(Because there are nightingales by the dozen in the woods)
An appreciation by Nina Drummond
Five years ago Catriona left the wet, wet countryside and the mature walled garden she had created in Dumfriesshire, Scotland for a new life in Montpellier, France.
A passionate gardener from an early age – gardening with her mother and learning about roses with her grandfather on the west coast of Scotland – with only a window box to play with in Montpellier, she set off in search of a piece of land where she could create and experiment with a new garden.
She found it. 3500m2, or half an acre, of abandoned, sun baked, windswept land, bordered by an equally untended olive grove and the Canal de Gignac. Only the odd apple and plum tree and some rather ragged cherry trees remained of an orchard.
The view opened out across a vine-filled valley to the hills of Clermont L’Herault & Lodève, north towards St Jean de Fos and St Guilhem le Desert, and south towards Pezenas across the river Herault. En plus - there was a motley settlement of dilapidated sheds and a vintage caravan protected from the winds whistling across the valley, by a fat towering hedge of Leylandii.
Catriona and her husband Charles and friends duly carved out the territory to be cultivated, turning the land by hand, and laboriously removing individual stones, edging the beds with woven bamboos (cane de Provence) cut from alongside the canal, and covering the paths between the beds with oyster shells brought back from the Montpellier fishmonger.
The patched up sheds became potting sheds and a studio space for Charles – an artist. The caravan - a horticultural reference library and shelter from the mistral winds and storms, and all was made ship shape in time for a Hartley Botanic greenhouse newly arrived from England, to be filled with seedlings.
Over the past 3 years Catriona has transformed her bare, exposed field into a secret and very English sanctuary for plant lovers, in her Mediterranean dry garden.
The soil is extremely alkaline (PH 8.5+) and as well as being exposed to the wind and the unrelenting sun and summer heat, there are sudden torrential storms. As the field is on a slope, this is a mixed blessing – as the rains run off so does the laboriously cultivated topsoil. Peach, nectarine and apricot trees have been added to the orchard area. 17 young olive trees now battle the elements to establish themselves in a new grove and eventual windbreak. 6 vines mark the birth of a vineyard; roses galore, wild orchids, irises, euphorbias and hellebores all found in the wild nearby along the vineyard paths, and carefully nurtured all thrive alongside oleander, tamarisk, and of course rosemary, thyme, lavender, and the wild fennel.
The fun is to see what survives, and to experiment in this earth! Surprises abound. Transported from Scotland, Catriona’s favourite Columbine aquilegias, papaver orientales, sedums, eryngiums, centauras, asters and achilleas and more are all thriving, despite the complete changeover in soil type from wet, wet acidic soil to poor, dry, heavy unworkable alkaline earth. Certain alkaline loving plants just haven’t been able to survive the onslaught of heat, and little, if no water for more than 5 months.
Catriona tries to water as little as possible after plants have become established, and got their roots down to a level where moisture is always present but it’s still a very hit and miss affair! One weekend away from the garden and a precious plant is lost! Within the sanctuary of the greenhouse and around the cabanes pots and containers are home to unusual lilies, sages and succulents and is in effect her nursery of young perennials, shrubs and trees waiting to have the chance to try growing in the garden itself.
Seeds are gathered on Catriona travels and walks in the Herault, plants and cuttings given by friends – to be tried out, given a chance to adapt to life on this little plot of heaven.
Visitors are welcome by appointment (firstname.lastname@example.org) or telephone 00334 67 66 31 08).
Seeds and plants are also available, from season to season.