Layering shrubs and the joys of bedding plants

variegated Chestnut

Pretty, cream-edged leaves of Castanea sativa Argentomarginata

It has been so hot lately that for light relief I have been doing some weeding in the shady area I call the Oriental or Woodland Garden. One of the delightful plants we grow there is not at all oriental, a variegated Chestnut, currently a very healthy looking bush. Removing weeds from around it I considered trimming up some of the lower branches but on reflection decided to use them as layers. I really like layering as a technique, mostly because it is completely fool-proof, and we have propagated many plants in the garden this way.

My experience with layering goes back to my youth, when I worked at the Royal Gardens at Windsor. A large proportion of these gardens were developed under mature Oak trees and as a result leaf-raking was a major activity in our lives for six months of the year, or so it seemed. Some of these leaves were taken to stacks to slowly break down, to be put back into the ground as soil improver. Huge quantities were just raked onto the shrub beds, where they acted as wonderful mulch. This mulch also provided ideal conditions for shoots to root, having been covered in the process. I would often find nicely established layers of rare and unusual Rhododendrons and other shrubs around the gardens……one or two of these found their way back home to Cornwall.

Layering is a long-established, if slightly old-fashioned, commercial propagation technique for a number of plants, still practised for species which are slow or difficult to root. It is useful when a nurseryman requires only a few specimens of a particular tree or shrub, or when large plants are wanted quickly. Layer beds may be established to achieve this, producing plants by systems such as Simple, French, Serpentine or Tip Layering, depending on species. Fruit tree rootstocks are commonly produced by Stool layering.

Marigold Golden Puff from Suttons, next to self-seeded Verbena bonariensis

Here at the Academy, I laid down a shoot of our Chestnut into a hole I had dug close by, bringing it up again in a way that formed an elbow approximating a right angle. Soil was packed down on top, this bending interrupting the flow of sap and inducing root formation. In the past I have done the same with Cotinus Royal Purple and Viburnum x. hillieri ‘Winton’, and used other forms of layering with Wisteria, Rubus and many other subjects. I also use it to train plants like Lavender and Santolina, bending and earthing-up a branch to push a shrub in the direction I wish. These layers could be removed and sometimes they are – they make nice presents – but often they are just left in place to increase the size of the shrub.

A pot full of Coleus Kong

We have grown large numbers of bedding plants this year, knowing the garden would be disturbed by the installation of the swimming pool. These are now starting to flower, later than in the village streets and park, but they have better facilities than we do. I like to grow small numbers of a wide range of bedding so our annual parcels from the likes of Suttons and Thompson& Morgan are always an event. Gazania Daybreak Tiger Stripe (Suttons) is one of the earliest in flower in the front garden while Antirrhinum Axiom and Busy Lizzie Double Carousel from T&M have just started in the pool-side bed at the back. Sweet Pea  Prima Ballerina, grown over a metal climbing frame, has kept the house in flower for a while now. Also from T&M, Coleus Kong mix is at its best with us when well fed in a pot, but less good in the poor soil near the pool. Sutton’s Marigold Golden Puff is just beginning to look impressive, alongside the ornamental, purple-leaved Millet Purple Baron. There will be many more to report on as the season progresses.

Loire Valley gardens – day 2

Our group exprores one of the Chaumont Festival gardens

As I write this piece, impressive quantities of rain, more like a tropical storm than anything expected in Europe at this time of the year, is flattening ornamental grasses and knocking the petals off the Poppies.

We have just finished making jam from the box of home-grown cherries harvested by friends of ours. They dropped around for a drink last night and offered the fruit as a generous and very welcome gift. We have made a dozen pots of jam, leaving the remainder for me to preserve in alcohol. The sad news is that one can no longer buy alcohol for preserving fruit from the village chemist, part of the French government’s attack on alcohol abuse; fortunately there are private stills all over town and homemade alcohol is not hard to come by!

You are never alone with a gnome!

Was it only a week ago we were at lunch under the trees at the Chateau de Chaumont sur Loire? It was another exciting day in an exciting week of visits, but quite different from the first. The International Festival of Gardens at Chaumont and the park and gardens of Chateau de Beauregard were our scheduled visits for the day. Twenty-six contemporary show gardens, a few barns and a park full of art and a new permanent garden which we did not have time to visit, awaited us at Chaumont. As usual there was much to talk about, gardens to criticise or praise and a whole host of ideas to bring back and adapt in our own gardens. There was so much to see that lunch was a sandwich snack, but no-one seemed to mind.

