A simple sign at the entrance to nearly 5,000 communes in France indicates that it has been awarded a Villes et Villages Fleuris de France label.
It is a hard-earned award as only about half of the applicants which apply each year are given the label. The categories range from one to four flowers with almost equal numbers achieving 1, 2 and 3 flowers and just 235 are given the coveted 4 flowers. There are additional special prizes with eight Fleur d’Ors, a prize for diversity, another for heritage, one for trees, one for collective gardens and one for tourism.
To win the award, a town or village must do more than plant beautiful flowers. The judges look at the broad environmental programme which includes not only attractive borders and beds but also the efforts made to protect the environment and encourage biodiversity, actions to educate and involve the local inhabitants and tourists, the management of green spaces and the motivation of the commune to earn the label.
The result is a label that is apparently appreciated by local populations. A survey by Market research group IPSOS in 2011 found that it is by far the best known label for towns and villages in France and that people who live in a Ville et Village Fleurie are the most satisfied with the quality of life in their home town. Satisfaction increased with the number of flowers so that those who live in a commune without a label gave a mark of 5.3/10 for quality of life, those with one flower 5.7/10 and those with 4 flowers 6.7/10.
Martine Lesage, Director of the Conseil National des Villes et Villages Fleuris says that to win an award a commune must show that it has made a huge effort to improve the vegetation in the town to the benefit of its residents: “The criteria are very strict. We really want to see that there is a global policy to include flowers, plants, grass and trees in town planning so that no new buildings will be created without some sort of green space; that there are parks and gardens accessible to everyone; that there are educational programmes and that the quality of the town is embellished by a large amount of plant life. We also like to see creativity. In the past beds would be planted systematically with classic bedding plants like begonias but now we like to see the talent of gardeners put to good use to come up with new ideas.”
Mrs Lesage says the end result is beneficial: “The label has a good reputation and even a dense urban suburb can improve its image by working hard to introduce plants into the area and so transform its negative image into something more positive. There is an impact on public health. People feel better if they live in a pleasant environment that is cared for. If a town centre is attractive people are more likely to stay rather than move out to the country and this makes a place more dynamic. It is good for tourism but also for businesses and I have seen examples where a company will choose to move into an area because it has the label.”
She says a commune can win the label without huge expense and that it usually only makes up 3 or 5% of the total budget: “With new approaches to the environment costs are reduced. Pesticides are banned so that is one expense avoided and new planting often favours perennials, bushes and trees which avoids the cost of purchasing masses of annuals every year. Even mowing expenses are reduced because people don’t expect grass to be cut all the time – a little longer is no bad thing.”
Villes et Villages Fleuris was created nearly 60 years ago by the Ministry for Tourism. But its origins go back to the 19th century when European and French tourists began to travel around the country. At that time the principal form of transport was the train and stations were often utilitarian places. To make them more attractive the Touring Club de France introduced a competition to encourage station masters and hotels to compete for the best floral decorations. It was so successful that in the 1920s it was extended to communes and “Villages Coquets” was held every year up until 1939.
After the war, in the 1950s, the Touring Club together with Rustica gardening magazine and the Association of Horticulturists introduced “Routes Fleuries” with such success that Tourist Minister, Robert Buron set up the nationwide competition Villes et Villages Fleuris in 1959.
600 communes signed up in the first year. An increasing number wished to participate so that the administration was soon delegated to the Prefectures. In 1988 the organisation was handed over to the Conseils Départementales et Régionaux.
If a commune wants to apply it fills in an application sent by the local Department, which then makes a pre-selection of those it thinks will be eligible for a flower. The communes are judged by the Departments and the Regions for the 1,2 and 3 flower labels. A list of any that the Region thinks may be eligible for the 4th flower is sent to the Conseil National des Villes et Villages Fleuris (CNVVF) who award the 4th flower and special prizes. The communes are judged by a jury which is made up of local councillors, horticulturalists, landscape gardeners, tourist professionals and they make their visits between June and September. The Regions revisit the communes every three years and can change the number of flowers or take the label away.
The town is very proud of its four flower label. It boasts “580 hectares of nature” looked after by 92 employees who plant 300,000 flowers a year.
It an arboretum planted with typical local trees as well as those from around the world and where the grass is “mown” by a herd of the rare breed Solognote sheep. Three years ago a new orchard was planted to conserve 150 rare and old varieties of fruit trees.
Planting is planned carefully in an aim to use as little water as possible and favour perennials and bulbs such as daffodils which come back every year. Beds are mulched to avoid evaporation and conserve heat.
Chemical herbicides and pesticides have been banned for some years now and weeding is done by hand. 3 million Australian ladybirds are set free in the town every year to do their work destroying the mealy bugs which are the enemy of the Geraniums, Petunias and Busy Lizzies.
Horses are used to take the water tanks around the town for watering 900 flower planters in the town.
Planting design is also important and planned two seasons in advance. They gardeners choose a colour scheme and order the seeds accordingly. It could be pastels in spring and warmer colours in summer. For the shape of the beds they are inspired by architecture and design. They play with height and tones and choose from the 160 varieties of plants which grow in the 5 hectares of greenhouses in the town.
Anne Chaussard, the councillor responsible for the environment says the label is a reward for all those who have worked over the years to introduce policies to the town which make it both attractive and environmentally friendly: “We haven’t done all this work to chase after a prize but having it is a recognition of our efforts and is a recognition of the quality. I think the label is becoming increasingly well-known and respected and we are proud to have it.”
She says she thinks the town has earned the award not just for the flowers but above all for its environmental policies. “I have only been in the post since September but I know that the town has always been well in advance of others with for example its zero pesticides policy and its attempts to reduce water use for its flowers. We have developed a system to recuperate rain water and use it to water our flower beds. We also choose plants which need less water and a recent example is the bed in front of the station which used to have a mosaic of annuals but which we have now replaced largely with perennials. It is just as aesthetically pleasing but better for the environment.”
Cholet in the Maine-et-Loire has been awarded the prestigious 4 flower label since 2005 and in 2016 it was also awarded the special prize for plant diversity.
The councillor responsible for parks and gardens, Annick Jeanneteau, says the label motivates them every year to continue to work on improving the local environment: “It would be a catastrophe to lose a flower. Every day we think about it and so it encourages us to carry on improving our parks and gardens and the way we manage them. The town employees put a lot of effort into their work and every year they eagerly await the results.”
Cholet has several parks and gardens and has recently developed a wetland area with donkeys and goats. It organises events with schools to introduce children to the environment, runs campaigns encouraging the public to pick up litter, clear up after their dogs and make their own compost and gives gardening advice. Mrs Jeanneteau thinks Cholet won the award for diversity because they produce their own plants: “We have massive greenhouses where we grow our own and work in advance to plan our borders and beds. We continue to have plenty of projects, for example we want to change the rose garden to make it bigger and even more beautiful.”
She says the real motivation is to create a place where people want to live: “We are very proud of our town. It is on a human scale with its parks and flowers and is a really pleasant place to live. The inhabitants know it and appreciate its beauty. They often ask the names of the plants and the flowers they’ve seen because they’re really interested.”