Green Acre #63: 10 Steps to the Perfect French Garden

No one Here But Us Chic-uns.

I GOT SO INSPIRED by Bastille Day last week, I began musing on the nature of the French jardin, preferably a Provençal one. Follow this simple path and be transported. Allons-y!

1. Start with a chair. You know the one. Bamboo framed and laced with black and white webbing. (It couldn’t always have been plastic . . . it must have been something else at another time. Lambskin? But plastic will do.) Set one or four in the garden and you have instant France—poof!

From Terrain, a 10-foot-long reclaimed teak dining table, $2,898 at
2. You do have two table choices, depending on the size of your patio. There is the classic round bistro table, the surface of which might be tiled, or wood, or stone. You may cover this with a French tablecloth; the cloths come in such lovely shades of orange and yellow and green and blue, with sheaves of wheat or lavender, but not tea pots, printed along the border. If you have space, consider a wooden farmhouse table of a length to seat 15 or 20, whatever is your usual Sunday dinner guest count. In this case, you might employ benches along the sides in addition to your café chairs.

Bulk pea gravel is $333.50 for 5 yards (whatever that means) at The Home Depot.
3. Now, you need to set the table and chair upon something, and while there are surfaces that could pass—brick or flagstone come to mind—ideally you have pea gravel; the small, pale, tan stones that wedge in your espadrilles and dig a hole in your heel. Pea gravel is the ultimate French courtyard material. You come away from a walk across it instantly fluent in French. Ooh! Ow! Ouch! Or rather, Zut! Merde!

Cast-iron rat-tail shutter dogs, sold in pairs,  $18.50 the pair from John Wright.
4. Ideally, your house should be made of stone, with a bit of moss creeping up the walls, with very large shutters covering the windows. Americans tend to have wholly wrong shutters, far too small and flimsy to shut over the windows in the event of a storm, or to keep the icy blasts of winter out of the lounge. Your shutters must close over the windows, or at least look like they can, with cast-iron shutter dogs holding them open against the walls.

If your home is not stone, one would hope for brick. And the brick must be painted the lively colors of Provence. Take a cue from one of those southern French tablecloths and think Dijon mustard, tangerine or buttercup yellow paired with the clearest possible blue. The trim and the door and the body of the house have to zing off each other, but harmoniously, s’il vous plait. Of course, window boxes must be overflowing with blossoms that play with your color scheme.

5. While a case might be made for a border or pots of lavender, there is no plant more quintessentially French than the hydrangea, or more exactly, the blue hydrangea, which is the blue of an utterly cloudless sky after a rain, when all of the humidity has blown to Des Moines or Baton Rouge. You might flank the door with boxwood topiaries, or you can move the lemons and such from the orangery to the gravel for the summer, but the hydrangea is the essence of it all.
Now wield your secateurs and élaguer* a few branches for the table. Ah….
6. Yes. The table, by which I mean the table setting. Again two choices. Either white stoneware, the sort with the raised pattern along the border (I passed up a set at Miss Pixie’s reclaimed furniture a few years ago that I still kick myself over. Baby told me I had quite enough china. Oh, why do I ever listen to her?). Pair this with ivory-handled dinnerware and jelly glasses, and pick out a minor color from the tablecloth for your napkins, which must be cloth, not paper (see below).

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have inherited Grandmère’s Limoges or Sèvres china and and her silver, this is a glorious place to set it. Matching is not essential; in fact, it is beside the point, which is above all the cultivation of unselfconscious chic. Fretting and fussing is so American; you must appear not to care. Squint a little, purse your lips and practice a Gallic shrug. Ne vous cassez pas la tête about it.

Big linen or damask napkins to catch the juices of the poulet are essential: They are easier to care for than you might expect. Wash them, fold them over once and stretch them flat. They will dry quite smoothly, and be softer to the lip than napery flattened with starch and an iron.

7. Ah yes, the chicken. I’m so glad I brought that up. You want to look really French? There is nothing like having a few chickens pecking the pea gravel. Consider the Coucou de Rennes, such fun to say! And the Gauloise Dorée sounds  decadently like smoking, which you really should take up. They’ll wander around your ankles as you dine, and if the clucking gets too irritating you can always eat them.

