Garden Styles Or Themes

Garden Styles Or Themes

In terms of Garden design the garden style or theme refers to the way the designer expresses ideas and organizes materials, plants, ornaments and colors into a consistent composition throughout the whole garden or sub-section of the garden. These styles can be based on fashions or practical purposes and may be modern in origin or date back historically to significant periods of time. The trend moving forward is tending to be focusing on smaller  spaces as the population and housing densities increase. Some gardeners only have a balcony or roof terrace to utilize. Although there is still a demand for the larger suburban sections.

Some garden styles or themes are:

Formal Garden Style-

This garden style dates back hundreds of years, with some of the best known examples in France, Italy and England. Where the wealthy land owners would create large gardens on their estates. They tend to show dominance over nature by imposing geometry and structure.

The best examples have a balanced design with symmetry and a clearly visible ground plan or pattern. Typically arranged around a central axis or path giving a focused view from  the house or key locations. In larger gardens there are often several intersecting walking routes that direct pedestrians down side paths or creating vistas of distant features such as statues, structures or fountains. Any symmetrical shape can be used including squares, rectangles, equilateral triangles, circles, ovals, and ellipses. Water features are also utilized to create a reflective surface to mirror views or objects. Also fountains with jets of water or water falling or flowing in various ways.

The main design elements in a Cottage garden styles are:

  • Symmetry can be achieved on any scale by having an  arrangement of plants and/or objects or layout in a balanced way around a central axis.
  • Ornaments such as ornate urns or round knobs on plinths. Or balustrades edging paths or steps.
  • Statuary traditionally Greek gods or mythological creatures. With more modern formal gardens abstract or figurative works are utilized.
  • Topiary which is clipped hedges. Typically box for smaller arrangements used to form patterns. Yew is common for larger designs that define separate spaces within a larger area. It  can  be clipped into geometrical shapes as well.
  • Paving is laid in various symmetrical patterns to emphasize the axes in the garden design.
formal garden theme

This formal garden design uses a central point with two axes radiating out. The conical topiary shrubs emphasize the straight line parterre to create a bold design.

Cottage Garden Style-

Originally cottage gardens were created around rural cottages to provide food for the home dweller. In the late 19th century the cottage gardens style migrated into the urban environment more emphasis on flowering plants with the focus being on color and fragrance. The garden designers Gertrude Jekyll and Edna Walling further refined the cottage garden style into what some referred to as the Arts And Craft style.

The Cottage Garden style is typically comprised of dense planting with paths running through for access. The layout can be geometric or have simple patterns or be free flowing with a natural wild appearance.

The plants may include annuals, perennials, shrubs, vegetables, and herbs. The paths are often gravel, natural stone or bricks. These allow self seeding and an overflow of plants that often occurs. Formally clipped hedges are often utilized to divide the garden into separate spaces with different planting schemes, or themes. Some have decorative topiary shrubs mixed in that are trimmed into various shapes. There’s often objects such as ornaments, statues or garden furniture located to provide focal points or resting places to enjoy the ambiance of the garden.

These combinations create a contrast that is appealing to some gardeners. Although if not done well can look chaotic. The down side of this style of garden is if done on a large scale it is labor intensive to establish and maintain. There’s a lot of weeding, trimming and dead heading if you want to extend the flowering period and have a manicured appearance. Sometimes you have to be ruthless to stop certain plants from taking over a space or smothering plants with a less aggressive growing habit.

The main design elements in a Cottage garden styles are:

  • The planting can include a wide range of plants, but typically predominantly a planting of a mix of colorful flowering varieties and contrasting foliage plants. Although herbs and vegetables are often incorporated and can enhance your to experience when you can pick part of your meal while wandering through the garden. To reduce maintenance it’s best to have little bare ground between plants to reduce weeding.
  • Not being too strict on the space a plant occupies.
  • Incorporating Objet d’art which can include statues, ornaments, garden furniture, or found objects like wagon wheels, wine barrels as planters etc.
  • Arbors festooned with climbers such as roses or fragrant climbing plants. The arbor can be use to link between spaces or have a bench for seating underneath.
  • Gravel, natural stone, or brick is typically used to provide access through the area.
Cottage Garden Styles

This example of a cottage garden style shows a wide range of flowering species without any strict plant layout.


