After killing off countless plants and pulling out tender shoots instead of weeds, I have to admit that I am not the world’s most gifted gardener. In fact, I probably have black thumbs instead of green fingers. But that does not stop me from admiring other people’s gardens and over the Easter weekend we had the good fortune to discover a most amazing Secret Garden. It is tucked away in a small village called Vaulx, not far from Annecy in Haute Savoie.
The garden is not only a profusion of colour, scents, sounds and shapes, but also a labour of love. And like all the best gardens, it also has a story behind it: the story of an affectionate, hard-working and profoundly creative family. Alain and Nicole Moumen were trained in psychology and education, but in 1980 they opted for a simpler life in the countryside. They bought a dilapidated farmhouse on a large piece of land, moved in there with their three daughters (then aged 11, 12 and 14) and started their own furniture-making and painting business.
They didn’t know anything about gardening, so they taught themselves over the years. Some knowledge was gleaned out of books, some through experimentation. Every member of the family (even the grandchildren nowadays) contributed to some aspect of the garden, which was only intended for personal enjoyment. Their originality shows in every corner of the gardens: this is a treasure chest of carpentry, metalwork, sculpture, mosaic, as well as planting. Alain even created his own material, a sort of clay which can be easily moulded into any shape and which he has used extensively for the fountains and walls. Meanwhile, Nicole is great at recycling, giving new life to reclaimed objects.
It’s a garden that would make traditional/professional gardeners groan, as it breaks all the rules, but it is a fantastic, quirky place full of secret nooks and crannies, that takes forever to explore and is a delight for children of all ages.
In 1994 Alain was persuaded by his furniture-buying clients to open the gardens to the public, but he has continued adding to the gardens every year. And the family is still very much involved in the whole process, with only two additional gardeners to help them. In the summer months, there are concerts and refreshments in the main courtyard, and Alain is often to be found preparing doughnuts for visitors. [My kids pronounced them to be absolutely delicious, incidentally!]
Nicole wrote a book about their experience, entitled “Secret Gardens, Life Secrets” and she says: ‘We thought we were making a garden, but in fact the garden made us.’ We were captivated by the charm and variety of the gardens, but even more so by the courage, originality and good humour of this family. I will definitely be back!