On a recent visit back to the UK, the drive around the M25 took several hours longer than my navigational device originally suggested and my appointments with clients in Hertfordshire and Surrey were cold, damp affairs.
Measuring gardens with the remaining snow melting under foot, I could not help but wonder how many plants will not have survived this year. The trend for Mediterranean planting, with Palms, Olives and other tender plants now common in our gardens, may be set back a little after the winter we have just experienced. The good news, for those of you who have bought your plants from one of the many garden centres locally, is that they will almost certainly supply refunds or replacements for anything you have lost. I shall be interested to see if staff at French garden centres take the same view of plant replacement as they do in the UK.
It would be a shame if this experience put gardeners off. Gardening is all about working with Nature and at times she can be very harsh. Having lost a couple of plants in our own garden this winter I will not hesitate to replant the same species in the same way and in the same place. Provided they are given the conditions they require (soil type, aspect, etc) then I suggest you do the same. Next year’s growing conditions will not be the identical and, once properly established, a plants ability to deal with difficult weather increases considerably. Ask to talk to the expert at the garden centre – there will be one somewhere – to check that the plant is suited to the site you have chosen for it.
Potted plants have become increasing fashionable although fewer owners have the protected growing space required to keep them in good health over winter. For this reason some summer-flowering plants are best treated as annuals and replaced with new each year. When we were living in England we had a large greenhouse and an even larger conservatory to call upon when the weather was cold. In France we do not yet have such luxuries and have had to be creative to keep our potted plants alive over this first winter.
The Lemons trees have been very hard work this year. In the UK they used to flower their hearts out over the winter and their scent filled the conservatory and much of the house. Our two specimens, one Italian and the other Spanish, provided most of the lemon fruit our family could use during a year. In France I have managed to keep them alive by moving them into the house every evening on a large sack truck, putting them out again for the day, except when temperatures were particularly low – we recorded minus 12°C at one point. Needless to say, I have not been rewarded for my efforts by flower or fruit.
In the garden it is generally the buds and young shoots of tender plants which are killed off in the cold, but in pots the roots are just as vulnerable. Drip trays and saucers can be useful aids during the growing season but when dormant the plant can be literally drowned by sitting in a puddle of water all winter. This is something you can check and correct today, although poor drainage within the pot is less obvious. Unprotected containers may have been damaged by the frost but the roots of the plant inside can also be killed off in the cold. This is a period when you can only wait and hope: plant condition will become apparent when the spring arrives.
No doubt the snow will be a distant memory by the time you read this article. Spring will be upon us or just around the corner and gardens will have started to come back into life. It is worth making a note or taking a photograph of the areas which were a disappointment over the winter. By careful plant choice these beds can be improved by selecting plants which flower or have attractive foliage, bark or berries to enliven dull spaces. Regular visits to garden centres or nurseries will inform you what is available; on my visits during this recent trip it was the season of Hellebores and Hamamelis, with trolley-loads of Primroses also on offer. There were bright displays of Cornus with their stems of yellow, red or orange according to variety. In bud and bursting were Camellias and Magnolias, while there were also many evergreens with attractive foliage of dazzling gold, red and in wild mixed colours. Plant a selection so that they can be seen from a window when conditions really are too bad to venture out. There is nothing like a flower or two to add cheer to a garden and the family that uses it.
Having left behind an English garden full of wonderful plants, our garden in France is very empty. We have two magnificent Sequoias and very little else, although I have been slowly buying and planting bits and pieces. Showing guests around the back of the house recently however, I was delighted to see the characteristic evergreen tufts of Pyramidal Orchid leaves poking through brambles, grass and other weeds in the neglected garden. I have since very carefully lifted and replanted them away from the risk of damage into areas which will soon be flower beds. I am used to finding orchids in unexpected places but this was a delightful discovery. They will be joined soon by Bee Orchids bought in the UK.
For the first time in any garden we have owned some of our early purchases have been fruit trees. For me, to plant a fruit tree is to really put down roots. It says “this is home” more clearly than most types of planting, if only because of the investment in time and effort needed to produce a good crop. We have started with Peach, Apricot and Cherries, with only the high French prices preventing me planting more. I am hoping to pick up a few Apple trees from the UK during one of my appointment visits this year, adding to our mini orchard and my feeling of belonging.
In spite of the frustrations of living in a foreign country, with confusing rules, regulations and traditions and a language barrier which is taking time and hard work to overcome, our new life in France has put a spring in our step and a smile on our faces that have not been seen for some time. I now read the magazine of the French national horticultural society as avidly as I read that of the RHS. Horticulture and gardening has proved a great passport for me towards acceptance in our adopted country. Clients continue to call us back to the UK for design or advice on their gardens, so for the moment we seem to be having the best of both worlds. I am touching wood as I type!