Garden Development

La Carmejane was bought using a real estate transaction known as viager. Popular in France, the arrangement allows home owners to sell their property for an initial “down payment” followed by monthly payments for the life of the home owner, who remains in the home until death. Upon the death of the home owner, the buyer takes possession. The arrangement is starkly realistic: viager property listings in France typically include the age of the owner along with the price.

Before they took possession of their new home, the owners had to deal with many stumbling blocks between them and the resident owners still living in the house. One incident, in particular, was of disastrous proportions. After a long dry spell, on May 12 1993 torrential rain soaked the earth of the central garden on the property’s upper level. The water dislodged a boulder below weighing over 1,000 tons. As the boulder fell away, the ramparts it was supporting collapsed. A third of the upper garden washed down the hillside! It took five years and a major engineering feat to repair the damage while retaining the traditional appearance of the wall.

If there was a silver lining to the destruction, it was the opportunity to begin with a blank slate for the new upper- level garden. The couple first retained the services of Nicole de Vésian, a stylish woman who had worked in the Parisian design industry for most of her adult life. After moving to Provence in 1986, she began a second career as a garden designer – a tribute to her prodigious creativity and life energy. After designing her own garden masterpiece, La Louve, she was asked to design several other gardens in the region. Sadly, Nicole took ill before completing her work at La Carmejane. She passed away in 1996, a year before the new owners finally took possession. Though she did not get to work her magic on La Carmejane, her advice was invaluable: “Listen to the stones, and they will speak.”

The new owners brought in a series of creative minds to help with the garden plan. English designers John Brookes and Tim Rees helped with initial ideas about what the garden might become, but it was the magical talent of a local Frenchman, interior designer Michel Biehn, that carried the day. Extraordinarily gifted, Michel was already helping the owners with the interior of the home and, at their request, stepped into the role of garden designer, bringing his talents to the challenging hillside. Working alongside the owners, nurseryman Jean-Claude Appy, plant sculptor and de Vésian protégé Marc Nucera, and mason Max Ellena, Michel transformed La Carmejane into a series of beautiful garden spaces. The various garden “rooms” tucked into the hillside are simple in their impact, never fussy. The ancient history of the site is respected, yet the garden design feels fresh.

This is an extract of an article from The Mediterranean Garden first published in 2014.

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