A Gardener’s Christmas wish list.


Mahonia x. media

The festive season has arrived at the Elliott household (we found a bottle of port at the back of Mother-in-Law’s cupboard, 40 years old, if it is a day – the port, not the Belle-Mère) and I’m writing my list for Santa.

Naturally, plants are a priority.

We have just passed through the mildest and driest autumn since 1900 and December shows no sign of altering the trend. Roses and Geraniums are still throwing out the occasional flower and spring flowering Rhododendrons and Camellias are already opening. Despite this, with memories of summer excess still strong in the memory, the garden seems to be lacking colour. I am hoping Mahonia  x. media ‘Charity’, ‘Winter Sun’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’ would bring bunches of scented sunshine into the cool, misty mornings. As an ex-gardener at the Saville gardens, Windsor, I am very fond of Charity and her rarely seen sisters, Faith and Hope, which were bred at the nursery there.

Viburnum x. bodnantense

I already have my eyes on a sucker of Viburnum x. bodnantense in a garden in the village, although I am not sure of the variety. The cross of Viburnum farreri (formerly V. fragrans) and V. grandiflorum was originally made by Charles Lamont, the Assistant Curator at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1933. He didn’t rate the resulting plants as being any better than their parents, so did not propagate them. In 1934 and 1935, the same cross was done at Bodnant, hence the name. ‘Dawn’ was the first cultivar to be named, ‘Deben’ was another and, after he died, ‘Charles Lamont’ was also named in honour of the original raiser. I am trying to find out if the French have their own hydrids.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna is a great little evergreen shrub that we have grown in several gardens, but do not yet have here in Chabris. It’s the sort of plant you hardly notice until, in December, it produces small, but intensely fragrant white flowers. Our front door faces north and this plant is ideal for these conditions. A small bed, which this summer contained a New Guinnea Hybrid Busie Lizie, awaits.


I noticed a specimen of Chimonanthus praecox poking over the wall of a rather grand house in the village last year. This and Hamamelis are certaining worth growing for winter colour. We already have Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ growing amongst other woodland plants near the Sequoias, so a Wintersweet would make a nice addition. Close by, variegated Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot seems to have been in flower forever, Ilex Blue Angel provides a few seasonal berries and further down, a group of Erica Springwood White mark the start of the White Border.

The more you think about it, the more desirable plants come to mind. Then there are books: “Planting the Dry Shade Garden is already on order with Timber Press, a company whose stock list is one of the most desirable for gardening enthusiasts. Two other’s recently published by the same company are on my list: Contemporary Colour in the Garden and Designing with Grasses. A £500 Timber Press gift voucher, if such a thing exists, would be easy to spend.

Richard Ford’s book on Hostas (Crowood Press) is one of the best I have read on the subject and would have been on the list had I not already ordered it via the Garden Design Academy bookshop. I have also been reading “In the footsteps of Augustine Henry”, a recent purchase from the Garden Art Press, which I have been comparing with an original copy of Wanderings in China by Robert Fortune, another 19th C plant hunting hero. I will never tire of gardening books, or of plants, but I realise buying them for me is not easy…..hence the list.

What are other gardening enthusiasts hoping for this Christmas?

The mushroom glut and other good gardening news.

With the unseasonal weather set to continue well into August, Nature seems very confused. The recent rains have provided a huge glut of edible (and other) fungi which are normally expected in the autumn and we have been washing, slicing and freezing basket-loads of Ceps every day for a week or more. It has made the French national news broadcasts: initially upbeat reports of nature’s bounty and impromptu mushroom markets in the south-west, but now including cautionary notes as the hospitals fill up with poisoned tourists. It pays to know what you are putting in your mouth, I find.

