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Garden Design Ideas

It is often the case that a professional garden design will incorporate several styles within its composition, drawing inspiration from a number of themes and influences. At the start of any design work, it is therefore especially important we discuss what your favourite style(s) are and link that with the genus loci or spirit of place e.g., location environment including the centre piece of any property – the house.

You may have heard terms such as a modern contemporary garden design or a formal garden design. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. You can create a modern and formal garden that works very well as a fusion. Likewise, you could have a more traditional formal garden that focuses on the knotted garden layouts of clipped hedges around rose gardens popular in stately homes. In larger garden spaces you may well also see a mix of formal and informal design. With the formal style closer to the house feeding out into a looser more informal feel the further you move from the house.


Garden Design Principles

There are key design principles which a good garden design will include at least a majority of within its scheme. Used in conjunction these components will provide the foundations for a balanced, harmonious design, with a simplicity that delivers both function and form, inspires, and stimulates the senses.

Genius Loci

The character of the site, the mood and ambience. Taking the existing environment into consideration is key to a harmonious design.

Rhythm & Repetition

The use of similar plants, shapes and materials across the garden will create a sense of continuity and a natural rhythm.


The relationship of width, heights, and depth of aspects within the garden, with the human scale has to be balanced with the site. Huge terraces of hardscaping are often a common design disaster within a garden looking more like helicopter landing pads.


Key to this are elements such as direction, route of flow, size, heights, colours and mass.


There needs to be a relationship between the component parts – style, materials, colour – that helps promote a sense of harmony and calm.

Focal Points

Key elements that draw the eye and provide interest drawing people out into the garden to see more. This can be achieved through many different forms including sculptures, focal plants, or water features.


It still needs to be inspiring, but less is often more. All non-essentials should be removed, leaving a clean, unfussy approach to form and line bringing a calmness to the design.


Garden Design Themes

We have included here a selection of garden themes for consideration or inspiration. This is just a snapshot of a few options available in what is a myriad of choice through themes and fusions of styles.

Modern & Minimalist Garden Design:

These modern style gardens will focus on a simplicity of line, symmetry and clear geometry coupled with clean and crisp materials such as for example sawn yorkstone or porcelain terraces, composite decking, and granite edging. Maybe using simple sculptures and water features to enhance the style even further.

The space will be uncluttered with repeating shapes and symmetry creating unity, balance, and rhythm. Minimalist planting is also key, focusing on a restrained selection of plants and the colour palette also refined around greens and whites. The plants will often be selected for their sculptural forms such as clipped Yew, low growing bamboo or pleached or multi stemmed trees.

This style very much suits people who like gardens that are clean cut, people who prefer order and consistency alongside neatness. These gardens promote simplicity but are impossible to ignore. 

Modern and minimalist garden style pond
English cottage garden design


Cottage Garden Design:

This is the romantic ideal envisaged by most people when describing the traditional English garden. These delightful gardens do tend to be far more informal because of the nature of the more varied planting featuring shrubs such as roses, buddleia, and hydrangea as well as mixed herbaceous perennials like delphiniums, lupins, and phlox with some annuals thrown in to. There would ideally be space for some fruit trees alongside a mix of bulbs throughout the year.

Lots of attention needs to be paid to the planting layout to ensure that there is still a form of rhythm through the design. In fact, a more modern form of this could be described as naturalistic planting, still creating a mix of plants and colour planted in drifts and uses grasses to create some structure. This naturalist approach is the more ecological style using plants that are suited to the conditions and leaving many in their winter form and seed heads for the wildlife to enjoy.

The hardscaping in these gardens is much less rigid and geometric with a mix of materials through the garden that work together following the softer and fluid lines of the planting – combining clay pavers with gravel footpaths edged with beautiful Corten steel edging. Including a natural wildlife pond in slightly larger gardens would round it off nicely!

These gardens are higher maintenance to look after and without proper planning can result in a messy garden either due to the mismanagement of the planting plan or the lack of care in deadheading, weeding and finely cutting back.

Mediterranean Garden Design:

This is a style of garden that has become more popular over the years and lends itself to both an informal and formal style of garden. It can be classically elegant, built along clear lines using low hedging interspersed with structural pencil like Italian cypress alongside spiky cordylines and yuccas, like you might imagine in the Alhambra in Grenada. With water rills running in straight lines within the garden or a central water feature or sculpture. Pathways will be straight and geometric in form and using materials such as self binded gravel, or clean, light coloured natural stone. The colours will again be slightly more subdued with warm and earthy tones. This for example might work in a walled courtyard environment that is enclosed. 

(Alhambra Palace)
(Alhambra Palace)

Alternatively, you can go for a more informal ‘coastal’ approach ideal in those conditions where soil is often of a poorer sandy quality. The hardscape here might include more tumbled stone steps with rocks and pebbles interspersed in the planting, loose gravel pathways with informal plantings of loose drifts of drought tolerant herbaceous perennials and grasses softening the edges with more vibrant colours factored in. You might include a rock pool or water fall to provide some relaxing noise along with the sounds of the grasses or an aromatic walkway through lavenders and thyme. The seating areas might be the only more formal areas using clean and light natural stone. You will add an arbor or pergola for shade.

