Wouldn’t we all love to be in France right now enjoying the gorgeous French summer? I have a treat for you today. We are traveling to France (virtually) to visit my friend Susan’s charming French garden. Susan is the author of the blog Our French Oasis where she shares tidbits of her family life in a small village in France. I am particularly drawn to her gorgeous garden this time of year. Let’s dive in I know you are going to enjoy Susan’s charming French Garden.
Tell us a little bit about your charming french garden and what inspires it?
Our garden extends to just over an acre. We are right in the middle of a small French village and I think what defines our garden is the shock element as soon as anyone opens our gates. Suddenly you are immersed in a different world, you could be in the middle of open countryside. I have tried to keep this in mind with everything we do, by creating special places even beside the entrance gates and along the driveway. For instance, when you enter the property you are protected on both sides by large stone walls. So along the south-facing wall I have placed a row of five citrus trees in vintage French pots, some are terracotta, some old zinc, there’s a real mixture, but most importantly the trees are incredibly sheltered, they get full sun and the scent as you enter is fabulous.
The rest of the garden is divided into a series of different areas which I like to think of as rooms. We are very lucky because our entire garden is enclosed by old stone walls on three and a half sides, so it is very well protected which makes growing relatively easy. We have a small microclimate here and are able to grow pretty much anything including citrus, olives, and palms outside all year round.
The garden is also dominated by some very large trees which are well over 100 years old. In the summer months, they provide an enormous amount of shade.
How long have you lived in France?
We first moved to France in 2004, although we have not always been in the same place. We moved to the Charente Maritime and our house where we are now six and a half years ago.
Tell us about gardening in France and how it differs from the U.S?
Well, I’m probably not the best person to answer that being English and having grown up in the UK and I would probably get the answers all wrong and offend everyone!!
I love the French garden style and have tried to mimic it a bit in my own garden. What defines the French Garden Style?
I think in the past the French garden was considered incredibly formal, with everything grown in rigid patterns and the rules were strict. However, a move towards a far more casual look is now entering French gardening whilst still keeping to some of the original ideas. For instance, the intricate parterre garden, which is incredible to look at is now often incorporated into a more relaxed garden scheme with just elements of the parterre in evidence. It makes for a lovely mixture of the two.
I have also seen a great many gardens, both public and private, now leaving far more spaces totally natural, with long grasses and meadow flowers waving in the breeze. However, in typical French style, these have had paths mown through them and so creating interesting and intricate patterns, rather like a wild form of a parterre. It is a look I love and one I have tried to start to copy in our own garden this year.
I love the collected look in your garden, the mixing of the old and new. Where do you find the interesting elements that fill your garden?
I have an absolute love of anything antique and vintage, especially if I know where it comes from and some of the history behind it. We are lucky that when we bought this house there was a huge amount of old stone left abandoned in the garden. The previous owner’s grandparents, who bought the house in 1936 were avid collectors of local stone. Anything from old fireplace mantels to large random pieces. We have uncovered these from decades worth of weeds and reused as much of the stone as we can, making stone coffee tables and huge garden benches set within the garden, etc. We also decided as soon as we came here that the garden needed a water feature. We have a well which works fabulously and which we use for all of our watering throughout the year. So we built a pond. We wanted something that looked as if it had been here as long as the house (which was built in 1780). So we opted for a classic rectangle and edged it with some of the big square stones we found.
I also love using old zinc buckets and zinc rubbish bins as plant tubs. My husband drills holes in the bottom for drainage and that’s it, they have a new use.
Several years ago I also decided to stop using anything plastic as far as I possibly could in the garden. We have old zinc watering cans and again the old zinc buckets are used for carrying soil and all manner of things. My other love is the French wooden gardening trug, which is a simple rustic design, with a curved wooden handle. I have quite a few of these, they are in permanent use for everything from collecting vegetables, a basket I can use when pruning, a box for collecting fruit, they are quite invaluable!
Everything in the garden has a story behind it. It’s all been a labor of love and a huge amount of enjoyment.
What are your favorite plants and why?
I love hollyhocks because they are the native ‘weed’ in this area! They grow out of cracks in walls beside the pavement, just about anywhere, if the conditions are right they will thrive. We have them all over the garden and they are so tall and flower all summer long. I also love olive trees, partly because they are evergreen and so provide interest all year round, but also I love their shimmering colours in the sun, it is almost impossible to define what shade of green they are, it is constantly changing as they move in the breeze.
I know you have a larger than usual vegetable garden due to the pandemic. Tell us about what you are growing.
