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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Cut flowers, nuts and berries.

We have been working hard to provide new courses and add them to the Garden Design Academy web site. The latest batch fills me with nostalgia and reminds me of the beginnings of my horticultural career as a boy in south-west of England.

My Father was a highly skilled tool-maker and precision engineer and still, in his eighties, makes skeleton clocks as a hobby, starting with sheets of metal and transforming them into a unique timepiece over the course of a year or more. Dedicated though he was to his work, his passion was gardening and his dream was to own his own nursery.

An opportunity came his way when a couple of elderly ladies who ran an organic smallholding wanted to retire. They liked my Dad (everyone does!) and decided to help him fulfill has ambition. An arrangement was made whereby he paid a lump sum and the remainder from future earnings; we were the proud owners of a house and 10 acres of Cornish countryside, with crops in the ground including bulbs, foliage plants and strawberries. All the machinery and equipment was left in the barns and sheds and at the age of fourteen the ladies taught me how to plough and showed my father how to grow the traditional crops organically.

Our Cut Flower Bulbs course would have been useful to Dad. We understood so little and the learning curve was steep. We made hugely expensive mistakes out of ignorance of the most basic techniques, but made up for it in enthusiasm and share determination. At harvest time it was not unusual for me to work until midnight and go to school the next day.

Daffodils were the major crop in our region and features prominently in the course. One year, I remember, we went out to check on a field which should have been close to picking, to discover the whole crop of nearly two acres had disappeared; they had been stolen over night and we were not surprised to see cheap Daffs for sale on the streets of Truro that weekend. We also grew Anemones, Dutch Iris and Kaffir Lilies outside and had a try with Freesias in the glasshouses we built together. These flowers were packed and sent by train to the markets of London, Birmingham and other cities; sometimes they fetched a good price but on occasions they made nothing. The trick was to have flowers for Mothers Day.

The other major inherited crop was strawberries. These were grown in the fields with a proportion protected under glass cloches to produce earlier crops. Ladies from the village used to come to help with the picking but Mother could outperform all of them, cutting them carefully with scissors and arranging them in punnets. The fruit were sold at the farm gate, in local shops and through wholesalers, where the price was lower but the volumes far greater. We grew other berry fruits to sell locally in small quantities, currents and gooseberries especially and these and many more feature in our new Berry Fruit Production course. We learned the hard way about Gooseberry Sawfly larva, which can strip the leaves from a whole plantation in just a few days if you are not attentive.

The Nut Production course reminds me not so much of my childhood, but of my current life in France, where we regularly pick sacks of hazel nuts, chestnuts and walnuts from local trees and bushes, storing them in the cool of the cellar for use throughout the year. Walnuts are grown here commercially, both for the edible nuts and for the oil, pressed at several mills in the area and in France generally, many nut crops are important to the local economy.

During forty years in the industry I have worked in most sectors of the horticultural industry and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to pass on what I have learned to students of the Garden Design Academy. Many more exciting courses are in the pipeline and I am enjoying working with students through the existing range. The RHS qualification courses are always stimulating and the vast subject of Garden History is fascinating, especially now that I can easily compare the English tradition with the French. Living in the Touraine with a Bordeaux-born wife gives an extra edge to our Viticulture courses, with one of our students owning a boutique vineyard in New Zealand. Garden design and landscaping courses involve art, craft and science in creating the gardens our clients demand and are hugely satisfying both for students and ourselves.

I have been saying for years that you never stop learning in horticulture and gardening. I get back as much as I give while teaching these subjects and trust this will continue for many years to come.