Photo Credit: Matthew Williams

How to Plant a Modern Garden Indoors and Out

Having a modern garden is about applying your own philosophy to cutting-edge materials to create a unique outdoor space. Think personalized high design, using low-maintenance plants and products.

Julie Farris headshot

Julie Farris

“When I was growing up, people spent a lot of time maintaining their gardens, but I think now, especially among the younger demographic, we don’t have as much time,” says Brooklyn-based landscape architect Julie Farris.

A specialist in modern garden design, she plants gardens in urban and country environments with an approach that’s tailored to people’s practical lives and demands. Although she prefers a clean, simple aesthetic, she stresses there is no set way for a modern garden to look.

Here are Farris’ tips for growing a “smart” garden that plays well with its natural environment:

Create contained wildernesses:

Native perennials that regenerate and endure, like these cleanly edged calagramostis grass perennials Farris planted at the Water Mill House in the Hamptons (below), are a great choice for the time-pressed — and environmentally-aware — gardener. “The idea of watering a lawn all the time is being rethought in favor of maybe a designed meadow that has its own life within boundaries, which will, over time, become the landscape that it wants to be,” Farris says.

Native perennials in contained landscapes

Native perennials

Mix and match grasses:

“Perennial grasses generally have their own structure; some are clumpy, some are upright, some mounded, some spikey. I like to plant tall perennials with other lower perennials in front of them, or lower perennials en masse for a more sculptural effect.”

Spiky perennials

Spiky perennials

Consult a plant app:

Farris recommends Like that Garden for identifying plants. “You can take a photo of the plant, and it instantly identifies it in a database.” She also likes Leafsnap for identifying trees based on leaves. “It has games for the real plant nerds.”

Set your boundaries:

In place of traditional wooden fencing, Farris prefers woven willow panels as “a beautiful way to define a garden because they have an organic texture that is soft and less obtrusive than most ordinary fencing options.” She recommends The Willow Farm for custom panels.

Teak Warehouse seating collection

Teak Warehouse


Choose long-lasting woods for seating:

Soft woods like pine, or materials like mesh and wicker, may look good and be cost-effective in the short term, but they’re not built to last. Instead, opt for teak and other long-lasting classic woods. “Teak works well because it is hardy and enduring, and you don’t necessarily need to worry about storing it for winter.” Farris particularly loves the Teak Warehouse collection. “They have a great low-slung look that is clean, relaxed and comfortable; and you don’t need to cover it…if you can’t.”

Teak Warehouse seating collection

Teak Warehouse

Form meets function with the right planters:

Farris looks for planters in a muted palette made from natural materials like stone or clay. What’s key is allowing the plant to be the focal point. “I like plants to be the thing providing color in a garden,” she says. Handmade planters, like the sculptural pieces by Belgian company Atelier Vierkant, tend to last longer.

Fiber clay, a new lightweight material that is a composite of fiberglass and clay (as picture below from Terrain) is a good value for its durability. For small planters, keep it simple. “One small ornamental grass or herb or perennial flower will generally do the trick.”

Terrain fiber clay

fiber clay

Yes, Astroturf:

Contemporary synthetic lawn products from a company, like Syn Lawn, can look surprisingly cool and modern in a small space, if edged well in wood or steel. “Roll the mat over a platform of wood, and make sure to allow for drainage through the slats,” she says. “It’s completely sustainable, always green, and requires no maintenance.”

Go green on the inside:

If outdoor space is not available, an indoor moss wall is Farris’ go-to. Try using preserved plants — FlowerBox Wall Gardens uses a patented treatment to preserve plants’ inherent color, form and texture for a guaranteed five years, meaning your mosaic of ferns, mosses and grasses will not require water, soil or sun. “It’s completely ecological, requires no maintenance, and is green all year round. Innovation in landscape at its finest.”

FlowerBox Wall Gardens plant preserver