February houseplants

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The house is full of flowers at the moment, including this Begonia which sits by my desk.

The house is not short of flowers at the moment: the Amaryllis has flowered for the second year after a few weeks over Christmas spent in the dark and cool of the outhouse. The Lemon tree is covered in scented blooms which soon either drop or hang on to alert us of fruits to come. Orchids are in flower or bud on every windowsill and a pair of Begonias, both the results of gifts of cuttings from friends, have been in flower for many months.

Its Spring-like in the house, even if its a bit chilly outside. 

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The calm after the storm

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

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It’s Snowdrop time!

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

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

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Witch-hazel shines in the pale light of February

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

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

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

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

New Year, new season

Ahtirrhinum Purple Twist

Antirrhinum Purple Twist

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

Foxglove Silver Cup

Foxglove Silver Cup

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

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

Nerium oleander

Oleander

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

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

Easter weekend: the first Cuckoo and the second plant fair.

Flowering Quince in a spring garden

Flowering Quince in a spring garden

Easter was not warm; in fact it has been the coldest March in the north of France since records began. Sheltered from all directions here in the centre of France, even we have had cool nights with temperatures down to zero or less, and rising above 10°C only with difficulty. Despite gorgeous-looking sunny days, it seems more like winter than spring, although we hear our first Cuckoo of the year when we were walking the dog in the woods this morning.

Our new lawn is finally seeded however and, now that we have been to our second plant fair of the year, there is plenty of planting to be done. Today I concentrated on a sunny piece of border between the new lawn and the gravel terrace, at the edge of the White Garden. A Thyme collected in Spain now graces the junction between gravel and grass, swiftly followed by Cistus ladanifer bought at the Chateau de la Bourdaisiere plant fair from a couple of young nurserymen based in Cahors. We like their knowledge, enthusiasm and plant range. The Gum Cistus carries white flowers with crimson marks at the base of the petals and should look quite at home next to existing Santolina. We bought some bare-root Phlox yesterday including a white variety, the next plant in this new grouping and three Allium White Empress bulbs are now planted amongst the Santolina to give a little extra height. Finally for today, I lifted two, out of our three, white Hemerocallis (Daylilies), spreading them out to occupy part of the new space created by redefining the lawn. A very happy hour and a half was spent doing this and weeding the areas immediately around the new plants, but there is still plant of work to do in the White Garden.

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ attracting early Bumble Bees

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ attracting early Bumble Bees

Beyond this section we have created an oriental garden which has also benefited from the new lines of the lawn, with plenty of additional planting opportunities created. A Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’, smothered with white flowers, has already been planted and this is glowing in the spring sunshine. I have planted it to one side and in front of a large granite Japanese lantern. To the other side and further back, I have placed, but not yet planted, a Pieris with red flowers, labelled as Mountain Fire, a variety which features white flowers! I believe it is actually Valley Valentine. I am continually having arguments with French nurserymen about their labelling: no labels, poor labeling or incorrect labels are all too common here. Anyway, the plant looks good, with bamboo to one side, Japanese orchids and dwarf Rhododendron yakushimanum in front. It is also very close to a young plant of Magnolia Black Tulip which, with luck, will flower around the same time.

Pieris Valley Valentine, if I'm not mistaken

Pieris Valley Valentine, if I’m not mistaken

I have been hunting for two of the plants we bought yesterday for some time, although neither is particularly rare in English garden centres. Clematis macropetala is just coming into flower now: four lance-shaped petals an inch or two long and many smaller, blue or cream petal-like stamens in the centre, creating delightful semi-double bells. We haven’t decided where to plant it but we are so pleased to have it. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis is a dwarf evergreen shrub with superbly scented winter flowers. I’ll plant it in the bed next to the front door, to amaze our visitors. This has been on my wants list for ages so I am delighted to have found such a large, healthy specimen.

Much as I’d like to spend all day in the garden, I also have to prepare the classroom for the first of the years students, who arrives next week. We have been asked to put together a tailor-made, two week course for the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman, who would like to hone his skills in garden design and computer-aided design (CAD). I always look forward to welcoming fellow professionals on our courses, adapting the content around their existing skills and the training required. There is always a great deal of preparation to be done and in this case a number of Loire Valley garden visits will punctuate the course, giving additional insights into European gardens in all their many styles.

It’s seed sowing time again

After all the fun of selecting new and favourite varieties from the seed catalogues the real work is just starting in greenhouses, airing cupboards and on windowsills: its seed sowing time! Our own efforts began modestly around a month ago and the results, a few trays and pots of seedlings, are now out of the propagator and on the dining room windowsill. First out was Antirrhinum Axiom Mixed, a Thomson and Morgan variety which did particularly well in the bed by the swimming pool last year. The original plants are still out there and we are hoping that if they are trimmed back they will bloom again this year. If not, we have backups in the young plants I have grown from seed. We were so pleased with the Antirrhinums last year that we have also grown some white ones for next season. Our tray of Royal Bride will need potting on very soon and that’s when the problems begin: I just do not have enough growing space once the seedlings are pricked out.

I sowed Gazanias two days ago and they are already starting to germinate. I had forgotten they prefer to be germinated in the dark so it is worth reading the label! They were sown, like all the seeds, on the surface of good seed compost bought at the local garden centre. In this case the advice from T&M was to cover with the smallest amount possible of vermiculite and water in. The tray, containing bands of the four varieties I had bought, was then placed in an old plastic compost sack and this put in the heated propagator. The results have been very gratifying and they are now out of the sack and under supplementary lights which we put on whenever the sunshine is weak.