Tropical Garden Style –

Tropical style gardens date back to the 19th century when Europeans discovered the rich abundance of plants on their journeys abroad. Adventurers and merchants would bring back unusual plants for the well to do to use in their gardens. Tropical style gardens are naturally suited to tropical climates but in sub-tropical climates this style can be created successfully. The garden layout is usually organic natural curves, with paths winding between small clearings to make you feel like your in a wilderness forest. Straight lines and formality are usually avoided. But man made structures or objects with straight lines are often incorporated as a kind of juxtaposition to emphasize the structure or object. Structures or seating will often be included using rough-hewn timber and/or stone.

The main focus in plant selection is shape and texture with flowers being seen as a bonus. Planting tends to be dense and over grown with contrasting leaf shapes and differing trunk textures. Water features are often incorporated in the design. Usually they are a natural style with rock water falls and streams flowing into a pond or pool. Tropical gardens are well suited to swimming pool surrounds where the garden and rocks can merge into each other at one end of the pool. The water feature ca double as a source of humidity to  enhance the growing conditions in the garden. Humidifying features such as misters are sometimes included to improve plant health and avoid leaves browning off through dryness. The humidifying spray can be a feature in itself. For people living in sub-tropical areas there is a wide range of hardy plant species from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa that will tolerate cooler conditions. Large formal lawns are generally not included in the tropical style of garden which makes it popular with the people not keen on lawns. The down side of tropical gardens grown in colder marginal climatic areas is that  during the cold season the garden can look shabby with many dead and dying leaves.

The main design elements in a Tropical garden styles are:

  • Bold large leaves and/or textured trunks.
  • Bright colors in both the foliage and flowers.
  • Naturalistic water features such as water falls flowing over boulders down a  pebbly stream into a clear reflective pool.
  • Materials used include rock, pebbles, rough sawn timber.
  • Mulching with bark or leves is used to cover bare ground to reduce weeds.
  • Tall trees and palms are used to give height and bold foliage to the design
  • In marginal climates sensitive plants can be grown in containers that are able to be moved into shelter to over winter. The container style can add a focal point to the overall design.
Tropical Garden Styles

This tropical garden shows the key features of tropical plants combined with a natural looking water feature and natural rocks.

Japanese Garden Style –

In the west the Japanese garden style is often considered as a single style. When you research the subject in depth you find there are many styles with with their own distinct differences. Often based on ritual uses or a spiritual philosophy. Symmetry is not used but a balanced asymmetry is the desired effect. These relaxing layouts are made by the considered placement of plants and objects of different sizes and shapes and textures often contrasting rough with smooth or hard with soft. Individual elements are spaced apart to for emphasis. Traditional Japanese gardens are predominantly a visual composition for contemplation or meditation, rather than a space for plant cultivation or leisure activities.

The main design elements in a Japanese style garden styles are:

  • Natural stone and gravel is used often in large expanses with strategically placed rocks that symbolize islands, boats or animals.
  • Bamboo and timber a used in structures.
  • Mosses and lichen are encouraged.
  • Water is either used on a large scale as a reflective pond often with Koi Carp fish. Or as smaller stone water basins.Water in a container is seen as purifying element.
  • Plantings are restrained and use bamboo, iris, and grasses to provide verticals. Azaleas, Maples, Cherry trees and Rhododendrons provide color a form.
  • Paths are often informal stepping stones laid out in a meandering arrangement to provide changing views and slow the visitor down for contemplation and awareness of the space.
  • Stone lanterns, Buddha statues and water basins are often placed near paths.
  • Bamboo is often used in fencing and gates with decorative bindings to direct pedestrians or frame views.
Japanese pond Koi Carp

This magnificent Japanese garden shows the use of a large pond with Koi Carp and traditional Japanese plants.

