Dissecting Earthy Contemporary Garden Style at Cypress Ridge

July 11, 2024

In my book (Cultivating Garden Style, Timber Press 2014), I dubbed a garden-style “Earthy Contemporary”. I made up the name, so if you’ve heard of it, you know its origin. I illustrated my breakdown of this garden style with images from a contemporary garden designed by the California landscape design firm Zeterre.

Nestled in Los Gatos, a beautifully landscaped Garden Gallery features vibrant purple and pink flowers, lush green and reddish-brown foliage, and variegated plants along a curving, wave-like gray retaining wall. A gravel pathway lined with blue-green grass runs alongside the wall.
The Cypress Ridge Garden in Los Gatos, CA. Designed and photographed by Zeterre landscape design.

This is how I described Earthy Contemporary (back in 2012 – which is important to note for this conversation – it’s more than a decade later now, and I think it is worth pondering what has changed):

Modern Vs. Contemporary in Landscape and Garden Design

I used to struggle to understand the nuanced difference between contemporary and modern design. But there is a difference worth understanding. Contemporary is now (like right now), it is of the moment and it is constantly changing.  Conversely, ‘modern’ is a notable design movement that started in the 1950’s and was marked by a dramatic break from the ornate interiors and home decoration that had been the fashion prior.  Long low and clean lines, neutrality with color pops here and there and big expanses define modern.  We all like to call the movement and style Mid-Century Modern these days – which is fine – but really it is just modern. 

The thing about ‘modern’ is that it is still relatively new and its influence pervades what we call contemporary.  Contemporary is what we are doing in the current moment.  My favorite explanation is from blogger Lindsay Nealon at Urban Domesticity – “Yesterday’s contemporary is today’s vintage. And tomorrow’s contemporary is still unknown”.  We can all agree that we often think of Mid-century Modern (which is modern) as vintage these days, right?  

So when we talk about contemporary – we have to get ourselves on the same page – currently it is heavily influenced by modern design, meaning that is full of long straight lines and a tendency to be restrained in intricate details but it also a few other things…it is looser and more livable, it is earthy, it is reflective of the fact that we are kind of into mixing things up these days (we call this eclectic) and that we are constantly evolving and experimenting.  

Rochelle Greayer – Cultivating Garden Style (written in 2012 – published by Timber Press in 2014)

Here are a few more images of the Cypress Ridge Garden as Designed by Zeterre Landscapes.

        A tranquil garden pathway in the Garden Gallery of Los Gatos features modern, starburst metal sculptures hanging and placed on the ground. The path leads to a white pergola surrounded by lush greenery and a variety of plants, including ferns and succulents. Trees and bushes create a serene backdrop.
This garden demonstrates many of the elements of Earthy contemporary -note the strong shapes and geometric layouts, the modern and non-traditional materials, and the emphasis on strong sweeps of planting color. Image and design from zeterre landscape design.

Earthy Contemporary – Defining The Garden Style

What are the main characteristics that define (or defined) the Earthy contemporary style (back in 2012)? This is what I saw then, and I’m enjoying revisiting this (in 2024) to see how contemporary garden design is still in line with what it was ten years ago.

A beautifully landscaped garden with patterned lawn areas and purple flowers. A pathway with white archways leads through the Garden Gallery. Dense green trees and a distant Los Gatos cityscape are visible in the background, while greenery lines the path and garden edges.
Like an exciting wedding cake, this garden is tiered across a hillside, and every level provides new and compelling garden features to enjoy.

Geometric Layouts & Details  

Straight-line paths made of square or circular pavers are typically modern.  Spheres, cylinders, cones, and cubes can be reflected in everything from furniture and sculpture to plants.  This sort of mathematically based orderliness can be a soothing and relaxing contrast to our chaotic lives.  Use geometry but keep it current by not being a slave to it and let in elements that catch your fancy.  Create contrast with a wild and floriferous planting below a strictly rigid line of trees or juxtapose ornate and old-fashioned furnishings – re-furbished in an up-to-date color – and use them as a focal point in an otherwise spare garden.  This square patio is created with stacked square cut stones, but it is softened with gravel and casual, irreverent planting.

A tranquil garden scene at the Garden Gallery in Los Gatos features a sundial sculpture surrounded by lush greenery, tall trees, and vibrant plants. The sun's warm light filters through the canopy, creating a serene and inviting atmosphere.

Modern Materials 

Chunky wood, metals (both shiny and rusted) and concrete are cost effective, easy to use, and readily available  – so put them to good use.  Use them in as many ways as you can imagine.  Turn industrial screens into trellis, or decorate walls with slices of railway sleepers, use rebar to screen off an area or make your own custom containers from concrete and Hypertufa techniques.  Combine these with other modern materials like glass, sheet metals and plastics to create new finishes, shapes and options for your contemporary garden. 

