It’s fascinating to look at contemporary garden design, which seems so hugely varied yet somehow keeps popping up with the same ideas, and tease out the threads of the older, classic garden design styles.  So let’s take a stroll through some of the most famous and influential garden design styles.  Let’s start with one of the most familiar, but that turns out to be in some ways oddest style of all.  The English Landscape garden.

A garden that’s not a garden

The name that is most deeply associated with the English Landscape garden is of course Lancelot Brown, better known as ‘Capability’ Brown.  He designed over 170 parks that are indelibly part of our love affair with the English Stately Home.  It’s almost impossible to imagine a stately home without the rolling green landscape they sit so harmoniously within.  The English countryside at its finest.


Gardens should not look like gardens. Stowe Park, Capability Brown

Which is odd.  Because the landscape’s he created were far from natural.  A huge amount of manpower was required to create this ‘natural’ look.  Whole villages were moved, streams transformed into lakes and even entire valleys created where none existed.  ‘To create Stowe’s Grecian Valley, 13,350 square metres of earth was laboriously carved out using spade and barrow and horse-drawn cart’[1].

Brown almost entirely swept aside the previously fashionable Anglo-Dutch formal designs of patterned parterres and avenues in favour of informal parkland of gentle hills, clumps of trees and serpentine lakes.  But what this apparently natural landscape was actually meant to evoke was not nature herself, no that was to be ‘improved’ in order to look like Art.  More specifically landscape paintings.  In other words an idea of nature rather than nature itself.

[1] Dr Sarah Rutherford, Garden Historian, writing for the National Trust

So this world famous style of garden is one that strives to not look like a garden at all but, by huge endeavour, cost and massive engineering, to look as if it is the most natural thing in the world.  Which it isn’t, instead it’s a paradox wrapped in a fantasy.

Where to see Capability Browns gardens

Any country house or stately home is highly likely to have had Capability Browns ‘improvements’.  The most renowned are probably

Stowe Park, Buckinghamshire.

Croome, Worcestershire.

Chatsworth, Derbyshire.

Harewood, Yorkshire

Blenheim Palace Oxfordshire.

Hampton Court, London.

For further information on some of these Capability Browns’ see our previous blog

Japanese ‘Zen Gardens’


Zen gardens are for contemplation and harmony. Kare-ike at Senshūkaku-teien (Kyū-Tokushima-jō-omote-goten-teien), Tokushima, Shikoku.

Here, on the other side of the world we can see another hugely influential style of garden.  Images of the Japanese Zen garden are very familiar, and its aesthetic is so compelling that we’ve probably all, at one time or another, artfully arranged a few pebbles in a dish of sand on our windowsills.

Somewhat surprisingly the zen garden, or rock or dry garden, actually has a lot in common with Capability Brown’s landscapes.  Like them it strives to create, or rather re-create, a natural landscape and does it by highly artificial means.  And just as the idea of a natural landscape was filtered through the tastes and preoccupations of the English Nobility of the 18th century, so the zen garden is completely shaped by the Japanese aesthetic and religious milieu.

The key concepts grew out of the original purpose of these gardens, meditation.  Originally designed by monks in the 6th century to aid meditation they emphasized the principals of naturalness (Shizen), simplicity (Kanso), and austerity (Koko).  Over time this evolved into a rather strange artifice.  The garden becomes a landscape in miniature complete with mountains, lakes and rivers – except that the mountains are rocks, waterfalls are upright stones, and the water is carefully raked gravel or sand.

One key difference is that, whilst both garden styles may seem to invite you to stroll through them, the zen garden is most empathically ­not for walking through – but to be looked at from the sidelines in an act of contemplation.


Where to see Japanese Zen Gardens in the UK

Whilst the very best Zen gardens are of course to be found in Japan, there are some that can be seen in the UK.  The Japanese Garden Society offers an interactive map of Japanese gardens, including Zen Gardens.

French formal

The French formal garden or the Jardin à la Française is a far cry from Capability Brown’s parkland, or the Zen Gardens austere calm.  Here we seem to have entered a world where the garden has become a vast ornate Persian carpet.  It certainly puts our obsession with the inside-going-outside into perspective.


Gardens should look like carpets, apparently. The Garden of Love, Chateau de Villandry.

Starting with the gardens of the Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1656 this style climaxed in the astonishing Gardens of Versailles Palace completed in 1750.

Whilst traces of this style are slight now (box hedge edging anyone?) it was hugely influential and though radically different, can be seen as an essential precursor to Capability Brown’s rolling parklands.  This is because this style, for the first time, fully integrated house and garden, and extended the garden to the complete landscape.

Before this, gardens were often small, broken up, and walled off (for defensive purposes), they had little or no aesthetic connection with the house and were often very functional – growing food or medicine.  The Jardin à la Française changed all this and so paved the way for Capability Brown and his vast engineering projects.  The French Formal garden created a fully designed landscape that integrated with the architecture of the house to produce an all-encompassing vision.  This has been hugely influential on garden design and could even be argued is the precursor of Wagner’s operas with his grand vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk that uses many art forms, melding them into one towering work of art.

The Riad Garden


The garden as a courtyard (and air conditioning system). A private house, Damascus.

Contemporary garden design can sometimes seem to be obsessed with blurring the boundaries between house and garden; the idea of the garden as a room, of the interflow of inside and outside (the framed view, the totally even floor transition from room to terrace, large sliding windows, al fresco eating spaces).

To see one of the most potent influences on this style we need to take a trip to the Near East.  Here we see the ‘garden as room’ in its most spellbinding form.  From Morocco to Damascus the courtyard or Riad garden is the dominant form.  A stunning blend of necessity and art it is literally the centre of the house.

The courtyard garden is both immensely practical and also a thing of great beauty.  From the outside many traditional homes in the Arab world look unprepossessing.  Often a bare wall with a door is all the casual observer can see.  But to those lucky enough to be invited within, the first impression is one of deep gloom as one passes down a dark unlit passage to be then confronted with dazzling light and spectacle.


Cooled by moving water, shaded by trees but still sparkling with sunshine. A Moroccan Riad charms the hot and weary traveller.

The courtyard was the traditional place to entertain guests and as such was treated to the highest level of decoration and planting possible.  It invariably contained water, often a large pool enlivened with jets of water or fountains.  Being in the centre of the house, surrounded on all sides by two or more stories of rooms the courtyard was sheltered from the blazing heat of direct sunshine, whilst the play of fountains and water jets cooled the air in what could be called the first air conditioning system.

The foundations of modern garden design

Whilst there are other styles of garden that have influenced modern design, and also there are entirely new concepts in our contemporary designs, it can be argued that these four styles, in their different ways, have laid the foundations of the modern world of garden design.  From Capability Brown’s idea that a garden is in some way a distillation of nature, to the Riad’s courtyard as another room of the house, we can see so many currents of these designs still actively shaping our modern gardens.


Read our blog about England’s best gardens for further inspiration

North Leeds Garden Design can design your garden and give you a flavour of some of these classic styles.  You decide!