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.

raised beds

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!

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Winter’s bounty

In the past the changing seasons meant a change of diet as food availability came and went with the progress of the year. The advent of the supermarket produced a demand for foods to be available all year round so that nowadays, almost everything can be bought and eaten at any time. I have always thought this a pity and wonder if it is we who have demanded this, or the supermarkets that choose to offer us what they feel we will buy. Who would want to forgo the pleasures of the first strawberry of the year by eating them every day? A list of delights of this type would be endless.

Living in the centre of rural France, things are a bit different. Local supermarkets and markets do respond to the seasons and offer produce grown locally in their true season. Friends ring us up to share their most recent harvest and we do the same, giving away bagfuls of whatever produce the garden has graced us with at this particular moment. We also love collecting wild food but this year has been a poor one in our region for one of our favourites, Cepes (Boletus) mushrooms.

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Chanterelle mushrooms in the woods of the Loire Valley

Today however, just as we were beginning to start work on the day’s projects, a friend rang and offered to take us to her favourite wood for Chanterelle mushrooms, one of nature’s finest delicacies. In France no one ever tells you where they pick their mushrooms, so how could we refuse? As we wound our way through the country lanes toward our goal I began to wonder if our host was deliberately trying to get us lost. But it was a lovely day, cool but sunny, so I drove where I was told, knowing I could sneak back another day if necessary.

We were directed up a track through the vineyards, where workers were busily pruning the vines, eventually coming to a pine forest in which we were shown to our friend’s favourite parking spot. Coats on and baskets out, we pushed through the undergrowth to the centre of the wood and were not disappointed: there were Chaterelles everywhere!

An hour or so later we had picked enough for the year but our friend was keen to continue. We eventually dragged her away and on returning home started to prepare the 10 kg of “food for Free” we had picked. The base of the stem was removed and the mushrooms washed, then lightly heated in a pan to remove some of the water. Finally they were packed into jars to be sterilised and sealed, available to enjoy for the next year or so. Our diner that evening consisted of veal escallopes with onions, garlic and a generous helping of Chanterelles, cooked in a cream sauce. Life doesn’t get much better really.

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Callicarpa berries in Chabris park

Talking to some of the older folks in the market today, they are predicting a cold winter. There is a very heavy crop of acorns in the Oak woods and, thinking of what a similar generation would have told me in England, no shortage of berries on Pyracantha, Holly and other shrubs. At the moment the weather is gentle enough; all will be revealed, I have no doubt. The dry weather over the last few weeks has also produced a few frosts, but is allowing me to get out to do some weeding finally, after months working and touring with students and other clients.

 

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Holly berries in abundance.

 

Wild orchids in central France

Spider orchid, France

Spider Orchid – Ophrys fuciflora

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time (of course you have!) you will know that we now live in central France, after many years, many homes and a long horticultural career based in the south of England. The Indre is the name of the department (or county) in which our home village is situated, although the ancient name of the Berry is also widely used. It stretches from the river Cher, on the edge of the Sologne forests in the north, to beyond the Brenne National Park, the river Creuse and to the foothills of the Massif Central in the south. The soils across this sparsely populated, rural department vary enormously and with it the wild flowers. These can be seen in quantities which we unused to in England, where industrialisation, population expansion and the use of agricultural chemicals have reduced the range and quantity of native flora significantly.

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Walking the dog in the countryside we regularly come across groups of wild orchids and one, the Lizard Orchid (“L’Orchis Bouc”, Himantooglossum hircinum) seeds itself all over our own garden. We have found Spider Orchids on the industrial estate, Burnt Orchids on a building site, Helleborines by the fishing pond, Butterfly and Bee Orchids in the woodland meadows and Early Purple Orchids in the public park. In total, 47 species of wild orchid have been recorded in the county, one of which is found only in the Brenne. Orchids can be found almost everywhere: on limestone grasslands, river meadows, alkaline marshland, acid sandy soils, both wet and dry, in woods and forests and by the sides of the roads. They can also be seen in the grand chateau parkland and in much more humble gardens, often in very impressive quantities.

may 2013

Cypripedium Kentucky – a pot full of American orchids in France

In addition to a small selection of native orchids we have in our garden a patch of Chinese hardy orchid, Bletilla striata, which survived a period of -24°C a couple of winters back and is grown alongside dwarf Rhododendrons in our Japanese Garden. By the front door, facing north and in the protection of an unheated conservatory is a huge pot of the garden orchid Cypripedium Kentucky. These are also perfectly hardy and I shall be planting them out in the garden later; I was so excited to have them, I just had to show them off where everyone could see them!

Chaumont Festival preview & Courson dreaming.

Prés du Goualoup, Courson.

