Formal town style gardens

Town gardens are often small but make up for their size with the potential for impressive formality, and even the tiniest town garden can convey a grand elegance.

Living in a town, with its ac-companying stresses, makes access to a garden, however small, all the more important. The square- or rectangular-shaped plot so carefully camouflaged in suburban or rural gardens becomes a positive asset in a town garden. Its right angles and straight lines set the formal mood and echo the geometry of the surrounding buildings. Symmetry is often a feature of formal town-garden layouts, with one side the mirror image of the other.

Control is another key to town-garden formality, with every plant in order and paths and pavings clearly defined. Colour is as controlled as the geometry, with large, riotous displays of gaudy flowers or garden furniture replaced by restrained, limited use of colour. Carrying the formal style to extreme, flowers in traditional town gardens were at one time replaced by geometric areas of coloured gravel, to eliminate all natural variation.

What makes formal town style?

Primarily designed to be viewed from the main rooms of the house, many formal town gardens are as much stage sets as they are for active use. There is no hint of practicality – no vegetables to be grown and harvested, or old buckets or wheelbarrows filled with plants. Formal town gardens tend to convey a feeling of elegance with the emphasis on the classic and timeless, rather than the new or the romantic.

Because of the growing popularity of the formal town style, there is a wide range of reproduction formal furniture, ornaments and accessories, from reasonably priced to costly. Although classical furniture and containers emphasize formality, simple modern furniture and containers are equally suitable. Reproduction stone and brick paving units are also available – the more natural and less harsh the colour, the better.

Formal town garden plants Many town gardens tend to be shady, with poor, worn-out, often acid soil, so typical permanent town-garden plants are tough, tolerant and often evergreen, to make maximum use of light.

Slow-growing types, tolerant of regular pruning, are least likely to outgrow their allotted space and are most suitable for topiary work. Pots and urns of annual flowers feature heavily, since they expend all their energy in a glorious display, and are then re-placed with fresh plants.

Paths Advice for gardens

As well as being practical components of virtually every garden, paths can also be decorative, enhancing a gardens unique character and style.

Paths are usually treated as functional features, connecting house, patio and garden and providing a comfortably level, non-slip surface to walk on. But a well-sited and sensibly designed path, made of materials sympathetic to the surroundings, can also add to a garden’s appearance and its particular charm.

A newly built path, for example, constructed of traditional brick, stone or good-quality reproduction stone, can add a well-established look to a garden; a wide, straight path can add to its formality; while a small, gently meandering path can add a sense of mystery. Such paths invite you to enter a garden and enjoy its beauty.

If you decide to widen, relay or reposition a garden path using more attractive materials, or even introduce a new path, don’t rush into things, since a path, like a patio, is a permanent feature and you’re likely to live with it for years to come. Whether you budget for relatively inexpensive or rather more costly materials, and whether you choose to build the path yourself or engage a professional, always begin your planning by studying how your garden is used. It is important that the new path follows the natural circulation pattern and is made of materials that blend in with the general scheme.

Siting paths

Paths for main access such as from a door to a garden gate tend to be best if they are as short and direct as possible, especially in small square or rectangular gardens any curves should be gentle and subtle. A path that strays significantly from the most direct route is liable to be ignored, especially if it is laid in grass – worn-out lawn will soon show where the path should have been.

In a larger garden, secondary paths can meander, to take in a particular view or perhaps a seating area. However, fussy, ornamental paths with no real purpose rarely look right – tight curves tend to create a restless, rather than restful, feeling.

A path inevitably divides the garden into smaller areas such as lawns or flowerbeds. When siting a path, consider the shape, size and proportion of these areas -whether, for example, you want the flowerbeds to be symmetrical or irregular in shape. A path running parallel to a house or perimeter wall can create a narrow or generously wide border, and also double as an edging strip, keeping lawn and border apart.

A path that changes direction should do so for a reason, such as skirting a tree or shrubbery – you can always add plants or site a large feature such as a statue or a stone urn filled with seasonal colour, where you want the path to turn left or right. But a path that changes direction for no good reason is an invitation to establish short-cuts, which results in damage to the lawn or surrounding bedding scheme.

Formal or Informal

Straight paths usually create an impression of formality, while curving paths imply informality, though paths are also influenced by their surroundings. Randomly planted small gardens, for exam-ple, can have dead-straight paths and still look informal. Larger gardens with neatly laid out planting schemes can have broadly curving paths yet still manage to look very formal.

Likewise, materials can convey formality or informality, according to their surroundings and use. Concrete slabs laid in straight rows, for example, appear formal while those same slabs set irregu-larly in a lawn as stepping stones appear informal.

As with changing directions, a path that changes materials should do so for a reason – a minor path joining a major one, for example, or a path approaching a patio. Try to integrate the various materials, perhaps extending the edging of one to encompass the other, to avoid a sharp, sudden demarcation.


A path’s width should relate to its use. Main paths should be at least 75cm (2’/2ft) wide, or 1.2m (4ft) wide for two people to pass or to walk comfortably side by side. Try to avoid steps along the way, especially if the path is used for pushing wheelbarrows, lawnmowers, prams or pushchairs. If the path is closely bounded by walls, or has overhanging shrubs or flowers, allow extra width for ease of use. (Don’t forget to prune overhanging plants regularly to prevent the path disappearing altogether.) Minor paths can be as little as 37cm (15in) across provided there are no obstructions. A main or only path should be made of continuous, solid paving or gravel laid to a slight fall so it dries out quickly after rain, while a minor path can simply be round, hexagonal, square or rectangular paving slabs, set in lawn. Either way, place the paving slabs or units slightly below the level of any surrounding lawn, for ease of mowing. Regular treatment with mosskiller may be necessary for shady paths.

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