Try formality? by Susan Cohan

February 24, 2014

in Articles, From the USA, General Interest

Our last piece was by Michael King and suggested that the New Perennial or Naturalistic style was getting everywhere and being used insensitively. Susan Cohan goes slightly further than that and dares to express an admiration for formality; indeed, four hundred year old formality.


Anne Wareham, editor

Versailles in January Copyright Susan Cohan on thinkingardens


Susan Cohan:

I’m taking sides with Andre le Notre.  Four hundred years ago he was practising a type of landscape design that is still valid and revered today.  It’s handmade, skilfully practised, and incredibly beautiful.  It is the antithesis of today’s trend towards natural gardens.  Many consider this type of garden to be unrealistic, unsustainable, and old-fashioned.  I disagree.

I’m tired of the so called ‘new’ perennial gardens with all of their blowsy grasses and prairie leanings.  I’m all for pollinators and habitat, but understand that there is more than one way to achieve healthy garden environments for all inhabitants. I wonder why it took the Dutch, visiting our vast waving plains, to show the world that a miniaturized, hyped up version of the same could be had at home.

 I have a profound reverence for the work of designers like Piet Ouldof and Gilles Clement, but as a designer, their naturalistic ‘new’ style doesn’t make my heart sing. I find that when I visit these gardens I love to look at them, but don’t really want to be ‘in’ them beyond a good ‘look’.

The style isn’t really all that new at all.  Ellen Biddle Shipman and Beatrice Farrand, as well as many others, were making intensive American perennial plantings throughout the last century–what’s different now is the mix of plants, the size and shape of the beds, and the tendency to want and believe it to be ‘maintenance’ free.  Is that because most of today’s gardeners don’t have the skill or time it takes for something else?  What will these gardens look like in 400 years?  Will they hold up like Le Notre’s?

Lurie and Gehry Copyright Susan Cohan on thinkingardens

Lurie and Gehry

 Michael King argues in his recent post Never New Gardening (see alsothat the so called ‘new’ has become not much more than a ‘look’.  To my eye, the ‘look’ of the turf parterres and the whimsical topiaries in the Orangerie at Versailles are contemporary…they’re just not wild.

 Gardens are made things. It’s not outdated to include planted elements that require a gardener’s hand beyond cutting them down once a year, dividing drifts of plants and pulling some weeds to maintain a design. I don’t support the use of small backpack, gasoline powered trimmers of any variety, but wonder why with the current movement for all things handmade and artisinal that gardeners haven’t taken up the cause with more hand driven pruning?  Is it lack of skill or interest?

Orangerie at Versailles in winter Copyright Susan Cohan S

Orangerie at Versailles

Did lopers and hedge pruners and rakes get forgotten?  Is it because it takes time to learn the methods and when to put those into practice? Or is it because any intervention is seen as an affront to the sustainability of a garden?  Andre le Notre’s gardens are 400 years old this year, what’s more sustainable than that?

There will be those who read this post who think that it takes an army of gardeners to maintain immense gardens like le Notre designed. Gardens with structure take skill and time to maintain–just like any other.   In fact, they are simpler and less labor intensive to maintain than some of the new perennial gardens.  Do the math.  Versailles has approximately 2100 acres and 80 gardeners. That’s roughly 26 acres of care per gardener.  The 6.73 acre High Line in New York has 9 gardeners and hundreds of seasonal volunteers to help with cutting back and cleaning up each year.  Just counting those on the staff roster that’s  approximately 3/4 acre per gardener.  So which is actually more labor intensive? The numbers speak for themselves.  Both can be organic.

Scampston Copyright Charles Hawes - on thinkingardens

Scampston au natural. With label

Then there is the argument of scale and cost. Dial back Versailles to the average suburban lot and these gardens become do-able with less.  The new perennial gardens really need space to work well.  Not every town will allow an entire front yard to be taken over by a meadow, and in the eastern hardwood forest where I live and work, that meadow would soon become a forest without constant vigilance to eradicate self seeded volunteer trees.  I’m not saying that the selection of plants is what’s at issue here, it’s a design and maintenance issue.  I like the evergreen bones of structure in gardens like Le Notre’s- especially in the winter.  In truth, in high summer I love a meadow, newly mowed and or fields of wheat or wild flowers and many of the new perennial gardens have elements of evergreen structure.  In my own work I blend the two.  Create structure as a sculptural and architectural elements and and plant lushly.

