Do you need a garden style?


Euphorbia rigida

Euphorbia rigida

It’s a strange thing that my thoughts about the garden are at their most clearest in the early hours of the morning when I am supposed to be asleep. I find myself seeing, with what feels like surprising clarity, exactly how a problem should be resolved and there is inevitably, as the birds warm up their vocal chords, a to do list which would strike fear into many a gardener. Some might therefore question why my garden still remains a challenge to me and the answer to this is simple – the clarity of decisions fades as the sun comes up just like Cinderella’s coach.


I struggle with planting and working out what to plant with what, it’s a constant frustration. The problem isn’t so much about colour or even the combination of textures it is more about size. How much space should I allow? Do I plant for the short term and then adjust as the plant gets bigger or do I plant with the plant’s eventual size in mind? But even more frustrating is the combining of different size plants to create a cohesive whole.  I have increasingly added more trees and shrubs to the garden but they seem to be like islands in the border or the planting around them is out of proportion. This morning I was reading an article by Fergus Garrett who said something along the lines of ‘you wouldn’t plant a tiny fern next to a large banana’. Well no you wouldn’t but what would you plant next to a large banana that is of the right scale and contrasts with the leaves? What do I plant around my new Liquidamber in the middle of a border that will provide substance and a middle ground before you arrive at the epimediums, bergenias etc? These are the questions that perplex me when I am gardening.

Melianthus major

Melianthus major

I love plants and have had a very eclectic taste which has led to borders without cohesion or direction – a veritable mishmash. I am struggling to work out how to develop my garden to showcase my favourite plants. I have a penchant for large leaved and curious foliage but I’m not sure I want an exotic or sub-tropical garden because I also like roses, peonies and irises and I adore all bulbs. Whilst I love foliage I do still want the high moments of colour at different times of the year.  I suppose the question is do you need to label your style to enable you to develop the space? I have a number of friends who are very clear about their garden styles and their gardens are wonderful.  They have a sense of cohesion and clarity which I aspire to. However, the examples I am thinking of are either based on a very specific plant palette or in a setting with strong architecture which drives the approach.  Not only do I have a magpie approach to plants but my garden is the ubiquitous UK suburban garden with a standard late 1970s house of no particular architectural merit.

Grevillea victoriae

Grevillea victoriae

What adds to my frustration is my apparent inability to learn from inspiration elsewhere.  It is quite strange I have visited so many gardens which I have enjoyed, taken many photos, and looked closely at how borders have been put together but for some bizarre reason I am unable to translate it back to my own garden – it’s as if there is a missing link in my brain.  It is the same with looking at books and magazines. If I do come home feeling inspired inevitably the enthusiasm slowly fades away as I am unable to relate the inspiration to the reality.

I have started to tell myself I am trying too hard and over thinking things and I am sure this is so. There are small areas of planting which are working well I think and so I think the way forward is to focus on the small combinations rather than feeling overwhelmed by the whole garden.

But right now having written this post I am wondering can you have an exotic or sub-tropical garden which has roses and irises in it?  Would it work to combine these plants? And therein lies the problem as I will no doubt no try this and end up dis-satisfied with the outcome and maybe, just maybe, that’s why successful garden makers have a tendency to go for a specific garden style that is well rehearsed and successful.


34 Comments on “Do you need a garden style?

  1. I look at garden building/designing much like I look at decorating our house. If I love it, it works (for the most part). I think, if you have consistency in what you love (color stories, foliage types, leaning into the eccentric, general themes, etc), the continuity of the design will form on its own. I absolutely think all those plants you mentioned can happily and beautifully coexist within one border- repetition and harmonious color stories go further (in my mind) in creating a style that is uniquely yours than trying to use guidelines or styles or rules others have decided on. At least that is how I approach my garden. It feels too constricting to use rules- planting what and how you love is what gives your garden soul and makes it a piece of you. And trial & error is part of the journey. I also plant (generally) to have it look good & reasonably full within a year, knowing that if it gets crowded beyond that I will surely have a place for the thinned plants elsewhere.
    Anyway, sorry for the long comment, but thank you for posting something like this. These are the things I love talking with fellow gardeners about and I find too few people willing to share the questions and struggles. So thanks!

    • Hi Courtney
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You are right, if you love something it should be good the trouble is I love lots of different things and the struggle is to bring them together

  2. Your thoughts and your approach are much like my own. Sure, you could have a specific style and follow a design template but where’s the fun in that? Gardening is a form of self-expression, so express yourself. Now and then I try to achieve a particular style, but I always wind up going on detours en route to my horticultural destination. And so I just give way to my gardening impulses – sometimes they work, sometimes not, but this approach is the most satisfying for me.

