The Chelsea Flower Show in London this week - under skies like a grey woolly blanket - reminds me of a happy coincidence involving an iconic garden and some satisfying elements of detective work that I’ve been saving to share here.
It begins with a book, as most of my trails do. The Luberon Garden by veteran landscape designer Alex Dingwall-Main, is a rip-roaring good read about his years creating gardens in Provence, crammed full of useful information about plant-growing in the South of France.It’s one of those books that’s written by someone who shoots from the hip, who wants to tell a story – lots of stories – without literary constraint, and frankly is all the more enjoyable for that. There’s a real sense of a larger-than-life personality behind the jokes that occasionally misfire, the all-too-honest assessment of tricky situations and the frustrations along the way behind the garden successes.
His own house and garden are described in detail. “The house we finally settled for was an old mas that lay in a hammock of land slung between the medieval villages of Catholic Bonnieux on one side and Protestant Lacoste on the other, slightly favouring the latter with its position. It was a tired old place that had had the top floor renovated thirty years before we saw it in a style much appreciated by the paysanne.”There were holes in the roof and walls that were not as solid as they appeared. “In fact, the house told boundless lies, deceived us with false promises of strength and sniggered at us behind our back as we became ensnared by its capricious charm.” He and his wife would look down on it from the terrace of the Café de France in Lacoste above, and marvel at how it could look so tranquil.
And so it was, at about this time last year, that I found myself on the same terrace, taking in the panorama – when I suddenly realised I was looking down at something that I knew about: one of Alex Dingwall-Main’s most memorable design features, the river of lavender he made as the centrepiece of his own Luberon garden. I’d long been curious to see it but never thought it would be possible. So I took a couple of photos to compare with the passages in the book.“The ‘river’ started at the top of the highest bank, zigzagged its way down the slope, flowed on through the quince orchard, and finally arrived at the ‘wine lake’. That’s what I pretentiously called our remaining forty vines. I had been certain that if we were going to use lavender in the garden then it had to be applied in a slightly different style.”
You can clearly see in this photo the lavender’s flow through the quince trees in blossom and the vines at the bottom. (If all this seems intrusive, I will just say that Dingwall-Main no longer lives in Provence, and moved on from this house many years ago.)
He wrote: “Owing to the soil varying in consistency over the route, it flowers stronger in some places than it does in others, which increases the effect. I wish I had added white lavender to give highlights; it would have been quite subtle and easy to do, but it was missed, so there we are. The whole thing is maintenance heavy and only has a life span of seven or eight years and I doubt I’ll have the energy or inclination to do it again, but meanwhile it is most welcome.”Well, The Luberon Garden was published in 2001, and the events described largely took place in the 1990s, so either the river lasted far longer than he expected, or – perhaps more likely – subsequent owners have been inspired to keep it flowing.
If this has piqued your interest and you want to see more of his work, you can visit Alex Dingwall-Main’s garden design website here.