France's gardens and their designers have had a huge influence on garden design throughout the world.
Gardens to see and visit in France range from the broad scale Baroque landscaping of Andre Le Nôtre that became synonymous with wealth and power during the 17th century, to the intimate painter's garden of Monet at Giverny and now the heat-tolerant perennial gardens of contemporary designer James Basson. France's gardens draws millions of visitors every year to its thousands of open gardens, many of them listed as 'Jardins Remarquable'.
Garden Travel Guide to France
Getting to France and getting around while you’re there
Air travel to France is plentiful and there are international airports throughout the country, including Paris, Poitiers, Peripignan, Nice, Lyon, Marseille, Boreaux, Carcassonne, Grenoble, Chambery and Limoges.
Many garden tours to France are now also using the country’s main rivers as major arteries for garden visiting.
• Seine River cruises sail between Paris and Le Havre on the Normandy coast, picking up the Paris gardens of Versailles and Vaux le Vicomte, then Monet’s garden at Giverny, Jardins d’Angelique in Rouen, and the Jardins du Château de Brécy near Caen.
• Rhône River (often including the Saône River) cruises sail between Lyon and Arles, during which you can visit botanical gardens, the Beaujolais wine region, olive farms and gardens in Avignon.
France is on the western edge of Europe, and is within the northern temperate zone mostly between latitudes 41° and 51° North but the proximity to certain oceans and its landforms make for a range of climates.
It is usually described as having four different climate zones:
1. In the west and northwest along the coast of the Atlantic and English Channel the climate is described as an oceanic climate which has moderately warm summers and cool winters but neither season is particularly severe by European standards. La Hague in Brittany for instance has summer daily range of about 15C to 21C and a winter range of 6C to 10C.
2. There is a semi-continental climate from Paris towards the north and east where summers are hotter and winters are colder. Nancy in the Lorraine region has a summer range of about 12C to 24C but a cooler winter range of only 0C to 4C for instance .
3. The south famously has a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters. Summer ranges in Nice are 20C to 27C and 6C to 12C in winter
4. The fourth area is mountainous and is in several different mountain regions of the Alps and Jura on the border with Switzerland and Italy, the Pyrenees on the border with Spain and the Massif Central, in central France. These areas have mild summers and cold winters.
The Mediterranean climate of the south has rain in winter only but elsewhere the rainfall is fairly evenly spread throughout the year.
France topography and vegetation
France is shaped like a hexagon, and three of its six sides are bounded by water. These are the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean Sea. The other sides are borders with various European neighbours, are nearly all mountainous and include the highest peak in Europe, Mont Blanc.
In between these very different boundaries the land follows two basic types. In the north and west it is low hills and low plateaus with broad plains between them. The largest of these plains, the Paris Basin, alone is about 100,000 sq km. But in the south and east it is elevated plateaus and high mountains. Many of these border regions have only limited passes through to the neighbouring countries of Spain, Switzerland and Italy.
Like most of Europe, France was entirely wooded in prehistoric times. Forests were mainly beech and oak but it was gradually denuded to the point where agricultural and pastoral activity nearly destroyed the forests. France was also the site of many land battles from the early eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth century which left large areas even more damaged. In northern France, the devastation of WW1 artillery bombardments and extensive tunnelling completely reshaped the land and left landscapes completely denuded.
Since then though there has been a concerted effort to protect and develop the National Parks and now forests and reserve areas account for 28% of France’s land area. There has also been a significant increase in diversity with these reserve areas now home to more than 140 species of trees.
France garden history
Although there is some archeological evidence of Roman garden history in France, like much of Europe the roots of its garden traditions began with medieval monastic gardens, filled with herbs, medicinal plants, vegetables and fruit trees and protected by monastery walls.
However the power and creativity of the Italian Renaissance and the close ties between Italian kings and the French monarchy brought new garden design styles and Italian designers to France from the late 15th century which were embraced by those wanting to exhibit their wealth. Many of these gardens looked back to classical ‘Vitruvian’ influences, particularly in architecture, resulting in elaborate symmetrical, geometric designs and pleasing proportions created with parterres, paths and water in the gardens in gardens at Chateau d’Anet (since destroyed) and Fontainebleau.
By the mid 17th century the French had developed their own formal garden style and landscape designer André Le Nôtre became one of the best known and famous landscape gardeners in Europe. His gardens for Louis XIV at Vaux-le-Vicomte create a grand vista that stretched for one and a half kilometres (1 mile), decorated with intricate parterres and punctuated with dozens of statues, urns, fountains a topiaries. The symmetry of the gardens was extraordinary, requiring massive earth removal and reshaping. Le Nôtre then trumped this with the 15,000 hectare garden at Versailles, with a central axis that reached to the horizon, a perfect reflection of the Sun King’s unimaginable power. However these were not just gardens to be admired from within the palace but included numerous more intimate stroll gardens, with fountains, bosquets (wooded glades) and statues.
