Now that spring sun­shine is here, re­veals what she is do­ing in her gar­den si­t­u­ated close to the Côte d’Azur

Phoebe Thomas

Living France - - À LA MAISON -

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.

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