Formal Gardens – Everything You Need to Know

Formal Gardens – Everything You Need to Know

In strict terms, a formal garden is one that is entirely symmetrical, with one side mirrored by the other in a highly planned geometric pattern. Although there are many gardens of which this is true, formal gardens have now also come to signify a design that is laid out with a degree of geometry and regularity, and with stylised planting – not necessarily with mirror images.

From the simplicity of a lawn punctuated by a single island bed to the complexity of an intricate knot garden, many types of formal garden may be planned. However simple they may be, formal designs are typically ordered and elegant, well proportioned and balanced, and often strongly symmetrical or patterned.

Features typically include straight paths, closely mown lawns, borders defined by low hedges or edging plants, neatly clipped hedges or topiary, framed vistas and focal points, formal bedding in blocks of strong colour, and, on occasion, knot gardens and parterres.

Formal gardens require very regular and precise maintenance and are usually very labour-intensive. The more regular the design, the more any slight flaws will stand out.

The Principles of the Formal Garden Style

Many historic gardens were formal in design, and geometry has been used in garden styles from the very earliest times. Persian and Egyptian gardens relied on a formal structure of hard landscape, often within a courtyard, in which planting, pergolas and water features would be laid out in a symmetrical pattern. The great Moorish gardens were largely formal, as were the sumptuous gardens of Renaissance Italy.

These gardens echoed the architectural styles of the day, and were designed to supply a strong visual connection between garden and house. In fact, any garden should do just that, but a formal style typically relies more heavily on the adjoining building for its inspiration. If the architecture of the house is classical, then formality in the garden should reflect this with features such as stone or gravel paths, parterres, stone paving, balustrading, formal pools, clipped hedging and framed views.

Of course, a building does not need to be classical to have an adjoining formal garden, but it does need to be a building with some character of its own. In this way, a formal garden could suit a Georgian house or a Victorian villa, but it could also suit a modern architect-designed building, reflecting the regularity of the house and providing a harmonious link between the inside and outside. However, a formal garden is less likely to work well with a pre-war semi or a developer’s house on a modern estate. These tend not to have a balanced facade or strong layout, so an asymmetrical design would probably look, and certainly feel, more comfortable in these cases.

A feeling of formality may be achieved by creating classicism and symmetry in simple ways: by planting two or a number of symmetrically placed trees; by placing pots or urns on either side of a gateway; or perhaps by positioning clipped shrubs to flank a front door.

Such a strictly architectural style requires that plants be used to emphasise and embellish rather than dominate. Hedging, which can be close clipped, is the often one of the most important features of the formal garden. Many hedges are made from clipped and severely restricted trees, for example, limes can be ‘pleached’ to make a narrow hedge on clear trunks or ‘stilts’. Fruit trees, carefully pruned for the purpose, can also be used to form linear barriers, and window-like holes can be even be carved into these hedges to create clairvoyees.

Formal gardens rely heavily on surfaces for much of their impact, and the lawn is important for this reason. Colours are often muted in the formal garden, with green predominating, and the lawn acts as a subtle foil to other shades of green, such as the black-green of yew.


Strictly speaking, plants should not be allowed to spill over on to hedges and paths, or otherwise break up the strict architectural lines of the garden. However, some gardeners bend the rules and plant informally within the formal framework. This often involves planting drifts of flowers in the borders, and using a larger range of plant material than would be strictly appropriate for the traditional formal garden. This method of planting undoubtedly softens the impact of the formal lines, but that loss is often compensated by the splendour of the plants.

Classical Gardens

The formal gardens of ancient Rome and Greece were the inspiration for the impressive palatial and villa gardens of France and Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The essential qualities of these classical gardens are their strong symmetrical and architectural designs, which closely follow the scale and proportion of the building that they adjoin.

Italianate gardens are often set on elevated sites, with terraced gardens and flights of steps leading to long, shaded walks, cascades, fountains and canals. The cooling effects of water and avenues or canopies of trees are all part of the pleasures of these gardens, especially in the hot, Mediterranean climate.

The terraces might contain parterre designs with symmetrically positioned topiary pyramids or obelisks and box-lined scrolls of flowerbeds. Other typical features include balustrades, statuary, and well-proportioned vases or urns for ornamental plants.

Colour is generally limited to the dark green of the plants, the pale colours of the stone and gravel, and the white waters.

Many of these classical features may be integrated into contemporary garden designs to create a sense of grace, formality, and ordered tranquillity. Even in a relatively small area, the careful consideration to proportion, scale, balance, and harmony seen in classical gardens may be reproduced to create a simple, effective design.

