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

Infuse Your Garden with Late Winter Blooms

“In a way, Winter is the real Spring, the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.” — Edna O’Brian

At present, your home landscape may look barren and devoid of life. We all tend to wait for the first warm days of March when daffodils and crocus magically appear to suggest that Spring is really going to return. But, with the addition of some interesting shrubs, perennials and bulbs, our gardens will come to life much earlier and make your winter garden really vital and truly inviting.

Consider an Early Spring Bulb Garden

It’s not too late to plant a delightful, early spring bulb garden for 2021. Rather than hesitate, select your bulbs now and head out to your garden.

Fall planted bulbs need to be exposed to cold temperature for several weeks to produce glorious blooms early next spring. All spring blooming bulbs need to go through a process called vernalization.

Vernalization is the induction of a plant’s flowering process by exposure to the prolonged cold of winter — this is especially true for those who live in the Northeast. Usually a minimum of 8-12 weeks of temperatures below 40 degrees is needed to set flowers that will burst forth in late winter.

This year has been a time to become more engaged in our gardens — being outdoors has provided a therapeutic and sustaining reprieve to the confines of our at-home work schedules. Adding an early spring bulb garden will only enhance that experience and will continue to feed your soul and make your garden very exciting next Spring!

Here are some early spring bulbs to consider:

  • winter aconite—eranthis hyemalis
  • the glory of the snow-chionodoxa
  • snowdrops—galanthus
  • rock garden iris—iris reticulata
  • grecian windflower—anemone blanda
  • striped squill-puschkinia
  • dwarf daffodils planted with grape hyacinths-muscari
  • species tulips—small great tucked into walkways and around existing shrub borders
  • fragrant hyacinths—hyacinthus orientalis
  • camassia—a totally underused Native American bulb, easy to grow and will multiply every year

The Bulb Design Notes Project: Alliums and Double Tulips

The Bulb Design Notes Project features work by Janie McCabe of M.J. McCabe Garden Design. 

Combo: Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ with double late Tulips ‘Angelique’, ‘Mount Tacoma’ and ‘Blue Spectacle’. Also: boxwood, phlox, delphiniums and peonies (including Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and P. ‘Festiva Maxima’).

Location: Old Saybrook, Connecticut, USDA Zone 6b

Notes: The alliums here are dramatic and reliable. In this setting, I like Allium ‘Purple Sensation’, which are inexpensive, so you can plant lots and play with them. ‘Purple Sensation’ is a particularly rich purple color and gives you the vertical interest and vitality of alliums, but with an umbel that’s more reserved in scale, just 4-inches across. By the time the allium foliage here begins to look shabby, the perennials are big enough to hide it.

Typically, the alliums come back to rebloom for three or more years. Often, they’ll multiply, too. If I plant 100 bulbs, it’s not unusual to end up with 130. Every few years, l plant more.

Nearby is a compact hedge of strongly-scented Calamintha nepeta alba (white catmint) that serves as a buffer to discourage rabbits.


The bulb experts at Colorblends thought it would be interesting to explore how some accomplished garden design professionals approach their projects. “We reached out to several designers whose work we admire and asked if they’d share the thinking behind some of their successful spring bulb and perennial combinations. Their generous responses are presented in The Bulb Design Notes Project,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a national flower bulb resource. Click here to read more.

The Bulb Design Notes Project: Narcissus, Muscari and Euphorbia

The Bulb Design Notes Project features work by Janie McCabe of M.J. McCabe Garden Design. 

Combo: White Narcissus ‘Thalia’, cobalt-blue Muscari armeniacum and variegated Euphorbia characias ‘Glacier Blue’.

Location: Madison, Connecticut, USDA Zone 6b

Notes: Here a crisp blue and white color scheme brightens a west-facing spot with plenty of sunshine in spring. The daffodil and Muscari bulbs naturalize here and come back to bloom each spring. The variegated Euphorbia is less reliable, being rated for USDA Zones 7-10. So I’m prepared to replace it each April, if needed.

