The bright, white heads of Agapanthus praecox ‘Albiflorus’ look sensational beneath a royal palm, Roystonea regia, while mature pines, Pinus pinea, frame the view out to the Mediterranean. The formal design of this entrance garden, which was laid out in the 1960s, has been refined by replanting the agapanthus beds, which had become congested, and refreshing the soil. Low box edging was replaced with more drought- tolerant Myrsine africana.

Grand designs for a multi-levelled garden

Ulf Nordfjell’s design for a family-friendly garden in southeast France uses a series of interlinking levels to create a unifying whole. Words Annie Gatti. Photographs Jason Ingram.

IN BRIEF

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What Private garden on a sloping site, overlooking the sea. Where Cap d’Antibes, France. Size 2,250 square metres. Soil Heavy soil, improved with volcanic rock for better water retention. Climate Summer temperatures can reach 37°C, and there are strong winds and frequent rain storms all year. Hardiness zone USDA 9.

New beginnings

When landscape architect Ulf Nordfjell first stepped through the metal gates of Villa Lumen, high up on the forested headland of Cap d’Antibes, he was struck by the beauty of the villa with its classical proportions and stunning setting overlooking the Mediterranean. The entrance garden, below the white balustrade that surrounds the villa, was formally laid out, with box-edged beds filled with mainly white agapanthus, and framed with pencil cypresses and clipped myrtles.

But the rest of the garden, which extends from a high point behind the villa and its guest house and drops steeply down the rocky slope, was, in Ulf’s eyes, a mess. “It had typical Riviera garden plants, such as neriums, bougainvilleas and rosemary, and some 100-year-old pines and olives,” he says. “But many of the trees and bushes were diseased and dying, and it was so densely overgrown that you couldn’t make out the garden below.”

The pathway at the top of the garden leads through two types of tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica, right, and Cyathea australis, left) and is softened by the arching stems of ferns and Hakonechloa macra grass. Red-leaved Cordyline australis Purpurea Group, underplanted with Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’, adds depth to the planting.
The pathway at the top of the garden leads through two types of tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica, right, and Cyathea australis, left) and is softened by the arching stems of ferns and Hakonechloa macra grass. Red-leaved Cordyline australis Purpurea Group, underplanted with Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’, adds depth to the planting.

The villa is owned by a couple from Stockholm with young children, and Ulf wanted to make a garden they could all use. He was keen to retain as much as he could of the existing planting, including the agapanthus beds and key shrubs, such as those myrtles, rosemary and neriums, and he could see that several of the structural trees, including mature specimens of Schinus molle, Pistacia lentiscus and Quercus ilex, needed to be rescued.

Young tree ferns and the Japanese forest grass Hakonechloa macra, growing in the shade of Howea forsteriana palm trees, create layered planting in the shady garden. In the background, a climbing Hydrangea petiolaris grows against a brushwood fence.
Young tree ferns and the Japanese forest grass Hakonechloa macra, growing in the shade of Howea forsteriana palm trees, create layered planting in the shady garden. In the background, a climbing Hydrangea petiolaris grows against a brushwood fence.

His decision to make the whole garden accessible by creating a series of discrete areas on different levels required challenging landscaping work using the same pale, local limestone for sets of steps, retaining walls and paving stones, which helps to unite the garden. The overgrown area at the back of the villa was transformed into a restful, shady garden full of foliage textures where Australian tree ferns thrive in the shade of lofty palms.

The upright Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurellii’, with its paddle-shaped leaves, adds tones of burgundy to the predominantly green planting around the feature wall against the backdrop of an existing screen of bamboo. The strappy leaves of Rhapis excelsa (left) create textural contrast.
The upright Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurellii’, with its paddle-shaped leaves, adds tones of burgundy to the predominantly green planting around the feature wall against the backdrop of an existing screen of bamboo. The strappy leaves of Rhapis excelsa (left) create textural contrast.

New beds were created to protect the roots of a mature Pistacia, where a feature wall, painted an intense shade of Klein Blue, creates a striking backdrop on the terrace where the family can enjoy al fresco meals, out of the summer heat. From here, the garden drops down in a series of steps to the entrance garden where the agapanthus were removed, divided and replanted, then edged with a more sustainable choice of drought-tolerant Myrsine africana.

