Missed opportunities and great potential.

My wife and I have wasted the whole day fighting with Dell, the supplier of our PC’s – not the way a gardener should be spending such a lovely, sunny day. I won’t bore you with all the facts, but after a hard disc failure on my wife’s machine, Dell seem to be doing everything they can not to honour the 24-hour repair warranty we were persuaded to take out. The latest tale is that while they will repair it free of charge, we have to purchase a new copy of Windows 7, the operating system without which the PC will not function. It’s a bit like buying a plant at the garden centre, roots not included!

This has not helped our sense of humour or improved our sun tan. In the meantime not only did the Courson Plant Fair come and go without us overspending, or indeed attending, we also seemed to have missed the Chestnut season; how could this be? Gardening works with the seasons if it works at all – if you sit too long in the shade, the summer will just pass you by – you have been warned by one who knows!

Fortunately there are suppliers out there who can be relied upon and the loud thud which accompanies the arrival of the seed catalogues is enough to galvanise even the most lackadaisical and distracted into action.

Big Begonias growing with Petunias in our garden

Over the years I have noticed a change, discreet at first but now gathering momentum, as the seedsmen increasingly sell their more interesting varieties as young plants rather than seed. This is difficult for us, as most UK companies will not post to France. There is good reason for this; our testing of grafted tomatoes was ruined by the condition of the plants on arrival: only two out of nine survived. A trial of a new variety of Begonia was similarly blighted (although I maintain the grower was also at fault, a theory firmly disputed by the company concerned). Benary’s Begonia “Big” has finished the season on a high, but taken most of the year to recover from the damage inflicted by the journey from the UK.

Commercial growers and parks departments have been utilising seedlings and young plants for twenty years and most now leave this stage to the specialists. Many years ago we had a 6 acre glasshouse nursery providing this service on behalf of a French seed company. At the home gardener level, tricky and expensive plants like F1 Begonia, Geranium and Impatiens are important seedling / plug subjects, but the range available is increasing at a pace.

Plugs and seedlings

The Dobies catalogue features 25 pages of flowers and 11 pages of vegetables offered as young plants, in addition to bulbs and fruit plants. Suttons also list more than 26 pages of flowers and vegetable plants, while Thompson and Morgan have them scattered throughout their catalogue. As the nature of their customers’ changes from garden enthusiasts to a much wider public and gardening skills diminish, this convenient and profits-enhancing development is sure to evolve.

T & M was the first of these catalogues to arrive and my order was sent by email a while ago. We do not yet grow a wide range of vegetables as, for the moment at least, we don’t have a lot of space for a proper veg garden and those we do grow are scattered amongst the ornamental plants. We like our tomatoes however and Sungold, Suncherry and Sungella are our choices for next seasons salads. Courgettes do well here but the plants take up too much space for my liking. This year we will try the F1 hybrid Defender, which I gather is a much more compact plant and less likely to give us marrow-shaped fruits of the variety we grew this year. Lettuce Lettony is a new variety I thought worth a try. I am hoping the promise of being resistant to bolting holds true as we had too much of that this season. Golden Berry Little Lanterns completes our selection and I hope it will do well out of doors: we used to grow them in the greenhouse and I love both the look and taste.

Gaura lindheimeri

In flowers, we are trying a mixture of easy and challenging subjects, including a few herbaceous perrenials like Eryngium, Gaillardia, Gaura lindheimeri and Lupins. New this year is Sweet Pea Prima Ballerina, Papaver Pink Fizz (two-tone pink with frilly edges) and Godetia Rembrandt, while Calendula Chrysantha is a variety which dates from the 1930’s. We are trying some tuberous Begonias from seed in addition to double Impatiens and award-winning Geranium Moulin Rouge. We are growing Antirrhinum Axiom mixed and Sunflower for cut flowers, with Sweet Pea White Supreme in the white border.

As I write, Chantal is studying the other catalogues.

