The history of French Gardens....

The most famous French garden design is undoubtedly The Gardens of Versailles.

The Gardens of Versailles, created between 1662 and 1700, were the greatest achievement of the Garden à la française. They were the largest gardens in Europe, with an area of 15,000 hectares, (a hectare was about 2 1/2 acres) and were laid out on an east–west axis, and followed the course of the sun: the sun rose over the Court of Honor, lit the Marble Court, crossed the Chateau and lit the bedroom of the King, and set at the end of the Grand Canal, reflected in the mirrors of the Hall of Mirrors. In contrast with the grand perspectives, reaching to the horizon, the garden was full of surprises – fountains, small gardens filled with statuary, which provided a more human scale and intimate spaces.

The central symbol of the garden was the sun; the emblem of Louis XIV, illustrated by the statue of Apollo in the central fountain of the garden. "The views and perspectives, to and from the palace, continued to infinity. The king ruled over nature, recreating in the garden not only his domination of his territories, but over the court and his subjects."

The middle of the 18th century saw spread in popularity of the new English landscape garden, created by British aristocrats and landowners, and the Chinese style, brought to France by Jesuit priests from the Court of the Emperor of China. These styles rejected symmetry in favor of nature and rustic scenes and brought an end to the reign of the symmetrical garden à la française. In many French parks and estates, the garden closest to the house was kept in the traditional à la française style, but the rest of the park was transformed into the new style, called variously jardin à l'anglaise (the English garden), "anglo-chinois", exotiques, or "pittoresques". This marked the end of the age of the garden à la française and the arrival in France of the jardin paysager, or landscape garden, which was inspired not by architecture but by painting, literature and philosophy.

The form of the French garden was largely fixed by the middle of the 17th century. It had the following elements, which became typical of the formal French garden:
  • a geometric plan using the most recent discoveries of perspective and optics
  • a terrace overlooking the garden, allowing the visitor to see all at once the entire garden. As the French landscape architect Olivier de Serres wrote in 1600, "It is desirable that the gardens should be seen from above, either from the walls, or from terraces raised above the parterres."
  • all vegetation is constrained and directed to demonstrate the mastery of man over nature.Trees are planted in straight lines and carefully trimmed, and their tops are trimmed at a set height
  • the residence serves as the central point of the garden and its central ornament. No trees are planted close to the house; rather, the house is set apart by low parterres and trimmed bushes 
  • a central axis, or perspective, perpendicular to the facade of the house, on the side opposite the front entrance. The axis extends either all the way to the horizon (Versailles) or to piece of statuary or architecture (Vaux-le-Vicomte). The axis faces either South (Vaux-le-Vicomte, Meudon) or east–west (Tuileries, Clagny, Trianon, Sceaux). The principal axis is composed of a lawn, or a basin of water, bordered by trees. The principal axis is crossed by one or more perpendicular perspectives and alleys
  • the most elaborate parterres, or planting beds, in the shape of squares, ovals, circles or scrolls, are placed in a regular and geometric order close to the house, to complement the architecture and to be seen from above from the reception rooms of the house
  • the parterres near the residence are filled with broderies, designs created with low boxwood to resemble the patterns of a carpet, and given a polychrome effect by plantings of flowers, or by colored brick, gravel or sand
  • farther from the house, the broderies are replaced with simpler parterres, filled with grass, and often containing fountains or basins of water. Beyond these, small carefully created groves of trees serve as an intermediary between the formal garden and the masses of trees of the park. "The perfect place for a stroll, these spaces present alleys, stars, circles, theaters of greenery, galleries, spaces for balls and for festivities."
  • bodies of water (canals, basins) serve as mirrors, doubling the size of the house or the trees
  • the garden is animated with jeux d'eau and pieces of sculpture, usually on mythological themes, which either underline or punctuate the perspectives, and mark the intersections of the axes, and by moving water in the form of cascades and fountains.

Colors, flowers and trees

Ornamental flowers were relatively rare in French gardens in the 17th century and there was a limited range of colours: blue, pink, white and mauve. Brighter colours (yellow, red, orange) would not arrive until about 1730, because of botanical discoveries from around the world brought to Europe. Bulbs of tulips and other exotic flowers came from Turkey and the Netherlands. An important ornamental feature in Versailles and other gardens was the topiary, a tree or bush carved into geometric or fantastic shapes, which were placed in rows along the main axes of the garden, alternating with statues and vases.

At Versailles flower beds were found only at the Grand Trianon and in parterres on the north side of the palace. Flowers were usually brought from Provence, kept in pots, and changed three or four times a year. Palace records from 1686 show that the Palace used 20,050 daffodil bulbs, 23,000 cyclamen, and 1700 lily plants.

Most of the trees at Versailles were taken from the forest; they included hornbeam, elm, linden, and beech trees. There were also chestnut trees from Turkey and acacia trees. Large trees were dug up from the forests of Compiègne and Artois and transplanted to Versailles. Many died in transplanting and had to be regularly replaced.

The trees in the park were trimmed both horizontally and flattened at the top, giving them the desired geometric form. Only in the 18th century were they allowed to grow freely.

Parterres de broderie

The parterres de broderie (from the French French: broderie meaning 'embroidery') is the typical form of French garden design of the Baroque. It is characterised by a symmetrical layout of the flower beds and sheared box hedging to form ornamental patterns known as broderie. Even the arrangement of the flowers is designed to create a harmonious interplay of colours. Frequently found in French Baroque gardens are water gardens, cascades, grottos and statues. Further away from the country house, stately home, chateau or schloss the parterre transitions into the bosquets.

