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What is a Parterre?

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  • Written By: Donn Saylor
  • Edited By: John Allen
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  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2016
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A parterre is a type of formal garden comprised of various plants and edging styles arranged in a symmetrical design. Parterres have served as picturesque backgrounds in a variety of settings, from the French Renaissance to 16th century London, from the novels of Jane Austen to modern-day Irish castles. These unique types of gardens may or may not contain flowers but always make use of vibrant greenery, immaculate hedging, gravel paths, and stone borders.

In 16th century France, Claude Mollett — the gardener to three consecutive French kings — designed the first parterre. His initial endeavors were influenced by traditional English knot gardens, which employed a variety of fragrant plants and herbs in a pleasing design. Mollett's vision, though, was much grander: he wanted to design a garden that could be equally attractive when observed from ground level or from higher viewing areas like balconies or palace windows. The layout he created involved one large square garden, separated into four smaller squares connected by walkways and lined with clipped boxwoods. The greenery was trimmed into an assortment of shapes and styles, and though the utilization of boxwood was controversial — many considered the boxwood's smell offensive — the design eventually became an immensely popular gardening style favored by kings and commoners alike.

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Parterres went out of fashion in the 18th century but reemerged as a trendy garden design during the 20th century. Throughout those years, the traditional square layout of the parterre evolved into far more elaborate arrangements. This was done to accommodate the sizes of diverse land plots and to complement the architecture of buildings on the property.

A modern parterre can be designed and planted by landscaping companies or amateur gardening enthusiasts. Since the gardens are considered formal spaces, most designers start with a solid blueprint of how the parterre will look, the symmetrical form it will take, and the plants and stones that will be implemented. Borders are delineated by decorative stones or elaborate hedges that can be pruned into the desired shapes. Planting beds can include any number of plants, from more reserved greenery to boldly colored flower selections.

Contemporary parterre designs will often include additional ornamental touches that offer striking focal points throughout the space. These might include benches, birdbaths, fountains, sculptures, or small ponds. Flourishes like these, however, seldom take away from the pleasant view of the garden when observed from a higher vantage point, which keeps many modern parterres true to Mollett's original intentions.

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