There’s a certain timelessness about parterre gardens, with their decorative arrangement of beds and paths laid out according to centuries’ old geometric or embroidery-inspired patterns.
Traditionally, the patterns are defined by dwarf hedges which became all the rage in Elizabethan knot gardens, intricate affairs that the French adopted, simplified, and called parterres.
One of the earliest and most famous examples is at the Palace of Versailles, a living embroidery of swirling miniature hedges.
Read on to our guide to planning a parterre garden…
Ideas for symmetrical beds
Today, parterres crop up in gardens great and small, equally at home in tiny courtyards as in large walled gardens of many beds filled with flowers and vegetables. Most are based on geometric shapes, arranged in a formal layout of triangles, squares, diamonds, wedges or rectangles, and separated by paths.
The most pleasing tend to have fewer, larger beds as opposed to lots of fussy, small ones, providing it is possible to reach the centre of each bed comfortably without treading on, and compacting, the soil.
Customarily, hedges demarcate each bed, but in undemanding contemporary schemes, the hedges are replaced with raised edges of reclaimed terracotta roof tiles or bricks placed in the ground, either upright or at a 45 degree angle.
Alternatively, low hurdles woven in hazel or willow provide a quick, instant option and make charming, rustic-style surrounds.
Parterres in a small space
Take advantage of any small space where the ground is level. A rectangular shape can slot in nicely beside a patio, or across the length of an existing access path, or even where levels change so it can be viewed from above.
Generally, the simplist designs work best in a small space, and if a single bed is narrow enough, plants can be tended from the sides without the need for hard landscaping in between. Curves or circular box-edged beds are a good basis for designs in front gardens where the shape is often more fragmented.
An elegant central geometric parterre helps counteract a wide shallow plot by adjusting the perspective. In this situation, you can emphasise the short axis of a shallow garden by adding a straight path through the centre, with perhaps an urn in the centre that you can walk around.
By positioning potted trees in a pattern within the beds and adding twisted topiary at each corner, the boundaries are hidden from view increasing the feeling of space.
Paths and arches
Paths form a vital part of the overall pattern, not only serving to frame each section, but also providing essential access for weeding, watering and planting. Whilst grass paths look lovely if kept well, there are also low maintenance options such brick, paving, gravel or bark chippings.
Arches add a vertical dimension to a parterre, straddling paths with supports for climbing plants. An especially effective and simple parterre consists of four square beds grouped round a central focal point, whilst an arch over each path frames the view within.
A central feature adds a hub around which the design flows. It could be as simple as an urn filled with box topiary or as dramatic as a circular arbour over which fruit trees are trained.
Ornaments such as statues, sundials, armillary spheres or birdbaths also create eye-catching focal points, provided they are raised high enough on a plinth to be commanding, and embraced by plants – a carpet of thyme, a circlet of lavender or clematis collar, for example.
Proportion is paramount and, whilst a feature should be large and elaborate enough to attract attention, it should not be so imposing as to overshadow everything else.
As a general rule of thumb, for every 3m (9ft 8in) of a parterre’s diameter, the central feature should be around 1m (3ft) tall. If space is so tight that a parterre consists only of a couple of beds, then consider adding a central focal point to each such as a miniature fruit tree or small obelisk smothered in roses.
More parterre garden advice…
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