If you have a modern home, or it has modern additions, you might want to carry that into the garden. You can incorporate a contemporary planting scheme to link the garden with the house. This is one of my favourite garden styles, an easy and adaptable design to do at home.

What is a contemporary garden?

The definition of ‘contemporary’ changes as different styles become popular. Many twenty-first-century contemporary architectural designs feature strong simple lines, large expanses of frameless glass and dark/silvery cedar wall cladding.

Large expanses of glass make the view of the garden from inside the house very important.

Things to consider when choosing plants

Strong architectural shapes

Generally speaking, I find that architectural-shaped plants work well planted near the house as they echo the strong, formal lines of the property.

I always choose a combination of different shapes.  Tall, upright evergreen trees and shrubs work well near the house. And they can be repeated elsewhere in the garden for unity of design.

Yew and Cypress

The Irish yew, Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, is a slow-growing evergreen which forms a narrow column. And after ten years reaches a height and spread of 300cm x 90cm.

Another good choice for a Mediterranean-style garden area is the Italian Cypress Cupressus sempervirens ‘Pyramidalis.’ A tall but slim, evergreen tree, it requires little or no pruning and being quick to establish.  It’s also salt-resistant and hardy down to -20°C. This grows well in containers in courtyard settings where space might be limited, casting only narrow shadows to great effect.

taxus baccata fastigiata
Ilex crenata

Beech, Japanese Holly, and Pittosporum

One deciduous shrub that works extremely well in a modern scheme is Beech trained into a columnar shape.  The leaves turn a delightful shade of bronze in the autumn and remain on the plant throughout winter. They wait until spring to fall when they are almost immediately replaced by fresh, light green leaves. This is as soon as the nights darken as the season progresses.

Since height and scale are crucial close to the house, buy the largest specimens of these upright trees. As many as you can afford to provide instant impact, particularly where the choices are slow-growing. Remember to include strong mound-forming shapes such as the Japanese holly Ilex crenata or Pittosporum ‘Golf Ball.’

Don’t be put off by the common name ‘Japanese Holly’, the plant does not have holly-shaped leaves. It closely resembles box and is chosen because, unlike box, it does not suffer from blight or the box moth. It is more expensive but is in many ways a better plant, and naturally grows rounded.  Japanese holly looks fantastic when several are planted in large containers. They also look striking planted in the ground flanking the entrance to another part of the garden.

For shadier areas, Pittosporum is another good choice. ‘Golf Ball’ will grow well in a natural mounded shape if planted in free-draining soil. Do so in either part shade or full sun and this plant is drought-tolerant once established.

It’s another relatively low-maintenance shrub requiring little pruning to keep its rounded shape. Also, it is a good choice for smaller as well as larger gardens.

pittosporum golf ball

Size and Aspect of the garden

The size of the garden area and its aspect are equally important. Because, for example, a small courtyard area would need a different type of planting scheme to a larger garden area. As would a garden that faces sunny south as opposed to one that faces shady north.


Another important consideration is how much maintenance and time you want to devote to maintaining your garden. Additionally, whether or not you want year-round interest.

Euonymus green spire

Keeping plants looking good is equally important to the look of the scheme. It may be worth choosing proven reliable, standard, hardy plants rather than unusual tender ones. These often have specific requirements to keep them looking good.

To enclose flower borders with low, evergreen hedging, Japanese spindle, Euonymus ‘Green Spire’ is popular for today’s unpredictable climate.

Evergreen, glossy leaves, with an ultimate height and spread of 100cm x 50cm, it’s hardy and compact and will also tolerate shade.

Plants with a neat growth habit

Modern planting schemes often involve repeat planting of the same plant. I therefore suggest you choose plants that have an even, neat growth habit to preserve uniformity of design. Then you won’t need to constantly have to tweak the shape of each plant.

Evergreen -v- Deciduous

Evergreen plants give year-round interest with a potential added advantage of flowers at a specific time of the year.

Deciduous plants will drop the majority, if not all, of their leaves, generally in autumn. This leaves bare stems for around 5 months of the year before fresh new leaves appear.  Bear this in mind as this might not work with your contemporary planting scheme.

One exception is hydrangeas. They are a prevalent choice for modern garden design as they bulk up quickly and flower for months on end. And, at the end of the flowering season, the spent flower heads can be left on until February to provide winter interest.  The white-flowered H. ‘Annabelle’ and its pink flower relative, are very popular, producing huge flower heads from mounded-shaped plants.

Hydrangea arborescens annabelle

Plant Choices


There are many examples of contemporary gardens having the majority of flower borders planted with different types of ornamental grasses.  If the correct plants are chosen it’s possible to have interest for 10 months of the year. The only time when they wouldn’t have any presence is when they’re cut down to the ground, usually in February. So, this would need to be borne in mind when planning the design and views from the house windows.

