If gardens are the one area available to each of us in which to create our own personal visions of paradise - why should the French be excluded? We are annually bombarded by such a plethora of garden books inciting us to consider Form, Design, Patterns and Scent - the Classic, the Country and the English garden - that we browse through pages of photographs, become engrossed by captions, but in the end fail to distinguish one book from another. I know the British are said to be the only ones, that their garden style infiltrates to all five continents, but what happens just across the water? I wanted to find out.
About sixty million years ago a vast upheaval took place in France, which threw up the Alps to the south-east and the Pyrenees to the south-west, leaving the immense limestone tableland of the Massif Central where deep fissures fractured the rock to form valleys and turbulent water courses. Rivers flowed like life-giving arteries through the land mass of France; they passed from eroded uplands to pastoral sweetness, from forested desolation to marshy wilderness. And in between? In between, I felt sure, the French with all those centuries of creativity behind them must have made gardens. The provocation was irresistible. I was after French gardeners who made gardens with their own imprint, attitudes and ambitions gardens that would have a distinct Gallic urbanity.
The French passion for amputating trees, which makes the Romantic gardener wince, has passed down the centuries to the present day, when orderly plantings line the roads and decapitated trees form mutilated verticals in public gardens. My empathy had been aroused from the start when I discovered that what the English call a 'Ha-ha', the French call an 'Ah-ah'. Somehow there was a whimsical knowingness about the French way of pronouncing the word.
The discouragement I received was universal. A wet blanket was dumped on me by Frenchtoast, expert Francophiles, every travelled gardener, and every enlightened friend. “France and gardens? Forget it!” Frenchtoast cynically snorted. “You're mad. The French and gardens? God, if they can't eat it, they won't grow it! Only doctors, dentists and notaires, make gardens” Rocher advised. Thank you, thank you all. Unadulterated negativity is a potent incentive. Your advice was invaluable.
And in a superficial way they were right; for the traveller passing through, French gardens do not exist, except for those mounds with a house on top and drooping conifers and shrubs dotting the slopes. But only up to a point. When we visited the gardens, Clive had to reconsider his sweeping condemnation.
There was another incentive I longed to listen to the voices of the gardeners. How can a garden and its gardener be separated - the one area highlighted, the other left shadowy? And yet book after book takes you through the layout, the design, the pH content of the soil; every plant is hammered home, every color and height scrupulously recorded; but where, in these gardens, are the gardeners? Hidden! Yet they are the creators; their sensitivity, adroitness, philosophy, moods or dedication are as indispensable and deeply rooted in their gardens as a tap-root is to the crown of a tree. One thing became clear, as I researched: French gardeners were far more generous and responsive in giving me their time than I had been led to expect by all the knowing cynicism I was offered before we set out.
My search for French gardens depended on instinct, not logic; so, to begin with, my suppositions were generated in the very nebulous region of my imagination. I had no defined frontiers to the sort of garden I was looking for, but I hoped to unearth not only flower gardens, but parterres on a domestic scale.
In the Dordogne there is a green garden of such rigorous delicacy and distinguished architectural perfection it takes your breath away. The Manoir d'Eyrignac. Its diminishing alley of hornbeam buttresses and black-green cylinders of yew is of such precision it is hard to believe that the plants are all hand clipped, and the accuracy ensured by use of that simple device, a plumb line. I mention it here because it is a brilliant example of fastidious gardening most eloquently expressed.
Then there are kitchen gardens. Potagers are intrinsic to France. Drive anywhere in the country, and in no time you will see examples of the French talent for prim uniformity from purple-leafed cabbages veined with crimson, lettuces the size of caliphs' turbans and blue leeks set out in rows of meticulous precision.
At their most fastidious they are not only practical, but a scrupulous art form as well. France excels in this. Both benefit from the French mania for control; for their geometric eye and native lust for docking every sprig of wayward greenery.
In spite of a friend’s cry, from her garden in Burgundy'... I love organizing plants, the roses, but - how I should like to disorganize', long may this instinctive Gallic deftness last. The results are fabulous. Who wants us all to sing in the same key? My romantic notions, seen in borders heaving with rambling rose luxuriance, is perfection to me, but when I come to France I am dead set on discipline.
Kitchen gardens are as old as the fourth millenium BC. In France the most illustrious must be that of Villandry, with its reconstructed ornamental layout based on sixteenth-century engravings, where graphic patterns are embellished with bright explosions from standard roses. The possibilities seemed limitless; all I needed to do was start.
