Its been wet, very wet, and the River Cher is as high as it can safely be.
We walked the dog out to the old mill to see what the flooding looked like and to admire the Snowdrops.
This is what we found…….
Its been wet, very wet, and the River Cher is as high as it can safely be.
We walked the dog out to the old mill to see what the flooding looked like and to admire the Snowdrops.
This is what we found…….
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have just returned from walking the dog in the fields close to our home. The sky is clear and a crisp frost decorates the countryside, which sparkles in the bright winter sunlight. The village fishing pond shimmers enticingly, with wisps of mist gently drifting across the surface of the water. It is disturbed only by the occasional moorhen or other water-bird, flapping away once our presence is noticed. Town gardeners are out doing the pruning to keep warm.
We have not seen a frost since our return from Spain 10 days ago. The Castile y León region in the north of Spain, centred on the city of Burgos, gave us thick fog and hard frosts in turns, with snow visible on the higher hills and mountains. This was to be repeated several times on the two day drive south and on our return a few days later. We have been to Andalusia in southern Spain several times, both for business and pleasure, but this was the first time we had driven via the north (rather than along the Mediterranean coast). The trip took in some wonderful scenery – huge, scarcely populated open spaces and brutal mountain ranges – in addition to the shock of the motorway system around Madrid and the austere cultivated plains to the south. From the fishing ports on the Atlantic we drove through cattle country, rolling grain prairies, vast fields of melons and vegetables grown under vast circular irrigation systems, and the vineyards of Rioja and Valdepeñas. Later there were olive groves as far as the eye could see, the deserts of Andalusia and finally, close to the coast, Europe’s salad capital in Almeria Province, with mile upon mile of colossal plastic structures providing perfect growing conditions for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other crops. Outside, citrus trees and date palms thrive. On this journey we experienced below freezing temperatures, snow, frost, fog and gorgeous, warm sunny days, depending on the terrain and the region.
The point of our stay in Almeria Province was two-fold; we dropped in on my parents for New Year and visited a client with a garden to build. One of the main reasons we moved to central France was to make international garden design appointments easier. We can get to anywhere from here, with the UK, France and many other European mainland countries reached in a day, while even the furthest points of Spain, Portugal or Italy are only a couple of days away by car. Not having to cross the Channel each time we travel beyond the shores of England has been a real bonus.
People often ask how it is possible to design gardens in other countries. I have rarely found it to be a problem – the principles of garden design are universal, only the technical details change and local growers and other experts can always be found to assist if needs be. In Almeria they garden with what for the British are houseplants, but we have assisted with several gardens in the region. The important thing is to respect the surroundings and the traditions of the country when considering a new garden and this is why a three or four day visit is essential at some stage in the process.
Back in France, I am rather pleased to see some cold weather. Camellia flowers are beginning to open and daffodils poke out of the ground. This cool spell should hold everything back a little and avoid the catastrophic destruction of buds and flowers we experienced last year. Is it me or is their optimism in the air? Bookings for courses and guided garden and vineyard tours are going very well; we have students and customers coming from Australia, USA, Britain and a large group for three weeks from Greece. I am trying to fit garden and trade show visits into the schedule for the year: Salon Vegetal at Angers, Courson, St Jean de Beauregard and of course the gardens festival at Chaumont sur Loire. I’ll include as many as I can but already I accept there will not be time for IPM-Esson, or the British garden shows at Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court this year, unless a visit to a client happens to coincide with one of them.
I am spending a lot of time sorting out the web sites of the Academy, the Garden Design Company, Loire Valley Gardens and the rest, each of which need updates and improvements, our English garden design site undergoing a complete overhaul. There seem to be new opportunities everywhere and new demands from every direction – more indications of an exciting year to come. I am spending more time getting to know French gardening and horticulture, meeting some of the major characters of the industry during seminars, shows and other events. It’s proving fun to exchange experience with other enthusiasts and experts in a new language. At the same time we have many new and existing students undertaking distance learning courses, all of whom must be given attention and support.
There is much to do in the garden before the season gets underway: a new lawn to sow, the areas around the swimming pool, behind the classroom and around the house to landscape and tidy up. Soon there will be seeds to sow – the first package has already arrived from Thomson and Morgan – and I’ll be too busy to undertake anything major.
So much to do, so little time to do it all! It’s what keeps me motivated and my gardening life eventful and joyous.
