The Formal Garden

Repetition, form and symmetrical lines make this garden inviting — the inner garden beds are changed throughout the year to reflect the changing seasons


Dating back to Persia and the Islamic tradition of courtyard gardens, popular elements of formal gardens found their way into those of the Italian Renaissance. Today, they are echoed in tiered French parterres used throughout Europe and the imaginative ground tapestries of Elizabethan knot gardens prevalent in historical British gardens.

For us to borrow from these traditions here in New England, it is important to use strong, bold lines and geometric patterns based on the architecture and character of the home, always remaining mindful and respectful of the landscape’s vernacular. This is vital in creating a formal design, as there should be a seamless transition from the home into the garden space into the landscape. Generally, a flat piece of land or one that can be easily terraced to visually enhance the garden works best.

Alignment with the house is likewise important, as axial lines that flow from the house to the garden reinforce the powerful resonance of the formal garden style. The visual axis should continue into the distance, forcing the eye to a focal point such as a large pot, welcoming garden bench, or water feature. An added benefit may be a distant serene backdrop of established trees.

A semi-formal garden blends beautifully with the backdrop of a lake below

Careful planning is critical. Laying out the garden to scale on paper will allow you visualize the final results. Another helpful option is to use large stakes and string lines to lay out the design directly onsite. This method gives you the opportunity to visualize the proposed design from different angles and perspectives, as well as the views from the interior of your home.

Plant selection needs to be as carefully considered as the design. Boxwood or yew are generally used as hedging to define the overall composition and to delineate the pathways. If the grade drops significantly, stone retaining walls may be needed. Small trees or shrubs can provide a stable backdrop to the garden, and a sense of privacy and enclosure.

Beds that mirror each other may be planted with bulbs, annuals and perennials that reflect the changing seasons. Spring may be a mass planting of pastel colored tulips that transitions into bright colored flowers reflecting the warm colors of summer. Autumnal colors may be more muted and understated as the garden transitions into the solemnity of the coming winter.

For years I have passionately designed lush and abundant cottage gardens, which has provided much gratification for me and for my clients. But age has a way of instilling simplicity and order into our lives, and I find I am increasingly drawn to the quiet beauty of a formal garden. The distinctive lines and geometric order lends a specific sense of formality and ritual to the landscape, guiding us mindfully through the seasons.

A petite backyard garden reflects a formal style with boxwood balls and an espalier fruit tree
A well-ordered and maintained knot garden has a meditative quality
A newly planted garden contains beds lined with dwarf boxwood — with a carved out area for sitting — a long border of crab apples define the edge of the garden
A low fence surrounds a small border — the evergreen makes a nice backdrop that holds this winter garden visually together
A long line of trees provide a wonderful sense of perspective lending a formality to the landscape
Strong linear lines that are repeated on each side with small trees lead to a distant focal point
For those who have limited space a formally planted raised container will look lovely all year long
Grass paths lead the eye thru an arbor into another garden room — strong vertical evergreens provide a dynamic feeling of stability
On a grander scale, layered plantings give sweeps of contrasting colors and textures
Formal gardens depend on symmetry and balanced elements such as parallel evergreen hedges and sentinel placement of evergreen shrubs
The bare bones of winter reveal the fine linear lines and geometry of this snow-covered rose garden
Tightly clipped boxwood shrubs line a walkway that leads to a small formal parterre garden