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What is a French Garden?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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A French garden is a very specific style of formal garden. Many people think of French gardens when they hear the words "formal garden," with the gardens at Versailles being a notable example. French gardens are used most classically in the landscaping of large formal structures like museums, private mansions, and so forth, although one could also install such a garden in front of a more modest structure.

Although this style is termed "French," it actually originated in Italy. French visitors were struck by the style of Italian formal gardens, and they resolved to bring the style back home, developing their own version of the formal garden with uniquely French features. Like all formal gardens, a French garden is characterized by a very precise, formal layout. Symmetry and order are very highly valued, with all hedges, lawns, trees, plants, and shrubs being meticulously maintained.

The distinguishing feature of a French garden is that it is centered on the facade of a building, differentiating it from many other formal gardening styles. The French garden draws the eye to the building, and integrates the building into the landscape with its very geometric style. These gardens also typically have numerous reflecting pools, fountains, and ponds, with gravel and lawn paths to allow people to navigate the garden. Clipped evergreens are a common feature in French gardens, bordering paths and flower beds.

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Many French gardens are also dotted with small ornamental buildings, which may range from open-air gazebos for summer entertaining to fully enclosed structures. Historically, each structure had a very specific purpose, with these buildings being used to play board games, serve tea, listen to music, paint, and engage in other recreations in the garden. Such buildings were also used by royalty for formal audiences with guests.

Maintaining a traditional French garden usually requires a lot of work. The garden needs constant trimming, pruning, weeding, and other maintenance tasks, as it must look immaculate at all times. New flowers are constantly being planted to replace worn and tired plants, and the design of the garden is constantly being refined with small and subtle details.

In the 1800s, the style of the French garden began to wane in favor of more natural and wild-looking gardens, probably in part because of the tough maintenance. The French garden still endures in many corners of the world, however, and dedicated gardeners prize theirs very highly, since it can take decades for a French garden to reach its full potential.

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whiteplane
Post 2

I like the formal French garden for their care and the attention to detail, but I prefer a more wild, random and overgrown style of gardening.

French gardens always seem like they are trying to tame nature rather than celebrate it and participate in it. I like a garden that looks like it is growing according to its own means. I like the way that plants begin to overlap, they take on strange shapes, their smells intermingle. It feels like being a part of the earth.

backdraft
Post 1

I was once lucky enough to stay in a villa in Bordeaux that had an immaculate french garden. The owner had a five person gardening staff that worked year round maintaining the garden. And they probably could have used a few extra people because it was an amazing place.

I spent almost every night at dusk wandering around the garden, taking in the smells and watching the light reflect off the many many pools. It was like being in Eden, except more formal. That was once of the most beautiful places I have ever stayed.

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