Chinese Garden Style –

To a western eye Chinese gardens can look similar to a Japanese style garden. But to an expert on the subject there are substantial differences including; Japanese Gardens tend to more simple. Chinese gardens tend to be elaborate with ornate structures such as pavilions and covered walkways. Most Chinese gardens are enclosed by a wall. It’s generally best to walk through in the particular order that they are laid out in.

The main design elements in a Chinese style garden styles are:

  • Framed views through round holes in walls.
  • Appear as a miniaturized natural landscape.
  • White walls to create enclosures.
  • Chinese gardens have towers, temples, pavilions, bridges and galleries.
  • Rocks are used to in various ways such as to resemble miniature mountain peaks that symbolize stability and virtue. Or rocks that show usual shapes, textures and colors.
  • Plants are selected for features including fragrance, shape. color and texture.
  • Water features including ponds often with fish in them.

This photo shows a traditional Chinese pavilion with reflection pond. Note the more elaborate design of the building when compared to a Japanese style garden.


Mediterranean Garden Style-

Inspired by countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea including Italy, Greece, France, Spain, and Portugal along the north with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Syria on the east with the African countries of Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. The climate is has mild winters and hot dry summers. Other areas of the world that have similar climates include California,  South Africa, Chile and parts of Australia. Plants that like this climate include lavender, succulents, grape vines and olive trees.

The main design elements in a Mediterranean style garden are:

  • White washed walls.
  • Shaded seating and dining areas. The shade can be provided by trees or a structure such as a pergola with vines growing over it.
  • Water features including fountains, water falling from ornaments into pools creating a relaxing sound with reflections and flowing rills.
  • Mosaic features. That include paving that has inlaid pebbles in intricate patterns. Wall features that includes colorful mosaic tiles with symbolized artistic images.
  • The hard paving often leads into gravel paths.
  • Terracotta tiles and pots.
  • Planting that includes silver foliage that reflects the harsh sunlight such as lavender, Euphorbia, Yucca, Agave. For the kitchen Rosemary and  citrus such as lemons oranges. And of course the grape vine!

Note the white washed walls, shaded areas and terracotta pots used to give this design its distinctive Mediterranean style.

Dry Garden Style –

Usually created through necessity to conserve water in naturally dry areas.

The main design elements in a dry garden styles are:

  • Plants that are adapted to a dry climate such as cacti and succulents.
  • The use of rocks, stone and pebbles of different sizes to give texture and form on paths and gardens.
  • Where possible a water feature such as a stream and/or pond is incorporated in a natural looking way.
  • Little or no fine grass varieties, only drought tolerant grass species.

This design uses predominantly cacti with a wrought iron gate to emphasize the dry conditions.

Modernist Garden Style –

The primary emphasis of the modernist garden style is a bold visual impact of the minimalist architectural layout of both the structures and a limited range of plant species. Combined with a layout designed for practical use and enjoyment of the space with low maintenance plantings.

The architectural idea behind the modernist style is to have the plants as one element of the whole composition, but not the principle reason for the gardens creation. This style is well suited where there is a limited amount of outdoor space because the style encourages maximum use of the available space.

The main design elements in a Modernist garden styles are:

  • The use of bold asymmetrical rectangular inter locking shapes with clean lines to define areas.
  • Modern building materials including concrete, steel, glass and timber used in prominent ways.
  • Substantial use of paving and decking to reduce maintenance and enhance space utilization for leisure enjoyment.
  • A narrow range of bold plant species used in group or repeated plantings. Sometimes having clipped hedges shaped as an architectural element.
  • A simple color palette to emphasis to the selected colors.
  • Swimming pools and water features often combined in imaginative ways for both visual appeal and practical leisure utilization. Including both still reflective pools and flowing water features.
  • Contemporary matching furniture such as recliners, tables and chairs located to invite use.
  • Colored night lighting to high light specific features and to enable night time use.
  • Rocks and stone features are usually incorporated in to the design.
  • Prominent bold modern sculptures are used.
  • Built in bench seats and raised garden beds are often present.
modernist glass plants

This modernist style garden design uses bold blue glass plant like sculptures in a simple layout for impact.

