Is there such a thing as a French national garden style? There are certainly some recognisably French garden types; such as the clipped formality of Le Notre, the exuberantly decorative potager, and the regional specificity of the gardens of Normandy or Provence. But can a garden be the epitome of a national psyche? For example, I think the French are deeply conflicted between cool, Cartesian rationality, and a passionate desire to just be wild, à la Rousseau. So, if a garden here was able to square that circle, and bring a satisfying resolution to the tension between formality and informality, the natural and the man-made, the cerebral and the emotional – would that represent the perfect French style? If that were possible, then Le Jardin Plume, in Normandy, created by Sylvie and Patrick Quibel, would, in my view, be a serious contender.
You get a sense of what the Quibels saw in 1996, when they first visited the site, by the surrounding landscape when you arrive for a visit today; flat, featureless and dull, relieved by a forested green horizon. Certainly not the most romantic landscape Normandy has to offer. There’s no razzamatazz around the garden either: no signs en route, no car park and no fancy entrance; just a farm track to pull up on, and then a gap in a trimmed hedge and an A-board, announces you have reached the right place. There are no clues to what awaits behind the curtain hedges – which, actually, is rather a lovely thing in a society which feels the need to shout about just about everything to gain attention.
The eight acre site is designed as a conversation (with no shouting): a conversation between the several gardens which make up the whole; between the garden and the agricultural land beyond; between the plants and the elements; between geometry and poetry. You enter via a plant nursery and then, there it is, the famous Orchard Garden, star of so many glossy magazines, and the largest and most innovative of the garden spaces. It is a great chequerboard of mown squares with the trunks of apple trees serving as striking verticals. The stark geometry of it started life as a rope stretched in an axial line from the house into the landscape. I love the practicality of this founding act upon which the whole design hinges. Paths describing a grid are closely mown, while unmown squares are left to grow wild, with seasonal interventions such as a mass of camassias in the spring. It’s an unpretentious idea which manages to unite the grandeur of Le Notre, the reason of Descartes and the humanity of Rousseau. It appears rigid but, change your position on the grid, and squares morph into diamonds and, again, into lozenges – a tableau where the actors include the elements, light and shade and the huge overhead canvas of the sky.
The grid is a strong motif which holds the more ephemeral elements in its arms. Grasses add texture and movement, as well as framing the orchard in architectural blocks. Presiding over this graphic ensemble is a rectangular mirror pool which has the quiet authority of a teacher in front of the class. It also acts as a fulcrum for exploring other parts of the garden. So, there it is – equilibrium achieved: discipline and the uncontrollable working together. A real pièce de résistance. Face the other way, towards the house, and the Summer Garden is a variation on the theme; resolving the tension between the strict and the undisciplined.
The Summer Garden is raised, just one step, above the Orchard; it’s a detail which counts. At first glance it could be taken for a conventional, box parterre, allowed to grow to an outsized chest-height. Observe a little more closely and you will see that each compartment is, in fact, open on one side and filled with blooms that take their time to perform and are at their best in late summer. The colour is dazzling – a palette of molten lava where crocosmia, helenium, helianthus, achillea, echinacea, nasturtium and others bubble, boil and explode, often escaping the confines of their cages. Restraint and abandon live happily together; each complementing the other.
The design of Jardin Plume owes a debt to two books and one garden maker. When it comes to an understanding of geometry and framing the Quibels say they were deeply influenced by Grammaire des Jardins: Secret de Metier, by René Pechère. For poetic inspiration, sensibility to wild nature and a spritz of the unorthodox, they studied Derek Jarman’s book about the last garden he made at his home in Dungeness, Kent. The garden maker was Henk Gerritsen, whose own garden at Priona Tuinen, (itself based on the ideas of Mien Ruys), was a revelation in how wild planting, in strong structure, could work as a template for a modern garden philosophy. The Orchard and the Summer Garden are versions of that template and, in a relatively discrete area, near one of the pretty barns is another – Le Jardin Plume, or the Feather Garden, which has given its name to the whole.
This space came as a surprise as I had always assumed that the garden takes its name from the dramatic late summer grasses of The Orchard, but no, this is at the heart of it all, a declaration of intent: strong structure and wild planting exemplifies the wider ideals of our modern era. Here, a hedge of clipped, green waves dances with a spume of veronicastrum, calamagrotis and other species chosen for their light, feathery effect, while sanguisorba and thalictrum plashes the whole with energetic dots and dashes. It’s another well-known set piece in this photogenic garden, which looks striking through the lens of a camera and has been admired around the world.
It’s pretty, and it is fun to try and capture glimpses of the lacy planting enclosed by solid folds of hedge, but I just don’t get it. I suspect it’s because I felt wrong footed. The garden sets a clear agenda and this hedge seems to represent a shift in the paradigm – it is not a strong and stable structure acting as a foil for something more ephemeral. Although solid in itself, it seems to be referencing something unstable, like a dinosaur’s back, or Hokusai’s waves or the rise and fall of life itself? The balance between logic and emotion seems to be lacking here – and I find it unsettling. But perhaps there is nothing wrong in that.
There is plenty more to explore, amongst which is The Autumn Garden. This was inspired by childhood and the feeling of being small in a world of giants. At its best this garden of tall, vigorous species becomes a jungle of stems, leaves and flowers for us to part as we explore, like adventurers in a jungle. It’s a powerful idea, bringing us back to our elemental interaction with nature; before we learnt to be designers or critics – when we just engaged in a tactile way with plants without knowing their names and likes and dislikes. Here the structural hedge is used to create a dark green box, and the wild planting is its filling of tangled emotion. There’s a conventional and slightly chaotic Flower Garden too and I liked a secret corridor of white rosebay willowherb, Chamaenerion angustifolium, whose pink cousin is so familiar to us along railway lines, the fluffy tufts of seed heads left to speak of potential new life.
Plume means feather in French; there is no need to spell out the link between feathers and the planting style here. Plume also refers to a pen. I like to think of this garden as representing both the feather and the pen – the textural and the graphic. The Quibels write that they hope they have reconciled those who like clean lines with those who like wildness. I would go further and say that they have managed the difficult task of handling the tension between the desire to be rational and the urge to be wild which underlies a great deal of French culture: they have indeed mostly squared the circle in their very French creation – Le Jardin Plume.
NB The Quibels use a restricted palette of plants which are all available for sale, at reasonable prices, in their charming little nursery. At the moment it is fine to buy plants and transport them within the EU, including the UK.
I visited in late August as part of a little tour I devised of gardens in Normandy plus Monet’s Giverny which is an hour or so away. I think this is a good time to visit the Jardin Plume because you get the full impact of the grasses, however, the flowers in other areas were past their best.
There are no refreshments available and local towns do close down on certain days so come prepared. Price of tickets at time of writing is 9.50 euros for adults – see their website for details and opening times.
Jardin Plume: 790 Rue de la Plaine, 76116 Auzouville-sur-Ry, France