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Everything You Need to Know About Garden Styles

By jessica October 16, 2023

Cottage Garden style backyard in Tennessee

Many people can easily describe their interior design style, but it can be much harder to explain your landscaping style. Whether it's because you don't know plant names or you aren't sure what the components of different styles are, we know that landscaping can be intimidating. This article offers an overview of different design styles and why it's helpful to understand your preferences - especially if you are thinking about embarking on yard updates!

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What are garden styles?

Tilly groups garden styles into 8 main categories: Modern, Cottage, Classic, Eclectic, Formal, Tropical, Southwestern and Naturalistic. There are many sub categories that can be achieved through the right style furniture and decor (think Modern Farmhouse, Mediterranean, etc.). There are also styles across the globe, such as Japanese gardens (zen gardens). However, in this particular post we'll delve into the style and principles around Tilly's main 8 design styles.

Keep in mind that your garden reflect your personal style - so combing principles from two styles or mixing and matching is perfectly okay! However, this overview will help you understand what you are communicating when you say you prefer one style garden over another!

Modern Design

A modern garden is one that incorporates clean lines, minimalism, and a focus on simplicity and functionality.

The elements that are usually included in a modern garden are:

  • Use of clean lines, geometric shapes, and minimal ornamentation.
  • Architectural hardscape with a preference to materials such as concrete, wood, or metal.
  • Use of neutral colors
  • A smaller plant palette that is designed in repeating patterns
  • Striking focal point
  • Careful and intentional organization

rectangular fire pit with built in seating for a modern garden style
modern form green shrubs and ornamental grasses around a fire pit

Cottage Garden

While cottage gardens are unique to their owners, there are some common design themes that tend to unify this loose and informal design style. Cottage gardens often have the feel that they have been cultivated over years and can evoke a romantic feel.

Key cottage garden design elements include:

  • A wide and free-styled plant palette
  • Free and organic planting, paths, and more—no carefully planned organization here
  • Bright and colorful flowers and accents
  • Cozy and intimate spaces that feel tucked away from the world
  • An abundance of flowers, fruits, and vegetables filling every available space
  • Cheerfully ignoring the “rules” of traditional landscape design

cottage garden style in a large backyard with garden bed curved lines and flowering plants
fire pit with pastel colored flowers in a cottage garden style

Classic Landscape Style Garden

A classic garden refers to a garden design that is balanced and symmetrical. Classic designs, like their name, will never go out of style. They repeat forms and are well planned.

The elements that are usually included in a classic garden are:

  • Use of symmetrical and balanced design
  • Simple color palette
  • Create interest through texture diversity
  • Use of classic plants such as roses, lavender, and boxwood
  • Create focal points at the end of site lines, such as topiaries at the end of hedges
  • Use of paths, walls, and other hardscaping elements made of materials such as brick, stone, or gravel, that are often arranged in a geometric patterns

fire pit in a classic garden style yard
classic garden style with a picket fence and native plants

Eclectic Garden Style

An eclectic garden is one that incorporates a variety of different styles and elements, rather than adhering to a single, specific design.

The elements included in an eclectic garden can vary widely, but they may include things like:

  • A mix of styles and influences
  • Incorporate a variety of plant textures
  • Mix colors, patterns and textiles that compliment each other (for furniture, rugs, planters, etc.)
  • Juxtapose new with vintage
  • Large color palette
  • Incorporate fun accessories

eclectic landscape style with vines over a pergola and bold colors
sunken fire pit with some plantings grouped throughout the yard for an eclectic garden styles

Formal Garden Design

A formal garden will often center the design around an axis or focal point, maybe it's a tiered fountain or a hedge.

Elements that are often featured, include:

  • Balance and symmetry
  • Clearly defined lines and linear beds
  • Structure within the garden bed
  • Defined borders, through hedges or hardscaping but should be present all year
  • Smaller color palette focusing on greens and whites
  • Perfectly manicured lawns and lines
  • Trees or shrubs that have been sculpted into geometric shapes
  • Ornamental sculptures are frequently seen in this style design

formal landscape design with minimalist plantings around the reflecting pool
formal garden styles with trees in perfect line patterns


Tropical gardens typically evokes images of lush, exotic plants and vibrant colors, creating an atmosphere of warmth and relaxation.

The elements that are usually included in a tropical garden are:

  • Lush layers with large gloss leaves and vibrant blooms
  • Incorporate large trees and canopies to create a sense of scale and to provide shade
  • Use of bold and bright colors like red, orange, yellow, and pink which are commonly found in tropical plants
  • Use of large leaves and fronds, that can be arranged to create a sense of movement and flow
  • Incorporation of water features such as a pond or a stream, a pool or a fountain
  • Use of natural materials such as rocks, stones and wood to create a sense of natural environment.

front yard with a tropical landscaping style with large palm trees and lush plantings
tropical garden landscaping style with lush plantings and a covered fire pit area


A southwestern garden or desert landscaping refers to a garden design that is inspired by the deserts and semi-arid regions of the southwestern United States.

The elements that are usually included in a southwestern garden are:

  • Reduce lawn space (or have no lawn at all)
  • Use of native plants such as cactus, succulents, and drought-tolerant shrubs, that are able to survive in the dry and hot climate
  • Incorporate natural materials such as rocks, boulders, and gravel, that are used to create features such as a rock garden or dry stream bed
  • Use of earthy, warm colors, such as shades of brown, beige, and gray, that are inspired by the natural colors of the desert
  • Incorporate of sustainable practices, such as using drought-tolerant plants, rainwater harvesting, and incorporating permaculture elements
  • Southwestern gardens do not need to be sparsely planted, but should have a thoughtful layout

desert landscaping with a natural stone patio
southwestern style garden with an herb garden and edible plants


A naturalistic garden is one that aims to mimic the look and feel of a natural landscape.

