Formal Garden Design Ideas

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Formal gardens follow specific design rules that combine geometric shapes and patterns along side statuary and water features to create a sophisticated symmetry. Formal garden designs are characterized by walkways and flowerbeds arranged along straight lines or simple curves. Simplicity is achieved by using fewer plants and selecting plants for their elegant features. Tall elements such as statuary and topiary can be found around the formal garden to add height. Stone pathways and large urn shaped containers filled with flowering plants add balance and unity to a formal garden.

Plants Found in a Formal Garden

Formal gardens have an orderly appeal to them and the plants used in a formal garden enhance this sense of order. Potted plants are a common feature in the formal garden. Large containers may contain a mass planting of one flowering plant such as Geraniums, Wax Begonias or White Hardy Cyclamen to create a dramatic effect.

One of the easiest ways to give your yard the feel of a formal garden is to build formal garden beds. Formal garden beds can be used to spruce up the area along the front of the house or to line walkways and driveways. When designing a formal flowerbed, try to arrange the plants into patterns. Matching the pattern of the flowerbed to the patterns in the home’s architecture will create a sense of unity. Use these plants in a formal flowerbed:

  • English Sweet Violet blooms with small purple flowers against bright green foliage.
  • Primrose is a semi-evergreen low growing plant that comes in hundreds of varieties and colors.
  • Blue Fescue is a low-growing grass that grows in small mounds and can be used along a border.
  • Create flowering hedges with rows of Hydrangeas, Azaleas or Pyracantha.
  • Flowering bulbs such as Tulips, Gladiolus, day lilies, alliums and oriental lilies are easy to grow and add masses of color.

Trees, hedges and creatively pruned topiary are other common elements found in a formal garden. Here are some suggestions for plants that can be pruned into shapes that will fit into a formal garden design:

  • Common Yew creates a tall element in the garden.
  • Boxwood, Privet, Bay Laurel and Juniper can be molded into a variety of shapes.
  • Cypresshave a cylindrical shape and can be used as a border along a driveway or property line.
  • Espaliered fruit trees, roses and wisteria create focal points in the garden and accent brick walls.

formal garden design ideas formal garden design ideas

These plants enjoy growing along side ponds and water features:

  • Lenten Rose grows well in shady gardens and produces rose like blooms in shades of white to pink.

Enjoying a Courtyard Garden

A courtyard garden is a small backyard space that has a pathway through the middle of the garden with flowerbeds and hedges balanced on each side of the path. The path can be constructed of grass, gravel or concrete paving stones. An urn, birdbath or sculpture may be at the end of the path as a focal point.

When the focal point is in a sunny area, select a large urn or birdbath. Large urns can be planted with colorful flowers. Plant Blue Lobelia or White Petunias around the base of the birdbath. Fill the urn with Red Geraniums and English Ivy.

A courtyard garden may also use a sculpture as a focal point. To give the sculpture some height, place it on a pedestal made of concrete blocks. Plant boxwood around the concrete blocks to hide the blocks and keep the boxwood shaped.

Topiaries add interest to a courtyard garden. Topiaries are shrubs that have been pruned into shapes. It is easier to maintain topiary in a geometric shape rather than something more complex such as an animal.

Getting Creative in the Formal Garden

Formal garden designs can be very complex as can be seen in knot gardens and rose gardens. Both of these types of formal gardens combine a variety of plants into complex shapes and interweaving layers. Knot gardens are defined by their use of mainly herbs planted in traditional “knot-like” designs.

One way to take the complexity out of a knot garden is to create a simple herb garden starting with a simple shape such as a square or circle. Then, add your favorite herb plants in interesting arrangements. When planning a formal herb garden, consider the following:

  • Growth habits and size of the herbs.
  • Add plants with texture and interesting foliage to add contrast when the plants are not flowering.
  • Provide easy access to all herb plants for easy harvesting.
  • Plant for an formal herb garden include lavender, basil, chamomile, bronze fennel and dill.

Creating a formal garden design can help recreate your yard into an elegant sanctuary. Use pathways and hedges to give the formal garden structure and flow. Water features and fountains create soothing noises and provide movement, while the minimalist plantings and shaped hedges provide tranquility and make garden chores easy.

Last Updated: May 23, 2012
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About Coletta Teske Coletta Teske has 25 years' experience in tech journalism, as well as home and gardening topics. She has freelanced for Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, published more than two dozen computer books for Prima Publishing and Macmillan, and worked as a freelance correspondent for West Hawaii Today. Coletta has been an avid gardener since she was 2 years old. While living in Hawaii, she achieved a lifelong dream of becoming a certified master gardener.

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