At this time of year, as I have noted before, any flower in the garden is to be celebrated. In our own, there are a few flowers hanging on valiantly after the summer, but not much evidence of what one might call winter flowers. A new garden like ours is like that; we have planted a great deal but there are seasonal ‘holes’ in the flowering schedule and the best way to plug that is to see what is flowering elsewhere. This is not as obvious as it sounds. Other gardens will not have precisely the same microclimate and plants in garden centres and nurseries, where they may have been forced and protected, often flower at very different times to those exposed to the vagaries of the weather. In the absence of flowers, evergreens are useful, particularly those with variegated or colourful leaves.
Feeling the need to see a few plants, the gardeners’ equivalent of comfort food, I dropped in on our local garden centre. Working my way through the Christmas tree display and the troughs of bare-rooted fruit trees, I was immediately attracted to a fine batch of Elaeagnus x ebbingei Limelight. Great for hedging, these tough evergreen shrubs are invaluable in the winter when the yellow variegated leaves shine out in otherwise dull gardens. In autumn and winter they carry flowers which, while not showy, have exquisitely sweet scent. Like all
Elaeagnus species, they have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria which form nodules on the roots producing fertiliser both for the plant and others nearby. At home we have Elaeagnus pungens Maculata, a related species which offers a similar bright leaf display, so no need to buy one of these.
The yellow flowers of Mahonia x. media make it one of the best winter-flowering plants to have in the garden. Chance offspring of Mahonia lomariifolia and Mahonia japonica at the Slieve Donard Nursery in Northern Ireland, seedlings were raised by John Russell at his Richmond Nursery in Surrey. They were planted out in the Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park (where I once woorked), where they first flowered in 1957. Head of the Royal Gardens at Windsor at the time was Mr Hope Finlay and seedlings Faith, Hope and Charity were named by him. ‘Charity’ went on to be recognised as the superb winter flowering shrub we all know it to be, with an RHS Award of Merit in 1959 and, in 1962, a First Class Certificate.
Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ has canary-yellow flowers from October to March, with a delicate fragrance – a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees out late or early in the year. The flowers are produced at the ends of new shoots with abundant racemes displayed at an angle. This is a plant with architectural quality and reaches about 2m in height. Each leaf has roughly 9 pairs of shiny, evergreen, opposite leaflets, angled slightly from the stem. I will decide where to plant todays purchase over the next few days but I’m delighted to have it sitting around near the house for the moment.
Pieris are valuable for winter and spring interest, some with colourful foliage, some with lovely flowers and some with both. Pieris japonica Little Heath is a delightful dwarf evergreen shrub with leaves edged in silver. Young foliage is shrimp pink and winter flower buds are soft mauve pink, opening to white bells in the early spring. They are long lasting in a vase as well. I can’t help but think we should have lots of Pieris varieties in the garden so I bought a nice specimen of Little Heath to get us started. I may plant it in the shade of the house at the front, where the little raised bed would suit it, it could go in a pot by the front door or perhaps in the Oriental Garden under the Sequoia. We shall see.
It’s been a funny week one way and another: exciting and satisfying, disappointing and frustrating in turns. 1st December saw our first frost worthy of the name (I know I talked about one in October but that was hardly cold enough to count) and yesterday we woke to a very hard one by our standards, with temperatures down to -6°C overnight. Yesterday we had clear skies and a crisp but gorgeously sunny day, while today we are being treated to cold drizzle and around 1/3rd France is covered in snow. Ooh, the sun’s just come out!
The week started well. I was asked by the town Tourist Office, entirely run by volunteers, if I would help them set up a web site. I registered a name (Chabris-tourisme.fr) and created a five page site to get them started and they loved it. The hard part came when I had to get the Tourist Office committee to do things like sign a bank mandate for the URL registration and site hosting. They promise it will be done but the hosting company is now starting to get agitated. The company is French, so I imagine they will understand that when someone says “tomorrow”, they mean it should be done by Christmas; certainly in January or February…..almost certainly!
Ah well, that work is now on the back burner so I was able to get on with some web site additions of my own, adding an exciting new course to the Garden Design Academy program and featuring it as Course of the Month. Green Walls and Green Roof Gardening have been the subject of much interest lately and even the UK government is promoting their use in the cities as a response to the challenge to global warming. This course is timely therefore and we have high hopes for it both in the UK, where universities and companies have been researching the techniques for some time and in Europe, where a number of high profile examples have been constructed.
