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Bonjour Mon Jardin!

Château Gardens Small French châteaus like Chaumont (top) and the one pictured above have relatively informal gardens that blend with the architecture, as opposed to the imposing formal gardens at châteaus like Versailles.

How to put a little je ne sais quoi into your garden.

By Karen Mitchell

Some of us visit France to take in the sights, the history and the gastronomic delights. But when Erica Althans-Schmidt made a recent trip, her sightseeing focused on the many gardens in France, from formal château and parterre gardens to informal kitchen gardens, replete with color.

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French flower gardens often have densely planted flowers with colors of echoing hues.

“When you’re a gardener, that’s what you do when you travel,” says Althans-Schmidt, operations manager and assistant garden designer at Gwynne’s Greenhouse & Gardenshoppe in Lyons. “French gardens inspired me to incorporate some of these ideas into my designs.” Whether you’ve seen French gardens up close or as an armchair traveler, bringing French flair to your yard starts with a choice, says Karla Dakin, landscape architect and owner of K. Dakin Design in Louisville. “There are basically two ways to go,” she says. “There’s the formal route, with topiaries and space. However, it’s important to be aware of how we can emulate the French potager garden as we mix food plants with xeriscape plants, which have different water requirements.” A big difference between French gardens and the way we plant here is that we typically space plants farther apart and layer them with mulch, Althans-Schmidt says. “In France, you can’t see where one plant ends and the next begins; they become a unit. This is very dramatic, and draws your eye along the whole length of the garden.” An advantage of planting close together, known as French intensive gardening, is the creation of shade. Plants shade each other so that water isn’t lost as quickly from the soil. This also prevents weed growth. “When planting to fill your own French-style country garden, choose a single color with variations of form, or select a few colors that echo each other, such as pinks with purple throats in combination with deeper purple flowers or foliage,” Althans-Schmidt suggests. “Repeat patterns with your color scheme and build height quickly, paying a lot of attention to what’s spiky or rounded or trailing. Plant a variation of shapes and forms.”

Château Gardens Small French châteaus like Chaumont (top) and the one pictured above have relatively informal gardens that blend with the architecture, as opposed to the imposing formal gardens at châteaus like Versailles.
Small French châteaus like Chaumont and the one pictured above have relatively informal gardens that blend with the architecture, as opposed to the imposing formal gardens at châteaus like Versailles.

In fact, French gardens rely heavily on texture, she says. “Some of the French gardens I saw were planted in rows with a monochromatic color scheme. Special attention was paid to the inclusion of plants for their texture and form, rather than just their flowers. The gardens were so full and vibrant, so striking in that single palette. Without the distraction of color, each plant’s form and texture were more apparent, and the gardens looked vivacious.” And flowers are always planted alongside vegetables in a potager garden, Althans-Schmidt says. “In French intensive gardening, vegetables are closely spaced so that their leaves touch each other at maturity, and companion well-defined beds bordered by hedges, or the wild, French-country potager garden that incorporates vegetables next to flowers like roses and lavender.” The potager style evokes images of Monet’s well-known Giverny garden. “It’s all about creating habitats for butterflies and birds and bees,” Dakin says of potager gardens. “It represents a trend in landscaping—to address the loss of ecosystems due to development.” More-formal French gardens are often filled with pots of scented geraniums and gravel walkways with elaborate parterres (garden beds divided into ornamental patterns) lined with boxwoods or hedges. Everything is neat and orderly, and there is a defined pattern in conjunction with hardscape areas, Dakin explains. “Americans are loath to create gravel pathways, as opposed to the French, who for centuries have used gravel as a paving material for patios and pathways,” Dakin says.

Parterre Gardens Ornamental shapes distinguish parterres, which have well-defined planting beds surrounded by borders of hedges or other plants.
Parterre Gardens Ornamental shapes distinguish parterres, which have well-defined planting beds surrounded by borders of hedges or other plants.

Consider Versailles, where gravel paths intertwine between neatly clipped hedges and prim flower beds. “Pervious (permeable) paving is better for the environment, allowing rain to seep naturally into the ground rather than running off concrete driveways and streets,” Dakin says. In Colorado, you can mimic France’s formal gardens by using native plants that require no to low water and tightly clipped, maintained hedges. Plant choices could include mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus), fernbush (Chamaebatiaria), leadplant (Amorpha) and buffalograss (Bouteloua). Anyone interested in formal French gardens should visit Denver’s Centennial Gardens for ideas, Dakin says. The gardens are located at 1101 Little Raven St. (by the Pepsi Center and Elitch Gardens).

Potager Gardens Vegetables, herbs and flowers freely intermix in potager gardens.
Potager Gardens Vegetables, herbs and flowers freely intermix in potager gardens.

