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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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.

Just Pear-fect!

I have only rarely grown Pear trees and never with much success, so I was amazed to discover when we started to explore our adopted village in central France, that Europe’s largest private pear collection was held in a plot near the vineyard. The grower in question has amassed nearly 650 different varieties, some of them on the edge of extinction and trained them in 20 different forms. His apple trees number over 300 and he has many other fruit trees besides. https://i0.wp.com/pomologie.com/oc/belghort/1852/p176poirewilliam.jpg

A botanical artist of some considerable talent (the illustartions here are not his), whose art is much sought after, his collection started as 60 potted plants which he was meticulously painting, recording them throughout the seasons. The cultivars grew, as these things do, and he eventually set up his orchard on its present site. The work involved in their care is huge and he has taken the decision to reduce the collection to more manageable proportions. I am one of a few who have benefited from this decision, having acquired the following for my own garden:

  1. Belle et Bonne d’ézée
  2. Beurré d’Amanlis
  3. Beurré Bretonneau
  4. Beurré Dubuisson
  5. Duc de Bordeaux du Mas
  6. Graft Holtke
  7. Mouille bouche d’été
  8. Olivier de Serres
  9. Starkrimson Clapp’s Rouge

https://i2.wp.com/pomologie.com/oc/belghort/1851/p372poires.jpg

Many of these are local or ancient varieties and all are beautifully trained espaliers in “U”, “Double U” “Palmette Verrier” and single cordon forms. We are very excited to have acquired these specimens and proud to be offered the opportunity to cultivate and preserve them. We will be carefully nurturing them through their first couple of seasons after the shock of their transplantation and continue to prune them to maintain their current elegant forms. My next job is to set up a system of support wires and rods, to ensure they are securely held into the shapes they have been trained to.

Other gardening tasks have kept me very busy this autumn. I was keen to lift the Cannas before the frost and have them now stored in the log cabin for the winter. The five varieties we bought this year have performed well, some putting on huge amounts of growth to form large clumps, while others have flowered but remained relatively small. They have all been lifted, cut back, divided where necessary and potted in leaf-mound. They will be kept ticking over in the heated cabin until it is safe to bring them out again next year. Not having a greenhouse these days, the cabin is being increasingly used for overwintering plants, although we keep hardier specimens, young shrubs and the like, in the north –facing conservatory.

We have a number of Dahlias and sometimes we lift them but other years we don’t. A small white one certainly needs moving from the front to the rear, where it can join other new plants in the White Border. A huge orange variety suffered last year, from damp as much as cold and I think this will be lifted for the winter.

Autumn is a great time for planting, but also for moving plants that have not performed well in certain spots or which are being swamped by more vigorous neighbours. I have replanted half of the Gaillardias, which were sown this year and have flowered well, so that other parts of the garden are brightened up next year. Other seed raised perennials like Gauria lindheimeri and Penstemon are also on the move. F1 hybrid Wallflowers are looking very good in the patch of garden where I planted them out in the spring. I am gradually lifting these and spreading them around the garden to provide a spring display – although there is some flower evident even now.

A Hibiscus, on the other hand, has not grown at all well and has been lifted from under a Miscanthus and given a better position in full sun. No doubt other shrubs will also be repositioned in the next few weeks.

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’

The autumn is giving us a visual treat in the form of leaf colour, with our Cherry trees looking particularly good. Liquidamber is a feature of gardens and parks in the area and these too, depanding on variety, are looking amazing at the moment.

The first frosts of autumn 2012.

After a very mild period the warm air has rushed back down to North Africa or wherever it came from, leaving a vacuum to be filled by cold winds from the far north of Europe and Russia. The Mediterranean regions have been experiencing violent storms and rain in unreasonable quantities (“a month’s rain in an hour” and similar phrases are frequently heard on weather reports) confirming the wisdom of our choice of region to settle in. Not for us the extremes of other parts of France. In the meantime the east coast of the United States is being battered by hurricane Sandy.

Autumn colour from Rhus in a garden in Chabris, central France

The first frost last night touched some of the more tender plants and I have been out collecting pots from the garden and putting them under cover, either in the unheated conservatory at the front of the house or in the cabin in the back garden. Here, I have constructed a bench from an old cupboard door laid over a couple of desks, in front of a large, south facing window. Electric heaters should keep plants cosy at around 12°C over winter: ideal from Geraniums, Fuchsias, Salvias, Brugmansia, Abutilon and the like, of which we have plenty.

Our so-called hardy banana has been wrapped up in straw and fleece in an attempt to keep it alive out-of-doors. Time will tell if this was the wisest approach. It is also time to lift the Dahlias and Cannas to get them stored in boxes of leaf mould away from the cold for the season. Dahlias will often overwinter in the ground here – we generally leave Gladioli in the beds too – but I have also lost a few. Perhaps this technique of lifting and overwintering will ensure greater survival rates.

Thompson and Morgan have suggested in a recent newsletter that gardeners should be sowing seeds of perennials now, leaving them to germinate in a cold-frame. I shall have a look to see what packets of seed I might have and give this a go. I have collected Lilium regale seed as I did last year and have it in mind to sow a few ornamental grasses like Purple Millet, but I may have to fight off the birds feeding on the seed-heads! Our old conservatory should serve very well as a cold-frame.

Pyracantha berries sparkling in the clear autumn sun today.

It’s turning into a very good year for Pyracantha this year, with huge crops of berries in a range of bright colours on plants throughout the town. We have just one named hybrid in the garden, which I am patiently training along an ugly concrete boundary fence, but several which have arrived as seedlings thanks to the gardening efforts of wild birds. The photograph is of one of a pair in an abandoned garden in the square close to our house. The other was eaten by a camel when the circus came to town, but is recovering well!. Red, orange and yellow berried forms can all be seen in local gardens and it is often used as a thorny boundary hedge. Mixed berry colour hedges can look particularly attractive but some care has to be exercised when pruning to ensure they produce flowers and berries.

