The joys of late summer

Hesperantha coccinea 'Major' or Kaffir Lily

Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ or Kaffir Lily

The clear, sunny mornings now have a distinct chill to them and while mid-day temperatures are well into the high 20’s, you cannot help but be aware, with a tinge of sadness perhaps, that summer is slowly drifting to an end and autumn is on its way. On the other hand the changing temperatures, dewy mornings and the shortening days are signals to a range of plants that it is time to get into flower. A selection of South African bulbs are doing well at the moment: white Nerines we grow in a pot in the white border, Crocosmia varieties in odd corners all around the garden, a big patch of Schizostylus, now Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ which has been slow to establish but is now producing flowers in good quantities. They seem to have enjoyed the extra moisture provided by this year’s spring weather, as so many Cape bulbs do. In my day, these were called Kaffir Lilies, but I expect this is politically incorrect now!

Gladiolus papilio

Gladiolus papilio

One of the joys of this morning’s tour of the garden was the discovery of another South African native: Gladiolus papilio flowering amongst a recently planted Euphorbia. I had forgotten it was there but love the effect of the subtle, drooping spikes of flowers in muted shades above the bright, stripped foliage of E. Ascot Rainbow. The slender buds and backs of petals are bruise-shades of green, cream and slate-purple. Inside, creamy hearts shelter blue anthers while the lower lip petal is feathered and marked with an ‘eye’ in purple and greenish-yellow, like the wing of a butterfly.

Garden Design Academy garden in August

Garden Design Academy garden in August

There is so much to enjoy in the garden at the moment and, dare I say it, I have more or less caught up with the weeding, so I have a little more time to appreciate it before the next group of garden design students come for a tour of Loire Valley gardens with me.

Advertisements

South African plants in a French garden

Dierama

Dierama pulcherrimum?

When a student from some distant shore enrols with the Garden Design Academy it is an opportunity to look at what we grow and see what plants might be familiar to gardeners in that country. A group of South Africans have booked for a two week residential garden design course and I have been out in the garden looking for plants native to the Cape and surrounding regions. My Grandmother lived in colonial South Africa and my Father was born in Cape Town, giving this region, which I have never visited, an extra interest to me.

Eucomis

Eucomis bicolor – a memory of my Grandmother’s garden

Our sunny, central island bed seemed a likely area to start and just three plants from the house-end of this bed comes our first discovery: Dierama or Angel’s fishing rod. There are around 50 species of Dierama in the Eastern Cape and I have always assumed mine is D. pulcherrimum, though I stand to be corrected. My mother first introduced me to this plant after growing it from seed but my own plants were collected from an abandoned Cornish garden in the village where my Grandmother lived. From her garden came our plant of Eucomis bicolor, a bulbous perennial which has proved its hardiness by surviving a spell at -26C last winter. I rescued it from a pot in the garden nearly a year after my Grandmother had died and treasure it as a memory of her. It has the most amazing flower spike, the form of which gives it its common name of Pineapple Flower.

Kniphofia Timothy

Kniphofia Timothy

Barely three paces away we come to our next subject, a clump of Kniphofia Timothy with grass like leaves and bright orange flowers. The Red Hot Pokers seem to withstand anything when established but we did loose young plants, including divisions from this one, during the late winter cold snap. Further on, at the end of the bed and struggling under a large variegated Miscanthus grass, the South African succulent Lampranthus, with outrageously bright pink flowers, opens its buds in the sun and closes them every evening or on dull days. We have a much better plant in full sun in the front garden.

Crocosmia George Davidson

On the opposite corner of the island bed we grow Hemerocallis in two varieties; elsewhere in the garden we have another three. I always assumed some Day Lilies were South African but now know this is not the case: you live and learn! I thought I was on safer ground with the next plant as Canna could not look more typically South African– except that it is from America! Fortunately we also have Crocosmia in the bed, and this really is from South Africa. One of our clumps is of an attractive orange-yellow colour and labelled George Davidson but may not be. Whatever the name, this Montbretia is a cheerful thing and battles gently with the neighbouring Salvia uliginosa, which towers over it.

Gazanias

Unless I’m much mistaking (and to err is the gardeners’ lot) that completes the list from the island bed and the border on the west boundary offers nothing at all. Alongside the eastern boundary and the swimming pool we do better with Gladioli – both species and Dutch florist types – and a number of bedding plants including Gazania, Diascia, Dimorphotheca and Felicia. Several Salvias hail from these parts but I don’t think any of ours do. In pots we have plenty of Pelargoniums which I think it is safe to add to our South Africa list, and in the front garden Phygelius in three varieties.

