Cuckoos, spring blossom and the Cheverny plant fair

Magnolia stellata in the white border at the Garden Design Academy

People have been telling me for ages that the cuckoos have arrived but now I can report that they genuinely have returned to the woods around Chabris. Last Friday was our first sighting (hearing?), within the range of arrival dates we have been noting since we moved to central France.

The cuckoos tend to bring the warm weather with them and it has been very warm these last few days, with temperatures in the shade a full 10°C above normal. Apricots, peaches, and cherries are all in flower in the gardens and here and there deciduous Magnolias, in colours ranging from purest white to deepest purple, can be seen in many gardens, including a M.stellata smothered with flowers in our own. Visiting the plant fair at the Chateau de Cheverny over the weekend, we photographed a stunning yellow variety called Magnolia (acuminata x. denudata) ‘Elizabeth’ bred by Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and named after a benefactor, Elizabeth van Brunt.

Magnolia Elizabeth at the Fete des Plantes at the Chateau de Cheverny

Having a young yellow hybrid tree already we resisted the temptation to buy this, but did come back with a nice handful of plants. Tiarella Spring Symphony is one of the new hybrids with highly attractive leaves and improved flowers. This repeat flowering, clump-forming variety blooms in spring, producing 15cm spikes densely packed with pink blossoms. Its deeply cut foliage is compact, with black markings along the midrib. Tiarellas are at home in moist woodland environments and we hope it will be just perfect under the Sequoia. I should have bought half a dozen really, to form a ground covering group.

Tiarella Spring Symphony

Our left-hand bed will need a complete redesign once the swimming pool goes in, and we thought Arundo donax Variegata would be ideal, adding vertical lines and an exotic feel close to the water. It was bought from the stand of the local horticultural college, who were not at all impressed that I offer courses to students via the internet! Calycanthus occidentalis, the Spice Bush native to the mountains of central and northern California, came from the National Arboretum Des Barres, who were offering all sorts of rarities for sale. I have never grown this shrub, but have seen it in a number of gardens and we look forward to having it in flower this summer.

Olivet nurserymen Piermant are specialists in Hydrangea and Viburnum and from them came evergreen Viburnum x globosum Jermyns Globe. A chance seedling of V. x globosum (V. davidii x V. calvum) found at Hillier’s West Hill Nursery, ‘Jermyns Globe’ is a large shrub, extremely dense and rounded in habit. White flower heads are followed by blue fruits, which persist until the following spring. Most gardeners will think it is a form of Viburnum tinus, so it should be a conversation piece. Our final plant is a very interesting find, Forsythia koreana Kumsun, a most unusual and unique form. While having familiar, golden-yellow flowers in early spring, it leafs out to reveal highly unusual, variegated leaves – an intricate network of decorative veins in the leaves that is extremely rare in nature and incredibly attractive. Since this leaf colour lasts throughout the entire growing season, it takes the ornamental value of forsythias into a whole new season – from the emergence of flower buds in early spring, through the luxuriant growth of summer, to the arrival of frosts in late autumn. Tim Wood, of Spring Meadow Nurseries in the USA discovered it while visiting Kwan-gnu-ng Arboretum and Sungkyunkwan University in Korea in 1999, since when it has been on trial with several nurseries.

Forsythia Kumsun leaves

The ‘fête des plantes’ was a great success with well over 100 exhibitors this year, raising money for Rotary Club good causes and attracting a good crowd of visitors on a gorgeous, sunny weekend.

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First day of spring? Let’s go to a plant fair!

Last year at the Cheverny plant fair

Today is the first day of spring and here in central France we were greeted by a crisp frost, swiftly followed by a gorgeous, sunny day. Time to start planning our gardening event diary, I think.

Spring gets off to a great start this weekend with both a Fête des plantes at the Château de Cheverny while, in the village of Cour-Cherverny around the corner, one of our favourite wine producers is holding an open day. Life doesn’t get much better! Cheverny has a page dedicated to its gardens on the Loire Valley Gardens web site.

Forsythia for the first day of spring

At the end of the month I plan to visit the Fête des Plantes Vivaces at Domaine de Saint-Jean de Beauregard in the Essonne department, 30 minutes south of Paris. I say “plan” because every year so far something has prevented me attending this, one of the major French plant fairs. More than 200 exhibitors will be showing their wares at the show and a series of lectures and conferences are to be held over three days. They even accept dogs on leads, so Pixie the Poodle can come. We have our tickets and nothing short of a national disaster will keep me away this year.

Something for nothing – residential courses – and plant cuttings.

Something for nothing always goes down well with clients, I find, and the Garden Design Academy has been attempting to provide just that this week.

Residential courses were the surprise success of 2011 and as a result we have been able both to reduce the price of the courses for 2012 and host them more often. There are five residential courses currently offered, compared to eighty home study courses, so there is great potential to create more if a demand becomes apparent.