Wild, unruly potager gardens may be more at home on the Front Range, however. “Wild gardens are easier, because we’re used to them,” Dakin says. “The wild garden simulates the natural environment we see in open planting—where two or more plants support the growth of the other—is employed. Flowers attract pollinators so that you have bountiful harvests, and certain varieties, including herbs, deter pests with their strong fragrance. Typical flowers to combine with vegetables include sunflowers, marigolds, nasturtiums, decorative onions, calendula, scented geraniums and borage. Scattering vegetables throughout the garden also helps shield them from pests, Althans-Schmidt says, whereas single rows can appear like a buffet to insects. “Attention to height is also important in vegetable gardens. You generally want to maximize the sun’s rays by building in height from the southern end of your garden toward the northern end,” she says. When creating a French garden plan, consider water, sun and soil requirements, coupled with color and texture decisions, and match those to plants that work well here, Dakin says. “There are a lot of available choices now; the West has discovered its own horticulture. Remember that with French country gardens, packed with plants, the soil is shaded by the plants, which is so important here because of winds and dryness. You can supplement with mulch to keep the weeds down. You can water from underneath with drip irrigation. A lot of people put in perennials but that takes a lot of maintenance, so use plants that work well in this climate. These include the xeriscape plants like Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber or red valerian), coreopsis (Asteraceae), penstemons, roses and so many others.”

Adding Ooh Là Là

Indeed, when it comes to French blooms in local gardens, many plants are amenable, says Eve Reshetnik Brawner, co-owner of Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder. Much of southern France is dry and rocky, hot and sunny in the summer, and not too cold in winter, similar to the Boulder Valley, she says. With the right materials, you can achieve an informal Provence-style garden that uses little water and requires little maintenance.

This French herb garden features patterned ornamental beds, pathways, urns and a fountain.
This French herb garden features patterned ornamental beds, pathways, urns and a fountain.

Brawner suggests incorporating lots of evergreen plants, especially broad-leafed evergreen shrubs, small shrubs and herbs. Examples include boxwood (trimmed or untrimmed), broom and daphne. Many Mediterranean plants, especially herbs, thrive in our dry, sunny climate, she says. Try ‘Arp’ and ‘Madeline Hill’ rosemary, lavender, thyme, sage and oregano, as well as evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), rockrose (Helianthemum nummularium), catmint (Nepeta) and wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys). Use tall, columnar selections of our native Rocky Mountain juniper, like ‘Skyrocket’ and ‘Woodward’, as punctuation points, as well as substitutes for the cypress trees so emblematic of the Mediterranean landscape. Include romantic, fragrant, climbing and rambling antique roses, like ‘Madame Hardy’, ‘Désirée Parmentier’, ‘Louise Odier’ and ‘Climbing American Beauty’. Intersperse fruit trees, edible-fruited shrubs and colorful vegetables, like ‘Redbor’ kale or ‘Swallow’ eggplant, among ornamentals. Grapevines are a must, Brawner says, and if you have a picturesque apple, flowering crab apple, plum or hawthorn tree, make sure your garden design draws attention to it.

Without the distraction of color, every plant’s texture and form is readily apparent in this garden.
Without the distraction of color, every plant’s texture and form is readily apparent in this garden.

Scatter seeds of colorful, low-water, old-fashioned annuals like bachelor’s button, corn poppy or Shirley poppy, larkspur, sweet alyssum, moss rose and snapdragon. Long-blooming xeriscape shrubs, like blue mist spirea, butterfly bush and Russian sage, are a good fit for an informal Provence-style garden, as are old-fashioned fragrant perennials and biennials like fraxinella and tall garden phlox. Avoid plants that have strong associations with very different parts of the world, like sagebrush, bamboo or birch. Buff sandstone in hardscape areas simulates the pale limestone used in southern France. Include informal, dry-laid stone walls, steps, patios and paths, and plant low-growing herbs and evergreen ground covers (red creeping thyme, Reiter thyme, Turkish veronica, Roman chamomile) in the spaces between paving stones. Fill wall baskets with colorful trailing plants. Metal café-style furniture or traditional farmhouse-style painted wooden furniture (blue shades are popular in France) and bright, floral-fabric cushions and tablecloths project the Provençal image. Trellises, tuteurs (obelisk-like trellises), arbors and benches add sculptural and architectural elements.

Formal topiaries are interesting, but require considerable maintenance.
Formal topiaries are interesting, but require considerable maintenance.

The formal French parterre de broderie (resembling embroidery) garden requires different tactics, Brawner says. The parterre de broderie garden is meant to be viewed from above, so many of its elements are low growing. Begin by designing a pattern (geometric, swirling, circular, square, etc.) of planting beds, organized around a focal point like a fountain, sculpture, or climbing roses or vines on a tuteur. Use drought-tolerant, short-shrub evergreens like germander, blue hyssop and evergreen candytuft to outline the planting beds. If you have the time, trim these into formal mini hedges. Fill in planting beds with low-growing, long-flowering, drought-tolerant perennials like ‘Coral Canyon’ twinspur and prairie zinnia. Or plant ornamental vegetables, such as different colored lettuces, kales or Swiss chards, outlined by hedge-like rows of Tuscan black kale. Use pale buff sandstone and/or pale buff gravel for paths and patios. Punctuate the parterre with large plants in European traditional-style pots. And skip the topiary, Brawner says, unless it’s your hobby and you have the time. Happy planting, and bonne chance!

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