Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Cocktail Drinkers' Guide to Gardening: June

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 ProvencePost.com, James goes out on a limb for us, serving up essental gardening tips along with appropriate seasonal drink suggestions. Here's what sprang from his fertile mind this month....

Finally "Flaming June" has arrived. A lot of us were beginning to feel she wouldn't get here at all this year. But yet again we find ourselves poolside, sun drenched and happy that Provence continues to live up to its brilliant image. The lavender is in its full glory. The olive trees appear to have fruit (after such a severe winter, it’s somewhat surprising). I’m trimming hedges and cypress trees like crazy. Most men (I've noticed) love to clip, cut, trim--and when it gets to chain saws it really is party time. So this last week I found myself up and down a ladder non-stop, clipping my ‘Italian’ cypresses. These are not native to Provence but nonetheless have been here for ages. They’re the tall, thin trees one sees in gardens and formal entrances  and not the 'Provencal' cypresses that are planted for wind breaks along many of the roads and in lines throughout  the countryside. 

The best method of dealing with ‘Italian’ cypresses is to keep them quite tightly clipped so the branches don't get too big and literally fall out and start making the tree look a mess--somewhat like a good hair cut where you have the odd stray hair sticking out (or up as the case may be). 

One of my neighbors took it into her head to get her gardener to re-shape her trees in the form of what can only be described as the 'male sex organ' which has somewhat added to her reputation. The only thing that I got round to doing to mine was chain sawing off the tops (of course off the top because off the bottom wouldn't work).  I took off six feet as they had become so tall that I thought I would have to rent a light aircraft to trim the tops.

So, should you find that your ‘Italian’ cypresses are becoming too much for you, I can assure you that cutting off the tops does not harm them and, in fact, appears to strengthen the growth at the bottom. 

Here I must just mention that shears are the only tool for clipping; if you have an electric or powered trimmer, I'd suggest you throw it away as soon as possible. Like most things in life, hand-made or hand-done is the best. Power trimmers tend to gnaw and shred and lead to diseased trees and hedges.

Trimming trees and the like results in giving one a heavy thirst so it wouldn't be unusual to start mulling over the recipes for a thirst quencher.  Once you've finished for the day, store your shears--and your ladder--safely away. This is something a 'real' gardener always does when finishing work, even in mid cut as it were. There’s no difference between this and vacuuming a room; if you hadn't  finished you wouldn't leave the vacuum there overnight! 

Were you fortunate enough to have friends staying or your partner handy, they may well have started preparing the evening's 'apero' or cocktail. After a quick shower to wash off the thousands of cypress clippings which have managed to stick to you during the afternoon, you’re now ready to join them on the terrace and, if luck is truly yours, then placed in your hand would be a sparkling glass of Champagne Jen.
Champagne Jen
1 part Cranberry Juice
1 part Orange Juice
1 bottle Champagne
Combine all ingredients in an iced punch bowl. Serve cold. 

And there you have the perfect recipe for a flaming Provencal evening in June. Or, for that matter, July or August or...

Which reminds me of Lily Bollinger's famous quote about bubbly, sent to me recently by a friend who loves Provence as much as I do:

"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty."
Pip Pip!
Watercolor by James Clay: Cypresses surround an old Roman aqueduct near the village of Fontvieille.


  1. Oooh, this makes me so jealous. Mainly because I'm not in Provence and I'm not drinking anything. (Well, not this minute.)

  2. I'm jealous too. I live in the centre ville and there is no such thing as a cypress tree. However, I'm doing my best to make a garden on the terrace all the same. Recipe sounds great. I recently tried champagne with a little home made ginger syrup mixed in. Delicious. And your friend's quote is one I'll have to use...somewhere. Always enjoy your articles.

  3. Loved this article as we have about 28 Cypress de Florence in our garden. All except two are 'well groomed' by our Moroccan gardener who does seem to enjoy lovingly clipping away with his hand-held clippers. He even has lengthened these by putting the handles up two plastic tubes, keeping them in place with the aid of a couple of bits of stick! But for the two big ones the professionals are necessary every couple of years. They do look wonderful when freshly trimmed. Have family who arrived yesterday for a week, can't wait to try out your suggestion for a different apero. Thank you.