There is no doubt the summer is coming to an end. While we continue to enjoy a long period of warm, sunny days, the mornings are cool and there is heavy dew on the ground until late in the day. The grape picking starts here in a few days and no doubt all eyes will be anxiously scanning the horizon for signs of deterioration in the weather.
This area is rural, made up of towns, villages and hamlets dedicated to farming and horticulture in the gentle rolling countryside on the borders of the Touraine, the Berry and the Sologne in the geographical centre of France. Paris is not far by motorway or train but feels like a life-time away.
It would be all too easy to spend our time in this peaceful backwater doing very little while the money gradually runs out; rarely have we felt so relaxed and contented. We have a business to run however and it will take several months to have the renovations done on the house and get our office and ourselves into gear. In the mean time I have garden plans for UK customers to complete and a handful of French clients to visit.
Gardening has taken up some of my time and I have had some encouragement from the locals. When we arrived the grass was chest high and there was talk of neighbours complaining to the mayor: snakes were seen coming onto the road from our back garden! The front is now respectable enough and I am making inroads into the wilderness behind the house. Having spent my days drawing for the last few years I am not a fit as I was and find that I need a break of a day or two for every few hours of labouring. Ah, the joys of getting old!
I have uncovered the planting I did last year from its blanket of brambles and can report that most of my imports have survived. These include unusual Viburnum species and several Miscanthus grasses, but my cherished Eucryphia has died and will need replacing. We brought an eclectic mix of potted plants lifted from our old garden in the removal lorry but these still await the results of the clearance operation and are dotted around the plot to be planted at a later date. Amongst others I have a large Aesculus parviflora, the shrubby American Horse Chestnut, yet more grasses, a female version of the Golden Hop, a pot of Nerine bulbs and a Chinese Tree Peony, all waiting for new homes.
Strimming my way through the undergrowth, which was cleared at some expense only a year or so ago, I have produced heaps of material which will be composted to improve the poor sandy soil. I am undecided if I can clear the garden ready for planting just by cultivating the ground but have weedkillers standing by if need be. There is little pointing in undertaking planting in a meaningful way until the weeds have been brought under control. Our soil is very light and sandy and can be worked easily but needs organic matter to improve it. I have also noticed Rhododendrons and Camellias growing well in the sand areas so it would seem that the river valleys are acid even if the underlying geology is limey. I have high hopes for this garden!
Whenever I visit a new region I am excited to see what can be grown there. We have already been to a few local gardening events to meet amateur gardeners, nurserymen and landscapers and came back with a particularly lovely Camellia from one little local festival yesterday. I have spotted a few plants I consider unusual and note that some we would judge slightly tender – Campsis, Albizia Lagerstroemia, even Lemons – are in flower now and commonly grown. The local garden centre is unimpressive by UK standards but some of the nurseries are excellent, if rather pricey.
I usually find the huge range of plants I am familiar with are not to be found abroad and I am planning to import a lorry load from UK nurseries when the garden is ready to receive them. Who knows, we may even start a small nursery to supply our local clients. In the mean time we are keen to plant ornamental and fruit trees and may have to swallow our pride and pay French retail prices for them. The fete of Saint Catherine (28th November) is the traditional day for this, when success is virtually guaranteed. On the weekend of 17th October we plan a visit to the famous plant fair at the Chateau de Courson , south of Paris, where growers from all over France and beyond meet to promote their wares. I have bought plants here before and this may prove to be the ideal opportunity to acquire some interesting trees. Sadly, English growers have yet to discover this show although Dutch, Belgians, Italians and Spanish nurseries can all be found there.
My birthday treat this year has been a visit to another garden show, this time the festival of gardens and garden design at Chaumont, less than an hour away from us now, rather than the ten-hour trek we used to undertake each year. This is one of Europe’s most innovative garden shows, attracting top designers to build gardens on themes which change each year. Unlike Chelsea, budgets are kept deliberately low and the gardens are on display for the whole summer season. We are hoping a few designers and keen amateurs will use our accommodation as a base to visit this and some of the Chateaux gardens of the Loire Valley next year.
This year’s event allowed designers to explore the themes of sharing and division, “en partage” and “à partager”, in French. This attracted designers from as far as the United States to participate with a range of garden ideas, as usual some more successful than others. We shared the park with coach loads of young children and most gardens encouraged a hands-on approach to viewing. The cheerful mix of the inspirational, challenging or outrageous gardens made for a very pleasant day out which was also enjoyed by friends we brought with us. Of course, I had my eyes open for new plants, new combinations of familiar plants, materials and techniques to use in my own design work.
On our journey back to home to meet yet another plumber we travelled through the vast vineyards of the Touraine, where machines were out gathering in the crop. These days it would seem there is less use for the gangs of itinerant workers who used to follow the harvests but in our village the wine growing is of a smaller scale and friends and neighbours still gather to help each other bring in the grapes. It is a social as well as an economic activity here and lunch times are spent together devouring great rustic meals of surprising sophistication, lubricated with large quantities of home produced wine. In the countryside, as in the garden, sharing is important and holds the social fabric of the village together.