Autumn in the Loire Valley

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Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

The circus has come to town: a sure sign that autumn has arrived. In the square behind our home a riotous collection of goats, lama, camels, long-horn cattle, geese and other creatures are incongruously dotted around the lawns of the Place de Foire, calmly awaiting the first show tonight, like the professionals there are. We can hear the music and the announcements of the promotional vans.

After a short, hot summer, autumn has been variously warm and wet or cool and wet, conditions which are driving vineyard owners to the point of despair. The grape harvest started in mid-October and depending on the variety, will continue in the rain for the next few weeks. This is going to be a challenging year to produce fine wine in the Loire Valley and I feel for the growers.

I have three weeks’ worth of residential garden design and CAD courses starting on Saturday and am desperate to get out and tidy up the garden before students start to drift in from around the globe. Our first Israeli garden designer arrives for a week of CAD training on Saturday, while a parks manager from the Sultanate of Oman will be with us at the end of the month for two weeks of study. We work a lot with garden professionals from Oman and I find their horticultural skills to be of a very high standard: I must get the weeding done!

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Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

Despite, and in some cases because of the rain, there is still plenty going on in the garden. Yellow flowered Buddleja x weyeriana has been in bloom for months and shows no sign of wanting to stop. Salvia species like S. coccinea, S. patens, S. leucantha, S. elegans, S. microphylla, S. uliginosa and S. involucrata are all looking superb and I am taking cuttings of many of them at the moment for insurance purposes – some may be killed by a cold winter. Grasses are also looking good; we have several Miscanthus sinensis varieties, the majority in flower at the moment, while there are signs of autumn leaf colour on shrubs such as Rhus and Hamamelis. Anemones are showing well, especially Honorine Jobert in the white border and in the oriental garden the Colchicum Waterlily are in full flower. I know, Colchicum autumnale is a European native – I do things like this to see if you are concentrating.

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Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

Under the trees in the parks of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, both great and small, blankets of pink and white Cyclamen are in bloom but in the borders the gardeners are removing summer bedding ready to replace them with winter / spring flowering varieties. A great garden like Chenonceau must always look good, so the change-over brings out dozens of gardeners to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Sunday will be the last opportunity to see the gardens of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire; it closes its doors to the public on 20th October and reopens with two dozen new gardens in the spring. I shall be going with a group of garden designers to see how it has progressed since my last visit earlier in the summer. In the mean time we look forward to the 2014 edition, which will try to conjure up both the faults and the excesses of our time and the free, spiritual universe of eternal gardens, with the show theme: “Garden of the Deadly Sins”; expect to be challenged!

Sadly, because I am teaching, I will not be attending the plant fair at Courson, south of Paris this autumn, saving a great deal of money by missing a favourite plant-buying expedition. There will be other opportunities I have no doubt.

The first garden show of the year and other excitements

As spring takes hold of central France the season is confirmed by a flurry of garden and plant shows, not to mention all the local spring fairs and Easter events coming up at the end of the week. Of course I have chosen now, just when life is getting busy, to go down with a flu-like bug of some sort, which has put me to bed for one whole day and ruined my sense of humour for more than a week.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

There is no time to be ill so I have done my best to ignore it and last Friday attended a seminar with three dozen other gardeners and chateau owners at La Source, the marvellous public garden in the university district of Orleans. The subject of the day was colour theory and how it relates to the design of herbaceous and bedding plant displays. A couple of good speakers, one from parks and education and the other a plant producer, simplified a subject which is not always straightforward to explain and left the delegates eager to get to work producing new schemes for their respective towns and gardens. At La Source itself the Cherries were just starting to flower and there were huge areas of dwarf daffodils to admire.

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A corner of the Cheverny plant fair

After another half day in bed to recover from my outing, we went to the chateau at Cheverny on Sunday for the first of the year’s plant fairs. The show is an annual charity event and well supported by both the public and the trade. As usual we bought a few plants, but not as many as I expected to. The tree surgeon we employed to care for our ancient Sequoias was on site demonstrating his skill with a chain saw, producing sculptures from huge pieces of wood, the waste from his previous weeks work maintaining trees in the park of the chateau.

