Among gardeners there is often a lot of grousing about landscape designers who seem to under-value plants. Indeed, new gardens frequently seem to feature hardscape over the plantings they are supposed display. How refreshing to learn about Louis Benech, the French landscape designer who started his career as a garden apprentice and prefers to be known simply as a “gardener” or “plantsman.”
Photographs by Eric Sander except where noted.
Above: Chateau d’O in Normandy, built in 1484, with its gardens and vast grounds reimagined by Louis Benech.
Benech, the designer of more than 300 projects all over the world, is well-known internationally but not yet a household name in the US. A handsome new book from French publisher Gourcuff Gradenigo, Louis Benech: Twelve French Gardens, provides an excellent introduction to his work, which so deftly combines classic formal garden design with a more relaxed contemporary approach.
Writer Eric Jansen gives a brief overview of each project and a description of each site and how Benech modified it. Jansen includes fascinating details such as when Benech added fruit trees to an estate so an equestrian client could pick apples and plums while riding by on his horse. Jansen is meticulous in reporting the plants Benech has chosen, often including their Latin names and varieties. Also featured are some of Benech’s signature touches: tapestry hedges which include multiple plants grown closely together so they intertwine; low broad hedges or “slabs” of boxwood or Lonicera pileata used to add modern interest to expanses of lawn, and combinations of plants in various shades of gold, yellow, and chartreuse foliage to add brightness and be a foil for color.
The book’s dozen projects range from a public garden in Paris on the grounds of a new stadium, to a rustic Mediterranean garden in St. Tropez, to vast estates surrounding antique chateaux, and even a tiny seaside garden in Brittany. While the gardens are wildly diverse, they all reflect Benech’s signature respect for what exists on a site when he begins his work. He may modify a view or disguise something he finds obtrusive or just ugly, but he usually doesn’t call in major earth-moving equipment or remove venerable trees unless they are unhealthy. Best of all, Benech has a realistic view of maintenance. Since even very wealthy people today can no longer afford large armies of gardeners, Benech creates spaces that require a minimum of tending. He uses native plants which will thrive with less care, shrubs that don’t need constant pruning, drifts of plants so weeding can be minimal, sloping paths instead of steps which make for difficult mowing. See examples of his handiwork below:
Above: A terrace in the garden at Mas Sainte-Anne in Provence filled with Mediterranean plants including phormium, cordyline, cycas, miscanthus, and acanthus.
Benech, who was almost sidetracked into a law career, grew up with two passionately gardening grandmothers, an architect father and flower-loving mother. His childhood hobby was gardening and his first job out of law school was at an English nursery where he learned his trade sweating and digging in the dirt instead of sitting in an office. This first hand knowledge of nurturing plants and living among them is evident in the gardens featured in the book’s lush photographs by Eric Sander.
Above: The moat at Chateau de Sainte-Croix in Burgundy with massed forsythias along a row of ash and alder trees.
As you read this book and immerse yourself in Benech’s work, it is possible to see how he has used his approach of carefully observing a site and then working with it to produce such unique results for each individual project. One is left with the sense that there is not one standard, easily identifiable Benech garden. If you are his client, it seems, he will work to create a landscape that is in harmony with your property, a landscape that almost magically appears to have just grown there all by itself.
Above: A line of Japanese cherry trees at Chateau de Pange in Lorraine.
Above: At Haras d’Heroussard in Normandy, Benech chose red plants to echo the color of the house and an existing purple beech tree.
Above: A terrace in the tiny seaside garden at Villa de la Tour in Brittany which Benech has filled with a profusion of hydrangeas, gaura, and roses.
Above: In Normandy, Benech has added interest to a wide plateau with “slabs,” wide low hedges.
Above: Chartreuse foliage lights up a Benech garden.
Above: At Domaine de Vertefeuille in Normandy, Benech extended the steps to the Vertefeuille stream by installing a ford of sandstone blocks in the stream.
Above: Louis Benech: Twelve French Gardens is available from Amazon for $34.99. Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.