The calm after the storm

In France, and I think it was no better in England, there has been wave after wave of storms from the Atlantic for two or three months now. Of course, here in the centre of France we do not generally have extreme weather, but last night the winds were apparently gusting to 120km/hour and the noise was quite something. No-one slept well.

feb2014 003

It’s Snowdrop time!

We are in the middle of strange weather conditions; the warmest winter since 1900 and listening to the forecasts and the news, various regions around the country regularly suffer the effects of three weeks or a months-worth of rain in just a few hours. There is flooding all over France.

Out in the garden our Camellia grisii is in full flower and attracting honey bees! Talking of Camellias, we spotted a real beauty at a local garden centre recently: Camellia x ‘Cinnamon Cindy’, an American hybrid between Camellia japonica ‘Kenyo-tai’ and a Chinese species, Camellia lutchuensis. ‘Cinnamon Cindy’ is upright with small light green leaves which are reddish on emerging. The flowers are 2-3″ in diameter, white with some pink in outer petals, and with nice fragrance. The whole plant reminded us of our C. grisii.

feb2014 002

Witch-hazel shines in the pale light of February

Our Witch-hazel is in full flower with Snowdrops open all around it and Hellebores nearby. Buds are bursting and leaves emerging very early and I have lightly trimmed back a few plants to keep them bushy while still offering a little protection from any cold spell which may come later. I have yet to see a Daffodil flower.

Business took me away from the house for a couple of days in succession and the result, I am sad to say, was the loss of several trays of seedlings which died from lack of water. Antirrhinums suffered particularly badly although I may salvage two or three seedlings. The Petunias were also unhappy and a tray of a hundred is now reduced to a dozen: better than nothing I guess. In the mean time I have sown Basil, a new hardy variety from T&M, double flowering Stocks (they will need cold temperature selection later) and Castor Oil plants from seed collected in the village. Early germinated seedlings are now out of the propagator, either under another window in the loft or on the windowsills downstairs.

feb2014 005

As with may plants in flower now, Daphne blooms are sweetly scented

Outside the new raised bed Potager is more or less finished; the next step is a bed of woven Willow which I hope to construct shortly (before the itinerant basket-makers find all the best Willow shoots!) There is no shortage of weeding to be done still and I am gradually working ’round the garden between showers.

Scented streets, plant fairs, food for free and hardy orchids


Robinia pseudoacacia flowering in our Chabris garden today

For weeks the streets have been perfumed by the heady scent of Lilac and Wisteria, here in the centre of rural France: a delightful change from the smell of combustion engines we left behind in the towns and cities of the UK. These flowers are still going strong but for Easter weekend accompanied by the first, sweet-smelling roses and fragrance of the bee-friendly Robinia trees. When I plant a garden I always try to position scented shrubs near doorways, windows or frequently used pathways to make use of this extra, olfactory dimension to planting design. Our white Lilac is close to the kitchen window and we have a couple of fine Daphnes, D. odora Aureomarginata by the classroom and D. tangutica close to the house. Robinias are in flower here too, far too close to the ancient building: a weed in our area but a beautiful one.

The woods will be alive with bees in a few days as hives are brought back to their clearings in the forest, bee-keepers keen to capitalise on the harvest of Robinia blossoms, the source of fine local Acacia honey. During a recent walk in the woods by the River Cher we were pleased to stumble across a handful of Morels, an excellent edible wild mushroom which we devoured the same day with a steak of locally-raised beef and a good red wine.


Morchella mushrooms (Morels) from the local woods


Bletilla striata orchid in our woodland garden

Small purple Orchids are starting into flower in the woods and meadows too, with native, greeny-white Helleborines blooming alongside shocking-pink, Japanese Bletilla striata in our garden. A wide range of orchids thrive in these parts, Lizard Orchids seeding themselves freely in the countryside and in gardens. I miss English Bee Orchids, flowering in the field by our old Hertfordshire office and we always walked the dog over the Chilterns to orchid hunt in the summer, but here we are spoiled for choice.

