When Montpellier was founded in 985, cities were for survival. Most people went out to work in surrounding fields, and didn’t have time or energy or space for greenery. We have watched Montpellier evolve over the years, ridding the narrow streets of its historic center of cars and introducing a profusion of vines that completely change the character of a place that otherwise is stone on stone.In 2017, Montpellier launched a “vegetation permit” to encourage “microflowering” by geting individuals to plant greenery around them–in small communal gardens, containers, wherever roots could find dirt. The city also is planting 1,000 trees a year.
The result is lovely. I can think of all the practical arguments against such climbing vines–they destroy the mortar joints of walls, they are full of creepy crawlies like spiders, they hold humidity, which also is bad for the walls, they tangle with electric wires. And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.
Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.Some were colorful, very dramatic.You can’t just look up, because sometimes the surprises are underfoot. And you might not even be aware you’re walking on a rainbow if you aren’t going up.Everywhere that the narrow streets open even a little, to a space not worthy of being called a square, there are trees squeezing up between the cream-colored stone buildings, and café tables spreading beneath them.Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. The climate around here is such that these vines stay green year-round. The city says one benefit is they help clean the air.
In 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.I 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.We 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. 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.This 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.Each 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.
The 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. The 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.I 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.Do 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.
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? I 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. 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.Gardening: Love it or hate it?
I’ve been thinking about how to be a better steward of our environment, at least the part I have some control over: our yard. My first thought: Lawns are crazy.Our grass usually turns golden brown by early July and stays that way until October. We don’t water it because water is a scarce commodity around here. Anyway, much of it is weeds. I pull and pull, but once the ground dries, it’s like concrete and nothing is coming out of it.
What do they say about insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and thinking it will turn out differently? Lawns like that.
We don’t have a big lawn, mind you. And there was a period where the bits of grass got plenty of use by our kid and friends. But the swings are gone from the swing set, to be replaced by a hammock, which we have, but since nobody sets foot in the backyard, we haven’t hung it.
There’s a strip where we grow herbs and cherry tomatoes. It’s next to the swing set, with the idea of being a snacking garden for our kid. We wanted our kid to actually pick food off a vine (we also have raspberries and strawberries). It worked. The tomatoes produce right up until Christmas. Not a ton, but I do find it amazing to pick tomatoes in December.We planted some fruit trees, too–apricot, cherry and fig. The fig actually was growing wild in the yard. The apricot tree gave us huge bounties year after year, but last year and this year have not been good. And the cherries are for the birds. That’s OK.
When the ground was still soft from spring rains, I started digging a trench for compost. The soil here is very argile, or clay, and I wanted to add organic material. I experimented over winter/spring in the tomato bed, and the compost broke down in about a month. I was delighted, and the tomatoes seem similarly happy.
The idea of composting is such a no-brainer. Rather than throw away something that will create climate-destroying methane gas, it’s so much better to turn it into healthy soil. Some places burn municipal trash to generate electricity, but wet food waste can make it burn less efficiently. Plus, how many times had we gone to the garden center to buy huge sacks of decent dirt? Talk about crazy.
Now the trench is nearly full. (I took the opportunity to pull some huge stones out of the ground, too–they are getting a new life as a border.) Later, when the human food has turned into plant food, that strip will be filled with drought-resistant perennials that will please the bees and butterflies and birds. Nothing is planted at this time of year–the garden centers are nearly empty. It’s just too hot and dry.
Eventually, I might do another trench on a new area of grass. The goal is to eventually just have parterres with gravel paths and no grass at all. And also, eventually, a potager with more than just cherry tomatoes.
The trash-collection company offers composters for €15. I need to order one to do regular composting. We have a mounting leaf pile to prepare a stock of brown material to balance out the wet kitchen scraps. I also spread crushed dry leaves as mulch around plants, including in pots, to help retain moisture, and it seems to have helped. I spread leaves around the raspberries to keep the weeds down, which has worked like a charm and has also kept the raspberries from wilting. I then did the same around the fruit trees. The Carnivore was skeptical at first, but the leaf mulch didn’t blow away. Now even he is sweeping up the leaves from the terrace and dumping them on the leaf pile. How crazy it was to bag them and dirty the car to haul them to the dump!
What about you? Do you garden? Do you enjoy it? Do you compost? Any tips?
