French style gardens

Summer bedding flowers with decorative stone bird bath
ARTICLE Jason Burgess

The rich lineage of French garden design has all the ingredients of a rollicking great historical page-turner. The famously rarefied landscapes of monarchs and aristocrats are loaded with tales of ego, pomposity and political betrayal, not to mention the ambitions of ground breaking landscape designers. Later daydreaming artists would reverse rigid gardening traditions with over-flowing country colour and urban texture. Drawing on this complex legacy of intrigue and inspiration makes forging a contemporary French garden design in your backyard a cinch.
When we think of French garden style we easily to default to visions of Louis XIV’s, opulent Chateau de Versailles, the Jardin des Tuileries in the heart of Paris or to the precursor to them both, Vaux Le Vicomte. More than stunning examples of 17th Century order and symmetry, these grandiose landscapes were expressions of prestige and power. Their influence can be seen in stately homes from Blenheim Palace to St Petersburg. They took decades to create, employed hundreds of labourers and often meant relocating villages and existing waterways in the process.
Fortunately, there are so many elements of French flair that you can incorporate into your garden without having to move a mountain to do so. Remember though, that today’s French gardens still draw on the age-old fundamentals of harmony and balance, not to mention elegance and refinement, as the backbones of great design.

A garden at Luxembourg Palace with flowers and a statue

It was the designs of Louis XIV’s landscape architect Le Notre that came to define the structural hallmarks of the formal French garden. Strong straight lines, geometric shaped parterres, manicured hedges, alleys of trees and topiary shrubs, provide the patterns and visual flow. Here gilded Greek and Roman inspired statuary and obelisks are common, so too vaulted galleries, fountains and the all-important reflecting pools or water parterres. The French regard light in the same way as they do greenery. Using water within a garden composition provides a balance between shadow and sunlight, creating an illusion of space while offering a constantly changing colour field that mirrors the progress of the day and seasons.
A French style garden is a play of colour and form. Parterres of monochromatic flowerbeds veering towards the cooler end of the colour palette- think iris, lilies, lavender and box hedging- offset the hardscape stonework, stucco walls and gravel paths. Fruit trees, and ‘orangeries’ of citrus and pomegranates provide a practical, upper-level contrast of colour and height. Citrus was imported from Spain and Italy, so in cooler climes was kept in oak and metal pots for seasonal transportation indoors to protect them from the winter. This use of potted trees allows more layout latitude for active gardeners. A practice still employed today at Versailles.
French country gardens are more informal, with a mix of softer plantings and bolder colours, but generally follow similar principles for layout. At Giverny the impressionist Claude Monet planted the parterres of his high walled orchard with a riot of carefully planned but prolific annual colour, including daisies, nasturtiums, hollyhocks, poppies and peonies. These beds were dissected by gravel paths and linked down a central alley by rose covered iron arbors. From Napoleonic times to the present, the first flowers to be planted in a French garden are roses. Napoleons wife Josephine was a keen gardener who collected roses, so the French armies were instructed to bring home any rose they could find in their travels.

Rose archway in a Parisian garden

Like most green-thumbed Frenchmen, artist Claude Monet’s approach to gardening was more than an exercise in prettying up a backyard or creating areas to relax and entertain; it was and still is a creative and emotional response to the landscape. Asymmetrical informality overflowed in Monet’s famous Japanese inspired water garden, where hard lines give way to an arcing footbridge, with weeping willows, bamboo and waterlilies, providing soft movement of foliage and light. All of which inspired many of his greatest paintings.
Recreating your own French themed garden large or small can be achieved in a variety of climates. The purpose of early French gardens was to highlight the house or Chateau as the garden was most often viewed from the home. Incorporate privacy-giving rustic elements like rubble walls, stone paving and edging, painted blue gates wood and steel or tall clipped hedges. Climbing plants on a house, shed or wall can create an informal, romantic contrast to construction materials and architectural lines. 
In small spaces reduce path and entry widths. Place steppingstones into a lawn or gravel path or snake the pathways through shaped or topiary plants. Expand garden volume with colour and staggered plant heights. Clipped hedging can be used to create perspective while darker perimeter walls will also give an illusion of space.

Mown lawn strips, green grass, flowers and topiary yew-trees

A French garden is equally productive as it is decorative. As well as beds of blooming flowers for every season, the addition of the potager, or kitchen garden, can provide striking contrast and visual flow between outdoor rooms. These can be laid out in geometric patterns and edged with boxwood or if garden size is an issue then planted in window boxes in a style and colour to suit the home. For the more ambitious gardener, vertical gardens have come into their own in France, particularly in high-density urban areas where Parisian botanist Patrick Blanc has literally taken garden innovation to the next level.
A French-style garden defines where certain activities take place and provides graceful and interesting transitions from one "room" to the next. Employ one-of-a-kind elements like a stone basin, large urn or a birdbath to break geometric patterns. Plants can become living sculptures either as one-offs or repeating visual links to tie areas together. Historically a French garden was open to view from an upper floor, with intimate enclosed areas like a sunken garden or a patio enclosed by box hedging. Add some bistro furniture to zones like these for morning coffee or a long table with topiaries, lavender and cypress as the table settings for the family banquet. And, just for fun create some visual space with a white gravel Pétanque court.
French garden design stimulates the senses, using colour, space and views to catch light, conjure feelings and add depth to outdoor areas. Talk to a Zones specialist today to find out how you can add some Ooh la-la to your backyard.

Interested in other styles? Read about English gardens. 


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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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