The longest running is Design your own Garden, intended for amateur gardeners and originally held as evening classes in the UK, where I taught to up to forty students at a time at technical colleges north of London. This has transferred very nicely to our home in France, where it is held for much smaller groups of up to eight, as a “hands on” alternative to traditional garden design services. It is popular as a short activity holiday, combining the satisfaction of creating your own garden and considerable design cost savings, with a holiday in the Loire Valley. A variant offered for the first time this year introduced students to Fung Shui as an additional design tool, taught by our friend and Feng Shui expert Elizabeth Wells. Originally held in a renovated annex of the main house, it now has its own home in our superb log cabin classroom constructed last year, nestling under the 150 year old Sequoias at the end of the garden.

Inside the log cabin

Inside the log cabin classroom at the Garden Design Academy

The other course we brought with us from the UK supports professional garden designers and landscapers investigating CAD as a tool in their work. We have been using CAD since the 90’s and one of our employees was the first to gain acceptance to the Society of Garden Designers using 100% CAD drawings (although I don’t think the organisation realised what was happening at the time). While many of the older generation of garden designers feel threatened by the technology, most new designers were weaned on computers and taught CAD as part of their professional training. For those facing the decision and unsure of which way to turn, we offer CAD for Garden Designers which looks at all aspects of the subject rather than a single piece of software, allowing each designer to choose which system is right for them. Better informed, these potentially costly decisions are more easily made. Internet forums are full of discussions about software, hardware and presentation methods, and this course attempts to answer many of these questions. We also offer an overview lesson as a free module in our distance learning Certificate in Garden Design, our most popular home study course by far.

It was comments on the professional internet forums and requests from students which lead us to offer Site Survey for Garden Designers. Many designers feel they have been inadequately trained and prepared for this aspect of their work, so this two day course allows them to hone their skills and learn new ones. We get out in the garden, measuring and drawing challenging sites and noting the levels, heights and orientation using a range of equipment. We also consider hidden obstacles and existing plants, an aspect notoriously poorly undertaken by many professional survey companies. Last year a group of students stayed on to visit some of the châteaux gardens and the garden festival at Chaumont sur Loire. In conjunction with our B&B accommodation guided tours of the gardens of the Loire Valley have proved popular with guests from the United States, alongside English garden designers and day trippers down from Paris. These gardens are part of the reason we moved to the region and provide us with considerable stimulation and inspiration in our work as garden creators.

I have spent the last two days updating the Garden Design Academy web site with the details of these courses and have reduced the prices ready for the new season. Perhaps now I can get out and do some gardening!

Indian Bean Tree

Now is the time for taking hardwood cuttings but the suggestions by most gardening advisers do little to excite this gardener. Species recommended are normally the cheap and easy plants- Laurel, Forsythia, Philadelphus, Ribes and the like. But then I saw a line in an article suggesting we take hardwood cuttings of golden Catalpa and I started thinking: what else could I try? I have a chest-high Catalpa bignonioides – ‘Aurea‘ (Indian Bean Tree) in the garden but a superb specimen also grows in the local park on the banks of the river Cher. In flower this American native is a magnificent sight. References I have suggest taking cuttings in the spring but I shall make a point of trying hardwood cuttings this week and let you know how it goes. If anyone has any experience of this I would be pleased to hear about it.

Flowers

Ribes and Forsythia

Of course, although I have been quick to dismiss Forsythia, Philadelphus and Ribes, many beautiful varieties of these plants are available and well worth propagating, if only I can find the plants to take cuttings from. While there is a limit to the number of each plant we can grow in our own garden, I do like to give them as gifts and home raised plants are so much more personal than buying a present from a nursery. In the mean time I do have a small list of plants I would like to try, but resolve to be more open minded to other possibilities when I am out with my secateurs.

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.

Welcome to Spring!

Purple-leaved Plum floweiring in a Chabris garden

Purple-leaved Plum floweiring in a Chabris garden

20th March was officially the start of spring but the week before was wonderful in our part of the world. Every day while walking the dog you could see the progress of the season: great excitement at seeing the first Daffodil in flower, the next day a dozen of them were out and only a day later and they were everywhere

Forsythia flowering in a Chabris garden

Forsythia flowering in a Chabris garden

The same excitement as Nature gradually wakes up and buds and flowers of other plants open. In the countryside we have Violets, Cowslips, and Renunculus while in gardens the ornamental Plum trees are flowering alongside Chaenomeles (flowering Quince), Camellia, Forsythia and of course those Daffodils.

Daffodils herald the spring in Chabris

Daffodils herald the spring in Chabris

At home I have been frantically preparing and planting a border running along the boundary from the kitchen, past the Sequoias, to the end of the garden. We have a good selection of plants which I brought over from the UK, together with a few bought in France or donated by friends. I am keen to plant species which are not normally seen in these parts and if they are new to me as well, that is a bonus.

The hurry is caused by the advancing season; plants will be so much happier in the soil than sitting around in my makeshift nursery in the front garden. I have had to hand dig and create a new bed from a patch of ground which has been neglected for decades so progress has been slow but the results very satisfying.

The kitchen end now has a few herbs: Sage (with an attractive tricolor leaf), Chives found as seedlings in a pot brought from our garden in England, Bay, which is everywhere here, Rosemary bought at the local supermarket and Vervain, another UK seedling . We will need more, but it’s a start.

Beyond that I am planting in my favourite garden colour range: white, blue and pink, assisted by next doors white Lilac (about to flower) and a Philadelphus that was one of the few plants to survive the garden clearance.