Saturday, 20 August 2011


Today Eurotunnel and home.  What will I bring back with me?  A renewed interest in annuals and a great feeling of having met others as enthusiastic and joyful about potagers as I am.  My potager is small and in it I try to combine medicinal plants and dye plants as well as culinary herbs and vegetables.  The challenge will be how to squeeze the annuals in without having to move house.

After the French journey, I looked around for potagers to visit in the south of England – but that’s another blog.

Friday, 19 August 2011


All things must pass and so did this journey.  I spent an interesting night at Le Petit Chateau de Sainte Colombe in Bouges le Chateau,, in a beautiful room with a four poster bed and many antique ornaments, overlooking the garden.  The propietor Antoinette D’Aquembronne  was delightful and an intriguing mix  of antique collector, gardener, animal lover and home maker.  The four chambers d’hotes I spent my nights in were as different from each other as you could imagine, but all had their own french charm and wonderful breakfasts. 

A meadow by the side of the road

Thursday, 18 August 2011


Today I was about to see the garden which fired my interest in potagers -Prieure D’Orsan. It is a two hour drive through the countryside, with, happily, very little motorway driving, but it was hot when I stepped out of the car.  Everything at the Prieure is perfect, from the hotel buildings to the shop, the gardens and the restaurant.  It was the site of an old monastery established in 1107 by Robert d’Arbrissel and  was bought and re-established in 1900 by two architects using medieval tapestries as their inspiration. 

View across the wheat beds to the hotel

Cordons or espalier fruit trees are used to separate the twelve areas of wheat plants, vegetables, maze, apple orchards, herb garden, hornbeam cloister, and the Three Orchard cloister of pear, sorbus and cherry, rose pergolas, Marys garden and more.  There are surprise holes in the hedges giving views through to the gardens beyond. Osiers are used for all the structures ornamental and practical, for raised circular beds around rhubarb, for the high square beds for the gourds, as well as for little romantic  and playful touches like the large osier heart high above the hedges. 

There is an osier shelter in the centre of the maze, which is surprisingly hard to get to even though you can see through the fruit cordons, grown here as barriers.

Then there is Mary’s garden – the Orsan Rose garden-with pink and white roses climbing over arches and  arbours.

If you visit Orsan, whatever else you do, make sure you have lunch under the pergola.  It was perfect – light and exquisitely flavoured with a wine to literally die for – produced at the Prieure. My waitress was welcoming, and for me she gave this very perfect and  slightly austere garden, a human warmth.

After a two hour drive I arrive at the gate  of St Jean de Beauregard as two of the garden assistants were driving out.  Luckily for me they are just going for lunch and are happy for me to drive in, park and explore.  As I drive in, however, a car pulls up and an angry frenchman informs me that the ‘jardin est ferme’.  In my very bad French, I said I had been told that I could look around.  ‘Je suis  propriateur’, he says and I pretend not to understand.  I had not come this far or been lucky enough to meet his assistants to turn back now.. Eventually he shrugs and I go on, slightly worried he might set ‘les canines mechant’ on me.
With a sketchy plan in my hands, I park the car and walk through a courtyard to the enclosed potager. and then have trouble working out how to get in.  It isn’t till I put my hand through the bars and pull hard on a latch from the other side that the door gives way and I can enter. 

There are 3 main events held in the garden of this seventeenth century chateau.  The first in MAY, a festival of perennials -Fete Des Plantes Vivaces.  The second in June – Fête des Artisans d'Art which includes the iris event, and the third in September – Fête des Fruits et Légumes Oubliés –a festival of the old varieties of fruit and vegetables, and this is also a celebration of annulas.  This year they were hosting the introduction of some new varieties of plants like a pink Hydrangea Annabelle and a green Echinacea.  Never sure if I like this kind of thing.  I’m very haooy with my white Hydrangea Annabelle and my soft purple Echinacea, but I know this is a big draw for some people.  

A small corner of the potager

However passing through the gate you are transported into annuals big time.  The thing I like all the French gardens I have visited, is the way they use annuals.  Not for them the tight formations which decorate a typical English suburban path.  They go for the big ones.  Huge yellow Dahlias, deep red Ricinis, blue and white salvias and these bring a whole new meaning to summer colour.  They seem to have been sown with wild abandon, reminding me of a friend who lived with us for a while bfore falling in love with a French Canadian and going to live in Corsica.  Not for her the sowing of seeds in the greenhouse, potting on and setting out in rows.  In spring she simply took packets of seeds, mixed them up and threw them around the kitchen garden and amazingly many of them came up and grew into strong edible plants. Our potager had a good structure so that whatever happened, it looked like it was meant, not accidental.  That is the secret of this sort of wild planting, that you have a basic structure picked out in box or yew or lavandula or any other edging plant.  IN St jean de B the structure typically evolved around a large central pond – the garden then being divided into 16 large squares, each edged by espalier and cordon fruit trees or box or annual edging.  Paeonias circled the pond behind low box hedging and along the central axis they were interspersed with Gaura.  The great thing about paeonies is their attractive foliage which remains long after the flowers have gone..

