When my husband and I visited Le Château de Versailles about 15 miles southwest of Paris (an easy day trip via a short train ride), we had two surprises. First, the extravagant chateau was closed to the public that day. Oops. Second, the gardens were open (as they are daily, from roughly sunup to sundown). Thank God for poor planning, because it meant we could spend the entire day walking the extensive grounds, touring garden room after garden room. We snacked and rested on benches alongside the mile-long Grand Canal. We ambled through the shady woods to the Petite Trianon, the preferred residence of Marie Antoinette.
My gardener’s brain was overwhelmed. It was a mesmerizing day of pleasure and discovery. As I had seen in so many of the charming gardens scattered throughout the city of Paris, I recognized the flowers and plantings as those that can be grown in my own garden zone near Boulder, Colorado – climbing roses, cosmos, zinnias, sages, colorful annuals, yews, and so many others.
Not that anyone can replicate the gardens of Versailles. Designed and established over a 40-year span by André Le Nôtre beginning in 1662 under Louis XIV, the grounds encompass 800 hectares (about three square miles). A landscape architect well versed in painting and perspective, Le Nôtre designed the gardens along an east-west axis that forms a crucifix and with plantings that take advantage of the sun’s path throughout the day. He added two parterre -- formal gardens -- close to the chateau. As you walk further from the chateau, paths and allees take you through garden rooms less formal but still stunning, with one garden room giving way to another. Beyond these, the structured spaces give way to the Grand Canal and to densely wooded forests.
As any gardener knows, a garden is never done and Versailles is certainly no different. To maintain its original design, the gardens were intended to be replanted every 100 years. Repairs from storm damage and restoration work continue annually. It’s estimated that 210,000 plants are added each year. Visible work crews during our visit established the real sense that this is not just a historic site, but a vigorous, thriving garden of today.
The photos below reflect my personal garden experience captured via my own camera and delighted gaze. I hope you enjoy it and find ways to bring some of these garden design elements to your own castle. For those who want to skip the pictures and jump right to the seven-step Cliff notes, scroll on down to the bottom of this post.
Informality Plays Against Formality
These formal parterre are nearest to the chateau, and may be the images that come to mind when you think of Versailles -- long rows of precisely sculpted, formal topiaries.
Countering the formality, the dense, informal plantings are even more delightful. Abandonment plays with restraint while structure tames the unstructured.
The tightly sculpted hedges are filled with an explosion of cosmos and other informal cottage garden flowers.
Informal foreground plantings spill over their borders, in contrast to the painterly planted mound of annuals and topiary in the background.
Precisely sculpted yews interplanted with annuals give way to lilies, which give way to flowering shrubs, which give way to mature trees. The forested areas of Versailles contain more than 200,000 trees including hornbeam, linden, elm, and beech.
Framing a View – Paths, Allees, and Garden Rooms
Casual garden paths and more formal allees take visitors further from the chateau into garden rooms that feel private and enclosed while framing a view into the next garden room.
A more casual path lines the edge of the woods.
In addition to yew hedges, trellises are used to define paths and walls of garden rooms. The trellis design also allows for full advantage of horizontal growth with climbing roses, flowering vines, and espaliered trees.
The impact achieved by planting in multiples is evident here, as well as in the long rows of sculpted yews in the formal parterres.
Creating Focal Points – Statuary, Specimen Plants, and Water Features
The number of bronze, marble, and lead sculptures in the gardens of Versailles makes it the world's biggest open-air sculpture museum. Most are situated nearest the chateau in the formal parterre.
Water features are an important part of French gardens, and especially so at Versailles, where 10 main fountains depict Roman and Greek mythology. It's reported that nearly one third of the garden's original budget was for the design and installation of an extensive underground water supply. Water was an expensive resource then as it is now. You'll note in these images that none of the fountains were operating on the day of our visit.
In this formal parterre near the chateau, the long row of sculpted yews frame a view of one of the smaller fountains.
Perhaps more relatable to those of us who don't live in a chateau, this small water fountain is a serene focal point in one of the many garden rooms.
Lined on either side by dense woods, the Grand Canal creates a visually stunning, mile-long water feature from one end of the property to the chateau at opposite end. The canal hosts boaters just as it did in the king's day. Notice also the bicycles on the grass. You can tour the property on foot or by rented bicycle.
Structures near the Grand Canal now serve ice cream and provide quaint spots to relax and observe.
Texture and Scale
In an area called The Groves, note the seating defined by boxwood hedges and the creatively patterned stonework.
I have tons of images like these, because I was so enamored with the texture and scale of these statuary urns.
Early statuary and fountains depict Roman and Greek mythology. In his later years, Louis XIV asked that the gardens capture the essence of childhood, which led to the installation of fountains and sculptures featuring playful, chubby putti.
The Cliff Notes Version
- Create defined garden rooms or spaces, depending on how much space you have.
- Frame views from one garden room to the next. Think of sight lines through gates, the visual experience going up or down patio steps, the connecting pathways between patio and yard space.
- Create focal points with specimen plants, statuary, or water features. Water feature options in a range of budgets and sizes have greatly expanded in recent years.
- In addition to contrasting plants, bring in additional texture and interest with hardscaping, pots, and garden statuary and birdbaths.
- Think horizontally, which works in any small space, inside or out. Stagger heights of plants and use trellises or other garden supports to grow climbing vines and roses.
- Plant in multiples. It simplifies design and boosts impact and drama.
- Don't be afraid to be playful or light-hearted in your garden. It's a place for enjoyment. Bring out your kids' cement handprints. In my garden, a rusty metal sculpture of a whimsical raven reminds us of a fun trip to Mesa Verde National Park.
All photography by Urban Cottage Style unless otherwise noted.