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.

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