What’s My Garden Style?

Do you know your garden style? Whether you're designing a landscape from scratch or redoing your current garden, landscape designer Liz Jaros is here to help with an explanation of seven popular garden styles, their key characteristics, and recommended plants for each!

A full cottage-style border incorporates tall trees in back, a variety of low shrubs, and finally, shorter perennials and annual flowers.

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What are you drawn to on a stroll through the neighborhood or a click around the internet? Are you drawn to gardens with clean lines and simple color palettes? Do whimsical curves and a riot of intermingling flowers draw you in? Do you crave control and order in the landscape, or do you like to let plants do their natural thing?

Whether planning a garden for a newly built home, reworking the yard around a century-old Victorian, or potting up some annuals for a small urban balcony, you probably find yourself drawn to certain materials and design elements. And though you may not know it yet, you (and your yard) probably already have a fairly well-defined garden style. 

Selecting and arranging plants is a very personal, creative process – and no two gardeners will fill the same space in exactly the same way – but there are some general style categories into which most gardens fall. Familiarizing yourself with garden design principles can help you fine-tune an existing landscape, revitalize a tired one, or plan a new one.

Read on for a closer look at seven garden styles and their defining characteristics. You’ll also get to know some plants and materials commonly featured in each category and learn a little about their care and use. 

Formal

Close-up of a Formal styled garden. Formal gardens are characterized by their symmetrical and structured design. They often feature geometric shapes, straight lines, and carefully manicured hedges or topiaries. Flowers and plants are arranged in organized patterns or rows. Purple tulips are in bloom in the garden, followed by well-tended spherical Boxwood bushes and Juniper plants in a row in the background.
Formal garden design features a central axis, geometric bed shapes, and evergreen hedges.

On a grand scale, examples of formal garden design include the White House and the Palace of Versailles. These gardens focus around a central axis point and radiate outward with geometric bed lines and low-slung hedges. Formal gardens create structure with sculpted and controlled evergreens like boxwood and juniper

Flowers in a formal landscape typically contain plantings of flowers en masse, with large ‘sections’ of a single plant, such as red tulips or white roses, filling the spaces created by evergreens or hardscapes. Formal gardens are designed to be appreciated from an aerial position or the elevated vantage point of royalty. They might also contain central sculptures or statuary. 

On a smaller scale, a modest home that employs a row of six pyramidal or columnal trees to act as a privacy hedge is also an example of the formal garden style. So is a 1960s ranch home with a tidy line of apple trees in the backyard or a bungalow with three knockout rose bushes on either side of its front stoop. Gardens don’t have to be large to be formal. It just has to be symmetrical, intentional, and relatively controlled.

Key Characteristics

  • Geometric bed lines
  • Limited color palette
  • Plants in sections or rows
  • Sheared evergreens
  • Topiary & statues
  • Linear privacy hedges
  • Square and circular patterns

A formal garden features plant materials that are neat and easy to shape and control. Here are a few tried and true plants for a formal landscape:

Tulips

Close-up of blooming multi-colored tulips in a flowerbed. Tulips are known for their vibrant, cup-shaped flowers that come in a wide range of colors, including red, yellow, pink, and purple. They have a single stem and a cluster of long, narrow leaves that emerge from the base. The leaves are green and have a waxy texture.
Tulips, a spring favorite in formal gardens, offer multiple colors and a neat, tidy appearance.
botanical-name botanical name Tulipa spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 6 inches to 2 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

A beautiful sight in spring after a long, cold winter, tulips are a formal garden favorite for obvious reasons. With nearly 100 species and thousands of cultivars, tulips come in various heights and a rainbow of colors. They look beautiful in rows and within hedge boundaries, and they were once associated exclusively with royalty. 

Boxwood

Close-up of Boxwood shrubs in a sunny garden. Boxwood shrubs are characterized by their small, evergreen leaves, which are oval or elliptical in shape and dark green in color. These leaves are closely packed on the branches, creating a dense and compact appearance.
Boxwoods feature frequently in formal landscape design because they easily shape into geometric forms.
botanical-name botanical name Buxus spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 2-4 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-9

With small leaves and a dense growth habit, boxwood shrubs can be easily sheared into an orb or a rectangle. This makes them the go-to plant of formal landscape design.

