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A very berry French Christmas

In her French garden dispatch, Cathy Thompson offers tips on winter colour

In the dark month when Saturn rules the northern hemisphere, the garden celebrates its own festival of lights with a crown of berries. There’s nothing like the sharp intake of breath and lifting of the spirits that comes when we round a corner and come face to face with the blaze of colour that was a hitherto demure and retiring tree or shrub, now covered in glory. 

But we have a choice here – are we feeding the birds or contriving to plant so that berries give us pleasure instead?

Red and black berries are most attractive to birds, with the blacks of ivy (also useful for foraging bees in early spring) the most obvious and seasonal choice. Add flashes of red with hedgerow European natives such as roses, hawthorn, spindle bush (Euonymus europaeus), guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) and barberry (Berberis spp). I would dot in foreigners amongst European barberry – try very common forms of Japanese B. thunbergii or choicer Chilean B. linearifolia ‘Orange King’ – because their foliage is often more interesting.

When choosing roses for hips, Rosa rugosa is the most frequently planted in gardens – and blackbirds, fieldfare and mistle thrushes do adore them in winter – but it’s worth treasuring Rosa canina, the dog rose, for its smaller hips that are eaten by a wider range of species and stay juicy until late winter.

These shrubs are all best confined to mixed boundary hedges, since they often don’t make interesting specimens when planted singly in the garden.

Remember that birds don’t always stick to the rules, however. I clearly remember a joyful encounter with crab apple ‘Red Sentinel’, ablaze with red fruit in the January sunshine. You’ll win some and lose some if you opt for red berries.

If you want to take no chances, veer towards the yellow, pink and white end of the berry spectrum, usually shunned by birds. Think of the creamy fruits of the small pink-berried mountain ash Sorbus vilmorinii, white-berried Sorbus cashmiriana, or the vibrant violet beads of Beautyberry, Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’. The Callicarpa would be ideal for warmer gardens, with the cautionary note that it is a bit on the fussy side and doesn’t like too much of anything, including cold, heat, drought, or winter wet. This is a shrub to plant in groups for a show, but a single specimen of Clerodendrum trichotomum var. fargesii with scarily blue and pink fruits will light up a large space on its own.

Warm yellow choices include the yellow-fruited guelder rose, Viburnum opulus ‘Xanthocarpum’, or a crab apple like ‘Golden Hornet’– or even Pyracantha ‘Soleil d’Or’, if you can stomach the horrid spines.

These trees and shrubs are highlighted perfectly by a wilder planting of grasses with pink-flushed flowers, such as Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, ‘Flamingo’, ‘Malepartus’ or ‘Rotsilber’. You’ll want to leave the grass flowers and foliage for the winter, but ensure that you cut back to soil level to remove their dead remains in late winter, just before the new growth emerges from the ground.

If you love tradition, you just have to plant holly for December, in spite of the fact that it provides the ideal Christmas feast for song thrushes, fieldfare, blackbirds, redwings. Holly is usually dioecious – there are separate male and female forms, both required for pollination. Plant the female, berry-producing type as a first choice and follow up with the males if you have to – there may well already be males lurking in your environs to provide a pollinating hand! Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ is perhaps the most cheerful and showy female choice (also very good for topiary), sporting creamy-edged leaves. ‘Madame Briot’ is a flashier specimen, with purple stems and mottled leaves edged in a rather brash yellow. Don’t be confused by nurserymen who decided to fox us all by calling a female holly ‘Golden King’ – she is quite capable of producing the crop you want. If you are adding males to the mix, you could try ‘Golden Queen’ (a male, I promise) or silver-variegated ‘Silver Queen’. Variegated male ‘Ferox Argentea’ is aptly named the ‘hedgehog holly’ for the additional sharp spines on the upper leaf surface. ‘J.C. van Tol’ (a spineless green holly) is one of the few self-fertile hollies available.

Unless you are lucky enough to live close to a really good nursery or to go to one of the massive French plant fairs, such as that at the Domaine de Chantilly which rivals Chelsea, you may find it difficult to source the tastier, more desirable cultivars. I’ve found the online nurseries Les Botaniques du Val Douve and its little satellite, Jeunes Plantes (offering small plants at affordable prices), have filled the gap.;

Take black and white pictures in the garden this month. This gives you a real sense of the current ‘bones’ of your garden, including your successes and the ways that you could make exciting changes. Designing a garden is a bit like designing a house, and December’s the month for leafing through inspiring magazines and books in front of the fire. It’s hard to beat old classics such as Rosemary Verey’s The Garden in Winter for helping you see your garden as it really is.

Have you ever spent time wondering how you could improve the structure of your garden? If not – why not? How would you plan to do it? Is there a French garden you have visited that’s inspired you, or a book that you’ve read whose images continue to resonate?

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