Thursday, January 5, 2012

Garden Design Trends 2012

Cleve West's winning design for Chelsea Flower Show

Each New Year, the internet is abuzz with it the inevitable horde of prophets and trend-watchers, confidently predicting the themes of the year. Of course, there is absolutely no accountability for these supposed experts because once the buzz of the New Year fades, the predictions are forgotten. I may be one of the few people on the planet who actually loves New Year prognostications. Finding meta-themes from the sea of quotidian activities appeals to my philosophic bent; for me, it is a puzzle game: I love the thrill of finding a pattern among scattered pieces.

So it is with great delight that I present to you my attempt at New Year trend-spotting. This year, my trends focus on trends in garden design (it’s best to stick to what I know, right?). For the last few weeks, I have spent time contemplating great gardens designed in the last year. What was it about these spaces that captured the zeitgeist? What about them moved me? What aspects of them will likely be replicated?

1. The New Romanticism: Garden design in 2012 will mark a return to romanticism. For the last decade, the focus on sustainable gardens has brought a decidedly rationalistic overlay to garden design. After all, the focus on sustainable techniques such as stormwater, native species, and xeriscaping has emphasized scientific and ecological processes. In addition, modernism has been a big theme in garden design over the last decade, bringing with it a focus on functionalistic design. While I expect sustainable and modernistic designs to continue, new gardens will be less cerebral and more emotional and spiritual bent. Expect to see a revival of all sorts of old, classical garden styles such as cottage gardening, French and Italian formal gardens, and even medieval gardens updated with a modern twist. Romanticism is all about nostalgia, escape, and the rich world of the imagination, ideas that are powerfully effective during times of transition. Expect to see gardens that explore fantasy, whimsy, and spontaneity within a framework of familiar garden forms.

Cleve West’s winning design for The Daily Telegraph Garden at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show is a perfect example of neo-romanticism. His sunken garden used terra-cotta columns that evoked Roman ruins. His plantings were both modern and old-world as he relied on a palette of self-seeding plants that emphasize change. The rich overlay of classical ruins in this strongly contemporary garden hinted at a world beyond, a lost history that provides a moment of escape and fantasy that make the garden delightful.

Left, design by Wirtz International; Center, Piet Oudolf's wave hedges; Right, Tom Stuart-Smith 
2. Creative Hedges: One kind of revivalism that is already making a comeback is hedges and topiary. Clipping shrubs has been somewhat out of style as of late, a sort of high maintenance dinosaur of a less sustainable era. But designers such as the Jacques and Peter Wirtz, Piet Oudolf, and Tom Stuart-Smith have shown the creative potential of hedges clipped in non-traditional forms. Whether it is the Wirtz’s musically inspired hornbeams, Piet Oudolf’s iconic wave hedges, or Tom Stuart-Smith’s cloud hedge, clipped shrubs offer the potential to transform a garden space. These clipped hedges are particularly effective set against a background of herbaceous plantings. Jake Hobson’s recent book, The Art of Creative Pruning (already a best seller at Timber Press), chronicles the many ways clipped shrubs can shape a garden.

3. Moody, Expressive Plantings: This year, designed plantings will be less about color or the expression of space and more about richly evoking a mood, a feeling, an atmosphere. Think about William Turner’s sea paintings or Rothko’s floating squares of colors. Plantings will focus less on some kind of formal arrangement and more on a palette of plants that communicates a feeling, or reminds one of being in some larger landscape.

For example, Tom Stuart-Smith’s 2010 Laurent Perrier garden shows how a palette of low grasses and umbellifer flowers evokes a romantic, woodland landscape. The plantings are restrained, yet they feel like the setting for a fairy-tale. Even within the confines of a few hundred square feet, Stuart-Smith’s composition manipulates our association—our memory—of a woodland grove, thus giving his design an expansive, exultant feeling.