Plants for friends, plants for customers

As autumn approaches, thoughts turn naturally to this year’s planting season and we are arranging the delivery of plants to a number of our clients this month. These days we do not have teams of eager landscapers willing and able to construct my gardens for our customers, but I still like to involve myself in the planting for a number of reasons.

Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes (Bailtier) showing autumn colour in our garden in central France

Disappointingly, I find many professional landscapers and garden designers woefully lacking in plant knowledge. This is something we try to address at the Garden Design Academy, where a number of our courses encourage students to improve the range of plants with which they are familiar. In reality however, it just takes interest and motivation; it also takes time to fully understand a wide selection of the garden plants available to gardeners.

We therefore offer to locate and supply the plants we specify for our gardens, either just delivering them to site or more usually, placing them out on the newly cultivated beds to the planting plan and plant list we have produced as part of the design of the garden. Although there are plenty of fine growers here in France, we often find we need to purchase our plants from the UK, Belgium or Holland to fulfil our requirements.

We also like to give plants as presents to our friends and I much prefer to have grown them myself than to buy them: it’s a more personal gesture, I feel. Frustrated nurseryman that I am, I have a heated tunnel in the loft in which I sow seed and establish cuttings and while not everything does well (of course, I like to try the most difficult plants!) we do claim some success at producing batches of plants to give away. I had cleared the tunnel and turned off the under-soil heating before our recent trip South, but have just reinstated it for my next attempts at propagation.

Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii in flower today by the front gate

For myself I have taken cuttings of New Guinea Hybrid Impatiens from the single plant which has brightened up the shady border by the front door this year. I expect I will dig up and pot the main plant, which is now quite large, attempting to over-winter it out of the frost. These cuttings are my insurance policy and I have done the same with Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii, which we grow in a pot by the front gate and which will also need protection during winter. Other tender plants will be given similar treatment.

For friends I have  cuttings of Hebe Great Orme and Cistus corbariensis today and a list of a number of others I will attempt to root during the next week or so. It has been fascinating looking at notes I made almost forty years ago, listing the appropriate months to take cuttings from a wide range of shrubs. I have decided to give young Colin the benefit of the doubt and concentrate on the plants he suggests.

Echium fastuosum in its native habitat

In the post box most mornings are offers of plants from a number of mail order companies, suggestions I can resist without too much difficulty. On the other hand I have found a French grower on eBay, of all places, who lists a really interesting selection of unusual plants and clearly knows her stuff. I decided to give her a try and have ordered Echium fastuosum, whose towering blue flower spikes are a spectacular feature of the flora of Madera, Kniphofia Dorset Sentry, an acid-yellow variety of Red Hot Poker and Hedychium Tara, a hardy plant related to Ginger featuring luxuriant foliage and delightfully scented, bright orange flowers. We are looking forward to growing all of these and will report back on their arrival and progress.

Back from the South of France

After a tiring but satisfying week teaching a residential garden design course here in Chabris, we took ourselves off to the South of France for a part work / part holiday break. Our base, after a little touring around the Languedoc-Roussillon, was Pézenas, where a client put us up at their vineyard Gîte Rural while we discussed the creation of a new garden around their house. This arrangement also allowed for plenty of time to visit the region with our son, who flew over to join us.

Roquebrun - Jardin Méditerranéen - perhaps next time?

I had planned to take in two local gardens but discovered that our first was available for evening guided visits only and this did not suit our schedule. We reached the village of Roquebrun in the Hérault to seek out the Jardin Méditerranéen but were distracted by a pretty restaurant and in the end did not make it to the garden. We did however, discover the local wine co-op where a steady stream of growers were delivering their harvest. After some debate and careful consideration, we eventually departed with two dozen bottles of their finest.