Le Notre was born in the Tuileries where his father was a gardener.  He was surrounded by generations of skilled practitioners and learned by doing.  Imagine the gardens we could have if we get up from our screens, get outside and really learn our craft.  Imagine the gardens we could have if we really trained those who we hire to maintain them instead of just giving them a backpack blower and some power trimmers?  An apprenticeship program is not a bad idea.  Work and get paid to learn from a master and then work to become the master.  Le Notre, born to a gardener, learned his craft and became someone who worked for kings and whose work has survived for 400 years.  Who of us will be able to say the same?

Susan Cohan website 

images Susan Cohan portrait

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Lyn Eglinton April 6, 2014 at 5:40 am

thankyou for the challenging opinions.


Lyn Eglinton April 2, 2014 at 9:48 am

I enjoy all the views
But surely all gardening is an exercise in artiface..formal,informal ,structured,and cottage

I tell my clients to take a walk in our native bush .


Tony Spencer March 13, 2014 at 4:43 am

Sorry for my lateness to the discussion…

I’m wondering why a reverence for one style of gardening seems to preclude the validity of another? It’s not like they’re mutually exclusive anyway – the Dutch Wave evolved from a skeleton of formal elements, whether that be the wave-like hedges at Hummelo or Henk Gerritsen’s fantastical animal topiary at Priona (talk about pruning madness). Was this not a witty riposte between past and present? Fast-forward to the High Line and it’s a river of grass in a skyscraper sea. Such dramatic tension between formal/architectural vs. wild is the marrow of the movement, as I’m sure you know.

Granted, the ensuing New Perennial movement is not entirely new. But I’m guessing that earlier incarnations may not have embraced decay and death in the garden quite so viscerally. Or were designed quite so four-dimensionally. Such gardens may leave the author cold, I find the opposite… à chacun son goût, I suppose.

The trend I see in this and the previous essay is that designers naturally tire of what’s labeled “new” – or even what they, in fact, helped innovate. Or when the bandwagon draws a crowd. The designers rebel, as they must. Sometimes to the future, sometimes the past. Or some fusion thereof.

That’s the way of the world – but for everyday common gardeners like myself, we’re only just discovering what’s possible with a “new” perennial style in our own gardens. I’m convinced it’s entirely possible to create something remarkable on a residential scale. Even in a pot. Maybe not by a designer’s standards, but we do it on the cheap, make mistakes, study our materials, revise, revise, but over time – we can work accidental miracles. And this is just idle speculation, but I suspect our humble plots mean more to us than l’orangerie ever did to a Sun King.


annewareham March 13, 2014 at 10:14 am

“I suspect our humble plots mean more to us than l’orangerie ever did to a Sun King.” – or a garden by a celeb designer bought for similar Sun King reasons?
And – last word to Pope? (AW)


Thomas Rainer March 13, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Well said, Tony!


Naomi Brooks March 14, 2014 at 2:58 pm

As for gardens meaning more to the common man than to the Sun Kings among us: it ain’t necessarily so. I garden here in the Hudson Valley of NY for some masters of the universe, and they get the same delight and dismay from their gardens as the plebians. I’d go further and say that for some, it is a singular pleasure they’re not afforded during the rest of their days – no demands of their time and talent. Of course, that’s because I’ve done all the behind the scenes magic before I welcome them to the weekend 😉


detlev brinkschulte February 28, 2014 at 5:25 pm

near the house: always formal. fits better. & why not fill a formal layout with wild planting? a garden needs contrasts…


Susan Cohan February 26, 2014 at 11:36 pm

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to comment and offer a spirited exchange of ideas here. I tried to ask questions and make a point about throwing out one thing for another in a realistic and meaningful way. I also tried to use someone who I consider to be a master of formalism as the framework for the piece.

