I feel a prediction coming on.
While the seventies brought us the phenomenon of the conifer garden (an era perhaps best forgotten now), the eighties can be remembered for bringing us the cottage garden with a riot of flowers and colours. The nineties saw a reaction to the ill discipline and high maintenance of the cottage garden and it was the stark and often pretentious minimalist garden (five rocks and three plants one of which had to be sansevieria or aloe bainsei) which became the height of sophisticated fashion. Few of us mourned the quick decline in popularity of the minimalist look. But the prediction from the House of Jury is that the new fashion is going to prove to be the simple formal garden.
A colleague sent me an aerial photograph of a garden without comment and I wasn’t quite sure what my reaction was meant to be. It was a large formal garden and there is no doubt at all that the seductive simplicity of the formal garden makes for very good photography because the form and design is dominant. My response was not what was sought and we had a fairly tetchy exchange of emails because I was not prepared to admire at face value. What I saw was a large area sharply defined by tightly clipped hedges built around the mandatory central axis which Mark is fond of describing as the airport runway look. I saw the substantial (but impressive) hedges sucking all the nutrient out of the surrounding ground so there were bare patches in the lawns beside them. I saw trees planted in matched formation. One grid had a substantial number of trees and I enquired what the owner had used. As far as I was concerned, if you are going to plant a large number of matched trees in a grid, it mattered hugely what tree was chosen to feature so prominently.
My colleague did not see it as I did. He took it at face value and felt I was being pedantic and picky enquiring what tree had been used. It was the overall look that mattered. And that is the nub of the simple formal garden. It is the overall look that matters. Not the detail. And certainly not the botanical interest. Best guess here is that the tree that had been used was the predictable hornbeam or English beech.
f I was doing up a property for sale, I would put in a formal garden. It has immediate appeal and does not require great gardening skill to maintain. Most of the population is not committed to intensive and detailed gardening. In fact what most people want is an attractive outdoors which is not going to take every moment of their spare time to maintain. A formal garden can deliver just that.
There is of course a great difference between a good formal garden and a very average or poor example. But the difference does not rely on gardening skills. It lies in proportions and spaces and there is no reason why an architect, mathematician or a trained artist could not achieve a very good formal garden by applying set principles. Or a hairdresser. In my experience, good hairdressers have well developed skills in fashion, colour, shape and proportion as well as being highly skilled in accurate, freeform cutting which would stand them in very good stead when it comes to clipping the plants later.
But planning a garden on graph paper by creating a central and intersecting axis and placing plants in geometric formation should not be confused with being creative and original. Frankly it has all been done before and it will be done many times again.
Once the design has been drawn (formal gardens work best from scratch on a blank canvas, in other words a bare section, preferably flat) the plant selection is a minor detail. The key is to be restrained and to keep to a very limited range. It doesn’t matter if your lollipop trees are camellias, bays, michelias or robinia Moptops, as long as they are all identical. Simplicity, shape and space are the key ingredients.
A formal garden is the quickest way I know to achieve maximum impact. Bigger is better, of course. To create a formal garden across several acres is more impressive than a tiny town section but the principles remain the same. And formal gardens are traditionally associated with wealth and class so we can annex a little of that status for ourselves in the democratising of the modern formal garden.
Arguably formal gardens are the easiest to care for as well. You don’t need gardening skills to maintain them. Many people have a cleaner for the inside of their house. Generally somebody of a similar skill level can maintain a simple formal garden outside so you can hire in help. If I was of that persuasion, I would be looking for a moonlighting hairdresser.
Yes. I think we are going to see many formal gardens appear over the next few years. Quick impact, impressive, easy to maintain and appealing in their simplicity and form. Were we staying in the wholesale plant business, I would be redirecting some of our production to meet this anticipated demand.
But, and herein lies the crunch, I have never known a keen plantsperson or gardener who would want a formal garden of this type. The plant interest is close to zero. The flexibility is zero. The place for ongoing creativity is zero. There is no room for genuine originality in design because proportions are mathematically determined. Golden means and vanishing perspectives and all that. Keen gardeners I know all like to look at little pictures as well as big pictures. They like to try out combinations and to change aspects of their garden to see if they can get it all to work better. It is likely that the minimalists of the nineties will become the formalists of the new millennium.
What will set apart the really good formal garden over time will be the marriage of design and plantsmanship. The precedent is there (as it usually is in gardening – difficult to be truly original when it has mostly all been done before). At the turn of last century, gifted English architect Edwin Lutyens designed beautiful formal gardens (as well as some truly lovely houses). He had a wonderful sense of space and proportion which has stood the test of time. But did he then furnish these spaces with a very limited range of plants in the simple formal style? No. He handed them over to that great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll who set about filling the spaces and softening the hard edges with riot of foliage and flowers. These Lutyens-Jekyll joint ventures were not low maintenance but they were lovely gardens. It was English gardening at its best and an example of what set the English ahead of their European counterparts – the French parterres notable for tightly clipped buxus and colour toned annuals or the Italian formality marked by magnificent stone work and a very limited range of plants heavily clipped to within an inch of their lives.
Good formal gardens will stand the test of time and formal gardens certainly have their place. But the flurry of DIY lookalikes are probably destined to take their place in history alongside the conifer gardens and the minimalist gardens.