Roadside saffron crocus

This region of France is particularly attractive when the temperatures moderate and the tourists leave. We swam in the Mediterranean and looked at the boats in the harbour at Sète, enjoyed a wonderful meal in a village on the edge of the Bassin de Thau and strolled by the Canal du Midi. We were particularly taken by the hills and mountains of the huge Haut-Languedoc Natural Park behind the coast. The stunning scenery and an amazing diversity of countryside, geology and climate had us captivated for several expeditions, driving around mountain roads and through tiny mountain hamlets. We should have walked more I know, but the dog had a foot infection and was effectively lame for the whole trip, although she enjoyed our swims in lakes and rivers each day. One area consisted of a forest of Chestnut trees as far as the eye could see (and probably much further) and locals were busy bringing in the bounty, while in another, more open region, the roadsides were flecked with saffron crocus.

All good things come to an end and eventually we had to make our way home, after lunch next to the brick cathedral at Albi and a night in a farmhouse above the River Lot. We arrived refreshed and ready to work again, with a garden design to complete and, amongst the 2,000 emails sitting in my Outlook Inbox, a few more requests for courses. The first signs of autumn were evident in the garden.

Less tourism and more gardening in my next post, I promise!

Mail order plants, autumn bulb planting and autumn colour

I’m not a fan of catalogue retailers of plants and bulbs. I have no problem with normal nurseries offering their wares mail order: it’s those glossy, strangely unnatural colours and the “two plants for the price of one / free gifts with every order / you have definitely won a small fortune in our free draw” companies I dislike.

Granny used to buy from one such company in England and I, forgive my innocence, have just tried one here in France. To encourage me with my first order, Willemse told me I was to be given a years supply of Strelitzia, free delivery and a big wet kiss from the van driver (I exaggerate for effect, as is my way, but not a lot). In addition, I had definitely won a great deal of money: how could I lose? I ordered loads of stuff. I also kept a copy of the order form and filed the catalogue safely away for future reference.

Fruits on our Arbutus, newlt planted against the walls of the Garden Design Academy log cabin classroom

When the bulbs and other plants I had ordered arrived several weeks later, we noticed some were missing: a pack which was supposed to have nine plants only had three. I emailed the help desk and was told that our order was fine: three plants as ordered. I explained in which respect it wasn’t fine but was told it was definitely fine: three plants as per my order. I sent them a copy of the order: “No, you ordered the one of each variety, super discount offer”. I sent them a photograph of the page in the catalogue which provided details of their offer to supply nine plants and was told it was not the case: what I had ordered was three plants. Just as I was considering driving over to impress on them my disappointment, they replied to a further email with the news that they would send me the six missing plants I had paid for and not charge me for them: in effect, I was told, they are free! And sure enough, the offending plants arrived a week later and are now out in the garden: three groups of three Hemerocallis.



Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus - autumn leaf and flower

Is it me, or do people who order a number of plants expect to receive that number? I was, and still remain, unimpressed. Anyway, I am looking forward to the huge amount of money I have definitely won; when I do, it’s all ’round to Elliott’s place for a champagne party!

Fritillaria dreaming

This is not my first mail order gardening problem in France, but may well be my last. Attentive readers will remember my fight with Thompson and Morgan, a seed company with whom I have traded happily for years in the UK; unfortunately in France you have to deal with their French office, with inflated French prices and a French attitude to customer service. My wife, by the way and in the interests of balance, uses a number of mail order companies for clothes and other things and has had few problems. Perhaps it is just me.

The bulbs were OK as far as I could see. I planted dwarf Daffodils next to our new Mahonia nitens, tulips with pansies in the front garden, Crown Imperial Fritillaria amongst variegated Cistus and Euphorbia wulfenii. Drifts of Ixia and Ipheion have been inserted into patches of gravel below the washing lines while broad lines of Muscari wind around new planting near the log cabin. Japanese Iris went to the oriental garden next to a new clump of Arum Lilies bought at Courson. The Hemerocallis? Three creamy-white Vanilla Fluff were planted in the white border while the two other varieties, Double Royal Red and Congo Orange went to the other side of the garden. Three of each. Not one.

We have had three frosts so far, the last a week or so ago. These pulled the leaves from the grape vines giving us no autumn show at all. The forests and countryside however, have carried on as normal and are gradually gearing up for a fantastic display of autumn leaf colour (fall color, if you are from the other side of the Atlantic). Several plants in the garden are also putting on a show, with Euphorbia giffithii Fireglow perhaps the best. As the season moves on I shall be posting up photographs for all to admire. It’s a glorious season!

