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.

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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.

Missed opportunities and great potential.

My wife and I have wasted the whole day fighting with Dell, the supplier of our PC’s – not the way a gardener should be spending such a lovely, sunny day. I won’t bore you with all the facts, but after a hard disc failure on my wife’s machine, Dell seem to be doing everything they can not to honour the 24-hour repair warranty we were persuaded to take out. The latest tale is that while they will repair it free of charge, we have to purchase a new copy of Windows 7, the operating system without which the PC will not function. It’s a bit like buying a plant at the garden centre, roots not included!

This has not helped our sense of humour or improved our sun tan. In the meantime not only did the Courson Plant Fair come and go without us overspending, or indeed attending, we also seemed to have missed the Chestnut season; how could this be? Gardening works with the seasons if it works at all – if you sit too long in the shade, the summer will just pass you by – you have been warned by one who knows!

Fortunately there are suppliers out there who can be relied upon and the loud thud which accompanies the arrival of the seed catalogues is enough to galvanise even the most lackadaisical and distracted into action.

Big Begonias growing with Petunias in our garden

Over the years I have noticed a change, discreet at first but now gathering momentum, as the seedsmen increasingly sell their more interesting varieties as young plants rather than seed. This is difficult for us, as most UK companies will not post to France. There is good reason for this; our testing of grafted tomatoes was ruined by the condition of the plants on arrival: only two out of nine survived. A trial of a new variety of Begonia was similarly blighted (although I maintain the grower was also at fault, a theory firmly disputed by the company concerned). Benary’s Begonia “Big” has finished the season on a high, but taken most of the year to recover from the damage inflicted by the journey from the UK.

Commercial growers and parks departments have been utilising seedlings and young plants for twenty years and most now leave this stage to the specialists. Many years ago we had a 6 acre glasshouse nursery providing this service on behalf of a French seed company. At the home gardener level, tricky and expensive plants like F1 Begonia, Geranium and Impatiens are important seedling / plug subjects, but the range available is increasing at a pace.

Plugs and seedlings

The Dobies catalogue features 25 pages of flowers and 11 pages of vegetables offered as young plants, in addition to bulbs and fruit plants. Suttons also list more than 26 pages of flowers and vegetable plants, while Thompson and Morgan have them scattered throughout their catalogue. As the nature of their customers’ changes from garden enthusiasts to a much wider public and gardening skills diminish, this convenient and profits-enhancing development is sure to evolve.

T & M was the first of these catalogues to arrive and my order was sent by email a while ago. We do not yet grow a wide range of vegetables as, for the moment at least, we don’t have a lot of space for a proper veg garden and those we do grow are scattered amongst the ornamental plants. We like our tomatoes however and Sungold, Suncherry and Sungella are our choices for next seasons salads. Courgettes do well here but the plants take up too much space for my liking. This year we will try the F1 hybrid Defender, which I gather is a much more compact plant and less likely to give us marrow-shaped fruits of the variety we grew this year. Lettuce Lettony is a new variety I thought worth a try. I am hoping the promise of being resistant to bolting holds true as we had too much of that this season. Golden Berry Little Lanterns completes our selection and I hope it will do well out of doors: we used to grow them in the greenhouse and I love both the look and taste.

Gaura lindheimeri

In flowers, we are trying a mixture of easy and challenging subjects, including a few herbaceous perrenials like Eryngium, Gaillardia, Gaura lindheimeri and Lupins. New this year is Sweet Pea Prima Ballerina, Papaver Pink Fizz (two-tone pink with frilly edges) and Godetia Rembrandt, while Calendula Chrysantha is a variety which dates from the 1930’s. We are trying some tuberous Begonias from seed in addition to double Impatiens and award-winning Geranium Moulin Rouge. We are growing Antirrhinum Axiom mixed and Sunflower for cut flowers, with Sweet Pea White Supreme in the white border.

As I write, Chantal is studying the other catalogues.

