University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime Article


By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Professor

To understand what garden "styles" are, it is helpful to first understand categories of garden design and where they fit, as well as what influences such styles.  Gardens can look fine without any design, but most really attractive gardens incorporate some elements of design, consciously or unconsciously.

Design utilizes key plant elements or qualities, including size, form, texture, and of course, color, in one or more of the design principles---scale, variety, emphasis, repetition, and balance.  Use of one plant, like marigolds, may make an attractive show, but not have any design. Combine this with a contrasting plant or object, in texture, color, or other feature and you will have some, if not a dramatic design.

Garden designs generally can be grouped by form or function.  Designs or gardens that serve a physical function, other than aesthetic, include gardens for wildlife, fragrance, edible plants, herbs, or erosion control, among other functions.  Most theme gardens are functional, even if cerebral rather than physical.  Examples include a garden of plants found in the Bible, in Shakespeare, a monastery garden of herbs, a collection of a specific genus, or plants and structures to provide amusement and education for kids.

Gardens designed to fit certain locations also are functional, such as to provide foundation plantings, hide corners, or add plantings along a fence or walk.  Gardens for certain ecological situations also are functional, and if a proper fit, require less maintenance and have more sustainability. These include rock gardens and wetland or bog gardens.

If for aesthetics, designs may fit a certain form or style with certain features.  These include choice of plants, as well as choice of hardscape or non-plant materials.  Terra cotta pots often bring to mind Mediterranean gardens, as do certain warm climate plants like bougainvillea, for example. Garden styles (plants and hardscape materials) are reflective of both place and time.  As such, they reflect broader cultural conditions of specific plants at specific broad time periods.

For example, a colonial American garden may reflect the early settlers' need for edible plants and lack of resources or sources for flowers.  Victorian gardens may reflect increased transportation, and thus, the availability of exotic, often tropical, plants.  And these gardens may include iron objects, themselves reflective of and available as a result of the industrial revolution.

Whether a garden is arranged by function or form depends on its primary purpose and is often representative of both. Hence, a vegetable garden is obviously for an edible function but also could be designed for aesthetics.  Or a Mediterranean, Italian, or Victorian garden might include many edible plants and fruits in pots, for instance.

Providing an appropriate garden style to fit a site, or location on a site, can be challenging.  If not a good fit, it can result in more work to maintain and lower sustainability.  Tropical plants and tropical fruits can be used in the North for example, but obviously have to be grown either as annuals or overwintered indoors, resulting in high maintenance.

Or growing English perennials in the southwest desert will require a lot of attention to keep them alive, if even possible with many species. Using a garden style out of context also can look just this way, in other words, out of place, unless seen by itself in an enclosed area or without surrounding views.  Something seems wrong, unless the goal is to disturb the viewer, for example, viewing mountains through palm trees!

So a garden style is designed, mainly for aesthetics, and exhibits certain plants and materials found in other gardens of its type and origin. A dozen of the more common garden styles in use in the latter part of the 20th century and presently include American, English, French, German/Dutch, Scandinavian, Italian/Mediterranean, Southwest U.S./ Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Persian/Islam, Tropical, Cottage, and Victorian.

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