Winter gardening down-time

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”~Marcus Cicero, 106-43 BC, Roman statesman and philosopher.

Winter can be hard on the gardener. We are longing to be outside but are generally stuck indoors while all around us blizzards rage. This is not strictly true in my more gentle part of the world, but I feel you those of you in less equitable climes. While Cicero may have left out a few essentials with which my adopted home is well blessed (art, music, wine, food, anyone?), garden books make it much easier to survive the dreary weather.

Pyracantha with berries

Pyracantha with berries in Chabris

My own collection runs into scores and ranges from antique, leather bound works by eighteenth century radical agriculturist William Cobbett and the plant hunter George Forest, to those great little “Expert” books by DG Hessayan. My first copy of Be Your Own Rose Expert set me back Two shillings and six pence and was bought to assist customers on my parent’s nursery in Cornwall. I have several others in the series, one or two in multiple additions as they were updated to reflect new varieties, new techniques and gardening fashions.

We moved to the Loire Valley from Hertfordshire 16 months ago and have been slowly organising our home, social and business life ever since. There are still unpacked boxes in the loft and buildings awaiting renovation and most of my books are stored out there somewhere.

We did come across a few in the early days and the RHS Encyclopaedia was one of the first to be unpacked. A boxed set of two volumes, this is the third edition that I have owned and is completely indispensible to me. It is not perfect –  in a world where new varieties are released every year it is impossible for a book like this to be completely comprehensive and up to date – but it is about as good as such an ambitious work could be.

It describes over 15,500 garden plants, many with photographs, and lists them in the only sensible way: alphabetically, by Latin name. The large format makes it a pleasure to leaf through in idle moments and for those times when you need to identify an unknown plant, a pleasant hour skimming through the pictures normally results in a find. If you know what you are looking for and just want to check cultivation notes, you can go straight to the plant concerned. Now that my growing is slightly more exotic I welcome one aspect that I used to find irritating: the number of plants in the encyclopaedia which I was not able to grow in southern England.

Before the RHS encyclopaedia was published, my favourite of this type was by the Readers Digest and every so often I still refer to my battered copy of The Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers dating from the ‘70’s. At half the price but with only a fraction of the plants, it remains a great reference book with a much more practical edge than the RHS encyclopaedia.


Mahonia brings a little winter cheer to the streets of Angers

Of course if you want practical, the Royal Horticultural Society does practical, and a series of publications approaching plants and gardening at different levels are available. I have various books under the RHS banner on plant pests and diseases, fruit cultivation, herbs, vegetables and many specialist subjects. They are all written by experts in their field, whose authority is beyond question.

A great deal of our time is these days spent teaching gardening, garden design and a range of horticultural subjects, mostly by distance learning. Our Chinese clients think this is an admirable thing to do: to pass on ones knowledge to those coming up behind. We have a surge of bookings for courses during the winter, with gardening amateurs and professionals using their down-time to improve their understanding of the subject. For much the same reason we always have plenty of garden design appointments at this time of the year.

I find teaching is both pleasurable and instructional: you learn a great deal, with personal prejudices challenged and memory stretched by the probing questions and demands of students. The internet gives them such extensive access to information that your task is to explain errors in judgement and interpretation rather than just to dish out facts to be accepted without question. Our courses now include some serious vocational studies like the RHS Diploma in Horticulture however, and facts are facts. These sometimes need to be checked, so I’m glad I still have access to all my old horticultural books from back in the days when I was a student at Pershore College.

Holly berries

Ilex meserveae Blue Angel

Now that we live in France it is fascinating to compare and contrast French gardening books and magazines. I subscribe to ‘Jardins de France’, the excellent revue of the SNHF, the French equivalent of the RHS, while still receiving The Garden from the Royal Horticulture Society in England. I also have a few French gardening books, although many of the best over here are translated from English. Le Guide Clause-Vilmorin du Jardin is the latest version of an encyclopaedia I have been using for many years, since working for the seed company Clause near Paris. It tries to be comprehensive and has sold over 5 million copies, but the use of common names, French common names, drives me crazy!

Before I lose the tenuous grasp I still have on the English language, I am determined to write my second book. “Was there a first”?  I hear you ask, as well you might for all the impact it made in the book shops at the time. At one stage I was considered an expert on bedding plants and this was the subject of my little book. These days I have CAD training to offer to garden designers and while we do quite well from residential courses it is suggested there is a need for a training manual on the subject. The outline is done and the plan is to complete the book this winter. It may have been last winters’ plan as well!

Another profitable way to pass time at this time of the year is with the latest editions of the seed catalogues. We are still sent these automatically by many of our favourite suppliers while others need to be hunted down and paid for each year. New varieties are the stuff of gardening and seed companies understand this. Old varieties are rebranded and presented as something new while, it is true, some genuine novelties appear most years. Planning your new floral displays and the vegetables you are going to eat this summer is one of life’s great pleasures and accompanied by mulled wine around a roaring log fire……or was that the latest Disney Christmas film?

Gardening is full of romantic images like this and it is hard to deny that it seems to fill some great need in the human psyche. Whether you consider gardening to be “the new rock ‘n’ roll”  or a connection with “the good life” with which so many of us have lost contact, the pursuit of gardening is something that links us to each other and with nature in one single, shared activity. If this activity is slowed or even brought to a halt by inclement weather and the passing of the growing season, we can still dream, surely?

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First Day of Spring?

Just a touch of frost this morning, but what a gorgeous day followed. After working on a clients plan for a few hours I needed little excuse to get out and enjoy the sunshine.

Walking the dog by the river, watching the swans feeding and socialising, we eventually reached the old mill, where Snowdrops – Perce-Neige –  Galanthus nivalis –   were flowering in huge drifts on a shady lawn.

Poodle posing in the Snow drops - the old mill at Chabris

Poodle posing in the Snow drops - the old mill at Chabris

A liitle more work done on the computor and we were out again, our excuse this time the need to do some planting in the little garden we have set aside for our ‘gite’ guests. We dug the soil (dreadful stuff dumped there by builders) and planted a little composition in the sunniest corner: Cupressus Goldcrest at the back, Weigela florida nana variegata to one side, an un-named yellow Cytisus to the other and a clump of purple Heuchera in the middle.

All the plants came from an English nursery; we find them to be cheaper and better than over here in France. We are also disappointed to discover that when we do bite the bullet and buy French plants they will not replace any losses you might have in the way that we have come to expect in the UK. We recently informed a French nursery by email that we had lost one of their plants over the winter. His reply was rapid and unequivical: it was not his problem.

We were nursery hunting last week, when we visited a huge trade show in Angers, Salon du Vegetal. There were nurseries, equipment suppliers and other horticultural specialists exhibiting from all over Europe, but very few flying the British flag. This is a pity, given the oportunities over here, especially with the pound so low against the Euro. The company you see everywhere is David Austin Roses and again they were on hand with French speaking sales staff and apparently doing good business.