First post of a Gardener in France

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This Blog is written by Colin Elliott of the Garden Design Academy and rises, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of a number of similar blogs written over a period of nearly ten years.

After blogging my thoughts and posting hundreds of garden and plant photographs as a  garden designer, landscaper and horticulturist in the UK, the tone has now changed along with my new location in rural central France..

I trust  readers will enjoy what I have to offer, with it’s new French twist and more than a little support from le bon vin de la Touraine.

If you would like to “Like” us, recommend us or just chat with us, please feel free to do so: click on the title the article that interests you and you’ll be able to “share”, “like” “print” and “comment” to your hearts content!

First signs of spring 2014

It is wise to be cautious in gardening, but here in the Loire Valley it is even harder to ignore the clear signs of approaching Spring.

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Wild Hellebores thrive under the Sequoia

Even the most pessimistic and wary of the locals were convinced when hundreds of cranes flew over the town this weekend. Like many a British pensioner, they have been overwintering in south-west Spain and are now migrating to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. We often have them spend the night nearby: the river Cher and the lakes of the Sologne are ideal for a good nights rest and a snack before moving on.

The mild weather has encouraged an early flowering of many plants in gardens around the village. We have a couple of Camellias I full flower and there are many others to be seen on our regular walks. This morning we found a huge Magnolia soulangeana covered with deep purple flowers and our own M. stellata is beginning to open. The White Border should be a real picture very soon with Magnolia stellata, Viburnum burkwoodii and Clematis armandii all about to flower. There are increasing numbers of Daffodils and Crocus out while a large number of early Prunus are colouring the gardens white and pink. If the birds and the flowers think its spring, who are we to doubt it?

Chaumont_FESTIVAL_2014We have just heard that Chaumont Garden Festival, surely the one “must see” European event for garden designers and enthusiasts, is opening between 25th April and 2nd November this year, a slight extension at the end of the season which should prove popular. Between students, garden tour clients and general visitors, we visit this show up to a dozen times each year and never tire of it. This year’s theme is “Gardens of Deadly Sins”. I can’t wait!

Frustratingly, this morning’s post brought our copy of the Yellow Book of UK gardens open to the public. Frustrating, because we visit the UK only very rarely these days and have little chance of enjoying any of the 8,800 gardens detailed in the handbook. It has been suggested from several corners that I organise a series of English garden tours, so I guess you never know. I commend the Yellow Book to you along with visits to as many gardens as possible; it’s all for charity and a fantastic learning experience for any gardener.

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Salon Vegetal trade show 2014

On the other hand we had a great day out at the Salon Vegetal trade show last week and our membership of the Association of Parks and Gardens allows us access to all sorts of private and public gardens in the centre of France. Only last week we were invited to a chateau only recently open for garden visits and conveniently close to our home. The chateau de Poulaine is sure to attract plant enthusiasts and we will be keeping a close eye on developments.

High on my list of gardening events this year is the Floralies at Nantes, an international garden show hosted by France every five years. One of Europe’s largest floral events, it is to be held over ten days from May 8th. I hope to visit with Academy students who are coming to us from Oman for a two week course on cactus growing. Apart from the garden show, I gather the botanic garden in Nantes houses one of the largest collections of cacti in France.

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New potager behind the Academy classroom

Most of my gardening time has been spent catching up with the weeding and pruning to prepare for the rapidly approaching new season. I have also just completed our little potager behind the cabin and will soon be turning my attention to two additional projects: finally building our Moon-gate, the materials for which have been sitting around on a pallet for far too long, and to sort out the compost section, a disgraceful area at present. It all takes time, but I am getting there.

One last event which put a smile on my face; my propagation bench was bought through Thomson and Morgan. The polythene cover features an array of zips and openings making it a very practical piece of equipment, but a year of sunshine, supplementary lighting, dust and general use had left it in a rather sorry state. I noticed that although it was bought in the UK the packaging was German so I decided to contact the original supplier, Bio Green to ask if I could purchase a new cover. Not at all, I was told, we will supply one free of charge on warrantee. Service beyond the call of duty, I thought; Bio Green are on my favourite suppliers list from now on. The propagator is full of emerging seedlings….I do love this time of the year!

February houseplants

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The house is full of flowers at the moment, including this Begonia which sits by my desk.

The house is not short of flowers at the moment: the Amaryllis has flowered for the second year after a few weeks over Christmas spent in the dark and cool of the outhouse. The Lemon tree is covered in scented blooms which soon either drop or hang on to alert us of fruits to come. Orchids are in flower or bud on every windowsill and a pair of Begonias, both the results of gifts of cuttings from friends, have been in flower for many months.

