Proven­cal com­fort zone

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Leisure - HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

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 twit­­lyk­er­forsyth. 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

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