What do you need to know before you plan your garden at your French property?
Househunters are often pleasantly surprised to find they can afford a house with a big garden in France, maybe even running to several acres. You could have space for flower beds, a potager garden, an orchard even, and perhaps a swimming pool with beautiful views over the countryside.
However, gardening in France can be very different to the UK. The mild British climate allows for abundant mixed borders packed with shrubs, roses and perennials. The irony is that many people buy property in France to escape those cool wet conditions and are then surprised when gardening in France throws up new challenges!
The trick is to turn those challenges into opportunities and to match the style and layout of your garden to the local climate and landscape. Be realistic too about how much time you have to spend gardening, especially if you are not a year-¬round resident.
Low winter temperatures are a common trap for new gardeners in France. Tricked by the hot summers, we plant tender, frost¬-prone plants. However, even in relatively southerly areas of France, the frosts can be hard; in some winters down to –12°C. This past year saw thick snow in Montpellier and on the Côte d’Azur. An internet search for ‘carte de rusticité des plantes France’ brings up maps showing minimum temperatures. Neighbours can be an excellent source of information too; what better topic to open a conversation with a new neighbour than the weather? Ask at nursery or garden centres whether the plant is ‘rustique’ (frost hardy) or ‘gélive’ (tender). Conversely, hot weather can be bad news for plants we grow in the UK, especially fruit such as gooseberries and redcurrants. Look at varieties sold by local nurseries or find a specialist such as Eric Dumont.
Check the direction and strength of prevailing winds; is your area hit by the famous window¬-rattling Mistral or Tramontane winds? Working out where your property might be hit by strong winds, especially if you’re near the coast, will help you decide where to site windbreak hedges or where to avoid planting trees or plants that might suffer from drying winds. If you can wait, do nothing in your new garden for the first year so you can discover its microclimate. Where does the frost lie longest; where is it exposed to wind; where are the wet or dry areas? You’ll also see which plants you have in your garden throughout each season.
The success of your garden is dependent on choosing plants that will thrive in your local soil. You can improve sandy or clay soils by adding compost, but the acidity is difficult to change so it is always better to work with it rather than against it.
It is possible to plant acid-¬loving plants in alkaline soils with the addition of ericaceous compost (‘terre de bruyère’) but it will be an uphill battle to keep replenishing it, and sooner or later the roots will hit alkaline soil and sicken. Plant alkaline-lovers instead and save yourself the effort.
In Brittany, the acid soil turns hydrangeas blue and rhododendrons and camellias thrive. These plants are a sure sign you have acid soil. You can buy soil-testing kits (‘kit test ph sol’) from garden centres or online. Acid soil (‘sol acide’) is considered to be pH<7, and alkaline soil (‘sol basique, calcaire, alkalin’) pH>7.
If possible, buy your plants at local nurseries that grow their own; they’re likely to be good varieties for your soil and climate. In our globalised world, many plants are imported from Holland or Italy, but these beautiful plants can sulk or even die when transplanted.
If you bring plants over from the UK (this is still legal… until Brexit), cherish them at first to allow them time to acclimatise, and make sure they are sheltered from strong sun and wind and regularly watered for the first year.
For inspiration look out for plants that grow well in nearby gardens and the local landscape, and other local gardeners will be a great source of information. Associations such as Open Gardens or Jardins Ouverts may have gardens in your area to visit.
Some of the most charming French houses are built from local materials such as the stone ‘mas’ farmhouse in Provence and the half-¬timbered Normandy ‘longère’. Stone in particular can define a region: granite and slate in Brittany, limestone in the Loire Valley, basalt in the Massif Central. Using local materials in your garden for walls, steps, and paving, will tie the house to the environment.
Some parts of France are known for their ceramic pots, previously used for storing oil or wine. They can be ideal for creating a focal point in your garden with a nod to local agriculture.
Many traditional crafts such as dry stone walling and the making of pots, tiles and bricks are struggling in rural France; your support may help stop these skills dying out. Local suppliers are easy to find on the internet and they’ll often deliver. The Salon de Patrimoine at the Louvre in Paris showcases the work of artisans in traditional materials.
Friends and foes
Gardening in France is a wonderful opportunity to see fauna that are rare or non-¬existent in the UK, such as a hoopoe, red squirrel or migrating storks, although you may not be so pleased to see wild boar, ragondin (coypu) or snakes in your garden! If any of these animals eat your plants or burrow, you might want to put up a protective fence and screen it with a hedge.
Insect pests can be dangerous, not only for plants but also for humans. Processionary caterpillars, with their irritating hairs, can affect children and dogs, while ticks, spiders and hornets can all be a problem for gardeners and pets. Be especially careful when clearing scrubby areas or long grass.
Box caterpillars (‘la pyrale du buis’) are decimating topiary throughout France, and two kinds of moth caterpillar are killing the palm trees along the Mediterranean coast.
Time is of the essence
Don’t underestimate the time available for maintaining your garden. Your garden design should reflect the time you can dedicate to its maintenance. While it’s usually easy to find a local gardener for tasks such as mowing lawns, clipping hedges and raking up leaves, it’s difficult to find one who can weed without pulling up precious plants or properly prune a rose.
Plan your garden around the number of gardening sessions you can realistically do. Four sessions a year would be the minimum if you delegate the boring stuff to a gardener: late winter for pruning roses and vines, cutting back perennial plants and grasses; spring for a thorough weeding session, pruning evergreens and dividing/planting perennials; a Chelsea¬chop (cutting back of perennials) in May, followed by general dead¬heading to prolong summer flowering; and in autumn cut down rotting stems of perennial plants and plant spring bulbs.
Forget about annual vegetables if you’re not there all year round, although fruit trees, vines and perennials such as rhubarb may survive a bit of neglect. Plants that need to be staked are best avoided if you are not there in spring, as are self-¬sowing plants unless you’re cultivating a wild look. If you have an automatic watering system, check the batteries if you’re away over summer.
Be realistic about how much you can do – if gardening becomes a chore, it will be neglected. Your French garden is to be enjoyed, not only when you are gardening, but when you are enjoying an alfresco lunch or apéritif, surveying the results of your labours.