Bergenia in flower today in a neighbour's garden.

Bergenia in flower today in a neighbour’s garden.

Not that the sun is lacking today. It is a bright, clear but chilly day, encouraging Crocus, Hellebores and Bergenia into flower and birds into song.

Garden work is beginning to queue up as the days get longer, with recent rains slowing me down outside and office work keeping me busy inside. Today I realised that none of our seven web sites was working, thanks to an ‘upgrade’ of our server on 1and1. In that almost all our business comes to us from these sites, this has caused a bit of a panic. I had innocently assumed that all the clever bits would be dealt with by the technicians at 1and1 or that their software systems would handle everything automatically. Having a cynical side to my character, well hidden, I like to think, I took the precaution of backing up all the sites on my PC, just before pushing the button asking for the upgrade. These saved files, many thousands of them, are slowly uploading in an effort to rebuild our web sites; cross fingers!

Gardening in Spain, gardening in France and plans for 2013

Gardening with 'houseplants' in Spain

Gardening with ‘houseplants’ in Spain

We have just returned from walking the dog in the fields close to our home. The sky is clear and a crisp frost decorates the countryside, which sparkles in the bright winter sunlight. The village fishing pond shimmers enticingly, with wisps of mist gently drifting across the surface of the water. It is disturbed only by the occasional moorhen or other water-bird, flapping away once our presence is noticed. Town gardeners are out doing the pruning to keep warm.

We have not seen a frost since our return from Spain 10 days ago. The Castile y León region in the north of Spain, centred on the city of Burgos, gave us thick fog and hard frosts in turns, with snow visible on the higher hills and mountains. This was to be repeated several times on the two day drive south and on our return a few days later. We have been to Andalusia in southern Spain several times, both for business and pleasure, but this was the first time we had driven via the north (rather than along the Mediterranean coast). The trip took in some wonderful scenery – huge, scarcely populated open spaces and brutal mountain ranges – in addition to the shock of the motorway system around Madrid and the austere cultivated plains to the south. From the fishing ports on the Atlantic we drove through cattle country, rolling grain prairies, vast fields of melons and vegetables grown under vast circular irrigation systems, and the vineyards of Rioja and Valdepeñas. Later there were olive groves as far as the eye could see, the deserts of Andalusia and finally, close to the coast, Europe’s salad capital in Almeria Province, with mile upon mile of colossal plastic structures providing perfect growing conditions for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other crops. Outside, citrus trees and date palms thrive. On this journey we experienced below freezing temperatures, snow, frost, fog and gorgeous, warm sunny days, depending on the terrain and the region.

Bougainvillea grows both as a free-standing shrub or trained as a climber

Bougainvillea grows both as a free-standing shrub or trained as a climber – if you have the climate

The point of our stay in Almeria Province was two-fold; we dropped in on my parents for New Year and visited a client with a garden to build. One of the main reasons we moved to central France was to make international garden design appointments easier. We can get to anywhere from here, with the UK, France and many other European mainland countries reached in a day, while even the furthest points of Spain, Portugal or Italy are only a couple of days away by car. Not having to cross the Channel each time we travel beyond the shores of England has been a real bonus.

People often ask how it is possible to design gardens in other countries. I have rarely found it to be a problem – the principles of garden design are universal, only the technical details change and local growers and other experts can always be found to assist if needs be. In Almeria they garden with what for the British are houseplants, but we have assisted with several gardens in the region. The important thing is to respect the surroundings and the traditions of the country when considering a new garden and this is why a three or four day visit is essential at some stage in the process.

Viburnum x. bodnantense in flower today in central France

Viburnum x. bodnantense in flower today in central France

Back in France, I am rather pleased to see some cold weather. Camellia flowers are beginning to open and daffodils poke out of the ground. This cool spell should hold everything back a little and avoid the catastrophic destruction of buds and flowers we experienced last year. Is it me or is their optimism in the air? Bookings for courses and guided garden and vineyard tours are going very well; we have students and customers coming from Australia, USA, Britain and a large group for three weeks from Greece. I am trying to fit garden and trade show visits into the schedule for the year: Salon Vegetal at Angers, Courson, St Jean de Beauregard and of course the gardens festival at Chaumont sur Loire. I’ll include as many as I can but already I accept there will not be time for IPM-Esson, or the British garden shows at Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court this year, unless a visit to a client happens to coincide with one of them.

One of this springs "must see" garden events

One of this springs “must see” garden events

I am spending a lot of time sorting out the web sites of the Academy, the Garden Design Company, Loire Valley Gardens and the rest, each of which need updates and improvements, our English garden design site undergoing a complete overhaul. There seem to be new opportunities everywhere and new demands from every direction – more indications of an exciting year to come. I am spending more time getting to know French gardening and horticulture, meeting some of the major characters of the industry during seminars, shows and other events. It’s proving fun to exchange experience with other enthusiasts and experts in a new language. At the same time we have many new and existing students undertaking distance learning courses, all of whom must be given attention and support.

A fine bush of Jasminium nudiflorum in a neighbour's garden

A fine bush of Jasminium nudiflorum in a neighbour’s garden

There is much to do in the garden before the season gets underway: a new lawn to sow, the areas around the swimming pool, behind the classroom and around the house to landscape and tidy up. Soon there will be seeds to sow – the first package has already arrived from Thomson and Morgan – and I’ll be too busy to undertake anything major.

So much to do, so little time to do it all! It’s what keeps me motivated and my gardening life eventful and joyous.

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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