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October 2010 – A Garden Planting Day in Saint-Siffret

This practical ‘hands on’ event was the second stage of our project, following the hugely enjoyable Garden Design Workshop led by Hilary Ivey in February 2010 at Jocelyn van Riemsdijk’s new home.

This time, thirteen enthusiastic members descended on Jocelyn’s garden armed with spades and trowels ready to implement the final design drawn up by Hilary. The area to be planted comprised a large south-facing semi-circular bank which falls away from a paved terrace to the rear of the house. The ground had already been well prepared and planting conditions, after some earlier rain, were perfect. A large Quercus ilex provides shade to much of the area.

Members organised themselves into teams (some rather competitive!), were provided with copies of the planting plan and began the task of setting out, then digging in, a superb range of over thirty different plants including varieties of artemisia, ballota, cistus, geraniums, helichrysum, lavenders, rosemary, irises, salvias, sisyrinchium and santolina – all very suitable for a water-wise garden and taking into account Jocelyn’s preference for aromatic and grey-leaved plants.

A typically generous lunch followed the hard work with almost everyone having discovered a new variety or planting combination to try in their own gardens. Above all, our host was delighted with the finished result.

Our reward!

Text: Duncan Munford
Photographs: Christine Savage

February 2010 – A Garden Design Workshop in Saint-Siffret

Eighteen members gathered at Jocelyn van Riemsdijk’s new home for the first meeting of 2010. Our objective was to learn how to measure and draw up the layout of her plot of land, then to produce a plan which would act as a basis for a garden design.

Hilary Ivey, a member who is a qualified garden designer, talked us through the process and went through a check list of things to consider.

Jocelyn explained that the house had been built on what was an old forest and that she would like to retain the feel of the oak wood and garrigue with a natural garden, low in water usage and maintenance.

Hilary provided each of us with a large plan showing an outline of the house and perimeter fencing. As the sun appeared, out we went with tape measures and drawing pads, ‘triangulating’ the trees, and imagining steps, paths and planting. By the end of the afternoon we had come up with suggestions that were, we hoped, respectful of Jocelyn’s wishes and from which she will be able to select ideas for the layout of her garden and some of the plants that she might put in it.

Thank you, Hilary, for guiding us through a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable exercise, no mean feat in one short February day. We hope, in the autumn, to meet again for another ‘hands on’ day helping Jocelyn to plant.

Text: Katharine Fedden

September 2011
Visits to gardens in Eygalières and Noves with Marc Nucera, author of ‘A l’écoute des arbres’

On a hot day in early September we were privileged to spend a day in the company of Marc Nucera, renowned tree sculptor. With Marc as our guide, forty-five of us visited the private gardens of Mas Benoît and Mas de Michel, both close to Eygalières, in the foothills of the Alpilles, and his own experimental garden “Le Terrain” in nearby Noves.

Marc started his career as the student and disciple of the professor, sculptor and then garden designer and Land Art practitioner, Alain-David Idoux.  Although Idoux died tragically young, he left behind a legacy of ground-breaking design, including that of the beautiful Mas Benoît.

The Alpilles in the distance
The approach path lined with grasses and cypresses

The garden surrounding this traditional Provençal farmhouse or mas lies on a low hill with the magnificent backdrop of the Alpilles in the distance. Lines of sight to the horizon are emphasised by the approach path of grasses and clipped cypresses in the foreground.

We admired Idoux’s spiral of field stones and almond trees in the meadow and the clipped cistuses, santolinas and rosemary planted under olive trees pruned by Marc.

Idoux’s spiral of field stones and almond trees
The triangular field of lavender

The triangular field of lavender was breathtaking and the enchanting copse of Quercus ilex, delicately shaped by Marc, with its stone bench, created a defined space of calm and reflection.

Working with Idoux, Marc learned to adapt and formulate his own style, encouraged also by local garden designers and friends, including Dominique Lafourcade and the legendary Nicole de Vésian.

A copse of Quercus ilex

And so to Mas de Michel, where we saw Marc’s guiding principles in action: adaption to environmental constraints, respect for the subject and harmony of the ensemble. Armed only with a chainsaw (a paradoxical tool for such a calm, natural and Zen man), Marc set out to sculpt the trees – both living and dead – to effect the minimum intervention consistent with bringing out the best in the innate structure of the tree in front of him.

He adopted some simple strategies to open up the land around the mas to create a natural flow of space.

The entrance and driveway to the house were moved from the side of the house to the back and olive trees were re-sited into the middle distance to throw the eye towards the horizon, whilst at the same time becoming part of it. A border of pebbles was added around a terrace so that it became proportionate to and balanced the façade of the house behind: a simple and elegant device.

Gravel or stone platforms around the base of certain tree trunks subtly highlighted the carefully considered and tactical pruning. Other astonishing pruning of a box hedge produced breath-taking results.

A pruned box hedge

Marc’s work encourages the visitor to look at the garden in new ways, literally. We enjoyed descending into a viewing pit sunk into the wild flower meadow to sit on seats at the same height as the adjoining soil surface, the better to appreciate being amongst the grasses and flowers.

Then we climbed up on to a simple viewing platform to look down on the old almond orchard, only to find our eyes being drawn towards the previously hidden view of the magnificent Mont Ventoux in the distance.

