The author of this article is an ex-adult education lecturer and retired expat who has lived in France since 2001.
I have recently moved house, and this article is about my new garden and how I have developed and improved it throughout the first summer. Whilst I am not a professional gardener, I think I have managed to create a rather lovely garden that didn't cost much, didn't involve a lot of work, and that I am actually rather proud of. I have learned a lot, and I would like to pass some of this new knowledge, tips and personal experiences on to others.
Tips for Saving Money
I have managed to create my garden on a very limited budget. This is the first year in my new house, and I have focused primarily on the patio area and used containers. In this way, I have nursed young and ailing plants, enjoyed watching their daily development right under my nose by the door, propagated from them, and when the time is right, I will move them to permanent flowerbeds in the main garden beyond.
- Avoid buying expensive plant pots and make use of any old container lying around the house or garden, or any others that you can acquire from elsewhere. Of course, they must have holes in the bottom for drainage.
- If you need to buy commercial potting compost, buy the cheapest 'value' brand from the supermarket.
- The same goes for plant food. The 'value' brand is fine. It is even possible to save more money by making fertiliser by soaking stinging nettles in water until they rot. That makes very good plant food but the drawback is that it smells awful.
- If, like me, you are an animal lover and do not like to kill your resident community of moles, why not make use of their humongous efforts by collecting the fruit of their daily labour and making good use of it yourself? They can produce huge piles of sifted friable earth which can be very useful for gardening purposes.
- Rescue plants from the brink and nurse them in pots until they recover. It's amazing what can be saved. Propagate from them by collecting seeds, division, and making cuttings.
- When you purchase plants, choose perennials, preferably hardy, that will spread and multiply and reappear each year.
- If you do purchase packets of seeds, be selective. One packet of seeds can produce a lot of plants.
Tips for Reducing Workload
Summers here in South-West France can be very hot, hence the reason people living on the Continent tend to take siestas. Even mild activity between 10 am and 8 pm in the full heat of a typical summer can be exhausting. It really is unwise to create a garden that needs a lot of maintenance.
- During intense hot spells, do anything labour intensive early in the morning or late in the evening.
- Have a water source as close to your plants as possible, e.g., a hosepipe attached to a tap, or a water butt with a large watering can at the ready. You do not want to be hauling a hosepipe up the garden in temperatures that can regularly be as high as 42 degrees centigrade.
- If possible, choose plants like lavender and geraniums, or pelargoniums, that are fairly tolerant to dry conditions.
- Make use of containers. Plants in pots are less likely to suffer from competition from weeds which reduces the need to constantly maintain flowerbeds. Of course, the odd weed may occasionally appear in a pot, but this can be easily dealt with.
- Keep plants as close to the house as possible. Monitoring plants and keeping them shaded and watered in dry periods is much easier when they are nearby, and you can easily identify those that are suffering in the heat and need extra attention... not to mention the fact that you can sit out and enjoy them without having to walk up the garden.
- Put your houseplants out during the summer. It enhances the display and seems to do them good, and you can monitor, water and feed everything at the same time.
A Word or Two on Containers
I have acquired a number of containers for use as plant pots. Here are some examples.
The photograph below shows an old iron animal feed container that I found at the top of the garden. The container was very sturdy, but somehow, the bottom had become damaged which made it ideal for use as a planter. I planted odds and ends in it that needed a temporary home, so the display you see has developed haphazardly.
The image below is of an old plastic bird table after renovation. This bird table had been designated for the tip as it was falling to pieces. However, it was rescued, reinforced, had holes drilled in it for drainage, and then it was finished off with black spray paint; planted up with petunias and other little bits and pieces, what a transformation! You can't easily see it in the picture, but there's a little solar-powered light in the middle that glows beautifully at night.
Below you can see how comparatively bare the house looked before. The unrenovated bird table is towards the bottom-left-hand corner.
Below is another scavenged container in the form of an old enamel tub that had rusted through at the bottom. It now contains primarily busy Lizzie and petunias.
And here is a picture of a discarded Victorian iron bath. Old baths make wonderful planters to decorate an area in a garden where there is no flowerbed. The plug hole is all that's needed for drainage.
This particular photograph shows my bath full of petunias, broken off bits of plants that are forming new ones, and some morning glory. The morning glory was acquired by the grace of my neighbour, and it grows like nobody's business given the right conditions. It is just starting to come into flower. It's a climbing plant really but it looks lovely here.
There are actually two morning glory plants in the bath. As you can see, and as the name "morning glory" implies it's starting to flourish gloriously now. These plants were just tiny roots when I first planted them only a few weeks ago.
A Word or Two on Plants
Geraniums or Pelargoniums
As you look through the photographs in this article, you will see that "geraniums or pelargoniums" feature in a lot of them. Like a lot of people, I often refer to geraniums when I actually should say pelargoniums. The label "geranium" is often erroneously applied when a geranium in fact is a different plant altogether. One principal difference is that a geranium can survive frost whereas a pelargonium cannot.
