French Mediterranean gardens: a garden tour across southern France – Part 1

MyFrenchLife™ - Mediterranean gardensI 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.

MyFrenchLife™ - Mediterranean gardens

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.

MyFrenchLife™ - Mediterranean gardens

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.

MyFrenchLife™ - Mediterranean gardens - Les Confines

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
Image credits:
1-3 © Ronnie Hess.
4. Les Confines, via Les Confines website.

About the Contributor

Ronnie Hess

“I’ve had a long and passionate interest in France and especially French food. An American now based in Madison, WI, I’ve lived and worked in Paris as a reporter for CBS News and in Burgundy as a teacher. I’m the author of Eat Smart in France and Eat Smart in Portugal, both culinary travel guides. See my web page for further information.”

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  1. Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Oct 14, 2015 at 5:59 PM - Reply

    What a surprise and a delight to read about Mediterranean Gardens and specially the nursery ‘Pépinières Filippi’, in Mèze by the beautiful Thau Lagoon, where I buy my own plants ! I’d like to recommend an other garden , that is worth visiting ‘Le Jardin Antique Méditerranéen’ , a few miles away from Les Pépinières Filiipi, in Balaruc Les Bains ( and

    • Ronnie Hess Oct 15, 2015 at 2:19 AM - Reply

      Dear Jacqueline,
      Thanks for the suggestion. I don’t know the place but will put it on my to-visit list. Happy gardening.

  2. Kerrin Denue Oct 17, 2015 at 7:20 AM - Reply

    These photos are stunning! What an amazing journey you are having. Thanks so much for sharing. I had some strawberries out in the garden until the heat wave hit…c’est la vie

    • Ronnie Hess Oct 17, 2015 at 7:28 AM - Reply

      Thanks, Kerrin. I hope you’ll like the next installment!

      • Kerrin Denue Oct 23, 2015 at 11:29 AM - Reply

        I am very much looking forward to it! It will add a little life and color to my winter 🙂

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