Formal and Informal Garden Styles

When thinking of style in the garden, you may think in terms of formal versus informal. One basic reason for making a garden is to create some degree of organization (or formality) out of the natural (informal) setting. At one extreme, absolute formality in a landscape is represented by the reduction of all natural elements to geometric shapes. The other extreme, absolute informality, is complete naturalness, as found in the untouched wilderness where no hand has imposed any sort of human order.

It is more reasonable to think of a style that falls somewhere between these two extremes and that combines elements of each. There is no right or wrong balance between formality and informality. In keeping with the idea of coherence in the garden, the successful choice is the one that suits both the setting and your tastes.

Breaking the formal-informal concept down into pairs of more specific opposing elements — symmetry versus asymmetry, structure versus lack of structure, controlled versus natural — can help to pinpoint the degree of formality most appropriate for the landscape.

Symmetry and Asymmetry

Symmetry has characterized many landscape styles throughout history. Ancient Egyptians made gardens with symmetry based on the straight lines and square angles of agriculture. This symmetrical style was refined in Persia and the Middle East, and came to Spain and Italy with the Moors. As it spread, symmetry was adapted to the unique needs and tastes of each culture. In later centuries, expansive gardens such as those at Versailles — and more modest ones in European and British homes — embodied the same idea, expressing symmetry in many forms, from simple geometry to elaborate intricacy.

Although some traditional Japanese gardens are completely or partially symmetrical, the more subtle concept of asymmetry characterizes most gardens in Japan. At first glance, their features seem to be arranged randomly, but in fact they are carefully positioned to achieve an asymmetry that appears balanced from all points of viewing. In Japanese landscaping, the visual impact of a landscape feature is determined by both its physical mass and its visual weight. For example, a brightly colored or visually striking object may have as much, or more, visual impact as a heavy stone or structure.

Symmetrical balance is obvious; asymmetrical balance, though no less real, is less readily perceived. A landscape in which asymmetrical balance is used may appear to be natural and informal, whereas it is just as formal — in the sense of being organized and balanced — as a landscape with symmetry. Because it is balanced, its apparently random, natural look feels extraordinarily stable, as though it had existed that way for many years.

Informal, highly naturalistic gardens, whose design owes nothing to either symmetrical or asymmetrical principles, have existed since the beginning of garden building. For the most part, these were attempts to re-create a natural paradise.

If a very informal look is desired, asymmetrical balance need not necessarily be a concern. A pleasant, natural effect can be achieved by choosing and arranging garden elements to suggest a natural landscape. Careful observation of settings in nature that appeal to you will provide an excellent guide to the selection and placement of plants, rocks, and other elements. You may also want to impose a touch of symmetry to provide a visual focus within a natural setting — for instance, a rustic, vine-covered arbor set in a meadow and woodland landscape. The juxtaposition of the nonsymmetrical natural landscape and the symmetrical man-made arbor adds interest and appeal to the garden.

Structure and Lack of Structure

A structured garden is one in which the design is obvious. For example, almost all buildings or constructed features — decks, paths, patios — will give a strong sense of structure.

Most gardens in the formal style clearly show their design. Heavily pruned plants, such as boxwood shrubs that have been carefully shaped into topiary, will give the same impression. A curving brick walkway obviously reveals the human hand in the garden as well, yet its clear-cut structure is softened by curves that temper the overall effect.

An entire garden — or any part of it — can be unstructured. A garden can combine elements that have been placed there by nature and by hand. Instead of straight lines and angles, circles or gentle curves are employed. An open, arching shrub is used in place of a sheared one.

Even architectural elements can be softened in their structured appearance through weathering. Raw wood, for example, will darken or turn gray, assuming a softness that unites it with nature. Bricks in a walkway begin to wear slightly, replacing the bright colors of new brick with more earthy tones. As you think about what sort of landscape style will work best, consider both how much structure to include and how that structure will change with time.

Controlled and Natural

Controlled garden styles are those that are carefully pruned, trimmed, sheared, and trained to conform to the gardeners ideal. Natural styles are those in which a minimum of training is done, and plants are more or less allowed to grow as they will.

Formal gardens must be controlled. Most structured gardens are also highly controlled. However, some gardens are highly controlled without being either structured or formal. A good example is the Japanese garden style, whose balances are asymmetrical and subtle, but so carefully worked out that plants must be kept sheared and trained just right to maintain them. Another example is the topiary garden, which might be formal or informal, but is highly controlled.

Natural garden styles are more relaxed, more like nature. Plants might be carefully placed for a particular effect, but are allowed to grow in a manner natural to their species.

More labor is required to maintain a formal garden than more casual gardens styles. Natural gardens, if carefully planned, require little gardener intervention other than watering and feeding. Pruning is used to help plants express their natural bent.

In a formal garden, frequent shearing, mowing, and trimming are required to maintain the serenity of perfect balance and ordered precision.