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The key to success in any garden is right plant, right place. This is critical in France where the temperatures can vary from -16°C to +40°C in a year.  2018 has been the most challenging of my 13 years in France, thanks to a very wet spring which encouraged prolific new growth that was difficult to sustain over a three to four month dry spell.

As the heavily mulched areas fared better than those with a lack of soil, I am planning to mulch all the beds during winter. My 9-month old homemade compost looks really good and will provide the plants with the necessary nutrients.

Selecting shrubs and perennials

Look for shrubs with a nice glossy leaf such as Abelia, Lagerstroemia or Escallonia, instead of a soft leaf like the Forsythia or Lycesteria which will wilt in the sun. Also choose leaves with a Silver tone. Both the early summer flowering Phlomis and late summer Ceanothus do well in the sun.

Sedums are my all-time favourites as they thrive in dry conditions and provide colour in the garden well into winter. Ranging from small rockery plants to taller varieties, they include the Sedum Autumn Joy which starts with white/pale pink flowers that gradually become darker, and the Sedum Matrona with its wonderful burgundy stems.

You might like to consider reducing your pallet of perennials and choose drought tolerant varieties. I just love the Euphorbia Amygdaloides, especially the blue tones of Lathyris, or the early spring varieties such as Purpurea.

No garden in France is complete without spring flowering Iris. There are hundreds of colours to choose from and they are the easiest plant to divide and share with friends. Just dig them up after flowering and separate each tuber and replant. Aim to do this every three years to promote new growth and prolong flowering.

Left to right, Abelia, Escallonia and Sue’s favourite Sedum, Autumn Joy

Thinking about the birds

Birds hate open spaces, they need in-flight resting places where they can feel safe, so the more trees and plants you have, the more the birds will visit. I just love a cold wintery day for digging and top dressing the borders. The cheeky Robin is always there, waiting for a meal.

You can encourage the many different species of birds here in France by setting up feeding stations that can be observed from the warmth of your home, out of reach of cats. In addition, leave seed heads on shrubs and perennials as these will also offer the birds a tasty treat.

Winter Pruning

As a general rule, if you prune in winter you encourage new growth but, if you prune in summer, it tends to stop growth for that year.

Armed with my loppers, secateurs and hand saw, I am always charged with energy to shape up the trees and shrubs for next season. Pruning deciduous shrubs and trees now means you can decide on the shape you want, whilst considering those growing alongside that might interfere with the desired effect.

I was lucky enough to be given a shredder as a birthday gift. Shredders are valuable pieces of equipment, able to turn your branches into a perfect mulch. However, size matters, so make sure yours is able to cope with routine jobs, or consider hiring a large version.

Flowering shrubs

Here’s a top tip; if it flowers before June don’t prune in winter because you will probably lose the flowers in spring. Flowering shrubs of this type include Forsythia, Deutzia and Mahonia. Most other shrubs can be pruned in winter. Take care in early spring whilst shaping your Buddleia. I usually leave the seed heads on over winter for the birds but prune once the new growth starts to appear in spring. Occasionally, an early morning frost will damage these new shoots so leaving this job until after the frosts is advisable.

Fruit trees

Apples and Pears benefit from winter pruning, especially if they have branches that are diseased or crossing over. Aim for an open canopy, letting in maximum light from above.

Cherry, Peach, Apricot and Plum trees are better pruned in summer as recently cut branches are more susceptible to fungal diseases. If you have missed this opportunity it is better to wait until next summer, after fruiting.


Sue Sargeant is  passionate gardener, novice writer.

Blooming gardens in SW France

Sue Sargeant

First published in the January/February 2019 issue of The Local Buzz

Images: Sue Sargeant and Shutterstock