It’s not Spring ‘til the old lady says so.

I have been consulting the old folks in the village; “I’ve never seen the river so high”, I tell them. “The last flood was in February 2002”, they inform me, and go on to recount the tales of the River Cher flooding the park and all the houses on the low ground, regularly sealing the town off from the civilised world for a week or more. At the moment it is 45cm from ground level at the Ganguette, where they hold the weekly dances throughout the summer: I’ve measured it. Huge logs float down-stream in the churning, muddy waters and areas where we would normally walk the dog are impassable. We’ve had plenty of rain, but it’s the mountains to the south which are providing much of the flood waters and at the moment they are still rising.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Flowering in our garden now in Chabris, central France.

I have been able and prepared to do a little work outside in January and February in an attempt to stop the gardening tasks piling up and overwhelming me later in the spring, but I am under no illusions – it’s not Spring until the old folks say so. I am champing at the bit to get a new lawn sown but it is far too cold and wet for that. I have an area of sloping ground near the swimming pool to level, a raised vegetable bed to construct and a security gate to fix. All are on hold for the time being. Pruning and weeding has started and I am pleased with the progress I have made in tidying the place up. Upstairs in the loft, in a Heath-Robinson propagation unit I have installed under the skylights, I already have my first batches of bedding plant seedlings up and soon ready to prick out.

The poor weather and the cultivated space that will eventually become a lawn, both conspire to prevent me looking around the garden as often as I would wish but plants are growing and on my last hunt I discovered Snowdrops, Heathers, Hellebores and Witch-hazel in flower. It’s always a good idea to site winter flowering plants close to the house, so that they can be seen when it is inclement. I tell you this and it is a perfectly reasonable statement to make, but of course, in a perverse gardener’s logic, I place them away from the house to encourage me to search them out whatever the weather conditions.

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Although work for the Garden Design Academy and our many and various web sites keep me busy enough, I am using the quiet time of the year to get to know my fellow French gardeners. Having joined the APJRC, an association made up mainly of chateaux owners who open their gardens to the public, I am attending monthly tutorials led by the “names” of the French gardening world, who are teaching the rest of us the secrets of their art. Last month the lecture was given by a garden designer famous for her traditional and very formal chateaux gardens, Alix de Saint Venant, owner of the château de Valmer. I found her to be extremely competent and an excellent communicator, who discussed the design of large geometric gardens, making a number of interesting points about form, shape and perspective. She also talked about the choice of plants, trees in particular, when your vision of a garden includes the features the grandchildren will have to deal with when they, in their turn, take over the property. It is very different world view to that of the majority of my clients, who want a garden to look good immediately and may well have moved on in ten years’ time.

The lecture was held around the ancient dining room table and in the park of the Château de Chevilly and was punctuated by a series of interruptions from journalists and local dignitaries, eager to catch a glimpse of the famous lady. I enjoyed the lecture, the tour and the mid-day meal enormously and was delighted to talk gardening in French with the group. Eager for more, I have signed up for the next session at the Jardins des MétamorphOZes, where Patrick Genty, the former head gardener of Chaumont-sur-Loire, will be talking to us about the use of natural and “alternative” materials for garden structures and getting us out into the garden to harvest material and assemble some. Having a sculptural project in mind for one of our Sequoias, I am keen to hear more. We have been asked to bring seceteurs and a number of other tools but my Felco’s have disappeared; having owned that pair since 1990, I’m very upset.

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

The big joy of our gardening life at the moment is our Amaryllis (Hippeastrum), which we have been watching come into growth and bloom since December. Fantastic flowers are produced from a large bulb which we had earlier allowed a dormant period in the garden shed. Four huge, translucent and lightly perfumed blooms sit on the top of a thick flower stem, two foot tall if it is a day. It makes quite a sight on our dining room windowsill where it seems very at home in light but cool conditions.  It’s a south american plant of 90 species (I’d always thought it was south african, but that’s just the bulb Amaryllis belladonna) which the Dutch have been hybrizing since the 18thC.

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Organic gardening and cut-price gardening courses

I was 14 years old when my parents bought a market garden in the village of Carnon Downs in Cornwall, on the south-west tip of England. The property was owned by two ladies who grew cut flowers, bulbs, soft fruit and vegetables, all organically. They had reached retirement age and were considering selling up and somehow my Father had met them. People like my Father, it’s a talent he has, and the ladies decided to sell him the property and teach him how to grow. We didn’t have the money so the ladies accepted what we did have and agreed to take the remainder when we could afford it.

Cornish daffodils

The farm was run organically; this meant nothing to me, it was just the way we grew things. We lived in a house which appeared to have a spring underneath it: water flowed through the house on both floors for half the year and gave us colds. The beds were always damp and while Cornwall is relatively mild in winter, the continuous high humidity let the cold into your bones. The drinking water came from the well by the house, extracted to a tank by a hand pump, the handle of which mysteriously rose up and down, driven by a Heath-Robinson style system and an electric motor. People used to knock at the door to ask for a glass.

