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GardenSMART :: How to Create a Formal Garden with Hedges

How to Create a Formal Garden with Hedges

By Stephanie Pratt, InstantHedge
Photographs courtesy of Instant Hedge

For centuries, people have been shaping hedges into crisp lines and geometric patterns to create breathtaking formal garden designs. By studying the elements of formal gardens, we can take away some tips and tricks for installing them at home.

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Typical elements of a formal garden include:

  • A tall border around the area, to define the space and provide privacy.
  • Low hedges (usually boxwood) planted in a clean pattern, creating paths that radiate out from a central spot.
  • Hardscaping elements like stone, gravel, sculptures, or water features (typically an element of interest is placed in the middle area where the paths meet).
  • Accents like topiaries or flowering plants (flowers are typically planted en masse and in a monochromatic palette to keep the design simple and clean).

Let's explore each of these in a bit more detail:

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  • Tall Hedge Border – This element defines the formal garden space and provides privacy. It can be evergreen or deciduous and is typically at least 6' tall. You want uniformity in a formal garden, so the tall border also removes the distractions of other garden areas or eyesores that you wouldn't want to see while enjoying your formal garden. Consider an arborvitae, cherry laurel, or European beech hedge for this spot.

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  • Low Hedge – These are used to create patterns to direct eyes and feet where the designer intends them to go. The patterns can be very intricate, as in fanciful knot gardens, or they can be simple and angular for more modern designs. Often these are created with boxwoods, but low yew, holly, Portuguese laurel, or dwarf arborvitae can also be used.
  • Hardscaping – Although not a living element, hardscaping is equally important to plants in creating formal gardens. Stone or brick can be used to line the paths created by the low hedges. A stone and metal sculpture or water feature can provide the focal point needed in the middle of the garden.

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  • Accents – Typically topiary cones, globes, lollypops, or spirals are planted in the middle of the beds to accent the design. Sometimes formally trimmed shade trees can be used, or mass plantings of flowering plants. Flowers are usually planted in a monochromatic color scheme to keep the look uniform, but that is not a rule. The choices here really affect the mood of the formal garden, with more casual masses of flowers creating a relaxed feel or structured topiaries maintaining a clean elegance.

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Although formal gardens are often found on large estates or sprawling botanical gardens, these principles can easily be applied to smaller home gardens. They can be installed in courtyards, along driveways, or in any area where there is enough room for a nice small garden. Since formal gardens are usually surrounded by a tall hedge, they don't need to match the rest of the garden style. Your formal garden can be a separate, secret little treasure that you can choose to share with visitors… or not!


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