Formal garden design ideas

There is much talk in the garden design world about the popularity of naturalistic garden styles and ‘rewilding’ outdoor spaces.  However, in our experience at The Garden Company, there is still a steady interest from many clients in more formal garden styles. Such designs have a timeless appeal.  They offer an elegant, refined ‘look and feel’. Formal gardens follow some simple design principles – outlined in this post – but they do not need to be sterile.  I love to add pollinator-friendly plants to complement the classic hedges and shrubs associated with formal gardens.   Wildlife-friendly features (such as plant choices, water sources, insect habitats) enhance a formal garden’s visual appeal and add a contemporary touch.

Planning a formal garden layout

A formal garden is usually laid out with a clear structure and strong overall geometry. There is often symmetry to the layout, but not always.  Asymmetrical design can add interesting dynamics.  The main design principle to aim for is one of balance.  As with all garden designs, it is essential for the designer to take their lead from the house, its architecture and the garden’s wider surroundings. This will help to create a sense of harmony and flow between the home and garden.

Landscaping materials in a formal garden scheme

Continuity from the house to the garden can be achieved by selective use of landscaping materials.  Each material needs to be carefully chosen to be sympathetic to the period of the house and its architecture.  Careful sourcing can lead to great finds.  For older properties, I like to check whether a local brickworks or quarry can provide matching materials, or at least products that are vernacular. A sense of harmony can also be achieved with houses that have undergone modernisation.  For example, you might use some of the same floor tiling for a garden terrace adjoining a recent kitchen extension.

Features in a formal garden scheme
Formal garden with paved walkway between planted areas and summerhouse in the background
©Rebecca Bernstein

Shrubs or trees clipped into ornamental shapes (topiary) are likely to feature in a formal garden.  Pleached trees can add volume to the formality. A formal garden design is likely to include focal points such as a fountain, statue or sundial framed by planting.  Planting schemes often frame such focal points, and frame views across the garden or out to the wider countryside where possible. Elegant benches or garden seats will be set into the planting with a good viewpoint across the ornamental space.

Parterres are also a popular choice – enclosed flower beds separated by gravel pathways and designed to be viewed from above so that the overall pattern can be appreciated. A wonderful example of a parterre garden to visit for inspiration can be found at Cliveden, a National Trust property in Berkshire.

Plants in a formal garden scheme
Formal garden design featuring various plants and shrubs
©Rebecca Bernstein

The foundation for a formal garden ‘look’ will be provided by structural plants such as hedging, shrubs and neat trees which have a strong architectural presence.  Good hedging choices include Yew, Beech and Hornbeam.  While the garden’s framework is provided by structural plants, lawn and pathways, the borders can be filled with plants that will soften the ‘rectilinear’ effect. I incorporate as many late-blooming pollinator-friendly plants into my schemes as possible. My favourite prime pollinators are Salvias, Lavender and Verbenas. Not only do I enjoy the punch of colour they provide from September until November, I also love seeing the diversity of pollinators they attract and support. Don’t forget to add early flowering bulbs for the bumblebees too!

You can also add a touch of height to the flower borders through a variety of Alliums.  If you have the space, then Hydrangeas have a lovely softening effect with their large blooms in the late Summer.

Colours in a formal garden scheme

Formal garden colour schemes tend to be very simple and restrained.  There is usually a strong predominance of greenery. For example, I like to combine different formal hedging plants such as Yew and Hornbeam for a pleasing effect.  But once a strong green framework has been established, looser planting can be added for extend the textural and ephemeral content which contrasts with the formality.   It is important to avoid colours that detract from the overall feel of the garden and to avoid too many contrasting colours.  In fact, repeating colours & plants within the garden gives a sense of cohesion and adds to the formality.


A formal garden can provide a sense of serenity, calm and control.  While we may associate formal gardens with large country houses and grand estates, with careful planning even a small space can be transformed into a timeless, relaxing haven.  For more inspiration, Garden Design: a Book of Ideas (Howcroft and Majerus)is a great collection to browse through.  Our own portfolio includes this family garden in Hertfordshire. In this example, we implemented a simple design concept with landscaping and planting that are rich in detail.

All images shown are taken from gardens designed by James Scott and built by The Garden Company.

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