Winter’s bounty

In the past the changing seasons meant a change of diet as food availability came and went with the progress of the year. The advent of the supermarket produced a demand for foods to be available all year round so that nowadays, almost everything can be bought and eaten at any time. I have always thought this a pity and wonder if it is we who have demanded this, or the supermarkets that choose to offer us what they feel we will buy. Who would want to forgo the pleasures of the first strawberry of the year by eating them every day? A list of delights of this type would be endless.

Living in the centre of rural France, things are a bit different. Local supermarkets and markets do respond to the seasons and offer produce grown locally in their true season. Friends ring us up to share their most recent harvest and we do the same, giving away bagfuls of whatever produce the garden has graced us with at this particular moment. We also love collecting wild food but this year has been a poor one in our region for one of our favourites, Cepes (Boletus) mushrooms.


Chanterelle mushrooms in the woods of the Loire Valley

Today however, just as we were beginning to start work on the day’s projects, a friend rang and offered to take us to her favourite wood for Chanterelle mushrooms, one of nature’s finest delicacies. In France no one ever tells you where they pick their mushrooms, so how could we refuse? As we wound our way through the country lanes toward our goal I began to wonder if our host was deliberately trying to get us lost. But it was a lovely day, cool but sunny, so I drove where I was told, knowing I could sneak back another day if necessary.

We were directed up a track through the vineyards, where workers were busily pruning the vines, eventually coming to a pine forest in which we were shown to our friend’s favourite parking spot. Coats on and baskets out, we pushed through the undergrowth to the centre of the wood and were not disappointed: there were Chaterelles everywhere!

An hour or so later we had picked enough for the year but our friend was keen to continue. We eventually dragged her away and on returning home started to prepare the 10 kg of “food for Free” we had picked. The base of the stem was removed and the mushrooms washed, then lightly heated in a pan to remove some of the water. Finally they were packed into jars to be sterilised and sealed, available to enjoy for the next year or so. Our diner that evening consisted of veal escallopes with onions, garlic and a generous helping of Chanterelles, cooked in a cream sauce. Life doesn’t get much better really.


Callicarpa berries in Chabris park

Talking to some of the older folks in the market today, they are predicting a cold winter. There is a very heavy crop of acorns in the Oak woods and, thinking of what a similar generation would have told me in England, no shortage of berries on Pyracantha, Holly and other shrubs. At the moment the weather is gentle enough; all will be revealed, I have no doubt. The dry weather over the last few weeks has also produced a few frosts, but is allowing me to get out to do some weeding finally, after months working and touring with students and other clients.



Holly berries in abundance.


Slugs in the electrics and other gardening stories

It’s been a funny week one way and another: exciting and satisfying, disappointing and frustrating in turns. 1st December saw our first frost worthy of the name (I know I talked about one in October but that was hardly cold enough to count) and yesterday we woke to a very hard one by our standards, with temperatures down to -6°C overnight. Yesterday we had clear skies and a crisp but gorgeously sunny day, while today we are being treated to cold drizzle and around 1/3rd France is covered in snow. Ooh, the sun’s just come out!

The week started well. I was asked by the town Tourist Office, entirely run by volunteers, if I would help them set up a web site. I registered a name ( and created a five page site to get them started and they loved it. The hard part came when I had to get the Tourist Office committee to do things like sign a bank mandate for the URL registration and site hosting. They promise it will be done but the hosting company is now starting to get agitated. The company is French, so I imagine they will understand that when someone says “tomorrow”, they mean it should be done by Christmas; certainly in January or February…..almost certainly!


The garden Design Academy green roof on the tool shed

Ah well, that work is now on the back burner so I was able to get on with some web site additions of my own, adding an exciting new course to the Garden Design Academy program and featuring it as Course of the Month. Green Walls and Green Roof Gardening have been the subject of much interest lately and even the UK government is promoting their use in the cities as a response to the challenge to global warming. This course is timely therefore and we have high hopes for it both in the UK, where universities and companies have been researching the techniques for some time and in Europe, where a number of high profile examples have been constructed.

Next week I hope to post details of another new course, much requested by the Industry: Horticultural therapy. I would have done it this week, but we had no power in the house Wednesday and it took all day to get it fixed. We woke up to a cold house and soon realised that we had a power cut of some sort. Electrical systems are different in France to what we are used to in the UK, but I did the rounds of the three circuit-breaker fuse boxes in various corners of the house before braving the cold to look outside where a box in the garden houses the incoming current and associated equipment. I could find no problem anywhere, apart from the lack of power. We rang EDF, our supplier, to explain our problem. The lady at the help desk who we spoke to after ten minutes, had us do the tour of the boxes again and concluded it was not her problem and that we should get an electrician in. We did so and he checked everything and confirmed it was an EDF problem as no power was getting to the house. Who’d have thought?

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion'

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’ in Chabris park

We rang again and again, with the batteries of our mobile phones rapidly failing, but could not arrive at a point where someone was prepared to deal with the problem. Hearing a noise in the street, I noticed that EDF engineers where working outside the football stadium around the corner. I begged, pleaded and exaggerated in bad French until one of the team agreed to help. He spent the next few hours in the freezing rain, me holding an umbrella, trying to work out what needed to be done but eventually he concluded that a slug or snail had crawled in overnight and passed across two live contacts, frying the electrical system and ruining its chances of a merry 2013. By the end of the day we had power and more importantly heat, and life slowly returned to some semblance of normality.

Yesterday seemed hardly more productive but at the same time fantastically so. I have had eye problems since the age of fourteen, nothing that could not be corrected by spectacles, you understand, but five years ago I had a series of operations which, amongst other things removed cataracts in both eyes. Apparently that was not the end of it and I needed laser treatment as part of a standard further stage in the long running saga. This work was completed at a clinic in Tours yesterday and now I can see again – the difference in my eyesight is quite incredible! It took all day, of course, and I was ready for an early night by nine o’clock, but it’s done now and I can start reading again without a magnifying glass and a glass of fortifying spirits. What a relief!

Earlier in the week I had another challenging day. Someone pointed out that the contact form on our ‘all singing, all dancing’ Garden Design Co. web site was not working and we concluded that it had not done so for a long while, perhaps explaining why Elton John has not asked me to redesign his garden. Looking at the site for the first time in ages, we have decided it is in need of a complete overhaul so I spent several hours trawling the internet for inspiration. Finding something we thought suitable, I then set about designing a new site based on this design, only to find that the programming required to achieve the clever effects which so attracted us was completely beyond my capabilities. I started again with our second choice but ran up against the same set of problems: Flash coding is not something I understand. Finally I settled on a third design and found I could do everything required to achieve it after a bit of a struggle. I sent a copy to my son, a professional web site designer, who informed me at great length why he hated it. Fortunately we live in a wine producing area and have several hundred bottles in the cellar! He’ll love it when it’s finished.

Helleborus niger

Helleborus niger

In the garden, we are pleased to have Helleborus niger in flower by the front step, the traditional place to have it ward off evil spirits. Another was given to us as a present last week, a variety in the Helleborus Gold Collection called HGC Jacob and no doubt available from a garden centre near you. I shall be interested to note the differences between these two as the season progresses but at the moment my little plant has larger flowers (actually only one) while the new one has a large number of smaller flowers. The new plant has been micropropagated and cultivated under protection so it will take a while for it to settle down and show how it really grows under garden conditions. One of the plants may end up being planted under our Sequoia tree.