Hardy down to zone 4, boxwoods remain green and hold their leaves all winter, a major asset in northern landscapes. Some varieties are more vertical and lend well to topiary shaping, a formal garden feature.

Roses

Close-up of a blooming rose bush in the garden. Roses are characterized by pinnately compound leaves with serrated edges and a glossy, dark green color. The flowers are pink, peony-shaped, and consist of many layers of delicate petals.
Hybrid tea roses offer fragrance and long stems, while shrub roses are more compact with abundant flowers.
botanical-name botanical name Rosa spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height Varies
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-10

There’s nothing quite like roses to give the landscape some elegance and style. With nearly 30,000 cultivars, roses look stunning in large groups and lend themselves well to formal design schemes. Choose a hybrid tea variety for light fragrance and long, beautiful stems, or select something from the shrub rose family for a more compact habit and robust flower display. 

Juniper

Close-up shot of Juniper plants growing in a row under a fence. The plant is tall and has a triangular growth habit. Juniper plants have small, needle-like leaves and a bluish-green coloring.
Dwarf types serve as groundcovers, while upright species add a conical form to formal landscapes.
botanical-name botanical name Juniperus spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 6 inches to 15 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 2-7

This is another evergreen favorite in the formal design tool kit. Juniper shrubs and trees have short, needle-like leaves and a bluish-green coloring, making them a nice offset to boxwood and some other structural plants with dark green foliage. Use dwarf varieties as a groundcover, or choose upright species with a more conical form that works well with a formal landscape’s geometric personality. 

Informal

Blooming garden in informal style. The informal garden style is characterized by its relaxed and naturalistic appearance. These gardens feature a mix of plants with a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, creating a more untamed and wild feel. Plants such as Dwarf Maiden Grass ‘Little Miss’, Asters, Melampodium, Sedum and others are blooming in the garden.
Informal gardens offer flexibility, with a mix of curved and rectangular layouts and a wide variety of plant materials.

Though less rigid and symmetrical than formal landscapes, informal gardens are not entirely without structure or intention. They are usually looser and more inclusive, however. Gardens in this category might have curved beds and a non-linear layout, but they might also be rectangular. They might have more color and a wider variety of materials or feature just a couple of flowers.  

Trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, climbing vines, garden gnomes, and annual flowers are all welcome in an informal landscape. An emphasis on flow, variety, and seasonal interest drives plant selection in these gardens, as does availability.

An informal garden is flexible enough to accommodate the irises your neighbor wants to share with you or the mums that speak to you at the garden center. In an informal garden, there’s always room for more!

Plant in odd-numbered groups or ‘stands’ for informal gardens. Place taller trees, perennials, or shrubs in the back, mid-sized materials in the middle, and low-slung groundcover or annual ‘fillers’ in the front. But there are no set rules, and each garden is its own unique work of art, which is why this is the garden style (or non-style) you’ll encounter most often. 

Key Characteristics

  • Informal bed lines
  • Eclectic plant mix
  • Varied color palette
  • Groups rather than rows
  • Four-season interest
  • Edged beds
  • May include herbs and veggies

Pretty much anything goes in an informal landscape. Beds may be sunny, shady, or a mix of both. Plant selection and color palette are limited only by a gardener’s imagination. Here are some low-maintenance flowers and shrubs you’ll often encounter in an informal landscape:

Lilac

Close-up of blooming lilac in the garden. Lilac plants are known for their large, fragrant clusters of tubular flowers that bloom in purple. The leaves of lilac plants are green and have an oval shape with a smooth texture.
Lilac’s large, fragrant flower clusters and various sizes make them popular alongside other shrubs and perennials.
botanical-name botanical name Syringa spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 3-30 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-7

Lilacs live for hundreds of years and are hard to remove! They’re also beautiful and have a vintage charm that appeals to many homeowners. That’s why you’ll often find them alongside other shrubs and perennials in an informal landscape.

Lilac flowers form in large clusters and are distinctively scented. Shrubs come in sizes that range from dwarf to tree. 

