It is that time of year again in France; many small towns hold their ‘foire aux fleures’ or ‘foire aux plantes’ – in other words their flower and plant shows - in the spring. They are great fun, a very welcome herald of warmer weather and, more importantly, an invaluable point of reference (and plants) for anyone starting a garden in France.
France is a big country and is divided into several climatic zones – from the mild coastal areas of the Brittany coast to extreme continental climate of inland. You also have river valleys – think of the steeply sided, chalky Lot or the wide and fertile Charente – and mountain tops – from the peaks of the Pyrenees to the solid upland of the Massif Central. So you need to understand the climate and soil type of your own particular area to garden well.
Monsegur, in the Gironde has an annual plant fair in April/May
A useful starting point is to visit your local plant fairs. Here you will inevitably get small armies of violently coloured perlagoniums and begonias, but you will also find local independent nurserymen who may specialise in a particular plant type, such as grasses or roses or who may simply have an eclectic mix of shrubs and herbaceous plants which they have raised themselves. These people will be an invaluable source of information – telling you what will grow in your region and what planting conditions will suit the individual plants you buy.
Local plant fairs are widely advertised but are usually quite small and may incorporate brocantes or vide greniers. However, you can get a bit more ambitions and go further afield. I am a great fan of the twice yearly fair held in the grounds of the chateau at Neuvic sur L’Isle. In the autumn they have a ‘Journée des Plantes” and in spring the ’Jardin en Fete’. The town’s chateau is a horticultural centre so there is usually a horticultural conference (attendance non-obligatory) running at the same time. and there is also a very attractive park running along the left bank of the river Isle which you can explore after having lunch in the Chateau’s vaulted refectory. The two fairs are held in autumn and spring respectively, with the next one taking place on Sunday April 24th.You can find out more at their web site: http://www.chateau-parc-neuvic.com/jardin.html
The aristocrat of French plant fairs is, of course, Courson. This plant fair is the French equivalent of Chlesea Flower Show and is of international importance. Confusingly the venue is no longer Chateau de Courson and this year the spring fair will be held at Chantilly, just north of Paris, between the 13th and 15th May. It is several years since I visited Courson and, to be blunt, I felt that it did not live up to expectations. However, I understand that since then it has grown in size and stature and I am extremely tempted to visit this May’s show. Like Neuvic, a second show is held in the autumn. Visit http://www.domaine-de-courson.fr/journeesdesplantes to find out more.
There is an excellent web site called La Bouture (the cutting) which has a diary page listing fairs and associated plant events throughout France. You will find this at http://labouture.fr/agenda.html and it will give you dates of fairs and other horticultural events large and small. So get out and about this spring and find out what grows well locally and what the major French plant suppliers see as the planting trends of the future.