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.

A seasonal affair

Rhus showing autumn colour in a Chabris garden

Rhus showing autumn colour in a Chabris garden

The grapes have been picked in the vineyards of the Touraine and at village fetes throughout the area Bernache, a bubbling, still fermenting grape juice is offered by good humoured stallholders, while local musicians play in nearby cafes to help celebrate another successful harvest.






Here in central France the people are in touch with nature in a way I haven’t seen since my childhood in Cornwall. Although there are more than a few commuters from Paris in the area, everyone seems to be involved with the land in some way or another and the seasons are keenly followed.

At the moment while many are preoccupied with the wine, pigs are being prepared in the old way: family and friends getting together to turn an animal into delicious pates, sausages, and hams for preserving and storing. There are mushrooms to be picked from the Oak woods and meadows at the weekends, dodging the hunters who are out with their dogs after game. Deer, wild boar and anything that flies are persuaded out of hiding by scores of dogs, nearly as wild as their prey. On the river banks the fishermen are in place as usual, perhaps snacking from the fallen fruits of a nearby Walnut tree as they wait for a bite at the end of the line.

Gardening too is a seasonal affair and I am working hard to clear the overgrown wilderness around our house. When we arrived there were complaints that snakes had been seen coming from our property into the street, so the removal lorry had hardly been emptied before I was out with the strimmer tidying the front. Since then I have worked through front and back gardens removing brambles, young trees and chest high grass in an effort to tame the jungle.

I have planted a few shrubs I brought from the UK, an easy task in the light sandy soil with which we are blessed. On the other side of the town the influence of the underlying limestone gives much heavier, limey clay soils in which corn, sunflower and maize do well, but closer to the river and especially in the Sologne to the north of us, the soils are acid and much less fertile. These are the areas where grapes, strawberries and asparagus are grown and in gardens, Camellias and Rhododendrons thrive.

Once the weeds have been controlled I will be able to begin the planting of our garden in earnest. The plan was prepared a year ago but has been changed several times since. For someone who designs gardens for a living and has seen over 1,000 completed, I have found my own very hard to finalise.  I hope you will enjoy following its progress as much as I will.