Daylily

Close-up of blooming Daylily plants in the garden. Daylily plants have long, arching leaves that are grass-like in appearance. The leaves are green and have a linear shape. Daylily flowers are large and trumpet-shaped, with multiple petals arranged in a radial pattern. The flowers include the colors orange and yellow.
Daylilies are low-maintenance, and their spiky foliage and trumpet-shaped flowers are a delight.
botanical-name botanical name Hemerocallis spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 6 inches to 4 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-10

These low-maintenance landscape darlings feature spiky foliage and trumpet-shaped blooms that open in early summer. Though individual flowers only live for a single day, they keep coming for nearly a month. Daylilies reproduce quickly and can fill a large area in just a few years, so they work well in an informal garden. 

Daisy

Close-up of blooming Leucanthemum plants. Leucanthemum plants have simple, lance-shaped leaves that are dark green and serrated along the edges. The flowers of Leucanthemum are large and daisy-like, with a prominent yellow central disk surrounded by white petals.
Daisies are classic, easy-to-grow flowers ideal for informal gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Leucanthemum spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 2-4 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-9

Another garden classic with cheerful, disk-like flowers and a firm, upright habit, daisies are easy to grow and share. They open in mid-summer, attract many pollinators, and bloom for four or five weeks if deadheaded regularly. Daisies pair well with most other plants and don’t require much fuss, making them perfect for an informal garden.  

Catmint

Close-up of a flowering Catmint bush. Catmint plants have aromatic, gray-green leaves that are finely serrated along the edges. The flowers of catmint are tubular and appear in spikes or clusters. They are lavender-blue or purplish-blue in color
This fantastic filler plant has long-lasting purple flowers in early summer.
botanical-name botanical name Nepeta spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 1-2 feet tall
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-8

Catmint is another informal garden star with arching sprays of tiny purple flowers for months in early summer. Its coloring works with almost any palette, and its habit is low and mound-like. Shear them back after a wave of flowers, and they will bloom again in a few weeks. It’s a casual gardener’s treasure. 

Naturalistic

Close-up of a flowering garden in Naturalistic style. Naturalistic gardens have an organic and wild appearance, resembling natural landscapes. They typically feature a diverse mix of native plants and materials that mimic the local environment. Plants such as Miscanthus sinensis, Bigelow's sneezeweed, Salvia nemorosa Caradonna, Sedum, Yarrow, Coneflowers and others grow and bloom in the garden.
Naturalistic gardens imitate the original landscape by using native plants and natural materials.

This kind of garden invites plant materials to behave (more or less) as they would have before a region became civilized. Employing native plants and natural materials to mimic the original landscape, beds in this category are typically large swaths of land or informal patches with natural quirks and slopes. Let flowers self-sow and spread naturally (within reason). 

The variety of plants in a naturalistic garden will depend heavily on where you live. In the plains regions of North America, you might plant a prairie-style garden with grasses, milkweed, and coneflowers. A naturalistic Southwest garden will probably contain a variety of succulents and an assortment of drought-tolerant shrubs. A wetlands garden might have marsh flowers and water lilies, while a Northern woodland garden will likely feature shade-tolerant plants such as birch, fern, and hostas. 

A naturalistic garden does not typically include much hardscaping or man-made elements. Look for sand, ground cover, and gravel to represent naturally-formed footpaths. Look for dry creeks and low areas to facilitate natural run-off patterns. You can design a naturalistic garden to draw native pollinators and wildlife species, offering water, food sources, and shelter. 

Key Characteristics

  • Natural beds or large areas
  • Native plants
  • Slopes and valleys
  • Minimal hardscaping
  • Natural paths and drainage
  • Wildlife encouragement

Since the materials featured in a naturalistic garden will vary widely depending on where you live, here is a sampling of plants from different regions:

Coneflower (Plains)

Close-up of blooming Coneflowers in the garden. Coneflowers, also known as Echinacea, are characterized by their tall, sturdy stems with daisy-like flowers. The flowers have a prominent, raised central cone surrounded by colorful, petal-like rays of pinkish-purple color. The leaves of coneflowers are lance-shaped and rough-textured, arranged alternately along the stems.
Bees and butterflies love this prairie plant with purple to pink ray-shaped flowers.
botanical-name botanical name Echinacea spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 2-5 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

This well-known prairie plant has ray-shaped flowers with purple to pink petals that fan out around a large central disk. It blooms for a long time and tolerates less-than-perfect soil, making it as adaptable as beautiful. Bees and butterflies flock to it, and it spreads easily by clump or seed. No Midwest naturalist garden would be complete without this one. 

