February houseplants

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The house is full of flowers at the moment, including this Begonia which sits by my desk.

The house is not short of flowers at the moment: the Amaryllis has flowered for the second year after a few weeks over Christmas spent in the dark and cool of the outhouse. The Lemon tree is covered in scented blooms which soon either drop or hang on to alert us of fruits to come. Orchids are in flower or bud on every windowsill and a pair of Begonias, both the results of gifts of cuttings from friends, have been in flower for many months.

Its Spring-like in the house, even if its a bit chilly outside. 

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New Year, new season

Ahtirrhinum Purple Twist

Antirrhinum Purple Twist

Soon after the New Year celebrations had died down and well before we deposited the empties at the bottle-bank, we were sowing seeds for the new gardening season. Up in the loft under the skylight, where we keep the heated propagation unit, we now have trays full of seedlings of Salvia farinacea Victoria, Petunia F1 Reflections Mix (Suttons Seeds) and Red Hot Pokers. I always used to think of Antirrhinums as being something rather old-fashioned but have been won over by a new variety – Axiom mixed, which we have grown for three years running now and Purple Twist, both from T&M.

Foxglove Silver Cup

Foxglove Silver Cup

We have grown different varieties of Foxgloves each year to plant in the shadier parts of the garden, particularly under the Sequoia, and have selected yet another from this year’s T&M catalogue: Silver Cup, with soft hairy silver foliage and white flowers. You will have noticed a few perennials in this list and we will be sowing many more; a fabulously inexpensive way to populate a new garden.

Our seed propagation unit is a little bit of an embarrassment which I hope never to have to show our students or gardening friends, but it does work. It consists of a little polythene tent erected on a trestle table under a Velux window in the loft. I have added supplementary lighting made from spotlights reclaimed from the kitchen when that part of the house was remodelled. A foil heating unit covered with sand warms the base of the seed trays to give good temperatures and moist air for germination. It’s all a bit Heath Robinson – System D, as they say in France – but I recently read an advertisement for a complete growth room offered for €10 on a web site where people sell unwanted goods. This unit would cost around €800 when new, being the sort of equipment people use to grow Cannabis in their spare bedrooms, so I imagine the price was an error. You never know your luck however, so I have emailed the seller in the hope of acquiring a much more sophisticated unit. When I look back at the huge computer-controlled growth rooms we built when we ran a commercial seedling and young plant nursery in the UK many years ago, I cannot help but smile. Of course, we were also buying Begonias in 100,000-seed containers in those days!

Nerium oleander

Oleander

Last week we decided to combine a food shopping trip with a visit to a local garden centre which was advertising a sale. Amongst other things – seed compost, for example – we came back with two Oleander bushes and a large variegated Hebe: all at €2 each. I was delighted with these purchases, but you do have to be careful: I have noticed more than a few Vine Weevil infected plants offered as “bargains” in such sales. The Oleanders are now in the unheated conservatory waiting for warmer weather. They’ll be great in big pots on the terrace this summer.

My big project for this year is the potager behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. The four raised beds in oak are now built and with spare soil left over from these beds I intend to build another alongside a neighbour’s wall. This time we will construct it from woven poles of Hazel, secured with pegs of Robinia, all to be cut from the surrounding countryside. Slowly the garden is developing and I am particularly pleased to deal with this area as it is seen from the main window of the classroom. Already locals are asking why I did not build a French Garden with beds of Box. Firstly of course, it is a French garden, but medieval in style rather than renaissance. Secondly, pests and diseases of Box are threatening this fundamental feature of French gardens and I have no wish to deal with the issue when, inevitably, it arrives chez nous. Three Peaches have been planted, along with an English Bramley apple and a cutting of a hybrid berry from my old Granny’s garden. In addition I have acquired a large collection of vegetable seeds from Sutton’s and T&M seeds ready to sow when conditions are appropriate; I’m beginning to get very excited.

Winter’s bounty

In the past the changing seasons meant a change of diet as food availability came and went with the progress of the year. The advent of the supermarket produced a demand for foods to be available all year round so that nowadays, almost everything can be bought and eaten at any time. I have always thought this a pity and wonder if it is we who have demanded this, or the supermarkets that choose to offer us what they feel we will buy. Who would want to forgo the pleasures of the first strawberry of the year by eating them every day? A list of delights of this type would be endless.

