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Design and Plant a Knot Garden
by Karen Atkins


Formal-looking knot gardens have been popular for hundreds of years. They are beautiful, but also practical because they require little maintenance. So if you think knot gardens are just too hard to do, trust us, they’re knot!


A Proper Knot Garden
Gervase Markham • 1616


Since Tudor times, gardeners have created living tapestries by weaving contrasting shrubs in patterns on the ground. While the idea may seem complex, choosing to plant a knot garden is actually a practical idea. Once planted, knots generally need to be trimmed only once or twice a year and require no other maintenance. The strict symmetry offers reassurance. No matter what is going on in the rest of the garden, the hard lines of the knot garden are always in order. If you love knots but think they’re for experts, trust us, they’re not! The installation shouldn’t take one gardener more than a weekend, provided the garden is on the small side.


Step 1:  Select Your Site

Ideally, the garden area you have in mind is perfectly flat. If not, consider hiring the services of an excavator to flatten just the stretch of ground you have in mind. A knowledgeable excavator will charge between $50 and $100 an hour depending on the demands of the job. Centering your knot on a key window or doorway will enable you to enjoy your garden all year (from indoors as well as outdoors). If possible, situate your garden so it can be viewed from above, giving you the best opportunity to appreciate the interlaced design.


Step 2:  Choose a Pattern

Certainly, the style of your home will inform your design. A contemporary residence might call for a simple knot, while a Victorian farmhouse could suggest a knot with a higher level of complexity or greater emphasis on ornamentation. Books containing knot garden patterns have been printed since 1499, but you would do yourself a disservice to restrict yourself firmly to these templates. You can make your garden so much more rewarding by drawing inspiration from something you already love, such as your jewelry, china, wallpaper or a favorite rug. Vertical elements, such as statuary, urns or topiary can serve to punctuate areas of your design.

Gervase Markham’s design was newly woven with ‘Rheingold’ arborvitae, ‘Crimson Pygmy’ barberry, and ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood. The size of the house demanded the large scale and a double knot.


Step 3:  Decide which plants or shrubs to use

Since the defining characteristic of a knot garden is the intertwining of different elements, even the simplest knot requires at least two types of shrubs or plants. Contrast in habit, texture, and color adds visual impact. For interest throughout the year, evergreens like boxwood, dwarf arborvitae or holly are best. If you detest trimming, choose the slowest growing cultivars.


Step 4:  Prepare the ground

Clear the area of existing vegetation. If you are starting with an area of lawn, you will want to kill the grass. Protect yourself, pets, and wildlife by not using chemicals—just place a tarp over the lawn for three or four weeks, weighing it down with stones or bricks. This will kill the turfgrass. Then roll up your sleeves and get out a tiller. If you don’t have one, you can use a shovel to dig down 12 to 18 inches to loosen everything up. If necessary, soil amendments like compost should be added and worked in while digging or tilling.

‘Crimson Pygmy’ barberry and ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood intertwine to grace the courtyard of a historic home. An armillary sphere punctuates the design, while a gate with a cannon ball closure serves as a focal point.


Step 5:  Plant your garden

If you want to do this the “textbook way,” copy your design onto graph paper. Next, use stakes and garden string to make a giant graph on the ground with the same number of squares your design requires. It isn’t any more difficult than rug hooking. See each plant as a stitch in the pattern and place it in the appropriate square. Composing a giant grid isn’t always necessary. Most knots are repetitions of the same lines and you can lay out your shrubs (still in their pots) and view them from your vantage point above, working with a friend down below to tweak them. By eyeing the design from above, errors in placement can be corrected right there. Remember that you can always pull a plant later and replant it, or even trim differently to get things right. This isn’t rocket science, this is gardening. For reduced expense, place the shrubs 2 feet apart. For instant gratification, mature shrubs can be planted root ball to root ball and trimmed right away. Shrubs, if properly planted, shouldn’t need additional compost or fertilizer—just keep them well watered during this first season.

For maximum contrast in color, ‘Crimson Pygmy’ barberry was interlaced with ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood. This fleur-de-lis pattern coordinates well with a home that was built to resemble a 17th century French villa and was custom designed for the space.


Shrub Combinations for Knot Gardens

For partial to full shade:

•  Variegated boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Marginata’—hardy in Zone 6) and dwarf English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’)

For full sun:

•  Dwarf English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) juxtaposed with variegated holly (IIex aquifolium ‘Argenteo Marginata’—hardy in zone 6)

•  ‘Rheingold’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’) combined with ‘Crimson Pygmy’ barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pygmy’).

•  ‘Crimson Pygmy’ barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pygmy’) paired with ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood (Buxus ‘Green Velvet’).


(Photography By Karen Atkins.)

Posted July 2011


Karen Atkins owns Proper Gardens, a company that specializes in the design and creation of period-inspired gardens. She gardens, designs and writes on a small farm in Western Pennsylvania that she shares with her husband David and her children Henry and Zoe. She is the author of the blog Even Proper Gardens Have Dirty Little Secrets



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