Brief History of Formal Landscape Design

Its Place in History vs. Cottage Gardens, Lawns

Formal landscape with boxwood hedges.
Boxwood hedging is an example of formal landscape design. David Beaulieu

You may want to remake the design in your front yard but don't know how to get started. You know you're tired of lawn care but don't know if you want an informal or a formal landscape design. A quick history lesson can help you better define your tastes and launch the makeover you so desperately want.

Understanding how landscape designs have evolved can clarify for you exactly what it is that you expect from your landscape. Perhaps, without even knowing it, you fall into one of the two major schools of thought:

  • Formal design, with its geometric patterns
  • Or informal design, which shuns geometric patterns and strives for a more "natural" look

Ancient Greeks, Geometry, and Formal Design

The ancient Greeks are known for their love of mathematics and philosophy (between which there was a close link). You've heard of two of their mathematical legacies: Euclidean geometry and the Pythagorean theorem. Euclid and Pythagoras were both ancient Greeks.

In mathematics and, particularly, in geometry, the Greeks discovered a world of perfection, purity, and beauty that couldn't be sullied by the realities of daily life. It was a refuge from the imperfect world around them, a refuge in which perfection could be summoned at a moment's notice. Straight lines, level planes, perfect circles: They're so clean, crisp, orderly, and definite. Armed with an orderly mindset disciplined by mathematics and in love with geometric patterns, we can even sometimes impose our will upon nature, which is a central theme in Western history, including formal landscape design history.

Formal Landscape Design and the English Revolt Against It

One way to impose your will upon nature is by constraining the plants in your landscape design to conform to a geometric layout. The natural landscape, by contrast, is chaotic, from an artistic standpoint. Nothing is even, there are lots of rough edges, and one type of plant grows willy-nilly right next to another, regardless of proportion or other design considerations.

By the very definition of landscaping, we work to improve upon this arrangement when we engage in landscaping work. But the formal design goes beyond mere improvement. It's improvement "with an attitude."

In formal landscape design, content becomes subservient to form: Nature supplies the plants (the content), but we apply such rigid guidelines in their arrangement (the form) that most of the attention is drawn to the form. Our own handiwork becomes the star of the show, while the plants play merely supporting roles. The plants chosen to support such a composition traditionally have been the ones that are easiest to work with.

One plant that conforms well to geometric patterns is boxwood (Buxus). Boxwood shrubs can easily be molded into well-behaved hedges that conform to whatever form we wish to impose upon them, be it a circle, straight line, etc. In formal gardens, a series of carefully arranged and maintained boxwood hedges can be the whole garden. It's not a style much given to variety, nor do flowers assume a central role.

The Romans, those practical pupils of the Greeks, left us, in their literature, an example of this use of boxwood hedges to impose unity on the chaotic natural landscape. The example is provided by Pliny the Younger, describing the garden design of his own estate in Tuscany. Pliny speaks of trimmed boxwood hedges expertly deployed to divvy up the landscape in a precise manner. In addition, boxwood was sculpted into topiaries depicting animals, a further assertion of mastery over nature (turning a plant into an animal, as it were).

As Europe transitioned from Roman rule to the medieval period, the wealth, technical expertise and culture that were needed for an estate such as Pliny's were sadly wanting. But the tight structure of formal design was at least passed on in the form of the knot-garden style used in medieval monastery gardens. Renaissance Italy brought back formal landscape design on the grand scale, and the reign of Louis XIV witnessed the emergence of the classical French garden at Versailles, which is the pinnacle of this style.

Kirk Johnson explains how formal design met its match with the rise in the 18th century of English landscape garden design (although the two movements shared a love for lawns). Johnson cites Alexander Pope, the English poet, as an instigator for informal design. Pope pushed for a return to the "amiable simplicity of unadorned nature," urging us to "consult the genius of the place" so that we'll never fail to draw inspiration from nature.

English Cottage Gardens

But, in its own way, the landscape garden movement, too had a rigidity about it. The biggest blow in the English revolt against formal design came with the evolution of English cottage gardens. This revolt got help later from the Romantic movement in literature and art. This was a movement against Classicism and its appreciation for order, discipline, and moderation. In garden design, the influence of Romanticism translated into an emphasis on using plants to inspire us emotionally rather than intellectually. With its mystical charm and romantic aura, this style reflects its historical roots.

Romanticism not only focused on the emotional but also placed the peasantry, despised in the past, up on a pedestal. And it was originally the peasantry that had planted and maintained cottage gardens. They had done so before it became trendy with more affluent groups. The true cottage garden of the peasantry was practical, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Thus culinary and medicinal herbs were common components. Fruit trees, too were often among the typical plants used in cottage gardens.

But after English cottage gardens caught on outside of peasant circles (and outside of England, too), their aesthetic properties received most of the attention. One of the most famous cottage gardens was designed by Claude Monet (1840-1926), the French Impressionist painter. No discipline exerted a stronger influence on garden design than did landscape painting. It was a case of "life imitating art." Monet is a particularly interesting case, being not only an artist who painted landscapes but also someone who was active in garden design. With Monet, the influence went both ways.

English cottage gardens, with their wild abundance of rose bushes, perennial flowers, vine-covered garden arbors, and plants tumbling over stone walkways, are popular in the U.S. This is an informal style meant to evoke a mood of lighthearted gaiety. The eye feasts on a jumble of flowers, distributed in a seemingly haphazard manner, evoking thoughts of a "natural landscape." The plants themselves are just as important as their use in the overall composition, and the wildness of the arrangement suggests a closer communing with nature.

