics and function. If you want a garden that doubles as a comfortable living space, then a contemporary style is for you. This guide will walk through the elements of a contemporary garden.
Principles of a Contemporary Garden
Contemporary gardens have clean, simple layouts (usually geometric, though not always) and well-thought-out features that usually have multiple uses. A good contemporary garden is all about clever and efficient use of space. Contemporary gardens do not have wandering paths and hidden corners, but it might have hidden storage space. A tall retaining wall might have a soil-filled indent in the top allowing for three ornamental grasses to be planted there. The bottom of the same wall might be hollowed out to allow for drawers to be installed, creating extra storage out of otherwise unused space.
Contemporary gardens often have very strong line, an aesthetic principle involving strong horizontal and vertical lines that guide both your eyes and feet. Strong line usually means there’s no confusion as to where you should go. Many contemporary designs divide the garden area into discreet ‘rooms’ that have very obvious functions. A seating area, a raised vegetable garden, a narrow grassy play area – a well-designed contemporary garden will make it clear what each room does and how to get there.
Plants for a Contemporary Garden
Above all else, your plants should be carefully chosen to provide a desired effect in a particular room. Much like in an Asian/Zen garden, you will have fewer plants overall but each one will be carefully chosen for a specific purpose.
You might use tall ornamental grasses to create a soft ‘wall’ serving as a visual barrier between two ‘rooms’. An herb or vegetable garden in a raised bed is the ultimate balance of utility and aesthetics in the contemporary garden, providing greenery to soften hard edges while also providing food to use for seasoning and cooking.
Contemporary gardens rarely have messy, ‘rambling’ plants unless they are serving a very specific purpose. You might have a Smokebush (generally a larger shrub) but it will be used more as an architectural piece in an unadorned corner of the garden: well-pruned in a square bed, lit from underneath by two spotlights to highlight the appealing branching habit. The Smokebush could just as easily be a statue or small fountain.
Your contemporary garden design choices are likely to be the polar opposite of a cottage/country style garden, but you might well use some similar plants. Lavender, for instance, can be found in both gardens. In a country garden, it might be planted en masse along the edge of a curving bed, while in a contemporary garden it would be planted in a neat row atop a half-wall, used to provide scent and texture while also tying in to the purple throw pillows on a nearby bench.
Below are five plants with interesting structural or utilitarian properties that would be at home in a contemporary garden:
- Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’ (Sky Pencil Holly)Dark rigidly upright foliage, great as a vertical accent
- Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Boxwood)Rounded form, soft cream variegation, very tidy plant
- Dolichos ‘Ruby Moon’ (Annual — Ruby Moon Hyacinth Bean)Purple vine, beans used in Asian cooking, seeds re-plantable
- Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ (Hidcote English Lavender)Low-growing, purple flowers, excellent fragrance, good herb for flavouring
- Cyperus papyrus ‘King Tut’ (Annual – King Tut Papyrus Grass)Tall reed-like grass, great around water features and for textural impact
Other Elements of a Contemporary Garden
Often (but not always) substantial amounts of hardscaping are involved in contemporary gardens. They are intended to be used as both a garden and a living space, and so plants are just another item seamlessly integrated into the greater scheme of things. Wood or steel paneling, raised and lowered patio areas, an outdoor kitchen or shower, tall walls and screens, and spotlights are just a few of the items you may see in a contemporary garden.
Most contemporary gardens have either a table for outdoor meals or a comfortable living-room-style sitting area. These ‘rooms’ are generally the most important part of the outdoor space, and often the design considerations of the rest of the garden will fall in line with the decisions made in these crucial rooms.
If you are not keen on a garden that looks ‘staged’, then a cottage-style garden is for you. Cottage/country gardens are whimsical, free-flowing spaces that focus on explosions of colour and the use of older varieties of plants — you won’t find any ‘designer’ plants in a cottage garden. This guide will give you an outline of the main elements of this style.
Principles of a Cottage/Country Garden
The most important principle of a cottage garden is that it should appear unprincipled. It doesn’t need to be complete chaos, but your garden beds should be brimming with colour and texture. Use winding or curved pathways to add whimsy to the space, and be sure to use an assortment of plants that drape over the edge of the pathway to make the border less obvious.
