Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

I remember climate change and the greenhouse effect being talked about when I was at school in the 1980’s and here we are still talking about it nearly 40 years later.

Whether you accept that global warming is caused by human activity or not, last year’s Australian and Californian bush fires and various flooding events this year have provided stark evidence that the climate worldwide is nonetheless changing and getting more extreme. With each year that passes it is believed it will become harder to reverse the damage being done to our environment. By 2030 it is believed the effects of climate change shall become irreversible. Both French and UK governments target net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, 20 years too late.

One of the biggest political cons of our age is that we are all told we should all be ‘doing our bit’ for the environment, right from the little man upwards. But, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of CO2 emissions since 1988. Unsurprisingly, many of the most egregious of these companies are oil and fuel corporations. There seems little will on the part of the world’s governments to challenge these corporations and cocerce them into shouldering their overwhelming share of responsibility.

Similarly, air pollution is becoming a significant problem. Air pollution is currently the single largest environmental health risk in europe. Levels of air pollutants in europe still exceed EU standards and WHO guidelines. According to the WHO air pollution causes seven million premature deaths each year.

Air pollution is not the same issue as climate change, but plants can help us to solve, at least in part, both these pressing issues. By a process known as photosynthesis, not only do plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it away in their structures, but they also produce oxygen as waste. It is a ‘two birds, one stone’ situation.

As Sir David Attenborough stated in the BBC’s 2019 ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’ series the European continent used to be 80% forest, now it is just 40%. As the urban sprawl continues and land continues to be given over to farming to support our increasing populations this number will only continue to decrease.

The world’s trees produce 28% of the world’s oxygen. The remainder is almost entirely produced by marine plants, but reestablishing our forests is a significant step in the right direction. In fact some research suggests that, together with eliminating the burning of fossil fuels for energy and forest destruction, the restoration of our forests by planting 1 trillion trees worldwide has the potential to undo 100 years of carbon emissions.

If our governments won’t commit to saving us then perhaps in proper French spirit we need to take matters into our own hands. Many of us in the Poitou-Charentes are blessed to have larger than usual outdoor spaces. I would urge everyone to consider planting at least one tree this autumn and winter. Autumn and winter are the optimal time of year to do so.

You don’t have to believe in human influenced climate change to plant a tree. Planting a tree can be a great way to memorialise a loved one, or pet. A tree will give you shade in summer and the effect of transpiration cools the air around it keeping you cooler. It will give you privacy if your garden is overlooked and be a windbreak in exposed gardens.

Bare root trees are available from nurseries at this time of year and are much cheaper than their container grown counterparts. As there is no compost on the rootball, it is believed they establish better in the garden, because they establish a relationship with your garden’s own soil much more quickly. But hurry, bare root trees are only available for a short period from November to the end of winter and only container grown plants are available for planting at other times of the year (in which case I would advise waiting until autumn before planting, or you will be endlessly irrigating your new tree all late spring and summer).

Just one word of caution before you get on the internet and place your order: consider your carbon footprint and the risk of importing a deadly plant disease. In the age of the internet diseased plant imports are a real problem. Consider using a local plant nursery of repute who will provide a phytosanitaire passport with your purchase to guarantee the biosafety of your plants.

What tree(s) do I choose?

My advice would be to choose a tree that you see growing natively in this region, or a closely related cultivar, many of which are beautiful and are what give this region its distinctive character. It is likely these species are compatible with the climate and terrain and so will establish well in the garden without too much aftercare.

Birch (Betula)

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

Known in France as ‘Bouleau’, there are many species of Birch with barks ranging from pure white, through pinks and coppers to rich browns. Like native Betula pendula, Betula utilis is a popular garden tree in this region of France, with good reason. Its canopy offers a dappled, rather than complete, shade and the tree itself has a beautiful form, especially when grown as a multi-stem tree. The leaves turn yellow in autumn, which can distinguish them from the reds and other colours in the garden. Consider Betula albosinensis as a more adventurous alternative.

Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

If you’re looking to inject a little flavour of the south coast into your garden you need go no further than the Cypres de Florence. These grow very large, so for smaller and mid-sized gardens consider cultivars ‘Totem’ or ‘Green Pencil’.

Oak (Quercus robur)

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

Along with sweet chesnut, Oaks (Chene) are everywhere throughout the Charente and Vienne departments and with good reason: all the wood copses here are used for firewood. These copses give the landscape its disctinctive rusty colours in autumn. Oaks support a huge amount of wildlife. They can either be coppiced to keep them from growing too large, or consider a more manageable cultivar, such as Q. robur ‘Fastigiata Koster’.

