garden tales from a Brit abroad
Fashion dictates that gardens should offer year round interest. In particular, winter needs to be forced to play its part with evergreen shrubs, coloured bark, late-flowering perennials, quirkily-shaped stems, early bulbs. All must be colourful and bright and perky.
But increasingly I am inclined towards gardens that reflect the reality of nature, in its disorder, decay and death. Such places help us grasp the reproductive purpose and ready mortality of plants. In the end, perhaps, they remind us of our own mortality. The iconic essay “Systems, Signs, Sensibilities” by Catherine Howett makes the case for such an approach on ecological grounds, arguing that we need to celebrate the beauty of natural cycles and processes in designed landscapes, rather than continuing to create bland ornamental images.
Certainly I am not much interested in lurid forced flowers and shiny alien evergreens at this time of year. January feels wan and cold to me; it is bleak, lifeless, the colour of straw and trodden snow.
It feels suitably like mid-winter in the garden at the musée du Quai Branly in the 7th. Designed by Gilles Clément, the undulating garden is apparently meant to be experienced as a contemplative journey. At this time of year (these photos are from last February) it is full of ghostly miscanthus stems, oaks with their fine tawny leaves still attached, bare soil, twiggy shrubs. The contrast between the pale wintry plants and the bravura coloured forms of Jean Nouvel’s architecture is striking.
The parc de Bercy in the 12th is not one of my favourite landscapes, but the eastern end at the moment also has a charmingly quiet, slightly desolate, January feel about it. Frost has turned some exotic pink camellia flowers into a pleasing brown mush. You can also see tatty, straw-coloured miscanthus, brown buddleia seedheads, little clusters of snowberries amid rotting autumn leaves, and signs of damage by snow and wind.
We know Spring will come, in all its brazen colour and exuberance. For now, I’m savouring the quieter charms of slumbering January.