La Vie En Rose
The charms of French country living inspired Marian Somes to create her own version at her beautiful garden Picardy in the Gippsland hills.
How did she do it? Here she shares four underlying elements of the French country garden.
Text: Marian Somes. Pictures: Robin Powell
What is it that makes French country gardens special? As in fashion, French gardens have a certain style, that je ne sais quoi that immediately says ‘Made in France’. Being a committed Francophile and a country gardener I have often pondered on what those elements are. France is a very large country and I have read that every 30-40 kilometres brings a change of landscape, climate, agriculture, architecture and traditions, but despite this diversity there are some characteristics that are universal. I’ve tried to pin down a few of them here, concentrating on the country gardens I love.
When visiting France it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the great gardens of the chateaux and public parks but the gardens that I long to visit are the small domestic private gardens: the tantalising glimpses through iron gates and over stone walls of roses, lilac bushes, fruit trees, flowers - and a way of life that greatly appeals to me.
One of the elements of French gardens that differentiate it from the English style of cottage gardening is the design of the gardens. The French manipulate their gardens. They like symmetry and geometry. They like to clip, prune and shape both for aesthetic and productivity reasons. The art of espalier, topiary, pleach and pollard have long histories in France and have never gone out of fashion.
In the south of France cypress trees are kept sheared into tall spires that dominate the landscape like exclamation marks. In winter the pollarded willows along rivers and streams, and the plane trees in the village squares have a rather grotesque amputated look about them, but every spring they shoot again and by summer provide dense shade exactly where it is needed.
In private gardens formal beds give structure and control to the exuberant planting of flowers. Think of the Clos Normande at Giverny – here Monet practised, we might even think perfected, a traditional style of country gardening.
Inspired by French gardens like Giverny (above) Marian Somes and her husband Bryce, created their own version, Picardy, in the rolling hills of Jindivic, Victoria
Gravel and grass
Another characteristic of French gardens that has struck me on my travels is the use of gravel rather than manicured lawn to surround the house. Rather than the exquisite lawns of English gardens, and our reproduction of them in our suburban gardens, in French gardens, grass will typically be roughly mown and not subjected to stripes and patterns. In larger country houses in the south of France, though, which has a dry climate, you sometimes find a tapis vert, a small area of perfect lawn that is cherished and used rather like a bed of flowers. It’s for looking at, not for walking or sitting on.
At Picardy Marian employs the structure, gravel paths and exuberant flower planting of the typical French country garden.
The French countryside looks to me like a garden, with fields of scarlet poppies and yellow crops of canola in spring and in some areas purple lavender and sunflowers later in the season. In the cooler and wetter regions of Normandy and Brittany hydrangeas grow along roadsides and are as tall as a man and covered in bouquet-sized heads of flowers.
French country gardens are full of colourful flowers and perfume. The flowers that say France to me are roses, bearded iris, dahlias, lilacs, lavender, sunflowers, geraniums and red poppies. No matter how small a garden is, it almost always includes a rose climbing on a wall. In village houses, many of which are virtually on the road, they may be growing out of a pocket-handkerchief-sized bed and will be severely pruned to shape.
The gardens of larger houses in the village are often enclosed by stone walls or hedges and there will probably be a few fruit trees in addition to the flower gardens.
The gardens surrounding stand-alone farmhouses may not be large, the land too valuable to be used solely for pleasure, but there will be pots of geraniums, clumps of bearded iris in spring, dahlias for summer and always a rose or two. A feature of many farmyards is the pigeonniere or dovecote. Usually built of stone, they vary from region to region. Once full of pigeons, which provided meat for the table and manure for the garden, its contemporary use is usually as support for a climbing rose.
In the north of France colourfully planted window boxes flanked by shutters often pierced with heart-shapes herald the arrival of spring; in the south an iron arbour attached to the house, is often covered with a wisteria which drips with spectacular purple racemes in early spring and provides shade for summer living.
Some of the prettiest gardens I have seen surround the storybook lock-keepers cottages along the canals in the Burgundy and Brittany regions of France. Each is different, but they are all flower-filled.
The most famous vegetable garden in the world is to be found in France. It’s Villandry, a ‘tour de force’ of a garden that takes its inspirations from the traditional ‘potagers’ of village and farm. These simpler but no less attractive domestic gardens are usually laid out with great precision in long straight rows or beds, the soil tilled and raked to perfection. In villages the vegetable plot may be quite separate from the house and there will be a section for cut flowers for the house. The French live to eat and good food is an important part of their culture and the care lavished on these plots reflects this passion.
My enthusiasm for all things French is unabated and I recommend that those similarly afflicted read Collette’s lyrical descriptions of her childhood in My Mother’s House. I like to think that one day our garden will inspire such memories for our children and grandchildren.
Come with us
Visit Marian’s garden Picardy on our Inside Victoria tour, for French style with an Australian spirit - or see her inspiration on our new tour, Gardens of Regional France, timed for late summer exuberance, 7-21 September 2019.