Hornbeam (Carpinus betula)

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

I love hornbeams. The mid-green colour and deep and distinct corrugation of their leaves is just to die for. They look beautiful just left as a tree, but they are just as useful as a hedge (holding onto their leaves through the winter until the spring when the new ones come through), or can be pleached providing a very classy looking sun shade or means of obscuring you from unwanted overlookers. A hornbeam is always high on my wish list and it should be on yours too.

Juneberry or Snowy Mespilus (Amelanchier lamarckii)

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

Perfect for the smaller garden this multi-stemmed shrub can be crown raised to look like a small garden tree. It can be pruned to keep it small. Best of all it has lovely starry white blossom at the end of March, coppery new leaves which mature to a mid-green and orange leaves in autumn. The deep blue-colour berries which resemble blueberries appear in june (hence Juneberry) are edible and taste great in a clafoutis, or almond-based tart.

What about a fruit tree, such as an apple or pear?

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

The choice is almost endless. You get blossom and fruit. What’s not to love? If space is at a premium consider a cordon, espalier or fan. These can be trained along a wall and take up very little room.

How to plant a tree

If your tree is a bare root tree, place it in a bucket of water and put it to one side while you dig the hole. If the tree is a container grown plant ensure it is watered well.

Dig a square hole two or three times as wide as the rootball. Dig only as deep as the height of the rootball so that the new tree will be growing at the same level it was in the ground at the nursery (as indicated by the soil line on the trunk) or container.

Trial studies indicate that digging a square hole instead of a circular one improves rooting by causing them to venture outwards beyond the hole when they meet the hole’s angular edges, rather than growing in circles around the rootball in a round hole.

Break the surface of the base of the hole so the roots can penetrate, but don’t dig it. If you dig the hole any deeper than the height of the rootball you may find your tree sinks/subsides later on as the soil settles, which can be detrimental to the health of the tree.

Take the plant out from the bucket/container. If you have access to mycorrizhal fungi dust the rootball with it and sprinkle some into the hole. If the rootball is congested, break the surface of the rootball with your fingers to stimulate new root growth.

Place the tree in the hole and orient it to your favoured position. Sometimes trees look better from certain viewing angles. When satisfied you have the tree in the position you want it, back fill the hole with soil (do not add compost) and firm around the rootball with your heel. Do this gradually as you go, rather than all in one go at the end: the soil will be in much better contact with the roots and the tree will be better supported.

If the tree or shrub you are planting is taller than 1½ metres then stake it in place. Insert the stake at an angle, into prevailing wind. Stake and tie the tree fairly low, about 1 metre from the ground. You want the rootball not to move so that there is no root disturbance, but you want the top of the tree to be able to move around in the wind as this strengthens it. Use a rubber tie. Too often I see people having used garden wire, which does not expand with the growth of the tree and cuts into the bark causing damage.

Water heavily. Several watering cans full will be appropriate. Mulch the planting hole heavily with compost or bark and place a coir ring over the top. Alternatively, if cats or other animals digging is an issue, instead of the coir ring peg a jute mat over the planting hole. This will biodegrade gradually over 2 to 3 years and the cats will get the idea in the meantime while the ground consolidates.

If rabbits or deer are an issue place a rabbit guard around the bark of the first few feet of the tree to stop them nibbling away at the bark and killing it.

Remember the general rule in France that trees and shrubs intended to be kept more than 2m high must be planted with the middle of their trunk a minimum of 2m from the boundary. Hedges and small shrubs intended to be kept a height of less than 2m must be planted with the middle of their trunk a minimum of 50cm from the boundary. Before planting, check with your local Mairie to check that there are not more stringent rules that apply in your locality.


Water the tree well (at least 3 or 4 watering cans full) weekly during hot periods for the first two or three years. Remember the soil at the surface may be wet, but the roots down below may still be bone dry. Water heavily so that water penetrates deep down. You want to encourage the roots to grow deeply so that they eventually find their own water, not grow near to the surface where they will dry out and cause damage or death to the tree.

Keep the base of the tree free of weeds for the first three years. These weeds will compete with the tree for water, stealing it before it can reach the roots of your tree.

Check the stake each autumn and adjust it accordingly to account for the tree stem thickening as it grows and to ensure the base of the tree is well supported. If the tree is healthy you can remove the stake after 3 years.

Planting design is one of the cornerstones of our business. If you would like professional advice on planting options, sourcing and planting, please get in touch here.


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