New Year, new season

Ahtirrhinum Purple Twist

Antirrhinum Purple Twist

Soon after the New Year celebrations had died down and well before we deposited the empties at the bottle-bank, we were sowing seeds for the new gardening season. Up in the loft under the skylight, where we keep the heated propagation unit, we now have trays full of seedlings of Salvia farinacea Victoria, Petunia F1 Reflections Mix (Suttons Seeds) and Red Hot Pokers. I always used to think of Antirrhinums as being something rather old-fashioned but have been won over by a new variety – Axiom mixed, which we have grown for three years running now and Purple Twist, both from T&M.

Foxglove Silver Cup

Foxglove Silver Cup

We have grown different varieties of Foxgloves each year to plant in the shadier parts of the garden, particularly under the Sequoia, and have selected yet another from this year’s T&M catalogue: Silver Cup, with soft hairy silver foliage and white flowers. You will have noticed a few perennials in this list and we will be sowing many more; a fabulously inexpensive way to populate a new garden.

Our seed propagation unit is a little bit of an embarrassment which I hope never to have to show our students or gardening friends, but it does work. It consists of a little polythene tent erected on a trestle table under a Velux window in the loft. I have added supplementary lighting made from spotlights reclaimed from the kitchen when that part of the house was remodelled. A foil heating unit covered with sand warms the base of the seed trays to give good temperatures and moist air for germination. It’s all a bit Heath Robinson – System D, as they say in France – but I recently read an advertisement for a complete growth room offered for €10 on a web site where people sell unwanted goods. This unit would cost around €800 when new, being the sort of equipment people use to grow Cannabis in their spare bedrooms, so I imagine the price was an error. You never know your luck however, so I have emailed the seller in the hope of acquiring a much more sophisticated unit. When I look back at the huge computer-controlled growth rooms we built when we ran a commercial seedling and young plant nursery in the UK many years ago, I cannot help but smile. Of course, we were also buying Begonias in 100,000-seed containers in those days!

Nerium oleander

Oleander

Last week we decided to combine a food shopping trip with a visit to a local garden centre which was advertising a sale. Amongst other things – seed compost, for example – we came back with two Oleander bushes and a large variegated Hebe: all at €2 each. I was delighted with these purchases, but you do have to be careful: I have noticed more than a few Vine Weevil infected plants offered as “bargains” in such sales. The Oleanders are now in the unheated conservatory waiting for warmer weather. They’ll be great in big pots on the terrace this summer.

My big project for this year is the potager behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. The four raised beds in oak are now built and with spare soil left over from these beds I intend to build another alongside a neighbour’s wall. This time we will construct it from woven poles of Hazel, secured with pegs of Robinia, all to be cut from the surrounding countryside. Slowly the garden is developing and I am particularly pleased to deal with this area as it is seen from the main window of the classroom. Already locals are asking why I did not build a French Garden with beds of Box. Firstly of course, it is a French garden, but medieval in style rather than renaissance. Secondly, pests and diseases of Box are threatening this fundamental feature of French gardens and I have no wish to deal with the issue when, inevitably, it arrives chez nous. Three Peaches have been planted, along with an English Bramley apple and a cutting of a hybrid berry from my old Granny’s garden. In addition I have acquired a large collection of vegetable seeds from Sutton’s and T&M seeds ready to sow when conditions are appropriate; I’m beginning to get very excited.

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Loire Valley Gardens – the May 2013 tour

Bouges le Chateau - flower and vegetable garden

Bouges le Chateau – flower and vegetable garden

The weather was not as kind as it might have been for this month’s tour; in fact, it has been the wettest and coldest May in France since the 1920’s.

My Australian guests were made of tough stuff however and we enjoyed a week of visits to eleven fine gardens across the Loire Valley region.

Each month our tours are slightly different, reflecting seasonal variations and the interests of our guests. For May 2013 our program featured a wide selection, including a couple new to me.

Wisteria at Cheverny

Wisteria at Cheverny

Sunday: Bouges le Chateau and Chateau de Chenonceau

Monday : Chateau de Cheverny, Blois and Les jardins de Roquelin

Tuesday : Prieure d’Orsan and Drulon

Wednesday : free day

Thursday : Chateau du Rivau and Chateau de Villandry

Friday : Chaumont Festival of Gardening

maytour2003 018There is always a plant of the month and this year the honour must go to Iris germanica, which were flowering well in more varieties than we could count, in every garden we visited. Peonies were also in flower, especially Tree Peonies, although many blooms were ruined by the rains. Another plant holding up well was Viburnum plicatum Mariesii, draped in stunning white lacecap flowers.

Chateau de Rivau

Chateau de Rivau

Each morning we set out from Chabris to explore for the day, stopping off at a village restaurant for a great lunch. The Chaumont lunch will be hard to forget however, sheltering from the cold rain under a parasol and a lime tree, eating from the festival pasta bar. It was good pasta, but we were so cold! On the other hand the meal at Rivau was excellent – a variety of wonderfully presented and tasty home grown salads. I also opted for a Chinon wine tasting while chatting to the owner of the chateau about the garden.

