IMG_2495In a place that’s a thousand years old, gardens that date to the 1500s are relatively modern. Or are they timeless? Certainly they are a place without time, where the minutes seem to stop ticking by, replaced by the rhythmic crunch of one’s footsteps on gravel or dry leaves.IMG_2473I haven’t been to the Abbaye de Fontfroide (Coldspring Abbey) for years, and the previous time was with my mother-in-law, who wasn’t up for any climbing or hiking. With that in mind, on a recent return I stupidly wore sandals, remembering the abbey as a classy kind of place. What a mistake. We took the “short,” 45-minute walk through the surrounding countryside (there’s a shorter climb to the hilltop cross, but it also takes 45 minutes, and then there’s a longer trail through the abbey’s vineyards). The path was mostly flat, but rocky and uneven, and my feet slid around in my sandals. I was so focused on trying not to break them and wind up barefoot far from the car that I didn’t really get into the moment. There are few things I love more than a hike in the garrigue, but usually I get the footwear right.IMG_2430IMG_2432We were alone on the trail but the breeze carried the chatter of those who had climbed to the cross was carried across the valley until we rounded the hill and heard nothing but birds. This landscape must be nearly the same as when the abbey was founded in 1093.

The abbey sits in the heart of a nature reserve, and in the windy dry summers, when wild fires can rampage through, the hiking trails are sometimes closed. In fact, a fire destroyed 2,000 hectares around the abbey in 1986. Smoking is forbidden on the paths–get that! In France! But fires are serious business around here. They also don’t allow dogs–there are kennels for them at the entrance. IMG_2434IMG_2433 Even after culling photos, I have too many for one post, so the abbey itself will come next time. It’s different from the Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire, yet similar. You’ll see.IMG_2420This post will be about the outside. The abbey has a hectare of terraced gardens that were created in the 16th century and a rose garden with nearly 2,500 rose bushes, including a variety of rose named for the abbey.IMG_2496Each garden is different. In the cloister, wisteria–no longer blooming–climb the walls. The central fountain is framed by classic parterres. Two basins are for the “mandatum,” or ritual washing of the monks’ feet every Saturday.

In the foreground on the left is a basin.

IMG_2475The cloister provided a covered passageway between the church and the kitchen, refectory and scriptorium, a place to walk, meditate and read. Think of the luxury of that–reading. It’s relatively recently that almost everybody learns to read. Back in the day, it was reserved for elites. IMG_2463IMG_2468The rose garden had been planted with roses and with wild flowering plants over the former cemetery of the monks. Since 2008, the abbey has stopped using any chemical treatments in the gardens. I would love to know what they do because my roses are being gobbled up by something. We saw compost bins and insect hotels discreetly tucked into corners of the different gardens.IMG_2493IMG_2502IMG_2488I didn’t capture as many photos of the terraced “Italian” gardens. They climb the hill that the abbey hugs, offering sweeping views, almost like going up in a glass elevator. The terraces feel like individual rooms–in fact, they were created as refuges for introspection. The first terraces were designed by Constance de Frégose, whose son would become the head abbot. Over the centuries, more were added. As one does over the centuries.IMG_2514IMG_2507IMG_2505IMG_2511Do you garden? Do you enjoy it? My grandmother had a green thumb. She had an enormous vegetable garden that produced enormous zucchinis and enormous tomatoes and so many other things. Not a weed to be found. She worked on it every single morning and evening. She also had flowers everywhere. I was taken by the fragrant peonies. There were bright poppies, which might have been planted by her or by her in-laws (who lived next door…can you imagine!) to remind them of the vast red fields of poppies in the Europe they had left behind. The poppies once led to an investigation by the police, who figured out fast that this granny wasn’t running a homegrown heroin operation. She thought they were nuts, and she was right. Knowing my grandma, she would have stuffed them with baked goods.IMG_2498IMG_2499IMG_2497

