Le Jardin Plume is a contemporary French garden located about 30 minutes drive from Rouen. To reach it requires driving through flat agricultural land of that area of Normandy, which fascinated us because such land use does not involve fencing. While this is industrial scale cropping, it has a summer charm that our grazing land lacks. I guess you don’t have to fence when the greatest threat is the naughty prime minister across the Channel.
The garden itself is also flat. Very flat, really. The areas closest to the house and allied buildings are intensively planted in a riot of bright summer blooms and foliage, mostly within the constraints of the tightly clipped hedges. Moving beyond that, on the site of an old apple orchard is the modern take on traditional French parterres. Blocks of grassy meadow are defined by tightly mown lawn walkways on an expansive scale across the seven acres. Le Jardin Plume means the feather garden, as evoked by the waving grasses, especially when they go to flower and seed.
The garden relies on sharp, clipped green walls to give it structure and very effective that is, too. The wave hedge certainly seems appropriate to what is a new wave garden. It was as wonderful in life as it is in the photographs. There is very little hard landscaping in permanent materials. Arguably, this adds to the charm because there is a softness and energy to the garden that reflects the use of living materials.
Contained within the wave hedging are graceful, tall perennials like veronicastrum, thalictrum and sanguisorbia along with the invaluable grass, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foester’. I particularly like the tracery of these tall plants against the sky and the feeling of walking midst soft, perennial plants that are taller than me. That is one of the advantages of a flat garden – easier framing of the view against the sky. In a world where we have seen the production of ever more compact and dwarf bedding plants best suited to floral clocks, these are like the anti-bedding plant brigade of the perennial world.
Out in the meadow ‘parterres’, the plantings are lower and more naturalistic. Some folk don’t like this whole meadow genre but we do. In spring there are bulbs. In summer, the charms lie in the soft movement and the somewhat random detail of additional plants. Added to that, there is another layer of interest in the wildlife. These areas are teeming with butterflies, bees and a host of lesser admired insect life. They are sustainable eco-systems and this planet needs a whole lot of them. In autumn, the grasses turn golden and seed heads will become a feature before being cut down just the once each year, in October.
The informal avenue of tall white perennials must be a transient delight but a delight it was. The perennial is Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ (also known as Chamaenerion angustifolium) but North Americans may know it better as the white form of fireweed while the British call it rosebay willowherb. Small gardens have to work harder throughout the year, but large gardens can accommodate such short term displays of frivolity, if the gardener so decides.
I don’t know if the owners ever ponder the longer term future of their garden (though I would be surprised if they do not). Le Jardin Plume is, I would suggest a garden of our modern times. But if you look at what makes a garden endure down the generations and into subsequent centuries, it is usually the immutable hard landscaping and the handsome long-term trees, along with a notable history and fine, historic buildings. Le Jardin Plume has none of these and is not a big budget garden. None of this is a criticism in any way. Rather, it is a celebration of what can be achieved with vision, enthusiasm, knowledge and hard work even though it is probably a one or two generation garden at most.
Maybe it was that we identified with the owners, Patrick and Sylvie Quibel, that made us particularly receptive to this garden. We realised quite early on that we were looking at a private garden created by a couple, managed with minimal assistance (I think there is just the one extra pair of hands and we saw him hand weeding), supported by a small nursery adjacent to the garden. Mme Quibel did not speak English and my spoken French is not up to conversational standards, but I would bet money that their hearts are in the garden and the nursery is just a means to an end. It felt like meeting the French equivalent of ourselves and we identified with their endeavours.
We could not identify with the heat. It was very hot on the day we visited. From there, we drove to Vimoutiers and by the time we reached there, the thermometer outside the pharmacy read 40 degrees. I can assure you that it never gets anywhere near that hot at home. Even the camembert cheese on our evening platter melted before our very eyes.