French Terra Cotta

I had notice from my customs broker today that the first of our two containers from France is in customs.  This is such great news.  This July 2010 photograph by Bertrand Kulik of the Eiffel Tower during a storm perfectly describes my anticipatory excitement.  French garden design, French garden pots-what is not to like?  Rob’s trip to France was in mid September of last year-some 4 months ago.  Why so long a wait for a pair of containers?  The bulk of our purchases were terra cotta pots, made to order. We bought many pots from the Poterie de la Madeleine over the past 15 years.  Rob had a long standing relationship with the owner Roland Zobel, and his assistant, Madame Pellier.  After his untimely death in 2004, the poterie de la Madeleine changed hands.   

 Rob shopped this past September in new places.  New to him, that is.  When he buys glazed French terra cotta pots, he does not buy from existing stock.  He special orders every pot to be custom made for us.  He specifies styles, sizes, and glazes that appeal to him, and contribute to a coherent collection.  It takes a lot of time for these small French poteries to fill a special order.       

Glazed French garden pots are indescribably beautiful.  There are those classic designs and classic colors dating back centuries.  There are new glazes and shapes that are enchanting. The small artisanal poteries produce very fine quality pots. They are very well schooled in the history, and small enough to take chances.  Of course we are interested in all of the above.    

These pictures from his trip to France are astonishing.  I have never seen terra cotta for the garden produced and displayed on this scale in the US.  I suspect the mild Mediterranean climates have much to do with the large space that is devoted to garden pots.  Gardening is a way of life in Europe.  This casual display is telling.  The pot yard has a dirt floor.  A garden pot has a job-it holds the soil, that enables the plants to grow-all in a beautiful way.       

Of course I want my garden pots to be beautiful-who doesn’t?  If they are steeped in history, I love that simmering stew.  Should they have beautiful proportions, sound and sturdy construction, and heft, I am interested.   Should their beauty enchant my eye and heart, the planting of that pot is as close to a perfect moment as I can imagine.     Rob dealt with every French poterie in that self effacing and attentive way that marks his relationships with all of our overseas suppliers.  This means we have a container in customs that is all about his respect for their craftsmanship, and his passion for the garden.  That intersection of fired earth, and his vision-inside that container.

He called me multiple times last September about a matte green glaze that caught his eye.  I completely trust his judgment. If he loves a matte green glaze, then I do too.  16 years of buying garden pots in France means he knows how to feel the clay.  What do I mean by this?     

I cannot explain this so well in words.  He introduces himself to the pot makers.  He looks at the thickness of the clay.  He tries on every glaze, every patine ancienne.  He considers the history.  He considers every new interpretation.  He takes the time to make thoughtful decisions.  He imagines a relationship between a pot and an agave, or a tomato, or a topiary.  He edits.  Making his thoughts come to life depends on the relationships he has nurtured for many years.  He asks if special glazes are available.  He devotes whatever it takes that might result in a garden pot of distinction. 

Garden pots made in France-why would you want one?  Why wouldn’t you? A beautiful pot makes the gardening all the more pleasurable.  The shapes and glazes please the eye.  

These are our pots, ready to load in the container.      

We try to completely fill the container top to bottom.  There is no sense in shipping air across the ocean.  It is extremely difficult to estimate what will fill a container.  That is why we have a second container due in Detroit over the weekend.

All of the poteries cooperated in delivering their pots to the poterie where we had our largest order.  This picture was taken on January 5.  Should the trip through customs go smoothly, we should have our pots in no time.    


The French Poteries

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Though my post several days ago on glazed French terra cotta was intended as an introduction to a discussion of color in the landscape, Delphine, author of that fine French landscape and garden blog Paradis Express ( published some of my photographs.  She was clearly pleased than an American landscape designer knew, placed and planted French garden pots.  The piece pictured above, featuring two pots from Les Enfant de Boisset, ran as an insert in the New York Times Sunday paper just before Mother’s Day in 2007.     

dgw c (97)I have been importing garden pots handmade at a number of French potteries since 1992-I am as crazy about them today as I was 18 years ago.  My very first purchase-a pallet of gorgeous cream colored clay pots from the Poterie Provencale in Biot. I am convinced a mutual love of beautiful objects for the garden overcame our language difficulties; I was so thrilled to get those pots.  Les Enfant de Boisset does not produce an olive green pot.  It was entirely Rob’s asking and their willingness to make a collection especially for us in this great color.    

DSC_0003Planted up, these pots make for an entire landscape in a very small space. French garden pots are made today in much the same way, and with many of the same designs that have existed for centuries. They clearly show evidence of the human hand, and speak to their long history of landscape and garden.  Some French poteries have added more modern designs, to round out their collections.  

dgw c (4)This yellow/brown glazed pot came from the Poterie De Cliousclat, a French pottery whose beginnings date back to the 16th century.  Rob once brought me a small book detailing the history of the pots; the pages of the book had absorbed the smell of the clay from the dirt floors of the pottery. Though Cliousclat is no longer, I will never forget their pots, or the smell of the poterie inseparable from that book.    