Chain saw art

Chain saw art

Next weekend is Easter, with events all over the region. We have been invited to more vineyard open days than we can possibly take in and the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisiere. Then there is the unmissable annual Poulain Donkey Fair and a host of other events all conspiring to keep me from working in the garden, where there is so much to do!

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.

Winter interest shrubs

 

Clivia flowering at our local garden centre

Clivia flowering at our local garden centre. Our own plant died last winter. It had belonged to my Mother-in-Law, so I feel quite guilty about it.

At this time of year, as I have noted before, any flower in the garden is to be celebrated. In our own, there are a few flowers hanging on valiantly after the summer, but not much evidence of what one might call winter flowers. A new garden like ours is like that; we have planted a great deal but there are seasonal ‘holes’ in the flowering schedule and the best way to plug that is to see what is flowering elsewhere. This is not as obvious as it sounds. Other gardens will not have precisely the same microclimate and plants in garden centres and nurseries, where they may have been forced and protected, often flower at very different times to those exposed to the vagaries of the weather. In the absence of flowers, evergreens are useful, particularly those with variegated or colourful leaves.

 

Elaeagnus Limelight

Elaeagnus Limelight

Feeling the need to see a few plants, the gardeners’ equivalent of comfort food, I dropped in on our local garden centre. Working my way through the Christmas tree display and the troughs of bare-rooted fruit trees, I was immediately attracted to a fine batch of Elaeagnus x ebbingei Limelight. Great for hedging, these tough evergreen shrubs are invaluable in the winter when the yellow variegated leaves shine out in otherwise dull gardens. In autumn and winter they carry flowers which, while not showy, have exquisitely sweet scent. Like all
Elaeagnus species, they have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria which form nodules on the roots producing fertiliser both for the plant and others nearby. At home we have Elaeagnus pungens Maculata, a related species which offers a similar bright leaf display, so no need to buy one of these.

Mahonia-X-media-CharityThe yellow flowers of Mahonia x. media make it one of the best winter-flowering plants to have in the garden. Chance offspring of Mahonia lomariifolia and Mahonia japonica at the Slieve Donard Nursery in Northern Ireland, seedlings were raised by John Russell at his Richmond Nursery in Surrey. They were planted out in the Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park (where I once woorked), where they first flowered in 1957. Head of the Royal Gardens at Windsor at the time was Mr Hope Finlay and seedlings Faith, Hope and Charity were named by him. ‘Charity’ went on to be recognised as the superb winter flowering shrub we all know it to be, with an RHS Award of Merit in 1959 and, in 1962, a First Class Certificate.

 

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ has canary-yellow flowers from October to March, with a delicate fragrance – a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees out late or early in the year. The flowers are produced at the ends of new shoots with abundant racemes displayed at an angle. This is a plant with architectural quality and reaches about 2m in height. Each leaf has roughly 9 pairs of shiny, evergreen, opposite leaflets, angled slightly from the stem. I will decide where to plant todays purchase over the next few days but I’m delighted to have it sitting around near the house for the moment.

 

Pieris Little Heath

Pieris Little Heath

Pieris are valuable for winter and spring interest, some with colourful foliage, some with lovely flowers and some with both. Pieris japonica Little Heath is a delightful dwarf evergreen shrub with leaves edged in silver. Young foliage is shrimp pink and winter flower buds are soft mauve pink, opening to white bells in the early spring. They are long lasting in a vase as well. I can’t help but think we should have lots of Pieris varieties in the garden so I bought a nice specimen of Little Heath to get us started. I may plant it in the shade of the house at the front, where the little raised bed would suit it, it could go in a pot by the front door or perhaps in the Oriental Garden under the Sequoia. We shall see.

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Back from Provence

Such a long gap in my writing is almost unheard of, but the preparations for our annual  holiday, the holiday itself and all the work awaiting us on our return has kept me very busy indeed.

