Troglodyte flower show in central France

Villentrois mushroom cave

At the end of a beautiful, warm and sunny autumn week, we decided to visit the tiny village of Villentrois, near Valencay, at the northern tip of the Indre department. The village (population 625) had a thriving mushroom growing industry until recently, utilising the caves created during the excavation of Tuffeau limestone for building materials. The whole village, including the ancient castle, is made of this soft white stone and it has been used for restoration work on the great chateau at Chambord and other historic buildings.

One of these old mushroom caves is now a village hall and hosts events including the annual flower show, held this weekend. It is a happy, unpretentious affair attracting locals and day-trippers from further afield, who can also eat a hearty meal from tables set up for the purpose in one of the larger galleries. The school children and the library construct themed floral exhibits and local nurserymen, landscapers, florists, producers and artists sell their wares from decorated stands in corners around the caverns. The walls and ceilings are decked in foliage and fairy lights while the pathways are lined with flowers, softening the chilly atmosphere. Chelsea it is not, but it brings a smile to the faces of the visitors and on such a lovely Sunday afternoon it was certainly drawing in the crowds.

Floral display in the mushroom caves

Mushrooms are still produced in the artificial caves of the region, although it is not the cottage industry it once, deferring to the more efficient industrial producers who make up the bulk of my students on the Garden Design Academy Mushroom Growing course. We have had some interest in it recently from English owners of houses in France who, discovering they have a mushroom cave or troglodyte shed in the back garden, decide to make use of it. The French are generally keen to support local growers, so some have found a profitable niche market, selling to restaurants or shops and keeping the food miles down. These caves are ideal for mushroom production, but also make great wine cellars for much the same reason: the rock caverns provide very stable temperatures and great insulation. Some are lived in and they can make very cosy dwellings.

Carving the tuffeau stone

Mushrooms have been the subject of much debate in the gathering places of the area this week. The woods outside Valençay have become temporary home to more than 50 caravans, as gypsies arrive from around the country to hunt for wild mushrooms, especially Boletus edulus – the Cep. Selling at around 25 Euro a kilo and up to twice that in Paris, they are being collected by the lorry full to sell in the capital, damaging large areas of private and public woodland in the process. Given that these woods are important sources of revenue as hunting grounds in addition to the timber and associated products, a serious conflict could be on the way. We discreetly collected a few Ceps on the way home, but in quantities unlikely to upset the natural balance of the woods, or the tempers of the landowners.

Autumn colour, autumn harvest

Autumn has crept gently into central France, producing muted colours with fiery highlights rather than the dazzling displays of less mild years.

Some trees and shrubs dropped their foliage at the first sign of a frost while others, confused by the warm, wet spell that followed, have hung on for another month or more, before dropping in a desultory, half-hearted and uninspiring fashion.

Every now and then however, I am stopped in my tracks by a spectacular sighting of a single Gingko or maple tree, a whole bank of Rhus or Cotinus, or a patch of forest oaks. Then Camus’s line: “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, makes sense again.

Autumn colour is one of the great features of this season and in many countries a tourist trade has developed around its arrival. In our mild climate we are never treated to stunning displays like those in parts of the United States or China, extending over hundreds of miles and involving millions of plants, but we have our moments. Nearly one third of the land area of France is covered in trees, an area of woodland six times greater than those of the UK. When one of the great French woodland regions gets autumn colour just right, it is a sight to be seen!

Plane bark and autumn colour

In deciduous trees and shrubs the production of green chlorophyll drops away with falling autumn light levels, while other plant pigments contained in a leaf – yellow, orange or red depending on the chemical involved – are on the increase as plant sugars concentrate. A crisp, sunny autumn will produce the best leaf colours and we have hopes of a decent end-of-season display in this part of the world is this weekend, when fine weather is forecast. Already the days are superb, despite ugly conditions on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and we were out picking mushrooms in the woods this morning.