This white glazed pot is from the Poterie St. Jean de Fos, and is shown in the guarland pattern. This particular pattern features a rope garland.  

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The classic jarre from the Poterie Les Enfant de Boisset

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Classic jarre, planted

DSC00004Arrival of a shipment of pots from the Poterie Ravel

August 13 pictures 129Large Ravel pot, planted

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Ravel clay pot, painted and planted

Ravel “Violetta” pots

DSC04382Planted Violetta pots

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petit pots lisse from the Poterie Goicoechea, located in the Basque country of France

Planted pots from Goicoechea
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Jarre de Biot, from the Poterie Provencale, circa 1920

Aug 22 034 blue strie huile, from the Poterie de la Madeleine, in Anduze,  planted

dgw c (60) French huile, circa 1920
Gilbert _0002 Classic Anduze pot, Poterie de la Madeleine, in the flamme finish

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terra cotta jardiniere from Espace Buffon, Paris

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I greatly admire the French garden pots.  Though not pictured, we have bought many beautiful pots and ceramic garden pieces from the Poterie Provencale in Biot, Poterie du Mesnil de Bavant, Poterie Sampigny, salt glazed pots from Noron, gorgeous pots by Claudine Essautier at Raison de Plus, Jane Norbury-our list is long.  I am sure there are others I do not know-yet.  I hope each and every one of them goes on making beautiful things for the garden, for all the gardeners everywhere who so appreciate them.

French Glazed Terra Cotta

DSC00017I reluctantly agreed to play ball with those dogs of mine yesterday-in spite of the 9 degree temperature.  We were not outside for long, but long enough for me to see the color of my yews had gone so dark they almost looked black.  This cold color could not be further from how those yews look dressed in their spring green foliage.  This set me to thinking about color as a design element.  The glazed terra cotta pots manufactured in France for hundreds of years make a big color statement.  Their strong color has a very Mediterranean feeling to me; the color seems very much a product of the climate in which they are made. When I see a pink stucco house, I immediately think warm climate; no doubt I react to color with an entire set of pre-conceived notions hovering nearby.   

DSC00019Though green is the dominant color of any landscape, this shiny green glaze is a color experience of a different kind.  These pots have a much more formal appearance than a natural clay pot-whose natural and from the earth color is vastly more subdued than this.  As glazed pots do not absorb water from the outside, the finish and color is as fresh in their tenth year as their first, provided none of the glaze has chipped. The vibrant color of these pots will strongly figure in how I would place and plant them. 

DSC08189The color of these pots will always be a significant part of the planting composition.  Unlike natural clay pots whose importance in the composition may be secondary or slight, the color of these pots attracts visual attention, and sets off the planting in a formal way.  A green and white color scheme seems restrained and serene.  Do these pots look out of their Mediterranean element?  I think not.  This leads me to think that before deciding a color won’t work, I should try it.

DGW 2006_07_26 (9)This color scheme branches out a bit into the pinks and greys.  The pot is elevated on a concrete base, so the foot of the pot still reads even though the ground planting has grown in.  The shiny green mass of the pot is a beautiful foil for the tiny naturally green leaves of the boxwood. Monochromatic, or one color schemes are quietly formal and restful in their simplicity.     

DSC08393This pot is 12 years old.  Mineral deposits from the water had dulled the shine of the glaze.  It is remarkable how close the color is to the color of the existing evergreens and grass. This composition is more about texture, and mass, than color.

Karmanos (62)Yellow glazed French pots are perfect for places where any thing but neutral seems like a good idea. Shady gardens, or nondescript locations asking for a strong center of interest can get that from a splash of unexpected color.   

Sherbin0001This pot is full of surprises; the yellow of the pot is just the beginning.  A threadleaf Japanese maple makes an unusual centerpiece for the surrounding white begonias and lime licorice.  The brick front porch, tough completely shaded by a second story balcony, has a fresh and striking appearance.  Though delicate in color, these French pots are incredibly strong and durable.  The clay of the large pots can be 3/8 of an inch thick or better, and they are high fired for extended periods of time.

DSC09623Some potteries have added more contemporary designs to their collections.  This pot, known as a strie, refers to the striations formed from the pattern generated by the fingers of the potter; each pot is unique to the fingertips of the person who made it.  The color of the pot helps to make it central to the entire composition of the garden.  Simple color relationships read more clearly and strongly than mixed color compositions. Strong color relationships paired with more subtle color relationships is what creates rhythm in a composition.   

DSC00886Blue glazed pots in the landscape can be tough to place.  Though bluestone, acid washed steel, lead, water and sky all represent blue in one form or another, planting blue pots requires some thought. That glazed blue will be very influential in the look of the whole. Yellow flowers in a blue pot can look like a band uniform, or worse. Some shades of purple are deadly dull and irritating with this shade of blue; lavender and silver can be great.   

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A greenish yellow and white, on the other hand, can be lovely in a blue pot.  The important thing to remember with color is that no color is an island unto itself.  Putting colors together that create interesting visual relationships-that’s part of what makes for good design.