A profusion of perennials bursts like fireworks, bringing spectacular colour and breathtaking form to this autumn landscape in south-west France
Perennials burst like fireworks in this spectacular scheme in France.
The last thing potters Renate-elisa and Lutz Hillen intended to do when they went on holiday to France in 1991 was to buy an 18th-century farmhouse in Thermes-magnoac in Gascony, then leave their native home in Germany to live there with their young family. The house and the picturesque countryside had captured the couple’s hearts, however, and although the task of renovating the property was daunting, the adventure was one they could not resist.
The house sits on a 12-acre plot which, when the Hillens bought it, was almost all hard-worked farmland. Today it is an organic and biodiverse garden of abundantly healthy, spectacular planting interspersed with sculptures and striking architectural features.
The transformation from agricultural land to garden paradise was not without challenges; as Renate-elisa recalls, “The ground was hard as rock.” An attempt to grow vegetables failed almost immediately, and trees and hedges were few and far between. “There were just six trees, but they were very old,” says Renate-elisa. “There were two two-hundred-year-old oaks, a chestnut, a lime tree and an ash, which was the same age as the oaks.”
Having plied the exhausted clay soil with tonnes of compost and manure, the Hillens began their planting plan, putting in native trees together with fastgrowing bamboos, such as Phyllostachys bissetii, as wind-breakers to prevent the ground from drying o≠ in the summer months. Bamboos are a particular passion of Renate-elisa, who declares them to be “the most eco-friendly plant on Earth; they can retain up to half of their weight in carbon emissions”.
Against this backdrop, she and Lutz have created a series of rooms that allows them to focus on defined plant families and garden styles as well as to provide a stage for their sculptures. Tucked away behind a clipped privet hedge is the Contemporary garden with its large pool, which Renate-elisa and Lutz built themselves. Three striking stoneware balls, replicating the shape of the surrounding box, sit alongside it. The formality of the box and the tall Mediterranean cypresses is softened by clumps of Pennisetum alopecuroides
‘Japonicum’ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’, which echo the silhouette of the surrounding hills. The array of green foliage, extended with the use of architectural spurges, Euphorbia characias and E. cyparissias ‘Clarice Howard’, creates a harmonious scene, peppered with small touches of colour from perennials such as Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’ (Autumn Joy), with their deep pink flowers, Rudbeckia and Verbena bonariensis, which o≠er interest later in the year thanks to their sculptural seed heads.
Further along, a curved grass path leads to a more recent addition, the Italian garden, centred around a Florentine fountain that provides a prominent focal point. Clusters of Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Cassian’, intertwined with Verbena
bonariensis, surround the fountain, gracefully floating in the air and echoing the delicate colour of the slate. The adjacent borders are planted with salvias, including the anise-scented sage ‘Black and Blue’, which flowers until the end of the autumn, and roses such as ‘Lavender Dream’, a shrub rose with clusters of small pink semi-double flowers.
While this garden paradise seems perfect as it stands, there is no such thing as a status quo here and it is in a perpetual state of change. Most recently, the vegetable garden was relocated to lie closer to the river that flows at the bottom of the garden, a move that caused it to thrive. While Renate-elisa and Lutz can consider their eye-catching sculptures finished once the final glaze has been applied and the piece fired, their garden, aptly named a jardin remarquable by the French Ministry of Culture, is an ever-changing feast. GARDEN GUIDE
Orientation South-easterly garden of 12 acres in the Gascony countryside.
Soil Clay; much improved with compost and manure.
Special features An organic garden divided into rooms with attractive architectural features, including a pool, Florentine fountain and sculptures.
To visit Open daily except Mondays from May to the end of September (calling before visiting is advised). Les Jardins de la Poterie Hillen, au bord de la Gimone, 65230 Thermesmagnoac, France, 0033 5 62 39 83 48, les-jardins-de-la-poterie-hillen.blogspot.co.uk.