Sadly, we missed the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisière on Saturday and the one at chateau de Bouges on Sunday; on Wednesday we have been invited to Giverney while on the 10th May a coach trip to the chateau park at Azay le Ferron has been organised by the town’s tourist office. Which of these we can find time to support, we have yet to decide, but nothing could make me miss my annual pilgrimage to Courson on May 13th.

Our guided trips to the gardens of the Loire Valley stop at several of these venues and I’m hoping to organise one for the national garden open weekend in early June, when more than 80 parks and gardens in our area are holding events. The delightful problem will be which to select for visits this year!

Early spring gardens in the centre of France

Such an exciting time of the year this; every day when we tour the garden or are out and about with the dog, there are signs of movement in the gardens and countryside. Our own young garden is now alive with Crocus and Snowdrops, while many other bulbs are pushing their shoots up out of the ground. Shrubs and herbacious plants are starting into growth and there are a few buds and blossoms here and there.

Viburnum x bodnantense

Viburnum x bodnantense. A dark form grown in a few Chabris gardens.

We certainly do not have enough winter and spring flowering plants in the garden but the construction of a front wall has opened up many more planting opportunities and I am sure this will be corrected in time. I have my eyes on a lovely dark form of Viburnum x bodnatense, scented, of course, growing in three or four locations around the village. The flowers aredeeper than I am used to but perhaps it’s Dawn or perhaps a French variety. If anyone knows I’d be pleased to hear about it. One of the local specimens has a good sucker or layer just waiting for a new home!

Our Snowdrops are charming but nothing can compare to the sight of them growing under trees in large quantities. The local mill, now beautifully restored and used for sculpture, painting and other art courses, has hundreds of thousands of them in flower at the moment. I keep recieving emails from English gardens inviting me to see the Snowdrops and the NGS web site lists many more open to the public at this time of the year. Worth a trip out, I would have thought.

Scent and Spring seem to go together as the few flowering plants compete for the available pollenating insects. Our new Daphne odora Aureomarginata was planted by the door to the log cabin classroom and is just starting to give off its perfume, a reward for making it to the end of the garden on a grey day like today. I was in the classroom this morning, having lugged the big HP plotter down from the attic to be available for students to print out their work later in the season. There is another to bring down and install once my back has recovered from lifting the first one.

Snowdrops at Chabris Mill

The completion of the log cabin, the new front wall and the approaching spring have all encouraged me to get serious about the garden once more. I am discovering however, that I am not as young as I once was and the work, some of it very physical, is having to be spaced out across the week. Between student marking, updating the Academy web site, creating a new site on French gardens and a fair bit of home DIY, I am digging beds, moving plants and planting. Cracking out an old concrete path edge and drain has given me impressive blisters but who knows, if it doesn’t kill me I might find I get fit. “Everything in moderation” as French TV adverts  like to say when warning us about the evils of alcohol. Personally,  I could do with a decent drink after an exhausting afternoon digging, and France is the ideal place to be if you like a tiple in the evening.

Happy gardening, but take it gently and I’ll try to do the same.

Plant buying, plant theft and planting plans

The day of our annual pilgrimage to the Courson Festival of Plants last week coincided with a general strike. The good people of France are unhappy with a proposed retirement age of 62 and the political opposition demands that the law is halted in its progress through parliament. Just in case the government didn’t hear, the Socialists called this strike and several others both before and since, failing to highlight the fact that their own plans only offer six months less.


Fuel is in short supply but throwing caution to the wind we drove the 200-odd km up to Courson anyway, trusting that we would be able to fill up somewhere on the way back. With the autumn planting season just around the corner we simply could not miss this opportunity to stock up with plants. The show was as usual wonderful and as usual we restricted our spending by bringing a limited amount of cash and refusing to consider credit cards for additional purchases. We still assembled an impressive selection of specimens for the new beds I am creating around our newly installed log cabin.