Abelia Kaleidoscope

A summer of mild, wet weather is not what we signed up for when we decided to cross the Channel and settle in central France. It has brought benifits however, in terms of garden plant growth. Establishing a new garden is an expensive affair, especially if you have to buy plants at French retail prices. The humidity has helped the settling in of these treasures and for that we are most grateful. A large number of plants have been bought this year but recent purchases have included a new variety of Abelia,  A. ‘Kaleidoscope’, bred for its leaf color and dense, compact form. I have planted it in our new front bed, next to clumps of orange Crocosmia and scarlet Phygelius, both blooming as we speak, and in front of another new plant, Erythrina x. bidwillii, currently in bud but promising clusters of pea-shaped, dark red flowers. This hot scheme should be worth building on as more plants become available, creating a stunning show against a sunny garden wall, which already features Sophora and Mimosa and should be ideal for other half-hardy plants.

Lagerstroemiais high on my wish list for this bed; we now have three varieties of this plant which for me is still very exotic and I would like to try taking cuttings from a red-flowering form for the front and perhaps a softer pink than we currently grow, for the back garden. The oldest of our specimens, a Demartis variety called Yang Tse, was planted in half sun but has since been moved to a much warmer spot in the gravel patio. It is now in full flower while the other two, a white and a red, are still in bud. I have my eyes open now for suitable plants and will no doubt shortly start begging for cuttings.

I have been taking lots of cuttings recently, inspired by students who are doing the same on our Plant Propagation for Beginners course. I have a small plastic greenhouse with undersoil heating installed in the loft under a Velux window and I am having great fun swapping cuttings with neighbours and or increasing some of our own plants to give away to friends. Our first batches are now rooted and being hardened off in a sheltered spot and include Campsis, Hydrangea paniculata, Viburnum bodnatensis and pomegranate.

In the mean time back in the loft we have Brugmansia, Rosemary, Curry Plant, Ceratostigma, Acer palmatum, Camellia and Cornus florida all doing well. I have always loved propagation and have had several opportunities to grow plants from seed or cuttings on a commercial scale. As a lad, I even entered the Young Propagator of the Year competition run by Horticulture Week. The temptation to start a nursery when we moved to France was only held at bay by lack of garden space and perhaps it is just as well: the Academy is more than enough to keep me occupied.

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.

Camellia talk

At the end of a day visiting Courson, laden down with goodies, tired but happy, it was time to sing for my supper. I was asked to speak to the ICS group in the evening and had prepared a talk with slides to illustrate my subject: gardening in France, with particular reference to the International Festival of Gardening at Chaumont.

It’s been I while since I have lectured in this way but everyone was encouraging and I muddled through as best I could. I think it went OK, at least they didn’t refuse to give me the gift they had brought me: an unusual Camellia species – Cam. grijsii. I am still skipping about with excitement over the gift.

The following text and photograph was found here: http://sazanka.org

Camellia grijsii

Camellia grijsii

Camellia grijsii (长瓣短柱茶 in Chinese) Hance (1879) is a wild species of section Paracamellia. It is related to C. sasanqua, C. oleifera and C. kissii. It was collected in 1861 in Fujian by C.F.M. de Grijs. It is distributed in China (Fujian, Hubei, Sichuan, Guangxi) and used for a high-quality oil production.

Camellia grijsii has great hybridizing potential. Two plants in my garden have small leaves with impressed veins and very columnar shape. I believe there are also varieties with larger leaves, but I am specifically interested in small-leaved cultivars.

Another great feature of C. grijsii is its cluster-flowering habit. However in my garden C. grijsii flowers from January to March, so it will be a challenge to cross it with Fall-flowering sasanquas. Probably I will have to store some pollen from sasanquas in refrigerator for a couple of months.

The plant itself was grown by Trehane Nurseries and Penny Trehane (yes, the Penny Trehane) was part of the group. Like so many famous and talented nursery-folk I have met over the years, she is a charming champion of her subject, an expert in Blueberries as well as Camellias.

My new Camellia will sit well with the sasanquas I bought at the show.

ICS visits Courson 2009

As noted in my previous post, last weekend I was the guest of the International Camellia Society and the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia group, as nice a bunch of people as you could hope to meet in a garden in France.

Friday we visited Les Journée des Plantes at Domaine de Courson, south of Paris. This is my favourite plant fairs and we try to go every year – so much easier now that we live in France, only two hours away by motorway.

