Growbag Blog

Tricks to formalise your garden


We’ve all been told that’s it’s in the winter months that you appreciate the structure of your garden, but as I have had to remind E and C on numerous occasions over the years, (generally in the aftermath of boozy parties) taking things to excess is rarely a good idea for those of us in the mainstream of life.

If you have several acres and a team of precision gardeners on hand then yes you can go for an unadulterated grand design, such as at the entrance to the glasshouse at Wisley, by garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith and our feature picture this week. “The geometry of the garden for the glasshouse has the character of a musical fugue,” explains Tom. “One idea begins then overlaps with another.

But in our hardworking spaces we want more than just brooding silhouettes. In my book garden structure is principally there to set off winter plants. A symphony of cylinders may be beyond us but beech hedges show off the beautiful buffs of winter grasses wonderfully (note that I am currently defying E’s diktat to cut them to the ground now…) and you can create some further interest and intrigue by installing an archway. The intrigue heightens if the path then veers away, so the destination of this path remains an enticing mystery.

This path could lead you anywhere….(Although in reality it only leads you to the compost heap).

Most of us only have space for a limited number of winterflowering shrubs, but the setting can maximise their impact. It’s only Daphne bholua ‘ Jacqueline Postill’ that is doing its thing in the photo below, but the staddle stone and pots, together with the evergreen backdrop make it appear that much more is going on.

Daphne ‘Jacqueline Postill’ – she should be on everyone’s Desert Island list


Nope, Laura, don’t agree that you have to have a large garden to opt solely for formality and symmetry. Especially at this time of the year when everything out there looks so…meh.

A formal garden of whatever size is usually much less labour-intensive, making it perfect for busy millennials wanting to recuperate from the trauma of UK’s rail network by having a beer or two while pondering the pace of world events. You can achieve symmetrical lines with shaped evergreens like box, holly, Pittosporum, etc. which emphasise patterns reminiscent of early English or 17th Century French gardens.

True, these gardens don’t change much through the year so if, like me, you prefer a bit more of the ‘doing’ of it, try planting blocks or ribbons of bulbs in your grass (or in pots?). It’s a great way of adding colour and life to a rather static scene. Snowdrops, leading on to Muscari, daffodils, tulips…… Still room for creativity, in other words, while not throwing out the satisfaction of pattern and order.

Who doesn’t love some cleverly thought-out spring bulb planting!

I could cope, I think, with a more formal easy-to-manage garden once my fingers are too arthritic to wield a trowel with any aplomb, and an afternoon watching Cash in the Attic carries greater allure than pruning the roses in the drizzle. But I would need a touch of flower-power, a possibility of random messiness, to remind me that I AM in a garden. Cake AND eat it, please..


Well considering that Laura has been tone deaf and completely arhythmic from a very young age, a musical fugue was always going to be beyond her, but oh-uh bulbs in the lawn Elaine – lets just think that through shall we?

1. They get ‘et’ as my husband says, by squirrels; 2. After flowering, their leaves flop around untidily so your winter solution becomes your spring nightmare. 3. While they’re busy ‘flopping about’ gathering food for next year, you can’t cut your lawn which brings me to my secret tip for maintaining garden formality:

Keep cutting your lawn and maintaining razor sharp edges. Just as a quick hoover round can transform one’s manky house (Laura MUST know this), so a manicured lawn and fresh edges gives the impression that you might also be carefully managing the sodden beds which you actually just abandoned in October.

Granted, winter grass doesn’t grow much but tufty is not chic and if you get a few dry days, lawns still cut well. Apparently all the best gardens (my dear) are now mown 12 months of the year.

If mown lawns and sharp edges work for stately homes, they can work for you. Get your big coats on….

My sisters have rather steered clear of the obvious contributor to winter structure – topiary. From Dobbies’ ubiquitous whirly spirals, to the more ambitious peacocks and dinosaurs, topiary says ‘classy winter garden’ right there (obvs I’m excluding Laura’s bizarre Triceratops from this).

Laura’s triceratops – dear God…..

If topiary strikes fear in your heart (and it might do for several reasons – ineptitude, box blight and cost being just three) small pine trees, phormiums or grasses in pots are brilliant alternatives. So many other good blogs on this like this one from the middlesized garden.

NB Talking of structure, Louise’s Great Plant this Month is rather on the short and fat side but totally gorgeous!
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By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

2 replies on “Tricks to formalise your garden”

Love the heart of snowdrops although my squirrels may ruin the formation. I always enjoy reading your blog but, as the tone deaf one of 3 sisters, it is hurtful to point point it out especially in public and when we sound perfectly in tune to ourselves!

Hi Linda, oh please don’t think we’re being properly cruel about any sort of disability. I dont know about you and your sisters but we quite enjoy having a go at one another and really nothing is off limits between us. I think anyway Laura is keen to promote her lack of rhythm and musicality as it gets her out of having to dance at weddings or sing at funerals. She’s really hopeless at ‘joining in’ (aren’t we all lucky to have sisters to keep us in our place).
Having a super weekend Linda and thank you so much for joining in with the blog

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