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garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

Paris’s biggest private gardens

Last weekend was the national garden festival Rendez-Vous aux Jardins. To be honest, it was a bit of a damp squib in Paris, with only 10 sites taking part, most of them public parks where it was pretty much business as usual.

The one treat in the capital was the opening of the private gardens at the early eighteenth century hôtel de Matignon in the seventh arrondissement. These days, Matignon is the home of the French prime minister. The 3ha (7½ acre) grounds, said to be the largest private gardens in the city, are usually only available to the current incumbent, François Fillon, his Welsh wife, and their official guests.

Matignon 1734

The gardens at Matignon from the 1734 Michel-Etienne Turgot map of Paris. From http://plan.turgot.free.fr

The gardens were originally laid out in the 1720s by Claude Desgots (the great-nephew and heir of André Le Nôtre) as a series of parterres and potagers, with a central axis marked by a double allée of pleached limes (Tillia) and a boundary screen of large trees and shrubs.

Plane treeThe gardens entered a second phase in the nineteenth century, when the southern end became a place for romantic promenades à l’anglaise among exotic flowering trees, including magnolias and Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum).

In 1905 came their third incarnation, when the property’s then owner, the ambassador of Austria, brought in noted designer Achille Duchêne to renovate the gardens and turn them into a place suitable for entertaining. While preserving many of the old trees, Duchêne created a large tapis vert, a green carpet, near the house, edged by six small bosquets (groves of trees and hedges), with smaller open spaces under the trees to the side.

View of house

Today the grounds are presented as a garden of two halves: the winding walk among trees, still described as English in style, and the more open space for entertaining near the house.

During my visit last Saturday, in 30℃ heat, the overwhelming sense was of greenness – dazzling greenness. Literally acres of the gardens consist of lush, bowling green lawn, surrounded by some magnificent ancient trees.

Purple beech

To me the most impressive feature was the pleached lime allée, with its careful planting and clipping to create a false sense of perspective.

AlléeLess interesting were the rather gaudy annuals and tender perennials neatly bedded out in narrow strips around the house and alongside the clipped hedges of the bosquets.

House and flowerbedWe learnt that much of the gardens are maintained organically, with nematodes and other natural parasites used to control pests, and all the weeds removed from the gravel paths by hand. The lawns, on the other hand, are clearly treated to keep them so fine and completely weed-free, and are regularly and copiously watered (we had had no rain for about a month on the day I took these photographs).

Traditionally prime ministers plant a specimen tree in the gardens on their arrival at Matignon. One French visitor was speculating on the meaning of Lionel Jospin’s 1997 choice of Ulmus ‘Wanoux.’ To me, more curious was the planting beyond the allée of a frothy cream Chinese dogwood (Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’) by the dependable, statesmanlike current prime minister.

Cornus behind lime allée

Matignon is not, for me, a great garden. It seems too tentative, too unsure of its own character: is it French or English, conventional or organic, geometric or asymmetrical, a flower garden or an arboretum, a place with three historical periods or two geographical halves?

But it was still a treat to be allowed inside its usually closed portals.

6 comments on “Paris’s biggest private gardens

  1. Faisal Grant
    June 7, 2011

    To be able to wander in such an expanse of green, on such a lovely day, under such magnificent trees, however imperfect the design, would restore any city-dweller’s need to ‘escape’. Thankyou for a beautiful post and your informed critique.

    • landscapelover
      June 8, 2011

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right of course, Matignon is a calm, green, beautifully maintained place in the heart of the city. I was just musing on why it somehow isn’t more than that. I was still very glad to have had the chance to visit.

  2. Wife Mother Gardener
    June 7, 2011

    The lime allee does seem the highlight. Forced perspective is a great technique that can be used in gardens large and small.

    Thank you for sharing your visit!

    • landscapelover
      June 8, 2011

      Thanks for calling by. The allée is very cleverly done, to make it appear much longer than it is. The grass path, which looks rectangular, is in fact a trapezoid, about two metres narrower at the far end. The trees themselves are planted more closely together as they get further away, and the more distant ones are clipped to be slightly shorter. Your eye doesn’t spot these individual tricks, but certainly registers the overall effect.

  3. Adam
    June 8, 2011

    It’ a shame I missed this, but were there really so few people there?

    • landscapelover
      June 8, 2011

      Adam, it wasn’t very well publicised, and you could walk past the main entrance at Matignon without realising that the gardens at the rear were open. Once you found the back door, you joined a tour of 10 -15 people at a time being taken along set paths. Nobody got to walk on the grass! That’s why the gardens look deserted in my photos. But I doubt they had more than a few hundred visitors all weekend. It’s a shame it wasn’t more popular, although I suspect the scores of gendarmes in attendance were glad not to have to protect M. Fillon from larger crowds.

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This entry was posted on June 7, 2011 by in Gardens, Paris and tagged , , , .

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