The elements that are usually included in a naturalistic garden are:

  • A wide variety of plants, including native species, that are arranged in a way that mimics natural plant communities and promotes biodiversity
  • The use of natural materials such as rocks, boulders, and wood to create features like rock gardens, streams, etc.
  • A natural layout that follows the contours of the land, rather than using straight lines or geometric shapes
  • Use of wild flowers, grasses and other herbaceous plants that are left to self seed and spread
  • Minimal use of hardscaping elements, such as paths or walls, and if used, they should be made of natural materials that blend into the environment
  • Using color, texture, and form that mimics your surroundings to create a sense of depth and movement, much like in nature

bold colors around a stone pool with flowering plants
rock garden and stone seating in a naturalistic garden

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How Does My Garden Style Help My Designer?

Most likely you can tell your friend the style of your home, your interior design style and the style of cars you like -- but do you know your garden style? As we mentioned above, we find that many homeowners aren't sure how to describe their garden style.

Knowing your garden style can be a crucial step in designing a space that you and your family will love. Why?

Knowing Your Garden Style Helps Identify Proper Plant Choices

If you or your designer understand your garden style it allows you to narrow down your plant selection, flower choices and design elements that best suit your personal taste and create a cohesive aesthetic. Designers understand what plants can be grouped together to achieve a certain garden style and how to coordinate hardscape to create a certain mood. Sharing your garden style will help portray if you are drawn towards straight lines, shrubs trimmed neatly, or minimalists plantings! Being able to clearly communicate to your designer will make this process easier.

Gardens that Reflect Your Lifestyle

Every space that comes across a landscape designer’s desk is as different as each client. The best landscapes are not only beautiful, but work with your life in particular. Therefore, understanding your lifestyle is also key to understanding your garden style. The way your designer will approach a cottage garden style or a formal landscape design will be different depending on how you use your space and who is using it. Having the words to describe both will help the design process go smoothly.

Garden Maintenance

Knowing your garden style may also inform a maintenance regime. All landscapes need some kind of maintenance. But what exactly that entails depends greatly on your style goals.

A modern or contemporary garden design row of ornamental grasses may need to be cut back a couple times a season in order to keep lines visually clean. On the other end of the spectrum, a naturalistic garden may appear to run wild, but truly needs a deep weeding a few times a season to keep invasive species at bay.

Maintenance is a big and ongoing part of the design of your space, so establishing a system that aligns with your style is a must.

Updating an Inherited Landscape & Yard

Unless you are moving into a new build, you are purchasing a home from a previous owner. The first thing most homeowner’s do is update the interior. Perhaps the walls are a questionably loud color, cabinetry is not to your liking, or other aspects just don't seem right to your eye. While we are often quick to apply an update to the interiors with our personal touch, the same should go for our landscapes!

You do not have to keep that hard-to-tame creeping juniper just because it has been there forever. Sometimes removing plants that you don’t love and leaving a space blank will help you envision a whole new look for your yard - perhaps something that works better with your personal aesthetic. A garden can be just as much of a reflection of your style as the updated floors you knew you had to change as soon as you moved in.

Your Evolving Garden

Every design needs a refresh every now and then! Having a particular style in mind can help guide you as your garden evolves over time. Whether you need to replace one shrub that died suddenly, or desire a total overhaul after a while, knowing your garden style can be an extremely helpful tool to guide you through these changes and truly make it your own garden.

How to Determine Your Garden Style?

Our designers at Tilly want to help bring to life a space that you absolutely love and that reflects your style and home. That is why we want to see your space in real time on a video call and talk through some major points with you before proceeding with your design.

There are a few things you can do on your own time to determine your garden style:

Take a Walk

Walk around your neighborhood and see what beautiful landscapes and garden styles inspire you! Also equally important, make note of what you don't love. This includes plants, plant colors, walkways, house colors - and more.

Pinterest Landscape Browsing

Browse social media sites like Pinterest to see what styles you gravitate towards. Tilly has fun Pinterest boards for different styles and different regions of the US. You can also check out home websites like Houzz!

Tilly’s Garden Style Quiz

Not sure your garden style yet? Our style quiz and client questionnaire were devised in order to help us understand your style, needs, wants, and constraints. No cookie-cutter landscapes here. Send us images of gardens you love; ask us questions about form and complexity; show us a color palette that matches your aura! We are here to help figure out your style and translate it into a beautiful, useful space. Whether you are full on tropical style, cottage garden or just looking to start with a small herb garden!

Here are just a few things we take into consideration when weaving your style into a cohesive landscape:

  • Plant palette
  • Paving materials
  • Layout
  • Lines
  • Lifestyle
  • Climate
  • Maintenance
  • Structure
  • References

About Tilly

Tilly’s easy online landscape design process has been embraced by homeowners across the country and in Canada. Tilly breaks packages into the Front Yard, Backyard or your Full Yard. We match you with a professional landscape designer who is familiar with your region to create the perfect custom plan for your outdoor space.

To start our process you’ll fill out a questionnaire about your property that helps our design team understand your goals, needs and existing landscape. You can add 3d renders, lighting plans or side yards to your design package. You’ll then meet with your designer on a video call, show them your space and discuss your priorities.

Whether you are just looking to add some curb appeal or transform your entire backyard - we have a team for you!

Read more about: Landscape Design Tips