Top 10 Plants for Minimalist Gardens
Less is more in the minimalist garden with plants playing the part of living sculptures.
Minimalist gardens are like minimalist architecture; they’re about simple, strong forms with little to no frills or fancy details. You’ll see few plants and even fewer flowers in the minimalist garden. The plants that are used have to really earn their keep by complementing the often highly-contemporary architecture. With few other plants to distract the eye, those that are used come under close scrutiny so they have to look good and perform well. If you’d like a garden where plants are just as much sculptural objects as botanic specimens, we’ve got some great candidates for the job.
For sheer impact in a minimalist space it’s hard to beat the tree aloe (Aloe barberae). This native of South Africa and Mozambique can reach up to 18 metres, but as it’s slow growing it can take years to reach that height.
Drought tolerant and easy to care for, tree aloes do need shelter from the cold. Their ability to cope with high temperatures makes them ideal for locations like this one, where there is a lot of hard landscaping and therefore considerable reflected heat. There are several other aloe species that bear the same common name of tree aloe as they grow upwards on tree trunks, but Aloe barberae is the tallest.
To accentuate the striking form of your tree aloe, light it at night from below.
Prized for their scented blooms that waft you to the tropics with one sniff, frangipani trees (Plumeria) also have an elegant shape that superbly complements contemporary minimalist buildings like this one. Most species are deciduous, but the leafless branches have a sculptural beauty and the fragrance of their flowers in summer more than compensates for the lack of leaves in winter. Frangipani need a frost-free location and plenty of sun to flower well.
Tip: Frangipani are best planted in pots in cooler areas or against a north-facing wall.
Japanese landscape designers created some of the earliest minimalist gardens, and maples were always a key plant in those gardens. The key attractions of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are distinctive, beautifully-coloured foliage and graceful branch patterns when not in leaf. These are small trees that range in size from five metres high to tiny one-metre cultivars, so they’re suitable for small gardens, courtyards and pots.
Japanese maples look stunning when positioned in front of a plain wall where their vibrant colours can be appreciated.
This ancient group of plants is prized for its architectural form, often used as a focal point in contemporary minimalist gardens like this one in Melbourne, Victoria. Very slow growing, most cycads do eventually form a trunk like the popular sago palm (Cycas revoluta) pictured, which can ultimately reach 3-4 metres in height.
Tip: Cycads generally need warm temperatures and good drainage, which is why they thrive in pots and raised beds. Use pebbles as a mulch to help keep soil warmer.
Popular back in the 1950s, mother-in law’s tongue (Sansevieria) is now in vogue again, often planted en masse as shown here in raised beds. Sometimes known as snake plant, the upright shape and variegated colours of this succulent make it ideal for minimalist gardens where the emphasis is on strong forms.
Its ability to cope with hot, sunny spaces makes it particularly suitable for contemporary courtyards like this one. It will grow happily outside in warm frost-free areas, but needs to be planted in a container in a very sheltered spot (or indoors) in cooler places.
Tip: Like most succulents, mother-in law’s tongue needs less water in winter and perfect drainage.
There’s something quite poetic about the slender leaves and graceful forms of reeds, particularly when they move in the wind. This contrasts beautifully with the bold architecture of the built structures that often surround minimalist gardens. Many reeds such as the New Zealand native jointed wire rush or oioi (Apodasmia similis) are extremely versatile plants, and are able to cope with difficult conditions such as boggy or dry soil, wind, salt spray and heat. Plant in large groups for maximum effect.
Take care when selecting reed species. Some such as the horsetail reed (pictured) are considered invasive in New Zealand and parts of Australia, as they spread very quickly through spores, and some varieties can be toxic to livestock. Always check with your local nursery, council or the Department of Conservation in New Zealand.
It’s all about drama in the minimalist garden and the elegant trunks of birch trees (Betula) are right on the money. There are about 60 species in this genus of deciduous trees and shrubs, several with distinctive silvery white trunks like these. Plant in groups of three or more for maximum impact with a low ground cover such as ajuga or ‘bugle flower’ below, so that the eye is drawn to the trunks of the trees. Birches are frost-tolerant and not fussy about soil, but need watering during dry weather when young.
Other trees with lovely sculptural trunks include crepe myrtle () and shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis).
Most often seen in traditional formal gardens, topiary takes on a new guise in minimalist outdoor spaces. Rather than the symmetrical pairs of topiary cones or spheres that are the hallmark of classical formal design, we are seeing box and other small-leaved shrubs cloud-pruned into more organic shapes as shown here.
Cloud pruning, or ‘niwaki’, is an ancient Japanese pruning practice where trees and shrubs are trained into shapes that resemble clouds.
Tip: Don’t just stick to box when trying your hand at cloud pruning. New Zealand natives such as Corokia, Coprosma and Muehlenbeckia species work well too.
Another plant highly regarded by Japanese gardeners for centuries is bamboo, a plant with such beauty and delicacy of form it is now equally admired in the west. In the minimalist garden, it looks best planted against a plain backdrop – like the Japanese maple – so its beautiful culms and delicate foliage can be fully enjoyed. There are many different bamboo species, some with black, red, yellow or blue-green coloured stems, and a range of different heights to choose from.
Always choose a clumping bamboo, not a running species that can spread indefinitely if left unchecked.
Like reeds, grasses are planted in the minimalist garden for their grace and softness, contrasting vividly with walls, fences, boardwalks and other built structures. And like reeds again, they should be planted in large groups for the best effect, with few other plants around to compete for attention. Most grasses prefer well-drained soil and plenty of sun, but there are some, such as the New Zealand natives Carex secta and Carex virgata, that will grow in quite wet ground.
Tip: Some of best low-maintenance grasses around are those from the Australian Lomandra genus.
Source: Carol Bucknell, Houzz New Zealand Contributor, Houzz