The organised gardener

For once I am so organised. Christmas presents for the family were all bought in November and my seed order from Thompson & Morgan has just arrived. I really enjoy growing plants from seed. Each year I order them from the T&M and Suttons catalogues, buy a few locally and collect seeds from gardens and parks as I travel about.

This season’s purchases, as always, include many novelties and new varieties, together with old favourites I have had success with in the past and could not resist.

I am growing many more vegetables next year and that seems to be a general tendency. In our case, we grow them in spare corners in the front and back gardens, but also mixed in with flowers in the borders. I shall be constructing a new fruit and vegetable garden behind the Garden Design Academy classroom, just a small one, and have bought four beautiful raised bed kits in Loire Valley oak from a local sawmill for the purpose. This will be my Big Winter Job.

Tomato : Suncherry Premium F1 Hybrid  We always grow Cherry Tomatoes in the garden and in addition to the unfailingly good Sungold I am trying a new variety called Santonio, with plum-shaped fruits. Last year was not good for outdoor Tom’s, but our plantation of Sun Cherry Premium was a great success. We grow a few Courgettes each year, you don’t need many, usually as a mixture to add interest on the plate This year I am trying BBQ mix; last year we had a good crop from another F1 variety early in the season, but Mildew eventually got to the plants and they had to go.

Sweetcorn : Lark F1 Hybrid  Sweet corn has not been a success here so far despite being a region where maize is grown commercially. I am hoping the new raised beds will provide better growing conditions provided I am more attentive to their need for water. I like the sweet varieties and have selected Lark F1 this time. Lettuces are traditionally grown amongst the flowers and seem to prefer the lighter soil in the back garden. Coloured foliage is always welcome and I have ordered traditional Lollo Rossa in addition to a Romaine type called Chartwell.

Artichoke : Originals  Growing perennials from seed is something we do each year as it’s a wonderful way to fill up a new garden. This is now extending into the vegetable garden with the purchase of a packet of Artichoke Green Globe Improved. I love fresh artichokes and I am determined to have a large clump despite them dying whenever I buy plants from the garden centre.

Climbing Bean 'Monte Cristo'  Beans are not something I do well but I persevere! For the first time since we moved to France we will be trying Broad Beans and have selected an RHS award-winning dwarf variety called Robin Hood. My wife loves to eat them raw. Climbing beans are my ‘bête noire’, always running out of steam before I have harvested more than a handful. I have been growing them on a pergola where a neighbour’s tree, now removed, competes heavily for nutrients and water. Monte Cristo is going to change all that, I hope.

Swiss Chard 'White Silver'  Finally, for a bit of fun, I am intending to grow Swiss Chard White Silver 3, of which I know very little but it was recommended in the T&M catalogue by Alan Titchmarch, no less. In addition I am trying Golden Berries (variety Little Lanterns), delicious and very trendy fruits which I last grew in a greenhouse with great success some 25 years ago. Wish me luck!

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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.

A typical French Autumn

Autumn leaf and flower colour from Rhus and Miscanthus in our garden this morning.

Every day this week has been different to the last. Today it is mild and drizzling on and off, while yesterday it was dry, with just a few clouds passing by. The day before was a most glorious warm, sunny day but it began with a hint of frost. Sunday it poured down while Saturday it kept mostly dry – a bonus for guests who I took to see the grape harvest coming in at local vineyards. In short, a typical autumn week in central France.

In the town, around the market and in the supermarket, all the talk is about mushrooms, or the lack of them. We have been mushroom hunting on our daily walks with the dog and while we bring back a handful most days, there are very few about. The weather is looking encouraging however, after many months without any serious rain, so we are hoping for great things by the end of this or the following week.

Chantal is making her annual autumn jelly from fruit collected on our walks: pears, apples and grapes left behind by the picking machine. To this she has added currents and other soft fruit preserved after picking this summer and a few herbs and spices for luck. We will be bottling soon and look forward to trying it out on friends who regularly offer us examples of their own culinary efforts to try. Last week the Marquis dropped around with a sample of his Two Salmons Rillettes and our lady plumber turned up one evening with freshly hunted venison. Food is important to the people of this community and recipes are commonly argued over in the market place.