I keep planting Agapanthus and they keep dying on me and a big potted Clivia went the same way as the Nerines, which is to say, they too are no longer with us. I am looking forward to meeting our students from Pretoria in September and hope they will not be too appalled at my attempts to grow South African native plants.

The mushroom glut and other good gardening news.

With the unseasonal weather set to continue well into August, Nature seems very confused. The recent rains have provided a huge glut of edible (and other) fungi which are normally expected in the autumn and we have been washing, slicing and freezing basket-loads of Ceps every day for a week or more. It has made the French national news broadcasts: initially upbeat reports of nature’s bounty and impromptu mushroom markets in the south-west, but now including cautionary notes as the hospitals fill up with poisoned tourists. It pays to know what you are putting in your mouth, I find.

Abelia Kaleidoscope

A summer of mild, wet weather is not what we signed up for when we decided to cross the Channel and settle in central France. It has brought benifits however, in terms of garden plant growth. Establishing a new garden is an expensive affair, especially if you have to buy plants at French retail prices. The humidity has helped the settling in of these treasures and for that we are most grateful. A large number of plants have been bought this year but recent purchases have included a new variety of Abelia,  A. ‘Kaleidoscope’, bred for its leaf color and dense, compact form. I have planted it in our new front bed, next to clumps of orange Crocosmia and scarlet Phygelius, both blooming as we speak, and in front of another new plant, Erythrina x. bidwillii, currently in bud but promising clusters of pea-shaped, dark red flowers. This hot scheme should be worth building on as more plants become available, creating a stunning show against a sunny garden wall, which already features Sophora and Mimosa and should be ideal for other half-hardy plants.

Lagerstroemiais high on my wish list for this bed; we now have three varieties of this plant which for me is still very exotic and I would like to try taking cuttings from a red-flowering form for the front and perhaps a softer pink than we currently grow, for the back garden. The oldest of our specimens, a Demartis variety called Yang Tse, was planted in half sun but has since been moved to a much warmer spot in the gravel patio. It is now in full flower while the other two, a white and a red, are still in bud. I have my eyes open now for suitable plants and will no doubt shortly start begging for cuttings.

I have been taking lots of cuttings recently, inspired by students who are doing the same on our Plant Propagation for Beginners course. I have a small plastic greenhouse with undersoil heating installed in the loft under a Velux window and I am having great fun swapping cuttings with neighbours and or increasing some of our own plants to give away to friends. Our first batches are now rooted and being hardened off in a sheltered spot and include Campsis, Hydrangea paniculata, Viburnum bodnatensis and pomegranate.

In the mean time back in the loft we have Brugmansia, Rosemary, Curry Plant, Ceratostigma, Acer palmatum, Camellia and Cornus florida all doing well. I have always loved propagation and have had several opportunities to grow plants from seed or cuttings on a commercial scale. As a lad, I even entered the Young Propagator of the Year competition run by Horticulture Week. The temptation to start a nursery when we moved to France was only held at bay by lack of garden space and perhaps it is just as well: the Academy is more than enough to keep me occupied.

Plant hunting and garden design back in England

Every so often I am invited back to the UK to design a garden and my most recent trip took me down to Cornwall. This is the county where I spend most of my childhood and my Grandmother, now 103 years old, still lives there.

Many things in the gardens seemed so different to those of my new life in central France; orange Montbretia (Crocosmia) was everywhere to be seen, in gardens and hedgerows, a South African plant which has naturalised in the county.

France 325

Montbresia growing wild on a clifftop in North Cornwall

I lifted a few of the common form from Grannies’ garden and from a nursery bought a pot each of Buttercup, Emberglow and George Davidson for a new border at home.

Hydrangea macrophylla varieties were in full flower in the South West, while the one in my garden, brought over from the UK in the removal van, had finished long ago. I’m afraid I could not resist buying a Hydranea as well, but this time chose H. paniculata Kyushu to go in the shady border under the Sequoia, which is developing into a Japanese / Chinese planting area surrounding a large granite lantern.

Cornish Hydrangeas
Cornish Hydrangeas

The garden we came to visit contains many fine plants and any new design will have to take these into account as far as possible. Plans for a swimming pond will mean that a few lovely specimens will have to go and we hope that by working in the dormant season we will be able to save some of them.