‘Eco Formal’

‘Eco Formal’

A rill using a reclaimed trough found on site, set into a drystone retaining wall, hill water tapped from a stream and returned to the stream via hidden pipes.

The design style that my garden design practice works to is ‘Eco Formal’.

We combine a formal, orderly style of garden design with material and plant choices that are beneficial to the environment. The goal is a beautiful, elegant garden that is low maintenance and attracts wildlife.

Starting with the ‘Eco’ side of our work, you might ask: ‘aren’t all gardens good for the environment?’ Surely everything a garden designer or landscaper does is good?

Hopefully yes, but not always.

Consider the make up of many gardens. There may be lots of concrete used (accounting for 8% CO2 emissions worldwide), timber and paving flags imported from the other side of the world (so more CO2 and issues over sustainability and worker welfare), plants that may be sited wrongly (shortening their life span or adding to urban pollution), and all sorts of other issues leading to urban flooding or warming.

So, unfortunately, a new garden may not be as ‘green’ as it could be.

Here are six fairly simple solutions:

  1. Use very little concrete, or a substitute. This is something we endeavour to do by specifying cement substitutes such as GGBS (priced the same as standard Portland cement), or favouring drystone walls over traditional bricks and mortar.
  2. Install local, reclaimed or sustainable materials. Again, not hard. The UK has a wealth of stone yards and suppliers, often within 20 miles of most homes. The advantage is that you can go and see materials at first hand, and transport distances and costs will be minimal. And of course, the chances are these local materials will look ‘right’ in your garden, given that they are hewn from the local landscape.
  3. Plant predominantly natives in ‘the right place’. We look for plant inspiration in the woods and meadows of the surrounding countryside of every project and incorporate either species versions or ‘first cousin’ cultivars into the planting scheme. These can be arranged formally, trained into formal shapes such as topiary and pleach, but they are still the same tough plants that live in the local countryside. To be extra sure, we always test the PH and composition of soil in our projects. Only plants that are right for the soil conditions are then specified.
  4. Buy local from specialist growers. Again, the UK is blessed with plant nurseries. We always endeavour to source plants from specialist growers; often small outfits who have dedicated to producing just foxgloves, or paeonies, or grasses and so on. These growers will always take time to talk through planting designs, come up with suggestions and take great pride in providing beautiful plants.
  5. Plant for wildlife. The trick is to put in larger quantities of fewer plants. Bees for instance like to visit clumps of similar plants, or shrubs in a single visit. It’s important to arrange plants carefully with this in mind. Besides, repeated swathes of planting will always look better than dibs and dabs of this and that flower. And the planting scheme should also provide food for wildlife in all seasons. Winter and June can both be barren periods for birds and pollinators.
  6. Plant against air pollution. Careful selection and arrangement of plants can drastically reduce air pollution around city homes, schools and commercial buildings. This takes some careful consideration, but there are clear rules. I have written about this in a piece for the Sunday Times. Read more about it here


I hope that this brief list shows clear steps that can be taken when designing any new garden to make them genuinely environmentally-friendly.

The second aspect of our design style is ‘Formal’.

What do I mean by formal? In essence, it means we use beautiful planting and hard materials in the strongest, simplest manner. Here are three steps to a formal garden:

  1. Less is more. Whenever we design a garden, we select only a handful of materials and restrict our planting palette. We ‘cook’ with just a few ingredients, but bring the best out of them. As mentioned above, this approach is often a benefit to wildlife.
  2. Proportions are key. Whether we incorporate curving paths and hedges, or straight lines, their proportions are never random. Even if it may not be obvious to someone walking through a garden (and I hope it wouldn’t be), in every project the proportions of paths, seating and planting areas are all related to one another. A 1.5m path might abut a 3m wide planting bed, and join to a 6m by 4.5m dining area.
  3. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat! Like phrases in a piece of music, geometric layouts are repeated, as are plants and trees. The more repetition there is, however subtle, the more satisfying the garden becomes to the person spending time in it. The space will feel like it has a natural rhythm and order.


How do we make ‘Eco-Formal’?

Simple, we just use planting and building practices that are good for the environment, in a strong ‘formal’ design. We respond to the unique environment of every site and source as locally as we can.

And as a final note, I mentioned that we design gardens that are low maintenance. Yes, absolutely. The joy of a formal style and keeping things simple in terms of plants and layout is that our gardens are easy to maintain.

I like to prune and cut back like any gardener. But I’d rather be sitting back with the sun on my face and a gin and tonic in my hand.