My London garden is designed to thrive without watering. But a year of drought followed by record rainfall had me wondering what lessons I might learn from gardens in more extreme conditions.
You might think August is not the best month to tour dry gardens in the South of France. But I happen to consider the bleached-out colour and texture of stalks and seed heads very beautiful, contrasting dramatically with the persistent deep green backdrop of scrubby buis (Buxus sempervirens), myrtle, strawberry trees, and evergreen oaks of the native landscape. Thin veils of colourful flowers flush within a sea of summer-dormant plants.
I’m sitting in a Languedoc garden with its creator Catriona McLean, who exclaims, “There’s a right and a wrong way to plant in the dry garden.” She’s learned the tough way, by trial and error, as local conditions are a world apart from her rainy Scottish gardening roots in the Nith Valley, Dumfriesshire. Jardin des Rossignols (rossignol = nightingale in French) was purchased as a terrain de loisirs, or recreational plot, by Catriona and her husband Charles after they moved from Scotland to Montpellier. A short drive out of town down a rough track, she describes the former vineyard in the Hérault Valley as a “squinted
rectangle,” bordered by the Gignac Canal, a grove of olives, and wild scrubland.
Originally, the land contained little more than fruit trees, dessert grapes, a small enclosure of pines sheltering a cabane (shed), and an old caravan. Their first winter, the McLeans persuaded a local farmer to till the land, clearing years of wild grass and deep-rooted weeds. The process uncovered thousands of small scilla and wild orchid bulbs that popped up the following spring.
“There is no substitute for a real-time walk around the garden”
Beginning in 2010, Catriona planted a combination of wild species and cultivated varieties in long borders defined by woven canes of canne de provence (Arundo donax), a robust grass that grows wild along the banks of the canal. Lateral paths, an easy wheelbarrow width, provide access to plants. Water rights to the adjacent canal and a sheltered location surrounded by firs proved ideal for propagating plants.
Catriona enthuses about the camaraderie of local plantspeople who experiment with planting, compare notes, and share advice. In particular, she acknowledges help and support from local nurseries and the Mediterranean Garden Society’s very active programme of visits and talks on planting and design.
Practices at Jardin des Rossignols represent a triangulation of expertise between three Languedoc gardeners: Catriona, Benoît Moulin, and Olivier Filippi. All are passionate about mediterranean gardening, yet each employ subtle differences in their approach to climate, soil conditions, biodiversity, conservation, sustainability, and aesthetics. It was clear that one garden visit didn’t paint the full picture. Catriona made a phone call, and a time to visit Benoît was agreed upon for the following day.
Benoît Moulin’s south-facing dry garden is adjacent to the house where he lives with his fiancée in the hills above Montpellier. Newly established plantings and stepping-stone paths form an interface between a manicured California-style blue swimming pool and natural woodland where sangliers (wild boars) roam. After graduating with a degree in landscape architecture at Angers, Benoît felt the need for practical, hands-on experience. He spent a year each with Christophe Valayé at Gages in Aveyron; Pépinières Lepage at Ponts de Cé in Main-et-Loire, and finally at the nursery of Olivier Filippi at Mèze, Hérault.
As Catriona and I weave our way through plantings in Benoit’s wake, he points out that being inland and at a higher altitude causes his garden to be colder in winter and hotter in summer by 2°C to 5°C compared to Olivier’s garden and nursery. Catriona faces similar extremes. Our visit concludes with Benoît generously offering a day of hands-on assistance in Catriona’s garden.
Olivier and Clara Filippi’s garden is located at their home and nursery on the edge of the Bassin de Thau, close to Mèze. Here they trial various planting styles, plant associations and densities, soil preparation, and hardscape techniques. The garden is organized into three distinct zones: dry climate alternatives to gazon, or lawn, the subject of Olivier’s latest book; the steppe fleurie, an expansive floral prairie-style planting; and his latest project, a terrace végétale, or planted terrace. As Olivier points out, this is a very different approach than if they were designing a garden for a client.
An International Link
Olivier Filippi’s gardens, nursery, and books contain species native to California that thrive in the challenging dry gardens of southern France. And in October at a plant fair hosted by the Domaine du Rayol in the Var, designed by Gilles Clément, the Mediterranean Garden Society (MGS) booth displayed photographs of beautiful gardens in Carmel, California—lasting images of the 2008 Annual Meeting hosted by the Northern California MGS branch and Pacific Horticulture magazine.
The Mediterranean Garden Society provides a wonderful and inspiring international exchange of plants and know-how. “Once you join the MGS, you can be a member of as many branches as you like and are free to opt-in to MGS newsletters and activities around the world—it’s BIG!” enthused Christine Savage, head of the Languedoc MGS branch whose programme of events looks both globally and locally for inspiration.
At an event co-hosted by the Languedoc MGS and Hortus, Australian botanist and writer Trevor Nottle encouraged members to think broadly, adapt to climate change, look to other areas of the world, and integrate species from Australia and South Africa in their gardens. Nottle was truly inspirational but at the same time Christine warned, “Lots of native antipodean plants would not cope with the cold of southern France; it’s essential to keep local conditions in mind and observe the behaviour of plants in the wild.” To facilitate this perspective, the Languedoc programme now includes botanical walks to observe successful plant combinations closer to home.
All of which brings us back to the collaboration and exchange between Olivier Filippi, Benoît Moulin, and Catriona McLean. My summer visit inspired me to read the Languedoc MGS website and Olivier’s books. Which in turn got me thinking about how I might adapt principles I learned in southern France to new garden design projects in London.
• Think multi-sensory; the scents and sounds of brushing past or walking on aromatic plants makes up for the lack of colour
• Observe and simulate nature; incrementally clipping back plants to different heights from spring through autumn emulates the nibbling of wild goats and encourages new growth.
• Propagate plants; it is economical, conserves local species, and helps the gardener fully appreciate how plants grow and how best to use them in the landscape.
• Be imaginative; think freely about combining native species and cultivated varieties provided you understand the competitiveness of the planting mix and get the proportions right.
• Learn from outside the garden; Olivier Filippi suppresses weeds with groundcovers, a practice common in local vineyards, and chooses his roses based on perfumiers’ favourites.
An Occasional Diary of a Garden in Languedoc
Prompted by the Mediterranean Garden Society, Catriona, along with Duncan Munford, a fellow member of the Languedoc branch, proposed a series of visits to Olivier and Clara’s garden over the course of a year to study both individual plants and larger planting combination schemes. The project began in August 2011, “…when many plants are dormant, inspiration in short supply, and some of us look at our own mediterranean gardens with a feeling of slight despondency!”
At Olivier’s suggestion, they structured each visit around a theme pertinent to the season: planting for structure and texture; breaking dormancy dynamically after the cold snap; colour and vitality; and last but not least, le Passage au Gris, or “fade to grey.” This approach, similar to structuring chapters in a book, is the key to the success of “A Garden in Languedoc” where they have posted their observations and findings on the Languedoc MGS website.