Brief History of Formal Landscape Design

Its Place in History vs. Cottage Gardens, Lawns

Formal landscapes often have boxwood hedges (image). Geometry plays a part in the design.
Boxwood hedges on an estate. This is an example of formal landscape design. David Beaulieu

You would like to remake the design in your front yard, but you need some ideas to get you started? You are not sure what style you prefer, an informal or a formal landscape design, but you do know that you are tired of looking at the existing style, or tired of lawn care? You know what you like when you see it in someone else's yard, but only at a gut level (you are not experienced enough in these matters to translate your likes into a plan)?

Believe it or not, a quick history lesson might be just the thing to help you better define your own tastes. Understanding how landscape design styles 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 landscaping schools of thought: the formal landscape design with geometric patterns or the informal one that treats such geometric patterns as anathema and strives for a more "natural" look.

Did you ever take an ethics class in college? Perhaps your professor covered the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which talks a lot about "absolutes" (that 2 + 2 = 4 is sometimes used as an example of an absolute). Such a philosophy often strikes the novice as abstract and precise, almost in the way that mathematics is.

In fact, the link between mathematics and philosophy has a long and distinguished pedigree. None other than the very fathers of philosophy, the ancient Greeks, were the first to establish it. Perhaps you have heard of "Euclidean geometry," and you probably remember "the Pythagorean theorem" from high school geometry class. Well Euclid and Pythagoras lived in ancient Greece, and the latter was one of her foremost philosophers. Pythagoras, in turn, influenced Plato, Greece's most famous philosopher.

In mathematics, and particularly in geometry, the Greeks discovered a world of perfection, purity and beauty that could never be sullied by the realities of daily life. It was a sublime refuge from the imperfect world around them, a refuge in which irrefutable absolutes could be summoned at a moment's notice. Straight lines, level planes, perfect circles: They are so clean, crisp, and definite. There is something so reassuring, so powerful, so magical about mathematics. 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.

Yes, the design ramifications of the Greeks' love for geometry have extended far beyond the geometric patterns for decorative borders that we know as "Greek-key" geometric patterns. As an example, below you will be introduced to formal landscape design history and its use of geometric patterns. Although that may sound very complex, you may actually end up seeing quite a bit of yourself in all of it.

Formal Landscape Design and the English Revolt Against It

One way to impose one's will upon nature is by constraining the plants in one's landscape design to conform to a layout that has the kind of geometric precision discussed above. The natural landscape, by contrast, is rather 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 landscape design, we work to improve upon this arrangement when we engage in landscaping work. But the geometric style, or what is better known as "formal landscape design," goes beyond mere improvement. One might characterize it as improvement "with an attitude."

In formal landscape design, content becomes subservient to form. That is, 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 a pattern of 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 is not a style much given to variety, nor do flowers assume a central role.

The Romans, those practical pupils of the Greeks, have left us in their literature an early example of this use of boxwood hedges to impose unity on the chaotic natural landscape. The example is provided by Pliny the Younger (General Letters, Part VII, Letter LII, To Domitius Apollinaris), describing the garden design of his own estate in Tuscany. Pliny speaks of trimmed boxwood hedges expertly deployed to partition off segments of 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 the prerequisites for an estate such as Pliny's were sadly wanting. But the tight structure of formal landscape design was at least passed on in the form of the knot garden style employed 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 perhaps the pinnacle of this style.

Kirk Johnson has explained how the formal landscape design style finally met its match with the rise in the 18th century of English landscape garden design (although the two movements shared a love for the green tapestry made possible by lawn grass). Johnson cites English poet, Alexander Pope as an instigator for an informal landscape design style. "In an essay on gardening in the Guardian (1713), he [Pope] urged a return to the 'amiable simplicity of unadorned nature' in place of the formal garden," writes Johnson. "And in his Epistle to Burlington he proclaimed what was to become the cardinal rule for the English landscape style," Johnson continues, quoting Pope's cardinal rule: "In all, let nature never be forgot.... Consult the genius of the place".

English Cottage Gardens

But one could argue that, in its own way, the landscape garden movement, too had a certain rigidity about it. That is why, in the minds of some, the defining moment of the English revolt against formal landscape design is the evolution of English cottage gardens. The beginnings of this English revolt in the time of Pope received an additional impetus 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 hitherto despised peasantry up on a pedestal. And it was originally the peasantry that had planted and maintained English cottage gardens. They had done so before it became trendy with more affluent groups. The true English cottage garden of the peasantry was practical, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Thus herbs were common components, used both for medicinal and culinary purposes. 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 none other than the French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet (1840-1926). As already mentioned above, art and literature influenced the historical course of garden design in Europe. No discipline exerted a stronger influence on garden design than did landscape painting. It was a case of "life imitating art," if you will. 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 widely emulated in the U.S. This is an informal style meant to evoke a mood of light-hearted gaiety. The eye feasts on a diverse jumble of flowering plants, 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 is meant to suggest a closer communing with nature.

But while English cottage gardens are popular in some American circles, there can be no doubt that the lawn is the dominant element in American landscaping.

