Autumn in the Loire Valley

oct 001

Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

The circus has come to town: a sure sign that autumn has arrived. In the square behind our home a riotous collection of goats, lama, camels, long-horn cattle, geese and other creatures are incongruously dotted around the lawns of the Place de Foire, calmly awaiting the first show tonight, like the professionals there are. We can hear the music and the announcements of the promotional vans.

After a short, hot summer, autumn has been variously warm and wet or cool and wet, conditions which are driving vineyard owners to the point of despair. The grape harvest started in mid-October and depending on the variety, will continue in the rain for the next few weeks. This is going to be a challenging year to produce fine wine in the Loire Valley and I feel for the growers.

I have three weeks’ worth of residential garden design and CAD courses starting on Saturday and am desperate to get out and tidy up the garden before students start to drift in from around the globe. Our first Israeli garden designer arrives for a week of CAD training on Saturday, while a parks manager from the Sultanate of Oman will be with us at the end of the month for two weeks of study. We work a lot with garden professionals from Oman and I find their horticultural skills to be of a very high standard: I must get the weeding done!

Oct2013 013

Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

Despite, and in some cases because of the rain, there is still plenty going on in the garden. Yellow flowered Buddleja x weyeriana has been in bloom for months and shows no sign of wanting to stop. Salvia species like S. coccinea, S. patens, S. leucantha, S. elegans, S. microphylla, S. uliginosa and S. involucrata are all looking superb and I am taking cuttings of many of them at the moment for insurance purposes – some may be killed by a cold winter. Grasses are also looking good; we have several Miscanthus sinensis varieties, the majority in flower at the moment, while there are signs of autumn leaf colour on shrubs such as Rhus and Hamamelis. Anemones are showing well, especially Honorine Jobert in the white border and in the oriental garden the Colchicum Waterlily are in full flower. I know, Colchicum autumnale is a European native – I do things like this to see if you are concentrating.

oct 017

Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

Under the trees in the parks of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, both great and small, blankets of pink and white Cyclamen are in bloom but in the borders the gardeners are removing summer bedding ready to replace them with winter / spring flowering varieties. A great garden like Chenonceau must always look good, so the change-over brings out dozens of gardeners to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Sunday will be the last opportunity to see the gardens of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire; it closes its doors to the public on 20th October and reopens with two dozen new gardens in the spring. I shall be going with a group of garden designers to see how it has progressed since my last visit earlier in the summer. In the mean time we look forward to the 2014 edition, which will try to conjure up both the faults and the excesses of our time and the free, spiritual universe of eternal gardens, with the show theme: “Garden of the Deadly Sins”; expect to be challenged!

Sadly, because I am teaching, I will not be attending the plant fair at Courson, south of Paris this autumn, saving a great deal of money by missing a favourite plant-buying expedition. There will be other opportunities I have no doubt.

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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.

Loire Valley gardens – day 2

Our group exprores one of the Chaumont Festival gardens

As I write this piece, impressive quantities of rain, more like a tropical storm than anything expected in Europe at this time of the year, is flattening ornamental grasses and knocking the petals off the Poppies.

We have just finished making jam from the box of home-grown cherries harvested by friends of ours. They dropped around for a drink last night and offered the fruit as a generous and very welcome gift. We have made a dozen pots of jam, leaving the remainder for me to preserve in alcohol. The sad news is that one can no longer buy alcohol for preserving fruit from the village chemist, part of the French government’s attack on alcohol abuse; fortunately there are private stills all over town and homemade alcohol is not hard to come by!

You are never alone with a gnome!

Was it only a week ago we were at lunch under the trees at the Chateau de Chaumont sur Loire? It was another exciting day in an exciting week of visits, but quite different from the first. The International Festival of Gardens at Chaumont and the park and gardens of Chateau de Beauregard were our scheduled visits for the day. Twenty-six contemporary show gardens, a few barns and a park full of art and a new permanent garden which we did not have time to visit, awaited us at Chaumont. As usual there was much to talk about, gardens to criticise or praise and a whole host of ideas to bring back and adapt in our own gardens. There was so much to see that lunch was a sandwich snack, but no-one seemed to mind.

One of the colour-themed “rooms” at Beauregard

Beauregard was completely different: a vast park and arboretum to explore, but also an area of modern, colour-themed gardens. The chateau had the most amazing portrait gallery, depicting the history of France and it’s most notable personalities. Chantal’s Burgundy-themed evening meal was devoured with relish after a swim and a drink on the patio.

