“The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.”
George Bernard Shaw
Of all the gardens in the world, there are a handful that come up in conversation, blogs, media mentions and magazines year after year. These are the gardens that stand out from the horticultural crowd; the gardens that offer a point of difference so distinct they become destinations in their own right. They are the gardens every gardener should see at least once in their life. The grand potager at Villandry is one of them. The Garden of Ninfa, near Rome is another. But it's the garden of Prieuré de Notre-Dame D'Orsan in France that really wins over the green-thumbed crowd.
Tucked away in Berry, in the very southern part of France's Loire Valley, the Prieuré de Notre-Dame D'Orsan (the former Priory of Our Lady of Orsan) is so hidden that it is difficult to find, but keep trying because it is worth the meandering drive through the French countryside. This remarkable sixty-acre garden is unlike anything in the world. It is gardening in its most magical, and perhaps also its most spiritual, form.
The creation of Parisian architect Patrice Taravella and his former partner, designer Sonia Lesot, the garden is set on the ruins of a former medieval cloister that dates from the 12th century, and is based on the art of gardening during pre-Renaissance times. Consequently, everything here is monastically simple and delightfully restrained, leading to an unexpected sense of serenity.
Seats, arches and trellises, even the structures in the herb garden are all made in the medieval way using long, slender twigs woven into place. The raised vegetable beds are fashioned out of a similar kind of basketwork, and even the rhuburb is grown in beautiful natural ‘tubs’ made from woven vine. Elsewhere, plants, bushes and fruit trees are pruned (with obvious painstaking care) into enchanting shapes, while walls of hedge form buttressed elliptical arches over paths.
It is a garden designed to evoke the spirit – and spirituality – of a medieval garden, and it does so with grace and elegance. Indeed, it is so peaceful that walking through it is like walking through a meditation path.
“The dream was to recreate the spirit of the medieval priory,” explains Patrice Taravella, who purchased the garden in 1991 when it was almost on the verge of being derelict. Using function, symbolism and aesthetic appearance as the three key elements, he meticulously researched the designs of medieval gardens, including the way they were divided and the ways in which frames, raised beds, hedges and other structures were created and used. It was a case of employing function and form, rather than form over function, or function over form.
However, there also seems to be a further, fourth, element that has been integrated into the design: humour. The garden is full of cheeky and light-hearted touches, from ivy that’s been shaped into heart forms to charming ‘peep-holes’ that have been carved out of hedges to offer lovely lines of sight through to the garden rooms beyond.
As was the case with medieval gardens tended by monks, the majority of plants grown in this garden are for consumption, and the ways in which the gardeners have integrated the fruit and vegetables into the design is pure genius. Instead of filling the parterres with flowers, for example, the gardeners will often plant wheat, broan beans, leeks or cabbages. The Maze Vegetable Garden, meanwhile, is a labyrinth of hedges of pleached plums and gages, interspersed with beds of herbs and vegetables.
And then there's the Berry Path, one of my favourite spaces in this enthralling place. It's a truly enchanting long walk festooned with myriad varieties of berries on either side, including raspberries trained on V-shaped poles for ease of picking.
And while there are more than 20 varieties of apples are grown in the orchard, including Querine Florina, Patte de Loup and Drap d’Or, there are also delightful walls of espalier pears dressing the main entrance building.
The garden was the winner of the Institut de France garden prize, and the garden’s head gardener, Gilles Guillot, has also been elected best gardener in France by the Demeure Historique. The property was also awarded the label of “Remarkable Garden” by the Ministry of Culture.
Walking through this place, it is easy to see why France – and gardeners the world over – love it so much.
The Prieuré de Notre-Dame D'Orsan (Priory of Our Lady of Orsan) is located at Maisonnais in Berry, France, and is open to the public. See www.prieuredorsan.com or further details of the garden and hotel.
All photos copyright © Janelle McCulloch 2012