Throughout history, formal garden design has been reinterpreted many times over, while retaining the key elements of balance, geometry, and symmetry. The Renaissance gardens of Europe, created between the 14th and 17th centuries, were much admired, and influenced leading designers well into the Victorian age.
The terraced gardens of Villa Gamberaia, near Florence in Italy, are cleverly designed to maximize the estates space. Photograph: Jules Bower
Villa Gamberaia, near Florence, Italy, has an 18th-century terraced garden with all the classic elements of a formal estate in a compact space: these include a water garden, an allée of pencil-slim Italian cypress trees, a grotto, and lawns.
It’s a style echoed at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, which owner James Deering created in the 1920s, using an Italian villa as his model. Elegant low hedges, topiary, sculptures, and a maze garden provide a worthy backdrop to a Mediterranean-style house.
Fountains and intricate topiary at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England reflect the grandeur of the stately manor, which was the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill.
Another breathtaking example is Blenheim Palace in England, which has 2,000 acres (809 ha) of landscaped parkland and formal gardens, and the monumental evergreen Marlborough Hedge Maze. The intricacy of the parterre hedging in the Italian Garden is jaw-dropping, and the Upper Water Terrace has been favorably compared to the Parterre d’Eau at Versailles in France.
We invariably look east when seeking gardens with a spiritual connection. In Chinese and Japanese gardens, symbolism is paramount, and carefully placed elements such as statues, water, rocks, and garden buildings guide visitors in a meditative manner. Plants are used to tell stories, and illusions are created through careful manipulation of the landscape.
Saihoji or Koke-Dera in Kyoto is carpeted with more than 120 different kinds of moss, creating a lush and tranquil atmosphere. Photograph: Shutterstock
Saihoji is an ancient stroll garden in Kyoto, also known as Koke-Dera or Moss Temple. As you might expect, it contains many velvety mosses, alongside dry-rock waterfalls, pavilions, and the mysterious Golden Pond. Another Japanese garden is Kenrokeun, which also has a large pond, this time representing the sea, and beautiful views of the surrounding landscape.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, China, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and dates back to 1509. Photograph: Getty
In China, the Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest of Suzhou’s traditional gardens and reimagines an entire natural landscape within just 13 acres (5.3 ha), including hills, bamboo forests, winding streams, bridges, and pavilions. With features like The Hall of Distant Fragrance and the Heavenly Spring Pavilion, the not-so-humble garden—dating from the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century—is a World Heritage Site.
Influenced by the apothecary herb gardens of the 16th century and the 19th century’s bountiful kitchen gardens, an estate that produces fruit, vegetables, and herbs is more fashionable than ever. Audley End in eastern England is a striking example. Alongside the Jacobean mansion house and the Capability Brown landscape sits a timeless kitchen garden, with many varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables, including a 150-year-old Black Hamburg grapevine.
The interior of the vine house in the Capability Brown-designed grounds at Audley End in Essex, England. Photograph: English Heritage/Patricia Payne
Similarly, at Filoli in California, the estate’s sunniest spot was reserved for the Panel Garden. Created in the 1920s, and clearly drawing on the English Victorian style, stone fruits were fan-trained against walls, and now grow alongside espaliered fruit trees and rows of Mission olives.
The contemporary version is Babylonstoren in South Africa, an organic healing garden by French architect Patrice Taravella, where every single plant is edible or medicinal. Some 300 varieties are presented in meticulously arranged patterns, alongside chickens, pollinating bees, nuts, citrus fruits, and a prickly pear maze.
Written by Aileen Scoular, an award-winning garden designer and journalist.