In flower this Christmas

As promised, between the champagne and the Christmas duck, I muffled-up warmly and paced about the garden looking for flowers. I have included only those I have found in my own garden; extended to include others in the village, the list might be much longer.

This fine seasonal ritual has been practiced by British gardeners for generations, with the results being posted to the Letters to the Editor section of some of the more serious papers for the education and edification of interested readers. Now that there are no serious papers to speak of, I continue this traditional pastime here, in the Gardener in France blog.

“Dear Sir,

Please find herewith my Floral contribution to the Health and Happiness of the Nation, and may God bless all who sail in her.

Starting in the back garden and moving in a clockwise gyration, we find Jasminium nudiflorum, reliably dotted with bright yellow flowers. Moving on to the side bed, there are Begonias, Petunias and Violas still in flower and extending the summer bedding display to the end of this unusual year. At the far end of the same bed, against the cabin wall, our Daphne odora Aureomarginata is covered in buds and just starting to open. Close by, I found one sky-blue flower of Salvia uliginosa amongst a big, sprawling clump.

Across to the other side of the garden where Rhododendron yak. Sneezy is looking very pretty in pink, next to an Ilex x. meserveae Blue Angel with berries and Skimmia japonica Majic Marlot, permanently in bud. Further along, at the beginning of the white border, Viburnum burkwoodii has started into bloom, with Erica Springwood White covered with blossom and a single flower on Hebe Kirkii. In the herb garden, Rosemary still carries plenty of flowers.

We have a little collection of Semperviviums in hollowed out rocks against the south wall of the house and one variety has been in flower for some time. Moving on to the central bed our two species of Phlomis, P. purpurea and fruticosa are blooming, as is our single plant of Penstemon Melting Candy. I have seen several other Penstemons in flower around the village. A Calendula looks dazzling on this grey day and other bedding in flower including Nasturtium and Dianthus. Finally, Lavandula stoechas Victory has produced buds and flowers following a haircut after its more usual flowering period.

Few of the plants in the back garden have been with us more than three years so I am rather pleased with the progress, but the front is very newly planted. On a bank by the front gate Convolvulus cneorum is in full bloom and there is just one flower on the Campanula persiciflora Coerlea and a few on Agastache Fragrant Mix, grown from seed this year. In the bed against the front wall Abelia Kaleidoscope and the Mimosa are providing the display, while against the Apartment Garden fence, a single pink Rose flower braves this winter morning.

Camellia grijsii - scented white flowers by the front door in Chabris

Pride of place has to go to Camellia grijsii, in full bloom and covered in fragrant white flowers, placed in a large blue pot next to the front door where everyone can appreciate it. On the other side of the step, also in a large blue Chinese pot, Camellia reticultata Variegata sports its last flower of the year. Helleborus nigra, in the border nearby, is quite subdued in comparison.

So there you have it, 31 plants flowering for Christmas and I still haven’t bought a Mahonia media!

I remain Sir, Yours, etcetera,

Colin G. Elliott Esq., Chabris, central France”

Protecting plants from the first frosts of autumn

Frosty spider

The barometer was at its highest for months and while the days were sunny and warm, the nights became progressively colder.

Then it happened: on Friday 21st October we had our first frost. It was just a light one that day but the following morning we were greeted by a liberal sprinkling of dazzling white frost crystals, sparkling in the morning sun.

By Sunday it was all forgotten; the barometer plummeted, the rain came and with it much milder weather. When will it return? Who can tell? But return it will and next time it will be harder.

Last year we were caught out and lost several precious plants to a sudden cold snap. This year we have been planning ahead, lifting tender specimens and placing them under cover. We have rooted precautionary cuttings and begun mulching some of the plants which are on the border line of hardiness in our region and in our soil.

Lemons cannot be grown out of doors in central France and last year we lost two fine specimens in spite of providing fleece covers. It was the best we could do at the time: the plants were far too large to have in the house and the old metal and glass conservatory was full of office equipment; the log cabin was not yet built. This year we have a lovely new Lemon plant and have already moved it to the conservatory which, although unheated, will give sufficient protection for the time being. The conservatory is more than 100 years old and keeps much of the north side of our house dry and warm. We have replaced many panes of ancient broken glass and it should be cosier this year, in spite of a rusty door which fails to close completely. We have several dozen plants sheltering there, ranging from recently potted cuttings to established specimens in substantial pots. Bedding Geraniums have been gathered together in trays of home-made compost.

Lemons awaiting a glass with gin and tonic

The recently built log cabin classroom is the second building which will be pressed into support of tender plants. It is a large structure with a covered, but open sided patio area occupying 25% of the floor space. By using this patio, some protection can be provided in reasonably light conditions. I also propose building a bench in the cabin by a large, south facing window for cuttings currently rooting in the tunnel under the loft skylights in the main house. I have installed electric heaters which, because of the superb insulation of the thick wooden walls, will keep the temperatures up at minimum expense. If Garden Design Academy students or other guests need to use the cabin before the spring, I trust they will understand that in this household of gardeners the plants always come first!

Over most of our garden the soil has a light, sandy texture. The drainage this provides in winter is very helpful to plants which might otherwise rot at the roots. We leave Gladioli and Dahlias in the ground without problem for instance, something which would have been risky in our previous garden in England. In one bed in the rear garden we have many plants from the Mediterranean, north and South Africa and from South America, including Salvia argentea and Aloysia citrodora, which have overwintered each year without problem. Just in case, I have recently sown home-produced seed of the Silver Clary and taken cuttings of Lemon Verbena, but I hope not to need them and give the plants away next season.

