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Parterre Garden Design

A parterre garden is a type of formal garden created by 16th Century French nursery designer Claude Mollet.  Mollet based his design on the square boundaries and elaborate interior patterns of English knot gardens.  However, he conceived of the parterre garden as fulfilling a different purpose for French landscapes.  Instead of being viewed by people who were passing by them on the ground, Mollet wanted his gardens to be viewed from the high vantage points of open windows, balconies, and palisades.   He therefore divided the single square into four squares, with gravel paths that intersect in the middle.  He also changed the vegetation contents from an emphasis on herbs and small flowering plants to larger growth that could be better seen from high places. 

Mollet selected clipped box to use in forming the boundaries of the parterre garden.  He relied heavily on other shrub species as well to provide variation in structure and color.   The English, of course, objected to this.  Herbalist and poet Gervase Markham wrote that box had a “naughty smell” and should not be used in a garden.  Markham had missed the point.  Mollet’s intention was to create a visual experience for the Elite to quietly enjoy from the opulence and comfort of their balconies and open windows.   It was far more important to see the garden as a unity than it was to smell individual flowers and herbs at close range.  This was the main reason that shrubs became predominant in parterre gardens, because when different species are planted together, the variations of green can be stunningly beautiful.

Parterre gardens reached the zenith of their form under the reign of Louis XIII at the Palace of Versailles.  King Louis’s head gardener, Jacques Boyceau, defined the best elements of the parterre gardens as follows:

• Borders that are made from several shrubs of different shades of green.
• Shrubs should be clipped in such a way as to create compartments and pathways within the general space.
• Passements, or embroidery patterns, should be formed out of shrub elements
• The use of repeating geometry (known as Arabesque) is often appropriate, along with selective use of animal forms in places.
• Distorted forms and interlacing patterns should be clearly visible and proportional to the whole.

Parterre gardens fell out of style after the French Revolution.  The new, favored form then became the 18th Century English naturalist garden.  However, in the 20th Century, parterre gardens experienced a resurgence in popularity.  While they still remain true to the same aesthetic intentions of Boyceau and Mollet, the use of four perfect squares is not typical except on very large, private estates that have the acreage to support them. 

Instead, the typical Houston parterre garden is often one of many elements found throughout the landscape.  It can be planted with either linear or contoured geometry to compliment the aesthetic of exterior architecture and outdoor forms.  This was done in a project we did some time back for a West Houston couple who loved all things French.  We sculpted a parterre garden around a paved area that was designed in the shape of a horseshoe.  Originally used for parking a boat, this area was later covered with gravel and used to mount a statue.  The surrounding greenery created a backdrop for this piece that looked both organic and elegant at once.

Typically, landscaping companies such as ours use a combination of boxwoods and holly trees when designing parterre gardens.  Boxwoods create excellent garden boundaries, and hollies add vertical dimension.  This simple combination is often very useful in a yard that has lacks a fence.  When planted along the property line, it creates a superb and highly aesthetic natural boundary between two residences. 

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