Berries, fruits and seeds are the other big feature of the season and this year I have been collecting some of our own to sow alongside those we are buying from the seed companies. More for fun than in any great hope of success I have sowed a pod of Lilium regale Album, which has rewards my efforts by producing seedlings in their dozens. Spurred on by this, I have since sowed Salvia argentea seeds and have a pod of Fritillaria imperialis on my desk awaiting its turn.

I am a great fan of allowing plants to self-seed but sometimes the results are disappointing, either not germinating or being ruined by my over-zealous weeding of the garden. We have had many successes however; Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings replaced an original plant which died after the first year, Verbena bonariensis is gradually establishing itself around one end of a sunny bed and many plants appear spontaneously in our gravel patio. As with outdoor cuttings, I often sow seeds I have harvested at the base of the parent plant, if only to be able to find them later. I am beginning to think that if I really want success I should be sowing in seed trays either in the garden or under cover, as I do with those I buy in packets. Some of the more simple bedding plants – Calendula, Opium Poppies and Nigella – do very well however, needing weeding out when they begin to take over.

Calendula - one of our more beautiful "weeds"

Our second delivery of packet seeds arrived today, this time from Suttons. These included a Banana, Ensete ventricosum, from their Eden Project range. I have only once, many years ago, had success with Banana and last years’ seeds (of E. glaucum) from Thompson and Morgan yet again failed to germinate. The species I have bought this time is African rather than south Asian and said to be hardier. Packets come with instructions to soak in warm water for 24 hours and I did this immediately, aware that they need to be sown at the earliest opportunity. I have found, by the way, a site “dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of the tropics in inappropriate climates” called Cooltropicalplants.com, which is amusingly written and full of sensible advice on a range of plants, including this one. I now understand that Bananas need temperatures of around 30°C to grow and I may not have provided this in the past. No criticism intended T&M!

Protecting plants from the first frosts of autumn

Frosty spider

The barometer was at its highest for months and while the days were sunny and warm, the nights became progressively colder.

Then it happened: on Friday 21st October we had our first frost. It was just a light one that day but the following morning we were greeted by a liberal sprinkling of dazzling white frost crystals, sparkling in the morning sun.

By Sunday it was all forgotten; the barometer plummeted, the rain came and with it much milder weather. When will it return? Who can tell? But return it will and next time it will be harder.

Last year we were caught out and lost several precious plants to a sudden cold snap. This year we have been planning ahead, lifting tender specimens and placing them under cover. We have rooted precautionary cuttings and begun mulching some of the plants which are on the border line of hardiness in our region and in our soil.

Lemons cannot be grown out of doors in central France and last year we lost two fine specimens in spite of providing fleece covers. It was the best we could do at the time: the plants were far too large to have in the house and the old metal and glass conservatory was full of office equipment; the log cabin was not yet built. This year we have a lovely new Lemon plant and have already moved it to the conservatory which, although unheated, will give sufficient protection for the time being. The conservatory is more than 100 years old and keeps much of the north side of our house dry and warm. We have replaced many panes of ancient broken glass and it should be cosier this year, in spite of a rusty door which fails to close completely. We have several dozen plants sheltering there, ranging from recently potted cuttings to established specimens in substantial pots. Bedding Geraniums have been gathered together in trays of home-made compost.

Lemons awaiting a glass with gin and tonic

The recently built log cabin classroom is the second building which will be pressed into support of tender plants. It is a large structure with a covered, but open sided patio area occupying 25% of the floor space. By using this patio, some protection can be provided in reasonably light conditions. I also propose building a bench in the cabin by a large, south facing window for cuttings currently rooting in the tunnel under the loft skylights in the main house. I have installed electric heaters which, because of the superb insulation of the thick wooden walls, will keep the temperatures up at minimum expense. If Garden Design Academy students or other guests need to use the cabin before the spring, I trust they will understand that in this household of gardeners the plants always come first!

