"Power Gardening": Opulence and Restraint in Your Formal Garden

Design a formal garden inspired by European classical architecture. You don't have to live at Versailles to bring the basics - symmetry, balance, and restraint - to life. In fact, formal gardens work well in small spaces.

Excerpted from Garden Design
Formal Garden Formed Around Geometric Design Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Geometric Design

A successful formal garden has a balanced design, achieved through symmetry and a clearly recognizable ground plan or pattern.

Dynamic Water Feature Highlight of Formal Garden Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Formal Fountain

Dynamic water features provide movement.

Symmetry Around Central Axis Points to Fountain Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Ultimate Symmetry

Formal gardens start with an axis, or central line, as the basis for the garden plan. The axis could be a pathway or lawn, or even a central planting bed. Generally, the axis focuses on a dominant feature, such as a sculpture, statue or, as shown here, element framed by an arch.

Once you've established the central line in your design, divide the space into halves or quarters, which you can mark out using grass or paving. Then, repeat plantings in each space in order to keep a sense of coherence and to direct the eye to a focal point along the central line.

Garden Design Focuses on Central Axis Steel Frame Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Modern Twist

Gardeners who like modern, minimal design may feel drawn to formal gardening for the way it balances a dramatic sense of scale with minimal plantings and hard elements. The central axis of this garden focuses attention on a steel frame and water cube. Olive trees create an avenue to enclose the central lawn, framed by reflective water and decorative border planting. Highly-polished granite paving edges a gazing area, demonstrating how cross-axes, or lines perpendicular to the central line, can be used to great effect.

Chateau of Vaux le Vicomte Features Illusions Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Design Influences

The gardens at Versailles and Vaux le Vicomte are among the best examples of classical formal garden design. Designer André Le Nôtre, who worked in the 17th Century, used level changes, reflective pools and highly stylized hedges to achieve dramatic effect. Luckily, you can scale your plans back a bit; unlike Le Nôtre, you don't have to impress King Louis XIV.

Gods and Mythological Subjects in Formal Gardens Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009


Gods and mythological creatures were the original subjects of statuary in formal gardens. In modern designs, broader figures and abstract concepts work well as focal points.

Topiaries Provide Architectural Effect in Garden Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009


You can clip hedging, typically box or yew for evergreen structure, to define space. Topiary provides architectural effect, and dwarf box hedges are used to form patterns in parterres, or planting beds edged in gravel.

Ornate Urns on Balustrades Provide Focal Point Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Ornamental Elements

Large, ornate urns, often on pedastals or columns, make classic focal points. Modern formal gardens can use the same technique, although their elements should be made of more modern material and be less extravagent lines. Think granite orbs or geometric statues on a tall metal base.

Paving Provides Architectural Element for Terrace Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Natural Stone

Paving provides an architectural element for pathways and terraces. Smooth, low gloss natural stone can create decorative patterns, host focal points or edge lawns and gravel paths.

Limestone Paving Creates Crisp, Formal Edge Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Urban Formality

Limestone paving defines this lawn with a crisp, formal edge. Lime trees, trained and trimmed with the technique known as pleaching, bring privacy to this urban space.

Overflowing Bowl Creates Focus of Parterre Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Contrasting Elements

An overflowing bowl of water creates a focus at the center of this courtyard garden at the Alhambra in Spain. Water balances the formal planting with a dynamic quality.

Topiary Oblong Scrolls Make Decorative Statement Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Ornamental Hedging

Just because formal garden design use lines doesn't mean they have to be rigid or straight. This garden's well-trimmed swirls and rounds bring whimsy and flirtation to a space made romantic by a soft, pastel canopy.

Lawn, Trees and Paved Surface Create Formality Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Contemporary Order

A simple rectangular lawn, perfectly uniform hornbeams and a pale paved surface create restrained formality. Sutle lighting directs the eye to the three columns at the far end, and ties the design together.

Pools and Connecting Rill Focus of Formal Garden Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Aquatic Symmetry

A simple slope and basin, connected to host flowing water, form the focus of this pleasingly simple arrangement. This meditative space shows how garden design can bring in only one element of formality to great effect.

Tightly Clipped Topiary Supports the Axial Layout Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Sculpted Greenery

Here, tightly clipped topiaries support the central line, a path of variated gravel softened by low plantings which blur the border slightly.

Steel Edging Creates Formal Edging in Gris Pattern Garden Design ©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

Softer Planting

Stone edging in straight, intersecting lines retains an air formality in this garden, and contrasts nicely with the colorful, wild plantings which fill its beds.

Excerpted from Garden Design

©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

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