The garden designer’s computer – anything to keep out of the snow!

Snailman (sculpture by David Goode) in the snow

With snow thick on the ground I have been setting up my office, moving out of the lounge to a new desk in the reception room of the house, where my wife Chantal also works. Having just purchased a shiny new computer I thought it would be interesting for those starting a career in garden design to see how I am organising myself. I do not claim to be anything other than an experienced PC user, certainly not an expert and I await with interest the comments of any reader who is….although having bought it, any criticism is a bit academic now, for me at least.

My new machine came from Dell in France; my son, a computer professional with an honours degree in Web site design, Multimedia and Playing games, considers this company to be the spawn of the Devil, but you can’t please everyone!

For those who like to know about these things, or would like to compare my system with their own, this is the specification:

Intel core i7 processor ( 2,93Ghz, 8MB); 8MB memory 1333 DDR3; 2TB Hard drive; 1 GB graphic card (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460) Windows 7 operating system (in French, which adds a whole new dimension to what was already a tricky transition from my previous system); CD/DVD/Blueray player and writers. I decided to recycle a Dell flat screen I am rather fond of rather than buy a new one and a Microsoft cordless mouse and keyboard (in English) although a French keyboard was thrown in.

Ice and snow in the woods of Chabris

It’s basically a multimedia / games machine, selected because I need speed and memory to use umpteen demanding programs at the same time and hard disc space to store all my drawings.

Apart from Windows itself, it came with no software so I have been hunting about in the loft and elsewhere, looking for installation discs and stored copies of all my favourites, with only partial success.

First I needed the internet and Chantal came up with the Orange installation discs which I passed a happy hour or so being rude to before Orange finally agreed to let me on line. We also use a Netgear router so that both Chantal and I can have the internet and with a little more swearing I had her PC and my PC wired in and the laptop running wirelessly. Next I wanted protection: ESET Smart Security immediately replaced the trial version of McAfee and I added Ad-aware, Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware, Spybot, SuperAntispyware, with Tuneup Utilities for luck( not that I’m paranoid, or anything!).

So far, so good but I needed a stiff drink and a lie down at that point, leaving the machine to download literally dozens of updates.

The next day it was the turn of communications, word processor and other essentials which required Microsoft Office, although my son begged me to use the free and much more trendy Open Office instead. A jolly hour or two later and I had mail coming in from all my email accounts. I do a lot of work with .pdf files so Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro was also an early installation. I transferred my custom dictionary, with thousands of correctly spelled plant names, from my laptop to Word on the new PC using a flashdisc. Again, the PC found a further few dozen updates and loaded them.

As a garden designer I’d be lost without my CAD software; installed to date are Autocad 10, TurboCAD Pro 16, Sketchup Pro 6 (all of these are about two versions out of date but good enough for the time being). Somewhere I have a copy of Vectorworks 8, but hunt as I might I could not find it. I do not use Vectorworks Landmark very often but students demand it so I like to keep in touch with the software; fortunately I have it on my lap-top. I did find several versions of the Australian equivalent called Landworks so, assuming they still install, I may add that later. I regularly use Photoshop so I have installed the CS5 version but could not find Indesign, which I occasionally use for Garden Design Academy leaflets. Again, it’s on the laptop if I need it. In the mean time a student of ours in the USA suggested we look at Realtime Landscaing software from Idea Spectrum, so I have requested a download copy to evaluate. Watch this space for a review.

St. Phalier's grape vines in the snow

A great deal of my time is devoted to the Garden Design Academy web site and for this I use Dreamweaver CS4. My son tells me the CS5 version is worth having but for now this will do nicely.

Installing printers is not an issue with Windows 7: you just plug them in and they work. I use an HP Deskjet 9800 for A4 and A3 printing, but have larger HP plotters printing up to A0 upstairs. The Canon digital camera was also instantly identified and I imagine the Wacom A3 graphics tablet will be to. This is such a great drawing tool (do avoid the smaller sizes) so I’ll try that in a little while.

The problem I am still wrestling with is what to do with documents. At the moment I have everything on two external hard drives. This is very handy because I can use them both on the laptop and the PC at any time. But hard discs don’t last forever, so it might be wiser to also have everything on the huge hard disc which came with the PC and use the external drives as security backup (Dell, God bless them, would like me to download and store everything on their server at great cost). I just wilt at the idea of transferring all those files but have a copy of Laplink Gold 12 and a special lead which makes automatic backups and speedy transfers relatively painless once the system is set up; I’m still considering this but have installed the software anyway.

