Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Monday, November 17, 2014

Creating A French Picking Garden (Easily)

As many gardeners know, gardening can be addictive. One minute you're happily potting up geraniums  in a couple of blue and white planters you bought on discount in a closing-down sale; the next you're digging into your newly mown lawn to create a perennial flower bed. 

Then you begin to visit open gardens. And the more gardens you visit, the more addicted you become.

 Suddenly, you're out there at 5AM on a summer's morning, quietly dead-heading the roses and hoping you're not waking the neighbours with the watering.

{All photos mine}

This happened to me this year. After visiting the magnificent walled rose gardens of Mottisfont in England (Nat Trust link) (Blog Post), I became obsessed with the idea of creating a picking garden. Or, as a friend romantically put it, a "rustic French rose garden". Only with bush roses, because fancy French ones didn't seem to do well in our Mediterranean-style heat. (Or my amateur hands.) 

Our lovely gardener Geoff had also told me about his former employer Dame Elizabeth Murdoch's walled cutting garden, which was designed to change colours with the seasons. (Cruden Farm link)

Dame Elizabeth wanted a cutting garden rather than a cottage garden, because the former is designed to be picked, with flowers that suit vases (such as roses), and plants that are grown in narrow beds, for ease of access (and cutting).

It was, he said, one of Dame Elizabeth's favourite places.
(How wonderful it would have been to have worked with her...) 

A rustic French picking garden, I thought naïvely, with the enthusiasm of a novice. 
How difficult could it be?

So, on a perfect Sunday in early spring this year we drove up the mountain to Monbulk, where, hidden away behind the myriad nurseries is one of the prettiest rose farms in the state, Newstead Roses (link).

 This week, my mother visited the famous Ruston's Rose Farm in Renmark, the largest rose garden in the Southern Hemisphere, and told me it was looking a little unloved. (Could also be the heat?) There are no unloved buds here at Newstead, where every pot looks like a contender for Chelsea.

If you're a serious rosarian, you need to get your sweet derriere up here, pronto. 

It is truly glorious. You will adore it, I promise.

This is Dave, the head rose gardener. 

He speaks French to his French roses "because it encourages them to bloom". 
His pronunciation of Côte d'Azur (a yellow rose inspired by the Riviera city of Nice) was so perfect, I made him say it twice. Côte d'Azur. 

He was as gorgeous as the roses.

He'll also pick out the most scented cultivars for you.

He's generously written all the roses on little signs at the end of each row, to make selection easier. 

I was after the elusive Christian Dior and Paris de Yves Saint Laurent roses. 
Which seem so rare they could be a myth.

We bought a few roses. Then a few more. 
Then we drove home to inspect the borders.

This was the target. A sad patch of empty garden in our empty suburban backyard. 
Which we originally moved to just so I could have a garden. 

It was time to face the dirt.
(Note: The raised beds have been properly screwed together since then.)

I like pink, so we bought bright, Schiaparelli-esque numbers: Queen Adelaide (above); Princess Anne (a beautiful David Austin); Gertrude Jekyll (one of the highlights of Mottisfont); the Eiffel Tower (very vigorous), Madame Isaac Pereire, and Paradise (below).

Also William Morris (a pretty pale orange rose that reminds me of the designer's muted palettes), Queen Elizabeth, Charles de Gaulle, Brother Cadfael, New Dawn, and to really mix the colour palette up, a rose called (rather worryingly) Sexy Rexy. 

We also planted salvias, dahlias, lilies, lavender, geraniums and other hardy French-style flowers. 

Just in case the roses failed. 
Which was highly likely.

So many salvias...

Then we all waited.

The gravel was laid a day before this photo was taken. It makes the garden look like a rustic French potager but it also reflects the heat onto the underside of the plants. A gardener at Versailles told me this.

 I don't know how true it is but those gardens in our neighbourhood that have gravel on their paths and even in the garden beds grow roses as big as dinner platters.

(NB You're meant to paint your trellises, gates and arbours French blue too, but we choose French grey. It will match the timber of the raised beds when they age.)

The thing about roses is that they don't like a lot of fuss. They actually hate attention. 

Just mix the soil properly and remember your "$5 hole-for-a-$2-plant" mantra. 
(I've forgotten the proper soil formula, but just toss some heavily composted soil together with a little dynamic lifter and manure and water in with Seasol. I throw some slow-release fertiliser on a month later, after the roots have settled. Some people put the fertiliser in the hole first, but it's up to you.)

Roses also seem to prefer the morning sun—at least here in our Mediterranean climate. 

And for some reason, our pale roses like a little shade in the afternoon. 

That's another tip from Dave, the rosarian: choose roses that suit not only your area but also your backyard's microclimate.

Spray for black spot and pests if you need to. (I use garlic spray for the latter, and try to prevent black spot by having little half-trellis boundaries—rather than hedges—to allow cross-breezes. There's some good black spot advice on sprays here—link

The lovely thing about rose gardens is that they teach you patience. And of course humility. (Because not everything will grow like you hope it will.) Wisdom, too.

 I tend to think a lot in this garden. 
I make business decisions and then, doubting myself, think: how can I make this business model (or project / plan / business relationship) work better? Surely, I think, studying the salvias, there's a better way? Then I go back to the business decision and consider it again.

Inevitably the business decisions mulled over here are the best ones made.

Eventually, three months, a lot of heavy spring rains, and some hot, sunny days later, there was some action in the gravel...

The Pinkie roses erupted.

So did the Pierre de Ronsard.

And the Charles de Gaulles in the obelisk beds were enormous.

