Spring, Garden Plants and French Cadeaux

Spring, Garden Plants and French Cadeaux

Are you still missing France and the warm sunshine, while waiting to hear about traveling to the country this summer? The good news is we have a new lovely read from Beth in southwest France, just in time for the weekend, which is looking cold and grim in the UK! So why not reach for a glass of wine (français bien-sur), and enjoy a French inspired 'petite pause' ...

"Does spring bring out the gardener in you? It certainly does me. Whenever time allows, I’ll be out there, sprucing up borders and recommencing my annual battle against weeds. With the basics in place, it should be a matter of settling into the usual maintenance jobs. But it never quite works out like that. Like lots of my gardening friends, I always find room for some more plants.

When we moved into our French home, I had no idea where the nearest garden nursery was. I used my fumbling French to ask advice from our forester, Nathan. Keener on trees than flowers and understated about everything, he made a suggestion calling it ‘pas mal’, not bad. I describe that first visit in my latest book, Fat Dogs and French Estates Part V. Here’s an extract for you.

Following Nathan’s advice, I turned off the main road onto a dirt track. Assuming this must be wrong, I was about to reverse when I spotted a couple of stray urns. They looked gardenish. I continued around a bend, and there it was.

Wiry briars held abandoned vehicles hostage. Savannah grass corralled rickety towers of pallets, and weeds sprouted through infinite numbers of plant-holders. There was vigorous plant growth going on here alright, but not the type I had anticipated. Fearing the term ‘garden centre’ had a looser meaning in French – like ‘shambles’, I parked next to a thicket.

Unusually, it had a rusty plough in the middle. I followed the chipped pot-ridden track towards a collection of voluminous, moth-eaten polytunnels.

Tumbledown though it looked, Le Jardin Pépinière Delacroix, run by two brothers, quickly became one of my favourite places to shop. The prices were ridiculously low, and I never left without a couple of leafy cadeaux.

It is still my favourite horticultural venue, and with lots of new plants needed, last week, I set off for a buying spree. Still delightfully scruffy, I entered the confusion of greenhouses and polytunnels. This is a magically misleading place, where at first glance, it looks as though there might be three, perhaps five at most. That would be wrong.

The labyrinthine layout belies its size. Some of the glasshouses are part of the main building. They house the interior plants, where temperatures alternate between jungle-hot and boiling. It explains why shorts are 'de rigueur'.  Outside, the structures are solar heated. They are ventilated by a combination of openings at either end, tattered holes in the covers and several which look like dinosaur rib cages where the polythene has shredded. There are lots and lots of these, as I found out during my very first visit.

Nowadays, being a regular, I know my way around. Since this is the kind of inspiring place where it pays to browse, I removed a layer of clothing and started by mooching around the tropical sections. In contract to the shabby furnishings, the plants are a joy to behold. There are acres and acres of them, all as pristine as their neighbours blossoming next door. It’s a feast for the gardener’s eye.

Crepe paper bougainvillaea, striking azaleas, begonias and orchids lit up one area, as did the hibiscus with their wonderfully extravagant petals. Two of those somehow found their way onto my trolley.  Oceans of red petunias filled another greenhouse along with the blue spotty varieties I tried last year. They had received a mixed reception. Nathan thought they were diseased, and Jack, my husband, assumed I’d taken to buying artificial plants, which he approved of since they wouldn’t need watering. I thought they were very cheery.

Snuggled up to the petunias were a group of statuesque Arum lilies. Sensational swirls of colour, including coy pinks, decadent creams and virgin whites with cheeky yellow centres. The creamy white ones are hugely popular here. Many are grown by drainage ditches and ponds, providing a flash of colour for passers-by.  

I dragged myself away from the hothouses to search for the plants I had come to buy. Having recently excavated heaps of couch grass from a patch of lamb’s ears plants (so named because of their shape and velvety texture), I wanted to in-fill with ‘oeillets’, (dianthus), to help thwart the weeds.  A lady I had never met before was watering in one of the polytunnels. I asked her to help, and off we trekked towards the geranium zone. Halfway there, she stopped and slapped her forehead, which seemed strange.

“Of course, madame, I know you now. L’anglais! My husband gave you some partridges.”
“Oh, I am sorry, I had no idea Monsieur Guirbel was your husband.”
“Yes, they were his cadeaux when you allowed him to pick mushrooms in your forest.”
“That’s true, it was very kind. We tried to refuse, but he insisted. They are beautiful birds.”
“He has many different types now. Do you like Japanese quail?”
“Yes, I love quail.”
“Then you must have some!”
“Goodness, no, really I…”
“Definitely, you must. When will you come back here?”
“Well, I’ll be back next week for my geraniums, but, honestly, madame, there’s no…”
“Good. That’s settled then. I’ll tell my husband you will have some. How many do you want? Ten? Twenty?”

And so the conversation went on. It was the typical kind of exchange we have here in our small community – often confusing, always warm and convivial. Madame refused to discuss money; it would be their pleasure to give us another consignment of feathery gifts.

With my order complete, we reached the magnificently chaotic payment desk with a deadly fridge lurking in the background. It has never altered. Coins are chucked in plant pots, notes are stored between pages of a horticultural encyclopaedia or in pockets, and the credit card machine is usually gummed up with soil.

Christian appeared and muttered something to madame as she totted up my bill. She nodded and stuck the empty seed packet covered with squiggles under my nose to confirm the price. Something wasn’t right.

“Ah no, madame, you haven’t charged me enough.”
“I have. You must have three oeillets as a cadeau with our pleasure!”

With remonstrations being pointless, I thanked them and left to the sounds of, ‘Au revoir à bientôt!’ Anticipating a fun gardening session ahead, I couldn’t help smiling at the generosity of these lovely folks. With my geranium stocks to pick up, not to mention a confusing number of chubby quails, there’s no doubt that I’d be back soon."

Thank you Beth for this new piece (and photo), we look forward to more stories next month. Until then you can see Beth's lovely books and stories on her FatDogs website.