It was our wedding anniversary yesterday so we decided to take the day off and visit the local chateau at Valençay. This palatial building was once the home of Prince Talleyrand, Minister of Foreign Affairs to Napoleon Bonaparte and used for both politics and pleasure: the King of Spain was imprisoned in Valençay in great style and comfort for six years and dinner parties for the illustrious were hosted here twice a week – Napoleon himself was not much of a party goer.
Marie-Antoine Carême, the famous nineteenth century celebrity chef and exponent of haut cuisine, cooked here for international royalty and the newly rich of Europe. Unfortunately he had long since departed, but we eat well in the orangery at lunchtime.
The day was outrageously warm but we toured both the house and the gardens, taking in the floral lawn in the English-style park and a newly created culinary herb garden. Valençay itself is an attractive, white stone town, famous for both its white wine (Sauvignon and Chardonnay) and its goats cheese, the latter in the form of a truncated pyramid, the top originally removed it is said, to avoid offending Napoleon who had lost Egypt in a failed military campaign. A rich cake in the same shape is made in the town and reserved by us for special days like this.
The overly hot weather was broken last night by a series of violent storms, a weather pattern repeated several times this summer; dramatic stuff in a region better known for its gentle climate. The rain has been very welcome however and results in excellent crops of fruit and vegetables which have been popular with our guests. Breakfast jams are made from local cherries, strawberries, apricots, peaches, plums and other fruits, many given to us by neighbours while our own newly planted bushes and trees grow to fruiting size. Some fruits: apricots, nectarines and eating grapes, are sitting in large pots awaiting a new planting spot once our log cabin is finally installed. I recently planted a Bramley, king of the cooking apples, to introduce the French, who love apple tarts, especially their famous local delicacy Tarte Tatin, to this culinary experience.
Salads come from the garden each lunchtime, with several varieties of tomatoes and lettuce grown amongst the flowers, giving a pleasing, cottage-garden effect. Diners also benefit from the vegetables in the garden, with green asparagus a particularly exciting find, a living memory of the previous owner from twenty years ago. We have added courgettes and sweet corn, annual crops which are so much tastier when freshly picked and cooked within minutes.
Our range of garden plants has been recently boosted by a trip to the UK. As always seems to be the way on these visits, we rushed around mixing personal with business matters. On this occasion we finally packing up our property in Bedfordshire, which had become an expensive liability rather than the useful bed for the night it was intended for. We managed to survey a garden for a client in Hertfordshire, visit Garden Design Academy students in Kent, talk to our bank in Harpenden, and buy a few dozen plants, while still finding time for a good pub lunch or two, one of the very few things we miss from our old life in England.
Our plant purchases were a strange mix of the unusual and the banal. Our garden of over 1,000 sq.m. had just two plants in it once the wilderness had been cleared: our priceless 150 year old Sequoias, after which we named the house. A few things have since pushed up to surprise us: wild orchids especially, but all the plants you might take for granted are missing.
We therefore find ourselves buying, or begging from friends, such common but essential plants as Alchemilla mollis, Potentilla Gibson’s Scarlet and herbaceous Geraniums. Recent purchases for the White Garden included good ol’ Potentilla fruticosa Abbotswood, “cheap as chips” Spiraea nipponica Snowmound and the rather invasive but pretty variegated grass Phalaris arundinacea Picta, while white Hebe Kirkii was also selected for this area.
On the other hand we returned with a number of plants which were new to me and would find a good home in the rapidly expanding garden: Salvia elegans Golden Delicious is a lovely dwarf foliage plant which we have planted close to shocking pink Lampranthus purpureus in a sunny border. We will need to take cuttings sometime soon to ensure we have plants next year – Salvia elegans is normally listed as tender and I expect this variety to be no different.
Another plant with yellow foliage has been planted in the shade of the Sequoias. Leycesteria formosa is becoming more popular but in my day was just used as shelter for game birds. With this new variety, Golden Lantern, I have been hooked and it has been given pride of place in the Oriental Garden, next to the Chinese granite lantern which I removed from our office show garden when we said goodbye to Hertfordshire. The flowers are fascinating, the foliage beautiful and the upright form a great contrast to more rounded bushes nearby.
Hibiscus Purple Ruffles “Sanchonyo” is a new variety to keep our China Chiffon company. Hibiscus syriacus are hardy shrubs (unlike H. Rosa-sinensis varieties which we grow as house plants) and come from China, India and in this case, Korea, where it is the national flower. Hibiscus are commonly grown as flowering hedges here in Chabris but our varieties are more exotic, double flowered forms, giving me an opportunity to show off when local gardeners visit. Hibiscus appreciates the sun and we have planted one in the gravel patio to the rear of the house where it benefits from reflective heat and light.
I have learned, or been reminded of, a great gardening lesson this year: always give a plant a chance to recover. Several plants which we thought had not survived the winter and I might easily have consigned to the compost heap, are now growing strongly. I begged neighbours for Passion Flower seedlings because our P. “White Lightning” had apparently died. It is now has growth four metres long and is covered in flower buds. Lippia (Aloysia triphylla these days), grown for its lemon-scented, insect repelling foliage, had also been written off but is now doing well. Lagerstroemia, Fuchsia, Eucomis – the list of apparent winter casualties goes on – all saved by a decision to “wait and see”. I recommend it.
I have also rediscovered the joys of propagation. As a lad I entered a nationwide Propagator of the Year competition and did very well. Later, when I was selling plants and gardens rather than growing them, the craft lost its attraction for me and I preferred the instant gratification of buying my plants. Now I am taking cuttings regularly, mostly under plastic bag cloches scattered around the garden, but I also have a large heat controlled propagator in the loft. This little toy, bought at some expense from Thompson and Morgan Seeds in France, has so far been used just for seeds but is available to produce large quantities of rooted cuttings when called to do so. Many of our new plants are on a mental cuttings list, giving me the chance to give away a few unusual plants to gardening friends. Equally, there are a few interesting plants in parks and gardens locally I have my eyes on – if you spot a wild man with secateurs creeping around at night, please don’t call the gendarme, it may be me!