Do you dream of strolling through the palatial gardens of Versailles? Or do you love the sense of elegance that comes from a formal garden? You can bring that experience home by designing your own French style garden.
A French formal garden (also known as Jardin à la Française, Garden in the French style) is a formal garden that seeks to impose order over nature through geometric garden beds, hedges, and topiaries separated by gravel paths.
However, it’s important to remember that you need to plan ahead. A French garden looks deliberate, tidy, and symmetrical. If you try to develop it as you go, it’ll be much harder to give that impression. A plan will help so much, even if you develop the garden part by part.
These gardens also require a lot of maintenance. They were designed for palaces and Chateau, who could afford to hire an army of gardeners to design and maintain it. But even if you’re managing everything yourself, you can make design choices that make it easier to maintain. You could opt for the more informal country style, choose hardier hedges, or choose a few trees for impact rather than long rows.
Ready? Let’s begin.
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French Garden Ideas
When you hear the words “French Garden”, your first thought is probably parterre gardens, long avenues of trees, and ponds and fountains overlooked by a chateau. This style is called Jardin à la Française (Garden in the French style), or French Formal Gardens.
Jardin à la Française is a very formal style of garden, using the following principles:
1. Design using order and symmetry.
A formal French garden doesn’t seek to mimic nature, like a Japanese or Mediterranean garden, but seeks to control it. You’ll find clipped hedges, paths, and garden beds cut into geometric shapes. Trees are pruned into ornamental shapes like balls and triangles. Designs are symmetrical.
2. Make the house the focus.
The main residential building (usually a palace or chateau) is the centerpiece of the garden. Paths radiate from the house with a central axis providing the main path. The closer to the house, the more intricate the garden design. But while the focus of the garden is the house, the garden should also be designed to be viewed from different angles.
3. Define separate spaces.
Think of the different spaces like rooms. While they can flow into one another, they also have defined uses. Topiaries don’t mingle in the flower beds, and a lawn is separate from the hedges and usually used around pond or water features. Gravel paths separate the different spaces. If you like dining outside, create your own dining room space amid the hedges or under an arbor.
4. Use a cool color scheme.
You’ll use green and white most often in the garden, as hedges, topiaries, and grass are green, while gravel, statues, and fountains are gray. Ponds bring in blue, while lavender brings in purple. Keep your color palette limited for a more uniform, deliberate look.
5. Incorporate lots of stone features.
Use stone sculptures and urns as points of interest. Stone walls can add borders to further define a space. Stone fountains bring water into the garden.
But a formal garden isn’t the only type of garden you’ll find in France.
Country gardens use the same principles of a formal garden, but are less formal. Furniture, architecture, and masonry are well-worn. This is also where you’ll find arbors covered in climbing vines.
Potager gardens are vegetable gardens, with the emphasis on providing fresh, seasonal ingredients by just stepping out of one’s door. At one point, every French house with garden space would have some kind of potager. Garden beds are redone frequently as the seasons turn from spring to summer to fall. But a potager garden isn’t your common vegetable plot. Like a country garden, you’ll use many of the same principles as a formal garden, so you can add one seamlessly within a formal or country garden. You can also intermingle ornamental plants with your vegetables and herbs.
What Plants Are In A French Garden?
While boxwood is the quintessential French garden hedge plant, it’s prone to insects and disease that can kill off your entire hedge. Since it takes up to 10 years to grow a hedge, that’s not something you want to have to replace.
Fortunately, many hardier shrubs have a similar appearance with the same ability to be heavily pruned, including Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra), and Evergreen Azalaeas (Rhododendron spp.) The University of Georgia Extension Office has a list of great boxwood alternatives, or check out this list of great plants for privacy screens. You can find a species that works great in your area.
Lavender is found in many gardens throughout France, not just in the famous lavender fields of Provence. Both the purple and green are on the cool side of the scale, adding a pop of color (and fragrance) while still staying with the cool color scheme.
The lavender found in Provence is not in fact French lavender (Lavandula dentata), despite its name. It’s actually English or Fine Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) and Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia). These two lavenders are more fragrant than French lavender (which is actually from Spain).
But don’t let that stop you from experimenting with different lavender cultivars to see what grows best in your garden. Just keep in mind that a formal garden should use fewer varieties for a more uniform look, while a country or potager garden can use more.
Old Garden or Heirloom Roses
If you wander around most French gardens, you’ll find an heirloom rose. An Old Garden Rose is any rose that predated 1867 (when the first hybrid tea rose was discovered). Plant a shrub in a parterre or plant climbing roses to climb up walls and over arches. Heirloom roses are more fragrant than newer hybrid tea roses.
