Taoist, Zen and Buddhist symbols and elements, like water, lilies, boulders and shrines, lend authenticity to Asian gardens in the West.

Garden styles are as varied as people. Here are six of the more common styles, and the elements that define them.

By Rebecca Schneider

Have you ever seen a garden that resonated so well with you that all you wanted was to sit in it and absorb the colors, shapes, sounds and smells? Gardens, like people, are unique. Yet, certain garden styles are definable, and appeal to us on an innate level. Maybe we like the peace of an Asian garden, or the colors of a cottage garden, or the orderliness of an English garden.

Different styles suit different spirits. If you’re looking for a style to suit yours, or if you want to switch things up in an established garden, here are six garden styles and some of the elements that define them.

Taoist, Zen and Buddhist symbols and elements, like water, lilies, boulders and shrines, lend authenticity to Asian gardens in the West.
Taoist, Zen and Buddhist symbols and elements, like water, lilies, boulders and shrines, lend authenticity to Asian gardens in the West.
Asian Flair

Lovely surroundings and good fortune? That’s the goal of a traditional Asian garden. “In India, gardens are organized according to Vastu shastra [an ancient science of temple architecture], whereas Chinese gardens are organized mostly on Taoist principles,” explains Martin Mosko of Boulder’s Marpa Landscape Design Studio and coauthor of Landscape as Spirit: Creating a Contemplative Garden. “In both systems, one of the main goals of design is to create an auspicious physical environment that benefits those who live and work there.” .

This is accomplished through a less-is-more approach. Asian design is organic, unobtrusive and uncluttered. While it might be hard to exercise restraint in our more-is-better culture, what you leave out of an Asian garden is as important as what you put in it. In the design stage, choose each garden element with intention and purpose.

Of course, you can always buy a few bonsai trees for your garden and call it a day. But enlisting a landscape designer who specializes in Asian gardens will help you actualize an authentic space. Although an Asian garden appears simple, it’s based on complex principles. A skilled designer takes into account not only visual elements, such as plantings, rocks and water features, but subtler ones like wind patterns, angles and how each landscape element harmonizes with the others and the total environment.

It’s essential to incorporate the five elements into a Chinese-style garden—earth, wood, fire, water and metal (see “Get Your Chi Flowing” in the fall 2011 online issue of this magazine). An Asian garden is a space for quiet reflection, so it should draw in subtly dynamic experiences that keep us in the moment—butterflies flitting about  and birds filling the space with song, as well as flowing water to remind us of life’s ebb and flow.

Strong hardscapes, clean lines and minimal plantings are hallmarksof contemporary gardens.
Strong hardscapes, clean lines and minimal plantings are hallmarksof contemporary gardens.
Coolly Contemporary

Contemporary gardens focus on hardcape elements with strong, clean lines and geometric and symmetrical shapes. Rather than take center stage, plans dot the hardscape, but their selections are bold. A few well-chosen plants in stunning containers or groupoings add a dramatic visual punch while maintaining this style’s clean, uncluttered look. Free-form plantings have no place in a modern design.article_whatstyle2

Contemporary gardens often incorporate metal, stainless steel, wood, glass or concrete materials, and modern lighting like LEDs is used to highlight hardscape feature.

Contemporary gardens are quite distinct from other styles. If you gravitate towards structured gardens with minimal upkeep, contemporary may be your style.

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Water-wise gardens work best by grouping plants with similar soil and water needs.
Eco Makes It Easy

An eco-savvy garden works with the natural environment, instead of against it. In Boulder County, that means xeriscape. A successful eco-friendly garden comes down to irrigation and soil amendment, says Chris Hothouse of Outdoor Craftsmen in Erie. Beyond that, there are no hard-and-fast rules for designing a low-water garden, other than eliminating lawn grass and other thirsty plants. “Designs should be site-specific to the environment around the garden,” he says, noting the many different factors within a single area, including micro climates, soils, and the availability of sun, shade and water.