Japanese Anemones continue to provide colour

Out in the garden I am pleased to have the ground wetted as I have been waiting to start cultivating the soil for our new lawn. The lawn will be sown as soon as I can so that it will germinate and establish itself before the winter. We are trying to rehabilitate a section of the garden ruined when the swimming pool went in and to link it with an area currently the site of a very poor quality lawn. I can manage about 50 sq.m. a day fighting with the rotavator, after which I need a couple of days of rest – one more push should see the hard work done though. The next task will be the raking off of old grass, weeds and stone, and creating rough levels using new lawn edging secured along the existing beds. The ground will then be trodden down firmly, levelled again to a nice tilth and finally sown with grass seed. A last gentle rake over and we leave it to Nature to work its wonders.

Many of the bedding and herbaceous plants are having a second lease of life in this damp and temperate season: the Begonias have never looked so good, Pot Marigold (Calendula) are in full flower and throughout the garden there are splashes of colour here and there. It looks as if the Salvia Golden Delicious will flower this year: each shoot is carrying a flower bud and one is just starting to show red. We continue to pick tomatoes and our lettuce crop is the best we have had all year.

Summer bedding has never looked so good!

In the park the rain has resulted in a huge rise in the level of the river Cher, but not enough to put off 60 or more swans who took up residence earlier in the week. The gardeners are busily removing summer bedding and replacing it with a mixture of winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to beg a few of last season’s plants from them for our own garden: bedding Dahlias and purple grasses, no longer. I have finished taking cuttings of tender plants for the year but have tried some Holly again, a particularly attractive form which grows by the town campsite.

On Friday I am taking clients to Bourgueil to look at vineyards and taste some wine, while on Saturday or Sunday we’ll all take a trip to the Courson Plant Fair, so it’s a busy week all ’round. We are watching the weather.

The world’s worst landscape customer, Lily Beetles and the writings of Henry Mitchell.

Clematis Ville de Lyon.
Our plant for the week 20 on Pinerest:
http://pinterest.com/pin/254875660131789636/

I’ve built a lot of gardens over the years, as a garden designer and owner of a two landscape companies. I don’t have the figures to hand but basic mental arithmetic puts the total built at around 500, while we have designed perhaps three times that.

Some of the people we worked for were not nice, some were dishonest and others unreasonably demanding. But the worst client ever? It could be me!

Iris Frost ‘ n’ Flame, one of the twenty or so varieties of Iris germanica we have in flower at the moment.

The problem is I know too much. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, if a landscaper makes a mistake I can see it easily. While customers may complain about little things, they very often miss the fundamental errors which, in the case of our companies, I like to think I would spot and have corrected before any harm was done. Sometimes garden builders and landscapers will try to explain away the problems, justifying them, excusing them or denying they exist. We have years of experience behind us and can see through all that. That’s great if you are employing me to look out for your interests, but a disaster waiting to happen if you are working for us. I say “us”, but my wife is being much more mature and reasonable.

The Garden Design Academy and Les Sequoias, our B&B, are currently having a swimming pool built and I am not enjoying the process one little bit. I moan, I complain, I ask difficult questions, I get in the way. I know it’s not helpful but I just can’t stop myself. The French in general have a view about dealing with customers which is quite foreign to anything my clients expect and demand. I love it here, so I am reluctant to support the Anglo-Saxon stereotyping of the French by describing all of our problems, but I had hoped for a bit more service and consideration when I am spending my hard-earned cash with a company.

I mention all this mainly to address those of you who run businesses, and we have many students who do just that or will do so in the near future. I suggest they try to look at their operations from the point of view of a client. Are you welcoming, professional and transparent in what you are offering? Is your brochure easy to understand, your garden centre easy to navigate, your products easy to purchase? Have you thought about who your clients are and how you should address them, communicate with them, and explain things to them? Are you, your staff, your establishment and your marketing materials user-friendly? Do your products live up to the sales literature; can you do what you promise to do, on time and at a reasonable price?

