Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Cocktail Drinkers' Guide to Gardening: May

Originally from Hampshire, England, James Clay is an artist and sculptor who has lived in St. Remy for almost 20 years. He knows pretty much everything about gardening in Provence. Plus, he likes to drink...and write. (Often at the same time, of course.) Each month here on, James serves up gardening tips and ideas...with appropriate drink suggestions. This month, he's just back from a return visit--with his sister--to Sissinghurst in Kent, where he first fell in love with the idea of an all-white garden. (Hey, that's a good idea for a contest! Write a limerick or poem about Mr. Clay and his sister at Sissinghurst, then submit it as a comment below. The best one wins a prize.) Meanwhile, here's James...

"The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast,
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May is out."--
                     F.K. Robinson's Whitby Glossary, 1855

'Clout,’ by the way, in this instance means clothing. And of course I ignored this warning and so there I was, yet again, to be found opening the swimming pool too early, convinced the weather would hold fine, totally seduced by the 'out like a lamb' weather we had at the end of April. Like most people, I prefer sunshine and gentle zephyrs to cold and rain so when we get a downpour I try to cheer myself up by saying, 'It's good for the garden' which obviously is very much the case! The added bonus, of course, is that it’s 'watering in' all the plants I swore I wouldn't buy again this year but did.

I’m into roses and have been for about three years; the reason being that they are costaud (French for hardy, strong, well built); even though quite a few need treating for bugs, they seem to thrive here in Provence.

I was reminded by 'he who doesn't seem to hear a word I say' that May is also the name given to hawthorn flowers and, despite the rhyme already quoted, there is a simple saying, ‘Never cast a clout until May is out’--May in this sense meaning not the month but the flowers. And that got me to thinking about white flowers.

Many moons ago now, I visited the famous garden of Sissinghurst in Kent, England (created by Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West) with some friends (who started me off on watercolor painting, so I hold them very dear) and it was there I visited my first ever 'white garden.’ Even during the day it was magical but in early evening it seemed to shimmer, glow and come alive. They do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (not that I could possibly pull off a copy of Sissinghurst's  White Garden) but for the last few years my terrace has become increasingly white.  Of course, there's a coolness about white that many people find uninteresting and even downright dull but it can also be extremely romantic and relaxing. Trust me when I say that the effect at the all-important cocktail hour can be splendid. 

Should you be in the envious position of planting up your terrace from scratch, here are a few ideas to start creating this special look. Grow a white Wisteria Floribunda  ‘Alba’ or a Solanum Jasminoides  'Album' over a trellis. Wisteria is an odd bird when it comes to flowering. You can be lucky the first year…but often you wait three years while it settles in. Once it does, watch out as it can lift the roof off the house if you don't keep an eye on it!

Another climber, which is very fragrant and does very well here in Provence, is Trachelospermum jasminoides. In deep shade, in pots, Brussels Lace, a hydrangea that flowers in late summer, lives up to its name. In full to medium sunlight, plant the all-time, best-selling white rose, Iceberg. Why is it the world's best seller? It’s very resistant to bugs and will flower forever (though sadly giving no perfume). Then you have to get some 'Alice Gloucester' agapanthus for your pots or plant them in along the front of the terrace. I even have white oleander in large pots. Always remember that the larger the pot, the less time spent watering!

Having decided to have a white garden or terrace, don't hold back--there are hundreds of white flowering plants and flowers to be found. Get some fillers too, like the ubiquitous geraniums, petunias and nicotiana. There are many good local nurseries; I can recommend Pepiniere Pujante (04-90-92-60-42) and Eco-Jardin  (06-14-83-79-07).

Once you have created your white garden or terrace, it's time to have your friends over to inspect your hard work. Don't forget to wear the brightest color shirt /blouse you own to make sure you stand out against your newly created backdrop! And the cocktail for May has to be a Sangria Blanca, Spain's White Sangria.


  * 1 Bottle white wine
  * 1/2 Cup Cointreau or similar quality orange liqueur
  * 1/4 Cup sugar
  * 1 Orange, sliced
  * 1 Lemon, sliced
  * 2 Cups club soda


 1. In large pitcher or jug, combine all ingredients except club soda.
 2. Lightly bruise fruit with a wooden spoon and stir to dissolve sugar (tip: a small amount of wine can be heated and stirred into sugar first to ensure that all granules dissolve).
 3. Refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to mingle.
 4. Just prior to serving, add club soda (and ice, if desired).

Just to finish with a splash of color, May is the month for poppies and the countryside is on fire with them. You will have them in your garden if you remembered to turn the earth over last autumn. Happy gardening...


  1. Sound refreshing!!! Maybe Robes and I will try this weekend.....Maryanne xo

  2. I am actually off to Kent next week and Sissinghurst is on my list. I do hope everything is blooming, especially the white garden. Your terrace sounds fabulous.

  3. Does M. Clay open his garden to visitors or is it strictly private?



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