If you want to infuse some French country flair into your backyard, start by asking, “What would Monet do?”
Impressionist painter Claude Monet grew the subjects of his famous works in his gardens at Giverny, where a palette of blooms populate the estate’s Clos Normand flower garden with clumps of color. Arbors covered with climbing roses create a fragrant tunnel in the Grande Allée. But most recognizable are scenes from Monet’s water garden, a curvaceous and asymmetrical environment surrounding a focal point Japanese bridge of beech wood.
“Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” Monet wrote, his words relevant to those of us working to convert a drab yard into a retreat.
Monet’s gardens provided inspiration and unending material for his artwork. Packed with flowing beds and paths, colorful blooms and wild yet thoughtful placement of plants, Monet’s Giverny gardens are not quite wild cottage-style, but not at all stuffy.
“The French garden was born out of some formality, but there is a lot of variety used through perennials and annuals to create bursts of color,” says Ken
Kushmider, president of Landscape Design Associates Inc. in Hudson.
In fact, Monet didn’t care much for structure. He married flowers by color and let them grow freely. He often exchanged plants with friends and was always on the lookout for rare varieties. But the bulk of his plant material consisted of common perennials and annuals: azalea, geranium, holly, rhododendron, tulip, iris and daffodil.
Monet’s romantic setting is a stark contrast to 17th centuryjardins français that frame the country’s castles, such as those at Versailles. Designer André Le Nôtre was famous for creating Versailles’ geometric paths and neat topiaries, statuaries and fountains. “You needed a whole view of the garden from the castle,” says Anne-Marie Saunier, who moved from Rouen, France, located less than an hour from Monet’s Giverny, to Chagrin Falls. Saunier is a volunteer with the French-American Chamber of Commerce.
In urban France, Saunier says, gardeners adopt a cross between these conservative and whimsical styles, filling their landscapes with a bounty of plants but containing them within walls or installing definitive paths and patios that bring order to blooming chaos. The path in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art reminds her of some of the settings she knows from France.
On a smaller scale, set the mood at home by incorporating these romantic French accents into your landscape. The landscape designers creating French theme gardens at this year’s Home & Garden show explain how.
Blooms and edibles
Yellow is a strong theme color in French flowers, says Jason Urban, landscape division manager of Forever Green Lawncare Inc. in Elyria. Coreopsis, known as tick seed,
is a perennial that flowers all summer. The drought-resistant spreader will paint a landscape yellow. Other perennial favorites include Echinacea, a cone flower that is also traditionally available in purple.
Today, the Big Sky series, created by Richard Saul of ItSaul Plants in Atlanta, offers varieties such as Sunrise and Sundown in yellows, reds, pinks and oranges, Urban notes. Annual geraniums are widespread in French gardens and window boxes, while banks of flowers that flank paths or frame a lawn offer an impressionistic wash of color.
Add interest and layers to a landscape by creating terraced planting pockets. “Use natural boulders, and leave gaps between them so you can plant something that will drape over the rocks,” Urban suggests.
Man-made retaining walls can pull off the same look, but they will appear more manicured than a natural rock outcropping. Urban suggests planting evergreen or juniper in these pockets — varieties that stay green year-round.
Fern and Armeria, with its showy and fragrant pompon bloom, add texture to a country French garden, says Rich Kanary, president of Kanary’s Landscaping in Sheffield Village. Chamaecyparis provides more gold to the garden (and an underlying French theme, Kanary says, since Paris is in this plant’s botanical name).
The French also use cabbage as a garden accent. With France’s more temperate climate, this veggie thrives during winter. In Northeast Ohio, hardy kale will last through fall. “The French don’t just use vegetables like lettuce and cabbage in their gardens, they use them for decoration,” Urban points out.
BRING IT HOME
Think lush and soft when choosing and arranging plants in a bed, Kushmider says. Combine flowers of different heights and textures, and flex your plant budget by selecting perennials that bloom yearafter year.
Work some veggies into flower patches. Kale provides a pop of color and outlives perennials that tire at the end of summer.
Add interest to plantings by incorporating them into rock outcroppings or retaining walls.
