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What Is the Difference between an English Garden and a French Garden?

By Kris Roudebush
Updated May 16, 2024
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There are as many differences between and English garden and a French garden as there are similarities. They’re both founded on the principles of the original English garden which the Romans introduced to England upon their arrival in the 1st Century A.D. The English garden is a style of landscaping garden that was popular across the European continent. The French garden took its roots in the 16th Century with heavy influence from the Italian gardens of the time. The French garden is directly associated with Andre Le Notre.

English gardens were an attempt to blend into the natural landscape, growing a little on the wild side, while blending in romantic elements. Romantic elements were introduced in the 18th Century and included ponds or small lakes, bridges or long docks on the water, imitation ruins, and sculptures. “Chinese” pavilions are also commonly associated with an English-style garden. Each of the romantic elements in an English-style garden is incorporated into the foliage to enhance the wild look of the garden.

French gardens are also called formal gardens and are exactly that; formal. They follow very strict geometric lines. Plants are arranged so that they maintain the geometric and symmetric layouts. They are trimmed and pruned on a regular basis to keep them from obtaining that overgrown look, typical of an English-style garden. In larger gardens, lanes or paths branch off from the center, which, according to tradition, is a building façade, going outward so visitors can stroll through each section. Lanes are often paved with gravel. French gardens traditionally include lawns for large scale gardens.

French gardens have their own romantic elements; however they borrow a lot from the English garden. Where an English-style garden may have a pond, the French garden will have a reflecting pool accented with fountains or sculptures and always following a geometric pattern. Large-scale French gardens will also have parterres. They are the construction around the plants and consist of stone or carefully maintained hedges to create symmetrical, or even geometrical, patterns. Claude Mollet is credited with the creation of the parterres.

If you’re looking to plant a garden and want a specific look, remember these basic pointers. French gardens are very geometric. The center should have some sort of façade and emanate outward. They are high maintenance but well worth the effort. If you’re after an English garden look, let your plants get a little wild looking, add at least one romantic element, and use foliage that naturally adds color to the landscape.

French Garden Landscaping Ideas

In French landscaping, the house is usually the focal point of the garden, which radiates out on all sides. Houses typically have window boxes, effectively making the home part of the garden. French gardens take a lot of work to maintain, but they are among the most stunning when done right.

Paths run out from the house, perpendicular to its walls. These paths are often lined with parterres, which are short walls made of stone or, more often, low shrubs that are strictly manicured. French gardens are highly symmetrical, with parterres often grown in elaborate designs and filled with a mix of annual and perennial flowers for a long season of blooms.

French Garden Hardscapes

In French gardens, gravel paths and stepping stones are used both to define areas of the garden, but also to provide drainage so the roots of the plants aren’t drowned. Rocky surfaces can help keep weeds from growing, but it’s advisable to put down a weed barrier before the stone goes down.

A reflecting pool is a typical feature in French gardens. Fountains and other water features also provide interest. In larger gardens, a swimming pool can be a secondary focal point, surrounded by a stone deck and parterres.

French gardens wouldn’t be complete without a variety of planters. Use large urns at the sides of a door or other architectural features such as patios or pools. Cast iron Medici urns are popular, as are hand-made Anduze urns, made of terracotta and painted with green and yellow glazes.

Anduze urns were traditionally used to plant citrus trees; check your local climate to see which are hardy outside all year and which may need to be brought into a greenhouse or your home during winter.

Other Outside Decor

French garden furniture is traditionally made of iron and marble or alabaster, and are strong and sturdy enough to withstand storms. Another variety of furniture is faux bois furniture, made of cement in forms that mimic tree trunks and branches.

Whimsical additions to a French garden can include collections that are hardy enough to be displayed throughout your garden. Antique watering cans, with spouts reminiscent of flowers, are popular. Lightning rods and weather vanes in the shape of roosters make a nice addition to your French garden. Sculptures and statuary are also common features.

