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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

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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

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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

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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.

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October / octobre 2018
Visite du jardin Le Vallon du Brec, Coursegoules, Alpes-Maritimes

Click on an image to enlarge it / Cliquez sur une image pour l’agrandir

On a beautiful sunny Friday in October, we visited the garden at Le Vallon du Brec, a jardin remarquable situated in the hinterland of Nice at a height of 1000 metres. The garden was created in 1992 by a painter and photographer who used Japanese influences to enhance the steeply wooded site overlooking a small valley. When they moved, the garden suffered a period of neglect, however now new owners have breathed life back into the space and enhanced it with their own ideas. The garden contains plants from China, Japan and North America as well as indigenous ones. There are red-painted wooden structures, redolent of Japan, comprising staircases, platforms and arches, and a more Persian-looking turquoise pavilion overlooking a tranquil fish pond and swimming pool. The turquoise colour of the pavilion is echoed in the oil-painted tree trunks, which also greet one at the entrance to the garden.

Par un beau vendredi d’octobre ensoleillé, nous avons visité le jardin du Vallon du Brec, jardin remarquable situé dans l’arrière-pays niçois à une altitude de 1000 mètres. Le jardin fut créé en 1992 par un peintre et photographe qui utilisa l’influence japonaise pour mettre en valeur le site fortement boisé donnant sur une petite vallée. Quand les propriétaires quittèrent les lieux, le jardin subit une période de négligence, cependant les nouveaux propriétaires ont su insuffler une nouvelle vie dans cet endroit grâce à leurs propres idées. Le jardin comporte des plantes originaires de Chine, du Japon et d’Amérique du Nord ainsi que des plantes locales. Il y a des structures en bois peintes en rouge, suggérant le Japon, à savoir des marches d’escalier, plateformes et arches et aussi un pavillon turquoise à l’allure persane surplombant un bassin rempli de poissons et une piscine. La nuance turquoise du pavillon est répétée à travers la peinture à l’huile recouvrant les troncs des arbres qui accueillent les visiteurs à l’entrée du jardin.

Due to the warm October we have had this year the garden was only just beginning to show its autumnal colours.

A cause du mois d’octobre assez doux cette année, le jardin commençait tout juste à montrer ses couleurs automnales.

The owners also showed us around their beautiful and originally decorated house with its two spacious gites and an artist’s studio.
After the garden tour, we walked up the hill to Sophie’s restaurant where we had an excellent lunch.

Les propriétaires nous ont également fait visiter leur maison décorée avec gout et originalité et les deux grands gites ainsi que le studio d’artiste.
Après la visite du jardin, nous sommes montés jusqu’au restaurant de Sophie en haut de la colline où on nous a servi un excellent déjeuner.

Our thanks to Martin Smith who organised this delightful day. See more photos of the garden on the Vallon du Brec website.

Merci à Martin Smith qui a organisé cette charmante journée. Voir d’autres photos du jardin sur le site Internet du Vallon du Brec.

Text and photos : June Grindley
Traduction en français : Chantal Guiraud

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