Planning a Formal Garden

Formal gardens are the triumph of human order superimposed on nature, the underlying message being one of control and restraint, with the shape and form of the planting scheme reflecting symmetry and geometric perfection.

Deliberately created to be far from the random, wild beauty of nature in the raw, the development of formal styles of gardening peaked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the grand designs of Italy and France, which were then repeated across Europe.

However, the idea itself is much older – drawing its principal inspiration from the gardens of ancient Greece and Rome, perhaps with a even a hint of the earlier Etruscan and Babylonian influences assimilated into these classical schemes.

Translating this time-honoured style into the modern garden calls for the right setting, but with careful planning a little of the historical flavour can be added to almost any plot.

Picking Your Plants

Shaped plants form one of the key features of formal gardens, with clipped hedges, topiary and trained bushes forming the mainstay of the overall framework. This inevitably means that the plants chosen for these roles must have the natural ability to withstand rigorous and repeated clipping over a period of many years – which of course does rule some types out. The traditional choices principally include slow growing evergreens such as box (Buxus sempervirens), yew (Taxus baccata) and holly (varieties of Ilex and especially I. aquifolium).

“Pleached” or “plashed” trees are another common element in this style – straight stemmed trees, planted in rows, with their branches deliberately intertwined to produce a formal living wall or boundary. This tends to call for broadleaved varieties, such as limes (Tilia) and hornbeams (Carpinus), which can be clipped repeatedly and precisely. Pleaching requires the flexibility of young branches, trees of this kind typically giving rise to a box-like enclosure within as little as five years.

Design Ideas

Formal garden design calls for a structured layout with strong lines to lead the eye to the focal points and high-key plantings. Within this, traditional elements such as topiary and statuaries or knot-gardens and parterres – highly stylised forms of gardening where control of the planting scheme is absolute and rigid – can be placed to add particular points of accent. The essence of a formal garden lies in crisp and clean lines, with an emphasis on proportion, symmetry and balance.

Alternatively, formal structures can be used as counterpoints to a more relaxed and informal planting style, blurring the edges between supposedly irreconcilable opposites and providing an interesting degree of contrast. Herb plantings are one of the best examples and stay remarkably true to the original; formal herb gardens themselves have their origins in medieval times, their free growth encouraged between the confines of more rigid structures, such as close-clipped box hedges.

In a modern plot, a similar effect can be achieved with a loose and largely informal planting held within more clearly defined borders, creating a blend of both styles and providing each with a larger overall impact.

The heyday of the formal style of gardening coincided with a time when humanity’s perception of its dominion over nature and dominance of the landscape seemed to know no bounds and on the grand scale, produced gardens that can seem intimidating and impersonal. The effect was not accidental; much of the landscape design of the day was deliberately intended to underline the wealth and status of the individual land-owner.

Today, things have changed and while a more low-key approach is more usual, there is still a place in even the most unstructured plot for a touch of the formal and the controlled. After all, the idea does have a very long pedigree!