If you prefer a naturalized outdoor space, you may be thinking about creating an informal garden. But “informal” doesn’t mean messy or out of control. This type of garden is meant to mimic nature, with flowing, curved lines and naturalistic plantings. In nature, plants naturally grow together without much of a plan. Seeds germinate and thrive when they find themselves in the right conditions. It doesn’t matter if they match the other colors around them or if they’re in straight rows. And they don’t worry that their neighbors are “weeds” or invasive.
However, when you plan your garden, you can control what is planted and what is removed. With the right informal garden elements, your outdoor space will appear natural but not unruly. You can choose the color scheme and the shape of the flower beds that work best with your vision.
What is an Informal Garden?
An informal garden is one that follows the lines and patterns of natural habitats. This is in contrast to formal gardens, which strive to contain nature into straight lines and geometric structures. Formal gardens were quite popular during the middle ages, when wealthy landowners invested heavily in highly artificial landscapes to show their power. These formal gardens used straight pathways, highly clipped hedges and topiary, and strictly limited colors and textures.
The popularity of more natural gardens arose in the 1700s with the Landscape Movement in Britain. These gardens were still highly designed but made to appear natural. Lakes and rivers were even dug to produce an idealized and romanticized landscape.
This style worked well for large properties but these days, isn’t really practical for the average homeowner who doesn’t have hundreds of acres to work with.
Naturalistic Garden Trends
However, the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century brought the cottage garden into fashion. British horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll was particularly influential in making the informal garden style popular when formal Victorian gardens were considered superior.
She and others involved in the Arts and Crafts movement focused on natural materials, crafted by hand by trained artisans, in response to the sudden boom of mass manufacturing during the Victorian age.
Informal gardens don’t have straight walks and paths with obvious focal points. Their curves and hidden spaces instead reveal eye-catching surprises at the last minute. As you round a corner, you’ll discover something to please, astonish, or amuse.
How to Create an Informal Garden
Creating your own informal garden means understanding the basic elements of their design. You want it to look natural but not overgrown, so restraint is always in order.
To create an informal garden, take a tour of the existing space and observe what is already growing. Study the areas of sun and shade and note them down. You’ll need to know which areas get the most sun and which retain the most moisture.
Once you’re more familiar with the space, decide what kind of informal garden you want to create.
Types of Informal Gardens
While cottage gardens are the first to come to mind when you think about informal gardens, they’re not the only style. Some choices may be limited by the existing space you have to work with, but all are considered good choices for informal garden styles.
Perfect for the shady spots under a dense tree canopy.
Planted with flowers for pollinators and water features for insects and amphibians.
Excellent use of large, flat areas of the garden.
A good choice for making the most of the sodden parts of the garden.
Generally considered the most romantic style of garden, they are chock full of a colorful assortment of blooms throughout the growing season.
This French style combines herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers intermingled.
Nearly any type of garden could be designed for a more casual look if the right informal garden elements are used.
Get it On Paper
Start with a beginner informal garden sketch to create your design. Graph paper makes it easier to keep track of measurements and get an idea of proportion.
Start by measuring the space you wish to include. Then layout out the measurements on the grid. Be sure to mark existing paths, access to electricity, and hose bibbs if applicable.
Once you have a sketch of the existing garden space, you can create your new design.
Key Parts of an Informal Garden
Once you have your basic layout on paper, you’ll want to include a few key informal garden elements to your design.
Curved paths and borders
Paths and flower beds that wind around each other create an unhurried opportunity to linger in the garden.
Informal gardens should feel organic in all respects, which means using natural materials in any hardscape. Irregularly shaped stone pavers look more natural than brick paths.
Rustic or raw wood seating will feel more relaxed than concrete benches. Rock retaining walls can define terraced garden beds without making them look artificial.
Informal planting schemes
A mix of plants will look more natural than a carefully cultivated scheme where plants are arranged by color and height.
While you don’t want to block out the view of smaller specimens, consider allowing some taller plants to creep toward the front of the beds.
In fact, mix plant heights up to take advantage of all angles, not just the view from the nearest path.
Combine colors as well as heights for that cottage garden appeal. While you may not want a random patchwork of confusingly different hues, consider using tonal variations of three or four of your favorite colors to provide variety that is still visually cohesive.
Natural-looking ponds and pools are ideal water features in informal gardens. You will probably get a more naturalistic shape by digging a hole and lining it with butyl rather than by buying a preformed liner. Your planting scheme should include water plants, as well as marginal and bog plants.
