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Le jardin paysan

Le jardin paysan

Trevor Bridge explores the romance of the French cottage garden and explains how to design and nurture your own oasis of tranquillity…

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Ambling through the French countryside on a warm, sunny day, we turn a corner to be presented with a panoramic view of a beautiful valley. In the distance, an old, honey-coloured stone cottage nestles into the side of a lush, green copse. Blending perfectly into the scene as though it has always been there, the cottage is completely in harmony with the landscape.

Approaching, we spot a display of deep blue irises partially masking a lovely old crumbling wall out of which sprout feathery ferns, nodding Campanulas and colourful Aubrietias. Getting nearer, glancing over the wall we see an ancient, gnarled vine growing along the front of the cottage and a rambling rose draped around an old oak door. The summer air is filled with heady fragrance and there is an abundance of old-fashioned flowers. Poppies and lavender line a gravel path, thyme sprouts out of gaps between old stone flags and pastel coloured hollyhocks tower majestically above. A trellis leans haphazardly against the cottage supporting masses of delicate pink clematis. Through the trellis we spy a rickety gate leading to a potager with neatly tended rows of vegetables, fruit bushes and a colourful border of flowers waiting to be picked to brighten the home. A wild hedgerow provides protection on the far boundary, where richly scented honeysuckle and old man’s beard sprawl happily amongst sloe, elder, blackberry and white field roses. This is the cottage garden, le jardin paysan.

Romantic nostalgia to a degree perhaps, but this is doubtless an enchanting way of gardening. Born out of necessity, the original raison d’être for these gardens was to provide food. Vegetables, fruit bushes, herbs and some hens scuttling about would be the norm, and perhaps a couple of bee hives in an orchard. This is how I remember my grandparents’ garden in north-west England, but sadly this and many others like it have since been sanitised; anything not looking neat and tidy being removed. In France there is still a tradition of maintaining these lovely, productive, country gardens. Whilst orderly gardens behind manicured coniferous hedges are popular, especially around new houses, old practices persist, and with the current inclination towards reverting to a more sustainable, natural way of living, cottage gardening is increasingly popular.

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Cottage gardens blended delightfully with their environment, harmonising homes and their surroundings. Vegetable plots and orchards would be controlled, otherwise gardens had few constraints. Hedges crept up to the house, and flowers, often grown for medicinal or religious purposes, self-seeded and naturalised. With little time for maintenance, the gardens looked after themselves. Fruit trees and flowers were often planted amongst vegetables to attract bees, as was the case here at Le Fayard. There was not always differentiation between crops and ornamentals, culinary plants and flowers sitting side by side. There were no lawns; practical paths led from one place to another, their edges softened by overflowing growth with perhaps a bench against a wall.

The cottage style can be applied to most types and sizes of garden in town or country and with a modern home as well as an old one. You could have a blank canvas, an overgrown plot or an established garden. When renovating an old house many consider recreating the garden’s charm as essential as sympathetically restoring the building. The aim is to produce an informal garden that appears to have evolved naturally, with traditional materials and dense mixtures of plants weaving through each other without straight lines or bare earth. There should be masses of colour, but old-fashioned, muted shades rather than harsh, luminous modern hybrid tones. Different plants are mingled together instead of blocks of single species. Although lawns are not in keeping, a small grass area surrounded by overflowing plants will be fine. Hedges, fences and paths in straight lines will balance the random planting. Paths should be in local materials such as gr

avel or natural stone. Some of the new imitation stone slabs are excellent. Leave gaps for mat-forming plants such as thyme. Stone walls are superb and can support trailers. Timber post and rail, picket or chestnut pale fences are ideal. If privacy or shelter is paramount, timber-boarded fences are suitable particularly as they can form a backdrop to plants. Clipped hedges contrast nicely with the informality of the cottage garden plants, but where space permits they can be allowed to grow wilder, a haven for wildlife. Wooden gates are best in a cottage garden whether the boundary is a fence, hedge or wall. If possible have some plants drifting outside the boundary to benefit passers-by. Provide shady, sheltered spaces for simple wooden or stone seats where you can relax and enjoy the garden. Trellises, arches and arbours provide support for climbers, helping to give the garden an established appearance.

Sowing cottage garden plants

Annuals make a quick colourful show, important in a new garden, and perennials provide a strong framework. From March onwards is an ideal time to sow them, once the cold of winter is over and the ground warms up.

Soil should be well dug, weed free, raked to a fine tilth, trod lightly and not waterlogged. Direct sowing is excellent for a cottage garden effect, seeds being broadcast over the surface and raked in. Alternatively, shallow drills are marked out to produce natural drifts of flowers. Thinly spread seeds along the drills and rake the soil over. Read seed packet instructions for sowing depths and thinning distances. Once the plants establish keep them weed-free. Thin and transplant the thinnings to other areas to fill gaps. Water during dry spells. Deadheading prolongs flowering.

ANNUALS

Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) are native annuals producing vibrant blue mini-carnation-like flowers 90cm high. Easy to grow in full sun in well-drained soil, they are a magnet for butterflies and bees.

