Design A Knot Garden

You don’t see many knot gardens anymore, probably because their intricate designs require more maintenance than most of us want to do. But these formal gardens were fashionable from about 1485, during the Tudor reign in England, until the end of the Elizabethan era in 1603.

These first gardens were designed to be seen from above, so the royals could admire their symmetrical patterns from their tall castles. Plants were carefully laid out to give a woven or embroidered effect, in diamonds, triangles, rectangles and other shapes. 

In the fall and winter, when flowers were scarce, early gardeners substituted herbs, sand, gravel, stones and crushed bricks to keep the gardens’ lines well defined and colorful. 

Modern knot gardens are less formal, and while they still have knot-like designs, some no longer “weave” plants together. They also tend to use a wider variety of plants, including colorful annuals, roses and fragrant herbs. Knot gardens with a border of low shrubs that don’t have a woven effect are often called parterres.

How to Plant a Knot Garden:

  1. Find a flat site for your garden. If you want a large garden, consider hiring someone to help you excavate. Look for a site that you can view from above, if possible, or at least from a window. Buy plants for sun or shade, depending on your growing conditions.
  2. Early knot gardens often reflected the geometric shapes and proportions of the owner’s home. Think about whether you want to echo the style or architecture of your home, too. 
  3. Remove the grass and weeds from your site, and rake out stones, sticks and other debris. Amend the soil with compost, if needed. It should drain easily and be loose enough for roots to penetrate. 
  4. Choose plants that are recommended for your garden zone. Use at least two different kinds of shrubs or plants in contrasting colors, textures or heights. Evergreens like hollies or boxwoods will be interesting to look at even in the winter. To avoid a lot of pruning, use dwarf varieties, low-growing herbs or plants that grow slowly.
  5. When planting shrubs, dig holes that are about twice the diameter of the root ball. Plant annuals, perennials and herbs at the same depth they were growing in their original containers. 
  6. If you’re planning a formal knot garden, draw your design on paper. You can find books with knot garden patterns, or create your own. Leave an opening in your garden and create paths to walk, or make it closed. 
  7. Transfer the design to your site with powdered lime, white sand, marking spray paint or stakes and string. Before you remove the plants from their pots, put them on top of the lines to double-check the design.
  8. If you’re on a budget, space your shrubs about 24 inches apart. If price isn’t a consideration, buy mature shrubs so you don’t have to wait for them to grow. Herbs and annuals can be planted about 6 inches apart, unless their plant tags suggest a different spacing.
  9. If you wish, grow plants in the center of your knot garden, or add an ornamental feature like a birdbath.
  10. Keep your new plants well watered during their first year of growth.
  11. Pinch out the tops of herbs as they grow, and keep shrubs neatly clipped.
  12. Be patient. It can take a few years for a knot garden to look finished, but you can enjoy its colors and fragrances as the design takes shape.

Suggested plants for a knot garden (use sun-lovers for a sunny site, and partial to full shade-loving plants for a shady site)

  • Thyme or creeping thyme
  • Boxwoods
  • Sage
  • Sweet basil
  • Alyssum
  • Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Impatiens
  • Astilbe
  • Hostas
  • Heuchera
  • Marjoram
  • Chamomile
  • Dianthus
  • Violas
  • Dwarf barberry
  • Dwarf hyssop
  • Dwarf marigolds