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.

Autumn colour, autumn harvest

Autumn has crept gently into central France, producing muted colours with fiery highlights rather than the dazzling displays of less mild years.

Some trees and shrubs dropped their foliage at the first sign of a frost while others, confused by the warm, wet spell that followed, have hung on for another month or more, before dropping in a desultory, half-hearted and uninspiring fashion.

Every now and then however, I am stopped in my tracks by a spectacular sighting of a single Gingko or maple tree, a whole bank of Rhus or Cotinus, or a patch of forest oaks. Then Camus’s line: “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, makes sense again.

Autumn colour is one of the great features of this season and in many countries a tourist trade has developed around its arrival. In our mild climate we are never treated to stunning displays like those in parts of the United States or China, extending over hundreds of miles and involving millions of plants, but we have our moments. Nearly one third of the land area of France is covered in trees, an area of woodland six times greater than those of the UK. When one of the great French woodland regions gets autumn colour just right, it is a sight to be seen!

Plane bark and autumn colour

In deciduous trees and shrubs the production of green chlorophyll drops away with falling autumn light levels, while other plant pigments contained in a leaf – yellow, orange or red depending on the chemical involved – are on the increase as plant sugars concentrate. A crisp, sunny autumn will produce the best leaf colours and we have hopes of a decent end-of-season display in this part of the world is this weekend, when fine weather is forecast. Already the days are superb, despite ugly conditions on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and we were out picking mushrooms in the woods this morning.

Berries, fruits and seeds are the other big feature of the season and this year I have been collecting some of our own to sow alongside those we are buying from the seed companies. More for fun than in any great hope of success I have sowed a pod of Lilium regale Album, which has rewards my efforts by producing seedlings in their dozens. Spurred on by this, I have since sowed Salvia argentea seeds and have a pod of Fritillaria imperialis on my desk awaiting its turn.

I am a great fan of allowing plants to self-seed but sometimes the results are disappointing, either not germinating or being ruined by my over-zealous weeding of the garden. We have had many successes however; Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings replaced an original plant which died after the first year, Verbena bonariensis is gradually establishing itself around one end of a sunny bed and many plants appear spontaneously in our gravel patio. As with outdoor cuttings, I often sow seeds I have harvested at the base of the parent plant, if only to be able to find them later. I am beginning to think that if I really want success I should be sowing in seed trays either in the garden or under cover, as I do with those I buy in packets. Some of the more simple bedding plants – Calendula, Opium Poppies and Nigella – do very well however, needing weeding out when they begin to take over.

Calendula - one of our more beautiful "weeds"

Our second delivery of packet seeds arrived today, this time from Suttons. These included a Banana, Ensete ventricosum, from their Eden Project range. I have only once, many years ago, had success with Banana and last years’ seeds (of E. glaucum) from Thompson and Morgan yet again failed to germinate. The species I have bought this time is African rather than south Asian and said to be hardier. Packets come with instructions to soak in warm water for 24 hours and I did this immediately, aware that they need to be sown at the earliest opportunity. I have found, by the way, a site “dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of the tropics in inappropriate climates” called Cooltropicalplants.com, which is amusingly written and full of sensible advice on a range of plants, including this one. I now understand that Bananas need temperatures of around 30°C to grow and I may not have provided this in the past. No criticism intended T&M!

Preparing the garden for winter

My reader from a cold climate will have noticed that winter is fast approaching. Even here in the Loire Valley most of the deciduous plants are naked after, in many cases, treating us to a final, fiery display of autumn leaf colour.

Our St. Catherine’s Day Magnolia planting was partly in preparation for this season. It is a far too valuable and beautiful specimen to lose. I have been getting in the ground as much as I can from my last delivery of plants so that they would not be frozen in their pots over winter. The soil acts as an insulator from the cold and, in the case of tender subjects like perennial Salvia uliginosa and Artemisia Powis Castle, I have planted deeply to make the most of this property of the soil.

Christmas cactus

Christmas cactus in the conservatory for the winter

Some plants have had to stay in pots for the time being. My little collection of winter flowering Camellias has been placed, in cold weather at least, in our unheated and rather leaky, north facing conservatory.

Here too are a pot of Begonia and another of Geraniums, which used to sit outside the door of the Gîte. It will not be the end of the world if they don’t survive the cold but I hope they do.

When the climate dictates I will also move the Tree Fern under cover joining the huge pot of Christmas Cactus which will soon be in flower. Eventually this conservatory could be something really special to greet clients and other visitors when they arrive at the front door. At the moment however, most of the space is taken up by office furniture and carpets awaiting a final home, so it rather lets us down.

Lemon tree under fleece

Lemon tree under fleece

Our two lemon trees, brought from our home in England at great trouble and expense, have been treated to a pair of fleece covers with which they have been enveloped for some time now. This allows rain and some light through, but allegedly protects them from the worst of the frost and cold winds. These plants have not had a comfortable life since being turned out of their lovely conservatory in Bedfordshire and dragged, kicking and screaming, to this country. It’s sad to see them suffer but in the fullness of time a home will be found for them in the new office building: when we finally get ‘round to building it.

Other plants are dotted around the garden waiting for me to dig a bed to accommodate them. These will have to deal with the cold as best they can but the wet is equally a factor in winter plant loses. I have ensured that these pots do not sit on the ground in such a way as to become waterlogged. It is for this reason that when filling a tub or other display container you must add gravel, crocks or other materials inside to keep the drainage holes clear. It is also worth considering raising the pot off the ground during winter to create very free drainage of excess water.

Drainage is an important aspect of the soil as well, but harder to modify. Vulnerable plants can be planted in little mounds of soil to improve drainage, or grit can be added. Underground drainage pipes can be installed in particularly difficult sites but if you garden on heavy clay soil you have to accept that your soil will be cold and damp over winter and plant accordingly. We moved to mid Bedfordshire to escape the clay soil in Harpenden and here in France the soil is wonderful.  This will allow us to over-winter plants not dreamed of in our earlier gardens.

We have two enormous Sequoias in our property, as our regular reader will remember. These give us a few problems, but three great benefits: the dappled shade they provide is ideal for woodland plants and we have created an oriental style garden of Camellias, Rhododendrons, Hamamelis, Japanese Maples and other plants here; the soil nearby is dry, supporting plants which need to keep their roots this way and the overhanging branches act as protection from the frost. Consider placing your own frost-tender plants in the shade of a tree over winter.


Calendula as living mulch


We have tried one other trick this year to protect some tender plants from the cold. I sowed seeds of Californian Poppies, collected from plants flowering in the garden, around a clump of Salvia argentea hoping that they would act as a barrier to the cold and keep the soil a little drier. I did the same for newly planted Euphorbia giffithii Fireglow and used Calendula in a similar way elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

In gardens in the village some plants, notably large palms and Oleander, have been wrapped up in bubble plastic, while Arum Lilies have been covered in thick layers of straw mulch. I have noticed a few improvised cloches which shield plants from damp in addition to keeping them warmer –  our silver-leaved Salvia would enjoy that sort of protection.

If you must grow tender plants,- and I must even if you don’t – these sort of protective measures will ensure, as much as you can ensure, that your treasures make it through to the next growing season.