How you can get a garden in France if you live in a city

The Covid pandemic has left lots of people in France craving outside space and the chance to grow their own food, but not everybody can move to the countryside and buy a house with a garden.

How you can get a garden in France if you live in a city
A resident tends to communal gardens at the Sautour Park, in Les Mureaux, north-western suburbs of Paris. Photo: Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

If your priority is growing your own fruit and veg, allotments are fairly common in large French cities. 

Known as jardins familiaux (family gardens) in French -although they are sometimes still referred to by their former name of jardins ouvriers (workers’ gardens) – the plot of land is assigned to an individual or family who can use it for what they like – growing their own fruit and veg, creating a beautiful outdoor space or even attempting small-scale grape wine production.

How to get an allotment

Allotments are usually open to anybody who lives in the city and does not have a garden of their own. The cost can be anything from €10 to around €50 per year, and there are a certain number of rules to respect.

You can submit an application to the town hall. The process will differ from city to city, with some local authorities allowing applications by email and others requiring a paper copy.

You will usually be asked to provide ID and proof of address, and may also need to write a short letter explaining either your reasons for wanting an allotment or any preferences or requirements you may have in terms of size, accessibility or neighbourhood.

READ ALSO Five poisonous plants that might be in your French garden

Once your application has been processed, you will be added to the waiting list, and now you will need to have some patience, because it can be several years before a plot becomes available.

And requests for allotments have unsurprisingly shot up since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, 

“Before Covid-19, we must have had 1,000 requests waiting. That number has exploded, and today we have 1,800 people waiting for a plot. You now have to wait at least 4 or 5 years to be given one,” Philippe Bambis, head of the community gardens department at Strasbourg city hall told 20 Minutes in March.

You can consult your local town hall to know how long you are likely to have to wait.

People work in a community garden in Saint-Ouen, northern suburbs of Paris. Photo: Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

Other possibilities

There are many reasons why you might want a garden but are hesitant to apply for an allotment. Maybe you don’t fancy spending years on the waiting list, or don’t have the time to commit to growing everything yourself. Or maybe you see gardening as a collective activity.

Fortunately, there is another option: the jardin partagé. These are communal gardens which are collectively maintained by the local community. Residents run the gardens through associations, and they are meant to work as spaces where people can meet and build connections, so they’re a great way to integrate into the local community.

And their scope often goes beyond simply cultivating fruit and vegetables. France’s ecology ministry defines a jardin partagé as: “gardens created or kept going collectively, with the goal of developing social cohesion through social, cultural or educational activities, while being accessible to the public”.

READ ALSO Champs-Elysees to be transformed into ‘extraordinary garden’

If you live near a community garden, all you have to do is get in touch with the association that runs it. If you live in Paris, you can find a map of the capital’s community gardens, with contact details for the different associations, here. Similar maps are available for many cities. Of course, you can also head straight to the garden and get in touch with the association if one of its members happens to be there at the time.

You may have to pay a small fee to become a member of the association in order to use the gardens, and unfortunately there may also be a waiting list, as communal gardens have also seen a rise in popularity in recent years.

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ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

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The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”