So the plants in my garden are actually pelargoniums, and I will henceforth in this article refer to them as such.
Pelargoniums provide wonderful colour all summer. I find them indispensable as they don't need too much watering and can multiply like rabbits if given half a chance.
I only discovered this relatively recently. In the past, I have always let the plants die over winter and bought new plants in the spring because I thought that was what everyone did. I have now discovered that they can easily be propagated and that if I keep them reasonably warm over the winter, they will not die, and I will not have to buy new ones the following year. This saves me quite a bit of money.
I actually broke my own rule and spent money on the pelargonium below because I liked the variegated leaf. When my dog accidentally broke off a stalk with a lovely flower on it, I was at first dismayed, but later delighted to see that it continued to grow and produced another plant when I simply stuck it in moist potting compost. I have since gone quite mad, and new pelargoniums are now springing up everywhere.
I mustn't let things get too much out of control though because I will have to bring them all in under cover somewhere over the winter period which will involve quite a lot of work.
Hydrangeas are a useful and beautiful plant, and they are fairly easy to propagate. Apparently, the best time to do this is in early autumn, but I have one that I started in mid-summer, and it has rooted.
To propagate a hydrangea, choose a new, green, flowerless stem of about 6 inches in length. Cut it just before a leaf node, i.e., just before where a set of leaves are growing. Leaving at least one additional pair of leaf nodes, take off all the leaves except the topmost pair. Cut the two remaining leaves crosswise.
Experts will advise you to use rooting powder and stick the cutting in moist potting compost, cover with a plastic bag to produce the greenhouse effect, and leave out of direct sunlight for the cutting to take root. All I did was stick my cutting in water and leave it, although I did have to top up the water from time to time. It took a while, but finally, the magical result is shown in the photo below.
All is left to do is to pot up the new cutting, keep it well watered in a shady place, and watch it grow.
The photos below show, left, one of my cuttings that is starting to take off, and right, the original plant that the cutting came from. It would be great if my hydrangea cutting were to look like that next year, but the reality is it will probably be the year after that before it flowers.
Nevertheless, hydrangeas give a beautiful show of flowers and mine have always had a long flowering period. Varieties can differ, but they can flower from spring right through to late summer. The bloom shown is of one blooming in late August.
Hydrangeas thrive in semi-shade and need to be well watered. They can tolerate some sunshine, but beware of planting them in a position that gets full sun all day because they will wilt, and that is a sorry sight to behold.
I really splashed out here and bought a packet of seeds. That's why as well as the pelargoniums all over my garden, there is a mass of petunias as well. They are easy to grow and have provided a wonderful show of colour all summer. They will grow almost anywhere but respond well to regular feeding.
The petunias shown below are existing in a tiny space with very little soil.
A Word or Two on Molehills
Every morning, I take my trowel and go in search of the daily rash of molehills that litter the lawn, little mounds of friable, stoneless earth, moist from the morning dew. I take my trowel and scoop up every bit of this treasure into my wheelbarrow for later use.
Actually, last night these darling little creatures (although not everyone would agree) obviously had better things to do because the molehills this morning were pitifully small. Some mornings there is a whole series of absolute whoppers! It's amazing how much earth such a tiny creature can move.
I know moles irritate a lot of people and there are all sorts of ways that people try to get rid of them. It's true that they can ruin a lawn, but for me, I prefer a natural garden to a manicured showpiece, and I try to live and let live alongside nature where possible.
I use the wonderful sieved earth that these little creatures prepare for me for use in potting up seedlings. Some plants don't actually need or like the leafy loam type of compost that comes from the supermarket and are happy with bog standard garden soil. Sometimes I mix mole earth with the potting compost that I buy to make it go further.
Rescuing and Acquiring New Plants
I regularly scour my garden, and other people's gardens (with their knowledge, of course), for useful plants and seeds. This is my first year in a new property and each month brings new surprises with new and exciting growth popping up in unexpected places.
I have found lovely plants that are struggling, overgrown or being suffocated by undergrowth, or simply in the wrong place. Some of them I have been unable to identify, but many are beautiful, strong, perennial plants.
I have even rescued some gems like violets, pansies and aquilegia growing as weeds in the lawn or the pebble driveway. I dig them up carefully, put them to bed in their own new plant pot, and nurse them until they are strong enough to re-home.
The photograph below was taken yesterday evening. It is late August and this little gem just appeared in my flowerbed. I have no idea what it is. Perhaps someone will enlighten me. It is rather gorgeous. I will be keeping my eye on it to see if I can encourage it to reproduce.
The two buddleia plants shown below had seeded themselves in the earth of a pot containing a dead plant. Another person may have mistaken them for weeds, but I spotted them, re-potted them, and I am now hoping they will turn into big healthy bushes which will attract lots of butterflies next year.
