By: Anne Baley
If cottage gardens with their tumbling vines and profusions of color turn you off, your ideal garden may be an old-fashioned formal garden style. What is a formal garden? It’s a completely planned green space which demonstrates people’s domination over nature.
Formal garden style always rely on geometric shapes such as, squares and triangles, and straight lines, and usually concentrate on green, leafy plants instead of flowers. You can use formal garden design ideas to fill an entire backyard or simply to add an accent garden for a surprising corner of the lawn.
What is a Formal Garden Design?
When you picture a formal garden, you may imagine the great manor houses in England and France in past centuries, and you won’t be far off. Modern formal garden design takes its flavor from those ideas and scales them down for the average home.
When creating a formal garden, you always start with a focal point such as a fountain, a birdbath or even a sundial. Foliage plants are put into beds and rows, with mirror image planting. Each side of a formal garden is an exact mirror copy of the other side.
Hedges are a common way to create geometric shapes and define paths, with boxwood shrubs being the most common type. Subtle groupings of foliage plants fill in the borders and can add a touch of color.
Information and Ideas for Formal Gardens
Ideas for formal gardens don’t just happen. They’re carefully planned out in great detail. Start with a sheet of graph paper and sketch out the shape of your lawn, or the portion of the yard that you want to convert to a formal garden setting. Place a focal point in the center of the outline as a spot at which to begin.
Move on to your boxwood hedges. Draw the design, using mirror image techniques so that every part of the pattern matches up with the opposite side from the focal point. Fill in the open spaces with gravel walkways or other green plants such as camellia or small fruit trees.
Use the formal garden design ideas here as a jumping-off place for your own garden design. You don’t have to stick to simple greenery as your formal garden plants to give your garden a formal flavor. Plant vegetables into geometric shapes, do concentric rings of colored flowers around a fountain or plant herbs into triangular beds. As long as each half mirrors the other and you include geometry, you’re adding that formal garden flair.
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A Formal Vegetable Garden
Every now and then I have a call for a formal vegetable garden. By this I mean a garden with a formal layout and structure. These clients wanted raised beds for their vegetables for several reasons. They liked the idea that they could tend the garden easily. They liked the idea that the soil mix would be especially tailored for growing vegetables. They have children their lives very much revolve around the dinner table. They have strong ideas about good food, and where it comes from. Their soil is very heavy clay, and the site chosen for the garden does not drain particularly well. I designed the garden, and laid it out with stakes and strings for them to see.
Once they approved the plan, we stripped away the existing sod. We excavated the area, as the garden would have a decomposed granite floor. This is a great surface on which to push a wheelbarrow. It is a surface that requires little to no maintenance.
Steve and his crew built the boxes on site. Several courses of lumber were installed below grade, and set level. When the garden is finished, we will reconfigure the edge of the driveway to run parallel to it. There will be some regrading involved as well. But at this point in the project, we are a long ways away from the finishing touches.
A 3″ base of 22AA road gravel levelled the floor of the garden. The sloping lawn will be regraded to meet the finished floor of the garden. The poor drainage became very clear after a rain! The raised beds will insure that water drains away speedily. Vegetables attract no end of disease and insects. A clean growing, well draining site is a good natural defense against trouble.
Once the bases of all of the boxes took shape, it was easier to see the overall plan. Four boxes were simple rectangles. The four center boxes were L-shaped. A three tiered theatre for the center will hold pots of herbs, and culinary flowers. At this point in the construction, we were going over lists of vegetables and herbs. Like most families, they have vegetables that appear on their dinner table frequently. Others-not so much.
Steve is an expert with soil. He spent 16 years as superintendent of grounds at Grand Hotel, on Mackinac Island. The island has very little in the way of soil. A thin layer of compost covers layers of big rocks, and little rocks. The cost of transporting soil from the mainland was considerable. He composted thousands of yards of soil for their 165 acres of golf courses, employee housing, and hotel grounds. He knows how to cook up great soil.
This soil is compost of his own making, to which he added sand, and lots of worm castings. It is rich, and friable. The the idea of worm castings raises eyebrows, but vegetables thrive in it. Decomposed organic matter is an essential element of good soil.
Each box has its own drip irrigation lines. Water from drip hoses does not migrate very far away from the hose. The drip is so so slow that the water sinks straight down-gravity, this. Thus there is a need for multiple drip hoses, so the plants are evenly watered. A drip irrigation system is not perfect. A person needs to be in charge. A person who can pick up a hose, if there is a need. This spigot was run off the irrigation system.