    • Hi Jason
      I think we are alike, I think I’m in a bit of a rut trying to get things to come together

  3. I often struggle with similar problems of what to plant next to what. I’ve given up on trying to stick to a style, I just go with what pleases me now. I do think you can mix other styles with traditional plants like roses. Do you follow the blog Piece of Eden? I believe she’s in the San Diego area in California, and she mixes roses with drought-tolerant plants like Agaves and Aloes, and I think it works.

    • Hi Alison
      Thanks, I don’t know that blog I will check it out

  4. I have seen many beautiful gardens in Japan and I have done similar things to you. I have taken photos and I sit and study the photos, books and so on, but I also struggle to translate it into my own garden and my own style. I want to try and blend an Australian garden style into a Japanese garden whilst having a concoction of different plants. I think in your case of mixing roses and irises would work, there are many bold colours you could use that would blend in with your desired garden style.

    • Hi GN
      I suppose the approach is to identify the key components and then undertake them with your Australian plants. For me I think I can incorporate the roses and irises but as you say I need to right colours. Etc

  5. I think I have pretty much given up on seeking inspiration elsewhere in favour of trying to find my own answers to my own dilemmas within my own garden. I am guided by my taste in plants, the conditions I have and over time, by what thrives. Oddly, it seems to create its own style in the process. I have gardened here for nearly 30 years and plantwise, there is nothing left from when I started. If I don’t like something or it doesn’t perform or grows too big, it can go. The best thing is, when it works it’s my success, not someone else’s.
    I think I get more pleasure out of visiting gardens too when I just enjoy them for what they are without searching for that elusive inspiration that probably wouldn’t work in my own garden anyway.
    The question is not whether this plant works with that but whether you like how this plant looks with that. If you don’t, change it. Why should you care what anyone else thinks of it?

    • Hi Jim
      Thank you, your advice about whether I like a combination as to whether it is meant to go is just what I needed to hear.

  6. As always you have summed up your thoughts so well, and have worded my own thoughts and frustrations so well. I often feel myself that some parts of my garden just do not work. I know which plants would be good through books and other gardens yet somehow putting them into a section of existing garden is bewilderingly tricky.

    With regard to types of plant and garden, I like all sorts of plants and cannot possibly restrict myself to a “style”. I too like architectural and exotic plants but I also love roses and cottage garden plants. I’ve developed a new mania for alpines, and have always loved ferns.

    I remember visiting a garden in Madeira many years ago. It was a very “English” garden full of roses and cottagey looking plants. But it was also full of palms and strelitzias and other sub tropical delights. It all worked perfectly and I always remember that when I mix things that some people say shouldn’t be.

    I think far too many things is life are sectionalised and gardening shouldn’t be, it should be the things you love. Even better if it looks perfect, but don’t worry if it doesn’t.

    • Hi ABG
      That is really interesting about the Madeira garden, would love to see that. I know you are right about just going with what we love but as your say incorporating into an existing garden is hard

  7. I have roses, iris, Strelitzia and the Melianthus. Works for me. I have deliberately planted my garden in sections, for variety and interest as you walk around.

  8. why are we never satisfied with our gardens? to me you have the ideal conditions for an English Garden’ and have all those lovely bulbs, peonies, irises autumn colour etc. It’s not a sub’tropical one as you have frosts! I am the opposite and yern for peonies but living on the Whangaparoa Peninsula just north of Auckland we don’t get frosts and even tho’ roses do well here on the Coast this garden was laid out 14 years ago with heaps of sub’tropical shrubs and bananas, Queensland umbrella trees, palms etc that they have a big network of roots and also weed mat that I have to be content with lots of pots of Bromilliads etc and lovely. As I type this a Kereru a large native pigeon with green head, white waistcoat and darker green/maroon on rest of body is eating berries from a dragon tree. Magic. Only 3 metres from window . I know as gardeners we like challenge but also nice to garden to conditions and enjoy and don’t try too hard at trying to grow plants that struggle in wrong climate. What grows rampant here you seem to struggle with an itsy winsy specimen. I love yur garden.

  9. Beautiful post! I completely sympathise with your pain. But I firmly believe that you should avoid formulas and continue to experiment. Mirabel Osler gives very reassuring advice on this in her book ‘A Breath From Elsewhere: Musings on Gardens’. Good luck and keep posting.