Knot Gardens

Knot gardens were particularly popular in the 16th century, and took the form of abstract patterns and interlacing bands containing coloured plants, sands or gravels, marked out and framed by low hedges.

They were grown with a variety or aromatic plants and culinary herbs, such as Germander, marjoram, thyme, southernwood, lemon balm, hyssop, costmary, acanthus, mallow, chamomile, rosemary, Calendulas, Violas and Santolina. Most knot gardens had edges made from Box (Buxus sempervirens), whose foliage has a sweet smell when bruised.

The patterns often took their inspiration from the knots and strapwork patterns of English Elizabethan and Tudor plaster ceiling decorations and needlework. So that this intricate detail can be truly appreciated, knot gardens are often best viewed from above, and they should be designed so that can be seen easily from a house window or raised terrace.

Given the right setting and a well-drained, level site, knot gardens are not difficult to create and are straightforward to maintain. The patterns should be kept simple; this will ensure a pleasing design, and ensure that maintenance will not be too time-consuming.

Some suitable plants for the hedges include cotton lavender (Santolina chamaecyparissus) and dwarf box (Teucrium chamaedrys). If you decide to use plants rather than coloured sand or gravel to fill in the areas between the hedges, choose those that are in keeping with the character and scale of the design; as a rule, low-growing plants are suitable, although more unusual plantings, for example, succulents such as houseleeks (Sempervivum), may also he considered.

Do bear in mind that any weeds that appear on the gravel surfaces should be removed by hand, as weedkillers could damage the shallow-rooting hedges.


A parterre is a formal garden construction on a level surface consisting of planting beds edged in stone or tightly clipped hedging and gravel paths, arranged to form a pleasing pattern. Often confused with knot gardens, parterres are larger in scale, and consist of ambitious and complicated designs, with flowering, scroll-like patterns or symbolic themes.

The pattern outlines are typically formed from low hedges of box, with the area in between the hedges filled with dense, colourful bedding plants, gravels of different hues or plants with muted pastel shades. There may also be evergreen shrubs trimmed into precise globes or pyramids, and other clipped, formal shapes in box or yew. A parterre should always be in scale with the size of the house or adjacent terrace.

Parterres became very popular in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, especially in public gardens and parks, where they were transformed into extravagant bedding schemes and complex floral displays.


Topiary is the art of creating sculptures in the medium of clipped shrubs and sub-shrubs. The word derives from the Latin word for an ornamental landscape gardener: topiarius. For over 2,000 years, the art and craft of topiary has been practised in gardens; with time, patience, and suitable plants, “living sculptures” can be produced.

Topiary is often used in formal gardens to add shape, height, and sculptural interest; well-clipped pyramids, columns or spirals are used to emphasise the proportion and symmetry of a design. A single piece of topiary can provide a strong focal point, whilst several clipped trees or shrubs can supply the garden with a design cornerstone.

Simple, geometric shapes such as cones or spheres are usually the best forms of topiary for a formal or classical garden, although more whimsical styles such as animals, birds, or objects (such as chess pieces) can add a lively and witty touch. These more elaborate forms may be suitable in both formal and informal gardens, depending on the style, but would be out of place in a wild or naturalistic garden setting.

Slow-growing, dense evergreen plants are the best sources for topiary, such as cultivars of box (Buxus sempervirens), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), yew (Taxus spp.), myrtle (Eugenia spp., Myrtus spp.), holly (Ilex spp.) and privet (Ligustrum spp.). Ivies (Hedera) may also be clipped and trained over frames to form various shapes.

In our Topiary section, we look at how you can create your own simple or complex topiary pieces, and offer you step-by-step guides to clipping and maintenance.

Sunken Gardens

Changes of level, even relatively small ones, can provide interesting features in a garden. A well-planned sunken garden can add a feeling of adventure and space, as well as bringing another dimension to the design.

Traditional sunken gardens were usually rectangular or square, enclosed by walls, and bordered by paved paths or raised grass so that they could be seen from above. The layout was typically simple and geometrical, with flowerbeds divided by a symmetrical framework of walkways and paths, perhaps with a central sculptural feature, such as a sundial or fountain.

As they are lower than the rest of the garden, sunken gardens are often secluded and sheltered, with a secret, sanctuary-like quality that is particularly restful and appealing. Formal bedding, herbs, and roses lend themselves particularly well for use in sunken gardens.

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