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.

 

A great gardening weekend in France

Last Chance - a bearded Iris spotted at Bourdillon last year.

Last Chance – a bearded Iris spotted at Bourdillon last year.

As if our life was not exhilarating enough already, this weekend is one of the most important in the French gardening calendar.

I am still reeling from the joys of the Courson Plant Fair and a tour I organised for Australian guests to visit eleven notable Loire Valley gardens.

Oriental Poppy Lambada at Bourdillon.

Oriental Poppy Lambada at Bourdillon.

No matter – Bourdillon, a local Iris, Hemerocallis and Peony nursery with a well-deserved national reputation, is holding its open days from 31st May to 2nd June and in spite of all the rain, this should not be missed. I am off to my French language classes on Friday morning, government sponsored, in an attempt to improve my employability, so I may well drop in on my way home. On second thoughts, Chantal would like it and she holds the cheque book: we can go together in the afternoon. They sell Oriental Poppies too, and I have a marvellous gap awaiting a group or two of these lovely plants.

The gardens at chateau de Rivau - a first time visit this year

The gardens at chateau de Rivau – a first time visit this year

Rendez-vous aux Jardins, now in its 11th year, brings together nearly 2,300 public and private parks and gardens for an exciting open weekend. While many of the better known gardens have a range of events for the weekend, over 430 are opening to the public especially for the weekend, with 260 open for the first time this year.

We live in the Region Centre which includes the Loire Valley and other areas of great natural beauty, and are given a choice of 126 gardens to visit in just two days. Tough decisions will have to be made!

I was not aware they had a chateau in Poulain, a village a few miles away from us, more famous for its annual donkey fair than any horticultural prowess. For the first time this year the grounds of the Chateau de Poulain are open for viewing so I have emailed them advanced warning I am on my way. It seems we have B & B guests on Saturday so one garden will have to do, but I hope we can go out and find at least two more on Sunday, with a decent meal thrown in for good luck.

It’s a tough life, but it has to be done!

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.

The first garden show of the year and other excitements

As spring takes hold of central France the season is confirmed by a flurry of garden and plant shows, not to mention all the local spring fairs and Easter events coming up at the end of the week. Of course I have chosen now, just when life is getting busy, to go down with a flu-like bug of some sort, which has put me to bed for one whole day and ruined my sense of humour for more than a week.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

There is no time to be ill so I have done my best to ignore it and last Friday attended a seminar with three dozen other gardeners and chateau owners at La Source, the marvellous public garden in the university district of Orleans. The subject of the day was colour theory and how it relates to the design of herbaceous and bedding plant displays. A couple of good speakers, one from parks and education and the other a plant producer, simplified a subject which is not always straightforward to explain and left the delegates eager to get to work producing new schemes for their respective towns and gardens. At La Source itself the Cherries were just starting to flower and there were huge areas of dwarf daffodils to admire.

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A corner of the Cheverny plant fair

After another half day in bed to recover from my outing, we went to the chateau at Cheverny on Sunday for the first of the year’s plant fairs. The show is an annual charity event and well supported by both the public and the trade. As usual we bought a few plants, but not as many as I expected to. The tree surgeon we employed to care for our ancient Sequoias was on site demonstrating his skill with a chain saw, producing sculptures from huge pieces of wood, the waste from his previous weeks work maintaining trees in the park of the chateau.

Chain saw art

Chain saw art

Next weekend is Easter, with events all over the region. We have been invited to more vineyard open days than we can possibly take in and the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisiere. Then there is the unmissable annual Poulain Donkey Fair and a host of other events all conspiring to keep me from working in the garden, where there is so much to do!

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!

Rivers of Snowdrops

The Cher in flood 1

The Cher in flood 1

Its been wet, very wet, and the River Cher is as high as it can safely be.

The Cher in flood 2

The Cher in flood 2

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…….

Drowning Snowdrops

Drowning Snowdrops

Snowdrops at Chabris Mill

Snowdrops at Chabris Mill