Euphorbia Fireglow, young plants showing autumn leaf colour in the garden at Chabris

Plant buying, plant theft and planting plans

The day of our annual pilgrimage to the Courson Festival of Plants last week coincided with a general strike. The good people of France are unhappy with a proposed retirement age of 62 and the political opposition demands that the law is halted in its progress through parliament. Just in case the government didn’t hear, the Socialists called this strike and several others both before and since, failing to highlight the fact that their own plans only offer six months less.


Fuel is in short supply but throwing caution to the wind we drove the 200-odd km up to Courson anyway, trusting that we would be able to fill up somewhere on the way back. With the autumn planting season just around the corner we simply could not miss this opportunity to stock up with plants. The show was as usual wonderful and as usual we restricted our spending by bringing a limited amount of cash and refusing to consider credit cards for additional purchases. We still assembled an impressive selection of specimens for the new beds I am creating around our newly installed log cabin.

Courson 2010

Some of these plants are well known to us and are “must haves” on our mental check-list. Others, for one reason or another, I have never grown before and this is always exciting. Early purchases included Echinacea Meringue, with a delightful cream and white flower, selected to add more colour to our White Border, Echinacea Tomato Soup, an amazing red form on a tall plant and Hosta Great Expectations, all from Hostafolie, a nursery exhibiting from Belgium. The Hosta is a sport of H. Sieboldiana elegans with wide, irregular, blue-green margins surrounding an ever-changing centre; it starts out chartreuse in the spring, turns to yellow, then to creamy yellow, and finally to white. Random fern-green streaks are painted between the margin and centre of each leaf making each one unique. It carries masses of white flowers in the summer but some gardeners find it temperamental: I’ll have to tall to it about that! We are keen to have Hostas near the cabin and this is our second variety. Dryness is not something they appreciate but they are ideal in moist shade. Slugs and snails are a worry as they can badly damage the otherwise attractive foliage, but we have had few problems so far with our existing plants.

Plant judging with our very own Roy Lancaster

In our Hertfordshire garden one of our great pleasures was the scented Daphne odora Aureomarginata, an evergreen shrub from China. We grew it in a protected spot next to the conservatory door, so the perfume could waft in on the cool February air. We bought this and a couple of newish shrubs from another nurseryman: Magnolia Black Tulip, a Jury hybrid from New Zealand and Mahonia nitens Cabaret, which I raved about but failed to buy last year. From yet another stand we selected a second Daphne, this time D. tangutica, also Chinese, flowering on and off for much of the year, evergreen and deliciously scented. Often thought of as a choice and difficult plant, the RHS have awarded it an Award of Garden Merit, which suggests quite the opposite.

There were several UK nurserymen at the show and Trecanna’s bulb stand was buzzing with customers. Keen to support a Cornish boy far from home, we bought a few Arum Lilies and a Colchicum from him. The Arums are the hardy white sort – Zantedescia aethopica. Being a moisture lover we will plant it next to the Hostas but I have noticed that while the biggest plants grow in shady spots, if you want more flowers it needs more sun. A little care will be needed when we plant them next week. A traditional French song tells of Colchicums in the meadows signalling the end of summer and wild forms are a common site here in the early autumn. We choose the popular variety Waterlily, with double lavender-pink flowers. The bulb was in flower when we bought it and currently sits in a Chinese bowl on Chantal’s desk, a curious sight in the reception.

Heuchera specialist from the UK

From our “must have” list we choose a specimen of Arbutus unedo, an evergreen shrub with Lily of the Valley-shaped flowers and strawberry –like fruits. I have planted many in Hertfordshire for clients and missed seeing it in our own garden. Now that this has been rectified we need to choose a special spot to show it off. In the autumn it carries both last season’s fruit and new flowers and when larger the peeling red bark and gnarled stems are very attractive. Being a Mediterranean native a sunny position will be selected for it.

