ELEMENTS OF A FORMAL ROSE GARDEN
Strong Axis – Paths of some nature be it grass, pebble or other materials provide visual axes that lead to a focal point. It could be an urn, statue, an arch or some kind of architectural feature. At the L’Hay les Roses in France, the most arresting focal point is the “Dome” and pergola. To frame an axial view, sculptural forms of evergreen plants, a big urn or statue on a pedestal are situated at the entrance and exit. One of the most basic garden layouts is the four-square form, the result of two straight paths intersecting at right angles to form a cross, yielding four rectangular or square planting beds. It could also be some kinds of unique geometric shapes. This could also take the form of four beds with a focal points at the center of the cross. It could be an urn, sundial, armillary or punctuated by an upright pyramidal shaped tree or shrubs. The William Paca Rose Garden in Annapolis, Maryland is a fine example where in the center of the formal beds is a Southern Magnolia Tree. Five-to-eight-foot wide beds remain a favorite layout for small formal garden.
Level Ground – Throughout history when most of the great formal gardens in Europe were being established, the site underwent considerable leveling of the terrain. It is hard to create balance and symmetry when the terrain is undulating waves of slopes and steps. To create the visual effect needed, a formal garden has to have at least 12 feet by 12 feet minimum area of level space.
Symmetry – The most definitive feature of a formal garden is the symmetrical layout. Symmetry enables the garden to create order and balance in the landscape. No matter what the shape and size of the garden, if you draw a line down the middle of the formal garden, one side is the exact replica of the other side. English poet, Alexander Pope in his Epistle to Lord Burlington written in 1731 described the formal gardens:
“…each Alley has a brother,
And half the garden just reflects the other.”
Well-Defined Pathways – Paths should be wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side. Evergreen shrubs like boxwood define the line of the pathway. Gravel, stone, and brick are good choices for paving. An edging of brick set three inches above the pathway well defines the edge. Grass plants also work well. Pathways are good for outlining the geometric shapes of the parterres and enhancing the look and order of the overall pattern of the garden.
Walking around or through a formal garden is a great way to appreciate it. When I visited the formal garden beds at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, with very intricate patterns of the formal garden beds, I found it best to view it from a promontory way across from the garden beds. For an expansive garden, this is the best way to see the beauty of the garden where you can see the design in its broad range. In a small garden, ideally the best way to see it is up close.
Planting Beds and Parterre – When you think of formal garden, what comes to mind is the classic parterre created in the 17th century in France. It is an upshot of the medieval knot garden of the 15th century. The original French parterres were vast and complex in a number of interesting ways featuring clipped boxwood in swirling arabesque designs. In the kitchen garden at Chateau de Villandry in France where vegetables and herbs are planted in eye catching parterres, the outline of the nine equal square beds of different design outlined by low box hedges is quite striking. In the Ladies’ Garden at Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire in England, the box-edged beds are in the shape of fleur de lys and filled with old garden roses and enclosed with ironstone walls. Today, only public gardens can support the grandeur of classic French parterres by calling planting beads by the same name is quite acceptable and endearing.
Structural Appeal – In the middle of winter when all the plantings are at rest and just the evergreen and the outline of the beds are visible, the formal garden should still be interesting to look at because of the underlying architecture of its design. The brickwork, urns, statuary, fountains and other sculptural objects, the paths and the design of the beds lend a beauty all its own in the desolate atmosphere of the wintry days. Evergreen also provides a lovely contrast to the serene settings. In my old garden, when the snow was just starting to stick to the ground, the outline of the garden is quite visible and the garden still looks great even with all the roses in stick form.
Defined Borders – Most of the formal gardens in England and France and even in the United States are bordered by enclosures. However, a formal rose garden does not have to be enclosed. The contemporary formal rose garden is usually a garden within a big lawn. A well-designed layout, a central focal point, brick edging or the use of low, clipped boxwood, or other evergreen to form the outline of the bed create the effect of a formal garden within the framework of a big garden.
A formal garden does not have to be stiffly groomed clipped boxwood trimmed to perfection. To offset the stiffness of a formal garden, give your overall landscape an “oomph” for a better word. The best formal gardens should have their own personality, an element of character, a surprise to make them more interesting. Into that time-honored layout, add something to soften the edges so to speak.
Birdbaths, seating arrangements, pergolas, arbors, obelisks, urns and statues enhance the beauty of a garden. Unlike the grandeur of the formal gardens of the Grand Manor Houses of England, the Chateaus of France and the Mansions of the wealthy robber barons of the United States, the contemporary formal garden of a true rose gardener is a combination of the rigidity of the formal garden structure of the past and the practicalities and charm of the contemporary garden of today. So use your imagination and go for it. Nothing like a formal rose garden! It makes your garden more special.
Roses are not difficult to grow contrary to popular belief as long as you know what they need. Why do you think Roses have been around for millions of years? All they need are food, water and sunlight. Just like you and me.
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