September 19,2023

9 Modern Garden Design Tips

by Jennifer Cameron inGarden Style


Enhance Your Outdoor Living Area

A beautiful outdoor landscape is an artistic living investment that can increase the value of your home by 10-15%.

Whatever your dream garden, English Gardens experts can help. By combining your ideas with our design expertise and plant knowledge, we’ll help you create a garden and landscape that is uniquely yours.

When done correctly, a well-designed and maintained landscape increases curb appeal and helps homes sell faster and for more money. A well-designed landscape improves our well-being and quality of life. A beautiful outdoor living area helps us reconnect with nature and refresh our minds and bodies. If you’ve decided you want to beautify your outdoor space and maximize the enjoyment and year-round use of your patio, as well as increase resale value, let us help.

We have an array of services, whether you want to do some or all of the work yourself, or prefer to have your landscape designed and installed for you.

Modern Garden Design Ideas

As gardeners, we love, trust, and believe in plants—often to a fault. We don’t easily relinquish funds or space for hardscape. The thrill of buying and finding a spot for “just one more plant” usually outweighs any dedication to sticking to our original design intentions. But this approach often leads to a garden that is confused at best and barely legible at worst. On the other hand, the typical sleek lines and organization of a modern garden say it all in one look—and say it loud and clear. I believe that any plant-driven garden can benefit from a bit of modern-garden clarity. Incorporating elements of modernity into your space can help do three things: organize the overall layout, bring order to the plant palette, and inspire amazing focal points. Three gardens that I recently collaborated on are perfect examples of how a contemporary mindset can help bring a garden to an enthralling level.

[ Modern Space 1 ] Clean lines reign supreme in this ultramodern garden, which takes its overall layout cues from the contemporary main residence. [ Modern Space 2 ] When the plants are multi­faceted and overflowing, a rigid hardscape material like concrete—used playfully—can help bring some order to the scene. [ Modern Space 3 ] In properties with limited space, you need to make every moment count. In this narrow expanse, a unique tiled patio was elevated above the surroundings to help it stick out, in a good way.

A strong outline provides order and clarity year-round

Designed to be read in a single glance while one is perched on the home’s upper decks, this landscape still has plenty of nuance up close. Its success comes from the unapologetic simplicity of the garden layout—straight lines, right angles, and symmetry. Yet it is still home to a surprising diversity of plants. When you have such an assertive simplicity in outline, it brings legibility to more-raucous mixed plantings. This is a key lesson for the plant collectors among us.

The starting point of this particular design was obvious: the contemporary house. It dictated how to draw, offset, and connect a handful of lines that now define the garden layout. To deal with a drop in elevation, some of the sight lines were mimicked in galvanized aluminum and now serve as a unique focal point—the grass staircase. While this is an over-the-top example, simply emphasizing the lines of your overall plan through different elements such as stairs, pathways, or even retaining walls can go a long way in defining your garden. Repeating that symmetry also helps impart continuous clarity.

With the defined layout in place, plants were added liberally. First were the crisp hedges of various heights, which create vertical planes, overlapping each other. They provide privacy and offer a firm, evergreen backdrop. Low, steadfast evergreens such as skimmia (Skimmia japonica and cvs., Zones 6–8), rhododendron (Rhododendron spp. and cvs., Zones 3–8), and yew (Taxus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8) are repeated throughout. These workhorses cover about half of the planting areas. Against and among these rich shades of green are touches of white, which play off a sculpture by a local artist. This modern focal point is firmly anchored on the main lawn, and you’ll see its white tone echoed in the blooms of early daffodils and the foliage of variegated redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’, Zones 3–7).

The front yard offered chances for some extra plant indulgence. The formal pond flanking the entrance walkway was widened enough toward its end to ­allow for a cubic planter to be partially submerged. An ever-changing arrangement of seasonal plants here becomes the center of attraction, softening the otherwise concrete-heavy formality of the entryway. You’ll also find a large window well here, sloping down to a small ornamental pool that was turned into a lush, leafy ravine. No matter the season, the hardscape is never fully ­obscured; hence, it delivers a clean, structuring contrast to the lush vegetation.

Modern Space 1: At a glance

Size: 9,000 square feet

Conditions: Mostly partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

Challenge: A sloping property that needed privacy without obstructing the view

Specific elements that organized the space layout

Overall layout built entirely of straight lines, right angles, and symmetry

Layers of hedges enclosing the landscape

How order was brought to the plant palette

Repeated textural evergreens (perennials, trees, and shrubs)

Color restraint

Eye-catching focal points

Sculpture by Marie Khouri on main lawn

Floating planter in entryway pond

If the softscape is busy, the hardscape should be more restrained

Seated on a gentle slope, this house is enveloped in an expansive and ever-changing meadow. Its austere concrete hardscape has a potent, grounding effect on the wild, multicolored plantings, however.

