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Formal Garden Design


Formal gardens have never completely gone out of style. Indeed, throughout history there have been gardens comprising formal design features. The degree of formality depends on personal preferences and the style of the house. Formal gardens can be minimalist with only a few elements, or more traditional, with a wider variety of plants and other features.

Formality in a garden is created primarily through symmetry, balance, straight lines and the regular rhythm of repeated plantings.


Formal gardens are based on the following design elements:

· They are generally built around a central axis – a line that divides the garden in two halves.

· There is a strong geometrical arrangement and symmetrical balance between the elements in the garden. Straight paths are common.

· There is a symmetrical central feature, eg. a square, rectangular or circular pond or garden bed.

· Artificial surfaces such as paving and gravel are prominent.

· Plant life, spaces and forms are controlled. Mass plantings of single species are used to give a sense of order.

· Trees or shrubs are planted at regular intervals either side of a path or along a boundary. Hedges and topiary are often used.

· There is an emphasis on harmonious and subdued colours, although contrasts are used for light relief.

· Classic ornamentation and statuary are often used.

The design of a formal garden will, to a large extent, be dictated by the style of the house. The proximity of different garden areas to the house will determine whether the materials used must blend with those used to build the house. If the house and the garden do not complement each other, the garden will look as thought it has been tacked on as an afterthought.


· Keep the plantings simple. Clipped hedges and repeat plantings of the same species will give the garden a clean, uncluttered appearance.

· Create one major focal point, such as an eye-catching sculpture or water feature, rather than cluttering the space with small pots and cheap garden ornaments.

· Keep the secondary features in scale, including plants, furniture and garden ornaments.

· Make sure there is ample room for comfortable garden furniture.

· Choose hard surfaces that link the house and garden areas.


· A sculpture

· A simple water feature, such as a single spurt of water

· A mirror - adds the illusion of depth to the garden

· A trompe l’oeil

· A large ornate pot

· Outdoor lighting


Evergreen plants are an important component of formal gardens. Plants in formal gardens are generally chosen for their foliage, rather than their flowers, to give year-round textural interest. Compared to plants used in less structured settings, formal garden plants are used sparingly and with restraint, with often as few as five or less species used in repeat plantings.

Low, neat hedges and groundcovers are the most common use of plants in formal gardens. These are used to soften edges and to create formal axial lines. Formal gardens also feature trees, shrubs and perennials, usually those plants with a clearly defined shape. Beds of annual plants are also popular components of these types of gardens.

The best plants for formal gardens are those with a predictable growth habit, those with predictable foliage and flower effects, and those plants that can be pruned into regular shapes such as hedges or topiaries.

Focal points in a formal garden can be created by using plants with strong architectural outlines (eg. Cordylines), and by using topiary or standard plants (ie. plants trained to grow as balls on sticks) in containers, often placed either side of a path or entranceway. Sometimes topiary shapes are cut into hedges of yew, box and privet.

Here are some plants that have been favoured in formal gardens over the years:

Tall hedging:







Small hedging:









-Lilly pilly






-Fruit trees





-Fruit trees

Pleached trees

-Common Limes

-Fruit trees

Ground covers


-Mind your own Business


As far as herbaceous perennials, annuals and bulbs are concerned many different varieties have been used as in-fills. Popular shrubs include Laurels, Spotted Laurels, Eleagnus, Choisya, Camellia, Rhododendron, Azalea, Hydrangea, Spiraea, Pieris and Magnolia.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Indeed many other plants conform well to the formal garden.

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