As for the question about contemporary formalism, there’s not much need to look further than Walker’s work or that of Jacques Wirtz or Luciano Giubbieli to see how rigid formalism can be contemporary. I actually believe, as I said, in my own work that a blend of natural and formal is what works best for my clients and their landscapes. I didn’t have room in a simple blog post to write a book, but it would be an interesting one I think, but not one I wish to write.


Tristan Gregory February 25, 2014 at 9:22 pm

I’ve probably missed something along the way but is it not far easier to convey a set of principles/philosophies through the gardened a space if one makes use of the disciplines and restrictions of formal gardening. Aesthetic qualities are all very well but not only do they spawn the dire adjectives, lovely and spectacular and all points in between but they also tempt thinking gardeners into strange debates about the meanings of prairies and meadows and ecology etc as ways to justify said aesthetic to an audience tat sees only the colours.

When I say easier I mean from the point of view of the designer as opposed to the garden maker who has the luxury of time to establish the true meaning of their plot; its vernacular.


Helen Gazeley February 25, 2014 at 6:25 pm

I think formal gardening could be ideal for smaller spaces – look at the photo of Versailles orangery above: minimalist lines, broad curves. It’s the sort of thing you see done in hard landscaping, so why not use plants instead? It certainly scales down better than prairie planting.

I’m just not sure we can conclude much from the number of gardeners at Versailles and on the Highline. The former surely includes large swathes of grass and trees; the latter is intensively planted and so needs more attention per square foot.


Sarah February 25, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Interesting piece. I wonder if Tom R. is taking your reference to Le Notre too literally. American modernist Dan Kiley was influenced by Le Notre; see this piece from the Cultural Landscape Foundation I think it’s possible to look at Le Notre as a paradigm and interpret his geometry and formalism for today’s scale and function. Le Notre’s formalism is the ultimate of grandeur and pomp and the scale is almost absurd today. However, designers should be good enough to take inspiration from his symmetry and sharp edges, for instance, and apply them to even a small residential framework, if modern formalism is called for in a concept.

I like many of Piet Oudolf’s and Oehme van Sweden’s designs, but I also crave the simplicity and restraint of more formal designs. And, as Susan suggest, sometimes setting a formal element against these more blousy plantings can be quite successful and almost required to make the naturalistic dance. (Remember those huge clipped hedges in Piet’s garden now gone?)

As for maintenance, I took care of a 1-acre Oehme van Sweden garden for several years. There was a period of intensive maintenance, right about now in mid-to late February, when the many grasses and perennials had to be cut back, (we used to joke that lighting a match might have been the most efficient solution), but the rest of the year wasn’t too bad. I don’t think I’d call it “low maintenance” but if the right combinations of plants are in place the garden was quite manageable. I actually love to prune, and love the look of a well-clipped hedge, but a little goes a long way. And, sometimes intensive pruning means that a small tree or shrub that would have stayed in bounds if left alone (and has a beautiful natural habit) suddenly needs regular pruning because it now develops lots of unattractive adventitious growth. So, I would argue that being a good gardener, a plantsperson, is always a big advantage and too many designers are not gardeners. How a designer achieves the formalism matters – i.e., maybe use of hardscape is a better means of achieving clean lines, for instance. But, yes, I’m a fan of a formal garden. So, thanks, Susan, for bringing it to the fore. They have been neglected.


Paul Steer February 25, 2014 at 1:38 pm

I have to admit both bias and some ignorance in terms of garden design and trends. Biased because the first garden that ever impacted on me was Versailles when a Fine Art student back in the 80’s. Yes I realised that it was all about power and grandeur, but it still managed to speak to me on another level, that of harmony of shape and form, leading the eye, framing and so on. All these principles are timeless never mind the budget. I now have a small back yard, and have been almost unconciously trying to sculpt harmony out of what was already there, and with some new additions. It is a gut thing and is developing slowly. I have no power or influence and very little money. I have learnt a great deal from reading thinkingardens articles such as this, but my ignorance remains. I am a gleaner, someone who follows after the harvest and scoops up a few ideas here and there. I for one love symmetry either on the grand scale or on the humble. There is room in the world for artistic expression of many colours, and I hope to God it remains that way.