Prés du Goualoup, Chaumont.

Last week we were invited to the preview of the Festival of Gardens at Chaumont-sur-Loire. This is surely one of Europe’s must-see events both for landscape / garden design professionals and the amateur enthusiast and runs from 6th April to 11th November this year. Unique design ideas tried out here will often appear at Chelsea or one of the other great garden shows two or three years later, so it’s a great source of inspiration for those in the garden business. When we were based in the UK we would always make the effort to visit; now it is a short drive from our home and I take groups to see it several times each year. Before the end of the month I will have been three or four times but I never fail to spot something new from each visit and to see it develop over the seasons is a real joy.

Domaine de Courson - Prés du Goualoup

Domaine de Chaumont – Prés du Goualoup

Each year there is a design theme and this time it is ‘Gardens of Sensations’, which leaves the designers plenty of scope (or perhaps rope!) to decide what this means for themselves. But before we looked around the 25 show gardens of this year’s festival we were determined to see the permanent gardens and installations in the Goualoup Meadow (Prés du Goualoup) the new 10 Ha extension to the site. First up was a garden by Yu Kongjian, a landscaper specialising in Feng Shui, with a winding path across dark water punctuated by clusters of bright red bamboo canes and which leads on to a reinterpretation of a traditional Chinese scholars garden by the architect and garden specialist, Che Bing Chiu – Ermitage sur la Loire. One of the courses at the Garden Design Academy involves considering garden design from a Feng Shui perspective, so we found this a fascinating garden to wander through.

Chaumont Garden Festival

Chaumont Garden Festival

On the day we visited the weather was quite perfect for the evocative installation entitled Permanent Clouds by Fujiko Nakaya while other artworks could easily have delayed us further from “doing” the festival; we had to be strong. My last visit to the site was in the company of the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman, over for a two week stay with us. He was hard to please (in the best possible way) and we spent many happy hours debating the design and execution of some of the gardens we saw.

May 2013 Chaumont Garden Festival

May 2013 Chaumont Garden Festival

For professionals the festival is like that. The designer / artist sets out his stall with an explanation of the garden he has attempted to create. It is up to the visitor to judge if what he has delivered lives up to the description; you are allowed to be critical but it is also important to be fair. Budgets are compulsorily low so that creativity rather than cash comes to the fore and these are gardens which will mature as the year progresses. Some gardens are incredibly competent, others have great individual features while, to be frank, others just don’t work as intended. But as a learning experience Chaumont is unequalled and is now in its twenty-second year of providing opportunities for designers from around the world to install thought-provoking and challenging gardens.

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Our enlarged white border is doing very well this year - White Lilac is in flower at the moment

Our enlarged white border is doing very well this year – White Lilac is in flower at the moment

Here in our garden in central France the spring is moving delightfully slowly, allowing fuller appreciation of each drift of flowering as the season progresses. Apricots are followed by peaches, plums to cherries, pears and finally to apples, as the orchards trees flower and set fruit. One moment Magnolias are the highlight, while now the Lilacs and Wisteria are just starting for fade and the Philadelphus (Mock Orange) is apart to bloom. Everywhere is flower, scent and the drone of excited insects. What a time and what a place to be alive!

Euphorbia in the island border at the Garden Design Academy

Euphorbia in the island border at the Garden Design Academy

Of course there are gaps in the garden and there are times when only a plant fair will do. One of Europe’s greatest is at Courson, south of Paris, and we are invited to the press / professional preview on Friday. We have a half-formed idea of some of the plants we cannot possibly be without but in any event will let the spirit take us around the show to pick out some of the brightest and newest plants on offer. We always spend too much, and often buy hopelessly inappropriate plants and never fail to come back exhausted but happy. I have seen a lot of plant fairs but nothing quite like this: I’ll let you know how I get on.

The first 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.

A typical French Autumn

Autumn leaf and flower colour from Rhus and Miscanthus in our garden this morning.

Every day this week has been different to the last. Today it is mild and drizzling on and off, while yesterday it was dry, with just a few clouds passing by. The day before was a most glorious warm, sunny day but it began with a hint of frost. Sunday it poured down while Saturday it kept mostly dry – a bonus for guests who I took to see the grape harvest coming in at local vineyards. In short, a typical autumn week in central France.

In the town, around the market and in the supermarket, all the talk is about mushrooms, or the lack of them. We have been mushroom hunting on our daily walks with the dog and while we bring back a handful most days, there are very few about. The weather is looking encouraging however, after many months without any serious rain, so we are hoping for great things by the end of this or the following week.