Salers – one of the most beautiful villages in France

Our journey down took us through the cool mountain scenery of the Auvergne, with a night in one of France’s most beautiful villages, Salers. 16th century buildings in dark volcanic stone sit on a hill overlooking pastures full of the local red cattle breed of the same name. Locating them is easy even in the morning mist, with clanking bells dangling from their necks audible over huge distances. After walking in the mountains and countryside for half a day we headed further south to Murat, and a night at the lake below Gustave Eiffel’s wonderful Viaduct de Garabit, built over the river Truyère in 1885. From their it was a six hour drive to our destination in the sun.

We based ourselves in the Provence this year, for a week or so of exploring the sights of the region around Hyères. We rented an appartment on the presquîle de Giens, a paradise for divers, kite surfers and nature lovers, jutting out into the Mediterranean sea near the port of Toulon. I dived a few times with a local club, my first in France and in French.

The land in this region is important horticulturally and nurseries of all kinds fight for space close to tourist villas, salt marshes and vineyards, in an area blessed with a superb climate and high light levels.

Hyères old town

Castel Sainte-Claire

The lovely old town of Hyères contains the villa of the American novelist Edith Wharton, who wintered here annually from 1919 until her death in 1937. Castel Sainte-Claire is open to the public, who are free to wander the terraces of this

very atypical garden, full of tender plants.

I spotted a slection South American plants alongside native species – Lantana in many colours and huge bushes of Erythrina crista-galli. Many Salvia species were in flower but the rare Salvia divinorum formed large, flowerless bushes. Natives includes Santolina, Lavender, Phlomis and a host of plants adapted to the dry climate, often highly scented and covered  in insect life.

Great gardens of France – the final day

The kitchen garden at Cheverny

There are two ways to end a concert, a play, a novel or a garden tour: with a grand, spectacular display of colour, virtuosity or pyrotechnics, or gently, softly, pulling together all the elements and laying them out for quiet review. Dare I say it? I think we achieved a bit of both on our final day of touring the gardens of the Loire Valley.

Our first port of call was Cheverny and its famous château which, unusually for such a grand French palace, is available to visit inside and full of fine furniture and art. We did the tour after visiting the gardens, starting with the potager which, for some reason, I had never seen before. This section was a marvel, a beautiful example of kitchen garden mixing traditional and modern design, with rows of vegetables and flowers artfully arranged into the prettiest garden imaginable.

Photo opportunities at the Apprentices’ Garden, Cheverny

From here we moved on to the recently constructed Apprentices’ Garden which links the château to the orangery. Again, traditional and modern design mix to make a very satisfying whole. Around the château itself was a formal garden of the most strict design imaginable, but the final and largest area was the park in the English style, featuring many fine specimen trees, a place to explore and linger – but we had to push on, with lunch time beckoning.

Chambord

The journey was definitely part of the trip today. On the way to Cheverny we drove up the old driveway, miles of perfectly straight road aimed directly at the gates and doors of the château and lined with wonderful old trees. On the way to lunch we indulged in a detour to pass the Château de Chambord, a royal palace in the centre of a vast forest, the extravagant hunting lodge and pleasure park of the kings and queens of France. Lunch was in an old inn, now serving food of great quality, in the centre of the Sologne region of forests and lakes. Here we did linger, a little too long if truth be told, but the meal was rather good!

Iris germanica hybrids at La Source

Our last garden was quite different, the gardens of La Source, on the outskirts of Orleans amid the campus of the university. The river Loiret emerges in this park after a subterranean journey from, it is thought, the River Loire some way upstream, below a fine chateau and surrounded these days by a municipal park of the highest quality. Wonderful displays and trials of Iris, roses and bedding plants are a feature of the park, which is well used by locals in addition to garden visitors from all over France and around the world. Given our late arrival we rather galloped through the gardens, which deserved more time and consideration, but enjoyed the visit nevertheless. There is hardly a formal French garden feature to be found here; we found a very large, relaxed space dotted with horticultural interest and allowing us to reflect on the huge diversity of gardens we had experienced during the week.