I didn’t inherit the green-thumb gene. At least not the passion for it. The less garden space I have, the more I like plants. Pots lined the windowsills of my old apartments. I even planted flowers and herbs outside one apartment building, to the delight of my landlord. But now that I have a yard, it’s too much. It’s like a dessert buffet and I don’t have appetite for any more and in fact am getting woozy from a sugar buzz. Going outside, I don’t the little palm trees that are now big, the oleander that forms a wall of green and that now is covered with pale and dark pink flowers. All I see are weeds. More work to be done. No matter how much you weed, you still need to weed. You also still need to clean the house, which gets dirty again before you’ve even finished. Where is the time for meditation and contemplation and introspection? IMG_2486IMG_2484IMG_2485I don’t mind work, in fact I enjoy work. But the Sisyphean nature of gardening (and housework) drains my soul. And we opted for low-maintenance annuals. My mom had one of those under-the-bed storage boxes full of clippings of garden ideas. Plus some other boxes and folders (Pinterest would have been a godsend for her). She would show me some of them and I’d tell her they were beautiful, but they were 40-hour-a-week gardens and was she ready to spend all her time doing just that when she had so many other interests? She would buy seedlings but then would be occupied by something else and wouldn’t plant them, and they’d shrivel up.IMG_2491IMG_2512 I like going to public gardens, especially ones like Fontfroide. I don’t need my own–a little patio or balcony would be quite enough. A place for a cup of coffee or a home-cooked meal outside in summer. Lawns are environmental disasters. It seems like the trend is shifting, with talk about ending zoning for single-family housing. The hearts of villages and cities in Europe are dense, even though lots of buildings have inner courtyards, like at our apartments in Carcassonne. The density makes it easy to walk everywhere, which helps keep people in shape. It means there’s time for other things than keeping up with pulling weeds. There’s time to stop and smell the roses.IMG_2489Gardening: Love it or hate it?


30 thoughts on “Gardening for Introspection

  1. Bonsoir, gardening and housework may drain your soul but continue to do as you’ve just done ‘always stop and smell the 🌹 ‘ and if they have no perfume admire their beauty because that is truly what they were created for…enjoy

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  2. This abbey looks a marvel to visit. Excellent photos, as always, and your wry humor: “As one does over the centuries.”
    I revel in France and Italy’s formal gardens, but would never have the patience for any large garden of my own. A few house plants, window boxes and maybe some palms or small trees in containers is about my limit. Almost drove myself crazy one year trying to keep a maidenhair fern alive.

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  3. Ho, back when I had a garden it was near to the beach and I foolishly imagined I could magically summon forth from its barren, sandy soil Self-Sufficiency. It took a couple of years to realise that Man cannot live on radishes alone – even the delicious French Breakfast variety – but once started, the garden could not be left to its own devices as the rabbits would eat everything in sight, except for the onion weed that would flourish to the point of becoming a lawn. Projects aplenty occupied all waking hours (and I suspect most sleeping hours as well) in the devising of rabbit-proof fences and giving Life to the sand, all the while envisioning a sanctuary for birds and animals and a potager worth painting.

    My second discovery was that I may be On the Spectrum, as I could find entire chunks of my life would have vanished spent just in the task of weeding and I’d not have even realised. 40-hour weeks, easily, and the garden was definitely not worth Opening to the Public, haha! On a happier note, I devoured every gardening book I could lay my hands on and became Extremely Knowledgeable about all plants. Again, Spectrum?

    Oh well, those days are past now and my hands, back and exposed skin are rather the better for it, although I still adore the gardens of others. So the garden of the Abbaye has now shot to the top of the List for the visit to your part of the world next year, thank you! It looks so like a Persian Paradise Garden or even a Romanesque garden (it’s a little reminiscent of the garden at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles – have you ever been? LA is not my kind of place but I could move in to the Villa any old day so long as the gardeners remained!) I’m hoping the roses will be fragrant next spring!

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    1. I would move into any villa anywhere that included gardeners (and housekeepers).
      Bravo to you for feeding the coastal fauna. We have two cherry trees and for years never tasted a cherry because the birds ate them all. And that was OK. (It’s now big enough that there were cherries for all for the first time this year.)


    2. Ha, yes, it is reminiscent of the Getty. You all may know that it was nearly bought by the person doing up the Cloisters in New York City. The story as I know it is that someone local bought it to stop it being shipped to the US. I have been there several times, its a marvel.
      bonnie in provence

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        1. So is the Cloisters story just a story? It was being developed, I think, later than 1908. I thought it was at Fontfroide that I saw or heard about the Cloisters connection. If you know more, I’d love to know.
          bonnie in provence

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  4. I love gardening! It is my favorite hobby, one that I have indulged in for decades. My suggestion is that you find the right easy-to-grow perennials for your climate. (I would never attempt to grow fussy, disease-prone plants like roses.) You plant these hardy perennials once (not spending money every year as one does with annuals) and you have a lovely, nearly carefree garden. In your environment, there are so many herbs that can be grown as perennials. Putting down a pretty stone pathway or patio is also a nice way to control weeds, and provide a place to enjoy the fresh air.

