Thursday, December 23, 2010

Le jardin d’eau

Les Jardins de Castillon-Plantbessin were one of the gardens that made the deepest impression during our trip to the coast of Normandy. This blog was meant to be all about this captivating place and the many things I admired there. But whenever I think of Castillon, the first thing that pops into my head is one particular garden: le jardin d’eau, the water garden.

The layout of this garden is as simple as they come: a long rectilinear pool surrounded on all four sides by plants. The pool is dark mirror, reflecting the sky and providing as porthole to things below. Around it, a jungle of green plants are just on the edge of chaos, completely overtaking the space and leaving only a narrow path to walk on carefully at the water’s edge. The entire space feels secret, magical and powerful. I’ll just leave it to the pictures to hopefully convey the atmosphere, and there will be more to come on Castillon-Plantbessin. In the meantime, Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Winter is coming

Winter in Belgium generally means gray, rainy days with temperatures rarely dipping below freezing. Snow and ice are rare, and cause complete chaos across the country when they do occur.

Well, this year, we’ve been warned: a real winter is coming to Belgium. We could already see the first signs of it this weekend at our local botanical garden in Leuven: tiny specs of snow were nestled between the fallen leaves, even though it was a sunny day. This little evidence may seem pathetic to any Canadian, but in a country where rain is the only usual form of precipitation, it’s an ominous sign.

The sun is so weak now, it’s no wonder it can’t even melt a few bits of snow. It’s dropping ever lower in the sky, and by 2:30pm there was barely enough light to take these pictures. The soft, low lighting did make for some nice effects though, especially in combination with the dried skeletons of once lush plants.

One of the advantages of borderline freezing temperatures and moist air which characterize winter weather here is hoarfrost. It's a beautiful effect, one that I often saw in gardening books while in Ontario and usually thought what a scam! Any garden can look good silhouetted in hoarfrost, but how often does it actually occur? In Ontario almost never, but here (and I suspect in the UK, where most of the books were from) it's a frequent visitor during the winter months. The pictures below are from last winter, but we've already enjoyed a few mornings of it this year. It's just a tiny patch of un-mown roadside on my way to work, but doesn't hoarfrost just make the most mundane thing beautiful?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Le Parc du Bois des Moutiers, Normandy, France

The partnership between Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll ranks as one of the most famous in gardening. He was the architect, she the gardener. He provided the garden layout and designed the structures and spaces, while she filled them in with billowing herbaceous plantings that have become synonymous with the “English garden”. Given their place in British gardening lore, it was a bit ironic that I should see my first example of their work in Normandy, France at the Parc du Bois des Moutiers. And even more surprising that I should be most impressed by the elements provided by Lutyens, who is often a mere footnote to Jekyll in gardening books.

The owner of the property commissioned Lutyens to design his country retreat. Lutyens designed not only the main house, but more importantly all of the outdoor hardscaping, including terraces, paths, level changes, pergolas and walls. It’s easy to see the master’s hand at work here: all the elements flow into one another and into the landscape, seamlessly linking the house to its environment. And despite the detectable English influence in the design, the chosen materials and style seem local, and sit perfectly comfortably in the French countryside.

On one side of the house, the feeling is open and grand. A large, multi-level terrace offers a full view over a large lawn, which descends down into a park-like forest dropping steeply to the coastline and into the sea. The view is all sky and forest, with a small bit of sea poking through between the trees.

On the other side of the house, the ground is level and space is restricted by the small country lane that leads to the property. Fittingly, the feeling here is intimate and enclosed. A walled garden, a pergola-covered walkway and small paths and steps make this side feel like a hidden and private oasis, a complete antithesis to the open lawn on the other side, yet perfectly complementary.

Jekyll provided the planting plans for the property, primarily for the above mentioned enclosed areas. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know how closely today’s plantings match her original intent. I’m also not sure how she approached the design– did she come and visit the site, check the soil and look at native plants, or was it more formulaic? The soil here is chalky and shallow, perhaps not best suited to her standard palette of perennials. The family has also done a lot of restoration of the property after almost losing it, so again it’s difficult to know how close to the original plan they have stayed.

Some things are perfect, whether designed by Jekyll or the owners: the rose draped pergola and the soft white hydrangeas in containers fit this rural French site as well as anywhere. Other things are a bit disappointing, such as an in-between area on the side of the house, which features an open lawn with no structures and some randomly dotted tree specimens. The park on the sea-side is mainly the work of the owners, and makes for a relaxing walk through native forest intermingled with many cultivated plants, such as Japanese maples and hydrangeas.

