Designer Liz Noble offers valuable advice to give you the confidence to start planning and creating the perfect outside space in France
When buying a property in France, few people think seriously about what they will do with the garden. Their main concerns are usually the roof, the plumbing and electrics, and how to restore or convert the property to suit their lifestyle.
Yet one of the biggest differences that comes with a new life in France is that here, because the weather and climate are so much more agreeable, people spend far more time outdoors. Living outside takes on a new dimension. And that means you need to extend the effort and attention that’s being spent on the inside of the house to include the outside. Gardens, like houses, are also for living in.
Homes and gardens can, and should, be planned as a single entity and not two conflicting elements; and just as the interior decoration of your house reflects your personality, the design of a successful garden is based on the same principles of not only how it looks but also how it works.
When you buy a property, wherever it is located, you inherit a garden that suited the previous owners. It will rarely suit you, even if you do manage to bring it back to its original glory.
And what usually happens when you first buy that property or when you arrive back in France? The sun is shining and there is this sudden urge to transform the space that you have.
Time to think
This almost always means a quick rush to the local garden centre, a binge of random purchases – buying one of these plants and one of those, oh! and those pots are on offer, so we must have one and then home because it is lunchtime.
More often than not, this haphazard approach leaves you with a jumble of unrelated features and furnishings and a collection of the wrong plants in the wrong places; all doomed to failure and leaving you wishing you could start all over again.
And then, to make matters worse, if you added up the money and time spent on this unplanned approach, the amount would be unbelievable.
So where do you start? Well, it must be said that failing to plan is planning to fail, so the starting point must be a plan or, to be precise, two plans.
Plan number one is quite simply to measure and draw a plan of the garden as it is today. It will be so much easier for you to see if your ideas will work and will help you to think the garden through, preventing any costly mistakes before you buy anything and start the work.
The plan can just be a rough sketch but should preferably be to scale. Be sure to include all of what you consider to be non-movables’ such as buildings, walls, gateways and watercourses. Then add the items that could be considered movable, such as trees, shrubs, planting, pathways, driveways and existing terracing. Check where the existing services are, like the water, electrics and fosse septique, for instance, and mark these on the plan.
Next, think carefully about the people who will use the garden and what they will use the garden for. Do you want to spend your time digging, planting, pruning and growing, or do you simply want to splash around in your own pool, enjoy meals cooked on a barbecue or plancha in your summer kitchen, or relax with a glass of something cool on your terrace? Ask yourself these questions and make a checklist.
Do you need to plan for children or pets? Will you be entertaining friends and family? How often will you be here to enjoy the garden? Who will maintain it? Remember, every garden is unique and individual to its owner.
Do you want to theme your garden, or use a particular colour scheme? Think about any gardens you may have seen that have inspired you and could give you some ideas. Consider those increasingly important issues such as low-maintenance and drought-tolerant gardens.
Water conservation is becoming not simply a responsible part of gardening, but an essential part of the planning process of every new garden.
Once you have an idea of what you want, it’s time to turn to plan number two. This is where you position and draw all the non-movables that already exist, together with all the hard landscaping items that you want in your new garden, such as pools, terraces, driveways and paths. Are you planning a summer kitchen, a barbecue, a garage or a carport? Do you want tennis courts, a boules pitch or a children’s play area? Remember to factor in any plumbing or electrics at this stage.
Then it’s time to add the soft landscaping features such as lawns, trees, plants, flowers and home-grown vegetables perhaps. And finally, think of those features that give a garden interest and drama, such as statuary, water features, pots, furniture and (importantly, especially in the south) shade.
Above all else, do some local research. Look around you and see what grows well and what doesn’t, and of course how local materials are used in keeping with the location. Work out what soil you have and try to understand the climate – not just the sun but also things like wind and winter temperatures.
Work with the climate, not against it. Is water a problem? Does your village have restrictions? Remember, no matter what size your garden is, large or small, planning will always be the key to success.
And there it is. Your plan of how your future garden will look. Now you’re ready to start bringing it to life but, because everything you added to your plan will have some sort of price tag attached to it, you need to consider the scales of cost and time.
For some people, the plan will be immediately affordable and will be completed in one execution. For others, it will require a year or two of completing small identifiable projects that will one day add up to your finished garden.
For those with a limited knowledge of what will and will not work, creating your own plan may be a daunting or time-consuming task so there is, of course, another option. You can always call in the experts.
A qualified garden designer or design company can give you all the advice and help that you need to transform your ideas into reality. By balancing creative ideas and practical needs, a designer can interpret what you want where and can often bring refreshing solutions to particular problems.
The process is quite simple and starts with an initial meeting; listening to what you want out of your garden, what is practical and what is not, your likes or dislikes, what features are must haves’ and what are simply on the wish list, and then matching this with your budget and your timescale.
A survey of the site is done prior to any design work being undertaken, recording measurements, any existing features and, of course, the soil and local climate considerations.
And then the exciting bit! Concept ideas and plan drawings are then produced to show you, through a couple of different approaches, how the garden might look, together with a set of three-dimensional views that enable you almost to walk through’ your new garden.
Once you are happy with the overall design, a master plan is produced which enables contractors and suppliers of both the hard and soft landscaping to prepare accurate quotes for the work to be done.
You can then either contract the suppliers directly for the implementation of your chosen plan or, once the design is approved, appoint a project manager who will work on your behalf to fully cost the project, and select and manage builders, plumbers, electricians, local craftspeople and any other specialist services needed.
If you don’t live here full time, they can also ensure that the job is finished on time and on budget in your absence. Weekly progress emails and photographs keep you up to date at all times. It really is that easy.
A garden designer will also help with the confusion over what plant goes where by preparing a comprehensive planting plan with a shopping list of plants, and be able to source quality trees, shrubs and plants grown locally in the same conditions as the ones that exist within your garden.
And the cost… professional garden-design companies will usually charge no more than a few hundred euros for two sets of inspired, creative designs and real plans and drawings. So definitely not Chelsea prices here.
Remember that a well-designed garden not only significantly enhances the value of your property, it also makes it far more enjoyable for you and your family and friends to spend time in.
Everyone who has already done it knows that creating a garden that suits your lifestyle, looks good and satisfies your practical needs is not just a fantastic challenge, it is also a pleasure. And after you’ve got it right, it means that you will enjoy that long cool glass of something very special on the terrace just that little bit more.
Tel: 0033 (0)5 61 05 22 68
The Languedoc House
Tel: 0033 (0)5 61 05 22 68