Living in the centre of rural France, things are a bit different. Local supermarkets and markets do respond to the seasons and offer produce grown locally in their true season. Friends ring us up to share their most recent harvest and we do the same, giving away bagfuls of whatever produce the garden has graced us with at this particular moment. We also love collecting wild food but this year has been a poor one in our region for one of our favourites, Cepes (Boletus) mushrooms.

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Chanterelle mushrooms in the woods of the Loire Valley

Today however, just as we were beginning to start work on the day’s projects, a friend rang and offered to take us to her favourite wood for Chanterelle mushrooms, one of nature’s finest delicacies. In France no one ever tells you where they pick their mushrooms, so how could we refuse? As we wound our way through the country lanes toward our goal I began to wonder if our host was deliberately trying to get us lost. But it was a lovely day, cool but sunny, so I drove where I was told, knowing I could sneak back another day if necessary.

We were directed up a track through the vineyards, where workers were busily pruning the vines, eventually coming to a pine forest in which we were shown to our friend’s favourite parking spot. Coats on and baskets out, we pushed through the undergrowth to the centre of the wood and were not disappointed: there were Chaterelles everywhere!

An hour or so later we had picked enough for the year but our friend was keen to continue. We eventually dragged her away and on returning home started to prepare the 10 kg of “food for Free” we had picked. The base of the stem was removed and the mushrooms washed, then lightly heated in a pan to remove some of the water. Finally they were packed into jars to be sterilised and sealed, available to enjoy for the next year or so. Our diner that evening consisted of veal escallopes with onions, garlic and a generous helping of Chanterelles, cooked in a cream sauce. Life doesn’t get much better really.

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Callicarpa berries in Chabris park

Talking to some of the older folks in the market today, they are predicting a cold winter. There is a very heavy crop of acorns in the Oak woods and, thinking of what a similar generation would have told me in England, no shortage of berries on Pyracantha, Holly and other shrubs. At the moment the weather is gentle enough; all will be revealed, I have no doubt. The dry weather over the last few weeks has also produced a few frosts, but is allowing me to get out to do some weeding finally, after months working and touring with students and other clients.

 

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Holly berries in abundance.

 

Wild orchids in central France

Spider orchid, France

Spider Orchid – Ophrys fuciflora

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time (of course you have!) you will know that we now live in central France, after many years, many homes and a long horticultural career based in the south of England. The Indre is the name of the department (or county) in which our home village is situated, although the ancient name of the Berry is also widely used. It stretches from the river Cher, on the edge of the Sologne forests in the north, to beyond the Brenne National Park, the river Creuse and to the foothills of the Massif Central in the south. The soils across this sparsely populated, rural department vary enormously and with it the wild flowers. These can be seen in quantities which we unused to in England, where industrialisation, population expansion and the use of agricultural chemicals have reduced the range and quantity of native flora significantly.

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Walking the dog in the countryside we regularly come across groups of wild orchids and one, the Lizard Orchid (“L’Orchis Bouc”, Himantooglossum hircinum) seeds itself all over our own garden. We have found Spider Orchids on the industrial estate, Burnt Orchids on a building site, Helleborines by the fishing pond, Butterfly and Bee Orchids in the woodland meadows and Early Purple Orchids in the public park. In total, 47 species of wild orchid have been recorded in the county, one of which is found only in the Brenne. Orchids can be found almost everywhere: on limestone grasslands, river meadows, alkaline marshland, acid sandy soils, both wet and dry, in woods and forests and by the sides of the roads. They can also be seen in the grand chateau parkland and in much more humble gardens, often in very impressive quantities.

may 2013

Cypripedium Kentucky – a pot full of American orchids in France

In addition to a small selection of native orchids we have in our garden a patch of Chinese hardy orchid, Bletilla striata, which survived a period of -24°C a couple of winters back and is grown alongside dwarf Rhododendrons in our Japanese Garden. By the front door, facing north and in the protection of an unheated conservatory is a huge pot of the garden orchid Cypripedium Kentucky. These are also perfectly hardy and I shall be planting them out in the garden later; I was so excited to have them, I just had to show them off where everyone could see them!

