Contemporary Garden Design Tips


In contemporary gardens, less is more. While not exactly minimalist, they’re uncluttered spaces that include lighting, hard landscaping and statement plants. Most tend to feature a limited pallet of colours and use only a few types of landscape materials and plants. Clean, straight lines are key and unfussy design is essential.

While the point of a contemporary garden is that it’s modern, that doesn’t mean you need to be literally up to the minute with the latest trends – you don’t want your garden to date quickly. Having said that, you can really push the boundaries and create a slick and modern outside space if that’s what you want.

This type of design is ideal for a small space where lifestyle is the focus, rather than growing your own veg or collecting ornamental plants, but not so suitable as a family garden.

Work out your plan:

Before you put pen to paper, there are some decisions you will need to make – it’s important to get the basics right before you get too far down the line.

Here are the points to work through before starting your design.

Start with a list

First, create a list of all the practical features you need to include – don’t forget washing lines, wheelie bins and barbecues. You need to be realistic about what you’ll need, as well as what you’d like.

What will you use your garden for?

With an emphasis on hard landscaping, these gardens are rarely suitable for families – or certainly young ones at least – so it’s likely your garden will be a place to relax and perhaps to enjoy entertaining. If the focus is relaxation, then an outside kitchen may be a good use of space. Decide whether you’re creating this garden as a personal sanctuary or a space to party – or perhaps you want it to double up as an outside office if space is at a premium in your home. If so, a slick summer house to work in might be a winning addition.


Do you want a theme for your contemporary garden?

Contemporary gardens that are built to last tend to base their theme around a type of landscape material. Glass, stone or wood could be enough of a theme.

They often feature planting of one colour theme and in some cases can focus on foliage rather than flowers. Less is more and blocks of one type of plant will work well. Assuming you have flowering plants, you could even link the flower colours with furniture cushions and features.

What permanent features will you include?

It’s quite common for a contemporary garden design to allow you to see the entire garden at once – areas hidden from view are unusual as space is key here. Lighting, blocks of colour, clear and still water features and luxurious furniture are typical of this style – but in a restrained way, so you won’t want to cram your design with different features.

Contemporary gardens rarely feature lawns, sheds or compost heaps – all the practical aspects of gardening are hidden or non-existent. For this reason, you’ll need to come up with very clever storage solutions for household bins and bikes.

In fact, every single feature needs to fit. You could render and colour permanent features such as garden walls to suit the garden. Summerhouses should be transformed to link to the plot by painting or redesigning them, and man hole covers will need to be disguised if possible. Everything should flow and fit and nothing, other than your chosen focal sculpture, should stand out.

Which way does your garden face?

Although a sunny south-facing plot is ideal for socialising, it can get too hot on a warm day, so whether you plan to do lots of entertaining to work on a computer in a south-facing garden, you’ll need to install shading.
North-facing plots will be colder and cast in shade, but these can be warmed up with a stylish fire pit and warm lighting.
East-facing plots give you morning sun and west the afternoon, so before deciding on where to place your central seating area, watch where and when the sun enters the garden for a few weeks and then plan around it.


Consider the setting

You can have a contemporary garden in any setting, but they’re a very popular option for city and town gardeners.

Country gardeners with larger plots could design one area as a contemporary garden. There’s nothing stopping you having a contemporary patio and a more ornamental main garden.

Will you need landscaping?

These gardens have an emphasis on hard landscaping – glass, steel, plastic and smooth wood are popular – so if these aren’t already present you’ll need to introduce them. Choose materials with a sharp, slick look, and ideally those that can be easily cleaned. Avoid recycled materials or those that show their age. New is the key here.

Most contemporary gardens are created out of three or four landscape materials, whereas a cottage garden can be made up of any number. Look at the garden as if it were a brand-new kitchen – you wouldn’t want one unit made of plastic, another of MDF and another of pine, would you? It’s also worth thinking carefully about how to integrate lighting as this is key to the effect.


What kind of plants will work?

Choose plants for their shape, texture and colour rather than their tiny but interesting flowers. Plant in drifts or block – planting each type of plant in groups of three or more. You need plants that make a statement. As you’re unlikely to have a hedge boundary or lawn, plant a good number of evergreens or your garden will look harsh in winter.

What’s your budget?

You can spend a fortune on landscape materials, lighting and water features, and to achieve a slick, designer finish it’s worth employing a landscaper. A contemporary garden is probably not the garden for you if your budget is tight.

Sources of inspiration 

If you’re looking for ideas, horticultural shows are always a useful source. There are lots to choose from but RHS Hampton Court Flower Show is particularly good.

Our top 10 tips for a contemporary garden design

  • Get rid of your clutter – there’s no room for it in this style of garden.
  • Invest in the best landscape materials.
  • Lighting is crucial – consider lights inset into surfaces and uplighting your plants and features.
  • Raised beds and large containers are key features in this style of garden.
  • Render brick garden walls and apply a paint colour that enhances the space.
  • Contemporary gardens are often designed around foliage rather than flowers.
  • Open spaces with a wide and inviting path are typical.
  • The shapes in this style of garden tend to be more angular than curved.
  • A built-in garden kitchen and a space for eating outside are almost essential.
  • Choose surfaces that are comfortable to walk on in slipper or bare feet.


The next step: draw your plan

Once you’ve thought it through and made your list, it’s time to get out the graph paper and draw a plan.

Garden Plan Contemporary (3)

There are two types of surface used in this design – it allows the owner to walk barefoot from the house onto warm decking, while the paved area is easy to clean and offers a generous space for entertaining. Corner seats with storage underneath also make the best use of space.
Behind the benches are generous raised beds – these are about a metre tall (the benching is 70cm high). There is ample room for plants here without them being in the way of a party, and keeping the plants to the back and the side also improves privacy.

3 inspiring contemporary garden designs

Here are three designs we especially like, chosen to give you an idea of the different effects you can create.


The outside room

This is a great example of designing a garden and interior so they work together. The orange of the room works wonders with the lime green garden theme, and other colours in the garden have been kept to a minimum. The fencing with horizontal slats makes the garden feel bigger, while the corner seating area tempts you outside.

Note the lack of flowers – foliage with dramatic shapes is the key here. The evergreen box balls will give the garden structure in winter.
Image Credit: Garden Club London


Follow the sun

There are a surprising number of plants in this garden, with white agapanthus working well against the foliage plants. The planting is bravely displayed in bold blocks. Purple salvias offer a contrast and sit well against the blue and white blocks that are features and a disguise for the garden’s storage area.

Here, the two seating areas allow the owner to follow the sunshine, while in the evening the lights hidden in the borders sparkle. Limestone paving, cedar fencing and decking give this garden its modern look.
Image Credit: Charlotte Rowe Garden Designs


A sloping garden

Not every garden is level – but sloping gardens can be seen as a challenge or an opportunity. Here the designer has created a split-level garden with a sunken patio close to the house, which creates a very cosy feel, while a second seating area at the back is set on a red cedar deck for a different feel.

The planting here is simple, with grasses that offer movement and a contrast to the hard landscaping. Another feature to note is the way that the back fence panel has been given an extension in grey. This is clever as the grey is less imposing than the wood and prevents the garden from feeling closed in.

Image Credit: Tom Massey Landscape & Garden Design 



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