I have always had a fondness for the clean lines of formalism. To my eye its geo-organization looks contemporary and fresh. I know there are a many designers who would rather die than design something with a formally organized space–they think it’s rigid, unnatural and outdated. Worst of all, they think it’s easy–just make a geometric shape, fill it with some flowers, and presto, it’s a formal garden. That way of thinking gives these highly considered garden spaces a bad rap.
at the New York Botanical Garden
Formal gardens can be current, relevant and engaging. There are two schools of thought on traditional formality. One is an adherence to a classical garden style updated with a scale suitable to today’s architecture and lower maitenance requirements and the other juxtaposes the reverse formalism of today’s naturalistic planting style with formal structure to create something altogether different. Parterres can be filled with blowzy perennials which soften the hard lines of these gardens.
The second idea will be demonstrated in the design plan to the left. This garden will be installed as part of the VNA showhouse at Sheep’s Run in Rumson, NJ in spring 2009, and has been developed as part of a much larger formal estate plan. This small niche garden will be viewed from a screen porch on the short side, a library and an expansive terrace on the long side. The other two sides open to adjacent the landscape. The axial pathways, circular resting places and focal points are extremely formal and geometric. The four enclosed evergreen parterres will be planted with very loosely structured perennials or annuals.
This type of garden doesn’t work for every site, nor does it work for every garden owner. Depending on the plants used, formal gardens can be sustainable. For example, I have used low growing native evergreen grasses and other plants with a compact growth habits as a substitute for the ubiquitous clipped hedging plant. With careful planning, the maintenance of the geometric structure becomes less cumbersome, the garden’s need for water can be significantly lowered, and native plants can be incorporated.
Following the same design idea, below is a different plan for an entry to a classic residence in Short Hills, NJ. The owner wanted something that would work with the traditional lines of the home yet echo her inclination to blend contemporary ideas within the traditional framework. The garden also had to be appropriate for a very conservative neighborhood.
The resulting garden (sorry no good pix yet) is deceptively simple. Rectilinear boxwood groups are staggered to provide planting pockets for naturalistic perennials. These informal cottage style perennials are planted in complete symmetry on either side of the entrance underscoring the geometry of the design. The Pennstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, Lirope muscari ‘Pee dee Ingot’, Veronica spicata ‘Sunny Border Blue’ and Alchemilla mollis are usually associated with more informal gardens and they worked to meld the two styles together.
This isn’t to say that a more controlled formal style isn’t also clean and modern. The photo to the right shows an extremely classical entry. The architecture and details are remarkably similar to the residence in the project above and both gardens have different takes on formality. The photo was graciously provided by Chris Heiler at Fountainhead Gardens in Michigan.