Geranium Johnson’s Blue with Hostas in our woodland garden

From my point of view, what this swimming pool company lacks is a single point of reference for a client; someone who is in charge of every aspect of the job, can ensure that it is done well and that the client is kept fully informed. This person needs to be on site regularly. Teams of expert installers come and go seemingly at random – a day here, two days next week and three days the week after that. Most of them seem competent enough and reasonable friendly, but lacking hands-on leadership. We see minor and serious errors occur with each visit, and have to point them out ourselves. My wife spotted early on that the built-in stairway was installed in the wrong corner, averting the most serious mistake before it became too costly to correct. We have to repeat instructions and warnings to every team that walks in the door and I have lost count of the number of times I have asked them to be careful with our plants, only to watch them being buried under tons of earth, run over by machinery or trodden underfoot. I’m a nervous wreck now and can’t wait for them to go!

There is a place for human and other resource efficiencies and cost-saving business strategies, but when these interfere with good customer relationships it is time to reconsider your options. Do it anyway, on a regular basis and before minor irritations become magnified over time and customers are lost to more considerate competitors. At least the French don’t kill my plants and then demand Hobnobs with their tea!

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Lilium regale in flower last year

This is an incredibly busy time in the garden with seed to sow, seedlings to care for and pot on, tidying up the borders and lawns and weeding, weeding, weeding. A regular job cannot be ignored at this time of the year however busy one is. Every day, two or three times a day, we go hunting for Lily Beetles. This bright red beasties will eat every morsel of lily leaf they can find and must be collected and dispatched by hand, before they can do too much damage. It’s worth it, not only for the sake of the Lilies: if you have to deal with the larvae, disgusting things covered in their own excrement, the task is far worst. Those who grow a few Lilies and do not know this pest should look it up in gardening books or on the internet; I tried taking a photograph for this blog post, but they move as soon as they sense your presence. It is important to say that while all these tasks keep a gardener rushing around from one side of the garden to the other, time should always be found to admire the flowers which are everywhere at this time of the year. If not for pleasure, what is a garden for?

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We do not always receive as much response to these ramblings as I would like, but one recent comment on Cannas quoted the American garden writer Henry Mitchell. I was so intrigued by the remark that I ordered a copy of The Essential Earthman and have really enjoyed that gardener’s insights and observations. A real plantman, I have found myself reaching for the RHS Encyclopaedia several times to check on plants he recommends or otherwise. I like him, but suspect he was not always easy to get on with. He died on November 12th 1993, before I could read his articles “live”.

Picking up the pieces – the joys and frustrations of the spring garden

Easter weekend; it’s cooler than we would like but the predicted rains did not come, much to the pleasure of visitors and the disappointment of local gardeners, who have not seen rain in months. The annual Donkey Fair and flea market took over the streets of nearby Poulaine, a huge success, attracting crowds of locals and weekend trippers from as far away as the capital, Paris.

Cherry blossom time in central France

Local gardens, ours included, are bursting with spring blossom – Daffs and tulips going over, Cherries at their peak and Lilac just starting – distracting the eye from the damage caused by the single tough week of winter we experienced this year. Each day we are out there, checking for signs of life from plants which look like they will never recover. And each day there is another happy discovery of tiny buds opening at the base of an otherwise lifeless shrub, or shoots pushing up from a bare patch of ground.

Once the extent of the problem is clear I can get out the secateurs, cutting out dead wood to make way for new healthy shots. Santolina was hard pruned a couple of weeks ago and is now covered with tiny green leaves; Phlomis, both P. fruticosa and P. purpurea, have recently had the same treatment. Reddish buds are expanding all along the shots of the flowering Pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Rubrum Flore Pleno’, a fine little plant given to me by a local gardener. I have since successfully taken cuttings from a large shrub in a friend’s garden and those too are budding up.

