The calm after the storm

In France, and I think it was no better in England, there has been wave after wave of storms from the Atlantic for two or three months now. Of course, here in the centre of France we do not generally have extreme weather, but last night the winds were apparently gusting to 120km/hour and the noise was quite something. No-one slept well.

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It’s Snowdrop time!

We are in the middle of strange weather conditions; the warmest winter since 1900 and listening to the forecasts and the news, various regions around the country regularly suffer the effects of three weeks or a months-worth of rain in just a few hours. There is flooding all over France.

Out in the garden our Camellia grisii is in full flower and attracting honey bees! Talking of Camellias, we spotted a real beauty at a local garden centre recently: Camellia x ‘Cinnamon Cindy’, an American hybrid between Camellia japonica ‘Kenyo-tai’ and a Chinese species, Camellia lutchuensis. ‘Cinnamon Cindy’ is upright with small light green leaves which are reddish on emerging. The flowers are 2-3″ in diameter, white with some pink in outer petals, and with nice fragrance. The whole plant reminded us of our C. grisii.

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Witch-hazel shines in the pale light of February

Our Witch-hazel is in full flower with Snowdrops open all around it and Hellebores nearby. Buds are bursting and leaves emerging very early and I have lightly trimmed back a few plants to keep them bushy while still offering a little protection from any cold spell which may come later. I have yet to see a Daffodil flower.

Business took me away from the house for a couple of days in succession and the result, I am sad to say, was the loss of several trays of seedlings which died from lack of water. Antirrhinums suffered particularly badly although I may salvage two or three seedlings. The Petunias were also unhappy and a tray of a hundred is now reduced to a dozen: better than nothing I guess. In the mean time I have sown Basil, a new hardy variety from T&M, double flowering Stocks (they will need cold temperature selection later) and Castor Oil plants from seed collected in the village. Early germinated seedlings are now out of the propagator, either under another window in the loft or on the windowsills downstairs.

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As with may plants in flower now, Daphne blooms are sweetly scented

Outside the new raised bed Potager is more or less finished; the next step is a bed of woven Willow which I hope to construct shortly (before the itinerant basket-makers find all the best Willow shoots!) There is no shortage of weeding to be done still and I am gradually working ’round the garden between showers.

New Year, new season

Ahtirrhinum Purple Twist

Antirrhinum Purple Twist

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

Foxglove Silver Cup

Foxglove Silver Cup

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

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

Nerium oleander

Oleander

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

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

New Year, new garden projects.

Half of Europe is coping with storms and floods and in the USA they are suffering from a cold blast of Arctic weather conditions; here in the centre of France, 2014 has started mild and dry. I don’t mean to sound smug and my fear is that the cold will come to us later, causing the sort of damage to plants that we witnessed a couple of years ago, when it dropped to -24°C and the vineyards died throughout the region.

I had a great deal of office work to catch up on after the Christmas break but the opportunity of getting back out in the garden has finally presented itself. Today I started installing the raised beds for the new vegetable garden behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. This small space has been used as a dumping ground for too long and I am delighted to be finally sorting it out.

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Under construction – the first two raised beds installed today.

When completed there will be four raised beds, arranged in a formal grid and connected by a pergola. The beds are made from local oak but the pergola will either be a Hillhout-style structure in treated pine or something more rustic and artistic, handmade from willow. I have so far installed two of these beds, having earlier planted three peach bushes along the south facing side of the classroom cabin. Paths one metre wide will divide the raised beds and the 1.2m wide ground-level beds along the garden wall and behind the classroom. It would be lovely to surface these paths in brick but I suspect this will have to wait for another year.

Nandina domestica with flowers and berries in the local park.

Nandina domestica with flowers and berries in the local park.

Water for this garden will soon be an issue and this will prompt me to install the gutters on the cabin – they have be laying there for several years now – and arrange to collect the rain water in a butt of some sort which has yet to be obtained. The compost area is also in a sorry state and needs to be dismantled and rebuilt properly. I have a collection of sturdy transport pallets which I shall use to construct the new compost bays.

If only there were eight or nine days in the  week!

French Christmas garden flowers and Gingko from seed.

It’s that time again; these days I tend to get fewer toys as gifts so while the kiddies are playing with theirs, I have taken myself out into the fresh air, a glass of Vouvray in one hand and a pen and paper in the other, to compile my ‘in-flower’ list for Christmas 2013.

This year is better than last, with 15 plants in flower on Christmas Day compared to 11 in 2012, but cannot compare to the whopping 31 plants seen in 2011. Those of you with larger, more established gardens will not be impressed, but I’m quite pleased. The error I continue to make is not to group some of these plants together, so that real floral impact is never really achieved: I need a winter garden.

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

The house is a riot of colour with the orchids in particular performing well. Out in the garden several herbaceous plants, grown from seed over the last few years, are also performing: Digitalis, Penstemon, Wallflowers and even Stocks have blooms in greater or lesser quantities. As you might expect, Helleborus nigra, the Christmas rose, is looking good in the bed by the front door. We finally bought a Mahonia media Charity last year and this has rewarded us with its first flower spike. Nearby, Jasminium nudiflorum is showing plenty of colour against the boiler-house wall.

