A year in my garden in Limousin
PUBLISHED: 17:26 30 January 2017 | UPDATED: 17:26 30 January 2017
British expat Katherine Forshaw has found that the seasons in France are more pronounced than the UK and that she needs to be careful what she plants and when
SPRING in my garden in Limousin
The arrival of spring in Corrèze can be somewhat unpredictable. Living in the hills of the Parc Naturel Régional de Millevaches, at almost 800m, we have to be somewhat cautious about declaring that winter is finally over. Generally speaking, the sun starts to warm the air and thaw the ground in March, but it is not unknown for us to have snow at the end of March into April. One thing we have learnt since living here though, is that when spring does finally decide to arrive, it will do so overnight, seemingly at the click of the fingers; I love that about the seasons here in France.
Spring is my favourite gardening season. It’s the time when fresh lime-green shoots break through the soil, buds appear on shrubs, trees awaken from their winter sleep, wild flowers fill the fields and roadsides; the whole Limousin countryside bursts back into life and so with it does the gardening year.
In March, the ground is certainly still too cold here to plant directly outside, but under the cover of my greenhouse, with propagators on standby should the temperature drop too much at night, I like to start off a whole array of vegetables. Now is also the perfect time to start chitting potatoes. In spring, the shops here in France are brimming with seed potatoes, and I always make sure I choose a couple of French varieties.
Spring in Corrèze brings a mixture of rain and sunshine, but with the warming air comes the re-emergence from their winter hibernation of bees, butterflies, hoverflies and a whole plethora of insects I cannot begin to recognise or name. Wildlife in my French garden is certainly so much more abundant than it was in my garden back in Manchester. Spring is a vital time for wildlife. They need to build up their strength after the winter haul, so this year I have decided to ensure that there is plenty of nectar in my garden for them to enjoy, not just in spring but throughout the seasons.
We’re fortunate enough to have a petite source which runs through our garden, around which we have created long borders and a bog garden. This spring, I am dividing many of these perennials. This is a job which can be done in autumn, but due to the freezing temperatures and snow we can have in Limousin, I prefer to wait until March or April to do this.
At the head of this bog border resides my pride and joy, my Gunnera manicata. Spring has truly arrived when I feel brave enough to uncover him from his winter slumber. Gunnera manicata can grow up to 2.5m tall and 4m wide, he’s into his fifth year in our garden now and I can’t wait to see how enormous he grows this year.
By late spring, everything in the greenhouse will be bursting to get out and I’ll have to decide whether to wait until the passing of the ‘Saints de Glace’, from 11 to 13 May, to plant out. It is widely believed here in France that these days can bring cold weather and the last frosts of the year. Plant out before this date and the locals are sure to frown upon you!
SUMMER in my garden in Limousin
Hurrah, les saints de glace have finally passed, the vegetables, which by now have been potted on several times in my greenhouse, can finally be planted out without the locals frowning upon me!
Les saints de glace fall from 11-13 May, and in France it is widely believed that these dates can bring the last days of cold and frost. When I first moved here, six years ago now, I didn’t heed the locals’ warnings about the possibility of late frosts and transferred many of my vegetables to the garden in April, as I used to when I lived in Manchester. As a result I lost many of my non-frost-hardy vegetable plants such as courgettes and other gourds. Here in the Parc Naturel Régional de Millevaches our home is at nearly 800m, and cold, frosty mornings can continue well into May. When planting out young vegetables, it’s certainly a good idea to have fleeces to hand, just in case the night temperature dips towards 0ºc.
When planted outside in mid May, you can start to harvest most vegetables from July onwards. My favourite vegetable to grow has to be sweet corn. In France sweet corn is mainly grown for animal food, and we rarely see it for sale in the shops.
Although we’re not guaranteed endless days of heat and sun during the summer months in Corrèze, we certainly do have our fair share of them. Last summer was certainly the hottest and driest since we moved here, and we had a heat wave – canicule in French. A water ban was imposed, with no washing of cars or watering of gardens allowed between the hours of 8am and 8pm.
Drought conditions certainly bring a whole new challenge to gardening. While flowers and shrubs tend to be a bit more robust, fruit and vegetables certainly need their water. As we’re fortunate enough to have a petite source running through our garden, this, along with the old wash house lavoir at the end of the road where I fill my watering can, provide a great source of free water for our vegetables and plants. A water butt would be a great investment too! It is best to water your plants in early evening to ensure that the water reaches their roots, rather than just being evaporated away by the sun.
In early July our majestic lime tree is full of bees and the sound that emanates from it is amazing. Throughout summer a profusion of butterflies visit our garden, but my favourite visitor has to be the Hummingbird Hawk-moth, and I make sure to plant a number of summer flowering plants for the butterflies and bees.
It’s during July and August that my ‘hot’ border comes into its own. It’s called ‘hot’ as I have filled it with a riot of vibrant red, orange and yellow flowers. This border always benefits from plants bought during the spring and summer weekends from local troc aux plantes and marché aux fleurs. These events are attended by local growers and are great for buying good-quality, well-priced bedding plants, annuals and flowers for hanging baskets.