Cindy at enclos*ure February 25, 2014 at 1:12 pm

In the book The Architecture of Happiness, I was just reading about a theory that “we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.” Perhaps this is part of why we sometimes swing closer to the formal geometry of Le Notre and sometimes to the (seemingly) unstructured, emotional meadows of Oudolf.


Kate Kruesi February 26, 2014 at 3:36 am

Ahhh, so it doesn’t have to be either/or? Design for the circumstances, the vision of the owner/community? As others have noted here, it is the contrast between these two concepts that make the great gardens “sing”. Versailles has its hectares of bosques and meadows and the Lurie Garden has the glorious lines of the surrounding Chicago architecture and Oudolf’s large framed mega-hedges for contrast. (My birding sister observed prairie sparrow species here; it’s downtown Chicago!!) I vote for “vive la contraste”!


Katherine Crouch February 25, 2014 at 12:38 pm

much food for thought. Doesn’t matter what the prevailing fashion of
planting and managing growth in a landscape or garden, the minute we
make a physical change in that landscape it becomes something in
addition to the purely natural.

When we stop making changes, does it ever really revert back to
natural? The Somerset Levels have flooded not just because lots of rain
fell on them, but because a thousand years of landscape management was
neglected so the water could not drain away. Natural landscaping falls
out of favour once the flood water pours in through the letterbox.

Dolly Parton once said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”.
I have always suspected it takes a lot of labour to make the High Line
look that natural.



Thomas Rainer February 25, 2014 at 10:56 am

Interesting post, Susan. I think what I would like to hear you speak to is HOW formal garden design (or its larger Renaissance framework ‘classicism’) can be made relevant today. I’m not sure that Versailles–in all its splendor–is really the model of a garden that can be “dialed back” for an average suburban yard or urban townhouse. We still have a scale and cost issue.

My bigger issue with your argument is that you don’t explain how formality can be contemporary. Much of classical garden design was a spatial expression of hierarchy, power, and the harmonic order of the universe expressed through geometry. But the world has changed. We no longer believe that God has appointed our powerful political figures, or that the true essence of nature is a rationalistic geometry. Then we had the golden ratio; now we have fractals and climate change. So what about plopping a little fragment of the Italian renaissance in our suburban gardens that is relevant, meaningful, or sustainable? I’m not sure you’ve made that case.

I think a designer like Tom Stuart Smith is an excellent example of someone who has breathed new life into the formal shells of gardens. Many of his residential designs respond to a classical geometry, but the stylistic expression of those shapes is fresh: cloud hedges instead of clipped parterres; perennial meadows instead of annual carpets. His work is rooted in a classical understanding, but is translated to be a fresh, original forms so that it feels contemporary. It speaks to our times.

I certainly don’t think the New Perennial movement is the only game in town. And I agree that we have 4,000 years of great traditional garden design to draw upon as inspiration. But resurrecting any previous style needs to be interpreted in some way to make them meaningful. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how formal gardens might be made relevant.


Silly Billy February 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm

You are firing on all cylinders T.R. Keep it coming!


