What Is a French-Style Garden?

A French garden with stone pathways.

John Harper / Stone / Getty Images

If you're looking for a super impactful way to add a touch of elegance, formality, and classic design to your home's exterior, consider planting a French garden. Known for their distinct, symmetrical lines, precisely trimmed hedges and shrubs, simple color palettes, stone elements, and use of lavender (hello, they are French, after all!), French gardens have a long history as the most formal gardens and outdoor spaces you're likely to find.

Because precision and symmetry are hallmarks of French-style gardens, you'll probably find that maintenance is much more demanding than a French country garden (more on that later), wildflower garden, or typical garden. It's tough to hide weeds, unhealthy or dead plants, and debris, like leaves, sticks, or grass clippings in a French garden, so be prepared to put in a few hours of maintenance every weekend.

The History of French Gardens

It's commonly accepted that French-style gardens were originally inspired by Italian landscape design. A traditional Italian garden features lots of evergreen plants—and very few blooming plants or flowers—clipped into precise, geometric lines, as well as pergolas with fragrant, climbing vines (think jasmine or wisteria); underplanted herbs, like rosemary and lavender; and natural stone features.

The Italian-inspired gardening techniques adapted by the French were then widely used by British gardeners. British gardeners blended their own styles into these gardening techniques, which informed later French-style gardens.

Some of the world's most famous gardens employ French-style gardening techniques, but none are more well-known than the garden at Versailles. Some other famous French gardens include the Gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, the Villandry Gardens, and the Gardens of Eyrignac Manor.

A traditional French garden with geometric hedges.
 Richard Ross/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Key French Garden Elements

Whether you're working on a smaller scale or a larger scale—like the whopping 2,000 acres in the Gardens of Versailles—there are some key elements every French-style garden should possess. Here's how to get started.

  1. The residence should be the focal point of your garden. In traditional French gardens, the home or residence is the center of the garden, with paths that run perpendicular to the structure. Stucco or stonework homes are ideal focal points for a traditional French garden, but other styles of homes can work, too. Consider adding window boxes to blend your home into the landscape.
  2. Use symmetry. Precise, symmetrical lines are vital to a French-style garden. Incorporating boxwoods into your French garden can give it a traditional touch, but these easy-to-grow hedges can also make maintaining clean, geometric lines easier. Just be sure to trim them as often as needed. In addition to neatly trimmed hedges, garden beds and planters should be kept neat, symmetrical, and free of debris. Feel free to experiment with other geometric shapes, like diamonds, semicircles, or triangles in your design.
  3. Incorporate stone surfaces. Gravel paths and stone steps not only define an area in a French garden, but can also provide much-needed drainage during a rainy season. Gravel and stonework will help keep weeds at bay, but we recommend laying a weed-barrier sheet or cloth before placing your pathways.
  4. Add water features and design elements. Reflecting pools, fountains, and other water features look elegant and harken back to traditional French-style gardens, while decorative features, like urns or cream-colored planters, can add texture and personality.
  5. Stick to a simple color palette. French gardens typically have a cool color palette, so choose plants that are white, blue, or purple. Lavender is a must-have in any French garden.
  6. Make space for eating and relaxing. If you want to feel like you're dining in the French countryside, add a bistro set to your garden. Look for simple furniture that can be exposed to the elements—an open-air ceiling is key.
A bistro set in a French garden.

French Garden Care and Maintenance

Like we said, maintaining a French-style garden can be a lot of work. Be prepared to dedicate several hours each weekend to trimming hedges, deadheading or replacing flowers (depending on the type you choose and the season), and clearing debris like leaves or grass clippings from your hedges and garden beds.

When selecting the plants for your French garden, be sure to consider each plants' seasonality and placement. Annuals and perennials are typically used to fill borders, but if you choose a plant that blooms in the summer, you'll need something to fill its space during the fall and spring. Garden beds that are filled with many different kinds of plants and flower may make maintenance even harder.

The bottom line? Tending to a French-style garden can be hard work, but the reward is a beautiful, elegant, and classic garden to showcase your home's exterior.

French Country Gardens

If you love French-style gardening, but don't want to dedicate the time to maintenance, consider a French country garden. French country gardens maintain the same order and design elements as a French garden, but feel more a little more relaxed and natural. Plant beds can be less structured and feature more color, but should always have an edging or border.