The organised gardener

For once I am so organised. Christmas presents for the family were all bought in November and my seed order from Thompson & Morgan has just arrived. I really enjoy growing plants from seed. Each year I order them from the T&M and Suttons catalogues, buy a few locally and collect seeds from gardens and parks as I travel about.

This season’s purchases, as always, include many novelties and new varieties, together with old favourites I have had success with in the past and could not resist.

I am growing many more vegetables next year and that seems to be a general tendency. In our case, we grow them in spare corners in the front and back gardens, but also mixed in with flowers in the borders. I shall be constructing a new fruit and vegetable garden behind the Garden Design Academy classroom, just a small one, and have bought four beautiful raised bed kits in Loire Valley oak from a local sawmill for the purpose. This will be my Big Winter Job.

Tomato : Suncherry Premium F1 Hybrid  We always grow Cherry Tomatoes in the garden and in addition to the unfailingly good Sungold I am trying a new variety called Santonio, with plum-shaped fruits. Last year was not good for outdoor Tom’s, but our plantation of Sun Cherry Premium was a great success. We grow a few Courgettes each year, you don’t need many, usually as a mixture to add interest on the plate This year I am trying BBQ mix; last year we had a good crop from another F1 variety early in the season, but Mildew eventually got to the plants and they had to go.

Sweetcorn : Lark F1 Hybrid  Sweet corn has not been a success here so far despite being a region where maize is grown commercially. I am hoping the new raised beds will provide better growing conditions provided I am more attentive to their need for water. I like the sweet varieties and have selected Lark F1 this time. Lettuces are traditionally grown amongst the flowers and seem to prefer the lighter soil in the back garden. Coloured foliage is always welcome and I have ordered traditional Lollo Rossa in addition to a Romaine type called Chartwell.

Artichoke : Originals  Growing perennials from seed is something we do each year as it’s a wonderful way to fill up a new garden. This is now extending into the vegetable garden with the purchase of a packet of Artichoke Green Globe Improved. I love fresh artichokes and I am determined to have a large clump despite them dying whenever I buy plants from the garden centre.

Climbing Bean 'Monte Cristo'  Beans are not something I do well but I persevere! For the first time since we moved to France we will be trying Broad Beans and have selected an RHS award-winning dwarf variety called Robin Hood. My wife loves to eat them raw. Climbing beans are my ‘bête noire’, always running out of steam before I have harvested more than a handful. I have been growing them on a pergola where a neighbour’s tree, now removed, competes heavily for nutrients and water. Monte Cristo is going to change all that, I hope.

Swiss Chard 'White Silver'  Finally, for a bit of fun, I am intending to grow Swiss Chard White Silver 3, of which I know very little but it was recommended in the T&M catalogue by Alan Titchmarch, no less. In addition I am trying Golden Berries (variety Little Lanterns), delicious and very trendy fruits which I last grew in a greenhouse with great success some 25 years ago. Wish me luck!

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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.

The joys of late summer

Hesperantha coccinea 'Major' or Kaffir Lily

Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ or Kaffir Lily

The clear, sunny mornings now have a distinct chill to them and while mid-day temperatures are well into the high 20’s, you cannot help but be aware, with a tinge of sadness perhaps, that summer is slowly drifting to an end and autumn is on its way. On the other hand the changing temperatures, dewy mornings and the shortening days are signals to a range of plants that it is time to get into flower. A selection of South African bulbs are doing well at the moment: white Nerines we grow in a pot in the white border, Crocosmia varieties in odd corners all around the garden, a big patch of Schizostylus, now Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ which has been slow to establish but is now producing flowers in good quantities. They seem to have enjoyed the extra moisture provided by this year’s spring weather, as so many Cape bulbs do. In my day, these were called Kaffir Lilies, but I expect this is politically incorrect now!

Gladiolus papilio

Gladiolus papilio

One of the joys of this morning’s tour of the garden was the discovery of another South African native: Gladiolus papilio flowering amongst a recently planted Euphorbia. I had forgotten it was there but love the effect of the subtle, drooping spikes of flowers in muted shades above the bright, stripped foliage of E. Ascot Rainbow. The slender buds and backs of petals are bruise-shades of green, cream and slate-purple. Inside, creamy hearts shelter blue anthers while the lower lip petal is feathered and marked with an ‘eye’ in purple and greenish-yellow, like the wing of a butterfly.

Garden Design Academy garden in August

Garden Design Academy garden in August

There is so much to enjoy in the garden at the moment and, dare I say it, I have more or less caught up with the weeding, so I have a little more time to appreciate it before the next group of garden design students come for a tour of Loire Valley gardens with me.

White garden blues

white Antirrhinum

white Antirrhinum

I created a white border along the west boundary of our rear garden, gradually hiding a concrete fence that I find particular offensive. Now this has become slightly wider and of a more definite shape as a result of installing a new, circular lawn this spring. It is an increasingly important part of the garden, leading the eye on towards the oriental garden, which now contains more than a few white plants of its own. Which is why I am so frustrated that despite all my best efforts, plants with flower colours far removed from white continue to show up. Mostly this is because of mislabelling; deliberate or accidental, I know not.

