A delightfully cool morning prompted me to get some more work done in the garden. I like to do a little gardening every day, even if it’s just a spot of weeding with a cup of tea in one hand. It’s been some time since we saw clouds that look as if they mean it however, so I took the opportunity of the reduced temperatures to tidy up the garden of our holiday rental gîte.
We named it Rose Cottage soon after we bought the place and imagined climbing and shrub roses in a romantic sheltered garden at the front of the property. In the end, someone stole the name plate and our only rose is a huge Paul’s Himalayan Musk we brought over from David Austin’s nursery in Northampton, UK.
The rose is very vigorous and the long stems are tied in and side-shoots cut back to around four buds. It now covers a twenty foot stretch of wall, turns a corner and buries a wire boundary fence, so it definitely earns its place in the garden. On the other hand we rarely have occupants in the gîte when it flowers and attempts to grow Clematis through it have so far been unsuccessful. The front garden, with its heavy clay, imported soil, is the only part to suffer from slugs and snails and these seem grateful for the several Clematis I have fed them with over the years.
The soil and aspect of this little garden do not make for ideal gardening conditions and remind me in many ways of the garden we left behind in Harpenden (UK). I have planted a conifer, Cupressus Goldcrest, Weigela florida variegata and Heuchera Palace Purple, all of which we had in that garden, together with our latest, bought at a nursery in Letty Green, Escallonia Apple Blossom.There are many plants suitable for these conditions and you just have to be aware of the limitations if you garden in soils of this type. A perfect candidate would be Hebe Great Orme, especially as it can be relied upon to flower all summer and well into the winter. We bought a plant from the same nursery in Hertfordshire during our last trip to the UK and immediately took cuttings so we could have it in more than one location. We give pride of place in the back garden to the main plant but one of the cuttings will certainly end up in the front. Spares can go to friends once they are well established in pots.
By mid day the sun was out again and temperatures were back up to the high 20′s; shirts came off, shorts replaced long trousers and after a leisurely lunch in the garden it was time to work inside, Chantal preparing the gîte for our next guests and me on the computer writing this article.
While roses are not my favourite subjects (I have the scars to prove it) I love pruning and I am in good company here, where French gardeners are totally obsessive about it. While I prune to assist flowering and create a pleasing shape, the French do it to be tidy and in many gardens every bush is cut back and trimmed to such an extent that they never flower; but they are tidy! I have known a few English gardeners who work the same way but, I am glad to report, very few. Surrounded by all this excessive behaviour I seem to have my secateurs out more often than I used to and several plants are flowering twice a year as a result. Cut back immediately after flowering, plants will often respond with new growth and a second crop of flowers. Lavender, perennial Geraniums, Nepeta, Lavatera and many others have been given this treatment and respond very well. Although our growing season may be longer than yours, anything that flowers reasonably early on new growth is a candidate. A little feed and water rewards them for all this additional effort but otherwise you just sit back and enjoy the show.
We have brought a number of ornamental grasses over from the UK and added them to local purchases from French autumn garden shows. Grasses are at their best now with many of them flowering at the end of the season. I like to leave them untrimmed to enjoy the frosted brown stems over winter. My favourite are the Miscanthus and while we grow them in much smaller clumps than when we gardened on three acres in the UK, we currently have four varieties. Golden variegated Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus forms chest high thickets even before flowering and ours fills a difficult patch under a Cherry tree. The colour comes from gold bands which run across each leaf blade in a regular pattern, while M. S. Cabaret has conspicuous white stripes and is planted at the far end of a bed featuring sun-loving plants. A young Miscanthus Purpurascens has almost been swamped by a silver Artemisia and will need moving next March. The leaves turn purplish green with pink midribs in the summer and develop red and orange tones in autumn. Another Miscanthus variety (I lost the name: possibly Gracillimus) provides dappled shade to our purple-leaved Japanese Maple, which might otherwise scorch in high summer.
I had never grown Stipa gigantea before starting this garden and we are enjoying the sight of this tufted plant with tall, oat-like flower spikes, bringing a softening effect to a shady dell amongst Skimmia, Hydrangeas and Geraniums. Stipa tenuissima is a delight, with fine leaves and feathery flowers waving in the slightest breeze. It has been planted in quantity in the local trading estate as it was in our last English garden and is high on my wants list. Other grasses in the garden include Festuca glauca, Carex buchananii from New Zealand and Imperata Red Baron, which looks superb in the evening sun.
Some readers will know that we traded out of a beautiful log cabin during our last months in Hertfordshire. I imported the building from Finland and had it built near the entrance to our landlord’s garden centre after they announced they wanted to sell the bungalow we had rented as our office for the previous ten years. When we decided just a few months later to make the move to France, my landlord and several others wanted us to abandon the building. After much wrangling and several angry letters, we finally had it dismantled and brought here and just this week, two years later, workers have started to erect it in our back garden.
The cabin covers nearly 100 square metres and will become a classroom for the Garden Design Academy when we hold residential courses. We plan to modify the roof so that we can grow Sedum and other plants on it and collect rainwater to irrigate the vegetables. A fruit garden is planned using plants we have been growing in pots for a year now – apricots, peaches and grapes – together with our young Bramley apple and soft fruit we plan to obtain from the UK. I have been very tempted by a new range Suttons will be offering this autumn: Gooseberry Espera, Raspberry Twotimer, Blackberry Navaho and Redcurrent Lisette. These will join a hybrid berry collected as a cutting from my Grandmother’s Cornish garden before she died.
For me, the gardening we do in France is little different to what we have done over the years in the UK. I find no difficulty assisting clients in China or the USA and while we learn much from these diverse gardening experiences, the principles are universal. I hope you enjoy these snippets from our new life in France and manage to adapt some of the tips to your own gardens.