Laurent Perrier Garden, image from
4. Artisanal Flourish: I predict this year garden design will focus more on artisanal, idiosyncratic details than super-sleek designs. This does not mean modern garden design will go out of style; rather, that even within the framework of modern gardens, the materials and details will rely more on warmer, artisanal constructions. This will be a reaction to both the glut of generic suburban gardens (sea of concrete pavers) and gleaming stainless-steel high end modern gardens that have become ubiquitous.
Artisanal detail: Reading nook by
Nelson, Byrd, Woltz Photo
by Eric Piasecki

5. Heirloom Ornamentals: Grandma’s favorites are hot again. As a reaction to the endless addition of over bred plants (really, do we need any more colored Coral Bells?), gardeners will turn once again to those plants that have withstood the test of time. Boxwoods and Yews, Lilacs and Hydrangeas, Peonies and Daylilies will all feature prominently in this year’s garden designs. Expect to see these nostalgic favorites even in sleeker, modern designs, too. Why should having a well-designed garden mean that we can’t have a few sentimental favorites? I’ve already noticed more niche nurseries in the mid-Atlantic region offering heirloom boxwoods or lilacs. If people are going to spend money on a new garden, they want an emotional attachment to a specific plant. Heirlooms offer just that.
In 2012, romantic is in.  I predict a very good year for garden design.


  1. Except Oudolf has ripped out his hedges and the European cognoscenti are moving away from clipped forms. Are they just the advance wave of haute gardening couture and it will just take us two or three years to catch up?

  2. I'm totally enamored of creative hedges in amorphous shapes. The opportunities to install them in NYC gardens will be challenging, but perhaps my enthusiasm will rub off on my clients!

  3. A fascinating post. I remember my professor in a world literature course many years ago telling us about what then seemed a strange phenomenon. During periods of decline in a civilization, or just during times of disruption and strife, literature tends to turn to fantasy and romanticism. He used as examples certain plays of Euripides and science fiction in modern times. In the 20th century, we can see this in the triumph of good over evil in the work of J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S Lewis. So I'm not surprised to see your first prediction. As to hedges, Oudolf may have ripped out his (I read they died from high groundwater, so part of that may have just been necessity), but I think we'll be living with a growing hedge ripple effect for many years to come. I certainly intend to be doing it, fates be willing.

  4. Thanks for the compelling post! I'm fascinated by the idea of a "haute gardening couture" as mentioned by Susan. I guess the Chelsea Flower Show is the equivalent of the Paris runways, then? Do "garden fashions" trickle down to the masses the way that haute couture does? Not as much, I think.

    James, your point about cultural trends being linked to the decline and strife in society is interesting. I had actually thought that the opposite occured, though. The whole modernist movement arose after WWI, if I recall, when art and literature took a decidedly bleak turn.

    All very interesting food for thought!


  5. Hi Susan,

    Interesting points. I read that Oudolf ripped out those hedges cause the soil was too wet--more practical than ideological. I'm curious about why you think European taste makers are moving away from clipped forms? Even if they are, American garden design always tends to lag European trends by 5 years or so. So I expect to see more creative pruning in U.S. projects. Hopefully, garden designers here will do somethign unique with it.

  6. Michael,

    Go for it! Look forward to seeing what you do!

  7. James,

    Interesting comment as always. Yeah, I do think one of the underlying motivations for romanticism is a reaction to change, or even a distrust for the way new technologies change us and society. Those elements certainly seem present in our current moment. Also, on a more simple level, I do expect to see a reaction away from super-sleek modern design. People want to feel an emotional connection to their garden. One way to do that as a designer is to exploit one's nostalgia--one's feeling of comfort with familiar forms. That can have a variety of different expressions--whether in naturalistic, modern, or classical styles. Good design will do this without being cheesy.

    I'll be fascinated to see your experiments with organic hedges. It would be a wonderful compliment to your stunning herbaceous designs.

  8. Mary,

    It's an interesting question about haute couture. I do think European garden fashions--as expressed in shows like Chelsea Flower Show--do have an impact on American design, but not as directly as say European fashion shows trickle into American fashion. We are not quite as linked to Europe garden design. However,magazine editors notice, as do many landscape architects, so I won't be surprised to see those trends trickling into high-end garden designs.

    Will those trends show up in regular Joe gardens? American suburban gardens are famously slow to change and adapt. Perhaps not as much. One of my hopes is that the American public starts to see their own yards and gardens as an artform, and therefore subject to trends, ideas, fashions.