Chaumont Festival preview & Courson dreaming.

Prés du Goualoup, Courson.

Prés du Goualoup, Chaumont.

Last week we were invited to the preview of the Festival of Gardens at Chaumont-sur-Loire. This is surely one of Europe’s must-see events both for landscape / garden design professionals and the amateur enthusiast and runs from 6th April to 11th November this year. Unique design ideas tried out here will often appear at Chelsea or one of the other great garden shows two or three years later, so it’s a great source of inspiration for those in the garden business. When we were based in the UK we would always make the effort to visit; now it is a short drive from our home and I take groups to see it several times each year. Before the end of the month I will have been three or four times but I never fail to spot something new from each visit and to see it develop over the seasons is a real joy.

Domaine de Courson - Prés du Goualoup

Domaine de Chaumont – Prés du Goualoup

Each year there is a design theme and this time it is ‘Gardens of Sensations’, which leaves the designers plenty of scope (or perhaps rope!) to decide what this means for themselves. But before we looked around the 25 show gardens of this year’s festival we were determined to see the permanent gardens and installations in the Goualoup Meadow (Prés du Goualoup) the new 10 Ha extension to the site. First up was a garden by Yu Kongjian, a landscaper specialising in Feng Shui, with a winding path across dark water punctuated by clusters of bright red bamboo canes and which leads on to a reinterpretation of a traditional Chinese scholars garden by the architect and garden specialist, Che Bing Chiu – Ermitage sur la Loire. One of the courses at the Garden Design Academy involves considering garden design from a Feng Shui perspective, so we found this a fascinating garden to wander through.

Chaumont Garden Festival

Chaumont Garden Festival

On the day we visited the weather was quite perfect for the evocative installation entitled Permanent Clouds by Fujiko Nakaya while other artworks could easily have delayed us further from “doing” the festival; we had to be strong. My last visit to the site was in the company of the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman, over for a two week stay with us. He was hard to please (in the best possible way) and we spent many happy hours debating the design and execution of some of the gardens we saw.

May 2013 Chaumont Garden Festival

May 2013 Chaumont Garden Festival

For professionals the festival is like that. The designer / artist sets out his stall with an explanation of the garden he has attempted to create. It is up to the visitor to judge if what he has delivered lives up to the description; you are allowed to be critical but it is also important to be fair. Budgets are compulsorily low so that creativity rather than cash comes to the fore and these are gardens which will mature as the year progresses. Some gardens are incredibly competent, others have great individual features while, to be frank, others just don’t work as intended. But as a learning experience Chaumont is unequalled and is now in its twenty-second year of providing opportunities for designers from around the world to install thought-provoking and challenging gardens.

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Our enlarged white border is doing very well this year - White Lilac is in flower at the moment

Our enlarged white border is doing very well this year – White Lilac is in flower at the moment

Here in our garden in central France the spring is moving delightfully slowly, allowing fuller appreciation of each drift of flowering as the season progresses. Apricots are followed by peaches, plums to cherries, pears and finally to apples, as the orchards trees flower and set fruit. One moment Magnolias are the highlight, while now the Lilacs and Wisteria are just starting for fade and the Philadelphus (Mock Orange) is apart to bloom. Everywhere is flower, scent and the drone of excited insects. What a time and what a place to be alive!

Euphorbia in the island border at the Garden Design Academy

Euphorbia in the island border at the Garden Design Academy

Of course there are gaps in the garden and there are times when only a plant fair will do. One of Europe’s greatest is at Courson, south of Paris, and we are invited to the press / professional preview on Friday. We have a half-formed idea of some of the plants we cannot possibly be without but in any event will let the spirit take us around the show to pick out some of the brightest and newest plants on offer. We always spend too much, and often buy hopelessly inappropriate plants and never fail to come back exhausted but happy. I have seen a lot of plant fairs but nothing quite like this: I’ll let you know how I get on.

Spring? Surely…..?

Crocus in the Loire

Crocus, fresh up today.
These are cheering up an area of Iris germanica which are barely showing a sign of life.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day here in the Loire Valley, with temperatures up to 19°C at the (south facing) back of the house and 10°C in the shade at the front, after a frosty start.

