First signs of spring 2014

It is wise to be cautious in gardening, but here in the Loire Valley it is even harder to ignore the clear signs of approaching Spring.

jan 2014

Wild Hellebores thrive under the Sequoia

Even the most pessimistic and wary of the locals were convinced when hundreds of cranes flew over the town this weekend. Like many a British pensioner, they have been overwintering in south-west Spain and are now migrating to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. We often have them spend the night nearby: the river Cher and the lakes of the Sologne are ideal for a good nights rest and a snack before moving on.

The mild weather has encouraged an early flowering of many plants in gardens around the village. We have a couple of Camellias I full flower and there are many others to be seen on our regular walks. This morning we found a huge Magnolia soulangeana covered with deep purple flowers and our own M. stellata is beginning to open. The White Border should be a real picture very soon with Magnolia stellata, Viburnum burkwoodii and Clematis armandii all about to flower. There are increasing numbers of Daffodils and Crocus out while a large number of early Prunus are colouring the gardens white and pink. If the birds and the flowers think its spring, who are we to doubt it?

Chaumont_FESTIVAL_2014We have just heard that Chaumont Garden Festival, surely the one “must see” European event for garden designers and enthusiasts, is opening between 25th April and 2nd November this year, a slight extension at the end of the season which should prove popular. Between students, garden tour clients and general visitors, we visit this show up to a dozen times each year and never tire of it. This year’s theme is “Gardens of Deadly Sins”. I can’t wait!

Frustratingly, this morning’s post brought our copy of the Yellow Book of UK gardens open to the public. Frustrating, because we visit the UK only very rarely these days and have little chance of enjoying any of the 8,800 gardens detailed in the handbook. It has been suggested from several corners that I organise a series of English garden tours, so I guess you never know. I commend the Yellow Book to you along with visits to as many gardens as possible; it’s all for charity and a fantastic learning experience for any gardener.

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Salon Vegetal trade show 2014

On the other hand we had a great day out at the Salon Vegetal trade show last week and our membership of the Association of Parks and Gardens allows us access to all sorts of private and public gardens in the centre of France. Only last week we were invited to a chateau only recently open for garden visits and conveniently close to our home. The chateau de Poulaine is sure to attract plant enthusiasts and we will be keeping a close eye on developments.

High on my list of gardening events this year is the Floralies at Nantes, an international garden show hosted by France every five years. One of Europe’s largest floral events, it is to be held over ten days from May 8th. I hope to visit with Academy students who are coming to us from Oman for a two week course on cactus growing. Apart from the garden show, I gather the botanic garden in Nantes houses one of the largest collections of cacti in France.

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New potager behind the Academy classroom

Most of my gardening time has been spent catching up with the weeding and pruning to prepare for the rapidly approaching new season. I have also just completed our little potager behind the cabin and will soon be turning my attention to two additional projects: finally building our Moon-gate, the materials for which have been sitting around on a pallet for far too long, and to sort out the compost section, a disgraceful area at present. It all takes time, but I am getting there.

One last event which put a smile on my face; my propagation bench was bought through Thomson and Morgan. The polythene cover features an array of zips and openings making it a very practical piece of equipment, but a year of sunshine, supplementary lighting, dust and general use had left it in a rather sorry state. I noticed that although it was bought in the UK the packaging was German so I decided to contact the original supplier, Bio Green to ask if I could purchase a new cover. Not at all, I was told, we will supply one free of charge on warrantee. Service beyond the call of duty, I thought; Bio Green are on my favourite suppliers list from now on. The propagator is full of emerging seedlings….I do love this time of the year!

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Spring? Surely…..?

Crocus in the Loire

Crocus, fresh up today.
These are cheering up an area of Iris germanica which are barely showing a sign of life.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day here in the Loire Valley, with temperatures up to 19°C at the (south facing) back of the house and 10°C in the shade at the front, after a frosty start.

Hundreds of Canada Geese are flying up the river to find an attractive feeding spot for the evening, huge, noisy V-formations passing overhead every half hour or so. Buds are swelling and the first few spring-flowering plants are making an appearance – we have Crocus flowers to admire today, adding their weight to the Witch Hazel, the Hellebores and other brave souls which have heralded this current spring awakening.

