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Gardening: Creating a formal garden

A formal garden is an exercise in order, structure and tranquillity. It doesn't suit every house style, but a large Victorian or Italianate house will be complemented by a well-designed formal garden.

The garden is often designed with a geometric layout with further divisions based around separate 'rooms' marked off by well-trimmed low hedges.

Symmetrical plantings and the use of clipped and stylised plant forms, such as hedges and topiary, define and link the elements within the formal garden.

Statues, sculpture and water features provide contrast and focal points within the garden.

Formal gardens are not riots of colour but use a muted palette of shades of green, interspersed with touches of white, grey, blue or mauve from plantings of annuals and perennials.

Paving, gravel paths and statuary add different textures and other muted colours to the palette.


formal garden

Plant groups for an Australian formal garden

Major plant groups used in a formal garden include columnar evergreen trees, low hedges, topiary plants and annuals and perennials.

Where possible select plants that are not greedy for water and have low water needs (link to water-efficient article). Surprisingly, it is possible to create a low water use formal garden in Australia, even though the originals were developed in Europe and Britain in areas of higher rainfall.

  1. Columnar evergreen trees:
    Column-like evergreen trees have a definitive shape that provides accent or contrast to create distinctive elements in a formal garden. They can also be close planted to form a tall hedge or screen. Good specimens for an Australian garden include cypresses and the Richmond Cypress Pine, Callitris columellaris.
  2. Low hedges:
    Low hedges help to define space and provide direction in a formal garden. They should not grow to more than a metre in height, and be easy to keep well clipped. English box is the most commonly used hedge plant, but for a little colour you could use low-growing Australian flowering shrubs such as Correa pulchella, with its small, tubular orangey-red flowers in late winter.
  3. Topiary:
    Topiary is a feature of many formal gardens. The trees or shrubs are very tightly clipped into round, square or geometric shapes to provide a dramatic contrast in texture and form to the garden. Useful plants for topiary are the bay tree, and various forms of rosemary, which can either be cut to shape, or trained over a wire frame before trimming.
  4. Annuals and perennials:
    These provide splashes of colour in the formal garden, although generally the colours are subtle shades. They are usually planted in beds within the hedges, and can be semi-permanent with perennials, or changing seasonal displays of annuals. Many of the annuals and perennials suitable for cottage gardens (link to cottage garden article) will provide displays in the 'rooms' of your formal garden.

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