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.
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