Courson 2010

Some of these plants are well known to us and are “must haves” on our mental check-list. Others, for one reason or another, I have never grown before and this is always exciting. Early purchases included Echinacea Meringue, with a delightful cream and white flower, selected to add more colour to our White Border, Echinacea Tomato Soup, an amazing red form on a tall plant and Hosta Great Expectations, all from Hostafolie, a nursery exhibiting from Belgium. The Hosta is a sport of H. Sieboldiana elegans with wide, irregular, blue-green margins surrounding an ever-changing centre; it starts out chartreuse in the spring, turns to yellow, then to creamy yellow, and finally to white. Random fern-green streaks are painted between the margin and centre of each leaf making each one unique. It carries masses of white flowers in the summer but some gardeners find it temperamental: I’ll have to tall to it about that! We are keen to have Hostas near the cabin and this is our second variety. Dryness is not something they appreciate but they are ideal in moist shade. Slugs and snails are a worry as they can badly damage the otherwise attractive foliage, but we have had few problems so far with our existing plants.

Plant judging with our very own Roy Lancaster

In our Hertfordshire garden one of our great pleasures was the scented Daphne odora Aureomarginata, an evergreen shrub from China. We grew it in a protected spot next to the conservatory door, so the perfume could waft in on the cool February air. We bought this and a couple of newish shrubs from another nurseryman: Magnolia Black Tulip, a Jury hybrid from New Zealand and Mahonia nitens Cabaret, which I raved about but failed to buy last year. From yet another stand we selected a second Daphne, this time D. tangutica, also Chinese, flowering on and off for much of the year, evergreen and deliciously scented. Often thought of as a choice and difficult plant, the RHS have awarded it an Award of Garden Merit, which suggests quite the opposite.

There were several UK nurserymen at the show and Trecanna’s bulb stand was buzzing with customers. Keen to support a Cornish boy far from home, we bought a few Arum Lilies and a Colchicum from him. The Arums are the hardy white sort – Zantedescia aethopica. Being a moisture lover we will plant it next to the Hostas but I have noticed that while the biggest plants grow in shady spots, if you want more flowers it needs more sun. A little care will be needed when we plant them next week. A traditional French song tells of Colchicums in the meadows signalling the end of summer and wild forms are a common site here in the early autumn. We choose the popular variety Waterlily, with double lavender-pink flowers. The bulb was in flower when we bought it and currently sits in a Chinese bowl on Chantal’s desk, a curious sight in the reception.

Heuchera specialist from the UK

From our “must have” list we choose a specimen of Arbutus unedo, an evergreen shrub with Lily of the Valley-shaped flowers and strawberry –like fruits. I have planted many in Hertfordshire for clients and missed seeing it in our own garden. Now that this has been rectified we need to choose a special spot to show it off. In the autumn it carries both last season’s fruit and new flowers and when larger the peeling red bark and gnarled stems are very attractive. Being a Mediterranean native a sunny position will be selected for it.

From a Loire Valley grower we chose a couple of climbers: evergreen Honeysuckle Lonicera henryi Copper Beauty and Clematis viticella alba luxurians. One of my favourites, C. ‘Alba Luxurians’ is covered in flowers from mid-summer to late autumn. Its white blooms are tinged with mauve and have a greenish tips. It is a member of the viticella group of clematis and as such it shows good resistance to the dreaded clematis wilt. As with all the late-flowering clematis, pruning is easy. You simply cut back the stems to a pair of strong buds 15-20cm above ground level before growth begins in early spring. This pruning technique makes late-flowering clematis useful for training into shrubs, trees and climbing roses as the clematis growth is removed each spring and so never becomes too much of a burden on its supporting plant. The other is an absolutely gorgeous evergreen Honeysuckle with large, shiny deep green foliage that is bronze when young. Copper Beauty produces sweetly scented copper-yellow flowers throughout summer followed by black fruits in autumn. It has been suggested it is good to plant with Clematis armandii and as we have one of these we will consider this as an option, but we also have spots for it in the front and against the walls of the log cabin.


