Berchigranges Garden reviewed by Noel Kingsbury

November 26, 2015

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

Another garden review, and, as Noel says, also an opportunity for someone to get in there and wreck it..maybe take over. Anyone game? And is it the most beautiful garden in the world (apart from Veddw, of course)?

And do you share Noel’s criteria for a special garden?

This piece appeared originally in Noel’s blog, and I am grateful for his help and permission to use it here.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham, portrait copyright Charles Hawes






Berchgranges RS DSC_0917 Copyright Noel Kingsbury


Three years ago, round about this time of year I visited le Jardin de Berchigranges, in the Vosges mountains of eastern France. At the time I remember saying (and committing to the blog) that this was the most beautiful garden I had ever been to. That’s quite a rash thing to say, and rather untypical of me. So it was interesting to go again, and yes, I think it is, more so than ever. Berchigranges really is the most amazing garden and place. And whats’ more – there is an opening here, for someone, or a couple.

Monique et Thierry, who have made this remarkable place over the last twenty-odd years, are in their sixties and looking to slow down (eventually!) so they are hoping to find someone who will come and become involved and eventually take over, and they are prepared to give them a major stake in the property. Now that’s a pretty incredible offer. One with huge potential for someone who wishes to commit themselves to a life of hard work in an incredibly beautiful but remote place. So pass the word around.

It is always difficult to pin down what makes a garden really special.
Berchgranges RS DSC_0821 Copyright Noel Kingsbury
A Place Apart
The journey, up endlessly curving mountain roads through conifer forest, does help prepare you for something special. Once there, with views out from an almost amphitheater type setting, you do feel that you have left the profane world behind and are somewhere special, almost enchanted. It feels pretty remote. It is.
Berchgranges RS DSC_0809 Copyright Noel Kingsbury
An Experimental Garden
Monique kept on saying to me – “this is an experimental garden”. Innovation is what these two do incessantly. It is clearly second nature to them. Buildings, planting, land shaping, everything here is done to try something out. There is an unfamiliarity here, because there are so many things which I have never seen before: a long low sinuous building with a grass roof, a bridge with a hedge on either side, great retaining walls built of logs, a formal garden with wooden parqué flooring, a huge new meadow full of asters, silphiums and other prairie perennials, or simply familiar garden perennials used on a generous scale in a very naturalistic way. Yet it is a very gentle unfamiliarity – there is none of that desperate seeking after the contemporary in the self-conscious art-world way of say, the Chaumont garden festival.
Berchgranges RS DSC_0925 Copyright Noel Kingsbury
The level of innovation here is a strong reminder of just how un-innovative much garden-making is. Berchingranges feels everso subtly different to so many gardens, because the owners are just doing what they wanted to do, for themselves and probably don’t actually care what other people think. (It is not for me to tell this story, but that of their meeting and subsequent passionate love affair has a similar quality). The trouble with most garden-making is that most people care too much about what others think, as they try to impress, or to emulate, or to, and ohmygod I hate this, make an English garden. Why do people in France, in Germany or the USA endlessly try to make English ****** gardens? I’m sick of them. They all end up the same – as a pastel pastiche, while their owners obliviously live the cliché, almost wallowing in their inability to do anything actually creative. That there is no attempt to here to do that is one reason amongst many why this place is just so damm good (so there are not many roses).
Berchgranges RS DSC_0952 Copyright Noel Kingsbury

Monique is actually a huge Bloomsbury fan, but she doesn’t waltz around with a big hat with a trug over her arm, pretending she is Vita Sackville-West. Her understanding of Bloomsbury is much more genuinely in the movement’s spirit of bohemian experimentalism.

