How to Design a Contemporary Bohemian Garden

April 18, 2019 by


As a traveler with lifelong wanderlust, I can really appreciate the Bohemian or “Boho-chic” style, a carefree and spirited aesthetic adopted from the Romanis (as self-described), a nomadic ethnic group most refer to as “gypsies.” 

Photo by Jordi Sanchez.

Alive with vibrant color and abundant pattern, Boho design generally includes items that might have belonged to an itinerant people: lots of deeply hued oriental rugs, tenting, and voluminous loosely draped fabrics.

Bohemain is a style of labored dishevelment. The “disarranged” space may appear temporary, as if items were serendipitously placed without concern for permanence or what tomorrow might bring. It’s whimsical, fun, and not for those who love things perfectly organized and symmetrical.

Although of northern Indian origin, the French called the Romani people Bohémiens because the group had traveled from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. The Europeans gave them the moniker gypsy from the term gypcian, or Egyptian, mistakenly believing the people originated from Egypt.

Steal This Idea: DIY Rugs 
When considering how to design a contemporary Bohemian garden, think about stenciling wood decking (above) to create the look of an outdoor rug. Or design a rug made from tiles. I spotted the cement tile rug (below) at the trade show Maison et Objet.

Bit o’ Bohemian Lifestyle 
Valuing creativity and individual expression over bourgeois conformity, impoverished early 20th century Parisian artists became known as Bohemians because they embraced the Romani lifestyle, emerging as a counterculture typified by a disdain for money and a focus instead on art and open relationships. They were eccentric, flamboyant, and valued the spontaneity of an ethnic group constantly in motion while they themselves became vagabonds out of necessity.

Even though for centuries the Romanis have been social outcasts, enduring endless scorn and hostility, their inimitable style has nonetheless been widely appropriated by design enthusiasts attracted to the eclectic, free-spirited “chic” decorative approach.

In my own travels around the world, I have visited numerous Bohemian-style spaces, some professionally designed, others thrown together by amateurs whose gardens seemed to most authentically reflect the Boho style. These places oozed with creativity and have provided me with copious amounts of design inspiration.

It’s not necessary to be a slave to any particular style. That’s the beauty of any eclectic design approach–it allows for personal creativity with few boundaries. Many of the gardens I viewed were contemporary interpretations of Bohemian design infused with other stylistic elements.

Scour the Flea Markets!
Foragers by nature as they travel from place to place, today’s Romani people often upcycle found objects for other uses. Other people’s rejects can become your space’s focal point.

If dumpster diving isn’t your thing, scour local flea markets for unusual pieces to help replicate the Bohemian style.

Turn old birdhouses into hanging planters, suspend a disused chandelier, or transform all sorts of discarded “treasures” into containers, seating, or tables.

To bring extra light into the space, I’m planning to hang an odd grouping of junk store and garage sale mirrors on my garden’s adjacent garage wall.

Unconventional in all ways, a Boho garden may contain eclectic personal artifacts, candles and lanterns, lots of vibrant tossed pillows and thick floor cushions or poufs, trunks and ceramic or metal ottomans that double as tables. There may be drapery tied back to define an outdoor room or cozy niche, and canvas or other material strung overhead like a tent.

Gather Inspiration From Other Cultures
The Boho aesthetic may reveal a strong Moroccan influence because, as they passed through those lands, the itinerant Romanis accumulated local items like the rugs that are the foundations for their tented campsites. These deeply hued and boldly patterned carpets hide dirt, important for vagabonds and great for outdoor spaces.

Influenced by its surrounding cultures, Moroccan decor blends elements from many of those geographic locations: France, Portugal, and Spain from the northwest, and Islamic, Persian, and Mediterranean influences from the south and east. Boho decor may include iconic elements from those melded cultures such as colorful glass and beads; mosaic tiles; cut, etched and hammered metal; intricately carved wood, and patchwork.

Cultivate Some Boho-Friendly Plants
As the Bohemian style is one that freely mixes up decorative elements without constraints, think about planting your garden in the same way. Experiment with a wide variety of color, texture, height and even scent. Pay careful attention to where and how you plant things, and like a good host or hostess, make it all look effortless.

