How to garden in France: getting started


This is the first in a new series (next instalment Thursday 3 June), in which I will draw on my 13 years’ experience of trial and error (mostly the latter) to give a few tips.  I love gardening, but found that I had to revise my ideas about it completely when I moved here.  

France is a big country with a wide range of climates, soils, topographies, etc. Even within regions, there can be widely differing microclimates. My experience is of a corner of southwest France, 320 metres (1,000 feet) above sea level. It has poor and stony topsoil beneath which is a layer of clay. Further down you hit bedrock. It can be blisteringly hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. Not a good start. 

This series will focus on gardening under these difficult conditions. I’m not going to cover vegetable gardens because I don’t have one. Don’t have the time and the thought of establishing one makes my heart quail. In any case, while it’s always satisfying to eat your own produce: 

  • It’s no cheaper than buying it
  • Organic fruit and veg are widely available
  • A lot of it gets eaten by pests
  • We benefit from our friends’ gluts. 

When buying a house in France, the garden is not usually top of the list of priorities – except in terms of size and extent. Normally, you don’t see the pitfalls until you move in and have had a few failures with plants you thought would do well. However, provided you follow some simple rules, it is possible to create a delightful garden, which will give you and others a lot of pleasure. 

Before going any further, I want to recommend an excellent French gardening magazine, Détente Jardin.  Currently retailing at 3.60 € at newsagents (cheaper if you subscribe), it is published bi-monthly. In every issue, they list the tasks you should be carrying out in the flower garden, orchard and vegetable garden. There are also features about specific plants, tests of garden tools and hints from expert gardeners. It’s full of useful tips, e.g., how to make compost, how and when to prune shrubs, what to plant in certain areas. Although in French, it’s not particularly difficult. I find something useful in every issue. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself when getting started, followed by a tip borne out by long and frustrating experience: 

1.     Is there a garden already? Has it been well looked-after and do the plants appear to thrive? In which case, how much should you change it? 

2.     If there isn’t one, or only a patch of grass, what kind of garden do you want? 

3.     What sort of soil do you have? 

4.     What is the climate in summer and winter? 

5.     Which plants appear to do well here? 

6.     What sort of pests are there? 

Tip number 1: shrubs usually take at least 3 years to get established in this soil/climate. For the first 2 years they remain small and don’t appear to grow much. Don’t assume nothing is happening. They are in the process of building a root system and finding their way down to the water table, which can be some way down. On several occasions, I have been on the point of digging out a shrub that wasn’t thriving. A bay tree and an albizia both narrowly escaped the axe but I decided to leave them for another season. They both took off and are now magnificent. So don’t be tempted to give up too soon. If they haven’t taken off after 3-4 years, it means they weren’t happy and they normally die of their own accord.

In future posts I will cover some of these issues in more detail.

If you want to keep up with this series, why not subscribe to my blog by email or in an RSS feed? See links in the top right of the home page.

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


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