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Philadelphus (Mock Orange) which flowered last month and now needs pruning

White Campanula emerges as conventional blue. The white Peony turned out to be pink, perfectly matching the pink Hibiscus which was also supposed to be white. Recently we have seen white Antirrhinums with a yellow plant amongst them and a lilac coloured Phlox which will need to be moved to another part of the garden this autumn.

A neighbour’s bright yellow Kerria has decided to pop up in our border this spring, a shocking contrast to the other spring flowering shrubs. It’s taken me three seasons to sort out the colours of the Lilies I planted in a weak moment and as I battle year after year to create this single-colour border I am beginning to wonder if it is all worth the effort. After all, that lilac pink Poppy looks nice enough and what’s wrong with Nigella plants which pop up just as easily and unexpectedly, even if the flowers are blue?

White Lilac from May 2013

White Lilac from May 2013

Every so often however, a handful of plants come out together in a range of white and cream shades, gorgeous in the evening light – delicate, sparkling blooms, so often deliciously scented, and my faith returns.

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!

A great gardening weekend in France

Last Chance - a bearded Iris spotted at Bourdillon last year.

Last Chance – a bearded Iris spotted at Bourdillon last year.

As if our life was not exhilarating enough already, this weekend is one of the most important in the French gardening calendar.

I am still reeling from the joys of the Courson Plant Fair and a tour I organised for Australian guests to visit eleven notable Loire Valley gardens.

Oriental Poppy Lambada at Bourdillon.

Oriental Poppy Lambada at Bourdillon.

No matter – Bourdillon, a local Iris, Hemerocallis and Peony nursery with a well-deserved national reputation, is holding its open days from 31st May to 2nd June and in spite of all the rain, this should not be missed. I am off to my French language classes on Friday morning, government sponsored, in an attempt to improve my employability, so I may well drop in on my way home. On second thoughts, Chantal would like it and she holds the cheque book: we can go together in the afternoon. They sell Oriental Poppies too, and I have a marvellous gap awaiting a group or two of these lovely plants.

The gardens at chateau de Rivau - a first time visit this year

The gardens at chateau de Rivau – a first time visit this year

Rendez-vous aux Jardins, now in its 11th year, brings together nearly 2,300 public and private parks and gardens for an exciting open weekend. While many of the better known gardens have a range of events for the weekend, over 430 are opening to the public especially for the weekend, with 260 open for the first time this year.

We live in the Region Centre which includes the Loire Valley and other areas of great natural beauty, and are given a choice of 126 gardens to visit in just two days. Tough decisions will have to be made!

I was not aware they had a chateau in Poulain, a village a few miles away from us, more famous for its annual donkey fair than any horticultural prowess. For the first time this year the grounds of the Chateau de Poulain are open for viewing so I have emailed them advanced warning I am on my way. It seems we have B & B guests on Saturday so one garden will have to do, but I hope we can go out and find at least two more on Sunday, with a decent meal thrown in for good luck.

It’s a tough life, but it has to be done!

Loire Valley Gardens – the May 2013 tour

Bouges le Chateau - flower and vegetable garden

Bouges le Chateau – flower and vegetable garden

The weather was not as kind as it might have been for this month’s tour; in fact, it has been the wettest and coldest May in France since the 1920’s.

My Australian guests were made of tough stuff however and we enjoyed a week of visits to eleven fine gardens across the Loire Valley region.

Each month our tours are slightly different, reflecting seasonal variations and the interests of our guests. For May 2013 our program featured a wide selection, including a couple new to me.

Wisteria at Cheverny

Wisteria at Cheverny

Sunday: Bouges le Chateau and Chateau de Chenonceau

Monday : Chateau de Cheverny, Blois and Les jardins de Roquelin

Tuesday : Prieure d’Orsan and Drulon

Wednesday : free day

Thursday : Chateau du Rivau and Chateau de Villandry

Friday : Chaumont Festival of Gardening

maytour2003 018There is always a plant of the month and this year the honour must go to Iris germanica, which were flowering well in more varieties than we could count, in every garden we visited. Peonies were also in flower, especially Tree Peonies, although many blooms were ruined by the rains. Another plant holding up well was Viburnum plicatum Mariesii, draped in stunning white lacecap flowers.

Chateau de Rivau

Chateau de Rivau

Each morning we set out from Chabris to explore for the day, stopping off at a village restaurant for a great lunch. The Chaumont lunch will be hard to forget however, sheltering from the cold rain under a parasol and a lime tree, eating from the festival pasta bar. It was good pasta, but we were so cold! On the other hand the meal at Rivau was excellent – a variety of wonderfully presented and tasty home grown salads. I also opted for a Chinon wine tasting while chatting to the owner of the chateau about the garden.