If you follow French news, you’ve probably heard we have a cold snap across the Hexagone. It hasn’t been this cold in five years.
The photo above was taken yesterday. Early-morning temperatures had plunged to minus 7 Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit), but by mid-afternoon, they were around 4 C (39 F), with a brilliant blue sky and tons of sun. Perfect for drying laundry on the line.
Hygge is the global rage at the moment: the Danish concept of coziness, cuddling, candles and close friends that is credited with making the Danes the world’s happiest people.
Aside from comfort food with loved ones–de rigueur for the French–the south of France is un-hygge. Everything is geared toward good weather, not winter. The steep slope of some driveways around here made me realize that the residents knew nothing of driving out on ice or of shoveling knee-deep snow.
I wonder whether I’m the only one around here who used to drive from October to April with a snow shovel and a bag of sand in my trunk (sand to improve traction and also to sprinkle under the tires, should I get stuck and find them spinning).
We get a few flakes here almost every winter, but they rarely survive 24 hours. Should we miss the snow, we need to drive only two and a half or three hours to the Pyrénées ski stations, or even Andorra. In my opinion, that’s the perfect distance for snow.
I knew I was in the right place when I saw Carcassonne in winter. Bubbling fountains. Flowers in gardens. Café terraces bustling in the dead of winter. Hygge is having your coffee inside, with candles or a fireplace. Sipping your coffee in the sun at a table on the terrace, even though it’s chilly, and watching the people pass, is not hygge at all.
The brightest, sunniest days bring the coldest nights. It’s a small price to pay. Though the architecture-geared-toward-good-weather, paired with the two-foot-thick stone walls in older houses, means pipes often get run outside buildings, and when it does get really cold, like five years ago, they rupture left and right. In fact, at our kid’s school in the village, and now at upper grades in Carcassonne, the restrooms are outside. Not pleasant but further proof that it just doesn’t get very cold.
Meanwhile, it’s been fun watching the Carcassonnais going about their business as if they suddenly were in Siberia (which is where this cold front is said to have originated, always mentioned darkly on the weather report. No love lost for Russia in this country). Bundled to the max–emmitouflé–which, I guess is pretty hygge after all.
When we moved to the south of France, we had to learn new things about gardening. What works in the rainy north or in the Midwest wasn’t appropriate for a temperate place with such dry summers.
So we observed. We wanted low maintenance, which meant mostly perennials. Unless you’re right next door, you don’t always see how much work the neighbors put into keeping their gardens beautiful. If it’s their No. 1 hobby and not yours, then you need different inspiration.
Towns around here do a great job of planting and putting out flowers. We ignored the annuals that get dug up and switched out every few months. Instead, we looked at the roadsides, where plants are on their own once they’ve been put in by municipal workers. Maintenance once or twice a year. Little or no watering.
Here is what we see:
Silver leaf, left, and silver mist, right.
Russian sage, left (purple), and Texas sage, right.
Two kinds of Jerusalem sage (clearly the sage family is a hardy choice).
Rosemary, left, as ground cover, and bamboo, right, as a thick screen (it’s about six feet high).
Oleander, in many colors. That this grows in the median on the autoroute tells you something. After it is established–two or three years–it doesn’t need watering. It stays green all through our mild winters, and blooms voluptuously all summer.
In general, the French manage to live up to their national stereotype of a people with good taste. But there are lapses.
Someone affiliated with the retirement community across the street decided to chop down the poppies on the berm that protects the village from the architectural horror of the retirement pavilions (though I think the residents of the retirement community think the berm is to protect them from the road traffic). Because of course it’s prettier to see black plastic for keeping down weeds (didn’t work so well, did it?) than to see terrible, terrible red poppies that people actually stop and park to photograph.
On our side of the street, we love poppies. With all the rain, the weeds have grown ferociously. On Sunday, we took advantage of the sun and the soft ground to pull them out. We cleaned the area in front of our gate, careful not to bother the poppies.
We have a bit of a red theme going on. The roses are blooming like they’ve never done before. #rosesnofilter!
Don’t ask me names; I don’t know. The rose bushes were a wedding present from my co-workers. An excellent idea, better than a third toaster. Of course, my co-workers were uncommonly intelligent and I miss them terribly.
That big red rose shown alone could be smelled from three feet away. Heavenly.
And the poppy field behind our house just keeps getting redder.
Sorry for another poppy post so soon but it was provoked.