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Parterre gardens

Originating in France in the 16th century – parterre is a formal garden style consisting of planting beds, edged in stone or a single species of tightly clipped hedging, and gravel paths arranged to form a pleasing, usually symmetrical pattern. The word parterre is from the French par – by and  terre.  The site for a parterre garden must be level, in full sun, and visible from the house (preferably from the windows.)  The evergreen hedges, which outline the symmetrical shapes of the garden, should look beautiful even in winter. In spring, summer, and autumn, the hedges  should frame the plants inside.  The plants within the frame of the parterre could be colourful, annuals and perennials, or  herbs and vegetables.

The gardens of the French renaissance were the first to really implement this style, the Chateau of Versailles is probably the best known example in France, but the style has been copied all over Europe.

The parterre was developed in France by Claude Mollet, and he took his inspiration from the 16th-century patterned English knot gardens that were the fashion and from French embroidery patterns.  In about 1595 Mollet introduced compartment-patterned parterres to royal gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Fontainebleau and the style took off, being widely copied in the UK in particular.

The Knot gardens which preceded the parterre style were a medieval form of symmetrical flower bed with hedges to separate the different plants – herbs or flowers.  Knot gardens were very labour intensive to create and maintain requiring almost daily maintenance and parterres quickly became more popular as it was not so intricate in its layout and therefore easier to manage.

Parterre gardens reached their peak in France under the reign of Louis XIII at the Palace of Versailles. King Louis’s head gardener, Jacques Boyceau, defined the best elements of the parterre gardens as follows:

  • Borders that are made from several shrubs of different shades of green.
  • Shrubs should be clipped in such a way as to create compartments and pathways within the general space.
  • Passements, or embroidery patterns, should be formed out of shrub elements
  •  The use of repeating geometry (known as Arabesque) is often appropriate, along with selective use of animal forms in places.
  • Distorted forms and interlacing patterns should be clearly visible and proportional to the whole.

Not surprisingly, parterres fell out of style after the French Revolution and the fashion grew for the 18th Century English naturalist garden. However parterre gardens are still in fashion around the world and there are some wonderful modern examples to inspire every gardener.

The Jardins  de l’abbaye de Valoires  in the Pas-de-Calais region of France perfectly illustrate a modern approach whilst keeping to the formal and traditional requirements of parterre.  They use vegetables and herbs to fantastic effect and the look is complimented by a less formal approach to growing grape vines and roses in the walls that surround the parterre.  The gardeners have chosen not to use formal hedging and therefore maintenance is far more manageable.

There are many beautiful gardens in France which showcase both the traditional and a less formal approach to parterre,  for more information on the Jardins  de l’abbaye de Valoires see their website – www.abbaye-valloires.com


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