Modern Landscaping: Exterior Design Basics for Contemporary Home Gardeners

While there are countless styles of residential landscaping to choose from, contemporary homes often benefit from complementary modern landscaping. Well thought-out landscaping enhances both curb appeal of modern homes, as well as the practical use of the space (both front yard and backyard alike) for its residents and their guests.

Modern landscaping is an exterior design style defined by clean lines, simple geometric patterns, and an overall minimalist aesthetic. Hardscaping is generally created with long-lasting, industrial materials such as concrete, metal, stone, and rot-resistant types of wood. Sculptural feature plants are common, as are mass plantings of low-maintenance ornamentals, often in a line or other repeating sequences. Modern landscaping aims to unify buildings with the outdoor space around them by emphasizing flow and enabling practical usage while retaining balance and overall scale of the design.

Let’s look at the basics of modern landscaping and how best to incorporate its principles into your outdoor space.

Modern Landscaping - Ideas & Tips

“When describing design, many commentators and designers use the word ‘modern’ to reflect a contemporary style that, in essence, is about an apparent simpleness in planting combinations: maybe a few species of plants have been used, or the same plant repeated within a space. However, the visual result can often belie the intricate nature of the planting and the complexity of selecting the plants.”

Best Garden Design: Practical inspiration from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, by Chris Young

1. Identify Essential Functions

The first step to modern landscaping is to identify the essential functions for the outdoor space. Modern landscaping celebrates the usefulness of a space by putting well-trodden paths and frequented outdoor spots at the forefront of the design process. While modern landscaping is known for its aesthetically pleasing simplicity, it works so well because it is practical for those who occupy the space.

Consider the flow of residents and visitors as they arrive at the property, enter the home, step out for a morning coffee, or step into the garden to stargaze after work. There is also the flow of materials – everything from groceries entering the home to recycling, compost, and landfill waste exiting the home (and potentially being stored outside before pickup day). These everyday chores should be easy to accomplish in the context of the landscape. Modern landscaping makes life easier rather than cluttering it up with obstacles.

“Practical hardscaping components include driveways, paths, and walkways, edging that separates garden from grass, fences (picket and privacy), and garden walls (low or high). Hedges and trees also fall under the structural side of things, even though they’re living components of the garden.”

Gardening Your Front Yard, Tara Nolan
Modern Landscaping - Hardscaping Outside Rancher Home

2. Consider Curb Appeal

Front yard landscaping for curb appeal is just as important for contemporary homes as it is for classic, traditional houses. Create a well-defined, welcoming pathway that makes the entrance to the house obvious and inviting. Keep the front-yard elements in proportion to the house (and in keeping with the style of the home). Choose plants that look great throughout the calendar year, rather than plants that shine only for a short period in the spring, summer, or fall.

While many front porch areas have a cottage-style feel, it is completely possible to create a seated area in the modern style. Choose timeless architectural furniture that’s built to stand up to the elements. Keep the area tidy and uncluttered, including perhaps a potted plant or two.

Privacy need not be completely abandoned in pursuit of curb appeal. A large feature tree or opaque structural screen can obscure the view into any exposed interior living spaces.

“Front gardens serve a different purpose. Access is paramount and most people want to present a well-ordered approach to their homes.”

The Essentials of Garden Design, by John Brookes
Privacy Fencing - Contemporary Style

3. Choose Long-Lasting, Contemporary Hardscape Materials

Modern landscaping is defined in part by its substantial use of hardscaping structures such as paths, patios, decks, fences, and screens. These sculptural elements give the basic form to the landscape, giving it a permanent anchor throughout all seasons.

Rot-resistant wood such as sustainably-logged cedar is common for fences, planters, and decks. Patios are sometimes made of poured concrete, pea gravel, or stone bricks. Paths made with concrete pavers or from composite recycled plastic are also a hallmark of modern landscape design.

“When many enthusiastic gardeners begin planting their kitchen gardens, they often concentrate on the plants and produce and forget about borders and framework, which is a little like decorating the interior of a house when you haven’t yet erected the walls and architecture. A good kitchen garden design involves well-thought-out structure and framework as much as it does soil, seeds, fertilizer, sun and water.”

