French Mediterranean gardens: a garden tour across southern France – Part 1
I know nothing about gardening. But I certainly love French gardens, like the magnificent 17th century ones at Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, designed by the king of landscape architects, André Le Nôtre. And who can forget Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, featured in some of his most famous paintings?
But when I recently took a tour of Mediterranean gardens in Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon, I realized there is a whole world of French gardens I had heretofore missed.
What are Mediterranean gardens?
My tour was sponsored by the Mediterranean Garden Society (MGS). This international group, founded in Greece in 1944, is devoted to promoting knowledge and appreciation of plants and gardens suited to a Mediterranean or mediterranean climate.
Firstly, allow me to explain the difference in spelling. A capital ‘M’ denotes countries surrounding the Mediterranean Basin. That sounds pretty obvious. But a lower case ‘m’ includes other climactically similar regions of the world, such as parts of Australia (where there is a sizeable MGS membership), South Africa, Argentina and California.
Mediterranean gardens are characterized by plants that are, more or less, drought resistant. There is an emphasis, not on lawns and associated watering, but as the MGS website puts it, “a more complex collection of hard surfaces of local natural and man-made materials, shaded areas, water features and plants flowering in turn for all twelve months of the year.”
Let’s take a tour: Pépinière Filippi
Although several gardens are open to the public, in a few cases we were fortunate to have been given rare access.
The first stop on the tour, and open to the public, was Pépinière Filippi in Mèze, a few miles west of Montpellier. The owner, Olivier Filippi, is a highly respected gardener whose terrain serves as both a research garden and nursery.
Filippi does not believe in coddling his specimens. His idea is to underscore biodiversity, and to propagate indigenous plants that have evolved to handle the poor soil, harsh summers and intermittent rainfall of the region. Le résultat is a beautiful jardin sec, or dry garden. No fertilizers or chemicals are used.
In his ‘Dry Gardening Handbook’, Filippi writes: “dry climates offer extraordinary gardening possibilities. We feel instinctively that water brings luxuriance and variety, and that dryness restricts our gardening possibilities. Yet exactly the opposite is true.”1
Next stop: Les Confines
The next treat was Les Confines, between Avignon and Saint-Rémy. Designed by Dominique Lafourcade, the grounds consist of a very formal series of ‘garden rooms’, each with a particular theme. For example, the Portuguese garden features fragrant lemon trees, while the African garden highlights waving grasses. The Evening garden arranges box and cypress next to the house, a spot that favors the setting sun.
This is not a modest garden, nor one that remotely suggests the harshness of the rocky hills of the garrigue. Rather, this ‘green garden’ gives a feeling of majesty, luxury and tranquility, along with an energetic kind of quirkiness. Les Confines is open to group tours.
In my next report, I’ll discuss some of the gardens around Bonnieux and Ménherbes, including two created by garden designer Nicole de Vésian.
In the meantime, I suggest you consider taking a look at Louisa Jones’ authoritative ‘Mediterranean Gardens: A Model for Good Living’ (Bloomings Books, 2013).
Do you garden? What’s your favorite French garden? We’d love to know! Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
1 Olivier Filippi, The Dry Gardening Handbook, trans. Caroline Harbouri (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008), quoted in “Drought: Introduction”, Mediterranean Garden Society, http://www.mediterraneangardensociety.org/drought.html. Image credits:
1-3 © Ronnie Hess.
4. Les Confines, via Les Confines website.