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: