What Is Modern Landscaping?

Exterior of modern house
Tom Merton / Getty Images

Modern Landscaping (also referred to as contemporary landscaping) is not just a look, it's also something of a philosophy. Defined by clean lines, stark shapes, and an architectural approach, modern landscaping is a mode of design more concerned with crafting an aesthetically pleasing space than with planting flowers, shrubs and trees. More often than not, the landscaping is intended to complement an architectural structure near it: a home or building. There is still gardening involved, but it's less the sort of puttering many gardeners do and more about installing and maintaining a specific artistic environment. This article will explore the elements of modern landscaping, and maybe intrigue those gardeners who can't imagine life without a cottage garden.

The History of Modern Landscaping

Modern landscaping didn't arise out of one "school" of design but rather combines a number of influences and aesthetics. Mid-century design is surely an influence, particularly the geometric shapes and dramatic contrasts seen in prominent architects of the period like Frank Lloyd Wright. Brutalism is also an influence, particularly its use of building materials like concrete over natural stone. Concrete is less expensive than other traditional materials, giving it some desirability in urban planning for budget concerns.

There is also an element of industrial design in modern landscaping, as older factories and other buildings are repurposed (for example, the Tate Modern in London is an old power station, built between 1947 and 1963, but closed in 1981, that is now an art museum; Mass MOCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts, an art and performance space, was once an airplane hangar).

Tate Modern museum in London with young birch trees growing in front
The stark exterior of the Tate Modern museum in London, once an old power station built between 1947 and 1963, is enhanced with these plantings of rows of young birch trees.  Peg Aloi
Balcony of brick buidling with wood raised beds and small shrub plantings
The warm colors of the wooden planters echo the brick building exterior, a nice contrast to the pale tiles and metal railings. The plants are easy care evergreens and small ornamentals, like slow growing Japanese maples. Tracee Conibear / Flickr / CC by 2.0
overhead shot of seating area with grey stone patio, small lights and potted trees
This patio combines many modern design features, including low maintenance plantings, loose stone, geometric lines, and functional elements (the low wall is also a seating area), plus a striking water feature and lighting for evening socializing Tracee Conibear / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Principles and Elements of Modern Landscaping

Modern landscaping is dependent on three major components: design, materials, and function. Design and materials comprise the look of modern landscaping and define its impact in space and its significance alongside older landscaping styles. Part of the reason function is so important is that modern landscaping seeks to redefine how we use outdoor spaces. Modern landscaping doesn't lend itself to the idea of "gardening" as quickly as more traditional modes of landscaping. Though to gardeners it may seem like blasphemy, many garden spaces these days are seen as places to visit for a short time, or view on the way to something else, as opposed to a place one "lives" or actually creates and maintains. This makes modern landscaping, on some level, more concerned with aesthetics that other styles.

The design elements most commonly seen in modern landscaping are clean, straight lines, a balanced sense of scale, a careful mix of textures, and, usually, a limited use of color. Instead of the riotous color seen in more traditional gardens, modern landscapes utilize more neutral tones and emphasize foliage over flowers, which keeps the design looking more consistent over time.

A modern approach to materials often means manufactured: concrete pavers or walkways, corrugated metal gates, fences made of metal or fiberglass. That absence of wood and stone may feel odd and artificial to some gardeners, but it can be balanced out by including some small trees or shrubs, or a selection of container plantings, where a flower bed might normally go, as well as natural stone sculptures.

Modern landscaping is not just about aesthetics, though. Sustainability is also a factor with modern landscaping, especially in areas where residents are mindful of climate change. Rainwater collection, solar power and wind power are all aspects of design that may be incorporated into landscaping choices. Plantings that allow for use of grey water, easy composting or watering through run off collection are other possibilities.

Red corrugated metal wall with plants in green ceramic planters and framed living moss sculpture
The framed living moss sculpture and movable ceramic planters with celadon glaze provide a vibrant green contrast to red metal walls here, and a dynamic vertical design option for the narrow space.  Jamie Kosich / Flickr / CC by 2.0
Large boulders in front of a modern house set into a woodland landscape.
The large boulders, ferns, mulch and gravel create a bold yet very simple landscape for this modern home set in a forest of young evergreens.  Jamie Kosich / Flickr / CC by 2.0
Modern house with simple lawn and small beds of perennials
Set in an open woodland spot, the landscaping for this ultra-modern house includes small round beds that accent the sharp angles of the roof, and small perennials that don't overpower the house's compact size. Simple concrete patios act as both walkways and seating areas. Jamie Kosich Designs / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Walkways and Pavers

Modern landscaping has bold walkways and pavers are usually symmetrical and angled as opposed to curved or organic shapes. Pavers are often made of poured concrete, or cut bluestone. Brick is not seen as often, because its color variations and organic looking quality don't fit this aesthetic. Raised walkways are also seen, for their visual interest and also their suitability for houses built on slabs, stilts or platforms. We'll be seeing more of this as movable or kit-built tiny homes become more popular among homeowners.

Large white pavers set in grey gravel walkway next to modern exterior house design
This design is fairly straight forward:large rectangular pavers set in grey gravel and a raised bed of gravel and native grasses Jamie Kosich / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Raised wooden walkways in front of a modern house built on platforms
This design uses raised walkways made of wooden planks, almost like decking, instead of pavers, to go with the above-ground platform style of the house construction.  Jamie Kosich / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Water Features

Modern landscaping's focus on location and dramatic details often means incorporating a water feature. That water features may include an infinity pool, or a natural pool that not only enhances the design but promotes landscape sustainability.

Natural pool edged by wooden deck and water plants including lily pads
This natural pool promotes sustainability and is a good fit for the modern design elements of this property. Jamie Kosich / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Plants to Choose

Modern landscaping is often less concerned with perennial gardening that offer a shifting palette through the seasons than it is with consistency and low maintenance. Mulch and gravel often form a large area of the design, so plants compatible with these materials are desirable. Choose trees that don't get too big or need too much pruning. Fruiting trees are good for the sustainability factor, but some fruiting trees can leave a mess on walkways or patios, which is something to consider for public spaces. Spatial concerns may mean having to get creative, such as using container plantings that can be moved around, or plantings that make the most of vertical space. Modern design tends to favor simple color palettes, but a mix of plant textures can keep things dynamic.

Succulents and grasses planted by low stone stairs and concrete structure
The simple, haphazard plantings here of native grasses and succulents provide vibrant color and organic textures near these concrete pavers and structures Stan Potter / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
arbor and square planters on gravel patio area
The airy vine-covered arbor and lacy plants are a beautiful contrast to the solid gravel walkways and sturdy square planters in this modern design that lets green dominate its monochromatic palette. Stan Potter / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
vertical metal planters with vines and plants next to modern house with gravel and pavers
This metal planter is a striking feature with this modern wood house. The gravel and pavers lend a clean look, the tall plants extend the vertical metaphor and give some privacy, while the trailing vines give some organic shapes for balance. Jamie Kosich / Flickr / CC by 2.0