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) is named after its fern-like foliage forming a mist around its blue, purple, pink or white saucer shaped blossoms. A wonderful cottage garden plant native to southern France attaining 40cm in height, Nigella self-seeds well, thriving in sun or partial shade and is a complement to broader leaved plants.

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Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is an easy, fast growing, 50cm high annual with vivid orange flowers and aromatic leaves, ideal for filling gaps in sun or partial shade on well-drained soil.

Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) are beautiful with frilly, red, pink, purple or white flowers and attractive seed-heads up to 1m high. They require full sun and well-drained, preferably poor, soil. They self-seed well.

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Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica) have lacy, blue-green foliage and yellow, orange, red or white cup shaped flowers which brighten the cottage garden beautifully and close at night and during cold weather. They prefer full sun and good drainage.

Poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii) is a lovely, spreading annual up to 15cm high with cup shaped, yellow centred, white tipped flowers and finely divided leaves. It grows in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. It forms a fragrant carpet at the front of the bed and attracts aphid-devouring hoverflies and bees.

Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) are long flowering climbers up to 2m, bearing clusters of red, pink, blue, white and purple blooms. Old-fashioned varieties have intense fragrance. They thrive in sun, but in hot weather prefer partial shade. They require supports such as tripods or trellises. At Le Fayard we grow them along our potager fence to attract bees and other pollinators.

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PERENNIALS

Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are well loved traditional cottage garden plants providing structure with their tall racemes of flowers in pink, purple, red, yellow and white. At Le Fayard we inherited every conceivable hue. They prefer full sun, well-drained soil and self-seed well. Once our flowers die and the seeds mature we simply shake them out where we want them to grow. Being drought resistant, they even thrive in gravel next to our house. Staking and tying stops them from collapsing.

Lupins (Lupinus) are tall perennials producing stately spikes of flowers in a wide range of colours. They prefer sun, not too rich, free-draining soil and dislike clay. Soaking their seeds for 24 hours beforehand helps germination. Russell Hybrids ‘Lupin de Russell’ have exceptionally striking blooms of every colour.

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), or Granny’s Bonnet, is a charming, old-fashioned cottage garden perennial up to 90cm high with nodding, pink, red, purple, blue, or white flowers. Self-seeding easily, it looks well spreading amongst other plants. It prefers sun or partial shade.

Delphiniums (Delphinium elatum), or Pied d’Allouette, are elegant perennials ranging from dwarf varieties to 2m tall. They produce blue, red, yellow and white blooms, the clear blues being my favourite. Sow tall varieties in a sheltered place to stop them blowing over. Many prefer cool summers, but new varieties are heat tolerant.

Bellflower (Campanula percisifolia) is a spreading evergreen attaining 1m with beautiful, nodding, blue bell or white flowers. It prefers well-drained, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Canterbury Bells (Campanula medium) are a lovely clump-forming, old-fashioned evergreen biennial with blooms in white, blue and pink.

Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) are easy perennials to grow in sun or partial shade. Their large daisy flowers and fresh green leaves make a great display and excel in attracting butterflies and bees. Growing to 60cm, they fare best when supported.

Michaelmas daisies (Aster amellus) bear clusters of large, violet flowers with yellow centres in autumn. Easy to cultivate, they attain 60cm and prefer full sun but are not fussy about soil types.

Coral flowers (Heuchera spp), with their attractive, evergreen leaves, often tinted silver, bronze or purple, and feathers of small bell shaped white or red flowers are a favourite of mine. They make good ground cover in well-drained soil and semi-shade.

Sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) has fragrant pure white flowers above dark green leaves and attains 1m. Self-seeding easily, it is perfect for naturalising in sun or partial shade and is attractive to bees and other beneficial insects.

Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus) offer both sweet scent and colour with their clustered pink, white and red flowers. Attaining 45cm in sun or part shade, they are a cottage garden favourite, easy to grow and free flowering.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), or Digital, is a native woodland plant producing purple trumpet flowers attractive to bees. It thrives in shade, self-seeds readily and attaining 150cm looks spectacular behind lower plants.

Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is a charming plant with frothy lime green flowers and apple green, fan-shaped leaves, attaining 75cm. It is excellent ground cover in sun or shade on most soils and looks good self-seeded into gravel or cracks between paving.

Bearded iris (Iris germanica) is a familiar flower locally that provides a delightful display of 120cm tall, delicate, pink, blue, red, purple and yellow flowers above sword-shaped leaves. They are propagated by planting rhizomes - not too deeply as they photosynthesize.

Cranesbills (Geranium spp) are ideal for ground cover between upright plants, and look perfect in a cottage garden. Species like ‘Johnson’s Blue’ bear masses of beautiful lavender-blue petals, attaining 30cm. There are many similar Geraniums in shades of blue, pink and white.

Aubretias (Aubretia) are reliable plants forming low, wide carpets of colour that look superb cascading down a stone wall or by a path. They are sold in single colours of blue, purple, lilac and pink or multi-coloured mixes, offered in France as Hybrida Mix.

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