First signs of spring 2014

It is wise to be cautious in gardening, but here in the Loire Valley it is even harder to ignore the clear signs of approaching Spring.

jan 2014

Wild Hellebores thrive under the Sequoia

Even the most pessimistic and wary of the locals were convinced when hundreds of cranes flew over the town this weekend. Like many a British pensioner, they have been overwintering in south-west Spain and are now migrating to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. We often have them spend the night nearby: the river Cher and the lakes of the Sologne are ideal for a good nights rest and a snack before moving on.

The mild weather has encouraged an early flowering of many plants in gardens around the village. We have a couple of Camellias I full flower and there are many others to be seen on our regular walks. This morning we found a huge Magnolia soulangeana covered with deep purple flowers and our own M. stellata is beginning to open. The White Border should be a real picture very soon with Magnolia stellata, Viburnum burkwoodii and Clematis armandii all about to flower. There are increasing numbers of Daffodils and Crocus out while a large number of early Prunus are colouring the gardens white and pink. If the birds and the flowers think its spring, who are we to doubt it?

Chaumont_FESTIVAL_2014We have just heard that Chaumont Garden Festival, surely the one “must see” European event for garden designers and enthusiasts, is opening between 25th April and 2nd November this year, a slight extension at the end of the season which should prove popular. Between students, garden tour clients and general visitors, we visit this show up to a dozen times each year and never tire of it. This year’s theme is “Gardens of Deadly Sins”. I can’t wait!

Frustratingly, this morning’s post brought our copy of the Yellow Book of UK gardens open to the public. Frustrating, because we visit the UK only very rarely these days and have little chance of enjoying any of the 8,800 gardens detailed in the handbook. It has been suggested from several corners that I organise a series of English garden tours, so I guess you never know. I commend the Yellow Book to you along with visits to as many gardens as possible; it’s all for charity and a fantastic learning experience for any gardener.

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Salon Vegetal trade show 2014

On the other hand we had a great day out at the Salon Vegetal trade show last week and our membership of the Association of Parks and Gardens allows us access to all sorts of private and public gardens in the centre of France. Only last week we were invited to a chateau only recently open for garden visits and conveniently close to our home. The chateau de Poulaine is sure to attract plant enthusiasts and we will be keeping a close eye on developments.

High on my list of gardening events this year is the Floralies at Nantes, an international garden show hosted by France every five years. One of Europe’s largest floral events, it is to be held over ten days from May 8th. I hope to visit with Academy students who are coming to us from Oman for a two week course on cactus growing. Apart from the garden show, I gather the botanic garden in Nantes houses one of the largest collections of cacti in France.

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New potager behind the Academy classroom

Most of my gardening time has been spent catching up with the weeding and pruning to prepare for the rapidly approaching new season. I have also just completed our little potager behind the cabin and will soon be turning my attention to two additional projects: finally building our Moon-gate, the materials for which have been sitting around on a pallet for far too long, and to sort out the compost section, a disgraceful area at present. It all takes time, but I am getting there.

One last event which put a smile on my face; my propagation bench was bought through Thomson and Morgan. The polythene cover features an array of zips and openings making it a very practical piece of equipment, but a year of sunshine, supplementary lighting, dust and general use had left it in a rather sorry state. I noticed that although it was bought in the UK the packaging was German so I decided to contact the original supplier, Bio Green to ask if I could purchase a new cover. Not at all, I was told, we will supply one free of charge on warrantee. Service beyond the call of duty, I thought; Bio Green are on my favourite suppliers list from now on. The propagator is full of emerging seedlings….I do love this time of the year!

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Autumn in the Loire Valley

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Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

The circus has come to town: a sure sign that autumn has arrived. In the square behind our home a riotous collection of goats, lama, camels, long-horn cattle, geese and other creatures are incongruously dotted around the lawns of the Place de Foire, calmly awaiting the first show tonight, like the professionals there are. We can hear the music and the announcements of the promotional vans.

After a short, hot summer, autumn has been variously warm and wet or cool and wet, conditions which are driving vineyard owners to the point of despair. The grape harvest started in mid-October and depending on the variety, will continue in the rain for the next few weeks. This is going to be a challenging year to produce fine wine in the Loire Valley and I feel for the growers.