The main crops were daffodils, both for flowers and bulbs, strawberries and Pittosporum, which was cut for florists’ foliage in the winter and packed into huge sacking bundles to be sent by train to markets in London, Birmingham or Bristol. Other flower crops included Irises and Anemones, spreading the risk that one harvest may not achieve the prices hoped for from a system in which we had little or no control. Sometimes I helped pack daffodils until two in the morning and went to school a few hours later. Sometimes the flower boxes were crushed and ruined by careless railway staff. Some years the weather ruined the crop.

Wisley RHS gardens

While grim experiences were not rare, I somehow came through all of that with a love for plants. I was fascinated by them; by their Latin and common names, the way they grew, their beauty and their uses. We had a grass roadway called Wisley Lane, which gave access to many of the fields. The ladies would take a short holiday each year, visiting the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and acquiring a few cuttings. The resulting plants, often unusual, grew all the way down Wisley Lane.

Compost for the fields was homemade, created by cutting down the grasses and wild flowers of Little Moor, Lost Moor and Big Moor, three marshy fields at the bottom of the property. I used to do this each year with an Allen Scythe and still have nightmares remembering my struggles with the machine and the Horse Flies on hot days at the end of summer. Big Moor was covered with wild orchids. Later we came to an arrangement with the council works department, who dumped all the autumn leaves they collected on a piece of ground by the front road. The resulting organic matter was spread over the fields to improve the structure of our heavy, clay soil. Granular fertiliser was also used, made in Cornwall from fish waste, while liquid feed came from seaweed. Cornwall has a huge coastline and its products are part of the fabric of the region.

The site of our old nursery, now a garden centre

Times move on and our old nursery is now a garden centre. The house has long since been demolished and I lack the courage to see if Wisley Lane is still there.

There are more tales to tell, of course, but I wanted to mention that the Garden Design Academy’s offer of the month is £80 off the home study course ORGANIC GARDENING & CROP PRODUCTION an excellent new course we are pleased to be associated with.

Back from the South of France

After a tiring but satisfying week teaching a residential garden design course here in Chabris, we took ourselves off to the South of France for a part work / part holiday break. Our base, after a little touring around the Languedoc-Roussillon, was Pézenas, where a client put us up at their vineyard Gîte Rural while we discussed the creation of a new garden around their house. This arrangement also allowed for plenty of time to visit the region with our son, who flew over to join us.

Roquebrun - Jardin Méditerranéen - perhaps next time?

I had planned to take in two local gardens but discovered that our first was available for evening guided visits only and this did not suit our schedule. We reached the village of Roquebrun in the Hérault to seek out the Jardin Méditerranéen but were distracted by a pretty restaurant and in the end did not make it to the garden. We did however, discover the local wine co-op where a steady stream of growers were delivering their harvest. After some debate and careful consideration, we eventually departed with two dozen bottles of their finest.

Roadside saffron crocus

This region of France is particularly attractive when the temperatures moderate and the tourists leave. We swam in the Mediterranean and looked at the boats in the harbour at Sète, enjoyed a wonderful meal in a village on the edge of the Bassin de Thau and strolled by the Canal du Midi. We were particularly taken by the hills and mountains of the huge Haut-Languedoc Natural Park behind the coast. The stunning scenery and an amazing diversity of countryside, geology and climate had us captivated for several expeditions, driving around mountain roads and through tiny mountain hamlets. We should have walked more I know, but the dog had a foot infection and was effectively lame for the whole trip, although she enjoyed our swims in lakes and rivers each day. One area consisted of a forest of Chestnut trees as far as the eye could see (and probably much further) and locals were busy bringing in the bounty, while in another, more open region, the roadsides were flecked with saffron crocus.

All good things come to an end and eventually we had to make our way home, after lunch next to the brick cathedral at Albi and a night in a farmhouse above the River Lot. We arrived refreshed and ready to work again, with a garden design to complete and, amongst the 2,000 emails sitting in my Outlook Inbox, a few more requests for courses. The first signs of autumn were evident in the garden.

Less tourism and more gardening in my next post, I promise!

Mushroom of the day, flower of the day, bulb of the day, shrub of the day

A huge Boletus mushroom found, picked and eaten today.

Tradescantia flowering in the garden at Chabris, central France today.

Today I thought it would be nice to show you some of the plants from our garden. Every day we rush out to see what is newly flowering or growing and this is a small selection of those which are rewarding this simple effort and pleasure.

Most of these are newly planted this year so their first flowering is a special treat!

Erythrina x bidwillii is a cross between E. crista-galli from South America and E. herbacea from North America.

Colchicum Waterlily in flower under the Sequoia and close to Toad Lillies and Hostas, also in flower.

Lavatera Barnsley, Santolina and other joys of summer

Lavatera

Lavatera Barnsley showing reversion.

