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An informal garden with rustic slate paving and diverse plantings

What is Your Garden Style?

– Posted in: Sustainable Gardening

People will always have their own style preferences. Whether it relates to music, fashion or home décor. Similarly, they might find certain gardens more appealing than others because they match their aesthetic preference.

If you like to keep your home clear and pristine and free of clutter, you might be inclined to a very formal garden with neat orderly plantings.  Alternatively, if you are a bit of a collector and enjoy a rich, varied living space, you may prefer a bit more chaos in the garden. 

To determine your garden style, you can boil it down to three main factors. 

Garden Structure

This factor relates to the general layout and organisation of the landscape.  It’s about the arrangement of space so that it feels right.  Getting that balance of clear, open space and protective, buffering screening. Preferences here generally range from the highly formal and symmetrical to the completely informal and organic.

The Formal Garden

A formal garden structure provides a pleasing sense of order.  If designed and maintained well, it lends a sense of tranquility.  You have a feeling that everything is in its place and under control.  A formal garden complements a house that has a strong symmetry, particularly in the front.  It might reflect to the world your well-ordered personality.  Clipped hedging, strong definition of lawns and paved areas and strategic positioning of ornamental features are also characteristic of highly structured formal garden designs.

A formal garden with symmetrical layout of parterres and clipped hedging

A formal garden with symmetrical layout of parterres and clipped hedging

The grand gardens of Renaissance France or Italy are classic examples of formal gardens that are designed to impress.  There are great orderly avenues of trimmed shrubs with intricate parterres of massed bedding plants laid out to look impressive from the higher levels of the chateaux.  The Islamic garden is an older example of a formal symmetrical layout with the particular inclusion of water.  These gardens were designed to create a sense of cool seclusion with their ponds and rills, beneath the shade of precisely arranged canopy trees.

Formal gardens can be quite high maintenance if there is a continual need to keep plantings clipped and looking neat.  On the other hand, because there is a simple, consistent arrangement of plants, that maintenance is relatively straight forward.  There aren’t so many different things to think about.

The Informal Garden

For many people, this garden preference is rather clinical and soulless.  At the other end of the ‘Garden Structure’ spectrum, the preference is for an entirely casual and organic arrangement.  It might be to the point of not having any deliberate design at all and the garden develops randomly and haphazardly. 

A wild, random garden can accidentally have enormous charm despite the neglect it might have received.  The richness of the garden and unpredictability of the layout can provide a joyful sense of interest and discovery.  Informal gardens of course are not necessarily the result of neglect but may be carefully contrived to be beautifully tranquil places with a relaxed, natural feel.

A natural arrangement of rocks create a relaxed informal garden

A natural arrangement of rocks create a relaxed informal garden

A neglected casual garden can more often end up looking like a mess as opposed to a charming landscape.  Therefore, this garden can require constant vigilance so that things don’t get too random.  On the other side of the coin, a casual style can wear some extra disorder that a prim formal garden can’t.

Examples of informal gardens might include a rambling cottage garden or perhaps a more natural Australian bush landscape.  A bush garden is a good example of a casual landscape that can turn into a mess without some careful design and maintenance. 

There is a common misconception that native plants don’t need any maintenance. This can result in an oppressive jumble that gives native plants a bad reputation as landscape plants. Some thought and care with design and maintenance makes all the difference.

There can be few landscapes so perfect as a simple clearing amid a balance of indigenous plants that draw in and provide habitat for local wildlife.  Even if the structure of the garden is casual, having some thought in the provision of space and seclusion is important to having a landscape that feels right.

Landscape Materials

This range of preferences tends to go from clean and contemporary to more natural and traditional.  There is a bit of a correlation here with garden structure styles. People that prefer formal gardens tend toward a clean, contemporary material style but it doesn’t necessarily always work that way.

