Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wim van Wassenhove’s Garden, Belgium

After 4 years of living in Belgium, I realized, to my great dismay, that Belgian gardens have been greatly under-represented on this blog. Isn’t it so often true that we ignore what we have at home and look away for inspiration? In my defense, I think I can explain why this happened.

First, Belgium is surrounded by some of the finest gardening nations in the world – the Netherlands, Germany, France and the UK. The temptation to go beyond the borders is therefore somewhat understandable. But given its illustrious neighbors, one might also naively think that Belgium is the place where these influences come together to create a gardening epicenter. Alas, it is not so. As I discovered soon after moving, the most important criteria in shaping the Belgian landscape are neatness and practicality, resulting in some rather sterile gardens.  What the Belgians seem to love more than anything else are immaculate lawns, tight hedges, and all manner of pruned, trellised, pleached and espaliered plants. I believe nothing delights the average Belgian more than running outside the instant a new leaf grows beyond the planned geometry of the garden and promptly snipping it off.

Although this may sound like mocking, I have gained a lot of respect for the Belgian approach to landscaping. Training plants into geometrical shapes can be a very valuable tool in the landscape, one that I think is under-used in North America. In Belgium, the technique has been greatly refined over the centuries, and is now perhaps best embodied by the innovative work of Jacques Wirtz. Unfortunately, most of his work is in private gardens and estates, and therefore not accessible to the lowly blogger.

A Wirtz hedge in his private garden. More on his work can be found in this nice article in the NY Times as well as a post on Grounded Design, where I found this picture. 

Instead of Wirtz’s iconic work, I will talk about some small, private, and more plant intensive gardens that I visited as part of the Belgian national open gardens scheme. The first was Wim van Wassenhove’s garden. I actually went to this one by mistake, but after spending 2 hours getting there by bus, train and foot, there was no turning back (and I certainly don’t regret it). Van Wassenhove is a landscape designer and nurseryman practicing in the western part of Flanders. Immediately upon entering his garden in the tiny village of Zedelgem, it’s clear that he also has a healthy level of that famous Belgian hedge gene. Neatly trimmed boxwood greets the visitor at the front door, and a tall yew hedge carefully encloses the entire front garden.

The path and hedges leading up to the front door, and the gate to the front garden.  

At the back of the house, hedges are again in the spotlight. The backyard is defined by strong horizontal and vertical lines. The horizontal lines build up in layers, starting with the brick terrace, then the long rectangular pond that parallels the terrace, followed by the dividing line between the lawn and field, and finally the horizon line. As you go away from the house, the lines get increasingly less defined, amplifying the sense of depth. At right angles with these are the strong verticals, represented by neatly trimmed hedges. The hedges are quite narrow, and run in parallel rows that lead the eye out to the larger landscape. Van Wassenhove is, by the way, the designer who told me he uses laser guides to install and trim hedges in clients’ gardens to ensure perfect straight lines.

Moving from the back of the house to the end of the garden reveals the details of the horizontal and vertical structures. The long rectangular pool is a more formal version of the small canal dividing the property from the fields at the back of the garden.  

The central axis is very powerful, but a lot is happening on the sides as well. Neatly trimmed boxwood rectangles are scattered throughout and combined with level changes to create an interesting play of geometrical shapes. The picture is softened by looser plants inserted in between, creating a nice overall balance.

Trimmed boxwood, loose plantings and creatively used sculptures and accents work together to create a balanced and interesting picture.  

In addition to this garden, which is quite ‘designed’ and I think pretty representative of the Belgian style, there is a second flower garden. This secret garden is completely out of the way and separate from the main garden, concealed behind the greenhouses and potted beds used for the nursery. This is very typically Belgian – to hide the loose and flowery bit somewhere in the back, and treat it almost as a play area that shouldn’t interfere with the real garden.

This flower garden looks almost like a nursery itself. It’s set up as several parallel paths with borders in between (instead of potted plants). There is a lot of plant material here, and it is well grown. Obviously van Wassenhove loves his plants, even if he chooses to only use them sparingly in the rest of the garden. I visited in the middle of June, which wasn’t yet the peak for this garden. There were a lot of ‘new perennials’ in the mix (no doubt the Dutch influence next door), but surprisingly few grasses. It seemed like more of a traditional English border, but using modern plants.

Plants such as Knautia macedonica, cranesbill geranium and some roses were the highlights in early June. The purple groundcover in the bottom picture is Phuopsis stylosa purpurea, a plant new to me.  

