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.

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A great gardening weekend in France

Last Chance - a bearded Iris spotted at Bourdillon last year.

Last Chance – a bearded Iris spotted at Bourdillon last year.

As if our life was not exhilarating enough already, this weekend is one of the most important in the French gardening calendar.

I am still reeling from the joys of the Courson Plant Fair and a tour I organised for Australian guests to visit eleven notable Loire Valley gardens.

Oriental Poppy Lambada at Bourdillon.

Oriental Poppy Lambada at Bourdillon.

No matter – Bourdillon, a local Iris, Hemerocallis and Peony nursery with a well-deserved national reputation, is holding its open days from 31st May to 2nd June and in spite of all the rain, this should not be missed. I am off to my French language classes on Friday morning, government sponsored, in an attempt to improve my employability, so I may well drop in on my way home. On second thoughts, Chantal would like it and she holds the cheque book: we can go together in the afternoon. They sell Oriental Poppies too, and I have a marvellous gap awaiting a group or two of these lovely plants.

The gardens at chateau de Rivau - a first time visit this year

The gardens at chateau de Rivau – a first time visit this year

Rendez-vous aux Jardins, now in its 11th year, brings together nearly 2,300 public and private parks and gardens for an exciting open weekend. While many of the better known gardens have a range of events for the weekend, over 430 are opening to the public especially for the weekend, with 260 open for the first time this year.

We live in the Region Centre which includes the Loire Valley and other areas of great natural beauty, and are given a choice of 126 gardens to visit in just two days. Tough decisions will have to be made!

I was not aware they had a chateau in Poulain, a village a few miles away from us, more famous for its annual donkey fair than any horticultural prowess. For the first time this year the grounds of the Chateau de Poulain are open for viewing so I have emailed them advanced warning I am on my way. It seems we have B & B guests on Saturday so one garden will have to do, but I hope we can go out and find at least two more on Sunday, with a decent meal thrown in for good luck.

It’s a tough life, but it has to be done!

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.

……………………

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

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

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

Euphorbia in the island border at the Garden Design Academy

Euphorbia in the island border at the Garden Design Academy

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

Discovering new Loire Valley gardens

Prieuré D’Orsan

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

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

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

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

Mag.Betty

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

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

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

Apremont

The Chinese bridge at Apremont

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

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

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

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

Plessis Sasnières

Plessis Sasnières

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

Malus Royalty

Malus Royalty in the ornamental kitchen garden at Chenonceau

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

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.