Cluttered vs. Minimalist Garden Design

The Global Language Monitor claims there are over a million words in the English language.  So I shouldn’t really be surprised that we have a word for everything.  I do, however, find it interesting that many of our many words have strong negative or positive connotations.

Google’s definition of ‘clutter’ is ‘to cover or fill with an untidy collection of things’.  It is not an objective measure of ‘how many things’, but a subjective opinion of ‘too many’ and ‘untidy’ at that.

The word ‘minimalist’, to me, conjures up images of trendy, apartment-based city living.  Of standalone, sleek, beautiful pieces that do not need, and indeed would be devalued by, adornment or company.  ‘Cluttered’, on the other hand, raises rather unappealing thoughts of tacky knick-knacks gathering dust on every surface.

But can cluttered be a positive thing?  And what has this got to do with gardening anyway?

Many of the most expensive gardens follow a minimalist line.  People pay six figure sums of money to have a designer come in and place just five carefully selected plant types across their entire 1,500 square metre block.  Debates will be had for weeks on end as to whether plant number one should have leaves of exactly this shade of green or that shade of green and a beautiful garden will result.

Cleve West's Gold Medal-Winning 2014 Chelsea Show Garden. Photo: Lisa Cox

Cleve West’s Gold Medal-Winning 2014 Chelsea Show Garden. Photo: Lisa Cox

At the other extreme, Cleve West’s gold medal-winning 2014 Chelsea garden contained no fewer than 67 different species of plant in a space just a few metres square.  Some may find it a little busy, but it’s hard to say that it isn’t a cohesive, well thought through design.  So is this cluttered?  Or perhaps abundant, or lavish? Despite our overly-stuffed English dictionary, none of the words seem quite right to me.

The Australian Garden Show Sydney had a number of show gardens this year that met the cluttered/abundant/whatever-we-want-to-call-it criteria.  Andrew Davies’ ‘My Garden Studio’ is full to bursting with a huge array of artefacts and plants.  Everywhere you look there is something new and surprising. And yet despite the fact that there is so much going on, it absolutely works.

Andrew Davies 'My Garden Studio'

Andrew Davies ‘My Garden Studio’ won gold at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

So why does clutter work sometimes and not others?  I think there are three key factors specifically at play with this style.

1. EVERY ELEMENT MUST BE BEAUTIFUL IN ITS OWN RIGHT

The first is self-explanatory.  It is no good adding a certain plant just because you need the height, if it is an unattractive plant or an otherwise bad fit.  As soon as it is just an add on to force in a bit more of a certain colour, texture or form, it falls apart.  I learnt this some time ago when trying to add interior colour with cheap Ikea bottles.  The colour may be perfect but to work the piece has to be beautiful too.  Just ‘OK’ is no good; you need to love every piece.

2. THERE MUST BE A BROAD DIMENSION OF TIME

The second element is that there needs to be a dimension of time associated with the collection.  There is nothing worse than a staged house on the market which has clearly been David Jonesed – the owner has done a one-stop shop the week before and bought every item they could find that was yellow.

Andrew Davies 'My Garden Studio'

Andrew Davies’ garden has items that span a wide time horizon

Look at Andrew’s garden once more.  There are old rusty fences and weathered trays, old ropes and random things I can’t even begin to identify.  And all are charming and beautiful.  Contrast the old with the very fresh fruit and vegetables and you have it all.  Like an old country house that has items collected over the lifetime of its owners – family antiques, meaningful artwork and items brought back from travels – all nestled together.  When done well, the warmth this brings is hard to replicate in something entirely brand new.  That is partly why large, established trees are so important in our gardens.

3. COMMON THEMES

The third element to ensuring an eclectic design works is to have subtle common themes running throughout.  Above, you can see the teal colour in the shelving, pear and leaf, the red tones dotted throughout and just a couple of different hard landscaping textures cleverly repeated.  These repetitions subconsciously tie the whole thing together.

Andrew told me, quite apologetically, that the end result hadn’t turned out at all as he intended, but perhaps that it half the joy of it.  To me it is full of character and quite delightful.  It reminds me of the gorgeous Boat House Cafe in Mosman.

The entrance to the Boat House cafe at Balmoral Beach

The entrance to the Boat House cafe at Balmoral Beach

So is cluttered better than minimalist?

Whilst warmth and abundance is what some people are after in a home or a garden, others crave clean lines and simplicity.  The ‘best’ gardens to me have two things in common – strong character and one that reflects its owner(s).  I can think of a number of friends for whom minimalism is absolutely them – they shout ‘minimalism’ in how they dress, speak and behave; anything else would be quite wrong.

So again, I come back to the word ‘bold‘.  The most important thing is that a garden knows what it is and reflects this intention in every aspect.  If it’s minimalist make sure it is really minimalist, if it is quirky, make sure it is really quirky, if it is sophisticated, make it really sophisticated.  It doesn’t have to be cluttered or minimalist but it does need to know what it is.  All styles are valid and can be beautiful, it’s just about finding the right fit for the property and its owners and applying it well.

When we do find that fit and we integrate character and boldness, our gardens bring us pure joy.  Isn’t that what it is all about?

Mary Scanlan's 'The Diamantina Design' is a lovely eclectic mix, exhibited at the Australian Garden Show Sydney, 2014

Mary Scanlan’s Balcony Garden, ‘The Boho Box’ is a lovely eclectic mix, exhibited at the Australian Garden Show Sydney, 2014

To see more on Cleve West’s Chelsea Garden, have a look at the lovely Lisa Cox’s blog.

3 thoughts on “Cluttered vs. Minimalist Garden Design

  1. Adriana Fraser says:

    You have such an intelligent and insightful approach Janna that I wait with baited breathe for the next blog! Adriana

  2. Lisa Cox says:

    Fab blog post Janna – I think things only become clutter when they haven’t been thought through beforehand. Everything needs a place even if it’s a deliberately messy garden or one with lots of things going on. If it’s all been thought through carefully and fits the person who it’s been created for then it’s a success on every level!

  3. jannaschreier says:

    Gosh, I hope I can keep it up! Thanks for the two lovely comments – quite taken aback as you are both expert horticulturist writers. I felt this article was a bit rambly so very glad you managed to find some content in there.

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