The beautiful formality and elegance of a simple rectangular pond and clipped plant balls.

The history of the Formal garden design,

The beautiful formality and elegance of a simple rectangular pond and clipped plant balls.

Formal Garden design goes back to Roman and Medievel times and the ‘Physic’ gardens that were planted in monasteries and manor houses. Formal gardens have evolved slowly with gardening trends and architecture of the 21st Century and are still some of the most popular gardens to have, visit and design. There are a lot of fantastic garden designers who work predominantly in this style, mainly due to the timeless elegance, simplicity and peace these more controlled landscapes evoke. Paul Bangay, Charlotte Rowe, Jan Blok, Francesca Watson are some of these current, local and overseas designers who recreate this style so well with a contemporary feel.

Today, when designing a Formal garden, many of the older style elements have been pared down and simplified into a more contemporary style that can be used in both small to large gardens and estates. In this blog we look at some of the important design elements of the contemporary Formal garden style.

Influenced by Piet Oedolf, these symmetrical borders are a riot of colour yet very elegant and peaceful.

Influenced by Piet Oedolf, these symmetrical borders are a riot of colour yet very elegant and peaceful.

Symmetry and line

The first rule of formal landscape design is always symmetry, line and balance, with one side of the garden or space, a mirror-image of the other. A central axis, should be lined up with the centre of a prominent feature of the house like a patio, front door or even an invisible point. Use this central line to lead the eye to a focal point in the garden like a pool, fountain, circular bed etc. Pathways into the garden should be symmetrical with the centre line. Garden lines like lawn edges or hedges are usually straight and neat, but can also incorporate circles, geometric curves and other shapes like diamonds, squares etc.

Scale & Architecture in balance

The scale and architecture of the house or property needs to balance with the garden scale and materials. Wherever possible, echo the scale of the architecture in the 2D and 3D plains in the garden. A large rectangular pool, avenue of large trees or long driveway up to the house in proportion to the scale of the house, can balance a large house façade in the 2D plain.

Today, when designing a Formal garden, many of the older style elements have been pared down and simplified into a more contemporary style that can be used in both small to large gardens and estates. In this blog we look at some of the important design elements of the contemporary Formal garden style.

I can see that tiny patch of yellowing lawn!! Can you? Good maintenance is vital in the Formal garden.

I can see that tiny patch of yellowing lawn!! Can you? Good maintenance is vital in the Formal garden.

Well maintained lawns and borders

Extremely well maintained lawns are another important element in the formal garden style. Used in the 2D plain to balance the 3D plain, lawns needs to be lush and green and beautifully mowed to achieve that sense of elegance and order. Lawns are usually edged with a low border of clipped evergreen plants or gravel border to emphasise the shape of the lawn and surrounding beds. Clipped Buxus, Rosemary, Westringia, or indigenous Searsia crenata, Raghoda hirsuta and Syzygium pondoense, approximately 40cm wide and clipped square, can be used to contain beds and lawns effectively.

Uniform plants

Selecting plants that are easily controlled – either growing in uniform patterns or that can be pruned into uniform shapes – is still the key to success of the Formal garden style. Large shrubs for uniform hedges can include Viburnum, Syzigium, Laurel, Yew, Pittosporum, Diospyros, Yellowwood or any shrub that can be neatly clipped and is evergreen.

Paul Bangay’s use of clipped plants and pleached trees to create a garden room with an elegant pathway.

Paul Bangay’s use of clipped plants and pleached trees to create a garden room with an elegant pathway.

Focal point plants and repetition

Using plants as focal points and for repetition are also important in the garden’s design. Clipped plants in balls, squares, rectangles, pyramids or even birds can be used as a focal point on the corners of lawns, pathways or as specimens. Repeating the shape in a symmetrical pattern around the garden or within the garden rooms, will help to bring cohesion, rhythm and balance and control to the garden space.

Juxtaposition

In contrast, beds of the contemporary garden construct can contain a great variety of plants, but usually are limited to a restrained planting style within the clipped border of the low hedging that surrounds them. Piet Oedolf, the Dutch Garden designer, influenced our contemporary mixed herbaceous borders in the formal garden, using soft salvias, catmints, flowering perennials in jewel-like pinks and purples and oranges to show off an abundance of colour and texture. Limiting your colour palette to two or three colours along with green can sharpen the sense of cohesion, elegance and peace within the space. Using repetition of plant species, trees and hedges and the focal points will also help to achieve this in the planting.

Charlotte Rowe’s ‘Jet black Garden’ is a contemporary take of the Formal style and shows what can be achieved even in small gardens.

Charlotte Rowe’s ‘Jet black Garden’ is a contemporary take of the Formal style and shows what can be achieved even in small gardens.

Stone Elements with classical lines

Garden walls, stone path edgings, large pavers, formal benches, water features, balustrades, steps etc should be preferably made using real stone or plastered cement and brick structures with classic lines, generous proportions and neatly finished and painted to match the house. Likewise plinths, statues, water features and sundials all lend themselves to accessories of the Formal garden. Gravel is also predominantly used in large flat areas in place of lawns or for pathways and works well with clipped plants flanking it.

Groves and groupings of trees

Groves of trees such as pleached Almonds, Pears, Hornbeams have been a common element of Formal gardens for centuries. Pleaching means to remove the lower branches of a tree, force a clean and tidy look to the trunks of the trees, which are left smooth with canopies all at the same height. Pleaching is not the same as trained or ‘espaliered’ trees which use wires to train the canopy branches to force a particular shape to the tree, usually against a wall or trellis. This is also a common element in Formal gardens and can be done with some fruit trees including Apples, Pears, edible Figs along sunny walls to create an interesting backdrop that is also functional.

The formal ‘parterre’ was a French influence, still used today for drama, whimsy and to impress!

The formal ‘parterre’ was a French influence, still used today for drama, whimsy and to impress!

Good maintenance

The last element of the Formal garden design is to have a good garden maintenance team or plenty of time to spend in your garden as this style is more labour intensive than other more natural garden styles. There is usually a lot of hedging and edging to clip, lawn feeding and care is important, and maintaining weed-free gravel areas and beds too. Deadheading flower beds and fertilizing are important too to prolong flowering displays and keep a neat and tidy appearance to the garden.

But the reward from this style is definitely the elegant, contemporary and classic feeling that these gardens evoke. One feels quite peaceful in them with the garden in neat order, the trickling of a gentle waterfeature nearby, the clip clop of horse hooves on the gravel drive and the snip snip of hedges being trimmed in the background. Ah bliss!