In the fall of 2015, I was asked to help lead a study abroad trip with SFA students to France the following May, and when the discussion of great gardens to see arose, I immediately thought of Le Jardin Plume.
I can't recall the first time I saw images of the grasses and the manicured boxwood at Le Jardin Plume—probably from this article written by Stephen Lacey—but I do remember being mesmerized and enchanted by the photos.
I knew that Le Jardin Plume was a garden we had to visit. Why, you ask? Well, I wasn't being selfish in trying to mark off a bucket list garden, but I wanted to show students GREAT horticulture. The study abroad trip was a joint effort with agriculture/horticulture and interior design, architecture, and hospitality. I felt that the other majors outside of horticulture would enjoy design techniques employed with a different medium—plants. And, the people who I knew who had visited Le Jardin Plume raved about it being one of their favorite gardens in the world. Fortunately, it wasn't too far from Paris, our excursion center.
When I was in the garden, I did my best to soak up as much as I could and photograph everything. Now that I'm back stateside and some time has passed, I'm reflecting on what made the garden so attractive and appealing. Let's see, shall we.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
Le Jardin Plume, which translates as The Feather Garden, was started by Patrick and Sylvie Quibel approximately 20 years ago. Fortunately, they were there the day we visited, and as we braved a light mist, Patrick was able to share some perspective about the garden in French. Thanks to our group leader Aristea translating his introduction, we better understood the history and essence of the garden. I offer a typed, paraphrased version of his videoed dialogue for you below.
I asked one question. "What was your inspiration? Why did you do this?" Patrick replied,
One final note to keep in mind. He also shared with us that day that they and another helper care for the garden. That's it. I was amazed with all they were able to accomplish and manage with so little, and you can tell they put their heart and soul into the garden's design. In my opinion what made the garden so successful design-wise is the contrast and harmonies created through the use of plants and hardscaping.
The juxaposition of the formal with the informal created beautiful drama. This approach repeated itself time and time again in the gardens, usually via some straight or curved line etched by man against a wilder, more natural look.
From entering the garden from the nursery area, the orchard was immediately visible where rectangular patches of wild grasses and flowering plants dotted the countryside between fresh mown turf. No formal border existed between the tall and short grass; the legibility came only from a mower blade. It was a reversal of the farmed fields and untouched fencerows that comprise the surrounding countryside. Here in the orchard, the tamed surrounded the wildness.
To the right of the entrance was a perfectly manicured hedge of Buxus (boxwood) shaped like waves cresting and crashing on the sea. Yet, this wall was stoic and served as a backdrop for various herbaceous flowers and grasses that swayed in the breeze. As Patrick noted above, this area is also referred to as the Feather Garden and gives Le Jardin Plume it's name.
Near the house, clipped boxwood were planted to provide a maze-like structure for other perennials to grow inside. The plantings they contained were not quite as wild and wooly as the area by the boxwood waves.
And, the lines in the boxwood PERFECTLY aligned with the primary axes in the orchard. I found myself asking, "Is this Heaven?!" (It was certainly not Iowa.) These manmade, straight lines contrasted with the naturally gnarly apple trees in the orchard beyond.
In two areas of the landscape, the square blocks of turf were replaced by square ponds. Again, another contrast was used—same shape, different medium. These small reflecting pools acted as mirrors and made the garden feel larger.
While contrast created drama, repetition of key elements and themes provided harmony and united the garden as a whole. The shape of the square continually popped up throughout the landscape from the square-shaped plots in the orchard, the edged turf under the apple trees, the reflecting pools, the Miscanthus cloister, and the right angles in the formal boxwood by the house.
In the spring garden, repetition was also used with the roly-poly pruned boxwood, which provided a foil for the rampant Aquilegia (yet another contrast!).
The natural look was everywhere in the garden, and Patrick and Sylvie are true artists at intermingling plants.
Here, as in most mixed plantings, repetition created a sense of unity. Grasses of some sort played a role in almost every garden. White Camassia, Persicaria bistorta (bistort), and other spring-flowering forbs were used repeatedly in the squares to unite those disjunct areas, and Aquilegia were scattered to and fro in several different gardens.
And, as you can see in the photo above, the repetition of apple trees in the orchard created a cadence.
I also have to give them credit for the rustic farm look. However, for them it was an actual farm, not something contrived from Pinterest. The hardscape and buildings added an ancient and agrarian feel to the garden.
The last note on design I'll share is the plant material. I found some old and new floral friends in the garden.
They used one of my absolute favorite plants at Le Jardin Plume—Allium siculum (honey garlic). I love how the umbels resemble an upside down chandelier. I delight in seeing it in gardens further north and abroad, but how I hate that it's not a perennial for us in the deep south. The flowers were a bit pinker than I'm used to seeing which made me wonder whether it was a subspecies or different cultivar. Do you know?
Briza maxima (quaking grass) was a new grass for me. The little inflorescences look like little cocoons all hanging from a thread.
And, there were several double types of Aquilegia, which brought a cheerfulness to the gardens.
Alas, all good garden visits must come to an end, and as we left, we passed their expansive nursery. I do wish I could have brought some plants back with me. Perhaps next time!
As I think about it now, I revel with the word imagery of Patrick and Sylvie calling this plot of terra firma The Feather Garden. Feathers are what allow birds to grasp the heavens and have inspired man and woman throughout the ages to soar higher, as John Magee, Jr. says to "slip the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." Similarly, their creation and stewardship has elevated horticulture. I remember leaving the garden that day on cloud nine, and still months later I feel inspired having visited. More importantly, I believe that Le Jardin Plume has ruffled the way that our students view plants and gardens for the better, and I thank Patrick and Sylvie for their experience.