Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire, gardens of the imagination

Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire rise out of the valley formed by the river Vézère, a tributary of the river Dorgogne.  The steeply sloping park features woods, meadows, rills & fountains and is designed to please both the eye and the mind.

This contemporary park was the brain-child of mayor Pierre Delmon, who wanted to boost tourism in the town, located in the Perigord, a region known for its beautiful landscapes and gardens.  An international competition was held to build a new park on the 6 hectare site, located right next to the old-town of Terrasson-Lavilledieu.  The competition was won by American Landscape Architect Kathryn Gustafson and the park was completed in 1996.

The path leading up from the entrance is edged with a fast flowing rill, bubbling and jumping down the hill to meet you.

The rill is fed by a series of cascades, falling between clipped mounds of box and lonicera, and the eye is drawn upwards to the woodland above. These are the “bois sacrés”, the sacred woods, where the fairy bells of ancient woodland spirits ring in the breeze, mingling with the splashing water and dancing shadows.

Kathryn Gustafson’s park is designed to present fragments of garden history. It is inspired by the past but the style is contemporary.  Beyond the sacred wood, we will discover water gardens, rose gardens and a green theatre.

The winding path rises up the hill under a pergola representing a gateway into the imagination.  The visitor then emerges into the woodlands of “le jardin élémentaire”, the elementary garden, where the trees are threaded with a golden ribbon.  This represents the thread of the Greek goddess Ariane (Ariadne), who used a ball of thread to escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

Trees growing in the path add to the allegory of the labyrinth.  The woods are underplanted with azaleas, rhododendrons and ferns.

Old stone terraces, now covered with trees, ferns and moss, have been left as an atmospheric memory of the previous agricultural use of the site.

Where more light reaches the woodland floor, species martagon lilies and orchids, form a flowering meadow in June.

Martagon lily

Le “théatre de verdure”, or the verdant theatre uses the natural form of the hill to provide an amphitheatre under the trees, used for plays and concerts.  To one side, the view opens up onto the valley, revealing the church tower and the old town of Terrasson-Lavilledieu.

Beyond the theatre, the woodland recedes and the view over the valley is revealed.  Wild flower meadows are host to ten wind sculptures, which play in the breeze and ring with the sound of little bells.  In spring, bands of nepeta are designed to reflect the roofs of the town with their silver leaves and blue flowers.

The path winds down the hill and is joined by a water canal that splashes gently down towards the water gardens, “les jardins d’eau”.  Below the canal, a modern rose garden is supported on an undulating metal frame.

The landscape widens out, with a grassy area punctuated with fountains running down to the water canal and the rose garden.  A panoramic view of the valley opens up below us.

Water has been a traditional element of gardens since time immemorial, refreshing the air and irrigating the soil.  In the Renaissance period, water also became a source of amusement in aristocratic gardens.  The water gardens here are enormous fun and it is virtually impossible to cross this field of water-jets without getting wet. The water rises and falls playfully, splashing rhythms on the ground, and creating mini rainbows in the arcs of water before they fall.  The deep joints in the paving allow the water to run away into the canal that has accompanied us down the hill.

The low roar of the water in this cascade joins the splashing rhythms of the water-jets.  The steep slope of this park may have originally been seen as a disadvantage by the Landscape Architect, but the terracing, panoramic views and the use of gravity to power cascades and fountains means that the sharp inclines have enabled a very exciting and dynamic design.

The water garden is surrounded by plantings of perennials and shrubs.

The rose garden has recently been replanted beneath the wave of its galvanised metal frame. It is a late 20th century take on the traditional rose garden.

The path doubles back on itself and the right fork leads to the “le chemin des fontaines”, the fountain walk.  A shady slope planted with ferns and woodland plants is punctuated by five of these cascade fountains which fill the air with the sound of cool rushing water.

Traditional formal French gardens have always excelled in the art of topiary and Kathryn Gustafson makes reference to it here in the “le jardin topiare”, the topiary garden.  Formal hedges are clipped into crenelations and “walls” of different heights ; hornbeam hedges are being trained into a tunnel. A path made up of “pas d’âne” (ramped “donkey-steps”), is lined with concrete benches, and leads to a viewing point over the valley.

The final garden is “le jardin des fleuves”, the garden of rivers.  Concrete slabs are etched with the water-courses of venerable rivers : the Amazon, the Euphrates, the Ganges, the Missisippi.  The water flows across the path and feeds the cascades of the bois sacrés below.  These stones are to remind us that the world depends on water for human life, and that our planet is also a garden.

The garden is very well maintained, and as it is open only in the summer months, and to limited numbers of people, it doesn’t suffer the normal wear and tear of a public path.  It is a strange concept, a public park open only for paid tours and I hope that local people do not have to pay for entry and that other local parks provide space for social gathering and play.  This is another park which is very French in style and inspiration, revelling in a philosophical design and respect for French garden heritage.  But is also contemporary with a forward-looking respect for nature as well as taking inspiration from the ‘genius loci’, the atmosphere, or the “spirit of the place”.

Plan ©Les Jardins Imaginaire

Practical Information

I visited the park and took these pictures in June 2017 while I was guiding a Susan Worner tour for group of American horticulturalists.

The garden is open from April to September by guided tour only.  Tours in English are available.  Check the website in advance because opening times change depending on the month.   Admission in 2020 was 7,50€ per adult.

The pretty old town, across the road from the park, has a few small restaurants for lunch.  There are no cafés or restaurants in the park itself.

Jardins de l’Imaginaire
Place de Genouillac

Website : http://www.jardins-imaginaire.com/en/
Tél. : 05 53 50 86 82
E-mail : contact@jardins-imaginaire.com

Lynda Harris is a landscape architect and garden designer based in Paris.


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