First day of spring? Let’s go to a plant fair!

Last year at the Cheverny plant fair

Today is the first day of spring and here in central France we were greeted by a crisp frost, swiftly followed by a gorgeous, sunny day. Time to start planning our gardening event diary, I think.

Spring gets off to a great start this weekend with both a Fête des plantes at the Château de Cheverny while, in the village of Cour-Cherverny around the corner, one of our favourite wine producers is holding an open day. Life doesn’t get much better! Cheverny has a page dedicated to its gardens on the Loire Valley Gardens web site.

Forsythia for the first day of spring

At the end of the month I plan to visit the Fête des Plantes Vivaces at Domaine de Saint-Jean de Beauregard in the Essonne department, 30 minutes south of Paris. I say “plan” because every year so far something has prevented me attending this, one of the major French plant fairs. More than 200 exhibitors will be showing their wares at the show and a series of lectures and conferences are to be held over three days. They even accept dogs on leads, so Pixie the Poodle can come. We have our tickets and nothing short of a national disaster will keep me away this year.


A client recently rang to ask me to visit her home to design a Natural Garden. I am happy working in an endless range of garden styles but the first thing to ascertain when someone has a request of this type is what they mean when they use such  terms: Mediterranean, Japanese, Formal, Baroque, English – its a veritable minefield for the unwary designer.

The client was asked to show me examples of what she had in mind and an interesting discussion ensued.

Here then, is my…..


In 1597 Francis Bacon wrote an essay entitled “Of Gardens”.  His definition of a garden in this essay makes it clear that his was an escape from nature, which needed be brought under human control. It begins: “G0d Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures”. Untamed Nature could still be regarded as a threat to man at that time, but now in the 21stcentury we are all too aware that the reverse is true.

Chinese style - Chelsea Flower Show 2008

Natural gardens are by no means a recent phenomenon.  In fact the very first Taoist gardens of the Chinese were a means of enabling man to live to live undisturbed by external events and in harmony with nature. Records from the eighth century explain the philosophy and techniques of garden making in great detail.

The origins of recent movements toward natural gardens can be traced back to the late nineteenth century.

At this time in the UK garden landscape was dominated by formal design, inspired by those of Italy, by way of French and Dutch landscaping. In contrast to this, a movement arose which supported natural garden design, a reaction to the highly structured format of these “foreign” imports.  Around the 1850’s some designers were challenging the use of bedding plants and calling for the use of hardier, more permanent plants.  William Robinson’s book ‘The Wild Garden’ was published in 1870 and signalled the beginning of the modern natural garden movement.  Many would consider Robinson to be the grandfather of the natural garden and his wild garden brought the untidy edges (where garden blended into the larger landscape) into the garden picture: meadow, water’s edge, woodland edges and openings.

Non-native "wild flower" meadow

Another pioneer of natural garden design was Jens Jensen.  Born in Denmark in1860, he migrated to the United States in 1884.  In partnership with Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, he developed the ‘Prairie Style’ of gardening which used indigenous plant material. Jensen transplanted the wildflowers into a corner of Union Park, Chicago, creating what became the first American Garden in 1888.

Important contributors to the natural garden movement    

Many since Robinson have advocated natural gardens, and some important publications over the years are as follows:

  • Gertrude Jekyll: Wood and Garden (1899)
  • Wilhelm Miller: The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening (Urbana 1915)
  • Frank. A. Waugh: The Natural Style in Landscape Gardening (Boston 1917)
  • Jens Jensen: Siftings (Chicago 1939)
  • Willy Lange: Garden Design for Modern Times (Gartengestaltung der Neuzeit) (Leipzig 1907); and
  • The Garden and Its Planting (Der Garten und seine Beplflanzung) (Stuttgart 1913)
  • Piet Oudolf:  Planting the Natural Garden (Timber Press 2003)
  • Violet Stevenson: The Wild Garden (Frances Lincoln 1998)
  • Samuel B Jones and Leonard E Foote: Gardening with Native Flowers (Timber Press 1997)

Waugh, Robinson and Lange all suggested that exotic plants which fitted with natural plant associations could be included in the natural garden.  Others such as Jensen argued against using any foreign plants in the American garden.  Alwin Seifert, a German landscape architect, also insisted that no foreign plants should be used even if it meant there were only a few native plants to choose from.

Natural planting style: Koblenz 2011 garden festival

Theories behind the natural garden movement   

Given that this movement gathered momentum towards the end of the nineteenth century it has been argued that it was a reaction to the rapid change to the natural environment imposed by the industrial revolution.  Indeed the movement towards natural gardens took place in the rich, industrial nations of Europe, the United States and Australia.

Other theories have suggested the implication of nationalism and racism, and yet others have suggested a backlash against the architecture profession. In addition, the devastation to the natural environment caused by invasive exotic plants has been significant in many countries, including the corner of rural France where I now live.