From a Loire Valley grower we chose a couple of climbers: evergreen Honeysuckle Lonicera henryi Copper Beauty and Clematis viticella alba luxurians. One of my favourites, C. ‘Alba Luxurians’ is covered in flowers from mid-summer to late autumn. Its white blooms are tinged with mauve and have a greenish tips. It is a member of the viticella group of clematis and as such it shows good resistance to the dreaded clematis wilt. As with all the late-flowering clematis, pruning is easy. You simply cut back the stems to a pair of strong buds 15-20cm above ground level before growth begins in early spring. This pruning technique makes late-flowering clematis useful for training into shrubs, trees and climbing roses as the clematis growth is removed each spring and so never becomes too much of a burden on its supporting plant. The other is an absolutely gorgeous evergreen Honeysuckle with large, shiny deep green foliage that is bronze when young. Copper Beauty produces sweetly scented copper-yellow flowers throughout summer followed by black fruits in autumn. It has been suggested it is good to plant with Clematis armandii and as we have one of these we will consider this as an option, but we also have spots for it in the front and against the walls of the log cabin.


One final plant to mention from the half dozen I have yet to tell you about; on our way out of the show, when we were overwhelmed, dazed and venerable, we came across the stand of Tropique Production, who specializes in hardy but exotic looking plants like Hedychium. The Ginger Lilies are among the most exotic looking herbaceous plants you can hope to grow in a British garden. Great thick, creeping, ginger smelling rhizomes send up ‘canes’ with bold, alternate leaves in two ranks, around the beginning of April.
No Hedychium is a straightforward hardy perennial right across the UK. On the other hand, none are out-and-out heated glasshouse subjects and this is a toughie. Pink V is delightfully scented hybrid from Tom Wood in Florida, with apricot coloured flower spikes and has already been planted next to our Dining Island where we can appreciate it as we eat. It will need feeding and plenty of water in the growing season and this first winter I shall protect the crown.

Tired, broke, but happy, we drove home down the motorway and had no difficulty filling up with fuel at a service station close to our junction. When we arrived we discovered someone had stolen the potted tree fern from our front garden. Serves us right for having too much fun, I suppose. Dicksonia antarctica is back on the wish list.

Autumn planting, autumn cooking, Courson and soot all over the lounge.

Friday starting very promisingly.

Chantal had been chatting to a local lady about girlie cooking stuff and as a result she came rushing around to help out with the making of the quince jelly and green tomato jam. The quinces arrived after a recent scavenging session: there are dozens of quince trees in the village but no-one but us seems to use them. Did I tell you about the quince pate de fruit? No? Just as well…..you’d only put on weight.


Anyway, our friend arrived with a gift of Clerodendrum thomsoniae, although being bought in France it was not labeled. I was explaining to anyone who would listen that it was the same genus as the offshoot we were given a year or two back by a local gardener: C. trichotomum fargesii, the former African and the latter Chinese. This seemed to have interested few people and there was a suggestion, not articulated, that perhaps I should get out more. I did get out, and planted up a new bed in the sunniest part of the garden, added Cistus Callistemon and Lagerstroemia to the Hibiscus, Nepeta and Cytisus battandieri already there.

Then some jokers arrived to fit a new fire we ordered, covering the whole of the ground floor in soot, leaving electrics in a dangerous state and the chimney at risk of falling at the first puff of wind. Tradesmen wonder why everyone has it in for them: this is why. Having been the victim of such people in the past we know the drill and are writing our thoughts on the matter in two languages; copies to the company, our insurers and our notaire. This one could run and run, with new carpets and furniture ruined and the family coughing up soot most of the day. I’m amazed the TV and laptop haven’t blown up with all the mess which much be inside of them.

On Saturday we gave ourselves a break from the chaos and visited the Fete de St. Denis at nearby Lucay La Male. The dog liked the donkeys and the man herding geese; there was a great junk market, a family pressing their apples for juice the old way, an amusing potato competition, serious and not so serious art and pompom girls leaping about to the local brass band. On the way back we collected Chestnuts and mushrooms for dinner.