Plan An Unplanned Look
Before you swoon over a particular plant, make sure you know what thrives in your planting zone as well as your particular garden’s layout and its available light. Some plants need loads of direct sunlight, while others prefer shade.

But all plants need great soil. Test the soil before investing in plants that won’t do well in unhealthy soil. With a testing kit from your local garden supply store, you can find out what type of fertilizer you’ll need to make your plants and you happy.

Plant Succulents
In my newly created urban garden (more about this later), I’m about to plant horsetail (best for zones 7-10) in long rectangular containers as a backdrop to some sinuous grasses and hanging succulents, like draping Donkey Tail and String of Pearls.

Scouring horsetail, Pixabay, royalty-free.

Succulents make great container plants, either hanging or on the ground. If planting them in containers, make sure to select soil mixes specifically created for cacti and succulents. To fertilize them, mix two parts all natural potting mix with one part horticulture sand, then add an organic granular fertilizer like Kellogg Garden Products Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer.

Succulents will thrive in zones 3-9 as long as they get full sun to part shade. Water them regularly but sparingly. As they store water in their fleshy stems or leaves, they only need water a few times a month. Make sure the soil is well-drained and dry before irrigating them again.

I have to plan accordingly: the succulent babies like bright sun to part shade (during periods with intense sun, they will require more afternoon shade) but the horsetail needs sun or part sun, and isn’t tolerant of shady areas. And did you know horsetail’s young shoots are edible like asparagus?

With their versatility of shapes, colors, sizes, and textures, these low maintenance and water-wise plants are perfect for the Bohemian garden’s mix-and-match style.

And Those Fabulous Ferns…
I love ferns not just because they are easy-care plants, but also because they thrive in low-light conditions making them great choices for sun-deprived urban gardens and sheltered areas, such as covered terraces and porches. Ferns are versatile plants that love hanging out in baskets, planters, urns and whatever upcycled containers you are lucky enough to snag at a flea market.

In addition to shaded or partially shaded locations, ferns need slightly moist soil rich in organic goodness, and they have a healthy appetite for slow-release granular fertilizer. My hair and I don’t do well in humid conditions, but ferns love the high humidity and rain showers here in New Orleans.

Ostrich fern. Image: Pixabay, royalty-free.

My favorite ferns? Ostrich ferns. Tall and majestic, their fronds grow in a lovely upward sweep, often to five feet. Voluminous ferns offer that same abundant flow as the yards of fabric loosely draped throughout a Boho garden.

Do These Plants Make My Grass Look Big?
You may wonder if those plants make your grass look big, but that’s a good thing. In the same way that contrasting patterns are fundamental to the Bohemian aesthetic, a “bit of this against a bit of that” in the landscape scheme fits perfectly within this design approach.

Bring a Moroccan vibe to the garden with large baskets and oversized colorful glazed pots and urns. I love tall grasses that sway in the breeze and they look great in containers.

Pink muhly grass. Pixabay, royalty-free.

With its delicate pink plumes, native ornamental Pink Muhly grass is one of my favorites. This easy-to-grow rugged perennial thrives in nearly any soil, likes humidity, tolerates heat and even drought conditions. My kind of plant–they practically take care of themselves.

Take it Easy, Don’t Maintain Perfection
I admit that I’m somewhat of a perfectionist, but am also one who values low maintenance in all forms. I may be fussy about design details, yet at the same time I also want a garden that is easy to plant while offering the greatest chance of success.

Although I can appreciate the neatly manicured garden with perfectly pruned hedges, I gravitate toward a style where I can toss in this and that and change things up on a whim. Also, some of the cool stuff I have amassed from my own travels will soon find a place in my small outdoor living room. Stay tuned for more about my new little urban garden.

For more colorful Bohemian garden ideas, follow out Pinterest board!

This post was sponsored by Kellogg Garden Products, where “organic” is more than a word on a label.  Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Robin Plaskoff Horton.



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