One of my first sources of information was Asterix, although gardens are not his thing, he was most generous in giving me the names of particular cronies in the world of restaurateurs, who might know of gardens in their locality. Each introduction I was given was worth pursuing. Some led nowhere, others were unexpectedly productive. E-mails followed e-mails to France, in an effort to find the kind of gardens I was looking for.
Throughout my search two names came up over and over again: la Baronne de Waldner and the late Vicomte de Noailles; but their magnificent gardens are hardly 'unknown', nor are some others which were also recommended.
One date, around which everything else pivoted, was Courson. The advice I was given to visit the biannual Flower Show, held in May and October, proved indispensable. Here, I was told, I would find garden designers, landscape architects, botanists, writers, photographers, amateur gardeners and nursery owners from every province of France.
I was enchanted by Courson. I could not believe such ingenuousness existed in the jostling world of plant salesmen. Even so, some gardeners I spoke to were already lamenting the loss of the early years of innocence. 'It used to be a lot more intimate. Now it's getting commercial.'
My companions on the journey were Frenchtoast and Anja. Although having a creature with strong demands of his own slowed me up sometimes, the responsive welcome and the loosening of formalities as he caused mild turmoil along the way did add another dimension to our travelling. Gallic proprieties, which might otherwise have taken weeks to thaw, dissolved instantly.
We travelled for six weeks in May and June. May in France is a lyrical month; it begins with the custom of giving bunches of muguet followed not many days later by the song of nightingales. Larks and nightingales pursued us throughout the countryside. And once, unexpectedly in Burgundy, we heard the reedy voice of cicadas. We were told they had only appeared in this part of France after hunters brought them in their cars from the south when they came to shoot in winter.
May is also the month when village houses are underlined by a stroke of irises the filmy blue of sky after rain; it is the month of Madonna lilies and of weed-killer - that brutal pogrom carried on against anything living such as charlock, wild lupins and of course small poppies.
The coquelicot - which is said to open when the cock crows - is almost the definitive flower of France. In one narrow valley flowers flowed like a tide of scarlet, tapering away into the distance so that I would not have been surprised to see a swimmer doing breast-stroke through them.
Guelder roses crowded the hedgerows; orchids, pink bush vetch and shepherd's purse grew along the verges of fields whose crops were indiscernible as they drowned in yellow buttercups sprinkled with ox-eye daisies. Stonecrop, house-leeks, rusty-backed and hart's tongue ferns trickled over roofs and in the cracks of walls, together with loosely meandering threads of ivy-leaved toadflax, that commonplace vagrant which strays so prettily. When you are in France in May you have no doubt that you have come at the right time of year: when you are there in October the same thoughts occur with the same conviction.
As we travelled, certain observations had a forceful, if sometimes transitory, impact; yet I should like to record them merely because they did seem noteworthy at the time. For instance, somewhere around mid-May all the ladies in the villages or countryside we passed through started wearing straw hats. Their appearance was an immediate signal that, whatever the weather, we must be on the brink of summer. Another trivial observation was how French gardeners seem to use gravel as we in the US use pre-cast concrete paving. Gravel was everywhere. It was the universal choice whether the gardens were in Picardy or Roussillon, in the Vendee or on the shores of Lac Leman. This seemed curious, considering the many sources of varied and different-colored stone in France. But how refreshing it was occasionally to find, in the arid parts of southern France where rain may not fall for months, the restful use of paving replacing grass.
The world-wide addiction to lawns can sometimes be carried to extremes. In Greece a snobbish owner of a villa will go to any lengths to bring in tankers of water to maintain a vivid patch of Irish green, ignoring the possibilities for making an indigenous Mediterranean garden. In the Far East, British consuls in unlikely places will cravenly copy their Embassies in an effort to keep up the verdurous tradition surrounding a statue of Queen Victoria, in spite of water shortages during the hot season. So when in France we discovered gardeners who had abandoned any ambition to sustain a pelouse we found often that they had created such shady havens of repose, from stone and shadows, that the word 'garden' took on another dimension.
Russell Page wrote in The Education of a Gardener, when talking about the many grand commissions he undertook: 'Each year I spent periods of weeks and sometimes months in France. I was fascinated by this contact with a definite and stylized culture new to me and clearer and sharper than the English tradition which has absorbed and modified and welded together influences from so many different countries ... ' Most pertinently he went on to say: 'In France foreign importations, whether of style or material, had only (it seemed to me) been absorbed if and when they could conform to French style.' When they could conform to French style! Oh, but of course - long may it last.
I feel that if Russell Page were to visit today and to discover just how deviant, innovative and personally idiosyncratic some French gardeners have become this might perhaps astonish and please him. Looking at French gardens, I felt more than ever that they proved that there are no 'right' ways of gardening - only alternatives.