French Christmas garden flowers and Gingko from seed.

It’s that time again; these days I tend to get fewer toys as gifts so while the kiddies are playing with theirs, I have taken myself out into the fresh air, a glass of Vouvray in one hand and a pen and paper in the other, to compile my ‘in-flower’ list for Christmas 2013.

This year is better than last, with 15 plants in flower on Christmas Day compared to 11 in 2012, but cannot compare to the whopping 31 plants seen in 2011. Those of you with larger, more established gardens will not be impressed, but I’m quite pleased. The error I continue to make is not to group some of these plants together, so that real floral impact is never really achieved: I need a winter garden.

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

The house is a riot of colour with the orchids in particular performing well. Out in the garden several herbaceous plants, grown from seed over the last few years, are also performing: Digitalis, Penstemon, Wallflowers and even Stocks have blooms in greater or lesser quantities. As you might expect, Helleborus nigra, the Christmas rose, is looking good in the bed by the front door. We finally bought a Mahonia media Charity last year and this has rewarded us with its first flower spike. Nearby, Jasminium nudiflorum is showing plenty of colour against the boiler-house wall.

Erica – white Heather

Less probable, Hebe Great Orme is covered in flowers and I found one yellow bloom on our Buddleja weyeriana. The dainty red climbing Rose Amadeus also has a couple of flowers. The white border offers a couple of plants: Erica Springwood White has masses of flowers while Viburnum burkwoodii is putting on a brave show with a handful. Over the other side of the garden our Arbutus, severely cut back by the cold winter of a couple of years ago, has formed a nice evergreen bush with plenty of lily-of-the-valley style blooms. Viburnum tinus, bought last year to hide the bins in the front garden, is covered with flat heads of flower.

……….

Our son graced us with his presence over Christmas and we took the opportunity to pack in a bit of tourism, visiting amongst other things, the wonderful apothecary museum in the 16th century hospital buildings at Issoudun. Outside in the gardens the ground beneath a tree was covered in fruits, which at first I took to be Mirabelle plums. On closer inspection the tree turned out to be a Gingko, beneath which was a huge quantity of off-yellow fruits. I took out a plastic bag and greedily began removing the stone seed from inside the soft, smelly fruit, quickly gathering a few dozen.

Ginkgo biloba is a tree whose leaves increase circulation in the brain. It is a popular herb in Chinese medicine and has been linked to improving memory and cognitive functions. The unique fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree make it a popular ornamental as well. In the autumn these turn bright butter yellow before falling but fruits are only produced on female plants. I have seen in excess of 50 cultivars listed and no doubt there are many more: not bad for a plant which was thought to be extinct until discovered by Engelbert Kaempfer in around 1700.

Ginkgo fruits - Issoudun

Ginkgo fruits – Issoudun

The germination of ginkgo is a little tricky, but there are a few tips that will increase your success. Freshly picked seeds are covered in a somewhat malodorous fruit. The ginkgo fruit contains small levels of urushiol, a skin irritant that is found in poison ivy and poison oak. No-one told me this and my hands were covered in blisters by the end of the day. Ginkgo biloba seeds have a long germination period and a tendency to pick up mould on the outer shell. Carefully cleaning the shells with a mild bleach solution will help.

Germination is encouraged by both stratification and scarification, so seeds are often left in pots of sand for the winter or put in the refrigerator. They are then either chipped with a sharp knife or filed with sandpaper to allow moisture to more easily penetrate the hard outer shell, before sowing in a well-drained compost in the spring.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

The joys of late summer

Hesperantha coccinea 'Major' or Kaffir Lily

Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ or Kaffir Lily

The clear, sunny mornings now have a distinct chill to them and while mid-day temperatures are well into the high 20’s, you cannot help but be aware, with a tinge of sadness perhaps, that summer is slowly drifting to an end and autumn is on its way. On the other hand the changing temperatures, dewy mornings and the shortening days are signals to a range of plants that it is time to get into flower. A selection of South African bulbs are doing well at the moment: white Nerines we grow in a pot in the white border, Crocosmia varieties in odd corners all around the garden, a big patch of Schizostylus, now Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ which has been slow to establish but is now producing flowers in good quantities. They seem to have enjoyed the extra moisture provided by this year’s spring weather, as so many Cape bulbs do. In my day, these were called Kaffir Lilies, but I expect this is politically incorrect now!

Gladiolus papilio

Gladiolus papilio

One of the joys of this morning’s tour of the garden was the discovery of another South African native: Gladiolus papilio flowering amongst a recently planted Euphorbia. I had forgotten it was there but love the effect of the subtle, drooping spikes of flowers in muted shades above the bright, stripped foliage of E. Ascot Rainbow. The slender buds and backs of petals are bruise-shades of green, cream and slate-purple. Inside, creamy hearts shelter blue anthers while the lower lip petal is feathered and marked with an ‘eye’ in purple and greenish-yellow, like the wing of a butterfly.