One of the colour-themed “rooms” at Beauregard

Beauregard was completely different: a vast park and arboretum to explore, but also an area of modern, colour-themed gardens. The chateau had the most amazing portrait gallery, depicting the history of France and it’s most notable personalities. Chantal’s Burgundy-themed evening meal was devoured with relish after a swim and a drink on the patio.

Winter arrives in France (at last!)

Holly berries in the snow

Somehow we all knew it would end in tears. The weather has been milder than Nature intended throughout the winter; plants have been flowering unseasonably and the summer bedding seems to have hardly noticed the passing of the months. Farmers, growers and gardeners, while perhaps enjoying the show, have been nervous for some time, fearing damage to blossoms and the ruining of crops when and if the weather finally turned cold. Peach and Apricot growers in the South-West have featured on the evening news, looking more than a little concerned.

Phormium - New Zealand Flax

Yesterday the snow arrived and we are told that not far behind are bitter Siberian winds. Walking the dog in the countryside has been a pleasure however, with the sun out and photogenic scenes at every turn.

In the meantime the local gardening shop’s promotional brochure arrived today, highlighting the agrarian nature of this country and its people. The leaflet features seed potatoes, nothing unusual there, but also rotavators with reversible plough attachments, bee hives – the real thing, not ornaments – and hatching equipment for your chicken eggs. When was the last time you saw these in your local Wyevale? Not to be left out, the hypermarket is offering above-ground swimming pools, ride-on mowers and a range of rainwater recovery kits, including one utilising linked underground storage tanks, each of 2650L capacity. Gardening is different in France, but just as big as in the UK.

Mimosa in the front garden at the Garden Design Academy

Loire Valley gardens and the first seed sowing.

We are hardly into January and already it feels like spring: we are getting busier on all fronts. There has been such interest in our study tours of the Loire Valley that I have been panicked into resuming work on a web site I started last year – Loire Valley Gardens– in which I describe the gardens of the region, listed by department (county).

Loire Valley Gardens

Loire Valley Gardens La Chatonniere page

This web site started its life programmed in a heady mix of Flash, html and css and was so complex I had to give it up as beyond my capabilities. I eventually settled on a far more simple style and, just as importantly, a more straightforward coding method, but wasted so much time with the first version that I ran out of time to complete it.

At the moment I describe 15 gardens of the Loire valley on the site, with the gardens of the chateau La Chatonniere my latest. This is an amazing place with twelve themed gardens – the French do like a theme, the artier the better – surrounding a beautiful Renaissance castle. I won’t say more here: you can look at the details on the site if you are interested http://www.loirevalleygardens.com/chatonniere.html . I am looking forward to seeing how the gardens are progressing in 2012 and to learn if they have plans for more themes. The last major development was in in 2008 when The Garden of Luxuriance was built to feature 400 David Austin roses, adding to the collections of roses displayed in other areas.

Soon Loire Valley Gardens will list and describe thirty-four gardens. As I revisit these gardens and discover more the site will continue grow and I hope this will prove a useful resource for clients, students and others interested in this fascinating region.

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The first of my seeds are now sown and in the propagator: Begonias, Antirrhinums and Coleus, all absurdly small seeds which are applied as a ‘dust’ to the surface of moist compost. There are around 88,000 Begonia seeds per gram making them difficult to see and to sow, even with modern, sophisticated machinery. In my days as a grower we had a machine which would sow them from a series of units dropping four or five at a time and with the bounce as they hit the compost created a pretty good covering of a seed tray. Begonia seed is very expensive but we also sold plants in compost plugs and it was important to only have one or two seedlings in each if we were to make a profit. For these we resorted to pelleted seed, each grain being given a coating of clay which allowed our seed sowing equipment to place them one by one at the centre of each plug. All clever stuff. One of the Begonia varieties I sowed this week was pelleted seed: Torbay Mix, from Suttons.

Antirrhinums are large by comparison to Begonias – 7,500 to the gram and Coleus is around the same, but they are still hard to work with. When my order of Vermiculite finally arrives from EBay I shall get the Geranium seeds done – 200 seeds per gram – even I can see these!

