Formal landscape design invokes order and balance. Think of the gardens of Monticello, the landscaping of Versailles, and, closer to home, the gardens of Bayou Bend, which is part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The hand of the gardener is clearly in evidence in formal landscape designs as the pathways and plantings are controlled along crisp lines. It is this discipline that gives a sense of peace and order. Formal landscape design is our attempt to exert our control over nature, to create our idealized version of it.
Throughout history, formal gardens have evolved. Traditional, or classic, landscape design, for instance, is a type of formal garden that uses linear walkways and clipped shrubbery. In the 16th and 17th centuries, knot gardens and parterres were in vogue. Originating in England, a knot garden is a square made of low, clipped hedges. Within the “knot”, a variety of blooming plants and herbs grow. Parterres developed in the formal estates of France and are four squares laid in a symmetrical pattern separated by gravel paths. The planting that makes the outline of the parterre is an evergreen shrub trimmed into a pleasant, sometimes intricate, shape. Parterres are designed to be viewed from on high—from the crest of a slope or the balcony of a chateau.
Like language, the term “formal landscape design” continues to change with time. There are few hard and fast rules—but the main constant is to use the principles of formal landscape design to create a landscape that is beautiful and supports the things you love.
Creating Your Formal Residential Landscape Design
Formal gardens need not be boring. They can be quietly dramatic or outright bold. While there are many kinds of formal gardens, they have two qualities in common: balance and symmetry. These attributes are best exemplified by the way the structural lines, called axes, bring the eye to rest where they intersect. Axes are straight lines of sight that lead to a prominent feature, usually the house. Typically a formal residential landscape has two axes perpendicular to one another. Called the main axis and the secondary axis, they often double as paths.
The main axis is usually wider than the secondary path that crosses it. The extra width gives the main axis visual prominence and directs the eye. Thus the eye travels along the main axis, then stops when it reaches the intersection with the secondary axis, which joins it at a 90 degree angle. This joining is a good place for a focal point, such as an outdoor water fountain, that creates interest.
As opposed to an English garden design that uses curved borders with undulating edges, in formal garden design the edges and borders are laid out in neat, geometric shapes—rectangles, squares, triangles or circles. Along with the decisive contouring of the plant materials, these shapes accentuate the stability and serenity of formal landscape designs.
Because of the acute geometry of formal garden designs, some house styles are better suited for formal gardens than others. Colonial and Federal-style houses built of brick or stone work well with this style of garden. Formal gardens nicely complement urban townhouses, especially those constructed in formal architectural styles such as Second Empire, Georgian or Greek Revival. Contemporary designs, with their spare and unadorned lines, also support formal garden design.
Other Features in a Formal Landscape Designs and Formal Garden Designs
• Luxury swimming pools. The water is the whole point of a formal pool. You want to create a frame for the water that turns it into a design element within the landscape. To that end, a rectangular shape of water looks inherently formal. Round, oval and square work well, too. Within a formal garden, the pool should be placed where it geometrically fits into the overall design. It can be situated in the middle of the space or unconnected to the other immediate features or structures. The pool is meant to stand out and be noticed. Be mindful of your choice of materials with a pool. You want to stay within the formal realm. Flagstone, tile or brick all work well.
• Outdoor water fountains. Fountains fit beautifully in formal landscape designs. Just remember to keep them in the style of the garden and house design. A simple garden design with lots of open space and spare lines can take a more complex water fountain. If, however, your garden is more intricately designed or tightly planted, a simpler fountain works best.
• Landscape lighting. Use the different types of landscape lighting—down-lighting, up-lighting, architectural lighting, incandescent lights—to play up the theatricality of a formal landscape design.
Residential Landscape Maintenance is the Key
An ongoing feature of formal gardens is maintenance. Regular and conscientious maintenance will keep your formal landscape design formal. “After spending a lot of money on your landscape installation, it only makes sense to protect it and make sure it develops as designed. And that’s where a landscape maintenance program comes in,” says Jeff Halper with Exterior Worlds. “As part of a thorough landscape maintenance program, hedges as well as other shrubs and bushes should be trimmed regularly to maintain the desired contours. Ground cover and vines should be edged to maintain a neat appearance. This regularly-scheduled attention will ensure that all elements conform to the overall plan of the formal landscape design.”
Exterior Worlds is located in the memorial area. They have been serving the Houston area including River Oaks, West University, Bellaire, Memorial, Tanglewood since 1987. Call Exterior Worlds at 713-827-2255 to discuss the creation of your formal landscape design.