garden types

2 Great Yard Types: Formal & Informal

If you are planning a new yard, it helps to follow a theme or create an identifiable style that is either a formal or informal yard type. This will give all your outdoor spaces a particular look and feel. It will also enable you to create a personal ambiance that fits your lifestyle. 

There are many different themes that you can choose from. The choice you make will ultimately determine whether your yard is formal or informal. These are the only two basic garden and yard types. You don’t have to be fanatical, but it helps to understand the difference.   

If you decide to follow a particular style, this, in itself, may be your theme. It can be inspired by the architecture of the house, by color, or by the indigenous plants you find in your part of the world. But yard types are, by definition, either formal or informal. 

Yard Types in General

It is primarily the layout that will determine yard types, although the various structures and other individual features will need to be in keeping with the look.

For instance, a traditional European-style garden or backyard will be formal, while one that is planted in the acceptedly less rigid Farmhouse or Cottage style will be quite the opposite.

Steps in a formal yard will follow straight lines and may incorporate pillars and balustrades on either side. They will usually be built from brick, concrete, or carefully planed timber. 

By contrast, informal steps will be constructed randomly from stone or perhaps railway sleepers and will have a more rustic appeal. Their casual informality may be conferred by their shape, perhaps gently curved to complement the shapes of flowerbeds and pathways.

The design of water features and finishing touches (statuary, pots, benches, and so on) should also complement the yard type selected.

Now let’s look more closely at the differences between formal and informal yard types. 


garden types
Formal by design. A beautifully laid out formal parterre at the 17th century Tuynhuys in Cape Town, South Africa that was restored by the SA government in the 1970s according to a traditional design prepared by G.T. Fagan Architects. Photo © Janek Szymanowski

The formal yard or garden is characterized by straight lines, symmetry, and a carefully planned balance of features. Clipped hedges and topiary fit in well. If you incorporate lawned areas, you must keep them well mown. Ornamentation and finishing touches should be bold and preferably classical in form. Sundials, statues, pots, and the like must all be in keeping with the grandness and formality of the look.

Traditionally, palaces, chateaux, and castles all had vast formal gardens to match their splendor. Many of the world’s most celebrated estates, like Versailles and Hampton Court, for instance, are of this type. They featured grand parterres or intricate knot gardens on terraces. 

Some of the greatest 15th- and 16th-century French gardens or potagers, like those found at Villandry in the Loire Valley, featured fruit and vegetables laid out in elaborate formal patterns similar to the grand parterre. Typically, each bed was bordered by a low, well-clipped hedge.

The Victorian version involved a series of rigidly shaped carpet beds packed with plants arranged to form an attractive mosaic pattern known as carpet bedding. The Victorians also favored the formal rose garden. 

Fragrant plants were laid out geometrically, with perhaps four paths leading from the center to each corner or along the sides of a formal path or “walk”. Decorative arches and classic support structures were also incorporated into the garden design.

Herb gardens, too, were – and often still are – planted in a formal fashion. 


Ultimate informality. A leafy glade at the bottom of a delightfully informal yard where trees provide welcome shade in the heat of summer. Photo © Janek Szymanowski

Gentle curves and irregular flower beds typify the informal yard. Avoid straight lines and allow plants to spill over onto lawns and paving to add to a casual, flexible look.

An informal yard layout commonly incorporates island beds, often planned around existing features such as trees and established shrubs. They generally take the natural rise and fall of the ground into account. 

Informal yards may be any size and shape, but there should be plenty of space between them or the effect will appear to be contrived. Wild gardens, woodlands, and meadows are, of course, also informal.

Historically, the two 19th-century garden-makers most closely associated with this specific type are Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. 

Influence of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson on Garden Types

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was a gifted artist who switched to garden design and writing because of failing eyesight. She produced many influential books on garden design and subsequently worked with the acclaimed British architect, Edwin Luytens. Gertrude Jekyll became one of the most influential garden designers of the 20th century. 

You can buy some of Gertrude Jekyll’s books >HERE<

William Robinson (1838-1935) was a gardening journalist and author who became foreman at the Royal Botanic Society’s gardens in London’s Regent’s Park. He started The Garden magazine and later met Gertrude Jekyll, who became a contributor. He loathed formal gardens, especially the Victorian-style carpet bedding where small plants are packed tightly together to form mosaic-like patterns. 

You can buy some of William Robinson’s books >HERE<

It was Jekyll and Robinson who urged a move away from formal designs and rigid planting so popular up until then. Their choice of plants tends to look less contrived and more natural, and, of course, their garden types are much easier to maintain, even though frequent weeding is necessary.

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