Its Spring-like in the house, even if its a bit chilly outside. 

The calm after the storm

In France, and I think it was no better in England, there has been wave after wave of storms from the Atlantic for two or three months now. Of course, here in the centre of France we do not generally have extreme weather, but last night the winds were apparently gusting to 120km/hour and the noise was quite something. No-one slept well.

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It’s Snowdrop time!

We are in the middle of strange weather conditions; the warmest winter since 1900 and listening to the forecasts and the news, various regions around the country regularly suffer the effects of three weeks or a months-worth of rain in just a few hours. There is flooding all over France.

Out in the garden our Camellia grisii is in full flower and attracting honey bees! Talking of Camellias, we spotted a real beauty at a local garden centre recently: Camellia x ‘Cinnamon Cindy’, an American hybrid between Camellia japonica ‘Kenyo-tai’ and a Chinese species, Camellia lutchuensis. ‘Cinnamon Cindy’ is upright with small light green leaves which are reddish on emerging. The flowers are 2-3″ in diameter, white with some pink in outer petals, and with nice fragrance. The whole plant reminded us of our C. grisii.

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Witch-hazel shines in the pale light of February

Our Witch-hazel is in full flower with Snowdrops open all around it and Hellebores nearby. Buds are bursting and leaves emerging very early and I have lightly trimmed back a few plants to keep them bushy while still offering a little protection from any cold spell which may come later. I have yet to see a Daffodil flower.

Business took me away from the house for a couple of days in succession and the result, I am sad to say, was the loss of several trays of seedlings which died from lack of water. Antirrhinums suffered particularly badly although I may salvage two or three seedlings. The Petunias were also unhappy and a tray of a hundred is now reduced to a dozen: better than nothing I guess. In the mean time I have sown Basil, a new hardy variety from T&M, double flowering Stocks (they will need cold temperature selection later) and Castor Oil plants from seed collected in the village. Early germinated seedlings are now out of the propagator, either under another window in the loft or on the windowsills downstairs.

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As with may plants in flower now, Daphne blooms are sweetly scented

Outside the new raised bed Potager is more or less finished; the next step is a bed of woven Willow which I hope to construct shortly (before the itinerant basket-makers find all the best Willow shoots!) There is no shortage of weeding to be done still and I am gradually working ’round the garden between showers.

New Year, new season

Ahtirrhinum Purple Twist

Antirrhinum Purple Twist

Soon after the New Year celebrations had died down and well before we deposited the empties at the bottle-bank, we were sowing seeds for the new gardening season. Up in the loft under the skylight, where we keep the heated propagation unit, we now have trays full of seedlings of Salvia farinacea Victoria, Petunia F1 Reflections Mix (Suttons Seeds) and Red Hot Pokers. I always used to think of Antirrhinums as being something rather old-fashioned but have been won over by a new variety – Axiom mixed, which we have grown for three years running now and Purple Twist, both from T&M.

Foxglove Silver Cup

Foxglove Silver Cup

We have grown different varieties of Foxgloves each year to plant in the shadier parts of the garden, particularly under the Sequoia, and have selected yet another from this year’s T&M catalogue: Silver Cup, with soft hairy silver foliage and white flowers. You will have noticed a few perennials in this list and we will be sowing many more; a fabulously inexpensive way to populate a new garden.

Our seed propagation unit is a little bit of an embarrassment which I hope never to have to show our students or gardening friends, but it does work. It consists of a little polythene tent erected on a trestle table under a Velux window in the loft. I have added supplementary lighting made from spotlights reclaimed from the kitchen when that part of the house was remodelled. A foil heating unit covered with sand warms the base of the seed trays to give good temperatures and moist air for germination. It’s all a bit Heath Robinson – System D, as they say in France – but I recently read an advertisement for a complete growth room offered for €10 on a web site where people sell unwanted goods. This unit would cost around €800 when new, being the sort of equipment people use to grow Cannabis in their spare bedrooms, so I imagine the price was an error. You never know your luck however, so I have emailed the seller in the hope of acquiring a much more sophisticated unit. When I look back at the huge computer-controlled growth rooms we built when we ran a commercial seedling and young plant nursery in the UK many years ago, I cannot help but smile. Of course, we were also buying Begonias in 100,000-seed containers in those days!

