Gardening is an extremely broad concept. Many people garden for physical exercise and personal enjoyment. Others garden because it is a reliable source of food.
Ornamental gardening is a style of gardening concerned almost exclusively with aesthetics.
In other words, it is about using plants in the most visually appealing — or beautiful — way possible.
In reality, most gardens are at least partially ornamental.
Unlike more functional styles of gardening, though, ornamental gardens are concerned about looks rather than yield or even sustainability.
Are you wondering how to start an ornamental garden of your own?
Keep reading for a complete rundown of what makes this pastime different from other forms of gardening.
How Is Ornamental Gardening Different From “Normal” Gardening?
Ornamental gardening simply refers to gardening with artistic design as the main principle.
This is in contrast to gardening for food production, habitat management, or other practical purposes.
Plus, there’s really no such thing as “normal” gardening.
Non-ornamental gardens might serve a different purpose than ornamental ones but neither type is more or less normal!
Are There Different Types of Ornamental Gardening?
Ornamental gardening can be split into broad categories depending on the style and types of plants used.
For example, some gardens may feature only annual plants that are replaced with new varieties each spring.
Others may be filled with perennials, shrubs, and trees that change very little year to year.
Another way you can categorize ornamental gardens is by artistic style. Some popular styles include zen, cottage, formal, desert, and modern.
These are just a few types of ornamental gardening you can choose from.
Some gardens draw inspiration from several styles at once. Others subvert these trends in favor of being completely original.
It’s important to remember that ornamental gardening is an art form.
There are no rules that must be followed. Instead, it’s about individual creativity.
Which Plants Are Ornamental Plants?
Any plant species can be ornamental if grown primarily for its appearance.
Most ornamental plants produce showy flowers during the growing season.
Some varieties that may instantly come to mind include rose, hydrangea, peony, hibiscus, and begonia.
Some species — like evergreen shrubs, ferns, or ornamental grasses — are grown solely for their aesthetically pleasing foliage.
Others — like cacti or succulents — are planted for their all-around unique shape and growth habits.
Many trees are planted primarily as ornamental plants. Popular examples are species of redbud, lilac, and Japanese maple.
Even fruit trees can be ornamental if not grown primarily for food.
What Are the Benefits of Ornamental Gardening?
The act of gardening alone is shown to support physical and mental health.
An ornamental garden can boost the mood of the owner as well as anyone who walks past.
You can even enjoy the beauty of ornamental gardening indoors.
Many popular garden species produce excellent bouquet flowers which can be placed in a vase or gifted to loved ones.
Planting an ornamental garden might be exactly what you need to brighten up your home’s curb appeal or interior decor.
The presence of any well-kept garden can boost real estate value.
But ornamental landscaping tends to have the biggest impact on residential property value (up to a 77% increase).
If you have no intention of selling your home anytime soon, then curb appeal might not be a huge concern.
With that said, putting a little extra work into your garden beds can boost the appeal of your neighborhood as a whole.
It could even encourage other homeowners to beautify their front yards to match your own!
Because so many ornamental plants produce showy flowers, they are major contributors to pollen-eating wildlife (known as palynivores).
Planting a variety of flowers in your ornamental beds can attract a wide range of pollinators.
Some visitors to your garden might include bumblebees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.
Ornamental plants can even provide a food source in the form of fruit.
For example, the fruit of rose bushes (called rosehips) is beloved by wildlife such as squirrels, deer, and birds.
Of course, you should never consume fruit from an ornamental garden unless you are entirely certain it is safe.
What Are the Downsides of Ornamental Gardening?
It’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture when trying to make your garden look as interesting and beautiful as possible.
Gardening solely for aesthetic purposes can be a slippery slope toward unsustainable practices.
Throughout history, humans have been responsible for introducing invasive plant species to ecosystems around the world.
Many of these species were introduced for practical reasons. Many others were relocated from their native habitats solely for their looks.
Even today, potentially invasive species are constantly being introduced to gardens as ornamental plants.
