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.

Gardening in the real world

Godetia Rembrandt

Godetia Rembrandt from T&M. One of the bedding plants in flower in the garden today. Many visitors have thought it was an expensive Azalea.

“…sit back, relax and enjoy the fruits of your efforts earlier in the year” This was the advice provided by a gardening book I skimmed through recently, when describing the essential tasks for the month of August. I am not sure where this author gardens, but out here in the real world there is still much to do.

Marigold Golden Puff from Suttons with Antirrhinum Axiom (T&M)

After a poor start, the summer has turned out beautifully, with gorgeous sunny days welcomed by holiday makers but adding to the workload of the gardener. We are growing a fair amount of bedding this year, plenty of vegetables and have recently sowed a new lawn. We have also created a few new planting areas despite not yet having the existing beds up to scratch. All of these demand watering, so every other morning, before the day gets too warm, I start up the pump and provide the plants with the moisture they need. The well is deep and the water pure and rather cool. I have noticed many allotment holders fill up tanks from their wells to allow the temperature to rise a little before applying it to their plants. Of course, watering in the evening might be a better solution, but our life-style does not suit it. The plants might also be happier with watering every day, but that I am not prepared to do.

Lavatera trimestris ‘Twins Hot Pink’ from Thompson & Morgan

Weeding is an endless job here. This is a garden suffering from perhaps twenty years of neglect, so Bindweed smothers the new ornamentals if you turn your back to two minutes and after I have weeded an area it returns almost as strongly within the week. I find Bindweed very handy for tying up tomato plants and climbers but it is a constant battle to keep it down. Weed seedlings are an additional problem, but easier to control provided the job is done regularly. Most of the worst of the nettles and brambles have been dug out and destroyed but it pays to be vigilant. I have to say I quite enjoy weeding – it gets you out amongst the plants and there are always new surprises and delights hiding in the undergrowth! The work is satisfying too: you can look back at what you have achieved in the previous hour and clearly see that progress has been made. I like to flit about, tackling the worst patches or the areas where something attractive is just starting to flower. I flit – but I’m thorough with it, trying to ensure I remove all the weeds while at the same time tidying the ornamentals.

F1 Sunflower The Bees Knees – a dwarf, pollen-free mix which we are growing amongst perennial Helianthus

Talking of tidying, there is plenty of pruning to be done now; deadheading certainly, but also major replacement pruning of shrubs like Philadelphus. Our rambling Roses are in need of a serious amount of work, the Lavender hedges should have been trimmed a while ago and some of the herbaceous plants will have old flowering stems removed in due course.

It’s a great time of the year for cuttings and while Caryopteris and some Salvias have already been removed, newly rooted from the propagator, others are going in almost daily. At the moment there is a batch of Kiwi (Actinidia) cuttings, harvested from an overgrown plant belonging to a neighbour, a nice variegated Datura and a pretty little Salvia from the local park. Pushing my luck a bit, I am trying a few Magnolia stellata as give-aways for friends.

Sunflower Orange Sun

I have asked one of the characters I meet regularly when dog walking if I can have a few cuttings from his garden. He has a particularly fine red Lagerstroemia we have our eyes on, a hedge of those tricolor willows with the Japanese name which escapes me for the moment and an orange variety of Campsis, all of which are worth a try. We will perhaps wait until we return from our holiday in September before taking “security cuttings” – cuttings of plants which may or may not survive the winter when left out of doors. Salvias, again, are a good example, but there are many more and it is important to get these nicely rooted before the cold weather comes around again.

It is important to sit back and relax, and especially important to take time to enjoy your garden and the individual plants which make it up, but gardening, actually getting out and getting your hands dirty, is for me and many other simple souls, what it is all about. I shall continue to potter happily throughout the year and delight in doing so.

Layering shrubs and the joys of bedding plants

variegated Chestnut

Pretty, cream-edged leaves of Castanea sativa Argentomarginata

It has been so hot lately that for light relief I have been doing some weeding in the shady area I call the Oriental or Woodland Garden. One of the delightful plants we grow there is not at all oriental, a variegated Chestnut, currently a very healthy looking bush. Removing weeds from around it I considered trimming up some of the lower branches but on reflection decided to use them as layers. I really like layering as a technique, mostly because it is completely fool-proof, and we have propagated many plants in the garden this way.

My experience with layering goes back to my youth, when I worked at the Royal Gardens at Windsor. A large proportion of these gardens were developed under mature Oak trees and as a result leaf-raking was a major activity in our lives for six months of the year, or so it seemed. Some of these leaves were taken to stacks to slowly break down, to be put back into the ground as soil improver. Huge quantities were just raked onto the shrub beds, where they acted as wonderful mulch. This mulch also provided ideal conditions for shoots to root, having been covered in the process. I would often find nicely established layers of rare and unusual Rhododendrons and other shrubs around the gardens……one or two of these found their way back home to Cornwall.

Layering is a long-established, if slightly old-fashioned, commercial propagation technique for a number of plants, still practised for species which are slow or difficult to root. It is useful when a nurseryman requires only a few specimens of a particular tree or shrub, or when large plants are wanted quickly. Layer beds may be established to achieve this, producing plants by systems such as Simple, French, Serpentine or Tip Layering, depending on species. Fruit tree rootstocks are commonly produced by Stool layering.

Marigold Golden Puff from Suttons, next to self-seeded Verbena bonariensis

Here at the Academy, I laid down a shoot of our Chestnut into a hole I had dug close by, bringing it up again in a way that formed an elbow approximating a right angle. Soil was packed down on top, this bending interrupting the flow of sap and inducing root formation. In the past I have done the same with Cotinus Royal Purple and Viburnum x. hillieri ‘Winton’, and used other forms of layering with Wisteria, Rubus and many other subjects. I also use it to train plants like Lavender and Santolina, bending and earthing-up a branch to push a shrub in the direction I wish. These layers could be removed and sometimes they are – they make nice presents – but often they are just left in place to increase the size of the shrub.

A pot full of Coleus Kong

We have grown large numbers of bedding plants this year, knowing the garden would be disturbed by the installation of the swimming pool. These are now starting to flower, later than in the village streets and park, but they have better facilities than we do. I like to grow small numbers of a wide range of bedding so our annual parcels from the likes of Suttons and Thompson& Morgan are always an event. Gazania Daybreak Tiger Stripe (Suttons) is one of the earliest in flower in the front garden while Antirrhinum Axiom and Busy Lizzie Double Carousel from T&M have just started in the pool-side bed at the back. Sweet Pea  Prima Ballerina, grown over a metal climbing frame, has kept the house in flower for a while now. Also from T&M, Coleus Kong mix is at its best with us when well fed in a pot, but less good in the poor soil near the pool. Sutton’s Marigold Golden Puff is just beginning to look impressive, alongside the ornamental, purple-leaved Millet Purple Baron. There will be many more to report on as the season progresses.