Feeling a little green-eyed towards someone else’s green thumb? World-famous gardens like the Missouri Botanical Garden's (MoBot) Victorian District and Boxwood gardens, the Kew Royal Botanical Garden's Azalea Garden and the Versailles L’Orangerie offer bountiful space for formal-garden envy. But short of hiring the biggest names in greenery, how can homeowners achieve this look in St. Louis backyards?

MoBot horticulturists Jennifer Kleeschulte (Victorian District) and Sheila Flinchpaugh (Boxwood Garden), explain that the key to a formal garden is symmetry. “In the landscape world, we always say plant in threes or sevens, or odd numbers. In the formal garden world, you want to plant in even numbers, so twos and fours,” explains Kleeschulte. 

The Victorian formal look is adapted from the traditional French and Italian styles, explains Kleeschulte and Flinchpaugh. While the formal, structured outlines stayed (brickwork, hedges, etc.), the interior planting morphed to an informal, non-patterned look. Think of it like abstract artwork in a thick frame—what’s inside can be as scattered as you like, but that wide line surrounding it ties everything together.

If the patterned planting appeals to you most, know the actual patterns created can be inspired by anything, both horticulturists note, as long as it is symmetrical. Annuals and perennials can work together to form the pattern through carpet bedding. Similarly, small shrubs and annuals can for a knot garden or low-to-the-ground shrubs create a parterre. If an interior patterns seems too time-consuming, focus on the edges to keep the Victorian formal look.

For the Missouri soil and climate, certain plants will work best both aesthetically and functionally. Small-leaf types of boxwood and Chinese juniper are great hedge varieties. For the edging, consider options such as wall germander, rosemary or basil. Inside the edging, homeowners can be cost- and time-efficient with perennials, or luxurious and full-of-change with annuals. Big ears or perennial herbs such as lavender or rosemary are budget-friendly and provide some color. Annuals like vincas or begonias bring a bigger impact and, since they are changed yearly, offer room for color scheme variations.

Azaleas, like those seen in London's Kew Royal Botanic Garden's Azalea Garden, thrive in Missouri but can have problems with fertilizing. "They can sometimes get yellow, so make sure you use an acidic fertilizer. They also have a tendency around St. Louis to get lacewing,” says Kleeschulte, who recommends lacewing problems be taken care of early by using insecticidal soap and oil. “But azaleas grow well here and they flower well here, and the great thing about them is that you can put them in sun or shade.”

A garden's formality does not have to be merely for aesthetics, as according to these horticulturists, the look can be achieved within harvestable gardens, as well. “You can make your vegetable garden very formal looking,” says Kleeschulte, referencing the concept of potager, which is “basically a very formal kitchen garden.” This spring, she’ll be creating an example of this in the MoBot Victorian District, which already houses an expansive herb garden. “It’s just using your vegetables and your herbs in very formal plantings.”

What about tree-growing edibles, like citrus fruits? For homeowners lusting after the beautiful look and practical aspect of the L’Orangerie in Versailles, France, fear not, as these professionals say citrus trees can prosper in Missouri. “The citruses have to be over-wintered,” says Kleeschulte, using the technical jargon for keeping a plant out of the cold. Much like the planters used in the Versailles garden, she says you can put your citruses into a box, a clay pot or a lovely urn; but they must be removed from the cold before temperatures drop to the 40s,  and can be brought back outside when the temperatures reach the 50s or 60s.

Some general maintenance, including edging, mowing and weeding, are required to keep the formality levels high. “We do this 40 hours a week,” says Kleeschulte of the MoBot garden maintenance. “All year round,” Flinchpaugh adds. A large-scale formal garden requires work—and a lot of it. 

For those interested in ctrying, the two horticulturists recommend visiting MoBot’s formal gardens for design inspiration, as well as the books Creating Formal Gardens by Roy Strong and Knot Gardens and Parterres by Robin Whalley and Anne Jennings.

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