Over most of our garden the soil has a light, sandy texture. The drainage this provides in winter is very helpful to plants which might otherwise rot at the roots. We leave Gladioli and Dahlias in the ground without problem for instance, something which would have been risky in our previous garden in England. In one bed in the rear garden we have many plants from the Mediterranean, north and South Africa and from South America, including Salvia argentea and Aloysia citrodora, which have overwintered each year without problem. Just in case, I have recently sown home-produced seed of the Silver Clary and taken cuttings of Lemon Verbena, but I hope not to need them and give the plants away next season.

Cistus - if you need to prune, wait until the spring.

A couple of cultural techniques have proved of value when overwintering half-hardy plants. I do not prune tender plants until the frosts have gone, allowing the foliage and stems produced last season to protect the shoots and buds which will grow next year. This is especially true of late-blooming plants which would have little chance to regrow if pruned after flowering. Cistus, Convolvulus cneorum, Lagerstroemia and Lavatera are examples of plants which I delay pruning until the spring.

We use leaf mould, generously collected and left in vast heaps around the outskirts of town by the local authority, both as free compost and as winter protection for tender plants. Delicate roots are given a liberal mulching and if heaped up around and over stems, these too benefit from the protection this provides. Where taller branches need similar treatment we use hay, straw and the stems of ornamental grasses, secured with twine if necessary. Our Olive bush was buried in Miscanthus stems last year and came through temperatures down to -17°C.

I love this region of France for its seasons, bringing daily changes to the plants we grow and to those growing wild in the countryside around us. By taking a few precautions, plants which a more reasonable gardener would never attempt, sail through the winter and provide a wider range of gardening experiences than if our choices were more conservative.

Courson plant festival (autumn 2011) – JOURNEES DES PLANTES DE COURSON – the results

If you don’t know about Courson you really have not been concentrating; it has been featured many times in this blog and is far and away my favourite plant fair. Held twice a year at the chateau Domaine de Courson , south of Paris, the festival is recognised for its quality and authority and awards for stands or individual plants are coveted.

Although life got in the way of my annual pilgrimage to the festival, I was sent the press release and can therefore reveal the award winning plants at this autumn’s show:

Trees

x Gordlinia grandiflora

Quercus palustris ‘Pringreen’ (GREEN PILLAR®)

Acer capillipes ‘Antoine’

x Gordlinia grandiflora

Acer pentaphyllum

Shrubs

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Invincibelle’

Hedera helix ‘Silver Butterfly’

Conifers

Taxodium ascendens ‘Nutans’

Sequoia sempervirens ‘Henderson Blue’

Picea abies ‘Frohburg’

Herbacious plants

Stokesia laevis ‘Purple Parasols’

Saxifraga fortunei var. incisilobata ‘Momosekisui’

Ajuga reptans ‘Metallica Crispa’

Ajuga reptans ‘Metallica Crispa’

Boehmeria sylvatica

Mertensia maritima

Grasses

Molinia ‘Les Ponts de Cé’

Stipa calamagrostis

Eragrostis trichodes

Saccharum brevibarbe var. contortum (Syn. Saccharum contortum ; Erianthus
contortus)

Ferns

Selaginella uliginosa

There are many interesting plants in this list, deserving a place in our gardens. If you have experience of any of them perhaps you’ll let me know?

Missed opportunities and great potential.

My wife and I have wasted the whole day fighting with Dell, the supplier of our PC’s – not the way a gardener should be spending such a lovely, sunny day. I won’t bore you with all the facts, but after a hard disc failure on my wife’s machine, Dell seem to be doing everything they can not to honour the 24-hour repair warranty we were persuaded to take out. The latest tale is that while they will repair it free of charge, we have to purchase a new copy of Windows 7, the operating system without which the PC will not function. It’s a bit like buying a plant at the garden centre, roots not included!

This has not helped our sense of humour or improved our sun tan. In the meantime not only did the Courson Plant Fair come and go without us overspending, or indeed attending, we also seemed to have missed the Chestnut season; how could this be? Gardening works with the seasons if it works at all – if you sit too long in the shade, the summer will just pass you by – you have been warned by one who knows!