Ostrich Fern (Northern Woodlands)

Close-up of Ostrich Ferns growing in a garden. Ostrich Ferns are known for their striking, feathery fronds that resemble ostrich plumes. The fronds are long, slender, and pinnately compound. These ferns have a distinct vase-like growth habit, with the fronds arching outward from a central point. The individual leaflets on the fronts are small and delicate, creating a fine-textured, airy look.
Ostrich ferns are ideal for naturalist gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Matteuccia struthiopteris
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 3-6 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-7

This woodland darling features chartreuse-colored fronds that emerge in spring like fiddleheads and unfurl as the season progresses. An understory plant that thrives in dappled or minimal light locations, ostrich ferns spread by rhizome as they would on the forest floor. Their inclusion in a naturalist landscape creates a distinct Northwoods vibe. 

Banana Yucca (Southwest)

Close-up of a flowering Banana Yucca plant in a garden. Banana Yucca is characterized by its cluster of long, slender, and sword-like leaves that radiate outward from a central base. The leaves are bluish-green in color and have a rigid, spiky texture. Banana Yucca produces tall flower stalks topped with bell-shaped, purple flowers.
Banana yucca boasts sword-like leaves and creamy purple bell-shaped flowers, perfect for Southwestern gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Yucca baccata
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 2-3 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-11

Native to the Southwestern regions of the U.S. and Northern Mexico, banana yucca has the stiff, sword-like leaves you would expect from an arid region plant. It offers spikes of creamy purple, bell-shaped flowers in early spring. Easy to recognize in the wild and easy to domesticate, this one is a quintessential member of the Southwest garden. 

Marsh Marigold (Wetlands)

Close-up of Marsh Marigold plants in bloom. Marsh Marigold, also known as cowslip, is a water-loving perennial plant known for its vibrant yellow, buttercup-like flowers. The leaves of Marsh Marigold are dark green and waxy, and they are heart-shaped or kidney-shaped.
Marsh marigolds thrive in wetlands gardens with their vibrant yellow flowers and dark foliage.
botanical-name botanical name Caltha
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 1-2 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-7

Also known as cowslip, this water-loving perennial thrives in low areas with poor drainage and makes a wonderful addition to a naturalistic wetlands garden. In spring, marsh marigolds produce an abundance of yellow, buttercup-like flowers on mounds of dark, waxy foliage. They spread easily and are perfectly at home near the water’s edge. 

Modern

Image of a modern garden. Modern garden is characterized by clean lines, simplicity, and a minimalist aesthetic. It features sleek hardscapes made of materials like concrete and metal. Plantings in modern gardens are carefully selected for their tidy, architectural qualities, with an emphasis on ornamental grasses, shrubs, and perennials that can be easily maintained and shaped. Also in the garden there are plants such as Woodland sage, Verbena, Chinese silver grass, Fountain grass, Calamagrostis and others.
These gardens feature a limited selection of well-groomed plant materials, favoring orb-shaped or mounding varieties.

Minimalism, repetition, and restraint define this garden style, which is often selected to enhance properties with contemporary or mid-century architecture. Look for beds with straight lines and radial curves to indicate modern garden design. They will often trace the boundaries of patios, decks, and exterior walls. 

Limit plant varieties to just a handful repeated throughout the property. Look for tidy, ornamental grasses, shrubs, and perennials. Give preference to orb-shaped or mounding plants rather than anything that needs staking. Materials in a modern garden are also generously spaced, with air between them and no overlap. 

Contemporary elements like concrete, wood, and metal can create sleek and minimalist hardscapes. Limit flower palettes to just a couple of colors, and maintain plants meticulously. You can include vertical and/or eco-friendly elements like living walls. Consider replacing turf lawns with dwarf grasses or stones. 