By late spring, the daffodils and Muscari decline and the Euphorbia, hostas and ferns fill out, masking the fading bulb foliage. During this stretch, the bulb plants get enough sun to recharge their bulbs with energy for next year’s bloom.


The bulb experts at Colorblends thought it would be interesting to explore how some accomplished garden design professionals approach their projects. “We reached out to several designers whose work we admire and asked if they’d share the thinking behind some of their successful spring bulb and perennial combinations. Their generous responses are presented in The Bulb Design Notes Project,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a national flower bulb resource. Click here to read more.

The Bulb Design Notes Project: Alliums, Shrub Roses and Perennials

The Bulb Design Notes Project features work by Janie McCabe of M.J. McCabe Garden Design. 

Combo: Allium christophii, pink shrub rose ‘Mystic Marvel’, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’ (English lavender), Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) and Leucanthemum x superbum (Shasta daisy).

Location: Madison, Connecticut, USDA Zone 6b

Notes: This bed, positioned just steps from the front door of a beautiful waterside home, is designed for long-lasting seasonal color and easy maintenance. In summer, the perennials and repeat-blooming shrub roses carry the ball. An unexpected layer of interest is provided by the large, airy umbels of the Allium christophii. In spring, tulips are the star attraction—each year a different color. I pick tulip varieties or a blend in that color to provide sequential bloom, April till mid-May. After bloom, we pull the tulips here. In fall, we choose a new color and replant. This particular year, we chose orange.


The bulb experts at Colorblends thought it would be interesting to explore how some accomplished garden design professionals approach their projects. “We reached out to several designers whose work we admire and asked if they’d share the thinking behind some of their successful spring bulb and perennial combinations. Their generous responses are presented in The Bulb Design Notes Project,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a national flower bulb resource. Click here to read more.

The Bulb Design Notes Project: Allium and Snowball Viburnum

The Bulb Design Notes Project features work by Janie McCabe of M.J. McCabe Garden Design. 

Combo: Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ with Viburnum opalus roseum (old-fashioned snowball viburnum).

Location: Guilford, Connecticut, USDA Zone 6b

Notes: These are both heirloom varieties suited to a spare location. Also, both are reasonably priced thus affordable in mass plantings. The viburnum will fill out fairly quickly. The allium will rebloom for 3 or 4 years. I’ll add more allium bulbs every few years.


The bulb experts at Colorblends thought it would be interesting to explore how some accomplished garden design professionals approach their projects. “We reached out to several designers whose work we admire and asked if they’d share the thinking behind some of their successful spring bulb and perennial combinations. Their generous responses are presented in The Bulb Design Notes Project,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a national flower bulb resource. Click here to read more.

The Bulb Design Notes Project: Hillside Mix of Bulbs and Perennials

The Bulb Design Notes Project features work by Janie McCabe of M.J. McCabe Garden Design. 

Combo: Red-orange species tulips, white Narcissus ‘W.P. Milner’ and yellow Narcissus ‘Baby Boomer’, purple Allium ‘Purple Sensation’, yellow Doronicum oriental (oriental leopard’s bane), white Iberis ‘Kingwood Compact’ (candytuft), blue Campanula poscharskyana (Serbian bellflower) and green Hakonechloa (Hakone grass).

Location: Middletown, Connecticut, USDA Zone 6b

Notes: I like to add small surprises for my clients. When I tuck in spring-blooming bulbs, people are bowled over by the unexpected color. A patch of brilliant-blue Iris reticulata will hook anyone. People fall in love with bulbs. For this sunny site, the surprise was species tulips. These have now naturalized here. No animal problems to date.

For me, pest resistance is always a factor. Eighty percent of my clients in coastal Connecticut have trouble with deer, voles, moles and rabbits. For spring color, pest-proof daffodils are always a top choice. Alliums are very reliable too.

