One of my favourite landscapes in the Alpes-Maritimes is an old Roman quarry situated above Monaco in La Turbie. Incredibly inspirational, it represents the contrast of the hand of man cutting straight blocks of stone from the broad sweeping curves of the rock veins, with an abundance of vegetation growing in the harshest of conditions.
Often within our own gardens we get caught between such a rock and a hard place. Daunted by the mass of mineral materials, we might be fooled into believing that nothing could ever grow there. But here in a similarly mineral mass, life is bursting out of every crack and crevice. In each depression and fault of the stone, slowly decomposed plant material has collected. Absorbing moisture, it has allowed the first sedums to appear. Then once an initial mass of vegetation occurs, more humus and matter accumulates and the first grasses, perennials and small shrubs can take root. If there is a fault line, deep-rooted shrubs and trees can delve down and take hold.
In that narrow space behind the house (or between the driveway or the front of the house) where nothing seems to grow, this is often where plants and nature shine the most and grow with a different intent: not that of voluptuous bucolic opulence but rather with a sinewy defined will to live.
The quarry is used for walking, picnicking and serious play, from abseiling and climbing to BB gun wars, and the balance of mineral and vegetated areas give plenty of space for all this activity as the large areas of bare rock leave little room for anything but lichens and sedums to grow. The carrière is essentially a series of bowls hewn out of the mountainside north and south facing, creating protected rooms and environmental conditions. The hard edges are softened by the swirling wind with its drifts of gravel and organic matter. These help soften that sharp line between the vertical and the horizontal plane; they also provide a growing medium and trim the massive stone edifices with delicate touches of colour and texture. This is the sort of balance of space we try to create in our own gardens.
The natural landscape of the La Turbie quarry can be translated into your garden
As this is a natural landscape there are hundreds of species of plants cohabiting. There is, however, a hierarchy amongst them – dominant plants that we see again and again throughout the area, which have adapted depending on the conditions. For example, an ash tree is dwarfed and twisted growing out of a rock crevice on the south-facing side of the rock face yet develops into a tall multi-stemmed tree on the north side of the quarry protected from the sun and the steady onslaught of the Mistral winds. This repetition gives unity to the landscape and the continuity within the complexity is reassuring; it feels as though one is in a singular space.
The water in this landscape is scarce, a circle of small holes punched out of smooth rock, which once served as a measuring device for the masons and now collects small pockets of rainwater, shining like silver dots on the face of an ancient clock. The rock strata lean back towards the south-facing quarry wall creating seasonal pools that in turn produce their own quality of vegetation. The old naturally formed limestone pavement shows vestiges of pre-Roman years. Water seeps out of the base of fault lines marking the rock over time leaving its mark even when there is no water.
Walking out of the La Turbie quarry I reflect on the gardens I have either created recently or visited and am content in knowing there is a great deal of work ahead to achieve anything close to this elegance and beauty. I feel energised with the challenge of trying to create spectacular landscapes in difficult areas within a garden.
James Basson, Scape Design Monaco, is an international award winning Garden Designer.