Hundreds of Canada Geese are flying up the river to find an attractive feeding spot for the evening, huge, noisy V-formations passing overhead every half hour or so. Buds are swelling and the first few spring-flowering plants are making an appearance – we have Crocus flowers to admire today, adding their weight to the Witch Hazel, the Hellebores and other brave souls which have heralded this current spring awakening.

Snowdrops are still doing well, as here, under the Japanese Maple

Snowdrops are still doing well, as here, under the Japanese Maple

This morning I was chatting to the local Pear expert, out in the orchard attending to the pruning of his collection, the largest in Europe in spite of reducing the numbers last year; tomorrow I am taking a group of American tourists to see the vineyards, where the pruning is mostly finished but the tying-in has still to be done. We will be visiting (and tasting) a number of Loire Valley appellations in our day trip: Touraine Mesland, where we have an appointment with a bio-dynamic grower, my favourite Vouvray producer, the wine co-op at Montlouis-sur-Loire, the new appellation of Touraine-Chenonceau and the Touraine itself. It should be a very entertaining series of visits.

An interesting colour break on our Daphne odora. I will try to put some roots on it later and see if we can produce a new variety.

An interesting colour break on our Daphne odora. I will try to put some roots on it later and see if we can produce a new variety.

Here in the garden I am about to sow the new lawn having cultivated the soil again on Saturday (I have the blisters to prove it!). There is so much to do to prepare the garden for the new season and as always there is a hold up in the propagation of bedding and vegetables as seedlings take their time to grow to a size where I am happy to remove them from the propagator. I’m trying not to panic. We have added to the complications this year by advertising our apartment to the holiday-seeking world, and as guests expect access to the swimming pool all the corners where I usually throw the junk have to be urgently tidied. There is a door to put on the garden shed, a gate to erect to secure the pool and huge amounts of useful materials to move to new homes (tell me where!) so that in a few years they can be moved again, dumped or burned.

It’s seed sowing time again

After all the fun of selecting new and favourite varieties from the seed catalogues the real work is just starting in greenhouses, airing cupboards and on windowsills: its seed sowing time! Our own efforts began modestly around a month ago and the results, a few trays and pots of seedlings, are now out of the propagator and on the dining room windowsill. First out was Antirrhinum Axiom Mixed, a Thomson and Morgan variety which did particularly well in the bed by the swimming pool last year. The original plants are still out there and we are hoping that if they are trimmed back they will bloom again this year. If not, we have backups in the young plants I have grown from seed. We were so pleased with the Antirrhinums last year that we have also grown some white ones for next season. Our tray of Royal Bride will need potting on very soon and that’s when the problems begin: I just do not have enough growing space once the seedlings are pricked out.

I sowed Gazanias two days ago and they are already starting to germinate. I had forgotten they prefer to be germinated in the dark so it is worth reading the label! They were sown, like all the seeds, on the surface of good seed compost bought at the local garden centre. In this case the advice from T&M was to cover with the smallest amount possible of vermiculite and water in. The tray, containing bands of the four varieties I had bought, was then placed in an old plastic compost sack and this put in the heated propagator. The results have been very gratifying and they are now out of the sack and under supplementary lights which we put on whenever the sunshine is weak.

Bergenia in flower today in a neighbour's garden.

Bergenia in flower today in a neighbour’s garden.

Not that the sun is lacking today. It is a bright, clear but chilly day, encouraging Crocus, Hellebores and Bergenia into flower and birds into song.

Garden work is beginning to queue up as the days get longer, with recent rains slowing me down outside and office work keeping me busy inside. Today I realised that none of our seven web sites was working, thanks to an ‘upgrade’ of our server on 1and1. In that almost all our business comes to us from these sites, this has caused a bit of a panic. I had innocently assumed that all the clever bits would be dealt with by the technicians at 1and1 or that their software systems would handle everything automatically. Having a cynical side to my character, well hidden, I like to think, I took the precaution of backing up all the sites on my PC, just before pushing the button asking for the upgrade. These saved files, many thousands of them, are slowly uploading in an effort to rebuild our web sites; cross fingers!