While these species often have gorgeous blooms and foliage, they are a direct threat to native plants and animals.
Maintaining a beautiful garden can be a double-edged sword. Although pollen production is a huge boon for native pollinators, it’s not ideal for seasonal allergy sufferers.
If you or a loved one suffer from pollen-induced allergies, it’s a good idea to research which garden plants are most likely to act as a trigger.
Depending on the severity of your allergies, it might not be enough to eliminate a single species from your garden.
You may need to avoid entire taxonomic families to keep sneezing and puffiness at bay.
If you choose to fill your ornamental garden with perennials, then it’s nearly impossible to take a season (or even a couple of months) off.
Perennials continue growing throughout their entire lives. Left to their own devices, these plants can quickly become overgrown and unattractive.
The longer your garden goes without pruning, the harder it will be to get everything back under control.
While it’s true that all gardens require regular maintenance, this isn’t as big of an issue when growing annual flowers or vegetables.
How Do I Start an Ornamental Garden?
In many ways, just as you would any other garden!
As long as you have a plot of land and the right tools, you can start an ornamental garden practically overnight.
For the best results possible, though, ornamental gardening requires a unique approach.
Unlike highly practical gardens, such as vegetable gardens and even some types of landscaping, ornamental gardening is all about aesthetics.
This means that an eye for design is just as important as the physical planting.
You can apply the main principles of design to any ornamental garden bed. These principles include:
Before you start digging, don’t hesitate to plan out your ornamental garden on paper or using a digital program.
Being able to see what your planned layout looks like will make finalizing your design much easier (and save time and labor!).
Does Ornamental Gardening Require Specific Skills?
Ornamental plant care is not much different from any other gardening style.
As long as you understand the basics of fertilizing, irrigation, pest prevention, and pruning, you’re well-equipped for the job.
As your experience grows and you encounter more exotic plant species, though, ornamental gardening can become a challenge.
Some gardeners — hobbyists and professionals — devote their entire careers to caring for delicate or rare plants.
But there are countless low-maintenance species out there perfectly suited to the average gardener.
Is Ornamental Gardening More Work?
That depends on several factors.
On the one hand, ornamental gardening doesn’t require harvesting at the end of the growing season like a vegetable garden or orchard.
On the other hand, maintaining your garden’s appearance can eat up a lot of time and resources.
Many things — nutritional deficiencies, weather, wildlife foraging, etc. — can drastically affect a plant’s appearance without actually killing the plant.
Ornamental plant species may also require cosmetic care like pruning or deadheading that have little impact on the plants’ physical wellbeing.
Is Ornamental Gardening More Expensive?
Sometimes. But there are plenty of steps you can take to make ornamental gardening more affordable.
If you’re interested in sticking to a budget, plant perennial species instead of annuals.
Perennials will return year after year while annuals die off after a single growing season.
Another money-saving option is self-seeding. Self-seeding flowers are typically annuals that drop seeds from the parent plant.
While the original plant will die off in winter, new seedlings will emerge next spring.
Purchase new plants at the end of the planting season when items are on clearance. Opt for seedlings over mature plants to save even more money.
Gardeners love to share. Check your local community boards or social media pages for neighbors who have plants available for free pickup.
Common varieties you’ll find this way include hostas, lilies of the valley, and shrub roses.
How Do You Prepare Soil for an Ornamental Garden?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to soil preparation.
However, we do recommend following a few specific steps to ensure your new ornamental garden starts off on the right foot.
Perhaps the most impactful step you can take in preparing a new garden bed is to test the existing soil.
Soil testing is a relatively simple process that can tell you what nutrients are and are not present in adequate quantities.
Use an at-home testing kit or contact your local horticulture extension office for professional testing.
Once you know the nutrient content of the native soil on your property, you can amend it responsibly.
Depending on your specific garden’s needs, you may need to add compost or another form of organic matter to the current soil.
According to the University of Georgia, the recommended application is 40 pounds of organic fertilizer for every 100 square feet of garden bed.
