Of crags and roses Posted on June 23, 2008

Work in progress

The scary part of any design project is when it starts to take concrete (or timber, or stone, or metal) form. In the mind’s eye it is fluid, on paper easily modified, but when the plans are drawn up and work begins on the ground it is a brave designer who has no last minute doubts.

I have been planning a garden for three years now in one of Europe’s most spectacular locations, high above the Mediterranean, on terraces between immense craggy cliffs and the sea. Cap Ferrat and the waters of Beaulieu Bay lie below, and above a steep wild hillside where old grey olive trees and deep green Aleppo pines lead the eye up to ochre limestone crags. The terraces still bear survivors of the old culture of olives and vines and lemons. It is a long garden, the narrow top terrace 125 metres, rising in three long steps to the monumental olive tree that brings it to its mysterious shady close. From under its branches, looking back along the terraces, the eye embraces the whole panorama of cliffs, garden and sea, where Cap d’Ail is a long finger on the horizon.

This spring the garden took its definitive shape. The centre part of the top terrace is a tunnel of vines trained on a simple arched metal pergola. From the house, two terraces below, it appears as a cloister of shady voids and green columns backed by a high stone wall. At its lower end the cloister leads to a boule court shaded by ancient olive and bay trees. Going  the other way it opens to a simple formal space where a central box-edged path leads between orange and lemon trees, filtering the view of the sea, and a broad bed of Hydrangea quercifolia and agapanthus. Agapanthus is the default summer flower here – at least in the early stages, before we are tempted to diversify. I hope we manage to keep all the planting simple. The pergola

continues as a single row of metal arches, rose and vine covered, concealing and revealing the great open view directly down to the bay and across to Cap Ferrat.

At each break of level, three times where the long terrace climbs across the mountain slope, a plain iron pipe splashes water into a concrete reservoir, a repeated thread of water that leads the eye and ear upwards. Rough tufa catches the splash, absorbs it and provides a home for moss and ferns. Beside each tank stone stairs, with a barrow-ramp up the middle, lead up to the next level. At the bottom, two terraces down, the water reappears as the source for a grey-blue swimming pool, pergola’d off from the house with climbing roses and a bed already brimming with blue and purple, Salvia uliginosa, Verbena bonariensis, and white Japanese anemones.

The doubts? Can we maintain the sense of ancient agriculture, of working terraces and reservoirs, while embowering them in flowers? Can we do anything but trivialize what is already an epic panorama by horticulturizing it?

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