Gaia’s Gift

Garden Education and Tourism

 Research Trip, September, 2004



A Feast of Dahlias

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Château Mesnil Geoffroy

When I looked at the wish list of gardens that I’d compiled over the summer, I knew there was no possible way to fit them all in.  Since my primary goal was to visit a couple of the most important dahlia exhibitions, and other objectives required that I spend some of my time in Normandy, I had to drop the cut flower dahlia show in the Champaign region with regrets.


If this story were a symphony, the major theme would be of dahlias, flashing bright colors and dark, huge and miraculously formed, small and shimmering, arranged in oceans of color or tucked into mixed beds. The minor themes would be of failing technology and rain, repeating and repeating.  On the day of arrival I thought, “Oh, good, we’ll get the bad weather over while I’m still tired.”  Some days later I was thinking, “It can’t rain for 10 days straight”.  I was to regret that thought, particularly on my last day at Charles de Gaulle Airport, where the sun was finally shining and I realized that indeed it could rain for 10 days straight.


My first couple of nights was spent at a magnificent Château and guesthouse, which is also a public garden:   Château Mesnil Geoffroy .  After a night on the airplane, a morning of driving and an afternoon spent in Dieppe trying to buy some stuff to turn my PDA into a GPS navigator, without success, I collapsed early into the wonderfully soft bed with its squishy pillows.  The room was decorated with such authenticity, from the 18th century, that if I looked past my PDA/alarm, my black nylon luggage, backpack, and the camera needing a charge and the laptop that I carry to back up the camera and check e-mails when I can ...  Oh never mind.  The rooms help you step back into an elegant, graceful history, even if the trappings of the modern traveler get a bit in the way.


Before I left for the next day’s activities I wandered around the two large rose gardens that flank the main perspective.  In spite of the cold and rainy fall weather, many of the roses were still looking magnificent.  Prince and Princess Kayali share the duties of making their guests feel at home.  The Prince knows his roses and the Princess’ rose, lavender and fruit jellies are a delicious addition to her welcoming breakfast table. 

Dahlias at Clos du Coudray 

Near the Château is a garden that I recommend in the Gaias Guide :  Gardens of Normandy – Part 2, after several happy visits.  Last year when I visited in October they had already had a hard frost and were pulling the dahlia tubers.  This year I made sure to get there first!  Three sisters lived with my family for awhile when I was young and I was bemused to find that the first two dahlias that caught my eye in this garden had the names of two of them:  Yvonne and Marlene Joy.


The garden had hundreds of varieties in a dedicated area.  This arrangement allows the visitor the best method of comparing the dahlias in shape and color and is widely used in the gardens that hold competitions.  Clos du Coudray is also a nursery, where Europeans can see what they buy as it’s growing, so this ability to compare would be important.  However, my favorites at Clos du Coudray are still the many areas where plants are mixed in well-designed and well-maintained beds.  It’s important to note that everything, including the dahlias, is grown with organic methods.  “Symphony” was well displayed there and I admired its changing golden oranges in several other gardens.  I also met Tour du Monde, a compact plant with upright, small but very perky orange blossoms”. 


Jardin des Plantes, Rouen

I spent the afternoon in Rouen.  It’s a large city.  Although it has an historic center with churches and museums and old, picturesque buildings, as well as an impressive botanical garden, its traffic often discourages me.  But I’d received the word that the software and hardware that I needed for my PDA could be found at the FNAC there, for sure.  Armed with instructions from the Princess on where to Park I ventured into the old part of the city.  My mission was successful; FNAC had the package that I wanted.  With my car safely stashed in underground parking I debated whether to wander around the historic place.  It has been a center of civilization since the Romans found they could bridge the Seine at this location; but with a choice of old buildings and churches on one hand and a waiting garden on the other, well, there really was no choice.  I paid the ransom on my car and headed across the river where the botanical garden sits in one of the oldest residential neighborhoods of this ancient city.  And of course, I found dahlias there, too.  I love these old, beautiful city parks that serve the residents and city visitors with beauty and calm, even in the midst of city traffic.

Prieuré Saint-Michel

With a last look at the gardens at the Château and an affectionate encounter with a funny, flat faced cat in the labyrinth where Madame Pompadour is reputed to have played, I said my thank yous and my good byes to the Prince and Princess and headed toward Caen and the Prieuré Saint-Michel.  This is a garden with guest rooms, in the middle of pastoral Calvados, where I have stayed many times.  But it never gets old. 


