Autumn in the Loire Valley

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Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

The circus has come to town: a sure sign that autumn has arrived. In the square behind our home a riotous collection of goats, lama, camels, long-horn cattle, geese and other creatures are incongruously dotted around the lawns of the Place de Foire, calmly awaiting the first show tonight, like the professionals there are. We can hear the music and the announcements of the promotional vans.

After a short, hot summer, autumn has been variously warm and wet or cool and wet, conditions which are driving vineyard owners to the point of despair. The grape harvest started in mid-October and depending on the variety, will continue in the rain for the next few weeks. This is going to be a challenging year to produce fine wine in the Loire Valley and I feel for the growers.

I have three weeks’ worth of residential garden design and CAD courses starting on Saturday and am desperate to get out and tidy up the garden before students start to drift in from around the globe. Our first Israeli garden designer arrives for a week of CAD training on Saturday, while a parks manager from the Sultanate of Oman will be with us at the end of the month for two weeks of study. We work a lot with garden professionals from Oman and I find their horticultural skills to be of a very high standard: I must get the weeding done!

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Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

Despite, and in some cases because of the rain, there is still plenty going on in the garden. Yellow flowered Buddleja x weyeriana has been in bloom for months and shows no sign of wanting to stop. Salvia species like S. coccinea, S. patens, S. leucantha, S. elegans, S. microphylla, S. uliginosa and S. involucrata are all looking superb and I am taking cuttings of many of them at the moment for insurance purposes – some may be killed by a cold winter. Grasses are also looking good; we have several Miscanthus sinensis varieties, the majority in flower at the moment, while there are signs of autumn leaf colour on shrubs such as Rhus and Hamamelis. Anemones are showing well, especially Honorine Jobert in the white border and in the oriental garden the Colchicum Waterlily are in full flower. I know, Colchicum autumnale is a European native – I do things like this to see if you are concentrating.

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Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

Under the trees in the parks of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, both great and small, blankets of pink and white Cyclamen are in bloom but in the borders the gardeners are removing summer bedding ready to replace them with winter / spring flowering varieties. A great garden like Chenonceau must always look good, so the change-over brings out dozens of gardeners to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Sunday will be the last opportunity to see the gardens of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire; it closes its doors to the public on 20th October and reopens with two dozen new gardens in the spring. I shall be going with a group of garden designers to see how it has progressed since my last visit earlier in the summer. In the mean time we look forward to the 2014 edition, which will try to conjure up both the faults and the excesses of our time and the free, spiritual universe of eternal gardens, with the show theme: “Garden of the Deadly Sins”; expect to be challenged!

Sadly, because I am teaching, I will not be attending the plant fair at Courson, south of Paris this autumn, saving a great deal of money by missing a favourite plant-buying expedition. There will be other opportunities I have no doubt.

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Discovering new Loire Valley gardens

Prieuré D’Orsan

Prieuré D’Orsan, which kindly opened its doors for us.

Readers of the Garden Design Academy blog will have read that in a previous life I worked as a Royal Gardener at Windsor Palace.

For the last two weeks however, I have been teaching and touring with an active Royal Gardener: the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman.

Staying at the Academy for a residential course on garden design and CAD, he spent time with us both in the classroom and outside in the French countryside, studying the widest possible assortment of garden styles in the Loire Valley.

Mag.Betty

Magnolias were flowering in every garden we visited – Magnolia ashei ‘Betty’

The list of gardens we viewed this trip covered five out of the six departments (counties) of the Central region of France: Apremont and the Priory of Orsan in the Cher, Bouges in our home department of the Indre. To our north in the Indre-et-Loire we visited Chenonceau, Chatonnière and Villandry then Chaumont-sur-Loire, Cheverny and Plessis Sasnières in the Loire-et-Cher. Finally we travelled up to the Loiret to the gardens of Grandes Bruyères and La Source at Orléans.

Several gardens that opened their doors to us were closed to the public and despite a very late session we were exposed to wonderful displays of Magnolias, Cherries and other flowering plants. The variety of plants grown and the extraordinary skill of the garden creators were inspiring and we did not miss the opportunity to talk with garden owners and their staff whenever possible. We discussed and debated the designs we saw, considered imperfections and design solutions, looking at depth at the thinking behind the landscapes we walked through.

Apremont

The Chinese bridge at Apremont

Of the eleven gardens we visited this trip, three were new to me and all proudly declaring their English inspiration recommended to us by the association of parks and gardens for the region.

The chocolate-box village of Apremont is officially one of the prettiest in France and reminds me of some I have seen in the English Cotswolds. The gardens in the grounds of the chateau of the Duchess of Brissac, was the work of Gilles de Brissac in the 1970’s and is very much in the English style. A series of follies animate the scene – a Chinese bridge, a belvedere, a Turkish pavilion – in a garden inspired by Sheffield Park, Biddulph Grange, Sissinghurst and the English cottage garden. Attractive planting complements impressive landscape features resulting in a very pleasing scene. We were fortunate with the weather, which was bright and warm.

