Winter’s bounty

In the past the changing seasons meant a change of diet as food availability came and went with the progress of the year. The advent of the supermarket produced a demand for foods to be available all year round so that nowadays, almost everything can be bought and eaten at any time. I have always thought this a pity and wonder if it is we who have demanded this, or the supermarkets that choose to offer us what they feel we will buy. Who would want to forgo the pleasures of the first strawberry of the year by eating them every day? A list of delights of this type would be endless.

Living in the centre of rural France, things are a bit different. Local supermarkets and markets do respond to the seasons and offer produce grown locally in their true season. Friends ring us up to share their most recent harvest and we do the same, giving away bagfuls of whatever produce the garden has graced us with at this particular moment. We also love collecting wild food but this year has been a poor one in our region for one of our favourites, Cepes (Boletus) mushrooms.

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Chanterelle mushrooms in the woods of the Loire Valley

Today however, just as we were beginning to start work on the day’s projects, a friend rang and offered to take us to her favourite wood for Chanterelle mushrooms, one of nature’s finest delicacies. In France no one ever tells you where they pick their mushrooms, so how could we refuse? As we wound our way through the country lanes toward our goal I began to wonder if our host was deliberately trying to get us lost. But it was a lovely day, cool but sunny, so I drove where I was told, knowing I could sneak back another day if necessary.

We were directed up a track through the vineyards, where workers were busily pruning the vines, eventually coming to a pine forest in which we were shown to our friend’s favourite parking spot. Coats on and baskets out, we pushed through the undergrowth to the centre of the wood and were not disappointed: there were Chaterelles everywhere!

An hour or so later we had picked enough for the year but our friend was keen to continue. We eventually dragged her away and on returning home started to prepare the 10 kg of “food for Free” we had picked. The base of the stem was removed and the mushrooms washed, then lightly heated in a pan to remove some of the water. Finally they were packed into jars to be sterilised and sealed, available to enjoy for the next year or so. Our diner that evening consisted of veal escallopes with onions, garlic and a generous helping of Chanterelles, cooked in a cream sauce. Life doesn’t get much better really.

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Callicarpa berries in Chabris park

Talking to some of the older folks in the market today, they are predicting a cold winter. There is a very heavy crop of acorns in the Oak woods and, thinking of what a similar generation would have told me in England, no shortage of berries on Pyracantha, Holly and other shrubs. At the moment the weather is gentle enough; all will be revealed, I have no doubt. The dry weather over the last few weeks has also produced a few frosts, but is allowing me to get out to do some weeding finally, after months working and touring with students and other clients.

 

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Holly berries in abundance.

 

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Autumn in the Loire Valley

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Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

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

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

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

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Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

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

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Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

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

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

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

Wild orchids in central France

Spider orchid, France

Spider Orchid – Ophrys fuciflora

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time (of course you have!) you will know that we now live in central France, after many years, many homes and a long horticultural career based in the south of England. The Indre is the name of the department (or county) in which our home village is situated, although the ancient name of the Berry is also widely used. It stretches from the river Cher, on the edge of the Sologne forests in the north, to beyond the Brenne National Park, the river Creuse and to the foothills of the Massif Central in the south. The soils across this sparsely populated, rural department vary enormously and with it the wild flowers. These can be seen in quantities which we unused to in England, where industrialisation, population expansion and the use of agricultural chemicals have reduced the range and quantity of native flora significantly.

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Walking the dog in the countryside we regularly come across groups of wild orchids and one, the Lizard Orchid (“L’Orchis Bouc”, Himantooglossum hircinum) seeds itself all over our own garden. We have found Spider Orchids on the industrial estate, Burnt Orchids on a building site, Helleborines by the fishing pond, Butterfly and Bee Orchids in the woodland meadows and Early Purple Orchids in the public park. In total, 47 species of wild orchid have been recorded in the county, one of which is found only in the Brenne. Orchids can be found almost everywhere: on limestone grasslands, river meadows, alkaline marshland, acid sandy soils, both wet and dry, in woods and forests and by the sides of the roads. They can also be seen in the grand chateau parkland and in much more humble gardens, often in very impressive quantities.

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Cypripedium Kentucky – a pot full of American orchids in France

In addition to a small selection of native orchids we have in our garden a patch of Chinese hardy orchid, Bletilla striata, which survived a period of -24°C a couple of winters back and is grown alongside dwarf Rhododendrons in our Japanese Garden. By the front door, facing north and in the protection of an unheated conservatory is a huge pot of the garden orchid Cypripedium Kentucky. These are also perfectly hardy and I shall be planting them out in the garden later; I was so excited to have them, I just had to show them off where everyone could see them!

Early autumn in the Loire Valley

It seems just yesterday, and is actually not much more than two weeks ago, that I was swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean and eating breakfast on the sun-terrace overlooking the harbour on the presqu’île de Giens. Today in the centre of France it is feeling very autumnal: damp and cool, with the sun struggling to burst out of the clouds and a temperature hovering around 20° C. I know; I expect no sympathy from the English!

