Garden designers typically design formal gardens as expressions of man’s superiority over nature. Formal gardens contain elements and features that are expressed in their structure and geometry. Formal gardens have their origins from classical garden design and architecture. These kinds of gardens can be commonly found in Italy and France.

To create a nice formal garden design, there has to be a balance in the design. This balance is achieved through a nice pattern, ground plan or symmetry.

GARDEN DESIGN - formal garden

Formal gardens are organized around a pathway or central axis. The garden design of formal gardens often revolves around a major view from the house through the garden. Larger gardens have space for various axial routes that cross the central path and reach into the wider landscape at times. The areas where the various axial routes intersect can be highlighted with the use of water, sculpture and decorative paving.

Formal gardens have an identifiable and clear geometry. Their geometry is usually on a large, balanced scale.

plan formal garden

Any kind of regular symmetrical shape can be used in a formal garden as long as the shape sits on one axis. Most formal gardens have rectilinear forms and shapes.

Ellipses, ovals, circles and equilateral triangles can all be used. There is a need to use a minimal materials palette in a formal garden design. Regular paving stones and gravel are the materials most often used. Brick designs, cobble mosaics and other decorative materials can also be used. Water can be featured in fountains, jets or reflective surfaces.

Major planting features are hedges and lawns. Hedges are helpful for identifying views and spaces. Dwarf hedging can be used to create parterres, form knot trees and edge borders. Landscape designers can use pleached trees to add height. There can also be avenues of trees that form paths that can highlight vistas and make visitors focus on a focal point in the distance.

Formal Styles

The design of formal gardens is related to the classical architecture that can be found in Italy and Greece. These kinds of gardens are found in the homes of the powerful and wealthy people in these European countries highlighting the symmetry of their homes.

They were also called power gardens. They emphasized control. A lot of the popular formal gardens were very large for example Versailles. But formal gardens need not be excessively large. The basic principles for creating a formal garden design can also be applied to small urban spaces and as many tiny spaces as possible. All that is needed is that there be a balanced, orderly garden design.

The focus of the garden should be highlighted with the use of symmetry about a central axis. The construction and planting must be simple and geometric in nature. Avenues, lawns, clipped hedges, wide gravel pathways, terraces, steps, and balustrades must all be utilized to form a lovely formal garden space. 

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In formal garden design, there must be a central line or axis. The axis could be a central planting bed, lawn or pathway. The central axis must focus on a dominant feature like a statue, ornament or sculpture.

Cross-axes can also be created if there is enough space. Larger gardens have various axial routes that create views across and along a garden. Paving and planting must be kept simple to create a unique sense of proportion and scale. This is one major reason why minimalists and modernists appreciate this type of garden.

The space for the garden should first be divided into quarters and halves. Gardens that are large can be further divided. But the partitions must be large enough to allow for the long vistas to have more impact. There must also be adequate space for trees and topiaries to be repeated. Expanses of lawn, water pools and parterres are normally featured in formal gardens. Garden designers also use decorative borders to soften the structure of formal gardens.



Formal gardens have a symmetrical balance that can be achieved on any scale. A parterre and an olive tree can form a focal point in a circle that intersects the central path that is paved and pebbled.



Clipped hedges like yew and box are used for evergreen structures and for defining space. Topiaries are used to provide architectural effects and patterns in parterres are formed with dwarf box hedges.


Natural Stone

Natural paving stones are used as architectural elements in terraces and pathways. Regular patterns can be created with honed and sawn natural stone slabs. The stone slabs can also be used to edge gravel paths and lawns.



Formal gardens contain mythological features and ancient gods as subjects of statuary. In modern designs, landscape designers use abstract works and broad figurative subjects.



Punctuation and focal points can be provided with ornaments like large urns that are usually placed on balustrades and plinths. Modern formal gardens use the same technique although the elaborate decoration in them is reduced.


Also read: Garden Design Styles Explained.