Nigel Heath visits four French gardens

Nigel Heath visits four French gardens

I am always wary of making generalisations but having been a regular holiday visitor to Normandy and Brittany, I have come to realise that the French view of gardens is rather different to ours just over the Gran Sur Mere.

“Why waste time and effort on flowers and mowing grass when you can grow vegetables”, seems to be the prevailing attitude among older people in rural communities.

But, of course, there are colourful exceptions to every rule as my wife Jenny and I found on our latest holiday roaming around this gentle picturesque region of small towns, quiet villages, Norman castles and romantic chateaux.

Only ninety minutes due south of Caen, our traditional gateway to Normandy and Brittany, lies the lovely spa town of Bagnoles de l’Orne and here, just beyond the lake and the casino, we found the first exception to my ‘more vegetables less flowers’ rule.

French GardensFor tucked away amid a grove of mature trees and behind an ornate set of double gates on the Avenue Robert Cousin lies the superb shaded garden of Le Jardin Retire.

No one seemed to be about so we pushed open the gate and entered, feeling a little as if we shouldn’t be there, but ahead of us beyond the shady bower which formed the entrance, was a patch of early afternoon sunlight.

Here, still half in shadow, we spotted a table displaying a glossy gardening magazine and some information about Le Jardin Retire whose creator Annie Blanchais had already spotted us through an open window and was coming down her front steps to welcome us.

Annie and Laurent Blanchais, it transpired, began creating their two and a half hectare garden, already secluded behind a boundary of ancient trees and shrubs, some eighteen years ago.
They decided to divide it into a series of semi secluded areas, each with its own identity and harmonious atmosphere.

These allow the visitor to enjoy the progress of the seasons through the imaginative planting of a diverse range of trees, shrubs, perennials and herbaceous plants all intermingled with creatively positioned ceramics, rustic antique garden furniture and stone sculptures.

Only twenty minutes away in a small bowl in a higher landscape lies the delightful town of Lassay les Chateaux and here, according to my generalisation, there are few private flower gardens but dozens of allotments, crammed with produce.

However this ‘Petite cite de caractere’, as its name board proudly proclaims, is blessed with a magnificent public rose garden just below its friendly flower dressed square.

Most all the communities in this part of France put a huge public effort into their floral arrangements and Lassay is certainly no exception with the subject of art appearing to be the current theme.

For in the shady parkland beyond the rose garden, the visitor will come across two giant replica paint tubes spewing flowers with an artist easel tucked discretely away in the background.

Close by is the entrance to The English Garden which descends through a series of smaller gardens to emerge beside a lake with Lassay’s magnificent chateau mirrored almost to the water’s edge.

Water wheel in French GardensAll over France one will come across distinctive yellow signboards at the entrance to towns and villages proclaiming that the community has been awarded up to four red flowers for its floral endeavours.

No more than an hour’s drive away along quiet country roads and in an area known as Haute Mayenne, close to the small market town of Gorron, lies Les Jardins Renaudies.

This lovely garden set amid rolling farmland is great for a quiet family day out and to set the rural scene, it even has a maze carved out of an adjoining maize crop.

Besides harbouring a small collection of farm animals, the garden reflects its rural heritage through a giant water wheel beside a pond, a recreated early farm kitchen and living room and an extensive array of early agricultural equipment.

Lots of other surprises lay in store as visitors wander around the 35 hectares including some gaily decorated tree trunks.

Another garden simply not to be missed in this quiet corner of rural France, has to be Le Jardin de la Pellerine. This magnificent private garden has been lovingly created over 30 years by Sylvie and Alain Douinot from farmland surrounding their picturesque 17th century manor house.

Just a small sign on the right hand side of the road from the town of Ernee to historic Fourgers with its magnificent Norman castle, leads to a floral oasis set in peaceful rolling countryside.

French GardensAll again seemed deserted as we wandered through the entrance and out onto the lawn in front of the house where Sylvie quickly spotted us.

Similar to Le Jardin Retire, but on a far larger scale, this stunning five acre garden encloses a whole series of smaller themed gardens providing much interest and variety through its series of packed and extremely colourful herbaceous borders enclosed by box hedges and old stone walls.

The ground slowly slopes away towards a series of large ponds, full of fish, and spanned by rustic wooden bridges. The water’s edge is a riot of aquatic loving shrubs and plants including the dramatic giant leafed Gunnera.

Sylvie, presented us with a detailed guide before going off with her wheelbarrow to continue what can only be described as a life time’s labour of love.

Fact File

For a full list of opening times for Les jardins des Renaudies and La Jardin de la Pellerine , call 0243 080208 and 0243 059331 respectively.

Brittany Ferries offer a comprehensive programme of return sailings to Northern France from Portsmouth, Plymouth and Poole throughout the year.

We have been sailing from Portsmouth to Caen for some years and have always enjoyed an excellent service on the large and comfortable ferries Normandy and Mont St Michel.

For further information on ferry travel, Brittany Ferries package holidays or to book a trip, please go to or call 0330 159 7000.