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Designing A Formal Garden

Formal herb gardens are geometric, usually subdivided by paths or dwarf hedges into symmetrical compartments much like those in France, except on a much smaller scale and with plants in the compartments rather than gravel. The overall aim of this type of garden is to create a pattern. A potager, an ornamental, formal garden in which herbs mingle with fruit and vegetables, is a good way to make use of small spaces. This area can be divided into neat, rectangular beds at ground level or raised up, which makes crop rotation easy.

We first encounter the prototype of the French kitchen garden, or potager, during the Middle Ages in the monastery beds at St. Gall. Its apogee can be found at the gardens of Villandry, created in the early 20th century by Dr. Joachim Carvallo (1869-1936). The centerpiece of the garden is a series of nine box-edged squares containing a wide variety of vegetables grown for their appearance as well as their taste. Villandry led the cult for ornamental vegetables-notably purple and green cabbages, ruby chard, and colored lettuce. When Rosemary Verey tired of her conventional vegetable garden, she began reading William Lawson's 17th century work, The Country Housewife's Garden. This inspired her to create a new kitchen garden at Barnsley House, her Cotswold manor house in Gloucestershire, England. For the actual planting, she turned to the garden of Villandry. She designed a 75' square garden, no bigger than necessary to feed a family and capable of being tended by one person. She divided it into four quarters, which happens to be ideally suited to crop rotation. She chose to brick-in the paths on a sand base. These, in time, settled, giving them a casual, non-professional look. To achieve height, she used climbing vegetables and fruit trees. Her controlling idea was, and still is, to plant in decorative ways with color and texture patterns. The small beds allow for new plant combinations each year.

Visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg, Virginia love to photograph the topiary, and one can see English ivy trained to grow over wire shapes of giraffes, camels, and hippos in the New York Botanical Garden Conservatory. If any of these examples excite you to try your hand at topiary, be aware that it will take patience and time, and once you have achieved the shape, you will need to continue to shear your masterpiece forever. But, as Lewis Hill, a noted Vermont gardener says, "a thing of beauty is a job forever."

A formal garden will require much more planning than an informal one. Decisions about the shape of the garden, what will go in the middle, how the paths will be laid out, what herbs will go in each compartment will have to be made. Careful measuring will also be required. Will there be stonework or brickwork, or will there be paths of grass or fragrant low-growing herbs? The height of plants is important also in placing the herbs in a border or in the middle. The formal types require upkeep, but they're really fun to plant and watch grow.

Knot Gardens

One type of formal garden, called a knot garden, comes down to us from Elizabethan England. The English and the French loved their knot gardens and usually patterned them after a rug or tapestry in their home. The main ingredients consisted of intricate geometric patterns, dwarf hedges of evergreen herbs, and/or paths. There were the closed knot gardens with no access and compartments, containing colored sand or gravel. Then there were the open knots with paths forming part of the patterns and compartments filled with sweet-smelling plants such as rosemary, hyssop, sage, and lavender. Traditionally, the planting schemes were sparse with the emphasis on the individual species. For instance, all the hedges were of boxwood, and knots were made in groups of four. These gardens demanded time and care as the hedges needed constant and careful trimming to maintain their appearance.

A magnificent example of knot gardening can be found at Filoli in California. William Bowers Bourn purchased Muckross House estate in County Kerry, Ireland in 1910 as a wedding gift for his daughter. He was so influenced by its rich history and extensive gardens that he incorporated many into his own estate, Filoli. The estate was eventually donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Two knot gardens were created as a bicentennial project in 1976. Each is 35' by 36" and is bordered on the south by a copper beech hedge, and on the north by rose of Sharon to provide a sense of enclosed space. The gardens followed the traditional design of a medieval knot garden, creating an illusion of colored cords weaving under and over one another and containing low growing plants that grow in dense, hedge-like masses. The gardeners plant more than 20,000 annuals each year to provide spectacular floral displays spring, summer, and fall. Magnolias, rhododendrons, and azaleas peak in early spring, and the rose gardens rule the summer. Chrysanthemums, copper beeches, ginkoes, and Japanese maples provide fall color. The best time to view the knot gardens is in May and June when the lavender, santolina, and germander contrast with the rich crimson of the new barberry foliage.

The interest in a knot garden comes in part from contrasting foliage colors, and the small divisions provide a neat area for growing herbs. You can grow a different herb in each one, restrict your plants to certain colors or herbs for certain ailments, or for different cooking styles, or for fragrance. Some possible patterns for a modern knot garden include: brick circle, brick diamond, square within a square, diagonal paths, interlocking diamonds, oblongs and right angles, diamonds and squares, diamonds in rectangles, and wheel beds. The many compartments allow for exuberant natural growth of herbs with the tidy formality of traditional designs.