The snow has stopped so we are off to walk the dog and reflect on how something as simple as the laying out of a garden could have become so technical, complicated and expensive.

French garden in the November snow 2010

Heather - Erica carnea - in the snow

Did I say yesterday that we might have snow?

A snow blanket over the flowers outside the church in Chabris, France


Well, we did, with North Indre / South Indre et Loir taking the brunt of it after escaping the worst for several days.

Today has been ideal weather for the kids, many of whom have been unable or unwilling to go to school – snowmen and ski tracks are appearing all around the town.

The woods were beautiful when we walked the dog earlier as you can see from the photograph and when we returned we grateful to have work to do in the warmth of our home; an interesting assignment from one of our Garden History students kept me busily reading for much of the morning.

Snow in the woods, Chabris, Loire Valley, France

French garden centres, snow, Mimosa and Moth Orchids

When my trusty leather working boots gave up on me this autumn I bought a new pair from one of the better garden centres locally. I like to drop in on Gamme Vert every so often but only rarely spend money there. Like most French garden centres, they have a limited range of plants at high prices and in the shop itself I am always surprised by their stock – both what they do sell and the things they don’t.

They carry a very good range of outdoor clothing however and I was pleased with the boots I selected, until two months later when a hook for the laces broke. I could not find the receipt and having had a poor experience with nurseries when plants died I was preparing for a fight. My lecture entitled Customer Relations and Good Retailing Practices was prepared but in the event not needed: they exchanged the books promptly and politely. I was so taken aback I bought a Mimosa to celebrate – see, being good to clients makes good business sense!

Mimosa Le Gaulois

Mimosa Le Gaulois is a cross between A. dealbata and A. baileyana, bred in the Cote d’Azure in the 1900’s as a cut flower variety. These days it is grown alongside later-flowering Le Gaulois ‘Astier’ to extend the season. Having lost a young ‘Mireille’ to the cold a year or two back we were keen to replace it and bring some winter colour into the garden. I carefully selected a strong, grafted plant and negotiated a small discount, thus concluding our business very satisfactorily. The Mimosa will stay in the cool of the front conservatory to fill the structure with flower and scent over winter and be planted in the garden in the spring. My plan is to plant an evergreen shrub over it to provide protection during particularly hard winters.

The TV news is full of snow reports, with regions from the channel coast to the Dordogne and of course, the mountain areas, suffering from its effects. Here in the Centre we have seen no more than a few flakes, but this may change (it is just starting to snow now). There have been four nights of frost so far this season and yesterday the temperatures dropped to -2°C, lower out in the sticks. A visiting gardening enthusiast expressed surprise that we grow Olive outside and suggested Phormiums should be protected. Cold hardiness is a funny thing, with so many different factors resulting in success or failure to survive the winter. We benefit here from a light soil which does not get too wet in the winter. It also warms up early and the long growing season we enjoy is another benefit. The garden is completely enclosed, providing a high degree of shelter from damaging winds while our practice of mulching and close planting protects venerable roots. The climate in the Centre is kind, neither too hot in the summer nor too cold in the winter and rainfall is sufficient but not excessive. All these factors combined allow me to grow a wider range of plants than I was able to in southern England, although I also take more risks here and loose a few plants as a result.

Plant maturity is another issue, with the surface roots of newly planted stock particularly venerable.We have planted Lagerstroemia each year for the last three years and the first winter is always a worry. The cold weather usually takes all but a single shoot to grow the following spring but by the second winter the plant is strong enough to survive anything our climate can throw at it.

Moth Orchid - Phalaenopsis

With little to be done in the garden we are delighted that our collection of Moth Orchids – Phalaenopsis –  which increases by one or two specimens each year, is beginning to come back into flower. In truth, there is hardly a day of the year when at least one of them is not in flower. They surround us with life and colour and on Sundays at this time of the year we start  planning next season’s garden, with the seed catalogues out and important decisions to be made.

Cut flowers, nuts and berries.

We have been working hard to provide new courses and add them to the Garden Design Academy web site. The latest batch fills me with nostalgia and reminds me of the beginnings of my horticultural career as a boy in south-west of England.

My Father was a highly skilled tool-maker and precision engineer and still, in his eighties, makes skeleton clocks as a hobby, starting with sheets of metal and transforming them into a unique timepiece over the course of a year or more. Dedicated though he was to his work, his passion was gardening and his dream was to own his own nursery.