The Modern Kitchen Garden: Design, Ideas, and Practical Tips, by Janelle McCulloch
Covered Patio with Exterior Fireplace

4. Focus On Low-Maintenance, Structural Plants

Part of the beauty of modern landscaping is its low-maintenance appeal. Unlike a cottage border garden, which requires extensive maintenance each season, a modern garden generally includes mainly low-maintenance (or no maintenance) plant species.

Plants are generally chosen for 4-season appeal, and are planned in context of the plants around them. Small trees like Japanese Maple minimize the amount of leaves to rake in the fall. Evergreen hedges of Yew shrubs grow slowly but surely, requiring only a trim once or twice a year. Ornamental grasses such as Feather Reed Grass can be left standing in cooler months to provide some movement in the landscape before being cut down at the end of the winter to allow for new spring growth.

“In a way, minimal planting is similar to formal planting schemes. A considered and ordered view of how to use growing material is required where each subject must warrant its inclusion based on leaf shape, overall habit, flower colour or year-round appearance.”

Best Garden Design: Practical inspiration from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, by Chris Young
Modern Landscaping - No Lawn

5. Group Plants In Massed Planting Sequences

Modern landscaping typically includes many instances of massed planting sequences, in which a single species is planted in a long row or other pleasing geometric pattern. While cottage gardens blend dozens of different perennials together in a flowing palette, modern gardens use clean lines to define different plants.

Most modern landscapes make significant use of hedges, whether they be tall evergreen privacy hedges around the perimeter of the property, or shorter greenery hedges meant to act as “living pony walls” to define the space. Rows of taller plants can also be used as screens to create “outdoor rooms”, while shorter plants lining a path add to the flow of the exterior space.

Each area should be considered in terms of the seasons and how each species of plant in that area will appear throughout the year. Perennials which die back in the fall can be left standing through winter or cut back to the ground in the fall, depending on the type of plant and context in which it is planted.

“Using just a single species of plant is frequently a great way to undertake minimal design”

Best Garden Design: Practical inspiration from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, by Chris Young
Modern Landscaping - Repeating Shrubs as Foundation Plants
Specimen Tree - Modern Home - Palm

6. Install Feature Plants

Feature plants are large plantings, such as specimen trees, which act as a visual focal point. A feature plant may complete the front yard design by adding balance to an asymmetrical home, or it might be planted outside a window where it can be viewed prominently by people inside the home. Like mass plantings, look for species which have appeal throughout the year, or at least don’t look unattractive when they’re not in their prime time-of-year.

Feature plants can not only act as a visual centerpiece to an outdoor space, but they can also have secondary functions as well. A well-placed specimen tree may obscure a view into the property from a street or laneway. Feature plants should be selected and placed with thoughtfulness as to how they’ll be viewed from all angles (including from inside the home and by passersby).

“Size and scale are vital in garden design, especially in town gardens hemmed in on all sides.”

Garden Design: A Book of Ideas, by Heidi Howcroft & Marianne Majerus
Exterior Lighting on Modern Home - Driveway and Garage Area

7. Lighting

Lighting is one of the secrets to good modern landscaping around homes and other buildings. While traditional landscaping styles were developed long before outdoor electrical lighting became commonplace, modern landscaping fully incorporates accent lighting into exterior spaces. Modern landscaping includes hardwired permanent fixture, pathway lighting, landscape feature uplighting, entrance sconces, and welcoming driveway lightstands, and casual patio string lights, among other types.

Contemporary Landscape - Backyard
A well-manicured strip of turf grass is the perfect natural lawn space to relax on after a dip in the pool.
Modern Backyard Landscaping with Pool
Contemporary Exterior Door - Curb Appeal
This design shows repeating boxwood shrubs on both sides of the recycled plastic entrance path.
Covered Patio with Exterior Fireplace
A covered outdoor living room creates an exterior entertaining space (complete with an outdoor fireplace).
Contemporary Curb Appeal - Concrete Pavers
A quirky rounded path adds cozy curb appeal to a modern home with otherwise straight lines and hard corners.

Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane is a home gardener who loves creating healthy, welcoming spaces (indoors and out!) - About Mary Jane (https://www.homefortheharvest.com/authors/about-mary-jane-duford/)

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