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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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.

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.

It’s not Spring ‘til the old lady says so.

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.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Flowering in our garden now in Chabris, central France.

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.

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

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.

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

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.

The first frosts of autumn 2012.

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.

Autumn colour from Rhus in a garden in Chabris, central France

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.

Pyracantha berries sparkling in the clear autumn sun today.

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.

Ebooks and the death of the hardback

Our latest article on the Garden Design Academy blog discusses the death of the gardening book. What do you think? Will the ebook soon replace the real thing?

http://gardendesignacademy.blogspot.fr/

South African plants in a French garden

Dierama

Dierama pulcherrimum?

When a student from some distant shore enrols with the Garden Design Academy it is an opportunity to look at what we grow and see what plants might be familiar to gardeners in that country. A group of South Africans have booked for a two week residential garden design course and I have been out in the garden looking for plants native to the Cape and surrounding regions. My Grandmother lived in colonial South Africa and my Father was born in Cape Town, giving this region, which I have never visited, an extra interest to me.

Eucomis

Eucomis bicolor – a memory of my Grandmother’s garden

Our sunny, central island bed seemed a likely area to start and just three plants from the house-end of this bed comes our first discovery: Dierama or Angel’s fishing rod. There are around 50 species of Dierama in the Eastern Cape and I have always assumed mine is D. pulcherrimum, though I stand to be corrected. My mother first introduced me to this plant after growing it from seed but my own plants were collected from an abandoned Cornish garden in the village where my Grandmother lived. From her garden came our plant of Eucomis bicolor, a bulbous perennial which has proved its hardiness by surviving a spell at -26C last winter. I rescued it from a pot in the garden nearly a year after my Grandmother had died and treasure it as a memory of her. It has the most amazing flower spike, the form of which gives it its common name of Pineapple Flower.

Kniphofia Timothy

Kniphofia Timothy

Barely three paces away we come to our next subject, a clump of Kniphofia Timothy with grass like leaves and bright orange flowers. The Red Hot Pokers seem to withstand anything when established but we did loose young plants, including divisions from this one, during the late winter cold snap. Further on, at the end of the bed and struggling under a large variegated Miscanthus grass, the South African succulent Lampranthus, with outrageously bright pink flowers, opens its buds in the sun and closes them every evening or on dull days. We have a much better plant in full sun in the front garden.

Crocosmia George Davidson

On the opposite corner of the island bed we grow Hemerocallis in two varieties; elsewhere in the garden we have another three. I always assumed some Day Lilies were South African but now know this is not the case: you live and learn! I thought I was on safer ground with the next plant as Canna could not look more typically South African– except that it is from America! Fortunately we also have Crocosmia in the bed, and this really is from South Africa. One of our clumps is of an attractive orange-yellow colour and labelled George Davidson but may not be. Whatever the name, this Montbretia is a cheerful thing and battles gently with the neighbouring Salvia uliginosa, which towers over it.

Gazanias

Unless I’m much mistaking (and to err is the gardeners’ lot) that completes the list from the island bed and the border on the west boundary offers nothing at all. Alongside the eastern boundary and the swimming pool we do better with Gladioli – both species and Dutch florist types – and a number of bedding plants including Gazania, Diascia, Dimorphotheca and Felicia. Several Salvias hail from these parts but I don’t think any of ours do. In pots we have plenty of Pelargoniums which I think it is safe to add to our South Africa list, and in the front garden Phygelius in three varieties.

I keep planting Agapanthus and they keep dying on me and a big potted Clivia went the same way as the Nerines, which is to say, they too are no longer with us. I am looking forward to meeting our students from Pretoria in September and hope they will not be too appalled at my attempts to grow South African native plants.