Other water features could include a small stream or a rocky cascade, which can quite easily he created with a collection of rocks, a small reservoir, and a submersible pump. Cobble, millstone, and wall fountains can all be useful when you want to provide the sight and sound of water without giving up space to a pond.
Another place where natural materials work best. Dot seating areas where they make the most sense along the pathways. You’ll want to choose both sunny and shady spots for seating. You’ll also want a larger space for entertaining near the house.
Important features of informal garden
No matter what style of garden or the type of plants used, informal garden design relies heavily on a few important principles:
Nature rarely observes restrictions on color or space. While you may want to limit your color palette, informal gardens use a combination of complementary and contrasting bloom colors.
Informal garden paths are curved, rather than straight. A snaking path will provoke a more leisurely stroll filled with mystery around each corner. Straight paths will reveal the entire garden in one glance, and there’s no reason to linger.
Balance in the formal garden is provided by symmetry. In an informal garden, you have to create your own balance. A large, open space such as a lawn can be balanced by a mature tree or seating area.
Colors can also provide harmony within asymmetrical spaces. Repeated flower plantings throughout the garden creates continuity and a sense of balance.
Mix of plants
Low-care native plants are often a good choice for informal gardens. Whatever you decide to use, however, planting with diversity in mind creates a controlled but casual look. Mix and match plants with similar growing conditions and choose your favorites. Repeated plantings throughout the garden will give it a sense of wholeness.
Informal gardens should feel laid back and welcoming. Provide plenty of shady places for visitors to rest their feet and their eyes.
Create privacy by using flowering bushes as hedges surrounding secluded spaces. These plantings will also block sound and sight from the street.
Emphasis on texture
Work with texture to provide year-round interest, especially during winter months. Vary the textures of foliage and shapes of leaves in your planting scheme.
Look for varied textures in the hardscapes as well. Consider using a combination of different shapes or colors of pavers for your informal garden paths.
Vary the materials for planters and benches to retain a more casual look to your outdoor space.
Who do informal gardens appeal to?
Many people find informal gardens preferable to more formal and stylized spaces. In fact, a study published in Frontiers of Psychology in 2016 found that most people felt informal gardens were more “restorative” than formal gardens.
Participants stated that more naturalistic spaces were more appealing and were more conducive to reducing stress and anxiety.
Are informal gardens hard to maintain?
Any garden style can be hard to maintain if it’s not well planned well. The secret to reducing work in any style of garden is choosing the right plants.
Look for plants that flourish in your climate. For example, lavender is a tried-and-true cottage garden plant. However, it suffers and perishes quickly in hot and steamy climates.
Tropical hibiscus will thrive in hot, humid conditions, but will require digging up and wintering indoors every year in temperate zones.
Hot and arid climates require drought-hardy plants like Gaillardia and Coreopsis. Planting thirsty specimens like hydrangeas and begonias will mean hours of extra watering every week.
Unlike a formal garden, a few stray flowers out of place or a bit of moss on the pavers of an informal garden simply adds to its charm. While you don’t want it to get completely out of control, you won’t have to trim and prune every week, either.
The Pitfall of Informal Gardens
The main downfall of informal gardens may be that they’re simply too much of a temptation to overplant.
Any new garden is going to look a bit spare and even naked until the plants mature. However, formal garden designs provide a bit more structure. They have strict, straight lines to follow and exacting planting schemes.
An informal garden, on the other hand, is much more flexible. It’s not difficult to become distracted by some lovely new rose at the garden center. You know you can always squeeze it in somewhere, because your design is so forgiving.
Unfortunately, overcrowding often leads to disease. Roses are particularly susceptible to black spot, which thrives in densely planted gardens. Roses need lots of room and good ventilation.
So, remember to honor good plant spacing practices when creating your informal garden. You may be able to get away with overcrowding with annuals for a season. But your perennials will love you if you’re patient and let them grow to maturity with plenty of room.
Informal gardens don’t have to appear unkempt or messy to look natural. Start with your existing space and map out informal garden paths with a meandering pattern. Use this pattern to place flower beds, bushes, shrubs, trees, and specimen plants along the path and between cutbacks to create mystery and privacy along the walkway.
Choosing tonal variations of the same three or four colors – such as different shades of pink, blue, and yellow – throughout the garden – to create a cohesive design. Balance asymmetrical areas with color or seating areas.
Add naturalistic seating and water features for a woodland feel that invites visitors to rest and soak in the lovely and relaxed ambiance of your informal garden space.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been completely updated.