8. Now add music. While youthful French President Macron exhibits a fondness for the electronic dance music of Daft Punk, we’ll bet that First Lady Brigitte prefers Piaf. Create a Piaf station on Pandora and pipe it onto the patio. Pandora will automatically increase your level of cool, adding everything from Carla Bruni to Serge Gainsbourg to the mix.

9. Do have a ruin in the background, if at all possible.

10. You can also add olive trees, grapevines, fountains or a reflecting pool with swans. (Swans are important, without them the pool and garden might verge on Italian, which is somewhat similar, but much louder, and features lasagne.)

*Merci, Violette Capelluto-Schor. Élaguer means to prune.
—Stephanie Cavanaugh
LittleBird Stephanie often has visions like this. To read earlier visions (um, columns), type Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.

Green Acre #61: Beachy Keen

Watch Out for the Claws!

July 5, 2017
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LittleBird Stephanie’s inspiration. Now if only she could find a claw-foot tub. / Photography © by Sabine Vollmer von Falken, from Shell Chic, © by Marlene Hurley Marshall, used with permission from Storey Publishing.
AT THE BEACH The Prince collects rocks and shells. He wanders, head down, sometimes for hours, looking not at the ocean, but at the bits washed up onto the sand. He’ll return to me, lying on a towel, nose to book, clutching his treasures.

“Look at this one!” He’ll say of a craggy gray hunk of something. “It’s millions of years old,” he’ll tell me, eyes bright with wonder.

“Yes,” I’ll squint up at him. “It is. Wonderful.” My approval pleases him.

“And this one, the color!” he’ll sigh. Of course it’s wet, and therefore is shiny, and the lovely coral hue will fade as it dries. But I don’t tell him, why pop his bubble? He’s just a happy boy at the beach.

Going to the beach for us usually involves an airplane to Florida where Number One  Sister perches eight floors above the least-crowded stretch of sand in South Florida. Here we can sit on the front terrace and see hardly a single soul.

We’ve been visiting her here every year for the 25 years or so since she moved south from New York. Being beach people, we have made numerous tropical island hops between times. That’s a lot of rocks and shells. Most of them, in my snooty opinion, not in the least worth the effort. And all of them have to be heavily hauled, dragged, schlepped and shoved onto the plane home.

At home, the bags are emptied onto the back porch, where the collection sits in sandy memory until I figure out where to hide them. Dump any one of our garden pots and you’ll find a layer or two of who-knows-what-from-where, serving as drainage.

On a side trip one year to Key West, we were wandering along Duval Street just where clever and cool met T-shirt honky-tonk and came upon a little shop whose entrance was marked by a small claw-foot tub encrusted with shells.

These were beautiful shells, perfect—scallops and bullas and little conchs, even the shells that were cut in half to expose their inner whorls and pearly centers were precisely measured. They were all shades from tawny and tiger-striped to white, and interspersed with pearls and bits of sea glass that caught the sunlight.

I was overcome with the thought that this was either one of the most fabulous things I’d ever seen or a tacky margarita-fueled horror that would only be considered wonderful here in the Conch Republic, or a Carl Hiaasen novel. *

Meanwhile, I fantasized it into the middle of the garden back home. A wallowing pool. For me. If I’m being honest, unless I’m lying facedown in the water with a mask staring at fishies, I rarely do anything at the ocean besides sit in the water and read—sometimes I stand and read, if I need exercise. I can just as well do the lying about in a tub, surrounded by ferns and jasmine and parlor palms, bringing the tropics to Capitol Hill. One can make a margarita anywhere.

And it’s practical! When I’m done for the day, I figured, just pull the plug and water the plants.
There was even a how-to book handily for sale at the shell shop, with instructions for encrusting your own tub (or bird bath, chandelier or grotto) with shells. Shell Chic, by Marlene Hurley Marshall, with photos by Sabine Vollmer von Falken, is still for sale on Amazon. It was brand new at the time, August 2002.