  10. I have this year added more roses and some iris to the main border where I also intend to add dahlias (Exotic?) in the spring. I don’t think having a love of too many different plants help!
    One advantage of dividing a garden into rooms is then creating a different style in each one.
    Do what makes you happy Helen, that is one of the plusses of having your own garden.

  11. It doesn’t matter. If you like it, if you love your plants as individuals it really doesn’t matter about style; this is your style. Chill (as my children would say)

  12. Are you sure you don’t have a garden style already? Maybe you are just too close to it, and haven’t realised that those pieces you are happy with are the beginning of a style of your own. You just need to grow those elements out to the rest of the garden. Slowlee, slowlee, catchee monkee, as my grandfather used to say!

  13. You are not alone! I understand perfectly what you are saying and look at my own garden and see the same things. It has helped me to have recently found a gardening friend with whom to discuss ideas. The fact that she has also in the past designed gardens should also be mentioned! I too love many plants and struggle to bring together a coherent plan. I find growing vegetables much easier and tend to spend more time doing that than I should. Like you I know what to do but struggle to do it ‘on the ground’. But keep gardening!

  14. This post resonated with me as I’m in a very similar situation of struggle and spend a lot of time thinking about it. This includes considerations of plant size and eventual plant size, the placement
    of shrubs or specimen plants that I just want to try to fit in, but most of all just how to fit plants together, full stop. Some of my thoughts then.

    Christopher Lloyd wrote about the difference between planners and muddlers (considering himself a muddler). I seriously started gardening (only) four years ago and time and again I find that I learn the most from muddling on my own, although I do enjoy very much reading about other people’s experiences and I assume it has some beneficial effect besides that joy. There’s so much to learn though! Muddling seems slow and full of disappointments (besides the satisfaction). I suspect planning and muddling are different ways to arrive at the same, but muddling may be more expensive if you’re impatient like me.

    Which plants do I like? Which plants fit the aspects that I have (or more personally, do like me)? Which plants are too fussy to my liking? How do I achieve dense planting, with plants that support and complement each other, both in space and time?

    I’m after dense planting, with different layers – ground cover, middle (perennial/herbaceous) layer, the shrub layer, and trees/climbers. I like the alternate classification of plants as belonging to wiry survivalists, clump formers, or self-seeding colonisers. This is, I believe, tied to the plant matrices of the perennialists (I may have jumbled that up a bit). I prefer long-lasting performers, that is, I’m not a fan of short-lived perennial plants. Heuchera’s are a bit of a disappointment in this respect, although they can be split/replanted and I’m not giving up on them.

    My aim for the planting is to get individidual parts of my garden to where I need to intervene/replant little. My aim for the garden is to get the different places/borders/chambers of the garden into their own individual shape (planting schemes sharing a common aspect+theme), hopefully blending them all together into a cohesive design. These borders are mostly very small (say four square meters) or small (12-15 square meters). This depends on what you compare with of course – The mind boggles at those garden correspondents with (several) 60×4 meter borders. My borders are slowly establishing themes, e.g. the ‘sunny border’ (lots of grey-silver), two woodland borders, a fern border, a mini-orchard border (lots of berries including a mulberry), a red/black/purple (foliage) border, a mini-hedgerow, et cetera. This seems to chime with where you write “There are small areas of planting which are working well I think and so I think the way forward is to focus on the small combinations rather than feeling overwhelmed by the whole garden”.

    I’ve decided to strive for continuity by focusing on using certain plant groups throughout the garden: sedums, saxifrages, ferns, geraniums, clematis. I’m considering achillea, persicaria, phlomis, sanguisorbia, but need to learn more about them. I’m getting better at resisting the lure of individual plants that I fall in love with; I’ve always focused on hardy plants only, and as all the borders are developing a theme now it is becoming easier to say ‘no’. I still have many plants in pots, including a Citrus trifoliata and several Rodgersias, that I haven’t managed to fit in or refused to grow where planted. I intend to use the ‘coloniser/survivalist/seeder’ classification as a lense to view the garden through the next year(s).

    In conclusion, I find it slow going and occassionally very frustrating, but I love how gardens are such individual expressions of creativity. In that respect the gardens that express a struggle of the owner to combine/balance/compromise their various infatuations and preferences are much more interesting than a picture-perfect cottage garden or perennial/grasses border (all can be beautiful).