One final plant to mention from the half dozen I have yet to tell you about; on our way out of the show, when we were overwhelmed, dazed and venerable, we came across the stand of Tropique Production, who specializes in hardy but exotic looking plants like Hedychium. The Ginger Lilies are among the most exotic looking herbaceous plants you can hope to grow in a British garden. Great thick, creeping, ginger smelling rhizomes send up ‘canes’ with bold, alternate leaves in two ranks, around the beginning of April.
No Hedychium is a straightforward hardy perennial right across the UK. On the other hand, none are out-and-out heated glasshouse subjects and this is a toughie. Pink V is delightfully scented hybrid from Tom Wood in Florida, with apricot coloured flower spikes and has already been planted next to our Dining Island where we can appreciate it as we eat. It will need feeding and plenty of water in the growing season and this first winter I shall protect the crown.

Tired, broke, but happy, we drove home down the motorway and had no difficulty filling up with fuel at a service station close to our junction. When we arrived we discovered someone had stolen the potted tree fern from our front garden. Serves us right for having too much fun, I suppose. Dicksonia antarctica is back on the wish list.

French Regional Gardening at election time

Today was Regional Election Sunday. Chatting to locals it seems that half the people do not vote in the regional’s, arguing that they do so for the European, Presidential and Parliamentary elections and of course for the local mayor. But the town square was crowded today with people discussing politics in the cafe, at the baker, the grocery shop and outside the church. Preparations for this afternoon’s important boules competition added to the sense of carnival and as we walked the dog through the town a brightly coloured bicycle race poured down the main street.

In France there are three levels of local government: the commune, the department and the region. It is with the regions that the real power now lies following recent attempts at decentralisation. The region of Le Centre holds the purse strings and local mayors, for all the considerable respect they are given, have to go cap in hand to ask for cash for local projects.

Having left France for England before her 21st birthday, Chantal has never voted in France so we were ignorant and quite excited about the process. We have been asking everyone we know to tell us how it works and this had led to some delightfully animated conversations over the past week or two. In the end she took her voting card (in her maiden name) down to the Salle de Fête, fighting through the Sunday morning crowds to the voting hall. Each main candidate is represented by a sheet of paper indicating his name and those on his party list. Voters pick a selection of these sheets together with an envelope. They then disappeared into a booth where, hidden from view, they place the leaflet of their preferred candidate’s team in the envelope and present it to the officials sat at the table with the voting box. Next Sunday they will do so all over again for the two or three candidates remaining in the race.

Daphne laureola

Daphne laureola - native shrub of France

As a foreigner, I stayed outside with the dog, shaking hands with all the people we knew and complaining that the poodle and I were excluded from the vote. After all that excitement we headed off to the woods, me to hunt for flora and the poodle to chase the fauna. We found several wild Daphne shrubs amongst the trees, while the dog amused herself with a hare, a deer and several pheasants.

Daphne laureola is an undemanding evergreen shrub, ideal for dry soil in shade and an excellent backdrop for Hellebores and Snowdrops, which flower at around the same time. The slightly fragrant lime-green flowers are a god-send for early bees, much less showy than many Daphnes, but very welcome all the same. It grows wild on the greensand ridge near Ampthill in Bedfordshie and, we have discovered, on limey-clay in the centre of France. The list of plants coping with these conditions is not large, so a plant like this is very welcome. Plants tolerating the same conditions inevitably flower in the spring, before the trees take all the light and while there is still some moisture in the soil. I often plant Forsythias under conifers, especially the French variety Marée d’Or (Gold Tide), which grows only 60cm tall but 2m wide. This and many other fine Forsythia varieties were produced in Angers in the Loire Valley, the results of a breeding program involving exposing the plants to radiation. I gather this was deliberate, rather than an accidental leak from the local nuclear power station!

Forsythia Gold Tide - Maree d'Or

Forsythia Gold Tide - Maree d'Or

Another standby for such challenging conditions is the Flowering Quince, or Chaenomeles. C. japonica and speciosa are Japanese and Chinese plants respectively, while Chaenomeles x superba is a hybrid between the two. These spiny plants come in a range of colours – shades of white, pink and red – and in heights from groundcover to 3m or more. They can be trained up a shady wall, shaped into a security hedge or allowed to ramble at the base of trees The Chinese use the fruits medicinally to assist blood circulation and relax muscles, having dried and sliced them after harvesting; we use them in jam.