As with the other seasons, you never know when summer is going to end, but usually it lasts well into September, if not October. Here the end of summer is not a sad event, as the heat is replaced by a chill, then the beauty of the Limousin countryside, full of trees, once again comes into its own. As the Americans would say; fall arrives, and with it a magnificent show of colour.
AUTUMN in my garden in Limousin
In Limousin the warmth and sunshine of summer can last well into September, if not October. Butterflies, bees and other pollinators are still out in force enjoying the last of the warmth and busily feeding ahead of their winter hibernation. To help them, I have included plenty of nectar-rich, late-flowering plants in my garden, which will continue to flower until the temperature starts to dip towards freezing.
In my vegetable garden, courgettes, beans and peas are continuing to produce their crops and will only succumb to the first frosts of autumn. Although most vegetables are coming to the end of their productivity now, October and November are the perfect months to plant autumn garlic. Autumn garlic needs cold weather to develop, so should be planted in the ground before the first harsh frosts arrive. These, along with overwintered leeks and purple sprouting broccoli will, come early spring, be our first harvest of the new year.
In our garden we have three old, somewhat gnarly pear trees. Despite their appearance, every year they provide us with an abundance of pears in autumn. Pears should be harvested before they are fully ripe, and stored unwrapped on racks in a dark, cool place. They don’t take long to ripen, so as there are only two of us to eat them all, I have to make sure I have plenty of recipes to hand!
With gardening it always pays to plan ahead, and autumn is no exception. Just as many flowers are putting on their last flourish, it’s time to think ahead to next year and plant bulbs for spring colour. Early autumn brings with it a renewed flurry of plant fairs around France; each village event full of stalls brimming with spring flowering bulbs to tempt you.
I don’t heat my greenhouse throughout the winter months, so as my tomato, cucumber, pepper and chilli plants stop producing their fruits, I start to make use of the space by sowing trays of hardy annual seeds. These are happy to overwinter under glass and will hopefully produce earlier flowers for me next year.
It’s important throughout autumn to keep a close eye on the météo forecasts; once night temperatures start to regularly dip into minus figures it’s time for the final garden preparations of the year to begin.
As our winters can be cold more tender plants, need to be covered with layers of fleece to protect them from the frost and snow. In the stream border, once continued frosts are forecast, it’s sadly time to put my beloved Gunnera manicata to bed. Now standing at over 6ft tall, all his enormous leaves have to be cut off at the base to leave nothing but his delicate crown behind. These leaves are then placed over his crown for protection, followed by a couple of layers of fleece, et voilà, he is ready for his winter slumber!
As the aroma of log fires starts to drift across the countryside, the garden has been put to bed, and all that remains to be seen is what this winter has in store for us.
WINTER in my garden in Limousin
Since the first frosts and snow of winter arrive in Limousin any time from the end of October onwards, my motto for winter gardening is ‘always be prepared’. As we head towards the end of the year I make sure that garden fleeces have been bought and that I keep a keen eye on the météo forecasts.
With winter night-time temperatures regularly dipping towards -8ºC, often accompanied by freezing northerly winds which blow across the fields into our garden I have tried to avoid including too many tender shrubs in my borders. Instead, I have opted for more frost-hardy varieties.
That said my heart often wins over my head, and although I know it’s asking for trouble I have been tempted to include a few non-hardy shrubs in my garden. So far these have survived but I have to ensure that the fleeces come out and are carefully wrapped around these plants as soon as the weather is forecast to dip into the minus figures for a few consecutive nights.
As winter approaches the flowering period for most plants comes to an end, but rather than deadheading these last blooms I prefer to leave them to form seed heads. To me, the seed heads add interest and stature to the garden during the coldest months; they look beautiful tinged with frost or skittered with snow. They also provide the much-needed food for birds during the winter months.
Looking after wildlife during the winter months is particularly important as many food sources are hibernating and grubs are buried deep in the hard frost or snow-covered ground. While seed heads left on plants help, I also make sure we have plenty of bird food and that our petite source is running freely so they have water.
For me the winter months in the garden are mainly spent tidying, taming and replenishing the soil in readiness for the next growing year. Before the first frosts arrive we make our annual pilgrimage to the local riding stables in search of well-aged fumier de cheval (horse manure) for the vegetable garden. Dug into the soil during the early winter months, the horse manure will help to replenish the nutrient used by the vegetables the season before.
My favourite winter days are those when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, yet frost rests on the ground. The white-tinged Limousin countryside looks beautiful and the temperature is ideal for tackling those dreaded jobs such as cutting back and pulling up brambles. During January and February snow is most likely to cover the garden for weeks on end. At times the snow will reach your knees and on days like this there’s little else you can do other than think about gardening projects for the year ahead. So on days like this I sit in front of the crackling log burner, a glass of wine to hand, seed packets and seed catalogues scattered around me and make my plans for the next growing year. Parfait!
Katherine Forshaw and her husband Paul moved from Manchester to Corrèze in Limousin in 2010. She developed a love of gardening and shares her knowledge on her blog, Le Jardin Perdu.