An opportunity came his way when a couple of elderly ladies who ran an organic smallholding wanted to retire. They liked my Dad (everyone does!) and decided to help him fulfill has ambition. An arrangement was made whereby he paid a lump sum and the remainder from future earnings; we were the proud owners of a house and 10 acres of Cornish countryside, with crops in the ground including bulbs, foliage plants and strawberries. All the machinery and equipment was left in the barns and sheds and at the age of fourteen the ladies taught me how to plough and showed my father how to grow the traditional crops organically.

Our Cut Flower Bulbs course would have been useful to Dad. We understood so little and the learning curve was steep. We made hugely expensive mistakes out of ignorance of the most basic techniques, but made up for it in enthusiasm and share determination. At harvest time it was not unusual for me to work until midnight and go to school the next day.

Daffodils were the major crop in our region and features prominently in the course. One year, I remember, we went out to check on a field which should have been close to picking, to discover the whole crop of nearly two acres had disappeared; they had been stolen over night and we were not surprised to see cheap Daffs for sale on the streets of Truro that weekend. We also grew Anemones, Dutch Iris and Kaffir Lilies outside and had a try with Freesias in the glasshouses we built together. These flowers were packed and sent by train to the markets of London, Birmingham and other cities; sometimes they fetched a good price but on occasions they made nothing. The trick was to have flowers for Mothers Day.

The other major inherited crop was strawberries. These were grown in the fields with a proportion protected under glass cloches to produce earlier crops. Ladies from the village used to come to help with the picking but Mother could outperform all of them, cutting them carefully with scissors and arranging them in punnets. The fruit were sold at the farm gate, in local shops and through wholesalers, where the price was lower but the volumes far greater. We grew other berry fruits to sell locally in small quantities, currents and gooseberries especially and these and many more feature in our new Berry Fruit Production course. We learned the hard way about Gooseberry Sawfly larva, which can strip the leaves from a whole plantation in just a few days if you are not attentive.

The Nut Production course reminds me not so much of my childhood, but of my current life in France, where we regularly pick sacks of hazel nuts, chestnuts and walnuts from local trees and bushes, storing them in the cool of the cellar for use throughout the year. Walnuts are grown here commercially, both for the edible nuts and for the oil, pressed at several mills in the area and in France generally, many nut crops are important to the local economy.

During forty years in the industry I have worked in most sectors of the horticultural industry and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to pass on what I have learned to students of the Garden Design Academy. Many more exciting courses are in the pipeline and I am enjoying working with students through the existing range. The RHS qualification courses are always stimulating and the vast subject of Garden History is fascinating, especially now that I can easily compare the English tradition with the French. Living in the Touraine with a Bordeaux-born wife gives an extra edge to our Viticulture courses, with one of our students owning a boutique vineyard in New Zealand. Garden design and landscaping courses involve art, craft and science in creating the gardens our clients demand and are hugely satisfying both for students and ourselves.

I have been saying for years that you never stop learning in horticulture and gardening. I get back as much as I give while teaching these subjects and trust this will continue for many years to come.

Autumn planting, autumn cooking, Courson and soot all over the lounge.

Friday starting very promisingly.

Chantal had been chatting to a local lady about girlie cooking stuff and as a result she came rushing around to help out with the making of the quince jelly and green tomato jam. The quinces arrived after a recent scavenging session: there are dozens of quince trees in the village but no-one but us seems to use them. Did I tell you about the quince pate de fruit? No? Just as well…’d only put on weight.


Anyway, our friend arrived with a gift of Clerodendrum thomsoniae, although being bought in France it was not labeled. I was explaining to anyone who would listen that it was the same genus as the offshoot we were given a year or two back by a local gardener: C. trichotomum fargesii, the former African and the latter Chinese. This seemed to have interested few people and there was a suggestion, not articulated, that perhaps I should get out more. I did get out, and planted up a new bed in the sunniest part of the garden, added Cistus Callistemon and Lagerstroemia to the Hibiscus, Nepeta and Cytisus battandieri already there.

Then some jokers arrived to fit a new fire we ordered, covering the whole of the ground floor in soot, leaving electrics in a dangerous state and the chimney at risk of falling at the first puff of wind. Tradesmen wonder why everyone has it in for them: this is why. Having been the victim of such people in the past we know the drill and are writing our thoughts on the matter in two languages; copies to the company, our insurers and our notaire. This one could run and run, with new carpets and furniture ruined and the family coughing up soot most of the day. I’m amazed the TV and laptop haven’t blown up with all the mess which much be inside of them.

