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These French Gardens Are Fit For A Fairytale

by Rick Anderson

Nine years ago, AD100 interior architect Pierre Yovanovitch and his partner, Matthieu Cussac, fell hard for a run-down 17th-century château in the middle of nowhere, on the northern edge of the Var region in Provence, not far from the famous Gorges du Verdon. “We bought a ruin with no path, no garden, nothing,” recalls Yovanovitch. “It was very romantic, full of pine trees and shadow—a fairy tale, but very dark, I must say.”

Boxwood spheres add structure to looser plantings; the small building is a chapel.

Fixing up the house and the outlying buildings proved relatively easy. “It’s what we know how to do,” says Cussac. But shaping the vast grounds presented thornier problems. For all his confidence with brick and mortar, Yovanovitch is the first to admit he didn’t know a Platanus orientalis froma Platanus hispanica.

Moreover, the region and the altitude give the property a Goldilocks problem—sometimes too cold, sometimes too hot. “We are the only crazy guys in this area with a garden,” Yovanovitch says. “It can be minus-15 centigrade [5°F] at night and 18 [64°F] during the day. It’s hard, it’s dry, it’s windy.”

The living room overlooks a boxwood parterre; the ornamental pool is original to the house.

Eventually they turned to Louis Benech. Having hung out his shingle in 1985, Benech has become a venerable master of French landscape gardening. He also knows the region well—his family has property a little farther south. “I’ve always been keen on Mediterranean plants,” says Benech, who can discourse at length on the difference between the European plane tree—Platanus orientalis—and the Spanish-American hybridized Platanus hispanica.

Lavender blooms at Pierre Yovanovitch and Matthieu Cussac’s Château in Provence, where Louis Benech designed the landscape.

To bring a sense of symmetry to the asymmetrical house with its off-center entryway, Benech tricks the eye with irregular triangles of box hedge on the main terrace. Everything appears perfectly aligned but, in fact, isn’t. “The way he designed it is very, very clever!” says Yovanovitch admiringly.

Off to the left is the swimming pool, framed by two linden trees. To the right is an unfinished labyrinth of alternating yellow and green box hedge, awaiting stainless-steel mirrors to flummox the unwary. Benech created it somewhat under duress. “I hate labyrinths. They belong to the history of gardens; intellectually, they make no sense today the way they did in the Renaissance. I accepted because Pierre said, ‘Louis, I’d love a labyrinth.’ ”

Kim, one of the couple’s Maremma sheepdogs, takes a rest; a sculpture by the artist not vital stands near the swimming pool.

Beyond lies a great cleared field, looking the way God must have made it, except here He had some unseen help. Benech has subtly framed the field on the left and partly on the right with a low wall here, some weeping mulberry trees there.

After seven years (and counting), Yovanovitch and Cussac have begun to adapt to the slow, uneven rhythm of working with living things. “When you do interiors, in one year it looks like what you’ve imagined,” says Yovanovitch. “A garden isn’t like that. Louis told me we were going to plant very small cedars. I said, ‘No, we’ll never see these trees in my lifetime.’ But Louis taught me that small trees will get bigger than the biggest big trees. Now, six years later, the cedar is huge! You need lots of humility and patience.”

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