Chantal is making her annual autumn jelly from fruit collected on our walks: pears, apples and grapes left behind by the picking machine. To this she has added currents and other soft fruit preserved after picking this summer and a few herbs and spices for luck. We will be bottling soon and look forward to trying it out on friends who regularly offer us examples of their own culinary efforts to try. Last week the Marquis dropped around with a sample of his Two Salmons Rillettes and our lady plumber turned up one evening with freshly hunted venison. Food is important to the people of this community and recipes are commonly argued over in the market place.

Japanese Anemones continue to provide colour

Out in the garden I am pleased to have the ground wetted as I have been waiting to start cultivating the soil for our new lawn. The lawn will be sown as soon as I can so that it will germinate and establish itself before the winter. We are trying to rehabilitate a section of the garden ruined when the swimming pool went in and to link it with an area currently the site of a very poor quality lawn. I can manage about 50 sq.m. a day fighting with the rotavator, after which I need a couple of days of rest – one more push should see the hard work done though. The next task will be the raking off of old grass, weeds and stone, and creating rough levels using new lawn edging secured along the existing beds. The ground will then be trodden down firmly, levelled again to a nice tilth and finally sown with grass seed. A last gentle rake over and we leave it to Nature to work its wonders.

Many of the bedding and herbaceous plants are having a second lease of life in this damp and temperate season: the Begonias have never looked so good, Pot Marigold (Calendula) are in full flower and throughout the garden there are splashes of colour here and there. It looks as if the Salvia Golden Delicious will flower this year: each shoot is carrying a flower bud and one is just starting to show red. We continue to pick tomatoes and our lettuce crop is the best we have had all year.

Summer bedding has never looked so good!

In the park the rain has resulted in a huge rise in the level of the river Cher, but not enough to put off 60 or more swans who took up residence earlier in the week. The gardeners are busily removing summer bedding and replacing it with a mixture of winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to beg a few of last season’s plants from them for our own garden: bedding Dahlias and purple grasses, no longer. I have finished taking cuttings of tender plants for the year but have tried some Holly again, a particularly attractive form which grows by the town campsite.

On Friday I am taking clients to Bourgueil to look at vineyards and taste some wine, while on Saturday or Sunday we’ll all take a trip to the Courson Plant Fair, so it’s a busy week all ’round. We are watching the weather.

Spring gardening in France -2012

Such a wonderful time of the year – spring – but it’s never easy to say when it has started and when it has finished.

Officially, the four seasons are determined by changing day-length, which is currently increasing by more than 20 minutes every week. This change is determined by how the earth orbits the sun and the tilt of its axis. On the first day of spring—the vernal equinox—day and night are each approximately 12 hours long; the actual point of equal day and night occurs in the Northern Hemisphere a few days before the vernal equinox. The sun crosses the celestial equator going northward; it rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west. The first day of summer—the summer solstice—is the longest day of the year, when the sun reaches its most northern point in the sky at mid-day. After this date, the days start getting shorter.

The first Primrose of spring

So, spring starts officially on Tuesday March 20th and ends Tuesday June 19th, but here in the centre of France the plants and birds beg to differ: they are pushing on regardless. We are having our lunches in the garden now, and the resident lizards are popping out at regular intervals to see it we drop anything. In the warmer gardens Primroses have started flowering and up in the greenhouse in the loft, seeds are germinating like there is no tomorrow. It’s all very exciting.

As usual I am growing more than we can cope with and as seedlings are ready they come down from the loft to the dining room windowsill and from there to a bench I have set up in the cabin by a big, south facing window. I am leaving the Begonias upstairs in the warm for a while yet but we have so far moved on a nice little selection of plants:

  • Geranium Moulin Rouge
  • Gazania Daybreak Tiger Stripe
  • African Marigold Golden Puff
  • Aubergene Amethyst
  • Antirrinum Axium and
  • Coleus Kong mix

Having completed the marking of student assignments for the day I have a little time to sow a few more trays or pots of seed and perhaps move one or two more down. Impatiens have germinated well and I am hoping my home grown plants will be successful. Impatiens downy mildew – Plasmopara obducens – is a new disease, found for the first time in the UK in 2003, which perhaps arrived on imported commercial propagation material (seed or cuttings). Controls have since been ineffective and 2011 was saw the biggest UK outbreak yet. While wholesale propagators like Ball/Colegrave are continuing to grow Impatiens in 2012, Thompson and Morgan will not be offering young plants and the DIY chain B&Q will not be selling their usual 20 million or so. They are encouraging customers to buy Petunias, Geraniums and Begonias instead but I refuse to be put off and will grow my own. No doubt I will be unbearably smug if all goes well and blame foreign imports if it doesn’t!

For those of you who follow these things, my plant of the week on Pinterest is the Daffodil, which have begun to flower again after last month’s cold spell.