English Garden Landscaping Ideas

When you think of English gardens, you immediately picture the cottage garden: a wild, free-flowing garden with many layers and textures. Groundcover plants spill over onto stepping stone walkways, and there’s no careful manicuring like there is in traditional French gardens.

Paths meander throughout English gardens, often leading to wrought iron or teak wood benches where you can sit a spell and enjoy the racket of scents coming from your garden. Traditional cottage gardens were planted with vegetables, medicinal herbs and fragrant flowers to mask the fact that most homes did not have bathing facilities.

English Garden Hardscapes

Arbors are often found in English gardens, with floral vines growing on both sides. Climbing roses are traditional, as the rose is England’s national flower. Benches are often found just beyond the arbor, giving you a quiet spot to enjoy a cup of tea and a good book.

Pergolas are another popular feature of English gardens. They can define a space in your garden where you could enjoy outdoor dining with friends. The tighter the lattice atop your pergola, the more shade it will provide you.

Brick and gravel are classic materials used to define paths through your raucous English cottage garden. Yorkstone and flagstone are commonly used for stepping stones or to build a patio in your garden. Some English gardens give a nod to the French influence with geometric patios and small parterres nearby. parterres may also surround larger trees that may be in the yard.

A water feature is an integral part of an English cottage garden. In a larger yard, build a pond and surround it with rocks and grasses. In smaller areas, fountains or birdbaths provide lovely focal points.

Other Outside Decor

Gazing balls are popular additions to English cottage gardens, especially in front of a row of hedges. A brightly colored watering can may provide an extra bit of whimsy and mirth to your garden.

Wicker is a traditional material for outdoor furniture, as it provides a sturdy seat, drainage after rain or snow, and a lovely curved look to compliment the curving paths of your English garden. Other materials may include teak, wrought iron, or bent willow.

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Discussion Comments
By andee — On May 09, 2012

No matter how hard I try, my garden area tends to become overgrown. I like the look of a carefree garden, but have also been fascinated with those gardens that are always kept so meticulous.

I think there are more English garden ideas that would suit my garden space so that is the style I tend to go with.

One neighbor on my street has a very formal, French garden and spends hours every week out working in his garden.

I think if you are going to go with this style of garden, you also have to be committed to put in the work that is needed.

I just know my time to garden is very limited and if I went with a French garden design, it would probably get out of control in a short time.

By bagley79 — On May 09, 2012

I enjoy both garden styles, and have different garden designs in my yard. I have a small English garden area in the back where I love to sit and read.

There is an arbor with a clemtais growing on each side of it that leads into this garden. This is a relaxing place to be, and one that is a little easier to maintain.

In the front of my house, I have more of a French garden look. This includes many hedges that are kept trimmed and neat, and some larger statues in the garden area.

I think each different garden design has its place - I just happen to love both of them. Since I have the space for lots of garden areas, I try to incorporate a few different styles and designs.

All of it takes work, but this is something I really enjoy doing. Whenever we travel, one of my favorite things is to visit other gardens to get ideas and inspiration.

By golf07 — On May 08, 2012

Even though an English garden may look like it is free-flowing, there are several things to keep in mind when you are planting one.

I like to make sure the flowers that I plant contrast well together. As with all garden spaces, you also want to make sure you have the taller flowers in the back of your space.

One of my favorite spring English garden perennials are pansies. These are shorter flowers that do well in the early spring, and always look cheerful.

I think it is hard to go wrong with an English garden. This is the style my mom also has, and it is so easy to buy cute and whimsical accessories for her to put in her garden.

By SarahSon — On May 07, 2012
My flower gardens could be described as a little on the wild side, and sure looks more like an English garden than a French garden.

I have always enjoyed more of a casual look when it comes to garden design. Even though I don't follow a specific English garden design, my gardens closely follow that particular style.

I love to use elements such as cozy garden benches, or a small pond to add interesting features to my garden.

I seldom plant hedges because they have to constantly be trimmed and maintained. I prefer to use bushes that still might need to be trimmed, but don't look so formal.

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