What is key is selecting plants that will thrive in a dry garden and a light, free draining soil with potentially lower nutrient availability. These gardens will work in south or southwest facing gardens far better than a north facing shaded garden. So, this must be a consideration when deciding on style.

Shady Woodland garden design

Shady Woodland Garden Design:

Most gardens have an area of shade, and some may be shaded throughout. This does not mean that you should give up on having a beautiful garden. Plant selection will be key in this garden and the predominant colour will be green. However, different tones of green coupled with form and texture underplanted with a mass of bulbs that spark into life against the verdant background provide a beautiful setting throughout the year. The predominant use of evergreens provides year-round interest.

A contemporary and modern feel can be created with clean lines using hardscape materials to enhance this whether smooth polished concrete or sawn natural stone, incorporating the use of Corten steel with the colour of its rusted steel effect working well with fresh green foliage and providing strong shapes and structure. Likewise, the clean finish can be completed with resin bound gravel that is permeable, tidy, and can add sweeping curves a little further out into the garden.

As with most themes, a more traditional informal style can also be achieved as well with Shady Woodland. Woodland plants are often self-sufficient and naturally fertile, making a woodland garden a good, minimal maintenance option. This might be ideal for example as a part of a larger overall site, offering a shady woodland walk that performs all year round.

 Trees that cast a dappled shade allow a wide variety of plants to be grown beneath. From Winter Roses (Hellebores) to Hosta’s and Ferns, Forget -Me-Nots to Alliums, alongside structural shrubs such as Hydrangea arborescence and Ilex, the range is wide and will provide year-round interest. Little hardscaping would be required in this rustic setting, with pathways of either wood chippings or simply cut grass winding through the woodland leading to a hidden and quiet seating area where you can find some peace, around a natural rock pond. 

Zen Garden Designs:

This is about creating a space that’s a calming, distraction free zone that echoes nature as much as possible. This space will not be about square or rectangular flower beds, square ponds and looks of clean, sharp lines of hardscaping. Some straight lines are possible but not as a main component of the structure of the garden.

Each part of the garden should represent part of the theme and serve a purpose, whether a certain planting symbolizes nature, or a rock symbolizes a mountain, there is a meaning.

Winding paths leading you to other parts of the garden are another feature giving the visitor a purpose to explore what is ahead. The hardscaping will inevitably feature the use of materials and textures such as pebbles or gravels to ensure the natural theme is maintained. 

Zen Garden Design

Colourful flowers will not dominate a Zen Garden and are only used to complement the green colours in the garden. Though some would say no flowers should be included, I work on the basis people will want some whether for interest or scent. It is important that flowers do not distract from the overriding feel and flow of the garden. Therefore, we are looking at cooler colours such as whites, soft pinks, and blues. Trees also offer a fantastic opportunity in a Zen Garden to create a zone area with seating for relaxation whilst also screening any undesirable views from the garden. Acers are a key of any Japanese garden which are slow growing and give the look of a mature tree but at a smaller size.

Water is a key element of a Zen Garden symbolising the flow of life and water and rock can be used together within this feature helping create soothing sounds that will calm you even more. If water is not possible it could be symbolised by pebbles and stylish gravel signifying where a river or stream once was.

With all of these features helping to create the symbolism of a Zen Garden it is important they are sympathetically worked into the design so that it works with the size of garden. You do not want to overpower a small space with a pergola that is far too big, or rocks that are oversized and dominate the whole scene. This would destroy any Zen straightaway! Proportion is key. 

Sustainable Garden Designs:

I shouldn’t classify this as a style as such because all garden designs should be incorporating sustainable design principles. However, I wanted to give it some focus and highlight some of the key design highlights that can be incorporated within a sustainable garden.

Tom Massey covers it brilliantly in his book ‘The Resilient Gardener’ and I wanted to also pick on a few of the options available.

One key point is the right plant in the right place so that it thrives in its natural setting, so understanding drought tolerant planting options is key as is planting for areas that will become ever more waterlogged.

Designing with less impermeable hardscape is also key, and where this isn’t possible collecting the runoff water and feeding into designed collection points like swales or wetlands and making a feature out of these with wildlife ponds. Whilst designing artfully created screens can reduce windbreaks to protect plants that also provide shelter for wildlife in winter for example.

The use of wildlife habitat shelters in the garden can also be beautiful and interesting for children and adults alike, whilst the use of reclaimed materials such as green concrete with terrazzo to create a spectacular pathway or reclaimed timber used to make a boardwalk or pergola. Where an impermeable material has been used for a dining terrace for example you could use gravel channels to break up the impermeability between the hard surfaces, allowing the water to soak away and create attractive breaks in the sterile solid surface.

Wildflower plants seating for garden designs

I also work with Wildflower Turf Ltd, and really promote the use of wildflower areas in gardens large and small to provide a beautiful, natural and colourful spectacle as an alternative to the traditional formal lawn, whilst increasing biodiversity in the garden. 

Please get in touch and find out more about DP Garden Design’s specialist garden design services and the comprehensive garden design process we passionately commit ourselves to with every garden we work on.

Wildflowers - garden inspiration and ideas
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