Family Garden Style –

The family garden style is focused on creating areas for the family to relax, play and dine. The layout can based on rectangles or curves. Rectangles are easier for measuring and implementing. Depending on the age of the children play equipment can be used for both playing and providing a design element with color and interestingly shaped structures. The relaxing and dining areas can incorporate the common affordable outdoor furniture or have bespoke items such as seating and tables built into the design.

The planting needs to be child friendly by being non-poisonous and free from sharp spines. Including trees that are safe for climbing and provide food for birds can encourage outdoor inter action. Swimming pools can be a main attraction for activities for children although they need to have a child proof fence to keep out young un-supervised children who can’t swim. There are some amazingly elaborate pool designs for those with substantial budgets. Natural stone or manufactured paving materials are often utilized for a solid surface in dining and relaxation areas. While lawn and/or fine bark or for low maintenance artificial grass is used around the play areas. With swings and slides and other play equipment that can involve climbing and potentially falling a soft rubberized surface is often placed in strategic locations to soften any falls. It’s best to avoid placing any easily breakable objects near the play areas. Having lighting in the dining area allows the adults to enjoy the space after dark.

The main design elements in a family garden styles are:

  • Play equipment that suits the age of the children.
  • Low maintenance durable outdoor furniture that can be left outside year round is the most practical type of furniture.
  • Play houses of similar structures can provide hours of entertainment for children.
  • Using bright colors in the design gives the play area a sense of fun.
  • Hardy soft plants give the areas a natural feel while being low maintenance and able to take the occasional foot step.
  • Trees that provide food for wildlife and can be climbed safely adds another dimension to the garden.
family playground

A family garden style needs age appropriate play equipment for developing children to explore and enjoy.

Natural Garden Style –

Emulating nature in a gardens style is nothing new and can be seen in gardens dating back into the 18th century.  The 1960’s spawned the environmental movement when many people realized we are not living sustain ably. In the modern world the natural style emphasizes sustainability in ornamental garden design. By using plants and materials that minimize any negative effects on the worlds resources and environment.

Part of the goal with this style is to recycle and reuse materials to avoid waste with the throw away society that environmentalists are trying to move away from. This often requires a lot of imagination and creativity to work out ways of taking items that may other wise be dumped and turn them into unique garden features. If new timber used it is preferably sourced from certified plantations. The plant selection typically has an emphasis on native plants that provide a food source and habitat for wild life. For pest and disease control an organic approach is normally pursued with biological control and a balanced ecosystem. A natural balance of insects and bees are encouraged with the range of flowering plants selected for plantings.

The main design elements in a natural garden styles are:

  • Providing wildlife habitats with the use of a diverse range of flowering plants. As well as using old logs and rocks for insect shelter.
  • Recycling organic waste through a composting system.
  • Harvesting rain water from roofs and storing it for watering during dry periods.
  • Green roof systems are made by planting the roof with appropriate plants to manage rainwater runoff and provide insulation to the building below.
  • Garden furniture made from either recycled materials  or sustainable sources.
  • Naturalistic ponds to provide water and habitat for wildlife.
natural garden moss

This natural scene can be imitated on a smaller scale by allowing moss to grow in a shaded woodland type setting.

The New Perennial Movement has emerged as one branch of the natural garden approach to design. With proponents like Piet Oudolf. Who uses bold drifts of herbaceous perennials and grasses. He believes establishing a garden is like “A promise to the future and you have to guide it to that future.” He was involved in designing Lurie Garden that is a 2.5-acre (10,000 m2) garden located at the southern end of Millennium Park in the Loop area of Chicago in Cook County, Illinois.

