Autumn in the Loire Valley

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Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

The circus has come to town: a sure sign that autumn has arrived. In the square behind our home a riotous collection of goats, lama, camels, long-horn cattle, geese and other creatures are incongruously dotted around the lawns of the Place de Foire, calmly awaiting the first show tonight, like the professionals there are. We can hear the music and the announcements of the promotional vans.

After a short, hot summer, autumn has been variously warm and wet or cool and wet, conditions which are driving vineyard owners to the point of despair. The grape harvest started in mid-October and depending on the variety, will continue in the rain for the next few weeks. This is going to be a challenging year to produce fine wine in the Loire Valley and I feel for the growers.

I have three weeks’ worth of residential garden design and CAD courses starting on Saturday and am desperate to get out and tidy up the garden before students start to drift in from around the globe. Our first Israeli garden designer arrives for a week of CAD training on Saturday, while a parks manager from the Sultanate of Oman will be with us at the end of the month for two weeks of study. We work a lot with garden professionals from Oman and I find their horticultural skills to be of a very high standard: I must get the weeding done!

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Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

Despite, and in some cases because of the rain, there is still plenty going on in the garden. Yellow flowered Buddleja x weyeriana has been in bloom for months and shows no sign of wanting to stop. Salvia species like S. coccinea, S. patens, S. leucantha, S. elegans, S. microphylla, S. uliginosa and S. involucrata are all looking superb and I am taking cuttings of many of them at the moment for insurance purposes – some may be killed by a cold winter. Grasses are also looking good; we have several Miscanthus sinensis varieties, the majority in flower at the moment, while there are signs of autumn leaf colour on shrubs such as Rhus and Hamamelis. Anemones are showing well, especially Honorine Jobert in the white border and in the oriental garden the Colchicum Waterlily are in full flower. I know, Colchicum autumnale is a European native – I do things like this to see if you are concentrating.

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Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

Under the trees in the parks of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, both great and small, blankets of pink and white Cyclamen are in bloom but in the borders the gardeners are removing summer bedding ready to replace them with winter / spring flowering varieties. A great garden like Chenonceau must always look good, so the change-over brings out dozens of gardeners to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Sunday will be the last opportunity to see the gardens of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire; it closes its doors to the public on 20th October and reopens with two dozen new gardens in the spring. I shall be going with a group of garden designers to see how it has progressed since my last visit earlier in the summer. In the mean time we look forward to the 2014 edition, which will try to conjure up both the faults and the excesses of our time and the free, spiritual universe of eternal gardens, with the show theme: “Garden of the Deadly Sins”; expect to be challenged!

Sadly, because I am teaching, I will not be attending the plant fair at Courson, south of Paris this autumn, saving a great deal of money by missing a favourite plant-buying expedition. There will be other opportunities I have no doubt.

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Courson plant purchases and the latest Loire Valley gardens tour

Courson 2003

One of the plant stands at Courson 2013

Last Friday we travelled up to the leafy outskirts of Paris for our yearly pilgrimage to the Journées des Plantes de Courson, the bi-annual plant fair now in its 58th year. Many of the nearly 300 nursery stands took part in the American plant theme, so the range of plants on offer was slightly different to previous years. I was pleased to see that a plant currently looking lovely in our garden but native to Eastern North America, was given a Merit Award. Amsonia tabernaemontana is a blue flowered and long-lived perennial, forming an arching clump of green, willow-like leaves. Ideal for prairie-style planting I would think, we have it in a border close to Golden Hops and Tree Peonies.

A fine selection of Hostas

A fine selection of Hostas

As usual the variety of plants available to buy was almost overwhelming, but this year we limited ourselves to just a few bits and pieces to add to a garden which is filling up rapidly. Heucherella Solar Eclipse boasts beautifully scalloped, maroon-burgundy leaves with a lovely lime-green border. It’s a new variety of Heucherella – a cross between a Heuchera and a Tiarella. It forms a small mound of evergreen foliage with upright white flowers that bloom in spring and is ideal in shade. We thought we might try a new Hosta in a similar position and chose Big Daddy, with huge chalky-blue leaves that at maturity become cupped and grow into three feet tall clumps.