Cistus - if you need to prune, wait until the spring.

A couple of cultural techniques have proved of value when overwintering half-hardy plants. I do not prune tender plants until the frosts have gone, allowing the foliage and stems produced last season to protect the shoots and buds which will grow next year. This is especially true of late-blooming plants which would have little chance to regrow if pruned after flowering. Cistus, Convolvulus cneorum, Lagerstroemia and Lavatera are examples of plants which I delay pruning until the spring.

We use leaf mould, generously collected and left in vast heaps around the outskirts of town by the local authority, both as free compost and as winter protection for tender plants. Delicate roots are given a liberal mulching and if heaped up around and over stems, these too benefit from the protection this provides. Where taller branches need similar treatment we use hay, straw and the stems of ornamental grasses, secured with twine if necessary. Our Olive bush was buried in Miscanthus stems last year and came through temperatures down to -17°C.

I love this region of France for its seasons, bringing daily changes to the plants we grow and to those growing wild in the countryside around us. By taking a few precautions, plants which a more reasonable gardener would never attempt, sail through the winter and provide a wider range of gardening experiences than if our choices were more conservative.

Lily of the Valley, Itoh peonies and another French plant fair

On the first of May here in France, it is traditional to give friends and loved-ones a bunch of Lily of the Valley: a gift of happiness. Legend tells that the plant first appeared where the blood of good Saint Leonard fell when he did battle with the evil dragon Temptation. Bunches of flower and foliage are sold by children at roadside stalls and on street corners for one or two Euros, but this year they are in short supply. The warm weather has advanced the season by at least two weeks and only in the driest, shadiest gardens are any to be found. We managed to find a couple of sprigs under an old Mahonia, to place in a tiny vase on the dining table; commercial sellers are looking to the north of Europe for supplies.

Plant fair

The plant fair at La Ferté St. Aubin

We have a house full of Academy landscape students at the moment and decided to award us all a ‘plant fair break’ as a reward for a week of hard work. The chateau at La Ferté St. Aubin holds its plant fair each year within the moated courtyard of the buildings which have been a private home for more than 350 years. The proceeds from this and the many other events held here are invested in the restoration of the structures, which are gradually being brought back to life after decades of neglect.

We were keen to buy a few more plants for the garden, nothing particularly rare, but fillers for the many new beds we have created recently. Given the shocking price of plants in France we did reasonably well with our purchases and an enjoyable day was had by all. One or two of the nurserymen exhibiting were what I like to call real growers: experts in their field and growing an interesting range of plants to a high standard. There were specialists in Day Lilies, old Roses and many other plant groups and several were exhibiting Peonies. On one stand were three yellow-flowered plants I was delighted to see and I eagerly sought out the lady in charge. She confirmed that they were an example of the rare intersectional Peonies, crosses between herbaceous and tree peonies. This variety was Bertzella, a vigorous plant with an abundance of semi-double to double lemon yellow blooms and small red flares that just glow in the afternoon sun. The large, well-formed blossoms carried high above the lush green foliage also make good cut flowers. It has a lemony fragrance and I have spent the hours since I last saw it regretting that fact that I did not spend 60 Euro to buy one.

Peony

Itoh peony Bertzella

Called “Itoh peonies” after the Japanese nurseryman Toichi Itoh, who in 1948 was the first to succeed at doing what many thought impossible, crossing yellow tree peonies with the common garden peony, P. lactiflora. These new cultivars offer gardeners the best of both worlds: compact peony plants with attractive, bushy, deciduous foliage and colourful, large, never-before-seen flowers. Hugely expensive when they first became available, they are still not cheap. I hope I will not have to pay too much more when I buy one at the next plant fair on my schedule: Courson on 13th May.

Plants we did buy are gradually being found a home. By the front gate is a bed, a bank which used to support the roots of a huge Copper Beech, since removed. The soil is dry and starved, the situation hot and the most notable features are currently the tree stump and a telegraph pole. Already it contains a purple Fennel and some Mesembryanthemum (Lampranthus) transplanted from the back garden and a wild orchid which arrived spontaneously. An Artemesia grown from cuttings is waiting to be transplanted, together with seedlings of our Salvia argentea, while a Convolvulus cneorum bought at the show is also earmarked for this area. We have added to this Lavandula stoechas pedunculata and Genista lydia, a great improvement to the entrance to the property to which we will add many more plants over time. The Fremontodendron also needs placing and we are considering hiding the telegraph pole behind it. One of my favourite tall plants for a sunny wall, the bright yellow flowers are produced over a very long period. Given the poverty of the soil in this area, it should be very happy.

Salvia

Salvia argentia

We are considering planting a Viburnum opulus Roseum close to the Rosa Paul’s Himalayan Musk and Clematis Alba Luxurians, giving a continuity of white/pale pink flowers over three months against a high boundary wall and the garden of our rental apartment.

I am determined to protect the base of our Mimosa from cold this winter and the Cytisus Lena could be planted close by to do this. It would be within sight of a yellow Cytisus in a hot spot against our new front wall, where the poor soil might suit it. On the other hand the Ceanothus Skylark could be used in the same way, being larger and truly evergreen (as opposed to green shoots on a deciduous bush).