Early autumn in the Loire Valley

It seems just yesterday, and is actually not much more than two weeks ago, that I was swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean and eating breakfast on the sun-terrace overlooking the harbour on the presqu’île de Giens. Today in the centre of France it is feeling very autumnal: damp and cool, with the sun struggling to burst out of the clouds and a temperature hovering around 20° C. I know; I expect no sympathy from the English!

Grapes ready for the harvest at the vineyard of Chenenceau chateau

Actually I like autumn or, to be more precise, I love the seasonal changes throughout the year and autumn is no exception. In the vineyards of the Touraine it is harvest time and every village you drive through smells of grape juice and wine. I have visited quite a few recently and in spite of a difficult growing year, the excitement and optimism surrounding the “vendage” is palpable. Bernache, the partly fermented not-yet-wine, bubbling, cloudy and yeasty grape juice, is a wonderful seasonal treat here, sold in plastic water bottles – it would explode otherwise. It is drunk immediately it is drawn out of the vat, with roasted chestnuts and much good humour, despite having only 2% alcohol.

Wild Cyclamen carpet the ground in a local garden

There are plenty of summer flowers hanging on although the town has lifted most of its 20,000 bedding plants to prepare the ground for winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to take a few late cuttings before they did so but I do not expect a high rooting percentage at this stage in the season – plants are closing down for the year rather than rooting.

Autumn can be a colourful season, with leaf colour adding to the display both in the towns and the countryside. Under the trees in many gardens and parks the Cyclamen and Colchicum are in full flower.

Autumn is also one of the most important times of the year for planting hardy subjects and I am looking forward to the great buying opportunities at the famous Courson plant fair in a couple of weeks. At the local garden centre I spotted of fine batch of discounted Hydrangea paniculata Sundae Fraise, a compact variety growing to only 1m and with flowers which mature from white to deep pink. I bought a plant to get me in the planting mood.

Plant buying, plant theft and planting plans

The day of our annual pilgrimage to the Courson Festival of Plants last week coincided with a general strike. The good people of France are unhappy with a proposed retirement age of 62 and the political opposition demands that the law is halted in its progress through parliament. Just in case the government didn’t hear, the Socialists called this strike and several others both before and since, failing to highlight the fact that their own plans only offer six months less.


Fuel is in short supply but throwing caution to the wind we drove the 200-odd km up to Courson anyway, trusting that we would be able to fill up somewhere on the way back. With the autumn planting season just around the corner we simply could not miss this opportunity to stock up with plants. The show was as usual wonderful and as usual we restricted our spending by bringing a limited amount of cash and refusing to consider credit cards for additional purchases. We still assembled an impressive selection of specimens for the new beds I am creating around our newly installed log cabin.

Courson 2010

Some of these plants are well known to us and are “must haves” on our mental check-list. Others, for one reason or another, I have never grown before and this is always exciting. Early purchases included Echinacea Meringue, with a delightful cream and white flower, selected to add more colour to our White Border, Echinacea Tomato Soup, an amazing red form on a tall plant and Hosta Great Expectations, all from Hostafolie, a nursery exhibiting from Belgium. The Hosta is a sport of H. Sieboldiana elegans with wide, irregular, blue-green margins surrounding an ever-changing centre; it starts out chartreuse in the spring, turns to yellow, then to creamy yellow, and finally to white. Random fern-green streaks are painted between the margin and centre of each leaf making each one unique. It carries masses of white flowers in the summer but some gardeners find it temperamental: I’ll have to tall to it about that! We are keen to have Hostas near the cabin and this is our second variety. Dryness is not something they appreciate but they are ideal in moist shade. Slugs and snails are a worry as they can badly damage the otherwise attractive foliage, but we have had few problems so far with our existing plants.

Plant judging with our very own Roy Lancaster

In our Hertfordshire garden one of our great pleasures was the scented Daphne odora Aureomarginata, an evergreen shrub from China. We grew it in a protected spot next to the conservatory door, so the perfume could waft in on the cool February air. We bought this and a couple of newish shrubs from another nurseryman: Magnolia Black Tulip, a Jury hybrid from New Zealand and Mahonia nitens Cabaret, which I raved about but failed to buy last year. From yet another stand we selected a second Daphne, this time D. tangutica, also Chinese, flowering on and off for much of the year, evergreen and deliciously scented. Often thought of as a choice and difficult plant, the RHS have awarded it an Award of Garden Merit, which suggests quite the opposite.

There were several UK nurserymen at the show and Trecanna’s bulb stand was buzzing with customers. Keen to support a Cornish boy far from home, we bought a few Arum Lilies and a Colchicum from him. The Arums are the hardy white sort – Zantedescia aethopica. Being a moisture lover we will plant it next to the Hostas but I have noticed that while the biggest plants grow in shady spots, if you want more flowers it needs more sun. A little care will be needed when we plant them next week. A traditional French song tells of Colchicums in the meadows signalling the end of summer and wild forms are a common site here in the early autumn. We choose the popular variety Waterlily, with double lavender-pink flowers. The bulb was in flower when we bought it and currently sits in a Chinese bowl on Chantal’s desk, a curious sight in the reception.

