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How to cultivate your winter garden in France

Cathy Thompson's tips on how to create a sweet-smelling French winter garden 

Have you ever visited a garden in the depths of a cold, damp (or frozen) January and been overpowered by a scent that seemed to lead you by the nose? It is an experience that aces even a riot of colour and scent in June.

My own first experience of that kind of sensory revelation was walking below the delicately scented, spidery flowers of mature witch hazels, floating in yellow, orange and red against a grey January sky.

But there are other scented plants that will make your garden memorable in January and, unlike witch hazels, some of the very best are evergreens.

My first choice would be for one of the Sarcococcas (S. confusa, S. hookeriana and S. ruscifolia), all fairly slow and low-growing evergreen shrubs with pointed, shiny leaves, a little like those of a very classy box.

I used to call them ‘toilet plants’, because they often lurk around the ‘conveniences’ in public gardens

Even better than their tolerance of less than ideal conditions, the racemes of white, vanilla-scented flowers will pull you in for a sniff from over six metres away.

Next choice would be Daphne odora – you could choose ‘Aureomarginata’, with a variegated gold edge to the leaf if you are into a jazzier effect. This slow-growing evergreen will not exceed a height of about 1.5m over many years. It forms a rather billowy, spreading mound with small, dull green leaves and the divine, spicily scented flowers are pink, opening to white in ‘Aureomarginata’.

Plant them – they are worth it! But where do you source them? It is a question that readers have asked more than once over the two years I’ve been writing this column. Since this month sees the beginning of an important new European era, it is more vital than ever to support the very best French nurseries. So here is a shortlist of online nurseries in France that I’ve found invaluable.

Le Jardin des Gazelles is perfect for a new garden. My own had little in the way of plants when I arrived and shrubs should be the first plantings, since they provide backbone. Chez Gazelles you can source collections of spring, summer and winter-flowering shrubs in quantity (and quality), with minimum outlay.

If you stick to bare root plants, you might acquire 100 plus young hedging hornbeams for as little as 94cents each, while a small spirea or a buddleia can set you back less than €2. Their packing and delivery service are very good (with the proviso that I have only purchased dormant specimens from them).

Another shrub nursery that I used for the first time in late 2019, to buy peach, cherry, pear and fig youngsters, was Leaderplant. Again, these were well priced, well-packed and good quality young specimens when they arrived.

Promesse de Fleurs is my herbaceous perennial favourite. Since I started buying from them about six years ago, they have vastly expanded their catalogue. And their methods of packaging have improved in leaps and bounds. In my early days as a customer, I would receive delphiniums that had departed their pots while in transit; now each plant is cushioned in its own sealed plastic module – although, sadly, the plastic does not seem to be recyclable.

The shrub selection is ever-growing: here is where you could buy ten different varieties of Hamamelis (brilliant for a winter-scented woodland) – and your Daphnes and Sarcococcas. I finally gritted my teeth (because of the cost) and purchased a much longed-for Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ (alias ‘wedding cake tree’) in early spring 2020. The shrub was quite badly damaged on arrival – and was replaced promptly without question only days later.

I have also tried LePage nurseries, with rather more mixed results. But then, I am looking for 8-9cm pots of a wide variety of herbaceous material – I am not interested in shelling out for big plants. Their replacement service is immaculate.

You could spend hours browsing and drooling over their online catalogue – which they rightly call an ‘encyclopaedia’ of plants.

I also like a small nursery set up by an English couple, Plantagenêt Plantes. Excellent quality and value-for-money plants (well-packed too); their target market is people who want to garden sustainably in the climate of western France.

My final selection is a nursery very close to me in Lorraine called Jardin d’Adoué. Friends had told me they were special (they were featured once on TV gardening show Silence, ça pousse!), because they focus on plants that would do well in my particular climate and on my particular soil.

If you do not live in my area, bear in mind that they are part of an association of nurseries that call themselves Association Plantes et Cultures. If you browse the pages of its website, you are bound to come up with ideas for nurseries local to you, or specialising in plants that are your particular fetish!

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