Many cottage gardens cannot be completely enjoyed from a single area. Paths may wend away out of line-of-sight, forcing you to stroll around and explore to get the full experience. Similar flowers can be planted in masses to great effect, but you can just as easily plant in single or small clusters – take all of these suggestions with a grain of salt.
Cottage gardens always look rustic. Use of antique items, chipped flagstone, and other ‘old’ items such as whiskey half-barrels, an old spigot, or a small, weathered wooden shed are common choices.
Plants for a Cottage/Country Garden
Avoid ‘designer plants’ or new cultivars. Stick with the old favourites. A peony or old English rose is at home in the cottage garden. Annabelle-type hydrangeas, rose-of-sharon, burningbush, and lilacs are also good choices as structural elements around which smaller plants can be placed. Use perennials that can be planted en masse along a winding garden path like butterflybush, coreopsis, daisies, daylilies, foxglove, or Russian sage. Annuals like bachelor’s buttons, cleome or cosmos are also good choices. Clusters of ornamental grasses will add to the ‘rustic’ feel while also providing a soothing sound when the wind blows through the garden.
If this garden is actually at your cottage, you can focus your plant choice on summer and early fall bloomers, but if you’re planning a cottage-themed garden for a year-round abode then consider mixing in some spring bloomers to give some early-season interest as well. Evergreens can be used, but limit yourself to a couple (unless they’re being used as a hedge) as their imposing structure can affect the whimsy you’re trying to create. Avoid topiaries entirely.
Larger trees that attract birds and butterflies can also be used. Note that many of the trees frequented by birds tend to be the ones that produce fruit, so if you don’t want any mess, avoid them. Maples are also good choices, if only for the excellent fall show.
Below are five plants that best exemplify the style of a country garden:
- Hydrangea x ‘Incrediball’ (Incrediball Hydrangea)Large white globular flower clusters, sturdier stems than ‘Annabelle’
- Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’ (Zagreb Threadleaf Coreopsis)Abundant yellow flowers, deeply dissected airy foliage, great in mass plantings
- Delphinium ‘Purple Passion’Rich purple flower panicles, also ideal in groupings
- Rosa ‘Mary’ (Mary Old English Rose)Old-fashioned shrub rose, powder pink flowers, incredibly fragrant
- Amelanchier alnifolia (Downy Serviceberry)White June flowers, black fall berries, attracts birds, great orange fall colour
Other Elements of a Cottage/Country Garden
Water features can be used in a cottage garden but try to avoid anything overly grand or complex – a small pond or narrow brook is probably best. You’ll want to avoid fountains as well, as they (like evergreens) provide a little too much structure and suggest the garden is ‘planned’. A tiered fountain, however, planted with trailing perennials and partially hidden in a bigger bed might work just fine!
Consider what you want at your feet as well. Avoid highly refined patio-style hardscaping. Chipped and scattered flagstone, gravel or even sand are good options for the pathways leading around the garden.
An old wooden bench with a birdbath or bird feeder is an example of the kind of structural elements you want in the garden. A porch swing is a great choice as well. If you want annuals planted in containers in the yard, avoid overly modern-style planters and use soft pastel hues. Using unorthodox items as planters (for example, an old dresser with the drawers pulled out and used as pseudo-window boxes) can add an element of playful humour.
Most importantly, a cottage or country garden is about curved paths and masses of flowers. If it looks rustic, it will probably work in a cottage garden!
A garden using native/woodland plants is easily the most inexpensive and easy-to-care- for option for homeowners, though it does come with its own set of unique challenges. Native plants are the easiest to grow and provide shelter for wildlife. While Asian/Zen gardens try to mimic the beauty of nature on a small scale, woodland gardens are an exact replication. If you prefer your yard to be a complete escape from urbanity, and want it to be as ecologically sound as possible, then this is the garden style for you.
Principles of a Native/Woodland Garden
Walk into a wooded area and look around. This should be all the inspiration you need to create your own garden! There are some considerations you need to make in order to execute this style of garden effectively, however.