Edwin Budding and the History of the American Lawn

The emergence of two giants must be considered in discussing the history of lawns in America. Their names are Frederick Law Olmsted and Edwin Budding. Olmsted is much better known, but Budding holds a unique place in the history of lawn mowers, and, consequently, in how the lawn tradition developed in America. For in the love affair between Americans and their lawns, mowers played the role of the indispensable matchmaker.

As David Quammen humorously points out in "Rethinking the Lawn," the history behind the American lawn is more complex than one might think. On the one hand, there is 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 at the same time, 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, and the grass-eating beast continues to evolve to this day. Prior to this invention, only aristocrats could maintain lawn grass, so lawns were rare. When the lawn mower came along, 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, that is). Consequently, it is fair to say that the American lawn has elements both of democratic and elitist tendencies.

One suspects, however, that there is something more basic behind America's obsession with lawns than is accounted for by either of these historical trends. Once again, our desire to impose our will on nature would seem to be the predominant factor behind the hegemony of the lawn. As with the examples of formal landscape design previously discussed, 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. Indeed, a blade of grass is about as boring as the plant world ever gets, so there is 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 the cottage gardens discussed earlier, lawns represent the rule of law and reason. And we thumb our noses at nature by extending the indoors outside, rolling out a green carpet that will allow us to transition freely between outdoors and inside without even tracking dirt into the house.

Furthermore, the lawn is another landscaping composition with a satisfying bit of geometry in it, however simple. It is the poor man's answer to a formal garden with neat lines of boxwood-hedge. For what is a carefully manicured lawn supposed to represent, after all, if not a horizontal plane? No one would brag about a lawn whose grass was 5 inches tall on one side of the driveway and 2 inches 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.

Which school of thought do you agree with, formal or informal? And what is your impression of the chore of lawn mowing? Do you consider lawn mower history to be a tale of progress or the story of a noisy beast that you would rather not have to push around? Before undertaking a landscaping makeover, it is helpful not only to answer these questions, but to consider the reasons behind your answers.

Natural Landscape Design vs. the Minimalist Style

If you are contemplating a landscaping switch from lawn to a more informal, "natural landscape" (or vice versa), consider carefully which school of thought you subscribe to: formal or informal landscape design. You may even discover that what you crave is more properly called a "minimalist landscape design." Remaking a landscape is expensive and is a lot of work. Before you begin, you want to be sure that the new design will truly reflect your most 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 most deeply felt convictions, seriously consider minimizing.

Quotation marks are placed around "natural landscape" to indicate that, although heard often, this terminology can be deceiving. There is some work involved in maintaining a well-groomed, yet natural-looking design; it doesn't come naturally. If you are looking to virtually eliminate yard maintenance (or come as close to that goal as possible, at least), what you need is a minimalist design, not a "natural landscape." Of course, if you use the terminology "natural landscape" in a different sense, to indicate not doing any work at all, well, clearly, you don't need the advice offered by this, or any other website.

Some Considerations If You're Thinking of Replacing Your Lawn With an Informal Landscape Design:

  1. A practical consideration first. If your property might be placed on the real estate market at some point in the near future, it might be safer for you to stick with a lawn and more conservative plantings, such as the traditional foundation plantings. By and large, potential buyers are more likely to go for a formal design than for the informality of the "natural landscape."
  2. If your motivation for the change is to get closer to nature, make sure that this is your heart-felt conviction and that you are not just giving in to a fad. Remember, "imposing our will upon nature" isn't all bad. We would still be living in caves if our ancestors had thought so. Philosophically speaking, it could also be argued that a minimalist design, too, will bring you closer to nature.
  3. If your motivation for the change is to save on yard work, you will have to tailor your design and plant selection carefully to achieve precisely that goal. Specifically, what you will need is a minimalist design (see below), which will not necessarily satisfy you aesthetically. The cottage garden style may offer the feel of a "natural landscape," but it is not a minimalist design: 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 is less than perfect, then lawn care need not consume an inordinate amount of your time. Of course, the true lover of cottage gardens will want to spend a lot of time working in one.

    Minimalist Design and Replacing Your Informal Landscape Design With Another Alternative:

    1. 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 a generous use of mulching and hardscape features on your landscape. Instead of a hedge, use stone walls to achieve the desired 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 essentially focuses on getting more out of less (which means less maintenance for you).
    2. Consider the environmental impact of your lawn care regimen. Even if you eliminate herbicides and chemical fertilizers from your lawn maintenance regimen, you will 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 lawns of any significant size, despite the fact that gas-powered lawn mowers are noisy, dangerous, and emit pollution. Another option, however, is represented by the new battery-powered lawn mowers.
    1. What if you care for neither a "natural landscape" nor a minimalist design? If the foregoing reflections have convinced you that you prefer the formal landscape style, why not make an even bolder statement of your love for orderliness than would be possible merely with a lawn? In addition to a lawn, plant hedges. A landscape design with a well-maintained lawn set off by crisp hedges is a bold expression of your landscaping tastes.