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Gardening in France: what to do in spring

PUBLISHED: 17:29 21 May 2018 | UPDATED: 17:29 21 May 2018

Award-winning garden designer James Basson designed this garden in Cagnes-sur-Mer © Scape Design

Award-winning garden designer James Basson designed this garden in Cagnes-sur-Mer © Scape Design

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From pruning to planting, there are plenty of jobs to be done in your French garden this spring to make sure it is ready for the summer

Lynda Harris is a British landscape architect designing gardens throughout France

As the days lengthen and the sun warms the soil, tender shoots are pushing up, and the trees are veiled with green. Occasional warm spring days tempt us outside to bask in the sunshine and thoughts turn to our gardening projects for the summer. At this time of year, many of us will be heading for the local jardinerie or pepinière, looking for new plants and inspiration.

For gardeners on the Côte d’Azur and south coast, April is the time when the garden will probably already be at its peak, as many native Mediterranean plants hunker down and hibernate during the hot dry summer months. Winters are mild and often frost-free and many plants, watered by winter and spring rains, are at their best at this time of year. To save water and to be aesthetically in tune with your local landscape, you might like to look for inspiration at the beautiful gardens designed for hot dry conditions created by James Basson or Nicole de Vesian or at the plants sold by Pepinière Filippi.

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1. Take stock of your French garden

We are all happy to see the back of the grey days of winter and to start planning this year’s improvements. But before heading for the garden centre, it’s a good idea to take stock of how things stand in your garden. If you have them, look at photos from last summer to see what worked and what didn’t.

Are there any plants whose colours clash (in a bad way), or areas where the plants are a bit samey and would benefit from more contrast in colour or form, perhaps with the addition of a contrasting or architectural plant? Have winter losses left gaps or holes that need filling? Is the planting ‘bitty’, with just one specimen of many different plants?

To tie a garden together, planting in drifts and repeating plants around the garden will give a sense of harmony and rhythm. Many designers advise never to plant less than three to five perennial plants of the same variety. If you have large clumps of summer flowering perennials that you love, or early spring bulbs that have faded, now is the time to divide and replant them. Not only is this a great way of bringing cohesion to your garden, it can also be a very economical way of increasing plant numbers.

2. Now is the time to sort out your borders

If you have a garden laid to lawn, do you have a border that you would like to enlarge? If you are looking for a natural-looking curve, lay out the contour with the aid of a hose-pipe, and ideally view it from an upstairs window. Once you are happy with the shape, cut the new edge with a sharp spade, then measure the area to get an idea of the number of new plants required to fill the space.

If, on the other hand, you are fed up of weeding a large border, think about covering any bare soil with dense ground-cover plants, such as hardy geraniums (‘Rozanne’ is a very long flowering variety), Vinca minor, Alchemilla mollis or Stachys byzantina. Once established, they will soon crowd out the weeds, giving you time for more rewarding projects and saving your knees.

If you decide you want to reduce the size of a border, mound up the bed slightly to create a new edge, then level the soil on the lawn side before seeding. April is a very good time for sowing lawns – or wildflower meadows.

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Look for unusual planters at brocantes like this galvanised tankLook for unusual planters at brocantes like this galvanised tank

3. Plant up your pots

If you have a small garden, balcony or terrace, now is the time to plant up pots. France’s wonderful brocante markets and vide-greniers can be a great source of interesting or alternative containers. Look out for old washing coppers, galvanised water tanks and old sinks which will look wonderful planted with cascading foliage or alpine plants.

Classic summer colour from perlargoniums, salvias, verbena, lantana or lavender can be mixed to great effect with grasses or aromatic herbs such as sage or rosemary for scent, colour and texture. Alternatively, a single large specimen plant in a container, a repeat-flowering shrub rose such as ‘Desdemona’ (‘Auskindling’ from David Austin Roses), or a white and silver Convolvulus cneorum, would look very sophisticated.

All these plants not only have a long flowering period but are adapted to dry conditions, so can better survive the hot summer sun. In most parts of France, however, they will need almost daily watering in the height of summer to thrive. Setting up an automatic watering system for containers is easier and cheaper than you may think and is essential if you are not living at your property all year round.

4. Go shopping for new plants

Once you have given some thought to your planting designs, take your list to the garden centre or nursery and try to stick to it. Admittedly, faced by the beautiful specimens that will be on offer, this may be difficult. However, having given some thought to what you need in advance, it will be easier to buy the right plant for the right place and avoid expensive mistakes.

Many French garden centres offer a more restricted choice of plants than those in the UK. Local markets can be a source of young plants that will thrive in your area, especially for fruit and vegetables such as strawberries or tomatoes. There are also many excellent French nurseries, so seek them out on the internet or ask around to find one local to you.

Another source of specialist plants are France’s many wonderful plant festivals, often held in the spring, where independent nurseries sell a range of plants otherwise difficult to find. The Fêtes des Plantes at St-Jean-de-Beauregard, Festival des Plantes de Chantilly near Paris and Folies des Plantes in Nantes are the biggest, but an internet search will find smaller plant fairs in your area.

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Garden designer James Basson's projects in the south of France feature plants that will thrive in Mediterranean conditions © Scape DesignGarden designer James Basson's projects in the south of France feature plants that will thrive in Mediterranean conditions © Scape Design

5. Protect your new plants from frost

Once you’ve made your choice and have brought your beautiful new plants home, get them in the ground as soon as possible and remember to water them regularly until they are well established; probably for the first year or so for perennials.

Last year, much of France was hit by an unusually late frost in mid-April, so protect small plants and anything that is not fully hardy until the risk of frost is passed.

6. And protect them from slugs and snails

As the sun warms the soil in April, slugs and snails begin to appear, ready to munch their way through your precious new seedlings and emerging plants. Organic slug pellets can be bought in garden centres, and these supposedly do not harm hedgehogs or pets. Even better, set traps or go on regular mollusc hunts at night with a torch, though you will have to be brave and either squish them or drown them in a bucket of water. Snails are famous for their ability to return to a food source, no matter how far you throw them over the garden fence.

7. Prune your evergreen shrubs and trees

Once the risk of frost has passed, spring is a good time for pruning evergreen shrubs and trees. Yew, Escalonia, Griselenia and bay trees all regenerate well. Pruning now helps avoid frost damage and visible cuts will soon be concealed by new growth. Many conifers are best pruned just before growth starts, but for early flowering shrubs such as viburnums or camelias, wait until flowering is over and always check for nesting birds before you start.

8. Other jobs

Other jobs for April include fertilising roses, pruning lavender, planting summer flowering bulbs such as gladiolus and lilies as well as sowing hardy vegetables such as beetroot, carrots, leeks and peas direct into the ground.

France is a wonderful place to enjoy gardening, with long warm summers allowing us to spend more time outdoors. Tackling garden projects now will help make the most of your outside space, bringing colour, texture and scent for the coming year and beyond.

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