Modern Garden Design – Gardens Without Plants

Modern Garden Design – Gardens Without Plants

Living plants may not be practical in every outdoor space. In this article we’re looking at gardens without plants.

I love plants and truly believe that they enhance our lives in a million different ways. However, gardens are more than just places to grow plants. They should suit their owner’s lifestyle, be fit for purpose and most of all, they should be manageable.

There are all sorts of reasons for not having living plants in a garden. Perhaps the microclimate would make it difficult to maintain plants. Maybe the owner is not confident about their plantsmanship. Sometimes it’s about needing all the available space for parking/playing. But the most common reason is that homeowners worry that pets or children could damage (or be damaged) by the plants.

Whilst training to become a garden designer, I found that if a garden is designed and built really well, it doesn’t necessarily need plants to beautify it. So let’s think a little more about gardens without plants.

Creating interest with shapes and surfaces

gardens without plants

The courtyard of the lions in Alhambra, Spain is one of the oldest gardens in existence.  There are a couple of plants in place, but the ambience is created entirely by the colours, shapes and shadows in this space.

There is a central water feature and a very simple colour pallet. Although the intricately carved cloisters probably wouldn’t sit well in the average back garden in Essex, there are lots we can learn from this garden.

  • Uncluttered layout
  • Strong focal point
  • Simple colour pallet
  • Sound is important
  • Very well built (it’s lasted since the 1300’s)

For a garden without plants, the choice of surface materials is absolutely key. But it’s best to keep it simple. One of the most important principals in garden design is the rule of 3. Stick with 3 surfaces, 3 colours, 3 textures and 3 shapes and you won’t go far wrong.

In this garden we’ve used combined circles, squares, rectangles and three different surfacing materials to create interest.

Think in 3D

When you have plants in a garden, they highlight that all important third dimension – height. If the plants are not there – what design features will you incorporate to lift your eyes off the ground?

Personally I love to experiment with different vertical surfaces. And there are so many to choose from. Laser cut screens are awesome as are fences with lateral slats. I also love a strong timber building or a contemporary designed pergola. The choice should, of course, be influenced by the property and the area it sits in but it’s great to play with ideas.

garden screen in blue glass

This curved blue glass screen separates this little seating area from the bin store. I’ve chosen pavers and aggregate that co-ordinate with the colours.
I’m quite proud of this little garden without plants.

Movement and Sound

It’s very easy for a garden without plants to be a bit like an empty room – voices and footsteps echo around the space. Designing without plants involves incorporating surfaces that will absorb sound rather than reflect it. Aggregates, artificial grass, artificial green walls, or even water are good at this.

Water is great for creating movement and sound too. Imagine how different The Courtyard of the Lions would feel without that fountain…..

Water features needn’t be huge or ostentatious. Even a simple, minimalistic water feature can change the energy in a space.

simple water feature in corten steel

This simple corten steel water feature would look amazing in a garden without plants


In my honest opinion, every garden should be beautifully lit. After sunset, the whole area comes to life with just a flick of a switch. Use lights to accentuate features, cast interesting shadows and create ambience. Clever lighting design will entice you outdoors no matter what the weather is doing.

Precision built

With no plants to distract your eye from wonky bits, it’s imperative that your garden is precision built. Every single mistake will stick out like a sore thumb. So very careful in your choice of landscaper.

Joints between patio slabs must be straight, clean and even. The pointing and grouting needs to be spot on. Porcelain pavers are generally very good at repelling stains, but some natural stone is good at slurping up and retaining spilt wine. A professional landscaper will be able to advise on whether or not to seal the stone.

If you are using artificial grass, it needs to be installed so that you can’t see any joins and the edges are fixed neatly. I would also recommend using some sort of edging around gravelled areas.

Advantages of having your garden built by professional landscapers

Your plant-free garden

Designing  gardens without plants is so much more than ripping up the lawn and replacing it with astro turf. It’s about combining different surfaces and features to create beauty and functionality.

The Tapestry Design Studios team are here to help you design your plant free garden – and it will probably cost less than you think to have our experts re-imagine the space for you.

Discover more about the cost of garden design in this article

Other helpful garden design articles

Modern landscape design – trends for the twenties

Why it’s important to set your landscaping budget early  


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