Natural planting in an English downland garden

In the 1970’s there was a revival of late nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about natural gardening, which have continued into the 21st century.  We have witnessed the development of ‘Green Parties’, ‘Eco-Warriors’ and various other environmental groups around the world in recent decades.  As awareness of environmental problems has grown, many have attempted to bring nature back into the different realms of everyday life.  This desire to re-unite with nature is also reflected in the work of some modern garden designers.

Many of the classic texts mentioned above were re-published during this period.  Another important publication was (Natur einschalten-Natur ausschalten) ‘To Switch on Nature – To Switch off Nature’ by the Dutchman L. G. Le Roy (1978), feted by those struggling with German post-war politics.

The term ‘Natural’ is now often considered synonymous with ‘Ecological’, focusing on a new generation of practitioners and thinkers concerned with moving our society onto a more sustainable path.

Around the world many countries and peoples have supported ‘native plant movements’ where the use of natives in garden designs has been the ultimate goal; evidence of such movements has been observed to a lesser extent in Europe but it is rapidly gaining ground.

The argument has always been coloured by a lack of clarity over what actually makes a plant “native” and what “nature” is. From the outset, William Robinson and his contemporary, the English architect Reginald Blomfield, (1856-1942), debated at length over this subject and the discussions are sure to continue….

Courson: Europe’s greatest plant fair

Courson plant fair

A view of a small part of the plant fair at Domaine de Courson Spring 2011

On Friday we took up our invitation to the spring plant fair at the Domaine de Courson, surely Europe’s and perhaps the world’s greatest plant fair. It is held twice a year in the grounds of the chateau, south of Paris. When working in the UK we were unable to justify the time for both Courson and Chelsea and only visited for the autumn fair. These days we live just two hours from the Domaine and are delighted to make the pilgrimage in the spring as well. We are already looking forward to October 14th, our next opportunity to indulge our passion for plants.

There are three problems with Courson, where many of Europe’s best nurserymen show their wares: firstly we do not have a large enough garden to accommodate all the plants we would like to own; secondly, we could not afford to buy them all. Still, at each show we spend beyond our allocation, selecting our favourites, changing our minds and agonizing over which plants to leave for another trip. More than once over the years, I have stopped in the middle of the show after several hours of plant hunting, physically and emotionally drained by the experience. The trick is to remember to eat at lunchtime and to drink plenty of water: Courson is hard work!

The third issue is that with so much wonderful plant material on display it is inevitable, even after five hours or more of hunting, you have missed much more than you have seen and not given nearly enough attention to so many fine stands. I have never found the time for one of the many lectures and conferences they organise over the three days, a pity given the quality of speaker they are able to attract. I am beginning to think that a two-day visit is called for and we have already selected a B&B required for the night.

Cornus Venus at Courson

Cornus Venus at Courson 2011

“What did we buy?” I hear you say. The plant of the show as far as we were concerned, was Cornus Venus. Those of you who do not know the Flowering Dogwoods are missing something very special and this new variety, a cross between Asiatic Cornus kousa chinensis and American Cornus nuttallii is amazing. The “flowers” of these Cornus are actually bracts, modified leaves which look like petals, creamy white, 10cm or more across and produced in quantities which almost smother the plant. It was bred by Dr. Elwin Orton of Rutgers University New Jersey, who was responsible for a breeding and excellent range of new hollies, also mixing Asiatic and American genes. This Cornus will now grace a prime position against the log cabin classroom where it should grow to a plant of around 4m high and broad. It is said to have spectacular autumn leaf colour in addition to red fruits and we are very excited to have such a plant in the garden.

Equally exciting was a purchase we have been putting off for many years, lacking a suitable place to grow it: a yellow flowering Magnolia. Having waited patiently many new varieties have appeared and Pepinieres Botanica, who show a huge selection of Magnolias and other choice trees and shrubs, were offering several. We took advice and eventually selected Daphne, one of the best of these, bred in 2000 by Philippe de Spoelbergh. The parents are said to be M. acuminata ssp. subcordata ‘Miss Honeybee’ x M. ‘Gold Crown’. It has now been planted in a new bed we are creating close to the old washing basin and pump on the east side of the garden.

Magnolia Daphne

Magnolia Daphne

We have a problem with the front wall of the section of the building that we rent out as a holiday apartment. It is a large wall, facing north and the little garden surrounding lacks colour on that side. Our answer was a plant of Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Rose Sensation’ a new variety looking similar to the common climbing Hydrangea, but with more attractive shoots and pink flowers in the summer. This came from Les Hortensias du Haut bois, a specialist who grows a staggering 750 varieties of Hydrangea.

The apartment itself we call Rose Cottage and at the moment a huge Rosa Paul’s Himalayan Musk is in flower on the fence and the wall. We thought we would add a bush rose of the modern/ old fashioned type for which David Austin is justly famous. We were underwhelmed by his stand however, and selected a specimen from a French grower instead. The beautiful pink, scented flowers of Elodie Gossuin are a winner and the plant will grace the apartment garden as soon as I dig a little bed to accommodate it. The variety is one of the Rosa Generosa series from Guillot, who have been rose growers for more than 180 years and specialise in old varieties.

