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By Cynthia Lauer, Master Gardener, SCMG

Cottage. Modern. Eco-Friendly. Prairie. Depending on personal taste (and a few other factors), these popular garden designs are available for a gardener’s enjoyment. While the advantages of working with an identifiable scheme may be apparent, many gardeners don’t give design much thought. The layout of their outdoor space may simply default to preferred plant placements or the hardscaping such as a patio or deck that came with their property. Sometimes garden design emerges organically with changing resources over time: children’s needs; the growth of large trees; budgets; personal taste in plants. Every gardener has must-have plants, existing plants, gifted plants, and unwanted plants, as well as flat or sloped grades, good or poor soil, sun or shade. A spontaneous and flexible approach to composition is often a good thing. But just as often, a garden benefits from imposing some rules guided by an aesthetic vision. Usher in garden design.

The cottage garden is arguably the most common and recognizable of all landscape designs with a history that dates back centuries. Today, the cottage garden is characterized by a free-flowing mix of flowering and often fragrant herbaceous perennials and shrubs that peak in late spring and early summer. Plant choices are wide and non-repetitive. The cottage garden gives the impression of wanton freedom in its sheer colour and abundance. Hardscaping is limited to a low wooden fence and arbor covered with clematis or climbing roses. Paths are curvy; flower beds are dense. Optimal appearance is achieved by repeating favoured plants, tidy borders defined with complementary edging material, and pruning plants as they overgrow their allotted space. In the end, the cottage garden should produce a feeling of peace and tranquility. Classic plant choices for back-of-border include foxglove (Digitalis spp.), lupin (Lupinus spp.), roses, and delphinium, while lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), English lavender (Lavendula angusifolia) and pinks (Dianthus spp.) may appear at the front of the border.

Anne Hathaway’s historic cottage and gardens
Richard Peat, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern garden design typically boasts a well-organized geometry of stiff, upright plants chosen for their sculptural rather than their decorative significance. Like abstract art, they are to be enjoyed for their form, texture, and balance. Foliage and texture are crucial; flowers are secondary or even irrelevant. Colours are muted and minimal. Plants are repeated in a linear fashion in beds with edges at right angles. Hardscaping is key: the natural colours of concrete, steel, stucco, and stone produce a cool appearance. A modern garden design suits a modern house design each with their hard angles, rectangular shapes, and simple lines. Oiled wood and weathered steel introduce a warmer tone to the design. Outdoor furniture in neutral tones, a water feature, native plants and pollinator-attracting perennials can soften static features and make a modern garden more personal. Appropriate plants for modern gardens are yucca, hosta, red-hot poker (Kniphofia), sedums, and upright ornamental grasses such as reed grass (Calamagrostis).

Sustainable, native, and xeriscaped, eco-friendly garden designs are setting a trend for landscapers and gardeners everywhere. Hard materials such as stone and wood are chosen for their lowest possible impact and recycled materials are used wherever possible. Native grasses replace non-native Kentucky bluegrass, plants support pollinators and wildlife, and both materials are locally sourced. Garden designers are wise to observe the space for any local wildlife and how natural elements like the sun, wind and rain interact with the space. Wildlife is regarded not as something to contend with but something to invite in. Ponds and other water features support local wildlife like frogs and toads instead of Japanese koi fish. Aquatic plants are used to purify the water. When it comes to plant selection, the designers rule of thumb presides: the right plant for the right place. In the eco-friendly garden, one may see native drought-tolerant plants such as asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), beardtongue (Penstemon spp.), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.), cranesbill geranium (Geranium maculate), tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata) coneflower (Echinacea purpura) and yarrow (Achillea spp.). When planting, native soils are used, not replaced or tilled. Plant beds are mulched to conserve moisture and to discourage growth of non-native species.

A professionally designed eco-friendly garden boasting a rich understory, mid-story, canopy layer, and a pond providing habitat for wildlife
Quiet Nature (quietnature.ca)

Prairie garden design was popularized by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. Featuring a relatively small number of tall, structural plants grouped together and repeated throughout the space, the goal of the prairie garden is neither colour or bloom but texture and form. Fall is the peak season. While meadowy drifts of such plants can best be achieved on large properties, gardeners of smaller spaces can adopt the look and scale it down. Tall ornamental grasses such as reed grass (Calamagrostis spp.), fountain grass (Pennisetum spp.), or some non-invasive Miscathus species can be used together with shorter sedges (eg. Carex spp.) and blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) for the border. The wispy flowerhead of some of these grasses rise above the foliage and make a dramatic statement. 

How can a property owner choose the most appropriate design for their garden? Among the many factors that bear on the decision are size, budget, inspiration and existing physical features such as soil and sunlight. A garden’s purpose should be clarified. Space for seating, playing, or soaking in a hot tub may be on a gardener’s list as well as hardscaping, a pond, or an arbor. Adjacent structures in the form of tall trees, walls and fencing need to be effectively integrated. Paths need to be built.

Going well beyond a list of favourite plants, the vision may come down to feel. How does a gardener want to feel when they’re in their garden? What kind of experience do they visitors to have—excitement or calm, jumble or order, abundance or austerity? A long-range view is necessary; a garden when installed will not be the same garden in five years’ time.

A beautiful and well-designed garden is possible for everyone who works with their available resources. Indeed, the most successful gardens flourish on nothing less.