A Touch of Formality

Dr. William C. Welch, Professor & Landscape Horticulturist
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Trends in garden design come and go and include very formal (geometric, clipped) as well as more casual expressions. A case can be made for the less formal garden because the routine chores of clipping plants, hedges and specimens can be time consuming and repetitive. A "natural" or "casual" garden can be one where order is not imposed but with wildflowers, reseeding annuals, perennials and other plants that are allowed to appear at will. Another possibility is the cottage garden where a natural look is encouraged but restrained by judicious weeding, shaping, creation of masses and drifts of plants. Cottage gardens can also include walks, ponds, trellises, rustic gazebos and container plants.

Greg Grant's restored cottage
Greg Grant's restored cottage

A feeling of enclosure can be achieved by using naturally compact or mounding plants like dwarf yaupon (Ilex vomitoria nana), boxwood, dwarf pittosporum , dwarf oleanders, dwarf Burford holly and Indian hawthorn. Larger plants like sasanqua camellias, 'Nellie R. Stevens' or other hollies, cherry laurel and certain of the shrub roses (like 'Old Blush', R. chinensis 'mutabilis' and 'Carefree Beauty' are good at defining space and providing many months of color. Views in the garden can be enclosed or directed with vines trained upon upright lath or wire panels. Vine choices include Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) or climbing roses such as Lady Banks, Rosa x 'fortuniana' or 'Reve d'Or'.

Back garden view
Clipped mounds of myrtle define spaces in this back garden

Specimen plants, may include upright accents like Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), 'Scarlet's Peak' yaupon (Ilex vomitoria 'Scarlet's Peak') or shapely evergreens like wax leaf ligustrums, dwarf or full sized myrtles (Myrtus communis 'compacta' or rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis). Topiaries are shaped plants that can be rounded, pyramidal or even shaped like animals. Topiaries can also be vines trained over wire forms of various shapes.

"Parterre" is a French word for pattern in the garden. It can be achieved by laying out geometric patterns of low growing clipped plants like dwarf yaupon, Japanese or Korean boxwood (Buxus microphylla). These hedges should be clipped periodically to maintain straight lines and angles. Parterre gardens often include a feature such as a birdbath, urn, planted pot or garden statuary. Paths can be made or brick, concrete, gravel or stones. In your design, space can be left for seasonal color, bulbs, etc.. Gardens of this type can include reduced turf areas and water efficiency.

These are some of the possibilities of garden styles. Keep in mind that the architecture of the house may suggest formality or informality in the garden. Some of these possibilities are illustrated by the accompanying images.

Independence flower bed
Masses of petunias, daylilies, irises & salvia provide seasonal color in a Washington County garden

Casual, formal, cottage or other garden designs are all firmly rooted in our garden history. All of the cultures that have been a part of American gardening heritage have contributed design and plant ideas. We also have a vast repository of native plants that are available for use in today's gardens. Greg Grant and I have recently authored a book where many of these ideas can be explored and applied to your garden. Heirloom Gardening for the South (Texas A&M University Press, 2012).

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