The rose gardens and the chateau at Orleans La Source

Marie-Chantal had arranged an informal meal for our final evening, with local wines, cheeses and other products summing up the gastronomic life of the region in which we are pleased to live. Tomorrow our gusts would need ferrying to railway stations and the clean-up would begin. The tour had been a great success, we all agreed, and we counted our blessings in having had such a great group to spend our week with, exploring some of Europes great gardens.

Loire gardens tour – day 4

The Most Beautiful Potager in France – Chateau de La Chatonnière

Finally I have completed the task of sorting out the bed alongside the swimming pool. After months of neglect caused by poor weather and the presence of builders, this involved hand weeding and forking all the planted areas and digging over the remaining broad band of soil, loosening up the compacted earth. This has been a tiring, but not tiresome exercise, straining muscles I expected never to use again and perhaps damaging a number of vital organs! As a reward for my efforts, I planted bear patches as I went along using, in the main, bedding plants we had grown from seed. The only major task that now remains is to sow a small L-shaped area with grass seed to create my “pelouse anglais” – my English-style lawn. Of course, in the UK I would have laid turf, but this time saving product is more or less unavailable here.

A quiet corner of Chateau de La Chatonnière

Back to the gardens tour, and Saturday is a free day for our students and visitors, giving us and them a chance to recover from the excitement of the previous three days of garden visits. There are plenty of sights to see in the area and this group decided to take a train journey up the Cher to the city of Bourges. On their return, the swimming pool and one of Chantal’s regional themed evening meals awaited.

Sunday was tour day four, another treat involving a drive to the area between Azay le Rideau and Tours to visit two exceptional gardens: Chateau de La Chatonnière and the Chateau de Villandry.

The renaissance-style kitchen garden at Chateau de Villandry

Both gardens feature ornamental vegetable planting but while La Chatonnière is, for the most part, contemporary in style, Villandry is famous for its traditional gardens. La Chatonnière was built almost single-handed by its illustrious head gardener over the last twenty years and it is still a work in progress, with an amphitheatre as his latest project. Ahmed Azéroual, who came to the chateau from Villandry, is often on hand to chat to visitors and his amazing, leaf-shaped Garden of Abundance recently won an award as the Most Beautiful Potager in France. In total, twelve themed gardens have been created on the site since 1986 and with the roses, irises and Hemerocallis just coming into flower we enjoyed touring them all, before stopping off for lunch in Azay.

Azay le Rideau is a touristy town and we eat touristy food – OK, but not wonderful – “correct”, as my Mother-in-Law would say. It is just a short drive from here to Villandry, with its famous renaissance chateau and even more famous gardens, at the junction of the rivers Loire and Cher. And what gardens they are! The stunning recreation of the renaissance design was undertaken between 1908 and 1918 replacing an English-style garden and park. Further areas have been landscaped since, including a herb garden in the 1970’s and the recently constructed Sun Garden.

The water garden at Chateau de Villandry

The decorative kitchen garden is a mix of colourful flowers and vegetables planted in a chequerboard plan, while the ornamental garden is composed of box hedges forming musical symbols, hearts, scrolls, butterflies, fans… allegories of love – tender, passionate, fickle and tragic.

The water garden is grand and tranquil: here the pool takes centre stage, with the sound of the fountains and the great lawned spaces bringing to visitors a feeling of calm and tranquillity. This is the most peaceful garden you could find, in spite of thousands of tourists sharing it with you.

The new Sun Garden – Chateau de Villandry

There is a herb garden, with its medicinal and culinary plants and a maze, which I didn’t visit. The new Sun Garden was excellent, divided into colour-themed parts – Sky (blue and white) and Sun (yellow and orange). The great success of these was their immense scale, allowing a very skilful designer to really achieve his idea of planting in a single colour – and all the variations of it – for a stunning, year-round effect. I have had a couple of clients over the years insisting I must not plant yellow, a curious idea that saddened rather than challenged me in my plant selection. I would have loved to show them this garden, padlocking them to the gate posts until they understood!

Villandry – Garden Design Academy tour May 2012