A remarkable garden in Aveyron

A sprawling and eclectic garden in the Aveyron countryside is part of a prestigious club, writes Jane Hanks

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An Englishwoman in the Aveyron who has a garden labelled Jardin Remarquable will open her gates for the summer season this month.

When Marion Wilson bought her farmhouse with her German husband 27 years ago she did not plan to create a garden, and had never been a gardener. She is an artist, having trained at the Central School of Art and Design in London and designed fabrics for the National Trust.

“What I really wanted to do was to decorate the field around my house. I describe the garden as one that was created by an artist in 1997 around an Aveyronnaise farmhouse. The building itself is an intricate part of the garden, as we started by unblocking an arch and used that as a starting point.”

Her four adopted children also gave her the motivation to create a garden for them as they loved playing outside.

The garden is 3,500m² and is made up of various themed “rooms” and is designed with alleys and shaped bushes and trees which lead out to views of the rolling hills landscape beyond. Some of it has been planted with evergreens so it continues to have colour in the winter.

It is about composition and structure rather than herbaceous beds and flowers. There are hedges with three large openings cut in them for the view.

“What I like is shapes and textures. I am not a plantswoman and have chosen quite ordinary plants such as privet, viburnum, laurel and a lot of box, anything I can clip into shape. I use euphorbia for its feathery effect and yucca for its spikes.”

The climate is harsh. The house is at 500m and in the winter temperatures can drop to -16° and in the summer climb to 40° so she says anything fragile has never survived for long.

However, they have good soil. It is clay but it is workable and there are no rocks. As Marion Wilson had no gardening experience in the UK, she did not have to work through the problems many expat gardeners have of trying to adapt favourite plants to a new environment.

She learnt from French gardens she visited: “Les Jardins d’Eyrignac in the Dordogne with its formal French style was a big inspiration and I have since pruned many of my plants into the spirals I found there. I also learnt a lot from Le Jardin de la Louve, created by Nicole de Vésian at Bonnieux in Provence who also worked with shapes.

Vita Sackville-West’s writings have taught me a lot about plants. We have a pergola which is a copy of the one at Sissinghurst with the same species of white rose, Rosa mulliganii growing over it. It comes from just one root and makes a wonderful covering. She certainly knew her stuff.”

Marion Wilson has created a garden that needs the minimum of maintenance. There is no weeding to do, no digging, very little grass to cut and very little watering. There are no herbaceous borders and any bare soil is planted with ground cover plants such as Vinca minor (lesser periwinkle) and Hypericum sp. There are also Phlomis sp. (Jerusalem sage) and Hemerocallis sp. (Daylilies) for colour.

The only watering is for the pots she uses near the house to provide colour. In the spring they are filled with daffodils and tulips, and as they go over they are replaced by pots which are planted with lilies and agapanthus and later in the summer and autumn there are dahlias.

What she does do regularly, is prune: “Most days I go out with my pruning shears and it just takes ten minutes to neaten a shape. I find it a very soothing occupation. It is like plucking your eyebrows. Little and often keeps it all looking very well maintained.

“The busiest month in the garden is May, but recently we have had to work very hard throughout the season to prevent the pyrale caterpillar destroying our box. I do really want to save it as I find there is nothing really to replace box. It has a certain softness, but it is also very forgiving and you can prune it just as you wish to.”

One of the most striking features is her lime avenue, planted with 16 trees. “Our garden is on a small scale compared to many grand parks, but the avenue seems to work. We planted it in 2000 and it gives a direct view looking all the way down into the valley. It also acts as a barrier to the wind.”

She says she is very proud to have the label, Jardin Remarquable: “For an English person it is an enormous compliment. I would never have thought my small garden would be worthy of such an award and I would never have thought of applying for the label. But I was encouraged to do so by Jean Donies and Alain Herreman, real plantsmen who are the owners of a nearby Jardin Remarquable, Les Jardins de Quercy.

“I had to fill in a huge dossier. There has to be something remarkable for it to be classified, and often that is a particular plant collection. For my garden, I think, that though I have been inspired by French gardens it remains English in style and it is that which attracted them.”

Jardin de la Mothe is open every day from 10-19.00, April to October and profits from the €3 entrance fee go to charity: “My husband has retired and we have not had to work here. The garden is our passion.

“As two of our children are from Mali, we first raised money for a local charity that supports projects in that country. We are a registered association and contribute to other local causes as well.

“We have a grand piano in the barn and sometimes hold concerts and have found people love the mixture of music and gardens. It has been fantastic. It is wonderful to meet so many interesting people who choose to come and roam around our garden. The French visitors often give us amazing recipes for our plants, such as tisanes, which I would never have known about otherwise.”

Jardins Remarquable is a label given to around 400 gardens across France. It was introduced in 2004 by the Ministère de la Culture, and is given to private or public gardens or parks, which present “a cultural, aesthetic, historical or botanic interest”. Once awarded, the owners have to guarantee that they will undertake regular maintenance of their garden and they must open it to the public for at least 40 days in the year.

They are also asked to participate in one of the national events, either Rendez-vous aux Jardins or Journées Européennes du Patrimoine. For the owner the advantage is that they can become known to the public through Ministry of Culture publications and they can be added to signposts on the road. They include large chateau gardens such as Jardins de Marqueyssac, Dordogne and Versailles, as well as smaller, privately owned gardens such as Jardin de la Mothe.