September 4, 2018
It’s La Rentrée (taken so seriously in France that on August 31st there’s gridlock on every Autoroute) that snaps the garden back into focus. In our case rentrée from a week in Provence at its most perfect: cool in the morning, hot in the afternoonand warm at dinner-time. No need for shawls on the terrace. I expected the countryside to be as brown as the England we saw from the plane, but most of it looked relatively fresh. The plane trees (to me one of the great sights and principal glories of Provence) were in full green leaf; very few crackling brown cast-offs on the ground. Where they have water at their roots they can grow into ivory monsters, spilling obesely over kerbs, walls, rocks. Closely set in avenues they can soar cathedral-high, pale pillars to a pale green roof. They are the glory of (for instance) the Cours Mirabeau, the Champs Elysée of Aix. Some insane official has replaced a few of them with red-leafed maples. The guillotine is too good for him.
Gardening has to be simple near the Mediterranean. You can add such routine exotics as mimosa, palm-trees, oleander of course, but the basic ingredients scarcely need the gardener’s help. Pines, planes, cypresses, holm oaks, olives, an azure sky and pale stone are a full palate. The true pine of Provence is Pinus halepensis, the Aleppo pine, thought why we don’t call it the Provence pine I don’t know. By nature it is tall and slender, and even at the end of summer a pure, piercing, almost apple-peel green.
The house where we stayed once had an elaborate garden, on a pine-covered hill overlooking the city of Aix. Now most of it has filled up with the native laurustinus, which luxuriates in the woodland shade. The only level part is trim and flowery round a formal canal that doubles as a swimming pool, flowing continually over a weir into a lower basin, and lined, perhaps uniquely among swimming pools, with a low box hedge. A pool for grownups.
A week away sharpens your focus when you get home. There is far more to enjoy that I expected; new flushes of roses, invigorated Clematis orientalis, yellow among the purple of the now-towering Solanum rantonettii*. Phlox White Admiral with a new lease of life, agapanthus fully out, more geraniums, but above all the incomparable (however common) Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’. Jobert was a nurseryman at Verdun in the 1850s. Was Honorine his wife? For such a simple white flower, a nine-petal daisy, it has extraordinary presence and grace – and persistence. In Provence as in London.
*Now, I’m afraid, to be called Lycianthes. Not as sad as Sophora being renamed Styphnolobium. Oh, the taxonomists’ tin ear.