Key Characteristics

  • Geometric layouts
  • Straight bed lines and radial curves
  • Repeated patterns
  • Limited plant materials
  • Limited color palette or no flowers at all
  • Space between plants
  • Eco-friendly features

Modern garden plants typically have a naturally clean shape and a habit that is either vertical or mounding. They may or may not have flowers, and their color palettes are usually solid or minimalist. Here are a few modern garden favorites:

Mondo Grass

Close-up shot of Mondo Grass growing in the garden. Mondo Grass is a low-growing plant with slender, arching leaves that resemble grass blades. The leaves are dark green, and they form dense clumps, creating a neat and uniform groundcover.
This low, mounding perennial works well as a turf lawn replacement in modern gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Ophiopogon
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial shade to full shade
height height 8-12 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 7-10

This grass-like perennial is a common substitute for turf lawns in modern landscapes, where green-friendly alternatives are often the norm. With a short, mounding habit and a max height of 1 foot, mondo grass is a natural choice for the rows and patterns used in this design style. 

Potentilla

Close-up of a flowering Potentilla plant. Potentilla plants have small, pinnately compound leaves with several leaflets. The leaves are green and serrated along the edges. The flowers of the Potentilla are small, yellow, and they have a simple, five-petaled structure.
Potentilla is a compact plant with small, manageable leaves that blend well into modern designs.
botanical-name botanical name Potentilla
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 2-4 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 2-8

Also called ‘cinquefoil,’ this plant has a round, compact habit with small, dense leaves that are easy to shape and control. If you’re looking for something that flowers but will still be appropriate in a modern design, potentilla offers a robust showing of small, simple flowers in shades of pink, yellow, white, and orange. 

Japanese Holly

Close-up of a young Japanese holly plant in a garden with decorative white pebbles. Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) has small, glossy, and oval-shaped leaves that are a deep green color. These leaves have a smooth texture and are closely packed on the branches.
Japanese holly bushes are low-maintenance and highly shapable with small, glossy, dark leaves.
botanical-name botanical name Ilex crenata
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 3-10 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-8

Like their relatives in the boxwood family, Japanese holly bushes are easy to shape and keep tidy. Leaves are small, dark, glossy, and dense.

Plants can be either tall and thin or short and squat and can be sheared into perfect balls or simple rectangles. Requiring minimal maintenance and moderate levels of water, they are an obvious choice for the modern landscape.

Sedum

Close-up shot of a blooming sedum in a sunny garden. Sedum plants have succulent-like leaves that are thick and fleshy, with a blue-green or grayish-green color. Their leaves are arranged in rosettes or along stems, creating a low, spreading habit. Sedum produces clusters of small, star-shaped flowers that come in pink.
With their neat, carpet-like habit and low-maintenance nature, Sedum plants add subtle color to modern gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Sedum spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 2 inches to 3 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-9

A flowering perennial with a round or carpet-like habit and a neat appearance, sedum plants offer another way to inject color into a modern garden design without getting fussy.

Flowers do not need deadheading and are not unsightly when left in place for the winter. Their color is subtle and blends well with other muted tones. Leaves are succulent-like and interesting even when not in bloom. 

Cottage

The cottage garden has a charming, informal appearance characterized by a profusion of colorful flowers growing in a seemingly carefree manner. It includes a mix of flowering perennials, shrubs, climbing vines, and sometimes vegetables or herbs. Large beautiful cottage house with white windows and gray brick trim. Climbing red roses climb the walls.
Cottage-style gardens are flower-rich, free-form, and exude a rustic charm, featuring a mix of plants.

This garden style is generally free-form and flower-heavy, with plants flopping every which way and a distinct country vibe. You might see clematis vines and climbing roses mixed in with lilacs and peonies in a seemingly carefree manner. You might also see flowering ground cover or patches of moss tracing a flagstone pathway. 

Cottage-style beds are loosely defined and typically large in proportion to the property or home. You can include turf lawns or leave them out of the landscape and welcome veggies and herbs into the mix. Use quaint materials like picket fencing, gazebos, arbors, stone, and wrought iron to lend charm and function to the space.

A garden in this category might look natural and slightly unkempt as if it were allowed to spread and ramble while the homeowners were away. Appearances can be deceiving, however, as gardens with this many materials require a fair amount of deadheading, pruning, and division to look their best. 

