Formal landscape plants are normally slow growing plants whose compact appearance allows them to be arranged in repeating patterns. By using a few number of plant species, and by arranging them in predictable patterns of design, we can build the impression of order that is essential to formal design.
The slow growth rate keeps the plants from getting too large to quickly, so minimal maintenance is all we need to maintain the shape of whatever softscape we are creating. Formal gardens depend on their static design to maintain their stately appearance. Borders around hardscapes also must look clean in order to maintain their distinctive appearance.
Contrary to what you might think when you try to visualize these elements, most plants used in formal gardens and landscapes are neither all that brightly colored, nor are they numerous in quality. Formal design has always been about the sovereignty of man over the natural environment. As such, it relies upon the principle of less is more to establish the sense of deliberate system that has characterized the estates of the elite since ancient times.
Hedges and shrubs are two examples of formal landscape plants that have been used to adorn wealthy properties since pre-Roman times. Hedges and shrubs create drama and interest through what we could loosely call limited vertical impact. They are obviously higher than grasses and ground cover plants, but they tend to grow no higher than the midpoint of the wall of a large home.
This allows them to be used in the creation of formal gardens that accent the façade of the home. They are also commonly used to create organic fencing around the borders of larger estates, or even sections of an estate that are set aside exclusively for privileged guests.
In Houston landscaping, we commonly use hedges and shrubs to divide very large yards into separate zones of interest. Large lots like this are common in certain parts of Tanglewood, the heart of River Oaks, and in the Memorial Villages. Using mid-growth formal landscaping plants helps us shape the yard into sections where other hardscapes and gardens can be created to define entirely unique realms of experience.
Examples of hedges and shrubs that are commonly used as formal landscape plants include Holly, Juniper, Japanese Yews and Elaeagnus. The dark green shades of these bushes help to establish a somewhat serious and subdued tone that also characterized formality and gentry.
Smaller shrubs, such as boxwoods, also make ideal borders around hardscape elements. It is always necessary to place some kind of organic border around a manmade form like a patio or a walkway. This helps the hardscape stand out, and it also helps links its geometry to that of garden design and plantings of ornamental trees.
Boxwoods, along with certain ornamental grasses such as Mondo grass, routinely line the walkways, patios, and decks that we build for our clients. Slow growing, darkly colored grasses are exceptionally good formal landscape plants because they create subtle movements within the border of low level shrubs when they sway in the wind.
There are also instances where ornamental tree, such as Cypress, are used as formal landscape plants. Cypress trees are essential to Italian landscaping and Italian garden design. Many forms of darkly colored ivy are also used to accent garden structures such as masonry walls, pergolas, and gazebos.