Landscaping ideas – 12 clever ways to design a cohesive look – LivingEtc

Coming up with the perfect landscaping ideas for the yard on your own can be a little daunting. There’s something so eighteenth century about the concept of landscaping, bringing to mind as it does Capability Brown-style swathes of green. Perhaps it might feel a little grand for your own outside space.

It’s good to know then that as well as country estates the principles of landscaping can be applied to even the smallest urban garden. It simply means the planning, laying out and construction of a garden to enhance the appearance. This is usually done with a planting design, by changing the existing terrain with pavers, decking and the like, and by introducing structures like pergolas and arches.

When it comes to landscaping ideas some want a 50/50 combo of hardscaped features like a deck and paved areas with an equal amount of plant softscaping. Others desire a sustainable landscape design that saves water and creates a habitat for wildlife, or want to recreate a certain garden style they find appealing, such as a modernist design or an emphasis on zoned elements for downtime.

To make things easier you can always hire a professional to help put your design ideas into practice but it’s good to have a plan in mind before you start this process. Our inspirational ideas will show you how landscaping ideas can work to transform your space. 

12 landscaping ideas for modern urban spaces

1. Work concealed views into your landscaping design

(Image credit: Natasha Nuttall Garden Design)

Many small urban spaces are rectangular in shape and can be seen in their entirety when you look outside. This is where landscaping ideas come in to switch things up a level. When deciding on the best approach for your space, be sure to include a slow reveal to make your garden more enticing. 

This translates as some areas being ‘discovered’ on a walk through the garden, ones which are not immediately seen when you first step outside. ‘This backyard deck was built over a new basement excavation,’ explains garden designer Natasha Nuttall (opens in new tab). ‘The design provides different ‘rooms’ for dining and relaxing with abundant planting gradually revealing concealed views through the garden to the various areas. There is a feeling of being surrounded by planting.’

Planting is everything if you want to create a green urban oasis but be sure to get the hardscaping ratio right too. The combo of concrete, dark colored gravel and cedar in this design forms a contrasting backdrop for plants to pop against. 

Don’t rule anything out because you feel your space is too small. Instead find clever ways to make landscaping ideas work. ‘The mature gnarled olive tree had to be craned over the house,’ says Natasha. 

2. Elevate the deck into a focal point for impact

(Image credit: Arcaid Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Backyards have become a true extension of our homes. When properly landscaped, a backyard will provide a real statement outdoor living space where you can spend downtime with friends. So why not draw attention to it with a focal point?

This landscaped backyard in the quiet bayside village of Carmel-By-The-Sea was designed to encompass the best aspects of contemporary California coastal living and the focus was on creating an entertaining-friendly space. The landscaping project is by architects Overland (opens in new tab), and the design includes a neat touch with a massive 35-foot-wide glass wall situated along the back patio that mimics the connection between sea and sky. When illuminated at night in magenta and purple, it turns the planting behind it into a stunning backdrop.

The original layout had never functioned well for gatherings, and views of the nearby ocean were entirely obscured. The redesign of this space into a contemporary retreat shows how transformative landscaping ideas can be.

3. Choose paving and planting that works together

The planting was deliberately kept minimal, and features Liriope muscari ‘Monroe’s White’ , alliums, Agapanthus ‘Midnight Star’ and Sarcococca. The round planter is from the Mortar range by Urbis Design (opens in new tab), and is planted with low-growing Thymus coccinicea

(Image credit: James Lee Landscape and Garden Design)

Getting the balance right between hardscaping and planting is key. Tiered planting beds can be used to transition between different levels in a garden for a seamless landscaped look. It can also be a good way to bring planting right up to the house, which helps when that part of the terrace garden is very visible from inside.

‘We designed a series of stepped planters to soften the transition between the lower ground floor terrace and lawn level in this large yard,’ explains designer James Lee (opens in new tab). ‘The planting is relatively minimalist with each planter containing only a single species of plant, selected for their form and flowering color at different times over summer.’ 