Tulips are tricky. But, what’s spring without tulips? Even small doses make such a difference. I find there’s usually a way to work in tulips—you just need to outfox the foragers. The bulbs are not expensive, so it’s worth experimenting with surprise clusters here and there, to push the envelope, to learn where you’ll have success. Never assume tulips won’t work.

For certain sites, I treat tulip bulbs to keep diggers away. I soak the bulbs in my own mix: 1/4 cup liquid Lysol to 3 gallons water. A quick soak is plenty. Spread the bulbs out to dry before planting.


The bulb experts at Colorblends thought it would be interesting to explore how some accomplished garden design professionals approach their projects. “We reached out to several designers whose work we admire and asked if they’d share the thinking behind some of their successful spring bulb and perennial combinations. Their generous responses are presented in The Bulb Design Notes Project,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a national flower bulb resource. Click here to read more.

The Bulb Design Notes Project: White-on-White Color Scheme

The Bulb Design Notes Project features work by Janie McCabe of M.J. McCabe Garden Design. 

Combo: Boxwood hedge of Buxus ‘Tide Hill’ and white-flowering, dwarf crabapples. In spring: Narcisuss ‘Thalia’ and mixed white tulips, including: single late ‘Maureen’, double late ‘Mount Tacoma’, lily-flowered ‘White Triumphator’ and fringed ‘Swan Wings’. In summer: Allium ‘Mount Everest’, followed by Scaevola and Euphorbia ‘White Frost’. In fall: Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’.

Location: Milford, Connecticut, USDA Zone 7a

Notes: This was a project for a longtime client on which I cooperated with David Duncan of Needham Duncan Architecture of Old Lyme, Connecticut. My assignment was to create a new garden adjacent to the garage addition David was designing for the client’s 1909-built home. The resulting structure and garden meld beautifully with the relaxed elegance of the original property.

Boxwood hedging and dwarf crabapple trees anchor the garden beds. In this setting, a white-on-white color scheme is appealing spring through fall. The bloom season opens with diminutive, multi-flowering N. ‘Thalia’. Next up are a mix of white tulips that bloom mid-late to late spring. Right after bloom, we pull the tulips. By then, Allium ‘Mount Everest’ is taking over. In summer the white-on-white scheme continues with a ground-cover-planting of Scaevola and Euphorbia. In fall, the naturalized Japanese anemone comes up.

Each fall, we plant fresh tulip bulbs and additional alliums. Typically we plant here by Thanksgiving.


The bulb experts at Colorblends thought it would be interesting to explore how some accomplished garden design professionals approach their projects. “We reached out to several designers whose work we admire and asked if they’d share the thinking behind some of their successful spring bulb and perennial combinations. Their generous responses are presented in The Bulb Design Notes Project,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a national flower bulb resource. Click here to read more.

The Bulb Design Notes Project: Allium, Kniphofia and Grasses

The Bulb Design Notes Project features work by Janie McCabe of M.J. McCabe Garden Design. 

Combo: Fall-planted bulb, purple Allium ‘Ambassador’ with perennials, including: orange-and-yellow Kniphofia (red hot poker) and grasses Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and Pennisetum ‘Hameln’.

Location: Branford, Connecticut, USDA Zone 7a

Notes: The color contrast is wonderful in hazy coastal light and jaw-dropping when backlit by the sun, late afternoon till sunset. The allium and red hot pokers are flanked by perennial grasses, which effectively hide the yellowing allium foliage during its dieback phase. The entire mix provides for a long season of interest with plants that silhouette beautifully against the water. Equally important: these plants are tough nuts that take coastal conditions in stride.


The bulb experts at Colorblends thought it would be interesting to explore how some accomplished garden design professionals approach their projects. “We reached out to several designers whose work we admire and asked if they’d share the thinking behind some of their successful spring bulb and perennial combinations. Their generous responses are presented in The Bulb Design Notes Project,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a national flower bulb resource. Click here to read more.