As always, David Austin was at the show to represent  UK growers.

As always, David Austin was at the show to represent UK growers.

For the sun I bought Salvia leucantha to replace one I left behind in our last garden in England. S. leucantha is an evergreen subshrub growing to around 1.2m in height, with narrowly lance-shaped leaves, white beneath, reminding me of a little Buddleja. The small white flowers have prominent arching velvety purple calyces from late summer to the first frosts. As with other Salvias, it is worth taking some cuttings to ensure it over-winters.

While Chantal was drawn to scented Pelargoniums from the National Collection holder, based not a million miles from our home, I had found a most marvellous climber, Actinidia pilosula, which I thought would be ideal hiding a downpipe on the sunny side of the house. It is somewhat like Actinidia kolomikta, having leaves variegated pink and white, but in this case the leaves are longer and narrower and it has lovely pink flowers. A smashing plant!

Another colourful stand at  the Journées des Plantes de Courson

Another colourful stand at the Journées des Plantes de Courson

Gradually I am meeting many of the more interesting characters of the French horticultural industry but at a lunch with the organisers and judges I sat with Roy Lancaster and Paul Rochford, over for the judging.

It made a nice change to talk to a few English gardeners again!

Back to work, and I have a tour to lead, with Australians this time, visiting another ten gardens in the Loire Valley over a week. Most of the planning is done, including a couple of gardens new to me, but I have the final touches to put on my schedule before arrival time tomorrow afternoon.

A typical French Autumn

Autumn leaf and flower colour from Rhus and Miscanthus in our garden this morning.

Every day this week has been different to the last. Today it is mild and drizzling on and off, while yesterday it was dry, with just a few clouds passing by. The day before was a most glorious warm, sunny day but it began with a hint of frost. Sunday it poured down while Saturday it kept mostly dry – a bonus for guests who I took to see the grape harvest coming in at local vineyards. In short, a typical autumn week in central France.

In the town, around the market and in the supermarket, all the talk is about mushrooms, or the lack of them. We have been mushroom hunting on our daily walks with the dog and while we bring back a handful most days, there are very few about. The weather is looking encouraging however, after many months without any serious rain, so we are hoping for great things by the end of this or the following week.

Chantal is making her annual autumn jelly from fruit collected on our walks: pears, apples and grapes left behind by the picking machine. To this she has added currents and other soft fruit preserved after picking this summer and a few herbs and spices for luck. We will be bottling soon and look forward to trying it out on friends who regularly offer us examples of their own culinary efforts to try. Last week the Marquis dropped around with a sample of his Two Salmons Rillettes and our lady plumber turned up one evening with freshly hunted venison. Food is important to the people of this community and recipes are commonly argued over in the market place.

Japanese Anemones continue to provide colour

Out in the garden I am pleased to have the ground wetted as I have been waiting to start cultivating the soil for our new lawn. The lawn will be sown as soon as I can so that it will germinate and establish itself before the winter. We are trying to rehabilitate a section of the garden ruined when the swimming pool went in and to link it with an area currently the site of a very poor quality lawn. I can manage about 50 sq.m. a day fighting with the rotavator, after which I need a couple of days of rest – one more push should see the hard work done though. The next task will be the raking off of old grass, weeds and stone, and creating rough levels using new lawn edging secured along the existing beds. The ground will then be trodden down firmly, levelled again to a nice tilth and finally sown with grass seed. A last gentle rake over and we leave it to Nature to work its wonders.

Many of the bedding and herbaceous plants are having a second lease of life in this damp and temperate season: the Begonias have never looked so good, Pot Marigold (Calendula) are in full flower and throughout the garden there are splashes of colour here and there. It looks as if the Salvia Golden Delicious will flower this year: each shoot is carrying a flower bud and one is just starting to show red. We continue to pick tomatoes and our lettuce crop is the best we have had all year.

Summer bedding has never looked so good!

