Pathways of Parterres: French Garden Structures

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The frost of February leaves nothing to its mercy in the garden. Spring buds are hiding and landscape design dependent upon bursts of color look abandoned. However, a winter garden with clipped boxwoods adjoining stone covered pathways offers symmetrical patterns and beauty in the grayest of days. This type of shrub-lined garden construction rose out of the 16th-century knot or herb garden and later evolved into the French parterre garden.

The parterre (meaning “low to the ground“) garden in 17th-century France offered year-round structure and a perfect tableau for creative designs. Using crushed gravel pathways to frame trimmed patterns of green beds, imaginative designers created many a form, ranging from symmetrical to symbolic layouts. Today, the parterre garden is used in numerous landscape designs, offering intrigue in a garden space even during the flowerless months of winter.

The French father of the parterre garden design was Claude Mollet who was the chief gardener for three French kings, Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV. Mollet (1564-1649) claimed to have first introduced the use of boxwoods as a border for his elaborate parterre patterns. Isolated in six-foot wide gravel pathways, Mollet proclaimed his designs to be like the intricate tapestry of a Turkish carpet. Mollet sculpted herbs and shrubs into ciphers, letters, coats-of-arms, and even ships.

The first French gardens that were embellished with Mollet’s parterre technique included the chateau of Henri IV, Saint Germain-en-Laye, in 1595, the Chateau de Fontainebleau, and at Monceaux-en-Brie as well as the Palace of the Tuileries in Paris. (Source for the historical information: “The Importance of Andre Mollet,” in The French Formal Garden, 1974. Elizabeth B. MacDougall and F. Hamilton Hazlehurst.)

Initially, the parterre gardens were designed as separate landscape experiences creating garden pathways and rooms away from the main house. It was Mollet’s son, Andre, a royal gardener for Queen Christina in Stockholm, who achieved the integration of the parterre garden with the design of the main house. Previously used only in isolation, the parterre garden of Andre Mollet had a significant relationship to the layout of the buildings. He carved out elaborate designs framing gravel pathways punctuated with fountains, basins, and statuary.

Charles I of England summoned Andre Mollet in the 1620s to bring the parterre designs to his country home, Wilton House. The footprint of these designs can still be viewed today at this elaborate English country manor. It was Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, however, who inspired Andre to create his parterres with colored rocks and finely clipped and styled shrubs fashioned as the prince’s lion in his coat-of-arms. This style of parterre is known as parterres en broderie, as it was patterned like Baroque textiles.

The popularity of Mollet’s garden design spread to Sweden where he introduced the French parterres en broderie to the royal palace. Mollet transformed the tedious Swedish gardens into elegant Baroque landscapes of curving pathways and artful foliage.

Parterres are also referred to as patterned gardens, where the landscape is transformed into a work of art. Best viewed from above, there are three predominant patterns used in parterre garden design.

The first and oldest style is the parterre de pieces coupes. As the French interpretation of the name implies, the garden is cut into sections forming a quilt-like pathway. Inspired by the Middle Age monastery gardens, these parterres were characterized by raised flowerbeds and dividing paths.

The two other forms of patterned gardens were the parterre de broderie and the parterre a l’anglais or English manner parterre. The later was a sliced turf-based parterre where symmetry and rectangular designs reigned.

Antebellum homes in the American South during the 18th century incorporated the parterre into the garden designs of the homes. The use of evergreen trees and shrubs formed the backbone for the gardens of this era. Parterre gardens were created in a smaller form featuring dwarf evergreen shrubs such as box planted camellias and gardenias planted along the pathways. Gravel or oyster shells lined the ceremonial pathways to the garden rooms.

One of the most notable Louisiana gardens touting a splendid French parterre is Afton Villa Gardens in St. Francisville (225-635-6773). Worthy of a much longer story, Afton Villa Gardens has a classic example of a parterre in a circular design punctuated with urns and a central sundial. The Herman-Grima House in New Orleans also has a fine example of a parterre. Boxwoods prevail here, as there are no flowering plants in the geometrical design. City Park’s Rose Garden is one of the most beautiful examples of a French parterre in New Orleans. Roses bloom within the triangular beds offering fragrance and brilliant flora throughout the year.

Structure to a parterre begins with a design. Create a gravel pathway from one point to another to form the “bones.” The point could be as simple as a bench or as elaborate as a gazebo. Then create patterns of evergreen around the boundaries of this pathway. (You can do this with soap powder, initially.) Once you are satisfied with your design, step back and imagine. Can you see the patterned evergreens all winter long giving grace to your garden?

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