Home & Design

Green Acre #63: 10 Steps to the Perfect French Garden

I GOT SO INSPIRED by Bastille Day last week, I began musing on the nature of the French jardin, preferably a Provençal one. Follow this simple path and be transported. Allons-y!

1. Start with a chair. You know the one. Bamboo framed and laced with black and white webbing. (It couldn’t always have been plastic . . . it must have been something else at another time. Lambskin? But plastic will do.) Set one or four in the garden and you have instant France—poof!

Faux bamboo all-weather wicker (meaning plastic) stacking bistro chair, $147.74 on Amazon.com. Granite-and-cast-iron bistro table from Bonnecaze Absinthe & Home, $399 through Houzz.com.

2. You do have two table choices, depending on the size of your patio. There is the classic round bistro table, the surface of which might be tiled, or wood, or stone. You may cover this with a French tablecloth; the cloths come in such lovely shades of orange and yellow and green and blue, with sheaves of wheat or lavender, but not tea pots, printed along the border. If you have space, consider a wooden farmhouse table of a length to seat 15 or 20, whatever is your usual Sunday dinner guest count. In this case, you might employ benches along the sides in addition to your café chairs.

From Terrain, a 10-foot-long reclaimed teak dining table, $2,898 at shopterrain.com.

3. Now, you need to set the table and chair upon something, and while there are surfaces that could pass—brick or flagstone come to mind—ideally you have pea gravel; the small, pale, tan stones that wedge in your espadrilles and dig a hole in your heel. Pea gravel is the ultimate French courtyard material. You come away from a walk across it instantly fluent in French. Ooh! Ow! Ouch! Or rather, Zut! Merde!

Bulk pea gravel is $333.50 for 5 yards (whatever that means) at The Home Depot.

4. Ideally, your house should be made of stone, with a bit of moss creeping up the walls, with very large shutters covering the windows. Americans tend to have wholly wrong shutters, far too small and flimsy to shut over the windows in the event of a storm, or to keep the icy blasts of winter out of the lounge. Your shutters must close over the windows, or at least look like they can, with cast-iron shutter dogs holding them open against the walls.

Cast-iron rat-tail shutter dogs, sold in pairs, $18.50 the pair from John Wright. jwright.com.

If your home is not stone, one would hope for brick. And the brick must be painted the lively colors of Provence. Take a cue from one of those southern French tablecloths and think Dijon mustard, tangerine or buttercup yellow paired with the clearest possible blue. The trim and the door and the body of the house have to zing off each other, but harmoniously, s’il vous plait. Of course, window boxes must be overflowing with blossoms that play with your color scheme.

5. While a case might be made for a border or pots of lavender, there is no plant more quintessentially French than the hydrangea, or more exactly, the blue hydrangea, which is the blue of an utterly cloudless sky after a rain, when all of the humidity has blown to Des Moines or Baton Rouge. You might flank the door with boxwood topiaries, or you can move the lemons and such from the orangery to the gravel for the summer, but the hydrangea is the essence of it all.

Now wield your secateurs and élaguer* a few branches for the table. Ah….

6. Yes. The table, by which I mean the table setting. Again two choices. Either white stoneware, the sort with the raised pattern along the border (I passed up a set at Miss Pixie’s reclaimed furniture a few years ago that I still kick myself over. Baby told me I had quite enough china. Oh, why do I ever listen to her?). Pair this with ivory-handled dinnerware and jelly glasses, and pick out a minor color from the tablecloth for your napkins, which must be cloth, not paper (see below).

White dishes in the “Fruit” pattern from Gibson Design, available at Replacements.com. Tablecloth from the Poppies Jacquard Collection, from $90 to $139, depending on size, at La Cigale. lacigale-usa.com.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have inherited Grandmère’s Limoges or Sèvres china and and her silver, this is a glorious place to set it. Matching is not essential; in fact, it is beside the point, which is above all the cultivation of unselfconscious chic. Fretting and fussing is so American; you must appear not to care. Squint a little, purse your lips and practice a Gallic shrug. Ne vous cassez pas la tête about it.

Big linen or damask napkins to catch the juices of the poulet are essential: They are easier to care for than you might expect. Wash them, fold them over once and stretch them flat. They will dry quite smoothly, and be softer to the lip than napery flattened with starch and an iron.

7. Ah yes, the chicken. I’m so glad I brought that up. You want to look really French? There is nothing like having a few chickens pecking the pea gravel. Consider the Coucou de Rennes, such fun to say! And the Gauloise Dorée sounds  decadently like smoking, which you really should take up. They’ll wander around your ankles as you dine, and if the clucking gets too irritating you can always eat them.

Coucou de Rennes. Photo by Édouard Hue via Wikimedia Commons.

Gauloise Dorée. Photo courtesy Le Ferme de Beaumont.

8. Now add music. While youthful French President Macron exhibits a fondness for the electronic dance music of Daft Punk, we’ll bet that First Lady Brigitte prefers Piaf. Create a Piaf station on Pandora and pipe it onto the patio. Pandora will automatically increase your level of cool, adding everything from Carla Bruni to Serge Gainsbourg to the mix.

9. Do have a ruin in the background, if at all possible.

10. You can also add olive trees, grapevines, fountains or a reflecting pool with swans. (Swans are important, without them the pool and garden might verge on Italian, which is somewhat similar, but much louder, and features lasagne.)

*Merci, Violette Capelluto-Schor. Élaguer means to prune.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie often has visions like this. To read earlier visions (um, columns), type Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.

4 thoughts on “Green Acre #63: 10 Steps to the Perfect French Garden

  1. Michele P Pagan says:

    We have French friends who live just outside Paris, and they don’t have chickens in their lovely back yard. What are really essential are table linens and flowers – you forgot the flowers, Stephanie! Plus an approach to having dinner which lasts all evening at the table. Bon apetit!

  2. Bonnie Mitchell says:

    But where are the French poodles???

  3. Kathy Legg says:

    Alas, I don’t have a garden (or I would buy everything on this list and somehow I would find an appropriate ruin) so an plane ticket to Provence will have to do.

  4. kelly janet says:

    Damn, I have white hydrangeas. Maybe I can dye them blue.
    Love ❤️ this post!

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