Next week I hope to post details of another new course, much requested by the Industry: Horticultural therapy. I would have done it this week, but we had no power in the house Wednesday and it took all day to get it fixed. We woke up to a cold house and soon realised that we had a power cut of some sort. Electrical systems are different in France to what we are used to in the UK, but I did the rounds of the three circuit-breaker fuse boxes in various corners of the house before braving the cold to look outside where a box in the garden houses the incoming current and associated equipment. I could find no problem anywhere, apart from the lack of power. We rang EDF, our supplier, to explain our problem. The lady at the help desk who we spoke to after ten minutes, had us do the tour of the boxes again and concluded it was not her problem and that we should get an electrician in. We did so and he checked everything and confirmed it was an EDF problem as no power was getting to the house. Who’d have thought?
We rang again and again, with the batteries of our mobile phones rapidly failing, but could not arrive at a point where someone was prepared to deal with the problem. Hearing a noise in the street, I noticed that EDF engineers where working outside the football stadium around the corner. I begged, pleaded and exaggerated in bad French until one of the team agreed to help. He spent the next few hours in the freezing rain, me holding an umbrella, trying to work out what needed to be done but eventually he concluded that a slug or snail had crawled in overnight and passed across two live contacts, frying the electrical system and ruining its chances of a merry 2013. By the end of the day we had power and more importantly heat, and life slowly returned to some semblance of normality.
Yesterday seemed hardly more productive but at the same time fantastically so. I have had eye problems since the age of fourteen, nothing that could not be corrected by spectacles, you understand, but five years ago I had a series of operations which, amongst other things removed cataracts in both eyes. Apparently that was not the end of it and I needed laser treatment as part of a standard further stage in the long running saga. This work was completed at a clinic in Tours yesterday and now I can see again – the difference in my eyesight is quite incredible! It took all day, of course, and I was ready for an early night by nine o’clock, but it’s done now and I can start reading again without a magnifying glass and a glass of fortifying spirits. What a relief!
Earlier in the week I had another challenging day. Someone pointed out that the contact form on our ‘all singing, all dancing’ Garden Design Co. web site was not working and we concluded that it had not done so for a long while, perhaps explaining why Elton John has not asked me to redesign his garden. Looking at the site for the first time in ages, we have decided it is in need of a complete overhaul so I spent several hours trawling the internet for inspiration. Finding something we thought suitable, I then set about designing a new site based on this design, only to find that the programming required to achieve the clever effects which so attracted us was completely beyond my capabilities. I started again with our second choice but ran up against the same set of problems: Flash coding is not something I understand. Finally I settled on a third design and found I could do everything required to achieve it after a bit of a struggle. I sent a copy to my son, a professional web site designer, who informed me at great length why he hated it. Fortunately we live in a wine producing area and have several hundred bottles in the cellar! He’ll love it when it’s finished.
In the garden, we are pleased to have Helleborus niger in flower by the front step, the traditional place to have it ward off evil spirits. Another was given to us as a present last week, a variety in the Helleborus Gold Collection called HGC Jacob and no doubt available from a garden centre near you. I shall be interested to note the differences between these two as the season progresses but at the moment my little plant has larger flowers (actually only one) while the new one has a large number of smaller flowers. The new plant has been micropropagated and cultivated under protection so it will take a while for it to settle down and show how it really grows under garden conditions. One of the plants may end up being planted under our Sequoia tree.
I have only rarely grown Pear trees and never with much success, so I was amazed to discover when we started to explore our adopted village in central France, that Europe’s largest private pear collection was held in a plot near the vineyard. The grower in question has amassed nearly 650 different varieties, some of them on the edge of extinction and trained them in 20 different forms. His apple trees number over 300 and he has many other fruit trees besides.
A botanical artist of some considerable talent (the illustartions here are not his), whose art is much sought after, his collection started as 60 potted plants which he was meticulously painting, recording them throughout the seasons. The cultivars grew, as these things do, and he eventually set up his orchard on its present site. The work involved in their care is huge and he has taken the decision to reduce the collection to more manageable proportions. I am one of a few who have benefited from this decision, having acquired the following for my own garden:
Many of these are local or ancient varieties and all are beautifully trained espaliers in “U”, “Double U” “Palmette Verrier” and single cordon forms. We are very excited to have acquired these specimens and proud to be offered the opportunity to cultivate and preserve them. We will be carefully nurturing them through their first couple of seasons after the shock of their transplantation and continue to prune them to maintain their current elegant forms. My next job is to set up a system of support wires and rods, to ensure they are securely held into the shapes they have been trained to.