The thing about picking gardens is that it doesn't matter how much you pick; there always seems to be something left in the bed to rise up the following week. I always feel guilty and leave something on the stems but lately I've noticed that the more I cut this cutting garden, the better it gets. The roses seem to love the pruning.

It's incredibly easy to create a rustic French picking garden. 
If I can do it, with my novice gardener's ineptitude, you can too.

But the best thing about picking gardens isn't the outdoor work. It's filling the vases inside, at the end of the day. That's my favourite part, I think.

Such simple pleasures.
And such unending gratitude.


  1. Janelle, your garden is looking fantastic! I'm so impressed, particularly as you have landscaped it from nothing. More pictures please! Lucy

    1. That's really kind of you Lucy, thank you. But I'm really a novice gardener. So novice, that I am sometimes ashamed of our garden when I walk around our neighbourhood (which is festooned with amazing gardens!) and see how beautiful everyone else's is.

      Ours really needs formal English box borders but I couldn't afford to splurge on English box at $15/plant for 100 plants, so raised timber beds it is. It's very rustic! But I wanted to show people how easy it is to create a picking garden. We made this after pulling out 25 enormous cypress trees to do the right thing by the neighbours (which opened the garden up to sun but left horrible acidic soil), so if we can do it, anyone can!

  2. Hello Janelle .I wanted to congratulate you on your wonderful blog I am amazed how much that you put into it,I have been having trouble

  3. Sorry Janelle I have been having trouble posting and receiving your blog I have sorted myself now! I love the garden it is beautiful and in such a short time. Your Cooper is the image of our Tess who we adored. I have mentioned her to you before she lived to 12 years. I hand been catching up,on all your posts they are wonderful.x Trish

    1. Please don't worry Trish, it's just lovely to hear from you again! I remember your beautiful Tess – 12 years is such an incredibly long life for a Cavvie. I keep looking at Cooper and hoping he makes it to 8! Are you considering getting another one? They're such lovely companions, aren't they? Cooper follows me everywhere in the garden, sniffing the salvias and barking at the Mynah birds. Do hope you find some good insights into these posts. Not sure I've been very informative of late... Jx

  4. Hi Janelle
    Your garden is beautiful and a credit to you!
    I love gardening too, but what with living in the city during the week with only a small balcony and heading to our holiday house up the coast for the weekends, I don't get to do it as often as I would like. I imagine it will be something I'll really get into when I retire to our holiday house... but that's YEARS away!

    You inspire me as always.


    1. Oh Catherine, I feel for you! I lived in apartments – in Europe, Sydney and Melbourne – for 20 years and I know how the cabin fever can affect city dwellers.

      We moved out to the country so I could have a garden, then back to the SE suburbs, but I still long for the buzz and energy of the city, and in fact we've talked about moving back – or buying a studio/pied-a-terre on St Kilda Road. But I'd miss gardening dreadfully.

      Perhaps you could create something at your holiday house? The fashion designer Perri Cutten created an amazing garden in the harsh conditions of the Mornington Peninsula – proving that gardens will grow anywhere. And Indira Naidoo has written books about her success with a balcony garden.

      Of course, you're always welcome out here anytime!

  5. Indira is an absolute inspiration.. what she has done with her balcony is amazing! I'll have to check out Perri Cutten (thanks for the tip)... our place is high on a rocky outcrop with native bush behind us and fabulous views out the front... but the land is so steep and rocky! I get scared weeding that I'm going to lose my footing and tumble down onto the road! I'd love a rose garden, or an english garden, or even a few hydrangeas... but it's only bottle brushes and the odd clivia for me!

    I've just started an account on Instagram and am following Paul Bangay... OMG. That is some garden he has... absolutely stunning...

    1. Yes, and he's a really lovely person too. I felt for him so much this time last year.

  6. How absolutely delightful. I've never tried roses here in Florida, as rumor has it they don't do well with the high humidity and bugs. I miss my childhood home which had enough roses for us to pick bouquets like in your photo. I would definitely choose the most scented varieties, too. Gorgeous photos.

    1. The gardens in your state are incredible though Kathy! I'm sure yours is beautiful too. I'm longing to return to Florida to see the famous gardens of Ca d'Zan (from the Gwyneth Paltrow film Great Expectations). They've somehow managed to grow an Italian rose garden there, but you're right—I don't know how they've produced roses in that humidity! We loved seeing the gardens of Key West too. Thanks for the lovely comment. Love reading your FB posts on gratitude too!

  7. Hooley dooley Janelle, for a novice gardener you go straight to the top of the class!! I was a bit sniffly reading this post (not hay fever) but a tad overcome with sadness. You see I don't have one single rose bush in our jungle Hills garden.....not one. The property is just too shady, all the big old trees don't allow any light through, so it's just camelias, rhodies, helebores & English Box for moi.

    I really miss all the roses from our old house at Unley, the ones that MOTH used to prune with his chainsaw & by gosh did they flourish!
    M xx

    1. I suspect your house at Stirling would have an AMAZING gardens Mills, esp with a son who's an amazing landscape gardener! (And his mother isn't bad at gardening either...) x

  8. Hi Janelle, your garden is beautiful, my garden is a mix of way too many boxed hedges, and David Austin roses, standard and bush iceberg roses, as we are on a property the icebergs are quite hardy and can withstand most conditions. And i agree, the best part is placing your blooms in a vase in your home.x

    1. Thanks for your kind comment. Your garden sounds gorgeous.

      You're right—icebergs are fantastic. They come under a lot of criticism but I think they're the 'workhorses' of the rose world—they're hardy and they'll grow anywhere, survive anything... We bought white icebergs for our small 'white garden' and they keep that corner in bloom for much of the year.

      Would love a country garden... Yours sound glorious!


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