Your Ultimate Guide to French Gardens
These are the elements you need for your own jardin à la françaises.
We take many style cues from the French: Our never ending quest to nail that effortless, cool Parisian-girl look, our Pinterest boards filled with ornate molding and dreamy gilded interiors, and our love for regal, manicured gardens. Anyone whose strolled around Paris or even seen pictures of the garden at Versailles knows the French take their landscaping very seriously. Read ahead to learn about the main design elements of a traditional French garden, and how you can achieve the look in your own backyard.
Designers in this country took Italian formality to the next level, planting and pruning it into a tightly controlled yet florid (even flouncy) look. Imagine strolling beneath a coiffed horse-chestnut allée in the Tuileries in Paris, through ruler-straight rows of perfumed lavender in Provence, or along curlicues of emeraldgreen turf at Versailles. That 17th-century estate, which designer André Le Nôtre created for Louis XIV (as proof that the king was so powerful, he could bend nature to his will), is the masterpiece of this genre. Its stately bosquets and elaborately patterned parterres surrounded by pristine yew topiaries have been adapted in parks and public and private gardens across the U.S.
Bring It Home
Capture the graphic effect of a parterre on a footpath by laying down paving stones in a symmetrical pattern and planting thyme between them, or edge your driveway with cherry trees for a gracious allée. A simpler (but just as chic) idea: a topiary potted in a traditional square planter. During André Le Nôtre's time, these ultra-durable vessels, known as Versailles boxes, held orange trees. They were constructed out of metal and wood and had doors, so gardeners could easily remove tender trees growing in metal liners and transfer them to greenhouses for the winter. You can invest in a replica at jardinsduroisoleil.com, or find similar, more affordable versions at garden stores like shopterrain.com.
Learn the Lingo
Here are the top French garden design elements to know.
Leave it to the French to augmenter a vegetable garden into a visual feast. Kale, tomatoes, and cucumbers, for instance, mix with flowers, herbs, and fruit trees, often planted as espaliers (branches trained to grow horizontally, as if against a wall). Geometric tuteurs, or trellised obelisks, look sculptural and provide structures for vines, like peas and beans, to climb up.
More elaborate than the strict, geometric kind in Italy, this is a defined area covered with embroidery-like patterns meant to be viewed from a higher level. Scrolls and monograms are common flourishes.
This is a promenade flanked by two rows of evenly spaced trees, often extending out of a bosquet (from the Italian bosco), a formal area of trees.
These meticulously sculpted shrubs or trees (like yew, boxwood, myrtle, and juniper) originated in Roman times, but soon became essential to French design.
French Gardens to Visit
If you're planning a trip to France, grab a baguette, some cheese, and fruit (and, of course, wine) and spend the days exploring these gorgeous gardens. First stop: the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. It was André Le Nôtre's work at this garden that drew the attention of Louis XIV, who hired the designer to create Versailles. Of course, no trip would be complete without a visit to the Château de Versailles. Apollo's Fountain at Versailles was completed in 1671. The parterre of the orangery covers more than seven acres; in summer, it's dotted with over a thousand containers of trees. Pointed topiaries frame marble statues. Finally, make room in your schedule for the Villandry Château et Jardins, which is open everyday of the year. This Loire Valley destination boasts a dramatic potager and dazzling parterres.
For those staying stateside there are plenty of local examples to draw inspiration from. In the New York City's Central Park Conservatory Garden the parterre in the French area is framed by tulips in the spring and chrysanthemums in autumn. In Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens the whimsical yew-topiary room features spirals, cones, and obelisks.