We have just returned from a trip to see customers in three regions of France: one near Carcassonne, another near Antibes and the final visit close to Vichy. Three gardens, three different clients, soils and climates. We combined these visits with a short holiday, staying in a hilltop village near the Mediterranean for a week, while overnighting on the way down and on the journey back, close to our clients’ homes. This, we felt, would give us a good feel for the potential of each garden while also giving us our first break in a long while.
For reading material I took a witty novel by Terry Darlington called Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, which seemed rather appropriate given one of our stops. I also had the new UK version of the Thompson & Morgan seed catalogue which arrived on the day of our departure and Gardens of the World by Rory Stuart, a new book on the development of the pleasure garden in different cultures of the world.
We were very pleased to acquaint ourselves with other parts of this beautiful country and to have three exciting new projects to work on. As we often do these days, in each case we prepared initial surveys by CAD on our laptop, allowing us to check and confirm measurements before we left the site. Spending that much time in the garden, looking at it in detail and in the round, also gave us ample opportunity to absorb the environment and consider design options.
We loved each region for different reasons. The first property is a typical vineyard house, tall and solid with local stone walls and terracotta tile roofs. The layout is rectangular with stables opposite the house connected by other working buildings, now converted to accommodation. There is a large swimming pool and a collection of palms and olives but otherwise we have a blank canvas to work with. Not far away is the magnificent medieval city of Carcassonne, separate from the 18th century town with its grand buildings and Canal de Midi port. All around are vineyards and farmland but wild, wooded limestone hills are also close by.
The second is in the hills behind Nice and Antibes; a modern villa on steeply sloping, rocky ground. The climate is very hot in summer, but with surprisingly humid air as it rises towards the Alps from the sea. The soil is good when there is any, but in places there is just bare rock. There are lots of olives and citrus fruits and cacti do very well. In this part of the world a pool is a must, although there are plenty of mosquitoes in the evening, enough to drive inside all but the most resilient. We left the centre of France with the autumn fast approaching, to find ourselves back in summer temperatures. The mountain scenery is particularly spectacular here, but we did find time to visit Nice, Antibes, Cannes and other coastal resorts and ports. Monte Carlo was denied us by huge traffic jams and Grasse was a real disappointment in its shabbiness.
The final visit was to Vichy, the famous Belle Époque spa town in the Massive Central region of ancient mountains. Here the air was cool and the soil acid: ideal for Rhododendrons and all the other wonderful woodland plants. The house is large, traditional and on the edge of a village the time has passed by. It’s a lovely spot and warm in summer and cold in the winter – just as it should be but much harsher than our part of the world. I shall particularly enjoy the planting in this garden, which is the main part of our contract with the owner. Visiting the town on the Sunday we spent a happy few hours in the riverside park, with its amazing collection of rare trees. We tasted the famous spa water,which I am rather fond of, and the traditional sweets derived from it. We wondered around with the dog on this rather chilly day, enjoying the architecture and other sights of this most elegant town before setting off on the six hour drive to Chabris.
Back home and we have a mountain of letters and emails to work through, several new students and the log cabin classroom to finish off. We bought a few plants of course, and these need planting. I am not sure I have the time to write this really!
We were quite self controlled I thought, with our plant purchases, but returned with a large Callistemon, two varieties of artichoke, a white Lagerstroemia to add to the pink and the red forms we already own, and a plant new to me: Leonotis leonurus, a South African plant related to Phlomis. I may be pushing my luck with this plant, but will repot it and attempt to overwinter it with a bit of protection, before planting it out next year.
Our next plant purchasing opportunity will be the unmissable Courson plant fair south of Paris, 15-17th October. If you have a chance to go, take it! More details and a review in later blog postings.