Another level

“The whole garden is about working with levels,” says Ulf. “It was important to make comfortable stairs with wide steps and low treads so that they are not difficult for children or anyone wearing high heels.” Ulf’s trademark granite pouffes provide resting places at various points on the way down to the bottom of the garden where an enlarged lawn, which required the replanting of full-grown olive trees and neriums, provides a playing space for the children. At the far end, a tilting pine tree casts dappled shade on a wide terrace inset with a sand pit.

The sun-baked rock garden is planted in soil that has been made more open by the addition of volcanic rock. Crisp, clipped balls of Teucrium fruticans, the Australian rosemary Westringia fruticosa and dense, bushy rosemary, Salvia rosmarinus, along with cushioning plants, such as centaureas and erysimums, are interplanted with looser, more vertical forms, including the white society garlic Tulbaghia violacea ‘Alba’, the orange-flowered Bulbine frutescens (at the bottom), the fan-shaped Dasylirion serratifolium and two spiky aloes, the orange-flowered Aloe x spinossisima and further up the slope Aloe arborescens.
The sun-baked rock garden is planted in soil that has been made more open by the addition of volcanic rock. Crisp, clipped balls of Teucrium fruticans, the Australian rosemary Westringia fruticosa and dense, bushy rosemary, Salvia rosmarinus, along with cushioning plants, such as centaureas and erysimums, are interplanted with looser, more vertical forms, including the white society garlic Tulbaghia violacea ‘Alba’, the orange-flowered Bulbine frutescens (at the bottom), the fan-shaped Dasylirion serratifolium and two spiky aloes, the orange-flowered Aloe x spinossisima and further up the slope Aloe arborescens.

From here, the ascent back up, alongside a rock garden, follows the contours of the natural bedrock and is planted in pockets of soil between rugged boulders introduced to the sun-baked slope. The planting here is a mix of cushion-shaped, drought-tolerant species, such as Centaurea ragusina and Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, and succulents such as Mexican Dasylirion serratifolium, Hesperaloe funifera, Aloe x spinosissima and Aloe arborescens. Clipped myrtles and cushions of rosemary
and Westringia create a framework for the more relaxed species.

In the shady dining area at the back of the villa a gnarled Pistacia lentiscus forms the top storey of the layered planting, with a predominantly white and green colour scheme against a blue feature wall. The sculpture, by the owner’s father, Jim Ritchie, emerges from a sea of Liriope muscari ‘Monroe White’, while white-flowered Mandevilla Diamantina Jade White (= ‘Lanmichigan’) billows out of terracotta pots.
In the shady dining area at the back of the villa a gnarled Pistacia lentiscus forms the top storey of the layered planting, with a predominantly white and green colour scheme against a blue feature wall. The sculpture, by the owner’s father, Jim Ritchie, emerges from a sea of Liriope muscari ‘Monroe White’, while white-flowered Mandevilla Diamantina Jade White (= ‘Lanmichigan’) billows out of terracotta pots.

Ulf studied the flora of the Mediterranean for his 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden for Laurent-Perrier, and has since seen at first hand the challenges of growing in conditions that, as a result of climate change, mean African heat at the end of May, and year-round, plant-rocking winds and sudden downpours. Through soil improvements, careful selection of plants and restorative tree work by arborists, Ulf and his contractor Franck Delmer have created a garden designed to last. Insect infestations have also been a big problem and part of the maintenance regime is regular inspections by an ecologist and the use of biological controls to minimise damage.

The deep-blue flowers of Tradescantia Andersoniana Group complement the feature wall, which is painted in bold Klein Blue. The wall also provides a surface for ever-changing shadows as the sunlight filters through the tree canopy.
The deep-blue flowers of Tradescantia Andersoniana Group complement the
feature wall, which is painted in bold Klein Blue. The wall also provides a surface for ever-changing shadows as the sunlight filters through the tree canopy.

Finishing touches

Clipped evergreens are a unifying feature throughout the various levels and they provide a green framework all year round. Flowering starts in February with jasmine on the boundary walls and aloes and Echium candicans in the rock garden. Roses, on the walls and in a border, bloom in May and again later in the summer while the many standard neriums are spangled with white flowers all summer long. The spectacle of the agapanthus – when he was last visiting Ulf stopped counting at 850 white and 250 blue blooms – lasts for four weeks in midsummer. The garden now offers areas of sun and shade, formality and informality, and a network of floating steps to connect them all.

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Useful Information Find out more about Ulf’s work at nordfjellcollection.se