Garden Design Academy garden in August

Garden Design Academy garden in August

There is so much to enjoy in the garden at the moment and, dare I say it, I have more or less caught up with the weeding, so I have a little more time to appreciate it before the next group of garden design students come for a tour of Loire Valley gardens with me.

White garden blues

white Antirrhinum

white Antirrhinum

I created a white border along the west boundary of our rear garden, gradually hiding a concrete fence that I find particular offensive. Now this has become slightly wider and of a more definite shape as a result of installing a new, circular lawn this spring. It is an increasingly important part of the garden, leading the eye on towards the oriental garden, which now contains more than a few white plants of its own. Which is why I am so frustrated that despite all my best efforts, plants with flower colours far removed from white continue to show up. Mostly this is because of mislabelling; deliberate or accidental, I know not.

juneflowers 024

Philadelphus (Mock Orange) which flowered last month and now needs pruning

White Campanula emerges as conventional blue. The white Peony turned out to be pink, perfectly matching the pink Hibiscus which was also supposed to be white. Recently we have seen white Antirrhinums with a yellow plant amongst them and a lilac coloured Phlox which will need to be moved to another part of the garden this autumn.

A neighbour’s bright yellow Kerria has decided to pop up in our border this spring, a shocking contrast to the other spring flowering shrubs. It’s taken me three seasons to sort out the colours of the Lilies I planted in a weak moment and as I battle year after year to create this single-colour border I am beginning to wonder if it is all worth the effort. After all, that lilac pink Poppy looks nice enough and what’s wrong with Nigella plants which pop up just as easily and unexpectedly, even if the flowers are blue?

White Lilac from May 2013

White Lilac from May 2013

Every so often however, a handful of plants come out together in a range of white and cream shades, gorgeous in the evening light – delicate, sparkling blooms, so often deliciously scented, and my faith returns.

Courson plant purchases and the latest Loire Valley gardens tour

Courson 2003

One of the plant stands at Courson 2013

Last Friday we travelled up to the leafy outskirts of Paris for our yearly pilgrimage to the Journées des Plantes de Courson, the bi-annual plant fair now in its 58th year. Many of the nearly 300 nursery stands took part in the American plant theme, so the range of plants on offer was slightly different to previous years. I was pleased to see that a plant currently looking lovely in our garden but native to Eastern North America, was given a Merit Award. Amsonia tabernaemontana is a blue flowered and long-lived perennial, forming an arching clump of green, willow-like leaves. Ideal for prairie-style planting I would think, we have it in a border close to Golden Hops and Tree Peonies.

A fine selection of Hostas

A fine selection of Hostas

As usual the variety of plants available to buy was almost overwhelming, but this year we limited ourselves to just a few bits and pieces to add to a garden which is filling up rapidly. Heucherella Solar Eclipse boasts beautifully scalloped, maroon-burgundy leaves with a lovely lime-green border. It’s a new variety of Heucherella – a cross between a Heuchera and a Tiarella. It forms a small mound of evergreen foliage with upright white flowers that bloom in spring and is ideal in shade. We thought we might try a new Hosta in a similar position and chose Big Daddy, with huge chalky-blue leaves that at maturity become cupped and grow into three feet tall clumps.

As always, David Austin was at the show to represent  UK growers.

As always, David Austin was at the show to represent UK growers.

For the sun I bought Salvia leucantha to replace one I left behind in our last garden in England. S. leucantha is an evergreen subshrub growing to around 1.2m in height, with narrowly lance-shaped leaves, white beneath, reminding me of a little Buddleja. The small white flowers have prominent arching velvety purple calyces from late summer to the first frosts. As with other Salvias, it is worth taking some cuttings to ensure it over-winters.

While Chantal was drawn to scented Pelargoniums from the National Collection holder, based not a million miles from our home, I had found a most marvellous climber, Actinidia pilosula, which I thought would be ideal hiding a downpipe on the sunny side of the house. It is somewhat like Actinidia kolomikta, having leaves variegated pink and white, but in this case the leaves are longer and narrower and it has lovely pink flowers. A smashing plant!

Another colourful stand at  the Journées des Plantes de Courson

Another colourful stand at the Journées des Plantes de Courson

Gradually I am meeting many of the more interesting characters of the French horticultural industry but at a lunch with the organisers and judges I sat with Roy Lancaster and Paul Rochford, over for the judging.

It made a nice change to talk to a few English gardeners again!

