Charles Quest-Ritson offers some useful advice on how to get into gardening at your new French property
Starting a garden in a foreign country can be a daunting experience. What sort of plants will grow for you? Where can you buy them? Who can you ask for advice? What about all that maintenance? In fact, France is not very different from England – and in some areas of France the opportunities for gardening are even more rewarding than at home.It was not always thus. Traditional French gardens were places for the production of fruit, vegetables and salads. Flowers and lawns did not feature to any great extent – only the rich could afford such luxuries – and large formal gardens with clipped box edgings were the preserve of the super rich. The place to see flowers was public gardens, where vast areas of roses and bedding plants offered colour and scent for all to enjoy. Little has changed in public parks, where the standards of horticultural display remain enviably high but, during the last 20 or 30 years, ordinary French people have discovered the charms of ornamental gardening. In short, there has been an explosion of interest in what amounts to English’ gardening – gardening with trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.You can see this in all the ancillary activities that go with gardening as a hobby – plantsman’s nurseries, plant fairs, quality garden magazines and aspirational garden visiting. In essence, therefore, the French garden scene today is very much like the British. You may therefore wonder what is different about gardening in France, and the answer is – the climate, which is much more variable than at home. The weather we enjoy or bemoan in Britain is characterised by warm summers and cool winters, with rain in every month – plus occasional heat waves and cold spells. France has a similar climate in parts of the north and west – in much of Normandy and Brittany, for example – but central and eastern France have a continental’ climate, with hot summers and cold winters; and this includes such popular areas as Dordogne and Burgundy. In the deep south, however, the Mediterranean climate of Provence and Languedoc sees mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers, while up in the Alps the climate is, by definition, alpine – warm and sunny in summer and covered in deep snow for the winter months. The effect of the climate is clearly demonstrated by the flowering of lilac trees. Lilacs are one of the few plants that will grow in every part of France. If you start out from the Riviera on a bright late-April morning and drive up into the hills, the lilacs you leave behind you will already have finished flowering. Half an hour up into the foothills of Alpes-Maritimes, you will find them in full flower. Go higher still, up into the mountains, and they will still be leafless, with tight, closed flower buds that will not open until June. Go higher still – lilacs can be grown at an altitude of 2,000 metres – and you will not see their flowers until well into July.
Climate is keyKnowing your climate is the key to gardening in France, but it also helps to know what sort of soil you have. Is it light or heavy, well-drained or retentive? Is it acid or alkaline? These are the same questions that you need to ask if you were buying a new house in Britain. After all, there is no point buying rhododendrons if your soil is as chalky as Salisbury Plain and, in fact, much of northern France has the same chalk downs as southern England, ruling out acid-loving plants. And, as in England, there are always exceptions – strips of greensand that will encourage your rhododendrons to grow well. So your best investment is a soil-testing kit and I have to confess that I actually did a soil test before signing the purchase agreement for my own house in Normandy. But you will always find that your neighbours in France can tell you what sort of soil you have and you can also see what sort of plants grow in their gardens. Nevertheless, the best way to find out what plants will grow for you is to visit the biggest nursery or garden centre in your area; you can be sure that it will never offer plants that will fail in your soil and climate conditions. However, it is worth noting that plants from French nurseries are often more expensive than in the UK, and there is no reason – given the single European market – why you should not bring the plants you want to grow from Britain. Whenever I cross the English Channel to France, especially in early spring, I see English cars stuffed with plants that their owners are taking to their houses in France. It is not as if there is more choice in Britain – French nurseries have many varieties that are not sold in Britain – but we all like to grow the favourite plants that did well for us at home. And if price is an issue, it pays to know that Dutch nurseries are even cheaper than British ones, and that the easiest way to buy most things nowadays is through the internet. Most foreign websites have an English version, because English is the common language of Europe. You can order your plants by post from Germany, Italy, France or anywhere else within the EU and they will arrive just as promptly as they do in Britain. Their quality is often better, too.But there are also some minor differences between France and Britain, which you learn as you go along. I have found that potting composts are not as good