Grapes ready for the harvest at the vineyard of Chenenceau chateau

Actually I like autumn or, to be more precise, I love the seasonal changes throughout the year and autumn is no exception. In the vineyards of the Touraine it is harvest time and every village you drive through smells of grape juice and wine. I have visited quite a few recently and in spite of a difficult growing year, the excitement and optimism surrounding the “vendage” is palpable. Bernache, the partly fermented not-yet-wine, bubbling, cloudy and yeasty grape juice, is a wonderful seasonal treat here, sold in plastic water bottles – it would explode otherwise. It is drunk immediately it is drawn out of the vat, with roasted chestnuts and much good humour, despite having only 2% alcohol.

Wild Cyclamen carpet the ground in a local garden

There are plenty of summer flowers hanging on although the town has lifted most of its 20,000 bedding plants to prepare the ground for winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to take a few late cuttings before they did so but I do not expect a high rooting percentage at this stage in the season – plants are closing down for the year rather than rooting.

Autumn can be a colourful season, with leaf colour adding to the display both in the towns and the countryside. Under the trees in many gardens and parks the Cyclamen and Colchicum are in full flower.

Autumn is also one of the most important times of the year for planting hardy subjects and I am looking forward to the great buying opportunities at the famous Courson plant fair in a couple of weeks. At the local garden centre I spotted of fine batch of discounted Hydrangea paniculata Sundae Fraise, a compact variety growing to only 1m and with flowers which mature from white to deep pink. I bought a plant to get me in the planting mood.

Nature does it best

Domaine de George Sand, Nohant-Vic, France

My loyal readers will know that in an effort to put wine on the table I offer guided tours of the gardens of the Loire Valley and the centre of France to clients from around the world. Today we were out reconnoitring one such garden, which we thought would interest our next group of guests. The gardens of George Sand, literary giant and resident of the Indre, are officially designated a Jardin Remarquable, so after confirming our route via the rather lovely Chateau de Bouges, we pushed on toward Nohant-Vic, seeking out appropriate restaurants on the way.

French Bluebells

Our own lunch was a sandwich in the countryside; our venue, the side of the road by a pleasant looking wood, which turned out to be full to bursting with Bluebells, just starting to flower. I have never seen Bluebells ( (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in France and had assumed this, like decent beer and Cornish Pasties, was something I had left behind in the UK. This wood will rival anything I have seen in England in a week or so, with millions of bulbs set to create a carpet of blue over a huge area. The ditches and verges nearby were dotted with Cowslips, thriving here where there are few to pick them and so prevent them seeding. In addition Euphorbias, Wood Anemones and other wild flowers were everywhere to be seen. We pushed on towards Nohant, through a clearly ancient forest of Oak, Chestnut and Hornbeam, screaming to a halt at the sight of hundreds of large, wild herbaceous plants at the point of blooming, at the side of the road and scattered amongst the trees. I struggled to pronounce the name but thought it was Asphodel and took this photograph so that I could check it on our return to the house. The plant is Asphodelus albus, more at home by the Mediterranean than in the centre of France, but doing extremely well in and around these woods.

Asphodelus albus

After this splendid show from the countryside, the gardens of the Domaine de George Sand came as a bit of a disappointment and we soon decided to leave it out of our schedule. Our next tour includes a group of five traveling from all the way from Australia and we felt they would not appreciate being dragged for nearly two hours into the Berry countryside to see something so remarkably lack-lustre. It’s not that it’s a bad garden; it has been maintained, I assume, as it was in the 1840’s, when the intellectual elite would come visiting: Balzac, Delacroix, Liszt, Chopin, Flaubert, Gautier, Tourgueniev…… It’s a peaceful place but I’d love to design a modern garden to replace it. On reflection, the chateau at Chenonceau, with its gardens built by rival queens on the banks of the Cher, seemed a much safer bet.

Purple Toothwort - Lathraea clandestine

Close by we stopped to walk the dog by river Cher and discovered a remarkable little plant growing under the Poplars. The purple Toothwort (Lathraea clandestine) has no chlorophyll to manufacture its own food and deals with this in two ways. Firstly, it is a parasite, living off the sugars in the roots of its host (in this case Poplar), but it is also carnivorous, devouring insects which are unlucky enough to venture into tiny cavities in the leaf. Interesting and pretty.

We had a lovely day out and avoided an embarrassing mistake in proposing a visit to Nohant. The countryside of central France really excelled itself today, certainly better than the man-made garden we visited.

Spring gardening in France -2012

Such a wonderful time of the year – spring – but it’s never easy to say when it has started and when it has finished.