Key Characteristics

  • Wide, large beds
  • Free-form composition
  • Lots of flowers and colors
  • Walking paths of stone or mulch
  • Overlapping plants, little spacing
  • Picket fences
  • Charming, small-scale ornamentation

Plants in the cottage design category are typically flowering perennials and shrubs. An emphasis is on integrating many colors and varieties cohabitating in controlled chaos. Here are a few tried and true cottage favorites:

Climbing Rose

Close-up of a climbing red rose in the garden. Climbing rose plants are characterized by their lush, sprawling growth habit, featuring long, arching canes covered in green, serrated leaves. These canes are adorned with clusters of beautiful red flowers. The flowers have multiple layers of delicate petals
Climbing roses offer long-lasting blooms, disease resistance, and often re-bloom.
botanical-name botanical name Rosa spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 5-20 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-10

Scrambling up walls, trellises, gazebos, and arbors with reckless abandon, climbing roses are always ready to pour on the cottage charm. With some cultivars soaring to heights of up to 20 feet, there is drama wherever these long-blooming beauties grow. Many species are disease-resistant, and most are repeat flowerers. 

Hydrangea

Close-up of a flowering hydrangea bush in a sunny garden. Hydrangea plants are known for their large, showy blooms and bright pink color. These blooms are arranged in spherical clusters. Hydrangea leaves are broad, dark green, and have a glossy texture.
Hydrangeas are quintessential to cottage-style gardens with their abundant and colorful blooms.
botanical-name botanical name Hydrangea spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial shade
height height 3-50 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-9

With more than 70 species and thousands of diverse cultivars, the hydrangea genus offers big bouncy blooms in hues of white, cream, pink, blue, and lime green.

Romantic and clumsy in all the right ways, hydrangea plants are at the core of cottage style. Climbing varieties can reach 50 feet if left to their own devices. 

Peony

Close-up of blooming peonies in the garden. Peony plants feature lush, green leaves that are deeply lobed. Peony flowers are large, with layers of delicate pink petals.
Peonies, known for their large, pastel blooms and graceful branches, are a staple in cottage gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Paeonia spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 2-3 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

With graceful, arching branches and large, heavy blooms, peonies are another cottage garden must-have. Averaging two to three feet tall and wide, peonies come in various pastel colors and bloom in early summer. As they tend to flop about and drop petals whimsically, consider planting them near a picket fence or supporting them with a metal garden hoop. 

Hollyhock

Close-up of flowering Hollyhock plants in a sunny garden. Hollyhock plants are known for their tall, sturdy stems covered in large, showy, funnel-shaped flowers. These flowers are soft pink and deep pink. Hollyhock leaves are rounded and palmately lobed.
Hollyhocks are popular in cottage gardens for their charm, pollinator attraction, and self-seeding habits.
botanical-name botanical name Alcea spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 3-8 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 2-10

Standing tall in the back of a mixed border, hollyhocks have a pastoral personality that cottage gardeners are drawn to. With their large spires of trumpet-shaped flowers waving freely in the breeze, hollyhocks can be either perennial or biennial. They are highly attractive to pollinators and will spread liberally by seed at the end of the season. 

Urban

Close-up of Urban garden. The Urban garden style is characterized by its adaptability to limited spaces and man-made structures. It features the use of vertical structures to incorporate greenery and flowers into urban environments. The vertical, step-shaped structure features concrete containers filled with soil mixture and a variety of flowering and herbaceous plants.
Urban-style gardens utilize containers, raised beds, and vertical structures to transform limited spaces into lush greenery.

When tight spaces and man-made structures make traditional ground gardening challenging or impossible, plant lovers have nowhere to turn but toward containers. Whether you live in a condominium with a balcony or a Brownstone with nothing more than a wide front porch, you can still have an urban-style garden. 

The fundamentals of this style include using containers, raised beds, and vertical structures to soften a hardscape with flowers and greenery. Plants may be annual, perennial, veggies/herbs, or all of the above. Irrigation is often the biggest challenge, especially in regions without a generous supply of natural rainfall, so be mindful of water access and drought tolerance when planning an urban garden.   

