For the purpose of this article, I went back to nature to study how these three elements interact and to see what I could learn from the natural landscape for use in our own gardens. This led me to Le Bois de Gourdon, one of my favourite areas to walk with the family where stunted oak woodland, rocky outcrops and gentle slopes amble above the cliffs of Gourdon and below the cliffs of Caussols. Plant life here is rich and varied, as the hills roll and water springs from a thousand tiny sources and runs down into parched limestone pavements.
There is a particular footpath that I regularly take cutting across a steep bank above the road to Gourdon from Pré du Lac. This trail, which is made up of stone laid not more than a metre away from where it was collected, had been used for hundreds of years bringing materials, animals and the post to the residents of Gourdon. As there were no machines used to create the walkway, it follows the path of least resistance, hugging the contours of the land and winding in and out of rock outcrops. The line of this pathway is always fascinating and unpredictable as it exposes and hides thousands of little vignettes of vegetation and landscape.
At one spot, the landscape opens up to a small clearing, which completely embodies what I’m trying to achieve in the gardens I create: the land slopes up from the pathway to a stunted woodland in the back of the space.
Underfoot the first crocus is appearing amongst the stones of the pathway, on the very fringes of the vegetation. Here they snatch the first opportunity they can to flower before deciduous vegetation gets going again in the spring. We rarely plant bulbs in pathways imagining that they will be damaged, trodden on and uncared for. In this natural setting, there is very little competition for these small, delicate plants and boars find it hard to dig them up amongst the stones. This is ideal as opposed to the perennials being crowded out or dwarfed by the surrounding flowers.
Furthermore, the fringes of the path blend perfectly into the surrounding vegetation. This is demonstrated by plant life taking hold as the foot passage and stones diminish. As the path is made up of the same materials as the surrounding rocks, there is a unity of form, material and resources, so the vegetation blends perfectly the different growing mediums. For example, the thyme that dominates the fringes of the path gives way to grasses and Cistus shrubs as the ground rises and the soil becomes more plentiful. Where the ground flattens again the trees are able to get their roots in and this creates the back of the clearing, sheltering it from the cold air dropping down from the hills to the north.
What is so remarkable to a Mediterranean gardener is the stability of the vegetation. The range of different growing mediums creates a range of tones and collections of species. All these plants have reached a state of constancy, which to a gardener means no weeding, no pruning and in fact no maintenance, with the bonus of creating a landscape which is pleasant to be in. But just what creates this stability? Simply put, the lack of resources. There is very little water in the summer and in winter, and very little soil. (Add sometimes to this the searing summer heat and cold winter.) We spend a fortune improving our soils, removing stones and planting flora, which are chosen for their flowers not their situation. Remember, “Right plant, right place”.
The last but equally central element of the garden is something people get all worked up about: water. Personally, every time I find water in the landscape I am drawn to it. In the Alpes-Maritimes water is in abundance, not always obviously on the surface but stored in massive underground aquifers, coursing down and out at the base of cliffs and walls, down rapid runoff streams and rivers during the snow melt and seasonal showers. But how can we incorporate this into the garden? By creating water features in the landscapes that provide that same plentiful sense. These water features should follow the language of the natural landscape, spilling out from the base of walls, coursing down impermeable areas, disappearing into the ground as soon as the ground becomes permeable again or finishing in pools. It is how the water flows that is the most important lesson to learn from the natural landscape. In the spring and the autumn the watercourses down the mountains and all sources run with fury. But in the depth of winter things slow down; in the summer months the cascading waterfall becomes a tinkling. This seasonal music of water is something to be recreated in our gardens bringing them back into the landscape and climatic conditions of the seasons.
The natural landscape really is a limitless source of ideas for garden design, be it for the interaction and combinations of plants in the hard landscape or the way water finds its course. The next time you take a walk or go for a drive in your local area, take a closer look at the various elements and be inspired for your own garden – you may be surprised at what you’ll find!
James Basson, Scape Design Monaco, is an international award winning Garden Designer.