A landscaped garden in Los Gatos features tiered flower beds with lush grasses and purple flowers. A cascading water feature runs along a concrete wall, while a tree stands in the background. Stone pavers set amid the green lawn lead through this picturesque Garden Gallery.
Metal, stone, composite stone, and concrete combine to create a backdrop for planting that features burgundy (in the phormium) and silver blue (in the Festuca grass) foliage and bands of purple (I think that is angelonia) and chartreuse.

Use Punchy Color (especially in plants)

Play with color and use it to tie things together or make a point.  Contemporary gardens often use lines of brightly colored plants to draw lines or shapes on the landscape. 

An otherwise neutral (as in all greens and browns) can get a shot of colorful surprise by dropping in a magenta set of bench cushions or punctuating a path with a bright red maple.   Smooth cobbles can come in a variety of colors ranging from black to brown to white, and these can also be used to create blocks of colorful contrast.  It is often common for the interior finishes to be carried outside. 

Try this out by using the same color scheme for an adjacent interior room but paint in plants and flowers outside.  Unusual colors work well on walls and other hard landscaping features. Be brave (it is usually just paint), and create a strong color theme for your garden. 

A stone sculpture resembling a beehive is surrounded by lush greenery in Los Gatos Garden Gallery. The sculpture is sheltered by a white wooden pergola, with various plants and vines growing around it.
Andy Goldsworthy, a stone artist, inspired this egg-shaped water feature of stacked stones.

Less is More 

Use as few kinds of materials, colors, and plants as you can and then get creative with making a big statement with what you have.  Also, try to carry something through the garden from indoors.  The flooring in your open-plan kitchen can carry through in color and style to the decking just outside.  Alternatively, you can make a connection by using tiles with other details like stainless steel accents.  Contemporary gardens are a reflection of our lives – we don’t have as much time to garden as we might like, so keep it easy by keeping less. 

A well-manicured garden in Los Gatos featuring geometric pathways, lush green grass, and vibrant flower beds. A blue stone water feature runs through the center, flanked by white columns and surrounded by various shrubs and blooming purple and yellow flowers—a true Garden Gallery.
Even though there is balance and symmetry in this design – it is not traditional. The shapes and design are not ornate, but these details are bold in a clean, contemporary way.

Has Contemporary Garden Style Changed in the last 10 years?

I’d love to know what you think (tell me in the comments!) – but these are my thoughts on how contemporary design has evolved (at least since I wrote my book).

Contemporary garden design is all about clean lines and functionality – minimalism and a focus on less being more. I think the main elements of strong geometric shapes, open spaces and restrained and striking color palettes are still strong design trends BUT I think there is a shift to choose softer more natural and textural materials (I don’t thinK you will see so much of the shiny metal panels for example). Recycled materials (or the ability to be recycled) and sustainability are also an ever increasing consideration – and all of it is leading to a softening of the contemporary design starkness of a decade ago.

A beautifully landscaped garden gallery with a winding pathway beside a white wall adorned with climbing plants, surrounded by various succulents and agave plants. Lush green trees and shrubs create a serene backdrop, reminiscent of Los Gatos. The area is meticulously arranged with a mix of stone and soil.
Undulating stone walls that are reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s designs welcome guests to this hillside garden.

The materials have also evolved to include not just more sustainable and but locally sourced options, as well as innovative products like permeable pavers and green options.

When you also take into consideration the rapid adoption of naturalistic planting styles that focus more on native plants, the already popular trend is growing as gardeners and designers aim to create even more resilient and self-sustaining landscapes.

Contemporary garden design continues to evolve, reflecting broader trends in sustainability, technology, and lifestyle changes. Over the last decade, there’s been a noticeable shift towards more sustainable practices. These changes have made contemporary gardens more resilient, versatile, and in tune with the natural environment.

The garden designed and images by Zeterre

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  1. p bargar says:

    yes, certainly some potential to expand on the Maher ‘cinema’ style. And there is always merit to the old saw about designing by eliminating all the material that it is not. Making a list of the “no way, are you kidding!?” can be pretty revealing once you start wading into multimedia. And there are SO many odd gardens, so many multi-textured especially these days. Has anyone revisited the ones surviving from the 30-40-50s, now being mature and well-settled? might be an interesting contrast – there&then with the here&now.

  2. Private says:

    On the one hand, it would be lovely to move through a garden in video, and see the perspectives change. On the other hand, I couldn’t check in from work.

  3. Delphine says:

    wow, great find !! merci Rochelina.

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