My client has 7 acres of property. This means they have all manner of wildlife. Deer, raccoons, mice, rabbits and woodchucks, just for starters. The garden had to be fenced. The mainstay of this fence is a very sturdy galvanized steel mesh. A vegetable garden has to be sited and planted to take advantage of the sun. A privacy fence might shade the garden. The steel mesh does not impede the sunlight.
Each panel of steel mesh is enclosed in a cedar frame. A horizontal bar of cedar midway up the panel adds a good bit of reinforcement to the mesh. As much as you love your home grown vegetables, all of God’s creatures love them too. This fence says keep out in a very simple way.
The fence is 6 feet tall. The 6 feet wide gates are just 3/4 of an inch shorter, to permit the gates to be opened wide. The decomposed granite finished floor has yet to be installed. A second short round of steel mesh will be buried below grade. This will deter the crafty diggers and the little creatures.
We are a ways from the finish here. The tomato towers and herb theatre will be done shortly. 7 espaliered fruit trees are yet to be planted. The drive needs to be reconfigured. A cutting garden will be planted ouside the fence on the gate side. Roses for cutting will be planted on the far side. As for the planting of the vegetables and herbs-Steve is in charge of that part.
This is a big garden. Not like a field of corn in Iowa, or a grove of cherry trees. This is by no means a farm. But it is as big a garden as they will ever need. It is a working garden. Sturdy, simple, plain-and organized. I hope within a few weeks it will be a good looking working garden.
Formal Garden Design
Craft a landscape that stages a formal atmosphere to reap rewards of orderly beauty.
Hydrangeas in Formal Beds
While hydrangeas are ideal for cottage-style or woodland gardens, they also work well with the neat, geometric lines of formal beds.
Photo by: Image courtesy of Julie Taylor Fitzgerald, American Hydrangea Society
Image courtesy of Julie Taylor Fitzgerald, American Hydrangea Society
While hydrangeas are ideal for cottage-style or woodland gardens, they also work well with the neat, geometric lines of formal beds.
Give your yard an air of elegance and refinement by incorporating principles of formal garden design. This garden style dates as far back as ancient Egypt and began to spread across Europe during the 16th Century. Formal garden design is all about order and balance. Symmetrical plantings, well-defined paths, and pruned plants all contribute to the formal ambience of a garden.
The easiest way to create a formal garden design is to rely on symmetrical plantings. Create a central line or axis that runs through your garden area, and arrange plantings on either side of that axis that are mirror images of one another. Formal gardens typically draw their main axis from the house, so relate this main path to your home in some fashion. Perhaps it will be the view from a family room, a dining area or deck.
Make the central axis a path in your garden, with other paths radiating from it. Place a sculpture, bench or water feature at the far end of the axis to draw the eye through the garden. Use this central axis of the garden as a reference point to develop all other aspects of the garden.
A formal garden design features geometric shapes—usually right angles, but curves work, too. The secret is to create well-defined and recognizable shapes. Typically these shapes outline planting areas, but they could also be part of the hardscape. For instance, the main axis could originate from a square patio, run several feet and pause on a square central hub, and then continue to end in a square pad topped with a trellised bench.
Pathways in a formal garden design must be well-defined. They can be grassy, gravel, stone or brick. If you opt for grass, you’ll need to devote time to edge paths manually in order to maintain the garden’s formality. Or you might opt to define edges with metal edging or a course of bricks or pavers.
Many modern formal garden designs rely on stone, brick or paver block paths. To conserve funds, you can always start with grass paths, graduate to gravel in time, and one day add brick or stone paths when your budget permits.
Gravel paths do require some maintenance to keep weeds in check. Hand-dig weeds, or treat them with herbicide or vinegar when they’re young. For large gravel paths, invest in a flame weeder. It works very well in spaces where combustible materials are at a minimum.
Plantings in a formal garden design also reflect a sense of order and symmetry. Actual plantings may be repeated in mirrored beds, or may be repeated in different planting areas along the central axis. Repeating colors along an axis of the garden is another way to enhance the formal feel of a garden.
Tightly clipped, orderly hedges are typical of formal gardens. Hedges can be planted in intricate patterns to form a knot garden. These hedges are often santolina, germander or boxwood. Hedges can also be knee-high and used to accentuate certain plantings. This method works well with a formal rose garden design, because the hedge can hide bare basal stems of roses. Taller hedges can create garden rooms and even a garden maze.
