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Formal Gardens


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, e.g. 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 spout 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 (e.g. 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:

-Box, Yew, Privet, Hornbeam, Camellia, Conifers.

Small hedging:

-Box, Lavender, Rosemary, Topiary, Yew, Privet, Ligustrum, Lilly Pilly


-Box, Roses, Wisteria, Lavender, Fruit trees, Espaliers, Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Quince, Fruit trees.

Pleached trees:

-Common Limes, Fruit trees, Laburnum

Ground covers:

Thyme, Ivy, Chamomile

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. Many other plants conform well to the formal garden.


- In the middle of a lawn
- In the middle of a driveway
- In a courtyard
- Below a window, veranda, terrace or deck

A formal garden looks best when viewed from above, so the design can be seen in full.


To design a formal garden, you need to clearly define shapes and lines. Shapes might be made from patches of lawn, garden beds, paving or gravel. Lines can be defined with walls, fences, hedges, brick edging, edging tiles and low-growing edging plants. As mentioned above, a central line or axis is often used as the basis of a formal garden.


A Parterre

In 17th century Europe, this was a formal pattern of low hedges, with the spaces between filled with coloured gravel. The concept has evolved and broadened since then. Today it can include coloured plants, stones, gravels, masonry or virtually anything the imagination can come up with.

Create a parterre garden by partitioning the ground into a series of shapes that make up a formal pattern. The different shapes need to be well defined so that they contrast with the space beside them.

An Avenue

This involves two rows of plants either side of a walkway or driveway. The same species of plant is used to create a sense of repetition and symmetry. Popular avenue plants include Conifers, especially Leyland Cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii) and Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). Avenues of deciduous trees and Lemon Scented Gums are often planted in larger gardens.

Hedged Beds

Adding clipped hedging to garden beds will increase the formality of the garden. The most popular hedging plants are dwarf English Box (Buxus sempervirens) and Japanese Box (Buxus microphylla). Alternatives are dwarf Lillypillies (Syzgium varieties), Box Honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) and Dwarf Sacred Bamboo (Nandina domestica nana).


· A circle divided into quarters, perhaps by two intersecting paths. Each quarter circle might be planted with exactly the same type of plant.
· A square divided into quarters, either diagonally or vertically/horizontally.
· A paved area intersected with small squares of ground cover plantings.
· A pair of matching urns either side of a path.
· An arched walkway covered by one type of plant.
· An avenue of trees or shrubs along a garden path.
· A square or rectangular lawn area surrounded by raised garden beds.


Formality is enhanced when the plants you use are not too variable.

If using hedges to define lines, use the same variety of hedging plant throughout.

The plants within the garden beds can be more variable but for the best effect, lay them in geometric patterns and repeat the planting patterns in adjacent beds.


If you like both formality and informality, why not separate the two styles? You can create a formal garden within your larger garden, separated from the larger garden by a wall or tall hedge.

Alternatively, the front garden or the area closest to the house could be formal, gradually becoming less formal as you move further into the garden.


Ponds – in geometric designs (usually round, square or rectangular); edged by hard surfacing (pavers, concrete, slate, marble, etc.) with minimal poolside plantings

Statues – in Classical or modern designs. Geometric features such as obelisks and spheres are also popular

Fountains – often in a Classical design

Pots – including square pots and urns; usually placed in matched pairs either side of an entrance; ornate pots are often left unplanted

Paths – surfaced with gravel or paving; usually arranged in straight lines; often positioned to create a vista from the house

Hedges – are always clipped

Lawns – made up of high quality fine-leaved grasses, e.g. bent grasses

Espaliers and topiaries – climbers and shrubs trained and clipped to stylised designs; on walls, on top of hedges, and in pots

Outdoor furniture – in Victorian wrought iron styles; also timber and modern metal furniture in simple, minimalist designs.

Formal gardens can be high maintenance, but with good design and plant selection, they can be lower maintenance than you’d think.

One of the nicest things about a formal garden is that if you keep the borders neat, the centres of the garden beds continue to look good, even if they’re not maintained well.

Use brick walls, low fences, or slower growing hedges to edge garden beds, and you won’t need to do much to keep everything looking presentable.

Choose plants that aren’t prone to problems with pests, don’t require lots of pruning, and grow in predictable shapes, and a formal garden will continue to be appealing with occasional maintenance.

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