The tiers are clad with Silver Grey Porcelain from London Stone (opens in new tab). ‘I used different sized stone for the area behind the ‘floating’ cantilevered bench, where you can see the ‘plank’ size strips of stone,’ explains James. ‘The cantilevered bench is made from Ipe, a tropical FSC hardwood that’s very strong and durable and will last for 25 years plus without the need for any regular oiling or staining.’

4. Include a piece of statement landscaping

(Image credit: King Living)

A key element of good landscaping is adding an eye-catching structure to your outdoor space. Even better if it introduces a focal point to gather around too.

An outdoor fireplace adds warmth and glow to a deck for instant atmosphere if you’re entertaining at night. An inbuilt brick fireplace with an enclosed chimney will keep things smartly contained, and provides a safe and sociable way to burn logs. To keep things tidy it’s a good idea to include an option for integral log storage too, especially if you’re going for a contemporary look and rustic log baskets aren’t going to add anything to the aesthetic.

In this design a sleek pergola frames the fireplace, which is reflected in the pool to add to the symmetrical nature of the landscaping. A stylish arrangement of sofas around a low table takes an interior design look outside to create that all-important living room feel so you can take your outdoor entertaining up a level.

5. Landscape your back yard with a conscience 

(Image credit: Adam Vetere Landscape and Garden Design)

If you want a sustainable garden the building materials you choose as part of your landscaping ideas should be hardwearing with a long-life expectancy and ideally sourced locally. The planting should be low maintenance and drought tolerant where possible to limit water usage. For dry gardens, the landscaping should also positively add to the biodiversity and ecology of the site.

‘For this landscaping project the clients wanted a complete redesign of part of their sloping aspect garden. They wanted a contemporary courtyard design that was sustainable in terms of both the materials used and plants chosen,’ explains Adam Vetere (opens in new tab), who is known for his sustainable designs. ‘In addition, existing planting was relocated throughout the site rather than disposed of.’

The newly designed courtyard is used for relaxing and entertaining. Once a traditional cottage garden, now a dry ‘garrigue’ planting scheme is offset with a cool and contemporary backdrop. A network of geometric corten steel planters and natural limestone boulders act to complement the rectilinear courtyard setting, allowing for a wonderful space to relax and entertain.

6. Soften hard landscaping with planting

(Image credit: Mimi Connolly)

If outdoor space is tight, it’s just a case of practicing smart landscaping design on a smaller scale. Whether you live in an apartment, loft or small urban house you can still carve out a yard that has dream landscaping features that draw the eye.

‘In a small courtyard like this one it was really important to us that it still felt like a garden,’ explains designer Tabi Jackson Gee (opens in new tab), ‘so we planted creeping thyme in between the porcelain paving (slab khaki from London Stone (opens in new tab)) creating a visual break in the hard landscaping.

‘The gaps between the paving slabs on the garden path are narrow – only 6 inches – and the planting is level with that. You can walk on thyme and when you do it releases its scent. It filled in really quickly making a lovely soft detail. Initially the clients were sceptical about the thyme but now they love it.’

7. Plan a modern dining terrace that wows

(Image credit: Kate Gould Gardens)

Structural additions like outdoor kitchens, pergolas and large comfortable lounge areas are now often combined into gardens at the landscaping stage to extend the living space and provide the inside/outside lifestyle we all aspire too. 

‘Left un-planted though, these elements can look like a furniture showroom,’ says garden designer Kate Gould (opens in new tab), ‘so there is skill required to create planting and soft lighting that envelops the space, making it inviting at all times of the year while also allowing enough room to navigate between areas and allow friends and family to relax and enjoy themselves.’

If cookouts are your thing, why not devote a significant area of your deck to include all your outdoor kitchen requirements in one stylish place.

8. Integrate curves into a modernist design

(Image credit: Samantha Brown Design)

Curves in backyard design are big right now but in fact they’re a classic landscaping trick that never dates. Use curves in small spaces to create harmony and flow. Combined with relaxed planting they can make a small garden feel larger too, as they soften boundaries and create an illusion of space.

Another practical reason for using curves is that they can enhance a seating space by cocooning it with a low wall. ‘This modern design marries clean contemporary lines with the  borrowed landscape beyond,’ explains garden designer Samantha Brown (opens in new tab).  ‘The wall is block-work and render painted with the masonry version of Farrow & Ball’s ‘Down Pipe’. The curved bench is topped with Ipe hardwood deck, with each board tapered to fit the curve of the wall.’

