May 2010 - Visits to gardens in the arrière-pays varois
mai 2010 - Visites aux jardins de l'arrière-pays varois

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La Soldanelle

A brilliantly sunny day found some 40 members and guests from the Languedoc and Provence branches unite for a visit to two gardens near Rougiers in the arrière pays varois.

Fortified after our drive by strong coffee and excellent home-made cantuccini served by Sylvie Mistre at La Soldanelle, her husband Christian took us on a tour of the nursery and garden, starting with a brief introduction and a history of their enterprise. Since 1988 the couple have been growing perennial plants, and for the past ten years they have concentrated on those suitable for the local conditions. The nursery is at an altitude of 350 metres, on the north side of the Montagne de Sainte Baume. Like many of us, they have prolonged periods of frost, down to -14°C in 2009/10, hot summers, up to 40°C and of course the drying Mistral wind.

Christian insisted that the first consideration for all plants is the soil, and their hectare of productive garden and greenhouses is divided into distinct areas, each reflecting a type of growing conditions we might encounter in our own gardens, for example, a meadow, a rockery wall, flower beds etc. A large area is devoted to experimentation – here are plants which they are cultivating for the first time, which they water sparingly and leave to survive (or not).

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The rockery wall
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Clematis integrifolia - a low growing form in the experimental area

Those that do survive may then be taken into cultivation in the nursery itself, where there are open beds devoted to fabulously blowsy peonies, roses and iris and polytunnels for the more delicate subjects.

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A glorious selection of peonies
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Iris beds with the Montagne de Ste Baume in the background

Of course we came away with armfuls of wonderful healthy plants, well adapted to the conditions which most of us have in our own gardens and with much to ponder in the way of giving prime consideration to our soil type.

Le Jardin d’Elie Alexis

But not a moment to spare, we were due for our picnic lunch at the Jardin d’Elie Alexis, not far away in Roquebrusanne. While we ate we were given an introduction to this truly provençal garden. Born in 1908, Elie Alexis’ love affair with nature and his plot of land started with the gift of a bee-hive when he was twelve years old. The family acquired a piece of uncultivated land, which was later developed by Elie as a traditional subsistence garden, where the emphasis was on growing food, and commercial plants, such as woad for dye. Here he also established a cactus garden (a genus he grew to love during his military service in North Africa) and cultivated plants he gathered on botanising expeditions into the surrounding countryside. All his cultivation was underpinned by the requirement to use as little water as possible, for the only source of water on the site was a series of tanks built to capture rainwater. Despite his lack of formal education, his ideas and philosophy made him well-known and respected in intellectual circles and he was visited by botanists, philosophers, geologists and artists. The garden is now run by an association dedicated to reviving Elie’s unique landscape.

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It is full of interesting and unusual plants and their efforts have been rewarded with a listing as one of the Jardins Remarquables de la France.

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Ferula communis
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Ptilostemon gnaphaloides, more compact than P. chamaepeuce

These were two inspirational visits, a day made all the more enjoyable by being shared with members of our neighbouring branch.

Text by Sandra Cooper
Photos by Christine Savage

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