At the end of the vegetable area there is a cutting garden again attractive in its own right.  I find cutting plants for the house so difficult.  Unless it is something like sweet peas, anything you take for the house leaves a nasty gap, so it is essential if you want flowers for the house to have an area just for these plants and to grow them in  large numbers.

Part of the cutting garden

I have never seen so many dahlias apart from the ones shown in the marquees at Chelsea or Hampton Court, and there they always look so perfect, so neat, so unnatural that they never get my attention.  Here they do, being used as bursts of colour bordering the vegetable beds and making the other colours come alive. Huge rows of swiss chard bright reds and yellows, next to dusty purple cabbages next to grey green leeks.  Around the vegetable garden, apart from the annuals were fruit trees, old varieties of apples, pears and plums. 

This is a large potager – almost as large as the Jardin Du Roi in Versailles, but cared for and loved.  After a couple of hours the two assistants came back from lunch and gave me printed details of future shows, plus some posters of their produce.  They were so enthusiastic about the garden and it is easy to see why.  You do not need to speak in hushed tones, this garden has a definite ‘joie do vie’ all its own and I bet their festivals are full of noise and laughter, as well as admiration for this fabulous garden.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


One of the many things I love about travelling through France is the breakfast. I spend a lot of the night before looking forward to it and this one was typical.  Good coffee, good bread, home made compote  and a piece of prune tart, sitting in the scented garden serenaded by several songbirds.  Later I took a walk along the River Cher whiling away the time until the Bois Richeux opened.

The view from the end of the garden towards the chateau

This garden is fairly small and confined to a coutyard bounded on two sides by a very old chateau.  It is organised into three checkerboard patterns. The garden of ‘simples’ containing medicinal plants like meadowsweet, plantain, thyme and marigold and bordered by thick rounded box hedging. The aromatic gardens for herbs and plants used in perfumery including roses, lavender, myrtle and bergamot, edged with old grey stones. Finally the ‘hortus’  or kitchen garden -vegetable beds edged with osier. There is a hornbeam cloister leading from the ‘room of love’ to the ‘room of meditation’.  It would have been sad to have missed Bois Richeux.


There is also a very good salesman who managed to sell me some expensive pefume made from the herbs grown here.  Actually it is interesting –smelling of lavender and roses with a hint of something resin’ish like Juniper.  I was happy to pay for the privilege of having the garden to myself – the group must have turned up after I had gone.

The chateau of Chaumont Sur Loire

Then a long drive to Chaumont sur Loire and the garden festival, which I have seen almost every year since it started in 1992. It is essentially a liason between architects,garden designers and and artists. There is a different theme each year and this year the theme was conservation, so many more plants were used.  Some years you find that plants are almost secondary to artefacts – as you often do at Chelsea, but not his year. As you approach the festival area, there are long thin sun ray beds, some using blues and silver and some using pinks and purples with  small shrubs perennials, grasses and annuals in wavy formation reminding me of Monet’s summer planting. although slightly more organised than that.

One of the ribbon beds outside the main festival area

There is always attention given to growing things at this festival and it is no different this year.  There are many kinds of mulches used around vegetables – shells, corks, offcuts of all sorts of materials.  Also quite a few concept ‘gardens’ illustrating the theme, but not ‘gardens’ in the true sense of the word.  They are more precisely ‘artists installations’.  The artists have a sense of humour though and there were enough gardens and plants around to make it worth a look.

