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.