Garden styles

It is a long time since I published a piece on the folly of allowing garden openers to write their own descriptions. Even then, discretion won out and I only published it on a UK gardening site I was contributing to at the time. This explains why I couldn’t find it on my own site when I went looking for it. A not-unrelated situation arose this week when we were asked to describe the style of our garden in a single word. Apparently, this helps garden visitors.

As a seasoned garden visitor myself, I am as wary of garden owners getting to declare their own ‘style’ as I am of getting them to write their own descriptions. But just in case you need some assistance in interpreting garden style, I offer the following explanations. Some, but not all of these ‘styles’ were offered as a suggestion to help us in defining our own garden category.

Japanese – three rocks, some raked gravel and a recently planted dwarf red maple.

English style, as seen through NZ eyes

English – buxus hedging, garden rooms, a Japanese cherry tree and pretty flowers because in NZ, the English garden style begins and ends with the Arts and Crafts movement seen by so many at Sissinghurst and Hidcote.

The real McCoy – Villa d’Este in Tivoli

Italian – more likely ‘Italianate’, similar to the connection between a ‘dinette’ and a banqueting hall, or a ‘kitchenette’ and a caterer’s kitchen. Terracotta pots, a clipped bay tree and hard landscaping carried out in concrete and ponga* logs or tanalised timber on account of a dearth of skilled Italian stonemasons here.

This really was a designer garden, designed by Dan Pearson

Designer – in theory a garden created by a name designer and executed with attention to detail and a big budget but more likely to be a recent garden designed and planted by the owner, a younger woman in her 30s or early 40s who is a magazine subscriber and who bought some graph paper, large paving slabs and black mondo grass.

Tropical – a naive gardener who does not realise that nobody has a tropical garden in Taranaki owing to us not having anything like a tropical climate. More likely to be three palms, either hardy or half hardy, and ten bromeliads. 

East Lambrook Manor set the standard for cottage gardens

Cottage – If you are expecting something like Margery Fish’s iconic cottage garden at East Lambrook Manor, you may be disappointed. More likely to be packets of wild flower seeds scattered on bare soil, struggling to germinate, let alone flower. And a clipped camellia and maybe some common purple foxgloves.

Plantsman’s – this is a difficult one. To those in the know about open gardens, it is often used as code for a garden lacking in design, prettiness or charm that may appeal to those who take a magnifying glass with them when they go garden visiting in order to view the close-up of an obscure native orchid in bloom. Occasionally, this is a descriptor adopted by an ambitious gardener with over 30 different plants in their garden who is unaware that in the rarefied atmosphere of upper-level horticulture and botany, the term ‘plantsperson’ is an honour bestowed by peers and colleagues, not self-awarded.

Courtyard – 80% paved or decked with a very expensive outdoor dining suite, sofa with all weather cushions, lighting, a very (very) small water feature and a narrow border or two on the periphery planted with clivias and a Kentia palm.

A splendid crop of broad beans

Vegetable – featuring a splendid broad bean crop in spring, some small tomato plants and a worm farm.

Sustainable vegetable – as above but mulched in cardboard or old woollen carpet.

Insect hotels are very on trend.

Potager – another vegetable garden but this time with rainbow chard and fancy lettuces corseted in clipped buxus hedging and featuring a fancy insect hotel.

Welford Park. Photo credit Chris Wood via Wiki Commons

Woodland – you may be envisaging an open scene of deciduous trees, perhaps white barked birches – with a sea of snowdrops beneath. More likely to be over-planted trees which need thinning and limbing up, underplanted with a few hostas and clivias that are struggling with root competition and too much shade.

Coastal – windy. Trees growing at a 45° angle, ice plants, gazanias, some wind burnt succulents and a defoliated copper beech.

A friend who has extensive experience in plant sales contributed the ‘Low Maintenance Garden’ – griselinia hedges, yuccas and Agave attenuata for structural focus, with Coprosma ‘Hawera’ groundcover, all surrounded by black stained bark chips.

The idea of defining our garden by a single style defeated me entirely.

*Ponga – NZ tree fern trunks which are widely available, relatively long lasting and usually inexpensive or even free.

