Inside Out: Waking Dreams of French Garden Rooms

My imagination is always sparked when visiting gardens by that most essential of cultural constructs: the boundaries of daily life — the ideas of inside and outside.

Ideas of sides and doors and rooms and thresholds must have been conceptual and linguistic leaps for all peoples of the world. Yet leap we did, ending up with doors and rooms and then — perhaps a thousand years later, aided by prosperity — “that most excellent garden tool,” as one writer has it — we wanted rooms outside.

Garden “rooms” can be terraces, patios, yards, strips of concrete driveways. They can be constructed with walls of living material, highlight or hide plants of definite season or color. They can be glimpsed opening and opening from one to another.

I will never forget garden rooms high on a hill in the walled medieval town of Lussan (on the Languedoc border of Provence). There was a direct experience of the gardening passions of an artist. The garden is the heart of a chambers d’hote (bed and breakfast inn; never mind finding the right punctuation here), Les Buis de Lussan.

It was installed and is nourished by a former Parisian chef, Thierry Vieillot. The square centerpiece of this small (about 50 by 70 feet) walled garden is a knotted buis (boxwood) maze cultivated with other plants known to medieval France. Each element of this center square, or indeed each piece of this garden, whether shaped plant or constructed garden support, reveals Vieillot as someone who understands that beauty is form. The garden is transcendent, and Vieillot, a quiet and intense man, reveals his intimacy with his plants in every leaf and bloom, moving this guest to tears.