Back in the woods again and we come across a deer that had been hiding in the undergrowth. The dog goes haring off in hot pursuit while I find myself in the middle of a huge clump of Solomon’s Seal. I have always considered this to be a rather choice plant, to be grown in the shade with other spring flowering herbaceous gems like Dicentra and Corydalis. There are a number of different species of Polygonatum and I make a note to return to this spot, take photographs and try to identify the plant. Nearby there are patches of Lilly of the Valley, Muguet in French, the flowers of which are sold by gypsy children in the market square for the 1st May.

Solomon's Seal

Solomon's Seal

Gardens in France tend to have trees so knowledge of shade loving plants is important. Our own garden suffers in places from the shade and dryness created by neighbours’ conifers and we have walls along two boundaries. One of them, we discovered, has been built in such a way as to steal a metre of garden from us along its entire length, requiring expensive correction at some stage. The French are not above taking the occasional liberty when backs are turned. While the walls create a little shade, the biggest shade challenge is also a delight: our two massive, one hundred and fifty year old Sequoias.

Sequoias are touchy-feely plants: they have soft, spongy, red-brown bark which would turn the most serious of you into a tree-hugger in the time it takes to open a bottle of Touraine. Guests at our B&B have complained about the brambles at the base which discouraged close inspection of the trees, so I have had to get out with the strimmer and clean them up. Later, when time and money allows, I plan to build a deck which will be cut to the shape of the trunk so that we will be able to sit with our backs against it and look up into the heavens through its branches. The trees are a magnet for wildlife; I have installed a lovely Japanese granite water bowl for the birds, insects and dog to drink from and gradually I am planting closer and closer to the base.

Our students’ geographical diversity has added an extra dimension to our gardening. We now have a large group studying the RHS Certificate in Horticulture and a few on the Certificate in Garden Design, all responding to our teaching with experiences of their own. Talking about shade loving plants brings comments about gardening in Canada, the USA, Australia, France and all over the UK which enhances our knowledge and excitement for the subject. With gardening, you never stop learning.

Winter garden dreaming

In my last article for the monthly magazine Hertfordshire Countryside, I allowed a smug comment about our mild weather to creep into the text and was rewarded, a few days later, by six inches of powder snow and temperatures down to minus 12 degrees C.  The distances I travel to visit clients have increased enormously since the days when I was based at a Hertfordshire garden centre, so observations of that sort will be kept to a minimum from now on, in the interests of road safety.

These visits see me gardening in an ever increasing variety of climatic conditions: a trip to Cornwall in January was swiftly followed by a garden in the Sologne region of forests and lakes of central France; in a few days time I will be in the Dordogne to help turn a muddy field into a glorious garden for an English ex-pat family.

Frosted Hellebore

Frosted Hellebore

While growing conditions are different at each of these properties, my teaching involves me in the gardens of students from around the world. We have one who lives at 6,000 feet in Colorado Springs, where there are frosts for 200 days of the year. Other challenges include low humidity, fluctuating temperatures, bright sunlight, heavy calcareous soils and drying winds, which often restrict plant growth more than low temperatures. Another student studying garden design with us is currently living in semi-tropical Australia. I am learning as much as I am teaching these days.

Our own garden is still nowhere near completed so perhaps I can be forgiven for dreaming about how it could be. No longer do we have teams of landscapers at our disposal, keen to help out the boss when work is slack. Now, if I need a patio or a new lawn, I have to either lay it myself or pay a landscaper to do it for me, just like any other homeowner. Unlike our clients, I will not be witnessing the creation of an instant garden and this time it is likely to take us several years to sort out. Perhaps that’s how it should be.