The sunken viewing pit
The viewing platform

After a shared picnic lunch in Marc’s own experimental garden “Le Terrain” in nearby Noves, we marvelled at his sculptured hommages to Hans Arp, Constantin Brancusi and Louise Bourgeois and he explained to us what he was seeking to achieve with his work.

He “intervenes” with his trees to enhance them and to highlight their best features to enable them to be read more clearly within the landscape in which they are set.

Marc explaining his philosophy

Marc talked of his veneration and respect for all trees – not just living trees but those that are in the process of dying, or which are now dead. He has spent many years saving some of the centuries-old trees “les patriarches et les remarquables” of Provence.

But when these ancient trees have finally died, he has kept their hearts, literally. Taking wood from their core, he sculpts huge cubes, often into benches and chairs so you can sit within the very soul of a tree that took hundreds of years to grow.

To transform a dead tree into a work of art is a way of continuing its cycle. In giving it a new form, there is rebirth. Examples of Marc’s extraordinary and thought-provoking work in his own garden and at Mas Benoît, Mas de Michel, La Verrière, La Louve and other gardens in our area can be admired in his book “A l’écoute des arbres” with a foreword by Louisa Jones (published by Actes Sud). Tou can borrow this book from the MGF library.

It is not often that a garden visit enables us to contemplate our own mortality so vividly: this was a special day when we did so and it will not be forgotten by those who were there.

Text: Sara Robinson
Photographs: Sara Robinson, Christine Savage and Jolene Telles

September 2009 – A day visiting gardens in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon

The imposing entrance to the Fort Saint-André

Our autumn 2009 programme began with a full day of activities at Villeneuve-lez-Avignon. The first visit of the day was to Fort Saint-André, commissioned in 1292 by Philippe le Bel, King of France, to affirm royal power, as opposed to the Papal power in force across the Rhône in Avignon. Inside the Fort, the focus of our visit was the Benedictine Abbaye Saint-André and its very significant Provençal garden.

The owner of the fort, Mlle Roseline Bacou, personally welcomed our party and charmed us all with a fascinating tour of her home. The detailed and vivid description of her family’s acquisition of the property and of her personal involvement with the renovation of both the Abbaye and garden were fascinating.

After the tour of the building we began our discovery of the garden by wandered through the extensive and immaculately maintained Italian gardens, the refurbishment of which began in the 1920s. Terraces, paths and passages link a number of formal gardens, shrubberies and an olive orchard. Much emphasis is placed on Mediterranean planting and, significantly for us, there is minimal irrigation. The garden includes many fine trees, the top of the property being dominated by wonderful old Aleppo pines (Pinus halepensis), sculpted, not surprisingly given the Fort’s location, by the onslaught of the Mistral. Tall cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) and huge box trees (Buxus sempervirens) feature throughout the garden. For our group photograph we stood on the entrance steps of the Abbaye and admired two very old and significant trees, an Arbre de Judée (Cercis siliquastrum) and a very ancient Sophora japonica.

The Italian garden
Pinus halepensis

The afternoon began with a tour of the Chartreuse du Val-de-Bénédiction constructed by Pope Innocent VI and one of the largest Carthusian monasteries in Europe. Carthusian monasteries typically represented a balance between the mineral and the vegetable world. With the benefit of an excellent and enthusiastic guide, we admired frescoes by Matteo Giovanetti, explored the three cloisters and visited one of the 40 monastic cells, each of which had its own individual garden. 

‘Le jardin des simples’ recreates a typical example, showing how each monk was able to select his own choice of medicinal plants and vegetables and even flowers for ornamental use.  

Medicinal plants commonly grown in these compact spaces included mallow (Malva sylvestris), which mixed with olive oil was a deterrent against bee stings, plantain for use against snakebites and mint for the common cold.

Other gardens within the monastery included ‘Le cloître du cimetière’ with a generous planting of cypress, the typical Provençal symbol of immortality and the ‘Jardin du procureur’. This was originally planted in the 18th century by keen plantsman Dom Alexandre Perraud, and included such exotics as oranges and pomegranates, the fruit of the latter symbolising the unity of the church.

Le cloitre Saint-Jean

We concluded our day in the charming garden at the Hôtel Le Prieuré. After pausing to admire the 23 metre rose arch planted in the 1940s and the formal garden laid out by Francois Dedieu, interest centred on the refreshments and shade of the pergola.

On this outing we were able to welcome eight new members drawn from the Hérault, the Gard and the Vaucluse. 

Thanks to Christine for organising our first event of the new season.

Our group

Text: Duncan Munford
Photos: Duncan Munford and Chantal Maurice

January/ janvier 2020
The use of blue in a Mediterranean garden / Le bleu au jardin méditerranéen
A talk by / Une conférence de Pierre Bianchi (membre MGF, président SFA)

Echium candicans

Pierre opened his talk by reminding us how infrequently we see blue in nature, then talked of the psycho-sensory and physical properties of this celestial colour, loved by kings. He showed examples of the different ways in which blue can be introduced into a garden: flowers, plants, walls, doors, pots and planters.

Après avoir rappelé la rareté de la couleur bleue dans la nature, les propriétés psycho-sensorielles et physiques de la couleur céleste et des rois, Pierre mentionne les divers éléments qui peuvent mettre du bleu au jardin: éléments végétaux bien-sûr, mais aussi murs et portes ou pots à fleurs.

Read more here.

You can find a list of recommended plants here.

En savoir plus ici.

Vous pouvez trouver une liste des plantes recommandées ici.