An unusual task this week will be to dismantle the seasonal display of foliage and berries we constructed in the conservatory for Christmas; I have my eyes on the berries of the Butcher’s Broom and plan to sow them under the Sequoias. The branches of this plant were collected from plants found in local woods, so I have every hope they will do well.

Ruscus

Ruscus or Butcher's Broom

If the squirrel leaves them alone we can expect a patch of these adaptable plants for next year and by sowing a large number of seeds hope to have both male and female plants, giving berries for many a Christmas to come.

January gardening, sowing and lighting systems.

Some of you may know that in a previous life I grew seedlings and young plants, hundreds of thousands of them, for the bedding plant industry. Our nursery, Opax Farm in Headley, on the Hampshire / Surrey border, was a state-of-the-art affair consisting of 6 ½ acres of glasshouses on a nine acre site. It had computers controlling everything from the ventilators which opened according to wind direction, the percentage of CO2 in the air, the pH of the water and of course, the air temperature. In case anything broke down we had two of everything and, in event of a power failure, a generator, which could have lit a small town, automatically kicked in, powered by a huge, Rolls Royce engine. This piece of equipment was thoroughly tested in the week we took over, when a passing hurricane cut off our valley from the rest of the world for more than a week!

Begonia seedlings

These days my growing is a little less high tech but I will shortly be sowing Geraniums and Begonias in the propagator I have set up in the attic and I’m concerned that they may not receive the light they need to grow well. But why do we need light in plant cultivation? The major horticulture issues are:

  • photosynthesis — converting light, air and water into carbohydrates and oxygen to support plant growth.
  • chlorophyll synthesis —building the plant cells that perform photosynthesis.
  • photoperiod — sensitivity to the length of day.
  • phototropism — movement toward a light source.

Back in my days at Opax Farm we had a number of lighting systems for a range of plant growing tasks. Strings of ordinary tungsten bulbs had been used by the previous owners to control flowering in crops like Chrysanthemum. This plant requires a very specific day-length to flower and if you need to produce flowers throughout the year you will at times have to completely block out the light, while at other periods of the year create light. Plants that bloom in the winter, such as Christmas cactus, poinsettias, gardenias and chrysanthemums, don’t flower unless the nights are longer than the days. They are referred to as long-night plants and for the most sensitive long-night plants even one minute of bright light during the night is enough to prevent them from blooming. In general, long-night plants need a maximum of 10-13hours of light per day to flower.

Last year's Begonias

Plants that typically bloom during the summer don’t flower unless the nights are shorter than the days, so they are called short-night plants and include many bedding plants and vegetables. Short-night plants need 14-18 hours of light per day in order to flower. Other plants bloom regardless of the length of the photoperiod, so they are called night neutral plants. Many of these plants are sensitive to temperature variations however, and bloom when the nights are cooler than the days. For early growth and development, plants need the opposite photoperiod: young long-night plants should have long days for the first month or two to encourage full growth before blooming, while young short night plants should have short days. Day length can be manipulated for other reasons, such as the selection of male or female plants early in the cycle, by inducing flowering.

We had a number of growth rooms at Opax in which we germinated seed in optimum conditions. Some plants need light to germinate while others prefer the dark. Trays of recently sown seed went into different growth rooms depending on their requirement for light and heat. With sufficient light levels it is possible to grow plants without any natural light.

Greenhouse lighting

Several of the plants we grew were needed early in the season when light levels are low: we started sowing Begonia sempervirons for bedding plant growers before Christmas. These plants were placed in an area of the greenhouse where we had lighting to supplement that of the sun, ensuring good, strong, compact growth at the darkest time of the year. Attempting the same thing in our attic later this month, I have assembled a lighting rig to increase the light levels for the seedlings I will grow there. This structure incorporates a number of domestic halogen lamps which I trust will provide a useful boost in light levels but be inexpensive to run. I’ll let you know how we get on. I did have a quick look at the new LED Grow Light units currently being promoted for indoor growing but the cost was far too high for me to justify on my hobby, so my Heath-Robinson construction will have to do for now.

Several Garden Design Academy courses look at the complex subject of plants and light, also considering the types of light most suitable for horticulture by cost, light spectrum, heat emissions and other factors. Some of our RHS courses and the Certificates / Advanced Certificates in Horticulture, are particularly good on this.

The new Academy Facebook page.