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.

It’s not Spring ‘til the old lady says so.

I have been consulting the old folks in the village; “I’ve never seen the river so high”, I tell them. “The last flood was in February 2002”, they inform me, and go on to recount the tales of the River Cher flooding the park and all the houses on the low ground, regularly sealing the town off from the civilised world for a week or more. At the moment it is 45cm from ground level at the Ganguette, where they hold the weekly dances throughout the summer: I’ve measured it. Huge logs float down-stream in the churning, muddy waters and areas where we would normally walk the dog are impassable. We’ve had plenty of rain, but it’s the mountains to the south which are providing much of the flood waters and at the moment they are still rising.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Flowering in our garden now in Chabris, central France.

I have been able and prepared to do a little work outside in January and February in an attempt to stop the gardening tasks piling up and overwhelming me later in the spring, but I am under no illusions – it’s not Spring until the old folks say so. I am champing at the bit to get a new lawn sown but it is far too cold and wet for that. I have an area of sloping ground near the swimming pool to level, a raised vegetable bed to construct and a security gate to fix. All are on hold for the time being. Pruning and weeding has started and I am pleased with the progress I have made in tidying the place up. Upstairs in the loft, in a Heath-Robinson propagation unit I have installed under the skylights, I already have my first batches of bedding plant seedlings up and soon ready to prick out.

The poor weather and the cultivated space that will eventually become a lawn, both conspire to prevent me looking around the garden as often as I would wish but plants are growing and on my last hunt I discovered Snowdrops, Heathers, Hellebores and Witch-hazel in flower. It’s always a good idea to site winter flowering plants close to the house, so that they can be seen when it is inclement. I tell you this and it is a perfectly reasonable statement to make, but of course, in a perverse gardener’s logic, I place them away from the house to encourage me to search them out whatever the weather conditions.

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Although work for the Garden Design Academy and our many and various web sites keep me busy enough, I am using the quiet time of the year to get to know my fellow French gardeners. Having joined the APJRC, an association made up mainly of chateaux owners who open their gardens to the public, I am attending monthly tutorials led by the “names” of the French gardening world, who are teaching the rest of us the secrets of their art. Last month the lecture was given by a garden designer famous for her traditional and very formal chateaux gardens, Alix de Saint Venant, owner of the château de Valmer. I found her to be extremely competent and an excellent communicator, who discussed the design of large geometric gardens, making a number of interesting points about form, shape and perspective. She also talked about the choice of plants, trees in particular, when your vision of a garden includes the features the grandchildren will have to deal with when they, in their turn, take over the property. It is very different world view to that of the majority of my clients, who want a garden to look good immediately and may well have moved on in ten years’ time.

The lecture was held around the ancient dining room table and in the park of the Château de Chevilly and was punctuated by a series of interruptions from journalists and local dignitaries, eager to catch a glimpse of the famous lady. I enjoyed the lecture, the tour and the mid-day meal enormously and was delighted to talk gardening in French with the group. Eager for more, I have signed up for the next session at the Jardins des MétamorphOZes, where Patrick Genty, the former head gardener of Chaumont-sur-Loire, will be talking to us about the use of natural and “alternative” materials for garden structures and getting us out into the garden to harvest material and assemble some. Having a sculptural project in mind for one of our Sequoias, I am keen to hear more. We have been asked to bring seceteurs and a number of other tools but my Felco’s have disappeared; having owned that pair since 1990, I’m very upset.

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

The big joy of our gardening life at the moment is our Amaryllis (Hippeastrum), which we have been watching come into growth and bloom since December. Fantastic flowers are produced from a large bulb which we had earlier allowed a dormant period in the garden shed. Four huge, translucent and lightly perfumed blooms sit on the top of a thick flower stem, two foot tall if it is a day. It makes quite a sight on our dining room windowsill where it seems very at home in light but cool conditions.  It’s a south american plant of 90 species (I’d always thought it was south african, but that’s just the bulb Amaryllis belladonna) which the Dutch have been hybrizing since the 18thC.

Just Pear-fect!

I have only rarely grown Pear trees and never with much success, so I was amazed to discover when we started to explore our adopted village in central France, that Europe’s largest private pear collection was held in a plot near the vineyard. The grower in question has amassed nearly 650 different varieties, some of them on the edge of extinction and trained them in 20 different forms. His apple trees number over 300 and he has many other fruit trees besides. https://i0.wp.com/pomologie.com/oc/belghort/1852/p176poirewilliam.jpg

A botanical artist of some considerable talent (the illustartions here are not his), whose art is much sought after, his collection started as 60 potted plants which he was meticulously painting, recording them throughout the seasons. The cultivars grew, as these things do, and he eventually set up his orchard on its present site. The work involved in their care is huge and he has taken the decision to reduce the collection to more manageable proportions. I am one of a few who have benefited from this decision, having acquired the following for my own garden:

