Sunday, January 17, 2010

Chaumont-sur-Loire Garden Festival, France

Visiting the Festival des Jardins at Chaumont-sur-Loire was a dream come true, and an experience that I would highly recommend to any enthusiastic gardener/designer. This garden festival is the complete antithesis of the uninspired and commercial gardens we visited at the Appeltern “garden idea park” in the Netherlands. Chaumont-sur-Loire offers up garden design as art, with the style and grace perhaps only the French can pull off.
The festival has a few things going for it that make it unique. First, you really can’t go wrong with a setting on the grounds of one of the most beautiful castles in France, in one of the most picturesque regions of the country. Even the entrance way (pictured below) is beautifully landscaped. Second, the gardens are truly billed as art. Their design is often a collaboration between students and artists from very different backgrounds, including landscape architecture, painting, sculpture, and graphics, resulting in creative and original designs. The festival is also perfect in scope, featuring only 24 gardens, just enough to satisfy the eager visitor, but still leaving you wanting more.

It's hard to pick favourites, but here are a few of the gardens I really enjoyed. The theme of last year’s festival (we visited in late August 2009) was colour.

Graine de conscience, by Florence Mercier
In a very small space, this garden moves through three vastly different habitats: lush tropical forest, prairie, and stark desert/rock. I loved the modern style, and the completely seamless transitions between spaces – the habitats couldn’t be more different, yet their connection seemed natural and almost inevitable in this garden.

La ligne jaune, by Gaylord Le Goaziou, Maythinie Eludut et Julien Viniane
The colours in this garden were amazing! We couldn’t get a very good angle to show off the whole garden, but I think the pictures below illustrate the brilliance and inventiveness of the colour combinations.

Transposition, by Florimond Gauvin and Mathouta Vongphouthone
With a spiral boardwalk and beautiful planting, this was a simple garden that managed to be novel and comfortable at the same time.

Lessive en fleurs, by Anaëlle Madec, Jean-François Madec, Clément Constantin
This garden made smart use of a creative element, laundry, to show off colour gradation. By using the very obvious colour theme in the laundry, which is easy to control and obvious to all visitors, it helped highlight the parallel colour motif in the planting. I like gardens with clear themes that any visitor can immediately connect to and understand. The wind also added an interesting element, making the laundry as alive as a windswept planting.

Etang donné, Christophe Cuzin
One of the unique features of this festival is that gardens must fit into a mature site, generally a key requirement in “real” garden design. This particular garden was set in a tiny clearing surrounded by high trees, with only a little bit of light coming in through the central opening. The simple design was perfectly suited to the spot and managed to create a magical and mysterious place. Things don’t always have to be too complicated.

Pénombre, by Alvaro de la Rosa Maura and Patricia Diaz Agrela
Wow – a perfect example of a powerful garden created by exploiting the essence of a single plant, in this case Japanese blood grass. Everything in this garden worked to show off the unique interplay between grass and light, including the contrasting white birch trunks and circular design to show off different lighting angles (and to ensure that backlighting would always be available from at least one angle).

Le jardin "Mange-tête", by Steven Fuhrman, Samson Lacoste, Luc Pinsard
Top marks for fun and creativity. The "head-eating" garden offered coloured bulbs to stick your head in and get a whole new colour experience of the otherwise quite plain planting. People spent a lot of time enjoying themselves in this garden trying the differently coloured bulbs, which were even set at varying heights to accommodate everyone.

Writing this and looking at the pictures of last year just makes me itch to go back again. The theme this year is “Body and Soul" - sounds intriguing...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cologne Botanical Gardens, Cologne, Germany

In late December, we visited Cologne to check out the famous German Christmas markets. Of course, I couldn’t let a trip to a new city go by without a visit to the local botanical gardens. So after stuffing ourselves with great food at the markets - everything from the standard bratwurst to delicious cedar plank salmon washed down with generous quantities of mulled wine - we walked along the Rhine river to the gardens. I wasn’t expecting much given the time of the year, but for a gardener from Eastern North America, there were definitely some surprises in store. Winters are only slightly milder in this part of Germany than what I’m used to in Toronto, but what a difference it makes!

The most amazing sight was a planting of camellias in a woodland section. Camellias look like tropical plants, with shiny evergreen leaves and huge peony-like flowers. Appearances can be deceiving though, as these plants were growing completely unprotected and beginning to flower in late December. I had to touch them to make sure they weren't fake.

Another impressive plant was Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'. Not only was the entire shrub covered in light pink flowers, but the beautiful fragrance dominated a whole section of the garden, perhaps helped by the crisp winter air and lack of smell competition from other plants. Lucky are the gardeners who can enjoy this in their gardens in the middle of winter. In Ontario, the plant is hardy but doesn’t flower until spring.

We also spotted a small tree bearing flowers. It looked almost like a cherry, but I have no idea what tree would be flowering so profusely at this time of the year and it wasn't labeled.

One display reminded me that even cold climate gardeners have access to great plants for the winter – grasses. With the right lighting, the effects created by grasses are hard to beat.

Overall, the garden was enjoyable but perhaps not exceptional. It did make me a bit jealous of Cologne gardeners though, who can enjoy magnificent camellia blooms, fragrant shrubs and flowering trees in their gardens at this time of year. Oh, and I didn’t even mention the rhododendron we spotted blooming … in December!