Amid huge excitement the Garden Design Academy has just launched its new Facebook page. We have taken the same approach to Facebook as we did with our web site. First sign up and put something on line; learn how it works and what we could do with it. In the light of this experience improve the site, and then improve it some more. The result is this Welcome page which can be found at http://www.facebook.com/GardenDesignAcademy

We believe it helps us to look much more professional and hope everyone will “like” it enough to visit the Academy web site. Comments to help us improve it further will be appreciated; our son, a qualified web site wizard, has already made a few suggestions which we have incorporated in this version. My wife corrected my spelling!

Observant readers will note that to celebrate the new page we have launched a new feature: Offer of the Month, an opportunity to give lots of money away and promote some of our latest courses. I believe “Managing Notable Gardens” is going to be very popular with the parks and recreation industry so this offer should please a few people.

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.

Hamamelis


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?

Something for nothing – residential courses – and plant cuttings.

Something for nothing always goes down well with clients, I find, and the Garden Design Academy has been attempting to provide just that this week.

Residential courses were the surprise success of 2011 and as a result we have been able both to reduce the price of the courses for 2012 and host them more often. There are five residential courses currently offered, compared to eighty home study courses, so there is great potential to create more if a demand becomes apparent.

The longest running is Design your own Garden, intended for amateur gardeners and originally held as evening classes in the UK, where I taught to up to forty students at a time at technical colleges north of London. This has transferred very nicely to our home in France, where it is held for much smaller groups of up to eight, as a “hands on” alternative to traditional garden design services. It is popular as a short activity holiday, combining the satisfaction of creating your own garden and considerable design cost savings, with a holiday in the Loire Valley. A variant offered for the first time this year introduced students to Fung Shui as an additional design tool, taught by our friend and Feng Shui expert Elizabeth Wells. Originally held in a renovated annex of the main house, it now has its own home in our superb log cabin classroom constructed last year, nestling under the 150 year old Sequoias at the end of the garden.

Inside the log cabin

Inside the log cabin classroom at the Garden Design Academy

The other course we brought with us from the UK supports professional garden designers and landscapers investigating CAD as a tool in their work. We have been using CAD since the 90’s and one of our employees was the first to gain acceptance to the Society of Garden Designers using 100% CAD drawings (although I don’t think the organisation realised what was happening at the time). While many of the older generation of garden designers feel threatened by the technology, most new designers were weaned on computers and taught CAD as part of their professional training. For those facing the decision and unsure of which way to turn, we offer CAD for Garden Designers which looks at all aspects of the subject rather than a single piece of software, allowing each designer to choose which system is right for them. Better informed, these potentially costly decisions are more easily made. Internet forums are full of discussions about software, hardware and presentation methods, and this course attempts to answer many of these questions. We also offer an overview lesson as a free module in our distance learning Certificate in Garden Design, our most popular home study course by far.

It was comments on the professional internet forums and requests from students which lead us to offer Site Survey for Garden Designers. Many designers feel they have been inadequately trained and prepared for this aspect of their work, so this two day course allows them to hone their skills and learn new ones. We get out in the garden, measuring and drawing challenging sites and noting the levels, heights and orientation using a range of equipment. We also consider hidden obstacles and existing plants, an aspect notoriously poorly undertaken by many professional survey companies. Last year a group of students stayed on to visit some of the châteaux gardens and the garden festival at Chaumont sur Loire. In conjunction with our B&B accommodation guided tours of the gardens of the Loire Valley have proved popular with guests from the United States, alongside English garden designers and day trippers down from Paris. These gardens are part of the reason we moved to the region and provide us with considerable stimulation and inspiration in our work as garden creators.

I have spent the last two days updating the Garden Design Academy web site with the details of these courses and have reduced the prices ready for the new season. Perhaps now I can get out and do some gardening!

Indian Bean Tree

Now is the time for taking hardwood cuttings but the suggestions by most gardening advisers do little to excite this gardener. Species recommended are normally the cheap and easy plants- Laurel, Forsythia, Philadelphus, Ribes and the like. But then I saw a line in an article suggesting we take hardwood cuttings of golden Catalpa and I started thinking: what else could I try? I have a chest-high Catalpa bignonioides – ‘Aurea‘ (Indian Bean Tree) in the garden but a superb specimen also grows in the local park on the banks of the river Cher. In flower this American native is a magnificent sight. References I have suggest taking cuttings in the spring but I shall make a point of trying hardwood cuttings this week and let you know how it goes. If anyone has any experience of this I would be pleased to hear about it.

Flowers

Ribes and Forsythia

Of course, although I have been quick to dismiss Forsythia, Philadelphus and Ribes, many beautiful varieties of these plants are available and well worth propagating, if only I can find the plants to take cuttings from. While there is a limit to the number of each plant we can grow in our own garden, I do like to give them as gifts and home raised plants are so much more personal than buying a present from a nursery. In the mean time I do have a small list of plants I would like to try, but resolve to be more open minded to other possibilities when I am out with my secateurs.

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!

Protecting plants from the first frosts of autumn

Frosty spider

The barometer was at its highest for months and while the days were sunny and warm, the nights became progressively colder.

Then it happened: on Friday 21st October we had our first frost. It was just a light one that day but the following morning we were greeted by a liberal sprinkling of dazzling white frost crystals, sparkling in the morning sun.

By Sunday it was all forgotten; the barometer plummeted, the rain came and with it much milder weather. When will it return? Who can tell? But return it will and next time it will be harder.

Last year we were caught out and lost several precious plants to a sudden cold snap. This year we have been planning ahead, lifting tender specimens and placing them under cover. We have rooted precautionary cuttings and begun mulching some of the plants which are on the border line of hardiness in our region and in our soil.

Lemons cannot be grown out of doors in central France and last year we lost two fine specimens in spite of providing fleece covers. It was the best we could do at the time: the plants were far too large to have in the house and the old metal and glass conservatory was full of office equipment; the log cabin was not yet built. This year we have a lovely new Lemon plant and have already moved it to the conservatory which, although unheated, will give sufficient protection for the time being. The conservatory is more than 100 years old and keeps much of the north side of our house dry and warm. We have replaced many panes of ancient broken glass and it should be cosier this year, in spite of a rusty door which fails to close completely. We have several dozen plants sheltering there, ranging from recently potted cuttings to established specimens in substantial pots. Bedding Geraniums have been gathered together in trays of home-made compost.

Lemons awaiting a glass with gin and tonic

The recently built log cabin classroom is the second building which will be pressed into support of tender plants. It is a large structure with a covered, but open sided patio area occupying 25% of the floor space. By using this patio, some protection can be provided in reasonably light conditions. I also propose building a bench in the cabin by a large, south facing window for cuttings currently rooting in the tunnel under the loft skylights in the main house. I have installed electric heaters which, because of the superb insulation of the thick wooden walls, will keep the temperatures up at minimum expense. If Garden Design Academy students or other guests need to use the cabin before the spring, I trust they will understand that in this household of gardeners the plants always come first!

Over most of our garden the soil has a light, sandy texture. The drainage this provides in winter is very helpful to plants which might otherwise rot at the roots. We leave Gladioli and Dahlias in the ground without problem for instance, something which would have been risky in our previous garden in England. In one bed in the rear garden we have many plants from the Mediterranean, north and South Africa and from South America, including Salvia argentea and Aloysia citrodora, which have overwintered each year without problem. Just in case, I have recently sown home-produced seed of the Silver Clary and taken cuttings of Lemon Verbena, but I hope not to need them and give the plants away next season.

Cistus - if you need to prune, wait until the spring.

A couple of cultural techniques have proved of value when overwintering half-hardy plants. I do not prune tender plants until the frosts have gone, allowing the foliage and stems produced last season to protect the shoots and buds which will grow next year. This is especially true of late-blooming plants which would have little chance to regrow if pruned after flowering. Cistus, Convolvulus cneorum, Lagerstroemia and Lavatera are examples of plants which I delay pruning until the spring.

We use leaf mould, generously collected and left in vast heaps around the outskirts of town by the local authority, both as free compost and as winter protection for tender plants. Delicate roots are given a liberal mulching and if heaped up around and over stems, these too benefit from the protection this provides. Where taller branches need similar treatment we use hay, straw and the stems of ornamental grasses, secured with twine if necessary. Our Olive bush was buried in Miscanthus stems last year and came through temperatures down to -17°C.

I love this region of France for its seasons, bringing daily changes to the plants we grow and to those growing wild in the countryside around us. By taking a few precautions, plants which a more reasonable gardener would never attempt, sail through the winter and provide a wider range of gardening experiences than if our choices were more conservative.