  15. Scrolling through the comments brought me to one that echos what was in my mind to suggest. All gardens have micro-climates within the general maps of zones for your area. Identifying these spots helps in plant placement. Sort of like little rooms of garden, each containing plants with like needs.
    gates, hedges with openings, increase the delight in finding something ‘new’ around the corner. It also makes it easier to choose the right amendments that each group requires for optimum growth. I love variety and this is a good way to achieve it.

  16. Very interesting thoughts, thank you. I have my own struggle with a hodge podge of beloved but widely different plants.

    Here a garden without style (such as mine) is called “California eclectic”. It is a bit of a curse to be able to grow so many different kinds of plants. California gardeners often go wild trying new plants from all over the world. A blue clematis spilling over a blue agave–why not?

    Those who are able to make a success of it (I don’t include myself in that group) focus on classic design elements like foliage shapes, structures and other architectural or sculptural features paired with plants, levels and layers, contrast, repetition, color.

  17. Interesting post and comments, Helen. I think most of us agree that if you like it then it doesn’t really matter what other people think – and getting combinations that work well will be a process of trial and error. Having a year of abstention from plant buying in 2016 and drawn up plans of my borders where the gaps are I find myself still in danger of just planning to buy what I like in 2017 and then finding a space for them! So much for any real planning… 😉

  18. I had to laugh at this post, Helen! You are not at all alone in either the nighttime planning or the sense of never quite realizing the dreams. Just enjoy the whole glorious process and as a wise person said “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. Oh! And NEVER think your own garden is not good enough to share.
    Your own creation is unique.

  19. What an excellent post, Helen. I sympathise with the agony of thinking too much and the way magic solutions evaporate with the dawn. I think we just have to follow our hearts and, if we’re collectors, curate the plants we love to please ourselves. As you know, I collect grasses but I flinch if someone suggests the plantings are ‘prairie style’. Labels bother me and making a ‘good’ garden is not a matter of painting by numbers.

  20. Sounds familiar…a work in progress for many of us I suspect. I get most of my garden satisfaction from looking at a thriving plant and thinking “I grew that”, whether from seed or cutting. I like a well stuffed border, overflowing. Can always move or remove things. I recognise the mapgie tendency that you mention, it results in unplanned chaos for the most part in my garden. I could use some advice on planting schemes and maybe even on landscaping generally, to improve the overall effect. But mostly I like pottering in the greenhouse, so another year perhaps…

  21. I get the sense that you know that you need to be more disciplined in your choices to achieve the kind of garden you hanker after. Since this would be in conflict with your natural love for a wide variety of plants (I sympathise!), why not designate different areas of the garden to different moods – exotic and architectural in one part, more cottagey and traditional in others?
    I think it’s a bit like cooking – notwithstanding fusion food, in general recipes work when you respect the palette of ingredients which belong together – italian food uses tomatoes, oregano, basil, olives – throwing in a few swedes would be just wrong!!

    • Hi Rose
      What an interesting way of looking at it and I think there is part of me that is already starting to think like that. I think it also probably comes back to right plant, right place. However, I am now pondering the inclusion of swedes in italian dishes!!!

  22. Hi there……a very interesting blog……I think maybe you are trying too hard….forget other people’s ideas go with your heart otherwise you will lose enjoyment of the garden…..
    Can you have tropical and traditional…of course you can we combine tropical exotic and traditional in a small suburban garden….because like you I have a passion for large leaves and New Zealand plants…..also roses and Iris…so go with it…we constantly change our planting…..we open for the NGS..we like to constantly surprise our visitors!! sometimes we have no Idea what is going to appear in our borders!!

  23. Hi Helen. I always say that a garden has to have an ‘identity’ to really work well. A style feels way too restrictive; as if it has to neatly fall into the clichéd categories like cottage, Mediterranean, formal etc. An identity can be anything you want and likely a mix of ‘styles’. It is unique to you and your garden and that’s what makes it so magical and full of character: it is the opposite of a formulaic, predictable garden. I think eclectic plant collections are often the best. They are personal, interesting, varied and unique. But you do need some common threads…this is your identity and it really can be based on any threads you like. There are infinite possibilities, from the quirky (e.g. brightly coloured pots, animal sculptures) to the more obvious (e.g. bold foliage, pastel colours, timber finishes), but pick a few–of any description–and cohesion and an overall atmosphere will be achieved. I also agree with you…plant scale is the hardest thing of all to master. Happy Christmas!

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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