Normandy woman creates garden like a painting come to life

Lydie Paumier prepares to prune the boxwoods she has cultivated for the past 15 years.

Once upon a time, the stunning garden I want to tell you about was an orchard in a farming village in northern France. Apple trees, luxuriant green grass and wild flowers grew there. Far enough from the city that the dominant sounds heard were garden birds singing, roosters crowing and hens clucking, the village probably looked much as it had for centuries past.

That was 25 years ago. Today, the village of Le Tilleul, in Normandy, still feels like an oasis in the bustle of modern France, but its farms have gone, although some villagers still keep poultry, sheep and horses. Dozens of modern houses have sprung up on former agricultural land and the orchard has become a magnificent garden, the creation of a woman with a passion for plants, Lydie Paumier.

“I would like to have been a painter,” Lydie confides as she stands in front of her comfortable modern home on a cold, blustery, spring day, “but I have no talent, so I try to compose pictures through flowers.”

Using an array of colors and shapes provided by leaves, bushes and trees, as well as flowers, the French gardener creates “scenes that change with the seasons.” The soft, silvery grey of lambs’ ears (which the French call bears’ ears) contrasts with the spiky yellow foliage of a heather and the purple leaves of a ground-hugging plant whose name she can’t recall and I don’t know. Heather and lambs’ ears keep their leaves in winter and the splash of pinkish-mauve heather blossom will provide welcome color in fall and early winter.

Perspective is another key element Lydie uses “to guide your eyes through to other parts of the garden.” A wide patio stretches from her house to the edge of a large, irregularly shaped flowerbed. Twelve feet wide in some places, the bed measures barely a foot across at the far end. There, two graceful trees, one with almost white leaves, lean towards each other, leaving only a narrow, grassy opening which leads to a part of the garden that resembles a clearing in the forest.

On the patio, large blue pots hold combinations of plants, most in bloom or about to flower. One contains a pink-blossomed pelargonium “bought at the supermarket,” a chrysanthemum “left over from last fall,” more lambs’ ears and perky little bright blue forget-me-nots, annuals which “may have been brought by the birds.” Forget-me-nots grow everywhere in this part of Normandy in spring.

About a fifth of Lydie’s plants are perennials (less work). She favors plants that re-seed themselves, plants that flower twice in the year and hardy plants that won’t freeze. Normandy has cold, wet winters. Frost can strike as late as Easter, along with damaging hailstorms.

Perennial geraniums, an easy-to-please groundcover which will flourish in containers as well, appear here and there throughout the garden. A few of their bright pink flowers have already opened. They’ll make a spectacular display of color through mid-summer.

It’s worth remembering that plants labeled “geranium” in supermarkets and home improvement stores (here and in the U.S.) are, in fact, pelargoniums. They can’t take frost, but will thrive indoors in pots through the winter or can be stored in a dry and cool, but not freezing, place. True geraniums have lacey, delicate-looking leaves and dainty, colorful flowers that stand high above the leaves.

Some of the other flowers in bloom in Lydie’s largest flower bed include: Bluet, which resembles cornflower, but in a deeper shade, blue irises, fringed tulips and a shasta daisy “planted by the birds.” White irises and blue lupins “will flower soon,” the gardener says. Later on, pinkish-lavender foxgloves, pink “amour et paix” (“love and peace”) roses and a salmon-colored rose called “kimono” will open up.

Three large pale-green ceramic balls placed beside three boxwood shrubs carefully pruned into similar-sized balls provide charming features, as well as color, even in winter.

The garden contains so many different plants, trees and flowers that I can only name a fraction of them here. A film would barely do it justice. Lydie has about 50 different sorts of roses, she says. Some came from catalogues, others she “fell in love with” at gardening centers. She tries to stick to disease-resistant varieties, but if some get the fungus black spot, she will not treat them with toxic chemicals.

The only fertilizer she uses: Homemade compost and organic dried manure, from a local garden center. Her husband Philippe, who helps out by mowing the lawn and building structures like arches, raised beds and trellises, says they both love Nature and don’t want to harm the creatures that inhabit the garden. These include hedgehogs, skinks (not skunks!), toads, snails and at least 19 sorts of birds “that we’ve counted,” including “yellow beaks or blackbirds, wrens and thrushes.”

Lydie’s first priority, when she bought the acre lot in 1994, was to plant trees to provide food, shelter and nesting places for the birds. A tall hedge along one side of the property includes wild cherry trees and buddleia. In those days, she would come home from work and spend two or three hours planting. Now retired, she works in the garden for at least two hours most days, and in summer about five hours. In this part of France, summers are not nearly as hot as on the Eastern Shore and hardly ever humid.

Behind the Paumiers’ house, six large rectangles of meticulously pruned boxwoods form an entirely different garden “room.” It resembles a more traditional French garden, compared with the front garden, which is more English in style. Further on, a cobblestone path under arches supporting climbing roses and clematis leads to an immaculate lawn, bordered by apple and pear trees, a black currant bush and nine boxwoods pruned to the shape and size of a beach ball.

Then there’s a sunken garden framed by hydrangea bushes, roses and other shrubs — the perfect view as seen from a glassed-in veranda adjoining the house.

Lydie admits it’s all a lot of work. “I like the garden, not gardening,” she says ruefully. But for anyone visiting all the different spaces of her garden, it’s a work of art, a joy and an inspiration.

Editor’s note: Ms. Sands is a Dorchester master gardener.

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