Back to work, and I have a tour to lead, with Australians this time, visiting another ten gardens in the Loire Valley over a week. Most of the planning is done, including a couple of gardens new to me, but I have the final touches to put on my schedule before arrival time tomorrow afternoon.

Discovering new Loire Valley gardens

Prieuré D’Orsan

Prieuré D’Orsan, which kindly opened its doors for us.

Readers of the Garden Design Academy blog will have read that in a previous life I worked as a Royal Gardener at Windsor Palace.

For the last two weeks however, I have been teaching and touring with an active Royal Gardener: the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman.

Staying at the Academy for a residential course on garden design and CAD, he spent time with us both in the classroom and outside in the French countryside, studying the widest possible assortment of garden styles in the Loire Valley.

Mag.Betty

Magnolias were flowering in every garden we visited – Magnolia ashei ‘Betty’

The list of gardens we viewed this trip covered five out of the six departments (counties) of the Central region of France: Apremont and the Priory of Orsan in the Cher, Bouges in our home department of the Indre. To our north in the Indre-et-Loire we visited Chenonceau, Chatonnière and Villandry then Chaumont-sur-Loire, Cheverny and Plessis Sasnières in the Loire-et-Cher. Finally we travelled up to the Loiret to the gardens of Grandes Bruyères and La Source at Orléans.

Several gardens that opened their doors to us were closed to the public and despite a very late session we were exposed to wonderful displays of Magnolias, Cherries and other flowering plants. The variety of plants grown and the extraordinary skill of the garden creators were inspiring and we did not miss the opportunity to talk with garden owners and their staff whenever possible. We discussed and debated the designs we saw, considered imperfections and design solutions, looking at depth at the thinking behind the landscapes we walked through.

Apremont

The Chinese bridge at Apremont

Of the eleven gardens we visited this trip, three were new to me and all proudly declaring their English inspiration recommended to us by the association of parks and gardens for the region.

The chocolate-box village of Apremont is officially one of the prettiest in France and reminds me of some I have seen in the English Cotswolds. The gardens in the grounds of the chateau of the Duchess of Brissac, was the work of Gilles de Brissac in the 1970’s and is very much in the English style. A series of follies animate the scene – a Chinese bridge, a belvedere, a Turkish pavilion – in a garden inspired by Sheffield Park, Biddulph Grange, Sissinghurst and the English cottage garden. Attractive planting complements impressive landscape features resulting in a very pleasing scene. We were fortunate with the weather, which was bright and warm.

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères host an important collection of Magnolias which were just starting to flower amongst the last blooms of the winter flowering heathers. It was, regrettably, a little early for their other notable collection – flowering Cornus. We were guided around the woodland garden by the owner, Brigitte de La Rochefoucauld who, like her husband Bernard, speaks English beautifully. Theirs is a garden full of rarities and a wonderfully relaxing place to wander on a sunny day. Yet again, English landscapes come to mind easily here, perhaps Surrey this time, although a more French feature of clipped Box and Rose-laden pergolas is sited near the entrance and the house. The garden which today looks so peaceful and natural was carved out of the forest by the owners, who were assisted on occasions (as at Apremont) by some notable personalities of the golden age of landscaping: Russel Page and Tobie Loup de Viane.

Plessis Sasnières

Plessis Sasnières

The final recommendation was for Plessis Sasnières, which was hosting a visit by a coach load of garden designers from Russia when we arrived. The late season did not contribute to the visit but it was still a pleasure to stroll around the garden in the company of the family Labrador, who insisted I should throw a stick for him to chase all morning. I have seen pictures of the rich English herbaceous borders but we had to content ourselves with the Magnolias and the uncluttered design of this attractive landscape. Rooted in the French countryside it is nevertheless very English in tone and has been open to the public since 1996.

Malus Royalty

Malus Royalty in the ornamental kitchen garden at Chenonceau

This was the last of the gardens in our program and at the end of the visit we drove back to Vierzon for the train to Paris and for my guest his flight back to Oman. After two weeks of study and touring we were sorry to see him go but pleased to have some time to recover before the next students arrive.

Salvias I have known

Yesterday was another garden tour day with clients, charming Americans this time, visiting the royal palaces of Chenonceau and Amboise, with a rather lovely lunch and a wine tasting thrown in for good luck. Not, it must be said, the worst day I have ever had!

Having a little time spare in the morning, I dropped in to a nursery near Montrichard, on the banks of the river Cher, which had been on my wish-list for some time.

Simier are growers of a very wide range of plants, mostly bedding, herbaceous and patio subjects, and work with a large number of local authorities. Their retail plant nursery is a joy and I immediately wished I had more time to explore. I did select a few plants: a purple Banana, Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’, a really exotic plant for our hot border, Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’, a pretty but invasive groundcover plant to act as a surround to the swimming pool shower, and two Salvias.