In the park the rain has resulted in a huge rise in the level of the river Cher, but not enough to put off 60 or more swans who took up residence earlier in the week. The gardeners are busily removing summer bedding and replacing it with a mixture of winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to beg a few of last season’s plants from them for our own garden: bedding Dahlias and purple grasses, no longer. I have finished taking cuttings of tender plants for the year but have tried some Holly again, a particularly attractive form which grows by the town campsite.

On Friday I am taking clients to Bourgueil to look at vineyards and taste some wine, while on Saturday or Sunday we’ll all take a trip to the Courson Plant Fair, so it’s a busy week all ’round. We are watching the weather.

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.

Courson plant festival (autumn 2011) – JOURNEES DES PLANTES DE COURSON – the results

If you don’t know about Courson you really have not been concentrating; it has been featured many times in this blog and is far and away my favourite plant fair. Held twice a year at the chateau Domaine de Courson , south of Paris, the festival is recognised for its quality and authority and awards for stands or individual plants are coveted.

Although life got in the way of my annual pilgrimage to the festival, I was sent the press release and can therefore reveal the award winning plants at this autumn’s show:

Trees

x Gordlinia grandiflora

Quercus palustris ‘Pringreen’ (GREEN PILLAR®)

Acer capillipes ‘Antoine’

x Gordlinia grandiflora

Acer pentaphyllum

Shrubs

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Invincibelle’

Hedera helix ‘Silver Butterfly’

Conifers

Taxodium ascendens ‘Nutans’

Sequoia sempervirens ‘Henderson Blue’

Picea abies ‘Frohburg’

Herbacious plants

Stokesia laevis ‘Purple Parasols’

Saxifraga fortunei var. incisilobata ‘Momosekisui’

Ajuga reptans ‘Metallica Crispa’

Ajuga reptans ‘Metallica Crispa’

Boehmeria sylvatica

Mertensia maritima

Grasses

Molinia ‘Les Ponts de Cé’

Stipa calamagrostis

Eragrostis trichodes

Saccharum brevibarbe var. contortum (Syn. Saccharum contortum ; Erianthus
contortus)

Ferns

Selaginella uliginosa

There are many interesting plants in this list, deserving a place in our gardens. If you have experience of any of them perhaps you’ll let me know?

Iris, Hemerocallis, Poppies and Peonies

Pivoine Marie Crousse

Peony (Pivoine) Marie Crousse

After Courson, our last flower show visit, we followed up the discovery of a local grower to visit them at their nursery. Bourdillon specialise in Iris, Hemerocallis, Poppies and Peonies and their beautifully illustrated catalogue mentioned an open weekend on 21st and 22nd May.

We dutifully turned up on the Sunday with a gardening friend only to discover, with a season three weeks in advance of normal, they had held it early this year. There was still plenty to see however and we happy roamed the fields for several hours before returning to the office to buy a few things. Their web site (http://www.bourdillon.com) shows their full range of plants but here are a few photos from my visit……..

Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami

Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami

We finally succumbed to temptation and bought one of the Itoh peonies I described having seen at a show earlier this year – Bertzella – while our friend chose a potted Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami which she later divided and shared with us. The Japanese Water Iris is native not only to Japan but is very widespread in China, Korea, India & eastern Russia and needs boggy conditions in the spring. We have planted it in a shady spot in a new bed which contains many recent purchases, but plan to move it in the autumn to a spot next to a Japanese water basin to which I add water often, the overspill moistening the ground for the nearby Hostas and other plants.

Poppy Lambada

Oriental Poppy Lambada

The weather here continues to be warm and dry; temperatures in the twenties, usually 10°C higher than the UK and no rain to speak of since February. Water restrictions have started in many regions of France and agriculture is in trouble, although there are a few regions of the country where they have had plenty of rain.

At the recent Comice Agricole at St. Aignan, a country show also involving the 16 villages surrounding the town, the talk was of little else. We hoped to try comparing the white wine from each of the communes (for educational purposes and of course, in moderation) but it was so warm we could not summon the energy for more than a brief visit before leaving to sit in the shade of a Willow by the River Cher and cool off. A TV crew spent some time filming our standard poodle as she said “Hello” to the competition goats, the first in the family to achieve fame in this country.

Hemerocallis Edge of Darkness

Hemerocallis Edge of Darkness

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.