We asked Nikki McArthur to talk to us about gardening style in France. Nikki and her husband Gary own and manage Kingdom Végétal, a Garden Centre and landscaping business in Boulogne sur Gesse, Départment Haut Garonne, Midi-Pyrénées. Kingdom Végétal has a large choice of plants, offers expert horticultural advice and a garden design service and caters to both French and British (and other expat) customers in their area. Having owned a landscape business previously in the UK and with Gary’s background in teaching and lecturing in landscaping and other areas of horticulture we thought who better to talk about how French garden styles differ from those of the British gardener:
Before moving to France if anyone had asked me to describe my idea of typical French gardens style, I’d have immediately thought of Monet water colours of pastel shades with lakes and water lilies all set in an informal cottage style. I’d have thought of brick pathways with delightful mixes of herbs and herbaceous flowers, wisterias and vines dripping with grapes. The stereotypical blue enamelled watering can and a basket of freshly cut French lavender strategically placed next to a wrought iron table and chair. A garden full of French chic, charm and that certain “Je ne sais quoi”. Maybe there are gardens like this in more sophisticated areas of Provence and the Côte d’Azure, but here in the South West of France I’ve never seen any.
We live in a very rural area with a strong agricultural background. Most local gardens are very practical with a large proportion laid out for fruit and vegetables. For the past four years, Gary has been one of the judges for the “Jardins fleuri” in our local town. It’s a competition set up by the local equivalent of the Womens Institute who nominate gardens in the area to be judged. He always comes back disappointed at the lack of imagination and diversity in the gardens competing. They tend to stick to the plants they know grow well in the region and are reluctant to change. Hydrangeas on the North side, Roses in the South, red Geraniums for summer bedding, a Fig tree and occasionally a Parasol Pine.
Our British customers are far more adventurous with their style of gardens in France. They like to incorporate structures like pergolas, fountains, paved areas and gravel and are keen to experiment with the more exotic plants that aren’t possible to grow in the UK. Probably because they’ve had more exposure to Gardening and Garden Design Programs in the UK, or maybe because gardening as a past time and horticulture as a profession is more developed there. We’ve been told that in France the British are well known for their expertise in gardening (which is fortunate for us).
Unfortunately, there are limited varieties of trees and plants available to buy in this part of France, despite the fact that the climate dictates that there are many more plants that can be grown. Is the limited choice of plants available due to lack of demand or is the lack of diversity in gardens due to limited supply? Probably a bit of both. A large part of the reason for starting the Garden Centre was because we found it virtually impossible to source many of the plants we wanted for our landscaping customers. We find that we have to source many of our plants from Spain and the UK.
However, things are changing. We’re receiving more enquiries for the unusual and exotic and not just from our British and other foreign customers, but from the French too. Olive trees are very popular and grow well here, although there are only two varieties that will bear fruit in the region (many of our competitors don’t seem to realise this). Various palms and exotic plants are also becoming increasing popular and will tolerate our winters, although some do need winter protection
David Austin English Roses are popular with many of our French (and foreign) customers. Roses grow extremely well in our soils and the French adore the varieties, colours and fragrances available. They are bred to be disease resistant which means they are much easier to care for than many of the more traditional French Roses. One of the most popular buys with our British customers are Bramley Apples. Not normally available in France, we have them shipped from England and we’ve even managed to tempt a few more adventurous French customers into trying them.
Christmas trees are a growing market. When we first arrived over eight years ago, Christmas was very low key with hardly any sign of it in the shops and houses, but every year it gets more popular. It’s interesting to note the different tastes in Christmas trees according to nationality. The British like the big bushy Nordmans and if they can put it out in the garden afterwards that’s a bonus, but not essential. The Dutch tend to want the biggest at the best price and are not so bothered about planting out after. The French being practical and hating waste, prefer the small traditional Christmas trees (Picea excelsor) and want to plant them out after Christmas.
Due to the strong agricultural background, many of the locals garden by the moon cycles and buy the “Calendrier Lunaire” each year. Many also follow specific dates of patron saints For instance they will not plant out their seedlings until after Saints de Glace (the saints of frost) which is on the 11th, 12th and 13th of May It is said that during these dates we often experience late frosts and after the 13th May, we won’t get a Frost until November. I know it sounds a bit strange, but we have noticed that this is often the case so maybe there is some truth in these sayings passed on from generation to generation. With every year that passes we learn new things, there’s a lot to be said for local traditions. They certainly know their native plants and climate well, but there’s a whole world out there of wonderful trees and shrubs that will flourish in our soils. That’s where we hope, in some small way, we can help to make a difference to the landscapes of the future.