    I'm probably becoming obnoxious about this point: I make it a point to talk about trends, fashions, and "latest" ideas as much as possible. I'm certainly no arbiter of taste. In fact, I could be way off about my predictions. But my hope is that it raises a discussion--a dialogue--about what garden design should be about.

  9. The democratization of gardening, that is, the confidence that people from all walks of life have acquired to plant gardens that emulate what was once restricted to the wealthy, has given many homeowners an opportunity for a kind of personal expression that disdains trends and fashions. I suspect that these are the "masses" refereed to by Mary. On the other hand, I understand that homeowners of high-end gardens are always on the look-out for what is new and trendy. Unfortunately, it remains politically incorrect to distinguish, in print, between these two significantly different gardening groups.

    Thanks for posting. It was only last night that I realized that I hadn't read your blog in a while. I understand that you lead a full and busy life; as a retired person I envy that and understand the time lapses between your blogs.

  10. I love the idea of romanticism - I guess, as usual, the old ideas are coming back into fashion. Funny how that happens. I also think I must be a throwback, as that's always been my favorite type of garden; lush, overblown, with lots of texture. I never liked the steel and glass look - give me stone walls, and paved courtyards and patios any day, especially with thyme and other plants draping and softening the permanent structures.

  11. After sorting out my minds 2011 cloud and moving to 2012's cloud hedges, thoughts of the shifting soil(trends)in garden design history prompt me to share good reads and thoughts for the New Romanticism

    Grandmas it not fitting for Joe and Jane gardens to be a place where the owner's story (the art of living) along with the spirit of the property is told? The found art work of attics can be tremendous (as well as cost saving) without being kitsch. As well as the plants so long ago sought, divided, shared and no longer available in the nursery trade. Great niche if you are a grower.
    Look at the list of heirloom tomatoes...

    Hmmm.. let us not forget that its an election year...
    "The founding fathers' passion for nature, plants, gardens and agriculture is woven deeply into the fabric of America and aligned with their political thought, both reflecting and influencing it. In fact, I believe it's impossible to understand the making of America without looking at the founding fathers as farmers and gardeners." FOUNDING FATHERS (Wulf, Andrea)
    Wouldn't it be great if the White House, Congress, Senate and Occupy took a garden stroll together! But there is so much romance in our distinctly American gardens, i think, worth exploring.

    One last read: "The earliest professors of modern Landscape Gardening have generally agreed upon two variations, of which the art is capable-variations no less certainly distinct, on one hand, than they are capable of intermingling and combining on the other. These are the beautiful and the picturesque: or so to speak more definitely, the beauty characterized by simple and flowing forms, and that expressed by striking, irregular, spirited forms."
    So after my Kindle cloud of reading and the pleasing winter past time of looking forward, maybe trends are not so much fashion but to help people see? All the best....

  12. Very interesting, I have to admit...I'm probably more of a "romantic" when it comes to gardening...the sleek, modern gardens always seem more a product of style over substance. As some mentioned above, there is very little feeling of an individuals personality in such spaces...they seem almost manufactured (too "Dwell-ish" for my taste). They always seemed more a product of rampant consumerism and "checkbook" gardening, as I often like to say. Then again, to each his (or her) own :-) I'm overly-tired of American's obsession with outdoor "rooms" and the mentality that a garden is just another space to be "decorated" with plants. I must be feeling a bit surly today ;-)

  13. Hi Allan,

    Great to hear from you as always. And your honesty is always refreshing. Garden bloggers are too darn polite, anyways.

    It's interesting to me that you find the discussion of trends and fashions something rather elitist, whereas common folk have no time or interest in them. I'm not sure I agree with that. Every designed garden--professional or amateur--has certain ideas or principles that guide its creation. Even simple ideas that are common in most American gardens (foundation planting, the lawn, planting beds) are a result of trends and fashions we've imported (mostly from Europe). I guess what I'm saying is that every designed landscape--including gardens of the elite and the "commoners"--is affected by some trend or style. We are all a product of the past.