9. Opt for a bespoke landscaping fit-out 

(Image credit: Our Garden Design)

Deciding on a landscaping design that includes pieces like bespoke gazebos and planters can really help to get the best out of your garden as everything will fit seamlessly within the space.

‘This grey powder-coated steel and Siberian larch gazebo is bespoke and I designed it myself for this particular landscaping project,’ says garden designer David Loy (opens in new tab). ‘The garden also has matching powder-coated steel raised planters, again made bespoke to fit the site.’

This landscaping design also illustrates how best to get the hardscaping and planting combo right. A range of compact growing shrubs, perennials, grasses and herbs fill neat beds, while the linear elements of the structural landscaping are further enhanced by parasol-pleached Tillia henryana, a species of lime tree.

10. Choose a drought tolerant landscape design 

(Image credit: Avalon Red/Alamy Stock Photo)

Landscaping with gravel and boulders can be combined with drought-resistant plants such as ornamental grasses and succulents to create a Mediterranean dry garden. It’s a low maintenance style of landscaping that’s good for the environment too, especially if you replace a high-maintenance lawn. 

Combine gravel and boulders with drifts of ornamental grasses and perennials such as euphorbia and lavender to create a naturalistic effect. Make fountain grass (Pennisetum) your go-to. The soft golden-pink flower spikes and graceful foliage last throughout fall and into winter.

Many plants are happy to settle their roots straight into gravel. Any gaps will soon be colonised by self-seeding plants that will help your landscaping design evolve with very little input required from you.

11. Factor lighting into landscaping from the get-go

(Image credit: Charlotte Rowe/Light IQ)

When thinking about backyard design be sure to include garden lighting ideas to put the spotlight firmly on all the best features. Clever lighting tricks can transform your garden landscaping at night and create some extra special effects. The trend is for washes of light that enhance, add drama and illuminate.

Think about what exactly you want to illuminate and how best to do it right at the start of your landscaping project as any lighting design that requires wiring is often hard to retro fit.

It’s always a good idea to light up water features and ornamental trees. ‘This long water rill in a garden in London’s Notting Hill has spotlights under each of the timber pontoons that cross the water and an uplight for the water spout, helping to take your eye down the water feature to the wall at the end,’ explains garden designer Charlotte Rowe (opens in new tab). ‘We have also up-lit the multi-stem trees at the end of the garden, with beautiful light grazing the old stock brick walls.’

12. Include a modern water feature

(Image credit: Derek Harris/Alamy Stock Photo)

Always make space for a water feature as part of your landscaping ideas. Ponds are alluring because they help to enhance a tranquil space, which is especially important if you’re interested in creating an urban retreat. If you love the idea of creating a sensory garden a pond is a must as it’s the ideal place to immerse yourself in nature. 

A sleek and contemporary modern reflection pool works every time. Moving clouds and trees will be captured in the pool’s reflections to add an instantly soothing element. Pond water can be dyed black to add drama with special products that also help reduce the build up of algae, making pond maintenance easier too. 

Pond margins always look good fringed with leafy planting and pretty flowers that thrive in damp soil. This helps to create a rich habitat for wildlife too. Incorporating a stepping stone path so you can walk across the pond let’s you enjoy it right up close. Granite, sandstone and gneiss are all suitable landscaping materials for this. 

What is the cheapest type of landscaping?

The cheapest type of landscaping tends to be using aggregates like gravel, pebbles and crushed stones. There are a great selection of colors and styles available so there’s plenty to choose from. They fit well with other materials too, especially for landscaping around boulders, stone pavers and wooden decking.

Cheap to buy, easy to spread, widely available and sustainable if you source locally, these practical materials are versatile too. They work for all designs from cool and contemporary modern spaces to Mediterranean inspired and sustainable wildlife gardens. They are also great smoothers as materials like gravel and stones will handily settle into any uneven surfaces to level things up.

Specialist companies usually offer free samples so you can get an idea of how the gravel or stones will fit in to your own design, so why not order some to play around with and see how they look.

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