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères host an important collection of Magnolias which were just starting to flower amongst the last blooms of the winter flowering heathers. It was, regrettably, a little early for their other notable collection – flowering Cornus. We were guided around the woodland garden by the owner, Brigitte de La Rochefoucauld who, like her husband Bernard, speaks English beautifully. Theirs is a garden full of rarities and a wonderfully relaxing place to wander on a sunny day. Yet again, English landscapes come to mind easily here, perhaps Surrey this time, although a more French feature of clipped Box and Rose-laden pergolas is sited near the entrance and the house. The garden which today looks so peaceful and natural was carved out of the forest by the owners, who were assisted on occasions (as at Apremont) by some notable personalities of the golden age of landscaping: Russel Page and Tobie Loup de Viane.

Plessis Sasnières

Plessis Sasnières

The final recommendation was for Plessis Sasnières, which was hosting a visit by a coach load of garden designers from Russia when we arrived. The late season did not contribute to the visit but it was still a pleasure to stroll around the garden in the company of the family Labrador, who insisted I should throw a stick for him to chase all morning. I have seen pictures of the rich English herbaceous borders but we had to content ourselves with the Magnolias and the uncluttered design of this attractive landscape. Rooted in the French countryside it is nevertheless very English in tone and has been open to the public since 1996.

Malus Royalty

Malus Royalty in the ornamental kitchen garden at Chenonceau

This was the last of the gardens in our program and at the end of the visit we drove back to Vierzon for the train to Paris and for my guest his flight back to Oman. After two weeks of study and touring we were sorry to see him go but pleased to have some time to recover before the next students arrive.

It’s not Spring ‘til the old lady says so.

I have been consulting the old folks in the village; “I’ve never seen the river so high”, I tell them. “The last flood was in February 2002”, they inform me, and go on to recount the tales of the River Cher flooding the park and all the houses on the low ground, regularly sealing the town off from the civilised world for a week or more. At the moment it is 45cm from ground level at the Ganguette, where they hold the weekly dances throughout the summer: I’ve measured it. Huge logs float down-stream in the churning, muddy waters and areas where we would normally walk the dog are impassable. We’ve had plenty of rain, but it’s the mountains to the south which are providing much of the flood waters and at the moment they are still rising.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Flowering in our garden now in Chabris, central France.

I have been able and prepared to do a little work outside in January and February in an attempt to stop the gardening tasks piling up and overwhelming me later in the spring, but I am under no illusions – it’s not Spring until the old folks say so. I am champing at the bit to get a new lawn sown but it is far too cold and wet for that. I have an area of sloping ground near the swimming pool to level, a raised vegetable bed to construct and a security gate to fix. All are on hold for the time being. Pruning and weeding has started and I am pleased with the progress I have made in tidying the place up. Upstairs in the loft, in a Heath-Robinson propagation unit I have installed under the skylights, I already have my first batches of bedding plant seedlings up and soon ready to prick out.

The poor weather and the cultivated space that will eventually become a lawn, both conspire to prevent me looking around the garden as often as I would wish but plants are growing and on my last hunt I discovered Snowdrops, Heathers, Hellebores and Witch-hazel in flower. It’s always a good idea to site winter flowering plants close to the house, so that they can be seen when it is inclement. I tell you this and it is a perfectly reasonable statement to make, but of course, in a perverse gardener’s logic, I place them away from the house to encourage me to search them out whatever the weather conditions.

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Although work for the Garden Design Academy and our many and various web sites keep me busy enough, I am using the quiet time of the year to get to know my fellow French gardeners. Having joined the APJRC, an association made up mainly of chateaux owners who open their gardens to the public, I am attending monthly tutorials led by the “names” of the French gardening world, who are teaching the rest of us the secrets of their art. Last month the lecture was given by a garden designer famous for her traditional and very formal chateaux gardens, Alix de Saint Venant, owner of the château de Valmer. I found her to be extremely competent and an excellent communicator, who discussed the design of large geometric gardens, making a number of interesting points about form, shape and perspective. She also talked about the choice of plants, trees in particular, when your vision of a garden includes the features the grandchildren will have to deal with when they, in their turn, take over the property. It is very different world view to that of the majority of my clients, who want a garden to look good immediately and may well have moved on in ten years’ time.

The lecture was held around the ancient dining room table and in the park of the Château de Chevilly and was punctuated by a series of interruptions from journalists and local dignitaries, eager to catch a glimpse of the famous lady. I enjoyed the lecture, the tour and the mid-day meal enormously and was delighted to talk gardening in French with the group. Eager for more, I have signed up for the next session at the Jardins des MétamorphOZes, where Patrick Genty, the former head gardener of Chaumont-sur-Loire, will be talking to us about the use of natural and “alternative” materials for garden structures and getting us out into the garden to harvest material and assemble some. Having a sculptural project in mind for one of our Sequoias, I am keen to hear more. We have been asked to bring seceteurs and a number of other tools but my Felco’s have disappeared; having owned that pair since 1990, I’m very upset.

