How would I know that this was a French garden, not an English one, I thought, as we sat on the terrace at Le Pavillon de Galon having breakfast outside in the sun? After a grim non-spring we'd come in mid May for a quick pick-me-up in the Luberon – Sunday till Wednesday – staying in a chambre d'hôte just outside Cucuron.
Well, for a start, there were the plane trees, three vast creatures, said to be the biggest in Provence, standing on the terrace in front of the house. In England planes are mostly town trees. You very rarely see them in country gardens. And there was an unusually careless insouciance about the bulging box parterre laid out round a stone fountain between the plane trees and the house. It looked as if it was melting.
But the biggest clue lay in the sea of sky-blue iris blooming below the terrace – hundreds of them – a particular kind of iris that you see all over this part of France. It is unusually tall, perhaps 120cm/4ft, with a strong narrow stem rising from luxurious sheaves of broad grey leaves. They never seem to get rust. The flowers are smallish, but there are four or five of them on every stem. It's the forerunner (Iris germanica) of the bearded iris that we grow in our gardens, but has a grace that many of the modern cultivars have lost completely.
The same iris grows along the tracks on my brother's farm, a little further north in the Lot et Garonne region. It's evidently a great survivor (it colonises banks along the roadsides, grows under field walls), and we'd had the great good fortune to turn up when it was at its very best.
Le Pavillon de Galon was once a hunting lodge and sits in a landscape of vines and olive trees, enhanced over the past 15 years by Bibi and Guy Hervais. Their idea was to make a garden that took its entire inspiration from the greys and blues and greens that surround their place. Stone walls protected the flat rectangle of ground below the terrace from the mistral and the tramontane. Conveniently, it was 80m long and 40m wide, ideal dimensions for a traditional, symmetrical design, with beds hedged in box and rosemary, linked by grass paths.
The pivot is a central stone fountain, surrounded with box. Two generous circles, edged in rosemary swell out from this point, almost touching the two walls running down the length of the garden. The top circle comes right up as far as the terrace. The lower one stretches to a handsome iron gate with stone pillars at the bottom of the garden. The planting of the beds gave another clue that this could not be England. We could never be so controlled.
The circle closest to the house was packed with iris, the dominant plant when we were there in the middle of May. But later there would be blue-grey teucrium and shrubby Russian sage to take over the ground (though much less dramatically) and see it through the summer. The lower circle was planted with a cooler mixture of Stipa tenuissima and teucrium, a handshake with the grassy verges of the road beyond the gate.
The design left beds to be filled outside the rosemary hedges, squaring off the circles. Here again, the plants used were carefully selected natives: a block of dark-eyed Euphorbia characias mixed with lavenders and sages, cistus mixed with lavenders and sages, beds of blue-flowered caryopteris mirroring each other top left and bottom right. Each of the four trees symmetrically placed in the circles was pruned to look like an umbrella blown inside-out, wide flat heads, quite unlike anything we see over here. Two of them were red-leaved crab apples ('Princeton Cardinal'), the other two Chinese quinces (Pseudocydonia sinensis) which in the long, hot Provence summers produce regular crops of aromatic fruit. With us, they'd need a warm wall behind them.
So, from the terrace by the house, you look down over this grey-blue-green mirage, the initial strictness of the planting smudged rather by the plants' own inclinations to outdo their neighbours. A long central grassy vista runs from the house all the way to the bottom gate, with a cross vista meeting it at the fountain. There was a frog in that fountain, holed up somewhere in the stones f surrounding the jet, whose croaking entirely filled the garden in the early morning. It was a magnificent sound; several times I crept up to the pool, hoping to see him, but I never did.
A more than usually severe drought in the summer of 2003 finished off the first plantings of artichokes, set in narrow beds against the long side walls, but they are flourishing again now, a handsome collection of the old, purple-headed varieties of Provence. And the Hervais have made extensive orchards of fruit which push out from the house towards the vines. In the first 10 years, they reckoned they planted 700 trees: persimmon and quince, pistachio and almond, mulberry and apricot, peaches and pears. Whereas over here we tend to stick to one kind of fig ('Brown Turkey'), they have at least six different kinds including 'Goutte d'Or', 'Black Ischia', 'Noire de Caromb' and 'Violette de Solliès'.
It was only a 10-minute walk into town, on a footpath alongside a vineyard that brought us out conveniently close to the Rue de l'Eglise. Here at L'Arbre de Mai (three courses for €24) we ate the kind of food that Elizabeth David introduced us to: pissaladière, marinated shoulder of lamb with ratatouille, local cheese. The verges of the roads and footpaths were thick with lady orchids (Orchis purpurea) and the mad, spidery dark-blue top knots of the tassel hyacinth (Muscari comosum). Despite all the dark predictions, Peter Mayle hasn't entirely ruined Provence.
There are two chambres d'hôte at Le Pavillon de Galon, Cucuron, Luberon, Provence. The rates change with the seasons. For more information contact Bibi Hervais on 0033 490 77 24 15, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit pavillondegalon.com. L'Arbre de Mai, Rue de l'Eglise, 84160 is a hotel as well as a restaurant with six bedrooms on the first and second floors. For more information call Gilles or Thomas on 0033 490 77 25 10, email: email@example.com or go to the website larbredemai.comReuse content