I was very fortunate to visit La Louve in early June this year when taking a Ross Tour to Paris and Provence. How lucky we were with a glorious sunny day and just our group to be guided around this fascinating garden by the owner, Judith Pillsbury. La Louve meaning ‘she wolf’ was created by Nicole de Vesian, a fabric designer, stylist for Hermes and later in life a remarkable plantswoman. The garden clings to a rocky steeply terraced narrow plot on the southern edge of Bonnieux – one of the ‘chain’ of villages in the Luberon. Menerbes made famous by Peter Mayle of ‘A year in Provence’ fame is not far away.
In 1986 de Vesian moved to this property situated on the more favoured south facing side of the village – she joined together a village house and farm buildings already there to create a delightful home that opens out on to the kitchen terrace. Over the next decade, she completely transformed the inhospitable site into a series of terraces and garden ‘rooms’ with enticing views of the ‘borrowed landscape’ countryside and secret nooks and crannies. The end result would change forever the image of what a garden in Provence would be.
Judith Pillsbury, an art dealer from Paris and with a passion for gardens took over the mantle of caring for La Louve when de Vesian decided to move to a smaller property. It was a tremendous challenge – to preserve the uniqueness of the garden and maintain de Vesian’s legacy but to also initiate changes that fitted in with the La Louve ‘look.’ De Vesian left no records, so it was a challenge but what has evolved over the years is an absolutely enchanting garden.
The plants are quintessentially Provencale in style: Cupressus sempervirens, Cistus, Elaeagnus, Cratageus, Osmanthus, Philadelphus, Pittosporum (the variety tobira was smelling so sweetly everywhere we went in Provence), rosemary and lavender (of course!), Teucrium (what a wonderful colour contrast), Euphorbia growing out of the rock crevices, and Hypericum.
Add clipped Buxus and Santolina, Cercis, Taxus, Viburnum, Perovskia, Plumbago, Sambucus, Erigeron, salvias, olives, Phlomis (looking stunning), valerian (a truly wonderful ‘weed’ providing splashes of cerise colour), Yucca, Miscanthus, Acanthus mollis, Verbena bonarensis (a bit of a weed here), iris, clipped bay trees, thyme, loquat trees! and splashes of colour from Geranium incanum – and many many more.
The one thing that is of prime importance in La Louve is that all the plants have to be tough and survivors. The climate is reasonable but winters can be extremely cold, affecting some of the less hardy plants, and the summers can be baking hot.
The kitchen terrace, Belvedere and cistern terrace feature many meticulously sculpted plants – not a lot of colour but the overall effect is serene and calming. Everything fits in perfectly – created with style. An old stone basin with a watering can in it looked as though it had been there for centuries! The original cistern has been made into a plunge pool with an ancient ‘common’ quince shading it from the hot summer sun. This terrace is just a few narrow steps down from the kitchen terrace. The pathways are either pebbles or paving and not a skerrick of grass – far too water hungry and it would look totally out of place. The agricultural terrace on the lowest level is the largest space and has a pattern of neatly rowed lavender bushes – some are allowed to bloom whilst others are clipped! Ornamental grape vines and Plumbago cling to this terrace rear stone wall. Stones and benches designed by de Vesian from rough wood planks offer places to sit and admire the different vistas in peace and seclusion.
From a very rudimentary gardener’s perspective, I learnt one really important thing at La Louve. I water my garden too much – my plants have got to ‘toughen up’ or be replaced with those that are less dependent on a very precious commodity.
La Louve is a gem of a place – it’s small but the way it has been so cleverly designed and landscaped it appears much larger. Classified as a ‘Jardins remarquable’, it truly is remarkable. It was one of those gardens where everyone decides to offer to buy it and live in heaven thereafter. Sadly the cost would be well beyond our reach!