Beautiful gardens are a delight – and France has plenty. Be inspired by this nation of garden lovers and create your own amazing plot, says keen gardener Joanna Leggett
A few years ago, I happened to be back in London when the Royal Academy had a wonderful exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse’. We visited in January, the start of the gardening year – what a treat and inspiration! From snow-covered winter scenes (something most parts of France saw this year) to the evolution of gardens painted by the Impressionists throughout the seasons. Spring times lush with irises rising from flower beds like flags; roses smothering walls; landscapes with trees full of blossom promising autumn bounties; the glories of midsummer with myriad flowers jostling for position on gloriously wide canvases; moving to autumn with its abundance of rich colour before back to the almost monochromatic shades of winter once more.
It was almost an overload for the senses, not least because the last stage of the exhibition took you past wonderful water lily paintings by Monet, which were so much larger than I’d imagined. I just sat and gazed in wonder before decamping over to the other side of Piccadilly for a restorative cup of tea at Fortnums to regroup.
Filled with images of the colour and beauty I’d seen, returning home I looked at bare flower beds and started planning. I immediately decided I needed water lilies for a pond in our garden and found that the Latour-Marliac pépinière (nursery), which supplied Monet with water lilies, was still trading in Lot.
Before I start writing about gardening in France though, I must suggest a visit to Monet’s wonderful gardens at Giverny (easy to get to from Paris). It’s a feast for the senses as are the amazing formal gardens at the Château de Villandry in the Loire (you’ll never look at a vegetable in the same way again). These are just two of many gardens of note spread throughout France.
There’s the formality of Versailles, Josephine’s rose gardens at Malmaison (she had up to 500 varieties and popularised rose growing here), magical gardens around the Château de Chenonceau in the Loire, topiary gardens at Marqueyssac overlooking the Dordogne river, the glories of gardens along the Côte d’Azur and the list goes on.
If you’re moving to France from the UK, I suggest searching out your nearest Jardins Ouvert, the French ‘open gardens’ scheme, to meet like-minded gardeners and find out what really will grow in your garden locally.
Climatically, France is different from the damp, (mostly) mild climate of Britain. Winters can be harsh – not for nothing is Dordogne known as ‘la petite Sibérie’! Summers can be so hot that everything wilts – we had weeks of temperatures of over 40°C last year. Seasons are slightly different here; spring comes early in France.
The gardening year begins, of course, in January. The winter of 2022/23 was particularly cold, so I used the time planning and consulting all those tempting advertisements online, while admiring hellebores in full bloom close by my front door.
By February, despite massive overnight frosts, bulbs pop up, daphne plants start to scent the air and we spot the first grues (cranes) in their massive V formations flying off to the north, a sign of spring. Roses start to bud and it’s time to prune, cut back perennials and feed the soil with compost and manure. Meanwhile, on the Riviera, the hills turn yellow from the clouds of mimosa, which frame the landscape. The Route de Mimosa stretches for 130km, starting at the eponymously named Bormes-les-Mimosas in the Var.
By March and April, spring bulbs make their presence felt in the courtyard. I always get a surprise as I don’t remember planting so many! Bedding plants appear in markets and garden centres, spring blossom is everywhere: horse chestnuts flanking the road to the supermarket thrust big pink ‘candles’ up from branches, and almond blossom paints trees pink outside the village.
It’s time to make plans for summer, install water butts so you don’t see money pouring out at the same speed as water from your hose in summer!
May is the best month for my roses and lilac – I have old- fashioned varieties like Charles de Mills, full of thorns but such divine scent. For six weeks it’s covered with deep-cerise blooms then it’s finished – but so worth it! Such a vigorous grower, I take to it with the electric hedge-trimmer.
Another favourite is the lush pink teacup-sized blooms of Pierre de Ronsard; I have many planted against the stone walls of my home. I love David Austen roses and was delighted to see the company is delivering to France again. Banks of blue hardy geraniums surround white foxgloves; later I’ll have nicotiana and cosmos, verbena and phlox… heaven!
One of the joys of late spring and summer is turning a corner and finding swathes of purple irises ready for a passing Impressionist artist to paint. At Talmont-sur-Gironde, the bastide that clings like a barnacle almost on the edge of the Gironde river, hollyhocks grow out of the cobbles lining the streets, as they do in many other old towns and villages.
Visiting les floralies – massive plant sales that line the streets and fill marketplaces in a celebration of colour – is a real treat. A favourite of mine is at St-Jean-de-Côle in the Périgord, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. It closes its streets to vehicles while plant vendors move in to proffer their wares. I like to get there early just as the café is opening, sit and savour a coffee and plan where to go first – from trays of bedding plants in every conceivable colour to stalls covered in perennials, a peony specialist here, ferns there including a Dicksonia tree fern I spotted once at an extortionate price. Native to the damper temperate climes of the Antipodes, I felt the vendor was a bit optimistic! Enterprising school children arrive with wheelbarrows to cart people’s purchases back to their cars – luckily I have a large boot!
With summer comes hotter dryer weather; hopefully, you installed those water butts! It’s time for the ‘Chelsea chop’, the hard cutting back of perennials in order to encourage the next flowering. Look out for luscious yellow daisies, echinacea – a new variety perhaps – salvias for late summer and autumn colour; there’s deadheading to do, and tidying, and the list goes on.
Soon enough it’ll be autumn and the leaves will change colour – and it’ll be time to harvest bounty and make jam perhaps… or perhaps not! Garden centres and supermarkets start selling spring bulbs and the seasons roll on back to the beginning.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned vegetables. The French are avid gardeners, even the tiniest plot will sport a row of cherished tomatoes. Perhaps I spend too long with my roses as my vegetables are nowhere near as successful, but there’s always next year!
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