How to cultivate your winter garden in France

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Have you ever visited a garden in the depths of a cold, wet (or frozen) January and been overwhelmed by a scent that seemed to lead you through your nose? It’s an experience that even has a riot of colors and scents in June.
My first experience of this kind of sensory revelation was walking under the delicately scented spider flowers of mature witch hazel, floating in yellow, orange and red against a gray January sky.

But there are other fragrant plants that will make your garden memorable in January, and unlike witch hazel, some of the best are conifers.

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

I used to call them “toilet plants” because they are often hidden in the “amenities” of public gardens.

Better yet than their tolerance to less than ideal conditions, the clusters of vanilla-scented white flowers will lure you in for a sniff from over six yards.

The next choice would be Daphne odora – you can choose ‘Aureomarginata’, with a variegated gold edge to the leaf if you are into a more jazz effect. This slow growing evergreen will not exceed a height of around 1.5m for many years. It forms a fairly wavy, spreading mound with small dull green leaves and the divine, fragrant spicy flowers are pink, opening to white in ‘Aureomarginata’.

Plant them – they’re worth it! But where do you find them? It’s a question readers have asked more than once in the two years I’ve written this column. Since this month marks the start of an important new European era, it is more than ever vital to support the best French nurseries. So here is a short list of online nurseries in France that I have found invaluable.

The Jardin des Gazelles is perfect for a new garden. Mine had few plants when I arrived and shrubs should be the first plantings as they provide the backbone. At Gazelles, you can get collections of spring, summer and winter flowering shrubs in quantity (and quality), with minimal expense.

If you stick to bare root plants, you could acquire over 100 young hedge charms for as little as 94 cents each, while a small spirea or buddleia can cost you less than $ 2. Their packing and delivery service is very good (provided I only bought dormant specimens from them).

Another shrub nursery that I first used at the end of 2019, to buy young peaches, cherries, pears and figs, was Leaderplant. Again, these were inexpensive young specimens, well packaged and of good quality upon arrival.

Promise of Flowers is my favorite perennial herb. Since I started buying from them about six years ago, they have significantly expanded their catalog. And their packaging methods have improved in leaps and bounds. When I started out as a customer, I received delphiniums that had left their pots in transit; now each plant is padded in its own sealed plastic module – although unfortunately the plastic doesn’t appear to be recyclable.

The selection of shrubs keeps growing: here is where you can buy ten different varieties of Witch hazel (brilliant for a fragrant winter forest) – and your Daphnes and Sarcocoques. I finally clenched my teeth (because of the cost) and bought a long awaited product Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ (aka ‘wedding cake tree’) in early spring 2020. The shrub was fairly badly damaged on arrival – and was quickly replaced without question a few days later.

I have tried LePage Nurseries as well, with somewhat more mixed results. But then I’m looking for 8-9cm pots of a wide variety of herbaceous material – I’m not interested in shelling for large plants. Their replacement service is impeccable.

You could spend hours browsing and drooling over their online catalog – which they aptly call an “encyclopedia” of plants.

I also like a small nursery created by an English couple, Plantagenêt Plantes. Excellent quality and value for money factories (well packaged as well); 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 told me they were special (they were once featured on a TV gardening show Silence it grows!) 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 region, know that they are part of an association of nurseries called Association Plantes et Cultures. If you browse the pages of her website, you are sure to find ideas from local nurseries or those specializing in plants that are your particular fetish!

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