By the middle 1700s though, the English landscape park (jardin a l’anglaise) was becoming fashionable, and gardens gradually became less formal, with parterres and symmetry replaced by flowing lines, ornamental ponds and romantic, rustic follies. This flowed through into the first public gardens in the late 18th century.
English influences on French garden design continued throughout the 20th century, with famous British designers such as Lutyens and Page making gardens from Normandy to the Côte d’Azur.
Recently, more vernacular gardens using a simple palette of climate-appropriate plants such as lavender, rosemary, olives, figs and perennials combined with shaped box, like that at La Louve, the garden made by textile designer Nicole de Vésian, have begun a new French tradition. Current designers such as James and Helen Basson are building on this new awareness of Mediterranean plants with new perennial gardens.
Gardens to see and visit in France
Jardins Remarquable – Since 2003, there has been a growing list of the Remarkable Gardens of France, now with more than 300 gardens that have been classified as ‘remarkable’ by the French Ministry of Culture and the Comité des Parcs et Jardins de France. The list includes many gardens well-known to tourists such as Eyrignac and Marqueyssac in the Dordogne, Château de Chamont in the Loire, and Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles in the Île-de-France.
Although the majority of the gardens are historic large estate gardens, there are also newer 20th century gardens such as the small Gardens of Sardy at Vélines in the Dordogne, the 1960s-70s garden of architect Rene Guichemerre ‘Park of Sarrat’ in Landes, or the contemporary Gardens of the Imagination in Terrasson.
There is an abridged but well-described list of Jardins Remarquable, with links to more specific information for each garden on Wikipedia – click HERE.
To find other gardens to visit in France, you can find a map of 1,422 gardens at the Comité des Parcs et Jardins de France (Gardens and Parks Committee of France) website HERE. Zoom in to see open garden locations throughout France, as well as the locations of the many Jardins Remarquable. You can also search by Région or Département and also main features. The site is in French but google translate should help you access it all.
France Garden Festivals, Garden Shows and Garden Events
• Salon du Végétal, Angers – mid February
• International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire – late April to early November
• Fête des Plantes de Printemps, Château de Saint-Jean de Beauregard (30 minutes south of paris) – plants for sale from Europe’s top nurseries – early April
• Jardins en Seine, Terrace Fécheray, Mont Valerien, Suresnes, Paris – show for urban gardeners, with display designer balcony and terrace gardens, garden products, plants – early April
• Les Journées des Plantes et Jardins de Mignières + salon des Orchidées, Château des Boulard, near Chartres – plant and garden fair specialising in French-made products – late April
• Passionnément Jardin, Honfleur – late April
• Plantes, Plaisirs, Passions, Chateau de La Roche-Guyon (1 hour drive from Paris) – early May
• Les Journées des Plantes, Domain of Chantilly. 200 exhibitors, 2016 theme ‘The Gourmet Garden’ – mid May
• Graines de Jardin (Festival of Garden Seeds) in Jardin des Plantes, Rouen – late May
• Journées des Plantes aux Jardins d’Albertas, Bouc-Bel-Air (near Marseiile) – large Mediterranean plant and product fair in the grounds of the 17th century garden – late May
• Rendezvous aux Jardins – special open days in 127 gardens (both public and private) throughout France – early June
• Jardins Jardin, Tuileries, Paris – 30 small display gardens, plants, garden trends – early June
• Fête des Jardins, Paris – 50 open gardens and green spaces – late September
• Grand Fete des Jardins Partages (Great Day Shared Gardens) – organised events in community gardens across France – late Sept to early Oct
• Foire aux Plantes rares et Collections (Rare and Collectors Plants Fair), St Côme d’Olt, Aveyron (near Rodez) – late September
• Vivre le Jardin, Lyon – display gardens, products, plants – early October
• Pépinières et Plantes d’exception (Exceptional Plants and Nurseries), Saint-Vincent Parc et Jardin, Borest – early October
• Sifel Gardening Show, Bordeaux – late November
I contacted Catherine Stewart with a challenge: find me a garden to visit on my Normandy driving holiday. She said “It will cost you a shiraz”. My summer visit to the Jardins du Bois du Puits was well worth the red!
Garden travel starts with desire…you want ALL the beautiful gardens, exotic locations and intriguing local cultures. But I know that this desire is best satisfied when its balanced by restraint, as that’s what will give you the most holiday pleasure.
The 2015 Australian Landscape Conference was memorable, with over 600 attendees following the input of landscape designers from overseas and Australia – all expert, energetic, upstanding deep thinkers.
Nice may be the playground of the rich and famous but, frankly, few Australians will be impressed by its most famous open space: a small, crowded, pebbly beach, oppressively hot on the day we visited. For me, the real attraction lay within the city.
The International Garden Festival at Chateau de Chaumont in France's Loire valley should be on the 'bucket list'…
When: Available on demand/by appointment
Countries: France - Paris and the Ile de France
Highlights: Andre Le Nôtre, was the visionary landscape designer who created the legendary gardens at Versailles for Louis XIV. His classical...