32 thoughts on “Garden styles

  1. dinahmow

    On the button, I’d say! I’ve been a helper at several “open garden” days and have seen and heard most of this.
    Best comment in a visitors’ book at one? “Don’t k now how she had the cheek to do Open Garden. This is rubbish!” And then the woman signed her name and address. So we drove around her street to look .It was an eclectic blend of wheelie bin, abandoned on weedy patch of grass, a clump of strappy-leaved something crowding the mail box, a huge bougainvillea sprawling across the drive and threatening windows on the house. And quite a lot of “evidence” of a big dog.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Visitor books are another horror! Fortunately most people know that if you can’t say anything nice, then it is better to say nothing at all.

  2. Christine Dobbs

    Good morning Abbie,
    None of these describe my garden. It’s a miss match of whatever, cuttings from friends and pieces I’ve “borrowed” while out walking. That’s just the way I like it.

    I enjoy your posts, would love to see your garden if I’m ever down your way, I am in Ruakaka.


  3. Angela

    How about a “New Zealand” garden which is how I describe ours. An amalgamation of all the styles brought by immigrants.
    Your descriptions of all the others were spot on, a very funny read.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Actually New Zealand style is not a bad description. Ours is very much an NZ garden. If forced, I may resort to that! I once wrote a piece on this, I must dig it out again. An eclectic mix of many international influences and plants, liberally interspersed with our native plants, created in a country with a DIY ethos, more land that many people overseas can even dream of and bright, clear light.

      1. sarahnorling2014

        New Zealand style -that’s a perfect description. We have such a magnificent choice of what we can grow here. Thanks for the article, had me chuckling over my tea this morning.

  4. tonytomeo

    Oh my goodness!
    I know this should not be as amusing as it is. It is so much of why I dreaded the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, and why I am pleased to remind clients that ‘I am no designer’ (as all horticulturists are assumed to be).

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Glad it amused you. Even worse are lawnmower maintenance men who assume this qualifies them to be designers. But in our years of retail we met many young(ish) women determined to create what they see as a ‘designer garden’, as viewed in glossy magazines.

      1. tonytomeo

        Bad (horrid) design is the norm in more urban areas near here. The landscapes in rural regions are not quite as bad, but are ridiculously silly. We live in a region that is so visually appealing that it needs no improvement. Much of what we do here is thinning out the vegetation to reveal what is beyond. Yet, urban designers are intent on fencing backyards with high fences that obstruct the views of the forest and rivers, and then add Japanese maples and water features inside. Seriously, I point out an example of such a home in Ben Lomond to a colleague when he is here. It is right on the San Lorenzo River, with a big fence along the river, and a big fountain inside the fence.

  5. Judi

    Hilariously on point. I work in retail nursery and find that eclectic comes to mind to describe some garden style’s. Thankyou again for your entertaining article.

      1. jaspersdoggyworld

        I could use four words: New Zealand country garden. Whatever that means. Does a garden need a label? The joy of visiting other people’s gardens is to see how they have chosen to use different plants to create what they like and perceive a garden to be.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        Personally, I think an accurate description and photograph(s) in the programme, already brief in format, is all that is required but apparently that is too hard or boring for some garden visitors. They need a quicker key.

  6. Ann Bell

    Very amusing and true. i also recall when we were supposed to categorize ourselves as:Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter and dress in colours according to “our season”

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Dear oh dear. The problem when ‘promotion and comms’ is handled by people with very little understanding of gardening. But tell me, what were the colours of winter expected to be? Were winter folks to dress in grey and white? I always regard winter here as very pink but I bet pink belonged to spring.

  7. Ann Bell

    i don’t remember what “winters” were supposed to wear, but I do recall that people paid to have “their colours done”!! Perhaps it is a reflection of the apparent need to conform. A fool and his money are soon parted…

  8. Tim Dutton

    We also had a good laugh as we read your post. One word is hard, but as we’ve never yet visited two gardens that are identical I think all garden owners could safely describe their style in one word as ‘Unique’ :-)

  9. Sue Trivett

    Hilarious article about garden descriptions. Thank you. How about
    The Inhospitable Garden : always closed!

  10. Greta Tisdale

    Loved your post. Made me laugh. I have two gardens. One I call Vegetable Garden, the other I call Pleasure Garden.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Isn’t Pleasure Garden a term used to describe the ancient Persian gardens? Nowadays, it tends to summon images of a location for lewd behaviour! How degraded can a word become?

Comments are closed.