A man has just come and gone, rating our carpet unclean-able. Never mind, on Friday we are off to Courson, that great, biannual plant buying opportunity south of Paris, where we can sooth our woes on a shopping spree. Expect to see photos here very soon. This year we have not been asked to guide anyone around or give talks so we can just concentrate on indulging ourselves.

Green roofs, Buddleja and a trip to the South of France

As the weather gets cooler our garden fruit and vegetables are coming to an end, the kids have gone back to school and the season of mushrooms and nuts has started. A slight detour from our usual morning walk takes us through the wood where the Ceps grow and past a large number of Walnut trees; we have taken to carrying bags with us on our walks.


A selection of last years wild mushrooms

Thoughts turn to keeping warm over winter: we have just ordered 1000 litres of fuel to top up the tank which suppliers the central heating boiler. The French are very keen on alternative energies and “green” housing solutions are installed in even the most modest property. Heat pumps and solar heating panels are very common in the village and while they produce warmth very cheaply the set-up costs, even with government grants, are enormous for a house of the type that we own. After inviting a number of companies to quote we decided it made little economic sense to install heat pumps but did spend money on insulation, both for the roof when we replaced it and for all the exterior walls. But with ten external doors leaking heat and a couple of dozen ancient single-glazed windows, this is not the most thermally efficient building.

We are installing a clever stove in the lounge however, which burns wood pellets, is cheap and efficient to run, highly controllable and should heat most of the ground floor. We are considering one for the new Garden Design Academy classroom but the log cabin is fantastically cosy and in spite of its size was heated when it was our office in Codicote with just a couple of little electric radiators. It’s an environmentally friendly building as it stands but we plan to top it off with a Green Roof and have started to locate and propagate suitable plants in seed trays of leaf mulch.

Sedum mat for a green roof

The UK is a leader in green roof systems, with much of the research having been undertaken in Sheffield University. France leads the way in green- or living-walls and a recent conference of the World Green Roof Congress in London brought together experts to share ideas and encourage the uptake and implementation of these natural and attractive insulation systems. We already have a garden storage shed covered with Sedum but here in the countryside it will make much less impact than in the cities, where they will reduce thermal emissions and reflected heat from buildings, cut down rainwater run-off and greatly improve local air quality. The living roof for the cabin is therefore more of a conversation piece for visitors and will  help me gain experience for projects we may have in the future.

If you find the idea of a green roof appealing you can easily install one yourself on a garden shed or other building provided the existing structure of the roof is sufficiently strong to support the additional weight. Of course, if more support is needed it can be added. The basic components are protective layers for the roof, drainage material, compost to support the plants and the plants themselves. The details vary depending on the slope of the roof (you can do great things with a flat roof) and the type of plant you wish to grow. Various component systems are now available and I have even seen rolls of appropriate plants offered in UK garden centres, looking much like turf.

www.Livingroofs.org offer a DIY guide which you can download while a book, Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls is one of many published by Timber Press. I’ll let you know how our version develops.


The autumn is the best time to plant a garden and with our cabin nearing completion we are looking forward to utilising the additional planting opportunities the building creates. In a recent plant brochure I was intrigued to read about a new Buddleja called Blue Chip, the first of a series going under the name Lo and Behold.

Buddleja Blue Chip

I am very fond of Buddleja but they can be very large plants, unsuitable for small gardens. Several breeders have attempted to produce smaller forms including Elizabeth Keep of the East Malling Research Station whose English Butterfly series should be better known. ‘Blue Chip’ (Lo and BeholdTM Series) is a hybrid involving B. davidii, B. davidii var. nanhoensis ‘Nanho Purple’, B. globosa and B. lindleyana created by Dennis Werner of North Carolina State University.