A few fantastic French varieties to look for include Yolande d’Aragon, Fantin de Latour, Ghislaine de Feligonde, and Alfred de Carriere. However, old French roses like these may be hard to find at your local nursery. You may have to find a specialty nursery.
If heirloom roses won’t thrive in your climate, substitute them with other roses.
Avenues lined by single species trees are common in formal French gardens. Plane trees, olive trees, beech trees are often used for this purpose, but nothing adds to a French formal garden like Arborvitae. It even gets its name from the French phrase l’arbre de vie or tree of life.
The advantage of Arborvitae is that they naturally grow in a conical or pyramid shape. They also grow densely enough that they’re an excellent candidate for topiaries. They’re also low maintenance, relatively pest-resistant, and slow growing, meaning you won’t need to prune them back so often.
Perennial Flowering Bulbs
Tulips bring vibrant color to the garden in spring. They look best when planted en masse, with at least ten in a group. If you’re looking for inspiration, Château de Cheverny’s tulip garden boasts over 500,000 tulips.
Dahlias are a floral garden favorite for a reason. They look stunning with layers of petals in jewel colors, and they bloom for a long time. You just need to deadhead them to encourage them to keep blooming. For milder winters, you can cut them to the ground and cover them in mulch after the last frost. For harsher winters, remove the tubers from the ground and store them for the winter. Le Clos du Coudray has an extensive collection of dahlia in their country-style gardens.
Allium offers a more modern look, with a globe of vibrant petals at the top of a long stem. This flower is a better choice for country gardens or if you’re trying for a more modern feel. So long as your soil is well-draining, they naturalize quickly.
Culinary Herbs and Seasonal Vegetables
Having a formal French garden doesn’t mean that there’s no space for growing fresh ingredients. French cuisine has high standards, and that means having access to fresh ingredients. Potagers have a long tradition in France, and even the finest estates with formal gardens would have a potager close at hand. The trick is to use the same principles as a formal garden, making your potager beautiful, uniform, and tasty.
French cuisine is very regional, with many dishes only found in one area, so what’s included varies. A few herbs commonly used in French cuisine include rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, and tarragon.
What herbs and vegetables should you grow? Ones that you’ll eat. There’s no point growing vegetables just to let them rot because you don’t actually like them. Start with listing the herbs and vegetables you most commonly use already in your cooking.
More Ways To Make Your Garden Look French (French Garden Features)
Really, what else could say more about control over nature than growing a plant in the shape of an elephant?
There are two ways to approach topiary.
Traditional topiaries are evergreen plants like boxwood pruned into geometric shapes. These shapes include balls, cubes, obelisks, and tapering spirals.
Modern topiaries use evergreen plants with a spreading habit (such as sedum, tradescantia, and wooly thyme) to grow over a moss-filled wire frame. You can grow these topiaries in a container and bring them inside during the winter. However, they need to be watered often as they dry out quicker than shrubs planted in the ground.
Whichever way you go, keep in mind that topiaries require regular pruning to keep their shape. A cone or a cube shape is a lot easier to maintain than something more complicated.
Use stone statues in enclosed groves or at intersections as points of interest. If you’re aiming for a more traditional garden, then look for statues of cherubs, nymphs, goddesses, and warriors. Statues are white or gray, which stands out against green foliage. If you’re going for a more informal or modern garden, then you have more leeway.
A parterre, also called a knot garden, is a garden made up of enclosed garden beds separated by gravel. The garden beds are usually shaped into a pattern and filled with seasonal flowers surrounded by a low hedge. They’re amazing to look at on the ground, but also from a higher window.
Traditionally, the flowers would be replaced with the seasons so that they’re always in bloom. This showed off the wealth of the estate, because between this and maintenance, parterres were costly to maintain. These days you can cut costs and maintenance by intermingling flower varieties that are long-blooming or bloom at different times. As the seasons change, the flowers will too.
Stone fountains are often the focal point of a garden, set in a central location or at an intersection between two paths. While chateau gardens will have enormous fountains, even a smaller pedestal fountain will elevate your French garden.
If you’re aiming for a country garden, then you could add a wall fountain. These fountains are set against or come out of a stone wall (or sometimes a hedge), with a pipe delivering water into a stone basin.
You’ll find gravel paths everywhere in a French formal garden. French gardens are meant for strolling, and gravel paths also define different areas. Gravel is used to separate elements like hedges, fountains, and parterre beds.
When designing a French garden, keep foremost in mind order and deliberate planting. But don’t be afraid to bring your own vision and style to it. While many historical gardens must adhere to a certain image, French gardeners are developing new styles of gardening, and so can you.
If space is limited, you can find 11 plants for small gardens here.
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