Le Parc du Bois des Moutiers is a great place to take in some inspiring lessons about the role of structure in defining and linking the garden and house, or just to enjoy a beautiful setting on the Norman coast.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Le Clos du Courday, Normandy, France

Only 5km away from Les Jardins Agapanthe lies yet another extraordinary Norman garden, Le Clos du Coudray. Although barely a few fields and a small village apart, the two gardens couldn’t be more different. If at Agapanthe the plants were the medium, at Clos du Coudray, they are the main message. In standard gardening lingo, Coudray would be described as a 'plantman's' garden, focused primarily on plants and plant combinations, and less on design. It is a classic example of a garden which has grown organically as passionate owners Marie-Christine and Jean Lebret added more areas and wanted to grow different types of plants. The result is a mixed bag of very different garden rooms with fantastic individual plantings and colours, if somewhat lacking in a coherent overall message.

The first of many garden rooms at Clos du Coudray is the rose garden, which sounds terribly conventional but luckily isn't. The mixed planting is sumptuous, and is well framed by a strong, geometric layout of long, parallel paths and trellises. Many of the colour combinations are masterful in this area, with both harmonizing and contrasting blends, and clever colour echoes.

Next is a typical English perennial garden, with large curved borders and big swathes of lawn, as well as a gravel garden in one corner and a small woodland at the end. A stream with several ponds runs through the middle of this long garden, providing a central link. The set-up reminded me a little bit of Beth Chatto's garden. It's a nice space with many beautiful details and great plant combinations, but I found it a bit of an awkward fit with the French countryside. The photos seem to have turned out OK though, again reminding me that pictures only tell part of the story.

A number of smaller gardens follow, which are set on more sloped, rolling land. The changing relief in these areas really added interest compared to the English garden above, and reminded me once again of the importance of this element – it is something that many great gardens do well. One of these smaller gardens which was particularly nice featured a naturalized pond in a depression surrounded by mature trees and lush plantings.

Deeper into the garden lie the newer areas, which showcase some novel plantings. One truly spectacular space which is not to be missed is the grasses garden at back end of the grounds. In the middle of July and with late afternoon sun, this garden looked spectacular. Unlike other 'new perennial' gardens, this garden is almost exclusively grasses with only very few, well-placed and perfectly coloured perennials. There was a very interesting feeling to this garden. My first impression was that of movement - the area is quite high and the slightest air movement is picked up by all the grasses and spreads in waves across the garden. My second feeling was that of being dwarfed – the mass of plants here is impressive, both in height and in breadth. The garden manages to be open and towering at the same time. Overall, a really interesting space and a creative take on the mixed grasses/perennial garden we see so much of right now.

As you move towards the exit, the last garden is a new tropical addition. This moist, shady corridor filled with lush plants is a world apart from the open grass plain just moments before. Just an example of the dramatic shifts at Le Clos du Coudray, which may leave the visitor a little bit dazed, but still appreciative of the great planting lessons throughout the garden.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Les Jardins Agapanthe, Normandy, France

After England in May, the next garden wandering trip on the calendar was France in July (was I ever spoiled this summer!). It was absolutely magnificent. I was amazed by what’s happening over there in the gardening arena, and came away incredibly inspired.

As many other people have noted before, the French just seem to have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, an artistic flair that makes everything French somehow more beautiful. Gardens are no different, though for a long time the French seemed stuck in a formal rut. Luckily for everyone, gardening is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in France, with newer, innovative gardens popping up all over the country. Normandy is a hot-bed for (relatively) new gardens, so that’s where we went.

The first garden we visited was Agapanthe, and what a start – it completely blew me away. If anyone has a chance to visit this, please, please do. Agapanthe is a work of art in the form of a garden. Its creator is Alexandre Thomas, and he has devoted his artistic energy to this garden for over 15 years. It is a residential creation, which seems to be the category in which the best gardens are found in France.

The amazing thing about Agapanthe is that everything from an insignificant hidden corner to an overall view is gorgeous. You could honestly take a picture anywhere, and each composition would be beautiful. I’ve read some reviews saying that it’s overly theatrical, but I didn’t find it to be. It’s dramatic and staged, that’s for sure, but I didn’t find it false.

Thomas employs a mixture of recurring elements to create his compositions: clipped evergreens pop up a lot and are contrasted with loose perennial plantings; paths and stonework are innovative and always add to the picture rather than just being functional; and structures and decorations are used where they best complement the garden. Best of all, the entire garden is fully planted - there isn’t a patch of lawn anywhere, which made me particularly happy as a committed anti-lawn gardener.

The plants are the first important element at Agapanthe. The palette is mainly green, and it’s all about texture and form. You get the sense that the plants are used as an artistic medium, but also allowed to shine in their own right. The pruned boxwood and other evergreens scattered throughout the garden add green structure and link the whole together. Other areas are less structured in the geometric sense, and instead use texture upon texture of plants. As might be expected, there are also many agapanthus plants, mainly in pots. Hydrangeas, particularly white, also feature prominently. Normandy is known for its hydrangeas, with the most incredible specimens growing casually next to abandoned farmhouses and old churches.

