Think of French Garden Design and you immediately think of beautiful, intricate knot gardens or long avenues of trees interspaced with large ponds and fountains. French Garden Design, also called Jardin à la Française, is a very formal, very ordered gardening style with lots of straight lines and symmetry. It is above all a style created to impress however we can take ideas from this style and use it to great effect in a domestic garden.
Key Features of a French Garden Design
- The focus of the garden tends to be the house, usually a palace or chateau and paths radiate out of this creating long axial views.
- A geometric plan is used and symettry is very important.
- A central axis leads away from the house - perpendicular to the house.
- Paths tend to be gravel and edged with clipped hedges and topiary laid out in symmetrical patterns.
- Water is often a key feature of French garden design and lots of round pools and long rectangles of water will be incorporated, the reflection of the water adding to the symmetry and tranquillity of the scene. Fountains and cascades are also very common features.
- Close to the house planting is kept low (no trees) and tends to consist of parterres. Parterres close to the house can be quite intricately patterened and will tend to become more simple further from the house.
- Further from the house paths are often edged with trees, these are almost almost always manipulated in some way (see below). Trees are always planted in straight lines adding perspective and reinforcing the symmetry of the garden.
- Statuary is often used in French Garden Design. Pavilions and 'follies' are often incorporated too.
- In the great French formal gardens there is almost always a terrace from where the garden and its symettry can be seen from above
The use of Parterres, or Knot-gardens, In French Garden Design
Parterres, or knot-gardens, are widely used and generally made up of clipped box, lavender or rosemary.
The low clipped hedges are laid out in a symmetrical pattern, these can be quite intricate or as simple as four squares next to each other with a gravel path seperating them. Generally the more intricate patterns will be close to the house or chateau and simpler patterns further away.
For use in small gardens a simple pattern could be the best choice both for ease of maintenance (remember your hedging will need cutting twice a year to keep the hedges the right size and nice and leafy.
At their simplest the parterres can be filled with coloured gravel or sand. Or they can be filled with bedding plants laid out in formal patterns within the hedging.Flowers are often a secondary interest in French Garden Design and can be limited to the use of a limited range of bedding plants inside the parterres.
Another possibility is to use the formal parterre structure but soften it by planting with an informal display of plants and flowers. This approach is used in the parterres of the Chateau du Lude in North West France.
Plants and Trees to use in French Formal Design
Trees are planted in straight lines and clipped to keep a perfect shape and size. They may be formed into shapes to form topiary.
The trees used in the Gardens of Versaille were: hornbeam, beech, chestnut, elm and linden for the most part. Hornbeam and Beech are easy to prune and shape making them particularly good trees for formal gardens.
The clipped hedges are usually box, lavender, rosemary and occasionally santoline. Regular trimming to stop them going 'leggy' and 'woody' is important.
If you want to recreate a very traditional design then the colours should be limited to white, pink, blue and mauve as these were the only colours available in the 17th century when many of the great French Formal gardens were created. Red, yellow and orange plants weren't brought to Europe until 1730.
Bedding plants and bulbs are popular choices for parterres with for example, parterres filled with bulbs in formal patterns for spring flowering and then taken out and replaced with bedding plants for the late-spring and summer.
Nowadays it is possible to fill with a more relaxed scheme as at the Chateau du Lude or the Jardin Plume which has put a contemporary twist of the Formal French garden.
Many French Chateax have wonderful vegetable gardens with the vegetables laid out in patterns and parterres in the style of the ornamental formal gardens. The results are superb. The best and most famous is at the Chateau de Villandry which also has some stunning ornamental formal gardens.
History of French Garden Design
French Garden Design, Jardin à la Française, devolopped from the Italian Renaissance gardens. The style arrived in France in the 16th century and included symmetry, parterres and geometrical shapes for planting schemes.
The first important French garden was that at Chateau Vaux-le-Vicompte where the chateau was designed at the same time as the gardens. Andre le Notre was commissioned to design the gardens and for the first time the chateau and the garden were perfectly integrated.
Andre Le Notre went on to create the extraordinary Gardens of Versaille, the largest garden in Europe and the most splendid example of French garden design. The style was copied by nobility throughout France and, indeed, by some of the large aristocratic buildings of Europe too. Its popularity continued until the introduction of the English Landscape Garden started the next garden fashion trend.
Whereas French garden designers saw the garden as an extension of the architecture and ordered the garden into a series of rooms with walls created from hedges and stairs from water, the English Landscape gardeners were inspired by paintings .
Some Examples of French Garden Design in France
Chateau d'Azay is French Garden Design at its simplest. The Gardens of Versaille and the Gardens of Villandry are French gardens on a majestic scale. The Parc Maupassant de bois Savary, the gardens of the Chateau de Chenonceau and the Gardens of the Chateau de Losse also use the French Garden Design style. For a contemporary take on French Garden design visit the Jardin Plume.