How to design and plant a knot garden

Story and Photography by Karen Atkins

Formal knot gardens have been popular for hundreds of years. They are beautiful, but also practical because they require very little maintenance. If you think knot gardens are too much trouble, trust us, they’re “knot”!

Knot garden patterns have been published since 1499. This classic knot was designed by Gervase Markham in 1616.

Since Tudor times, gardeners have created living tapestries by weaving contrasting shrubs. While the idea may seem complex, planting 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 more than a weekend, provided the garden is on the small side.

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 1: Select your site
Ideally, the site for your knot garden should be perfectly flat. If not, consider hiring an excavator to flatten the stretch of ground you have in mind. A knowledgeable excavator will charge $50 and $100 an hour, depending on the demands of the job. Centering your knot below a key window or doorway will enable you to enjoy your garden from indoors as well. When possible, situate your garden so that it can be viewed from above, which is the best vantage point from which 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 Victorian style suggests a knot with a higher level of complexity or greater emphasis on ornamentation. Books of knot garden patterns have been printed since 1499, but you would do yourself a disservice to restrict yourself to these templates. You can make your garden much more personal by drawing inspiration from something you already love, such as jewelry, china, wallpaper, or a favorite rug. 

Step 3: Choose the plants 
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, such as boxwood (Buxus spp.), dwarf arborvitae (Thuja spp., cvs.), or holly (Ilex spp., cvs.) are best. If you hate pruning, choose the slowest growing cultivars. 

For maximum color contrast, ‘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.

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 12-18 inches to loosen everything up. If necessary, soil amendments, such compost, should be added and worked in while digging or tilling.

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 above, working with a friend 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 the first season.

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



For partial to full shade:
Variegated boxwood (B. sempervirens ‘Marginata’) and dwarf English boxwood (B. sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) 

For full sun: 
Dwarf English boxwood with variegated holly (I. aquifolium ‘Argenteo Marginata’) 

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

‘Crimson Pygmy’ barberry paired with ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood (B. ‘Green Velvet’)

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