Formal garden designs usually include trees with specifically pruned shapes. Gardeners often use techniques such as pleaching or espalier to craft trees into a more orderly form. You can avoid some pruning chores in a formal garden design by selecting trees that offer a tidy look, such as linden (Tilia spp.), ornamental pear (Pyrus calleryana), Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), Fastigiate European beech tree (Fagus sylvatica ‘Fastigiata’) or Sky Pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’). Research newer plant offerings to find dwarf and shaped trees and shrubs.
A formal garden is also the right place to showcase topiary, whether small or large. Look for topiary forms of roses for color or evergreens for strong winter interest. Containerized fruit trees, perennials and roses shine in a formal garden design.
The main formal gardens will use mostly hedging plants combined with walkways of gravel (or other hardscaping material) and/or lawn. On the border though, many shrubs and perennials are used to help soften the hard, geometric lines. Most formal gardens include symmetry and repetition of plants and materials so keep that in mind when choosing plants.
Alliums- These globe-like flowers add a touch of whimsy and height to a formal garden. You can get different varieties each with tall stems topped with small, golf ball sized blooms all the way up to volleyball sized flowers. Even though they bloom later than flowers like Daffodils and Hyacinth, Allium bulbs can still be planted with the other earlier blooming bulbs.
Hydrangeas- No matter the Hydrangea, they can really add a lot of colorful impact in a garden. You can find some like Hydrangea paniculata ‘Little Quick Fire’ that have a more compact habit or if you have a bigger space, ones like Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ have bigger growth habits and bigger blooms. You can read more about Hydrangeas here but they typically can handle filtered sun or full sun and need regular watering with well-draining soils. Different Hydrangeas are pruned at different times of the year depending on whether they bloom on old or new wood. You can read more about pruning Hydrangeas here.
Salvias- The tall stalks of flower clusters come back fuller each year and works great to attract more hummingbirds year after year. Flowers blooms in early to mid-summer and come in shades of blue, purple, pink, white, and red. You can remove spent flowers throughout the season to encourage new blooms. They’ll do best in full sun with well-drained soils with regular watering. Once established Salvia’s can tolerate short periods of drought.Salvia x ‘May Night’ (foreground) in Formal Garden Photo Courtesy of Schmechtig Landscapes
Maries Doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’)- While this shrub can get to be quite wide (10-12’ tall and wide), it provides all season interest and as long as it has room, works well in a variety of situations from full sun to partial shade and even in well-draining sandy or clay soils. Because of its size, it can be planted as a screening shrub or as a small, multi-stemmed tree. In winter, the Maries Doublefile Viburnum has a unique form with horizontal layers of branches and is soon covered in bright white flowers in spring. In summer, foliage is a medium green color and has red berries in late summer. Fall color is very showy with vibrant red and orange leaves.
More plants that work well in formal garden borders are: Tulips, Skimmia, Begonias, Pansies, Roses, Asters, Agapanthus, and Dianthus. If you’re ever struggling with color in a formal garden, white tends to be a more traditional color for formal gardens especially with a lot of shade but it doesn’t mean you have to do only white. Keeping it simple with color will at least make the space seem less busy and therefore more organized.
A formal garden is usually considered one of the more maintenance heavy garden styles. This is especially true in the beginning when shrubs are being shaped into hedges and trees are being pleached. But, with all the maintenance, comes a tidy and organized space that many people have come to appreciate and enjoy. If you have the time and energy, a formal garden can look great and provide a relaxing atmosphere for you and your guests.
Have you visited a formal garden? If so, which one? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!
Consider Your Space
When designing a garden, it can be helpful to divide your yard into public, private and service areas. The public areas are the ones others see, like the front yard and entry. The private sections include back or side yards, outdoor living areas and decks. A service area is something like a play structure, compost pile, garbage can storage or dog run.
Stroll through your property and record any specific conditions. Pay attention to the amount of light your property receives throughout the day — watch how sunlight moves from morning into late afternoon.
Grab a tape measure and note the size of your proposed garden area, including locations and dimensions of existing structures, such as your home, garage, patio, deck or storage shed. Also take note of any significant items in the landscape, like a slope or septic field.
Also, consider whether there's a view you want to screen, a tree that needs to be trimmed or a spot where grass won’t grow.