Parlez-vous National Gardens Scheme?
France may not yet be quite as user-friendly for garden visitors as our own dear backyard, but the French are rapidly acquiring the garden open day habit.
As a result there is new flowering of tourist-friendly information that makes it much easier for visitors to navigate their way around open gardens.
The Languedoc region in southern France is rich in wonderful, undiscovered gardens, some old, some very new. One of its departments, the Gard (largest city, Nîmes), has just inaugurated a network of private and public gardens called Les Jardins Singuliers, all detailed in a brochure available from the tourist office (see below).
Les Singuliers encompass world-famous plant collections, original urban landscape projects, contemporary gardens by leading designers, and small home gardens of exceptional creativity and plantsmanship.
All the member owners are committed to organic management. All are fauna-friendly (many listed as bird shelters) and all offer a warm welcome to their visitors. They link easily into a north-south travel plan stretching from the Cévennes mountains to the sea; from sparsely populated, wooded valleys with picturesque streams and torrents to Mediterranean scrubland and sandy beaches.
Here is our pick of the best ...
Jardin du Mas de l'Abri and the Jardin du Tomple
At the northern end of this network, these two near-neighbours are tucked into wild valleys. Both feature choice perennials and shrubs beautifully arranged on gentle hillsides, with a soft shading of foliage and flower tones from rusty red to purple and silver. Home-made land art uses local stone or recycled tools. Paths meander up hill and down dale, unveiling scene after scene.
Ethnobotanical gardens of la Gardie
To the southeast but still north of the town of Alès, landscapes are already dryer, more Mediterranean. The fascinating ethnobotanical gardens of Rousson are a series of woodland clearings organised to illustrate drystone wall construction, woodland management and family farming. Each one shows how traditional agriculture encouraged a sustainable partnership with nature. The walled herb garden is particularly appealing. Rousson is a conservatory not only for heirloom plants, but also for interesting rural customs and technologies.
City of Alès
Alès, once a mining town, is on the southern edge of the Cévennes. Its enthusiastic park management team is fighting the urban sprawl of decades to restore the city's gardens and make it a centre for botanical research. For the moment, their best efforts can be seen in the roundabout plantings along the avenues which skirt the city. These show the influence of nurseryman Olivier Filippi's dry gardening practices so influential in this region (see The Dry Gardening Handbook, Thames & Hudson, pub. August).
La Bambouseraie de Prafrance
From Alès to the coast, you may move either east, towards Provence, or west, towards Montpellier. About 20 miles south-west of Alès is one of France's best-loved gardens, the Bambouseraie of Prafrance. Founded in 1856 by keen collector Eugene Mazel, it absorbs 300,000 visitors annually, welcomes researchers from all over the world, and most recently, commissioned talented land artists to make works featuring bamboo. The owner, Muriel Nègre, has also added a Japanese lake garden designed by Erik Borja for collections of Asian maples. No other place is quite like Prafrance, and its fans return over and over again.
Jardin des Sambucs
The town of Alès is a crossroads with good gardens in several directions so you have to make a choice: in the direction of Le Vigan (heading west) lies the inimitable Jardin des Sambucs, created by Agnès and Nicolas Brückin. Set in a tiny hamlet on a terraced slope, this is one of France's most creative new country gardens, for plant-lovers, art-lovers and those who enjoy simply being in places of exuberant beauty (b & b available).
Lussan and Uzès
If from Alès you take the road south-east towards Uzès and Provence, you might stop in the tiny medieval village of Lussan, dramatically visible from the road as a high, fortified plateau.
The gardens of the Buis de Lussan are up top, against the village ramparts, semi-formal and lovingly tended by the owners, who also run an elegant b & b.
Uzès is well known for its golden stone, inspired historic setting and wonderful Saturday markets. Tucked into its heart, between two chapels, are its charming medieval gardens. Here, dedicated gardeners have collected 400 varieties of local wild plants, and laid out a formal, walled garden to illustrate the uses that medieval medicine found for them.