I have three weeks’ worth of residential garden design and CAD courses starting on Saturday and am desperate to get out and tidy up the garden before students start to drift in from around the globe. Our first Israeli garden designer arrives for a week of CAD training on Saturday, while a parks manager from the Sultanate of Oman will be with us at the end of the month for two weeks of study. We work a lot with garden professionals from Oman and I find their horticultural skills to be of a very high standard: I must get the weeding done!

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Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

Despite, and in some cases because of the rain, there is still plenty going on in the garden. Yellow flowered Buddleja x weyeriana has been in bloom for months and shows no sign of wanting to stop. Salvia species like S. coccinea, S. patens, S. leucantha, S. elegans, S. microphylla, S. uliginosa and S. involucrata are all looking superb and I am taking cuttings of many of them at the moment for insurance purposes – some may be killed by a cold winter. Grasses are also looking good; we have several Miscanthus sinensis varieties, the majority in flower at the moment, while there are signs of autumn leaf colour on shrubs such as Rhus and Hamamelis. Anemones are showing well, especially Honorine Jobert in the white border and in the oriental garden the Colchicum Waterlily are in full flower. I know, Colchicum autumnale is a European native – I do things like this to see if you are concentrating.

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Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

Under the trees in the parks of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, both great and small, blankets of pink and white Cyclamen are in bloom but in the borders the gardeners are removing summer bedding ready to replace them with winter / spring flowering varieties. A great garden like Chenonceau must always look good, so the change-over brings out dozens of gardeners to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Sunday will be the last opportunity to see the gardens of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire; it closes its doors to the public on 20th October and reopens with two dozen new gardens in the spring. I shall be going with a group of garden designers to see how it has progressed since my last visit earlier in the summer. In the mean time we look forward to the 2014 edition, which will try to conjure up both the faults and the excesses of our time and the free, spiritual universe of eternal gardens, with the show theme: “Garden of the Deadly Sins”; expect to be challenged!

Sadly, because I am teaching, I will not be attending the plant fair at Courson, south of Paris this autumn, saving a great deal of money by missing a favourite plant-buying expedition. There will be other opportunities I have no doubt.

The joys of late summer

Hesperantha coccinea 'Major' or Kaffir Lily

Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ or Kaffir Lily

The clear, sunny mornings now have a distinct chill to them and while mid-day temperatures are well into the high 20’s, you cannot help but be aware, with a tinge of sadness perhaps, that summer is slowly drifting to an end and autumn is on its way. On the other hand the changing temperatures, dewy mornings and the shortening days are signals to a range of plants that it is time to get into flower. A selection of South African bulbs are doing well at the moment: white Nerines we grow in a pot in the white border, Crocosmia varieties in odd corners all around the garden, a big patch of Schizostylus, now Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ which has been slow to establish but is now producing flowers in good quantities. They seem to have enjoyed the extra moisture provided by this year’s spring weather, as so many Cape bulbs do. In my day, these were called Kaffir Lilies, but I expect this is politically incorrect now!

Gladiolus papilio

Gladiolus papilio

One of the joys of this morning’s tour of the garden was the discovery of another South African native: Gladiolus papilio flowering amongst a recently planted Euphorbia. I had forgotten it was there but love the effect of the subtle, drooping spikes of flowers in muted shades above the bright, stripped foliage of E. Ascot Rainbow. The slender buds and backs of petals are bruise-shades of green, cream and slate-purple. Inside, creamy hearts shelter blue anthers while the lower lip petal is feathered and marked with an ‘eye’ in purple and greenish-yellow, like the wing of a butterfly.

Garden Design Academy garden in August

Garden Design Academy garden in August

There is so much to enjoy in the garden at the moment and, dare I say it, I have more or less caught up with the weeding, so I have a little more time to appreciate it before the next group of garden design students come for a tour of Loire Valley gardens with me.

White garden blues

white Antirrhinum

white Antirrhinum

I created a white border along the west boundary of our rear garden, gradually hiding a concrete fence that I find particular offensive. Now this has become slightly wider and of a more definite shape as a result of installing a new, circular lawn this spring. It is an increasingly important part of the garden, leading the eye on towards the oriental garden, which now contains more than a few white plants of its own. Which is why I am so frustrated that despite all my best efforts, plants with flower colours far removed from white continue to show up. Mostly this is because of mislabelling; deliberate or accidental, I know not.