Plants for friends, plants for customers

As autumn approaches, thoughts turn naturally to this year’s planting season and we are arranging the delivery of plants to a number of our clients this month. These days we do not have teams of eager landscapers willing and able to construct my gardens for our customers, but I still like to involve myself in the planting for a number of reasons.

Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes (Bailtier) showing autumn colour in our garden in central France

Disappointingly, I find many professional landscapers and garden designers woefully lacking in plant knowledge. This is something we try to address at the Garden Design Academy, where a number of our courses encourage students to improve the range of plants with which they are familiar. In reality however, it just takes interest and motivation; it also takes time to fully understand a wide selection of the garden plants available to gardeners.

We therefore offer to locate and supply the plants we specify for our gardens, either just delivering them to site or more usually, placing them out on the newly cultivated beds to the planting plan and plant list we have produced as part of the design of the garden. Although there are plenty of fine growers here in France, we often find we need to purchase our plants from the UK, Belgium or Holland to fulfil our requirements.

We also like to give plants as presents to our friends and I much prefer to have grown them myself than to buy them: it’s a more personal gesture, I feel. Frustrated nurseryman that I am, I have a heated tunnel in the loft in which I sow seed and establish cuttings and while not everything does well (of course, I like to try the most difficult plants!) we do claim some success at producing batches of plants to give away. I had cleared the tunnel and turned off the under-soil heating before our recent trip South, but have just reinstated it for my next attempts at propagation.

Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii in flower today by the front gate

For myself I have taken cuttings of New Guinea Hybrid Impatiens from the single plant which has brightened up the shady border by the front door this year. I expect I will dig up and pot the main plant, which is now quite large, attempting to over-winter it out of the frost. These cuttings are my insurance policy and I have done the same with Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii, which we grow in a pot by the front gate and which will also need protection during winter. Other tender plants will be given similar treatment.

For friends I have  cuttings of Hebe Great Orme and Cistus corbariensis today and a list of a number of others I will attempt to root during the next week or so. It has been fascinating looking at notes I made almost forty years ago, listing the appropriate months to take cuttings from a wide range of shrubs. I have decided to give young Colin the benefit of the doubt and concentrate on the plants he suggests.

Echium fastuosum in its native habitat

In the post box most mornings are offers of plants from a number of mail order companies, suggestions I can resist without too much difficulty. On the other hand I have found a French grower on eBay, of all places, who lists a really interesting selection of unusual plants and clearly knows her stuff. I decided to give her a try and have ordered Echium fastuosum, whose towering blue flower spikes are a spectacular feature of the flora of Madera, Kniphofia Dorset Sentry, an acid-yellow variety of Red Hot Poker and Hedychium Tara, a hardy plant related to Ginger featuring luxuriant foliage and delightfully scented, bright orange flowers. We are looking forward to growing all of these and will report back on their arrival and progress.

Too busy to garden?

This is a busy and exciting week, with a group of students staying here on a residential ” Design your own Garden” course, this time with a Feng Shui twist, featuring an expert in the subject, Elizabeth Wells, over from the UK.

Still I find time to do a little weeding and admire this week’s new flowers, a welcome break after several hours of lecturing in the classroom. A small tree of Clerodendrum trichotomum is one of the current highlights, covered in sweetly smelling flowers and sheltering a pink Dahlia at its base. Close by is a large clump of Aster novi-belgii ‘Schone Von Dietlikon’, compact, Mildew clear and attracting Butterflies and other insects.

By email another batch of new students have just signed up: Cottage Gardens, several for RHS Certificate Level 2 and for the first time, RHS Certificate Level 3, second part (Certificate in the Principles of Garden Planning, Construction and Planting). Courses are checked, burned to CD and posted with a covering letter, nipping out to do this and buy the bread for breakfast. We get through huge quantities of bread: I blame the baker, the fresh air and Chantal’s home made jam!

In the post a couple of new textbooks have arrived and need reviewing; these will have to wait until next week, when I plan to sit by the Mediterranean and read, but they look as if students might find them useful useful: Residential Landscape Architecture for the designers and Turfgrass Management for the parks people.

