Now that spring sunshine is here, reveals what she is doing in her garden situated close to the Côte d’Azur
TMy French garden: My favourite thing about our garden at this time of year is the wild Cistus
he spring garden at Lou Messugo is, as with most spring gardens, one of the prettiest times of the year, with new growth and flowers exploding back to life. My garden is located just a few kilometres inland from the famous Côte d’Azur in the Alpes-Maritimes department of south-east France. We benefit from a fabulous Mediterranean climate of around 300 days of sunshine a year, though being close to the mountains and just a little higher up (300m altitude), we get more rain and cooler winter temperatures than the coast itself.
Spring comes early to the south of France, with the first signs of colour brightening up gardens as early as January in the form of mimosa which continues through to mid- to late-March, by which time plenty of other flowers have started to bloom. By April, the yellows are beginning to give way to pinks in the form of Cistus, Valerian, Osteospermum and jasmine and purple/blue with the first lavender and Ceanothus ( pictured top left).
My absolute favourite thing about our garden at this time of year is the wild Cistus (pictured centre). Every spring there are more and more plants which makes me very happy. We built our house on a plot of forest land where a type of Cistus, common in the garrigue vegetation of the Mediterranean, grew wild. Obviously we had to clear the land (though we kept as many of the majestic pines as we could) and in doing so lost pretty much all the Cistus, but over the years it has come back naturally. This particular Cistus is called ‘ messuge’ in French; ‘ messugo’ in Provençal, hence the name of our house (and gîte). Its leaves are velvety rather like the texture of sage and the flowers are a beautiful deep pink with yellow centre. This year there are large clumps of messugo at the back, along the side and in front of the house, all wild-seeded.
We don’t use any chemicals in the garden which I’m quite sure encourages the proliferation of insects and wildlife here despite being reasonably urban. We are home to birds, butterflies, spiders, lizards, ghekos, red squirrels, toads, wild boar and even deer. Despite the worldwide threat to bees we have plenty of them too: honey bees, bumble bees and large black carpenter bees, and in the spring they are busy buzzing around the flowers.
Having created our garden from scratch and purely by ourselves as amateurs, we have tried to stick to native species and plants that do not need too much water. I’m half Australian so we’ve also incorporated some Aussie natives such as eucalyptus and Bottlebrush ( Callistemon) which thrive here. The garden is rocky in parts which suits the many succulents we’ve planted and some of them flower in spring. I don’t even know their names, but they’re happy and spreading each year.
One of the regulations for cutting down trees to build the house was that we replant as many as we felled. We took the opportunity to plant fruit trees and typical southern species such as olive and mimosa. As I mentioned already the mimosa is gorgeous in late winter and very early spring, and another early flowerer is our almond tree which blossoms in late March ( pictured top right). So far it doesn’t produce many nuts but the flowers are pretty!
Living on the edge of Provence, with a gîte hosting guests from all over the world, we felt we had to have lavender in the garden so we planted a south-facing bank with a hundred or so plants. They bloom in June-July but we also have a couple of other different types which flower earlier, in April. In spring we weed the lavender bank and find we’ve usually lost a few plants which need to be dug out and replaced. This is one of the main jobs necessary in the garden at this time of year. So many of our other plants are self-seeded that we don’t have too much maintenance to do, which is exactly how we like it!
We like a fairly natural look, not manicured – that’s not our style. However, the voracious weeds love our wonderful climate and need a good deal of man hours to keep them under control as we don’t use chemical killers, so that keeps us pretty occupied throughout the spring.
Phoebe Thomas and her husband Jean-François moved to Roquefort-les-Pins in 2007 where they now run a gîte.