Courson - the chateau from across the lake

Courson - the chateau from across the lake

The ICS had its own stand and I took the opportunity to meet them and buy a Camellia, a variegated sasanqua variety called Okina-Goroma, with pink flowers during the winter. I hope to keep this in a pot in the unheated conservatory which covers the north side of our house, to enjoy the flower and scent as you come to the front door.

As usual the range and quality of plants was astonishing and although I bought several, there were many wonderful plants I wanted which had to be left. Last year I regretted not buying a Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot and I made up for it at the stand of Pépinière Tous au Jardin, from whom I also bought a smashing Hydrangea paniculata called Great Star.

Hydrangea paniculata Great Star

Hydrangea paniculata Great Star

The nursery had many fine Hydrangeas and I was pleased to see they won an award for H. involucrata Mihara Kokomoe Tama, together with the Press Award for the best display.

Also on the stand was Mahonia nitens Cabaret, a new variety which is already on my “must have” list for next year.

Mahonia nitens Cabaret

Mahonia nitens Cabaret

It cannot be said that plants are cheap in France, and with my pocket money disappearing fast I had to be quite selective. Guillot supplied me with a couple of Roses, including one from their Generosa range, similar to David Austens modern shrub roses.

We have been meaning to visit the Cayeux iris fields for years but have yet to make it: next June I hope. In the mean time, I have satisfied my desire for their plants by buying three, together with a Hemerocallis called Burning Daylight. From Darmartis I bought our second Lagerstromia, this one a dark pink, purple almost, called Dynamite. They also had variegated Euphorbia Tasmanian Tiger and this was added to the collection in the plant creche.

I had replaced a couple of plants left in the UK: Salvia uliginosa and Phlomis purpurea, bought a couple of grasses and a very pretty strawberry coloured Hydrangea hortensis Mirai before I relaesed I couldn’t afford to eat for the rest of the trip and called a halt to it. I made do with looking at everything the other members of the group had bought, jealously eying the Magnolias in particular.

This show can bring out the worst in you if you are not careful!

Tour de France and Bastille Day all in one week

There is only so much fun and lad can handle and this week has certainly been eventful, if rather unproductive.

The French have been having a long weekend, running through Saturday and Sunday, bridging (as they say) Monday and into the public holiday on Tuesday. As a result the town is full of people down from Paris: overdressed townies taking the country air and bringing their bored kids with them. Suddenly no-one says “Hello” any more when they meet you in the street, the locals being outnumbered by this influx of people with no manners.

Oh yes, fun: everyone is entertaining in the garden and we have been for several four or five hour lunches with friends.
On Bastille Day we had lunch for most of the day and as darkness fell joined up with more friends for fireworks and dancing on the beach.

None of this has helped my productivity but I did get a little planting done, moved log cabin components from the front to the back of the house and tackled a couple of DIY jobs. We also completed the registration of our gite and B&B with the governmental agency Gite de France in the hope of attracting more bookings.

On Wednesday the huge Tour de France carnival passed through the area, finishing a stage at Issodan and starting one in Vatan, both towns just around the corner from us.

Tour de France start of stage at Vatan

Tour de France start of stage at Vatan

“Hang on”, I hear you say “you did some planting?”
Nothing much, but under the Sequoia, where we have a bit of cool and shade, I replaced a dead standard Camellia with a Holly, Ilex mezerveae Blue Angel. There were also a few Stipa gigantea lying around so I put them in the ground nearby rather than have them continue to suffer in the heat, (by which I mean, lack of watering).
I’m not very happy about the Camellia. It was in a pot and doing OK but I think the drainage holes became clogged up and it died over the winter. It had been so big and strong that this spring I planted it in the hope it might re-root and grow. Sadly it didn’t: another very expensive error on my part. I am considering turning the remains into a walking stick to remind me of my folly.
The front of the pack: Tours de France 2009 - Vatan

The front of the pack: Tours de France 2009 - Vatan