Deborah Silver February 26, 2014 at 12:53 am

Dear Thomas, I do not see that Susan needs to explain to you how formal garden design can be relevant to contemporary design-it already is. Even a cursory overview on your part of the work of Peter Walker and his lifelong interest and study of the work of Le Notre would lead you many critical essays regarding the history of his design for the 911 Memorial, completed in 2012. Were to you expand your research to include urban planning in the 20th century, there would be more references to Le Notre. Other names in landscape and architectural design that would come up in the 400 years since his death are many. He was most surely an expert gardener, an art collector, a hydraulic engineer, and most certainly a brilliant designer whose work is eminently influential, some 400 years after his death.
Thomas, as for your little garden, and my little garden, we have a diverging views. I have no problem with that. How you choose to garden is your affair. I have no interest in changing your mind. I like a diversity of opinion and practice. I do however dislike your idea that if I would just come to my senses that I would garden how you do. Like me, no other gardener really needs to answer to you. Every gardener designs via their personal experience, to the best of their ability.
This gets, in my opinion, to the gist of Michael King’s essay. Once design becomes an ecological dogma drama of deafening proportions, it looses its sense of history, its original edge, and becomes a big hot mess of popular culture, the slick internet version of science, loud and demanding talk, and a tiresome plant superiority speak- all glued together with an amazingly embarrassing dose of righteousness. You are indeed passionate in your views, but that needs a little tempering. Your ideas are your ideas. Nothing less-but nothing more.
Thanks for your essay, Susan. As you note, Le Notre’s gardens have inspired many generations of garden designers, architects, engineers and urban planners, some classicist, some modern, and others contemporary and minimalist. Like you, I treasure formal gardens. That said, I have no need to convince anyone else to come around to my views. My views are enough for me. How any gardener chooses to express themselves is a process we should treasure.


Thomas Rainer February 26, 2014 at 6:39 pm

Hi Deborah,

Thanks for this response. I think you may peg me a bit too narrowly and other claims you make about what I’ve said are just not fair.

First, while I love naturalistic design, I don’t think it is the only game in town. Just today I am working on a formal design for retail plaza that uses a very traditional language: clipped box, parterres, even topiary. I absolutely love your work. It’s exquisite. Certainly a style that is appropriate in many, many landscapes. You really don’t know my full portfolio (my home garden is certainly not representative of it).

Second, the suggestion that I think other gardeners need to answer to me is just offensive. If someone posts an opinion piece on ThinkingGardens, the point is to create a dialogue around those issues. Everyone is expressing valuable opinions in this forum. If you truly believe that your views are enough for you, I would ask: why did you express an opinion publicly? My response to Susan’s piece was to ask how formalism can translated into a contemporary form. Throwing out one style (naturalism) for another (formalism) can replace one cliche with another unless the gardener/designer translates it freshly. I was encouraging Susan to push her argument further; I was not stating that formalism has no place in contemporary garden. I absolutely agree with you and Michael that dogma has no place in gardening. All of my writing about native and naturalistic design has been an effort to focus it away from ideology toward a more pragmatic, functional role.

Finally, I value forums like this because it asks us all to think and re-evaluate our prejudices, opinions, and world views. While not everyone on these forums will agree, temperance and civility should guide our interactions. If my comment to Susan lacked those qualities, I most certainly apologize. I will try to moderate my comments. I would ask that you do the same. Your comment was personally directed at me and based on an extremely narrow understanding of what I’ve written or designed.


Adam Hodge February 25, 2014 at 10:40 am

A very refreshing perspective Susan. I enjoyed and applaud all you wrote.

I have harboured the suspicion that Oudolf et al are just reactionaries to the evergreen landscape we see throughout Holland and some of Europe. Soon the trend of perennials & grasses will be the norm [if it isn’t already there judging by the winning gardens of the recent SGB awards] and a new style of planting will emerge.

My bet and hope is that it will be an amalgam of trees, shrubs perennials and climbers but hopefully planted in ways that will allow the form of the plants to be visible, not an intense blob of woodiness or foliage, as current landscaping produces. and also embracing a full 12 month beauty in both flowers, form and colours.


Tristan Gregory February 24, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Such a good piece and several important points are touched on. From a personal point of view the great exercises in formality of Le Notre don’t excite me but then I have not taken the time to visit or understand them so I may be due a revelatory moment some day. The act of gardening and designing these spaces is, aesthetic scepticism aside, remarkable.

Your point about the dubious promise of maintenance free spaces is also well made and can, with your permission, be stretched to include the landscape/picturesque garden whose messages and designs are usually poorly served by the “let nature take it’s course” approach for they are, as you say, made spaces even if they retain the flexibility to critically appraise nature’s contributions.

On training gardeners to use the tools that their spaces were designed for I am also sympathetic though were my employers inclined to take away my Honda and re-issue the scythe for the lawn mowing season I imagine it might elicit something of a frown.


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