Contemporary Garden Design
10 Tips For A Perfect Blend Of Style And Function

In recent years contemporary garden design has very much come to the fore and, like me, you've probably admired the many examples on display at garden exhibitions and shows.

But what exactly is a contemporary garden?

'Contemporary' simply means of the present time, so what is it that makes today's modern gardens stand out from gardens that were, it follows, contemporary in their own day?

It's quite hard to pin down but I think the key to it is that the increase in fast paced urban living demands gardens that are more than collections of plants.

The best examples of contemporary garden design are essentially urban in character and deliver outdoor living space that is both highly functional and very stylish.

The contemporary urban garden must deliver on many fronts and the aims of contemporary garden design are to:

  • Extend the available living space by creating a fully functional outdoor room...
  • ... that meets perfectly the needs of the individual homeowner.
  • Use plants in a simplified yet highly dramatic and architectural way...
  • ... yet be low maintenance
  • ALL in a way that is sleek and stylish

A good contemporary garden can give your home a real 'wow' factor and there is some evidence to suggest that it can even increase its value.

I hope the design tips below help you find out more about the key ingredients of the best contemporary and modern gardens.

Top 10 Contemporary Garden Design Tips

1: Design is everything...

Contemporary gardens are design statements and, more than in any other style of garden, the hard landscaping takes precedence over the planting. Think more in terms of garden architecture than garden design.

The look you are aiming for is streamlined and minimalist. Achieve this by linking your outside space to inside space to create a seamless transition and a feeling of spaciousness.

Avoid disappointment and needless expense by investing plenty of time at the planning stage researching the best materials and features.

2: ... but style alone is not enough!

The essence of good contemporary garden design is a marriage of style and function.

You want an outdoor space that is usable and that will be used. So be clear from the beginning what you want, whether it is an outdoor kitchen, a dining area, a space for solitary relaxation or a hot tub.

Once you have a clear idea of the essential components of your contemporary garden, think carefully about where to place each feature.

Take into account convenience, the availability of sun and shade, and privacy.

Tip 3: Let geometry come to your aid

Use simple geometric shapes as the basis of your design. Combinations of bold squares and rectangles work well.

Make it more interesting by allowing the shapes to intersect and interact with each other. For example, a rectangular raised bed or built in seating area might cut off the corner of a square paved patio.

Go a step further by adding circles and curves to give a sense of fluidity. One way to do this would be to define a particular area by inserting a circle, or even partial circle of wooden decking into a square or rectangular area of paving stones.

Tip 4: Use a restricted palette of materials

Use a limited range of materials that complement your house or apartment exterior. Natural stone paving and wooden decking are popular choices.

Use repetition to create a coherent 'designed' look. For example, if you have opted for slate paving stones to create a patio area, use the same slate slabs to top off the edges of raised planting beds. Or use the same wood for both your decking and the seats of built in benches.

You can introduce an element of surprise by incorporating more unusual materials such as sheets of glass, perspex or even metals such as copper , zinc or stainless steel to clad part of a wall or screen different areas.

Tip 5: Water, water everywhere...

A water feature is an essential component of any contemporary garden design.

Water is well known for its soothing and stress relieving properties and a water feature brings even the smallest city garden to life.

Don't think in terms of a traditional garden pond, instead envisage a rectangular sheet of water either at ground level or built up to the height of a raised bed or seating area. Using a black lining will enhance the reflective properties of your pool and lend an extra dimension to your design.

Use vertical or freestanding flowing water features in combination with (or, if space is limited, instead of) your garden pool to add further interest. Water walls and fountains created from stainless steel spheres introduce sound and movement, as well as a sculptural element, into your design.

Tip 6: Shine a light

Why go indoors when the sun goes down? Install outdoor lighting so that you can enjoy your garden at any time of day or night. You will probably need two types of lighting: practical and creative.

Use practical lighting for barbeque and bar areas so that you can see what you are doing. Bulkhead lights attached to the wall will do fine here.

Use creative or mood lighting to highlight certain features or create dramatic effects.

Too cold to go outside? A thoughtfully illuminated garden viewed from inside your home increases your sense of space and adds an extra dimension to your property.

Tip 7: Less is more... especially when it comes to garden accessories

Include well chosen garden accessories in your contemporary garden design but don't go overboard. The look you are aiming for is sleek and minimal.

Choose garden furniture with clean lines in materials such as wood and metal that will complement the hard landscaping.

Give some thought to the fabrics used in cushions, canopies and garden parasols and make sure that they, too, add to the overall effect you want to achieve.

Contemporary planters and containers can be used to great effect. A carefully spaced row of matching tall metal planters, identically planted, can be a real showstopper and can also be used to effectively delineate a particular area. Again, keep it simple and avoid a hotchpotch of different shapes and materials.

For added impact add one or more pieces of modern sculpture to add interest and act as focal points. Short of space and cash? The spherical stainless steel water features mentioned above can serve as both water features AND modern sculptures.

Tip 8: Declare war on clutter

There is no point designing a garden that is a work of art if it isn't practical at the same time.

Think about storage and utility areas right from the start and keep clutter to a minimum by including screening and built in storage in your design.

Tip 9: Oh, and don't forget the plants!

All the emphasis so far has been on the hardscaping and you may be thinking by now that the plants aren't important.

They are, but modern garden design uses plants in a rather different way to more traditional designs. This is not to say that plants are not important - they are, but they are there to emphasise and adorn the hard landscaping features. Think: living sculpture.

Use repeat plantings of a limited palette of plants chosen according to their architectural value. Ask yourself what they will add to your design and how they will interact with the hard landscaping. You will probably need a combination of different forms.

For imposing upright forms choose cordylines, palms, bamboos and silver birches. Japanese maples and magnolias have more spreading but nevertheless very sculptural forms.

Highly stylized clipped box hedges and topiary allow the planting to echo the hardscape. Whilst repeat plantings of low growing ornamental grasses can create sheets of texture.

Tip 10: One final thought...

Throughout the planning, construction and planting stages, keep one thought in mind and let it be your mantra: attention to detail.

Attention to detail is what distinguishes a run of the mill contemporary garden design from a truly great one.

For more information visit these related Garden and Landscape Design pages

Further garden and landscape design ideas and tips can be found on these pages:

Design a Garden Successfully: How to Think Like a Garden Designer

Cottage Garden Design: How To Recreate This Romantic Garden Style

Design a Garden For Outdoor Entertaining

Raised Bed Garden Design: Tips and Ideas

Patio Ideas: How To Plan The Perfect Patio

An overview of the garden and landscape design process can be found at the 'Garden and Landscape Design Guide'.