 Going With What Works
One of the great things about Berchigranges is that when Monique and Thierry realise that a plant does well they then plant lots of it. This is nearly 700m in altitude and receiving up to 3000mm of rain a year, so conditions are a little different to many gardens and there are endless surprises. Actaeas do well, and so there is a whole great patch of their dancing white flower spikes. Euphorbia corollata (hardly seen in Britain) forms foaming white masses above increasingly fiery autumn colour. Clumps of Gentiana triflora, nearly a metre high, project an intense blueness on a lightly-shaded bank. A wall of 3m high Senecio canabinifolia marks the end of a meadow.
Berchgranges RS Gentiana triflora
Creative Tension
This is a very naturalistic garden, with a huge amount of self-seeding and spreading going on, and sometimes a feeling that things in some places are just being left to get on with it. However there is always a clear edge and then the most immaculate lawns. When I was there, Thierry and two employees were busily raking off worm casts. Most of us ‘new perennialists’ (Dutch and British anyway) regard having a lawn with more clover/daisy/selfheal than grass almost as a badge of honour. But here the lawn is all grassy perfection. Thierry’s first career was as a hairdresser apparently. It shows.
They explain however that this is France, and in France if you plant wild you have to show that the wildness is intentional and the best way of doing this is frame all the wildness with a perfect lawn and perfectly trimmed edges.
Gardeners with a limitation of space tend to rework their plantings after a few years. Those with no such restriction tend to go on and develop new areas. This is not always a good thing, as there is the risk of them over-extending themselves; the previously planted areas meanwhile not receiving the rethinking and reworking they might benefit from. At Berchigranges, Monique et Thierry have moved on down the hill, but developing a progressively more naturalistic style as they do so. The latest development is the ‘Bohemian meadow’, asters and other (mostly daisy-family) plants in grass.
Berchgranges RS DSC_0894
The older areas of the garden at the top have matured well, although there are places  I think could benefit from some rethinking – where one species has dominated, for example. But what is interesting is to see how other species have successfully blended – I was particularly impressed by a narrow rose hedge, just like a mini version of a country hedgerow with perennials spreading along the base: brunnera, geranium, digitalis etc. This is particularly instructive at the edges of the borders where geraniums or persicaria-type species have spread to form a really solid edge, and kept trimmed back with a very clear lawn/boundary demarcation.
Much of these plantings are incredibly full and dense, which must help with weed control. The edges of the plantings, Thierry explains, are trimmed every two weeks – sort of continuous pruning really. This stops the problem I have – of perennials falling over paths in rain. It does not work with everything (it would not work with monocots like hemerocallis or grasses, which only grow back from the base) but for geraniums, alchemilla, campanulas, persicarias, which can respond to a prune with growing more side-shoots and bush out, it helps develop a really dense edge. I’m going to try this at home this coming growing season – le nouvel régime Berchigranges.

Berchgranges RS DSC_0782

Noel Kingsbury

Noel’s blog.

Noel Kingsbury

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Charles Hawes December 30, 2015 at 5:35 pm

I know that Noel has impeccable taste and I loved the grass bridge with the box hedges but visually, from the pics, it seems not very out of the ordinary. Hasn’t Titchmarsh Blue been banned throughout the world?

Katherine Crouch December 31, 2015 at 11:09 am

well that kind of greeny blue has been around at Snowshill Manor for about a century and I still rather like it. Battleship grey seems to be the new hipster choice of colour for both interiors and gardens and I am already fed up with it.

skr December 4, 2015 at 4:43 pm

Your ‘English Garden’ comment reminded me of James Rose who when asked by a client to design a Japanese Garden responded, “Where in Japan is the property?”

annewareham December 4, 2015 at 9:48 pm

O,I like that.

James Golden December 6, 2015 at 2:41 am

I do too.

Sarah Coles November 29, 2015 at 12:56 pm

I’ve never seen this garden, and although it looks perfectly nice & with wonderful flowers I find it hard to understand with its wibbly wobbly borders etc why Noel thought it was the most beautiful garden he’d ever seen (even wondered if he was in love & holding a glass of wine). The one thing I really admired was that grass path with hedges either side marching up and down through an informal landscape.