Modern landscape materials provide a clean contemporary look

Modern landscape materials provide a clean contemporary look

The Contemporary Garden

The ‘contemporary’ style usually involves materials like rendered block or concrete walls matched with stained timber or stainless steel.  If there is any stone used, it is simple and consistent without a lot of natural variation.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be applied to a formally structured garden. 

These material styles will commonly be seen in concert with a pool side landscape or where a timber deck extends from an alfresco space in a new home. ‘Resort Style’ is another term that reflects this aesthetic.  It feels fresh, modern and fashionable.

Natural stone can give a garden a warm rustic character

Natural stone can give a garden a warm rustic character

The Rustic Garden

The other end of this spectrum is a preference for natural and less refined materials.  Natural stone, recycled timber and rusted steel are preferred here.  It may be in very informal arrangements where rock is placed in natural formations.  It may use stone pavers in preference to clay or concrete with the natural variance of colour and markings. 

A formal garden can be given a bit more life with the use of natural stone and raw timber.  Raised, formal beds using these more earthy and traditional materials can be very effective, providing a satisfying balance.  Allowing metals like steel or copper to oxidise naturally to give a patina creates character and interest that lends some life to a garden.

Planting

The plantings are the ‘clothing’ of the garden. The preference spectrum here broadly ranges from having rich, diverse plantings as opposed to sparse, minimal plantings.  Again, the sparse and minimal often correlates with formal and contemporary but doesn’t have to.

Rich varied garden plantings provide plenty of interest as well as a sense of sanctuary

Rich varied garden plantings provide plenty of interest as well as a sense of sanctuary

Rich Plantings

There might also be some other plant preferences within that spectrum such as lush and tropical or dry and succulent.  A rich, lush, tropical garden is also often associated with a contemporary or resort style, so you have a clean modern feel immersed in a rich, protective array of plants. 

The preference for rich, generous plantings can also translate as a wonderful display of colour, form and texture that you would see in a cottage garden or perennial border.  It is part of the art of the garden designer to get the right combinations of plants so that they will harmonise effectively. 

There is still always the risk that you can end up with a mess, particularly if you have just one each of a hundred different plants.  However, with the use of generous groups of several species that harmonise well, you can achieve that nice balance of diversity without the chaos.

Being generous with the space you give your garden beds can paradoxically give the impression of your whole garden being bigger.  Having an extra metre or two of garden from your boundary fence has the effect of making you less conscious of where your property finishes.

Sparse Plantings

The preference for minimalist planting is often associated with a modernist aesthetic.  It can be restrained, clean and stylish.  It also reduces garden maintenance, although it might mean more lawn mowing. 

A garden can be very interesting and stylish with minimal plantings

A garden can be very interesting and stylish with minimal plantings

Formal gardens, both traditional or contemporary, will often have simple minimal plantings.  It could include box hedging and standard specimen trees.  It might be a restrained line of roses or palm trees to define an open space. 

A sparsely planted garden can just as commonly be seen in more informal designs.  A Zen garden might not have any plants at all.  An interesting arid garden might be a selection of cacti widely spaced in a naturalistic sandy or rocky landscape.

A minimalist garden can be very effective if its structure is carefully designed.  Otherwise, if the spaces don’t feel right your garden might end up feeling rather bland and uninteresting.

Balance

While many people can place themselves at one end of the spectrum for each of these three preferences, most will enjoy a garden that achieves a balance of them all. 

A garden design works best when it achieves the right balance of order and chaos.  A strong structure doesn’t have to be highly formal.  If you have well defined spaces, whether that is in the form of lawn, decking or paving, you can allow a bit of chaos to happen with your plantings.

Being a bit creative can be very effective and keep your garden from being predictable.  Recycled timber features used in a modern contemporary style or native plants clipped as formal specimens are unexpected garden techniques that work beautifully. 

The balance of space and seclusion that plants provide is critical. You want to avoid a garden planting that is a sad strangled remnant at the base of the back fence. Also, you don’t want to feel like your garden is coming to get you. The balance needs to feel right for you.  That comes with a thoughtful garden design.

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