25 Elegant Garden Design Ideas For Formal Gardens

When it comes to gardens, there are nearly as many styles as there are gardeners, from traditional to avant-garde and everything in between. If you love formal gardens but aren't sure exactly how to build one, don't worry! Gardening expert Melissa Strauss has some great ideas to share.

The formal garden design features tall Arborvitaes creating a verdant backdrop, meticulously trimmed Common box hedges outlining elegant pathways, an old concrete ornate fountain adorned with various thriving plants, and a harmonious mix of other trees and bushes, all contributing to a refined and structured aesthetic.


Every garden is a unique reflection of the heart of its creator. When it comes to garden planning and execution, formal gardens have a distinctive space in gardening style. These elegant, organized, and refined spaces have their roots in the ancient walled gardens of Western Asia

From these places of antiquity, the formal garden has found a home in many cultures and regions of the world. From the Persian gardens of Iran to the Renaissance gardens of France and Italy, formal design has seen many iterations. Although this style varies from place to place, there are integral aspects that define the genre. 

A formal garden is an organized and meticulously planned space. There is a sense of order, symmetry, and definition to this style. A stroll should feel soothing and calming as order and nature converge. 

One thing a formal garden is not is low maintenance. If you have the time and resources to create one, you won’t regret building it for a moment. Formal gardens across the world are wonders that draw crowds to come and enjoy the blending of nature and nurture. Naturally, they require a significant amount of attention from their keeper. Here are some of my favorite elements that define this polished and classic gardening style

A Map

Close-up of a man drawing a landscape architect design backyard plan using a green pencil.
Mapping your formal garden layout ensures symmetrical precision and elegance.

The first step to creating a beautiful formal garden is to make a map of the space. A prevailing characteristic of this style is symmetry. We will go deeper into symmetry in a minute, but a map is an important key to creating it. Making a map or plan will help make your vision come together faster. Measure and draw out your spaces from an overhead perspective. This will make it much easier to create the polished look of a true formal garden. 

Historically, a formal garden is something we associate with a large home, estate, or castle. These stately homes usually have a second and even third floor. Their garden designs are intended to be viewed from that higher vantage point, not only from the ground. Usually, there will be patterns and balance in the way it looks from above. Without a map, it’s difficult to achieve this aspect of the formal garden. 

Central Axis Point

Drummond Castle stands majestically with its grand architecture overlooking impeccably designed formal gardens, characterized by intricate geometric patterns, manicured lawns, vibrant flower beds, and neatly trimmed topiary, all framed by a backdrop of lush greenery and ancient trees.
Designate your formal garden’s heart with a captivating centerpiece.

A common element in many formal gardens is a distinctive and elaborate central space. This is a great place to start when making your plan or map. The central space should be a focal point where all the other elements come together. This is a great spot for an elaborate fountain or statue. 

Use layering to convey the message that this is the central hub from which the rest of the garden radiates. The more apparent it is that you are at the center or focal point, the more impact this feature brings to the table. Come back to this portion of your plan throughout the planning process to tie in other elements. 

Manicured Hedges

The formal garden features meticulously maintained green box hedges and elegant trees lining the symmetrical walking paths.
Stately hedges add elegance and structure to formal gardens.

When I reflect on the beautiful formal gardens I have visited, a primary element that stands out is the manicured hedge. Finely trimmed hedges can create both order and movement in the garden. They guide visitors toward other important and noteworthy aspects of the space. They create borders and boundaries, delineating one space from another. 

Boxwood is the quintessential formal landscaping hedge. Easy to maintain, boxwood’s small foliage takes very well to pruning and shaping. If you prefer an unexpected touch, arborvitae, viburnum, and ligustrum all work nicely. Look for a plant that has dense, small foliage. These will maintain their beauty and take well to trimming and fashioning into a tidy shape.


The formal garden boasts an array of expertly sculpted topiaries, meticulously shaped into geometric and whimsical forms, creating an elegant and visually striking landscape.
In formal gardens, topiaries infuse enchantment and whimsy.

Topiaries are the taller, more elaborate cousins of the manicured hedge. I am here for them in any shape or form. As a child, I grew up near the world-famous Longwood Gardens of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. While much of the outdoor gardens were austere and elegant, their topiary garden was an absolute wonderland. Huge yews trimmed into whimsical spirals and playful bunny rabbits inhabited nearly an acre. 