The Lurie Garden with Piet Oudolf from tom rossiter

Urban Garden Style –

This style of garden refers to a garden in a city typically an apartment where there is a relatively small but valuable outdoor space. As urban populations increase space for housing becomes more expensive. Developers tend to try to fit the maximum number of dwellings permitted into the property they have to maximize their profit and reduce the cost of the finished building. Therefore outdoor pace is minimized. This makes a challenge for design trying to make the most of a small space.

The easiest design shape to use is squares and rectangles to fit into the space. Although more imaginative designers use diagonal lines, circles, curves and ovals. The challenge is usually to fit an outdoor entertaining and dining area, if the owner has children a play area and some people want vegetables and herbs in there  as well. For those who want low maintenance small raised garden beds planted with a limited range of low growing perennials is repeated to fill the beds. A  planned color scheme plays an important role in the appearance. Painting the walls a light color gives a feeling of more space. Brightly colored pots, and/or ornaments add points of interest. Trellis with climbing plants can soften the look of the walls.

The main design elements in a dry garden styles are:

  • Stylish furniture combines visual appeal with practical use.
  • Sculptural containers filled with low maintenance plants is often used.
  • Good lighting can highlight specific items and extend the use of the space into the evening.
  • Where an element of height is needed such as to provide privacy from other buildings pleached trees can be used. This is where the lower branches of the tree are pruned off to leave a bare trunk with a mop top that can be pruned into a round or rectangle shape.
  • The hard materials used play an important role in the design. Wood, glass, steel and concrete allow a wide range of possibilities to create a pleasing and practical design.
urban design pergola

Maximum use of this space in an urban yard includes raised beds. dramatic leaf shapes and easy access.

Country Garden Style –

The country garden style dates back to the 18th century with large country estates in England, France and Italy. Where the wealthy gentry could retreat from the squalid cities to a spacious estate in the country. With modern efficient transport the luxury of being able to work in the city and then escape the rat race to the country is still possible in may countries. Typically the section size is more than 1 acre ( 0.4 hectare). This size allows a lot of design possibilities that often include swimming pools, tennis courts, pétanque, large children play areas, and various options for different themed gardens within one property. The possibilities are almost unlimited.

The main design elements in a country garden styles are:

  • Large scale lawns.
  • Large border planting with a wide range of plants.
  • Extensive use of hedges to define separate spaces and provide shelter.
  • Framed views out across the countryside.
  • Large natural looking water features such as ponds, streams and water falls.
  • Paths near the main house are typically hard paved leading out to gravel then grass paths as they go further away from the house.
  • Vegetables, herbs and fruits can be included.
country garden style USA

A reasonably large property is needed for large garden beds and lawns to give the feeling of being in the country.

Productive Garden Style –

This style of gardens can be traced back to the Medieval Abby gardens and Monastic gardens that were functional as both kitchen gardens and medicinal gardens. They typically had vegetable beds, herbs gardens, orchards and vineyards. They were used to feed the inhabitants and treat the sick. Renaissance gardens in France had productive gardens known as “potagers” that were both attractive and provided vegetables and herbs. In  the Victorian era there were large walled gardens owned by the wealthy estate holders. That provided a range of vegetables, fruit and and cut flowers for the lavish parties that were held. During World War 2 there was a “Dig for Victory” campaign that generated substantial support for home grown produce to help the war effort. In the present day there is a desire among many to eat organic food and reduce the carbon foot print of the food miles of imported produce that has spawned a movement towards more people growing their own food. This is done both  in private gardens and some local councils have provided allotments. Where tenants without their own land can have a garden space to grow their own produce on publicly owned land.

Productive gardens tend to be laid out in rectangular shapes based on the space available and providing access. Gardeners will often make raised beds with a width that allows the whole bed to be reaches without treading on the soil to avoid compaction. The paths will often utilize recycled materials such as concrete slabs, bricks, gavel or just compacted soil. In small spaces such as apartments gardeners will resort to container growing which can be pots or troughs. The plants used are typically vegetables and herbs that the grower likes to eat. For watering rain water is often collected off roofs via gutter collectors into a range of storage vessels that are either recycled containers or purpose built.