Salvia uliginosa

I have always liked Salvias and in England had a little collection grown in raised beds around the patio. Only one of these, Salvia uliginosa, the unfortunately named Bog Sage, followed us to France. It has wonderful, clear light-blue flowers which rock from side to side in the slightest breeze and are attractive to Bumble Bees. Bought at an English nursery, Salvia argentia has hairy silver leaves arranged in a ground-hugging rosette. It has off-white flowers after the second year but these are enjoyed at the expense of the leaves, which at that stage become much less silver. For this reason, the flower spike is often removed, but I tend to leave the odd one or two and hope for seedlings later.

Salvia argentia flowers

I am delighted with our plant of Salvia microphylla “Grahamii”, acquired as a cutting from the local park. It survived its first very tough winter and is now a delightful bush, dotted with pink-red flowers and with foliage mildly smelling of blackcurrant. There is a white form planted en masse in a neighbouring village which I also have my eyes on: never trust a gardener!

Our original plant of Salvia Golden Delicious

From Simier I bought Salvia involucrata Bethenii, a Mexican plant which I had in my collection in the UK. It is an exotic-looking plant, with rose-like buds opening to wonderful pink trumpet flowers. I have planted it on the site of a Pittosporum which passed away over the winter and I am hoping for great things from it. The other replacement Salvia is S. elegans Golden Delicious, with bright, pineapple-scented yellow foliage and fire engine red flowers. I had a group of these here a couple of years ago but lost both the parent plants and a batch of rooted cutting when temperatures dropped to -26°C last spring. This plant has been given pride of place at the front of a new border, created after the installation of the swimming pool. Again, I have high hopes for it and can see myself buying many more Salvias for the garden.

Bank holiday gardening in the Loire Valley

Our Japanese Maple is enjoying the damp weather

The Bank holiday weekend has been wet, continuing the sort of weather we have been experiencing for some while now. After delighting in this much needed rain, we are all beginning to think enough is enough.

Undeterred, we decided to brave the elements and nip over to Azay- le-Rideau to check the route and the restaurants prior to our next Loire Valley Gardens Tour. Our first stop was the Chateau de La Chatonnière, tucked in a fold of countryside above the river Indre. It’s a lovely spot and a great garden; we took the opportunity on this quiet day to chat to Ahmed Azeroual, the famous head gardener of La Chatonnière who, since 1992, has been in charge of the creation and maintenance of this masterpiece. Ahmed came to La Chatonnière from Villandry, recommended by proprietor Robert Carvallo.. You don’t get a better reference than that!

La Chatonnière viewed from the countryside

Back on the road, we drove to nearby Azay to compare restaurants and then, having made our choice for our lunch stop later in the month, continued to Villandry to see if we could arrange for the Head Gardener to speak with our visitors – tricky, but not impossible, I was told. We collected guide books and other details but turned down a free visit in the pouring rain. The return drive home passes through one of the less salubrious districts of the city of Tours and a large amount of road works. An alternative route will need to be found but wow, what a great day we are going to have!

Our Magnolia Daphne is at its peak and also enjoying the rain. Probably the best yellow magnolia so far ceated was raised by a Belgian breeder (and wealthy brewer) Philippe de Spoelberch. It is a cross between ´Miss Honeybee´ and ´Gold Crown´

The following day the sun came out and I was delighted to be able to do some gardening again. I have been planting bedding and vegetables, weeding and clearing up after the swimming pool construction gangs. Revisiting the garden after an enforced break has been a real joy, with new flowers and foliage to admire at every direction. There are treats, as plants thought not to have survived the winter are clearly recovering, but also disappointments in discovering that some of them will not be with us this year. Such is life.

Choisya Aztec Pearl has proved to be much tougher than C. ternata. Shown here flowering in our garden with Euphorbia griffithii Fireglow

Delights are everywhere and it is all so exciting that I flit from one side of the garden to another, doing a little tidying here, some weeding there and planting up a patch of ground vacated by the loss of something else. In my travels I discover that one of our Magnolias is struggling, ravaged by Vine Weevil. After finding an adult on a leaf and a grub in the ground, both killed and gloated at, drastic action was called for. Fortunately I have the answer in a packet of Nemasys nemotodes in the drawer of the fridge, next to the yoghurts.

A creamy gunge of live beast killers is mixed with water and watered over the plants: I concentrated on Rhododendrons, Camellias, Azaleas and Magnolias all of which are particularly susceptible to Vine Weavil. I understand it takes around three weeks to be effective and then the nematodes, which are naturally in the soil in small numbers, fall back to normal population levels. Having had limited success with chemical controls last year I am eagerly awaiting the results of this intervention. May next target is Chafer Grubs, for which I have another Nemasys product.