Care and Instructions for a Parterre Garden

Care and Instructions for a Parterre Garden
The parterre garden for herbs at Mezzacello

The parterre garden has a long and storied history in many cultures around the world. It is a very old system for creating gardens and is quite effective (and limiting with constraints. This blog is about the care and instructions for a parterre garden.

Start With the Geometry and History

The parterre put very simply is a geometric garden that is framed with a bushing plant planted in a low hedge that creates spaces between it’s structure. You see it a lot in Europe and in older homes in gardens that are beautiful to look at and the gardens are pleasing to the eye.

The key to a good parterre is scale, grace, and pattern. You want the eye to see the pattern, and you want the scale to make sense when seen from multiple angles. You also want to balance the relationship between the defining hedge of the parterre and the area of space you have available to plant within.

Many people believe that the parterre garden is a semi-modern or solely European concept. It is not. Parterres have been in use for centuries in cultures around the world as they are a great way to bring order to a garden, and protect delicate foods and plants from predators and careless passersby.

In China parterres were used to organize silkworm raising trees. In India tea orchards were arranged in parterre formations to more easily determine cultivars. In Rome and Carthage parterres were used for pleasing architectural gardens around temples.

The Cloisters herb garden in NYC. A medieval monastic garden model. Photo courtesy of @atasteoftravel

It was in medieval Europe – mostly in the monasteries that the parterre took on the look and function we use today. Parterres allowed monks to grow specific foods in a safe and orderly way by plant need. They also served as stays to heep rabbits, boars, deer and curious humans out of the delicate herbs and fruits.

Constraint Can be Good and Useful

It’s good to remember that any parterre garden has three components:

  1. A pattern of space and area that is defined by the plant that is the parterre line
  2. Spaces for planting that fall within and around the parterre plants themselves, also known as the bed shapes
  3. The underground ecologies beneath the parterre plant line that shapes the soils within and around it
The bones of the parterre on the second year

The architecture of the parterre is important. It can’t be too big or complex it will be nearly impossible to find enough of the same bushing “wall plant” to make the parterre pattern recognizable. The parterre also has to have geometries that make sense and that one can actually plant into. Otherwise the internal areas or bed shapes won’t be productive, just decorative.

You want the parterre interior geometry to give enough room for plants to grow and not be too crammed together that they compete for water and nutrients. You also want to be able to step into and around the parterre to harvest, plant and weed. So leave room for some interaction within.

If the interior bed shapes are too severe you will have a problem. Too tight an angle and you loose a significant amount of plantable land (see pythagorean theorem). Too big a bed shape and you will have a weed problem.

Plan for the Microclimate and Soil Constraints

When we first started the parterre gardens at Mezzacello, we had 65 boxwoods in 1 gallon pots. We laid them out into the geometric configuration we wanted and left 16cm between them to allow for air flow and room for the boxwoods to bush out. We wanted a gracious planting scheme that also left room for other soil climates.

The boxwood prefer the heavier clay and acidic soil, so we left the city yard soil that was in the parterre the way it was. I used an auger to pre-dig the 64 holes we needed t plant the boxwood into. That was fun and cheap; neither of those is true.

Rick kneeling outside the wet Mediterranean planting area consulting the planting map.

Once we had the “bush line” in place, we focused on the map of what herbs we wanted to plant where. We grouped plants together by where they occur in the world and what climate. This is the magic of the parterre bed shape.

The bed shape allows you to optimize soil for certain plants. The bush line creates an underground border of acisic soil that keeps roots in their area and encourages them to grow. The above-ground pushes protect the delicate herbs and gives them shade and sunlight as well as structure to grow into.

Almost all of these plants are perennials and they overwinter well in Ohio’s winters because of the protection the parterre bush wall offers them from harsh cold and winds.

Jim Bruner

Balancing The Ecosystems

The fact that herbs were now growing in five unique ecologies was really quite liberating and practical. We had a wet Mediterranean soil, a dry Mediterranean, a prairie soil, a marshy soil, and a dense clay soil to work with. WE grouped plants by their habit and needs and got to planting.

