MAGICAL GARDEN AND RENOVATED MEDIEVAL MONASTERY, BERRY, FRANCE
I have just returned, exhilarated, from a visit to a brilliant French garden, Le Prieuré d’Orsan (http://www.prieuredorsan.com ), which happens to be made around an idyllic small hotel in the middle of the province of Berry, about 300km South of Paris. I was there to find out more about the garden for Gardens Illustrated (http://www.gardensillustrated.com). The garden was looking ethereal and very beautiful in the low winter light.
The soft mottled roof tiles, quilted with lichen and moss have the same gentle, enduring rust-and-pale-grey softness as the ever leaner skeletons of the hornbeam cloister which architect and owner, Patrice Taravella has created as the heart of the garden.
I first visited Le Prieuré D’Orsan a year ago, at the height of summer. Only a garden as well structured as this can look as as elegant in late November
as it did in August.
Here the approach to gardening is serious. There is nothing that cannot be eaten or that does not serve a practical or symbolic purpose. But the energy, inventiveness and attention to detail that go into every aspect of its creation and its maintenance add a magical layer that is harder to define.
If you look down for a moment, even the cobbled path has been perfectly judged and beautifully laid.
There are some deliciously mad ideas – like training the vigorous ornamental vine, Vitis coignetiae, into particularly finite rectangular wall panels above a series of almost impossibly narrow-shouldered cordon pears. But the mad idea works of course because the vine will always be perfectly trained and never left for a moment to get slightly out of hand. Vitis coignetaie is usually left to festoon itself rampantly into a huge tree. I have seen its’ extravagant leaves with their luminous autumn colour grow in perfect scalloped rows – almost like roof tiles – over a garden shed, but this is the first time I have seen anyone try to harness this contradictory neatness in such a high profile position in the garden.
Again the composition looks as strong in winter as it does in its more lush summer form:
It is extraordinary to visit the new rose garden n a freezing November day before any of the roses has had a chance to flower, and find that the confidence and exuberance of the structure alone has the power takes your breath away.
As with the garden’s many other structures, the towers and panels of the rose garden are built by Patrice’s Head Gardener of twenty years, Gilles Guillot. Coppiced chestnut, often cut in half lengthways – intended for straps around wine barrels – is used as the principal material. The working relationship between the two men is now so close that they find it hard to separate out whose idea was whose – one will take up the idea of the other and a trellis panel, arch or exuberant tree seat will find itself simply emerging.
Railway sleepers are used particularly cleverly as a subtle, robust and often surprisingly elegant decking. This is the central terrace of the ‘Rosarie’
And here is one of the neat terraces of the ground floor bedrooms which have their own small garden:
I have seen sleepers used even more simply to make tactile and handsome decking at a vineyard in Bordeaux (below). The sleeper paths and terraces are pressure washed in early spring and work brilliantly as a gentle but elegant hard landscaping material.
Elsewhere at Orsan the delicate chestnut structures are used to screen and partially reveal, always offering tantalising glimpses of the next section of the garden. I love the way the cool grey main gates are only revealed if you take the trouble to go and find them.
Lacy tunnels of hornbeam filter the sunlight to create an atmosphere of secrecy and surprise.
Hornbeam pillars support exuberant pyramid-shaped ‘gloriettes’ – or pergolas – which keep the levels playful and unexpected
and mark out brilliant shapes against the sky.
Walking around the garden is a kind of game – even before you get to the espaliered fruit maze where Patrice put to use information culled from a job building a huge supermarket when he was a young architect (“I learned that on entering a supermarket, 95% of customers turn right – this is of course where I have put my dead ends …” ).
There are views through arches
Here in the potager the medlar fruit glow on their spreading branches against the sky.
The training of the soft fruit and fruit trees at Orsan is extraordinary and humbling in its perfection – I will be writing about this and about the structure of the garden in greater detail in the February 2014 editon of http://gardensillustrated.com
Strictly following the mantra “we must always break the sap”, every plant is immaculately trained to produce as much fruit as possible. I am enchanted by the screen of arched panels glittering with golden gooseberry leaves catching the light.
The idea with this ‘cradle’ for raspberries is to train one year’s canes up one side of the structure only leaving the opposite side for the following year’s growth.
Rhubarb is grown long and straight nurtured by handsome willow baskets.
This is a garden where it takes a week to built structures around the two olive trees to fill with fleece and protect them in the -20˚ temperatures to come.But it is also a garden of dreamily timeless abundance in summer.
Patrice made the most delicious birthday cake – a strawberry mille feuille with a vase of chocolate filled with flowers from the cutting garden.
Pretty perfect. Go there.