All we needed, besides $35 for the book, was a claw-foot tub, rustproof paint, a ratchet gun (What’s that? Ask the Prince), silicone adhesive, beach glass, pearly beads and shells. A whole lot of shells.
But a creative snap! I thought, studying the diagrams.

So in addition to his usual bag of rocks and shells, we now had my bag of shells—collected at shops with cunning names like Shell World and Joyce’s Shells & Gifts, places I had theretofore averted my eyes from, along the 98 miles between Key West and Key Largo and the highway north to Sister’s.
I recall being eager to get home and begin, a sop to vacation’s end.

Only guilty reminders remain of this project: A strand of cowries, I think they’re called, hanging on the back porch; heaps of loose shells, many now broken, in the dusty wicker basket I like to think of as my craft box; and strands of fake pearls and bits of sea glass.

I suppose I could have glued these bits to something else, but my enthusiasms often fade as quickly as they appear,  particularly when it comes to arts and crafts. If it can’t be done in 10 minutes with a paint roller or extra-large knitting needles, forget it.

Meanwhile, My Prince, bless him, continues to keep an eye out for that claw-foot tub. Amazing that despite how everyone seems to be tearing them out for glass-walled showers the size of small rooms with benches and multiple heads for rain and steam and hoses for the hard-to-reach spots, old claw-foot tubs are both hard to find and bloody expensive. Shouldn’t he have found one in the trash by now?
—Stephanie Cavanaugh
LittleBird Stephanie says that her next column will feature five almost-instant ways to wallow in water in the garden—maybe 10, if she can think of that many. 
* If for some reason you don’t know who Carl Hiaasen is, go immediately to the library or a bookstore and enjoy.

Green Acre #62: The White Garden

This house in Washington DC has captured the magic of the white garden. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.
I KNOW I SAID I’d write more about pools this week, but it’s too hot. Join a pool. Fill a copper horse trough and splash about. Run through a sprinkler. Think cool thoughts. A white garden helps with that.
If you’re otherwise occupied during summer days when the flowers bloom,  and as often as not away on weekends or busy being air conditioned, a white garden brings magic to the night.

A few blocks from me on Capitol Hill in Washington DC is a small frame house, painted white, with black shutters and a red door, very country in the city. A long brick path leads from the front gate, wandering through a border that only flowers white, from early spring through fall.

The mix of blossoms is simple enough: The early peonies are met by great sprays of white clematis with faces the size of salad plates; these tumble together with repeat-blooming white roses over the black wrought-iron fencing, then frolic their 
way through the border greenery, with dusty miller providing a silvery accent.

Pots of white impatiens stationed along the walk can be moved here and there to fill in the inevitable gaps left by a summer vacation.

A helpful sign is posted on the gate, explaining what you’re plainly seeing but, given the oven-like heat, may not have the mental energy to comprehend:
“The white garden is an informal gardening style that is similar in design to the English cottage garden. The open and informal design creates associations with romance, peace and elegance. The white flowers are mildly and densely spread throughout the garden’s green areas, creating a luminescent sight that is especially powerful in the twilight.”

In this case, twilight is prolonged by the soft glow from the lamp posts along the sidewalk, the flittering of fireflies, and the twinkle of little white lights in the red-leaf maple beside the front door, which frills above the patio table and chairs.

Beyond brilliant, white flowers can be fabulously, devastatingly, decadently perfumed, and usually most powerfully scented in the evening or at dawn, just when you’re around to enjoy them. Consider jasmine and lilies, honeysuckle, moonflowers and nicotiana, orange and lemon and grapefruit (if you have a sunny spot to winter them over)—all are white, or available in white.

One could pass out from such a cacophony of scent, lying there like Dorothy in the field of poppies leading to Oz.

Yes, I know her poppies were red. Stop being so literal. It’s tiresome.
—Stephanie Cavanaugh
LittleBird Stephanie writes about her garden and the gardens of others, as the mood hits her. You can read earlier Green Acre columns by typing Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the page.