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Designs on modern

26 September 2022
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Photo: GettyImages

With considered planning and landscaping, you too can get the ‘effortless’ look of a modernist garden. Words Diana Noonan

Whether you’re head over heels in love with rambling English roses or you can’t get enough of wildflower meadows, a ‘modern garden’ can still, on occasion, leave you green with envy. These impeccable, ultra-controlled, tightly designed gardens (usually attached to contemporary homes) appear picture perfect, day after day, season after season, year after year – and all without any apparent effort on the part of the garden’s owner. Of course, that’s not quite how it is in reality, but it’s close enough to make us curious.

In the beginning

The modern or ‘modernist’ garden is a 20th century creation. It became firmly established in the USA and in north-western Europe in the 1930s. At the heart of its design was the sense that a garden could grow not only from the natural aspects of the land, but from the architecture that rested upon it and the requirements of those who inhabited the dwelling space.

No longer were plants necessarily the focus of the garden. Swimming pools, entertaining areas, al fresco dining patios and outdoor art were all seen as being more central to a garden than a flower bed.

Minimalism was in; blousy delphiniums, overblown roses, pockets of random spring flowers and ornamentals that highlighted seasonal change were out. In fact, the less plantings changed, the better.

Symmetrical & sober

Symmetry is not new to garden design; in fact, most of the great gardens of the world rely upon it. But the modern garden demanded not only symmetry, but sobriety: formal lines that were clean, lean, monochrome and bordering on industrial. Texture replaced colour, rigid replaced rustic, walls replaced hedges, tiles replaced grass, stone replaced water and grasses replaced flowers. A single sculptural plant or tree was preferable to a bed of dahlias.

A planter replaced a peony. Stucco supplanted selfclinging climbers. And what is most maddening (for those who like to think of themselves as ‘real gardeners’) is that the result, overall, was very pleasing! It may have taken a garden designer, a wallet and a good deal of personal restraint to achieve, but the modern garden proved to be attractive, interesting, dramatic and perfect for a modern family with not a great deal of time to spare. So, how was it achieved?

Planning & planting

When planning a modern garden, the general rule is ‘less is best’. That goes for just about everything – fewer colours, fewer varieties, fewer plantings. Beginning with your garden palette, aim for simplicity and keep it calm. Stick to plants of a similar shade. They might be shades of green, grey and blue-grey, with a pop (just one or two) of lime green or white (or even pale lavender). Then again, your natural landscape may suggest a palette that is more in the gold and brown range – even tones that might permit a smidgen of (dare we say it) orange or yellow (but no more than a hint).

Limiting the variety of plants in the modern garden is essential. So much so that, if you find yourself drawn to a particular plant, it is far better to group several of them together (plantings of three or five are acceptable) rather than to show off just one. There is also the opportunity for mass (or drift) planting, where one type of plant is repeat-planted to cover a larger area. In the right place, this can be highly effective.

When it comes to numbers, however, one should always try to break the rules (but only occasionally). We are talking here of the single planting of an eye-catching statement plant – it may be madly out of place in terms of colour or height, or it may be severely sculptural (or all of the above!). But however it does it, it will say ‘look at me’.

The rules for how to plant are also rigid in a modern garden. With the occasional exception, plant in straight lines or in small groups of odd numbers. If mass planting, plant in a grid pattern (close to buildings); however, for mass plantings further away from a home or wall, one can afford to be a little more random.

Spacing is important. In a garden of few plants, where each one counts in terms of shape and texture, these attributes will soon be drowned out if the plants coalesce to the point that they are no longer distinguishable from one other. The exception (there is always an exception) is with mass planting, where texture and movement are to be the focus (think taller grasses), in which case the merging together of foliage can be desirable.

The planter

Modern gardens tend to eschew lawns in favour of hard surfaces, which is where planters come into their own – providing form but also a controlled planting space. Choose planters that are large and bold (they can be the one thing that breaks an otherwise monotone palette). A large container means that your chosen plant (display only one in the planter) will have plenty of space to show off its form – which should, preferably, be sculptural. But, once again, there is an opportunity to break rules: in the case of container planting, be sure that the shape of your chosen plant contrasts starkly with the shape of the planter (choose a tall, narrow cactus or a topiaried ball to go in a square container, for example). Add symmetry into the equation, and have two container plantings.


The modern garden relies on its hardscape to hold everything together. It is the basis on which everything else rests. As with planting, it pays to be bold rather than fiddly. Forget the shell or bark mulch path, or the crazy paving of recycled brick or concrete. Instead, head straight for big, clean pavers with straight edges (no curves, please). Lay them in grids or straight lines. Here and there you may want to break up the scene by inserting a paver or two (of the same size) topped with a different texture. With restraint, you can combine concrete pavers with wooden tiles – but keep everything in a geometric pattern.

Deep brown is the clean look when using natural material in a modern garden for patios or walls. This means that sustainably minded modern gardeners will need to look to suitable stains if they are not to import the hardwood usually used for this.

Walls and fences are more important than hedges, but that doesn’t mean they need be of the standard suburban type. Think outside the square with fences of slate grey driftwood (uniform pieces as much as possible), rusted corten steel, dry stone wall or Gabion baskets filled with riverbed rock. If the standard suburban fence is your only option, break it up with a laser-cut fence panel or two (but keep the additions minimal).

Yes, you can do this!

While most modern gardens are the work of professional designers, there’s no reason not to create your own. With careful research and restraint, it’s perfectly possible. But while the result may be relaxing, don’t expect the setup to be the same. Modern gardens rely heavily on landscaping – so call in favours from burly friends or those who know how to operate a digger. And once your garden is up and running, be prepared for more than just a modicum of maintenance – in these clean, lean gardens, every dropped camellia bloom has the potential to spoil the view!

Modern garden planting suggestions

Grasses for mass planting

• Blue fescue (Festuca glauca)
• Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora)
Lomandra sp.
• Mondo grass (Ophiopogon sp.)
• Tussock (golden, red and silver)

Sculptural plants

Agave sp.
Aloe sp.
• Divaricating (branching) native shrubs
• Flax (harakeke/wharariki)
• Marlborough rock daisies (Pachystegia insignis)
Yucca sp.

Ground cover

Coprosma acerosa ‘Red Rocks’
Coprosma kirkii ‘Goldstream’
• Creeping pōhuehue (Muehlenbeckia axillaris)
• Low-growing succulents (such as Echeveria ‘Imbricata’)

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