On formality and fine tuning

North Garden horseshoe and corner

Mother Nature dumped almost three more inches of rain on Blithewold this week and the gardens responded by growing with an exuberance bordering on, and even crossing over the line to loose, lush informality.

I have a hard time defining formality when it comes to gardens though I’m sure I know it when I see it. I always think of the North Garden as being the most formal of all the gardens on the property because of certain elements, such as the proximity to the house, the stone wall, and ultra-crisp edges. But perhaps, if you allow me to crow a little at least on behalf of Gail, Betsy and the volunteers, it would be better described with a quote I found in the latest issue of Gardens Illustrated as “a garden that exude[s] style and elegance without appearing to try too hard.” (–Louise Allen, Heavenly Haseley)

In order to keep it in bloom from May through October, we pack in the plants — a mix of shrubs, perennials, tender perennials, annuals, and bulbs. And over the course of the summer, they grow. Our challenge then, for maintaining a certain amount of formality within the garden’s edges, is to prevent slouching and make sure textural contrasts are clearly defined and that the colors — a limited palette — all work together.

The North Garden long border after fine tuning

I must say, it’s nice work if you can get it! I’m never happier than when I’m fine tuning: making those sometimes tiny tweaks and adjustments to the garden that seem to make all the difference. Yesterday we focused primarily on reining in Geranium ‘Rozanne’, which always astonishes us with its ability to climb and wind through the garden — it more than fulfills its duty to hide the roses’ legs. I find it a little painful to cut off beautifully blooming stems but by whacking it back hard we uncovered plants we knew were in there somewhere and we’ll be rewarded with a fresh flush of growth and bud production that should help carry it through its slower late-summer days. Nips and tucks, necessary edits and deadheading also helped reveal the contrast offered by the lush gladiolus foliage, full of fat buds.

Geranium 'Rozanne' and Echinacea purpurea after fine tuningGladiolus foliage with the North Star in the background

Help me out — what do you think makes a garden formal? How would you describe your own garden? Do you enjoy fine tuning?

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