Fortunately there are suppliers out there who can be relied upon and the loud thud which accompanies the arrival of the seed catalogues is enough to galvanise even the most lackadaisical and distracted into action.

Big Begonias growing with Petunias in our garden

Over the years I have noticed a change, discreet at first but now gathering momentum, as the seedsmen increasingly sell their more interesting varieties as young plants rather than seed. This is difficult for us, as most UK companies will not post to France. There is good reason for this; our testing of grafted tomatoes was ruined by the condition of the plants on arrival: only two out of nine survived. A trial of a new variety of Begonia was similarly blighted (although I maintain the grower was also at fault, a theory firmly disputed by the company concerned). Benary’s Begonia “Big” has finished the season on a high, but taken most of the year to recover from the damage inflicted by the journey from the UK.

Commercial growers and parks departments have been utilising seedlings and young plants for twenty years and most now leave this stage to the specialists. Many years ago we had a 6 acre glasshouse nursery providing this service on behalf of a French seed company. At the home gardener level, tricky and expensive plants like F1 Begonia, Geranium and Impatiens are important seedling / plug subjects, but the range available is increasing at a pace.

Plugs and seedlings

The Dobies catalogue features 25 pages of flowers and 11 pages of vegetables offered as young plants, in addition to bulbs and fruit plants. Suttons also list more than 26 pages of flowers and vegetable plants, while Thompson and Morgan have them scattered throughout their catalogue. As the nature of their customers’ changes from garden enthusiasts to a much wider public and gardening skills diminish, this convenient and profits-enhancing development is sure to evolve.

T & M was the first of these catalogues to arrive and my order was sent by email a while ago. We do not yet grow a wide range of vegetables as, for the moment at least, we don’t have a lot of space for a proper veg garden and those we do grow are scattered amongst the ornamental plants. We like our tomatoes however and Sungold, Suncherry and Sungella are our choices for next seasons salads. Courgettes do well here but the plants take up too much space for my liking. This year we will try the F1 hybrid Defender, which I gather is a much more compact plant and less likely to give us marrow-shaped fruits of the variety we grew this year. Lettuce Lettony is a new variety I thought worth a try. I am hoping the promise of being resistant to bolting holds true as we had too much of that this season. Golden Berry Little Lanterns completes our selection and I hope it will do well out of doors: we used to grow them in the greenhouse and I love both the look and taste.

Gaura lindheimeri

In flowers, we are trying a mixture of easy and challenging subjects, including a few herbaceous perrenials like Eryngium, Gaillardia, Gaura lindheimeri and Lupins. New this year is Sweet Pea Prima Ballerina, Papaver Pink Fizz (two-tone pink with frilly edges) and Godetia Rembrandt, while Calendula Chrysantha is a variety which dates from the 1930’s. We are trying some tuberous Begonias from seed in addition to double Impatiens and award-winning Geranium Moulin Rouge. We are growing Antirrhinum Axiom mixed and Sunflower for cut flowers, with Sweet Pea White Supreme in the white border.

As I write, Chantal is studying the other catalogues.

Plants for friends, plants for customers

As autumn approaches, thoughts turn naturally to this year’s planting season and we are arranging the delivery of plants to a number of our clients this month. These days we do not have teams of eager landscapers willing and able to construct my gardens for our customers, but I still like to involve myself in the planting for a number of reasons.

Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes (Bailtier) showing autumn colour in our garden in central France

Disappointingly, I find many professional landscapers and garden designers woefully lacking in plant knowledge. This is something we try to address at the Garden Design Academy, where a number of our courses encourage students to improve the range of plants with which they are familiar. In reality however, it just takes interest and motivation; it also takes time to fully understand a wide selection of the garden plants available to gardeners.

We therefore offer to locate and supply the plants we specify for our gardens, either just delivering them to site or more usually, placing them out on the newly cultivated beds to the planting plan and plant list we have produced as part of the design of the garden. Although there are plenty of fine growers here in France, we often find we need to purchase our plants from the UK, Belgium or Holland to fulfil our requirements.

