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 topiary 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.
The initial gardens were inspired by those of Italian villas and 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.
Climbing rose on the family manor’s stone exterior.
A TOPIARY GARDEN AT THE TOP OF ITS GAME
Today, the gardens consist 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 alleys divide the main areas of the garden. Within these spaces, smaller evergreens pruned 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. A staff of six full-time gardeners preserves their strict lines, 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. Not only do they provide privacy, but they also furnish a firm backdrop to all those geometric shapes and accessories. Among the many areas defined by hedges at Eyrignac is a round ‘room’ located at the end of the Avenue of Hornbeams. This space is 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. But, undoubtedly the most important design element of all are the the pair of pots flanking the entrance. Located slightly forward of the hornbeam ‘walls,’ they add dimension, while directing your eye into the interior.
IDEA #2 USE POTS TO DEFINE SPACE
Large vases are the epitome of French garden style. And at Eyrignac, the careful placement of pots and urns serves to lead the eye around the space while establishing important axes for the topiary gardens. Below, the succession of identical pots at the Fish Pond visually extends the pool while pointing to the pyramidal trees beyond.
In keeping with the garden’s many topiary shapes, pots also do double duty as sculptures. Below, Italian terracotta urns tucked into the alcoves of the Vase Avenue soften the strict succession of geometric shapes while pointing to the meadow beyond.
Pots tucked into alcoves lead the eye down ‘Vase Avenue.’
IDEA #3 REPEAT A THEME
The star motif is a recurring theme at Eyrignac. Frequently appearing throughout the topiary gardens in stonework, sculptures, pots and even hedges, it helps knit the diverse spaces 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 Eyrignac, you’ll find it on a painted pagoda at the far end of a long, tree-lined alley or splashed here and there as flowers throughout 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 pop 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 and an online visit of the Gardens of Eyrignac, click here for the official website.