Stunning French arboretum to celebrate 10 years of 'Open Gardens'

Sarah Beattie speaks to gardener Nell, whose spectacular Creuse arboretrum is listed as a ‘Jardin Remarquable’

Photo of a bench in a rural French abortorium / garden
The peaceful gardens contain hundreds of species of flaura and fauna, including almost 40 species of butterfly

Other people’s passions can be captivating. And so it was for a young South African woman, Nell, when backpacking around Europe. 

She was working on a farm in Sussex when she met a charming Frenchman called Philippe Wanty, who had a passion for trees. 

Raised in northern France, Philippe had trained as a landscape designer under Gilles Clément, the famed writer of Le Jardin en Mouvement (The Garden in Motion). 

Clément encouraged his students to come and work with him, creating his then revolutionary garden at Crozant, in the Creuse. 

You can see many of his principles in the current vogue for re-wilding as currently promoted by Isabella Tree. 

Philippe fell in love with this part of the Creuse and when Clément told him there was a small parcel of rugged land available, he jumped at the chance to buy it and start building his own dream – an arboretum. 

Joy of gardens sparked by work and travel

When he met Nell in Sussex, Philippe was financing his project with a company that collected yew clippings from major estates in the south-east of England. 

The clippings were dried in their factory and then processed to create the cancer drug, Taxol. 

Nell began to work with Philippe and got to visit some magnificent gardens. 

She smiles as she remembers. “I met all these wonderful Head Gardeners and I thought, that’s such a great job. I want to be a Head Gardener. I hadn’t known there was such a thing. In South Africa when I was growing up, people employed labourers to work in their gardens. Maybe now the big wine estates might have a Head Gardener but then, no.”

She adds, “My area covered East and West Sussex and Kent. I got to go in the tradesmen’s entrances to these fantastic historic gardens: Bateman’s, Glyndebourne and the like. 

That’s where there were long-established yew hedges and we collected the trimmings from the hedge cutting.” 

Nell had a background in Nature Conservancy. 

She had worked as the warden on The Vogelgat Nature Reserve in the Western Cape, with pristine fynbos vegetation containing over 900 species. 

Garden has received multiple awards

When Nell came to France with Philippe, the trees in his arboretum were just 40cm tall. Now, after more than three decades, they are mature and majestic. 

The arboretum was classified as a ‘Jardin Remarquable’ in 2005. 

The original plot was added to many times and today it stretches to some six hectares. 

Unlike many arboretums, there is no grand chateau nor manor house at its heart. It was not a great estate.

Nell and Philippe have raised their children in a house constructed of local materials, in an ecologically sound way. 

Even the roof is covered in wooden shingles made in a neighbouring village. 

There are areas of heathland that have had to be rescued from being overrun with Spanish broom and bracken. 

This meant ten years of strimming, up to four times a year, and back-breaking hand weeding. 

Now it again resembles the landscapes of the Impressionists of the Crozant School (which included Monet, Sérusier, Alfred Smith, and the lucky lottery winner, Guillaumin) and provides a habitat for the nightjar and many insects specifically adapted to this type of terrain. 

Read more: 150 years of Impressionism: how Americans saved Monet from poverty

There are shrubs and perennials throughout although fewer of the latter as the tree canopy grows. 

They are now planting more shade loving plants and ferns. 

I ask Nell which is her favourite part of the garden and she says the bit they didn’t plant – the ancient beeches which have a holly understorey.

She says they fear for the beech woods due to climate change and lack of summer rain. 

Philippe worries they may fall, damaging other trees as they go. 

Nell is philosophical. She says change happens and that they must always adapt. 

They weathered the huge storms Lothar and Martin around the Millennium when they lost some 30 trees, mainly large oaks, and had to do a massive clear up. 

This winter they planted 150 trees more suited to drier conditions. 

They will only water them for the first year as they establish themselves. 

These Mediterranean species are their ‘Future Wood’. 

Read more: French forest is transformed into gnome village

Hundreds of species of flora and fauna

I ask if any of their children will take on the arboretum. 

Nell shrugs, “I don’t know. Maybe, the most likely is our youngest but she’s in South Africa, doing Nature Conservancy. She’s busy. She’s seeing the world.” 

The land is not easy. The River Sedelle, after which the arboretum is named, is a tributary of the River Creuse. 

It flows along the edge of the arboretum, at times a wild and crashing torrent and at others serene and peaceful. It provides a home for a huge variety of species and the land at the arboretum is managed to create the richest possible biodiversity. 

Some fifty different bird species have been observed in the arboretum from the tiniest wrens and tree creepers up to the large raptors. 

You will hear the melodious golden oriole and nightingale and the thrumming of four different sorts of woodpeckers. 

If you are lucky maybe you will glimpse a kingfisher or a hoopoe. 

Every year Nell and Philippe host a bird outing with a local ornithologist. 

Check the website for more details. 

You can also see a great number of different butterflies; 39 species were identified in 2019. 

The arboretum has a most impressive collection of maples (Acers) which has been certified by the French National Horticultural Society. 

There are also many different oaks (Quercus), viburnum, dogwoods, spindle berries, linden and camellias. 

In total, there are no fewer than 400 different species of trees and shrubs from around the world. 

Local flora and fauna is always encouraged. 

Nell and Philippe open the arboretum to visitors from May until the end of the autumn colours. 

Read more: No rings of power but electric lights: France's cosy hobbit homes

July garden party will entice visitors

They hold concerts, exhibitions and, for over 30 years, a ‘Journées des plantes’ weekend in May. 

When Open Gardens/Jardins Ouverts had a stall at one of these weekends, Nell met founder Mick Moat and the arboretum began its association with them. 

This July the arboretum will be hosting Open Gardens/Jardins Ouverts’s 10th Birthday Afternoon Tea Garden Party on Sunday, July 21. 

There will be two guided tours with Philippe at 14:30 (in English) and at 16:30 (in French). 

Open from 14:00 until 18:00, there will be tea (and coffee), cake and scones. 

Entry costs €8 with proceeds, as always, going towards helping seriously ill children. 

Please reserve your place by emailing 

Although Nell says the arboretum can accommodate large numbers of visitors and no one will be turned away, reservations are advised for the tours and the teas. 

So go and celebrate Open Gardens/ Jardins Ouverts’s 10th Birthday and all the wonderful work that they do, in a very special place.