Celebrating the French Country Garden

courtyard garden in pots

Variety is at the center of French gardening ideals. Throughout history France has been revered for its picturesque countryside and its both quaint and illustrious gardens. Gardeners and landscapers today can borrow much from historic and contemporary French gardens in the way of design, plant choice and various features, allowing anyone to install a French country garden with all the beauty and charm inherent there.

France, which is noted for its six hundred wines and four hundred cheeses, likes to boast that it contains roughly six hundred differing physical and cultural landscapes as well. This gives today's French-inspired gardeners the luxury of choice when it comes to working with their own landscape, whether intimate or large in scale.

When planning your own garden, it may be helpful to consider a particular part of France that is well-known and suggestive of distinct styles. Think of Normandy, Alsace, the Riviera, or Poitiers and the wine making region of Burgundy. Incorporating French style will not shout "France!" the way a pagoda style roof or paper lantern will scream the Orient, but taken together, the collective features, design scheme, and plantings will suggestively paint an unmistakable French picture.

Controlled Abundance

First of all, your French country garden should be a blended garden. Your beds may run into each other, your plantings need not be neat and organized in rows and your growth should be profuse--up the walls of your house, winding around the property, filling up all the space. A simple gravel or mulch path will be sufficient to provide a trail through it all, but stone will add the characteristic old-world charm. Of course, your planting scheme may appear to be overgrown and wild, but underneath it all is the gardener's knowing hand, creating nooks and corners, romantic overhangs, and shady recesses perfumed by heavy-scented blooms.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Karen Thurber suggests, "To keep your garden maintained without looking manicured, use hand pruners to selectively remove unwanted growth on shrubs and vines. Deadheading, or removing old flowers from perennials will keep your plants blooming longer. Guide vines up trellises or arbors and remove wild shoots a few times a year, to keep it controlled but not formal."

Architectural Elements

Architectural variety and can add considerable charm to any garden. A pathway may open up to a garden pond spanned by a stone or rustic wooden bridge. A small gazebo may be set within a shady nook and a patio of cobblestones might fan out from the rear of the house itself. Arbors, trellises, window boxes and simple arches defined by healthy plant growth are ideal symbols of the French country garden.

TIP: Karen adds, "French country gardens lend themselves to great play spaces for young children. Including arbors and garden sheds in your design can lead to hours of imaginative play. Arbors become a stage for a play, or a goal for a soccer game. Garden sheds can be a secret hideout or playhouse; include a small window in the shed and it is a drive through restaurant. Plant your favorite vines to cover these structures and they will add beauty to your French Country Garden, as well as entertainment for your children."

Garden Furniture

Such gardens are not complete without quiet recesses for people to enjoy the scenery. Wrought iron chairs painted white along with a matching table can be placed anywhere in the landscape. Shaded by trees and surrounded by ornamental grasses, lavender and Oriental poppies conjure up a perfect setting for an evening glass of merlot. Avoid straight lines and modern features if you can, as these are not evident in French gardens.

TIP: Karen advises, "When planning your garden, don't forget to add an element for the birds; birdbaths or a shallow fountain can bring many birds into the garden."

Plant Choices

When choosing your plantings, consider a wealth of green foliage plants in varying shapes and sizes. From low-growing groundcovers and tall broadleaf plants, to small shrubs, tall hedges and wide-spreading trees, your French garden should be a green world punctuated with splashes of color, both annual and perennial blooms. These foliage plants may be everywhere throughout your landscape, but they should be well-kept. While French gardens are profuse, they are not wild. It takes careful maintenance to keep up this abundant growth.

TIP: Karen says, "Two commonly used vines in French gardens are Boston Ivy and Virginia Creeper. Both of these vines do a great job climbing up the side of buildings or over arbors. Boston Ivy and Virginia creeper attach themselves to vertical surfaces, using modified tendrils that have circular disks at the ends. These modified tendrils can cause damage to the surface of the building if you pull the vine off. The best way to remove some or all of the vines is to cut the shoot and let it die, only then can you pull the vine off with minimal damage. Some tendrils may be still left on the surface, so choose you placement of these vines carefully."

Design Example

Consider both useful and decorative plantings. Herbs, vegetables and riotous flowers should all be incorporated into your garden plan. One example might be a cobblestone patio bordered by grapevine; the side of the house lined with a small orchard of fruit and nut bearing trees; the front of house designed with a flagstone path, an arch with climbing roses, ivy-covered walls, window boxes, container plants on the porch, a few trees, ornamental grasses and various flowerbeds flowing one into another; other side of the house defined by a small vegetable garden; the rear of the house defined by a small pond, profuse growth of trees, flowerbeds and herb garden, etc.

By incorporating old-world features and luxuriant plant growth, you can adapt any landscape into a French vision. With the help of a few books about French landscape, you can draw from pictures what will work on your own property. As romantic landscapes and gardens go, a French garden is the epitome of beauty and romance.