Other gardening tasks have kept me very busy this autumn. I was keen to lift the Cannas before the frost and have them now stored in the log cabin for the winter. The five varieties we bought this year have performed well, some putting on huge amounts of growth to form large clumps, while others have flowered but remained relatively small. They have all been lifted, cut back, divided where necessary and potted in leaf-mound. They will be kept ticking over in the heated cabin until it is safe to bring them out again next year. Not having a greenhouse these days, the cabin is being increasingly used for overwintering plants, although we keep hardier specimens, young shrubs and the like, in the north –facing conservatory.
We have a number of Dahlias and sometimes we lift them but other years we don’t. A small white one certainly needs moving from the front to the rear, where it can join other new plants in the White Border. A huge orange variety suffered last year, from damp as much as cold and I think this will be lifted for the winter.
Autumn is a great time for planting, but also for moving plants that have not performed well in certain spots or which are being swamped by more vigorous neighbours. I have replanted half of the Gaillardias, which were sown this year and have flowered well, so that other parts of the garden are brightened up next year. Other seed raised perennials like Gauria lindheimeri and Penstemon are also on the move. F1 hybrid Wallflowers are looking very good in the patch of garden where I planted them out in the spring. I am gradually lifting these and spreading them around the garden to provide a spring display – although there is some flower evident even now.
A Hibiscus, on the other hand, has not grown at all well and has been lifted from under a Miscanthus and given a better position in full sun. No doubt other shrubs will also be repositioned in the next few weeks.
The autumn is giving us a visual treat in the form of leaf colour, with our Cherry trees looking particularly good. Liquidamber is a feature of gardens and parks in the area and these too, depanding on variety, are looking amazing at the moment.
After a very mild period the warm air has rushed back down to North Africa or wherever it came from, leaving a vacuum to be filled by cold winds from the far north of Europe and Russia. The Mediterranean regions have been experiencing violent storms and rain in unreasonable quantities (“a month’s rain in an hour” and similar phrases are frequently heard on weather reports) confirming the wisdom of our choice of region to settle in. Not for us the extremes of other parts of France. In the meantime the east coast of the United States is being battered by hurricane Sandy.
The first frost last night touched some of the more tender plants and I have been out collecting pots from the garden and putting them under cover, either in the unheated conservatory at the front of the house or in the cabin in the back garden. Here, I have constructed a bench from an old cupboard door laid over a couple of desks, in front of a large, south facing window. Electric heaters should keep plants cosy at around 12°C over winter: ideal from Geraniums, Fuchsias, Salvias, Brugmansia, Abutilon and the like, of which we have plenty.
Our so-called hardy banana has been wrapped up in straw and fleece in an attempt to keep it alive out-of-doors. Time will tell if this was the wisest approach. It is also time to lift the Dahlias and Cannas to get them stored in boxes of leaf mould away from the cold for the season. Dahlias will often overwinter in the ground here – we generally leave Gladioli in the beds too – but I have also lost a few. Perhaps this technique of lifting and overwintering will ensure greater survival rates.
Thompson and Morgan have suggested in a recent newsletter that gardeners should be sowing seeds of perennials now, leaving them to germinate in a cold-frame. I shall have a look to see what packets of seed I might have and give this a go. I have collected Lilium regale seed as I did last year and have it in mind to sow a few ornamental grasses like Purple Millet, but I may have to fight off the birds feeding on the seed-heads! Our old conservatory should serve very well as a cold-frame.
It’s turning into a very good year for Pyracantha this year, with huge crops of berries in a range of bright colours on plants throughout the town. We have just one named hybrid in the garden, which I am patiently training along an ugly concrete boundary fence, but several which have arrived as seedlings thanks to the gardening efforts of wild birds. The photograph is of one of a pair in an abandoned garden in the square close to our house. The other was eaten by a camel when the circus came to town, but is recovering well!. Red, orange and yellow berried forms can all be seen in local gardens and it is often used as a thorny boundary hedge. Mixed berry colour hedges can look particularly attractive but some care has to be exercised when pruning to ensure they produce flowers and berries.