Informal gardens are characterized by flowering curves, non-symmetrical arrangements of features and spaces, and plants that are allowed to grow into their natural shapes. Traditionally, gardens have always had their most formal areas near the house, gradually becoming more informal as they get further away. This still makes sense today.
Whereas in the formal garden you can see the backbone of the garden as part of the pattern, in informal gardens the underlying framework is almost entirely disguised by planting and the garden should look as though it has grown up naturally. Nevertheless, some structure needs to exist or everything will relapse into uncontrolled wilderness.
Informal gardens are more difficult to design than formal ones. Since straight lines and symmetry rule the formal garden, balance is inherent. But the informal garden is ruled by irregularity and natural-looking planting, so the designer must create a balance through a mixture of instinct, experiment and experience. This is rather like painting a picture or like thinking of the garden as a sculpture.
If you are trying to create informality in a plain rectangular plot, consider planning your design on the diagonal. A path might run from the right-hand side near the house, past an oval lawn and end up on the left-hand side at the bottom of the garden. On the way, trees and other planting will create informal screens.
On a sloping site you can create winding or zigzag paths and steps down a grassy bank, rather like the ‘flowery mead’ of medieval times, planted with bulbs in spring and wild flowers in summer. An irregularly shaped site is made for informal garden planning. You can use awkward spaces for creating secret gardens or for more mundane purposes such as hiding a greenhouse or making a play area.
Flowers for the informal garden
The informal garden reveals in color. Where the formal garden often looks best restricted to a variety of shades of green or green and white, the informal garden may revel in the riotous reds and pinks of pelargoniums and impatiens, in nasturtiums, red salvias and sunflowers.
Alternatively, you may choose silvers, pinks and soft blues. These are all colors that respond so well to a paler sun and a misty atmosphere. An informal rose garden should be filled with old-fashioned roses, sharing the space with complementary plants such as foxgloves, lavender and herbaceous clematis. The important thing is that the garden should have a natural look, as though all the planting had happened of its own accord.