On Saturday we gave ourselves a break from the chaos and visited the Fete de St. Denis at nearby Lucay La Male. The dog liked the donkeys and the man herding geese; there was a great junk market, a family pressing their apples for juice the old way, an amusing potato competition, serious and not so serious art and pompom girls leaping about to the local brass band. On the way back we collected Chestnuts and mushrooms for dinner.

A man has just come and gone, rating our carpet unclean-able. Never mind, on Friday we are off to Courson, that great, biannual plant buying opportunity south of Paris, where we can sooth our woes on a shopping spree. Expect to see photos here very soon. This year we have not been asked to guide anyone around or give talks so we can just concentrate on indulging ourselves.

It’s always summer in the South of France

We have just returned from a trip to see customers in three regions of France: one near Carcassonne, another near Antibes and the final visit close to Vichy. Three gardens, three different clients, soils and climates. We combined these visits with a short holiday, staying in a hilltop village near the Mediterranean for a week, while overnighting on the way down and on the journey back, close to our clients’ homes. This, we felt, would give us a good feel for the potential of each garden while also giving us our first break in a long while.


Garden in the heart of the medieval fortified city of Carcassonne

For reading material I took a witty novel by Terry Darlington called Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, which seemed rather appropriate given one of our stops. I also had the new UK version of the Thompson & Morgan seed catalogue which arrived on the day of our departure and Gardens of the World by Rory Stuart, a new book on the development of the pleasure garden in different cultures of the world.

We were very pleased to acquaint ourselves with other parts of this beautiful country and to have three exciting new projects to work on. As we often do these days, in each case we prepared initial surveys by CAD on our laptop, allowing us to check and confirm measurements before we left the site. Spending that much time in the garden, looking at it in detail and in the round, also gave us ample opportunity to absorb the environment and consider design options.

We loved each region for different reasons. The first property is a typical vineyard house, tall and solid with local stone walls and terracotta tile roofs. The layout is rectangular with stables opposite the house connected by other working buildings, now converted to accommodation. There is a large swimming pool and a collection of palms and olives but otherwise we have a blank canvas to work with. Not far away is the magnificent medieval city of Carcassonne, separate from the 18th century town with its grand buildings and Canal de Midi port. All around are vineyards and farmland but wild, wooded limestone hills are also close by.


Exotic planting by the harbour at Cannes

The second is in the hills behind Nice and Antibes; a modern villa on steeply sloping, rocky ground. The climate is very hot in summer, but with surprisingly humid air as it rises towards the Alps from the sea. The soil is good when there is any, but in places there is just bare rock. There are lots of olives and citrus fruits and cacti do very well. In this part of the world a pool is a must, although there are plenty of mosquitoes in the evening, enough to drive inside all but the most resilient. We left the centre of France with the autumn fast approaching, to find ourselves back in summer temperatures. The mountain scenery is particularly spectacular here, but we did find time to visit Nice, Antibes, Cannes and other coastal resorts and ports. Monte Carlo was denied us by huge traffic jams and Grasse was a real disappointment in its shabbiness.

The final visit was to Vichy, the famous Belle Époque spa town in the Massive Central region of ancient mountains. Here the air was cool and the soil acid: ideal for Rhododendrons and all the other wonderful woodland plants. The house is large, traditional and on the edge of a village the time has passed by. It’s a lovely spot and warm in summer and cold in the winter – just as it should be but much harsher than our part of the world. I shall particularly enjoy the planting in this garden, which is the main part of our contract with the owner. Visiting the town on the Sunday we spent a happy few hours in the riverside park, with its amazing collection of rare trees. We tasted the famous spa water,which I am rather fond of, and the traditional sweets derived from it. We wondered around with the dog on this rather chilly day, enjoying the architecture and other sights of this most elegant town before setting off on the six hour drive to Chabris.


The park alongside the river Allier at Vichy is a tree lovers paradise.

Back home and we have a mountain of letters and emails to work through, several new students and the log cabin classroom to finish off. We bought a few plants of course, and these need planting. I am not sure I have the time to write this really!

We were quite self controlled I thought, with our plant purchases, but returned with a large Callistemon, two varieties of artichoke, a white Lagerstroemia to add to the pink and the red forms we already own, and a plant new to me: Leonotis leonurus, a South African plant related to Phlomis. I may be pushing my luck with this plant, but will repot it and attempt to overwinter it with a bit of protection, before planting it out next year.

