Julie A. Martens

Boxwood Beauty

Give your yard an Old World ambience by adapting aspects of French garden design. The gardens that complemented French chateaus and country homes have elements that blend beautifully into today’s modern yards. Start with cool colors, geometric planting beds, and stone work, and you’ll have the groundwork for a stunning French formal garden.

Like any formal garden, French garden design hinges on order and balance. Stone surfaces lay the foundation in this garden style. The stone might appear in paths or patios, or it might also occur in benches or over-size containers. Gravel and flagstone are traditional stone materials used in French formal gardens, but modern stone pavers, cobblestones and concrete create the same ambience.

In French formal gardens, paths located near living areas often feature a short edging hedge. Typical hedging plants include lavender, rosemary or boxwood. Further from the house, trees often line paths. Trees used at the most famous French formal garden at the Palace of Versailles include beech, chestnut, elm, hornbeam, and linden. Similar trees that work in today’s smaller yards include Fastigiate European beech tree (Fagus sylvatica ‘Fastigiata’), linden (Tilia spp.), or Fastigiate European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’).


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Geometrically shaped planting beds are another key component of French garden design. Choose a shape that’s workable and suited to your landscape size. With larger beds, remember to include points of access, such as stepping stones, in the midst of the bed to make plant maintenance easier. Frequently, planting areas have a raised bed design, called a parterre. These beds boast a definite edging treatment, such as a hedge, stone or wood.

Parterres located near the house often have intricate planting patterns, such as color blocks of annuals or flowering bulbs arranged inside low hedges. Sometimes these beds display intricate hedges or knot gardens, and gravel or colored sand fills spaces between hedges to spotlight the design.

French formal gardens typically include water features, such as rectangular reflecting pools or circular beds that play a geometrical counterpoint to the garden’s right angled parterres. Pools usually have stone edging or coping to add a formal design element. Fountains also belong in French garden designs. Select ones with traditional motifs, like a lion’s head, cherub or fleur-de-lis.

Other important components of French formal gardens include statuary and topiaries. For smaller gardens, choose a topiary flowering ornamental, such as a rose or tropical, which will add color to the garden all season long. Tuck topiaries into containers strategically placed along paths, or add them to the center of parterres.

Include a dining area that’s located to give specific views of the garden. Create cooling shade for feasts by building a pergola over the dining terrace and cloaking it with grapevines, a classic French touch. Benches also should be part of a French formal garden. Use stone, weather-resistant wood or metal—whatever material complements the hardscape in your garden.

Structures such as 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 to offer a bird’s-eye view of the beauty.

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