I must admit I am an avid Francophile. If it is made in France, from France, or associated with France, I have a knack of finding it. The same applies to gardens. I love the look and feel of French gardens. So this week, I thought I would discuss the elements that you find in French gardens. By studying and pondering these French garden elements, we gain inspiration we can use to add a few of these design techniques to our own gardens.
If you start by looking at some of the classical gardens like Versaille, or Le Notre, you will notice that like a lot of the early architecture of its day, the gardens were designed around a central axis point. Usually you will see the chateau at the end of the axis and then a central alley or path that is divided into equal parts of formal parterre gardens to the left and right. A lot of these parterre gardens are embroidered with arabesque designs and bordered with a low clipped box hedging that encloses the interior plant design. These parterre gardens are often square or rectangular shaped, but sometimes you might see circular shapes or sections of circular shapes neatly organized in a formal type of pattern.
These early gardens were usually surrounded by a lush allez of trees with clipped hedges or pleached rows of beech or hornbeam trees which would create walls within the large gardens as a backdrop. The pleached trees would usually be planted with additional flowers at the base. The use of the pleaching helps to create symmetry on each side of the path or allez. In addition to symmetry, these formal gardens would use elements of symbolism.
This symbolism would be brought in through statuary. The statuary would often represent historical or mythological figures. Sometimes the statuary would be used in conjunction with water features. Most of the French gardens usually have a water feature, a pond, fountain even water parterres that are symmetrically balanced. These water features add movement and reflection to the overall design along the axis of the garden. Usually there will be something in the center of the pond or water parterre, it could be a simple statue or a fountain that sprays or a combination of both. Another design element that you will notice is steps, water cascading down in a stepped pattern, or the garden stepping down in like manner.
One of my other favorite gardening techniques, topiary is usually found in these gardens as well. I love topiary, it can take on many different kinds of forms and creates structure and formality in the garden. In a French garden you will often see round ball topiaries of boxus, or perhaps an obelisk or conical shape of yew, strategically placed in the garden to add height, interest and another layered element of the design. Sometimes you will see them in a large grouping or used for a border or as a focal point. The topiary designs add to the garden plan making it more three dimensional.
Beyond the formal gardens, you will often see landscapes of trees and other shrubs on the outskirts that are more informal and natural in nature. These plantings are usually the complete opposite to the formal clipped structure, and are free flowing even rambling. This also creates a very lush backdrop to the more formal and organized parts of the garden.
Another one of my garden favorites, is the technique of espalier. Per Merriam-webster.com, the definition of espalier. 1 : a plant (as a fruit tree) trained to grow flat against a support (as a wall). Espalier, is a great way to grow a plant in a small space and create vertical height in a garden along a wall or fence. You can also create a fence out in the open with the technique of espalier. It is very beautiful to look at and there are various patterns you can create.
What are the types of plants you will see in the French garden? You will often find roses used somewhere in the design of French gardens whether formal or informal. Depending upon their use, roses are often spotted palisading up a wall or over an arch. A few other types of plantings that are associated with French gardens are oranges and lavender. When you think of Versaille, you might think of the orangerie. Back in the day if you had an orangerie, it meant you were blessed with prosperity and abundance. The design of these Orangeries in themselves are beautiful with their arched Palladian windows of glass and terracotta potted orange trees.
Of course when most people think of France, besides roses, and orangeries, they often think of Lavender. Provence being full of Lavender fields, no French garden would be complete without some. In some of the French gardens lavender will be grown at the base of roses or next to roses. Another popular planting that I have seen recreated in a few formal gardens originally from the garden of Givenchy, is forget me knots with tulips. The forget me knots acts as a ground cover base in an organized parterre shaped space and then is dotted with pink tulips throughout the midst of it. This looks especially pretty next to a beautiful pond.
One thing is for sure, French gardens like French people have a beauty, style and sophistication all their own. With the age and patina of their architecture, an organized intentional use of form, pattern and design, the gardens are meant to inspire. It is easy to see the gardens in France are cared for very lovingly and meticulously. By incorporating a few of these elements of a French garden into your own, you can add a little touch of France to your own garden.