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Landscape Design Ideas, Styles, and Themes

Updated on August 5, 2017
Sustainable Sue profile image

In addition to having a masters degree in sustainable development, Susette works with water conservation and sustainable landscaping.

Although different landscapes in a neighborhood will look different from each other, there will be a similarity to them that is based either on the local climate and the elements prevalent in it, or the "look" created by the original developer and maintained or evolved over time by the neighborhood's residents.

Southern California's signature "look" includes bougainvillea, palm trees, California native trees, and mountains.
Southern California's signature "look" includes bougainvillea, palm trees, California native trees, and mountains. | Source

The natural environment influences a garden strongly and one's neighborhood look may or may not be sustainable. If it doesn't match the local environment, if it wasn't built to require as little extra nurturing as possible, then it will typically cost a lot of money and time to keep it healthy and looking good. To avoid that, you can change the look over time by replacing the exotic plants with variants of local plants. Here is a look at different styles and themes that match with different environments, and will help generate new landscape design ideas.

What is a landscape style?

Landscape styles evolved from observation of local natural landscapes, and attempts to mimic them at their best in one's own home or locale. The American Southwest evolved a style that reflects the dry cliffs and arroyos of its countryside. The English Country Garden style reflects the best of the English countryside brought into one place, nurtured by the constant mists they have there, and the Japanese Zen Garden is reflective of the Japanese countryside at its best. A natural or "native" look in one locale would be called "exotic" in another, because the environment is different.

A Colorado wildflower garden, based on the English country garden style. In reality, Colorado wildflowers are spaced much further apart than they are here. Some of these grow in the mountains, some in the fields, but they are all from Colorado.
A Colorado wildflower garden, based on the English country garden style. In reality, Colorado wildflowers are spaced much further apart than they are here. Some of these grow in the mountains, some in the fields, but they are all from Colorado. | Source

In the southwestern United States, a Japanese Zen Garden is exotic. In Japan the Southwest or Santa Fe style is exotic. In any locale where a landscape is exotic, that garden will take a lot more time and money to make it grow successfully. However, it is also more interesting to look at for the local inhabitants, because of its "foreign" look.

Although a garden, in order to be sustainable, must have the main part of it based on its own climate or a climate-compatible part of the world, interest can be added with a little exotic touch here and there.

For example, in an Arizona landscape, a Japanese bridge could become a fake arroyo crossing. In California, a British willow pond could become a small water retention basin. In the Mediterranean, where rock walls of flowering plants in planter boxes are the norm, one rock wall could be replaced by brightly painted stucco in the Santa Fe style for an exotic touch.

Common Landscape Styles

The photographs below show examples of different styles of gardens around the world. Their descriptions show some of the typical features of such gardens.

English Country Cottage - Rolling lawns shaded by trees and fringed with areas of brightly colored flowers of different types packed together. Often the lawn will incorporate a pond of some sort and sometimes a little waterfall and/or stream with a bridge over it.

English Country Cottage style. Note the abundance of colorful flowers leading the eye toward the front door. The foxglove in the right rear typifies English style gardens.
English Country Cottage style. Note the abundance of colorful flowers leading the eye toward the front door. The foxglove in the right rear typifies English style gardens. | Source

Mediterranean - Planter boxes atop walls of brick or stone, each filled with one or two types of flowering plants, especially those that spill over the side. Planters line stone pathways and small streets on both sides. They mimic cliffs by the seaside.

Day lilies planted in a Mediterranean style garden, with stone pillars and brick planter boxes. Ice plants are also commonly used with this style.
Day lilies planted in a Mediterranean style garden, with stone pillars and brick planter boxes. Ice plants are also commonly used with this style. | Source

European Formal - Straight lines and squares of carefully pruned, dark shrubs creating privacy and/or leading the eye to a focal point or hidden spot. Includes highly developed, complex mazes with benches or other resting spots in the center. Often interspersed with fountains in courtyards that attract hordes of hungry pigeons.

French formal garden has bushes pruned into geometric shapes, with smaller, darker flowers between to enhance the shapes.
French formal garden has bushes pruned into geometric shapes, with smaller, darker flowers between to enhance the shapes. | Source

Japanese Zen - Curved landscapes with fish ponds, bridges, and curving pathways. Flowers add interest, but do not dominate like they do in other styles of gardens. Tall, light bamboo forests. The overall effect is one of green or pastel peace and relaxation.

Japanese Zen Garden style - peaceful, relaxing, meditative. Taken at the Huntington Demonstration Gardens in Pasadena, California, 2015.
Japanese Zen Garden style - peaceful, relaxing, meditative. Taken at the Huntington Demonstration Gardens in Pasadena, California, 2015. | Source

American Southwest - Lots of space and barren rocky, desert, or distant mountain views brightened by covered patios with vivid, painted stucco walls. The patios form outdoor living rooms and are filled with bright container plantings. There is often a pool for swimming, surrounded by drought-tolerant plants or cacti and light-leaved deciduous trees. Rock or gravel pathways lead the eye off into the distance. Mimics sandstone mountain cliffs.

American Southwest style - brick walls mimicking arroyo cliffs, with desert (or Mediterranean) wildflowers. Taken in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2012.
American Southwest style - brick walls mimicking arroyo cliffs, with desert (or Mediterranean) wildflowers. Taken in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2012. | Source

Tropical or Semi-Tropical - Lush landscapes filled with ferns and shrubs with large, brightly colored flowers. Lots of birds, streams, and butterflies. Water and tall trees everywhere. Mats of fallen leaves and soil composting on the ground. Heavy scents in the air.

