University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Boone & Winnebago Counties

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Garden Styles

Do you wish your flower garden had more style or pizzazz? Too often flower gardens are just flowers in straight-line beds next to the house. Strong geometric lines and symmetrical plantings define formal gardens. Although lovely, such a formal garden looks out of place with the architecture of most homes. The flowing lines and asymmetrical design of informal gardens fit most homes better. Informal garden styles vary greatly so choose the type that suits your taste and interest.

The traditional mixed border incorporates various types of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs, ornamental grass, and vines into an aesthetically pleasing whole. You should a choose wide variety of plants to keep the border visually interesting year round. Trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses will provide the garden with background structure and winter interest. A mixture of annuals, perennials, and bulbs will dominate the garden during the growing season.

This style should be the easiest to achieve because most homes have a few trees and shrubs planted next to the house foundation. First change the relatively straight lines of the shrub bed to sweeping curves by digging out new bed outlines. Evaluate established trees and shrubs, then move, replace, or add make the garden more pleasing. Finally, fill in the remaining spaces with an assortment of annuals, perennials, and bulbs keeping year round interest in mind.

The cottage garden style is a diverse mixture of the gardener’s favorite plants. Flowers of all varieties, shapes, colors, and sizes typify this style. A cottage garden is always in bloom during the growing season. Random plant placements and informal design give a feeling of chaos to the flowerbeds. A cottage garden is never stagnant. The gardener should feel free to move the perennials around in the garden to improve the garden’s beauty.

The new American garden is ideal for large areas with full sun. This style developed from the desire to add more native plants to landscapes and as an alternative to lawns in hot dry areas. The garden consists of dramatic sweeps of one species followed by another. Plants chosen for this style are based on their strong structural elements, multi-season interest, and heat and drought tolerance. Ornamental grasses often play a key role in new American gardens. Other commonly used plants are coneflowers, rudbeckias, sedums, and euphorbias. The most striking new American gardens are planted on slopes that accentuate the large expanses of plants.

Specialty or theme gardens are the most fun garden style. These gardens are limited only by the gardener’s imagination. Butterfly, hummingbird, water, herb, or single color gardens are examples of this style of garden. More unusual themes might be built around literature, history, or cooking. A Shakespearean garden would incorporate plants mentioned in William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Likewise, a Biblical garden has plants from the Bible. A children’s garden might have bright, easy to grow flowers and vegetables. Young children might like an alphabet garden with plants starting with the letters from A to Z. Another kid pleasing garden is a taco garden with tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, and peppers.

Woodland gardens depend on random plantings of shade loving plants. Many woodland gardens rely on native perennials and shrubs. Annuals, groundcovers, and trees may also be used. Winding paths through the garden encourage exploration and discovery.

Prairie gardens follow the pattern of native prairies. The garden is dominated by grasses and sedges and accented with prairie flowers. Depending on the plant species used, prairie gardens may be developed for dry, mesic, or wet sites. These gardens are very informal.

Whatever garden style you desire, remember gardens evolve and change. The best gardens are never finished. Annuals and perennials especially give the gardener the opportunity to experiment and alter the garden. Choose a style, use curving lines, and have fun. Overall, the best gardens reflect the gardener’s personal taste and style.


April - May 2001: Prevent Garlic Mustard from Setting Seeds | Perennial Gardens with a Purpose | Garden Styles | Preventing Crabgrass Problems in Lawns

Past Issues

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