Our next plant purchasing opportunity will be the unmissable Courson plant fair south of Paris, 15-17th October. If you have a chance to go, take it! More details and a review in  later blog postings.


Leonotis leonurus- Loin's Tail.

Planting under the Sequoias

Those of you who have been following my posts (and there are more of you out there than the number of comments would suggest) will know that one of the features of our garden in central France is a couple of ancient Sequoias. The largest is a Sequoiadendron giganteum, around 150 years old and with its top taken out by lightning in the twenties, while behind it is a Sequoia sempervirons or Coast Redwood. Nestling between these is our new log cabin, the lecture room for the Garden Design Academy.


In flower today: Aster 'Schone von Dietlikon'

The construction team is now dealing with the finishing details to complete the building so our thoughts are turning once again to the gardens and how to incorporate the cabin into the surrounding landscape. I know there are many American gardeners reading this so I would appreciate your thoughts on what American native plants would be appropriate under the trees.

The soil here is a silty-sand and there is a great deal of accumulated organic matter at the base of the Sequoias. Brambles do well and I have been out this morning hand weeding them; White European Cyclamen are in flower at the base and there are plenty of seedling Bay and Laurel. In a bed close by I have planted Japanese Maples, Rhododendrons, herbaceous Geraniums, Heuchera, Alchemilla, English Bluebells, Solomon’s Seal, some native woodland Orchids and two species of Hydrangea. Hostas do well if they are regularly watered: I grow an attractive group around a stone bird bath which is filled to overflowing every day. There are still plenty of woodland plants I can select from but I would love for someone who knows Sequoias in its homeland to put me on the path to planting something authentic. The idea is a small bed surrounding the trees with a woodland path pushing past and giving access to the tiny veg plot I hope to create in the space beyond.


Salvia uliginosa in a sunny bed near the Sequoias

Every sunny day now is named “the last day of summer” and we are trying to make the most of it by getting out into the garden and the countryside as much as possible. Last weekend was the second anniversary of our moving to France so after guests had packed up and gone (we had a group of 10 in the house) we took a picnic down to the river and spend the afternoon, eating, drinking, sunbathing, swimming and playing with the dog. Today is also beautiful so although we are trying to catch some sun, I have been weeding the Sequoia and Chantal is trying to locate a B&B for our imminent trip to the south of the country by trawling the internet. She has exhausted herself recently trying to keep up with jam-making while friends and neighbours keep dropping over with more baskets full of fruit. The latest batches have been peaches, raspberries and blackberries but we have just had to start saying “No” and hope they are not too offended. The jams are turning out great but recently she made pate des fruits from fallen peaches….now that is good and makes wonderful giveaways when we visit friends.

I have been looking at Cedric Pollet’s new book “Bark” in spare moments. I am sure this will be in every gardener’s Christmas stocking this year so a review will be posted here very soon. In the mean time, please get your thinking caps on for my bed under the Sequoias.

Nature prepares for the end of summer

We are currently loosing day length, here in the centre of France, at the rate of half an hour a week. Nights are clear and cool, with temperatures dropping to around 12 degrees C, while the days are calm and sunny, allowing us to continue to eat outside at mid day, when it has warmed to 27 degrees or more.


Late summer flowers from Caryopteris and Rudbeckia

All around us Nature is reacting to this: grasses like Cortaderia and Miscanthus are coming into flower and autumn fruits are ripening. The signs look good for the grape harvest – although there has been more growth than usual to trim off, these late sunny days are increasing sugar content in the berries, enhancing flavour and the boosting alcohol when the wine is eventually made. There is so much unpicked fruit on the trees that few bother picking the wild blackberries, which in any case lack the taste of those we used to eat in England. We are hanging on for the apples pears, quince and late peaches, turning down offers of plums for jam making; you can only eat and give away so much jam and we are saving the last few dozen jars for the autumn fruits.

In the garden, under the giant Sequoias, the Garden Design Academy classroom is nearing completion and when the workers have finally gone we will be able to create more beds to settle it nicely into the landscape. The final phases of the work seem to take forever and we are not confident it will be completed in time for the next residential course. These have been held very successfully this year in a wing of the house we rent out to tourists when not needed by Academy students, but I shall be happier when the Academy has its own permanent home.

The log cabin for the Garden Design Academy nears completion.

