Formal or Knot Garden

From 17th century Europe, the formal or knot gardening style incorporates geometric shapes such as squares and circles, givng it structure not found in nature.

If you are a person who likes symmetry; clear, uncluttered lines; and simple ornamentation, a formal or knot garden might be the right choice for you. These two garden types are very similar. The key difference between the two is that knot gardens are generally arranged symmetrically, often with pruned boxwood hedges featured prominently.

Formal gardens may or may not be symmetrical, but as in the knot garden, plants are pruned and cultivated to create a clean and uncluttered look overall.

Whether you plan a symmetrical knot garden layout with plenty of boxwood for edging or just a formal and elegant look overall, these gardens rely heavily on geometric shapes and straight lines. This gives the garden an overall feeling of order and organization not found in other garden styles.

Formal or Knot Garden History

When you think of formal gardens, you may automatically think back to grand palaces like Versailles. French, Italian and English manors or villas also made use of formal gardening, since it made for a pleasant place to stroll despite less than practical clothing and footwear. In fact, most gardens throughout Europe were formal in style through the 17th century. It was only during the early 1700s that more natural landscapes became popular.

Formal or Knot Garden Characteristics

The key to a successful formal garden or knot garden is the layout. Consider plotting out the area on a piece of graph paper or in a garden design program. Integrate straight lines and simple geometric shapes such as squares, rectangles, and circles into the plan. Gentle curves or circles can add some interest, but use them sparingly.

Symmetry and balance play an important role in creating the formal garden style.

Since your garden relies heavily on shapes and lines, it’s absolutely vital to maintain plants properly. While overgrown pathways might look completely natural in a woodland garden, they look unkempt when set in a formal design. Similarly, shrubs and other plantings need to be pruned and maintained regularly into clean shapes to make the most of this design. Suffice to say that if you’re interested in a low maintenance garden, formal style might not be the best choice for you.

Formal gardens lean more towards the uncluttered look, as opposed to the more natural mishmash of plant species found in styles like the country garden. Rather than planting a bed with a great variety of species, consider two or three, and plant them in symmetrical rows or squares to add to the feeling of order and simplicity.

You may even elect to use a monochromatic color scheme when it comes to flowers. One popular choice is to select only plants with white blooms, which look terrific against the dark green foliage of boxwood and other shrubs. Or perhaps you’d prefer selecting two or three complimentary colors to mix things up a bit while still maintaining the formal appeal of the layout.

All of this focus on symmetry and order may start to feel a little constraining. It’s certainly acceptable to deliberately break the mold in a formal garden, so long as you do it deliberately and with good reason. For example, you might have a long pathway leading to a gazebo or dining area in your formal garden.

Even if you’ve limited yourself to white plantings throughout the rest of the garden, flanking the entryway to the dining area with red blooms for example really makes the most of the vista and draws attention. Use pops of color or an unexpected curved line to draw the eye to your favorite views, plants, or gathering areas.

If you have limited space in your garden, you could design a miniature knot garden!

It wouldn’t be right to discuss a formal garden without at least mentioning a topiary. As you may know, the topiary is an evergreen that is pruned into a specific shape or image.

Topiary shapes may include geometric patterns such as windmills or crosses or something a little more complex and fanciful like rabbits or elephants.

Generally, more complex topiaries look out of proportion in smaller gardens. If you have a smaller space but just can’t resist the allure of a topiary, consider creating a smaller geometric shape that won’t overwhelm the space.

Formal or Knot Garden Layout

  • As noted above, pathways should be straight, with the occasional curve thrown in for interest. Flower beds are generally made of simple geometric shapes
  • Consider traditional pavers like stone, brick, or concrete blocks for pathways. Choose geometric shapes that compliment your flower beds
  • As with all gardens, you want your plantings to be visible, so plant the largest species in the back or center of the bed. With the formal arrangement, it’s also good to focus on symmetry and shape, so try to make sure that your plantings and accessories are all balanced appropriately
  • If your garden is hilly, you need to level the playing field as much as possible. Even gentle hills will interfere with the straight lines of the garden and make them look a little lopsided. You can spend a lot of time moving dirt around or you can take the time to flatten the area where the pathway will lie and use the extra dirt to create raised flowerbeds
  • However you choose to plant, define the pathways with an evergreen like boxwood, geometric edging material, low stone walls, or something. Otherwise, the upkeep necessary to keep the edges of your paths clean will likely drive you loopy

Plants to Use in a Formal or Knot Garden

Topiaries and hedges trimmed to form square or circular shapes are the hallmark of a good formal garden design.

Generally, plants found in a formal garden are traditional rather than exotic. Rather than firey colors and showy blooms, you’re looking for something that has classic lines and restrained colors.

If the space is large enough to accommodate it, consider planting a small arbor in one area of the garden. Symmetric rows of fruit bearing trees are attractive and work well in a formal setting, and there’s nothing that beats heading out to the garden to pick some fresh fruit for an afternoon snack.

Some popular choices for a Formal Garden include:

  • Boxwood
  • Evergreen
  • Hosta
  • Hydrangea
  • Marigold
  • Morning glory
  • Peony
  • Primrose
  • Rose
  • Violet

Knot Gardens often integrate attractive and aromatic herbs like thyme, marjoram, lemon balm, and rosemary into the mix.

Formal or Knot Garden Accessory Suggestions

Flowers and foliage should be selected for contrast and complementary colors when designing your formal garden.

  • Furniture materials:
    • Wood
    • Wrought iron
    • Stone
  • Some accessory ideas to integrate into your Formal or Knot Garden include:
    • Place Grecian urns filled with flowers at regular intervals along a pathway
    • Flank a bench with two traditional hanging lanterns
    • Integrate a small number of choice stone or concrete pieces in traditional shapes such as pineapples or globes

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