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.


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.


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.

Picking up the pieces – the joys and frustrations of the spring garden

Easter weekend; it’s cooler than we would like but the predicted rains did not come, much to the pleasure of visitors and the disappointment of local gardeners, who have not seen rain in months. The annual Donkey Fair and flea market took over the streets of nearby Poulaine, a huge success, attracting crowds of locals and weekend trippers from as far away as the capital, Paris.

Cherry blossom time in central France

Local gardens, ours included, are bursting with spring blossom – Daffs and tulips going over, Cherries at their peak and Lilac just starting – distracting the eye from the damage caused by the single tough week of winter we experienced this year. Each day we are out there, checking for signs of life from plants which look like they will never recover. And each day there is another happy discovery of tiny buds opening at the base of an otherwise lifeless shrub, or shoots pushing up from a bare patch of ground.

Once the extent of the problem is clear I can get out the secateurs, cutting out dead wood to make way for new healthy shots. Santolina was hard pruned a couple of weeks ago and is now covered with tiny green leaves; Phlomis, both P. fruticosa and P. purpurea, have recently had the same treatment. Reddish buds are expanding all along the shots of the flowering Pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Rubrum Flore Pleno’, a fine little plant given to me by a local gardener. I have since successfully taken cuttings from a large shrub in a friend’s garden and those too are budding up.

Still a few Tulis around

Our three Phygelius varieties are all now starting to grow from ground level and today I spotted buds at the base of the hardy Fuchsia magellanica gracilis ‘Tricolor’. As exciting as all this is, there are also disappointments. Two varieties of Phormium look as if they have departed this world, along with Hebe Great Orme and a white flowering species whose name escapes me for the moment. You can knock me over with a feather if life returns to our Leycesteria Golden Lanterns: such a pity.

Lemon trees? Don’t talk to me about Lemon trees! We have lost many, but not all, of our Camellias and the Mimosa, Sophora, and Erythrina are no longer with us. They can stay in the ground for a while yet to give them a chance to prove me wrong. A few plants bought this winter didn’t even see the soil before they succumbed – I wouldn’t want you to get the idea I’m bad at this gardening lark, but unfortunately the list is even longer than this. I refuse to dwell on it further. A gardener has to develop a philosophical attitude or you would give up after the first few disasters. Failure comes with the territory I’m afraid.

The plant fair at Chateau de La Bordaisiere

Easter Monday is a public holiday and the third day of the plant fair at La Bourdaisiere, a chateau close to Tours in the Indre-et Loire. I have talked about this chateau and its amazing tomato collection before, but this was our first visit. It is a lovely chateau with formal terraces and Italianate stairways in a wooded park above the River Cher. The walled vegetable garden is around 4 acres in size and in the season they also have a notable Dahlia display. The plant fair was spread around the grounds encouraging visitors to explore as much as possible. There was a good selection of plant nurseries and some interesting gardening accessories but to my surprise we left empty-handed, apart from a large sack of a new mulching material called Strulch, developed by Leeds University and marketed by an English company. Perhaps it’s just as well, with the new swimming pool excavations causing chaos throughout the garden. Time enough to buy more plants when this work is done and a new planting plan agreed upon.

Led astray by this French lifestyle

Parc Bordelais

Last of the spring bedding - Parc Bordelais

We do our best to be good and after a recent PC crash I’m a little behind with my work. Having ripped out the hard-disks and installed them in an external drive box (“boitier pour disque dur”, if you ever have the same problem) I have regained access to my documents and can get on.

Liriodenron tulipifera

Liriodenron tulipifera at Parc Bordelais

Then the sun came out and a friend rang up to suggest we spend the afternoon picking cherries with her. I got an hour in on the lap-top, Chantal cleaned up a room ready for weekend guests and we shot off with a large basket to help out. A few glasses of wine and three hours later we returned with several kilos of fruit which needed dealing with quickly. A trip to the supermarket provided a 20kg bag of sugar and a de-stoning machine and Chantal set about making jam. In the mean time we thought about preserving some cherries in alcohol but were not sure where to buy it. We enquired of a gardening friend who produced a bottle of Armagnac for us. We also dropped in on the chemist who sold us two litres of pure alcohol and seals for our bottling jars, so we were sorted.

Farmhouse in the Dordogne

Renovation project in the Dordogne

This sort of thing happens all the time and is definitely what we signed up for when we moved to central France. A living does have to be earned however, so we welcome occasional dull and rainy weather to help us concentrate. Not that we had poor weather when we visited a client in the Dordogne recently. This is not a region where we would choose to live but an awful lot of Brits do and it is extremely pretty. Our client was interested in discussing how to deal with her soil and wanted assistance with the design and planting of her garden. They are renovating an old stone farmhouse with great care and style, learning many new skills along the way.

Garden in the Dordogne

Garden in the Dordogne

The growing conditions down there are very different to our own but as this work in progress shows, plants grow pretty well if selected carefully and nurtured through the first summer. The land also supports a wide range of wild flowers, including orchids that we do not see in the Centre.

On the same trip we had to go to Bordeaux and dropped in on the Parc Bordelais to walk the dog and admire the trees. This 28 hectare “Victorian” town park is undergoing a series of renovations and is highly popular with the locals. Our dog was not impressed by being kept on a lead when she wanted to play with the ducks so we soon left and visited the countryside in the wine-growing region of Cote de Bourg and Blaye, somehow finding ourselves in the local co-op where we tasted and stocked up on the red wine.

Central France in Spring mood

Spring is advancing very nicely here in the northern most part of the Indre, one of the departments that make up the Central region of France.

Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom: Chabris, France, 8th April 2010

Yesterday the Cherries started flowering, adding a white haze to orchards and gardens, already warmed by pink peach blossom. This combination creates a subtly beautiful scene when compared to the vivid colours of Forsythia and Chaenomeles which have dominated garden planting thus far. Interestingly perhaps, only the white cherries are in flower – the pink are nowhere to be seen. Pears and Apples will not be far behind.

The progression of the season is noticeable near ground level as well. Tulips replace Daffodils; Cowslips in their thousands adorn the countryside and on a recent walk we found long lines of hairy, brown caterpillars crossing the forest paths.


Cowslips - Primula veris

Our own modest contribution to all this growth and flower comes in the form of recently planted shrubs, bulbs and herbaceous plants. In the front garden a yellow-leaved form of the flowering current, Ribes sanguinea is attracting attention while in the back our Magnolia stellata is full of flower. Other flowering highlights are the supermarket-bought Tulips and the self-seeded Cowslips.

Cowslips have become rare in the wild in the UK but are abundant here. Primroses however, we hardly see, except in gardens. I have no idea why that should be but I’m very grateful for one out of two!

Not to rest on our laurels, we have installed a propagator in the loft and are busily sowing seeds. There is a tale to tell about this recent purchase and if the seed company I bought it from do not deal promptly with my complaints, all will be revealed.

Flowering current

Yellow-leaved Ribes sanguineum Brocklebankii

We are growing a range of vegetables and flowers in this device, which features a small plastic tunnel, a heat mat and a proper thermastatic control system. Its a miniature vesion of a commercial system and should give us great control over the germination environment allowing s to provide ideal temperatures and humidity. More on this later…….

At the Garden Design Academy one of our American students, who had to describe a number of gardens as part of her project work, introduced me to the stunnng Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon. I pass on this web address in case you might be interested too: