Gardens of Normandy

A peek inside the domains of two master gardeners

There’s something about the luminosity in Normandy that compels so many artists to capture its landscapes on canvas. Thanks also to its proximity to the English Channel, Normandy is blessed with a temperate microclimate that rewards horticulturists with a plethora of blooms.

I recently visited the domains of two passionate gardeners. James Priest presides as Head Gardener at Giverny, the beloved home of Impressionist painter Claude Monet.

Lesser known, but no less spectacular, Didier Wirth’s Gardens of Brécy, tucked into the Bayeux countryside, are verdant secrets waiting to be uncovered.

James Priest’s Ode to Claude Monet

Stepping through the garden gate and onto the arched Japanese bridge that spans the fabled pond at Giverny is like stepping into one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies murals. Graceful weeping willows droop down to the reflective green water.

“Monet loved the intensity of light created by mist that forms between the River Seine and the hills,” says Head Gardener, James Priest.

Monet lived and painted in his beloved home and gardens at Giverny from 1889 until his death in 1926, after which the property deteriorated. Now, thanks to the efforts of Priest and his team, the gardens are resplendent again.

During my visit last June, Sweet Williams, poppies, Canterbury bells, roses and more all vied for attention in beds along the Clos Normand in front of the artist’s pink cottage with its “Monet green” shutters.

“At the same time that this is a historic garden it should not be a garden that repeats itself exactly each year,” says Priest. “It should progress, test different color schemes, plant associations, etc., exactly as Monet himself always did—but all this within the boundaries and the style laid down by Monet.

”Priest began painting this summer with the artists at Giverny. “This insight into how the Impressionists use color is fascinating,” he says. This experience has inspired him to experiment with new palettes.

Priest’s extensive research reveals that Monet was a hard worker. In the days when many other artists led a bohemian lifestyle, Monet painted from first light until dusk, pausing only for lunch.

In his 70s the great Impressionist developed cataracts and became depressed. But it was his lifelong friend, ex-president Clemenceau, who urged him to begin the Water Lilies series, eight of which hang in the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris.

“If you won’t do this for me, then at least do it for the nation,” pleaded Clemenceau. Thankfully Monet complied and James Priest perpetuates his legacy.

The Secret Gardens of Didier and Barbara WirthIt

It is probably no coincidence that a giant bronze rabbit presides over the courtyard of the 17th century château of Didier and Barbara Wirth. Stepping over the threshold and into the walled Gardens of Brécy is like entering Alice’s Wonderland.

An anonymous writer once called Brécy “...a little Versailles lost among the fields“.

”Tucked into a rolling terrain, about 15 km from Bayeux, the Wirths have woven their own tapestry that includes four formal terraces, handsome parterres, meticulously pruned boxwoods, stone balustrades, urns and fountains. Didier Wirth points out the cleverly concealed herb and vegetable gardens where his grandchildren like to play and the orchard planted with twelve different apple trees “so we produce a well-balanced cider,” he says.

Didier Wirth, who inherited his love of gardens from his father, serves as president of both the Comité des Parcs et Jardins de France.

But he is quick to point out that his wife is the true font of knowledge. “She is boss of everything inside the walls and I get to determine what goes on outside,” he says, gesturing to a triple row of handsome beech trees that he planted when they acquired the property in 1993.

Indeed, Mrs. Wirth wears the sweater that reads “Head Gardener” and Mr. wears the one that reads “Under Gardener.”