Each of these landscapes will be easy to take care of in the environments in which they developed, and difficult to take of in environments that are foreign. Because an area's overall environment so strongly affects the health of a landscape, a good designer will address the overall look first, before testing and planning for a site's various micro-climates, keeping in mind that landscape styles can be mixed and matched under certain conditions.

Landscape Themes

This design idea introduces another level of landscape design known as its "theme." Whereas style refers to the overall look of a garden, developed in conjunction with its native environment (whatever that might be), a landscape can have a theme as well - one of the major things a designer uses to add personality to a native landscape.

A theme is a focal point around which the garden will be designed. For example, you might want a garden to primarily attract birds or butterflies, or a garden made of edible foods and herbs, or a garden that is all or mostly one color or shape. A garden can be created entirely of bushes or entirely of flowers or entirely of grasses, including what some might call "weeds" (weeds being unwanted plants that are hard to keep out).

This homeowner has chosen an all-white theme focusing on roses, petunias, and light grey bricks.
This homeowner has chosen an all-white theme focusing on roses, petunias, and light grey bricks. | Source

Grow local with a vegetable or herb theme.

A real challenge (and joy) to a good landscape designer is to create a landscape with a common theme and limit it to native plants. For example, how would one grow a native vegetable or herb garden? Does anyone remember anymore which vegetables and/or herbs were original to the area?

Tomatoes, corn, and beans were all native to the Americas, especially the mid-western United States, and so were potatoes. Yet those vegetables are grown all over the world now, to the bane of people wanting to eat healthy foods grown without pesticides or herbicides.

Herb garden theme with yarrow (California), lavender (Mediterranean), and the accidental invasive weed, Bermuda buttercup (South Africa).
Herb garden theme with yarrow (California), lavender (Mediterranean), and the accidental invasive weed, Bermuda buttercup (South Africa). | Source

Because humans insist on growing foods and flowers in exotic (non-native) places, which are thereby not supported by local weather conditions or birds and insects, plants are weaker and more prone to disease. Companies who make products that kill insects and prevent plant diseases are thereby making big bucks and, of course, promoting the more exotic landscapes. But there's a backlash.

Growers are applying fertilizers that then contaminate water running over the area and out to the ocean. And they're applying pesticides that then kill the same birds that eat the problem insects. Many of these chemicals hurt humans too. These unintended results add to the desirability of growing native foods locally, and designing landscapes that are native and sustainable, that can thrive without the application of fertilizers and/or chemicals.

The Native American "Three Sisters" (corn, squash, beans) grow well together, each enhancing the growth patterns and needs of the other two.
The Native American "Three Sisters" (corn, squash, beans) grow well together, each enhancing the growth patterns and needs of the other two. | Source

Overall Neighborhood Style

In order to keep peace with the neighbors, something about the new design you are contemplating should match or enhance the look of the neighborhood. Take a walk around with your camera and or a notepad in hand to see which overall style, and individual styles and themes are reflected therein.

How compatible is the overall style with your local climate and land forms? What modifications have individual neighbors made? Is anyone designing with the style or theme you have been most attracted to?

Talk to the neighbors and ask questions about the history of the neighborhood or about ideas they have contemplated. They might have some really useful information that can help you with making decisions. They might also have extra plants to give you that save you money. In any case, you'll make friends in the neighborhood you didn't have before and might give them some ideas too.

Across the street from this interesting Southern California garden is another one similarly landscaped, but with purple flowers and feathery grasses, interspaced by rocks and small white pebbles.
Across the street from this interesting Southern California garden is another one similarly landscaped, but with purple flowers and feathery grasses, interspaced by rocks and small white pebbles. | Source

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    • Sustainable Sue profile image
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      Sustainable Sue 2 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      @Nora, it all depends on where you're located and what your weather and soil patterns are like. Here in Southern California both of those styles are hard to maintain, since our weather is dry and hot, and our natural soils sandyish or rocky. Both of the styles you mention require rich soils and misty air.

      Here you could combine attractive bridges with sandy swales (small ditches) lined with attractive gravel - a sort of Zen Mediterranean style - with native hybrids planted along the banks. Again, it depends on where you live and how much you have to supplement your natural landscape, as to how difficult maintenance of a style will be.

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      Nora Moore 2 years ago

      There are a lot of landscaping styles out there. To be honest, I love the bridges and curved pathways of the Japanese Zen style. Is that hard to maintain? It would work better if I had a pond or stream in my yard, though. Maybe I'll try the English country cottage style instead. http://landscapesbydesigninc.com

    • Sustainable Sue profile image
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      Sustainable Sue 2 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      Thanks Susan - I took that at Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. And it is peaceful. They have great landscape photo opps there!

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      Susan Hirst 2 years ago

      I love the landscape design ideas. I particularly like the example picture of the Japanese Zen style landscape. It just looks so beautiful and peaceful.

      http://www.scenicviewlandscapes.net/information-la...

    • Sustainable Sue profile image
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      Sustainable Sue 2 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      It's almost spring - just one more week, if you go by the Celtic calendar - and fruit trees in Southern California are starting to bud. My neighbor up the street is changing their huge front lawn to a drought tolerant garden - extending it out from the small, test garden they had last year to cover the entire front of their property. I've started taking photos and may write a hub on it soon.

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      Farmers Landscape 2 years ago

      Neat hub, we recently did a backyard with a modern tropical look. Was really happy with the results. http://www.farmerslandscape.com

    • tarajeyaram profile image

      tarajeyaram 5 years ago from Wonderland

      Great hub. I love to garden as well.

    • Sustainable Sue profile image
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      Sustainable Sue 6 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      Thank you. It was fun writing it.

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      Elena@LessIsHealthy 6 years ago

      Great hub!