Autumn colour, autumn harvest

Autumn has crept gently into central France, producing muted colours with fiery highlights rather than the dazzling displays of less mild years.

Some trees and shrubs dropped their foliage at the first sign of a frost while others, confused by the warm, wet spell that followed, have hung on for another month or more, before dropping in a desultory, half-hearted and uninspiring fashion.

Every now and then however, I am stopped in my tracks by a spectacular sighting of a single Gingko or maple tree, a whole bank of Rhus or Cotinus, or a patch of forest oaks. Then Camus’s line: “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, makes sense again.

Autumn colour is one of the great features of this season and in many countries a tourist trade has developed around its arrival. In our mild climate we are never treated to stunning displays like those in parts of the United States or China, extending over hundreds of miles and involving millions of plants, but we have our moments. Nearly one third of the land area of France is covered in trees, an area of woodland six times greater than those of the UK. When one of the great French woodland regions gets autumn colour just right, it is a sight to be seen!

Plane bark and autumn colour

In deciduous trees and shrubs the production of green chlorophyll drops away with falling autumn light levels, while other plant pigments contained in a leaf – yellow, orange or red depending on the chemical involved – are on the increase as plant sugars concentrate. A crisp, sunny autumn will produce the best leaf colours and we have hopes of a decent end-of-season display in this part of the world is this weekend, when fine weather is forecast. Already the days are superb, despite ugly conditions on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and we were out picking mushrooms in the woods this morning.

Berries, fruits and seeds are the other big feature of the season and this year I have been collecting some of our own to sow alongside those we are buying from the seed companies. More for fun than in any great hope of success I have sowed a pod of Lilium regale Album, which has rewards my efforts by producing seedlings in their dozens. Spurred on by this, I have since sowed Salvia argentea seeds and have a pod of Fritillaria imperialis on my desk awaiting its turn.

I am a great fan of allowing plants to self-seed but sometimes the results are disappointing, either not germinating or being ruined by my over-zealous weeding of the garden. We have had many successes however; Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings replaced an original plant which died after the first year, Verbena bonariensis is gradually establishing itself around one end of a sunny bed and many plants appear spontaneously in our gravel patio. As with outdoor cuttings, I often sow seeds I have harvested at the base of the parent plant, if only to be able to find them later. I am beginning to think that if I really want success I should be sowing in seed trays either in the garden or under cover, as I do with those I buy in packets. Some of the more simple bedding plants – Calendula, Opium Poppies and Nigella – do very well however, needing weeding out when they begin to take over.

Calendula - one of our more beautiful "weeds"

Our second delivery of packet seeds arrived today, this time from Suttons. These included a Banana, Ensete ventricosum, from their Eden Project range. I have only once, many years ago, had success with Banana and last years’ seeds (of E. glaucum) from Thompson and Morgan yet again failed to germinate. The species I have bought this time is African rather than south Asian and said to be hardier. Packets come with instructions to soak in warm water for 24 hours and I did this immediately, aware that they need to be sown at the earliest opportunity. I have found, by the way, a site “dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of the tropics in inappropriate climates” called Cooltropicalplants.com, which is amusingly written and full of sensible advice on a range of plants, including this one. I now understand that Bananas need temperatures of around 30°C to grow and I may not have provided this in the past. No criticism intended T&M!

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It’s Spring in central France: seed sowing and 700 Pear varieties

Spring is with us without a doubt and we were excited to hear that we may get some rain: we have not seen a sign of it in our corner of France in many, many weeks and the ground is dry. This certainly makes weeding easy and I have been taking the opportunity to spring-clean the garden for the growing season. New leaves and flower buds begin to show in the gardens and countryside as they come back to life and wildlife is responding – the garden is full of birdsong.

I have been up in the loft sowing seeds. So far these include the hardy Banana Ensete glaucum, which I hope to be able to grow and overwinter outside as a couple of others do in the village. Thompson and Morgan’s Flower Of The Year, Sweet Pea Ballerina Blue is finally in the propagator, having soaked the seed over night before sowing in individual pots. We like sweet peas but have yet to grow a really good crop – perhaps this year will be different.

For the kitchen I have planted cherry tomatoes and peppers; Suncherry is described as best in a greenhouse but will have to deal with a warm corner of the garden. We love cherry tomatoes, harvesting and eating them every day in the summer, with wine vinegar, salt and olive oil. I have the bush variety Sungold, to sow from seed, but also coming from Holland as grafted plants. I am looking forward to testing them to see the difference in performance. We have bought several hot pepper varieties, having discovered them a few years ago; I am not a lover of hot food but as with so many home grown vegetables and fruit, they are so much better than the shop-bought varieties. Inferno F1 is sown and two others await.

We are growing several Echinacea varieties in the garden now, so I thought it might be interesting to grow some from seed. We are trying T&M’s Magic Box this year and will see how we get on. A number of Garden Design Academy courses cover the growing of plants from seed but we are currently reorganising the menus to make it easier to find them all from the 70+ now on offer. New sections will include Home Gardening, Parks and Recreation courses and General Horticulture.

A change of subject: during our morning walks with the dog we stop to chat with many people we meet along the way: in the street, on their doorsteps and in their gardens. During one such encounter we were invited in to look at the plot of a man pruning his fruit. It turns out he is an internationally famous botanical artist and grows nearly 700 pear varieties (along with a couple of hundreds apples, a dozen cherries……the list goes on). His pear collection is the largest in private hands and people come from around the world to see them. Central France continues to delight and surprise!