That’s true! This year we had the time during lockdown to really get to work and extend the vegetable garden creating a new bed beside the end very high west-facing boundary stone wall. This was just yet more old abandoned stone and weeds and it took us several weeks with the help of the children who were of course by then studying at home. The weather was incredible and each afternoon we all set to work. It was strangely therapeutic during such difficult times and it was very special to do this all together as a family. This year we are growing all the usual suspects, tomatoes, cucumbers, salad leaves, potatoes, carrots, courgettes, aubergines, and French beans. But we have also added a melon bed and a separate bed for cut flowers as I love having these in the house at all times possible. We also have rhubarb, raspberries, artichokes, kale, Swiss chard, and spinach. Plus a vast amount of fresh herbs. Along with eggs from our chickens, we really could be almost self-sufficient if push came to shove.
What advice do you have for someone that would like to start a garden?
Enjoy it! That I think is the most important and don’t worry about the odd weed. Someone once told me that a weed is merely a plant in the wrong place and in many ways they are so right. We do not use any herbicides or pesticides so we accept the imperfections, actually, we embrace them. On a plus side we can pick any grape straight from the vine, figs from the tree, tomatoes, literally anything that can be eaten raw and eat it straight away knowing that it is as healthy and organic as it can possibly be, there are no chemicals in use in our garden.
How hot does it get in your part of France in the Summer? Are there plants that are difficult to grow?
We’re actually in South West France on the Atlantic coast. Although our department, the Charente Maritime does boast the second-highest number of sunshine hours in France after the Mediterranean. We have to have plants that are quite drought tolerant as it does get very dry in the summer with several weeks without rain, and temperatures average around 29C which is the high 80’s F. We always get a few really hot days and equally some cooler ones too.
Do you handle garden items in your shop?
Yes and no! I do from time to time add them, the biggest problem is that they can be bulky and difficult to ship. However, I do try to always have a wooden garden trug available for sale, but as soon as I manage to find one it sells, and then I have to try and find another one! They are enormously popular for good reason and quite hard to find in reasonable condition! I do sell garden lanterns and things for the terrace when I find things as some of my happiest moments are spent with friends and family on the terrace during the warmer months.
Tell us a little bit about your Airbnb and what guests can enjoy while staying there
We started renting out our guest cottage when we first moved here as it was something we both really wanted to do. We have always been connected to the hospitality business one way or another and we genuinely enjoy meeting new people and chatting to them over a glass of wine and a shared meal. We have kept the cottage as traditional as possible, using vintage marble as a countertop and an old armoire for storage in the kitchen. We have decorated with original artwork and a mixture of antique furnishings where possible whilst adding every modern comfort we can think of.
Guests are welcome to enjoy all of the gardens and help themselves to fresh produce and when our hens are laying we love to share some eggs. Our village is very small but we have a thriving Sunday morning market in the ancient open-air covered market hall and also a wonderful boulangerie which is just a couple of minutes walk away, ideal for buying a morning croissant and pain au chocolat warm from the oven as well as a baguette for lunch!
As we are just 20 minutes from the coast and some truly fabulous beaches there is a huge amount to do here. We also have three Atlantic Islands within half an hour’s drive including the utterly gorgeous Île de Ré. There is very good shopping in La Rochelle and a huge array of fabulous restaurants all around. We are in the oyster capital of France so there is an abundance of top-quality seafood of all varieties. We also are surrounded by picturesque villages and an enormous amount of history including a Roman Amphitheater at Saintes, one of the best examples in Europe and a 12th-century chateau in our village.
Please share anything else you would like!
Thanks, Cindy, I would just like to say that it has been such fun doing this and thank you so much for asking me. As you know I am quite passionate about our garden and also outdoor living on our terrace. I love nothing more than to lay the table outside, keeping it quite simple but using vintage china, a mixture of pretty blue and white plates is one of my favourites. I use old mustard jars and glasses for cut flowers and I’ll pick anything that I can find. We are lucky that the table is shaded by a huge Linden tree and so we don’t need a parasol at that end of the terrace. We hang a vintage chandelier from an overhead branch, plug it into a long extension cord and voila, our evenings go on long after darkness falls!
A fun new addition this year has been to add a permanent fire pit. We made this out of a huge old cast iron cauldron which was once used for boiling water. It is about 2’ in diameter and now sits beside our outdoor sofas and chairs. It has become a firm favourite with everyone, the kids love to roast marshmallows at the end of a meal and staring into the flames with a glass of wine in hand is quite magical. We’ve spent some fantastic evenings around the fire this summer with friends and family.
You can find Susan’s garden tour here
You might enjoy my recent article Instagrammer’s Who Rock the Collected Look in Their Gardens for more pretty accounts to follow.
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For more of Susan’s Charming French Garden you can follow her on Instagram here. Thank you so much for stopping by. I love hearing from you. I hope you enjoyed A Charming French Garden.