The day was full of rain and I stopped for lunch at the rest area for the Pont du Normandy, a fantastic modern bridge that brought together the east and west sides of the Seine near where it empties into the Atlantic.  Before this bridge it was necessary to go much further inland, toward Paris, to cross the Seine or to take ferries through the mud flats.  The rest area there has two restaurants with views of the marshes and the river.  I ate my pasta watching the rains and the winds sweep across the marsh grasses, making them dance. 


After a warm welcome from my hosts and a visit to the gardens, I retreated to my room until dinner time.  It was time to turn my PDA into a navigator.  Loading software, charging various devices and reading documentation claimed my time until dinner and again after breakfast on the next day.  I headed out later than usual that morning for Swiss Normandy, my PDA mounted on the windshield in front of my face, loaded with the appropriate maps, in blinking Bluetooth synchronization with a pocket sized GPS device.  I also carried maps and written directions.  My destination, although I intended to wander, was Thury Harcourt, an old château with a garden that I’d read about. 

Château Thury Harcourt

My intention to wander took me through Falaise.  This part of Normandy is an excellent place to study the life and times of William the Conqueror.  Falaise may be the best place to start because he was born here.  The castle offers a tour that educates the visitor about his family and his life.  Other places like Caen, where he ruled, and Bayeux, where the famous tapestry that describes his life is displayed, are not too far away.  The route to the castle was well marked and I did drive by to see it but I had another destination.


The old Château, which is a ruin now, is placed on a large park on the Orne River.  The park is open to the public and contains areas for hiking through the fields and along the river, as well as a small area of formal flower beds.  Although petite, this is as good a display of dahlias and roses, used in a mixed planting, as I have ever seen.  A remarkable fact is that all of the beautiful dahlias that they used were compact enough that no supports were needed.  Or if they were used, you couldn’t see them.


Wandering home I let my PDA do some of the navigation.  Unfortunately, the GPS unit was erratic in its ability to keep its fix; some times it found many satellites, often it found none, especially when the car was moving.  I would stop, put it into test mode and it would find some but lose them as soon as I needed advice, it seems.  I took some interesting turns at its behest and found some of the smallest streets and villages in the area.  The pleasant woman’s voice kept telling me “turn right here”.  She was very fond of telling me “turn right here”, even when there was no street “here”.  At key intersections she kept her council to herself.  After being forced to make a turn without her advice and finding that I was heading back toward Thury-Harcourt, I turned around and used my maps to get home.  One last piece of advice from her and I turned her off; you know what she said:  “turn right here”.  The only good news was that the mounting device plugged into the cigarette lighter to keep my PDA charged.  At least my PDA never needed to compete with all of the other devices to be recharged at night.  Of course, I only had a PDA with me because I wanted to use it for navigation.

Granville and Coutances    

One of my two major objectives for the trip was one of the oldest and largest dahlia competitions in France, located in the town of Coutances.  I had never been this far west before so I left my friends at the Priory with some excitement about what new places and gardens I might find.  The destination for this day was Granville, right on the ocean, where I had booked a room with a view of Mont St. Michel.  I got off to a late start again because I was loading my PDA with new maps for this longer trip. 


Although my path was fairly direct, it was all back roads and slow routes.  I drove, experimented with the PDA and software, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery of France.  I found my hotel room perched over the Atlantic, (see the first building on the cliff top on the left) in the early afternoon.  While I missed the squishy beds and pillows of the guest houses where I had stayed so far this trip, I was completely happy with my room, a more typical hotel property, because of the view.  The clouds were gathering, the day already going dark; so I rested happy with the town and the ocean’s edge to explore.


The gardens at Coutances didn’t open until afternoon so the next morning I  meandered along the shore and found a garden that Christian Dior had designed for his mother.  It’s now a public garden owned by the town of Granville.  The house and the gardens are right on the ocean cliff and the walls and fences that had been constructed to block the wind and the salt water, yet allow a visitor to see the view, are one of the most interesting features of this garden.  It’s small, probably not worth a long trip to see but definitely a pleasant walk from the hotel or the beach area of Granville.  You might want to walk along the high road to the entrance.  Paths wander down the cliff edge from the garden and connect with the brick walkway that heads back along the ocean, under my hotel to the town center and the casino.

Then the afternoon for Coutances; ahhhh, Coutances. 


I was a little early for the garden opening so I drove into the town center.  One of the best remaining examples of a Norman-style church is there.  The town plantings gave evidence of the importance of horticulture to the town.


The dahlia gardens are just outside of the town center at a horticultural school, Lycée Agricole et Horticole de Coutances.  The school buildings showed evidence of a thriving commercial business, the entrance fee was paid in a greenhouse with many plants for sale to the public.  The path to the gardens went past several large greenhouses that looked like they contained a cut-flower operation with roses and freesias.


