Mediterranean Garden Society

A forest fire: an opportunity to develop a mediterranean garden in Provence

by Jacqueline Potter
photographs by Jacqueline Potter

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 110, October 2022

The photo at the top of this page shows a view of the garden with the Orangerie in background (Photo Jacqueline Potter)

In 2001 Jacqueline Potter and her husband purchased one hectare of forested land in the South of France, not far from Toulon. She writes:

The view was stunning, ‘imprenable’ as the French call it (meaning “can’t be taken away” i.e. a panoramic view that nothing could ever spoil or obstruct). We built a house and began planting a relatively small Provençal-type garden with local plants. We had decided to leave the remainder of the plot forested, at least in the short term, since both of us had very busy working lives. In addition, the hillside was steep and not easily accessible.

Unfortunately, a forest fire swept up our hillside in 2006 and destroyed a large number of the trees on our land. Subsequent autumn rains eroded a lot of soil due to the lack of trees. We decided that something had to be done to contain the erosion damage. In addition, the surroundings looked dreadful and depressing. So we put all our energy and available time into a big overhaul and decided to completely rethink the empty space - almost 8000 square metres.

Cistus ladanifer var. sulcatus f. latifolius

We decided that a garden with drought-resistant ‘Mediterranean-type’ plants would be the only option, as we had no well on the land and we didn’t want to water such a large garden with tap water. Autumn and winter would be the only right planting time and we would have to plant small-sized plants with good root systems in order to accommodate the shallowness of the soil. We hoped that the new plants would be self-sufficient in the summer after planting.

Path carved through the new garden

In the autumn of 2006 we carved out a series of paths. Once the planting area was more accessible and visible we started planning what type of plants to plant here. As the area consisted mostly of rock only and no soil we needed to bring in a substrate to create depth. We decided to buy a substrate that resembled the local ‘soil’. Previous attempts in 2002 to bring in garden soil had proved frustrating: only weeds grew and the plants didn’t like it. We went to a local quarry and bought ‘tout venant’ – a mixture of crushed rock with a high sand content.

Once we had spread this mixture in the planting area it was time to plant. We decided to start with plants from North Africa and the Middle East as they can withstand tough growing conditions: different species of phlomis (Phlomis samia, P. purpurea, P. bovei ssp. maroccana, P. bourgaei), salvia (Salvia barrelieri, S. sclarea var. turkestanica), cistus (Cistus atriplicifolius, C. clusii, C. salviifolius) and Retama raetam. Wherever possible we decided to nurture the plants that began to regenerate spontaneously after the fire (e.g. Cistus albidus).

Orangerie planted with Hulthemia roses (Rosa persica)

After planting the first ‘North African section’ in 2006, we wanted to learn more about North African plants. It was time to visit these countries and see what else was growing locally. Once back home we went on a hunt to buy seeds and grow some of the plants we had seen. We built a small greenhouse in a shady corner for this purpose.

Tempeltonia retusa and Acacia dealbata

Once the gardening virus had hit us we couldn’t stop. We travelled to other Mediterranean countries, followed by visits to California and Australia. We brought back seeds from these trips and also purchased seeds online. The resulting plants were planted in our garden. Over the years we were lucky to be given cuttings by other gardeners in countries closer to home.

View with Kniphofia, Helichrysum petiolare, Geranium incanum

In the first years after the fire many plants struggled to adapt to their new environment. Some areas picked up more rapidly than others. The areas that struggled most were those that had suffered the worst destruction and greatest heat during the fire. We believe that the local microorganisms were destroyed in many places. Because of the lack of trees, there was no shade to protect the young plants in summer, which was a huge challenge. Thus in the early years we had a relatively high number of casualties, and we despaired as no plants wanted to self-seed.  But we battled on.

Varieties of Ceanothus next to Fremontodendron ‘California Glory’

After about five years we saw some seedlings appearing here and there. By then many plants had grown enough for their roots to be deep, and the leaves cast shade which kept roots cooler in the heat. This shade also helped new seedlings to grow on and not roast in the summer.

Over the years we grew a huge variety of plants originating from the USA (California/Arizona), Australia, the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Portugal, Greece and of course France. We planted these in sections dedicated to the various countries. In order not to forget the names of the plants we grow, we label all the plants in the garden.

Styrax officinalis

As the garden started to attract visitors we gave it a name: “Le Jardin des Aliboufiers”. Aliboufier is the Provençal name for Styrax officinalis; following the fire, we discovered that several Styrax officinalis bushes appeared spontaneously in the areas where, before the fire, only oaks and pines grew. We think that the Styrax, which likes strong sunlight, had been overgrown and ultimately killed by the tall trees. The seeds had probably lain dormant for at least 100 years if not more and the action of the fire must have promoted their germination. Styrax is actually rare in France and exists only within a 10 km radius around our village.

Teucrium fruticans ‘Agadir’, Phlomis bovei ssp. maroccana, Salvia ‘Chateau Cathare’, Euphorbia rigida

Things we have learnt during our 15-year garden journey:

  • Never break the rule that plants should be planted only in autumn and winter if they are to be self-sufficient the following summer;
  • Once micro-organisms have reestablished themselves in the soil, plants reseed more readily and new plants also seem to grow faster;
  • Many plants prefer to grow close together, as if they ‘help’ each other: density seems to promote faster growth – we now plant closer together than we did in the first years and often closer than the recommended distances;
  • It is sometimes hard to envisage the size of the mature plant. Some plants that grow large in their country of origin may remain small in our climate or vice versa. We have learned to not worry too much about this and to transplant plants in winter to other sites in case an area gets too crowded;
  • Compost is very beneficial, even for plants which are used to a mineral substrate. They grow better. We use only composted tree bark to avoid weeds. All our plants receive some on an annual or bi-annual basis, however we try to avoid spreading it close to the stem of the plants to avoid (winter) rotting.

View with Cistus x skanbergii, C. x purpureus and C. x pulverulentes

Over the years we have seen a huge increase in birds, bees and mammals. At dawn and dusk we regularly see foxes and deer walking through the garden. Birds are everywhere and make the garden lively with their constant song. We now see bees for 12 months a year. Especially in winter and early spring they seem to be drawn to our garden, as little else is then flowering in the area where we live.

Anisodontea capensis which blooms through winter

As soon as the temperature drops and the rain returns it will be time to begin the 2022 planting – about 400 plants are waiting in the greenhouse…

THE MEDITERRANEAN GARDEN is the registered trademark of The Mediterranean Garden Society in the European Union, Australia, and the United States of America

Data Protection Consent

website designed and maintained
by Hereford Web Design