Heuchera specialist from the UK

From our “must have” list we choose a specimen of Arbutus unedo, an evergreen shrub with Lily of the Valley-shaped flowers and strawberry –like fruits. I have planted many in Hertfordshire for clients and missed seeing it in our own garden. Now that this has been rectified we need to choose a special spot to show it off. In the autumn it carries both last season’s fruit and new flowers and when larger the peeling red bark and gnarled stems are very attractive. Being a Mediterranean native a sunny position will be selected for it.

From a Loire Valley grower we chose a couple of climbers: evergreen Honeysuckle Lonicera henryi Copper Beauty and Clematis viticella alba luxurians. One of my favourites, C. ‘Alba Luxurians’ is covered in flowers from mid-summer to late autumn. Its white blooms are tinged with mauve and have a greenish tips. It is a member of the viticella group of clematis and as such it shows good resistance to the dreaded clematis wilt. As with all the late-flowering clematis, pruning is easy. You simply cut back the stems to a pair of strong buds 15-20cm above ground level before growth begins in early spring. This pruning technique makes late-flowering clematis useful for training into shrubs, trees and climbing roses as the clematis growth is removed each spring and so never becomes too much of a burden on its supporting plant. The other is an absolutely gorgeous evergreen Honeysuckle with large, shiny deep green foliage that is bronze when young. Copper Beauty produces sweetly scented copper-yellow flowers throughout summer followed by black fruits in autumn. It has been suggested it is good to plant with Clematis armandii and as we have one of these we will consider this as an option, but we also have spots for it in the front and against the walls of the log cabin.


One final plant to mention from the half dozen I have yet to tell you about; on our way out of the show, when we were overwhelmed, dazed and venerable, we came across the stand of Tropique Production, who specializes in hardy but exotic looking plants like Hedychium. The Ginger Lilies are among the most exotic looking herbaceous plants you can hope to grow in a British garden. Great thick, creeping, ginger smelling rhizomes send up ‘canes’ with bold, alternate leaves in two ranks, around the beginning of April.
No Hedychium is a straightforward hardy perennial right across the UK. On the other hand, none are out-and-out heated glasshouse subjects and this is a toughie. Pink V is delightfully scented hybrid from Tom Wood in Florida, with apricot coloured flower spikes and has already been planted next to our Dining Island where we can appreciate it as we eat. It will need feeding and plenty of water in the growing season and this first winter I shall protect the crown.

Tired, broke, but happy, we drove home down the motorway and had no difficulty filling up with fuel at a service station close to our junction. When we arrived we discovered someone had stolen the potted tree fern from our front garden. Serves us right for having too much fun, I suppose. Dicksonia antarctica is back on the wish list.

Food for Free

Nature is bountiful at this time of the year, here in central France. We never fail to return from walking the dog without something in our pockets and at the moment, we are mostly collecting Walnuts.

 There are still plenty of Hazel nuts around and as we become accustomed to the area we are beginning to work out which trees are not picketed, where to find the largest nuts and which trees are the most productive. This morning we returned with a basket full of nuts and half a dozen ceps, our favourite edible mushrooms.

Cyclamen growing wild in the Robinia woods

Cyclamen growing wild in the Robinia woods

Locals are often very generous when they know you are interested. With a new kitchen recently fitted we have been testing out the equipment by jam and chutney making. Not having fruit of our own, people have been giving us bags of peaches, plums apples, pears and quince. Each of them receives a pot of jam from us in return. As I speak, Chantal is cracking walnuts ready to bake a cake this afternoon.

Colchicum - autumn crocus - growing wild in central France

Colchicum - autumn crocus - growing wild in central France

Autumn flowers are also much in evidence now that the weather is cooling, the day length reducing and the rains returning.

Where once the ground was speckled with orchids there are now wild Cyclamen, Colchicums and, an exciting find, Saffron Crocus.

Here on the edge of the Touraine the grape harvest is all in, picked last week when it was warm and sunny. Mostly the crop was machine harvested but, talking to local growers, they are increasingly hand picking to improve quality. We are great fans of the local white but are still to be convinced that the red is worth the effort to get to know.

We are still recovering from yesterday. We had a business meeting in Valancay at 11 am and on arrival in the town the temperature was 17 degrees C. An hour later it was thermometer on the car dashboard read 21 and by the time we reached home it was 25. 

The atmosphere was strange and people in the town reacted to it. Out walking in the afternoon we had hardly got to the end of the road when someone stopped us to show off his new motorbike and offered us drinks to celebrate. Staggering off to continue our exercise we were stopped a few yards on to chat with an elderly lady who was in tears recalling her dogs and admiring ours.

In the park a man had his head in his hands but beamed when the dog wandered over and gave him a lick. Prior to that we had been sitting on the beach watching the river, when our decorator came over to sit with us for a while. A strange day ended with a huge thunder storm, with a bright red sky and a game of scrabble.

Perhaps someone had drugged the water but according to the weather man a hurricane had moved up the Atlantic dragging hot African air up through France. Who needs alcohol with weather like this!