Still a few Tulis around

Our three Phygelius varieties are all now starting to grow from ground level and today I spotted buds at the base of the hardy Fuchsia magellanica gracilis ‘Tricolor’. As exciting as all this is, there are also disappointments. Two varieties of Phormium look as if they have departed this world, along with Hebe Great Orme and a white flowering species whose name escapes me for the moment. You can knock me over with a feather if life returns to our Leycesteria Golden Lanterns: such a pity.

Lemon trees? Don’t talk to me about Lemon trees! We have lost many, but not all, of our Camellias and the Mimosa, Sophora, and Erythrina are no longer with us. They can stay in the ground for a while yet to give them a chance to prove me wrong. A few plants bought this winter didn’t even see the soil before they succumbed – I wouldn’t want you to get the idea I’m bad at this gardening lark, but unfortunately the list is even longer than this. I refuse to dwell on it further. A gardener has to develop a philosophical attitude or you would give up after the first few disasters. Failure comes with the territory I’m afraid.

The plant fair at Chateau de La Bordaisiere

Easter Monday is a public holiday and the third day of the plant fair at La Bourdaisiere, a chateau close to Tours in the Indre-et Loire. I have talked about this chateau and its amazing tomato collection before, but this was our first visit. It is a lovely chateau with formal terraces and Italianate stairways in a wooded park above the River Cher. The walled vegetable garden is around 4 acres in size and in the season they also have a notable Dahlia display. The plant fair was spread around the grounds encouraging visitors to explore as much as possible. There was a good selection of plant nurseries and some interesting gardening accessories but to my surprise we left empty-handed, apart from a large sack of a new mulching material called Strulch, developed by Leeds University and marketed by an English company. Perhaps it’s just as well, with the new swimming pool excavations causing chaos throughout the garden. Time enough to buy more plants when this work is done and a new planting plan agreed upon.

Poisson d’avril, wild asparagus and other gardening tales

Acer palmatum Bloodgood

The first of April gave us the opportunity to have a little fun with the child of a guest, who found a large fish hiding under his breakfast napkin. Don’t know what I’m talking about? In France, on what we Brits call April Fool’s Day, fish-related pranks are played on and by children and childish adults like us. Typically, paper fish are hung on unsuspecting victims backs and although no-one seems to know why, it’s all good harmless fun. It’s origins may go back to the standardisation of the New Year by King Charles IX of France in 1563 and the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, when folks who did not keep up with the changes, still celebrating the New Year at the end of March were made fun of. The fish? No idea!

Dicentra spectabilis alba

As spring takes a hold of the land, more and more plants are coming into flower, making the choice of our Plant of the Week increasingly difficult. We could have chosen Primula veris the Cowslip, or P. vulgaris, the Primrose, both flowering in the garden and the countryside at the moment alongside (in our garden) hybrids of the two. There is a lot going on in our White Border, despite the Clematis armandii dying, full of flower bud, this winter. Osmanthus x burkwoodii is in flower next to Viburnum x burkwoodii (one of our many horticultural jokes), both scented and delightful. White Dicentra spectabilis is about as photogenic as any plant can be.

Bulbs are popping up in unsuspected places, like the Ipheion in the gravel under the rotary washing line, while the sight of newly emerging leaves on many plants is a real joy. Maple leaves unfold alongside flowers in many cases and we eat wild asparagus with our Sunday lunch, harvested from various corners of the garden and local fields. If you want to know what did finally make it as the Plant of the Week, pop along to our page on Pinterest.

Ipheion

We had confirmation this week of a group of Australians visiting in May to join us on a tour of the gardens of the Loire Valley. We are very much looking forward to this week-long tour; there are still a few places if you want to join us. We hope to be attending the next major plant fair in the Loire Valley, held each year at the Château de la Bourdaisière, where they grow a staggering 650 varieties of tomato. I will report back on this in due course.

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.