Laurels, poplars, and dogwoods play a large role, both defining the space and encouraging a specific visual flow year-round. Even with spaces that are meant to be plant heavy, such as this one, a group of structural plants should always be focused on first. Here the tall, evergreen perimeter of Portugal laurel hedges (Prunus lusitanicus, Zones 6–9) drastically accentuates the natural grade change and wisely keeps the eye from venturing away. A grove of columnar Swedish aspens (Populus tremula ‘Erecta’, Zones 2–6) caps the upper corner of the sloped front yard, beckoning garden visitors with a stately yet melodious presence. Finally, puddles of ‘Midwinter Fire’ redtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Zones 5–7) help frame and soften this composition, as they loosely direct you toward the main door of the residence.

Another primary focus of any design lies in its hardscape materials. In many modern gardens, you will see repetition of a single material—in this case concrete. That ensures an overall cohesiveness throughout the property. The raw concrete of this minimalist house is carried out far into the garden, where it first forms solid, rectilinear walkways but then takes a lighter, playful appearance as it ventures farther away. Here you’ll find the concrete shaped into long bars, matchstick pavers, and columns of various heights.

Always rising a few inches above the surrounding grade, the concrete pavers in particular are magical. They offer urbanites a perfect interface with these wild and at times unruly plantings. Elevating the hardscape plane just above that of its surroundings is a modern design trick that can be repeated in many ways in myriad garden styles. Let the plants fight it out below while you safely stand just above the fray, unsoiled and dry, observing the plants just being plants.

Modern Space 2: At a glance

Size: 21,000 square feet

Conditions: Full sun; lean, well-drained soil

Challenge: A property with several grade changes

Specific elements that organized the space layout

Hedges that encompass property

Limited material palette for hardscape (concrete) but repeated throughout in different ways

How order was brought to the plant palette

Rhythmically repeated puddles of dogwood

Repeated drifts of heaths (Erica spp. and cvs., Zones 5–7)

Eye-catching focal points

Grove of aspens

Concrete rounds and matchsticks

In smaller spaces, every detail should be dynamic

When a garden is smaller in scale, it becomes all the more important that ­every square inch of it is energetic; a modern ­design approach can help ensure that happens. This space was a long and narrow lot sandwiched between a newly renovated house and a skinny yew hedge. While you can’t take in the entire space without walking its full length, you can quickly see an unmistakable pattern in the planting. A garden that has a certain rhythm to the plant layout soothes the mind and leads to a more pleasing experience.

Here, three hefty pine trees (Pinus cv., Zones 2–9), as well as a series of elegantly upright ‘Avondale’ Chinese redbuds (Cercis chinensis ‘Avondale’, Zones 6–9) rhythmically flank the garden. Wherever you stand, the pines and redbuds tie the ­entire layout together neatly; they tower above the fray and allow the eye to hopscotch its way along the entire property. The remaining plantings are a refined mix of mostly grasses, extending a certain repetitive, diaphanous quality throughout and thus allowing the eye to travel farther. This sea of texture pulls the eye toward the central, custom metal water feature. Depending on the time of year, it can be hard to perceive the fountain through the veil of vegetation, but the elevated stone-and-concrete pathway, quite modern in appear­ance, provides a clear sight line to the focal point no matter the season. The linear pathways also lend an order to the overall space, clearly distinguishing where your eyes—and feet—should travel.

Around the corner and into the backyard, past an impressive mature hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna, Zones 3–8), full sun shines onto a central tiled patio, which seems to float in a sea of grasses and ground covers. This boxed platform provides a reassuring destination to the wanderer despite the fullness and the dense green surroundings. Its geometric design ­allows it to stand out from the limited plant palette, which can also be said of all the other geometric elements in this space.

Modern Space 3: At a glance

Size: 13,000 square feet

Conditions: Full sun to full shade; moist, well-drained soil

Challenge: A yard with various conditions and a narrow overall space

Specific elements that organized the space layout

Elevated concrete-and-stone pathway

Yew hedge parallel to house, enclosing entire space neatly

How order was brought to the plant palette

Pine trees and redbuds repeated rhythmically

Repetition of multiple types of ornamental grasses

Eye-catching focal points

Metal water feature

Tiled patio

Dave Demers is the owner and principle designer at CYAN Horticulture in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Photos: Joshua McCullough

Illustrations: Elara Tanguy

9 Modern Garden Design Tips

These days, most homeowners prefer the sleek, simple look of a modern landscape. And why not? A modern landscape is striking yet so easy to maintain. It may be too cold or uninviting for some because of its simple, stripped-down look but a modern landscape can elicit a friendly, inviting ambiance too. It's just a matter of adding your own personal touches to the space to warm up the design and prevent the space from looking too sterile.

The Elements of a Modern Landscape

A modern landscape is characterized for its clean, simple lines, eye-catching architectural elements, and minimal plants. This landscape puts much emphasis on the pavers, concrete, decorative rocks, and other hardscapes. The general look of a modern landscape is clean and organized as opposed to untamed, lush, and unplanned.

