The Elements of a Classic French-style Garden

A French garden with stone pathways.

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

Because precision and symmetry are hallmarks of French-style gardens, you'll probably find that maintenance is more demanding than a French country garden (more on that later), wildflower garden, or a typical perennial garden. In a French-style garden, it's difficult to hide weeds, unhealthy plants, and garden debris (fallen leaves, twigs, and branches), so be prepared to put in a few hours of maintenance every weekend.

The History of French-Style Gardens

It's commonly accepted that French-style gardens were originally inspired by Italian landscape design. A traditional Italian garden features evergreen plants—and few blooming plants—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 gardeners were then widely used by British gardeners. British gardeners blended their own styles into these gardening techniques, which influenced 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 gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Some other famous French gardens include the gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, the gardens of Château de Villandry, and the gardens of Eyrignac Manor.

A traditional French garden with geometric hedges.
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Key Elements of French-style Garden Design

Whether you're working on a small or large scale, French-style gardens should possess several key elements.

  • The residence should be the focal point of the garden. In traditional French-style gardens, the home is the focal point of the garden, with paths that run perpendicular to the structure. Stucco or stonework homes are ideal for a traditional French-style garden, but other styles of homes can work, too. Consider adding window boxes to further connect the home to the landscape.
  • Use symmetry. Precise, symmetrical lines are vital to a French-style garden. Incorporating boxwoods into the design gives it a traditional look and enables you to create and maintain the clean, geometric lines that are essential to the design. Be sure to trim boxwoods often to maintain their geometric shape. 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.
  • Incorporate stone surfaces. Gravel paths and stone steps not only define the walking paths in a a French-style garden, but they can also provide much-needed drainage during a rainy season. Gravel and stonework will help keep weeds at bay, and we recommend laying down a weed-barrier fabric underneath your pathways.
  • Add water features and other design elements. Reflecting pools, fountains, and other water features are elegant and harken back to traditional French-style gardens. Other decorative features such as urns and stone planters can add texture and a vertical element to your garden.
  • Stick to a simple color palette. French gardens typically have a cool color palette, so choose plants whose blooms are white, blue, pink, or purple. Lavender is a must-have in any French garden.
  • Make space for eating and relaxing. If you want to feel like you're dining in the French countryside, add a bench or small 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-style Garden Care and Maintenance

Maintaining a French-style garden can be time-consuming. 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-style garden, be sure to consider each plants' seasonality and placement. Annual and perennial plants 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 can make maintenance more difficult.

The bottom line? Tending to a French-style garden can be more work than your average perennial border, but the reward is a beautiful, elegant, and classic garden to showcase your home and landscape.

French Country Gardens

If you'd love to incorporate a French-style garden into your landscape but don't want to dedicate the time to maintenance, consider a French country garden. French country gardens maintain many of the design elements as a more formal garden, but their design is not as symmetrical or geometric. Garden beds can be less structured and feature more color but should always have an edging or border.