You would almost believe you’d dropped into a fairy tale. France’s valley of the Dordogne boasts a bucolic green countryside that has long inspired painters, authors and poets. Home to the deep green Dordogne river, tiny rural villages and medieval castles perched high on hilltops, it is also the site of one of the most famous topiary gardens in France, the spectacular Gardens of Eyrignac.
ABOUT THE GARDENS OF EYRIGNAC
Nestled in the heart of the Périgord Noir, the Gardens of Eyrignac cover 24 acres on a hilltop amid miles of protected natural forest. Created in the 1700s, the French-style gardens have been in the hands of the same family for centuries. All in all, 22 generations have tended to their upkeep, helping to shape them into the year-round masterpiece they are today.
Originally inspired by those of Italian villas, the first gardens were formal and symmetrical in style. In the 19th century, however, they were reworked to reflect an English-park style of landscaping. They retained their English style until the 1960s, when the family returned them to their original condition, painstakingly searching the grounds for traces of the former garden.
At the center of the property is a honey-colored stone manor house. Built on the ruins of a medieval castle, it is the site of the family’s ancient ‘noble seat.’
Climbing rose on the manor’s stone exterior.
A TOPIARY GARDEN AT THE TOP OF ITS GAME
Today, the gardens are made up almost entirely of topiary. Meticulously maintained, the green sculptures exhibit the highest forms of trimming and pruning. Dark green yews, bright green box, hornbeams and cypress shaped into walls, windows, arcades and tantalizing alleys divide the main areas of the garden. While within, smaller evergreen specimens shaped into knot-gardens, low hedging for flower beds and unusual animal forms add interest and warmth to the series of cool, green ‘rooms.’
Altogether, the topiary gardens of Erygnac feature over 80 different plant specimens and 300 plant sculptures. Their strict lines are preserved by a staff of six full-time gardeners, using only hand shears, plumb lines and stencils passed down from the 17th century.
Symmetrical, ball-shaped mulberry trees planted in lavender ‘pots.’
So, aside from appreciating its beauty, how can we learn from this spectacular garden? Below are five themes, I observed at Eyrignac that every home gardener can implement, no matter how large or small the scale.
IDEA #1 USE POTS TO INTRODUCE NEW SPACES
Clipped hedges are key to topiary gardens where they provide a firm backdrop to all those geometric shapes and accessories. Among the many areas defined by hedges at Eyrignac is a round ‘room’ found at the end of the Avenue of Hornbeams (a part of the original French design from the 17th century).
Devoid of any ornament, save a large stone urn in the center, this small space nonetheless tantalizes with its restricted view of the interior. Located slightly forward of the hornbeam ‘walls,’ the pair of pots adds dimension, while indicating the entrance to the tiny garden.
IDEA #2 USE POTS TO DEFINE SPACE
Large vases are the epitome of French garden style. At Eyrignac, the careful placement of pots and urns helps lead the eye around the gardens while establishing important axes. Below, the succession of identical pots at the Fish Pond visually extends the pool while pointing to the pyramidal trees beyond.
Large-sized pots also serve as sculptures at Eyrignac. Below, Italian terracotta urns tucked into the alcoves of the Vase Avenue soften the strict succession of geometric shapes while pointing to the open meadow beyond.
Pots tucked into alcoves lead the eye down ‘Vase Avenue.’
On the other hand, using a combination of pots of different shapes, materials and sizes helps draw the eye, calling attention to small spaces in key areas of the garden. Below, a collection of clay pots at my friend’s Paris apartment.
My friend’s apartment in Paris.
IDEA #3 REPEAT A THEME
At Eyrignac, the star motif appears frequently in stonework, sculptures, pots and even hedges. Repeating themes help knit the garden together. By choosing a motif and repeating it, you can achieve unity, too, while creating interest in the garden. The sky’s the limit. In my work, I’ve even seen motifs repeated on pool towels.
Cobblestones form a star underneath an old millstone.
Star-shaped topiary adds a touch of whimsy to the theme.
IDEA #4 USE RED TO DEFINE BOUNDARIES
Of all the colors on the spectrum, red commands the most attention. And used (sparingly) in a garden, it can have a grand impact. At the Eyrignac topiary gardens, you’ll find it on a painted pagoda at the far end of a long, tree-lined alley or splashed here and there on flowers in the garden.
But its greatest impact is in the White Garden. Here, the Japanese Torii gates, painted a beautiful red-orange, define the four axes of the large space. Not only do they help establish the boundaries, but they also add a touch of color to this monochromatic garden.
Long view of the White Garden with red gates serving as anchors.
The Japanese Torri gate symbolizes the separation of the natural and spiritual worlds.
IDEA #5 USE CLIMBING ROSES TO ADD DRAMA AND HEIGHT
True to French design, climbing roses are a common theme at the garden. On the 17th century manor house, the cream roses soften the look of the stone, while adding an important vertical element to the exterior. Climbing roses can be trained to climb up walls, arbors, trellises and even hedges. Try one of these repeat bloomers: New Dawn, Iceberg, Cecile Brunner or Royal Sunset for all-summer enjoyment.
Climbing roses soften the stone exterior of the 17th century manor house.
IDEA #6 MIX STRONG LINES WITH NATURALISTIC PLANTINGS
I’ve written about this previously. Naturalistic plantings look best when tamed by strong lines. And the reverse is also true. Strong shapes are softened, even enhanced with free-form embellishments. Below, the wild fleabane offers an unexpected counterpoint to the formal topiary above.
For more information on gardens of Eyrignac, click here for the official website.