  1. Belle et Bonne d’ézée
  2. Beurré d’Amanlis
  3. Beurré Bretonneau
  4. Beurré Dubuisson
  5. Duc de Bordeaux du Mas
  6. Graft Holtke
  7. Mouille bouche d’été
  8. Olivier de Serres
  9. Starkrimson Clapp’s Rouge

https://i2.wp.com/pomologie.com/oc/belghort/1851/p372poires.jpg

Many of these are local or ancient varieties and all are beautifully trained espaliers in “U”, “Double U” “Palmette Verrier” and single cordon forms. We are very excited to have acquired these specimens and proud to be offered the opportunity to cultivate and preserve them. We will be carefully nurturing them through their first couple of seasons after the shock of their transplantation and continue to prune them to maintain their current elegant forms. My next job is to set up a system of support wires and rods, to ensure they are securely held into the shapes they have been trained to.

Other gardening tasks have kept me very busy this autumn. I was keen to lift the Cannas before the frost and have them now stored in the log cabin for the winter. The five varieties we bought this year have performed well, some putting on huge amounts of growth to form large clumps, while others have flowered but remained relatively small. They have all been lifted, cut back, divided where necessary and potted in leaf-mound. They will be kept ticking over in the heated cabin until it is safe to bring them out again next year. Not having a greenhouse these days, the cabin is being increasingly used for overwintering plants, although we keep hardier specimens, young shrubs and the like, in the north –facing conservatory.

We have a number of Dahlias and sometimes we lift them but other years we don’t. A small white one certainly needs moving from the front to the rear, where it can join other new plants in the White Border. A huge orange variety suffered last year, from damp as much as cold and I think this will be lifted for the winter.

Autumn is a great time for planting, but also for moving plants that have not performed well in certain spots or which are being swamped by more vigorous neighbours. I have replanted half of the Gaillardias, which were sown this year and have flowered well, so that other parts of the garden are brightened up next year. Other seed raised perennials like Gauria lindheimeri and Penstemon are also on the move. F1 hybrid Wallflowers are looking very good in the patch of garden where I planted them out in the spring. I am gradually lifting these and spreading them around the garden to provide a spring display – although there is some flower evident even now.

A Hibiscus, on the other hand, has not grown at all well and has been lifted from under a Miscanthus and given a better position in full sun. No doubt other shrubs will also be repositioned in the next few weeks.

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’

The autumn is giving us a visual treat in the form of leaf colour, with our Cherry trees looking particularly good. Liquidamber is a feature of gardens and parks in the area and these too, depanding on variety, are looking amazing at the moment.

The first frosts of autumn 2012.

After a very mild period the warm air has rushed back down to North Africa or wherever it came from, leaving a vacuum to be filled by cold winds from the far north of Europe and Russia. The Mediterranean regions have been experiencing violent storms and rain in unreasonable quantities (“a month’s rain in an hour” and similar phrases are frequently heard on weather reports) confirming the wisdom of our choice of region to settle in. Not for us the extremes of other parts of France. In the meantime the east coast of the United States is being battered by hurricane Sandy.

Autumn colour from Rhus in a garden in Chabris, central France

The first frost last night touched some of the more tender plants and I have been out collecting pots from the garden and putting them under cover, either in the unheated conservatory at the front of the house or in the cabin in the back garden. Here, I have constructed a bench from an old cupboard door laid over a couple of desks, in front of a large, south facing window. Electric heaters should keep plants cosy at around 12°C over winter: ideal from Geraniums, Fuchsias, Salvias, Brugmansia, Abutilon and the like, of which we have plenty.

Our so-called hardy banana has been wrapped up in straw and fleece in an attempt to keep it alive out-of-doors. Time will tell if this was the wisest approach. It is also time to lift the Dahlias and Cannas to get them stored in boxes of leaf mould away from the cold for the season. Dahlias will often overwinter in the ground here – we generally leave Gladioli in the beds too – but I have also lost a few. Perhaps this technique of lifting and overwintering will ensure greater survival rates.

Thompson and Morgan have suggested in a recent newsletter that gardeners should be sowing seeds of perennials now, leaving them to germinate in a cold-frame. I shall have a look to see what packets of seed I might have and give this a go. I have collected Lilium regale seed as I did last year and have it in mind to sow a few ornamental grasses like Purple Millet, but I may have to fight off the birds feeding on the seed-heads! Our old conservatory should serve very well as a cold-frame.

Pyracantha berries sparkling in the clear autumn sun today.

It’s turning into a very good year for Pyracantha this year, with huge crops of berries in a range of bright colours on plants throughout the town. We have just one named hybrid in the garden, which I am patiently training along an ugly concrete boundary fence, but several which have arrived as seedlings thanks to the gardening efforts of wild birds. The photograph is of one of a pair in an abandoned garden in the square close to our house. The other was eaten by a camel when the circus came to town, but is recovering well!. Red, orange and yellow berried forms can all be seen in local gardens and it is often used as a thorny boundary hedge. Mixed berry colour hedges can look particularly attractive but some care has to be exercised when pruning to ensure they produce flowers and berries.

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.