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Domaine d’Orvès: A Quiet Garden

by Caroline Harbouri
photographs from Les Amis d’Orvès Domaine d’Orvès

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No 82, October 2015

Caroline writes “I’ve been trying to define to myself what I mean by a quiet garden – and it’s harder than I thought. I am someone who is fascinated by plants, so my overall definition may be that a quiet garden is one in which it is the plants that matter most. Rather than being used as material to create effects, and sometimes indeed violated rather brutally to this end (think cloud-pruned olive trees or square-cut cypresses), plants are grown for their own sake. Naturally this doesn’t preclude aesthetic effects, but these, if the gardener has a good eye, result from the juxtaposition of contrasting or complementary shapes and colours, of the wise use of light and shade, and it is the plants and their well being that come first.”

Mixed colours and textures of foliage at the Domaine d’Orvès

“On the outskirts of La Vallette-du-Var, itself now more or less encroached on by the spill-over from the city of Toulon, the Domaine d’Orvès is one such garden, occupying eight hectares on the footslopes of the Coudon Massif. The bastide (house) dates from the 17th century.”

The front door of the 17th-century bastide

She writes that then as now “an important year-after-year concern would have been the cultivation and harvesting of their olive trees. Today, olives are still cultivated on the land at the very bottom of the garden.”

Old olives in the grove at the bottom of the property

“The garden of the Domaine d’Orvès is lush and shady: it possesses the great blessing of water. A spring feeds the swimming pool at the top of the garden; little rills run down through it ….  a pond overhung by a massive Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ lies to one end of the terrace in front of the house, while immediately below it are two long narrow ponds, full of water-lilies and fish..”

One of the two long, narrow ponds at the top of the oleander steps,
just below the terrace of the house. The lush vegetation includes
self-seeded Trachelium caeruleum growing in the masonry.

“I don’t think I have ever seen oleanders as tall as those that line the allée leading up in broad steps from the gate at the bottom to the house. They are tree-sized, maybe three metres high; characteristically, some of the branches are almost horizontal with a series of verticals rising along their length, giving an interweaving effect. Their flowers are dark pink and double. These oleanders are clearly very old plants although all the growth that we see today dates from after the 1940s.”
Caroline goes on to explain that the oleanders were hacked to the ground along with many of the trees in the garden by the German forces when they occupied the estate in WWII.

The stepped path leading from the gate up to the house,
bordered by very old tree-sized oleanders

“..we pass what was once the private chapel, used by the Germans as a bunker, now a store room. I recall Brideshead Revisited and wonder fleetingly whether this chapel, built in the 1870s, might not have been a wedding present to a devout bride… However this may be, this chapel with its ornamented façade of faded pink plaster is certainly the grandest garden shed that I have ever seen.

The former chapel, now used as a store room

“One of the unobtrusive pleasures of this garden, I realise, is the variety of surfaces over which one walks… Moving down from the pool to the west one comes upon yet another surface, this time the cobbled one of an old aire de battage or threshing floor… now a place for quiet contemplation, with a stone bench strategically placed in the shade.”

A bench for contemplation at the side of the old threshing floor

“In 1962 – another vicissitude – fire swept through the western slopes of the garden. In the 50-odd years since, an arboretum of most interesting trees has been created, many of them grown from seed. The first I looked at was a magnificent arbutus, set back in a little clearing of its own. It is a shapely tree – its form alone would be a pleasure – with exquisite deep auburn bark, so smooth and silky that it is impossible to resist the temptation to put out one’s hand and stroke it gently. It is thought to be Arbutus xalapensis (syn. A. glandulosa) from Mexico.

The lovely auburn bark of Arbutus xalapensis peeling to reveal silky green
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