Informal garden styles are the mainstay of gardeners. They are usually a style that's picked up on because they are somewhat relaxed and are usually developed over time little by little. However, this iterative process can also lead to lazy garden design! When done well, it can be a relaxed and intriguing design style; when done badly it's loose, uninspired and limp. This article guides you to avoid the latter with careful planning and attention to detail. Come on let us get planning!

Informal Gardens are probably the most common garden style. An informal garden is less restrictive than say formal gardens in their design symmetry. Informal gardening can set you free of restrictions such as having any detailed horticultural or design knowledge. Thus allowing you to ‘have a go’ at gardening when you first start out, which is exactly what you should be doing and I wholeheartedly support gardeners getting started with any form of gardening.

It can allow you to see what shapes and forms you like, developing planting schemes, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Basically, an informal garden should be relaxed and free form. Some claim informal garden design provides more freedom for boundaries and allows planting to provide the structure rather than hard landscaping. They can also be thought of as ‘more natural’ looking.

However, an informal garden design is not to be mistaken with disjointed gardens, borders that are pieced together slapdash or features that appear completely at random in gardens. These are issues we aim to avoid as garden designers. Often iterating that informal does not mean lazy! The informal garden design takes just as much time and consideration as a formal garden in their planning. It’s about planning, cohesion, balance, scale, proportion and the right plants and features in the correct place. It’s effortless looking but carefully executed.

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This meadow planting looks simple but requires immense attention to detail to get right

When looking at the UKs neighbouring gardens, you may recognise informal garden designs quite easily. Informal simply means that the garden follows much looser lines, curves and usually takes its design from the lay of the land. You may follow the curves of your land boundary, driveway, house walls, a stream, set of trees or where the sun casts its warming rays. You may see mixed borders with drifts of beautiful plants, maybe grasses that are left to set seed and dry out over the winter. A far cry from the order and razor precision of a formal garden.

Informal gardens break free from the rules of formal gardens and allow a whole diverse style to explode. The sky is the limit!

How to create an informal garden

  • Mixing numerous colours and palettes
  • Use more natural materials rather than say hard geometric landscaping
  • Follow fluid curves and softer lines
  • Allow a larger mix of planting and variety
  • Relaxed feel which is loose
  • Asymmetry
  • Mix of materials that are cohesive

Informal relaxed garden

Who do informal gardens appeal to?

Informal gardens would appeal to people who are less concerned with control and more in tune with letting nature find its own way. Informal garden styles such as the cottage garden or say meadow planting will allow plants to mingle and grow together.

Whilst shapes may be used they are not necessarily symmetrical or balanced on any axis, i.e. formal gardens sometimes could be folded in half and match up. To summarise informal gardens are more relaxed and less intentional at first glance. This, however, does not make them easier to plan or maintain! Here are some general assumptions that may suggest a more informal style is for you.

  1. Sweeping planting in drifts that blend together
  2. In keeping with nature as it follows the natural lines and topography of a garden
  3. Natural materials blending with the planting and surroundings
  4. Letting the garden evolve over time.
  5. People who like a ‘laid back style’, if it is not done today, there is always tomorrow!

Water features in informal gardens

Water features are common in informal gardens, especially a natural or wildlife pond. Using soft curves and natural materials a natural water feature can become the focal point of the garden. Attracting wildlife and visitors alike. However, a badly finished or awkward;y edged informal pond can look disastrous and make your natural garden look awkward and man-made. Below is a video of getting the perfect natural finish when fitting a pond or water feature in your informal garden.

Are informal gardens hard to maintain?

Just like any garden, the maintenance depends on the plants and design. If you are looking for a cottage garden full of summer blooms then yes there will be a high level of maintenance to deadhead and propagate seed flowers ready for the summer. However, an informal garden with areas of slow-growing evergreens and shrubs can be relatively maintenance free. I usually plan informal gardens to be a mix of year-round colour with minimal pruning.  

whitstable-garden-planting-sarah

Gorgeous beach style planting, carefully considered and relaxing in one

The risk with an informal garden that is improperly planned is that the ‘pick and mix‘ planting usually seen when people add little by little to their garden is that the plants all flower at different times and you end up in a constant cycle of maintenance.  It is important to ensure in an informal garden that the ultimate height and growing speed is carefully considered.  What may start out as a delightful small perennial may suddenly take over a small border! A garden design that’s carefully considered, avoids this pick and mix garden giving it year round structure which is suited to your level of involvement!

informal garden design

Planning your informal garden in advance can save problems later on

Planning your garden in advance not only saves time but money at the nursery or garden centre when choosing your plants.

The Pitfall of Informal Gardens

This is also sometimes the undoing of a garden, without structure, intention and planning an informal garden can just become a catch-all term for ‘free for all‘ or ‘messy garden‘. I knew a neighbour once that used to wax lyrical about their ‘informal country cottage style’ garden. Upon friendly inspection, there was a mix of dried annuals from last year, perennial weeds, pick and mix shrubs and oddly shaped border. Now, this may be the look you are going for. The chances are it’s not.

confused-informal-garden

The above garden is a good example of a slightly confused informal garden. You have a mix of perennial shrubs, hedging and then some brilliant but bonkers clipped box animals in the centre. Don’t get me wrong its fun, but it’s not necessarily cohesive.

 

Summary

If you want an informal natural look, there are plenty of ways you can achieve a real wow factor without the chaos of the previous example. Looking to nature to see how plants propagate or blend in the wild is usually a great place for a meadow or prairie border. As a final thought, the below video shows how a formal structure such as a circular lawn can be paired up with a really relaxed informal planting scheme on the Overlooked back garden.

Fancy having your own informal garden?  Get in touch with Garden Ninja over my garden design services.

Happy Gardening!

One thought on “What is an Informal garden?

  1. ofori gyamfi emmanuel says:

    This a powerful piece. Thank you so much. I am a Landscape designer too.

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