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Formal invitation

24 October 2022

Learn the principles of designing a garden with enduring structure and planting. Words & Photos Mark Rayner

We’re all familiar with the traditional formal garden style with its design reliant on strong geometric shapes and forms, executed using a restrained plant palette – usually including clipped hedging and a limited selection of other structural shrubs and ornamental plants.

A formal garden epitomises order and balance with a heavy emphasis on strong permanent structure, both in terms of hard landscaping and evergreen planting. This style may not be to everyone’s taste (some passionate gardeners may argue that it’s uninteresting and too restrictive), but there’s no denying it’s a style that offers many benefits, including year-round good looks, lower maintenance than other types of garden, and the ability to associate well with a wide variety of architectural styles.

For these reasons, it’s often a good choice to use in one particular area of the garden, most commonly at the front of the property (which will give good continuous street appeal) or as a design choice for another garden ‘room’ (perhaps as a formal potager, an enclosed sitting area or a corridor linking one part of the garden to another).

So, having decided you’d like to introduce an element of formality into your outdoor space, where to next?

Design on paper

When creating a formal garden, most work happens at the design stage, so it’s advisable to start with an accurate-to-scale ground plan of the proposed site, noting any existing features and plants that may need to be incorporated, moved or removed.

The good news about formal garden design is that it’s often symmetrical and relies on geometric shapes and parallel and perpendicular lines to form the ground pattern – so, by drawing an initial grid over your ground plan, you have an instant starting point.

Place a piece of tracing paper over this gridded plan, and you can sketch proposed paths, beds and borders until you have refined the design into something that you’re happy with (this gridded ground plan technique also works well when designing other styles of garden too).

Hard landscaping

Once you’re happy with the layout of the garden, the next consideration is hard landscaping materials, with many traditional designs incorporating traditional materials such as bricks, concrete pavers, gravel (white lime chip is particularly effective) and edged lawn.

For a more contemporary look, you could consider timber (as decking or as edging), exterior tiles or smooth pavers, or poured concrete (perhaps with an exposed aggregate).

Structural plants

Think next about the plants that will provide yearround interest and give the space its strong sense of architectural structure. This is usually achieved through neatly clipped hedging (traditionally Buxus sempervirens), which edges and defines areas of planting, as well as emphasising the intrinsic geometric nature of this design style.

Other popular evergreen structural plants could include lavender (kept tidy with clipping but less rigid than Buxus) and Teucrium fruticans (naturally larger and fast growing, so it will need more regular clipping), as well as bigger plants such as evergreen shrubs (perhaps Viburnum tinus or Aucuba japonica) and even appropriately sized conifers or other evergreen trees with a strong geometric form.

When selecting these structural plants, opt for balanced (or symmetrical) planting – this repetition of plants will result in a more harmonious look and feel to the design.

Ornamental plants

With the low-clipped hedging acting like a frame, the more ornamental plants within the beds and borders will add colour and interest to the overall picture.

Traditionally, roses have long been popular (especially standards), but there are many more plants to consider.

You have the permanent structure of the evergreen hedging, so try to incorporate flowering plants with a long season of interest (or ongoing change) or a selection of plants that perform at different times throughout the year – perhaps spring-flowering bulbs, followed by summer- and then autumn-flowering perennials. The trick is to select a smaller number of strong-performing plants and repeat them throughout the design.

(Remember, you’re still only at the design stage, positioning these structural and ornamental plants onto your gridded ground plan, so add them to the drawing at an accurate scale and you’ll know exactly how many plants you’ll need to buy when it comes to building the garden.)

Elements of style

Most formal gardens have an additional element (or more) to put a full stop at the end of their design sentence. There is usually a central point to any symmetry, which demands a strong ornamental feature. The visual end to a formal path would also be much improved with a definite focal point.

An ornamental plant may serve this purpose well (perhaps a large clipped topiary), but you can also have some extra fun with the inclusion of appropriate decorative features such as garden statuary, ornamental pots and urns, arches, benches, water features, obelisks – the list goes on.

The key, however, when selecting such an object is to remember that ‘less is more’.

One well-chosen ‘wow-factor’ feature will have far more visual impact if it has no other competition around it.

Less familiar ideas for formal gardens

• Consider creating a formal garden entirely from native New Zealand plants. Many of our shrubs are ideal for clipping into hedging or topiary, with plants such as coloured flaxes, phormiums or astelias adding yearround visual interest within their areas of planting. Complete the look with repeat-planted grasses or even native ferns.

• Give your vegetable garden a formal upgrade by creating a series of low raised beds to form a symmetrical ground pattern with a central gravel walkway, and use evergreen herbs such as lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme to provide year-round structure. Bamboo or timber obelisks may add a formal design touch (and can be used for runner beans and tomatoes), with unusual architectural edible plants such as globe artichokes or cardoons adding visual interest. Devote each bed to a different type of crop (rotating each year) and interplant with pollinating or pestrepelling companion plants.

• Use these principles of design to create a stunning formal succulent garden. Create uniform edging to the areas of planting with barrel cacti or echeveria and a symmetrical layout of succulents within each bed. Strong form and structure may come from an aloe or agave, surrounded by other succulents such as the stunning black Aeonium ‘Schwarzkopf’, steely blue Senecio serpens and varied mesembryanthemums and kalanchoes. For seasonal interest, include the wonderful perennial Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ with its glorious glaucous foliage and deep-pink flowers. As a finishing touch, include a large decorative boulder as the main focal point.

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