It was a fabulous place for children to marvel at and explore. Many formal gardens include a children’s garden. This is a great place to have some fun with topiaries. They can be positively magical. 

Topiaries are, essentially, plant sculptures. They can come in the shape of simple spheres and cones, creating vertical lines among the hedges. If you have a knack for it, you can try out all sorts of shapes. We can’t all have our own personal Edward Scissorhands to maintain topiary marvels. But if you’re up to the task, a few well-shaped topiaries are splendid in the formal garden space. 

Defined Pathways

Close-up of a path made of white gravel and wooden planks laid parallel in the form of steps along a garden with various plants and decorative sculptures.
Well-defined walking paths enhance organization and preserve garden beauty.

A formal garden should have well-defined walking paths. Delineating the flow of traffic will contribute to an overall feeling of organization. It will also keep visitors from unknowingly cutting through a flower bed not yet in bloom. We may not need to go as far as ‘stay off the grass’ signs, but a formal garden is a lot of work. Obvious walking paths help to keep traffic where you want it. 

There are many ways to create walking paths, but one thing is certain. It is far easier to establish those paths before you plant your beds. Brick paths are labor-intensive, but they have a classic beauty that ages wonderfully. For faster results, pavers and stepping stones laid in gravel give a nice effect as well. Stay away from living paths. Grass and ground cover require more maintenance. You’re already putting in a lot of effort here. Your paths can be a one-and-done portion of the task. 

YouTube video

Evergreen Foundation

The formal garden landscape features a harmonious arrangement of numerous boxwood trees, interspersed with striking fir Abies koreana 'Silberlocke' and stately Thuja occidentalis, creating a lush, structured, and visually captivating environment.
Choose evergreens for enduring beauty in every season.

When choosing the foundational plants for your garden, consider evergreens for year-round beauty. Evergreens that bloom are a special touch, as well. Find foundational plants that hold their own when everything else is dormant, and your garden will retain its appeal all year. 

Many of the plants that make nice hedges and topiaries are evergreen. Consider adding some evergreen shrubs like holly, daphne, or my personal favorite, camellia. These evergreens all produce showy, fragrant, or decorative flowers and berries during the colder months. They are a wonderful way to keep some winter color.  


The groomed palace gardens adorning the front passageway to Tryon Palace are characterized by their meticulously maintained flower beds, symmetrical boxwood hedges, and grand allées framed by stately trees.
Create a parterre for elegant symmetry visible from your home.

The word parterre may be unfamiliar, but the concept is one that you likely are quite aware of. The parterre is a section of the garden that lies just beyond the house’s terrace. It is the area most viewable from the home. A parterre is an area built on level ground where low hedges and beds form symmetrical patterns. 

The parterre is a space where you might find statues, fountains, or other objects to have within view of the home. This part of the garden is particularly special when viewed from a second story or other high ground. This aspect became popular in France and is observable in many of the most famous French gardens, including the spectacular gardens of Versailles. 


View of a formal garden landscape that features a central concrete architectural fountain, elegantly surrounded by neatly trimmed green box hedges, stately trees, and orderly walkways.
Add a fountain for timeless elegance and soothing ambiance.

A water feature of any kind increases the intentionality of a garden. It is a great way to draw attention to a particularly special part of the space. I can think of no other water feature that makes a bigger statement than a fountain. Fountains are so elegant and add a sense of refinement and permanence.

A fountain is more than just eye candy. Moving water creates a pleasing auditory element to the space. I love it when a garden engages more than just my sense of sight. It also attracts birds to the garden. A fountain creates a significant amount of movement and character, elegantly and classically. Consider a fountain for the center of your garden, or near a sitting space you and visitors can enjoy it in repose. 

Reflecting Pool

View of a sunlit garden with a reflecting pool surrounded by an array of blooming plants in elegant containers and meticulously groomed box bushes.
Introduce a reflecting pool for added elegance and depth.

Another water feature that figures nicely into a formal garden is the reflecting pool. A reflecting pool is an elegant touch that serves some very interesting functions. It is both a soothing and reflective element. At the same time, it adds both depth and height to the space. 