We are planning visits to a number of autumn plant shows, both professional and amateur. The first trade show of the season will be Les Visites Vert at Angers, 14th -15th September and our favourite plant fair is at Courson a month later. The Anger event groups together 37 local nurseries in one hall and will be very useful for finding suppliers for our garden design clients. Courson is pure indulgence, with the best of France’s retail nurseries selling their wares in the park of the chateau. There are always rarities, new varieties and a contented buzz, as fellow enthusiasts spend their pocket money and take away prized plants. This year we will be taking my parents, at one time nurserymen themselves, who are travelling up from their home in Spain for the event.

I love the summers here, when they are not too hot and last for months- the outdoor lifestyle suits us perfectly. The dog and I will miss our afternoon swims in the river, but the approaching autumn is also exciting to observe and to participate in, as the seasons move inexorably on.

A cool patch? Let’s get gardening again!

A delightfully cool morning prompted me to get some more work done in the garden. I like to do a little gardening every day, even if it’s just a spot of weeding with a cup of tea in one hand. It’s been some time since we saw clouds that look as if they mean it however, so I took the opportunity of the reduced temperatures to tidy up the garden of our holiday rental gîte.

Rose 'Paul's Himalayan Musk'


We named it Rose Cottage soon after we bought the place and imagined climbing and shrub roses in a romantic sheltered garden at the front of the property. In the end, someone stole the name plate and our only rose is a huge Paul’s Himalayan Musk we brought over from David Austin’s nursery in Northampton, UK.

The rose is very vigorous and the long stems are tied in and side-shoots cut back to around four buds. It now covers a twenty foot stretch of wall, turns a corner and buries a wire boundary fence, so it definitely earns its place in the garden. On the other hand we rarely have occupants in the gîte when it flowers and attempts to grow Clematis through it have so far been unsuccessful. The front garden, with its heavy clay, imported soil, is the only part to suffer from slugs and snails and these seem grateful for the several Clematis I have fed them with over the years.

The soil and aspect of this little garden do not make for ideal gardening conditions and remind me in many ways of the garden we left behind in Harpenden (UK). I have planted a conifer, Cupressus Goldcrest, Weigela florida variegata and Heuchera Palace Purple, all of which we had in that garden, together with our latest, bought at a nursery in Letty Green, Escallonia Apple Blossom.There are many plants suitable for these conditions and you just have to be aware of the limitations if you garden in soils of this type. A perfect candidate would be Hebe Great Orme, especially as it can be relied upon to flower all summer and well into the winter. We bought a plant from the same nursery in Hertfordshire during our last trip to the UK and immediately took cuttings so we could have it in more than one location. We give pride of place in the back garden to the main plant but one of the cuttings will certainly end up in the front. Spares can go to friends once they are well established in pots.

By mid day the sun was out again and temperatures were back up to the high 20’s; shirts came off, shorts replaced long trousers and after a leisurely lunch in the garden it was time to work inside, Chantal preparing the gîte for our next guests and me on the computer writing this article.

While roses are not my favourite subjects (I have the scars to prove it) I love pruning and I am in good company here, where French gardeners are totally obsessive about it. While I prune to assist flowering and create a pleasing shape, the French do it to be tidy and in many gardens every bush is cut back and trimmed to such an extent that they never flower; but they are tidy! I have known a few English gardeners who work the same way but, I am glad to report, very few. Surrounded by all this excessive behaviour I seem to have my secateurs out more often than I used to and several plants are flowering twice a year as a result. Cut back immediately after flowering, plants will often respond with new growth and a second crop of flowers. Lavender, perennial Geraniums, Nepeta, Lavatera and many others have been given this treatment and respond very well. Although our growing season may be longer than yours, anything that flowers reasonably early on new growth is a candidate. A little feed and water rewards them for all this additional effort but otherwise you just sit back and enjoy the show.

Miscanthus Zebrinus


We have brought a number of ornamental grasses over from the UK and added them to local purchases from French autumn garden shows. Grasses are at their best now with many of them flowering at the end of the season. I like to leave them untrimmed to enjoy the frosted brown stems over winter. My favourite are the Miscanthus and while we grow them in much smaller clumps than when we gardened on three acres in the UK, we currently have four varieties. Golden variegated Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus forms chest high thickets even before flowering and ours fills a difficult patch under a Cherry tree. The colour comes from gold bands which run across each leaf blade in a regular pattern, while M. S. Cabaret has conspicuous white stripes and is planted at the far end of a bed featuring sun-loving plants. A young Miscanthus Purpurascens has almost been swamped by a silver Artemisia and will need moving next March. The leaves turn purplish green with pink midribs in the summer and develop red and orange tones in autumn. Another Miscanthus variety (I lost the name: possibly Gracillimus) provides dappled shade to our purple-leaved Japanese Maple, which might otherwise scorch in high summer.

