What is a Contemporary Garden?

As a designer, I get asked all to frequently about either designing a low maintenance and or modern/contemporary garden – but what really are these? What is a contemporary garden anyway. What is to be created in fact, what is the client actually asking for? This got me thinking; because it is actually quite hard to define a style in definitive terms. Designing a garden is actually all about the emotional responses a client feels. It is not about filling a garden with design features to create a ‘look’

Different Garden Styles

The world of horticulture is full of the same language to describe gardens; romantic, cottage, mediterranean, contemporary, tropical etc, but all these style fall into 3 broad categories: Structured, Informal and Themed.

Structured Gardens:

The key component here is that all these gardens have more artificial landscaping imposed on them. The aim being to create zones for different parts of the garden, there will be well defined seating areas, planting areas, places for design features, the addition of raised borders, paths to define and compartmentalise an area etc. Modern, Geometric, Minimalist, Contemporary and Courtyard gardens all fit into this category.

Informal Gardens:

These gardens feel as though these have evolved over time and are not just created. Often there is little in the way of a formal shape, the lawns look more like areas that have been cut out of the borders to create places to sit. Romantic, Natural, Wildlife and Cottage gardens fit this format and are discussed in next weeks post.

Themed Gardens:

Themed gardens require dedicated (more expert) owners. The planting and style the garden takes is usually inspired by a certain part of the world. The owner reproduces that in the garden. As such, these gardens require a lot of input as often the plants used are not native, which means they need more help to thrive in a foreign climate.

So, do you really want a Contemporary Garden?

Searching the internet for contemporary modern garden images throws up a vast array of designs that look like these:

There are common features in all these contemporary gardens. There are defined zones for planting and seating, routes through the garden, the design wants you to walk. (These might not be the route you actually walk though!) The hard landscaping is clean, sharp and often white or black and the fences become a design feature themselves, using wooden slatting and monochrome colours that all help coordinate the look. And all looks very lovely – but the reason for that is maybe the real reason so many garden owners yearn for a contemporary or modern look. The reason…

Everything is pristine and there is not a leaf out of place!

But is a contemporary garden low maintenance and easy to look after? Will it release the owner from unwanted and unnecessary gardening chores? Does having a contemporary garden make having a beautiful garden easy?

Of course not!

This type of garden style treats the garden an outside room or space. It creates an artificial garden because of the defined zones and spaces. Now there is nothing wrong with this at all, but if you are choosing this style because of a mistaken belief these gardens are easy to look after, are likely to be disappointed!

For a formal garden to look it’s best, just like any room in the house, it needs to be kept clean and tidy. It will need sweeping, mowing, more snipping and trimming to keep the plants the shape the design requires. The plants won’t know they are misbehaving growing out of shape, but because the design requires a ball or cube shape, you will have to work constantly to maintain it.

Zones are clearly defined in the garden, but any debris or overgrowth reduces these clear cut lines, which means an increased maintenance workload.

What then is a Contemporary Garden & how should you make one?

The building blocks of this type of garden are the zones and structures used. Each part of the garden has a specific purpose and a route to get there. Plants highlight and emphasise these zones; but they aren’t the main feature. It is an ‘artificial’ garden in the sense that nature is told where and how to grow. More importantly the natural cycle of the seasons should not detract from the overall look of the design.

This means the planning needs to work backwards in order to make the right design choices. Ask this; what will the garden and the environment of the garden throw at it? How will this impact my space. You cannot stop weeds appearing, leaves falling or plants growing, so consider the impact and choose a suitable material to use that makes clearing this up easier

For example:

The idea is to create a design shape that works (see garden design for beginners) first. Then the materials chosen reflect the garden environment as much as the design. The garden will not lose impact because dark paving or sleepers are used instead of white gravel and rendered block work, because these will fare better and so retain the look better in your gardens climate! In fact because these will be easier to look after; the garden will appear better maintained and neater. Once the bones and structure is in, the planting softens the mood.

Choosing the planting

This bit really determine how you feel in the garden, the plants are always the main element that dictate it’s feel and the mood you want to create. In choosing the plants, you need to decide how you want to feel in the garden, not how you feel the planting should fit the ‘design style’.

But here at PlantPlots we always aim to make gardening easier, so we have created a range of planting style sheets to help you choose a ‘look’. Why not take a look…

  • link to garden planting plan garden design product
  • link to planting plans design product
  • link to pastel flowers planting scheme design product
  • link to garden planting plans design product
  • link to garden design theme garden design product
  • link to garden planting ideas design product
  • link to gardenborder planting plan design product
  • link to bee friendly garden design product

So there you have it, designing gardens made a bit simpler (I hope). But just in case you are still a bit stuck… why not visit our design shop for planting ideas for the garden or look at our amazing book ‘I Want to Like my Garden‘. Or you can email me: rachel@plantplots.com or check out some of the garden designs we have created for your customers.


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