Q.: I have seen pictures of some very formal gardens in magazines. I have an area in my back yard where I would like to try to install a small, “fancy” garden. Can you give me some ideas?
A.: I, too, like formal gardens, although I am well aware of the more labor-intensive nature of manicured plantings. I have created two very formal gardens in the past and one was very successful and the other was short-lived. I have also seen some local formal gardens that are very beautiful.
My first formal garden was a parterre that is still beautiful nearly 20 years later. A parterre is a pattern of boxwood or similar hedge plants, with the areas between filled with other plants. Traditionally, the hedging would be the permanent plants, and the infill made up of annuals and vegetables. This type of design was created by 16th Century French nursery designer Claude Mollet.
Instead of being viewed by people who were passing by them on the ground, Mollet wanted his gardens to be viewed from the high vantage points of open windows, balconies and palisades. He divided the parterre into four squares, with gravel paths that intersect in the middle. I enjoyed my parterre from my breakfast room and deck. Fortunately, my husband learned to properly trim the hedges narrower at the top than the bottom to keep them looking full.
My second formal garden attempt was a very small herb Knot Garden that I planted in the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at the Agricultural Center. It was very small and required constant maintenance. It did not last very long because I had to trim it with scissors, and it was a dry summer.
A knot garden is planted in an intricate looking design and kept trimmed to appear as though the plants are grown in a knotted shape. Knot gardens were representations of medieval embroideries and were micromanaged to keep their appearance. They also were originally designed to be viewed from above. I used gray and green santolina to weave the intricate knot design with very precise planting. Another parterre-like display in Carrollton that is viewed best from a distance is a flower bed created to represent a quilt design that has been beautifully displayed for three summers on the slope in front of the Ag Center on Newnan Road.
Making an herbal knot garden is a grand undertaking but definitely not out of the realm for a moderate gardener to maintain. You must keep everything tightly trimmed, constantly grooming and clipping to keep its defined shape. If you want to try this experiment, keep it simple; consider using colored mulches or stones to create a more intricate look; and have extra plants for those times that something dies within the knot design. You will be more apt to have a matching replacement to put back.