Urban gardens with limited square footage might employ a ladder shelf, trellis, or plant stand to pack as many plants into a tight space as possible, stacking them upward to save space. However, this style also applies to a massive rooftop garden where a truckload of dirt is brought in to fill pots large enough for full-sized ornamental trees and shrubs. 

Key Characteristics

  • Containers/Pots
  • Balconies and decks
  • Cityscapes and rooftops
  • Drought tolerant materials
  • Plants may be annuals, perennials, or herbs
  • Often an emphasis on saving space

An urban garden is typically heavy on the annuals but may also contain some perennials and small trees or shrubs. Your climate and light conditions will dictate which plants are right for your space, but here are a few that are easy to grow in containers:

Geranium

Close-up of a flowering Geranium plant against a blurred background of dark green lobed foliage. The plant is characterized by a rounded inflorescence consisting of deep pink flowers with dark pink centers.
Annual geraniums, with vibrant hues and foliage, flourish in containers when watered and deadheaded consistently.
botanical-name botanical name Pelargonium spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 6-24 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 10-11

Annual geraniums are the quintessential potted plant. They come in shades of red, pink, orange, and white. They have foliage that varies from chartreuse to forest green and sometimes has variegation.

If you’re committed to deadheading and watering them regularly, geraniums will flower all season on a patio or rooftop. They can even be brought inside to overwinter and put back out next year. 

Impatiens

Close-up shot of a flowering Impatiens plant in a black pot on a balcony. Impatiens flowers are small and bright pink in color. They have a distinctive, five-petaled shape. The leaves of Impatiens are bright green and somewhat succulent, and they have a simple, lance-shaped form.
Impatiens, known for their mounding growth and colorful blooms, thrive with consistent watering and well-draining soil.
botanical-name botanical name Impatiens spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 6-36 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 10-11

If your urban space has limited sun, this is your go-to porch plant. Impatiens have a mounding habit and are covered with tiny flowers in a wide assortment of colors.

They do not need deadheading but require regular watering and good drainage. Impatiens behave like an annual plant in most zones but may survive outside in warmer regions. 

Redtwig Dogwood

Close-up shot of a blooming Redtwig dogwood in the garden. Redtwig dogwood is a deciduous shrub known for its bright red stems. Its branches have a graceful and arching appearance. The leaves are oval, leathery, green. The plant produces sprays of small white flowers.
Redtwig dogwood shrubs are great for containers, with striking red stems and year-round appeal.
botanical-name botanical name Cornus spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 3-8 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-9

Selected for this list because they offer four-season interest, tolerate inconsistent soil moisture, and have modest root systems. Redtwig dogwood shrubs grow easily in a container and can survive a cold winter on a balcony.

Their stems are bright red and upright and look particularly sharp when dusted with snow. Dogwoods have sprays of white flowers in early summer and deciduous leaves that turn red in the fall. 

Basil

Close-up of growing basil in a wooden pot. Basil plants have vibrant green, aromatic leaves that are oval-shaped with a slightly serrated edge. They grow on slender stems.
Basil is essential in urban gardens, especially when paired with tomatoes for dishes like bruschetta.
botanical-name botanical name Ocimum basilicum
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 1-2 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 10-11

Even if you’re short on space, basil is a must-have in the urban garden. Pot some up next to your tomatoes, and you’ll be ready for bruschetta by mid-summer.

When flowers grow from the plant’s tips, cut them off to encourage more leaf production. Basil provides a nice scent on a deck or porch and pairs well with your other flowering friends.

Japanese

Image of Japanese garden. The Japanese garden style is characterized by its layered, multi-faceted design incorporating elements of water, earth, vegetation, and light. It features rich-textured and colored plant materials, including chartreuse, burgundy, and variegated leaves, alongside evergreens and flowering ornaments. In the center of the garden there is a pond with water lilies.
Japanese-style gardens emphasize peace and reflection, incorporating water, earth, vegetation, and light.

With an emphasis on peace and reflection, a Japanese-style garden is typically layered and multi-faceted, with elements of water, earth, vegetation, and light incorporated into the design. This type of garden is often designed to be appreciated from inside a home or building and entice you into the natural world. 