How to save our threatened species

I have a problem with concept ‘gardens’. They are never ‘gardens’ – the word has been abused. Concept gardens often have a theme that is as far from the old idea of gardens as  relaxing, joyful, inspiring and productive spaces as it is possible to imagine..  Why not have a separate festival of outside art installations and not try and sneak these things in as ‘gardens’ to a garden festival.  It is good to take a break from the continual barrage of war and cruelty and the celebrity hyperlife we are exposed to, and hugely disappointing to hundreds like me who go to garden festivals to see plants.  At Hampton Court last year, after half an hour of trying to understand one of these installations, i asked the artist what I was looking at.  Turned out to be an area representing Afganistan with the sandy track being the sort of road laced with IUDS that soldiers have to deal with every day.  The arch, rouigh one side and smooth  the other, represented the poverty of Afganistan against the richness of the west.  The pillars descending unevenly in height represented the number of soldiers killed in 10 successive years since the beginning of the war.  I know all this but what has it got to do with gardens?  Strange that  serious issues like this should be given space at what is essentailly a festival of plants – you know, those amazing things which grow from seeds into trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals.  Anyway the fragility of the eco system was the theme at Chaumont this year and there were some very original ways of illustrating it. There are always things to enjoy at Chaumont –  a vine growing through a dining table, or the use of painted mesh sculptures among the plants. 

Lovely ideas to fill in those bits of garden where nothing will grow or using 
artefacts like these  to highlight the form and texture of the planting

By now it was 3.30pm and pouring very chubby rain so I ducked under a large umbrella and found myself talking to a French horticultural student about vegetables.  A delightful unplanned ten minutes out of time. The rain eased and I pondered on going another thirty miles to see the biggest potager in france -Villandry -which I had seen a couple of times before.  It was late in the afternoon and I worried that it might be closed, but in the end I decided to go for it.  This is what I was in France for after all, so an hour later and still damp, I found a parking space, grabbed a coffee and walked through the familiar stone entrance.  This was the first time I had been to Villandry alone and  whether it was this or just that I was so much more interested and knowledgeable on potagers I cant say, but suddenly I saw it.  Photographs can’t do it justice.

It is an exercise in colour form and texture using box hedging, vegetables, annuals and immaculate pruning.  The garden is divided into at 7 areas.  First there is the main potager - the Renaissance kitchen garden.  This is composed of nine large squares each with different geometric patterns inside them.  These are planted with multicoloured vegetables –red cabbages, blue leeks, lime green carrot tops - and  rows of standard roses, representing the monks who used to work in those gardens.  Up a level is a love garden where the green topiary and red and pink annuals illustrate love in all its forms – tender love, passionate love, fickle love and tragic love.. although it has to be said that you have to really study these shapes to work out which is which.  Alongside that is another ‘room’ which  ‘evokes the symbolism of music.’ 

The Love and Music garden

Above that is a wood  and a water garden with a large pond surrounded by lime trees.  Walk under the wooden pergola covered with roses and vines, and you come to the ‘Sun’ garden full of exuberant perennials, and shrubs. 

There is also an apothecary garden with aromatic, culinary and medicinal herbs and all thankfully labelled. Finally, a maze completes the experience.

The Sun Garden

There are so many vegetables, it is to be hoped they get eaten at some point –I like to think the gardeners can take the less than perfect ones home for supper.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011


Awaking to birdsong and sunshine streaking through the trees outside. ,I stand in the doorway to stretch and bend, then walk barefoot on the grass – np-one to see me. Domaine de Folicoeur really is a good place to stay. Breakfast appears, boiiled egg and toast with all sorts of home made compote and, of course, coffee.
Later I go and look for my hosts, wandering through their garden and into the most beautiful grassed courtyard. I pay my bill and reluctantly. leave.

Domaine de Folicoeur –Chambre D’Hote

To Giverny, not a potager but worth a visit anytime. Luckily just a short queue so I can get in within the hour. Most days the queue goes right along the street and almost out of the village . A brief rain shower and then the sun comes out and the temperature rises. What always surprises me in this garden, is the use of annuals – cleomes, dahlias, Nigella, Nicotiana, Cosmos. Used because they are the only plants which will stay in flower almost throughout the summer. In April and May they are joined by a myriad bulbs, in June by Iris’s and now the annuals almost take over. Here are colour beds - yellows oranges and browns with helianthus, rudbeckia, helenium, dahlias, solidago, coreopsis and cosmos. There are pink and purple beds with penstemon, hesperis, paeonia, nicotiana, and gladiolas. There are roses everywhere, strung over the metal arches, as standards grown as a ‘cloche’ or ‘champignon’ and as shrubs within the beds above a ground covering of nasturtiums and salvias. Monet used a lot of white in his colour beds Lavatera, Nicotiana sylvestris, Asters, Clematis, Cosmos.but never in large clumps where they might have a distracting effect .You can get a garden overview by looking out from the upper windows of Monet’s house but that is always crowded, so I have to be content with photographs from ground level.

