(Originally published, May 2015, updated January 2021)
The French “Jardin de Curé” might just be the original “Permaculture garden” of temperate Europe: diverse, beautiful, abundant, easy, and custom designed for the circumstances at hand. I believe we have a lot to learn from these old, evolved gardening systems of traditional cultures, so our front yard at Lillie House was deeply inspired by this style of garden. Let me take you on a tour of our “Permaculture Jardin de Cure´” while I share some garden pictures from this morning.
The “Curate” or “Cure´” was the head parishioner in the French Presbyterian Church and his garden had to be multi-functional and easy to care for. The curate himself would have planned and maintained his garden, with the help of some volunteers from his congregation. So, not only did it provide an important source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the curate and his family, it also had to help provide for the needs of his congregation, and be easy to maintain in the busy curate’s free time.
As the most learned man and woman in his community, the curate and his wife were often called upon to be healers of physical ailments as well as spiritual ones. So this garden needed to be a true “physic garden,” one of the town’s most important sources of herbal medicines, such as the beautiful flowers of wild perennial flax above, which–once cooked–can be used like regular flax seeds. The plant material can also be used for a rustic linen. The image also shows leaves of valerian, which fills multiple roles in the garden. It is ornamental, sometimes edible, a potent medicinal for sleep and stress, and fills the garden with a beautiful aroma.
And, of course, the curate had to attend to the spiritual needs of his flock in times of crisis, when they were in need of comfort. Soft colors dominated by shades of blue, lavender and white painted a soothing spiritual backdrop.
And when it was time for celebration, the curate’s garden provided the church with a sorce of beautiful cut flowers, again in soft, spiritual colors. Even today, many french flower and rose cultivars in these soft colors bear the names of saints, a testament to their history in the Jardin de Cure´. In fact, curates and their gadens were important in the history of French plant breeding. The “dames rocket” would have figured as both a vegetable and a flower in the curate’s garden.
And, since this multi-purpose garden had to be both beautiful and easy to care for in the spare time of the curate and his congregation, a polyculture system of formal beds with informal plantings was used to cut down work and keep things tidy.
Hidden inside these geometric beds called “parterres,” vegetables, medicinal herbs, fruit trees, flowers, and what many today would call “weeds,” grew together in a semi wild profusion similar to the English Cottage Garden, only surrounded with edging of box, or with useful herbs such as thyme or lavender. At Lillie House, our oregano and lavender hedge imitates the low box edging in the exotic formal gardens that the well-educated curate would have seen at gardens like Versailles. Unlike a boxwood hedge, when we trim our edging, it’s time for oregano pesto, or Greek potatoes!
And finally, at the end of the day, this edible, medicinal, flower garden had to be a spiritual retreat and meditation sanctuary for the curate.
It had to be a meditative space of natural beauty, but also of spiritual importance. Formal beds were typically laid out in the form of a cross, with other symbols and spiritual reminders woven throughout. Our secular Permaculture-inspired version takes the shape of an ankh, an ancient symbol of permanence and a fitting symbol of the goals of Permaculture which are spiritually important to us.
The garden was enclosed by walls, mixed hedges or espalier trees–or a mix of these–to create the feeling of sanctuary, in the manor of Christendom’s oldest spiritual gardens the Hortus Conclusus, which is so often seen depicted in medieval art.
This was thought to symbolize the garden of eden or perhaps to even invoke heaven.
And–just as in Permaculture–water was a mandatory element in the garden, usually located at the center of the cross, in the form of a simple pond or well.
Today, there’s renewed interest in this very old style of multi-functional garden, but it’s not for the first time! Back when our house was built, this form of garden became a brief fad in the US, especially for victorian enterance gardens in the “beautiful” style of architecture. While the English Cottage Garden style would have been recommended for “picturesque” homes like the gothic style, the Jardin de Cure could have been the template for our Italianate home. Who knows, perhaps ours is not the first garden of this style to adorn our front yard.
Patterns for Permaculturists:
1. Formal Beds with Informal Plantings. Oregano or Thyme “edging” can help keep things looking neat, while using “messy” looking polycultures that require less maintenance than “tidy” plantings would. Mix up fruits, veggies and flowers together, as in a “forest garden.”
2. Include water. Humans and wildlife are naturally drawn to water.
3. Create comfortable places to sit for contemplation, with beautiful views.
4. Make nice paths for a walk, with interesting things to see along the way.
5. Use spiritually meaningful symbols, these could be symbols of nature, secular humanism, philosophy or religious meaning–Anything you can connect with personally. This will add a layer of depth to your garden and what it has to offer you.
6. Rely on cool, calming colors like the blues and whites of the Jardin de Cure´. These provide an overall theme for the garden that can still harmonize well with pops of of other colors, such as the reds of roses or the yellows of brassicas gone to flower.
7. Include gifts (plants, statues, pots…) from friends and family, and your garden will speak to you on a personal level.
8. Create a feeling of enclosure and privacy with mixed, hedges of fruit and flowering plants.
9. Plant many aromatic plants! The multi-functional Permaculture garden should appeal to all the senses.
A few more recommended resources on the Jardin de Cure´: