Troglodyte flower show in central France

Villentrois mushroom cave

At the end of a beautiful, warm and sunny autumn week, we decided to visit the tiny village of Villentrois, near Valencay, at the northern tip of the Indre department. The village (population 625) had a thriving mushroom growing industry until recently, utilising the caves created during the excavation of Tuffeau limestone for building materials. The whole village, including the ancient castle, is made of this soft white stone and it has been used for restoration work on the great chateau at Chambord and other historic buildings.

One of these old mushroom caves is now a village hall and hosts events including the annual flower show, held this weekend. It is a happy, unpretentious affair attracting locals and day-trippers from further afield, who can also eat a hearty meal from tables set up for the purpose in one of the larger galleries. The school children and the library construct themed floral exhibits and local nurserymen, landscapers, florists, producers and artists sell their wares from decorated stands in corners around the caverns. The walls and ceilings are decked in foliage and fairy lights while the pathways are lined with flowers, softening the chilly atmosphere. Chelsea it is not, but it brings a smile to the faces of the visitors and on such a lovely Sunday afternoon it was certainly drawing in the crowds.

Floral display in the mushroom caves

Mushrooms are still produced in the artificial caves of the region, although it is not the cottage industry it once, deferring to the more efficient industrial producers who make up the bulk of my students on the Garden Design Academy Mushroom Growing course. We have had some interest in it recently from English owners of houses in France who, discovering they have a mushroom cave or troglodyte shed in the back garden, decide to make use of it. The French are generally keen to support local growers, so some have found a profitable niche market, selling to restaurants or shops and keeping the food miles down. These caves are ideal for mushroom production, but also make great wine cellars for much the same reason: the rock caverns provide very stable temperatures and great insulation. Some are lived in and they can make very cosy dwellings.

Carving the tuffeau stone

Mushrooms have been the subject of much debate in the gathering places of the area this week. The woods outside Valençay have become temporary home to more than 50 caravans, as gypsies arrive from around the country to hunt for wild mushrooms, especially Boletus edulus – the Cep. Selling at around 25 Euro a kilo and up to twice that in Paris, they are being collected by the lorry full to sell in the capital, damaging large areas of private and public woodland in the process. Given that these woods are important sources of revenue as hunting grounds in addition to the timber and associated products, a serious conflict could be on the way. We discreetly collected a few Ceps on the way home, but in quantities unlikely to upset the natural balance of the woods, or the tempers of the landowners.

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.

Green roofs, Buddleja and a trip to the South of France

As the weather gets cooler our garden fruit and vegetables are coming to an end, the kids have gone back to school and the season of mushrooms and nuts has started. A slight detour from our usual morning walk takes us through the wood where the Ceps grow and past a large number of Walnut trees; we have taken to carrying bags with us on our walks.


A selection of last years wild mushrooms

Thoughts turn to keeping warm over winter: we have just ordered 1000 litres of fuel to top up the tank which suppliers the central heating boiler. The French are very keen on alternative energies and “green” housing solutions are installed in even the most modest property. Heat pumps and solar heating panels are very common in the village and while they produce warmth very cheaply the set-up costs, even with government grants, are enormous for a house of the type that we own. After inviting a number of companies to quote we decided it made little economic sense to install heat pumps but did spend money on insulation, both for the roof when we replaced it and for all the exterior walls. But with ten external doors leaking heat and a couple of dozen ancient single-glazed windows, this is not the most thermally efficient building.

We are installing a clever stove in the lounge however, which burns wood pellets, is cheap and efficient to run, highly controllable and should heat most of the ground floor. We are considering one for the new Garden Design Academy classroom but the log cabin is fantastically cosy and in spite of its size was heated when it was our office in Codicote with just a couple of little electric radiators. It’s an environmentally friendly building as it stands but we plan to top it off with a Green Roof and have started to locate and propagate suitable plants in seed trays of leaf mulch.