A Giverny border
The classic Monet’s garden photograph – 
still beautiful in august – 
pity about the closed green doors though

A splendour of annuals keeping the garden 
alive during the hot summer months

Out into the hot sunshine and to Versailles to the garden of the king. –‘Le Jardin du Roi’.  I park almost opposite what looks like the main door.  It is firmly closed with a padlock but a little further on,  still obviously connected to the garden, is a vegetable shop, with a small desk by one of the doors into a large courtyard. There is no one behind the desk, and as two customers are taking the grocer’s attention by changing their minds about what they want to buy,  I seize the moment and wander out into the vast spankingly hot ya.rd.  At first I can’t make out an entrance to the potager, but in the furthest corner I see a gardener disappearing through a gap in the hedge, so I follow.  Suddenly I’m confronted by the biggest potager ever – it was not called Le Jardin du Roi’ for nothing.  The produce here could have fed 500 and probably did. It was set up between 1678 and 1683 by La Quintinie at the command of Louis X1V and t is arranged around a large circular pond with a tall jet of water making a pleasant splashing sound in the now overwhelming heat.  The growing areas of the Grand Square are divided into 16 squares  which are about 1.5m below the level of the surrounding walls to protect the crops.  All around the Grand Square behind high walls, there are 24 walled gardens containing fruit trees. and they look well cared for – grafted in all sorts of shapes and patterns. 

Just one of the pruning methods used
But apart from the fruit trees, the whole potager has a neglected feel,, like a series of unloved allotments.  There is obviously some growing and experimentation going on.  I was told that the garden is looked after by landscape architect students from a nearby college, but apart from the fruit trees there is little evidence of any serious horticulture. Perhaps august is not the best time to see this garden.  Seems a bit of a waste not to use it to grow vegetables and feed. people. La Quintinie was a great experimenter and worked hard at supplying food for the court all year round, finding new varieties of fruit and vegetables, building houses for tender fruits. It would be good to see how it looked in its prime.

This gives an idea of the size of the garden – 
just one of the sixteen squares

There were several more intimate areas like this to the 
side of the main garden. Wondered who was looking after these.

I stayed a hour and then took the road  to Boix Richeau which is an old monastery with a potager based on a medieval monk’s garden.  I was really looking forward to this one but when I arrived, there was a notice on the gate saying that the garden was closed until  September.  It opens from the 15th july till 11th August and from the 15th September till  the 15th of October.  Today was the 16th August so I stood behind the closed gate hoping someone might take pity on me and let me in.  But no one did.  A car pulled up and the driver told me it was no use waiting, the garden was closed till September.  I was a bit put out and  drove off to my Chambres dHote near Chartres in Saint Prest. Danielle Chagot met me. and when I told her about the garden, she immediately phoned the owners to see if it was possible for me to visit out of season.   I was elated when she said I could go the next day – they were expecting a group visit and I could join the group.  Danielles hgouse has a beautiful garden, almost a  pint- sized Giverny with  tumbling roses and annuals – very cleverly designed by Danielles husband to include three enclosed seating areas.  Having missed the potager I had come to see, I had arrived at the B+B too early,  so  I decided to go to Chartres for the afternoon. But It was too hot to sightsee, so I sat near a water pavement and watched  enviously as dozens of children jumped and rolled in the water.  Finally I wandered through the park and then back to the auberge having seen very little of Chartres.  Tomorrow I hope to go to Bois Richeus, Chaumont Sur Loire and Villandry if it is possible to do all that in one day. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

15th AUGUST 2011

A sunny day and a quick drive to Dover. Then a smooth crossing and an easy, if long, drive to St Colombe pres de Vernon and then to Domaine de Folicoeur a beautiful old house nestling near a wooded valley, and the home of Claire and Joachim Knitter. Hollyhocks, roses, hydrangeas and lavander rambled over the soft grey stone giving me a preview of the pleasures to come. Old buildings converted, so sympathetically that, although from the outside theyare still old barns, Inside they have the touch of a collector and artist. Soft palest blues in the bedroom, aubergine in the bathroom, with the old woodwork in a greyish green. Outside a round metal table stained and worn, with four scrolled metal chairs. From the tiny terrace the land slopes down to a small wood past a few tomato plants growing on metal spirals, next to a cluster of fragrant red roses. A cockerel crows. Childrens voices grow tired towards evening and a violet campanula bows its head as the sun disappears behind the house. Toadlilies branch out over a white leaved lamium., and gradually cool breezes mark the dying breath of the day. I have been designing gardens and planting schemes for many years only recently becoming obsessed with potagers. Fascinated by their historical origins as much as by their relevance to planting design today, I had come to France to explore as many old and famous gardens as I could in a brief four day stay.

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