French Garden Design

Principles of French garden design made simple.  Ideas for landscaping classic, formal French style gardens and tips for scaling them to fit  standard American city lots. Decor, pictures, art, tools and supplies.

Garden of Chateau de Cormatin, Burgundy, France

Is Your Home Compatible with This Type of Landscape?

Formal French landscapes work best with the following architectural styles: French, Italianate, Palladian, and Colonial.

Formal French garden design is heavily influenced by, first, Italian and later, English garden design.  French landscape architects from Claude Mollet to Andre Le Notre made names for themselves by adapting the designs of hilly Italian gardens to the mostly flat French landscape and for executing them with an unprecedented level of sophistication.

The formal landscapes which surround the Chateaus and palaces of France present the best examples of this gardening style which is why I have used images of these gardens to present the design principles to you.

I am aware that my words are primarily being read by American home owners who are not landscaping on grand-manor-house-scale.  Despite this, I think it best, when attempting to recreate something in a smaller scale, to make your plans with an image of the genuine article before you.

We will discuss ideas for introducing the various elements of the formal French garden into your landscape as we go.

The Major Elements of French Garden Design

Chateau de Chenonceau

French gardens typically take the Italian axial plan to extremes.  Le Notre, garden designer to the French nobility of his day, once stated that he could not abide a limited view.  His canals ran for kilometers, his allees to the horizon.

A wide clearing usually forms the main axis.  The major cross-axes are always at right angles to this.  This is the basic structure.  Between the main and cross-axes, patterns of every sort may proliferate.

Le Notre always pushed the plantings away from the house.  He felt that the austerity of the approach to the home emphasized its importance in the landscape and exemplified the dominance of its owner over all he surveyed.  In stark contrast, the surrounding gardens were as highly embellished as the entrance was plain.

Parterres de Broderie

Monochromatic Parterre at Chateau de Villandry

Jardins et Chareau Villandry, France

French gardens are highly structured affairs.  They have walls.  They have reflecting pools.  They have fountains. But most of their framework is provided by hedges. 

Clipped boxwood is the one plant your French landscape must not be without.

Low to medium height box hedges are used to corral the plantings and to create the most intricate parterres.  These are floral tapestries meant to be enjoyed from the upper floors of the house.  Their resemblance to fine needlework is best appreciated when viewed from above.

The Gardens at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire.

The parterres are most interesting when filled with colorful blooms.  The flowers in Chateau gardens were rarely set into the soil.  They were raised, instead, in pots which were removed and replaced when the blossoms faded.


Topiary Garden at Chateau de Marqueyssac

Another way that clipped Buxus is displayed in French gardens is in the form of topiary. 

The shapes may be as elaborate as those in the image above left or as simple as those on the right.

Topiaries Planted Along a Central Axis Frame a View to the Horizon at Versailles

Water, Water Everywhere...

The lace-inspired bed before the fountain contains 30,000 plants!

Did You Know?

Louis XIV had so many fountains installed in the Garden of Versailles that, though he employed thousands of men to build aqueducts, there was never enough water to run them all at once.

When the king visited, they would turn the fountains on in turn as the court progressed through the gardens.

A French garden design, no matter how small the lot, must contain at least one water feature. 

The French nobility were hydro-maniacs, it seems.  Older chateau had moats, not just for protection, but for decoration.  These served as long reflecting waters. 

As many fountains as the cultivated area could accommodate would be included to satisfy the French penchant for moving water.

If your grand manor has not room or need for a moat, a swimming pool could serve.  If your lot will not accommodate a swimming pool, install a reflecting pool or a fountain instead.

Small Scale French Garden Design

This Central Florida landscape serves as a fine example of how well French garden designs adapt to small spaces.  There was no room for laying out patterned parterres, so a brick drive stands in for en broderie and low box hedges are used to corral fortnight lilies. The spiral topiaries flanking the entrance bring in another element of French design.

True to Le Notre's methods, this is a landscape designed to draw the eye to the house.

The driveway here is average length.  A longer one might have been lined with trees to represent an allee.  To make it even more French, statuary or urns could be tucked between the trees.

Simple square parterres laid out on a grid and planted solely with white roses fill the back yard of this South African home.

Left:  A walking path substitutes for a ride in this American landscape.  And where does it lead? 

To a small courtyard the focal point of which is the fountain above right.

Brick and tile provide pattern, clipped hedges contribute structure while statues and urns give it the French touch.

Related Pages:

French Country Gardens

The French Kitchen Garden

French Garden Flowers, Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

English Cottage Gardens

Return to Botanical Journeys Plant Guides' Home Page

French Garden Art

Viale de Gardino, Claude Monet

The Artist's Garden at Argenteuil

The Japanese Bridge, Claude Monet

Stiller Winkel im Garten von Montgeron

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