Molinia skyracer

Grasses can be found in a variety of different shapes. Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ has a narrow, very upright shape. Alternatively, Panicum cultivars have an upright shape but with leaves that gently splay across and down. This creates a delightful fountain shape.

Molinia grasses can be found as tall uprights such as ‘Skyracer’ or medium-height mound shapes such as caerulea and its cultivars. The latter looks really effective planted en masse, gently swaying in the breeze.  Also, they give another season of interest in the autumn when the leaves turn a delightful shade of bronze.

Grasses can also be integrated into a flower border to create a contemporary look.  Such as Silver grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is an elegant variety with its arching, thin, silver-tinged leaves. It grows to a height and spread of 200cm x 90cm. This makes it a great choice when used as an accent plant, whether that be in the ground or containers.  It will grow well in sun or part shade and most free-draining soil types.

Miscanthus sirensis morning light


There has been a recent resurgence in bulbs for the garden, particularly spring flowering ones such as tulips.  A modern scheme would probably mass plant the same variety for a uniform cohesive look and mass impact of flowers.  Some varieties can reliably be left in the ground from year to year and will gradually increase in number. Choose Tulipa ‘Pink Impression’ for a burst of deep-pink flowers and ‘Negrita’ for dark pink/purple. Or even the elegant white flowering ‘Purissima’ for a more pared-back scheme.

Be aware that tulips left in the ground annually may become susceptible to blight with continuous adverse weather conditions. And, if that occurs, it prevents tulips from being grown in that border for several years.

Alliums have been popular choices for early to mid-summer flowering bulbs. And they can look particularly effective planted amongst grasses with their rounded heads. They are mainly found in shades of purple or white.

Tulipa pink impression

Dahlias are popular for late summer flowering until the first frosts but are difficult to include in a contemporary scheme. So possibly best avoided unless clusters of the same variety are repeat planted say in containers.

Crocosmia are a good choice for autumn flowers and are mainly available in shades of red, orange and yellow.  They can look very effective if the same variety is mass-planted in a border. But be aware that they do bulk up and spread very quickly. Crocosmia are long flowering and develop pretty orange-tinted seedheads on their long thin stems after the flowers have finished. These can be left on overwinter for extra interest.

Herbaceous Perennials

Modern planting schemes can include this section of plants because they are mainly summer flowering.

Choosing different types can work well in a naturalistic planting scheme. And/or if matched with evergreen focal point shrubs and small trees placed in a defined pattern.

Alternatively, one type of herbaceous perennial can be mass planted but consider once they’ve finished flowering the colour interest disappears. To avoid this, choose plants of similar colour that flower at different times. But remember the effect will be reduced as other plants that have finished flowering take up space around them. Including grasses solves the problem of almost year-round interest in the border.

For free-draining soil and a sunny, open aspect, then ConeflowersEchinacea purpurea, are another good choice for mass planting. There are several different colour flower and flower shape varieties to choose from. These range from light purple to orange to white. Echinacea ‘Hot Lava’ has deep orange-red petals flaring out from a bright orange centre. And, for a taller cultivar, reaching a height of 90cm, choose E. purpurea ‘Ruby Giant’.

Echinacea purpurea ruby giant
Geranium samobor

Euphorbia are, unusually for a herbaceous perennial, evergreen and can be found in many different shapes, heights and forms. From the mounded, spring flowering Euphorbia polychroma, to the tall, leggy E. characias subs. wulfennii, mostly producing bright green flower heads during their flowering time. Some, such as E. ‘Miners Merlot’have deep, dark purple leaves which look effective planted alongside lighter colour leaf plants.

Hardy geraniums can add lower interest to the plant borders. Many are clump-forming such as G. sanguineum; others sprawl and flower for months on end such as G. ‘Rozanne’.  If your area is very shady then G. phaeum ‘Samobor’ is the perfect choice. It has splashes of deep purple on the leaves and small, dark purple flowers.



Ferns look particularly striking planted en masse and are best planted in semi-shade in soil that remains reliably moist.

Evergreen ferns are best for a modern planting scheme. One of the best for neatness of shape and handsome leaf structure, are the Shield ferns, Polystichum polyblepharum. 

However, there are many other evergreen ferns, some UK native, such as the strap leaf Hart’s Tongue, Asplenium scolopendrium.


Umbrella bamboo

Different types of bamboo are popular for edging terraces, particularly sunken ones, to create privacy without feeling oppressive.

They are often planted in containers but to continue looking good they do need as regular supply of water. That’s worth bearing in mind if regular maintenance is an issue.

If planting in the ground choose ones that clump up and don’t spread.  The Umbrella bamboo, Fargesia, is one of the best non-spreading bamboo.

These plants will all work well in a contemporary garden, and will give you an easy modern look with little work.

Find out how to make the most of a courtyard garden:

Or check out my Pinterest board for more ideas: