Formal herb gardens

Traditionally, plants were grown for their uses, not their beauty: herbs were highly valued for their culinary and medicinal qualities, and in great European medieval monasteries, monks grew a vast range of herbs in apothecary gardens.

Knot gardens

During the reign of Henry VIII, in the 16th century, decorative knot gardens became popular. These gardens were often complicated, designed to be viewed from above: low, evergreen hedges were planted in geometric or symmetric interlinking patterns, such as diamonds.

The knots or patterns could be quite intricate scrollworks, such as coats of arms or heraldic symbols. To distinguish the patterns, contrasting foliage textures or colors were planted together.

Originally, there was nothing inside the hedged areas except clipped grass, or gravel and stones, but later these compartments were filled with fragrant herbs, such as rosemary, lavender, sage and hyssop - perfect as drying 'racks' for linen (imagine sleeping on sheets scented with fresh lavender).

Repeating shapes, such as spheres, provides continuity and interest, at ground and eye level.

Parterre gardens

In 16th-century France, parterre gardens - intricate, complex beds spanning huge areas - developed from the English knot garden. Again, geometry and symmetry were intrinsic elements in these designs. Wide gravel paths separated beds, while flowers were used to balance the green hedging. These fine gardens were also designed to be viewed from above -perhaps from a terrace or upper floor.

Topiaries, a feature of parterres, provided focal points. They were crafted from small-leafed species, such as citrus, yew, bay, box or cypress, and punctuated corners and centerpieces in imaginative designs that ranged from spirals and spheres to cubes, symbols and animals.

While Versailles, outside Paris, showcases extravagant formal gardens fit for royalty, it took an army of workers to build them. You can still visit many stunning examples of these formal gardens, which have been re-created or restored; in the 18th century, many grand European gardens were destroyed and replaced by open, undulating landscapes, which were designed or greatly influenced by the great English landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown.

In more recent times, the range of plants used for topiary in parterres has expanded to include those commonly referred to as "standards" — plains that can be grown and pruned inu> a lollipop shape. For their flowers, fragrance or compliant foliage, you could try duranta. roses, lillypilly. Chinese lanterns ( Uiutilon sp.) and muehlenheckia.

Some grand restored gardens

Near London, Hampton Court Palace gardens is the home of the Privy Garden. Raised walks are lined with rows of yew cones and parterres on either side of a central walk leading to a circular pool and fountain. To the west of the Privy Garden is a small Knot Garden hedged with box.

A little farther north is Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire, where Elizabeth I spent part of her childhood. Included within the grounds are splendid examples of herb and scented gardens, kitchen and knot gardens.

A few hours from Paris, in the Loire Valley, is Chateau de Villandry, one of the most visited gardens in France. Designed to be viewed from above, the replicas of the 17th-century beds in the Love Garden have been planted in symbolic designs associated with love - for example, tragic love, represented by the shapes of blades, swords and daggers. Nearby are the Herb Gardens dedicated to about 30 aromatic, cooking and medicinal herbs.

Another fine European garden is in the grounds of the Dutch palace Het Loo, near Apeldoorn, in the Netherlands. It features restored parterre gardens, an axial layout, fountains and statues.

Designing a formal garden

In your own garden, you could plant out a simple knot garden in a small space of, say, 40 ft. (12 m) square, divided into four sections with low or dwarf hedges. Or you could design a circular garden by planting out a "wheel" and "spokes" with hedging material.

But be patient, because hedges grow best from immature plantings, and the gaps will take a few years to close up. Within the subdivisions, grow herbs for a variety of uses - for example, separate culinary herbs from medicinal ones.

Using a formal design is often the easiest way to start planning, especially if you think you lack imagination. Mirror images of garden beds are a good way to replicate patterns on either side of a path, lawn area or house. Use the continuity of low green hedges to balance color and reduce the possibility of overdoing the flower planting and parallel lines to give a sense of order and calm.


Pruning, clipping and general tidying are the main maintenance tasks for these formal gardens but, in spite of the work involved, there is a satisfying sense of purpose and achievement. The idea is to have no-nonsense clean lines and shapes.

Here, a formal layout, with raised beds and an arch, is softened by informal plantings of herbs.

Some herbs grow to over 6.5 ft. (2 m), forming a striking background planting in an informal border.

Continue reading here: Informal gardens

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