Gardening in Northern France

Submitted to the Dorchester Banner/Laetitia Sands
A herbaceous border Martine created about seven years ago, with an apple tree in the rear.

The next few columns will focus on gardeners and their gardening secrets in a place far from the Eastern Shore – Upper Normandy, an area well north of the Normandy Beaches of World War II that so many people associate with Normandy.

This part of France is a land of high cliffs, split by long, narrow valleys running down to pebbly beaches and the chilly English Channel. Atop the cliffs and stretching inland for many miles lies what the locals call “the plateau,” a region of wind-swept agricultural fields, occasional hills and valleys, and small farming villages, some of which have existed since ancient Roman times.

Unless a gardener happens to live on a piece of land that has been cultivated before, he or she will face a daunting task: Digging out the many chalk-and-flint rocks that lie just beneath the surface. White chalk and black or caramel-colored flint form the cliffs which dominate the coast. Deposited in innumerable horizontal layers eons ago, the strata make the cliffs look like giant slices of Smith Island cake, white with chocolate filling.

Inland, what lies beneath a few inches of topsoil are chunks of flint coated with chalk. Chalk soil makes a perfect medium for growing roses. But often, extra soil must be added to make a layer thick enough for those and other garden plants to survive in.

Martine (pronounced “Mar-teen”) Lethuillier (“Luh-twee-lee-ay”), who gardens on about half an acre in front of her restored antique farmhouse in an ancient village, added not only soil, but another key ingredient: Dehydrated cow manure. It helps to have a nephew who farms. “He has a special machine which dries the manure automatically so you don’t have to wait a year before using it,” she told me.

She also has a niece working in a garden center, which explains some of the more exotic plants like orchids and cacti that decorate her living room in winter and various corners of the garden in summer. And she has a sister with a utility trailer who helps her take garden debris to the local recycling center to be made into mulch. (Oh, to have helpful relatives….)

Martine, who grew up on a farm, has plenty of debris to recycle. One of her pet gardening rules is: “Prune, prune, prune!”And she doesn’t mean dried plums. “In a garden, it’s you who decides, not the garden!” she declared authoritatively, adding it’s important to remember to prune your spring-flowering shrubs after they’ve finished blooming. Listen up, all you readers!

She said her family always had a vegetable garden and she learned lots from her parents, such as “You need to rotate where you plant certain vegetables from year to year.”
Martine’s property faces southwest, an ideal exposure for most plants. Tall evergreen hedges and stone walls (chalk and flint) protect it from the wind, as does its position in the heart of the village. Step out of her house (chalk, flint and brick) and you look directly onto a 40-foot long herbaceous border. A wide gravel-covered path separates it from the house.

Many people like to plant up against their house, she remarked, but that can cause creeping damp, particularly if you don’t have a cellar, which traditional northern French houses do not. Gravel instead of greenery touching her walls had greatly improved what once was a slight dampness problem, she said.

Plants of all sizes and shapes, many in flower, fill the border: Pink primula, cobalt blue aubrietta, a yellow azalea bush, a tall yellow and white iris standing amidst a patch of silver-leaved santolina, purple, mauve and yellow tulips, blue forget-me-nots….

Beyond, a thick lawn dotted with tiny white daisies, slender yellow narcissi and half a dozen apple trees in bloom stretches away to the hedge. To the right sits a berry patch containing 12 neatly pruned and trained raspberry bushes, seven blueberry bushes and a row of healthy looking rhubarb. There’s also a hardy kiwi vine, covered in leaves, which produces fruit the size of ones thumb. Martine had a vine that produced commercial-sized kiwis, she said, but the birds ate everything, so she replaced the plant and covers the present one with netting as soon as the fruit appears.

Which prompts Martine to divulge another of her gardening secrets: “If a plant doesn’t work, pull it out and replace it with something else. A garden should be always changing, don’t be afraid to experiment.”
She has strawberries growing in several hanging baskets and another type growing in a special bed all to themselves. By an old pear tree, already there when she bought the property 20 years ago, she’s built an odd-shaped bed just for butternut squash and marrow, another type of squash.

A plastic greenhouse contains red and green lettuce, spinach and potatoes. Soon, peas, green beans and tomatoes will go in. The French gardener also plans to grow sweet potatoes for the first time, she said, adding that in Africa, “They eat the leaves, too, like spinach.”

Several beds in the lawn contain acid soil and plants that prefer it, like heather, azaleas and magnolias. To the left of the house, a large area has been fenced off for Martine’s two roosters and 18 hens. Recently they’ve produced 12 to 16 eggs a day. To foil foxes, she installed electric wire on top of the chicken wire and she puts the birds in a stone building at night.

Martine didn’t mention chicken manure, but she said another key to her success is having her own well, so she can water at will, without worrying about a water bill. “And it’s so important, when you by a plant, to soak it well before you plant it,” she added.

Beyond that, “I work lots in the garden, it’s my passion. Je suis une fille de la terre !» she said. Translated literally, this means « I’m a girl of the soil. » As we would say, « a country girl.” Definitely one who’s happy gardening.
Editor’s note: Ms. Sands is a master gardener who lives in Dorchester County.

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