Urban dwellers in France are cramped for space — landscapes in cities such as Paris consist mostly of stone and hardscape. So the window box is coveted greenspace forles jardiniers. Constructed of wood or wrought iron, these mini landscapes are doted after and contain a bounty of flowers and edibles.
“They usually include a blend of colors,” Kushmider adds, recalling his time in France. “They may have a little bit of mint in them or some chives, along with petunias and pansies. The French really take care of their window boxes, tending to them like they would a small child. It’s important to them, and they like to go to the window and clip some herbs for cooking.”
Similarly, potted plants are valuable accessories for patio spaces and front porches, Saunier adds. “People keep pots on their porches and windowsills from spring to fall — lots of geraniums and roses, as well,” she says. “The French love roses.”
BRING IT HOME
Install window boxes or hay racks, which consists of a wrought iron frame with a coir fiber insert.
Treat the box like a flower bed, and plant a couple of flower varieties and herbs.
Pots are portable gardens. Use them liberally on patio spaces and porch areas.
The French enclose their yards with fences or walls of shrubs or stone with intimate seating areas and fragrant cutting gardens, Saunier says. “Gardens are very often closed off, because houses are much closer together than here,” she relates.
Privacy is paramount, but so is setting the mood. Mortared natural stone walls aren’t naked. Tumbling climbers such as ivy or wisteria act like drapes, softening the surface.
Walls built like stone outcroppings, where large boulders are stacked terrace-style to create layers of interest, may feature plants tucked within.
“Green walls” consisting of a tight-knit row of shrubs or evergreen may enclose a backyard, and entry to the space is often established with an arbor and gate, a style reminiscent of cottage gardens. Arbors offer a supportive structure for climbing roses, a sensual welcome to any garden.
“You can go as simple as putting up a section of lattice fence and allowing ivy or honeysuckle to grow up over it, or you can build an operational retaining wall that holds back soil,” Urban suggests, noting that the latter produces a tiered effect, while latticework screens views.
BRING IT HOME
Construct a natural stone wall or retaining wall to contain your backyard garden. Also, planting barrier foliage, such as evergreens, accomplishes the same goal of enclosing the space.
Create private areas with lattice screens, placing them around a patio area or behind a bench as a decorative seat back.
Boost the romance by growing climbing plants that cling to these walls.
The backyard can be an al fresco dining room, a private garden quarters where a couple can get away or a family can gather. The focal point of an Old World patio setting often is its simple white-washed, wrought iron table and chairs, Kushmider suggests.
The patio foundation may be just large enough to accommodate the furniture. A 10-by-10-foot surface will suit a table for two, Urban says. The Americanized version of this is a more extravagant outdoor kitchen, he adds. “You can install a fireplace, a pizza oven,” he says. There are virtually no limits. This extension is uncommon in France, however, where limited space usually does not allow for such additions.
Materials make or break the romance. “Traditionally, Old World is exactly that — natural material, clean, simple — not gaudy,” says Mike Walters of the Connelly Landscaping Company Inc. in Avon. To stay authentic, think old, and choose natural stone.
However, there are products available that emulate the Old World style, says Michael Babet, president of Forever Green Lawncare Inc. in Elyria. The key is to avoid harsh border lines and allow patio edges to “ramble,” he notes.
Cobblestone surfaces are common, as are natural stone that allows patina and “green grout” to grow between crevices. The patio is more intimate when covered by a pergola. Saunier says the backyard dining area is “as secluded as possible.”
Set the mood with landscape lighting. The key to avoiding lighting up your yard like a stadium rather than a romantic bistro: “Use as little lighting as possible,” Urban says. “There should be dark spots between the lights.” Include down-lighting mounted on a pergola top or tree; accent lighting aimed up to highlight plants, structures or water; and path lighting to illuminate walkways for safety and ambiance.
BRING IT HOME
Carve a niche in the landscape for a small patio for a table and chairs. Choose natural materials for surfaces, and enclose the space by building a pergola. Set potted plants on the patio as colorful accessories.
Make room for a water feature. A Monet-inspired reflecting pond can host water lilies. A more formal French fountain doubles as statuary.
Don’t forget the garden “ceiling.” Pergolas add intimacy to a patio space.