I had never grown Stipa gigantea before starting this garden and we are enjoying the sight of this tufted plant with tall, oat-like flower spikes, bringing a softening effect to a shady dell amongst Skimmia, Hydrangeas and Geraniums. Stipa tenuissima is a delight, with fine leaves and feathery flowers waving in the slightest breeze. It has been planted in quantity in the local trading estate as it was in our last English garden and is high on my wants list. Other grasses in the garden include Festuca glauca, Carex buchananii from New Zealand and Imperata Red Baron, which looks superb in the evening sun.

Some readers will know that we traded out of a beautiful log cabin during our last months in Hertfordshire. I imported the building from Finland and had it built near the entrance to our landlord’s garden centre after they announced they wanted to sell the bungalow we had rented as our office for the previous ten years. When we decided just a few months later to make the move to France, my landlord and several others wanted us to abandon the building. After much wrangling and several angry letters, we finally had it dismantled and brought here and just this week, two years later, workers have started to erect it in our back garden.

Gooseberry Espera Lubera - it's on the "wish list"


The cabin covers nearly 100 square metres and will become a classroom for the Garden Design Academy when we hold residential courses. We plan to modify the roof so that we can grow Sedum and other plants on it and collect rainwater to irrigate the vegetables. A fruit garden is planned using plants we have been growing in pots for a year now – apricots, peaches and grapes – together with our young Bramley apple and soft fruit we plan to obtain from the UK. I have been very tempted by a new range Suttons will be offering this autumn: Gooseberry Espera, Raspberry Twotimer, Blackberry Navaho and Redcurrent Lisette. These will join a hybrid berry collected as a cutting from my Grandmother’s Cornish garden before she died.

For me, the gardening we do in France is little different to what we have done over the years in the UK. I find no difficulty assisting clients in China or the USA and while we learn much from these diverse gardening experiences, the principles are universal. I hope you enjoy these snippets from our new life in France and manage to adapt some of the tips to your own gardens.

Festuca glauca and Hebe Great Orme

Wedding anniversary and other tales of French gardening

It was our wedding anniversary yesterday so we decided to take the day off and visit the local chateau at Valençay. This palatial building was once the home of Prince Talleyrand, Minister of Foreign Affairs to Napoleon Bonaparte and used for both politics and pleasure: the King of Spain was imprisoned in Valençay in great style and comfort for six years and dinner parties for the illustrious were hosted here twice a week – Napoleon himself was not much of a party goer.

The chateau at Valencay

The chateau at Valencay

Marie-Antoine Carême, the famous nineteenth century celebrity chef and exponent of haut cuisine, cooked here for international royalty and the newly rich of Europe. Unfortunately he had long since departed, but we eat well in the orangery at lunchtime.

The day was outrageously warm but we toured both the house and the gardens, taking in the floral lawn in the English-style park and a newly created culinary herb garden. Valençay itself is an attractive, white stone town, famous for both its white wine (Sauvignon and Chardonnay) and its goats cheese, the latter in the form of a truncated pyramid, the top originally removed it is said, to avoid offending Napoleon who had lost Egypt in a failed military campaign. A rich cake in the same shape is made in the town and reserved by us for special days like this.

The overly hot weather was broken last night by a series of violent storms, a weather pattern repeated several times this summer; dramatic stuff in a region better known for its gentle climate. The rain has been very welcome however and results in excellent crops of fruit and vegetables which have been popular with our guests. Breakfast jams are made from local cherries, strawberries, apricots, peaches, plums and other fruits, many given to us by neighbours while our own newly planted bushes and trees grow to fruiting size. Some fruits: apricots, nectarines and eating grapes, are sitting in large pots awaiting a new planting spot once our log cabin is finally installed. I recently planted a Bramley, king of the cooking apples, to introduce the French, who love apple tarts, especially their famous local delicacy Tarte Tatin, to this culinary experience.