Many times on the pages I have suggested that if there is not much in the way of flower or interest in your garden at a particular time of the year you should take a look around a garden centre or nursery to see what plants will fill the gap.  In our last garden I used to make a point of counting the flowering plants over the Christmas / New Year holiday and could normally find a dozen or two species. This year we had just two plants flowering outside – Jasminium nudiflorum and variegated Skimmia Magic Marlot – and a couple of Camellias in the unheated, north-facing conservatory. There were a few berries too, from Pyracantha and a Holly planted in the shade of our ancient Sequoia, but this lack of colour and interest must be addressed with some urgency.

One plant I miss from our English garden is Sarcococca. I planted one close to patio doors where its sweet scent could be enjoyed for many months over the winter. We had it hidden behind a black stemmed bamboo so that visitors could smell it but not see it without a bit of effort. Sarcococca or Sweet Box is amazingly easy to grow and thrives even in shade. A suckering evergreen shrub, it comes in a number of varieties from Sarcococca confusa, the largest at up to 6ft tall, to diminutive Sarcococca humilis. Our plant was S. hookeriana var. Digyna, tidier and with pinkish flowers on an elegant little bush. As a Chinese native I have mentally reserved a place for one in our Oriental Garden.


Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill’

Fragrance is one of the benefits of many winter flowering plants; our potted Camellias sasanqua and grijsii are both delightfully scented and give pleasure to anyone coming to the front door. A favourite scented plant I have yet to own is Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, ‘Peter Smithers’ or the similar ‘Penwood’. While my heart says to go for the first, the other two are more reliably evergreen and equally perfumed. Any of these will satisfy me however and I trust one will be planted here before too long. I have a Daphne mezereum in the garden but, as so often happens, the plant has been grow in a nursery field and potted before sale, resulting in damage to the root system that prevents it thriving. The scented purple-pink flowers of this European shrub are a joy at this time of the year but I have been singularly unsuccessful in growing it so far.

We already have a fine Witch Hazel, Hamamelis x. intermedia Arnold Promise which, while not flowering for Christmas did not keep us waiting long. H. x. intermedia is a cross between species from China and Japan and this variety was bred in America by the Arnold Arboretum in 1928. The incredibly fragrant, bright yellow flowers appear just a few weeks before Forsythia and so can be thought of as providing a kick-start to spring.  It would be nice to also grow one of the red flowering cultivars and of these Diane perhaps the best.

Iris unguicularis

Iris unguicularis

We have planted a selection of bulbs and both Snowdrops and Winter Aconites are ideal for early flower. Snowdrops spread rapidly and the gardens around the old mill at Chabris have thousands growing in the lawns. Iris reticulate and unguicularis can be relied upon for winter flower while some of our Daffodils also begin to flower in February.

The list of “missing” plants I dream about includes some common plants like Mahonia media, a plant I rarely fail to specify for the gardens of my clients. Again scented, again yellow, I like the story about the naming of the three Mahonia varieties Faith, Hope and Charity, bred at the Royal Gardens, Windsor were I worked under Hope Findlay.

Chaenomeles, the flowering Quince, is commonly grown here but has yet to make an appearance in our garden. With more than 70 varieties to choose from I shall be looking for something out of the ordinary, perhaps Cameo or Geisha Girl in peachy-pink, Lemon and Lime with pale green flowers or C. ‘Toyo-nishiki’ which displays flowers in red, white and pink variations and has large fruit ideal for jam making.

Helleborus hybrid

Helleborus hybrid

I find it hard to accept that we grow no Hellebores and jealously eye flowering plants in neighbours’ gardens. We have always had Hellebores in our gardens, either H. orientalis, the Lenten Rose, or H. niger, the Christmas Rose and used to carefully select seedlings to maintain interesting colours. Now hybrids exist between many species and the range of colours, leaf forms and flowering times has expanded along with their popularity. With plants selling for up to £25 over here I shall be hoping to buy one during a UK trip or beg for seed from a local gardener.

So many people tell me that they rarely venture into their gardens during the winter and this seems such a shame. Those who brave the cold weather should be given some encouragement and reward for doing so in the form of beautiful garden plants. I hope this review may inspire you to add extra colour and scent to your own garden.