By Todd Layt
Formal landscapes have never really gone out of fashion, but current interpretations allow for far more flexibility. Formal gardens can be minimalist, or more traditional in design. Modern formal gardens are selective and often use components borrowed from ancient Rome or Greece, or the more ornate renaissance period of Europe. Modern Australian formal gardens reflect our culture, and our punishing environment, whereby plants that can tolerate dry or 46 degree days are essential. Our local resources such as stone or wood, and innovative local design also play an important part. Although Benches and Hedges play an important part in the modern Australian formal garden, there are so many more elements to consider.
Much depends on the type and size of the landscape. The small spaces of modern housing backyards and the way they are often designed and used reflects the Australian desire to entertain and relax. They include lots of hard spaces with clean lines and geometric shapes that are formally set out, occasionally with the mirrored symmetry of older style formal landscapes, but more often now they are designed with a non-mirrored outline and a good degree of balance.
Sometimes it is the furniture, outdoor art, a gazebo, a water feature, or a green wall that stands out as the focal piece, however more often than not, the focal point of the formal Aussie backyard is the outdoor entertainment area. This area has evolved as an extension of the indoors taken outside, and is often referred to as an “Outdoor Room”. Lots of large format pavers, and more and more large outdoor tiles and clean plant covered walls dominate, with strategically placed architectural patio pots and plants used as accents.
If modern formal small landscapes are desired, it is very important to use the suitable furniture. Wood, stone, or wrought iron looking benches provide a wonderfully integrated place for family and friends to sit and relax and enjoy the garden. Furniture looks far better when kept simple and not cluttered in a modern Australian formal garden. All wood, or all stone, or pure metal furniture work well, but furniture mish mash such as canvas and wood, or cane and cushions, or aluminium and glass tend to distract from the clean modern look.
If glass is used in parts of the Landscape, then glass tables can work if they are just plain glass tops, and simply designed chairs. Sleek looking stainless steel Barbeques add Australia’s culture to the landscape, as too do uniquely looking Australian features and focal points. Whether it be Australian stone or wood used in formal looking ornaments and sculptures, or garden wall art, a touch of Australian culture can be added to a formal looking garden.
Formal plantings used architecturally in clusters, or screening plants are popular, the latter being often hedged formally. In the past, English and Japanese Box were used as formal hedging plants or plants grown into balls. The recent years of peak summer days that reached well over the mid forty degrees, have burnt, maimed and killed many of these plants. For this reason there is a trend to use tough formal looking Australian native plants, or summer hardy exotic ones. New ultra compact Westringia and Callistemon plants can be planted in groups for that formal look for full sun to part shade. Aussie Box® Westringia is perfect for hedging. It can can be pruned into a 40 cm high hedge or close to a metre high hedge. Its much shorter internodes allow it to be easily pruned into balls from 40 cm to 90 cm high. Pruning three to four times per year keeps it at its best.
Grey Box™ Westringia is a much smaller native box, which can be used as a tight hedge from 30 cm to 40 cm, or as ball pruned annually from 35 cm to 45 cm. Mundi™ Westringia is a ground cover Westringia that can be formalised by pruning three times per year with a long arm hedge trimmer. Modern machinery enables far quicker maintenance of formal hedging or topiary. Scarlet Flame™ is the densest form of Callistemon, and can be pruned twice per year into a tight tidy hedge that copes well with Australia’s harsh climate.
Better still, it flowers in spring and autumn, and gets flushes of reddish new growth. If you want Callistemon in ball shapes, use Green John™ Callistemon and prune to shape yearly. It is more compact and has cleaner foliage than Little John, and its dark green leaves and bright red flowers make it far better suited to Australian formal gardens. For shade Lilly Pillies like Allyns Magic and Cascade can be made into small hedges or ball shape group plantings.