James Golden November 29, 2015 at 3:52 am

I’ve read Noel’s comments on this garden before, but I’ve never seen it, and the photographs I’ve seen leave me wondering why it’s so beautiful. I can’t tell. I do admire much he writes about, particularly this: “The trouble with most garden-making is that most people care too much about what others think, as they try to impress, or to emulate, or to, and ohmygod I hate this, make an English garden. Why do people in France, in Germany or the USA endlessly try to make English ****** gardens?” So I certainly admire the spirit of adventure, creativity, and trying new things Noel describes at Berchigranges. But about the garden, I can’t make a judgement without seeing and knowing more. In looking at the photographs John Schucker has provided a link to, I see more unity of design, but that was one season several years ago, as seen through one photographer’s camera.

I agree with Kejld Slot’s comment: “I prefer a garden design that makes sense, in many ways …” Does Berchigranges “make sense, in many ways”? I don’t think we can tell.

But this is certainly a garden I would like to see one day.

John Schucker November 28, 2015 at 1:35 pm

It would be unfair to make definitive judgments about the effect of this garden from the photos posted. They seem to be snapshots Mr. Kingsbury has taken with his mobile phone. But fantastically composed photos with crisp focus or manipulations of focus, capturing a wide range of mood enhancing lighting effects could also create illusory images that could be difficult to actually experience in situ, giving equally false impressions by editing through the view finder. I remember reading about this garden in Gardens Illustrated some years ago when it was photographed in early spring showing some impressive vistas. Checking google quickly, I have not turned up the actual article except for those who subscribe to the GI web service, but at least some of the photos are shown at the photographer’s web site here:

Early Spring may be a particularly impressive time of year in this garden. In these photos, the great waves of narcissus blooms featured seem to link the many various garden areas together creating what may be a simplifying and unifying effect which is lost later in the season after the rest of the garden emerges. I, for one, appreciate this simplicity.

Kjeld Slot November 27, 2015 at 12:28 pm

Thanks for another important and relevant post from Noel Kingsbury

Plantmakers or Placemakers!?

I think most of us are choosing and ranking our best gardens from a personal point of view, (like in most of any other artform), and in most cases; it has a lot to reveal about ourselves as gardeners, more than about the gardens we praise.
I have never seen this garden, but I think it has some of the major problems, in most gardens of this kind, (even if my English is very bad I´ll try (very short), – to explain what I mean):

– The garden is made as a private experimentation,
– Who wants to take over other peoples private experimentations, if not made of geniuses?
– The garden, like many others, seems to have a bit of this and a bit of that, – (like most of the private open gardens: a little bit of an English garden, a little bit of Japanese ones, a little bit of waterfeatures, a little bit of a rosegarden, and newly; a little bit of a prairie) – predictable! – Or maybe a lot of it all, because of the garden’s grand scale….. to impress the audience?

– But it´s hard to find the idéa, – “the big thing” or anything else than plantings, that these gardenmakers are driven by?
– The specificity of the garden seems to be a humorous-touch-catalogue, infiltrated with a lot of plantings on a hillside.

It might not be fair to comment a gardens qualities on a gardenpost like this, if one have not been there. So my comments are conditioned by the photos and the text and the site.

I prefer garden design that makes sense, in many ways, and that allows things to grow, and gives me a feeling of manmade places.

The overall “natural-layout” of this garden (see the gardenplan on the site) makes me feel like I´m in the deep end of a swimmingpool – like a garden, designed by coincidences with plant orgies, but no agenda or opportunities to develop a garden style.

Maybe there´s a difference between plantmakers and placemakers?

A nice day to you..


Katherine Crouch November 27, 2015 at 10:21 am

Well that sounds like my kind of garden!

In any garden I visit, I like to see a well though out balance between site imposed and site generated ideas, geometric formality balanced with billowing wildness, original ideas without the least desire to be fashionable, new techniques and plant combinations, the desire for continuous evolution and above all, the willingness by energetic and creative owners to get their hands dirty.

I get this at Veddw, and now I must dust off my passport.
I seldom achieve the above in gardens I design as crucial items on this tick list are usually missing.

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