in France as at home – good mixes like the John Innes compounds are impossible to find. Bamboo canes are very expensive and, if you use chemicals in the garden, you will discover that pesticides and weedkillers cost more than they do in Britain although, on the other hand, some are easier to buy in France; the shelves of my local supermarket are laden with Round Up (glyphosphate). Garden visiting is now big business in France. The best way to find out where to go in search of ideas for your own garden is to ask at your local tourist office. Almost every region in France publishes a free booklet that lists the gardens to see in its area, together with descriptions, photographs, times and prices. The Normandy booklet, for example, runs to 114 gardens and 100 pages covering the two regions of Upper and Lower Normandy. This year’s guide to gardens in Centre (roughly the Loire Valley) concentrates on really major gardens – 26 in all, and not a dud among them – while the brochure for Nord-Pas-de-Calais (from Calais to Lille and beyond) lists 32 parks and gardens to visit. What you soon discover is that garden-owners at the top end of the French market have absorbed the lessons of fashionable English gardening – the sense of Edwardian opulence that has dominated Britain for 100 years – and combined them with the traditional shapes of the French Renaissance. The upshot is a panoply of highly inventive new gardens where firm structures are filled with profuse expanses of colourful plants, chosen and planted to create the maximum effect. But there are plenty of formal gardens, topiary gardens, Japanese gardens and traditional potagers too, if they are your particular interest, while the best areas for English-style gardening are the coastal parts of Lower Normandy and Brittany. Here the climate is mild and wet with acid soils that are often very fertile. This is where to find the great woodland gardens of France, with giant magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias.
Flower showsTourist offices will also tell you about plant fairs. Best known are the biannual journ�es des plantes at Courson, south of Paris, in May and October. They were memorably described by Sir Simon Hornby, President of the Royal Horticultural Society, as a cross between the Chelsea Flower Show and a village f�te’.Of course, there are many others. The best plant fair on the Riviera is the late-March f�te des jardins at Sophia Antipolis, while les journ�es des plantes franco-britanniques at Crosville-sur-Douvre (Manche, 50) in April is one of the best in the north of France. There are also specialist shows like the two held every year at Beauregard, south-west of Paris: one devoted to herbaceous plants in April and the other to fruit and vegetables in September.Given the vast differences of climate and soil, it is difficult to recommend plants that will grow in every part of France. The purple bougainvilleas and scarlet hibiscus that we all admire on the C�te d’Azur will not survive the winter outside in Dordogne. The best advice is to find out what will do well for you, and then grow lots of it. Roses, for example, will certainly grow almost everywhere and it comes as a surprise to discover that the varieties bred to survive the cold winters of Central Europe or the American Midwest will often perform better in the Mediterranean climate of Provence and Languedoc than in the mountains of Is�re.If maintenance and costs are a major concern, then think about just planting shrubs; not only will this provide shelter and privacy but they are also easy to maintain. Trees offer the same benefits, but also provide shade in hot weather. Avoid grass. It is a high-maintenance option because it needs to be cut at least twice a week in summer, and will also require watering in hot, dry areas. When the great Scottish High Chancellor Lord Brougham built the Villa El�anore at Cannes in the 1830s – and, incidentally, started the fashion for living on the Riviera – he amazed the locals with his spacious lawns. Brougham did not water the grass but, incredible though it sounds, had the turf brought out by boat from England, and replaced it every year.
Tidy gardensHelp with maintenance is easy to find: look in the yellow pages for jardins – entretien. The French are very tidy gardeners and they prefer their lawns to be cut shorter than we do. They also have a passion for clipping trees and hedges. Many French people have second homes in the country, and they like to keep them looking neat. In my village there are several houses which belong to Parisians or people who live far away and only visit them for short periods every year, but their gardens always look as if they were living here all the time. One difficult thing to find is a local gardening club. They do exist, but they tend to recruit members from a large area and they are not always run as they would be at home. A good exception is the Interesting Gardening Club (www.theinterestinggardeningclub.org) whose members come from all over Aquitaine. It offers lectures in English, garden visits and plant sales – in short, a really English approach to gardening. But wherever you live, you will find that the real rewards come when you roll up your sleeves and get going with gardening in France. It’s easy – I promise you!
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www.jardiland.com/nos-magasins.html Image � Charles Quest-Ritson