A traditional landscape setting utilizes natural or nature-based decors and pieces of furniture. On the other hand, a modern landscape calls for shiny, steel patio pieces with low-profile backs, ceramic or tiled flooring and decors crafted from galvanized metal. Instead of letting the trees grow wildly, a modern landscape features trimmed and well-maintained hedges and topiaries.

How to Create a Modern Garden Landscape

Smooth Indoor to Outdoor Transitions

One of the most defining features of a modern landscape is the harmonious transition between the indoor and outdoor living space. To create a smooth indoor to outdoor transition, experiment with colors and flooring material. Generally, you want the indoor flooring to match the outdoor flooring. This technique is called floor flow. The matching flooring pulls the design of both spaces together while also extending the interior design beyond the confines of your home.

Arranging Plants in Neat Rows

Give your landscape a touch of modernity by planting a variety of native plants in neat rows. This trick will work regardless if you are filling the garden with a large number of plants or just a chosen few. Grouping sculptural plants in neat rows is a common feature among contemporary landscapes. But to keep the plant arrangement alive, you want to bring a sense of playfulness and warmth to your setting. Keep the arrangement loose yet natural, friendly without being too rigid.

Build a Drought-Tolerant Landscape

Xeriscaping is a popular landscape style that requires little to no irrigation. If you live in a place where planting a lot of plant varieties isn’t possible or practical, you might want to give Xeriscaping a try. Xeriscaping lets you cultivate a drought-tolerant landscape using a variety of native plants and gravel. Native plants do not require much water because these plant varieties have adapted to the dry growing environment. Decorating with gravel adds an interesting detail to your garden arrangement. The gravel gives a lush, abundant appearance to the garden as well.

Metal Accents

A modern landscape puts much focus on functionality and strong lines. This can be achieved by decorating your outdoor space with metal accents and pieces of furniture made with galvanized metal. The shine of metal accents complements the minimalist surroundings in unexpected ways. Pieces of outdoor furniture made with metal or galvanized steel are not only beautiful to look at, they make the outdoor space functional too. You can incorporate more metal pieces into your garden arrangement by opting for metal planters or using corrugated metal for shed walls to create a screen.

Incorporate Art and Shapes

Interesting features and artsy decors complement a modern garden landscape perfectly. Eye-catching shapes, for instance, helps soften clean lines. Sculptures give an outdoor space the right level of visual interest. You can also prune think shrubs into simple round shapes for a well-maintained garden. Adding contrasting shapes, such as juxtaposed rectangular and round accents, make for a lovely pairing especially if you are going for the cool, contemporary look of a modern landscape. Utilizing mixed fencing as opposed to traditional picket fencing helps elevate the overall appearance of the garden.

Adding Rocky Features

Rocky features help put emphasis on a modern landscape’s clean lines. Large stones, boulders, rough gravel, smooth pebbles, all these different rocky features will complement a neatly arranged garden. Again, stones and gravels give the garden a lush, full look. These rocky features take the eyes away from the plain features of a modern landscape as well, which could look cold or stark sometimes. No need to haul any of these rocky accents yourself. Let your local landscaping company handle all these accents on their own. Boulders, for instance, may require a crane for installation. Our advice is to plan the hardscape placements well.

Sleek Planters

Adding sleek planters is the perfect way to showcase greenery in a small setting. If you’d like to grow plants that are a little sensitive to the winter cold, use sleek planters. Putting these plants in a decorative planter makes moving much easier once the colder months hit. This is also a great trick when you’d like to grow an assortment of high-maintenance plants in the garden or to fill out any gaps in your outdoor setup.

Succulents and cacti are quite popular plants to grow in a modern outdoor setting. Although these plants can be grown in-ground, setting a few in a pretty planter will definitely enhance the beauty of your outdoor setting. For a nice pop of color, don't forget to reserve a couple of planters for seasonal flowering plants.

Warm Tones to Metal Accents

A modern garden design decorated with gleaming metal accents tend to give off a cold, stark appearance. Create a much cozier setup by incorporating warm tones into the space. Warm-toned wood, tinted concrete; even bamboo accents will soften hard lines and cold metal sheen. You can also use ground covers, such as creeping plants or trailing flowering plants, to add visual interest and contrast to an otherwise sterile setup. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different warm-toned materials to make your outdoor design inviting, comfortable, and relaxed.

Perfect Lighting

Do not underestimate the power of perfect lighting. Lighting plays a key role in any indoor or outdoor setup. It helps set the mood, it warms up the space, and more importantly, it adds illumination. Proper lighting allows you to highlight certain areas of the garden at night too!

Add light fixtures made from stainless steel or galvanized metal in your garden set up to complete its contemporary look. You can also tuck several low-voltage landscape lighting in a bed of polished rocks to add drama to your modern garden at night. Solar powered steppers are more functional, these can be installed to illuminate garden paths. Finally, you can use tiki posts, string lights, rope lightings, etc. to light up the garden in sections.

  • Jennifer Cameron
  • September 19,2023

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