The idea behind a woodland garden is that you want to attract beneficial animals and insects to your garden and provide them with sanctuary from human disruption. Paths and sitting areas are of course encouraged, but you will want to ensure that the areas of your garden frequented by wildlife can be enjoyed without risk of human interference. In this vein, try to balance out areas more likely to be frequented by humans with lower-traffic areas (but that ideally still can be enjoyed from afar) when planning the garden.
Wooded areas can vertically be broken down into four layers (a plant that best represents that layer is included): the canopy (Sugar Maple), subcanopy (Pagoda Dogwood), shrub layer (Black Chokeberry), and groundcover layer (Ferns). To create an authentic woodland garden, plant with these ‘natural’ layers in mind. However, the entire yard doesn’t have to be a shady, tree-covered area. Patches of open sun and grass are equally acceptable.
Plants for a Native/Woodland Garden
Native plants will be vigorous and fast-growing. Ensure your garden will be large enough to deal with large plants! In a perfect situation, you would plant all-native trees, shrubs and perennials in your woodland garden, but some gardeners might find this rather limiting. A large proportion of native species of shrubs and perennials (with some exceptions) appear only in various shades of green and white, making for a very monochromatic garden. Thankfully, there are non-native but ‘safe’ plants that can also be used in a woodland garden, which will add more interest while not upsetting the balance of the mini-ecosystem you are trying to create.
If you have specific plants in mind but are not sure how to arrange them in a garden bed, find a picture or example of them growing in nature and attempt to mimic that. For instance, you’ll find that ferns often grow in broad colonies across shady but fertile stretches of forest floor (this isn’t the only place they grow – in fact ferns are incredibly adaptable). Plant a few Cinnamon Ferns under a high-canopied tree and watch them fill the space with reckless abandon in a few short years.
Below are five native-to-London plants you might find in a woodland garden:
- Galium odoratum (Sweet Woodruff)Perennial groundcover, small white flowers, shade-tolerant
- Cornus alternifolia (Pagoda Dogwood)Large shrub, unusual tiered horizontal branching habit, white flower clusters
- Ostrya virginiana (Ironwood/Hophornbeam)Disease and pest-resistant tree, unusual ‘muscular’ bark, shade-tolerant
- Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower)Compact perennial, green lobed leaves, white flower clusters, shade-tolerant
- Hamamelis virginiana (Witch-Hazel)Large shrub, red, orange, or yellow tassel-like blooms, flowers early spring
Here are five ‘safe’ varieties that are not native to the London area but that will provide interest:
- Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey Tea)Small shrub, dense pink summer flower clusters
- Abies balsamea (Balsam Fir)Large evergreen, soft green needles, tolerant of wet sites, popular Christmas tree
- Acer pensylvanicum (Striped Maple)Unusual small maple, massive three-lobed leaves, bark is striped white and brown
- Myrica gale (Sweet Gale)Small yellow flowers, tolerant of poor soil, leaves are highly fragrant
- Campsis radicans (Trumpet Vine)Vine with small orange or yellow trumpet-shaped flowers
Other Elements of a Native/Woodland Garden
There are a number of manmade elements that can be incorporated into this style of garden without causing too much fuss. Pathways are a great way to encourage guests to explore, while small clearings with benches are a landmark that will encourage the same person to stop, sit and enjoy their surroundings. In larger yards you can create a grove consisting of a specific tree type (Poplar or Birch are interesting choices for this purpose).
Other more overt manmade elements can distract from the natural setting. Large fountains, for example, should be avoided or only used after you carefully consider how it will affect the mood you are trying to evoke.
If you prefer a simple garden space that encourages quiet reflection and which attempts to mimic natural beauty, then a Zen/Asian garden is for you. This style of garden involves forethought and careful selection and placement of plants but has minimal upkeep once completed. They can be any size – even just a tiny corner of your yard — if you prefer a simple project for the summer. This is a very general introduction to the elements of a Zen/Asian garden. Of course, we don’t all have the luxury of time or the budget to do an Asian garden the “perfect” or “proper” way, so feel free to pick and choose whichever elements you prefer to abide by. It is your garden, after all.
