Advice for friends: planting in a difficult situation under trees

Two lovely friends in our French life, P & F, recently asked me for advice on what to plant in a very difficult position under trees which apparently suck all moisture and light from the soil. They’ve tried various plants none of which have thrived or even survived (so they tell me).

I’ve always adopted the “have a go” approach to gardening. Someone I knew in a previous life used to have a perpetually empty garden because she was always in a state of “not knowing what to plant” in stark contrast to me at the time which was to have dozens of plants “waiting to be planted” (with few spare spots to plant them in). Recently I read that you should always buy plants in multiples of three: one to plant, one to die, and one to give away. A great sentiment, but I digress …

I decided that I would have a good think about P & F’s situation and come up with a few ideas for them. Their garden is on the edge of a small, picturesque, ancient bastide town on the south-western corner of the Dordogne, not so far from our French house. They tell me it is surrounded by forest trees and on the edge of a steep cliff, with little good soil and a lot of rock. 

I haven’t actually visited it (yes, I know I should but I thought I’d start the ball rolling with a few ideas first). And I don’t really know for sure what they most want to use the garden for: to potter, to chill out and relax, or to be a party space entertaining family and friends.

I decided to list out the key elements of the situation:

  • hot and dry in summer, potentially cold in winter (overnight lows can occasionally be well below freezing)
  • shaded
  • poor soil
  • busy owners with limited time (and, dare I say it interest) for watering/tending plants
  • yet they are also very stylish owners who love to be surrounded by beauty

Its a tough brief!

My advice? Initially P & F need to decide how large an area they want to plant and what effect they want to achieve; do they want it to be colourful, to have interesting plants, or do they mainly want it to be tidy? They will need to spend some time tending to their new plant babies as they get established for success.

They will want to think in terms of layers of planting, to create an upper storey, a middle storey and an under storey. The upper storey is already in place with the forest trees. The middle storey would be shrubs some of which might be evergreen to give winter interest and structure (you don’t want the garden to be a one-season wonder). And the under storey would be low-growing plants such as herbaceous perennials, bulbs, and small sub-shrubs such as lavender.

Selecting a plant whose requirements match the intended position will give it a better chance of thriving. If you put a plant in a place where it wouldn’t naturally grow it is not going to be happy. Beth Chatto OBE, who died last year after a long and distinguished life, is renowned for the philosophy of “right plant, right place”. It is not foolproof (what is that involves growing things!) but is a very good philosophy to start from. Beth Chatto created a wonderful garden in Essex that was a mix of shady, damp, dry, and sunny conditions. Her success was very much down to making sure that she gave plants the conditions they liked best. Many plants do well in a shady situation, some do well in dry shade too. So there is hope for P & F!

Browsing websites for online nurseries and plant suppliers is a great way of learning which plants are good for which situation. Some have good search facilities which enable you to create a planting list suitable for your situation. Crocus.co.uk is a good example of this (although they don’t deliver to France). Beth Chatto’s nursery website too. And of course there are some excellent online French nurseries such as Promesse de Fleurs (from whom I’ve already bought a number of plants) or Senteurs du Quercy from whom I’ve not yet bought but fully intend to (and who come recommended).

Browsing through one or two books on the topic is still also a great way of being inspired. You can sit and daydream with a book more than you can with a website. You can flip the pages back and forth, and of course you can be enthused by a plant and look it up on your iPad! I often do this with magazines, newspapers and books.

For example, a fern may feature that does well in your conditions (let’s say dry shade). Your mind runs on and you envisage a group of ferns under a tree. So you do a google search “ferns for dry shade” and before you know it you have a list of 3 or 4 varieties that are suitable for your position.

There’s a great Facebook group that I belong to called Gardeners in France, which I’d recommend my friends joining. I’ve learnt a lot from it, and enjoy seeing photos of other people’s gardens too.

And of course they need to invite me round to have a look first hand at the location so I can refine my suggestions for them. P & F are great company too so I know we will have a great time talking plants and gardens, perhaps with a glass of bubbles in hand. Cheers!