Sedum mat for a green roof

The UK is a leader in green roof systems, with much of the research having been undertaken in Sheffield University. France leads the way in green- or living-walls and a recent conference of the World Green Roof Congress in London brought together experts to share ideas and encourage the uptake and implementation of these natural and attractive insulation systems. We already have a garden storage shed covered with Sedum but here in the countryside it will make much less impact than in the cities, where they will reduce thermal emissions and reflected heat from buildings, cut down rainwater run-off and greatly improve local air quality. The living roof for the cabin is therefore more of a conversation piece for visitors and will  help me gain experience for projects we may have in the future.

If you find the idea of a green roof appealing you can easily install one yourself on a garden shed or other building provided the existing structure of the roof is sufficiently strong to support the additional weight. Of course, if more support is needed it can be added. The basic components are protective layers for the roof, drainage material, compost to support the plants and the plants themselves. The details vary depending on the slope of the roof (you can do great things with a flat roof) and the type of plant you wish to grow. Various component systems are now available and I have even seen rolls of appropriate plants offered in UK garden centres, looking much like turf. offer a DIY guide which you can download while a book, Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls is one of many published by Timber Press. I’ll let you know how our version develops.


The autumn is the best time to plant a garden and with our cabin nearing completion we are looking forward to utilising the additional planting opportunities the building creates. In a recent plant brochure I was intrigued to read about a new Buddleja called Blue Chip, the first of a series going under the name Lo and Behold.

Buddleja Blue Chip

I am very fond of Buddleja but they can be very large plants, unsuitable for small gardens. Several breeders have attempted to produce smaller forms including Elizabeth Keep of the East Malling Research Station whose English Butterfly series should be better known. ‘Blue Chip’ (Lo and BeholdTM Series) is a hybrid involving B. davidii, B. davidii var. nanhoensis ‘Nanho Purple’, B. globosa and B. lindleyana created by Dennis Werner of North Carolina State University.

His aim was not only to create a genuinely dwarf buddleja, but also one which doesn’t produce self sown seedlings. In the USA traditional buddlejas are banned in some states because their prolific seedlings are smothering native plants in some habitats and we have all seen Buddleja growing from the sides of church steeples in England.

The Low and Behold series will be available in several colours before long but Blue Chip is a lovely shade of blue, flowers for months and grows no larger than 2 feet tall, making it ideal in a pot or as ground cover. I hope to be growing it soon.

Buddleja lindleyana

Buddleja lindleyana flower

We have the Chinese species B. lindleyana and find it a great plant, with long purple racemes of flower produced over the bush all summer. It was name after John Lindley, English botanist, nurseryman and founder of the flower show in the Chelsea Physic Garden, whose name is also recognised in that of the RHS library. The other species involved in the breeding  of Blue Chip is B. globosa, a huge shrub with balls of yellow flowers (there use to be a lovely plant in the walled garden at Kings Walden) and this has been crossed with B. davidii to produce B. x  weyeriana, which we were given cutting of this year. There are several varieties of the yellow Butterfly Bush B. x  weyeriana and as yet I am unsure as to which we have. Honeycomb is said to be the best, a creamy yellow variety selected in the USA from plants bought in the UK under another name, while Sungold shows some purple in the flower. Golden Glow and Yellow Hallow are other yellow varieties while Orange Glory and Bicolor are warmer colours; all are scented and easy to grow.

We have been studying Buddleias in local gardens to try to find the best white. We think we have spotted it in the grounds of the old people’s home and will be chatting up the staff shortly to beg for cuttings. Buddleias are very easy from cuttings at any time of the year but a thick shoot of this year’s growth will root over winter if suck into the soil in a sheltered place outside. That should provide another plant for our White Garden.

The best white Buddleja in Chabris?


France is such a large country that when we are asked to look at a client’s garden we try to save them expense by combining visits. Our next trip is like that, with an appointment at a house close to Carcassonne and the Canal de Midi, another between Nice and Antibes and the final call in the Vichy area.  Each garden will have a different soil and climate and each client entirely different requirements and expectations. In addition, two of them speak no English while the third is Dutch (fortunately she speaks English because my Dutch is limited to a few place names pronounced badly!).

Combining business with pleasure, we are also spending a few days relaxing by the Mediterranean to celebrate my 56th birthday and the second anniversary of our move to France. I hope we will visit a few nurseries and gardens in the area of Antibes and if we do I shall report on them when I get back.

