Formal French garden design is known for beautifully planned symmetry, light, geometry and colour. It’s a style that lots of people would like to recreate in their own garden, but can be very challenging to pull off. In this post, we’re going to look at some of the most integral French themed garden ideas and features that you should consider if you’re going to attempt this beautiful style at home.
While the most famous French gardens are large chateaux designs, we’ll also look at ways of incorporating traditional touches in a garden of any size, on a range of budgets.
Planning your French-inspired garden
As with any complex garden design, it’s essential to take some time to plan your ideas regarding layout, materials and plants. This will help you make the best use of your space and budget, and to create an elegant garden that doesn’t look cluttered and chaotic.
Making a feature of metal and stone
Metal and stonework are common elements for adding structure to a French garden. There are lots of ways you could incorporate this, for example, with a metal bench or stone fountain. You could also have a wrought iron bistro set on your patio, or build raised flower beds with stone borders and paved steps between them.
Gravel is often used for pathways in French garden design, and can create a seamless transition from the garden to a patio or veranda area. If you choose to lay gravel paths, plan them in symmetrical layouts and make sure that the materials for steps, paths, and patio areas are in complementary colours.
Have a focal point
Creating a focal point that draws the gaze to a particular area of your garden is a simple trick to evoking a more formal feel. Traditional French gardens always have at least one focal point – often more, if the garden is big enough to be divided into smaller sections. Your focal point doesn’t have to be intricate or expensive; it can be as simple as placing a bench in a central square in your garden, or a beautiful sculpture in the middle of your flower beds.
Include a seating area
Homes in the French countryside often feature a little paved area for sitting down, relaxing, and enjoying the view. Although lots of British homes have a patio, they’re typically adjacent to the house – try creating a paved area somewhere else in your garden, to experience your beautiful space from a different vantage point. This area should be uncluttered; some simple patio furniture, surrounded by plants.
Use water to create light
Formal French gardens often feature water in some way, usually with a fountain or decorative pool. As the water reflects light, it can be used to make your garden appear more illuminated and open.
Installing your own fountain provides the perfect centrepiece for a French garden courtyard, and can break up larger areas of plants or gravel. The sound of running water also helps create an atmosphere of tranquility.
Not enough lawn space for a fountain? Smaller gardens can still evoke French garden design with the use of pools or bowls of water. Position them in strategic spots to reflect the sun and sky, and enjoy the effect of subtly making your garden look more spacious.
Using geometry in your landscaping
In France’s formal gardens, there is an emphasis on imposing control over nature. One of the ways this is done is by creating a geometric plan, where trees are planted in straight, neat rows, and topiary trees are clipped into uniform shapes.
Here are some ideas for how you can use these elements in your own French garden.
Keep everything manicured
One of the hallmarks of French garden design is how immaculately everything is kept. To bring this into your own garden, start by clipping shrubs and hedges so they’re uniform in shape and size.
Another trick is in the positioning of plants that are different heights. Low-clipped hedges make for beautiful borders around gravel paths near your home, while taller hedges are more striking placed closer to the centre of the garden.
France’s gardens are known for their stunning, carefully pruned topiary displays. If your garden has enough space, consider adding simple boxwood topiaries. These plants are easy to trim into different shapes such as spheres or spirals, creating a juxtaposition of height and geometry that is characteristic of French garden design.
If your garden is on the smaller side, try planting individual topiary arrangements in tubs or enclosed planters, and distributing them evenly around your garden. Even a small number of these shaped shrubs will create contrast against a flat lawn or gravel terrace.
Add sculptural accent pieces
Vintage pottery (like vases and urns), and weathered stone planters are great ways to add interesting details to a French garden. Curate carefully though – you only need a few key pieces. Use them as decorations at the ends of gravel paths, or fill them with greenery for a more French Mediterranean look.
Create a knot garden
Feeling adventurous? French knot gardens – known as parterres – use coloured gravel, paving, shrubs and flowerbeds to create a weaving path for contemplation. As with your other garden elements, you should base your knot garden on a symmetrical design, either within a spiral or square frame.
French themed garden ideas: Plants and flowers
Growing France’s native plants in your garden is a quick way to recreate their potager gardens, a technique that uses flowers, herbs, shrubs and vegetables all growing in patterns in the same bed. This method reinforces the symmetrical design of a garden, without becoming repetitive. Here are a few native plants to help bring the spirit of France into your jardin:
French gardens frequently contain lavender hedges or beds, to introduce a burst of colour into otherwise rigid patterns. Evoke the famous purple fields of Grasse by placing rows of lavender in your garden, or use single lavender shrubs in the corners of green hedgerows to break the monotony and draw the eye.
Roses are ubiquitous in French garden design. Whether draped in loops over an arched arbour or planted within boxwood hedges to introduce a bright pop of colour, feel free to grow plenty of them in your garden. Take care to plant roses of the same colour in a geometric plan, as you would trees or herbs.
Herb gardens and vegetable beds
Many French chateaux had gardens with herbs and vegetables patterned just as ornately as formal flower gardens. Within your symmetrical flower beds, try growing herbs used in traditional French cooking, such as thyme, rosemary, and basil. Take a look at our guide to growing a kitchen garden for more inspiration.
This garden at the Château de Villette shows how you can combine these traditional French elements with elegance. At the edge of a gravel driveway, a hedge archway is flanked by two stone lions, leading into a knot garden.
French garden design is intimidating at first glance because of all the maintenance that goes into it, but it’s surprisingly easy once you know which elements you need to include. No matter how much or how little space you have, these simple French themed garden ideas will help create your own beau jardin.