And oh, the paths. I could go and on about the paths, and how Agapanthe has really opened my eyes to the possibilities that they offer, how much they can add to a garden. They were always creative, even though the materials were simple, just gravel and stone or brick.

In the most brilliant path I have ever seen, stone was combined with flowing water. It was brilliant, a magical spot where you really felt drawn into the garden. Because of the design of the path, you interact almost directly with the water flowing underneath your feet and in and out of the surrounding plantings, and thus feel completely immersed in the surroundings.

The decorations were also prominent, in particular the massive ceramic vessels. Apparently Thomas is also an antique dealer/collector, so he has a lot of pieces perfectly suited to the garden, each creating its own little vignette.

I could go on and on about Agapanthe – I’ve been thinking about it a lot since our trip, and each time I do, I get as excited and inspired as when I was there. It is a strong, beautiful art composition. Even the small nursery area at the end was gorgeous – in fact I didn't even realize that it was a nursery until I noticed everything was in plastic pots.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wisley Garden, England

The RHS garden Wisley is supposed to be the jewel in the RHS’ crown. It’s certainly a fantastic garden, which has almost anything one might be interested in as a gardener. Unfortunately for me, Wisley came at the end of our spring trip to England and I have to admit that I was a little bit gardened out. I really didn’t think this would ever be possible, but apparently five large gardens and an even larger garden show are just about enough for one trip. And maybe, although it seems sacrilege to even suggest it, I also grew tired of the absolute perfection of each garden we visited. Forests and wild meadows never seem to lose their charms – could it be that English gardens, or any type of garden for that matter, are just too ‘landscaped’ for their own good? Or maybe I’m just reading way too much into this – seeing multiple castles or paintings can also wear you down, no matter how beautiful each is individually.

But I digress. Back to Wisley, which really is a very lovely garden. It’s the oldest garden owned by the RHS, which means the Society has had over 100 years to develop it into one of the top attractions in England. The well-known greenhouse is instantly recognizable, while the Wisley trial fields are the sacred ground where the “RHS Award of Merit” is determined. There is great history at Wisley, a true establishment of English gardening culture.

As the gardens are very large, I’ll just go through a few of my favourite sections. One of the latest notable additions to the garden is Piet Oudolf’s modern take on the English double border. His wide borders run from the aforementioned signature greenhouse up a large slope, to the upper part of the gardens. While in late May they clearly weren’t at their full glory, they were still nicely filled in. I did think that perhaps some more structure (which is often found in Oudolf’s work) would have made the composition stronger, but maybe late spring is not the best time to judge.

A completely different area was the alpine garden. Here, attention was focused on the individual plants, and late spring was a great time to visit. As one might expect, everything was grown to perfection - a real candy store for the alpine plant enthusiast.

As seems to be often the case, I also really enjoyed the woodland section. There were two woodland sections at Wisley, one a little more ‘gardened’ with smaller trees and a great concentration of lovely woodland floor plants, and another which was more forest-like, at the further end of the garden. The latter featured some amazing rare and old tree specimens, as well as an impressive collection of rhododendrons and azaleas, all in bloom. A beautiful garden to enjoy, even in the perennial English drizzle.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Urban Jungle

I love coming across surprising little plants in unexpected places in the city. It reminds me of the incredible resilience of green things, as well as just how quickly they will take over once humans move out.

It seems that plants can make do with almost any growing condition. Here is Buddleia (Butterfly bush), looking perfectly happy on the narrow ledge of an old building in the center of Leuven. We coddle and fuss over these plants like new grandmas in Toronto, but here in Belgium they can break through concrete.

In a mild and wet climate such as Belgium's, any level or slightly angled surface can quickly be overtaken by vegetation. Moss is ubiquitous on almost any textured surface, while wider ledges can support a veritable garden. The side entrance of this local stone church was in full bloom this spring.

Old stone walls are also plant favourites, as well as tourist favourites. To me, there's nothing more romantic than an old stone wall, partially draped in wild vegetation. To most Belgians, they're really just old stone walls of doubtful structural stability. A friend has one in the backyard of her old farmhouse that I would kill for, and she can't wait to tear it down and repair it. Luckily the one around the old abbey in Leuven is still standing.

Flat ground is of course also a pretty good place for plants. This was an empty lot I spotted while riding my bike a few days ago. It looked absolutely brilliant, a perfect little jewel among cookie cutter houses and uniformly mowed lawns. Isn't it amazing that we spend so much time and effort to prevent this from happening?