We were looking for plants for the hot, dry and sunny bank in the front garden but failed to find interesting Lavenders or, my wife’s favourite, x Halimiocistus, the cross between a Cistus parent and a Halimium. In the past we grew Merrist Wood Cream, a hybrid of Cistus salviifolius and Halimium lasianthum ‘Formosum’ and were hoping for a replacement; we did buy a couple of Helianthemums, Fire Dragon and Supreme, which we have planted either side of a self-seeded Lizard Orchid. Also on this bank sits Echium russicum, a red flowered version of the Viper’s Bugloss native to the Steppes. I gather it is short-lived so I hope it will self-seed in what I trust is an ideal site.

We saw plenty of other wonderful plants, including Alstroemaria and Hippeastrum on the Pierre Turc stand, but eventually had to leave while we still had the energy; the day was exhausting, with 5 hours spent at the show and four hours of driving, but we came back content, richer in many ways, if a little poorer financially.

A French garden in the Snow

I’m sure my American readers, those from the higher latitudes anyway, are saying “what’s all the fuss about – 2 inches of snow!”

Snow on Lavender

Snow on Lavendula angustifolia Munstead

It’s true, I still find sights like this a joy and a great excuse, if one were needed, to get out and play with the family. We tend to have snow for only a week here in the Loire Valley so its important to make the most of it.

Any excuse as well, to put on the close-up lens and see what’s really going on down there. This shot is of a portion of Lavender, planted this summer as a hedge against the house. The rear of the house is so well proportioned and formal that a formal hedge was the only solution.

Snow on Winter Jasmine

Snow on Winter Jasmine

A rare thing in our garden – an inherited plant. This is Jasminium nudiflorum, the winter flowering Jasmine. It grows on a summer wall – not the most appropriate place – where I have planted a variegated summer-flowering Jasmine. My gardens are full of little horticultural jokes like this, both our own gardens and those of clients, to be explained to those who dont know and discovered by those who do.

Snow on Snail Maker

Snow on Snail Maker by David Goode

The snail maker by David Goode, is one of several sculptures we brought with us when we moved to France from the UK. This and our Japanese granite lantern are pictured here. The Snail Maker graces a patch of weedy ground next to the old well and hand pump, looking appropriately enigmatic.

The lantern is on the opposite side of the garden, in the shade of the old Sequoia,  in an area populated by oriental plants. In a past life we had a little low-voltage bulb in it and have plans to do something similar here, perhaps using a solar panel to generate the power to run it.

Snow on lantern
Snow on Japanese lantern

The temperatures dropped to minus 12 degrees C at midnight last night, according to the sign outside the chemist in the main square. The blanket of snow will have helped considerably to protect our plants from the cold and as it melts they will get a good watering. All this and pretty too: worth a little inconvenience I think.

First wild Orchid of the year

I’ve been away: a quick visit back to the UK to see a client whose garden construction is about to start, followed by a trip down to the South of France and two gardens to look at.

In the mean time the season is moving on and we were very excited to find our first wild Orchid in the woodland park near the swimming pool in Chabris.

There is so much in flower around the town at the moment, including Cercis silaquastrum, the Judus tree, which is popular as a provider of light shade and spring colour. In the UK it flowers for Chelsea Flower Show,(I’ll always remember my amazement at seeing my first one in Battersea Park, were we had parked to walk over the bridge to the show).

I like to plant something different so I brought over from the UK a plant of Cercis chinensis Avondale. At the moment it sits in its pot outside the door to the gite, where we can see it closely and compare it to the common species growing nearby.  On a trip out to the DIY shop today we spotted this unusual pruning of C. silaquastrum which we were most impressed with.

Signs of Spring and Spring Gardening Shows.

img_0114We saw our first Cowslips today, on a grassy bank by the River Cher during a dog walk this afternoon; earlier in the week our first Camellia flower in the front garden of a house in the town.

I can’t wait for Spring to arrive and most years sow things too early or plant them out when it would be wiser to keep them under cover. It will be interesting to see how our first spring in France works out. Certainly the locals have been busy in their vegetable plots and assure us we would be unlucky to see a frost now.

The garden show season will soon be with us and I have already been invited to several. Courson has its Camellia Weekend 14th and 15th March and its famous Journees des Plantes from 15th – 17th May. We expect to be so busy in May that for the first time in ages we will not be going to Chelsea this year; I’m sure they’ll manage witout us.

We are planning to exhibit for the first time in France this year, showing garden design at the May Bank Holiday plant fair at La Ferte Saint Aubin in the heart of the Sologne. This will be a good test of my ability (or otherwise) to sell our services in French, at a medium sized event with a good reputation amongst plant enthusiasts.