    So from that perspective, I think it is valuable to talk about the ideas and thoughts that shapes the spirit of our own age. Of course, these trends are most obvious in the gardens of some of the best designers (who typically are commissioned by the wealthy), just as trends in great art are most obvious in the best artists.

    I'll know that gardens really matter one day when people feel strongly enough about garden design to argue about trends, fashions, and ideas.

    And aren't designers like you and I lucky to have people with enough disposable income to pay for our services? If all of garden design became truly "democratized"--as you say--neither of us would have jobs.

  14. Drought Smart Plants,

    The romantic style would work very well with your great palette of plants. Love your website!

  15. Hi Anonymous,

    Very interesting readings. Romanticism in landscape design is, as you correctly point out, nothing new. I'll be eager to see garden design embrace a style that allows for more individualism, more emotional connection, and stronger references to our own American history. I think those are all "romantic" trends. thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  16. Hi Scott,

    I rather enjoyed your rant! Here here! Like I say, if you can't get fired up and cranky about garden design, then that's a sign they don't matter. Mary Gray's blog (Black Walnut Dispatch) recently had a great satirical entry on outdoor kitchens. Happy to see that trend dying with the housing bubble. Those gardens always ended up looking like the sets of a reality television show . . .

  17. Great way to look at the upcoming trends, and the comments are as enjoyable as the post itself...that ain't easy!

    Who says easterners are boring? (except a boring, cliche western LA...quite a few in Abq) I want to have a beer and some eats with everyone on here. Though "blackwalnutdispatch" would be mysteriously absent, until she jumped out of the cake, tossing patches of bio-eco-sustain-o-turf at everyone!

    But I digress...hort trends will be enjoyable to watch, including local/regional ones for me.

  18. "Finding meta-themes from the sea of quotidian activities appeals to my philosophic bent". Uh, yeah, mine too...just like you said:0

  19. David,

    Your get together sounds like a blast! Let's do it.


    I know, I know. I was an English and Philosophy major in college. That means I'm mandated to drop one obscure sentence like that in every post. It's the code. Thomas

  20. I suppose my comment was motivated by N. Kingsbury's post on GGW when he wrote about Oudolf tearing out the hedges, that it seems he is moving away from the legacy of Ruys' geometric forms, with NK going as far to say that the look is becoming cliché. While he may have ripped out the hedge because of root rot, it certainly sounds like Oudolf was ready to move on, allowing the openness of prairie-style plantings to stand on their own without a backdrop. Granted, I'm not as well versed in trends among continental garden designers as many commenting here, but it just seems to me that I haven't seen geometric and amorphous clipped forms as much as just 5 years ago. It seems that trends are moving more towards Jencks-like earth sculpting.

  21. I can't wait for the revivals you're talking about. It's not just you, but other blogs too. I've been seeing new trends in gardening for 2012, and one of which is vertical gardening. Have you heard of that?

  22. Romantic meets survivalism equals revival of the human spirit to endure is the game. Root vegetables, herbs, fruit and nut trees (chestnuts anyone?), and community gardens interspersed with shade trees, basic seating, and fragrance. Hedges allow solitude that is esential to ones piece of mind and will never be out of style. Only the names, shapes and ways of seperating spaces may change occasionally. Ornamental displays (bonsai) invoking artistic and creative talents easing the stress and tension of modern society while allowing personal expression. Just some thoughts for 2012...

  23. Precious Content! I had been simply just worrying that there's a bunch bad additional info to this subject but you basically switched my personal advice. Thank you a beautiful publish.

    1. I am totally inspired and amazed with this post. The romantic style is really good and will do work very well with plants. I like the post.

  24. Several factors come into play when choosing a specific type of garden design. For some, aesthetic value is the main consideration. For others, form and function are the main deciding factors. These differences in personal preference are what make garden landscaping very interesting yet challenging.

  25. Among all the garden design trends mentioned, I find the The New Romanticism most astonishing. The concept allows you to create the most bizarre, exceptional designs one could ever imagine – crop circle-like nature, creatively shaped bushes and astonishing landscapes. A garden with those characteristics makes you realize that there’s truly a place here on earth called paradise.

  26. Contents with this website usually are beneficial and appreciative.

    Landscape Gardening Norfolk & Landscape Gardening Norwich


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