Xeric gardens also depend on hard scape elements, like rock retaining walls, and grouping plants with similar water and soil needs. Landscape designer Mike Woods, of J&S Landscape, recommends mulching xeriscapes with small stones. Because xeric plants are typically from dryland and desert areas, over watering is riskier than under watering. Small rock mulches are best, Woods says. They allow for quicker drainage, unlike wood mulches, which hold in water for longer periods of time.

The effort you expend in planning a xeric garden is paid back tenfold, because mowing is virtually eliminated—just sit back and watch it grow.

Inviting cottage gardens have soft edges, varying textures, informality and plenty of colorful foliage.
Inviting cottage gardens have soft edges, varying textures, informality and plenty of colorful foliage.
Cottage Quaint

As opposed to the defined lines of a contemporary or English garden, classic cottage gardens are informal, with soft edges, varying layers and textures, and plenty of old-fashioned foliage, like peonies, snapdragons, cosmos, old roses and foxgloves

Cottage gardens are exuberant and free flowing, without straight lines and defined areas. This style doesn’t require the maintenance of a more formal garden. Instead, it offers “an opportunity to embrace a loose, relaxed aesthetic that is flexible in its maintenance demands,” says local garden designer Caitlin Woodard.

Curving paths, natural materials, picket fences, pastel colors and weathered objects are all at home in a cottage garden..

And when it comes to plants, almost any-thing goes: Edibles mix with perennials and annuals, and self-sown plants make a cottage garden all the more charming. “There’s an inherent kind of messiness associated with this style of garden that gives the gardener a real creative freedom to try different things, since it is easier to hide your mistakes,” Woodard says. “Overall it’s a very forgiving style.”

Formal and manicured, English gardens are sophisticated, with defined borders, paths and hedges.
Formal and manicured, English gardens are sophisticated, with defined borders, paths and hedges.
English Elegance

If you like a more formal look, an English garden may be your preference. Manicured hedges often define English gardens, which are filled with different plant groupings bordered by stone, brick and gravel paths.

Many perennials associated with this garden style are easily found at local garden shops. “Any perennials we use in the Colorado landscape are good, usually planted inside the hedges or as a perennial border,” says Terry Carter of Designs by Sundown in Denver. Carter suggests boxwood, dwarf lilac, barberry, spirea and shrub roses to help transform your landscape into a “Secret Garden.” Ponds, gazebos and large container plantings often accentuate the pastoral appeal of an English garden..

This garden style is sophisticated, with defined borders for structure, softened by plantings that are often interspersed with herbs and vegetables. Perfect for entertaining and relaxing, an English garden freshly complements the natural landscape.

Many tropical and Mediterranean plants–including banana, giant elephant's ear, ginger, bush lily and others–grow well here if you overwinter them indoors.
Many tropical and Mediterranean plants–including banana, giant elephant’s ear, ginger, bush lily and others–grow well here if you overwinter them indoors.
Tropical Tastes

While seemingly incongruous, a tropical garden can fare well in our semiarid region. But creating a tropical twist in Boulder County requires three things: time, money and space. You’ll have to water diligently, as tropical plants naturally thrive in humid environments. And after spring and summer are over, your work is not. If you want to retain as many plants as possible for the following season, you’ll need a light-filled indoor space to overwinter tropical plants. Also, watering and fertilizing must continue during indoor storage.

Richard Doerr, a Louisville gardener well-versed in tropical and Mediterranean foliage, says plants that do well here include banana, giant elephant’s ear, ginger, bush lily, lemon and lime trees, hardy hibiscus, giant white calla lily, fig trees, palm trees, and bamboo—to name a few. But only if they’re potted and brought indoors in colder months.

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A tropical garden is a dense garden. To create a jungle-like appearance, you’ll need to group a lot of plants together. And of course, nothing says tropical more than vivid colors—not only in flowers, but also in foliage and decor. Water is a tropical must-have, so incorporate ponds, fountains, misters or other water features into your landscape.

What you invest in terms of time, effort and money will pay off in lush, vivid and unexpected plants. A tropical garden makes you feel like you’re on vacation, Doerr says, and gently softens our stern mountain backdrop.