Officially, the four seasons are determined by changing day-length, which is currently increasing by more than 20 minutes every week. This change is determined by how the earth orbits the sun and the tilt of its axis. On the first day of spring—the vernal equinox—day and night are each approximately 12 hours long; the actual point of equal day and night occurs in the Northern Hemisphere a few days before the vernal equinox. The sun crosses the celestial equator going northward; it rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west. The first day of summer—the summer solstice—is the longest day of the year, when the sun reaches its most northern point in the sky at mid-day. After this date, the days start getting shorter.

The first Primrose of spring

So, spring starts officially on Tuesday March 20th and ends Tuesday June 19th, but here in the centre of France the plants and birds beg to differ: they are pushing on regardless. We are having our lunches in the garden now, and the resident lizards are popping out at regular intervals to see it we drop anything. In the warmer gardens Primroses have started flowering and up in the greenhouse in the loft, seeds are germinating like there is no tomorrow. It’s all very exciting.

As usual I am growing more than we can cope with and as seedlings are ready they come down from the loft to the dining room windowsill and from there to a bench I have set up in the cabin by a big, south facing window. I am leaving the Begonias upstairs in the warm for a while yet but we have so far moved on a nice little selection of plants:

  • Geranium Moulin Rouge
  • Gazania Daybreak Tiger Stripe
  • African Marigold Golden Puff
  • Aubergene Amethyst
  • Antirrinum Axium and
  • Coleus Kong mix

Having completed the marking of student assignments for the day I have a little time to sow a few more trays or pots of seed and perhaps move one or two more down. Impatiens have germinated well and I am hoping my home grown plants will be successful. Impatiens downy mildew – Plasmopara obducens – is a new disease, found for the first time in the UK in 2003, which perhaps arrived on imported commercial propagation material (seed or cuttings). Controls have since been ineffective and 2011 was saw the biggest UK outbreak yet. While wholesale propagators like Ball/Colegrave are continuing to grow Impatiens in 2012, Thompson and Morgan will not be offering young plants and the DIY chain B&Q will not be selling their usual 20 million or so. They are encouraging customers to buy Petunias, Geraniums and Begonias instead but I refuse to be put off and will grow my own. No doubt I will be unbearably smug if all goes well and blame foreign imports if it doesn’t!

For those of you who follow these things, my plant of the week on Pinterest is the Daffodil, which have begun to flower again after last month’s cold spell.

Global local gardens.

Green roof with Sedum and Virginia Creeper

We like to think of ourselves as having a global reach, both as garden designers and as horticultural educators, with clients and students located throughout the world. I have long maintained that a well-trained gardener can practice his craft anywhere and is able adapt to local conditions.

I still believe this to be true, but have on occasions been stopped in my tracks by comments from home-grown amateurs or professionals.

I recently contributed to an internet landscape forum discussion about green-roof

Virginia creeper - invasive?

gardening, suggesting a reference book I thought might be useful to an American garden designer, while innocently mentioning our own green roof here in France. We have covered the top of a concrete tool shed with Sedum and it does very well, as does the Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, which offers a change of leaf scale and gorgeous autumn colour. Insects are pleased with both plants and the combined effect is both attractive and practical. “Virginia creeper”, I was told, “is invasive”.

Turkey Oak -Quercus cerris

I quite fancy myself as a plantsman but here is an aspect of plant selection it would be easy to get wrong; designing a border in a foreign country could get you into hot water, when your favourite flower turns out to be the bête noir of local environmentalists! In the USA the National Invasive Species Council keeps a watchful eye on these things and their web site links to pages dedicated to each State, detailing the noxious weeds which are a problem around the country. There is a Federal List noting those considered noxious throughout the country and in addition each state has its own list.

And what a range of plants! Across the country 106 plants are prescribed in this way, while California lists 242 on its own. The UK has problems with Rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum), Indian (Himalayan) balsam, (Impatiens glandulifera) and Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) famously causing difficulties in the wild. The UK organisation Plantlife has a substantial list which, like those in the States, contains some surprising plants including Ailanthus altissima, Quercus cerris and several Cotoneasters.

Here in central France, the river Cher is slowly being clogged up with Water Primrose

Water Primrose on the banks of the Cher

while the Oak woods are taken over by Robinia pseudoacacia originally grown for vineyard support posts. The story does not end with plants. Hornets accidentally imported from China in garden pots are currently finishing off the honey bee population, already under pressure from disease and agricultural pesticides. In the Canal du Berry which follows the river, American signal crayfish are decimating young fish and imported Coypu undermine the banks.  Gardeners and landowners are largely to blame and it would seem we have to be much more circumspect in the choices we make. I have noticed a tendency of many of my American students to select native plants so perhaps the message has got through over there and it is we Europeans who need to learn the lessons.

One country’s weeds are another’s prized specimens. For the record, when I design a garden in another country I either use a local plant expert to assist with plant availability and desirability or research the issues myself using local gardening associations, university horticultural departments, growers and other sources. That way I am less likely to make a fool of myself by suggesting inappropriate plants. It’s not always straightforward, being a globe-trotting landscaper, but I am glad I am still asked to work around the gardening world.