Snowdrops are still doing well, as here, under the Japanese Maple

Snowdrops are still doing well, as here, under the Japanese Maple

This morning I was chatting to the local Pear expert, out in the orchard attending to the pruning of his collection, the largest in Europe in spite of reducing the numbers last year; tomorrow I am taking a group of American tourists to see the vineyards, where the pruning is mostly finished but the tying-in has still to be done. We will be visiting (and tasting) a number of Loire Valley appellations in our day trip: Touraine Mesland, where we have an appointment with a bio-dynamic grower, my favourite Vouvray producer, the wine co-op at Montlouis-sur-Loire, the new appellation of Touraine-Chenonceau and the Touraine itself. It should be a very entertaining series of visits.

An interesting colour break on our Daphne odora. I will try to put some roots on it later and see if we can produce a new variety.

An interesting colour break on our Daphne odora. I will try to put some roots on it later and see if we can produce a new variety.

Here in the garden I am about to sow the new lawn having cultivated the soil again on Saturday (I have the blisters to prove it!). There is so much to do to prepare the garden for the new season and as always there is a hold up in the propagation of bedding and vegetables as seedlings take their time to grow to a size where I am happy to remove them from the propagator. I’m trying not to panic. We have added to the complications this year by advertising our apartment to the holiday-seeking world, and as guests expect access to the swimming pool all the corners where I usually throw the junk have to be urgently tidied. There is a door to put on the garden shed, a gate to erect to secure the pool and huge amounts of useful materials to move to new homes (tell me where!) so that in a few years they can be moved again, dumped or burned.

It’s seed sowing time again

After all the fun of selecting new and favourite varieties from the seed catalogues the real work is just starting in greenhouses, airing cupboards and on windowsills: its seed sowing time! Our own efforts began modestly around a month ago and the results, a few trays and pots of seedlings, are now out of the propagator and on the dining room windowsill. First out was Antirrhinum Axiom Mixed, a Thomson and Morgan variety which did particularly well in the bed by the swimming pool last year. The original plants are still out there and we are hoping that if they are trimmed back they will bloom again this year. If not, we have backups in the young plants I have grown from seed. We were so pleased with the Antirrhinums last year that we have also grown some white ones for next season. Our tray of Royal Bride will need potting on very soon and that’s when the problems begin: I just do not have enough growing space once the seedlings are pricked out.

I sowed Gazanias two days ago and they are already starting to germinate. I had forgotten they prefer to be germinated in the dark so it is worth reading the label! They were sown, like all the seeds, on the surface of good seed compost bought at the local garden centre. In this case the advice from T&M was to cover with the smallest amount possible of vermiculite and water in. The tray, containing bands of the four varieties I had bought, was then placed in an old plastic compost sack and this put in the heated propagator. The results have been very gratifying and they are now out of the sack and under supplementary lights which we put on whenever the sunshine is weak.

Bergenia in flower today in a neighbour's garden.

Bergenia in flower today in a neighbour’s garden.

Not that the sun is lacking today. It is a bright, clear but chilly day, encouraging Crocus, Hellebores and Bergenia into flower and birds into song.

Garden work is beginning to queue up as the days get longer, with recent rains slowing me down outside and office work keeping me busy inside. Today I realised that none of our seven web sites was working, thanks to an ‘upgrade’ of our server on 1and1. In that almost all our business comes to us from these sites, this has caused a bit of a panic. I had innocently assumed that all the clever bits would be dealt with by the technicians at 1and1 or that their software systems would handle everything automatically. Having a cynical side to my character, well hidden, I like to think, I took the precaution of backing up all the sites on my PC, just before pushing the button asking for the upgrade. These saved files, many thousands of them, are slowly uploading in an effort to rebuild our web sites; cross fingers!

Plants on the move and Chaumont news

Herbaceous perennials – plants which live for several years but have soft growth which dies down in the winter – should be lifted and divided every few years to maintain their strength. It is often an opportunity to increase stock so that a single plant may become a group of three or more within a few years. We use this method of propagation, but we also lift and divide when we decide to move plants from one area of the garden to another. We use herbaceous plants as temporary ‘fillers’ between shrubs to give extra colour while the more permanent plants grow to size, moving them as the shrubs fill the space.

This year we have decided to construct a swimming pool for holiday guests and Garden Design Academy students. Its placement was the subject of much debate and we used it as a surveying and design exercise with a group of visiting garden designers and landscapers last year. The size and area having been agreed upon and a skilled constructor having been appointed, I have been left with the task of clearing the plants to allow work to start at the beginning of April.