A common and great value flowering shrub is doing well at the moment. Lavatera x clementii Barnsley is a cross between the shrubby L. olbia and the herbaceous L. thuringiaca, a cultivar of ‘Rosea’ which is not entirely stable. In a periclinal chimaera like “Barnsley”, the meristem has mutated and contains one layer of cells which is genetically different from the remainder. This photo shows a specimen in our garden which has started to revert. The best way to avoid this is to be careful not to over-prune, something I may have done this spring. The plant is very easy from cuttings; this plant is only two years old and a one year old cutting planted in the garden is also in full flower and around 4ft tall.

Santolina chamaecyparissus is another cheap and cheerful summer flowering shrub and we have planted a group in a poor, dry area of the garden where many other plants would struggle. Cotton Lavender, as it is sometimes called, has herbal uses and is sometimes added to pot pourri, but not everyone is a fan of the smell. Some gardeners prefer to remove the flowers to create a clipped silver hedge: you can do this, but would miss this effect, which seems a shame.

Santolina chamaecyparissus

Santolina chamaecyparissus - Cotton Lavender

The Lilies which have survived the attentions of Lily Beetle (Lilioceris lilii) are in flower now, in a range of colours from white, cream and yellow, through to orange and red. I have spent what seems like hours, removing the both adult and larvae by hand but have found that Lilium regale Album stays beast free while nearby hybrids are covered. I shall be watching this effect in years to come to see if is repeated or if they just did not find L. regale this season. As a lad, one of the jobs given to us in the Royal Gardens was removing Lily Beetle from the stems of Cardiocrinum giganteum. Given that these plants can grow 10ft or more tall, step ladders were required!

Lilium regale Album

Lilium regale Album - Lily Beetle free!

Mail order plants, autumn bulb planting and autumn colour

I’m not a fan of catalogue retailers of plants and bulbs. I have no problem with normal nurseries offering their wares mail order: it’s those glossy, strangely unnatural colours and the “two plants for the price of one / free gifts with every order / you have definitely won a small fortune in our free draw” companies I dislike.

Granny used to buy from one such company in England and I, forgive my innocence, have just tried one here in France. To encourage me with my first order, Willemse told me I was to be given a years supply of Strelitzia, free delivery and a big wet kiss from the van driver (I exaggerate for effect, as is my way, but not a lot). In addition, I had definitely won a great deal of money: how could I lose? I ordered loads of stuff. I also kept a copy of the order form and filed the catalogue safely away for future reference.

Fruits on our Arbutus, newlt planted against the walls of the Garden Design Academy log cabin classroom

When the bulbs and other plants I had ordered arrived several weeks later, we noticed some were missing: a pack which was supposed to have nine plants only had three. I emailed the help desk and was told that our order was fine: three plants as ordered. I explained in which respect it wasn’t fine but was told it was definitely fine: three plants as per my order. I sent them a copy of the order: “No, you ordered the one of each variety, super discount offer”. I sent them a photograph of the page in the catalogue which provided details of their offer to supply nine plants and was told it was not the case: what I had ordered was three plants. Just as I was considering driving over to impress on them my disappointment, they replied to a further email with the news that they would send me the six missing plants I had paid for and not charge me for them: in effect, I was told, they are free! And sure enough, the offending plants arrived a week later and are now out in the garden: three groups of three Hemerocallis.

 

Miscanthus

Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus - autumn leaf and flower

Is it me, or do people who order a number of plants expect to receive that number? I was, and still remain, unimpressed. Anyway, I am looking forward to the huge amount of money I have definitely won; when I do, it’s all ’round to Elliott’s place for a champagne party!

Fritillaria dreaming

This is not my first mail order gardening problem in France, but may well be my last. Attentive readers will remember my fight with Thompson and Morgan, a seed company with whom I have traded happily for years in the UK; unfortunately in France you have to deal with their French office, with inflated French prices and a French attitude to customer service. My wife, by the way and in the interests of balance, uses a number of mail order companies for clothes and other things and has had few problems. Perhaps it is just me.

The bulbs were OK as far as I could see. I planted dwarf Daffodils next to our new Mahonia nitens, tulips with pansies in the front garden, Crown Imperial Fritillaria amongst variegated Cistus and Euphorbia wulfenii. Drifts of Ixia and Ipheion have been inserted into patches of gravel below the washing lines while broad lines of Muscari wind around new planting near the log cabin. Japanese Iris went to the oriental garden next to a new clump of Arum Lilies bought at Courson. The Hemerocallis? Three creamy-white Vanilla Fluff were planted in the white border while the two other varieties, Double Royal Red and Congo Orange went to the other side of the garden. Three of each. Not one.

We have had three frosts so far, the last a week or so ago. These pulled the leaves from the grape vines giving us no autumn show at all. The forests and countryside however, have carried on as normal and are gradually gearing up for a fantastic display of autumn leaf colour (fall color, if you are from the other side of the Atlantic). Several plants in the garden are also putting on a show, with Euphorbia giffithii Fireglow perhaps the best. As the season moves on I shall be posting up photographs for all to admire. It’s a glorious season!

Euphorbia Fireglow, young plants showing autumn leaf colour in the garden at Chabris

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.

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