Screening plants are an important aspect of the modern Australian formal garden, and are regularly used around the back or side walls of the landscape. For sun backed walls, fences or any sunny aspect, one plant stands out. Slim™ Callistemon, a very narrow growing Callistemon can tolerate high reflective heat and still stay clean and tidy. This is a very narrow growing, Myrtle Rust resistant plant that can be used as a dense screen from 1.5 metres to 3 metres high, and only needs occasional pruning to keep it very narrow. It flowers twice per year, and provides dense foliage from the ground up. Native screening plants for shade, range from Acmena smithii plants such as Sublime™ Acmena, which provides a Myrtle Rust and Psyllid resistant, shade and sun tolerant, large screening plant, or shade tree, to the very narrow Pinnacle™ Syzygium, ideal for planting along walls or fences in shady to full sun positions. Pinnacle can also be used for narrow topiary. Lack of space in the modern Aussie backyard have made formal looking green walls popular, and low maintenance evergreen Liriopes, Lomandra, and other plants are making them easier to maintain.
Exotics are not all weak when it comes to heat, but most still struggle with the 47 degree days. One Nandina stands out for formal gardens. Obsession™ Nandina is a very tidy fine leaf dense Nandina, that has red foliage for about two thirds of the year. Rhaphiolepis are very tough, and the new Cosmic White™ Rhaphiolepis and Cosmic Pink™ Rhaphiolepis plants, not only look great when pruned twice yearly, but also rarely produce berries, making them cleaner, and safer, as they are non-invasive (Click here for research paper on Rhaphiolepis). In the more humid regions, Viburnum odoratissimum are very popular as hedges, but they can get rather untidy, as they grow quickly and have somewhat larger leaves and long internodes. Dense Fence Viburnum ‘VOC1’ PBR makes a reliable quick growing screen. It’s shorter internodes and smaller more dense leaves make it a much better choice than the common form. Tidy annual flowers can be used in group plantings using the same plant in mass, but they must be changed when untidy. Alternatively hardier flowering Perennials can be used, such as Sterile Gazanias, or native sun tough Scaevola forms.
Plants such as Mondo or mowable Liriope can be used around borders or as dense dark green lawn alternative. One of the best is Isabella® Liriope, the fine leaf, pink flowered, mow once per year, spreading ground cover Liriope. It’s ideal for planting between pavers, or as a high shade or low maintenance sun lawn where a quick mow in early August tidies it up beautifully, and keeps it low growing. Lawns enhance modern Australian landscapes, with fine leaf types providing the most formal look. If you have full sun to 40% shade the best type is a Zoysia. Either Nara™ the beautiful fine leaf native turf, or Empire™, the very formal looking Zoysia japonica. If you have between 40% to 70% shade, then Buffalo is the best alternative, with Sapphire® being the only fine leaf type, but luckily it is also the best in shade. Very broad leaf types of Buffalo look out of place.
In larger landscapes like parks and even mass plantings, modern Australian formal plantings can be achieved by careful plant selection and grouping, clean hard surfaces, modern furniture and lighting selection. Evergreen plants such as Tanika® Lomandra have really led the way in this style of landscape. Trimmed every 3 to 5 years, this plant can be kept stylish and clean. Trimmed into a ball gives this Lomandra that formal look after pruning. In Queensland, Tropic Cascade™ Lomandra offers a great weeping alternative. Just Right® Liriope is another strappy leaf plant that provides a formal dark green look. Unlike all other Liriopes, including Evergreen Giant, Just Right® Liriope does not burn in the sun, and only needs pruning every 5 years or so. Small ball like plants such as Grey Box, or yearly pruned Green John make great mass planting formal gardens. Well defined paths and walk ways, with strategically located gravel or hard surfaces, or the use of fine leaf low maintenance lawns such as Zoysia, with cleverly placed benches greatly enhance large scale formal landscapes.
Old style European renaissance period formal gardens still have their place, but in Australia formal gardens have evolved their own style. Local materials, furniture, and specialised Australian native plants have helped create the Australian formal Landscape. Future plant breeding, inventions of new materials, furniture and garden art, and innovative landscape design and construction will ensure further evolution of the Aussie formal landscape garden.