Cultivez Votre Jardin !

I apologise to Voltaire for using his famous quote from Candide! It is a phrase we often use when talking about France and getting away from the hustle and bustle of London. Not that we don’t have a garden in London – a standard 90 footer in fact- but in Normandy we have acquired three quarters of an acre. It is popularly called in our family the Fantasy Field ….

When we looked at the house it was placed in a manageable 1000 square metre plot, but John has always wanted a large garden… so after some negotiation we extended this to 3000 square metres. This meant that we now have in addition to the garden a large field and any farming livestock are further from the house. The rural aspect of this ‘garden’ is even more evident when, from time to time, cows and bulls (from their side of the fence!) look curiously at us mowing it. In fact last summer they took to following whoever was mowing up and down the field.

Garden cultivation is something very dear to the heart of many people looking for a second home who yearn for space and fresh air, and the opportunity to create something special. We are often envious of friends who live permanently in France as they can work throughout the year on their land, growing vegetables and enjoying the flowers as they bloom. We are realising that if you are only there from time to time, you need a different approach.

If you are in the country, keeping animals out of your land may be a problem. Cows and sheep being herded down a lane do sometimes turn the wrong way. We had a pack of hunting dogs racing around the farm recently – no horses fortunately. Our friends, Chris and Alison, who have a second home about 5 miles from us returned on their last visit to find that next doors goats had got in an eaten their new plants. This must have stretched the entente cordiale with the neighbours.

Farmers, I understand, do have a responsibility to provide suitable fencing to enclose their animals. I remember the Notaire making it clear that the farmer would put up an electric fence before any animals went onto adjoining land. Which he did. We then put up a post and wire fence on our side as well.

At the moment we are into our second year of owning our house and looking at how to manage the garden. We have planted fruit trees, pear and plumso far, and also hedging such as elder and lilac. We have also planted lots of bulbs. Someone said to me you can always tell a house owned by an English person in France by the number of daffodils!

Gardening in Normandy
Gardening across the generations!

You need to remember that hedges and trees cannot be planted directly by the boundary and have to be well clear of the power lines. Also make sure that your insurance has a clause covering damage by your trees ( e.g. if a tree on your land is blown over and severs a power line you may be liable)

One of the issues for us can be wind. Views across fields are lovely… but this leaves the ‘garden’ exposed and we are at the moment planting shrubs and trees we think will be reasonably wind resistant and will provide shelter for more tender plants. But everyone’s site is different and looking at what the French are planting in your area may be a useful start.

If you have a lot of land you need a lot of plants! Taking cuttings from friends and family is what we have started to do. We then grow them on and transport them over. There is no restriction on most plants you want to take over for your own garden.

We have noticed that the price of plants can vary between France and the UK. As you will be going back and for, you may be able to take advantage of that . We have found that laurel ,berberis and other hedging plants seem cheaper in France, about 3 euros for quite large plants, but some other plants can be dearer (we had better deals for roses in Woolworth’s!). We also bought the pear trees (bare root) on the local market for under 8 euros each.

One of the biggest problems can be watering and mowing and weeds certainly grow when you are not there. The hot summer last year caused many problems in all gardens, especially with a hose ban. You have to think about whether the shrubs you have carefully planted will survive when you are away or whether you are going to ask someone to caretake them. You also have to think about grass mowing. The farmer mowed our field last summer (he got 2 bales of hay!). If you want it to be more of a garden than a field this may not be the best option, if you want any plants left! We have also taken the view that as we don’t want to spend all the time weeding we will plant large vigorous shrubs and use weedmatting. As space is not a problem then size is not a problem, you can think big! I must say the Norman farming fraternity are looking with curiosity at what we are doing. They cannot believe that we haven’t got a couple of sheep or a horse!

We are having great fun with our Fantasy Field. The soil is good and the air is fresh…often bracing. Planning the ultimate rural garden is a great pastime. We may even eventually get that pond and orchard. As for exercise … John says it certainly beats the gym!

If you have a maison secondaire , do you have any tips on what to plant and how to manage the garden? Any funny stories ?
Please email me at [email protected]

© Gaynor Wingham

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