Also called Classical Gardens, Formal Gardens are usually well proportion, usually symmetrical, and usually geometrically balanced.
Their strength is the underlying backbone or structure of the garden usually in the form of walls, paths, or terracing which control the plants. The plants will typically be harmonious with its neighbor with the prime guidance being balance.
The number of plants are usually limited, but used in large quantities to give a uniform appearance of texture and color.
The basic philosophy of formal gardens is the presentation of a strong simple statement: the garden has control over nature. Plants only grow exactly where planted and in a shape the gardener chooses.
Historically, the formal garden style was chosen to impart a sense of power over the wilder landscape of nature. This in turn achieved an intentional expression of wealth and status that visitors would transfer to the land owner. And for good reason: formal gardens require regular, labor-intensive and costly maintenance.
Many of today's formal gardens were inspired from European gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries. These European gardens were inspired by the gardens of ancient Greece and Rome. Strongly defined proportions and scale of architecture was reflected in the formal gardens through symmetrical design of the surrounding gardens.
Formal gardens may also draw inspiration from highly structured Oriental gardens that date back over 3,000 years. Unlike European classical gardens, the Oriental formal garden may or may not have a strong structure. Instead they draw heavily on Mother Nature where select parts of nature are reproduced in a stripped down to basic elements presented in a balanced fashion that creates an environment that is harmonious and perhaps more contemplative in nature.
Formal gardens feature neatly mowed and edged lawns, tightly clipped hedges with perhaps topiary elements, and planted borders framed by low, neatly trimmed hedges. Straight paths and a network of vistas that terminate to a particular view or focal point. These paths may be line by avenues of identical, regularly spaced specimen plants.
While any number of plants are suitable for the inner workings of the formal garden, the prime plantings are the hedges and walls that create the structure of the garden. Hedges of clipped and trained plants are an important element in the formal garden. Suitable plants for these hedges are slow-growing evergreens such as yew, boxwood, and English holly.
Other plants suitable for internal garden divisions are trees with colonnaded trunks that provide a sense of rhythm and order when used to flank walkways. Lindens and hornbeam are most frequently used for this feature.