The garden of La Louve perches on the very edge of the hilltop town of Bonnieux, facing undulating hills of garrigue woodland. Entering through a dark doorway from the narrow village street, the Provençal light is at first dazzling but from the shade of the terrace, the green of the garden blends seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.
Nicole de Vésian, a former textile designer for Hermès, bought the property in 1986 when she was 69 years old and spent the next 10 years creating this garden that is so full of form and texture.
Inspired by the mounds of wind-pruned plants in the surrounding countryside, De Vésian clipped shrubs into organic forms to mimic the curved forms of the hills and trees. Other plants were chosen for their naturally rounded form or were left unpruned in exuberant contrast to their clipped neighbours. The garden belongs to the Provençal landscape and the boundaries between garrigue and garden are blurred, the same plants being found both within and without the garden. Pinus pinea, arbutus, cupressus, Pistacia lenticus, cistus, rosemary and lavender; these are locally-found shrubs and trees which survive the drought, extreme temperatures and mistral winds common to this part of France.
De Vésian’s talent as a textile designer is very present in her garden. The low evergreens with their contrasting colours, from freshly sprouting green to silvery grey and the leaf textures from brilliant shine to soft felt, create a natural tapestry of plants. This love of texture is also found in her use of hard materials. By using the local stone, the colour of the paths and terraces complement the stone of the house and reinforce the sense of belonging to the local landscape.
Rounded shrubs mimic the mounded forms of the woodland and distant hills and the twining joints of the simple metal handrail are an unobtrusive but beautiful detail.
Leaning into the side of the hill, three garden terraces descend towards the valley floor. Though filled with topiary, this is no formal French garden, and the paths meander rather than following straight axes.
Neighbours and friends, knowing of Nicole de Vésian’s love of stones and boulders, brought as gifts unusual or beautiful pieces of rock found in the surrounding fields or woods. These sculptural stones have been carefully placed around the garden.
The old stone water tank, built many years ago to collect rainwater for the irrigation of olive trees, has been made into a small plunge pool.
Steps descend to the lowest of the three terraces, the gaps in the broken stone have been colonised by cetranthus and thyme.
On the lowest terrace a lavender parterre is planted in rows. A stone seat with views of the garrigue woodland is flanked by four clipped cypress trees. Legend has it that the trees were languishing in a nursery with their tops broken and that De Vésian decided to just buy them at a discount and just clip them horizontally. Their strong silhouettes are brought into relief by the soft shapes of the woodland trees beyond and mirrored by the spires of naturally occurring cypresses.
The tall dry-stone retaining wall is made with both cut blocks and naturally shaped stones. At its base sits a simple bench made from a rough-cut wooden board and stone blocks. Nothing jars with the native landscape.
Since Nicole de Vésian’s death, the garden has passed through the hands of two women owner-gardeners who both have said that they see themselves as curators of this living work of art and maintain it for their own pleasure and that of their grateful visitors.
The twisted trunk of this arbutus tree, pruned by the artist Marc Nucera, brings a living sculpture to the upper terrace.
This garden, though firmly rooted into the landscape remains, in my view, decidedly French. The lavender parterre, the use of symmetry and a desire to control nature are all to be found here, but like the Jardin Plume, this is done with the lighter touch and preoccupations of today’s gardeners, being at the same time respectful of nature and the surrounding landscape, without a sense of pomposity or grandeur. Here the essence of the Luberon hills is exaggerated, bringing a heightened sense of the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape into the garden.
I visited the garden and took these pictures in June 2015 while I was assisting on a tour organised by French Gardens Today.
The garden is open to groups on Thursday afternoons during the summer but you need to reserve a place in advance either through the Office de Tourisme in Bonnieux 04 90 75 91 90 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Admission in 2015 was 11€ per person.
Bonnieux is a beautiful medieval hilltop town and there are some charming cafés, restaurants and shops. The garrigue oak honey I found in one of the shops on the main street was particularly good.
Chemin Saint Gervais
Wikipedia page for the garden in English.
Lynda Harris is a landscape architect and garden designer based in Paris.
NB : I’m quite shocked that I’ve not posted anything for 8 months. My design business is taking off and I’ve been particularly busy and so this blog has been neglected. However, I hope to post again very soon.