Nerium oleander

Oleander

Last week we decided to combine a food shopping trip with a visit to a local garden centre which was advertising a sale. Amongst other things – seed compost, for example – we came back with two Oleander bushes and a large variegated Hebe: all at €2 each. I was delighted with these purchases, but you do have to be careful: I have noticed more than a few Vine Weevil infected plants offered as “bargains” in such sales. The Oleanders are now in the unheated conservatory waiting for warmer weather. They’ll be great in big pots on the terrace this summer.

My big project for this year is the potager behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. The four raised beds in oak are now built and with spare soil left over from these beds I intend to build another alongside a neighbour’s wall. This time we will construct it from woven poles of Hazel, secured with pegs of Robinia, all to be cut from the surrounding countryside. Slowly the garden is developing and I am particularly pleased to deal with this area as it is seen from the main window of the classroom. Already locals are asking why I did not build a French Garden with beds of Box. Firstly of course, it is a French garden, but medieval in style rather than renaissance. Secondly, pests and diseases of Box are threatening this fundamental feature of French gardens and I have no wish to deal with the issue when, inevitably, it arrives chez nous. Three Peaches have been planted, along with an English Bramley apple and a cutting of a hybrid berry from my old Granny’s garden. In addition I have acquired a large collection of vegetable seeds from Sutton’s and T&M seeds ready to sow when conditions are appropriate; I’m beginning to get very excited.

New Year, new garden projects.

Half of Europe is coping with storms and floods and in the USA they are suffering from a cold blast of Arctic weather conditions; here in the centre of France, 2014 has started mild and dry. I don’t mean to sound smug and my fear is that the cold will come to us later, causing the sort of damage to plants that we witnessed a couple of years ago, when it dropped to -24°C and the vineyards died throughout the region.

I had a great deal of office work to catch up on after the Christmas break but the opportunity of getting back out in the garden has finally presented itself. Today I started installing the raised beds for the new vegetable garden behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. This small space has been used as a dumping ground for too long and I am delighted to be finally sorting it out.

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Under construction – the first two raised beds installed today.

When completed there will be four raised beds, arranged in a formal grid and connected by a pergola. The beds are made from local oak but the pergola will either be a Hillhout-style structure in treated pine or something more rustic and artistic, handmade from willow. I have so far installed two of these beds, having earlier planted three peach bushes along the south facing side of the classroom cabin. Paths one metre wide will divide the raised beds and the 1.2m wide ground-level beds along the garden wall and behind the classroom. It would be lovely to surface these paths in brick but I suspect this will have to wait for another year.

Nandina domestica with flowers and berries in the local park.

Nandina domestica with flowers and berries in the local park.

Water for this garden will soon be an issue and this will prompt me to install the gutters on the cabin – they have be laying there for several years now – and arrange to collect the rain water in a butt of some sort which has yet to be obtained. The compost area is also in a sorry state and needs to be dismantled and rebuilt properly. I have a collection of sturdy transport pallets which I shall use to construct the new compost bays.

If only there were eight or nine days in the  week!

French Christmas garden flowers and Gingko from seed.

It’s that time again; these days I tend to get fewer toys as gifts so while the kiddies are playing with theirs, I have taken myself out into the fresh air, a glass of Vouvray in one hand and a pen and paper in the other, to compile my ‘in-flower’ list for Christmas 2013.

This year is better than last, with 15 plants in flower on Christmas Day compared to 11 in 2012, but cannot compare to the whopping 31 plants seen in 2011. Those of you with larger, more established gardens will not be impressed, but I’m quite pleased. The error I continue to make is not to group some of these plants together, so that real floral impact is never really achieved: I need a winter garden.

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

The house is a riot of colour with the orchids in particular performing well. Out in the garden several herbaceous plants, grown from seed over the last few years, are also performing: Digitalis, Penstemon, Wallflowers and even Stocks have blooms in greater or lesser quantities. As you might expect, Helleborus nigra, the Christmas rose, is looking good in the bed by the front door. We finally bought a Mahonia media Charity last year and this has rewarded us with its first flower spike. Nearby, Jasminium nudiflorum is showing plenty of colour against the boiler-house wall.

Erica – white Heather

Less probable, Hebe Great Orme is covered in flowers and I found one yellow bloom on our Buddleja weyeriana. The dainty red climbing Rose Amadeus also has a couple of flowers. The white border offers a couple of plants: Erica Springwood White has masses of flowers while Viburnum burkwoodii is putting on a brave show with a handful. Over the other side of the garden our Arbutus, severely cut back by the cold winter of a couple of years ago, has formed a nice evergreen bush with plenty of lily-of-the-valley style blooms. Viburnum tinus, bought last year to hide the bins in the front garden, is covered with flat heads of flower.

