Design your own garden course in France

On several occasions recently we have been asked why we have moved to France at this stage in our lives.  People seem to accept that a holiday home in France might be a pleasant option while an early retirement with plans to return to the UK later is the dream of many. When we explain that we are nowhere near retirement and must earn a living in France they look quite puzzled. When we add that we have sold everything we own to move here permanently, they are sure we have taken leave of our senses.

We made the move nearly two years ago now, seeking an easier life following a series of major operations which put Chantal’s wellbeing at risk. We are relieved of the responsibility for the employment and welfare of a staff of more than twenty and the gentle climate and affable, laid-back lifestyle we have discovered in central France suits us extremely well. There are other ex-pats in the region, some who have their own stories to tell of recovery from ill-health, failed marriages or financial problems, so we are in very good company! Mostly we choose to mix with the locals however and my understanding of the language and their ways of doing things increases daily. Having a French wife, albeit one who left the country as a teenager, has been invaluable in helping me to integrate.

One of the solutions to our self-imposed exile has been the teaching of the subjects which have been my life since the age of fourteen: horticulture, gardening, landscaping and design. We now offer courses in these subjects to students around the world and some of our first will shortly be taking examinations with the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley.

Most of our courses are supplied on CD, with support, encouragement and marking of assignments provided via email and telephone from my little office in a corner of the lounge. My favourite course is residential however and last month we had a party of ladies from Kent staying with us for a week of lectures and garden visits on our “Design your own Garden” workshop. The idea of the week is to come and enjoy the sites, the food and the wine but return having created a new plan for your garden with our assistance. This suits people who want a more “hands on” approach to garden design rather than have the designer do it all; it is also very good value.

Course schedule May 2010 – Design Your Own Garden

The course is a great excuse to discover some of the magnificent gardens of the Loire Valley region and each time we select somewhere different. On this occasion we explored the gardens of the chateau at Bouges, famous for its Italianate, Renaissance building and stables housing a collection of carriages. Outside, the walled flower garden and greenhouses are a delight, while surrounding the chateau itself are classic Italian water gardens and a very French garden of intricately clipped Box hedging. Fascinating though these are, my favourite section is the English-style park, stretching to over 80 hectares and decorated with rare trees. A ribbon lake lies beyond aristocratic wildflower meadows, reaching into the surrounding countryside and planted with thousands of orchids, cowslips, Salvias and Ox-eye Daisies. The chateau is full of period furniture but we gave the visit a miss, preferring to take in a wine tasting at nearby Valençay on our way back for lunch.

The course is not all hard work and during a free afternoon the ladies took themselves to Chenonceaux, Catherine de Medici’s country palace and Renaissance gardens, standing beautifully astride the river Cher. The French garden style imposes huge geometric shapes on the countryside, a demonstration of wealth, power and control designed to impress. Here, a series of formal gardens includes a circular maze and a vast rectangular island of flowers containing 130,000 bedding plants. The chateau itself is in the middle of the river to further emphasise its control over the natural world, contrasting with the wild forests beyond.

Essential to the “Design your own Garden” course is the visit on day 2 to the Festival of Gardens at Chaumont sur Loire. After a day of lectures on garden design theory and an evening slide show, the festival provides further inspiration before students begin to work on their own gardens. Nearly 30 show gardens are on display and free to wander around. We walked as a group, to enjoy, understand and discuss what we were seeing while visiting, over lunch and later that evening. There was something to learn from each of these although one, which purported to illustrate the discovery of the “facts of life” by children, left us all totally bemused! As always there were themes, interpretations, techniques, materials and plants which you can expect to see in gardens at Chelsea Flower Show in a couple of years time, as ideas flow from creative events such as this into the world of mainstream gardening.

When finally the students were ready to consider their own gardens they had been thoroughly prepared to do so. Paper, pencils, pens and other drawing tools were provided and as they settled down to work gardens emerged as if from nowhere. Some needed more guidance than others and one lady was keen to try working on the computer rather than with pencils. Their plots varied in size from a tiny back yard to landscapes of many acres and in one case the grounds surrounding a flint cottage and barn was divided into five separate gardens.  By the end they were all tired but happy, having created exciting projects to construct and plant on their return to England and learned a great deal from their trip to France.

At the end of this workshop I was exhausted but with more guests arriving just two days later there was no peace for the wicked. Did I say we were looking for an easier life? As a result we could not spare the time for planned trips to the plant festival at Courson or the Iris nurseries of Giens and our garden is all the poorer for it. Fortunately this busy period was soon over and we were soon able to drop down a gear or two in pace with those around us. With clients to visit in south-west France and in the UK this summer I hope to drop in on a few nurseries during my travels and buy a few more plants.

Gradually I am discovering the keen gardeners in the region where we live and several have proved to be a great source of plants as we swap bits and pieces between us. Having brought a lorry load of plants from the UK and as a visitor of gardening events around the country our garden is becoming popular as a provider of cuttings and offsets to this group of enthusiasts. At the same time they are remarkably generous with their own plants and advice and our garden has benefited from both. As a professional in the UK I had forgotten the satisfaction of sharing with others in this way, preferring to buy all I needed from nurseries I did business with. It has taken this move to remind us of many of life’s simple pleasures and while earning a living and giving a good service is still essential we have adopted a very French attitude to the importance of family, food and the pursuit of happiness. I recommend it!

Author’s note: following a terminal computor crash the photos of these trips are not available until I can extract them from the hard drive. Sorry for that.


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