Provencal comfort zone
WHILE garden making is an art — some would attest the most difficult of all the arts — the gardens that inspire us and soothe us most may be those that rest comfortably in their location, true to the climate and conditions in which they are created.
High in the hills behind the Provencal city of Nice, near the famous perfume town of Grasse, lies just such a garden, one perfectly in tune with its setting. This garden is written in the language of the heat and the light of the region, and painted in greys and blues, lavenders and pinks, ochres and russets.
The severe climate in which the garden exists, with freezing winters and searingly hot summers, and the rocky limestone soil of the area dictate the restricted palette of plant species: rosemary, thymes, lavender, box, santolina, laurels and conifers.
Plants that you might see growing wild on the dry hillsides also find a comfortable place in this garden.
A long, winding driveway of red earth, edged in clipped globes of teucrium and box, shepherds visitors into the garden. Soaring cypress leave them in no doubt that they is close to the Mediterranean, and spires of Echium pininana, reaching more than 3m, add height to the garden; native to the Canary Islands, this species bears tapers of lavender-blue flowers in summer, after which the plant dies.
Severely clipped evergreens, in many shades of green and in silvers and greys, ensure a restful background and a foil for walls and steps built in weathered local stone.
They also provide essential structure throughout the garden: strong bones that become even more evident in the winter months when much of the garden is laid bare.
The steep slopes of the region are farmed in terraces — restanques — the traditional method of land management practised over many centuries, and are home to vineyards and ancient plantings of olives. Reflecting this heritage, the garden is terraced on several levels to create walkways, allees and axial points, vistas and small, intimate enclosures.
A wide stone terrace feeds out from the house and leads to an arbour of the frothy pink rose ‘Madame Caroline Testout’, underplanted with lavender. Hedges are overlaid with luxuriant planting, a perfect foil for the clouds of roses, wisterias and heavily scented jasmine that adorn the garden throughout spring and summer.
At the very top of the garden an expansive terrace affords stunning views across the Provencal countryside, towards the sea. Wisteria covers a sturdy arbour, providing a scented canopy in April and May.
Throughout the garden decorative paths are set with smooth stones; in the way of garden cultures throughout the world, from the Middle East, China and Japan to France and Italy, these add texture throughout the garden and serve to slow the visitor’s pace to enhance enjoyment of the garden. Brick and stone walls are softened by creeping fig ( Ficus pumila), kept clipped close so that it does not develop mature leaves and thick stems that would intrude into point work and damage the walls. Rosemary ‘Blue Lagoon’ cascades over other walls. Windows in a dense conifer hedge provide enticing glimpses over the garden.
While it becomes very hot in the south of France, summer is the time to see swaths of lavender. This is the region where Lawrence Johnston, who created Hidcote garden in England’s Cotswold region, found a seedling that he cultivated as Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’. He gave this upright cultivar, with its deep violet flowers, to the world.
The coastal Riviera and hinterland Provence are, as Lawrence Durrell wrote, ‘‘among the enchanted landscapes of the human heart’’. Although the region quickly became cosmopolitan after it was discovered, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by American and British politicians, industrialists, actors and writers, it retains its own vernacular in both architecture and garden design. And its charm. LAWRENCE Johnston’s French garden, Serre de la Madonne, located on the coast at Menton, near the French-Italian border, is open to visitors. It became a repository for the botanical treasures Johnston collected from all across the world: more than 30 years of plant hunting.
If in the area, visit also Renoir’s home, studio and expansive garden and the Maeght museum. Follow daily garden tips and tricks on twitter.com/hollykerforsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Seasons in My House and Garden, is out now.
The terrace of a French garden perfectly in tune with its setting