Another key factor in prepping an ornamental garden bed is soil drainage.
If you’re lucky, the soil in your future garden bed will already be well-draining. In many cases, though, additional work is needed to prepare the area for planting.
Aggressive tilling can quickly break apart compacted soil and improve drainage.
The deeper the tiller reaches, the less chance you’ll have of waterlogging and other drainage-related issues.
You can direct rainwater away from sensitive ornamental plants by building a sloped garden bed. This method also works well in areas where tilling isn’t enough to improve drainage.
Pile loose topsoil on your garden bed to create a sloped mound at least 12 inches tall. Plant the bed as normal — the sloped surface will naturally prevent waterlogging.
7 Tips for Successful Ornamental Gardening
1. Create a Rough Draft
Very few gardeners can jump into ornamental gardening completely blind. If you want your garden to be healthy and beautiful, it’s best to start out with a plan.
Planning out your garden bed on paper or digitally can be beneficial in so many ways.
It gives you a chance to visualize spacing and see how certain plants will look next to each other.
It also makes it much easier to estimate the number of seedlings or starter plants needed to fill out your ornamental garden.
2. Know the Land
The more research and prep work you put into a new ornamental garden, the better chance you have for success.
This preparation can include things like testing the soil or tracking the amount of sun and shade received by your future garden bed.
3. Research New Plants
Investing in new plants for a garden is not cheap. Even starting new plants from seed can cost quite a bit of time, labor, and money.
Before buying ornamental plants for your garden, be sure to research their basic needs.
You want to ensure you have the necessary skills to care for each plant and that it will thrive in the local climate.
This is also an excellent time to identify potentially harmful or invasive plant species to avoid in your area.
4. Stick to a Schedule
Ideally, your ornamental garden should last for several years (unless, of course, you plant exclusively annuals).
As the year progresses, your garden’s care needs will change as well.
It’s important to know ahead of time how to care for your ornamental plants not just in the growing season but also throughout fall and winter.
Timing is also essential to “waking up” your perennial garden plants come springtime.
Adhering to a proper schedule isn’t just about keeping your ornamental garden alive.
For many species, tasks like pruning must be done at a specific time to encourage flower production and new growth.
5. Irrigate Responsibly
Planting a lush ornamental garden can be a slippery slope if you live somewhere rain is scarce.
Landscape irrigation consumes incredible amounts of water — the United States alone uses approximately 9 billion gallons of water on its lawns and gardens each day.
You can counter the amount of water needed in your garden by planting ornamental species suited to the local climate.
Native species require very little, if any, irrigation outside of natural rainfall.
Consider installing a rain barrel for even more sustainable garden irrigation.
6. Avoid Landscaping Fabric
Landscaping fabric might seem like an easy way to combat weeds. But it often comes with more drawbacks than benefits.
If you plan to grow any annuals in your ornamental garden, landscaping fabric will make it nearly impossible to remove and replant flowers each spring.
It may also cause issues with soil quality and impede the roots and larger perennials.
Landscaping fabric is best reserved for hardscaping projects. Stick to using mulch in your ornamental garden to prevent weeds and produce a more polished look.
7. Be Open to Learn
No one becomes an expert gardener in a single year!
Don’t let the failings of your first ornamental bed discourage you from continuing to pursue this incredible hobby.
With time, things like knowing when to plant annuals or identifying common pests and diseases will become second nature.
You’ll become more skilled and be able to tackle more challenging plant species with ease.
If that wasn’t enough, the skills you learn through ornamental gardening can be transferred to all types of plant care.
One thing that differentiates ornamental gardening from other cultivation styles is its emphasis on individuality.
If you compare two random vegetable gardens, you’ll likely notice quite a few overlaps in terms of layout, plant selection, and visual design.
This is rarely the case when it comes to ornamental garden beds.
Ornamental gardening is the perfect pastime for anyone who enjoys experimenting with plants and paying attention to the details.
Yes, there are trends in the world of ornamental gardening. But there is nothing stopping you from creating a garden that is unlike any other!