Southern Home: We think of Versailles when we think of parterre gardens.  Is that where they originated?

John Mills:

It is a common notion that the Parterre originated in the gardens of Versailles. However, parterre gardens were created in the 15th century, and were initially known as “knot gardens.” Versailles, along with its gardens, was built in the mid-16th century.

It was not until later in the 17th century that the Parterre became more “elegant.” With the Baroque garden, came the notion of adding a sense of order and symmetry back to nature itself. The parterre garden is meant to be a low-profile garden that lays on a level grade in the garden.

The parterre is most commonly formed using a distinct curb material (stone, brick, and cobble) and tightly formed planting material (often boxwood). This element was created with the idea that it would be seen from a higher vantage point, hence its presence surrounding European castles and estates.

SH: What are the essential elements of a parterre garden?

JM: Essential elements include:

  • A defined curb or border–This material might be anything from flagstone, brick, or cobblestone, to a simple metal edging.
  • The second layer often consists of a small, tight, evergreen plant layer. We typically use boxwood edging but have recently started to use yaupon.
  • The third layer is the infill or pocket of the design defined by the boxwood or yaupon edging. This is an ideal spot for ornamental plantings such as annuals, perennials, or roses for those who choose to take them on.
  • The last element, which is not a requirement, are narrow pathways that connect each pocket or piece of the parterre should it be a large enough in scale. If the parterre is one of size, you will need pathways to access the garden for maintenance.

SH: Is a large yard required to have a parterre garden?

JM: Absolutely not. Some of our most elegant and successful parterres have been designed to fit in small spaces, side gardens, or simply used as the focal point outside the kitchen window.

SH: Boxwoods are commonly associated with parterre gardens. Do you still use boxwoods?

JM: Our firm has probably planted more boxwoods that any other landscape architect, plant installer, or gardener in the city of New Orleans. That being said, we have started looking for alternatives to the boxwood due to the presence of boxwood blight and other issues such as root rot that is brought on by the common boxwood “Buxus.”

SH: Are there inherent problems or benefits to boxwoods? Do you have a certain species of boxwood that you recommend?

JM: The benefit to using a plant such as a boxwood is that it is an evergreen shrub with a bright, chartreuse color and can be trimmed to any shape or size. This is the sole reason it is so fitting for the border of the parterre. The problem with the boxwood these days is the introduction of the fungal disease known as “Boxwood Blight.” If you choose to use boxwood in your garden you might want to consider the Baby Gem boxwood, which was grown to be a “more resistant” to the blight.

SH: Are there other specimens that give the look without the fuss?

JM: In our most recent gardens, we have been using the dwarf yaupon (Ilex Vomitoria) as a replacement for the boxwood (Buxus). Yaupons have many different varieties. Some have different shades of green, different leaf structures, and some berry more than others.

SH: Should one mix plants for the border? (i.e. use a different plant at a corner?)

JM: Typically, our parterre borders are all the same variety of plants. Different varieties perform differently at different times of the season and many can have different growing habits. It is important that the border of the parterre grows and preforms the same throughout. That being said, you can mix different species into the design of your parterre.

SH: Is a parterre garden appropriate for all types of homes, or does it look better with a certain style? (i.e. French, cottage, Victorian, Mediterranean, etc.) Are there certain tweaks that should be considered based on the style of a home?

JM: In my opinion, you can implement a parterre into any style of home, even if it is a separate element in a small room off of your garden. Or maybe it is an element placed on axis with a personal widow off a favorite room of your house such as a kitchen or bedroom window.

Obviously, the parterre would be more fitting for the French or Victorian style as opposed to a Mediterranean, Bohemian, or even cottage look. Keep in mind, the original parterres were very informal (knot gardens). It was not until centuries later that the garden element took on a more formal and stylish look.

SH: How does one know if it looks best to fill in the borders with annuals, ground cover, or even place a garden ornament, vs. leaving it empty or having a single plant?

JM: The most versatile component of a parterre is the infill. The infill is a very personal thing. A client might be an experienced gardener and enjoy changing out color (annuals, bulbs, etc.) throughout the year. Some clients use this area for very specific plants such as roses or even herbs. Others want low maintenance and might fill their parterre pockets with ground cover, small ornamental trees or even perennials.

SH: What is the first step in laying out a parterre garden? 

JM: When laying out a parterre garden we have used everything from garden hoses, rope, marking paint, string lines, and full-scale templates produced on a computer. Laying out a parterre garden takes patience, basic math, and the right tools.

Stakes, string line, a string level, and a measuring tape are the key tools you will need. Keep in mind, parterres are meant to be symmetrical and everything needs to layout even and level in order for this precise garden element to read right as a garden feature. It is important to start with a centerline that lines up on axis with the main viewpoint in your garden or room. Taking the time to divide your space out level and equal (based off of your centerline) is very important.

SH: Can you give us five tips for creating a parterre garden?

JM: Assuming you have a basic design in mind:

  1. Establish a centerline
  2. Define the extents of the parterre
  3. Divide all your spaces out equally
  4. Use a string line and level to layout your design
  5. Select the right species of plants based on your desired look and maintenance

SH: How close should you plant your plants if you have time to let them grow in? For example, a boxwood may get 30” wide at maturity. Would you plant them 15” apart, or closer? One of the things we hear from readers is that they had an “instant” yard, but in 2 years it was so overgrown.

JM: With most planting plans it is very important to space your plants correctly, no matter what size they are when they go in the ground. The parterre might be one of those exceptions to that logic; When planting a parterre I like to plant the border tight.

For example, if I am using 1-gallon boxwood as a border plant, I plant a single gallon boxwood 6” on center (2 plants per foot). The root balls butt up against each other. It is important that the edge is full, and straight right off the bat in order to control the height and shape.

If the parterre is small in scale, I like to keep the border as short as 6/8” in height and close to 4/6” in width. A common mistake is to let your border grow tall. Eventually, the border plants will get “leggy” and thinned out at the base of the plant and you will lose the desired look that you were originally trying to achieve.

Keep in mind, a parterre can be a high maintenance element in a garden. The form or border requires a lot of attention and more trimming and care then a lot of other native areas in your garden. The size and performance of any plant can be controlled with the right amount of maintenance.

SH: You mentioned boxwood blight on our call. Is that a problem that is specific to New Orleans or something that affects all boxwoods throughout the U.S.?  Is one species more susceptible than others?

JM: Boxwood blight was first discovered in New Zealand, and then moved to Europe before spreading to the states. It was first discovered in North Caroline and Connecticut. Blight can be an issue anywhere. The Baby Gem boxwood was patented to be “more disease resistant” than most.

That being said, we have still had issues with it in our region of the country. Introducing a young species of boxwood to a mature garden or parterre can be detrimental if it brings in the fungus. It’s important to make sure you clean your clippers before and after use. If you have a maintenance crew that takes care of your garden, make sure they wipe their clippers down before every visit. It is common for Blight to be spread from garden to garden on tools.

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