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Creating your own jardin de curé

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Creating your own jardin de curé

I'm about to tell you about a vanishing species:  the jardin de curé, sometimes also referred to as a jardin de presbytère.  This uniquely French garden style is sadly on the point of vanishing today.  Yet at the turn of the nineteenth century, it is estimated that there were approximately 30,000 of these gardens in active existence.

The jardin de curé is quite literally the cure's garden.  These gardens were plots of land historically associated with the presbytery and placed at the disposition of the priest.  While equivalent gardens existed in England, they differed dramatically from their French counterparts in that they were cared for by gardeners paid by the parish.  The French curé's garden was traditionally cared for by Monsieur le Curé himself.

While this may seem to be an inconsequential distinction, in fact it is anything but.  The outsourced gardens of the English pastors were more or less typically English gardens, while the French jardins de curé had a much more eccentric and homespun style which developed in answer to the curé's needs:  nourishment and medicinal herbs for himself, flowers for the altar, and a place for reflection and meditation.  As a result, while the curé's garden was--being French after all--laid out in geometric parterres, within their confines reigned usually a carefree abandon of vegetables, fruits, flowers including perennials, shrubs and roses, and lots of biennials and annuals, and always a good measure of medicinal and culinary  herbs.  Most often, these diverse plant types cohabited together in cozy and often unusual combinations.fennel, calendula, kale

Today, one curé takes care of several churches, saying mass perhaps only once a month in any given church.  Clearly, this leaves neither the attachment to a particular presbytery nor the time necessary to cultivate a jardin de curé.  Most presbyteries have been sold off, and their inhabitants in most cases haven't bothered to maintain the garden in its original spirit.  These gardens are vanishing with astonishing and alarming speed.  A book I have on the subject, published in 1995, shows several such gardens in the pays de Caux in upper Normandy--the precise area where we have a country house.  Yet when we went searching for these gardens on a recent weekend, not one of them remained as described--and this in a region deemed by the book to be the "richest" in curé's gardens.  So I am sorry to say that I must write about these charming gardens without being able to show you a single photo of an actual jardin de curé.box parterres

Rather, I will try to conjure for you the spirit of these vanishing gardens by discussing their typical elements and showing photos from other contexts.  Perhaps I can inspire some of you to keep this tradition alive by reincarnation, as it were. 
The overall layout of the curé's garden was usually in the form of a cross, either Greek (arms of equal length) or Latin (arms of unequal length).  The principal allées formed the cross.  This fact was often not readily apparent from within the garden as minor paths further subdivided the space.  But at the intersection of this symbolic form; there was often (but not always) a religious symbol; such as an iron cross or a statue of the Virgin.


Usually the parterres were edged in boxwood--one of the few constants of the diverse styles of curés' gardens.  Boxwood, appropriately for the curé's garden, symbolizes persistence and eternity.A sprig of boxwood is traditionally used by the priest to sprinkle holy water.  And boxwood branches are blessed during the Fête des Rameaux (Festival of the Twigs), or Palm Sunday, as we know it.  These blessed branches were then taken home by the parishioners and hung in their houses to banish evil.  Even nonfaithful parishioners turned up for this mass in order to bring home this good-luck charm, which admittedly seems nearly pagan.  In addition to clipped boxwood edgings, the priest's garden often included a big, overgrown boxwood shrub which served this purpose specifically, the boxwood branches replacing the more historically accurate palm and olive branches.  But in the South of France, santolina, lavender, and rosemary often edged the beds in the curé's garden.
clary sage
Historically, the curé was often the most educated person in the community.  An intimate knowledge of medicinal herbs and how to employ them in simple remedies formed part of his education.  The curé grew and used these plants to cure his own uncomplicated ailments as well as those of his parishioners.


 These humble plants were omnipresent in the curé's garden, and usually included at least, sage, thyme, artemisia, hyssop, rosemary, lemon balm, mints, clary sage (above), arnica (left), and of course, angelica (below), whose Latin name, Angelica archangelica, was powerfully symbolic.

In the curé's garden grew an abundance of flowers for the alter and to decorate the church at large, especially for festivals.  Blue and white blossoms were given priority, for these colors symbolize the Virgin Mary and purity, respectively.  But other blossoms were prized as well--roses, dahlias for their summerlong color, and gladiolas.


French curés were rather poor, so their gardens served to augment their daily diets with vegetables and fruit.  Vegetables were as likely to be tucked here and there among the flowers and herbs as to be planted more formal rows.  But larger curé's gardens almost always included a section devoted exclusively to vegetables. 

tomato and calendulaFrench curés have a long history of involvement in fruit breeding and development of new varieties.  The names of many heirloom French fruit varieties bear testament to the story:  muscat grape 'Jesus,' strawberry 'St. Antoine de Padue, apple 'Dieu' and 'Bénédictin,' pear 'du Curé' and 'De Monseigneur Affre,' melon 'Noir des Carmes.'  Homegrown fruits introduced a bit of permissable luxury in the austere life of the curé.  And so, fruit trees were almost always to be found in his garden.  Curé's gardens were always jardins clos, or walled gardens. 

pear espalier

It was against these walls that the curé trained his fruit trees in espalier, a practice that allowed him not only to save space but also to capitalize on the warmth of the walls to ripen and protect his fruit.  If you're wanting to create your version, make sure to use only heirloom fruit varieties, and experiment with espalier technique.  There is a three-part series of articles on this website explaining espalier.