We also like to give plants as presents to our friends and I much prefer to have grown them myself than to buy them: it’s a more personal gesture, I feel. Frustrated nurseryman that I am, I have a heated tunnel in the loft in which I sow seed and establish cuttings and while not everything does well (of course, I like to try the most difficult plants!) we do claim some success at producing batches of plants to give away. I had cleared the tunnel and turned off the under-soil heating before our recent trip South, but have just reinstated it for my next attempts at propagation.

Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii in flower today by the front gate

For myself I have taken cuttings of New Guinea Hybrid Impatiens from the single plant which has brightened up the shady border by the front door this year. I expect I will dig up and pot the main plant, which is now quite large, attempting to over-winter it out of the frost. These cuttings are my insurance policy and I have done the same with Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii, which we grow in a pot by the front gate and which will also need protection during winter. Other tender plants will be given similar treatment.

For friends I have  cuttings of Hebe Great Orme and Cistus corbariensis today and a list of a number of others I will attempt to root during the next week or so. It has been fascinating looking at notes I made almost forty years ago, listing the appropriate months to take cuttings from a wide range of shrubs. I have decided to give young Colin the benefit of the doubt and concentrate on the plants he suggests.

Echium fastuosum in its native habitat

In the post box most mornings are offers of plants from a number of mail order companies, suggestions I can resist without too much difficulty. On the other hand I have found a French grower on eBay, of all places, who lists a really interesting selection of unusual plants and clearly knows her stuff. I decided to give her a try and have ordered Echium fastuosum, whose towering blue flower spikes are a spectacular feature of the flora of Madera, Kniphofia Dorset Sentry, an acid-yellow variety of Red Hot Poker and Hedychium Tara, a hardy plant related to Ginger featuring luxuriant foliage and delightfully scented, bright orange flowers. We are looking forward to growing all of these and will report back on their arrival and progress.

Back from the South of France

After a tiring but satisfying week teaching a residential garden design course here in Chabris, we took ourselves off to the South of France for a part work / part holiday break. Our base, after a little touring around the Languedoc-Roussillon, was Pézenas, where a client put us up at their vineyard Gîte Rural while we discussed the creation of a new garden around their house. This arrangement also allowed for plenty of time to visit the region with our son, who flew over to join us.

Roquebrun - Jardin Méditerranéen - perhaps next time?

I had planned to take in two local gardens but discovered that our first was available for evening guided visits only and this did not suit our schedule. We reached the village of Roquebrun in the Hérault to seek out the Jardin Méditerranéen but were distracted by a pretty restaurant and in the end did not make it to the garden. We did however, discover the local wine co-op where a steady stream of growers were delivering their harvest. After some debate and careful consideration, we eventually departed with two dozen bottles of their finest.

Roadside saffron crocus

This region of France is particularly attractive when the temperatures moderate and the tourists leave. We swam in the Mediterranean and looked at the boats in the harbour at Sète, enjoyed a wonderful meal in a village on the edge of the Bassin de Thau and strolled by the Canal du Midi. We were particularly taken by the hills and mountains of the huge Haut-Languedoc Natural Park behind the coast. The stunning scenery and an amazing diversity of countryside, geology and climate had us captivated for several expeditions, driving around mountain roads and through tiny mountain hamlets. We should have walked more I know, but the dog had a foot infection and was effectively lame for the whole trip, although she enjoyed our swims in lakes and rivers each day. One area consisted of a forest of Chestnut trees as far as the eye could see (and probably much further) and locals were busy bringing in the bounty, while in another, more open region, the roadsides were flecked with saffron crocus.

All good things come to an end and eventually we had to make our way home, after lunch next to the brick cathedral at Albi and a night in a farmhouse above the River Lot. We arrived refreshed and ready to work again, with a garden design to complete and, amongst the 2,000 emails sitting in my Outlook Inbox, a few more requests for courses. The first signs of autumn were evident in the garden.

Less tourism and more gardening in my next post, I promise!