The function of a reflecting pool is to duplicate the garden. It adds another layer that contributes more symmetry and balance to the existing landscape. A reflecting pool can be as large or small as the space allows. In a very large garden, this element can take center stage, cutting through the middle. In a smaller space, a reflecting pool can add depth and perspective to a more private area. 

Garden Rooms

View of the formal garden designed as a garden room with an entry through a manicured plant arch leading into a stunning space featuring growing agave plants and well-trimmed boxwood hedges surrounding stone paths.
Craft intimate garden rooms using architectural elements for enchanting hideaways.

Creating distinctive spaces can make a garden feel larger overall while simultaneously more intimate. Movement from one distinct space into another creates a multilayered sensation. You can’t experience the entirety of it from just one place.

Garden rooms add romance to the space. Formal gardens are romantic places, and what is more romantic than unexpected locations to steal away to? If I learned anything from Jane Austen, it’s that a garden should have at least one place that is perfect for stolen kisses. 

You can create rooms in your garden using beautiful architectural elements. Construct boundaries from a row of columns or a tall, well-trimmed hedge. You can even go so far as to build walls to separate spaces. An openwork brick wall is a wonderful way to hint at the idea that interesting things lie just beyond. 

A Secret Garden

Close-up of a wooden sign with the inscription Secret Garden stuck among the Thuja plants.
Enrich your formal garden with an exclusive, hidden enclave.

Speaking of garden rooms, nothing says formal as boldly as exclusivity does. You can add a deep layer of exclusivity by adding a secret garden. This space should be at least partially obscured from every direction except for one, possibly two, entrances. Perhaps it is only apparent from a certain, uncommon angle. Visitors should feel as though they discover this entrance only by careful examination or by chance. 

The inside of this space should feel special and inhabited. I think about palaces of centuries past. The king’s chamber, where only the most valued guests may enter, is always the most opulent. Your secret garden should not disappoint. If you have a selection of special and rare plants, this is a perfect place to keep them. This is a space where you can bring visitors to create a feeling of intimacy and candor. A visit to this area should feel special.

A Kitchen Garden

The community kitchen garden features wooden raised beds brimming with a diverse array of herbs and vegetables.
Blend functionality and elegance with a structured kitchen garden.

A kitchen garden can go one of two ways, and only one way is appropriate for a formal garden. It’s important to plan this space deliberately to avoid the feeling of a cottage style. Cottage gardens, while beautiful, are the opposite of a formal one. This kitchen garden should have structure and order.

The main characteristic of a kitchen garden is functionality. It should contain useful and edible plants while maintaining the order and symmetry of the rest of the landscape. 

You may think of a kitchen garden as informal, but many of the most stunning formal gardens contain this element. 

A kitchen garden brings elegance to the dining table. If you spend the time constructing a formal garden, you’ll certainly want to host parties here. What is more elegant than beautiful hors d’oeuvres made from stunning vegetables that your guests can observe in the kitchen garden?


The natural stone landscaping showcases terraces adorned with a myriad of plants and flowers, creating a picturesque and harmonious blend of rugged textures and vibrant colors.
An elevated garden design, terraces create orderly and stunning landscapes.

Terraces add layers to the garden, without fear that foreground plants will overwhelm the plants in the mid-ground. This is a great way to plant more layers of color, and work in stone elements, as well. Levels of low retaining walls create a feast for the eyes and add to an overall feeling of intention.

Formal gardens lean heavily on organization and planning. They should look like you planned every detail before executing the whole project. Sharply delineated or gently curving lines both work. Terraces give you more space to showcase different colors and textures without the appearance of clutter.

Don’t confuse this type of terrace with the patio type. That type of terrace certainly has its place near the formal garden. However, we are referring to the type of terracing that creates multiple flat surfaces for planting on. If you have an area that slopes, this is a wonderful way to create order and organization here. 

Geometric Shapes

The maze garden is characterized by meticulously trimmed boxwood bushes arranged in intricate patterns, interspersed with vibrant flowering plants, creating a captivating and enchanting labyrinthine landscape.
Add geometric elegance and meticulous planning to shape a stunning garden.

Using geometric shapes in the garden contributes to the feeling of deliberation. It takes both planning and tending to maintain the clean lines that create a feeling of geometry. Here again, is an area where evergreen plants with small, dense foliage create an advantage. 