The last area of the garden was the most naturalized. It followed a small canal, of the kind traditionally used to divide fields in the lowlands. In this narrow, boggy area, named varieties of plants mingled freely with gnarly, pollarded willows and field grasses. It seems that the Belgians can let loose after all, even if only in the furthest recesses of the garden.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Jardin de Berchigranges, France

I can almost not believe it myself – it’s been over 6 months since my last blog! I thought I was a little bit behind, but I didn’t realize the situation was this bad! And it’s not only my own blog I’ve neglected, but even the blogs I follow. So I spent the last few weeks reading up on my little blogging universe, and marveling at the developments in many people’s gardens over the past season. And catching up on all the news, such as the recent collision of illustrious gardeners and bloggers at Federal Twist, the incredible frequency of posts over at opensesame, and the change in continents for Intercontinental Gardener... But now that I’ve caught up, it’s time for a new post.

Looking back at my last blog, it seems that I left off with my two favourite gardens in France. As luck would have it, I made a repeat visit to the second one this August, so it’s fresh in my mind. The garden is Berchigranges, in the Vosges region of north-eastern France. I came to it through Noel Kingsbury, who described it as possibly "the most beautiful garden ever" on his blog.

The tour guides stand ready at the gates to Berchigranges! 

Berchigranges is a private garden, a labour of love created and maintained by husband and wife team Thierry and Monique Dronet. As soon as you step through the gate, it’s obvious that this is a very personal garden that somebody cares about, a lot. And it’s a garden that is happy being a garden. It’s not trying to make the latest design statement, or to impress visitors with anything particularly grand or novel. It is simply and unashamedly trying to create something pretty and charming. It uses flowers, lots and lots of them, and surrounds them with manicured lawns, pretty gazebos and water features. It’s not old fashioned or gaudy, it simply finds joy in growing beautiful things and combining them in beautiful ways.

View across the garden in early June. 

The garden is nestled on the side of a hill in the gently rolling countryside of the Vosges region, a popular tourist area characterized by its majestic deciduous forested hills. The garden covers almost 4 acres, and was built on the site of an old quarry. Over 25 years of work have gone into shaping the land into many levels, clearing and redistributing rocks, and constructing elaborate waterways. The whole garden slopes down from the main entrance, and offers open views of the majestic landscape beyond.

There are many distinct areas to this garden, each taking full advantage of the lay of the land. As you walk in the gate, the first area centers around a long pond, its water dark and still. A bridge covered in grass and using short boxwood hedging as its railing is the focal point. I honestly couldn’t take my eyes off this bridge – it seemed like such a simple idea, and yet it was so powerful and managed to capture the atmosphere and elegance of the place. Jardin de Berchigranges really does focal points brilliantly. Gardeners love to place various ‘things’ in the landscape to catch the eye, and books love to tell us that we should. But at Berchigranges, this was taken to the level of art.

Going on from the pond, the flower borders begin. Yes, they are irregularly shaped, with rounded edges and random curves. The owners have said that they developed the garden organically, without a master plan, and perhaps this is where it shows. But are the contents ever gorgeous! There are over 4000 plant species in this garden, and they spill out from every possible corner. While the style is abundant and loose, with lots of mixing and self-sowing evident, the gardener still appears to be very much in charge. Each composition is deliberate, and the wonderful colour and texture combinations are testament to a very sensitive eye and a lot of patience.

Delighting the senses in early June. 

My two visits to this garden were at very different times of the year: at the very beginning of June and at the end of August. But I was amazed to note that at both times, the garden seemed to be covered in blooms. There are so many plants, and everything is so carefully tended that it manages to peak throughout the year. It reminded me of Christopher Lloyd’s approach at Great Dixter, where he advocated intense planting and management to achieve a non-stop show in his long border. But achieving this on the scale of a full garden with a limited labour force is truly extraordinary. It takes unbelievable planning and a deep knowledge of plants, how they grow and how they can share the same space. Here are a few pictures of the plant combinations I saw in June and in August at Berchigranges, to give you an idea.

The same flower border at the beginning of June (top) and end of August (bottom), maintaining same colour scheme. 

Borders overflowing with growth and colour both in June (top) and August (bottom). 

The formal garden putting on growth through the summer. 

The bog garden was equally lush in August (bottom) as in June. 

As you walk around the grounds, the garden does fall into one little trap, which is trying to include a bit of everything. There is a a formal walled garden, a maze, an informal meadow, a rock garden, a gravel garden, pond, streams… you get the idea. As a plant lover, it's perfectly understandable that one would want to grow a bit of everything. And as a visitor, it did not upset me at all, as each part was an opportunity to showcase new and delightful things.

The last space of the garden is a graveled sitting area, decorated with charming wrought iron chairs and tables. I found it difficult to take a picture here without people – it was the end of the garden, and many visitors lingered here even if there were no cookies or tea. I guess none of us wanted to leave this little piece of paradise.