Try your hand by marking out a bed not less then 6'square. Anything smaller will not allow for weaving of lines. Plan out your design on grid paper. For inspiration, look at knot patterns in herb books or books on ancient cultures or even history books that have illustrations of knot gardens. If it is too cold to grow boxwood in your area, you can use hyssop or germander as edging plants. Plan it as a feature all its own or as the centerpiece of your main garden. Mixing formal with the informal can be truly beautiful.

A formal garden need not be so intricate as the knot garden, but it should be structured. What I mean is, it should have "rhyme and reason". My little formal garden is round with a sundial in the middle. Spokes of 2-foot wide brick pathways lead to the sundial from each compass point-north, south, east, and west- with a border around the circumference made of bricks laid side-to-side. The edges of the walkways are kept neat with bricks laid on-end, raised about 4 inches from the height of the walkway. In between the walks, there's lavender, sage, rosemary, chamomile, and thyme formed into a pattern. I call it my relaxation garden because time stands still once the sun goes down.


Topiary is the art of pruning and training plants and shrubs into decorative shapes. It goes as far back as the Romans, but many of the artistic forms or pruning were developed in Europe, first by the French during the period when they designed formal gardens, and then by the Japanese. One can still visit some famous gardens and view the topiary that has been preserved. Here are just a few notable ones: Le Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley has broderie (imagine brocade only in plant form) of santolina created by Diane de Poitier, Henry II's mistress. The Monasterio de San Lorenzo in Santiago de Compostela in Spain has some very strange box hedges that are 400 years old. Among the many religious symbols shaped in the box hedges is that of the pilgrim's shell (a scallop) of St. James, a badge still worn by pilgrims to Santiago. In the Netherlands at Het Loo garden, are elegant arabesques made of boxwood. In Italy at Villa Garzoni, one can view massive topiary shapes of animals and birds.

Making a Standard

Many herbs make good topiary subjects. Smaller versions of topiary are possible for pots. Standards make beautiful shapes for the patio. A "standard" is a plant trained to have a single, erect, tree-like stem. Two plants suited to shaping into standards are scented geraniums, especially P. crispum, and bay. The process is not difficult, but it does require patience. To make a bay tree ball, grow the tree 6" higher than the desired finished height, then clip back the tip. Remove the side shoots below where you want the ball to begin and trim the side shoots into the sphere down to two or three leaves. When the side shoots have formed four or five leaves, clip back again to two or three, and repeat with all shoots until you have a ball shape. Prune early and late summer, after you have the desired shape, to maintain the appearance of your tree ball.

Scented geraniums can also be trained into standards. Choose a plant with a straight stem that has never been trimmed. Plant it in a 6" clay pot. As soon as it is well rooted, insert a 24" stake into the soil ½" away from the stem. Cut off all side branches, leaving the tip actively growing. Cut off any leaves that are growing up against the stake. Tie the stem about every inch against the stake with narrow strips of pantyhose. When the tip reaches the top of the stake, cut off the top node, which will force the stem to branch. Let shoots grow from the top four nodes. Remove all others. After new shoots are three or four nodes long, trim the tips. Continue until the diameter of the ball is about 1/3 to ½ the height of the plant. When the plant is strong enough to support itself, cut the stake off at ground level. Possible shapes include wreaths, hearts, and espaliers.

Training into Shapes

Germander, rosemary, myrtle, and gray santolina are other herbs suitable for topiary. Myrtle can be trained to the shape of a small tree, and if you can get it to bloom at Christmas time, you will have a very sweet tree. Possible shapes include wreaths, hearts and espaliers. Espaliers (from the French word épaule meaning shoulder) are plants trained to grow on a trellis. They are especially suited to small spaces. It is a plant grown flat, like a vine, against a wall, fence, building, or a trellis. Outdoors, dwarf fruit trees such as apples, pears, and citrus fruits are commonly used. In planning an espalier, a support is necessary. Eye screws with wire pulled taut between the screws at various horizontal intervals works well. When growth begins on the plant, allow only branches growing in the right direction to remain. Clip off all others. Bend branches as they grow while they are pliable, and secure them with twine or floral tape to the wire at the appropriate height. Possible shapes are fans, candelabras, fountains, diamonds, and triangles. For an indoor espalier, use a wooden trellis stuck in a pot. Peppermint scented geranium is a good choice because of its sprawling habit.

You may have seen herbs and ivies in florist shops shaped into wreaths, hearts, and balls, especially around Christmas and Valentine's Day. Herbs especially suited to this are creeping rosemary, gray santolina, and myrtle. Myrtle can be shaped into a triangle looking like a Christmas tree, and if you can get it to flower at Christmas, you have a very sweet, live "tree. Creeping rosemary stems are easy to train around a heart or wreath shape. I have seen germander and santolina shaped into beautiful balls that are reminiscent of a globe of the world. Ivies seem to have been especially made for training into any shape. One hint: it is a good practice to prune back to a bud facing in the direction you want the plant to grow. Depending on the plant, this could be easier than attempting to bend woody branches in a new direction. Care for your topiary the same way you would any container grown plant.