Many types of spruce, boxwood, cypress, and juniper are great for creating these clean lines. Italian cypress trees naturally grow in a compact, columnar form. Work to create clean lines and simple but distinct shapes. 

Symmetry and Repetition

View of the formal garden that features tall trees growing symmetrically along a long paved path, their branches intertwining to form an arched tunnel, creating a majestic and enchanting passage.
Harmony thrives through symmetrical design, crafting elegance in repetition.

Symmetry and repetition create a sense of simplicity and elegance. An avenue of trees can be an incredibly striking feature. A canopy of branches that gently arch over the central path in your garden can feel magical. Again, these elements contribute to an overall feeling of intention and consideration. 

If you’re adding topiaries or hedges to your garden, stick with minimal variation in close proximity. Make it clear that you favor a particular plant or shape, and use it often. Repeating a particular shape in different plants or areas is another great way to create a cohesive space. Beds that mirror each other are calming and harmonious to the eye.


View of the garden with a Marble Gazebo, statues of women delicately adorn the landscape, surrounded by meticulously trimmed boxwood hedges, creating a serene and classical ambiance.
Graceful statues adorn and enrich the garden with timeless allure.

A statuary is a common element in formal gardens. Beautiful statues can certainly raise the budget. But it also elevates the mood of the space. A row of elegant statues, or a peppering throughout, gives the space a gallery vibe. 

Statues don’t have to be classical forms, either. The style of your home should dictate what you put in your garden. A more modern home should showcase modern sculptures. This is a great place to work with some lightheartedness and whimsy as well. A statue is another item that you might add to a children’s section of the garden. 

Make sure to choose pieces that are the right size for their space. Balance and proportion are important factors to consider.  Choose not only a sculpture that suits the garden and home but one that neither over nor underwhelms the space. 


View of the delightful formal garden with manicured box hedges, topiaries, statues, and columns set at the front entrance to the garden.
Elegant columns grace the garden, adding both beauty and function.

Columns are multipurpose elements in the formal garden. They are both decorative and practical. Columns create support for other elements, such as a pergola or archway. When used to delineate spaces, they can add definition and boundaries. 

They are also visually pleasing and add vertical elements. Columns draw the eye upward and make the space seem more expansive by their height. Here again, it is important to consider the style of your home and the garden’s scale. Your columns should echo the rest of your style choices. They should not over nor underwhelm the space. 

A Labyrinth

The garden features a captivating green maze crafted from meticulously trimmed boxwood bushes, offering an enchanting and labyrinthine experience.
Labyrinths bring charm and fun, but make sure your guests don’t get lost!

A labyrinth is one of those formal elements that always brings amusement. That is unless you’re lost in one! There are certainly workarounds that will keep your visitors on the right path. A low network of well-trimmed hedges is a good way to add this element. If you have a good vantage point from which to view the structure, this is even better. 

If you elect to create a taller maze in your garden, keep things simple. Or don’t! But seriously, you don’t want anyone lost. Taller labyrinths should be less elaborate than those you can view from overhead. Keep the lines crisp and clean, and make sure there are entrances and exits in the proper places if you intend for guests to use them. 

Groomed Arches

View of a formal garden adorned with meticulously groomed arches, accentuated by vibrant displays of blooming tulips and irises.
Arched garden entryways create a graceful welcome.

Round or arched entryways and elements create a warm and welcoming feel. There is a soft, gracefulness to this shape that contrasts beautifully with more geometric elements. Formal gardens can tend to feel severe without any curving lines. Arches create those curves to soften more angular lines.

Just be careful not to let them become overgrown. The arches in your formal garden should be as well-groomed as the arches on your face. Being well-groomed doesn’t have to mean severe. An arch covered in a stunning rose vine has a very formal sensibility. Just make sure to maintain these elements meticulously, as they exist at eye level. 


View of a small formal garden with tall arborvitae growing as a hedge, trimmed lawn, a few pine trees and a small wooden bench with soft cushions for relaxing.
Create inviting seating areas to savor your oasis.

Add some seating to invite visitors and yourself to sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labor. You’ve worked hard to create this amazing space, so you should have a place to sit and take it all in. Don’t hesitate to go as small or grand as you please with this element, as long as it blends in stylistically. 