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Philadelphus (Mock Orange) which flowered last month and now needs pruning

White Campanula emerges as conventional blue. The white Peony turned out to be pink, perfectly matching the pink Hibiscus which was also supposed to be white. Recently we have seen white Antirrhinums with a yellow plant amongst them and a lilac coloured Phlox which will need to be moved to another part of the garden this autumn.

A neighbour’s bright yellow Kerria has decided to pop up in our border this spring, a shocking contrast to the other spring flowering shrubs. It’s taken me three seasons to sort out the colours of the Lilies I planted in a weak moment and as I battle year after year to create this single-colour border I am beginning to wonder if it is all worth the effort. After all, that lilac pink Poppy looks nice enough and what’s wrong with Nigella plants which pop up just as easily and unexpectedly, even if the flowers are blue?

White Lilac from May 2013

White Lilac from May 2013

Every so often however, a handful of plants come out together in a range of white and cream shades, gorgeous in the evening light – delicate, sparkling blooms, so often deliciously scented, and my faith returns.

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.

Discovering new Loire Valley gardens

Prieuré D’Orsan

Prieuré D’Orsan, which kindly opened its doors for us.

Readers of the Garden Design Academy blog will have read that in a previous life I worked as a Royal Gardener at Windsor Palace.

For the last two weeks however, I have been teaching and touring with an active Royal Gardener: the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman.

Staying at the Academy for a residential course on garden design and CAD, he spent time with us both in the classroom and outside in the French countryside, studying the widest possible assortment of garden styles in the Loire Valley.

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Magnolias were flowering in every garden we visited – Magnolia ashei ‘Betty’

The list of gardens we viewed this trip covered five out of the six departments (counties) of the Central region of France: Apremont and the Priory of Orsan in the Cher, Bouges in our home department of the Indre. To our north in the Indre-et-Loire we visited Chenonceau, Chatonnière and Villandry then Chaumont-sur-Loire, Cheverny and Plessis Sasnières in the Loire-et-Cher. Finally we travelled up to the Loiret to the gardens of Grandes Bruyères and La Source at Orléans.

Several gardens that opened their doors to us were closed to the public and despite a very late session we were exposed to wonderful displays of Magnolias, Cherries and other flowering plants. The variety of plants grown and the extraordinary skill of the garden creators were inspiring and we did not miss the opportunity to talk with garden owners and their staff whenever possible. We discussed and debated the designs we saw, considered imperfections and design solutions, looking at depth at the thinking behind the landscapes we walked through.

Apremont

The Chinese bridge at Apremont

Of the eleven gardens we visited this trip, three were new to me and all proudly declaring their English inspiration recommended to us by the association of parks and gardens for the region.

The chocolate-box village of Apremont is officially one of the prettiest in France and reminds me of some I have seen in the English Cotswolds. The gardens in the grounds of the chateau of the Duchess of Brissac, was the work of Gilles de Brissac in the 1970’s and is very much in the English style. A series of follies animate the scene – a Chinese bridge, a belvedere, a Turkish pavilion – in a garden inspired by Sheffield Park, Biddulph Grange, Sissinghurst and the English cottage garden. Attractive planting complements impressive landscape features resulting in a very pleasing scene. We were fortunate with the weather, which was bright and warm.

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères host an important collection of Magnolias which were just starting to flower amongst the last blooms of the winter flowering heathers. It was, regrettably, a little early for their other notable collection – flowering Cornus. We were guided around the woodland garden by the owner, Brigitte de La Rochefoucauld who, like her husband Bernard, speaks English beautifully. Theirs is a garden full of rarities and a wonderfully relaxing place to wander on a sunny day. Yet again, English landscapes come to mind easily here, perhaps Surrey this time, although a more French feature of clipped Box and Rose-laden pergolas is sited near the entrance and the house. The garden which today looks so peaceful and natural was carved out of the forest by the owners, who were assisted on occasions (as at Apremont) by some notable personalities of the golden age of landscaping: Russel Page and Tobie Loup de Viane.

