The British really do take their love of gardening with them when they move to other parts of the world. I’ve just come back from a short stay in the Haut-Languedoc region of southern France. It turned out that our self-catering apartment was half of a house, and that in the other half lived the owners, Tom and Frank, who moved there around 6 or 7 years ago when Tom was made redundant from his job in Manchester.
As well as altering the house so that they would have an income from holiday lets, they completely transformed the garden from a dust-bowl with hard standing for cars and a few mature trees (like the gardens of most of their neighbours) to a beautifully realised Mediterranean version of the beloved English cottage garden.
Drifts of expertly pruned domes of lavender, humming with bees, tie the whole garden together and echo the grey-green tones of the leaves of an old olive tree, silhouetted by the backdrop of the swimming pool and a laurel hedge.
Weaving through the lavender, scented lilies, delicate pink and white Gaura, airy Verbena bonariensis and yellow Achillea create a soft and simple cottage garden-style planting scheme that forms the main view from the dining terrace – and a wonderful wafting perfume as you sit there with a glass of wine in the evening. Frank tells me that the softness used to be punctuated by the dramatic spikes of Phormium but that the unusually harsh winter, with a fortnight of sub-zero temperatures, wiped them out. Gardeners everywhere can be thwarted by the weather, it seems. (But gardens do, of course, regenerate; sadly, the cold winter also killed thousands of flamingos in a nearby African theme park.)
Around the pool, large pots of vibrant red and white oleander (Nerium oleander – another unifying theme in the garden), underplanted with Cosmos, contrast with the blue of the water but a little further away, cooling things down, a single pot of pure white Pelargonium sits elegantly with the wrought iron patio table and chairs.
Shallow gravelled terracing leads from the house down to the car parking area, which is screened from the house by a magnificent cypress and cedar and carefully placed shrubs (Spiraea, more lavender and an attractive prostrate Rosemary), with seasonal colour added by pots of Pelargonium, box, oleander and Verbena.
Yet another row of lavender lines the drive and provides a foreground for a row of tomato plants, honouring the traditional cottage-garden philosophy of combining the ornamental and the edible. (I also spotted strawberries nestling at the feet of the taller plants in the garden beside the dining terrace.)
Beth Chatto would approve of Tom and Frank, who are disarmingly modest about their creation. Like her, they have turned an unpromising site into a gem of a garden. Like her, too, they had to work at it, building up the stony local soil with manure, compost and topsoil that would sustain the planting and help to retain water. We expected, in the Languedoc, to find sun, wine, wonderful cheeses, spectacular mountain walks and medieval Cathar villages. We did indeed find all of that but what we didn’t expect was to come back from each day’s adventures to this beautiful garden. What a lovely way to combine the best of French with the best of British.