Salads come from the garden each lunchtime, with several varieties of tomatoes and lettuce grown amongst the flowers, giving a pleasing, cottage-garden effect. Diners also benefit from the vegetables in the garden, with green asparagus a particularly exciting find, a living memory of the previous owner from twenty years ago. We have added courgettes and sweet corn, annual crops which are so much tastier when freshly picked and cooked within minutes.

Lavatera Barnsley grown from a cutting given to us last year.

Our range of garden plants has been recently boosted by a trip to the UK. As always seems to be the way on these visits, we rushed around mixing personal with business matters. On this occasion we finally packing up our property in Bedfordshire, which had become an expensive liability rather than the useful bed for the night it was intended for. We managed to survey a garden for a client in Hertfordshire, visit Garden Design Academy students in Kent, talk to our bank in Harpenden, and buy a few dozen plants, while still finding time for a good pub lunch or two, one of the very few things we miss from our old life in England.

Our plant purchases were a strange mix of the unusual and the banal. Our garden of over 1,000 sq.m. had just two plants in it once the wilderness had been cleared: our priceless 150 year old Sequoias, after which we named the house. A few things have since pushed up to surprise us: wild orchids especially, but all the plants you might take for granted are missing.

Alchemilla mollis - begged from a student of the Garden Design Academy

We therefore find ourselves buying, or begging from friends, such common but essential plants as Alchemilla mollis, Potentilla Gibson’s Scarlet and herbaceous Geraniums. Recent purchases for the White Garden included good ol’ Potentilla fruticosa Abbotswood, “cheap as chips” Spiraea nipponica Snowmound and the rather invasive but pretty variegated grass Phalaris arundinacea Picta, while white Hebe Kirkii was also selected for this area.

On the other hand we returned with a number of plants which were new to me and would find a good home in the rapidly expanding garden: Salvia elegans Golden Delicious is a lovely dwarf foliage plant which we have planted close to shocking pink Lampranthus purpureus in a sunny border. We will need to take cuttings sometime soon to ensure we have plants next year – Salvia elegans is normally listed as tender and I expect this variety to be no different.

Salvia Golden Delicious

Another plant with yellow foliage has been planted in the shade of the Sequoias. Leycesteria formosa is becoming more popular but in my day was just used as shelter for game birds. With this new variety, Golden Lantern, I have been hooked and it has been given pride of place in the Oriental Garden, next to the Chinese granite lantern which I removed from our office show garden when we said goodbye to Hertfordshire. The flowers are fascinating, the foliage beautiful and the upright form a great contrast to more rounded bushes nearby.

Hibiscus Purple Ruffles “Sanchonyo” is a new variety to keep our China Chiffon company. Hibiscus syriacus are hardy shrubs (unlike H. Rosa-sinensis varieties which we grow as house plants) and come from China, India and in this case, Korea, where it is the national flower. Hibiscus are commonly grown as flowering hedges here in Chabris but our varieties are more exotic, double flowered forms, giving me an opportunity to show off when local gardeners visit. Hibiscus appreciates the sun and we have planted one in the gravel patio to the rear of the house where it benefits from reflective heat and light.

Hibiscus China Chiffon

I have learned, or been reminded of, a great gardening lesson this year: always give a plant a chance to recover. Several plants which we thought had not survived the winter and I might easily have consigned to the compost heap, are now growing strongly. I begged neighbours for Passion Flower seedlings because our P. “White Lightning” had apparently died. It is now has growth four metres long and is covered in flower buds. Lippia (Aloysia triphylla these days), grown for its lemon-scented, insect repelling foliage, had also been written off but is now doing well. Lagerstroemia, Fuchsia, Eucomis – the list of apparent winter casualties goes on – all saved by a decision to “wait and see”. I recommend it.

I have also rediscovered the joys of propagation. As a lad I entered a nationwide Propagator of the Year competition and did very well. Later, when I was selling plants and gardens rather than growing them, the craft lost its attraction for me and I preferred the instant gratification of buying my plants. Now I am taking cuttings regularly, mostly under plastic bag cloches scattered around the garden, but I also have a large heat controlled propagator in the loft. This little toy, bought at some expense from Thompson and Morgan Seeds in France, has so far been used just for seeds but is available to produce large quantities of rooted cuttings when called to do so. Many of our new plants are on a mental cuttings list, giving me the chance to give away a few unusual plants to gardening friends. Equally, there are a few interesting plants in parks and gardens locally I have my eyes on – if you spot a wild man with secateurs creeping around at night, please don’t call the gendarme, it may be me!