His aim was not only to create a genuinely dwarf buddleja, but also one which doesn’t produce self sown seedlings. In the USA traditional buddlejas are banned in some states because their prolific seedlings are smothering native plants in some habitats and we have all seen Buddleja growing from the sides of church steeples in England.

The Low and Behold series will be available in several colours before long but Blue Chip is a lovely shade of blue, flowers for months and grows no larger than 2 feet tall, making it ideal in a pot or as ground cover. I hope to be growing it soon.

Buddleja lindleyana

Buddleja lindleyana flower

We have the Chinese species B. lindleyana and find it a great plant, with long purple racemes of flower produced over the bush all summer. It was name after John Lindley, English botanist, nurseryman and founder of the flower show in the Chelsea Physic Garden, whose name is also recognised in that of the RHS library. The other species involved in the breeding  of Blue Chip is B. globosa, a huge shrub with balls of yellow flowers (there use to be a lovely plant in the walled garden at Kings Walden) and this has been crossed with B. davidii to produce B. x  weyeriana, which we were given cutting of this year. There are several varieties of the yellow Butterfly Bush B. x  weyeriana and as yet I am unsure as to which we have. Honeycomb is said to be the best, a creamy yellow variety selected in the USA from plants bought in the UK under another name, while Sungold shows some purple in the flower. Golden Glow and Yellow Hallow are other yellow varieties while Orange Glory and Bicolor are warmer colours; all are scented and easy to grow.

We have been studying Buddleias in local gardens to try to find the best white. We think we have spotted it in the grounds of the old people’s home and will be chatting up the staff shortly to beg for cuttings. Buddleias are very easy from cuttings at any time of the year but a thick shoot of this year’s growth will root over winter if suck into the soil in a sheltered place outside. That should provide another plant for our White Garden.

The best white Buddleja in Chabris?


France is such a large country that when we are asked to look at a client’s garden we try to save them expense by combining visits. Our next trip is like that, with an appointment at a house close to Carcassonne and the Canal de Midi, another between Nice and Antibes and the final call in the Vichy area.  Each garden will have a different soil and climate and each client entirely different requirements and expectations. In addition, two of them speak no English while the third is Dutch (fortunately she speaks English because my Dutch is limited to a few place names pronounced badly!).

Combining business with pleasure, we are also spending a few days relaxing by the Mediterranean to celebrate my 56th birthday and the second anniversary of our move to France. I hope we will visit a few nurseries and gardens in the area of Antibes and if we do I shall report on them when I get back.

Nature prepares for the end of summer

We are currently loosing day length, here in the centre of France, at the rate of half an hour a week. Nights are clear and cool, with temperatures dropping to around 12 degrees C, while the days are calm and sunny, allowing us to continue to eat outside at mid day, when it has warmed to 27 degrees or more.


Late summer flowers from Caryopteris and Rudbeckia

All around us Nature is reacting to this: grasses like Cortaderia and Miscanthus are coming into flower and autumn fruits are ripening. The signs look good for the grape harvest – although there has been more growth than usual to trim off, these late sunny days are increasing sugar content in the berries, enhancing flavour and the boosting alcohol when the wine is eventually made. There is so much unpicked fruit on the trees that few bother picking the wild blackberries, which in any case lack the taste of those we used to eat in England. We are hanging on for the apples pears, quince and late peaches, turning down offers of plums for jam making; you can only eat and give away so much jam and we are saving the last few dozen jars for the autumn fruits.

In the garden, under the giant Sequoias, the Garden Design Academy classroom is nearing completion and when the workers have finally gone we will be able to create more beds to settle it nicely into the landscape. The final phases of the work seem to take forever and we are not confident it will be completed in time for the next residential course. These have been held very successfully this year in a wing of the house we rent out to tourists when not needed by Academy students, but I shall be happier when the Academy has its own permanent home.

The log cabin for the Garden Design Academy nears completion.

