Formal design brings structure and serenity to the garden
Formal garden design, both classic and timeless, highlights strong evergreen structure and a peaceful palette. With origins dating back to ancient times, formal gardens are characterized by linear design, patterns, geometric shapes and a simple, subdued color scheme. Early monasteries and manor houses in England and France featured beautiful manicured gardens that also incorporated edibles, herbs and fruit trees.
Structure takes the lead in this style, incorporating orderly beds, well-defined pathways and solid symmetry. Balance is a defining principle of any landscape design and is key in formal gardens. A mirror image on each side of a yard or garden area provides this symmetry. With similar architecture on either side of a front entry, matching shrubs and plants can bring a cohesive feel to the landscape.
Classic gardens also often include unique, self-contained gardens like the traditional knot garden. Resembling historical patterns of tapestries, rugs or Celtic knots of the 1400s, they include intricately woven plants, herbs and flowers. Similarly, a parterre is a manicured design on multiple sides of interconnecting paths, often emanating from a central axis in the yard, sometimes leading away from an entrance.
Carefully pruned evergreen trees and shrubs provide a framework of recognizable patterns, creating the bones of the garden. There are no rogue and free-rolling forms or self-seeding in this garden.
Hedges are typically designed in squares, rectangles and diamond patterns. Layers of neatly clipped plants provide depth and interest. For example, a large, squared hedge might serve as a backdrop to a row of medium-size, spherical shrubs and an even smaller front border of liriope or Aztec grass. Small hedges also can line linear borders and pathways. Distinctly pruned topiaries can be featured in these gardens, as can plants like roses trained into standard tree form.
While not always monochromatic, in formal gardens, less is definitely more. Cottage gardens are defined by an explosion of blooms of varying colors, textures and forms. By comparison, manicured gardens are designed to be evergreen, calming and serene, reflecting a softer mood and simpler plant selection.
To accent patterns of evergreen shrubs, hedges and trees, early medieval gardens used commonly available blooming plant colors of the day, which were primarily whites, pinks, lavenders and other soft hues. Though not exclusive, that trend is still common today.
In addition to repeating and mirroring geometric patterns throughout the garden, echoing similar colors throughout the design enhances the simplicity and unity of the space. Heirloom blooming plants like roses, lavenders, mums, lilies and asters are always at home surrounded by classic style and structure. Rosemary, thyme, parsley, rue and other herbs have been staples of these gardens for centuries.
There are many plants available to Central Texas gardeners to create hedges, manicured trees and tightly pruned shrubs of assorted sizes and shapes. Native and adapted plants with small leaves that work well include dwarf yaupon holly, juniper, boxwood, Japanese yew, myrtle, holly, santolina or germander.
Compact-growing trees such as Will Fleming holly, Japanese yew and sky pencil holly provide tall, orderly anchors for landscaped garden rooms, against a house corner or to flank an entry. These trees are preferable to traditional Italian cypress, which struggles in Central Texas with mites and disease.
For a more orderly look, paths in formal gardens often consist of gravel, brick or geometric pavers in lieu of irregular or natural stone.
Trellises with climbing roses or evergreen vines add vertical interest and often adorn fences or house walls. Arbors act as anchors, highlighting garden entrances.
Strategically placed benches, statues or water features serve as focal points — often at the end of a path or the center of a square hedge of boxwood. Traditional statuary, urns and birdbaths in terra cotta, white, concrete or iron lend a classic elegance to a well-defined design. Structural plants like yews or topiaries in refined containers add to the ambiance.
This elegant style, once established, provides a well-defined structure that is easy to follow and can simplify gardening chores. Formal gardens require less attention than cottage-style gardens, which are dependent on consistent deadheading and need frequent changing of seasonal blooming plants and bulbs. And, evergreens are also typically longer-lasting investments.
Classic and timeless, a formal garden design can bring simplicity and serenity to your landscape.
Landscape designer and garden coach Diana Kirby provides landscaping tips on Facebook at Diana’s Designs and writes a gardening blog at dianasdesignsaustin.com. Her gardens have been featured on KLRU’s “Central Texas Gardener.”