Erica – white Heather

Less probable, Hebe Great Orme is covered in flowers and I found one yellow bloom on our Buddleja weyeriana. The dainty red climbing Rose Amadeus also has a couple of flowers. The white border offers a couple of plants: Erica Springwood White has masses of flowers while Viburnum burkwoodii is putting on a brave show with a handful. Over the other side of the garden our Arbutus, severely cut back by the cold winter of a couple of years ago, has formed a nice evergreen bush with plenty of lily-of-the-valley style blooms. Viburnum tinus, bought last year to hide the bins in the front garden, is covered with flat heads of flower.

……….

Our son graced us with his presence over Christmas and we took the opportunity to pack in a bit of tourism, visiting amongst other things, the wonderful apothecary museum in the 16th century hospital buildings at Issoudun. Outside in the gardens the ground beneath a tree was covered in fruits, which at first I took to be Mirabelle plums. On closer inspection the tree turned out to be a Gingko, beneath which was a huge quantity of off-yellow fruits. I took out a plastic bag and greedily began removing the stone seed from inside the soft, smelly fruit, quickly gathering a few dozen.

Ginkgo biloba is a tree whose leaves increase circulation in the brain. It is a popular herb in Chinese medicine and has been linked to improving memory and cognitive functions. The unique fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree make it a popular ornamental as well. In the autumn these turn bright butter yellow before falling but fruits are only produced on female plants. I have seen in excess of 50 cultivars listed and no doubt there are many more: not bad for a plant which was thought to be extinct until discovered by Engelbert Kaempfer in around 1700.

Ginkgo fruits - Issoudun

Ginkgo fruits – Issoudun

The germination of ginkgo is a little tricky, but there are a few tips that will increase your success. Freshly picked seeds are covered in a somewhat malodorous fruit. The ginkgo fruit contains small levels of urushiol, a skin irritant that is found in poison ivy and poison oak. No-one told me this and my hands were covered in blisters by the end of the day. Ginkgo biloba seeds have a long germination period and a tendency to pick up mould on the outer shell. Carefully cleaning the shells with a mild bleach solution will help.

Germination is encouraged by both stratification and scarification, so seeds are often left in pots of sand for the winter or put in the refrigerator. They are then either chipped with a sharp knife or filed with sandpaper to allow moisture to more easily penetrate the hard outer shell, before sowing in a well-drained compost in the spring.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

The organised gardener

For once I am so organised. Christmas presents for the family were all bought in November and my seed order from Thompson & Morgan has just arrived. I really enjoy growing plants from seed. Each year I order them from the T&M and Suttons catalogues, buy a few locally and collect seeds from gardens and parks as I travel about.

This season’s purchases, as always, include many novelties and new varieties, together with old favourites I have had success with in the past and could not resist.

I am growing many more vegetables next year and that seems to be a general tendency. In our case, we grow them in spare corners in the front and back gardens, but also mixed in with flowers in the borders. I shall be constructing a new fruit and vegetable garden behind the Garden Design Academy classroom, just a small one, and have bought four beautiful raised bed kits in Loire Valley oak from a local sawmill for the purpose. This will be my Big Winter Job.

Tomato : Suncherry Premium F1 Hybrid  We always grow Cherry Tomatoes in the garden and in addition to the unfailingly good Sungold I am trying a new variety called Santonio, with plum-shaped fruits. Last year was not good for outdoor Tom’s, but our plantation of Sun Cherry Premium was a great success. We grow a few Courgettes each year, you don’t need many, usually as a mixture to add interest on the plate This year I am trying BBQ mix; last year we had a good crop from another F1 variety early in the season, but Mildew eventually got to the plants and they had to go.

Sweetcorn : Lark F1 Hybrid  Sweet corn has not been a success here so far despite being a region where maize is grown commercially. I am hoping the new raised beds will provide better growing conditions provided I am more attentive to their need for water. I like the sweet varieties and have selected Lark F1 this time. Lettuces are traditionally grown amongst the flowers and seem to prefer the lighter soil in the back garden. Coloured foliage is always welcome and I have ordered traditional Lollo Rossa in addition to a Romaine type called Chartwell.

Artichoke : Originals  Growing perennials from seed is something we do each year as it’s a wonderful way to fill up a new garden. This is now extending into the vegetable garden with the purchase of a packet of Artichoke Green Globe Improved. I love fresh artichokes and I am determined to have a large clump despite them dying whenever I buy plants from the garden centre.

Climbing Bean 'Monte Cristo'  Beans are not something I do well but I persevere! For the first time since we moved to France we will be trying Broad Beans and have selected an RHS award-winning dwarf variety called Robin Hood. My wife loves to eat them raw. Climbing beans are my ‘bête noire’, always running out of steam before I have harvested more than a handful. I have been growing them on a pergola where a neighbour’s tree, now removed, competes heavily for nutrients and water. Monte Cristo is going to change all that, I hope.

Swiss Chard 'White Silver'  Finally, for a bit of fun, I am intending to grow Swiss Chard White Silver 3, of which I know very little but it was recommended in the T&M catalogue by Alan Titchmarch, no less. In addition I am trying Golden Berries (variety Little Lanterns), delicious and very trendy fruits which I last grew in a greenhouse with great success some 25 years ago. Wish me luck!

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.