The rigidity of the formal landscape, with its clipped plantings and strict use of geometric forms superimposed on the landscape, may strike contemporary gardeners as too severe for today’s way of living. Even so, the formal style has enjoyed renewed interest in recent years, in part due to the efforts of landscape designers. It has broadened in definition as more gardeners adapt the basic concepts to their own needs and settings.
The formal, ordered landscape developed from the need to achieve the most from limited space within the walls of a manor house, castle, or monastery. Planting in tight, geometric beds was as much a matter of efficiency and convenience as it was a conscious stylistic choice.
Over time, the formal style became more defined and consistent and was translated to much larger and more diverse settings, but the essential characteristics remained. Today, the formal style may be seen in sites ranging from the small, urban garden to the open, unfenced expanse of the suburban yard with a variety of plants used.
Formal gardens are characterized by order and pattern. Plant form is highly controlled, and much of the beauty of the garden comes from the overall pattern it creates. Plant material is often selected because its form is highly controllable—either it grows to uniform patterns or it can be sheared to uniform patterns. Yew and boxwood are heavily used because of their amenity to shearing.
Bilateral symmetry is a primary characteristic of formal gardens. The sides of the garden are mirror images of one another, often divided by a straight path. This formal balance gives a pleasing sense of serenity and stability. Because the eye is strongly drawn to the center of the composition, a piece of statuary (or a pair of statues) is often placed there as a centerpiece for the garden.
More labor is required to maintain a formal garden than more casual gardens styles. The more straight, level, and square a planting is, the more quickly it begins to look ragged as the plant grows. Frequent shearing, mowing, and trimming are required to keep the pleasing sense of order.