Plants on the move and Chaumont news

Herbaceous perennials – plants which live for several years but have soft growth which dies down in the winter – should be lifted and divided every few years to maintain their strength. It is often an opportunity to increase stock so that a single plant may become a group of three or more within a few years. We use this method of propagation, but we also lift and divide when we decide to move plants from one area of the garden to another. We use herbaceous plants as temporary ‘fillers’ between shrubs to give extra colour while the more permanent plants grow to size, moving them as the shrubs fill the space.

This year we have decided to construct a swimming pool for holiday guests and Garden Design Academy students. Its placement was the subject of much debate and we used it as a surveying and design exercise with a group of visiting garden designers and landscapers last year. The size and area having been agreed upon and a skilled constructor having been appointed, I have been left with the task of clearing the plants to allow work to start at the beginning of April.

Most of these plants are on the move

The site runs along one boundary, connecting the house with our log cabin lecture room. As none of the boundaries, buildings or features is parallel to each other, we have had to decide if we would install the pool perpendicular to the house, to the cabin or neither. With the advantage of CAD and a room full of design and construction specialists, it was soon clear that the way to proceed was at a right-angle to the cabin rather than the house. This leaves a border that narrows into the distance when viewed from the house, emphasising the length of the garden, an illusion popular with French garden designers at the time the house was constructed.

Asters looking for a new home

The bed has been planted for only two years or so but is already beginning to look established in places. It was also used as a nursery, a home for plants with no home and a place to root hardwood cutting. The design was beginning to show through the jumble however, before I started to rip it apart. I measured and pegged out the pool and its surrounding paving so that I could see what plants needed to be moved: quite a few. I started with the trees, of which there are far too many. The Clerodendrum trichotomum, acquired as a sucker from a local plant, took some lifting. Despite negative reviews from some American sources I think this is a beautiful tree, a native to Western China and named in honour of Paul Guillaume, a French missionary and naturalist in Central China. It has very fragrant, pretty white flowers in August. These are followed by outstanding and eye-catching, metallic-blue berries in autumn. The star of this bed in 2011, it has now been moved to the front garden.

A Liquidambar has been potted and may be given to gardening friends, but the Golden Catalpa is now in a pot on the patio, under-planted with yellow Crocus as it was when it was growing in the side bed. The trees out, I am now turning my attention to the herbaceous plants. Sedum spectabilis and Geums have now been lifted, divided and planted in another front garden bed, close to a relocated modern French shrub rose and established Delphiniums and Asters, the whole having a very English feel. Homes still need to be found for many more plants but I feel I have broken the back of the work now. In addition I have a collection of newly potted plants to give away to friends.

Chaumont 2010 - Garden Design Academy students hard at work

In the mean time I have had a number of invitations to gardening product launches and events. Unfortunately, everything seems to be arranged for 9am in central Paris and as no-one is paying my hotel bill and I am reluctant to get up for the 6am train, I am attending very few of them. I can tell you however, having turned down an invitation to the press launch, that the theme of the Chaumont Festival of Gardens for 2012 is “Jardins de délice, jardins de délire”. There is a note about this, and links to details of every festival since its beginnings in 1992, on the Loire Valley Gardens site: http://www.loirevalleygardens.com/chaumont_sur_loire.html

Our own Loire Valley Gardens study tour is beginning to attract bookings from as far away as Australia and details of the spring tour on 22nd -29th May can be found here: http://www.gardendesignacademy.com/Res_Loire_Gardens.html

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.

Too busy to garden?

This is a busy and exciting week, with a group of students staying here on a residential ” Design your own Garden” course, this time with a Feng Shui twist, featuring an expert in the subject, Elizabeth Wells, over from the UK.

Still I find time to do a little weeding and admire this week’s new flowers, a welcome break after several hours of lecturing in the classroom. A small tree of Clerodendrum trichotomum is one of the current highlights, covered in sweetly smelling flowers and sheltering a pink Dahlia at its base. Close by is a large clump of Aster novi-belgii ‘Schone Von Dietlikon’, compact, Mildew clear and attracting Butterflies and other insects.