I don't know how much I'd have to pay for two such plants grown commercially, but I haven't paid a penny for these... barring, of course, the cost of the cheap potting compost.
And here are three old strawberry plants that I found struggling to survive amongst a tangle of weeds at the top of the garden. I have planted all three in the same container for the moment.
Strawberries do not produce much fruit after three years, but I rescued these plants anyway, nursed them back to health, and they are now starting to send out runners. I am bedding these runners into new pots and hopefully, they will grow into strong, new plants that will produce lots of fruit next year.
And here is a plant that I rescued from a flower border at the edge of the garden. It was hidden and being choked by the undergrowth. The label was still attached to it so I know that it is a nerium oleander, which will produce beautiful flowers one day.
In fact, I have made two plants out of one. When I dug out the root it split into two so I planted up both halves. The image below is of the other half, and as you can just about see, there are still signs of life and I am enjoying watching the recovery.
So although I almost lost this plant, I managed to pull it back from the brink and was rewarded with an unexpected bonus of two for one.
Here is another rescued plant. The beautiful white begonia below was once suffering in an undersized pot on a stand outside a garden centre, wilting dreadfully and dropping its leaves through lack of water. It was reduced for quick sale, so I snapped it up.
And shown below is a dragon's wing begonia, which I nearly lost through my own neglect. I have had this plant for about three years, but last winter I left it out on the patio for too late in the season and there was an unexpected severe frost. It just took one cold snap and the damage was done. In the morning there were only the barest signs of life, but the plant has come through, although it took some time, and now it is magnificent again.
Begonias are another plant that can be easily propagated by breaking off a strong stem, stripping off the lower leaves, and placing in water for a month or so, or by planting directly into moist potting compost. I will definitely be bringing on some more plants in that manner myself when I get a spare moment.
A Word or Two on Houseplants
And I can see no reason why I shouldn't include my houseplants here. As mentioned above, they go out onto the patio over the summer months and provide more variety and interest to the overall display.
The topmost plant in the photograph below left shows a maidenhair fern that was driving my sister mad because it was dropping its leaves in her house. She is very busy and the poor thing was in a pot that was too small and was not being watered regularly. I have now taken responsibility for it and it is now recovering.
The middle plant is, of course, the well-known spider plant which is pretty difficult to kill and propagates very easily by throwing out its runners with baby plants. Even so, to show it off at its very best, it does need watering regularly, plus the occasional feed, and even though it is a very common plant, it is still spectacular.
And below that is a beautiful tradescantia that I grew from a tiny stem I detached from another plant. This is another plant that is unbelievably easy to propagate by simply sticking it into moist compost. Although it is mostly used as a houseplant and would not survive winter outdoors, I have used it this summer to pad out a hanging basket. It has made a lovely trailing display, as shown below, although the hanging basket shown is past its best now in late August.
Some Plants That I Actually Bought
Occasionally I do splash out and spend some money. When I visited the garden centre at the beginning of this summer, I couldn't resist this gorgeous fuschia. However, fuschias are half-hardy perennial plants, so if I care for it over the winter, I should be able to bring it out again next year. I will try and propagate from it, but I have never attempted this with a fuschia before.
And below you can see my two treasured citrus trees, one a lemon and one a lime, that I paid good money for. Both trees produce fruit, although I really keep the lemon tree for ornamental purposes as I love to see the lemons growing and it seems a shame to pick them. They take ages to ripen so they stay on the tree for a long time.
With regard to the lime tree, there is a mass of young limes growing, but they are the same colour as the foliage and are not easily seen. The tree was bought because the lime leaves are tangy and flavoursome and a popular ingredient in Thai curry recipes. If you take one of the leaves and rub it between your fingers, it gives off the most wonderful aromatic perfume.
These trees are happy in their pots and don't need a lot of attention other than a good watering from time to time and an occasional feed. They are, however, native to warm climates and do need to spend winter indoors in colder parts of the world.
Here I am picking my first lemon!
So all in all, that's it; the story of how my garden has developed this summer. Despite my scrooge-like ways, I have managed to produce a mass of colourful, interesting plants, which has provided me with a great deal of enjoyment throughout the summer.
As I said at the outset, I do not set myself up in any way as an expert and I do not hold my garden up as an example of perfection. It is far from that. Compared to me, many people have superior knowledge of gardening and gardening techniques, and many people's gardens are much more beautiful than mine.
The purpose of this article is merely to share my own experiences with those readers who perhaps are interested but have not themselves done much gardening in the past and don't know where to begin. I just hope that I have managed to pass on to them some of my enthusiasm, show them that you don't have to be an expert to get good results and that by reading this, they may be inspired to make a start. It really is a very rewarding hobby.
© 2017 Annabelle Johnson