At lunch times, indoors mostly because of the uncertain weather, friends keep dropping in to meet the students and give us little gifts: golden Girolle mushrooms from the Sologne, where a friend has a farm rented out for hunting; perfect-looking Quinces from a local garden, the first walnuts of the season and an impromptu jam swap.

But there is work to be done and transport to confirm to take us all to the Chaumont Festival of Gardens (see earlier posts). Normally we drop in on a vineyard on the way back and I have just the one primed and ready to offer samples. There’ll still be time to garden, I am sure, although the circus has just arrived in the village square!

Last call: Feng Shui garden design – residential course in central France

We are all getting very excited as we prepare for the start of our Feng Shui garden design workshop; there has been interest from the USA, the UK, France and other countries, so we are looking forward to an interesting event. I’m worried about our own garden – will people like it, will they understand what I have tried to do, is it good Feng Shui? I shall just have to tidy up a bit more, hope the weather is good and trust they are kind.

There have been requests for more information on course content from some quarters, so I have prepared the following schedule to explain what students can expect over the week.

Some have talked about coming as a group so we are pleased to offer:

BRING A FRIEND – ASK FOR 10% DISCOUNT!


Design your own Garden

– with Feng Shui

Course schedule    – Sept 2011

Tuesday 13th     6pm:         Welcome drink and introductions.


7:00         Dinner

Wednesday.     8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30     Introduction to garden styles and design types. This session is intended to explore a range of concepts as a background to the subject and inspiration for thinking about your own gardens.

12:45         Lunch

2:00 -4.30    Afternoon off. We have many gardening and design books for students to look at but some will prefer a walk by the River Cher or a trip out to see the nearby sights.

5-6pm    Introduction to Feng Shui with Elizabeth Wells FFSA

7:00         Dinner

8:30    Chaumont Festival of Gardening slide show. 18 years of avant-garde garden design has produced nearly 400 “ground breaking”gardens.

Thursday     8:30         Breakfast

9:30      Leave to visit Chaumont Festival of Gardening for more inspiration from this annual event. The theme this year: “Gardens of the future or the art of happy biodiversity”. 26 gardens have been newly constructed based around this idea and these should provide food for thought when designing your own. Don’t forget to look at the park and the sculpture installations while you are here.

You make your own arrangements for lunch on site.

4:30        Return to Chabris (arrive approx. 5:30)

7:00         Dinner

8:30        Chaumont 2011 photos.

Friday         8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30    Requirements and solutions for each of the student’s gardens. The garden design checklist. Looking at a range of gardening problems is very instructive and often students change their minds about what they want after undertaking this exercise with the plots of the others. We also look at plans of gardens I have designed for some of my clients in the past – steal ideas or gain more inspiration.

12:45         Lunch

2:00 – 5.00    Feng Shui design workshop with Elizabeth.

7:00         Dinner

Saturday     8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30    We get down to drawing your new garden after talks on drawing techniques.

12:45         Lunch

2:00 – 5:00    Garden design work continues as you develop your own ideas for your garden.

7:00         Dinner

Sunday     8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30    Morning off

12:45         Lunch

2:00 – 5:00    Out together to visit another public garden after lunch. We like to go to somewhere different each time depending on the interests of the students and the time of year. We are considering the gardens of Chateau de Bouges, south of Valençay this time.


7:00         Dinner

Monday     8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30    We need to finish your garden design and the amount of time and guidance needed depends on each student. Includes a visit from Elizabeth to assist in Feng Shui “tweeking”.

12:45         Lunch

2:00 – 5:00    Planting plans.

7:00     Dinner.    The final meal with a chance to discuss the gardens that have been created and the last opportunity to ask questions before taking the plans home.


Tuesday 20th    8:30         Breakfast

9:30    Time to go home, taking with you the plan of your new garden and memories of a pleasant week spent in the Loire Valley.