By email another batch of new students have just signed up: Cottage Gardens, several for RHS Certificate Level 2 and for the first time, RHS Certificate Level 3, second part (Certificate in the Principles of Garden Planning, Construction and Planting). Courses are checked, burned to CD and posted with a covering letter, nipping out to do this and buy the bread for breakfast. We get through huge quantities of bread: I blame the baker, the fresh air and Chantal’s home made jam!

In the post a couple of new textbooks have arrived and need reviewing; these will have to wait until next week, when I plan to sit by the Mediterranean and read, but they look as if students might find them useful useful: Residential Landscape Architecture for the designers and Turfgrass Management for the parks people.

At lunch times, indoors mostly because of the uncertain weather, friends keep dropping in to meet the students and give us little gifts: golden Girolle mushrooms from the Sologne, where a friend has a farm rented out for hunting; perfect-looking Quinces from a local garden, the first walnuts of the season and an impromptu jam swap.

But there is work to be done and transport to confirm to take us all to the Chaumont Festival of Gardens (see earlier posts). Normally we drop in on a vineyard on the way back and I have just the one primed and ready to offer samples. There’ll still be time to garden, I am sure, although the circus has just arrived in the village square!

Last call: Feng Shui garden design – residential course in central France

We are all getting very excited as we prepare for the start of our Feng Shui garden design workshop; there has been interest from the USA, the UK, France and other countries, so we are looking forward to an interesting event. I’m worried about our own garden – will people like it, will they understand what I have tried to do, is it good Feng Shui? I shall just have to tidy up a bit more, hope the weather is good and trust they are kind.

There have been requests for more information on course content from some quarters, so I have prepared the following schedule to explain what students can expect over the week.

Some have talked about coming as a group so we are pleased to offer:

BRING A FRIEND – ASK FOR 10% DISCOUNT!


Design your own Garden

– with Feng Shui

Course schedule    – Sept 2011

Tuesday 13th     6pm:         Welcome drink and introductions.


7:00         Dinner

Wednesday.     8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30     Introduction to garden styles and design types. This session is intended to explore a range of concepts as a background to the subject and inspiration for thinking about your own gardens.

12:45         Lunch

2:00 -4.30    Afternoon off. We have many gardening and design books for students to look at but some will prefer a walk by the River Cher or a trip out to see the nearby sights.

5-6pm    Introduction to Feng Shui with Elizabeth Wells FFSA

7:00         Dinner

8:30    Chaumont Festival of Gardening slide show. 18 years of avant-garde garden design has produced nearly 400 “ground breaking”gardens.

Thursday     8:30         Breakfast

9:30      Leave to visit Chaumont Festival of Gardening for more inspiration from this annual event. The theme this year: “Gardens of the future or the art of happy biodiversity”. 26 gardens have been newly constructed based around this idea and these should provide food for thought when designing your own. Don’t forget to look at the park and the sculpture installations while you are here.

You make your own arrangements for lunch on site.

4:30        Return to Chabris (arrive approx. 5:30)

7:00         Dinner

8:30        Chaumont 2011 photos.

Friday         8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30    Requirements and solutions for each of the student’s gardens. The garden design checklist. Looking at a range of gardening problems is very instructive and often students change their minds about what they want after undertaking this exercise with the plots of the others. We also look at plans of gardens I have designed for some of my clients in the past – steal ideas or gain more inspiration.

12:45         Lunch

2:00 – 5.00    Feng Shui design workshop with Elizabeth.

7:00         Dinner

Saturday     8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30    We get down to drawing your new garden after talks on drawing techniques.

12:45         Lunch

2:00 – 5:00    Garden design work continues as you develop your own ideas for your garden.

7:00         Dinner

Sunday     8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30    Morning off

12:45         Lunch

2:00 – 5:00    Out together to visit another public garden after lunch. We like to go to somewhere different each time depending on the interests of the students and the time of year. We are considering the gardens of Chateau de Bouges, south of Valençay this time.


7:00         Dinner

Monday     8:30         Breakfast

9:30 – 12:30    We need to finish your garden design and the amount of time and guidance needed depends on each student. Includes a visit from Elizabeth to assist in Feng Shui “tweeking”.

12:45         Lunch

2:00 – 5:00    Planting plans.

7:00     Dinner.    The final meal with a chance to discuss the gardens that have been created and the last opportunity to ask questions before taking the plans home.


Tuesday 20th    8:30         Breakfast

9:30    Time to go home, taking with you the plan of your new garden and memories of a pleasant week spent in the Loire Valley.