In recent years, Scandinavian countries have been lauded as leaders in design. Among admirers of a minimalist design aesthetic, Scandinavian fashion, graphic, and interior design have been praised for their approach to daily life. But have you noticed gardens are missing from the mix?
Six years ago, I met landscape designer Annika Zetterman for a cup of coffee in a Stockholm cafe, where she spoke passionately about her love for Nordic gardens and how she wants to bring Scandinavian garden design to the forefront. Now with her new book, New Nordic Gardens: Scandinavian Garden Design, Zetterman is shining a light on the brilliance of landscape design throughout Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and even Finland.
Photography by Annika Zetterman.
What makes Scandinavian gardens special? The author explains in the forward, “The characteristics of Scandinavia—how our particular mentality and rural heritage is translated and reflected—can be found in all aspects of a garden. The implementation of hard landscaping is one of the elements where this can be seen. We see beauty in the bare and the exposed, and treat materials with the utmost respect. The definition of sustainability, a word widely used today, has always been fundamental to Scandinavian identity. We had to work hard in a harsh environment, and everything had to be made to last.”
The book is divided into nine sections, each a distinctive trait of Scandinavian landscaping. From “Open” to “Silent” to “Simple,” Zetterman breaks down the elements of Nordic landscaping. The bold lines and architecture, stemming from granite and boulders of the sometimes harsh landscape, are paired with soft and wild plant materials that blend seamlessly with the natural vegetation of these northern climates. Zetterman is quick to point out that Nordic gardens go beyond trends, and are more than just a matter of simplifying.
“Consequently simplicity in Scandinavian garden design doesn’t equate to achieving quick results, taking short-cuts or merely subtracting clutter,” Zetterman writes. “The priority is always careful execution and high-quality results. With this simple expression every element has meaning, adding significance to the design. In the end simplicity is about being direct and working with materials in an honest way; turning every single stone in a dry stone wall to show its best side.”
Zetterman treats nature with respect, looking to extend natural landscapes into landscape architecture, and carefully and thoughtfully building and fine-tuning each element, from a roof shingle to a granite pathway to a swimming pool layout. A respect for nature is a key feature of Nordic garden design. From summerhouses to saunas to forest mushroom picking, nature is a sort of religion in Scandinavia—most certainly not a trend, a phase, or a new phenomenon.
“In Scandinavia, it is viewed as a privilege to be close to nature,” Zetterman explains. “We have an enormous respect for our surroundings—the forests, lakes, fields, and mountains. We are born and raised close to nature, acquiring knowledge of how to treat our surroundings and how to respect and care about the wild.”
In New Nordic Gardens, Zetterman walks us through each element of Nordic garden design, explaining how you can bring the approach of Scandinavian design to your own garden. She outlines the materials such as granite, gravel, and concrete—as well as special elements including outdoor showers and saunas, which are characteristic of the indoor-outdoor lifestyle of the north.
Zetterman also walks us through how to create a visually interesting garden throughout the seasons. If anyone knows how to highlight the virtues of every season, it would be Scandinavians, who make living through the harshest winter look like a pure delight by embracing darkness.
Zetterman delves into light and lighting, highlighting the importance of dark spaces in contrast with installed lighting and how to create the most impact by playing with light and dark elements throughout the garden. “The key to a successful lighting composition is to leave some areas unlit. Balancing illuminated spaces with darkness creates dynamic contrast, and the space will resonate with tranquil unity.”
See more ideas for Scandinavian garden design in 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Scandinavia and if you’re designing a new garden or rehabbing an existing landscape, start with our Hardscape 101 guides to Decks & Patios, Pavers, and Perennials: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.