Formal Gardens

Mary Palmer Dargan reveals seven points that can help achieve balance in even the most unkempt terrain.

Sir Roy Strong’s Pierpoint Morgan Rose Garden at The Laskett in Herefordshire, England, provides a bilaterally symmetrical garden scene. A mirror image is composed of pairs of statues, trees, and shrubs flanking the pathway.

Jerry Harpur
Formal gardens have a look — be it a neatly ordered medieval kitchen garden or the terraced hillside of an Italian Renaissance villa; boxwood parterres that punctuate a French landscape; or the lush planting and ancient architectural fragments of an English Arts and Crafts garden.

Virtually every master of landscape design from the Renaissance forward has attempted to imprint his or her personality onto the land, but despite the enormous range of interpretations, it is possible to distill a few basic components of the formal garden.


Symmetrical layout is perhaps the most defining feature. No matter the overall scale of the garden or the shapes of its various parts, if you draw a line down the middle of a formal garden, one side should mirror the other.

Symmetry enables the garden to accomplish one of its most basic missions: to impose order, balance, and harmony onto the changing canvas of nature. Repetition and rhythm occur with boxwoods sculpted into a variety of shapes. Evergreen shrubs or borders of annual color visually reinforce the line of a pathway.

A Flat Ground Plane

Most of the great formal gardens throughout history underwent considerable leveling of the terrain through terracing and step ramps. The reason is optical: Too many undulations skew the look of symmetry and balance. A formal garden requires a minimum plane of 12 feet by 12 feet to create the most visual impact, so be prepared to level your land accordingly.

Well-Planned Pathways

Walking around or through a formal garden, even a tiny one, is the best way to appreciate it. Ideally, paths are wide enough to accommodate two people side by side. Gravel, stepping stones, and brick are good choices for paving.

A sailor edge of brick set three inches above the finished pathway provides a well-drained planting bed and defines the edge. Grass paths work well for formal gardens in the country. Pathways outline the geometric shapes of the planting beds and interlock to form the overall pattern of the garden.

A Strong Axis

Paths provide visual sight lines or axes that lead to dramatic end points, which are typically punctuated with an urn, statue, arch, gate, or vista that arrests and captivates the eye. One of the most basic and timeless garden layouts is the four-square form, the result of two straight paths intersecting at right angles to form a cross, yielding four rectangular or square planting beds. With five- to eight-foot-wide beds, it remains a favorite layout for small kitchen gardens. To frame an axial view, sculptural forms of evergreen plants are placed at the entry and exit.

Planting Beds and Parterres

Strictly speaking, the classic parterre, created in the 17th century, is a type of planting bed, flat and subdivided in a number of interesting ways. Heirs of the medieval knot garden, the original French parterres were vast and complex — featuring clipped boxwood in swirling arabesques, bordered by a band of flowers.

Today, few residential properties can support the grandeur of classic French parterres, but there’s no harm in calling planting beds by the same name, especially if they are in a pattern and use a strong evergreen form, such as boxwood.

Enduring Structural Appeal

Even after the annuals fade and the perennials disappear for the winter, a formal garden still holds our gaze with the underlying architecture of its design. The elegant arrangement of its paths and beds; the beauty of its brickwork, stonework, or other materials; and its pots, fountains, or statuary provide a beautiful picture even in the winter months. Evergreen forms also help hold its configuration and preserve its beauty in any season.

Defined Borders

One of the most intriguing aspects of any formal garden is its enclosure. Many celebrated formal gardens, such as Sissinghurst and Hidcote, were conceived as a series of rooms defined by tall, clipped hedges or brick walls. However, a formal garden does not have to be enclosed.

On contemporary residential properties, the formal garden often stakes out its own presence within a much larger landscape that encompasses several other destinations, such as a swimming pool or recreational lawn. A strong, well-designed layout; a central focal point; and the use of low, clipped boxwood or other evergreens to reinforce the form of the beds usually creates the effect of a “garden within a garden” and gives it its own sense of identity.

A formal garden does not have to be stiffly groomed or dominated by clipped topiaries trimmed to perfection. You can begin with a four-square form and then soften the edges of the beds with rambling perennials, herbs, and annuals spilling freely onto paths.

Formal gardens will be stiff and cold if not warmed by the garden’s personality. The best formal gardens interject an element of character or whimsy into their time-honored, well-laid plan, whether it’s in the form of sculpture, urns, or anything with a sense of vitality. The trick is to imbue the regularity of a formal garden with the ability to surprise and charm.

RESOURCES: Mary Palmer Dargan, Dargan Landscape Architects, 828/743-0307, For more specific information on the garden pictured, order The Laskett by Roy Strong

Brought to you by Lawn Patio


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