Courson Plant Fair 2012 – happy 30th birthday!

If you have been following these pages for any time you will know that one of my favourite plant fairs is the Journées des Plantes de Courson, in the countryside south of Paris.

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky-­‐Winky’. Award winning Hydrangea at Courson 2010

Held twice a year since 1982, the October 2012 edition of the show is its 57rd and its 30thbirthday. Clearly the stops will be pulled out for this session and 230 growers from around Europe will be selling their wares to an enthusiastic public; 30,000 visitors are expected over three days.

Each year the show has a theme and for 2012 the Hydrangea will be holding centre stage. Following on from a major international symposium on Hydrangea held in Angers earlier this year, the festival will be focusing on this genus and the related climbers, Schizophragma and Decumaria. Few visitors to previous shows will have failed to be impressed by the many new Hydrangea varieties on offer – I have succumbed to their charms myself

Hydrangea paniculata Great Star bought at Courson in 2009

  – so imagine this year will see the launch of several more.

As in previous year the Garden Design Academy will be offering guided tours to the festival, together with visits to the International Festival of Gardens at Chaumont sur Loire and a number of other important Loire Valley Gardens.

Perhaps we will see you there!

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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.

Plants on the move and Chaumont news

Herbaceous perennials – plants which live for several years but have soft growth which dies down in the winter – should be lifted and divided every few years to maintain their strength. It is often an opportunity to increase stock so that a single plant may become a group of three or more within a few years. We use this method of propagation, but we also lift and divide when we decide to move plants from one area of the garden to another. We use herbaceous plants as temporary ‘fillers’ between shrubs to give extra colour while the more permanent plants grow to size, moving them as the shrubs fill the space.

This year we have decided to construct a swimming pool for holiday guests and Garden Design Academy students. Its placement was the subject of much debate and we used it as a surveying and design exercise with a group of visiting garden designers and landscapers last year. The size and area having been agreed upon and a skilled constructor having been appointed, I have been left with the task of clearing the plants to allow work to start at the beginning of April.

Most of these plants are on the move

The site runs along one boundary, connecting the house with our log cabin lecture room. As none of the boundaries, buildings or features is parallel to each other, we have had to decide if we would install the pool perpendicular to the house, to the cabin or neither. With the advantage of CAD and a room full of design and construction specialists, it was soon clear that the way to proceed was at a right-angle to the cabin rather than the house. This leaves a border that narrows into the distance when viewed from the house, emphasising the length of the garden, an illusion popular with French garden designers at the time the house was constructed.

Asters looking for a new home

The bed has been planted for only two years or so but is already beginning to look established in places. It was also used as a nursery, a home for plants with no home and a place to root hardwood cutting. The design was beginning to show through the jumble however, before I started to rip it apart. I measured and pegged out the pool and its surrounding paving so that I could see what plants needed to be moved: quite a few. I started with the trees, of which there are far too many. The Clerodendrum trichotomum, acquired as a sucker from a local plant, took some lifting. Despite negative reviews from some American sources I think this is a beautiful tree, a native to Western China and named in honour of Paul Guillaume, a French missionary and naturalist in Central China. It has very fragrant, pretty white flowers in August. These are followed by outstanding and eye-catching, metallic-blue berries in autumn. The star of this bed in 2011, it has now been moved to the front garden.

A Liquidambar has been potted and may be given to gardening friends, but the Golden Catalpa is now in a pot on the patio, under-planted with yellow Crocus as it was when it was growing in the side bed. The trees out, I am now turning my attention to the herbaceous plants. Sedum spectabilis and Geums have now been lifted, divided and planted in another front garden bed, close to a relocated modern French shrub rose and established Delphiniums and Asters, the whole having a very English feel. Homes still need to be found for many more plants but I feel I have broken the back of the work now. In addition I have a collection of newly potted plants to give away to friends.

Chaumont 2010 - Garden Design Academy students hard at work

In the mean time I have had a number of invitations to gardening product launches and events. Unfortunately, everything seems to be arranged for 9am in central Paris and as no-one is paying my hotel bill and I am reluctant to get up for the 6am train, I am attending very few of them. I can tell you however, having turned down an invitation to the press launch, that the theme of the Chaumont Festival of Gardens for 2012 is “Jardins de délice, jardins de délire”. There is a note about this, and links to details of every festival since its beginnings in 1992, on the Loire Valley Gardens site: http://www.loirevalleygardens.com/chaumont_sur_loire.html

Our own Loire Valley Gardens study tour is beginning to attract bookings from as far away as Australia and details of the spring tour on 22nd -29th May can be found here: http://www.gardendesignacademy.com/Res_Loire_Gardens.html

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.

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.

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!

Chaumont Festival of Gardening 2011

I have had a few messages asking when the next edition of my Chaumont review is due.
The truth is I have been so busy I haven’t had time to write any more on the subject, but I have posted all the photos I took to


Here’s the link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/89684154@N00/sets/72157627445409907/with/6102715115/

The garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire 2011

If you have the time, please let me know what you think.