……….

Our son graced us with his presence over Christmas and we took the opportunity to pack in a bit of tourism, visiting amongst other things, the wonderful apothecary museum in the 16th century hospital buildings at Issoudun. Outside in the gardens the ground beneath a tree was covered in fruits, which at first I took to be Mirabelle plums. On closer inspection the tree turned out to be a Gingko, beneath which was a huge quantity of off-yellow fruits. I took out a plastic bag and greedily began removing the stone seed from inside the soft, smelly fruit, quickly gathering a few dozen.

Ginkgo biloba is a tree whose leaves increase circulation in the brain. It is a popular herb in Chinese medicine and has been linked to improving memory and cognitive functions. The unique fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree make it a popular ornamental as well. In the autumn these turn bright butter yellow before falling but fruits are only produced on female plants. I have seen in excess of 50 cultivars listed and no doubt there are many more: not bad for a plant which was thought to be extinct until discovered by Engelbert Kaempfer in around 1700.

Ginkgo fruits - Issoudun

Ginkgo fruits – Issoudun

The germination of ginkgo is a little tricky, but there are a few tips that will increase your success. Freshly picked seeds are covered in a somewhat malodorous fruit. The ginkgo fruit contains small levels of urushiol, a skin irritant that is found in poison ivy and poison oak. No-one told me this and my hands were covered in blisters by the end of the day. Ginkgo biloba seeds have a long germination period and a tendency to pick up mould on the outer shell. Carefully cleaning the shells with a mild bleach solution will help.

Germination is encouraged by both stratification and scarification, so seeds are often left in pots of sand for the winter or put in the refrigerator. They are then either chipped with a sharp knife or filed with sandpaper to allow moisture to more easily penetrate the hard outer shell, before sowing in a well-drained compost in the spring.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Winter’s bounty

In the past the changing seasons meant a change of diet as food availability came and went with the progress of the year. The advent of the supermarket produced a demand for foods to be available all year round so that nowadays, almost everything can be bought and eaten at any time. I have always thought this a pity and wonder if it is we who have demanded this, or the supermarkets that choose to offer us what they feel we will buy. Who would want to forgo the pleasures of the first strawberry of the year by eating them every day? A list of delights of this type would be endless.

Living in the centre of rural France, things are a bit different. Local supermarkets and markets do respond to the seasons and offer produce grown locally in their true season. Friends ring us up to share their most recent harvest and we do the same, giving away bagfuls of whatever produce the garden has graced us with at this particular moment. We also love collecting wild food but this year has been a poor one in our region for one of our favourites, Cepes (Boletus) mushrooms.

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Chanterelle mushrooms in the woods of the Loire Valley

Today however, just as we were beginning to start work on the day’s projects, a friend rang and offered to take us to her favourite wood for Chanterelle mushrooms, one of nature’s finest delicacies. In France no one ever tells you where they pick their mushrooms, so how could we refuse? As we wound our way through the country lanes toward our goal I began to wonder if our host was deliberately trying to get us lost. But it was a lovely day, cool but sunny, so I drove where I was told, knowing I could sneak back another day if necessary.

We were directed up a track through the vineyards, where workers were busily pruning the vines, eventually coming to a pine forest in which we were shown to our friend’s favourite parking spot. Coats on and baskets out, we pushed through the undergrowth to the centre of the wood and were not disappointed: there were Chaterelles everywhere!

An hour or so later we had picked enough for the year but our friend was keen to continue. We eventually dragged her away and on returning home started to prepare the 10 kg of “food for Free” we had picked. The base of the stem was removed and the mushrooms washed, then lightly heated in a pan to remove some of the water. Finally they were packed into jars to be sterilised and sealed, available to enjoy for the next year or so. Our diner that evening consisted of veal escallopes with onions, garlic and a generous helping of Chanterelles, cooked in a cream sauce. Life doesn’t get much better really.

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Callicarpa berries in Chabris park

Talking to some of the older folks in the market today, they are predicting a cold winter. There is a very heavy crop of acorns in the Oak woods and, thinking of what a similar generation would have told me in England, no shortage of berries on Pyracantha, Holly and other shrubs. At the moment the weather is gentle enough; all will be revealed, I have no doubt. The dry weather over the last few weeks has also produced a few frosts, but is allowing me to get out to do some weeding finally, after months working and touring with students and other clients.

 

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Holly berries in abundance.