If you want to maximize your time in the garden, consider adding an outdoor living space or dining area to your design. A bench near your water feature will become a favorite bird-watching locale. Consider the different areas of your space that you want to display. Any area where you feel that a long pause is necessary to observe the details is a good seating place. 

A wrought iron bench is versatile and gives a nice, permanent feeling. A concrete table and benches work beautifully in a classical garden or near a statue. Evoke other garden elements to create repetition and continuity.

A Gazebo

The iron gazebo, adorned with shingles and a bench, stands as a focal point in the formal garden, encircled by a variety of evergreens, lending an air of elegance and tranquility to the surroundings.
Elevate your space with a versatile and elegant gazebo.

A gazebo is another classic addition to a formal garden. This is a structure that ticks several boxes in one. A gazebo can be a central focal point, a garden room, and a sitting area. Place a table in your gazebo, and you have an instant outdoor dining space. You can even sit here in and enjoy the garden when it rains. 

If you like to throw garden parties, you can use a gazebo for many purposes. It can be a dance floor, a stage, a place to serve food and beverages, or just a shaded spot to cool off on a summer day. If a traditional gazebo doesn’t suit your personal style, there are more modern alternatives. It can be as large or small as you please, whatever best suits your fancy. 

Soothing Color Palette

View of a large English garden estate with a formal style garden, which features a stone fountain, hedges, neat flowerbeds with a variety of flowering plants in shades of purple.
Find serenity with calming shades of blue and lavender.

The color palette is a highly individual decision. It hinges on your perception and personal feelings about color. To say that one particular color or combination is soothing may not resonate with every gardener. Exceptions aside, most people consider shades of blue and lavender to be calming. They are also the favored color of bees.

Another option for a calming color scheme could involve shades of blush and white. Of course, green is the most soothing color of all. Sticking with shades of green and forgoing flowers can make a garden feel polished and peaceful.

Seasonal Color

A view of the garden with neatly trimmed round boxwood bushes and trees with bright red autumn foliage against a background of evergreens.
Experience autumn transformation with vibrant foliage hues.

Autumn is my favorite season in the garden. Spring is spectacular with her luxurious floral displays. The deep greens of summer are beautiful, too. But the evolution of the garden in autumn has no match in its brilliance. Adding plants that change colors in the fall is truly transformative. 

Complement your evergreen foundation by adding trees and shrubs with stunning fall foliage. Maple trees and birches have spectacular fall foliage. Cypress retains its foliage year-round, but the foliage turns golden during the cooler months. Your options in this area largely hinge on your planting zone. 

For trees that work overtime, producing flowers in the spring and color in the fall, there are some wonderful options. Crape myrtle flowers all summer and turns shades of red and bronze. Dogwoods have a significant flowering period, and their fall foliage ranges from red to purple. Spirea is a lovely shrub that blooms profusely in the spring and turns red-violet when daylight hours begin to wane. 

Olfactory Elements

View of a classical garden featuring thuja hedges, diverse trees, and flowering lavender bushes lining a narrow water channel bordered by a decorative border.
Indulge your senses with fragrant blooms in your garden.

When it comes to experiencing a garden, visual appeal is at the forefront. This is especially true of the formal garden with all of its pomp and circumstance. That said, it feels remiss to overlook the sense of smell. I am of the opinion that every garden should include some wonderfully fragrant flowers. Stroll through the garden and experience not only the beauty but also the redolence of jasmine or gardenia in the air. This is to fully experience the garden.

I am partial to white flowers in terms of fragrance. I’m not quite sure what the science is, but many of the most aromatic flowers around happen to be white. White also goes with any color scheme. Even if you’ve gone with an entirely green color palette, white flowers won’t interfere. There are plenty of more colorful flowers that smell nice, as well. Lavender, for instance, brings a singular olfactory experience to a space. 

Gardenias, jasmine, tuberoses, and lilies are all stunning options if you want white flowers. They all release the most fragrance in the evening, just in time for a sunset cocktail in the gazebo. I can’t overlook the most classic and formal of flowers, the rose, in this category. Old garden roses tend to be the most fragrant and disease-resistant, although they only bloom for a brief period. Climbing roses tend to produce the most flowers and look amazing growing up a trellis or wall. 