Well known examples are the gardens at the Palace of Versailles in France and the Palace of Augustusburg at Brühl, near Cologne in Germany. As fashions changed, many parterres de broderie of stately homes had to give way in the 19th century to English landscape gardens and have not been reinstated.


Term English translation Definition
Allée Alleyway A straight path, often lined with trees
Bosquet Grove A small group of trees, usually some distance from the house, designed as an ornamental backdrop
Broderie Embroidery A very curling decorative pattern within a parterre, created with trimmed yew or box or made by cutting the pattern out of a lawn and filling it with colored gravel
Jeux d'eau Water games An umbrella term for water features
Patte d'oie Goose foot Three or five paths or allées which spread outward from a single point
Parterre On the ground A planting bed, usually square or rectangular, containing an ornamental design made with low closely clipped hedges, colored gravel, and sometimes flowers. Parterres were usually laid out in geometric patterns, divided by gravel paths. They were intended seen from above from a house or terrace. A parterre de gazon was made of turf with a pattern cut out and filled with gravel.[11]
Saut de loup Wall A recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier
Topiary Ornamental gardening Trees or bushes trimmed into ornamental shapes. In French gardens, they were usually trimmed into geometric shapes

The Modern French Garden

It suits me better than the formal, classical design.


A French Garden Design For Today's Gardener -

The French Garden style is generally thought of as stark and austere and very orderly. What is "formal"? For me it would mean everything in rows, and all flowers the same sizes and at attention at all times. I would design a french garden with the concepts of geometry and outlining, but the flowers and stonework would be quite informal, yet still giving the garden a classical feel. I would imagine that French Countryside would be more my idea of a french garden.

Because these gardens were designed to be viewed from above, there’s also usually a terrace that sits above the gardens. Not practical for me to have an overhead terrace, it still works for me. If you have an upper-story deck or patio/terrace, you've got your overhead garden-gazing spot. Planting areas usually had a raised bed design, called a parterre. You can create one using stone for the edging. around planted areas and by adding container trees as raised plantings.

Start with cool colors, geometric planting beds, and stone work, and you’ll have the groundwork.

French style is a study in geometry. Decide on the shapes you want for the planting beds, then make sure they're clearly defined. Edging these traditional parterres with low boxwood borders is a classic approach.

The overall style translates well into small courtyards and even the practical vegetable garden, where a mix of small raised beds is not only popular but practical. If designing your garden in a courtyard or side yard near the windows of your house, a window box adds a nice touch and adds a middle space for your garden.

French country gardens are more informal, with a mix of softer plantings and bolder colors, but generally follow the same basic design principles. Planting beds may be more loosely planted and less structured, but they'll still be contained by an edging or a border of some sort. Rather than an overwhelming riot of color and plantings, there's always a sense of order, even in the most natural of settings.

Paths located near living areas often feature a short edging hedge. Typical hedging plants include lavender, rosemary or boxwood.
Gravel paths and stone terraces are hallmarks of French garden design. A gravel path is one of the easiest ways to start your landscape. modern stone pavers, cobblestones and concrete create the same ambience. Expand a gravel path into a patio to provide continuity. For a
durable surface, consider flagstone or cobblestone. Edge the space with planting beds and add pots and climbers to soften the hardscape.

Include a place to relax and eat. Sitting areas and dining spots add a touch of romance and evoke the feeling of the French countryside. Keep the elements simple. Benches also should be part of a French formal garden. And the best element, in my opinion, would be to think "bistro". A bistro table and 2 chairs. Pots of trees on the sides..That's the ticket.

Use a pergola over the dining patio or terrace covered in grapevines, for a classic French touch. I would probably opt for honeysuckle or wisteria. trellises, pergolas and gazebos frequently decorate French gardens. An obelisk or tuteur (a teepee-like shape) are common trellis designs used in formal French gardens. Because these gardens are designed to be viewed from above, there’s also usually a terrace that sits above the gardens.

Feel free to mix and match when it comes to shapes. Using the same plant material to form the shapes ties the two sides together. Fill the spaces within the borders with plants, especially annuals and perennials. For a classic feel, stick to a single plant within each space,

Create a focal point, like a fountain or sundial that would add interest in a large space where the masses of similar beds could be overwhelming.French formal gardens typically include water features, such as rectangular reflecting pools or circular beds that play a geometrical counterpoint to the french garden’s angled parterres. Fountains also belong in French garden designs. Select the ones with traditional motifs. Statues, urns and planters, are all elements of French garden design. The key is restraint. My favorite thing to place as a focal point is a tall obelisk. I've always wanted one in the garden. It is actually a trellis. French formal gardens include statuary and topiaries. Tuck topiaries into containers strategically placed along paths, or add them to the center of the design. Trellises, pergolas and gazebos frequently decorate French gardens.  

Potagers and herb gardens were popular. A classical influence would be gravel paths and stone-outlined beds. So go ahead and add the french design to your vegetable and herb gardens, too. I like the idea of mixing food with flowers. I will be writing about Foodscape Gardens soon!

You can download a .pdf format garden design for a French Style Kitchen Garden by clicking 
the pic below. It's free, and it contains a large illustration, planting guide and plant list. Enjoy!

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