Jardin de la Noria
Just outside Uzès is an amazing contemporary garden, La Noria (named for its old-fashioned irrigation system). This is a major work by the internationally acclaimed team of Arnaud Maurières and Eric Ossart. La Noria, their most recent work in France, is open only by appointment and for special events. Inspired both by Mexican architect Luis Barragan and Islamic courtyards, it blends minimalist architecture with sumptuous plantings, including a rose garden. Maurières and Ossart's imaginative Paradise gardens at Cordes-sur-Ciel in south-western France, and the Alchemy Gardens in Provence are already well-known.
Mémoires de Garrigue
The famous Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, is a World Heritage Site. Recent restoration has preserved the wildness of its narrow mountain gorge, but added a park on the left bank called Mémoires de Garrigue, 20 acres of mixed landscapes recounting the history of this site from ancient times.
At its heart, a small terraced garden designed by Philippe Deliau sets off a traditional capitelle (drystone hut). Informative material explores the connection between landscape and agriculture. Meadow mowing is carefully planned to encourage the flourishing populations of wild orchids.
Les Jardins de la Fontaine
Southwest of Uzès, the city of Nîmes offers one of France's great historic monuments, Les Jardins de la Fontaine, which have kept all the 18th-century elegance of a Louis XV park and also incorporate impressive Roman remains. Locals and visitors have admired the Temple of Diana for more than 2,000 years. Everyone strolls on the esplanade under 300-year-old trees (horse chestnut, Celtis australis). At the top of the hill stands a medieval tower, the Tour Magne, offering wonderful views of the countryside.
Nîmes-Caissarges rest area
Leaving Nîmes for Arles on the motorway, most visitors miss the rest area called Nîmes-Caissarges which, however, contains a much-acclaimed work of landscape architecture, a small park laid out by Bernard Lassus of the Versailles school. His aim was to humanise the motorway by linking it to surrounding landscapes and to evoke the Roman history of the region. Just the spot for a post-modern picnic on your way to Arles, gateway to Provence.
- For a brochure on Les Jardins Singuliers, go to: www.tourismegard.com. A pdf, Jardins en Méli-mélo, can be downloaded or ordered at Find Out More/Brochures.
Contact information for all the gardens:
Mas de l'Abri, Mme Christiane Gaillard, 30450 Ponteils-et-Bressis (33 4 66 61 17 61; Michri.email@example.com)
Jardin du Tomple, Véronique Lacaze, Françoise Tabusse et Stéphane Chipaud, 30450 Concoules (33 4 66 61 11 31 or 33 4 66 61 19 49; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Jardins Ethnobotaniques de La Gardie, Ancienne école de Pont d’Avène, 30340 Rousson (33 4 66 85 66 90; www.lesjardinsethno.org).
City of Alès Tourist Office (33 4 66 52 32 15; FAX 33 4 66 52 57 09; www.ville-ales.fr).
Bambouseraie de Prafrance, 30140 Générargues (33 4 66 61 70 47; Fax 33 4 66 61 64 15; www.bambouseraie.fr).
Jardin des Sambucs, Agnès and Nicholas Brückin, Le Villaret, route de Valleraugue D355, 30570 Saint-André-de-Majencoules (33 4 67 82 46 47; www.jardinsambucs.com).
Les Buis de Lussan, Françoise et Thierry Vieillot, Rue de la Ritournelle, 30580 Lussan (33 4 66 72 88 93; http://buisdelussan.free.fr).
Jardin médiéval d’Uzès, Association In Situ, Impasse Port-Royal, 30700 Uzès (33 4 66 22 38 21; www.uzes-tourisme.com).
La Noria, Jean et Martine Deparis, Mas de Licon, 30700 Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie (33 4 66 22 90 40; www.jardin-de-la-noria.com).
Mémoires de Garrigue, 400 Route du Pont du Gard, 30210 Vers-Pont-du-Gard (33 8 20 90 33 30; Fax 33 4 66 37 51 50; www.pontdugard.fr).
Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes Quai de La Fontaine, city centre, north of the Roman arena. Brochure available from the Tourist Office, 6, rue Auguste, 30020 NIMES 1 (33 4 66 58 38 00; FAX 04 66 58 38 01; www.ot-nimes.fr)