Friday, June 14, 2013

Digging Around

Speaking of Gardens...

The last post, about our upcoming painting workshop in France and, especially, painting at the garden of the Prieure d'Orsan, has put me to reminiscing about the garden that Kim and I created at our house in France between 2002 and 2005. 

When we bought this property in 2000, the garden looked like this:

The property consisted of an enclosed space (above), a house, a combination dilapidated guest house/garage, a small garden building, and a very large barn. All of the buildings were arranged around a farmyard, with a gate to the road.

The house had no heat, and virtually no electricity. There was really nothing you might call a kitchen and there was one very creepy bathroom. From 2001 to 2002, we meticulously restored the house. Finally, in Spring 2002, we were able to install ourselves. Now it was garden time.

Behind the house was a small, walled enclosure which also backed up to the garage. In this space was a large boxwood, footed by some mahonia, a somewhat sad espaliered pear, and some box remnants which you will see in the lower left corner of this photo. The area was filled with very tough pasture grass and quite a bit of rubbish. We laid out a rough square and planted several hundred small box to define the edges. The extant large box was coaxed into a cylindrical shape. We used gravel to make a sitting area since this garden was right off the kitchen. You'll see that we made the paths from discarded terracotta roof tiles. Although they continued to fracture in place, with all the foot traffic and wheelbarrow rolling, they mostly stayed where we wanted them. Here's what it looked like from the second-storey of the main house by the time we sold the property in 2005. You'll see that the new box plants haven't yet caught up to those few older pieces.

At the bottom left of the photo above, there is a gate going to the forecourt. Here's a photo of the view from the herb garden side. It looks out on roses, iris, fading wisteria, the mare (a small, sloping stone water tank used for washing cattle, etc.), and upon a slice of the larger Brionnais landscape.

Meanwhile, we were working like crazy to extirpate all the tough, noxious growth in the main, front garden. The work on the house had yielded a great deal of stone rubble. Rather than have the masons cart it away, I had them put it in a pile behind the barn, to serve as an ad hoc quarry for garden building. First we tamed a large rectangle immediately in front of the main facade, covering it with gravel for a bit of a cheap, informal terrace. We decided to leave the two somewhat-ratty boxwood ovals. Between them I built a set of circular steps, a la Lutyens, using the discarded stone. Here's an al fresco supper table, toward the end of that summer.

By now the garden had begun to take shape. What follows are a group of rather random photos of the garden. You'll find the moral of this story at the bottom of this post. 
Those of you who have made gardens, or are making them still, know that they are often of just a moment. As I often say about paintings, "they are merely the record of the skirmish".

In the photo above, the house is on the right, with the large barn in the center. This is the waste ground from the original photo after a great deal work. We had no mechanical equipment, save a lawnmower, and only our four hands. It was a lot of work, but a great joy.   

Below, a misty night... and dinner guests expected.

It was all a great pleasure. But we found that owning a house in France somewhat discouraged us from traveling very much ourselves. We had an abundance of friends and family come to stay and and we have a storehouse of great memories.

The moral of the story, as I promised, is coming up. In 2005 we sold the house to a Swiss couple who converted it to a bed-and-breakfast. Now it was theirs to cherish or to change.

And the garden? It was too much work, I guess. So they put it all back to lawn. Go figure.

If you garden, I needn't say more.


  1. OMG

    How incredibly picturesque... and beautiful. What a creation!

  2. What an incredibly beautiful garden and home you two created! Your artistic talent knows no limits. How sad that it was not properly appreciated and cared for.

  3. A great experience! I too spent 8 years creating a garden


    ..and the house is rented (while I disport myself in the sunny (furnace!) south). I don't know if there are any conclusions or lessons to be drawn (painted?), I guess the choice is (paraphasing the immortal bard ;D) "to do" or "not to do"? - beats watching TV anyway!

    PS Your's was a very beautiful garden.
    - "There, that's something. Or, you could say, that's all."

    1. Thanks, Jon. You garden is/was lovely. I have no difficulty intuiting from it your exuberance. Maybe it's time to read The Prickotty Bush again?

  4. What a fabulous setting! Love the views. When we came to France we had visions of travel throughout Europe from our base in the Charente. In reality it has turned out to be a great base for our endless visitors, while we travel back and forth from the wine cave and gardening centre.