A typical French Autumn

Autumn leaf and flower colour from Rhus and Miscanthus in our garden this morning.

Every day this week has been different to the last. Today it is mild and drizzling on and off, while yesterday it was dry, with just a few clouds passing by. The day before was a most glorious warm, sunny day but it began with a hint of frost. Sunday it poured down while Saturday it kept mostly dry – a bonus for guests who I took to see the grape harvest coming in at local vineyards. In short, a typical autumn week in central France.

In the town, around the market and in the supermarket, all the talk is about mushrooms, or the lack of them. We have been mushroom hunting on our daily walks with the dog and while we bring back a handful most days, there are very few about. The weather is looking encouraging however, after many months without any serious rain, so we are hoping for great things by the end of this or the following week.

Chantal is making her annual autumn jelly from fruit collected on our walks: pears, apples and grapes left behind by the picking machine. To this she has added currents and other soft fruit preserved after picking this summer and a few herbs and spices for luck. We will be bottling soon and look forward to trying it out on friends who regularly offer us examples of their own culinary efforts to try. Last week the Marquis dropped around with a sample of his Two Salmons Rillettes and our lady plumber turned up one evening with freshly hunted venison. Food is important to the people of this community and recipes are commonly argued over in the market place.

Japanese Anemones continue to provide colour

Out in the garden I am pleased to have the ground wetted as I have been waiting to start cultivating the soil for our new lawn. The lawn will be sown as soon as I can so that it will germinate and establish itself before the winter. We are trying to rehabilitate a section of the garden ruined when the swimming pool went in and to link it with an area currently the site of a very poor quality lawn. I can manage about 50 sq.m. a day fighting with the rotavator, after which I need a couple of days of rest – one more push should see the hard work done though. The next task will be the raking off of old grass, weeds and stone, and creating rough levels using new lawn edging secured along the existing beds. The ground will then be trodden down firmly, levelled again to a nice tilth and finally sown with grass seed. A last gentle rake over and we leave it to Nature to work its wonders.

Many of the bedding and herbaceous plants are having a second lease of life in this damp and temperate season: the Begonias have never looked so good, Pot Marigold (Calendula) are in full flower and throughout the garden there are splashes of colour here and there. It looks as if the Salvia Golden Delicious will flower this year: each shoot is carrying a flower bud and one is just starting to show red. We continue to pick tomatoes and our lettuce crop is the best we have had all year.

Summer bedding has never looked so good!

In the park the rain has resulted in a huge rise in the level of the river Cher, but not enough to put off 60 or more swans who took up residence earlier in the week. The gardeners are busily removing summer bedding and replacing it with a mixture of winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to beg a few of last season’s plants from them for our own garden: bedding Dahlias and purple grasses, no longer. I have finished taking cuttings of tender plants for the year but have tried some Holly again, a particularly attractive form which grows by the town campsite.

On Friday I am taking clients to Bourgueil to look at vineyards and taste some wine, while on Saturday or Sunday we’ll all take a trip to the Courson Plant Fair, so it’s a busy week all ’round. We are watching the weather.

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.

Troglodyte flower show in central France

Villentrois mushroom cave

At the end of a beautiful, warm and sunny autumn week, we decided to visit the tiny village of Villentrois, near Valencay, at the northern tip of the Indre department. The village (population 625) had a thriving mushroom growing industry until recently, utilising the caves created during the excavation of Tuffeau limestone for building materials. The whole village, including the ancient castle, is made of this soft white stone and it has been used for restoration work on the great chateau at Chambord and other historic buildings.

One of these old mushroom caves is now a village hall and hosts events including the annual flower show, held this weekend. It is a happy, unpretentious affair attracting locals and day-trippers from further afield, who can also eat a hearty meal from tables set up for the purpose in one of the larger galleries. The school children and the library construct themed floral exhibits and local nurserymen, landscapers, florists, producers and artists sell their wares from decorated stands in corners around the caverns. The walls and ceilings are decked in foliage and fairy lights while the pathways are lined with flowers, softening the chilly atmosphere. Chelsea it is not, but it brings a smile to the faces of the visitors and on such a lovely Sunday afternoon it was certainly drawing in the crowds.

Floral display in the mushroom caves

Mushrooms are still produced in the artificial caves of the region, although it is not the cottage industry it once, deferring to the more efficient industrial producers who make up the bulk of my students on the Garden Design Academy Mushroom Growing course. We have had some interest in it recently from English owners of houses in France who, discovering they have a mushroom cave or troglodyte shed in the back garden, decide to make use of it. The French are generally keen to support local growers, so some have found a profitable niche market, selling to restaurants or shops and keeping the food miles down. These caves are ideal for mushroom production, but also make great wine cellars for much the same reason: the rock caverns provide very stable temperatures and great insulation. Some are lived in and they can make very cosy dwellings.

Carving the tuffeau stone

Mushrooms have been the subject of much debate in the gathering places of the area this week. The woods outside Valençay have become temporary home to more than 50 caravans, as gypsies arrive from around the country to hunt for wild mushrooms, especially Boletus edulus – the Cep. Selling at around 25 Euro a kilo and up to twice that in Paris, they are being collected by the lorry full to sell in the capital, damaging large areas of private and public woodland in the process. Given that these woods are important sources of revenue as hunting grounds in addition to the timber and associated products, a serious conflict could be on the way. We discreetly collected a few Ceps on the way home, but in quantities unlikely to upset the natural balance of the woods, or the tempers of the landowners.