A Conservatory

View of the exit from a white glass conservatory (greenhouse) with various tropical and evergreen plants.
Transform your home with a conservatory, a cozy botanical retreat.

A conservatory is essentially a greenhouse that doubles as a sitting room. These rooms are more common in Great Britain, and many of the more noteworthy formal gardens have them, as well. This structure is often attached to the home, overlooking the gardens, but it can stand alone as well. A conservatory allows the gardener to grow plants that might not otherwise survive in their planting zone. 

An orchid or bonsai collection is an example of what you might keep in a conservatory. Some conservatories are very large and elaborate. The more famous formal gardens often have more than one. These often hold large collections of tropical plants or succulents. On a more manageable scale, a conservatory can be a lovely spot to have a meal or coffee among your favorite potted plants. A citrus tree is a lovely addition to this space. 

Final Thoughts

Building a formal garden is a complex and involved project. It’s probably not a weekend job, but the final product will be a stunning space. Most of all, one formal garden doesn’t have to look exactly like another. There are formal gardens all over the world with different types of plants and different styles. Your formal garden should reflect the things that you envision a formal garden to be. 

Contemporary home plants. Close-up of blooming lavender in a sunny garden with an ornamental pond, rocks and low-growing bushes with purple-burgundy foliage against a blurred background. A Lavender bush is a sight to behold, with its slender, silver-green foliage and abundant spikes of fragrant purple flowers. Atop sturdy stems, the Lavender bush produces clusters of tiny, tubular flowers that bloom in purple.

Ornamental Gardens

19 Plants to Feature in Contemporary Home Gardens

Looking for plants to accentuate the unique features of your contemporary home? Wondering which trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, and groundcovers are best for your property? In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros discusses the principles of contemporary home and garden design and suggests 19 plants to enhance and extend your 21st-century architecture.

View of English Cottage garden styles. Close-up of an old English cottage with old wooden doors, abundantly covered with climbing Clematis in bloom. Around the house there are flowering hydrangea bushes and an apple tree with ripe fruits. On the porch there are two flowerpots with African daisies in bloom and begonia in bloom. There is a wreath of fresh carnation flowers hanging on the door.

Ornamental Gardens

19 Beautiful Garden Styles for Your Outdoor Landscape

Garden styles bring boundless inspiration, whether designing a new garden, reimagining an existing space, or daydreaming about adding a few new elements. Recognized styles show us what works to create dynamic spaces, with countless opportunities for adding our combinations and preferences. Garden designer Katherine Rowe explores prominent garden styles to inspire beautiful, functional landscapes.

window box ideas. Close-up of flowering Petunias, Wishbone flowers and Emerald Falls Dichondra plants in a large wooden window box by the window. Sanguna® Blue Vein Petunias display stunning trumpet-shaped blooms in varying shades of purple, adorned with delicate deep purple veins that create an intricate and mesmerizing pattern.


15 Stunning Window Box Flower Ideas

Window boxes exude old-world charm and enhance the connection between home and garden. They add vertical interest in endless plant combinations for spectacular color, texture, and form. Explore a few window box favorites with garden designer Katherine Rowe for an overflowing display of blooms this season.

topiary plants. Close-up of Boxwood spiral topiary in a garden against a blurred background. The Boxwood spiral topiary is a meticulously shaped shrub featuring a distinctive spiral pattern meticulously pruned into the dense, glossy green foliage of the Boxwood plant. This versatile evergreen shrub boasts small, glossy leaves tightly clustered on dense branches, presenting a uniform and compact appearance.

Ornamental Gardens

29 Plants Perfect for Making Topiary

Would you like to try your hand at shaping topiary? There are many plants to choose from when it comes to this gardening method. It can be hard to select the perfect one! In this article, gardening expert Jill Drago lists 29 plants that are perfect for making topiary in your garden.

Majestic towering blue spruces dominate the landscape, their needles forming a dense canopy that stretches towards the sky. Interspersed among the spruces, juniper bushes add a vibrant touch with their evergreen foliage.


25 Best Evergreen Trees for Year-Round Privacy

Are you looking for evergreen trees to create privacy on your property? There are plenty of great, easy-to-grow trees that provide year-round greenery. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen introduces 25 of the best evergreen trees to increase privacy, enhance your landscape, and look fantastic all year!