Formal gardens don’t have to be stuffy

The formal herb garden at Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens (with Savvy Gardening gals Amy and Tara)

The act of garden making is an attempt to impose a human’s sense of order on the natural world. Even a native garden or, the latest trend, the messy, bedhead garden (a trend that I’ve been following for years), actively assembles things and organizes them according to the gardener’s likes or artistry or whims. Formal or classical gardens may take this to extremes – but they don’t have to.

Clipped hedges, topiary, symmetrical beds, or stone paving can be the principal players in a garden. Or they can simply act like the satin ribbon that ties up a casual posy. Here are five gardens from the Toronto Garden Bloggers Fling 2015 that do “formal” in different, sometimes surprising, ways.

(Speaking of garden making, I caught Garden Making magazine editor Beckie Fox at the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens. You’ll see the second garden we profile here also in the latest issue No. 23 of her magazine.)
In this photo and one above, see how the clipped hedging and symmetrical plan frame the over-spilling herbs that tumble together in the beds. You can do this on a small scale, too, using formal paths to contain or define your own bedhead garden.  Think how it works in fashion. Ripped jeans move from messy to pulled together if worn with a Chanel jacket.
Rose gardens are formal in two ways: they’re a collection, and they’re laid out in a formal plan. Here’s the one at Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture (get an overhead view at the school’s website) and the NPBG and school superintendent Charles Hunter. If you visit the Niagara Region, do go see this excellent botanical garden.
You expect a botanical garden to have at least one garden that’s formal. But how does that work for regular folk? This garden created by its owner in Niagara-on-the-Lake shows how formality can be scaled down to fit a residential site.
How about that? This view at the end of a rectangular lawn has all the classical elements: symmetry, stonework, statuary, clipped boxwood parterres, a limited colour palette, and, and, and…. (Zip over to Garden Making to see it all from the opposite end.) While much of it might seem to be be lifted right off the Acropolis, the gardener has kept it in scale with his property, and tied it to his home by using the same colours and materials.
This might not be your garden style. But, even if it isn’t, wouldn’t it be charming to sit here for an afternoon with a cup of tea or glass of wine, imagining what you’d plant in those box squares instead of the white peonies? The simplicity of lines and colours – and the openness between the house and summer house – saves it from feeling overly ornate or fussy.
Back in Toronto’s Forest Hill, we have formal on a tinier scale – that gorgeous greenhouse and the row of stepping stones leading to a circle of boxwood balls. Any shaping that takes a plant away from its natural growth pattern is a nod to formality. Even this quirky clippery. Do you have garden beds that might be anchored by a single formal shape?
How about the other Forest Hill garden we saw? While formal in layout, the mould is broken by their choice of plants. In one rectangular bed, grasses are used the way boxwood hedges might have been, to contain an exuberance of alliums. In the other, a tufty “lawn” is made of interplanted sedges and Eco-Lawn. This is like that Chanel jacket we talked about, but made of denim – or burlap. Think about how you might turn a tradition on its ear through plant selection.
Finally, the wonderful Knot Garden at the Toronto Botanical Garden, with its whorls and curlicues. As they say at their link, they’ve taken the traditional practice of pruning and given it an “abstract, contemporary twist.” Other gardens that do this in their own way are Veddw in Wales and Piet Oudolf’s private garden at Hummelo (which fellow Torontonian, writer and blogger Tony Spencer captures on The New Perennialist). How might you put a fresh spin on a formal technique?

Why not shake up the formal dice and give them a toss? You might come up with an unexpected win.


  1. I love all types of gardens, but usually lean more towards the cottage than the formal garden. Your take on those we saw during the fling is enlightening.

    1. Margaret, my natural tendency is cottagey, or as cottagey as I can be in dry shade. However, I've tried to tie it up with a more formal ribbon through things like steps and walkways, just to make it seem intentional.

  2. Formal gardens are my favorite to admire. Perennial, cottage and prairie are how my grdens end up. I really enjoyed the Niagara Botanical garden because behind the formal hedges was more wild plantings. Thank you the reminder. Lovely photos.

    1. I agree with you about the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens — love that mix of wild and controlled in the herb garden, and then the herb garden surrounded by more naturalistic plantings.

  3. I do love all the views you showed, and especially enjoyed this post. While my own garden is a mix of informal and formal (a mess sometimes), most gardens I design are estate gardens and the home character dictates formality around the residence. Some have statuary too. Formal design is an inside to outside style to help showcase the residence in many cases, like long views from third floor windows for example. I happen to love this style and found in garden blogging, many cannot understand or accept having gardens like this.Too bad too, because there is a lot of formal design throughout history.

    1. Thanks, Donna. I appreciate your perspective. It's hard for me to understand people who have very dogmatic likes and dislikes, whether of a certain plant or a type of design. They're perfectly entitled to feel that way, of course! I just think it cuts people off from the possibility of those game-changing eureka moments.

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