Saturday, 25 July 2009

Marvellous Serre de la Madone in Menton

The last garden that we visited on our tour of France last week - Serre de la Madone in Menton - was perhaps the most interesting, not just because it's the former home of Lawrence Johnston, who also owned Hidcote in the UK, but because it is undergoing restoration, after some 40 years of neglect so it's very much a garden in progress.

Although in the same town as Jardin Val Rahmeh, it could not be more different - this garden is reminiscent of England, both in its planting style and placing of statues, pergolas and water features, whereas Val Rahmeh is like a tropical feast! In Southern France the word "serre" refers to mountains and this garden lies in the hills to the west of Menton, so it has a different soil structure to Sir Percy Radcliffe's creation in the east of the town. If you're going to be in the area - do visit both on the same day, but not on Monday or Tuesday, because both have different closing days!

Johnston, who had spent much of his early life in France, arrived on the French Riviera in 1924. He had already made the garden at Hidcote, so he had a good understanding of plants and planting and he, like many of his compatriots recognised that this area was a botanist's paradise. because of its micro-climate. He was a passionate plant collector and his search for new species led him all over the world in his quest for plants for his new property.

Johnston's passion for collecting plants was to play a major feature in the way the garden developed over the years, because he wanted separate areas to display all his specimens. And the French horticulturist Ernest de Ganay described this garden as "an oasis of flowers, a paradise of colours and scents", when he visited in the mid-1930s.

When visiting this garden you arrive at the bottom of the hill below the house (top) and wind your way up through wonderful terraces filled with agapanthus and flowering plants (above right); and are then surprised by the formal gardens that are overlooked by the house, where you discover the wonderful lotus plantation (above and below). There is so much to see and it is exciting to see the work in progress; what is already there is quite spectacular and this is another garden that ranks high on my list of world favourites.

When Johnston died in 1958, he had no children, and he left the garden to Nancy Lindsay, who was herself a well-known botanist. She was unable to pay the taxes and was forced to sell the property, which then had a succession of different owners, who lacked the specialist knowledge to maintain the garden, so it gradually fell into neglect and disrepair. Finally, in 1999, it was purchased by the Conservatoire du Littoral, with the help of the town of Menton and other corporate bodies, and it is now undergoing restoration. Now there is a dedicated group restoring La Madone to its former glory, along with other private gardens in Menton.

I leave you with this lotus image as I depart for India to work on The Raven Foundation hospital in Rajasthan - which is my own way of restoring health and happiness to a very different community, and I hope you'll drop in on my other blog to see how we're progressing in the next few weeks - we lay the foundation stone this coming Friday and this is going to be the start of a very exciting period in my life. I'll also be writing about the wonderful gardens that I visit in India, but my real work is in promoting our foundation and seeking support both in India and back at home for our project. There is little doubt in my mind about the impact that my gardening forays have had on the way I think about what we are starting in Rajasthan and my motto for the foundation is:


Thank you all for visiting my gardening blog so regularly in the last few weeks - I've really enjoyed writing the entries and many of you have made wonderful comments, which have been much appreciated. I'll be back visiting English gardens next month.


  1. Have a good journey-and I hope I will be a rewarding and profitable one for all.

    Im so glad that Mr Johnstone's garden is being restored. He was such an influential man , it would have been criminal had it been completely reclaimed by nature. I wish them luck .

  2. I love gardening too
    so I am follow you here too!

  3. Charlotte, I really enjoy your garden posts. Keep on posting. It's like traveling places with you.

  4. Charlotte, you have once again, shared a beautiful piece of the world with us. Seems like the last (and only) time I was on the Riviera I was more interested in hitting the beach. Silly me. I was young, what can I say?

    Your trip to India sounds great. What a remarkable woman.

  5. Charlotte, I didn't realize how philanthropic you are. Best of luck to you on your trip to India. It sounds like a huge task but well worth it.

    It must have been devastating for Ms. Lindsay to be forced to sell the gardens. I love how our generation is restoring these forgotten places. For humanity's sake they need to be remembered. It is not just history for history's sake but a chance to see how dedicated and creative our horticultural predecessors were.

    Look forward to your return.

  6. I ADORE that walkway / series of stone (fake stone?) arbors. Very contepoary yet still warm and French. I love France. Je l'adore. Good luck in India!

  7. An interesting post and garden thank you.

  8. Fascinating! Thanks for taking us along with you and for your perceptive comments on gardens and garden design.

  9. Have a good trip. I've enjoyed reading about your garden visits.
    The fate of these historical gardens is entirely dependent on someone or an organisation getting involved. It is a lottery really, not helped by the expense involved. We are lucky some still survive at all.

  10. What a beautiful adventure you are on! And what a gorgeous city you got to visit and tour! Such greenery and architecture! I just got back from vacation to Yellowstone and so I am playing catch-up. I just posted about our trip. I hope to see you there. Looks like I've got some posts to catch up with you. Happy reading.

  11. Hidcote is one of my favorite gardens in the UK, how interesting that they are connected. Menton is one place in France i haven't been, but I feel an odd connection to it so hope to go. Looks beautiful!