The beauty of hornbeam

Berchigranges + granges 001For some time I’ve been meaning to share pictures of a garden about a two-hour drive from here, much deeper into the Vosges mountains and the département des Vosges, but still in the same administrative region as Châtillon-sur-Saône.

The Vosges are a very old range of mountains. Their antiquity means that the peaks are not jagged and spectacular, more mellow and rolling.

When I lived in Alsace, near Basel, we used to be able to see the Vosges to one side of our town and the mountains of the Black Forest in Germany to the other. Their shapes mirrored each other perfectly.

I was often inspired to paint while looking at the mountains from the dirty pavements of Saint-Louis. And I was struck by the epithet (later used politically) coined in 1893 by Jules Ferry, a French statesman and politician: ‘La ligne bleue des Vosges’. The blue line of the Vosges, which Ferry wanted to face from his home town of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges when he was buried. Blue-green, misty and enticing on a hot summer’s day, emerging from the flat, heavily populated plain of Alsace.

From the plains


Don’t be fooled by the gentleness of these big hills. The Americans fought some of their  harshest campaigns during the Second World War in the Vosges, when they came from the south of France and used the mountains as a doorway to liberate Alsace from the Germans.


They came in the autumn of 1944 and the following winter was the coldest on record.

Nowadays people take happier advantage of the snow and cold. There are areas near the small town of Gérardmer in the Parc National des Ballons des Vosges where skiing is a big industry.

The Jardin de Berchigranges

Thierry Dronet came to Berchigranges, close to Gérardmer, in 1978 to establish his carpentry workshop on the site of an old 1950s granite quarry, planted with spruce after 1960. He built the blue chalet-style house you saw in the first picture and dreamed of  opening up the landscape and reinstating the wild flora typical of the region.

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In 1990 he met his future wife, Monique, who was running a plant nursery nearby and was in love with the cottage garden style – and from there the garden grew.

The land that drops away from the house reflects Thierry’s original plans, but the garden itself is much more formal. Here even the daffodils stand to attention. I can almost see Thierry getting his ruler out and measuring distances between bulbs as he plants. Aside from that minor flaw, the garden is a real pleasure in an area bereft of ‘good’ gardens (whatever that means!).

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They had to cut down thousands of spruce, relocate tonnes of rock and order in 200 lorry-loads of topsoil, not to mention collecting thousands of plants. A little perspective on my own strimming and digging?

If you go to visit the Jardin de Berchigranges, it is Thierry on his own that you see beetling about the grounds. However, he now has a staff of (I think) about 11 to help him cut the hedges, so don’t panic when you see the pictures that follow!

It’s the hedges I’ll focus on in this post. The pictures come from two separate visits, timed to coincide with the narcissus days they celebrate each year towards the end of April – hundreds of cultivars have been planted over the years.

I love they way they display cut narcissus on tables in the garden. Each bloom, with its name in a little jar. Just like being back at Vincent Square and visiting a Royal Horticultural Society spring show.

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Berchigranges 059Berchigranges 006There’s also a small nursery attached to the garden – one of only two places that I can actually drive to and buy decent herbaceous plants around here. Otherwise it’s mail order only.

The first year I visited (2014) the hedging was far more advanced than the second year (2015). The pictures from the two visits below have the advantage of showing the development of the bones of the structure into foliage cover.

Bienvenue au Jardin de Berchigranges  …

The Pinball Garden

Hornbeam hedges (much better in heavier soils and wetter conditions than beech) demonstrate how well plants can perform to give structure to a garden. The Jardin de Flipper lies at the top of the garden’s slope – inside it you are almost lost as if in a maze. Outside you look up to a colossus mimicking the ramparts of an imposing castle.

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And slightly later in a warmer season …

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Since I’ve recently planted a ‘walled’ garden made with hornbeam myself, I took particular note of planting distances for the hornbeam and the way in which each plant has gained full height before being clipped – this makes the hedges just as (if not more) spectacular when not in leaf.

Chambre des Dames

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Close to the Jardin de Flipper is the entrance to the Dames’ Room. I could have typed ‘women’s room’ there as a translation, but aside from making the area sound as if it was a outdoor toilet, there is an almost medieval feel to the garden that seems to demand we be ‘dames’ here. It’s a walled garden of hornbeam, in which to sit peacefully out of the wind and savour the scented plantings that the garden features (although not in April!) It also allows a closer appreciation of the beauty of hornbeam hedges.

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And a little later in a warmer season …

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The Pyrus salicifolia Hedge

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Well, I think it’s Pyrus salicifolia! And easily my favourite feature in the garden. The terracing in this sharply sloping position is, as you can see, created with logs and there is a serpentine path that winds below the hedge, just as the garden drops to the wilder valley. I believe (but am not sure) that this is the boundary of the Garden of Garlic & Ouch (Jardin Ail et Ouille). Plants from arid habitats – spines, grey-foliage and, of course, alliums – feature there, in the terrace garden to the left of my picture above. The hedge forms the boundary.

Does it matter if I’m right or wrong? This hedge and terracing are simply stunning.

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And a little later in a warmer season …

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If you are interested to find out more about Berchigranges, have a look at the Jardin de Berchigranges website.

I was quite keen on the idea of attending a workshop on perennials due to be held in May 2016, but then I noticed the cost was 95€ for the day (including a lunchtime meal – which would be a big affair, this is France!)

Still, they have to keep those hedges clipped somehow …

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13 thoughts on “The beauty of hornbeam

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks Paula – it was amazing for me to see the pictures from two different years (and the same month) together.

  1. Molly Buchanan

    Beautiful pics. Cath. The hedges are really impressive. Your brief history really set the scene. The stunning. Colours of the mountains are awesome. Mum.

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Cathy Post author

      Glad you liked it, Mum. Yes, the colours of the Vosges really are beautiful. They say it has something to do with the emissions from the trees – like the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

  2. rusty duck

    Well I have a slope and an abundant supply of logs. I’m really taken with the terracing. I wonder how long it would last, presumably the logs will rot down eventually.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I’m not sure how long the terracing has been there. Next time I go I’ll ask. There is a lot of wood left standing about (stacked) around here for a very long time and it does silver beautifully with age (much of it will be oak). So perhaps more durable than one imagines? But at 38€ a stere it would be expensive walling for our garden. They have their own woodland there, so that solves the financial problem.

    1. Cathy Post author

      How lovely Annette. I do love it myself – as you say, the level of maintenance is incredible! I hope to spend more time there later in the year as I only know it as an early garden.

  3. gardeninacity

    Wow, what a unique, beautiful, and astonishing garden! And thank you for the information about the Vosges, now there is another part of France we must visit. (Unfortunately we have been only to the area around Paris and the Loire Valley.)

    1. Cathy Post author

      We seem to be in the ‘back of beyond’ to most people. In reality we are in a nice, quiet area of a France – well worth a visit if you enjoy that kind of thing! And goes without saying that if, on a blue moon, you and yours ever did it, you should drop buy and see our garden too!


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