French Gardens

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"A mix of style in one of the French gardens in Bourges"

Unsmiling French Gardens

Foreigners in France – and that includes expats – display a surprisingly wide range of opinions about their host country. For every Francophobe who detests everything the country stands for, there is a Francophile for whom France can do no wrong, and there are, of course, hundreds of different shades of opinion in between.

There is only one subject on which all of these people can agree, and that is the French style of formal gardening – which is held in general and near total contempt.

Over the years, I have heard many an extreme opinion about one aspect of French life or the other, but I still have to hear somebody make a case in favour of the French practice of treating nature as a canvas for human whimsy, of pruning plants in the shape of Platonic polygons or some royal mistress’s favourite pet.

"A French poodle tree"

You will only ever hear somebody defend this French tradition by pointing out the importance of extravagant “garden sculptures” as period pieces. We must admire the gardens of Versailles, this argument goes, as the perfect expression for the folly of the age.

To lay out a modern garden according to similar principles, by imposing human will brutally on nature, is, of course, totally out of the question. This is what I would call the “Whig interpretation of landscaping history”: first, we did this, because we knew no better. But then Capability Brown came and said: Let my bushes go!

And nature became free, free, free at last, Thank God Almighty, Free At Last!

Sometimes it may appear as though the French themselves shared this view – most Parisian parks have, after all, quite clearly been influenced by the English style. But this is mainly because the Emperor Napoleon III was such a rabid anglophile.

In truth, French gardens and the French tradition of landscaping has not died. French traditions never die, and what is more, not everything that this tradition has produced over the years is beneath contempt.

"Cubes and triangle hedges in French gardens "

Take the Jardin des Pres Fichaux for example, a public garden in Bourges that was completed in 1930 by the landscaping architect Paul Marguerita. This is quite clearly a French garden, but just as clearly not whimsical, but rather unsmiling and austere …

"Cropped trees  in Autumn you see in French gardens often"

… an imaginative landscaping “take” on the spirit of 1930s modernism.

"A mix of modernism in a cropped French garden"

“Abstract gardening” in other countries took a different route: substituting geometrically sculptured plants with geometrically shaped stone sculptures, lawns or flower beds. Left on its own, however, grass would no more form a closely cropped triangle than a hedge would grow into a perfect cube. This is not a question of moral superiority – merely one of taste. Even the Francophobes will not be able to dispute that.

"Cropped square hedges - usual sight in French gardens "

What is your opinion about French gardens?

Join us and tell us what you think of French gardens in our Facebook page. Read about our hike in the marshlands of Bourges here.

8 comments to French Gardens

  • I just got back from Paris where I wanted to see some of the famous gardens. Unfortunately, they weren’t yet properly arranged – no flowers yet, work in progress at Versailles – but from what I managed to see, I can say that the French gardens are definitely impressive and worth a visit. I hope I’ll have the chance to see them in May too.

  • I love French gardens!

  • Thanks for dropping by, Deborah.

  • Hi Michael – this is a very interesting perspective and read. We are in the early stages of planning our first Paris trip for 2014 and seeing French gardens is definitely on my agenda. As others have commented here, I also have not really put a lot of thought into the concept of pruned gardens, but seeing your pictures and hearing your views makes me tend to think I’ll be agreeing with you after seeing them first-hand. I find myself a big fan of lush and natural gardens, and I have to admit from your great pictures, they do look pretty austere!

    Thanks for your great post – found it on twitter through Simon Falvo – hope you’ll come by to visit my travel website when you have a moment, and if we’re not connected on Google +, Twitter or Pinterest, please let’s connect there as well. Best regards!

  • Yes lots of interesting points here, I think it depends on my mood as to whether or not I like French gardens. I loved the one at Villandry, with the love knots and the vegetables? Versailles is wonderful. Sometimes they do seem a little dour. But those lines of pollarded trees look lush in the spring and summer.

  • Terry

    Love the photos Michael, your article inspired me to research French gardens and all in all there are some beautiful gardens in France. I find them very similar to English gardens I’ve seen. Enjoyed your post.

  • I’m so glad to hear you say this! I thought I was the only one that wasn’t really impressed with French gardens.

  • What an interesting post, Michael. I’ve never really thought about French gardens, when we have visited them, because I’ve been so busy just enjoying the environment they provide. I will take with me tidbits from this post the next time I am lucky enough to be walking in a French garden and look at with with a different perspective.

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