On foreign soil, a vision blooms

Cyprus pillars and mound-shaped shrubs feature in Nicole de Vesian’s garden. Photo: Louisa JonesWhen Elizabeth David introduced us to the allure of a well-made cassoulet in 1950, she talked about making the best use of local materials and about a dish that was “genuine, abundant, earthy”. “Tinned beans and sausages served in an earthenware casserole do not, alas, constitute a cassoulet,” she admonished in A Book of Mediterranean Food.
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What did make the cut though were simple (but not necessarily simply procured) local ingredients and a patient simmer. To undertake such endeavour in the Mediterranean was pointedly not a prerequisite.

It is exactly the same with the Mediterranean garden. Louisa Jones, whose Gardens in Provence was published in 1992, and who has since written numerous other books on contemporary French and Mediterranean gardens, is firmly of the view that you don’t need to be geographically located in lands of long, dry summers and mild, wet winters to take a cue from the landscapes that have been cultivated in such places for thousands of years.

Over the phone from the farmhouse in southern France she and her husband bought in 1975, Jones says that just as Mediterranean cooking is a way of thinking about food, Mediterranean gardening is a flexible approach that can be adapted to all manner of locales. As long as you observe “the logic of place”, Jones sees no reason why you can’t take a Mediterranean approach to not-so-sunny locales in the likes of Britain, northern Europe … and Victoria, which can be hot and dry but has not, strictly speaking, a Mediterranean climate (though it is home to an international branch of the Mediterranean Garden Society).

Jones will be in Melbourne to discuss the allure of the Mediterranean garden – within the Mediterranean and beyond it – at the Australian Landscape Conference in September. She says adapting Mediterranean practices to Australia, or anywhere else, comes down to observing what you have (climate, topography, flora, fauna, historical remains) and making the most of it as well as approaching the garden as a place of pleasure ”for all the senses”, rather than for visual ornament alone.

It’s a philosophy that sits well with our growing focus on sustainability, biodiversity and ”productive” plants, with the divide between utility and beauty getting ever more blurred.

But it hasn’t always been so. Jones, a Canadian married to a Frenchman, says people kept telling her 30 years ago there were no gardens in Provence. While clearing her pine-forest-invaded-vineyard of a French property and thinking about what to plant instead, all the French magazines she consulted were full of English-style summer-flowering borders.

Not convinced, she went to see what other people in the area were doing and what she found in their gardens was very much at odds with what was in the magazines.

By the time she wrote her first book, she had seen more than 200 gardens ”of every size, type and description” – gardens that were steep, stony and exposed to wind; gardens in valleys with good soil; gardens stretched out around large chateaux; and others contained outside small cottages.

These gardens didn’t represent a style so much as a way of life.

One of the places she visited was the garden that stylist Nicole de Vesian began in Provence at the age of 70 in 1986. De Vesian’s tall pillars of flat-topped cypress and rolling mounds of Viburnum tinus, Lonicera nitida, Teucrium fruticans and box (all the European varieties) have become known the world over.

De Vesian died in 1996 but her garden lives on and it, along with other gardens designed by the Hermes stylist, are discussed in one of Jones’ latest books in English. Released in Australia two months ago, Modern Design in Provence: Nicole de Vesian – Gardens shows how a Mediterranean garden can be both wild and exacting; frugal and perfectly proportioned.

Olivier and Clara Filippi’s innovative nursery near Montpellier (from which came some plants used by David Glenn in his Mediterranean garden at Lambley Nursery in central Victoria) is another example of what Jones describes as the “renewal of the countryside”.

Although Jones spends hours each day in her own garden, she says very little about it. ”I am too close to it, I don’t have the same objectivity. It’s like asking me to talk about my family,” she says.

But Jones says all she has learnt in the past 35 years has been summed up in Mediterranean Gardening: A Model for Good Living, which will be published in English in time for the Australian Landscaping Conference.

In essence a series of short essays, the book is a declaration of Jones’ belief in all Mediterranean gardening has to offer. She calls for it to be ”reinvented once again by us, for our own times” – even in the Mediterranean, where there are ”undeniable disasters and excesses” like everywhere else.

■ The Australian Landscape Conference will be held on September 20-23.landscapeconference上海夜生活m/AU.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.