Traditional or Contemporary Garden Style

I must admit to having had been an advocate for contemporary gardens with many of my designs following a modern approach using crisp modern materials. Over the past few years I have come full circle and am finding myself more and more wishing to create gardens that are of a more traditional manner.  When designing gardens I always use bold shapes and very strict geometry to create patterns on the ground and when I think about it I have always been a fan of the renaissance style of gardens where formality, symmetry and architectural grandeur are so apparent.  But what makes a contemporary garden and what makes a traditional garden?

Contemporary gardens conjure up images of straight lines, minimalism, cut stone, glass and steel, outdoor rooms with entertaining and ‘lifestyles’ being the buzz words these days.  The potential issue with many ‘modern’ gardens is they may simply not have the shelf life of more traditional creations.  I struggle to imagine that in 100 years time that cedar decking and white rendered breeze block will have the same long lasting beauty found in great gardens such as Versailles, Hidcote Manor, the Alhambra or Sissinghurst.  Admittedly these great gardens are all attached to rather grand houses and estates (that most of us can but dream of) but the fact is that they all look amazing 100’s of years after their creation.

Traditional gardens are I believe what many of us really aspire to when we close our eyes and visualise our dream house and garden.  Herbaceous borders, rolling lawns, fruit trees, summerhouses and roses sprawling over a grand pergola all spring to mind (or maybe I am just showing my age.)   Materials that you may find in such spaces are natural stone, brick and terracotta, all of which become more beautiful with age.  I know I am going to start a heated debate here but I think a good comparison between traditional and contemporary gardens is that traditional materials get better with age whereas many newer materials tire.

I admit I am making grand sweeping statements here and there are of course many modern masterpieces in the gardening world that will wow visitors for many years to come.   Fashion has always influenced garden design and maybe there is an argument to be had in the fact that in 100 years time what is contemporary now will be regarded as ‘historic’ For example during the 17th Century, parterres, and ornate formal gardens were all the rage, only to be swept aside by the later contemporary fashion of ‘picturesque’ park style gardens, of which we would now regard as traditional or historic.

In reality it is down to many factors why we choose certain styles for our outdoor space which include personal preference, architecture, budget, and lifestyle but to name a few.  Also many of us are transient and move from house to house climbing the property ladder to achieve our ultimate goal.  So many garden makeovers are exactly that….a makeover with quick fix solutions such as decking and gravel which are cheap and ideal for these purposes.

For me the ultimate deciding factor as to what style of garden will suit a plot should be the building itself.  There is absolutely no point in creating a modern garden in the grounds of a timber framed thatched cottage it would quite frankly look ridiculous.  As with a ‘Huff house’ with its black steel and large panes of glass, there would be little point in recreating a traditional cottage garden with a well, this too would look out of place.

Something I have failed yet to mention is the formal versus the informal, both of which can be traditional or contemporary in their approach.  Both are very much down to personal choice and again can be influenced greatly by the building and its surroundings. To create an informal garden that feels natural and free flowing is no easy task whereas in a formal setting everything has its place and boundaries within which to reside.

One technique that really works well is following a traditional formal design but using modern materials to realise it.  Sawn natural stone looks contemporary but has the long lasting solidity that other materials lack.  Which in fact brings me to one final point that one cannot ignore, better quality materials (which unfortunately cost more) will give you a more long lasting and much better looking garden whether it be contemporary or traditional in style.