Monday, April 2, 2012

Les Jardins du Grand Courtoiseau, France

There are two gardens from my visits to France that I haven’t written about yet. I think I’ve hesitated because they were actually my two favourites, so I wanted to write something clever and insightful to do them justice. But since that’s unlikely to happen no matter how long I think about them, I might as well just take the plunge now.

Les Jardins du Grand Courtoiseau are the last gardens I visited during my trip to the Loire Valley, which is already a few years ago now. I showed up around lunch time and the garden looked deserted. According to my information, it should have been open, but the sign on the door disagreed. Opening time was only 2pm, by which hour I was supposed to be racing back to Belgium to return the rental car. Luckily, the gate was open. Well, maybe not so much open as not properly closed - there was sufficient space to (just) squeeze through the two large wooden gates (the opening is clearly visible in the picture above - anyone could have been confused). So... I trespassed into a private garden. In my defense, I assumed nobody actually lived there, and that I would run into a gardener or caretaker and explain the situation (you must let me in because I love gardens and this is the only time I can visit this one!). That is indeed what happened, and he very generously agreed after only a little bit of coaxing. It wasn’t until I got to the back of the gardens that I realized a very real family lives here, and that I was actually intruding on their very private outdoor lunch. But they too were extremely generous, and invited us to feel completely at home in the garden. I am therefore very grateful to the owners of this beautiful garden for allowing me to visit it in its natural state – with no hordes of visitors, just sunshine, bird song and a family enjoying their little piece of Eden.

On to the actual garden then. This is not a garden of groundbreaking design or cutting edge plantings. It is full of old fashioned white roses, evergreen hedges and neatly trimmed lawn. And yet, it made a powerful impression on me. I think the first reason is that it just fits so perfectly with the house and the countryside setting. Everything about this property exudes the same easy, effortless French charm and elegance. The second reason is that although the garden uses classical elements, it combines them in original and creative ways. There is clearly a very careful eye for plant combinations and colour, and a knack for creating perfect little vignettes.

It all starts with the house, a beautiful French villa in earthy tones of yellow stucco and brick, punctuated by stately, white French windows. The house is square, with a gravel courtyard in the middle. It sits more or less in the middle of the property, with gardens surrounding it on all sides. At the front of the house, formal gardens frame the way from the driveway to the entrance. In the back, the view from the eating patio is over a large simple lawn, with flower borders on both sides and mature trees in the back.

The more intensively gardened areas run parallel to the two sides of the house. The first side garden is rather formal and classical. It is divided into sections, or garden ‘rooms’, by wide yew hedges. Creative pruning of the hedge tops adds an interesting element to what could otherwise be a pretty plain garden. Inside the rooms, white, pale yellow and blue blooms predominate, nicely picking up the colour theme from the house. A simple square pool acts as the center piece in the middle garden room, while understated stone steps create level changes that beautifully define the space. Everything is quite relaxed, but also well taken care of – the presence of a dedicated gardener is clearly evident.

The garden on the other side of the house is a shady woodland garden, sheltered by the canopy of tall mature trees. Here the look is much less informal, with simple winding paths and loose plantings of the usual woodland suspects, including hostas and rhodos.

As already mentioned, the best parts of the garden were the little hidden vignettes, mostly found in narrow spaces adjacent to the house. One such example was a narrow walkway on the shady side of the house, where a row of tall bamboo provided a backdrop for a simple underplanting of variegated hostas and hydrangeas. Simple and stunning.

Perfect little details could be found all over the gardens, sometimes in the most unexpected and out of the way corners.

At the end of the visit there is one last nice surprise, a little walled garden area for the pool. What a dream to go for a dip here and lounge in the sun after a hard day of gardening.