Got questions?
Ask Sara!

Send email to









History of Garden Design
The Persian Carpet Influence
The Greeks and Romans—Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Early Herb Gardens
Formal Gardens
Early Gardening in America
Cottage Gardens and Gertrude Jekyll

Your Herb Garden
Designing a Formal Garden
Knot Gardens
Making a Standard
Training into Shapes
Informal Gardens
Designing an Informal Garden

Sara's Garden


Knot Gardens
One type of formal garden, called a knot garden, comes down to us from Elizabethan England. The English and the French loved their knot gardens and usually patterned them after a rug or tapestry in their home. The main ingredients consisted of intricate geometric patterns, dwarf hedges of evergreen herbs, and/or paths. There were the closed knot gardens with no access and compartments, containing colored sand or gravel. Then there were the open knots with paths forming part of the patterns and compartments filled with sweet-smelling plants such as rosemary, hyssop, sage, and lavender. Traditionally, the planting schemes were sparse with the emphasis on the individual species. For instance, all the hedges were of boxwood, and knots were made in groups of four. These gardens demanded time and care as the hedges needed constant and careful trimming to maintain their appearance.

A magnificent example of knot gardening can be found at Filoli in California. William Bowers Bourn purchased Muckross House estate in County Kerry, Ireland in 1910 as a wedding gift for his daughter. He was so influenced by its rich history and extensive gardens that he incorporated many into his own estate, Filoli. The estate was eventually donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Two knot gardens were created as a bicentennial project in 1976. Each is 35' by 36" and is bordered on the south by a copper beech hedge, and on the north by rose of Sharon to provide a sense of enclosed space. The gardens followed the traditional design of a medieval knot garden, creating an illusion of colored cords weaving under and over one another and containing low growing plants that grow in dense, hedge-like masses. The gardeners plant more than 20,000 annuals each year to provide spectacular floral displays spring, summer, and fall. Magnolias, rhododendrons, and azaleas peak in early spring, and the rose gardens rule the summer. Chrysanthemums, copper beeches, gingkoes, and Japanese maples provide fall color. The best time to view the knot gardens is in May and June when the lavender, santolina, and germander contrast with the rich crimson of the new barberry foliage.

The interest in a knot garden comes in part from contrasting foliage colors, and the small divisions provide a neat area for growing herbs. You can grow a different herb in each one, restrict your plants to certain colors or herbs for certain ailments, or for different cooking styles, or for fragrance. Some possible patterns for a modern knot garden include: brick circle, brick diamond, square within a square, diagonal paths, interlocking diamonds, oblongs and right angles, diamonds and squares, diamonds in rectangles, and wheel beds. The many compartments allow for exuberant natural growth of herbs with the tidy formality of traditional designs.

Try your hand by marking out a bed not less then 6'square. Anything smaller will not allow for weaving of lines. Plan out your design on grid paper. For inspiration, look at knot patterns in herb books or books on ancient cultures or even history books that have illustrations of knot gardens. If it is too cold to grow boxwood in your area, you can use hyssop or germander as edging plants. Plan it as a feature all its own or as the centerpiece of your main garden. Mixing formal with the informal can be truly beautiful.

A formal garden need not be so intricate as the knot garden, but it should be structured. What I mean is, it should have "rhyme and reason". My little formal garden is round with a sundial in the middle. Spokes of 2-foot wide brick pathways lead to the sundial from each compass point-north, south, east, and west- with a border around the circumference made of bricks laid side-to-side. The edges of the walkways are kept neat with bricks laid on-end, raised about 4 inches from the height of the walkway. In between the walks, there's lavender, sage, rosemary, chamomile, and thyme formed into a pattern. I call it my relaxation garden because time stands still once the sun goes down.

Topiary is the art of pruning and training plants and shrubs into decorative shapes. It goes as far back as the Romans, but many of the artistic forms or pruning were developed in Europe, first by the French during the period when they designed formal gardens, and then by the Japanese. One can still visit some famous gardens and view the topiary that has been preserved. Here are just a few notable ones: Le Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley has broderie (imagine brocade only in plant form) of santolina created by Diane de Poitier, Henry II's mistress. The Monasterio de San Lorenzo in Santiago de Compostela in Spain has some very strange box hedges that are 400 years old. Among the many religious symbols shaped in the box hedges is that of the pilgrim's shell (a scallop) of St. James, a badge still worn by pilgrims to Santiago. In the Netherlands at Het Loo garden, are elegant arabesques made of boxwood. In Italy at Villa Garzoni, one can view massive topiary shapes of animals and birds.