It's a Kind of Magic
Behind the Disneyland Paris landscape is a team of 140 gardeners who help prepare the theme park for the busy season ahead. Hannah Stephenson visits the gardens to see how all floral wonder is created
As families enter the wonderful world of Disneyland Paris with its quirky characters, pink castle, fairytale lands and breath-taking parades, few will notice the quality of the plants, the precision cutting of the lawns or the carefully clipped topiary.
Yet the gardens in this famous resort are vital to recreate the theme in each zone, from the prickly cacti, yucca and tamarind in the Arizona desert of Frontierland, to the exotic-looking palms (which can actually withstand temperatures of up to -18°C) and bamboos in Adventureland, and piano-key topiary and manicured hillside lawns next to Sleeping Beauty's pink castle.
In the skyline of the haunted house, huge evergreen trees lean ominously towards the building, having been deliberately planted at an angle for spooky effect, while spiky shrubs hang menacingly over the tall gated perimeter, pruned to look like claws.
Pansies, heathers, heucheras and wallflowers fill the beds with the arrival of the park's colourful spring festival. But the park is also paying more than lip service to biodiversity.
Luc Behar-Bannelier, the park's director of nature and environment, who has been there for 23 years, tells me how it has been transformed from corn and beet fields into a magical landscape which is also environmentally friendly.
When he first took on this mammoth project 25 years ago, workers had to remove tons of heavy clay soil and replace it with a thin layer of topsoil. Trees were brought in from as far away as British Columbia, Canada, but now they are sourced in Europe. Around 300 of the 35,000 trees are replaced every year to ensure everything remains to scale.
Over the years, the planting has attracted wildlife which hasn't been 'bought' in, says Luc.
"We have Canadian geese on the waterways, while on the ranch section, we get wild boar, where there was once just corn and sugar beet.
"There's also a huge variety of insects and birds, and on a recent bird count, we found more species than we used to have."
Attracting wildlife is improving the balance of nature, adds head of horticulture Pierrick Paillard.
"We had a particular type of caterpillar that use to thrive on our pine trees, but their hairs would fall off and cause skin irritations. However, the blue tits which have arrived in the park feed on them, so it's working well."
Disneyland Paris has 80 beehives in its 'backstage' area, which is not accessible to the public, so its hotel guests can enjoy home-made honey for breakfast. The park is also home to a flock of rare breed Solognote sheep who graze the brushland in the ranch area.
Nuisance wildlife has also ventured in, including rabbits, which eat the plants, and seagulls, but falcons are brought in every so often to 'disturb' them. Some 90 wasp traps are also strategically placed out of view of guests.
Disneyland Paris is the first theme park in Europe to have its own water treatment and recycling plant on site to filter 'grey' water for use on the gardens. Huge basins 'backstage' collect rainwater which is recycled, while home-made compost is dug back into the land.
While many of the plants which are susceptible to pests and diseases, such as grey mould, are treated before they arrive at the park, Pierrick says: "In 10 years, we would like to have no insecticides or pesticides.
"We are increasingly using natural products to keep the balance of nature intact, and bringing in beneficial insects such as ladybirds, whose larvae eat thousands of aphids."
Keeping everything to scale is all-important, he continues. Trees are regularly pruned to ensure no photo opportunity is lost in a sea of branches.
"The oak trees in Main Street have been changed twice since 1992. Tree specialists have to select a number of branches to be pruned so you can see through them, so it looks like lace. Trunks cannot become too thick."
Many of the trees are pruned from the base upwards to 2.5m to prevent visitors from either pricking themselves on thorns or eating berries.
Some 360 topiaries including a giant caterpillar, dragon, elephant and swans adorn the park. Box, yew, fast-growing box leaf honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) and ivy are used to create the shapes - although at present there are no giraffes because the necks proved difficult to maintain.
Banks of rhododendrons and azaleas will be providing dazzling colour in May, while grass - all 35 million square metres of it - has to be lovingly tended. The low fences don't stop the public from spilling out on to the raised grass verges for a better view of the parade at the hub, at the centre of the park. So each week during the summer, new turfs are laid in this area to keep it looking good.
"No corner of the park is left to chance, no plant is allowed to dominate others," Pierrick explains.
Who says Disneyland is only for kids? It's pretty amazing for gardeners too.
Best of the Bunch
You cannot beat the incredible fragrance of the hyacinth, especially on cool spring mornings. For me, these upright bulbs with heavy flower spikes are best displayed in single colours en masse in pots, although I have seen some pretty amazing displays in ornate formal gardens - but you have to have a lot of hyacinths to make a big impact. If you can afford it, buy as many bulbs as you can in the autumn to plant in a wide container close to your patio doors. Plant the bulbs 2-3cm apart in pots or, for a mass effect choose smaller bulbs and plant densely. Make the pot complement the flower colour, so for instance try H. orientalis 'Blue Jacket' in a slate-coloured pot, or 'Pink Pearl' in a zinc container.
Good Enough to Eat
Purple sprouting broccoli
You'll need patience for this one, as it matures the spring after you sow it, but it tastes much better than the shop-bought varieties, with looser flower heads than the popular green types. Sow the seed in spring either under glass or in the open ground from April, bearing in mind the plants need an area of 60cmx60cm. Thin the seedlings to 10cm apart when they are large enough to handle. When they are about 12cm high, you can transplant them to their final position, in fertile soil with added organic matter. Alkaline soil is essential. In exposed gardens in winter, earth up the base of the plants or stake them to stop them blowing over. The flower shoots should be ready to harvest between January and May.
- Prick out and pot up young seedlings and cuttings before they become overcrowded.
- Ventilate cold frames and greenhouses whenever possible to encourage sturdy plant growth.
- Bedding plants may be on sale in garden centres but don't buy them unless you have a greenhouse or frost-free place to keep them until the weather warms up.
- Weeds are growing so hoe persistently.
- Plant border perennials on a dry day when the soil is moist and it is not too cold and try to avoid exposing the young plants to cold winds.
- Stake plants to avoid wind damage.
- When shoots appear on begonia tubers planted earlier in the year, thin them to leave only the strongest, then use the shoots you have taken off as stem cuttings.
- Protect fruit trees with horticultural fleece.
- Sow melons and cucumbers indoors in a temperature of 15-18°C.
- Sow aubergine seeds in a heated propagator, two seeds per 9cm pot, maintaining a temperature of 20°C.