We are planning visits to a number of autumn plant shows, both professional and amateur. The first trade show of the season will be Les Visites Vert at Angers, 14th -15th September and our favourite plant fair is at Courson a month later. The Anger event groups together 37 local nurseries in one hall and will be very useful for finding suppliers for our garden design clients. Courson is pure indulgence, with the best of France’s retail nurseries selling their wares in the park of the chateau. There are always rarities, new varieties and a contented buzz, as fellow enthusiasts spend their pocket money and take away prized plants. This year we will be taking my parents, at one time nurserymen themselves, who are travelling up from their home in Spain for the event.

I love the summers here, when they are not too hot and last for months- the outdoor lifestyle suits us perfectly. The dog and I will miss our afternoon swims in the river, but the approaching autumn is also exciting to observe and to participate in, as the seasons move inexorably on.

St. Catherine’s Day planting and preparing for winter.

25th November – St. Catherine’s Day – when planting is guaranteed to be successful.

I had been saving the planting of my Magnolia grandiflora until today and plan to have a St. Catherine’s Day plant for every year we are here. Last year, our first autumn in France, I planted a couple of fruiting Cherry trees on the eastern garden boundary and the Magnolia is now settling in halfway between the two. The stocky plant has a couple of flower buds waiting to open and makes a nice evergreen punctuation point on that side of the garden.

Magnolia grandiflora

Magnolia grandiflora planted on St. Catherine's Day

There are no beds over there at the moment – I had been leaving that side uncultivated to allow access for the builders when our log cabin goes up. The planting hole was therefore dug out of an area hastily cleared for the purpose and is still surrounded by weeds in this neglected section. It’s had a good feed and plenty of water and I shall be talking to it on a daily basis; and with St. Catherine on my side, how can I go wrong?


This planting is also part of my preparations for winter which, despite all the mild weather, must be just around the corner.


Food for Free

Nature is bountiful at this time of the year, here in central France. We never fail to return from walking the dog without something in our pockets and at the moment, we are mostly collecting Walnuts.

 There are still plenty of Hazel nuts around and as we become accustomed to the area we are beginning to work out which trees are not picketed, where to find the largest nuts and which trees are the most productive. This morning we returned with a basket full of nuts and half a dozen ceps, our favourite edible mushrooms.

Cyclamen growing wild in the Robinia woods

Cyclamen growing wild in the Robinia woods

Locals are often very generous when they know you are interested. With a new kitchen recently fitted we have been testing out the equipment by jam and chutney making. Not having fruit of our own, people have been giving us bags of peaches, plums apples, pears and quince. Each of them receives a pot of jam from us in return. As I speak, Chantal is cracking walnuts ready to bake a cake this afternoon.

Colchicum - autumn crocus - growing wild in central France

Colchicum - autumn crocus - growing wild in central France

Autumn flowers are also much in evidence now that the weather is cooling, the day length reducing and the rains returning.

Where once the ground was speckled with orchids there are now wild Cyclamen, Colchicums and, an exciting find, Saffron Crocus.

Here on the edge of the Touraine the grape harvest is all in, picked last week when it was warm and sunny. Mostly the crop was machine harvested but, talking to local growers, they are increasingly hand picking to improve quality. We are great fans of the local white but are still to be convinced that the red is worth the effort to get to know.

We are still recovering from yesterday. We had a business meeting in Valancay at 11 am and on arrival in the town the temperature was 17 degrees C. An hour later it was thermometer on the car dashboard read 21 and by the time we reached home it was 25. 

The atmosphere was strange and people in the town reacted to it. Out walking in the afternoon we had hardly got to the end of the road when someone stopped us to show off his new motorbike and offered us drinks to celebrate. Staggering off to continue our exercise we were stopped a few yards on to chat with an elderly lady who was in tears recalling her dogs and admiring ours.

In the park a man had his head in his hands but beamed when the dog wandered over and gave him a lick. Prior to that we had been sitting on the beach watching the river, when our decorator came over to sit with us for a while. A strange day ended with a huge thunder storm, with a bright red sky and a game of scrabble.

Perhaps someone had drugged the water but according to the weather man a hurricane had moved up the Atlantic dragging hot African air up through France. Who needs alcohol with weather like this!