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Classical garden design for courtyards & patios

Martyn Cox / 17 October 2011

Sharp outlines of topiary and splashes of bold colour can help transform your small patio into a classical formal garden

Courtyard garden with furniture and topiary
The sharp outline of topiary provides a touch of sophistication to a garden, along with all year round colour and structure

A classical formal garden is easy on the eye and ideal for those wanting to give their space an understated, elegant look. The simple, geometric structure is embellished by clipped evergreens and the odd flowering plant to provide seasonal highlights. Providing verdant interest all year round, these gardens require very little upkeep - perfect for those who lead busy lives.

Choose a classic geometric layout

When designing a formal garden aim for a simple layout that has a strong, geometric backbone. 

If you can, remove some paving from around the perimeter of your courtyard to create rectangular borders or install raised beds – do this either side of the garden to keep things symmetrical. If you have a really, really tiny garden, use a selection of containers, making sure you use identical pots and plants on either side of the garden. 

Avoid cramming too many pots into your garden – aim for minimalism rather than the look of a bric-a-brac store. Those with a more rectangular space could create a focal point to draw the eye to the centre of a far wall or fence – consider using a terracotta urn, architectural plant, wall mounted fountain, a classic figurine or a small raised pond.

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Add clipped plants for a formal look

The sharp outline of topiary provides a touch of sophistication to a garden, along with all year round colour and structure. 

Go for neatly manicured domes, pyramids or spirals of box, cubes of yew and cloud pruned shapes of phillyrea, along with standard olives, Portuguese laurel or Viburnum tinus. Grow plants in the ground or in tasteful containers - remember to clip them regularly or a crisp outline will be lost beneath a shaggy coat of growth.

Use a series of low growing clipped shapes grown in pots to lead the eye up a flight of steps, down a path or place them along a wall. Vertical shapes can be placed in borders, act as focal points or set alongside a fence or wall – add some interest at ground level by putting lower growing pieces of topiary beneath them.

Find out about cloud pruning for unusual and distinctive shapes

Add modern splashes of colour

Inject some colour in spring by planting bulbs beneath clipped shapes, whether planted in the ground or in pots. Choose low-growing grape hyacinths, narcissus and crocus, and keep the scheme simple by choosing from a limited colour palette.

There are many summer flowering plants that can be grown to complement a largely evergreen backdrop, such as hosta, bearded iris, late flowering alliums and echinops. 

Lavender is desirable for its spikes of summer flower, but will need trimming twice a year to maintain an attractive hummocky shape. Aim to choose plants that maintain a strong shape and show self-restraint when buying – too many plants and too many colours will leave the garden feeling cluttered and chaotic.

Find out how to use colour in your garden

Walls and fences

Make the most of your vertical surfaces. Small leaved evergreen climbers are ideal for masking a wall or you could plant trained forms of fruit, such as apples, pears and cherries. 

Bare, ugly fences will be quickly transformed by a lick of paint and will provide a colourful backdrop to your space, even in the depths of winter – a mossy shade of green would be perfect in a formal space.

Another option is to screw trellis panels to walls and fences. Give them a coat of paint and use them as supports for climbing plants. If you have the space, smaller pieces of trellis could be used as internal ‘walls’, helping to divide your garden into two or more ‘rooms’.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.