Thursday, February 2, 2017

Four Contemporary Gardens

I don't often show contemporary gardens. They seem to be harder to find for some unknown reason. Today I have gathered together four nicely designed modern gardens; two are fairly large and two were created with average-sized suburban lots.

It may surprise you that this first example is a front yard. Evergreens and a tall wooden fence enclose the front garden and provide privacy from the street. 

One of the things that make this outdoor space so interesting is the use of traditional plants and materials in new and unexpected ways. For instance, the brick pattern inset into the front walkway is as traditional as it gets. With the selection of such a classic pattern, you might expect the walkway to sweep in a grand curve toward the front of the house. Instead the walkway is a clean, straight line making the classic herringbone pattern feel very fresh and modern. 

The plantings are just as quirky and original– who would expect to see a ruffled pink rhododendron used in the design of a contemporary garden?

The basic layout is a rectangular courtyard with a central "lawn" that isn't your typical turf. Instead, the rectangle of grass is wild and unmown. Framed with grey stone pavers, the wavy grass feels like a turbulent green pond.

The fence that encloses the courtyard is wooden, but the boards are run on the horizontal rather than the standard vertical. This horizontal striping adds a dramatic energy to the space.

At the foot of the fence, there is a raised bed that skirts the perimeter of the courtyard. The material used is not wood, as one might expect. Long pieces of rusted metal are employed instead giving the garden a touch of the industrial.

The container plantings are just as bold– no geraniums and petunias here! In place of standard annuals are bright chartreuse Coleus, ornamental cabbages and a large, split-leaf Philodendron, Monstera deliciosa. 

Even the container itself is not a typical plant pot. It has a round bowl-like shape and is overscale in its dimensions. 

Tucked into a corner is a dining table that was made from a giant slab of solid rock.

The water feature is a recessed pool with an urn on a pedestal at its centre.

This large urn is filled with a number of plants including a dramatic Foxtail Asparagus Fern, Asparagus densiflorus 'Myers' (this fern is not winter hardy–it needs to spend its winters indoors as a houseplant) and a Rex Begonia. Creeping Jenny spills over the rim.

The second garden I want to show you is newly created. Again, straight lines not curves give the design its modern edge. At the back of the house, there is a generous patio of large grey pavers (the outer edge of which is seen on the right). The low, dark columns house night lights. Cascading from a reservoir just in front of the Japanese-inspired shed is a waterfall that empties into a recessed stream that runs much of the length of the yard. 

The plants here aren't grouped in the standard way. Instead they are planted in blocks and long lines. In the foreground, you can see a row of Fotherengilla in bloom.

Dwarf Fothergilla is a low shrub that provides 3 seasons of interest: white bottle-brush blooms in spring, green leaves in summer and orange leaves in fall. And it's also fragrant. Height: 2-6' depending on the cultivar. Spread: 4'-6'. USDA Zones: 5-8.

The long water feature flows like a stream, but has no natural curves. Long wooden planks hide the pond liner and creates a narrow deck on either side of the stream. Metal grating creates a series of bridges along the length of the water feature.

Planted behind the stream is another row of Fothergilla. There is also Japanese Forest Grass (the patch of yellow) and tall Cleome (an annual that will bloom most of the summer). Just in front of the stream is a long row of Catmint, Nepetea (which will have blue flowers for an extended period of time).

Catmint, Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'

The next home and garden is set into a steep hillside. At the front of the house, the plantings are terraced. Begonias give this shady area an injection of bright color.

A pathway leads visitors around the side of the house to a large patio area. With an abundance of mature trees on either side of the property line, the backyard is also quite shady. 

Astilbe, Lady's Mantle and Goat's Beard are a few of the plants that spill over the edge of a low, stone retaining wall.

Goat's Beard, Aruncus dioicus has feathery white plumes mid-summer. This plant has green ferny foliage, which is quite attractive in its own right.  Full sun or part shade.  Height: 120-180 cm ( 47-70 inches), Spread: 90-150 cm (35-59 inches.) USDA Zones: 2-9.

Below: Purple Columbine and Bleeding Heart (pink flowers) bloom in front of the long wall that run the length of the yardThe middle section of the property is more open making it possible to have a large expanse of green lawn. 

The upper terrace has a naturalistic planting of trees, shrubs and shade loving perennials.

In contrast with my first two examples, the plantings in this garden are quite natural. Though this garden is in the heart of the city, it feels like a quiet and secluded woodland.

The final property is the smallest, but it is a modest garden with plenty of style. 

The back gate is simple, but really nicely done. The long slats on the left of the gate make a sort of window with louvered shutters. The main part of the gate uses wooden fence boards that are once again run on the horizontal rather than the vertical. 

A minimalist walkway, that is a mix of grey pavers and pea gravel, makes the path into the garden feel calm and serene. 

This suburban lot slopes up from the back of the house. A short stroll across the lawn takes you to a simple pergola and seating area. The design of the pergola is spare with clean lines and no ornamental flourishes. 

One of my favourite elements is the low privacy screen which has been constructed of narrow wooden boards run on the horizontal. Unlike the first garden with the horizontal fencing, the boards here are run in wide bans on either side of the vertical supports giving the low wall three dimensional stripes. 

Plantings: 1. Japanese Maple 2. Feather Reed Grass 3. Astilbe 4. Boxwood hedge 5. Japanese Maple 6. Blue Fescue Grass 7. Japanese Blood Grass

The plantings may be spare, but are a sophisticated mix of colors and textures. As we have seen with a couple of the other modern gardens, traditional plants have been used here in novel ways. For instance, a box hedge (see 4) is as traditional as it comes, but at the front of the pergola, it makes a neat evergreen line that nicely echoes the wide bans of the decking just above it.

The plantings are pretty low maintenance; just a quick tidy up and the addition of some compost would get this garden started in the spring. A good layer of mulch would keep the area fairly weed-free.

These contemporary gardens may not be to everyone's taste, but even if this garden isn't your cup of tea, I think you can take away a lesson in good design that could be put to use in any garden: 

Always challenge yourself to think outside the box. Try to approach everyday building materials and plants in fresh, new ways. Any garden stands to benefit tremendously from the spark of a little creativity. 


  1. What a GIFT to receive these stunning garden images! Thank you so much for sharing these - especially on this cold, icy February morning.

  2. Looking at other gardens is one of the main ways gardeners are inspired. Although my own garden is not contemporary, these photos are great for ideas, as the planting is so thoughtful and well planned. It must have taken ages to put this post together so thank you !

  3. Wonderful gardens. I love the concept of just having greenery, I don't mean that to sound as though its simple to create, i mean without the fuss of flowers. I live the containers in the first house. I can imagine me replicating the ideas!

  4. Both of these gardens are really lovely, Jennifer.
    Makes me rethink contemporary gardens, since that is not usually my favorite kind.
    I always love your photographs!

  5. What a lovely array of gardens. The first one is my favourite and adore their unique fence very much. The entire garden is unique. Each garden is lovely but that last one may be small but is also a favourite among these -- probably because of it being so simple yet seems so lush where their pergola is.


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