Plessis Sasnières

Plessis Sasnières

The final recommendation was for Plessis Sasnières, which was hosting a visit by a coach load of garden designers from Russia when we arrived. The late season did not contribute to the visit but it was still a pleasure to stroll around the garden in the company of the family Labrador, who insisted I should throw a stick for him to chase all morning. I have seen pictures of the rich English herbaceous borders but we had to content ourselves with the Magnolias and the uncluttered design of this attractive landscape. Rooted in the French countryside it is nevertheless very English in tone and has been open to the public since 1996.

Malus Royalty

Malus Royalty in the ornamental kitchen garden at Chenonceau

This was the last of the gardens in our program and at the end of the visit we drove back to Vierzon for the train to Paris and for my guest his flight back to Oman. After two weeks of study and touring we were sorry to see him go but pleased to have some time to recover before the next students arrive.

Easter weekend: the first Cuckoo and the second plant fair.

Flowering Quince in a spring garden

Flowering Quince in a spring garden

Easter was not warm; in fact it has been the coldest March in the north of France since records began. Sheltered from all directions here in the centre of France, even we have had cool nights with temperatures down to zero or less, and rising above 10°C only with difficulty. Despite gorgeous-looking sunny days, it seems more like winter than spring, although we hear our first Cuckoo of the year when we were walking the dog in the woods this morning.

Our new lawn is finally seeded however and, now that we have been to our second plant fair of the year, there is plenty of planting to be done. Today I concentrated on a sunny piece of border between the new lawn and the gravel terrace, at the edge of the White Garden. A Thyme collected in Spain now graces the junction between gravel and grass, swiftly followed by Cistus ladanifer bought at the Chateau de la Bourdaisiere plant fair from a couple of young nurserymen based in Cahors. We like their knowledge, enthusiasm and plant range. The Gum Cistus carries white flowers with crimson marks at the base of the petals and should look quite at home next to existing Santolina. We bought some bare-root Phlox yesterday including a white variety, the next plant in this new grouping and three Allium White Empress bulbs are now planted amongst the Santolina to give a little extra height. Finally for today, I lifted two, out of our three, white Hemerocallis (Daylilies), spreading them out to occupy part of the new space created by redefining the lawn. A very happy hour and a half was spent doing this and weeding the areas immediately around the new plants, but there is still plant of work to do in the White Garden.

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ attracting early Bumble Bees

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ attracting early Bumble Bees

Beyond this section we have created an oriental garden which has also benefited from the new lines of the lawn, with plenty of additional planting opportunities created. A Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’, smothered with white flowers, has already been planted and this is glowing in the spring sunshine. I have planted it to one side and in front of a large granite Japanese lantern. To the other side and further back, I have placed, but not yet planted, a Pieris with red flowers, labelled as Mountain Fire, a variety which features white flowers! I believe it is actually Valley Valentine. I am continually having arguments with French nurserymen about their labelling: no labels, poor labeling or incorrect labels are all too common here. Anyway, the plant looks good, with bamboo to one side, Japanese orchids and dwarf Rhododendron yakushimanum in front. It is also very close to a young plant of Magnolia Black Tulip which, with luck, will flower around the same time.

Pieris Valley Valentine, if I'm not mistaken

Pieris Valley Valentine, if I’m not mistaken

I have been hunting for two of the plants we bought yesterday for some time, although neither is particularly rare in English garden centres. Clematis macropetala is just coming into flower now: four lance-shaped petals an inch or two long and many smaller, blue or cream petal-like stamens in the centre, creating delightful semi-double bells. We haven’t decided where to plant it but we are so pleased to have it. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis is a dwarf evergreen shrub with superbly scented winter flowers. I’ll plant it in the bed next to the front door, to amaze our visitors. This has been on my wants list for ages so I am delighted to have found such a large, healthy specimen.

Much as I’d like to spend all day in the garden, I also have to prepare the classroom for the first of the years students, who arrives next week. We have been asked to put together a tailor-made, two week course for the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman, who would like to hone his skills in garden design and computer-aided design (CAD). I always look forward to welcoming fellow professionals on our courses, adapting the content around their existing skills and the training required. There is always a great deal of preparation to be done and in this case a number of Loire Valley garden visits will punctuate the course, giving additional insights into European gardens in all their many styles.