Lately I have been reading Marcel Proust (my book club made me do it!), and though I find his three-page sentences more than I can bear, his childhood recollections are palpable, full of colour, texture and aroma. His words remind me of the potency of taste and smell, and how these senses can stimulate memory and allow us to recapture past experiences.
Proust’s writing is a collection of sensory details that are both personal and particular in time and place. For me, reading his prose reinforced just how much of our experience in today’s world has become increasingly homogenous, particularly in our urban landscapes. We long to savour the colours, textures, tastes and scents of regions different from our own.
Happily, distinct and special places are still plentiful. The South of France, one of my favourite haunts, is one place with an unquestionably distinctive landscape. This romantic region of rounded mountains with terraced vineyards, gentle, grassy sheep pastures and wildflower meadows encourages us to explore. Along the way, we can soak ourselves in the sunlight, breathing in the heady scent of fragrant herbs and flowers, figs, olives and grapes.
This is a landscape you can get inside; a place that fills your head and lungs with the unforgettable scent of lavender and sage.
French sensibilities for B.C. gardens
What lessons pertinent to the scented garden can be drawn from the Mediterranean gardens in the South of France? The first is that the garden must be placed where it will most often be experienced. Locate arbours for scented vines and plant fragrant beds adjacent to pathways. Place pots of aromatic plants around, beside, under or over doorways and windows, so that when opened, the fragrance is invited indoors.
Second, place your Mediterranean plot in a sunny location, in well-drained soil. The sun on the plants’ leaves and flowers causes a release of essential oils, enhancing their fragrance. Most Mediterranean plants don’t tolerate wet feet, and will perform better in conditions that mimic their native environment.
Third, plant drifts of a mixture of flowers, herbs and grasses. This will create a natural, meadow-like effect and a succession of flowers throughout the year. The drifts of flowers will attract pollinating insects, which, in turn, will result in even more flowers.
Finally, plan for a long season of fragrance by including early- and late-blooming fragrant flowers and herbs with aromatic leaves. Some potted plants on decks and patios can survive mild coastal winters. My rosemary and thyme plants, if tucked up under the eaves, provide my kitchen with savoury leaves all winter long. Evergreen plants grow slowly over the winter, requiring little attention; however, those that are completely protected by the eaves will need an occasional drink. Container plants exposed to the rain should be raised off the ground with their saucers removed to allow for free drainage.
With these plants in my garden, the South of France is never very far away. And neither are the memories they evoke.