Another important feature of curé's gardens was the inclusion of plenty of religiously symbolic plants.  While plants mentioned in the Bible were obvious candidates, even more often, the symbolic plants included were chosen because their French common names involved a religious reference.  Madonna lily (Lilium candidans) is a perfect example.
Madonna lilyObviously, this is a symbolism that is usually rather fanciful.  Here's a partial list of these plants:


Aster spp.--"oeil de Christ" (Christ's eye)
Lychnis spp.--"oeil de Dieu" (God's eye)
Dicentra spp.-- "coeur-de-Marie" (Mary's heart)
Nigella damascena--"barbe de capucin" (Capucin's beard)
Fox-tail amaranth--"Discipline de réligieuse" (nun's discipline)
Digitalis spp.--"gant de notre dame" (Our Lady's glove)
Passiflore spp.--"Fleur de la Passion" (flower of the passion of Christ)
Aquilegia spp.--"doigts de notre dame"; soulier du Bon-Dieu (gloves of Our Lady; God's shoes)

Also likely to be represented in the curé's garden were plants which were "dedicated" to saints--that is, their French common names include the name of a saint.    Again, here's a list:

Actaea spp.--"barbe de St-Christophe" (St. Christopher's beard)
Chelidonium majus--"herbe à St-Gérard" (St. Gerard's herb)
Agrimonia spp.--"échelle de Jacob; herbe de St-Guillaume; herbe de Ste-Madeleine" (Jacob's ladder, St. William's herb; Saint Madeleine's herb
Artemisia vulgaris--"herbe de St-Jean" (St. John's herb)
Asphodeline lutea--"bâton de Jacob" (Jacob's staff)
Geum spp.--"herbe de St-Benoît "(St. Benoît's herb)
Anchusa spp.--"herbe de St-Laurent" (St. Laurence's herb)
Epilobium angustifolium--"laurier de Saint-Antoine" (St. Anthony's laurel)
Eupatorium spp.--"herbe de Ste-Cunégonde" (St: Cunegonde's herb)
Malva officinalis--"bourdon de St-Jacques" (St. Jack's staff)
Heliotropium spp.--"herbe de St-Fiacre" (St. Fiacre's herb, he is the patron saint of  gardens by the way)
Primula spp.--"herbe de St-Pierre" (St: Peter's herb)
Satureja spp.--"herbe de St-Julien" (St. Julian's herb)
Tanacetum vulgare--"herbe de St-Marc" (St. Mark's herb)

More arcane symbolism is involved with plants thought to have been marked by the divine seal.  Many--but not all--of these are thought to represent the mark of the cross or represent the Holy Trinity.  A few examples include Adonis aestivalis or sang du Christ (Christ's blood): Centaurea cyanus or barbe du Bon-Dieu (God's beard, again): and Viola tricolor or fleur de la Sainte-Trinité (flower of the Holy Trinity).

Many other plants exist whose French common names indicate that they are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, for instance, or have other religious connotations.  All of these are fair game for the curé's garden.  Aconites--Mary's slippers or gloves of the Good Virgin--are called monkshood in English.  I suppose these belong in curé's gardens both francophone and anglophone!  Anyway, you get the idea.

To sum up for you the main characteristics of a curé's garden, should you like to create one:
    -Enclosure, either by walls or at least high, clipped hedges
    -Main paths laid out in the form of a cross, with an optional         religious symbol at their intersection
    -Beds laid out in regular parterres, edged in boxwood or other low-growing evergreen
    -The inclusion of boxwood
    -A rather carefree mixture of fruits, vegetables, and flowering plants of all kinds
    -The choice of heirloom varieties and cultivars
    -Fruit trees trained in espalier
    -The inclusion of religiously symbolic plants
    - The inclusion of many white- and blue-flowering plants
    -Finally, very important, a place to meditate and reflect (i.e. a bench)
So what could be the interest of a curé's garden if you're not religious?  Well, I confess I am not the least bit religious, yet I love the idea of a curé's garden.  For one thing, I love symbols, and in my own "curé's garden," I would include plants which have an internal symbolism for me and my family.  For me, this type of a garden is a world unto itself--a refuge far from the madding crowd and brimming with the good and beautiful things of the earth.  Maybe the curé would have found this idea blasphemous, but for me, his garden is a bit of Paradise on earth.  I think; in fact, that a lay version of a curé's garden is what I've gone about planting in every place I've lived.  After all, who doesn't need a space where she's surrounded by fragrance and color, by nourishing fruits and vegetables grown by ses propres soins (her own careful tending),  filled with meaningful symbols from her life, and a private spot where she can re-source herself?  Regardless of our beliefs, the curé's garden is a form that speaks to all of us.



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