‘Nestled under the terrace, sheltered by high, warm walls... Nothing was more charming than this garden. It existed in this tiny, sheltered bit of land which had trusted itself to man, under the large benevolent house - just big enough for a soul without worldly ambition, or possessing the genius of retirement.’ - Henri Bosco, describing a Parterre garden
Victorians had a passion for horticulture, with many of the most popular ornamentals grown today stemming from collections that date back to the Victorian era. They believed the best way to display their love for plants was to develop Parterre [paa·teuh] gardens. Similar to the traditional Knot garden but boasting easier to maintain border plants.
Recognised by their ornamental flower beds that have been arranged to form intricate patterns across a level garden space. Parterre gardens reached the height of English fashion in the 1600s, with a revival several centuries later. They were adored for their ability to showcase pure horticultural talent and taste.
What is Parterre?
Parterre comes from the French word meaning ‘on the ground’. This labour-intensive style reveals a formal outdoor space. Typically consisting of evenly balanced plant beds and symmetrical patterns that are all connected by gravel or turf paths that span the entire level surface of this garden style.
Admirable from all angles, but perhaps most all from upper floor windows and balconies above due to the striking formations that reveal themselves. Parterre gardens are immaculate. Well-kept gravel walks and beautifully trimmed bedding plants provide clear views of every flower, stem and leaf that grows.
The more intricate ‘Parterre de broderie’, which means ‘Parterre of embroidery’, would have been used in gardens around England in the 17th century. They featured more elaborate and fluid patterns that resemble embroidery of the period. Another variation is the ‘Parterre a l’anglaise’, or English Parterre, such as the gardens found at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, which displays a variety of grasses that have been designed into complex shapes and patterns that would be harder to grow and maintain on the continent.
The History of Parterre
The first Parterre was developed in France by Claude Mollet in 1595. A garden Designer who introduced the concept of compartment-patterned Parterres to royal gardens, such as Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Fontainebleau. The idea had evolved from earlier Knot gardens. These were popular amongst the Tudors, with early Parterres interlacing herbs and flowers that surround sand pathways. Unlike Knot gardens, Parterre gardens were less intricate and made up primarily of easy to maintain border plants, herbs, flowers and even fruit trees and vegetables.
Over time Parterre gardens fell out of fashion. Many were removed and replaced by more naturalistic styled landscapes, as was the trend of the time. But they came back more popular than ever under the reign of Queen Victoria around 1837 when strict standards were placed on people, their homes, and their gardens. It was a time where the importance of what was considered ‘English’ dictated everything from behaviour to artistic standards and so the Parterre Garden received a revival.
These gardens contained plants that were grown in very controlled patterns. They allowed the growing middle class to imitate the standards from the elaborate staffed gardens of the upper classes, which we harder to maintain due to their traditional Celtic Knot design.
Contemporary Parterre Gardens
These formal gardens have elegance and grace beyond compare. Best viewed from towering balconies and upper floor levels to fully appreciate and admire the symmetry and balance of planting. A modern Parterre adopts the patterned beds, intertwining pathways and strong formal lines, but combines this with greater freedom in planting. With gardeners experimenting with height, repetition, colour and shapes and a relaxed approach to topiary.
Parterre gardens begin with flat, open spaces and a variety of evergreen plants arranged to form year-round patterns. Interwoven by displays of annuals and seasonal perennials. Traditional plants, such as heather, lavender and rosemary are also excellent choices to provide structural formations whilst smelling divine.