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.

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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.