Parterre, the patterned garden.

One thing you need to view a parterre garden is a high vantage point, possibly a drone. But back in 15th Century France, there were no drones or hot air balloons. What you probably had to go with your parterre garden was a nice big house with storeys and lots of acres of land. Parterre was for the rich.

Parterre gardens are ornamental gardens that developed out of the popular Medieval knot garden – a square framed garden planted with aromatic varieties like thyme, marjoram and rosemary, and very established in Elizabethan England. What is different about parterre? Both are highly symmetrical, planted on a flat substrate and patterned, they rely on the full sun and not shade. Knot gardens have undulating hedges, whereas parterre are at a constant low height, planted with flower beds and separated by paths. Box plants like dwarf box are typical for parterres – the ultimate evergreen hedge. Also common for both is common box which grows slightly higher.  The evergreen is essential so parterre looks good all year, and with herbs and vegetables in the middle area, they were a little like a kitchen garden. Knot gardens are rarely filled.

Knot garden

Parterre gardening was labour intensive, with lots of daily trimming and specialist manicuring to keep the hedges precisely in shape. There are three types. Cutwork, which are square or rectangular, divided by paths of gravel, sand or lawn, with topiary or fountains at the centre. Water cutwork has water instead of flower beds and they resemble embroideries. English style is created out of turf with a statue at the centre. Seems they get mashed up quite a bit and it’s not unusual to have more than one style in a garden.

The patterns of parterre became more important. Originating in the gardens of the French Renaissance (15th C), parterre by the 17th century was more elaborate.  Plants weren’t enough. Coal and shells were used, hedges replaced with wood and paths filled with coloured sand or stone chips. Unsurprisingly the Baroque parterre fell out of fashion in the neo-classical 18th century and formal gardens were replaced with sweeping landscapes. However, the Victorians revived them with a new version – carpet bedding. A geometric display of flowers, showing emblems, letters or coats of arms. The annual spring time planting can still be see in civic areas of towns and cities up and down the UK. As the modern version of parterre gained in popularity, and on a smaller scale, the revival can be seen in both cottage gardens as well as stately homes.

Some examples of parterre gardens. Henry Wise, who worked at Hampton Court, was responsible for the parterre garden at Kensington Palace. The original parterre was created during the re-modelling of the house by Christopher Wren.  The parterres was removed during George II reign.

Charlecote Park parterre was recreated from the 1670s original, which involved a water garden with geometric parterres and a carp pond. Capability Brown filled in the water garden, raised the lawn and planted cedars. The new parterre was brought back in 1995.

The largest parterre still around is at Cliveden and covers four acres and viewed from a terrace. The earl of Orkney referred to it as the Quaker parterre because of its simplicity and it endured in this form until the 19th century when it turned into a prairie before restoration in the form of carpet bedding. The  wedge shaped boxes use Nepeta (catmint), santolina and senecio.

Since we’re on P, a word about prairie gardens.  These garden styles are a stark contrast to parterre and formal ones. Instead of patterns and boxes, the prairie look is totally natural and created by planting grasses and plants that attract insects and butterflies. Increasingly fashionable and worth a mention – Sussex Prairie Garden was begun in 2009, and is the largest naturalistic garden in Britain. Based on a family farm, there is no grand house but plenty of variety by way of contrasting leaf forms, stems, stalks and flower shapes.  Which would you prefer in your back yard?


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