Something for nothing: mushrooms, plants and more

Just when we had given up finding anything other than Field Mushrooms, the continued mild, damp weather has produced a flush of Boletes of all types. Two days ago we were looking at a property for a client near Montrichard and stopped for a walk in the woods with the dog. This trip produced a pair of Orangé or  Leccinum versipelle, L. aurantiacum  or perhaps L. quercinum, as we found them under Oak rather than Poplar. We eat them later with a chicken stew dish: wonderful!

Leccinum from the woods of central France

Orangé mushrooms

Today we were out in the woods at Chabris and came across a huge area covered with Ceps and other Boletus. We came back with kilos of the things which, at Euro 30 a kg in the market makes our little walk seem like a profitable venture. Chantal has spent the morning cooking, freezing and drying our haul and I am very much looking forward to dinner tonight.

A selection of Boletes

A selection of Boletes

Ceps and other Boletus on the kitchen table

Ceps and other Boletus on the kitchen table

Out in the garden another free find; I had rescued some wild Cyclamen from in front of a JCB digging a trench for a new water main and, on another occasion, a plant from the woods where felling had just started.  Checking on their progress this morning I remarked again on how different the two white flowering plants were when I spotted Cyclamen leaves pocking through brambles and weeds near our Sequoia tree. It seems we have our own patch of wild Cyclamen in addition to the two I have introduced. It will be fascinating to see how they perform in the next few years.

I have started to plant out cuttings I have rooted in our nursery corner. The first of these came from the local school garden: Artemisia Powis Castle. I like the silver leaves, the scent and the way that leaves added to Vodka turn the drink bright green. I’ll bet they didn’t tell the kids that! 

Food for Free

Nature is bountiful at this time of the year, here in central France. We never fail to return from walking the dog without something in our pockets and at the moment, we are mostly collecting Walnuts.

 There are still plenty of Hazel nuts around and as we become accustomed to the area we are beginning to work out which trees are not picketed, where to find the largest nuts and which trees are the most productive. This morning we returned with a basket full of nuts and half a dozen ceps, our favourite edible mushrooms.

Cyclamen growing wild in the Robinia woods

Cyclamen growing wild in the Robinia woods

Locals are often very generous when they know you are interested. With a new kitchen recently fitted we have been testing out the equipment by jam and chutney making. Not having fruit of our own, people have been giving us bags of peaches, plums apples, pears and quince. Each of them receives a pot of jam from us in return. As I speak, Chantal is cracking walnuts ready to bake a cake this afternoon.

Colchicum - autumn crocus - growing wild in central France

Colchicum - autumn crocus - growing wild in central France

Autumn flowers are also much in evidence now that the weather is cooling, the day length reducing and the rains returning.

Where once the ground was speckled with orchids there are now wild Cyclamen, Colchicums and, an exciting find, Saffron Crocus.

Here on the edge of the Touraine the grape harvest is all in, picked last week when it was warm and sunny. Mostly the crop was machine harvested but, talking to local growers, they are increasingly hand picking to improve quality. We are great fans of the local white but are still to be convinced that the red is worth the effort to get to know.

We are still recovering from yesterday. We had a business meeting in Valancay at 11 am and on arrival in the town the temperature was 17 degrees C. An hour later it was thermometer on the car dashboard read 21 and by the time we reached home it was 25. 

The atmosphere was strange and people in the town reacted to it. Out walking in the afternoon we had hardly got to the end of the road when someone stopped us to show off his new motorbike and offered us drinks to celebrate. Staggering off to continue our exercise we were stopped a few yards on to chat with an elderly lady who was in tears recalling her dogs and admiring ours.

In the park a man had his head in his hands but beamed when the dog wandered over and gave him a lick. Prior to that we had been sitting on the beach watching the river, when our decorator came over to sit with us for a while. A strange day ended with a huge thunder storm, with a bright red sky and a game of scrabble.

Perhaps someone had drugged the water but according to the weather man a hurricane had moved up the Atlantic dragging hot African air up through France. Who needs alcohol with weather like this!