The main elements in a productive garden styles are:

  • Clearly defined beds.
  • Access paths using recycled materials such  as concrete slabs, bricks and gravel.
  • The use of raised beds to contain the addition of compost, improve drainage, avoid soil compaction through trending on the bed. Also allowing for seating and reduced bending while weeding, and planting etc.
  • The plants are often planted in either rows or rectangular group blocks.
  • Using containers such as pots and troughs.
  • Using support structures such as poles that can be arranged in various ways e.g tripods. Trellis for climbing plant support.
productive gardens

Although this space could have more space utilized for production it is an example of practical production in a limited area.

Permaculture Garden Style –

Permaculture is more than just a garden style. It is more of a lifestyle and has a foundation of what is virtually a philosophy. The founding principles are often summarized as “Earth care, people care, fair share”. The concept of Permaculture originated with Bill Mollison, a senior lecturer in Environmental Psychology at University of Tasmania, in 1978. And David Holmgren a graduate of the Tasmaian College of Advanced Education’s Department of Environmental Design. The term Permaculture is derived from “permanent agriculture” and progressed to stand for “permanent culture”. Permaculture is “A design system for both sustainable land use and sustainable living”, David Holmgren. “A sustainable system is any system, that in its lifetime, can produce more energy than it takes to establish and maintain it.” – Bill Mollison.

The main design elements in a permaculture garden styles are:

  • Observe and Interact
  • Design From Patterns to Details
  • Integrate Rather Than Segregate
  • Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
  • Catch and Store Energy
  • Obtain a Yield
  • Use Small and Slow Solutions
  • Produce No Waste
  • Creatively Use and Respond to Change
  • Use and Value Diversity
  • Use Edges and Value the Marginal
  • Apply Self Regulation
  • Accept Feedback
permaculture garden germany

This permaculture gardens shows how space between buildings is used for food production in an organic way.

Conceptual Garden style –

This is modern style of garden is where the designers push the boundaries of garden design with new innovative and artistic ideas. The overall concept of the design tends to be the most important aspect. Often utilizing new technologies. They’re often more like an art installation than a practical garden space. The hard landscaping is often the most dominant feature with the planting used to emphasize the theme.

The main elements in a conceptual garden styles are:

  • Modern materials such as perspex, fiber glass, glass, and steel.
  • Water fountains and cascades with high tech controls to turn them on and off.
  • Intense color schemes.
  • Contrasting features.
  • Lighting utilizing the latest technology to provide color and focus.
  • Plants with bold textures, leaf shape and color.
conceptual garden design

This conceptual garden design uses bold design shapes and color repeated for emphasis.

The best examples of conceptual garden styles are often presented at various garden festivals as a kind of business promotion for the leading garden designers.

Here’s some books that may interest you.

Encyclopedia of Landscape Design: Planning, Building, and Planting Your Perfect Outdoor Space

California Home Landscaping, 3rd Edition (Creative Homeowner) Over 400 Color Photos & Illustrations, 200 Plants for the Region, & 48 Outdoor Designs to Make Your Landscape More Attractive & Functional

Midwest Home Landscaping, 3rd Edition: Including South-Central Canada (Creative Homeowner) 46 Landscape Designs and Over 200 Plants & Flowers Best Suited to the Region, with Step-by-Step Instructions

Southeast Home Landscaping, 3rd Edition (Creative Homeowner) 54 Landscape Designs with Over 200 Plants & Flowers Best Suited to AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, & TN, and Over 450 Photos & Drawings

Mid-Atlantic Home Landscaping, 3rd Edition (Creative Homeowner) 400+ Color Photos & Drawings, 200 Plants, & 46 Outdoor Design Concepts to Make Your Landscape More Attractive & Functional

Giardina – Life in the Garden, Zürich, Switzerland.

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