How to Design a Formal Garden

Three Methods:Mapping a PlanPlanting the GardenAdding Details

The formal garden design was originally implemented in Persia and areas of Europe. Formal gardens feature simple geometric designs with defined edges. Plants, hedges, and walkways are arranged in either circular, rectangular, or square designs, but they are always symmetrical. Read on for information on how to design your own formal garden.

Method 1
Mapping a Plan

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    Assess the lay of the land. The design you choose for your garden will be influenced by the contours of the land you are using. You should also take into account its placement relative to your house or other nearby buildings. Consider the following factors:
    • Is the land your are using hilly or flat? This will affect the final look of your formal garden. Formal gardens are easier to create on flatter land, so you may want to look into leavening some of the hills on your property if possible.
    • What is the shape of the plot of land? Are you working with a perfect square, or is it more oblong in shape? You'll have to decide whether the garden is going to extend to the edges of the land, or whether you want to create a more contained space within it.
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    Decide how you will use the garden. You may be designing the garden purely for visual appeal, or perhaps you want it to be more functional, a place for people to relax and play. This is an important decision to make, since it will determine how many open spaces you'll have in proportion to areas with plants and hedges.
    • If you want people to quietly stroll through the garden, observing all of its details, you probably want to install a lot of paths and intricate plantings.
    • If like the formal look but want your garden to be less structured, plan for just one or two paths and more open spaces.
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    Choose a focal point. Formal gardens are usually arranged around some type of impressive focal point - think of a palace garden with a giant fountain in the center. In many cases the focal point is located at the center of the garden, but it doesn't have to be. Consider these ideas:
    • Make a small version of those palatial gardens by creating a focal point out of a pretty fountain or even a bird bath.
    • Your focal point could be a beautiful tree that's already standing in your garden.
    • You could buy a wrought-iron bench and place it in a cleared area as a focal point.
    • Create an arch with a trellis in the center of the garden.
    • Use your patio or deck as a focal point instead of having one at the center of the garden.
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    Plan your paths. Now that you have a focal point in mind, it's time to plan out the paths that lead to it. A formal garden may have paved, brick or stone paths. You could also have paths that are naturally created among hedges that are carefully trimmed. Paths should be maintained carefully to create a sense of neatness and order, essential elements of a formal garden.[1] Create a map that shows your focal point and the different paths that will lead to it.
    • Some formal gardens have maze-like paths, all leading to the focal point. This tends to take up a lot of space, so it's a good choice for larger gardens.
    • You could have two bisecting paths that make a cross shape, dividing your garden into four distinct parts.[2]
    • One symmetrical circular path with a path running straight through the middle is another good choice.
    • If your focal point is a deck attached to your house, consider having a path that leads straight to it, with smaller paths leading off to the sides.

Method 2
Planting the Garden

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    Consider your climate. Perhaps you visited a garden in France, fell in love with its beauty, and seek to recreate it in your own backyard. The first thing you must do is find out whether your climate is conducive to growing plants you saw elsewhere. It's important to choose plants that will thrive where you live; otherwise, you'll be dealing with sick and dying plants instead of enjoying a healthy garden.
    • Figure out which planting zone you live in, so that when you start to research species you'll be able to tell right away whether they'll be a good fit.
    • Don't be averse to using plants that are native to your area. Formal gardens can have many different themes that vary according to climate. There are formal alpine, desert, tropical, temperate and Mediterranean styles. Check around for gardens in your area that may inspire you with ideas.
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    Choose appropriate plants. Balance and cohesion are key in formal gardens. Choose plants with shapes that go well together and work with the other elements in your garden. For example, if your garden design is primarily square, you might want to plant box hedges, which can be trimmed into a square shape. Hydrangea blossoms are a good choice as a complement to a circular design.
    • This is not to say that if you have a square garden design, all of your plants must be square. Get creative with your interpretation. Choose flowers that have four distinct and neat petals, or decide to plant tulips in the shape of a large square.
    • Pick plants with cohesive colors.[3] One or two colors is enough for a formal garden; too many colors and it will have a wild look.[4]
    • Choose plants that are containable. You'll be doing a lot of trimming and weeding to keep your garden design looking neat. Help yourself out by choosing plants that won't spread over your brick path or get unwieldy after a few weeks. Bulb plants are a good choice for this purpose.
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    Plant with an eye toward symmetry. Once you've chosen your plants, decide where to put them. Your garden is divided into several spaces by paths; assess each space both individually and as part of the whole garden when you're deciding what to plant where.
    • Consider lining the paths with one type of plant. This is a beautiful look that provides instant cohesion.
    • If you plant something in one area, plant the same thing on the opposite side. For example, if you have a group of tulips in the left corner of the garden, plant a similar group in the right corner, for balance and symmetry.
    • Plant en masse. A classic characteristic of formal gardens is the striking sight of a large group of plants. A box-shaped section planted wall to wall with hyacinths, for example, could give your garden the look you want to achieve.
    • Create patterns. Alternate plant shapes and colors by planting a row of one flower, a row of a different flower, and so on.
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    Make sure you have good bones. The term "good bones" is used by landscape architects to describe the structure of the garden that is in place all year round, after the flowers are gone and the grass isn't quite as green.[5] Choose hedges that will stay green all year round, and pick some winter-hardy plants. You can also employ fencing and other permanent features to make sure your garden has "good bones."
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    Factor in open spaces. Don't forget to leave some areas open. Open spaces provide a pleasing contrast with planted spaces, and they're also nice if you want people to be able to lounge in the garden. Plant the open spaces with grass, or cover them with gravel if you prefer.

Method 3
Adding Details

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    Utilize water features. Many formal gardens have fountains, koi pounds, small streams, and other water features to add interest to the layout. Consider installing a water feature in your garden, either as the focal point or a simple decoration.
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    Add stone urns and statues. Concrete is often used in formal garden designs in the form of urns, other plant holders, and statues. Marble is another classic stone you could use, or faux-marble if you're looking for a more affordable option.
    • One beautiful statue used as the centerpiece of your garden can make a huge difference. Check out garden stores and nurseries for outdoor statue options.
    • If you decide to use urns, buy an even number and distribute them around the garden in a pattern. For example, if your garden is divided into four sections, each one should have an urn, and the urns should all contain the same kind of plant or flower.
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    Add furniture. If your formal garden is in your backyard, chances are you'll want to spend a lot of time out there. You'll need outdoor furniture that matches the theme of your garden.
    • Wrought iron is often a good choice for this purpose. You could also choose a different material and spray paint it either dark green or black to match the garden.
    • Avoid plastic furniture, since a formal garden should look timeless.
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    Keep your garden neat. Formal gardens need more maintenance than other types of gardens, especially if you have hedges that need to be trimmed to keep a certain shape. Take care of your garden throughout the summer and give it touch-ups over the winter as you prepare for spring.
    • Use an edger to trim the grass away from your paths.
    • Weed your garden frequently to keep plants healthy and your garden looking neat.
    • After watering and working in the garden, put away the hose and gardening tools.
    • Sweep leaves and dirt off of the paths frequently.


  • Formal gardens are known for being, well, formal. They tend not to have casual or personal charm elements in them. This doesn't mean that you don't have to have them, but if quirky, fun and charming is your goal, don't do a formal garden. Your additions should improve the garden (and vice versa, the garden should improve you).

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Categories: Theme and Feature Gardens