The marshy soil and clay soil turned out to be closer to where the pons was going to be. (This is why we make CAD plans of the grounds) This allowed us to create a medicinal parterre on that part of the dual parterre alignment.

If you look at the map above you can the south north alignment of the parterres. To the south is the pond and the medicinal parterres and to the south (closer to the house) is the culinary parterre. Each triangle bed shape is a common soil ecology.

The Planting Area Breakdown

In the medicinals we grow yarrow, lovage, marrow, lavender, echinacea, chamomile, and savory. These plants tolerate lots of water and periods of dry, so they never need watering, and they love it when we drain the pond or empty the biofilter.

The culinary parterre has a Wet Mediterranean, dry Mediterranean, and prairie bed. In those we plant the common culinary herbs, chervil, basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, chives, leeks, and tarragon. We align them with whether they like wet root or dry roots.

In the prairie planting area we grow sage and french thyme. These like a dryer rich soil, and they spread, so we gave them lots of room. Almost all of these plants are perennials and they tolerate Ohio’s winters well because of the protection the parterre affords them in then harsh cold and winds.

Decorations and Outlier Plantings

A parterre is very decorative on its own. We love the formalism and functionalism of the design. It is also very nice to add architectural interest in the form of urns and sculpture.

This kind of architectural element isn’t just decorative in our parterre it is also highly practical. In the culinary parterre we grow two kinds of rosemary in the central urns. We added a conical trellis as one of the rosemary is a vining type and it loves to wind up.

The rosemary is not as hardy as we’d like here in Ohio’s winter. So we opted to grow a hardy Mediterranean rosemary in the wet Mediterranean area and a dryer Corsican vining rosemary in the prairie.

The balance is not only practical but it is elegant. And in the winter we can bring the herbs in urns into the house to keep then safe and healthy. We also get to enjoy rosemary all winter long, win-win.

On the medicinal side we have the mints – the dreaded mints. We need them for cooking, for cocktails, and for medicinal reasons. But mint is a scourge in the garden as it spreads like mad.

Placing the mints in the urns is a practical thing. They will overwinter well, even in the urn, and they cannot spread. We added a decorative lavender folly and another set of conical trellis to complete the look.

With the delicate rosemary and the pernicious mints managed we have one more problematic herb to deal with: cilantro. We both of us love cilantro but it grows quickly and it grows tall. It grows up over the parterre wall and in a few weeks, the sun bolts them all.

Even cutting it back as it starts to get too big is not sufficient. In its current location it grows leggy. I haven’t yet figured out how to manage this outlier, so if you have ideas, please share.

Invasive Species, Plants and Animals

For the most part, the parterre is remarkably low maintenance. I rarely water it, save a water pail or two for the urns and the chervil early in the season. But there is the problem of grasses, clovers, creeping Charley, and feral cats.

All of these are surface spreading scourges. The boxwood roots keep the usual offenders out, dandelions, thistle, poke, and even burdock. But the grass and creeping charley are really problematic.

Yes, they are easy enough to pull. But if they get too established you risk pulling the tender herbs out with them. I use mulch extensively, but it is just a stopgap.

Every two weeks you have to check the borders of your parterre castle walls. Weed whack tight the edges of the parterre. We also added a brick surround in an attempt to discourage rhizome root spread but they slip their roots through the bricks.

Cats and chickens are the worst! We don’t keep cats, but there are three or four feral cats in our downtown neighborhood. The protection and comfortable spaces of the triangle planting areas are irresistible to them both and the problem is their bodies squash the herbs.

This is definitely a minor problem but it is sometimes very annoying. My solution is a plastic mesh that has fingers that stick up and gently discourage tender cat paws and chicken claws from stepping through or over the boxwood hedge. Then they wont create a bed in the lavender, tarragon, cilantro, parsley, and chives and crush them all down.

The boxwood parterre is a great addition to the ecosystems of Mezzacello. It encourages growth, provides constraints for plantings, creates microclimates, and it looks looks great. The planting bush line wall discourages smaller pests like moles, groundhogs and squirrels who fear thos high boxwood walls and would be predators who might be waiting outside of them.

Good luck and I hope this helped. I love ours. It took three years to really get it established, but it is easily one of the easiest ecosystems to manage at Mezzacello.

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