Bonjour - an episode of France

From the fug and busy streets of Paris I find myself in the middle of nowhere as I arrive at my destination in the dark. One of the first things that I notice is the tantalising smell of Lonicera fragantissima (Winter Honeysuckle).

Courtyard of Baulay, gentles squares of Thymus sp, clipped Phlomis fruticosa, Lavandula sp & various.

I am working at Baulay at the moment, a private garden in the Loire Valley. Patrick and Benny, the owners are garden enthusiasts. The site used to be farmland, in which there are farm buildings that they have converted into their lovely home and into self-catering accommodation, which the French call 'un gite' here.

Baulette, one of the accommodation they rent out.

Altogether they have 9 acres. This comprises of a dry garden, borders, woodland, ponds one with lots of carp and one with lots of singing frogs, a work in progress meadow, orchard and an area for a future to be Japanese inspired area.

Detail of birdbox and vine on wall

Patrick wanted to create a dry garden because he likes the landscape of the South of France. The soil around this area here is heavy clay, that gets very wet in the winter and can get hard & dry in summer. But when they were installing geo-thermal heating in a large area behind their house and tonnes of clay had to be excavated, Patrick saw it as his opportunity to replace that clay with gravel, and has gone to about it with relish to create a world of his own. In this garden he grows lots of different kinds of Cistus, Lavandula, and grasses.

Still with all that clay extracted and several feet of gravel, this part of the garden doesn't come without its foibles. Patrick finds that he has to start plants out at a height for them to be able to be establish and have their optimum dry, well drained conditions.

Patrick's raised beds made out of stone, he also makes wooden cube planters to serve the same purpose.

Patrick is also an avid tester of plants, he's a firm believer of the sound logic finding the right plant and the right place. Like a scientist he is constantly trying out different species and cultivars to see what would suit his garden.

Patrick propagating different Cistus sp.

He is also fond of umbrella trees - Pinus pinea and has planted up a ridge with them. Which reminds me of a very fine specimen at Tresco.

Benny on the other hand has many mixed borders of perennials, shrubs, self-sowers etc. and cultivates a wild feeling in the garden. She is very partial to roses, and numerous types are interspersed around.

One of Benny's many mixed borders.

She also adds her sculptural quirk to the garden, with her love of interesting metal objects and using them inventively. She is the creative thinker of the garden and has a good visual eye, lots of ideas & a keen sense of a bargain. She has a weakness for buying plants though and has difficulties planting them out - this is where I come in. All in all this is not your average domestic garden and is an ongoing ambitious project.

Old lampshade frames as Peony supports.

A metal chair frame for a red stemmed rose to spout from and wind around.

They have a cross at the front and the back of the garden not because they're religious, but because it will always appear as a landmark or symbol on maps etc.

The surrounding landscape is of agricultural field and woods, as leaves are yet to unfurl and crops to grow it is very stark at the moment.

When I was at Tresco, I realised that although I am interested in ethnobotany and in conservation, I wanted to do it through ornamental horticulture. Inspired by the work of Roberto Burle Marx who was a Brazilian artist, ecologist & naturalist, bringing together art and conservation, I feel that this aspect can have such a big impact and a deep influence on how things work or are done. I think of the story I was once told where in Portsmouth, a conservationist noticed that everybody seemed to be growing monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) outside their homes, after much research and looking into it, he realised that the local garden centre was responsible for this because they had been doing special offers on this tree. He thus then encouraged the garden centre to sell a variety of native trees and though this was a subtle activity, it resonated in a bigger way and made a difference to the streets in his local area.

I remember going to a brilliant conference at Kew about growing communities and sustainability and people had inferred that horticulture had the potential to change the world. I feel that ornamental horticulture can raise awareness of plants, nature & ecology and bring communities together. This is why at the moment I am interested in a plants person's garden and although my preference is to work in a public garden with a team of people, it is a good personal progression for me at this stage to work at a private garden in an independent way. Like it is when you travel by yourself and learn about yourself.

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