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

The big joy of our gardening life at the moment is our Amaryllis (Hippeastrum), which we have been watching come into growth and bloom since December. Fantastic flowers are produced from a large bulb which we had earlier allowed a dormant period in the garden shed. Four huge, translucent and lightly perfumed blooms sit on the top of a thick flower stem, two foot tall if it is a day. It makes quite a sight on our dining room windowsill where it seems very at home in light but cool conditions.  It’s a south american plant of 90 species (I’d always thought it was south african, but that’s just the bulb Amaryllis belladonna) which the Dutch have been hybrizing since the 18thC.

Gardening in Spain, gardening in France and plans for 2013

Gardening with 'houseplants' in Spain

Gardening with ‘houseplants’ in Spain

We have just returned from walking the dog in the fields close to our home. The sky is clear and a crisp frost decorates the countryside, which sparkles in the bright winter sunlight. The village fishing pond shimmers enticingly, with wisps of mist gently drifting across the surface of the water. It is disturbed only by the occasional moorhen or other water-bird, flapping away once our presence is noticed. Town gardeners are out doing the pruning to keep warm.

We have not seen a frost since our return from Spain 10 days ago. The Castile y León region in the north of Spain, centred on the city of Burgos, gave us thick fog and hard frosts in turns, with snow visible on the higher hills and mountains. This was to be repeated several times on the two day drive south and on our return a few days later. We have been to Andalusia in southern Spain several times, both for business and pleasure, but this was the first time we had driven via the north (rather than along the Mediterranean coast). The trip took in some wonderful scenery – huge, scarcely populated open spaces and brutal mountain ranges – in addition to the shock of the motorway system around Madrid and the austere cultivated plains to the south. From the fishing ports on the Atlantic we drove through cattle country, rolling grain prairies, vast fields of melons and vegetables grown under vast circular irrigation systems, and the vineyards of Rioja and Valdepeñas. Later there were olive groves as far as the eye could see, the deserts of Andalusia and finally, close to the coast, Europe’s salad capital in Almeria Province, with mile upon mile of colossal plastic structures providing perfect growing conditions for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other crops. Outside, citrus trees and date palms thrive. On this journey we experienced below freezing temperatures, snow, frost, fog and gorgeous, warm sunny days, depending on the terrain and the region.

Bougainvillea grows both as a free-standing shrub or trained as a climber

Bougainvillea grows both as a free-standing shrub or trained as a climber – if you have the climate

The point of our stay in Almeria Province was two-fold; we dropped in on my parents for New Year and visited a client with a garden to build. One of the main reasons we moved to central France was to make international garden design appointments easier. We can get to anywhere from here, with the UK, France and many other European mainland countries reached in a day, while even the furthest points of Spain, Portugal or Italy are only a couple of days away by car. Not having to cross the Channel each time we travel beyond the shores of England has been a real bonus.

People often ask how it is possible to design gardens in other countries. I have rarely found it to be a problem – the principles of garden design are universal, only the technical details change and local growers and other experts can always be found to assist if needs be. In Almeria they garden with what for the British are houseplants, but we have assisted with several gardens in the region. The important thing is to respect the surroundings and the traditions of the country when considering a new garden and this is why a three or four day visit is essential at some stage in the process.

Viburnum x. bodnantense in flower today in central France

Viburnum x. bodnantense in flower today in central France

Back in France, I am rather pleased to see some cold weather. Camellia flowers are beginning to open and daffodils poke out of the ground. This cool spell should hold everything back a little and avoid the catastrophic destruction of buds and flowers we experienced last year. Is it me or is their optimism in the air? Bookings for courses and guided garden and vineyard tours are going very well; we have students and customers coming from Australia, USA, Britain and a large group for three weeks from Greece. I am trying to fit garden and trade show visits into the schedule for the year: Salon Vegetal at Angers, Courson, St Jean de Beauregard and of course the gardens festival at Chaumont sur Loire. I’ll include as many as I can but already I accept there will not be time for IPM-Esson, or the British garden shows at Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court this year, unless a visit to a client happens to coincide with one of them.

One of this springs "must see" garden events

One of this springs “must see” garden events

I am spending a lot of time sorting out the web sites of the Academy, the Garden Design Company, Loire Valley Gardens and the rest, each of which need updates and improvements, our English garden design site undergoing a complete overhaul. There seem to be new opportunities everywhere and new demands from every direction – more indications of an exciting year to come. I am spending more time getting to know French gardening and horticulture, meeting some of the major characters of the industry during seminars, shows and other events. It’s proving fun to exchange experience with other enthusiasts and experts in a new language. At the same time we have many new and existing students undertaking distance learning courses, all of whom must be given attention and support.

A fine bush of Jasminium nudiflorum in a neighbour's garden

A fine bush of Jasminium nudiflorum in a neighbour’s garden

There is much to do in the garden before the season gets underway: a new lawn to sow, the areas around the swimming pool, behind the classroom and around the house to landscape and tidy up. Soon there will be seeds to sow – the first package has already arrived from Thomson and Morgan – and I’ll be too busy to undertake anything major.

So much to do, so little time to do it all! It’s what keeps me motivated and my gardening life eventful and joyous.