Japanese-style landscapes employ materials with rich texture and color to mimic the lush forests of the Far East. Chartreuse, burgundy, and variegated leaves are mixed with evergreens and flowering ornamentals. A moving stream might be replicated by a winding swath of river rock or sand and flanked by water-loving irises.  

Durable groundcover is typically preferred to grass, and hardscapes are often made of stone or bamboo. Japanese style might also feature non-plant elements such as pagodas, bridges, zen gardens, ponds, and fountains

Key Characteristics

  • Implied flow and movement
  • Peace and serenity
  • Native plants
  • Rocks and gravel
  • Stone and bamboo
  • Ponds and water features
  • Artful objects

Japanese gardens are typically layered with pine trees, small ornamentals, and soft perennials on the forest floor. They might also include water plants. Here are some of the materials used most often with this garden style:

Water Lily

Close-up of a blooming water lily in a pond. Water lilies are aquatic plants known for their stunning appearance. They have floating round leaves with long stems that reach down to the water's surface. The plant produces delicate flowers, which float on the water's surface. The flowers are a delicate yellowish hue and they have unique, intricate petals that form a captivating and serene display.
You need dedication and finesse to grow these aquatic plants, providing them with the ideal environment.
botanical-name botanical name Nymphaea spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 3-6 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-10

These graceful aquatic plants require about four hours of sun per day. Their roots must be planted in soil at a proper depth so their blooms can float, which means growing these quintessential Japanese garden plants requires some dedication and finesse. 

Rhododendron

Close-up of a blooming Rhododendron in a sunny garden. The plant has dark green, glossy leaves that are leathery in texture. These leaves provide an attractive backdrop for the plant's showy, bell-shaped flowers. The flowers are bright pink.
Rhododendrons thrive in dappled light.
botanical-name botanical name Rhododendron spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial sun to full shade
height height 3-8 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-9

As understory shrubs native to Asia, rhododendrons grow best in dappled light. Leaves can be deciduous or evergreen, depending on species and hardiness zone.

Branches have an interesting structure and look natural in the company of Japanese maples and pagoda dogwood. Flowers might be red, pink, orange, purple, or white, and they bloom prolifically in spring. 

Japanese Iris

Close-up of Japanese Irises in bloom in a garden by a pond. Iris ensata, commonly known as the Japanese iris, is a striking plant with a distinctive appearance. It features tall, slender stems and long narrow leaves, resembling grass blades, and they are deep green in color. These iris blooms have wide, flat petals that come in a variety of colors, including shades of purple, white, and yellow.
Japanese Iris prefers a moist, loose, humid environment and can tolerate periods of standing water.
botanical-name botanical name Iris ensata
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 2-4 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-9

Growing this Japanese garden staple requires a bit of fuss and focus, but no garden in this style category would be complete without it. Featuring tall, strappy foliage and throated blooms of purple, yellow, and white, this plant thrives in moist, humid environments with loose, loamy soil. It can even tolerate locations that have periods of standing water. 

Hosta

Close-up of flowering Hostas plants in a garden. They have large, broad, and heart-shaped leaves that come in various shades of green. The leaves are ribbed and textured, adding to their visual interest. Hostas produce tall, slender flower spikes. These spikes bear small, tubular, and fragrant flowers are of a delicate purple hue.
Hostas complement various garden styles but are especially striking in a Japanese design.
botanical-name botanical name Cornus spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 3-8 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 6-9

Although this plant can be worked into just about any of the aforementioned garden styles, it is particularly striking in a Japanese design. The hosta’s defining characteristics are a mounding habit and broad, arching leaves of varied color and texture. Sizes range from dwarf to giant, looking natural at the forest’s edge. 

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re working with a landscape designer or planning to tackle the backyard yourself, we highly recommend taking the time to find your garden style. Walk the neighborhood and take note of what you find appealing. Jot down the plants and layouts you’re drawn to, and refer to this article for reference. 

Once you’ve honed in on your preferences, you’ll be more confident making decisions about bed lines, plant materials, and hardscapes. Knowing whether you want straight lines and restraint or broad curves and whimsy can go a long way toward creating an outdoor space you will surely enjoy.  

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