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Landscape Design Ideas, Styles, and Themes

In addition to having a master's degree in sustainable development, Susette works in water conservation and sustainable landscaping.

Taking care of a landscape that doesn't fit the local environment (appearance and weather) costs a lot of unnecessary time and money. The looks, the soil, the weather of your local environment influence your garden every day, so if it doesn't belong, then you're constantly fighting against them to keep your garden healthy.

To avoid the extra expense, you can change your current look by replacing exotic plants with variants of local plants, and by redesigning the way they're put together. Here is a look at different landscape styles and themes to help you redesign.

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.

What Is a Landscape Style?

Landscape styles evolved from attempts to mimic the best of natural landscapes 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 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 and associated flora vary significantly.

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.

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 require more time and money to ensure it grows 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 be primarily 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 are 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.

Mediterranean - Planter boxes rest 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.

European Formal - Straight lines and squares of carefully pruned, dark shrubs create privacy and/or lead the eye to a focal point or hidden spot. These can include highly developed, complex mazes with benches or other resting spots in the center. Often, these are 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.

Japanese Zen - Curved landscapes feature 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 may be present. The overall color scheme is green or pastel, and promotes 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.

American Southwest - Lots of space and barren rocky, desert, or distant mountain views are 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.

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.

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

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 (from California), lavender (Mediterranean), and the accidental invasive weed, Bermuda buttercup (South Africa).

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

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 apply fertilizers that then contaminate water running over the area and out to the ocean. And they apply pesticides that then kill the birds that eat the problem insects. Many of the 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.

In many places it's possible to grow a little vegetable and flower garden in your front yard.

In many places it's possible to grow a little vegetable and flower garden in your front yard.

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 with your camera and or a notepad in hand to see which overall style, and individual styles and themes are reflected around you.

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 are 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 for you, so you save 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: My business name is "Our Mother's Lawn & Care Landscaping". What would be a good theme for my launch party?

Answer: Your party theme could play off of your business name, focusing on what your mother cared most about in her landscaping. Get props that reflect it and put up a little display. Dress in period costume, use old-fashioned tools and have someone work your landscape with them, while you greet people. Turn it into a little event with music, then invite the local media to attend. If they can't, sometimes you can write an article of your own and the local paper will publish it. Take photos to post on Facebook, or wherever you do your advertising. You don't necessarily want more people coming, but you do want to use the event to get your name out there.

Question: I'm an architecture student. Our project is to take a small area outside our residence and transform it to a useful area through landscaping. What theme can I use?

Answer: A useful area? That would imply a place to sit in peace, or a landscape that attracts local birds and insects, or something that would protect your residence from prying eyes. Is there another use that stands out more to you? Maybe growing a garden of food? "Useful" can be your theme. You just need to choose what kind of use you want, then shape the plot accordingly.

The plants you choose and the way you design the overall look will be determined by which plants are available where you live, the nature of the soil, and the weather patterns. Choosing plants that grow wild locally—or plants related to them, maybe bred from them (hybrids)—will help your garden thrive with a minimum of work later on. Here is another article you can apply, once you've worked out the specific use that you want for that plot. https://dengarden.com/landscaping/Common-Concepts-...

Question: I am an architectural student and we have to complete a project that should be based on a theme. We have to design quite a long area near a water body. What theme can I use?

Answer: I would suggest looking at rivers that run through cities, like Venice, to see what kind of landscaping they have, especially in the area where tourist cafes are located. Note that the discipline you're talking about is called landscape architecture. It deals mainly with designing hardscape, i.e. walls, sidewalks, fountains and pools, etc. If you choose a Japanese theme, you'll want to include bridges, but make them simple, for example. If you choose an older European style, say baroque, you'll want to design lots of swirls, fancy carvings, and other theatrical features into your hardscape, then add swirls of bright flowers to match. It's up to you. There are lots of themes to choose from, but you'll get ideas by looking at what others have done along the edges of rivers. Here is an article that includes a description of hardscape in landscape design to get you started. https://dengarden.com/gardening/Garden-Components-...

Comments

Lam Nguyennnnn on July 20, 2020:

Thank you for your wonderful reply.

Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on July 19, 2020:

Evoking emotions is the core of what landscape design is all about. It's true of all good art forms—music too. If you follow the emotional path, you will be a highly successful landscape designer. I don't know that there's a particular name for it.

Those designers who don't focus on the emotional impact of a design end up creating landscapes that hit it accidentally or that fall flat, even though they may be aesthetically pleasing. People look at designs like that and think, "Hmmm. Something doesn't appeal here." Or they think, "Pretty, but boring."

Frederick Olmsted, a famous American landscape architect (i'm sure you know of him), said that sometimes the public wants to hang out with people and sometimes we want to be alone. Some days we want to go to the edge of the water and breathe in the harbor, and other times we want to be held and sheltered, and feel more private and introverted.

These are emotions he's talking about, and a good designer plays to those. You're heading in exactly the right direction. Best of luck with your studies!

Lam Nguyennnnn on July 18, 2020:

I am student in landscape architecture. I follow a theme that use color, light and materials to stimulate and evoke emotions in landscape design. But I dont know which words to call this trend. Could anyone know about it? Thank you a lot.

Louise89 on July 10, 2019:

Thank you for the wonderful advice!

Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on April 17, 2015:

@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.

Nora Moore on April 17, 2015:

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 (author) from Altadena CA, USA on April 11, 2015:

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

Susan Hirst on April 10, 2015:

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 (author) from Altadena CA, USA on January 27, 2015:

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.

Farmers Landscape on January 27, 2015:

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

tarajeyaram from Wonderland on December 10, 2011:

Great hub. I love to garden as well.

Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on April 23, 2011:

Thank you. It was fun writing it.

Elena@LessIsHealthy on April 04, 2011:

Great hub!