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Discovering garden styles part 2: Formal gardens


Yesterday in a little break-from-winter look at garden styles we took a look at modern gardens. Now we’re going in what you would think is the opposite direction, to formal gardens, but really these two styles share more in common than you might think.

F O R M A L   G A R D E N S

Even if you’re not a fan of ultra formal gardens, you can probably appreciate their beauty. They are, to me, the quintessential “original” garden.

Symmetry (to the inch) is a hallmark of the style and nothing demonstrates this better that parterre gardens.

Bodysgallen Hall Hotel, National Trust Images/Charles Hawes photo

While I tend to think of formal gardens being associated with older traditional homes, they can be translated to more contemporary look as well.

Clive Nichols photo

The color palette in formal gardens is often restrained. There will be no riot of color here and shades of green brought in by the many manicured hedges is likely to take center stage.

Of course there are formal rose gardens that are a bit more colorful.

Hardscaping materials in formal gardens are varied but I picture stone walls as you might find in an old English garden. But crunchy gravel, brick and even concrete works too.

Formal gardens are rarely just about plants. A statue or often a fountain is often used as the centerpiece of these impressive gardens.

F O R M A L   G A R D E N S at a glance

H A R D S C A P E :  Almost any material works so long as it is used in an orderly fashion. Still hardscaping isn’t as important as in some other styles. Classic materials include fieldstone and crunchy gravel, but brick certainly works in some applications.

P L A N T S : You better love boxwood. Because formal gardens love boxwood trimmed into every shape conceivable. Plantings are restrained and plant selection is limited so if you’re a plant collector, a formal garden probably isn’t for you.

M A I N T E N A N C E : Plan on giving up some serious free time to keep a formal garden looking good. You’ll be setting up mazes of line levels to make sure all of the hedges are perfectly trimmed. And a weed? Gasp. The formal garden police will have you arrested for an errant weed. In other words, formal gardens are a lot of work to keep looking great.

G A R D E N E R  T Y P E :  Do you love math? You better if you plan on installing a formal garden by yourself. But the symmetry that makes formal gardens so beautiful will appeal to some gardeners’ OCD tendencies. A formal garden is a big commitment and doesn’t leave a lot of room for drastic changes down the road so a gardener should be relatively sure that it’s really for them. And put away the plant catalogs. You’ll be buying a handful of plants in bulk, not trying out new plants in groups of three.

Next up: We’re loosening things up a little with cottage gardens.

6 Responses

  1. After taking an early retirement from a corporate career I indulged myself with “daytime gardening” (as opposed to my former midnight to 6am pattern). Many friends asked for my help and advice in planning their dream gardens. I told every one of them that I will only do it if you can promise to take care of it – and I will not help if you overload the maintenance it will require. Now it’s time for me to cry “uncle” in my own much too large and diverse garden. The boxwood garden and roses are overwhelming me. The hydrangeas and evergreen shrubs are getting out of hand. It seems impossible to hire help who have the knowledge to do it properly. The time has come for me to just enjoy all of the beautiful photos posted by you and others.

    Thank you for your photos and bright spirit in sharing with others.

  2. Just found your blog and am really enjoying reading all the backlog. =) I am a mathematician and love formal gardens (just don’t have the yard for one). I found the sunken parterre in the design by Barrington Landscape Architects particularly intriguing since it allows you to enjoy the “overhead” view, which is much of the beauty of a formal garden to me, without obscuring lines of sight. I never would have thought of that. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Good point about math & formal gardens. I love both! I always love seeing pictures of the gardens at Sissinghurst where it looks like the big formal hedges keep order while the flowers in between hang out & show off.

    I enjoyed your cottage garden post too. I would have a hard time living with one, but I love to see them.


  4. I love hedges, clipped boxwoods and topiary but our house is not formal. Still, we've managed to incorporate some of those elements but more informally. So much depends on the style of the house. I am always mentally adding gardens to houses that I drive past.

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