Royally Entertaining -- How To Create A Formal English Garden In Your Own Yard

12 January 2016
 Categories: Home & Garden, Blog

One of the most well-loved garden styles throughout the last two centuries is the traditional English formal garden. And while you aren't able to create a garden the size and complexity of Hampton Court's world-famous formal setting, you can still design a beautiful, relaxing, and scaled-down version in your own backyard. 

Here is what you'll need to get started.

Themes and motifs

English formal gardens originally took their cues from the gardens of the Italian and French Renaissance periods. Continental formal gardens were very neat and trim, with carefully-planned geometrical designs and a focus on symmetry. English variations on these themes were a little more relaxed than their French influences, but they still reflected the same values. Those values included a love of shapes, proportions and measurements.  They also reflected an idealized version of nature as well as of earlier cultures -- particularly ancient Greek, Roman, or Chinese architecture. 

How can you use these overall themes and influences in your design? Start with these basic elements:

  • Symmetry. Start by designing a layout that is symmetrical down a main focal line. This focal line generally runs from where you enter the garden (or overlook it) to the far edge in front of you. 
  • Balance. Working outward from your focal line, be sure to provide visual and accessory balance to both halves of the garden as well as between the front and the rear of the space. This means not putting all your hardscaping on one side or allowing the path to only meander through one area of the garden. Balance the greenery, stone elements and colors throughout the space. 
  • Geometry. Plan to use a few basic shapes in your design. This should include squares and/or rectangles, straight lines, and a few judiciously placed circles or swirls. Many English gardens plant beds in a basic square or rectangle shape, then place a circular fountain or statuary element in the center. 
  • Architecture. Greek, Roman or Asian architecture should be placed at certain points to create a nice contrast with the natural elements. 
  • Icons. Certain elements are iconic to an English garden and will help you build your theme. These icons include:
    • Water features. A water feature creates a great centerpiece to any formal garden. If your space is small, consider a simple bubbling fountain or waterfall. If you have more space, opt for a small pond or a fountain that features a classical statue. 
    • Winding paths. Balance out the straight lines and stark features of your garden by including winding gravel or stone paths through the space. 
    • Statuary. Statues are essential -- and they can be Greek or Roman figures, pagodas or large urns, among other things. For the best variety to choose from, you can buy garden statues online to the right one(s) to match the tone of your garden. 
    • Follies. Follies -- buildings or other architecture designed to look like ruins, old temples or castoffs of an earlier culture -- were a regular part of large gardens. You can add small follies into your design with such things as a miniature play house, vine-covered stone walls or a few Greek-looking columns placed along the outer edges. 
    • Hedges. Neat box hedges add to the symmetry and geometry of the space. Use them to create small mazes, outline seating areas, or define the edges of planted areas. 

By understanding the influences behind a true formal English garden, you can find the right combination of elements to create one in a yard of any size or climate. Then choose iconic features to make your design clear and easy to enjoy. The result will be a garden you can love and share for many years to come.