Formal gardens are the result of our desire to tame and give order to the natural landscape. Formal garden designs generally incorporate symmetry, well balanced geometric forms, straight lines and uniform textures and colors. All very seldom found in nature.
Symmetrical gardens are often divided by a path through their center and have the same or similar plantings and other garden elements on each side. Straight paths, often lined with regularly spaced specimen trees, which lead to a vista or focal point are common in the formal garden. A central focal point, such as a sundial, birdbath or water fountain can acts as an ordering element in the garden.
Repetition of garden elements is an effective way to create a sense of order in the garden. For instance, repeating the use of a shrub to form a hedge or lining a garden path with a row linden trees helps give a garden structure and order. Using the same plant repeatedly throughout a design also creates uniformity and ties together various parts of the garden.
Formal gardens are generally designed to be simple so the number of different plant species in a formal garden is somewhat limited. Plants which are used, however, are planted in large quantities to add to the uniform appearance of texture and color.
Plants which are compact, neat or slow growing are typically most appropriate for the formal garden. Birch, linden, hornbeam and ornamental pear trees all have a natural formal appearance and are ideal for formal gardens. With their colonnaded trunks they provide a sense of rhythm and order when used to line walkways or divide garden spaces. Stately trees, such as beech and sycamore, are very effective when planted along driveways. Evergreen trees and shrubs, such as yew, spruce and arborvitae, are uniform in appearance and make wonderful formal privacy hedges or windbreaks.
Hedges and walls also create the structure within the formal garden. They can divide the garden into separate spaces and mark boundaries. Hedges of well maintained evergreens or deciduous shrubs such as privet are an important element in the formal garden. Ideal evergreen plants for hedges are slow-growing shrubs such as boxwood and English holly.
Selection of other garden materials also can enhance a formal appearance. In general, bluestone, brick and granite have a more formal feel than fieldstone or flag stone. Also, stone patios are more effective in the formal garden than wood decking.
Formal gardens require frequent maintenance as they feature neatly mowed and edged lawns, tidily pruned hedges and topiary elements. Consider how much time you’re willing to spend in the working garden then decide if a formal design is best for your garden.