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Garden Style
Formal Gardens


What is that distinguishes a formal garden? The symmetry, the regular outline and the balancing of plants and architectural features. Formal gardens are not fossils, and they are not just the classic French parterres and grand allees of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. But formal design need not be lavish, nor extravagant.

The formal garden has a calmness, which flows from having everything in its place and in proportion. They are beyond fashion. There is a feeling of 'safeness' and timelessness. The abundance of built framework, of geometric enclosures, clipped evergreens and (but not always) a profusion of old fashioned flowers is arranged within a balanced design.

The most distinctive feature of French classical garden is the decorative pattern in clipped evergreens that can be enjoyed all year. The arrangement of scrolling patterns of the parterre, with finals on pedestals and clipped box cones for vertical emphasis, is designed to be looked down upon. Paving, gravel or dust emphasises the pattern of the hedges. A central vista is closed by a 'object' either statue, seat, gate or summerhouse. In an Italian garden a view over the surrounding countryside would often be used.

There are far more permutations of the formal style. Formal avenues of trees, the importance of ground level pattern and proportion in the design, these are the hallmarks of a formal garden.

The formal style is not restricted to the classic French gardens. Exported to the colonies the formal garden was adapted to newer climates and plants. New Orleans has several beautiful examples which are open to the public, and Pompallier House in New Zealand's Northland has echoes of the French style with box edged borders and central pathway.

Many twentieth century gardens were built around a formal framework. Among the more famous are Sissinghurst in Kent, UK, and Hidcote in Gloucestershire, UK. These two gardens sparked an interest in the formal outline especially where contrasted with luxuriant planting.

New Zealand has its own examples, beyond the confines of civic botanic rose gardens, which are almost always designed along formal lines. Ohinetahi in Governor's Bay Christchurch is a fine example of a formal garden with bold axes linking the various garden areas, allees and a formal arrangement of beds.

Trott's Garden has adopted strong formal lines in a garden adjoining an extensive woodland planting. Stowe, another Canterbury garden, has been more recently redeveloped along formal lines. The Nancy Steen Rose Garden in Parnell, Auckland, has a formal design underlying plantings of luscious old roses and perennials. There are many more.


Next page


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Formal is not always traditional...

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The splendour of Chateau Vaux-le-Comte, Ile de France...

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...translated into an intimate space at Beauregard-Keyes House, New Orleans

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Severe oultines at Sissinghurst softened by lush planting

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A formal scheme anchors the garden at Stowe, Christchurch

Ohinetahi's double borders
Ohinetahi's double borders

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Last revised 29 Jun '02