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.

Loire Valley Gardens – the May 2013 tour

Bouges le Chateau - flower and vegetable garden

Bouges le Chateau – flower and vegetable garden

The weather was not as kind as it might have been for this month’s tour; in fact, it has been the wettest and coldest May in France since the 1920’s.

My Australian guests were made of tough stuff however and we enjoyed a week of visits to eleven fine gardens across the Loire Valley region.

Each month our tours are slightly different, reflecting seasonal variations and the interests of our guests. For May 2013 our program featured a wide selection, including a couple new to me.

Wisteria at Cheverny

Wisteria at Cheverny

Sunday: Bouges le Chateau and Chateau de Chenonceau

Monday : Chateau de Cheverny, Blois and Les jardins de Roquelin

Tuesday : Prieure d’Orsan and Drulon

Wednesday : free day

Thursday : Chateau du Rivau and Chateau de Villandry

Friday : Chaumont Festival of Gardening

maytour2003 018There is always a plant of the month and this year the honour must go to Iris germanica, which were flowering well in more varieties than we could count, in every garden we visited. Peonies were also in flower, especially Tree Peonies, although many blooms were ruined by the rains. Another plant holding up well was Viburnum plicatum Mariesii, draped in stunning white lacecap flowers.

Chateau de Rivau

Chateau de Rivau

Each morning we set out from Chabris to explore for the day, stopping off at a village restaurant for a great lunch. The Chaumont lunch will be hard to forget however, sheltering from the cold rain under a parasol and a lime tree, eating from the festival pasta bar. It was good pasta, but we were so cold! On the other hand the meal at Rivau was excellent – a variety of wonderfully presented and tasty home grown salads. I also opted for a Chinon wine tasting while chatting to the owner of the chateau about the garden.

Courson plant purchases and the latest Loire Valley gardens tour

Courson 2003

One of the plant stands at Courson 2013

Last Friday we travelled up to the leafy outskirts of Paris for our yearly pilgrimage to the Journées des Plantes de Courson, the bi-annual plant fair now in its 58th year. Many of the nearly 300 nursery stands took part in the American plant theme, so the range of plants on offer was slightly different to previous years. I was pleased to see that a plant currently looking lovely in our garden but native to Eastern North America, was given a Merit Award. Amsonia tabernaemontana is a blue flowered and long-lived perennial, forming an arching clump of green, willow-like leaves. Ideal for prairie-style planting I would think, we have it in a border close to Golden Hops and Tree Peonies.

A fine selection of Hostas

A fine selection of Hostas

As usual the variety of plants available to buy was almost overwhelming, but this year we limited ourselves to just a few bits and pieces to add to a garden which is filling up rapidly. Heucherella Solar Eclipse boasts beautifully scalloped, maroon-burgundy leaves with a lovely lime-green border. It’s a new variety of Heucherella – a cross between a Heuchera and a Tiarella. It forms a small mound of evergreen foliage with upright white flowers that bloom in spring and is ideal in shade. We thought we might try a new Hosta in a similar position and chose Big Daddy, with huge chalky-blue leaves that at maturity become cupped and grow into three feet tall clumps.

As always, David Austin was at the show to represent  UK growers.

As always, David Austin was at the show to represent UK growers.

For the sun I bought Salvia leucantha to replace one I left behind in our last garden in England. S. leucantha is an evergreen subshrub growing to around 1.2m in height, with narrowly lance-shaped leaves, white beneath, reminding me of a little Buddleja. The small white flowers have prominent arching velvety purple calyces from late summer to the first frosts. As with other Salvias, it is worth taking some cuttings to ensure it over-winters.

While Chantal was drawn to scented Pelargoniums from the National Collection holder, based not a million miles from our home, I had found a most marvellous climber, Actinidia pilosula, which I thought would be ideal hiding a downpipe on the sunny side of the house. It is somewhat like Actinidia kolomikta, having leaves variegated pink and white, but in this case the leaves are longer and narrower and it has lovely pink flowers. A smashing plant!

Another colourful stand at  the Journées des Plantes de Courson

Another colourful stand at the Journées des Plantes de Courson

Gradually I am meeting many of the more interesting characters of the French horticultural industry but at a lunch with the organisers and judges I sat with Roy Lancaster and Paul Rochford, over for the judging.

It made a nice change to talk to a few English gardeners again!

Back to work, and I have a tour to lead, with Australians this time, visiting another ten gardens in the Loire Valley over a week. Most of the planning is done, including a couple of gardens new to me, but I have the final touches to put on my schedule before arrival time tomorrow afternoon.

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.

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.

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!

France’s great garden trade fair – Salon du Vegetal

Yesterday we drove to Angers for the Salon du Végétal, the massive annual exhibition for the garden industry. Unlike many similar trade shows in the UK, plants are particularly strongly represented by a large proportion of the 600 exhibitors. Around a quarter of them where from outside France – 13 countries in all – but sadly UK nurserymen were very thin on the ground: I spotted just three – David Austin Roses, who had French staff on the stand and were clearly open for business, Fairweathers Nursery (for liners and Agapanthus) and Whetman Pinks, who are also very active in France. It’s a pity because France is a very large market for garden products and their retail prices are higher than in the UK. On the other hand there were 50 Spanish exhibitors, 34 came from Belgium, with Italy and Holland each sending around 30.

A slipper orchid from the Garden Orchids range: Cypripedium regina

A slipper orchid from the Garden Orchids range: Cypripedium regina

Around 15,000 trade buyers from 13 countries attend the three day event but again, Brits were remarkably absent ( I was told by the staff on one stand that they had chatted to Paul Rochford but disappointingly we did not meet up ). Still, I enjoyed myself looking at new plants on the market and making contact with a number of useful potential suppliers of plants and landscape materials. The highlight of my plant discoveries was found on the stand of Anthura, a Dutch company specialising in Phalaenopsis orchids, Anthuriums and hardy Cypripedium orchids. I had spotted Garden Orchids on their stand last year, but now they have really got their act together with superb packaging, I am sure they will be a best seller Europe-wide. Lady Slipper Orchid – Cypripedium calceolus – is one of Britain’s rarest flowers with only a couple of known clumps. I am now the proud owner of a number of plants of Cypripedium kentuckiense or Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, a less rare but stunningly beautiful American species and I shall be reporting on their progress throughout the season. Nights here in central France are down to -3°C at the moment, with clear, sunny days reaching around 13°C, so although they are said to be hardy down to -20°C I am taking no chances: for the time being they are staying under protection in their pots. The company offers five species of Slipper Orchid and I was told they have another 100,000 Kentucky back at the nursery – more than are said to exist in the wild.

Part of the Plant Planet stand

Part of the Plant Planet stand

Another intriguing stand was that of Plant Planet. Their idea is to take plants threatened with extinction in the wild and popularise them to ensure their survival. To this end they use micropropagation techniques to create large numbers of plants, and amusing marketing campaigns to get them known by the widest possible clientele. Their range includes Red List plants like the Hawaiian Palm, Brighamia insignis, Gloxinia-like Sinningia leucotrichia (named Puppy Ears for its silky foliage), Euphotbia milii ‘Lucky Eight’ , Calathea ‘Network’ (a part which apparently thrives in the darkest corners of a house) and Sansevieria ‘Friends’, voted Student Plant of the Year for its indestructability.