The classic parterre garden has its roots in French horticulture. When landscape designer Claude Mollet created enclosed beds separated by gravel paths for the royal gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Fontainebleau in the late 16th century, he installed low-growing plants on a flat surface and arranged them in flat, geometric designs . . Because the scale was entirely at ground level, the style became known as “parterre,” which translates to “on the ground.”
The pattern of a parterre is its most striking feature. From a balcony, a raised terrace or an upper floor window, a parterre garden looks like a living mosaic. They were fashionable in England in the late 17th century, but fell out of favor due to their formality, to be replaced by the more natural-looking “English garden”.
Originally, each part of a parterre garden was cultivated for different purposes – medicinal, culinary, decorative. Because they were located in close proximity to the house and contained immaculately kept gravel walkways, parterres also provided a place to entertain guests who could admire the elaborate arrangement while socializing among the well-appointed beds.
In 2019, local landscape designer Marcia Fryer found the perfect spot for a parterre in Richmond. She had been commissioned to make plantings for a newly renovated home in the West End. “The owners had converted a garage into a family room and storage space, eliminating the need for the driveway,” she explains. A wall of windows in the new family room overlooked the narrow, half-acre site where the driveway once was. “That’s where we put the parterre,” she says. “They already had a patio, a deck and a pool. They didn’t need a big entertaining space. They needed a beautiful garden.”
A painted wooden gate opens onto the parterre, which Fryer created. She replaced the gravel paths that characterize a classic parterre garden with bluestone slabs, and planted tulip magnolia along the fence for privacy. Little Missy boxwood outlines the individual beds that she filled with Little Lime hydrangea, their bright chartreuse flowers contrasting with low-growing puffs of purple allium. Pink climbing roses, peonies and a variety of bulbs conspire to offer three-season blooms.
“By using the same plant over and over, you get more impact with less maintenance because you’re not trying to manage 30 varieties,” says Fryer. There are painted planters for herbs and vegetables and a fountain surrounded by lamb’s ears and flowering annuals. Pair of Adirondack chairs and a faux bois (woodgrain) bench provide views from inside. The overall effect is both informal and deliberate.
Like any garden, it has evolved. Fryer meets with the owner several times a year to adjust the plant selections. “It’s a young garden just starting to come into its own,” she says “In three to four years it will be spectacular.”