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  5. I like nothing better than spending time in my garden. There are always weeds to be pulled or better still, hoed out, but then I think of the definition of weeds as plants that grow in the wrong spot. Some are more difficult to get rid of than others (think bindweed!), but a stirrup hoe makes short work of most of them!! 🙂 And I love eating the things I grow in my garden!

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  6. Love gardening!—more so since the perennial plants, shrubs, and rock walls we’ve added over the years have settled, filled in, and leave far less to do in the way of maintenance. Weeding? Not so much. Ours is more an English garden, with overflowing borders, rather than the clipped architectural French style, where it’s easier to notice a sprig out of place. This gorgeous abbey seems to be a rich blend of those two approaches. The roses! Oh my! I’m assuming their fragrance matches their beauty.

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  7. I garden avidly and endlessly in the Vaucluse, near Carpentras. I gardened in California when I lived there, its something I’ve done all my life. Including getting a degree in landscape design. I like to weed, its a meditation for me. I sit on my garden stool with my array of weeding tools, and I just get into it. Don’t mind at all. I choose plants that are adapted to my climate and soil. I buy roses from a company near Lyon that grafts onto root stock that likes our alkaline soil and the roses do fine. I don’t fuss with them, and they are integrated into the rest of the garden, not used as specimen plants. I also have a dry garden that does not get watered after the plants are established. The property is 3000 square meters, not small, with two separate houses, and my co-proprietaire and I manage fine to keep it looking good. And we are not young at all.
    bonnie in provence

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  8. The colors and textures of worn stone always draw me in. These gardens certainly would encourage exhalation…

    My mother gardened, my grandmother (her mother) gardened; I have no affinity for it though I loved the back yard at my little home — a semi-wild setting with massive oaks and pines edging the property, overgrown azaleas, and a small potager (construit par un amant normand) with basil and thyme. I did have two young (6’-tall-ish) Japanese maples planted when I moved in with my two boys. They thrived, I still think of them, I miss them (both the boys and the maples).

    The fact is, I’m thrilled when I manage to get my houseplants to thrive even a little bit! I do love the greenery, I just don’t have the green thumb and worse, now, I don’t have the back for it.

    Stunning pics, by the way. And I love peonies, wisteria even more, and lilacs (so much), which do not grow where I have lived these past 30 years. On the other hand, I still live in a region where the heavy sand of boxwood in spring and summer is intoxicating, and when the fireflies come out – as they have recently — it is so reminiscent of visiting my grandparents in summer time that it is all quite delicious.

    (Are there fireflies in the south of France? I don’t recall ever seeing any.)

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  9. I tend some small patches outside our apartment buildings. The grounds are too large to be professionally maintained any longer. We have structural repairs to pay for. My mother is always going on about the joys of gardening. I like planning the flowers and foliage but I don’t like to get dirty! I water and weed but not my favourite activity. I enjoy décor and choosing pretty objects for the apartment but cleaning not so much! My Mexican days suit me perfectly:someone cleans the very small apartment, washes and irons my clothes and I enjoy looking at the gardens, reading, writing and contemplating while providing others with an income. I would love to visit Fontfroide. I haven’t been in the south of France for years. Beautiful photos!

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  10. What a lovely walk through a garden oasis.

    At first I read, “ritual washing of the monkeys’ feet…” and I thought…that’s weird they had a pet monkey! Ha ha!

    My mother is a keen gardener with the help of my father. When my husband and I bought our house I was delighted to have my own garden. When I realized it required endless hours of back breaking work and my husband wasn’t remotely interested in helping out I let visions of my own private garden oasis fade away. Now I opt for flower boxes on the deck.

    If we win the lottery I’d love to have my backyard redone in a mix between an English garden and a Japanese garden with some water features. One can dream.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even if you win the lottery and have the yard redone, there’s still upkeep, which is the worst part. Either the backbreaking work is fun (the case for gardeners) or it’s just backbreaking.


  11. Timely. I have a tiny garden that is all containers. In my mind it is a perfect harmony of green and white. Reality: total opposite. This year it is a riot of reds and oranges and pinks and purples plus newly added structural plants and I love it. It occurred to me only this week that I could walk round beautiful gardens and watch Gardeners World on tv and that is fine because I don’t have to have a huge place that has colour all year and greenhouses full of tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and courgettes…I can just enjoy the efforts of others. My local churchyard has been stunningly conceived and developed, full of fragrant shrubs and bushes and plants and it is a daily joy. Hint: I ninja garden by taking free seed heads from plants I find along the way (not gardens) and keep seeds from my own plants and spread them willy-nilly as fair exchange. Just walking in the grounds of that abbey on a hot day, then sitting with a cold drink would be my idea of a perfect, perfect day.

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