Most of these plants are on the move

The site runs along one boundary, connecting the house with our log cabin lecture room. As none of the boundaries, buildings or features is parallel to each other, we have had to decide if we would install the pool perpendicular to the house, to the cabin or neither. With the advantage of CAD and a room full of design and construction specialists, it was soon clear that the way to proceed was at a right-angle to the cabin rather than the house. This leaves a border that narrows into the distance when viewed from the house, emphasising the length of the garden, an illusion popular with French garden designers at the time the house was constructed.

Asters looking for a new home

The bed has been planted for only two years or so but is already beginning to look established in places. It was also used as a nursery, a home for plants with no home and a place to root hardwood cutting. The design was beginning to show through the jumble however, before I started to rip it apart. I measured and pegged out the pool and its surrounding paving so that I could see what plants needed to be moved: quite a few. I started with the trees, of which there are far too many. The Clerodendrum trichotomum, acquired as a sucker from a local plant, took some lifting. Despite negative reviews from some American sources I think this is a beautiful tree, a native to Western China and named in honour of Paul Guillaume, a French missionary and naturalist in Central China. It has very fragrant, pretty white flowers in August. These are followed by outstanding and eye-catching, metallic-blue berries in autumn. The star of this bed in 2011, it has now been moved to the front garden.

A Liquidambar has been potted and may be given to gardening friends, but the Golden Catalpa is now in a pot on the patio, under-planted with yellow Crocus as it was when it was growing in the side bed. The trees out, I am now turning my attention to the herbaceous plants. Sedum spectabilis and Geums have now been lifted, divided and planted in another front garden bed, close to a relocated modern French shrub rose and established Delphiniums and Asters, the whole having a very English feel. Homes still need to be found for many more plants but I feel I have broken the back of the work now. In addition I have a collection of newly potted plants to give away to friends.

Chaumont 2010 - Garden Design Academy students hard at work

In the mean time I have had a number of invitations to gardening product launches and events. Unfortunately, everything seems to be arranged for 9am in central Paris and as no-one is paying my hotel bill and I am reluctant to get up for the 6am train, I am attending very few of them. I can tell you however, having turned down an invitation to the press launch, that the theme of the Chaumont Festival of Gardens for 2012 is “Jardins de délice, jardins de délire”. There is a note about this, and links to details of every festival since its beginnings in 1992, on the Loire Valley Gardens site: http://www.loirevalleygardens.com/chaumont_sur_loire.html

Our own Loire Valley Gardens study tour is beginning to attract bookings from as far away as Australia and details of the spring tour on 22nd -29th May can be found here: http://www.gardendesignacademy.com/Res_Loire_Gardens.html

Back from the South of France

After a tiring but satisfying week teaching a residential garden design course here in Chabris, we took ourselves off to the South of France for a part work / part holiday break. Our base, after a little touring around the Languedoc-Roussillon, was Pézenas, where a client put us up at their vineyard Gîte Rural while we discussed the creation of a new garden around their house. This arrangement also allowed for plenty of time to visit the region with our son, who flew over to join us.

Roquebrun - Jardin Méditerranéen - perhaps next time?

I had planned to take in two local gardens but discovered that our first was available for evening guided visits only and this did not suit our schedule. We reached the village of Roquebrun in the Hérault to seek out the Jardin Méditerranéen but were distracted by a pretty restaurant and in the end did not make it to the garden. We did however, discover the local wine co-op where a steady stream of growers were delivering their harvest. After some debate and careful consideration, we eventually departed with two dozen bottles of their finest.

Roadside saffron crocus

This region of France is particularly attractive when the temperatures moderate and the tourists leave. We swam in the Mediterranean and looked at the boats in the harbour at Sète, enjoyed a wonderful meal in a village on the edge of the Bassin de Thau and strolled by the Canal du Midi. We were particularly taken by the hills and mountains of the huge Haut-Languedoc Natural Park behind the coast. The stunning scenery and an amazing diversity of countryside, geology and climate had us captivated for several expeditions, driving around mountain roads and through tiny mountain hamlets. We should have walked more I know, but the dog had a foot infection and was effectively lame for the whole trip, although she enjoyed our swims in lakes and rivers each day. One area consisted of a forest of Chestnut trees as far as the eye could see (and probably much further) and locals were busy bringing in the bounty, while in another, more open region, the roadsides were flecked with saffron crocus.

All good things come to an end and eventually we had to make our way home, after lunch next to the brick cathedral at Albi and a night in a farmhouse above the River Lot. We arrived refreshed and ready to work again, with a garden design to complete and, amongst the 2,000 emails sitting in my Outlook Inbox, a few more requests for courses. The first signs of autumn were evident in the garden.

Less tourism and more gardening in my next post, I promise!