The way to the dahlia beds also takes you through several demonstration gardens, designed by particular graduating classes and maintained by the current students.  Although the dahlias are only on display in September, the demo gardens are open throughout the summer and with a continual flow of students who need practice; I suspect that there is always something new to see.


According to Michel Robert, the President of the Société Française du Dahlia, the Festival is one of the best funded with hundreds of cultivars, some of them quite rare, on display.  Even after seeing most of the other dahlia gardens of France and even in a light, misting rain, I was impressed.  The main display lies between a freshly landscaped hill and corn fields.  The approach, from the other side of the hill, starts with mixed beds flanking the path and transitions nicely to lines of dahlias.  The main dahlia area is arranged into large quadrants around a simple water feature.  Although the adjoining corn field and a silo give a rustic quality that you don’t associate with the Jardin Française, I did find a lovely perspective that included the church in Coutances center.  For more pictures, click on the


Picture Album for the Lycée Agricole’s garden at Coutance

Parc Floral de la Collines aux Oiseaux, Caen

Both the hardcopy map and my fancy navigation software gave me the happy news that the fastest way from Granville to Paris, my next destination, would loop me right past another garden that’s an old friend of mine.


For some reason it doesn’t get the critical acclaim in France that I would expect.  The garden celebrates peace as part of its link to the War Memorial in Caen, and it was built on an old rubbish dump.  However, the only possible clue to this humble past is that it has a great deal of vertical landscaping, consisting of a few well-landscaped hills on an otherwise relatively flat plane.  The hills offered the designers an opportunity which they used to good effect.  They used these hills to create things like the theatre-in-the-round of roses, as well as curving paths that open out into breathtaking, flower covered views,.  The dahlia gardens there may not be the largest but they are substantial and I like the way that they are laid out.  While everything is compact enough for comparing the dahlias to each other, the beds are edged in other plant materials, offering the gardener a chance to steal ideas about plant texture and color combinations that work with dahlias.


I only had a short time in the garden before a fine, misty rain turned serious and wet.  Rain squalls kept me company all the way to the airport where I turned in my rental car and took the RER into Paris.

Le Jardin des Plantes, Paris

People who have heard me talk know that I usually manage to find a way to mention this historic old garden in Paris.  It’s a short walk from the hotel that I use.  I’m a magnet to its lodestone.  As always, the plantings were beautiful.  I found a new plant (to me), solanum rantonetii, being used as a standard and just loaded with blue, trumpet shaped flowers.  The picture to the right shows how well it backed a white dahlia, “Blanc”.


Since my mission for this trip was dahlias, however, I was a little disappointed to see that the number of dahlias in the parterres had been reduced to a fraction of what I saw in October of 2003.  I’ve been told that there has been a management change.  This is yet another garden that combines the dahlias in mixed beds so that you can get good ideas.  They still do, just not as many dahlias as I’ve seen in earlier years.

Parc Floral de Paris, near Vincennes

While I had other things to do in Paris, my second main objective for this trip was the dahlia exhibition at the Parc Floral de Paris, near Vincennes.  I had read about it in the late 1990s but when I had the opportunity for a late summer visit some years later, I could find no evidence that it still existed.  This summer I “met” Michel Robert on an e-mail list and asked him about it.  He told me it was still a very important exhibit.  One of the only web links that mentions this now is on his dahlia site.


I had only two days in which to visit and the first broke dark and spitting rain again.  But I didn’t dare miss the chance.  I found the Parc Floral and the extensive dahlia beds tucked into the back corner of the park.  There are so many dahlias!  Half to two thirds of them are well labeled; however, one section for this year’s competition was only numbered, so that the judges wouldn’t know who had cultivated them.  I’ve matched the list of the pictures that I took there against a list I received after I got home so there may be errors.  In some cases it was hard to tell whether a number applied to the flowers to the right or left of the number sign. 


Delbard had done a sweep of the major prizes with “330”.  All of Delbard’s contributions and some of the other competition flowers were only given numbers by their hybridizers.  The pictures are just a small sampling of flowers that caught my eye on that particular day; I make no claim to being a judge or even much of an expert.


Picture Album Parc Floral de Paris


FWIW, the next day wasn’t any better as far as weather was concerned.  I spent it doing tourist stuff and other errands, including testing the navigational package for my PDA in Paris with the same results walking as I had driving. 


Good-bye France, until the next time…


© Gaias Gift, September 2004