But, while cottage gardens are popular in American, there's no doubt the lawn is the dominant element in American landscaping.

History of the American Lawn

Frederick Law Olmsted and Edwin Budding play a big part in the history of the American lawn. As David Quammen says in Rethinking the Lawn, the history behind the American lawn is more complex than you might think. On the one hand, there's an element of democratization. When Olmsted, the pioneering American landscape architect, laid out the Chicago suburb of Riverside in 1869, open, monotonous lawns linked the homes of the community together into something that smacked of collectivism. But an opposing dynamic was also at work.

In 1830 Edwin Budding had invented a gadget for mowing lawns. It was the dawn of lawn mower history. Prior to this invention, only aristocrats could maintain lawn grass, so lawns were rare. When the mower arrived, suburban homeowners seized the opportunity thereby created for having a lawn of their own, thus elevating their social status (until everybody else did the same). So the American lawn has elements both of democratic and elitist tendencies.

But there's something more basic behind America's obsession with lawns. Our desire to impose our will on nature seems to be the biggest factor. The lawn is meant to showcase the diligence of the person who owns it, not the plants, themselves. It is form over content all over again, as in formal landscape design.

A blade of grass is as boring as the plant world ever gets, so there's little chance of any of the components in this arrangement stealing the show at the expense of the arrangement as a whole. Unlike the playfully helter-skelter style of cottage gardens, lawns represent the rule of law and reason. We thumb our noses at nature by extending the indoors outside, rolling out a green carpet that allows us to transition freely between outdoors and inside without even tracking dirt into the house.

The lawn is another landscaping composition with a satisfying bit of geometry in it, however simple. It's the poor man's answer to a formal garden with neat lines of boxwood hedge. A carefully manicured lawn represents a horizontal plane. No one would brag about a lawn whose grass was 5 inches tall on one side and 2 inches tall on the other. The whole point behind a lawn, aesthetically speaking, is its uniformity. It should be uniform not only in height but also in composition (no "weeds") and in color. The more precision, the better.

If you're tired of mowing lawns, you may wish Budding had never invented the mower. You may even want to kill your grass and replace it with something else. But before undertaking a landscaping makeover, ask yourself what it is you truly want out of your yard.

Natural Design vs. Minimalist Style

If you're contemplating a switch from lawn to a more informal, "natural landscape," consider carefully which school of thought you subscribe to: formal or informal. You may even discover that what you crave is more properly called a "minimalist landscape design." Remaking a landscape is expensive and a lot of work. Before starting, be sure the new design will truly reflect your deeply felt convictions on the subject and will also make sense on a practical level. If the need for low maintenance is one of your deeply felt convictions, seriously consider minimizing.

Quotation marks are placed around "natural landscape" to indicate that, although heard often, this terminology is deceiving. There's some work involved in maintaining a well-groomed, yet natural-looking design; it doesn't come naturally. If you're looking to virtually eliminate yard maintenance, what you need is a minimalist design, not a "natural landscape."

Deciding Whether to Replace Your Lawn With an Informal Design:

  • If you're selling your property, it's safer to stick with a lawn and more conservative plantings, such as the traditional foundation plantings. Potential buyers are more likely to want a formal design than the informality of the "natural landscape."
  • If your motivation for the change is to get closer to nature, make sure that this is your heartfelt conviction and that you're not just giving in to a fad. Remember, "imposing our will upon nature" isn't all bad. We'd still be living in caves if our ancestors had thought so. Philosophically speaking, a minimalist design, too, brings you closer to nature.
  • If your motivation for the change is to save on yard work, you'll have to tailor your design and plant selection carefully to achieve precisely that goal. Specifically, what you'll need is a minimalist design, which won't necessarily satisfy you aesthetically. The cottage garden style may offer the feel of a "natural landscape," but it's not minimalist: You can easily spend as much time on a cottage garden as on a lawn (especially when you factor in the installation). If you feel comfortable with a lawn that's less than perfect, then lawn care needn't consume much of your time. Of course, the true lover of cottage gardens will want to spend a lot of time working in one.

    Virtues of Minimalism:

    • If saving time on maintenance is a major consideration for you, your best bet is a minimalist design. For instance, you can achieve the sort of clean, crisp look associated with formal landscape design through generous use of mulching and hardscape. Instead of hedges, use stone walls to make geometric shapes. Build an extended brick patio or flagstone patio to take up space that would otherwise have to be maintained. Use ground covers instead of grass, and link the sections of your landscape with broad masonry paths. Without sacrificing aesthetics to an intolerable degree, a minimalist design focuses on getting more out of less (which means less maintenance for you).
    • Consider the environmental impact of lawn care. Even if you eliminate herbicides and chemical fertilizers from your regimen, you'll still probably be using a gas-powered lawn mower. Very few people are willing to use the old muscle-powered, manual push mowers to cut big lawns, despite the fact that gas-powered mowers are noisy, dangerous, and polluters. Another option, however, is represented by the new battery-powered lawn mowers.
    • If you care for neither a "natural landscape" nor a minimalist design, you may be a candidate for formal design. Here's an idea for making an even bolder statement of your love for orderliness than a lawn, alone would: Besides a lawn, plant hedges. A design with a well-maintained lawn set off by crisp hedges is a bold expression of your landscaping tastes.