If ever I have taken my garden for granted I apologise to the Universe. It may be small and it may be urban but it has been a source of joy, and at the moment, while the world is trying to manage the spread of the Covid 19 virus, it is a luxury beyond words. The Jardin de Curé, or Curate’s Garden, is an eighteenth-century French garden type born out of the crisis of its Revolution. It was intended to give succour to the village priest, not only in the physical sense but in the intellectual and spiritual realm too. It has been neglected in our modern world but it is beginning to make a comeback as people recognise its virtues. Last summer I visited a wonderful reconstruction in the garden village of Chédigny in the Touraine region and this seems to be an apposite moment to write about it.
The Touraine is endlessly garlanded with superlatives: often referred to as ‘the Garden of France’, it has more than its fair share of great cuisine, brilliant cheeses, amazing, world-famous chateaux and, of course, the ‘best’ accent in the whole of France. Difficult then for a pretty little village among other beauty spots to make its mark, but Chédigny has done just that by transforming itself into the first, and as yet only, village to have been designated a ‘Jardin Remarquable’ in its entirety. Pavements have been removed, parking moved out from the centre of town and homes smothered with a collection of 1000 climbing roses, supported by a choir of flora which in summer makes the whole place sing. It may be famous for its Rose Festival, held on the weekend of French Mothering Sunday, but Chédigny has something much more important to offer – its very special Jardin de Curé, which it believes to be unique in France.
Go to the centre of the village and follow the path around to the back of the church where you will be greeted by an outstanding specimen of a lime tree striding the space between the church and the old presbytery. The ground floor of the Curé’s home is now a lovely little restaurant and tearoom with a terrace which overlooks his old garden. It is a delightful spot and, as the garden was closed for lunch, a brilliant opportunity to sit and enjoy the scene from what would have been his everyday point of view. Then make your way through the little greenhouse entrance to the wonderful historic reconstruction created by this imaginative community.
If you hadn’t heard of a Jardin de Curé before you may feel you have walked into a veg garden, with herbs and flowers and some other bits and bobs, set in a rather formal framework, but giving the overall impression of a joyful, abundant and somewhat haphazard potager. And, on a level, that’s what it is – perfectly lovely too. What elevates this garden type for me is the intention behind it; the subtext. It is indeed a garden to feed the body but it aspires to be so much more. It is a garden for thinking, a garden of messages and iconography, for learning and teaching, for medicine, horticultural experimentation, curiosity, biodiversity and spiritual celebration and reflection. I think of it as a garden designed to feed mind, body and soul, and at this moment in time it has great appeal, especially since it flourished in a time of particular need.
The village Curate always lived a fairly modest life-style and did not share in the enormous wealth of the Church or the collection of local tithes; a kind of taxation requiring about a tenth of all agricultural production be given to the church as a ‘donation’. He had to keep to a strict budget to keep all the expenses of his office within his means. Things were tight enough but, on the 4 August 1789, during a night of sweeping reforms, tithes were abolished and the State took over Church funding. The following year the French State slashed the income of the local Curate; from now on he had to find his own way to stretch his income – and the presbytery garden was to be a godsend.
The Jardin de Curé is alive and well today as an expression in the French language which, very loosely, refers to a bit of a disorderly jumble of a garden; but the actual historic gardens are rare and misunderstood. Situated behind the presbytery, the basic design follows that of the Roman, Greek and Persian gardens described by much admired writers such as Pliny the Elder. At their simplest they follow the form of a Greek or Roman cross with paths dividing the space into four planting areas, usually defined by a box border. There can be extensions to this format, as there are at Chédigny, but the cross is always at its heart with a water basin or crucifix at the node. Each quarter had a specific purpose; different plantings were directly related to the needs of the Curate and his work:
Flowers – to this day the Catholic Church is very specific about the role plants and flowers play in the liturgy of the sacred year. They are there to highlight the different feasts and festivals and not as general horticultural adornment. For instance, during Lent no flowers should be used, although leaves and branches are permitted but then, on Easter Day, there should be a profusion of yellow and white blossoms symbolising the light of the risen Christ. The Curate would have had a profound knowledge of the symbolic role of flowers and he would have grown these in one of the ‘quarter beds’ to decorate the church all year round.
Vegetables – would have been for his personal sustenance to supplement his salary. His parishioners would have donated plants and seedlings and it is thought that they had a hand in planting them too, wherever they found a space in the vegetable bed. It is this community planting which, it is thought, led to an informal arrangement as one seasonal speciality followed another at the pace dictated by the Curate’s appetite.
Herbs and Simples – were also essential, not just for supporting the health of the Curate but for his work in healing the sick among his flock and other tasks such as embalming the dead. Of course, they weren’t just for medicinal use but were valued for their flavour and for making oils and waters for household and personal use, such as insect repellent or lavender water. He would have been keen to grow new specialities to extend his repertoire and in the Chédigny garden they have illustrated this with unusual plants like cardamom.
Vines or Soft Fruits – if it was at all possible, grapes to be made into communal wine were grown in the final section but fruit was also very important, both for its symbolic value in the church and for eating. The enclosing boundaries of the garden were festooned with trained fruit trees of all kinds. The Curé performed an important role in the community, being one of just a few people with access to the sophisticated libraries of the old abbeys and monasteries. These libraries were an important source of information on the latest and most interesting discoveries on botany, and cutting edge, experimental methods in horticulture. Remember, most people did not travel too far from their home, so getting hold of new varieties of fruit and vegetables was a really exciting event. It was often the Curé who had the knowledge and experience to multiply these new varieties through grafting and division.
Part of his job was to be a thinker and these gardens were also designed to enhance reflection and the contemplation of the life of Christ. At Chédigny fourteen evergreen Euonymus japonicus shrubs have been planted equidistant to each other to represent the fourteen stations of the cross – an open-air ritual, following the passion of Christ in vegetal form. There is also a little corner dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which in past times may well have been decorated with plants and flowers with Marian connotations. The pathways would have been mindfully walked to practice the Breviary and provided a framework in which to pass some of the canonical hours. Very young children would have had their first religious lessons in this space, with the garden used to illustrate the wonder of nature and God’s power of creation.
Nothing comes of nothing, so although I have talked a lot about the Christian symbolism behind everything in a Jardin de Curé it is important to note that much of its exuberance and everyday pragmatism comes from an older, secular tradition – that of Le Jardin de Grandmère, or Granny’s Garden. These have something of the romance we associate with the Cottage Garden, but whereas we rather invented the concept in sentimental fashion during the Victorian period, the Granny Garden was a reality; a practical working space, combining food, medicine, decoration for the home and a place to exchange a delicacy with a dollop of gossip on the side. I imagine that the Curé would have had many a private chat with troubled villagers in that special state one assumes when gardening. If you are visiting one of the grand chateaux of the region, I would recommend a detour to this lovely little spot to spend a moment in a humble, but inspirational garden, which just may speak to you too.