Principles of a Zen/Asian Garden
In a traditional Zen/Asian garden, every plant, walkway and stone has a specific, well-thought-out purpose. Most of the time, plants and focal points are few and far between but are selected because their qualities have some metaphoric value. For example, a tall, flat-topped rock might represent Mt. Fuji, or a white hydrangea might represent a puffy cumulus cloud. Done right, you may well be spending eighty percent of your time thinking about how the garden should look and twenty percent of the time actually executing your vision!
In a traditional setting, the ‘proper’ placement of ponds, streams, and other features is often determined by Buddhist geomancy (the art of bringing good fortune through proper placement of items). As an example, to bring good luck streams should flow east-to-west because it is believed this will help evil flow out of the garden. You can choose to work by the various rules of tradition, which are all actually set out in an 11th-century manual called the Sakuteiki, but time and budget constraints may make this overwhelming for many of us. It’s likely best to choose a few concepts that resonate with you and leave the rest to your own creative whims.
Plants for a Zen/Asian Garden
Avoid having large swaths of plants unless you are set upon creating a very rustic version of an Asian garden. Plants should be carefully selected for their architectural qualities and bloom times. You will be planting less, but each tree, shrub, and perennial will be featured so prominently that less will become more.
Japanese maples of course have a place in this kind of garden, but you should limit yourself to one or two particularly interesting ones. Pine trees are also a staple of Japanese Gardens. Ancient, gnarled and twisted bristlecone pines (Pinus aristata) are often a focal point. Try to work at least one flowering cherry somewhere in the garden. Hydrangeas, rhododendrons, pieris, ginkgo trees, and katsuras are also suitable. Often moss is liberally used throughout the garden to make everything look ‘ancient’.
Below are five particularly interesting shrubs that could be used in a Zen/Asian garden:
- Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’ (Slowmound Mugo Pine)Small, dense, shrubby pine, very slow-growing, very tidy habit
- Prunus incisa ‘Kojou-no-mai’ (Fuji Cherry)Beautiful pink spring blossoms, bright orange fall colour, unusual ‘twisted’ branching habit
- Ginkgo biloba ‘Troll’ (Troll Ginkgo)Dwarf ginkgo shrub, bright green fan-shaped foliage, gold fall colour, very unique specimen
- Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’ (Lion’s Mane Japanese Maple)Rigid, upright branches, unusual dark green serrated foliage, very interesting shape
- Hydrangea serrata ‘Tiny Tuff Stuff’ (Tiny Tuff Stuff Mountain Hydrangea)Tough hydrangea, blue, pink, or purple lacecap blooms, almost no pruning required
Other Elements of a Zen/Asian Garden
Aside from plants, the first essential element of this style of garden is a water feature. This can be a pond or a small stream, but if you aren’t keen on the upkeep involved, many dry gardens use white sand as a metaphor for water. White sand is often carefully raked to create ‘ripples’ or ‘eddies’ that further this metaphor.
A second crucial element is the use of rock and sand. Rocks are almost always arranged in pairs, threes, fives, or sevens and every rock is a symbol for something. An arrangement of three rocks, for instance, might have the tallest represent heaven, the shortest represent the earth and the middle one represent humanity. You don’t need to do something as lofty as this, but take the idea and have fun with it! What are the three pillars of your life? In traditional Japanese gardens, rocks are often placed in white sand beds to represent an ‘island’ in a ‘sea’. In Chinese gardens, rocks are more of a feature on their own, and are often selected instead because of their impressive individual shape or size.
Other elements of this style of garden are the use of stone lanterns or pagodas, water basins, small bridges (often with a zig-zag in them, as this supposedly wards off evil spirits) and gates or fences to create an enclosed environment.
Remember that nothing is placed at random in this style of garden. Every tree, flower, and stone is placed very deliberately to contribute to the overall aesthetic appeal of the space. Above all else, though, have fun with it! When you’re done you will have an insular space in which you can sit and reflect in peace.