Garden-loving friends in the north

A collective of Normandy gardens is attracting green-fingered visitors from all over France, writes Jane Hanks

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In the Cotentin peninsula, Manche, Normandy there is a French gardening association which brings together 29 private gardens that are open to visitors at least once a month from Spring to Autumn. There is a wide variety to visit, which should give inspiration to any keen gardener.

Cotentin Côté Jardins was founded in 2010 by a well-known horticultural writer, Jérôme Goutier, who had discovered several gardens in the area which he thought would be appreciated by the public. They are spread over the entirety of the peninsula from La Hague on the Northwestern tip of the peninsula to the Mont-Saint-Michel bay in the south and to the borders with the Orne department.

They are all owned by passionate gardeners keen to share their horticultural experiences and they range from small town gardens to large ones with collection of plants from all over the world. Each year the association gives money from the visits to charity.

One of the first gardeners to join the association was Caroline St. Clair, who has lived in France since 1989 and lives not far from Cherbourg.

She has a 10 acre property with fields for her horses but little by little, the land around her house has been transformed into a beautiful 5,000 m² garden. Mrs St. Clair says she loves being part of the association:

“A great part of the pleasure of gardening is sharing your passion with others. Visitors always go away with their arms full of cuttings or seedlings, which I hope they will grow in their own garden. I have several areas in my garden where I have grown plants that have been given to me and they remind me of the person or the occasion when I got them.”

Mrs St. Clair says she has about 300 visitors a year and that this is an average for the association, though Jérôme Goutier can have 1,500 in a year. Visitors come from all over France and often gardening clubs will organise an outing by coach to the area. As the gardens are spread out, with a 2½ hour drive between those in the north and those in the south, only a small selection can be visited in a day.

Mrs St. Clair describes her garden, La Ferme des Roches, as a rambling garden with a mixture of trees, shrubs and a hundred different roses. “Every year I add masses of new plants. Many French people describe it as a typical English garden but it is not really what we would call a cottage garden. However, it is not formal and there are surprises round every corner. The wonderful thing about this part of the world is that we have our own temperate micro-climate with plenty of rain, rare frosts and very good soil.

“My favourite trees are magnolias and I also love cornus (dogwood) as there are so many different varieties which flower at different times of the year and have different colours. I love viburnums too and I have tons and tons of hebes.”

She says the variety of gardens in the association is fantastic, helped by the fact that the climate allows plants to grow from all over the world.

Another garden, at a townhouse in Cherbourg, is called Le Jardin Chou, because this used to be a cabbage growing area. It has a vegetable garden, a lawn with giant eucalyptus with flower beds around them and a south facing terrace with Mediterranean and southern hemisphere plants growing in a gravel garden. There are plants in flower all through the year with a collection of primula and hellebores in the winter and geraniums, euphorbia and astrantia in summer.

There is a Japanese garden, La Guesnonnière at Montcuit, with two parts to it. The first surrounds a lake with waterfalls and is oriental in style with its natural granite sand areas, reminiscent of raked Oriental sand gardens and there are ferns, rhododendrons and bamboos. In the second area there is a stunning collection of Japanese maples and hydrangea.

Le Jardin du Bourg at Anneville-en-Saire takes you into the southern hemisphere with a collection of plants started in 2002. There are palms, eucalyptus, acacia and a South African karroo, commonly known as Sweet thorn.

Jérôme Goutier’s garden, La Bizerie at Saint-Maurice-en-Cotentin was begun in 1988. He writes for the gardening magazine La Rustica and has written several gardening books.

He calls his garden “un jardin sans frontières”, with collections of plants from both the southern and northern hemispheres. His property is situated in a north-facing valley with a lake at one end, surrounded by opulent vegetation including hydrangeas, tree ferns, eucalyptus and Davidia involucrata, the handkerchief tree from China. At the southern end of the garden, there is a Mediterranean feel with agapanthus and other South African bulbs.

The gardens are all open on the same weekend at least once a month, but there are more open days during May and June. Each garden charges an entrance fee from €3 to €7 and half of this will be kept by the owner, who will often give the money to a charity of their choice.

The association usually organises one weekend when all proceeds will go to a common cause decided by the committee. In 2017, this was the donation of beehives made by residents at a home for the disabled in Mayenne to “la Manche Apicole”, which encourages bee-keepers in the department.

In previous years money went to a therapeutic garden in Valognes for people with Alzheimer’s.

Visitors can also buy a card which gives them half-price entrance to the gardens, for either €3 for a week-end (€5 for a couple) or €10 for the season (€15 for a couple). The first opening days this year will be May 5-8.