Ebooks and the death of the hardback

Our latest article on the Garden Design Academy blog discusses the death of the gardening book. What do you think? Will the ebook soon replace the real thing?

http://gardendesignacademy.blogspot.fr/

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Great gardens of France – the final day

The kitchen garden at Cheverny

There are two ways to end a concert, a play, a novel or a garden tour: with a grand, spectacular display of colour, virtuosity or pyrotechnics, or gently, softly, pulling together all the elements and laying them out for quiet review. Dare I say it? I think we achieved a bit of both on our final day of touring the gardens of the Loire Valley.

Our first port of call was Cheverny and its famous château which, unusually for such a grand French palace, is available to visit inside and full of fine furniture and art. We did the tour after visiting the gardens, starting with the potager which, for some reason, I had never seen before. This section was a marvel, a beautiful example of kitchen garden mixing traditional and modern design, with rows of vegetables and flowers artfully arranged into the prettiest garden imaginable.

Photo opportunities at the Apprentices’ Garden, Cheverny

From here we moved on to the recently constructed Apprentices’ Garden which links the château to the orangery. Again, traditional and modern design mix to make a very satisfying whole. Around the château itself was a formal garden of the most strict design imaginable, but the final and largest area was the park in the English style, featuring many fine specimen trees, a place to explore and linger – but we had to push on, with lunch time beckoning.

Chambord

The journey was definitely part of the trip today. On the way to Cheverny we drove up the old driveway, miles of perfectly straight road aimed directly at the gates and doors of the château and lined with wonderful old trees. On the way to lunch we indulged in a detour to pass the Château de Chambord, a royal palace in the centre of a vast forest, the extravagant hunting lodge and pleasure park of the kings and queens of France. Lunch was in an old inn, now serving food of great quality, in the centre of the Sologne region of forests and lakes. Here we did linger, a little too long if truth be told, but the meal was rather good!

Iris germanica hybrids at La Source

Our last garden was quite different, the gardens of La Source, on the outskirts of Orleans amid the campus of the university. The river Loiret emerges in this park after a subterranean journey from, it is thought, the River Loire some way upstream, below a fine chateau and surrounded these days by a municipal park of the highest quality. Wonderful displays and trials of Iris, roses and bedding plants are a feature of the park, which is well used by locals in addition to garden visitors from all over France and around the world. Given our late arrival we rather galloped through the gardens, which deserved more time and consideration, but enjoyed the visit nevertheless. There is hardly a formal French garden feature to be found here; we found a very large, relaxed space dotted with horticultural interest and allowing us to reflect on the huge diversity of gardens we had experienced during the week.

The rose gardens and the chateau at Orleans La Source

Marie-Chantal had arranged an informal meal for our final evening, with local wines, cheeses and other products summing up the gastronomic life of the region in which we are pleased to live. Tomorrow our gusts would need ferrying to railway stations and the clean-up would begin. The tour had been a great success, we all agreed, and we counted our blessings in having had such a great group to spend our week with, exploring some of Europes great gardens.

Organic gardening and cut-price gardening courses

I was 14 years old when my parents bought a market garden in the village of Carnon Downs in Cornwall, on the south-west tip of England. The property was owned by two ladies who grew cut flowers, bulbs, soft fruit and vegetables, all organically. They had reached retirement age and were considering selling up and somehow my Father had met them. People like my Father, it’s a talent he has, and the ladies decided to sell him the property and teach him how to grow. We didn’t have the money so the ladies accepted what we did have and agreed to take the remainder when we could afford it.

Cornish daffodils

The farm was run organically; this meant nothing to me, it was just the way we grew things. We lived in a house which appeared to have a spring underneath it: water flowed through the house on both floors for half the year and gave us colds. The beds were always damp and while Cornwall is relatively mild in winter, the continuous high humidity let the cold into your bones. The drinking water came from the well by the house, extracted to a tank by a hand pump, the handle of which mysteriously rose up and down, driven by a Heath-Robinson style system and an electric motor. People used to knock at the door to ask for a glass.

The main crops were daffodils, both for flowers and bulbs, strawberries and Pittosporum, which was cut for florists’ foliage in the winter and packed into huge sacking bundles to be sent by train to markets in London, Birmingham or Bristol. Other flower crops included Irises and Anemones, spreading the risk that one harvest may not achieve the prices hoped for from a system in which we had little or no control. Sometimes I helped pack daffodils until two in the morning and went to school a few hours later. Sometimes the flower boxes were crushed and ruined by careless railway staff. Some years the weather ruined the crop.

Wisley RHS gardens

While grim experiences were not rare, I somehow came through all of that with a love for plants. I was fascinated by them; by their Latin and common names, the way they grew, their beauty and their uses. We had a grass roadway called Wisley Lane, which gave access to many of the fields. The ladies would take a short holiday each year, visiting the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and acquiring a few cuttings. The resulting plants, often unusual, grew all the way down Wisley Lane.

Compost for the fields was homemade, created by cutting down the grasses and wild flowers of Little Moor, Lost Moor and Big Moor, three marshy fields at the bottom of the property. I used to do this each year with an Allen Scythe and still have nightmares remembering my struggles with the machine and the Horse Flies on hot days at the end of summer. Big Moor was covered with wild orchids. Later we came to an arrangement with the council works department, who dumped all the autumn leaves they collected on a piece of ground by the front road. The resulting organic matter was spread over the fields to improve the structure of our heavy, clay soil. Granular fertiliser was also used, made in Cornwall from fish waste, while liquid feed came from seaweed. Cornwall has a huge coastline and its products are part of the fabric of the region.

The site of our old nursery, now a garden centre

Times move on and our old nursery is now a garden centre. The house has long since been demolished and I lack the courage to see if Wisley Lane is still there.

There are more tales to tell, of course, but I wanted to mention that the Garden Design Academy’s offer of the month is £80 off the home study course ORGANIC GARDENING & CROP PRODUCTION an excellent new course we are pleased to be associated with.

January gardening, sowing and lighting systems.

Some of you may know that in a previous life I grew seedlings and young plants, hundreds of thousands of them, for the bedding plant industry. Our nursery, Opax Farm in Headley, on the Hampshire / Surrey border, was a state-of-the-art affair consisting of 6 ½ acres of glasshouses on a nine acre site. It had computers controlling everything from the ventilators which opened according to wind direction, the percentage of CO2 in the air, the pH of the water and of course, the air temperature. In case anything broke down we had two of everything and, in event of a power failure, a generator, which could have lit a small town, automatically kicked in, powered by a huge, Rolls Royce engine. This piece of equipment was thoroughly tested in the week we took over, when a passing hurricane cut off our valley from the rest of the world for more than a week!

Begonia seedlings

These days my growing is a little less high tech but I will shortly be sowing Geraniums and Begonias in the propagator I have set up in the attic and I’m concerned that they may not receive the light they need to grow well. But why do we need light in plant cultivation? The major horticulture issues are:

  • photosynthesis — converting light, air and water into carbohydrates and oxygen to support plant growth.
  • chlorophyll synthesis —building the plant cells that perform photosynthesis.
  • photoperiod — sensitivity to the length of day.
  • phototropism — movement toward a light source.

Back in my days at Opax Farm we had a number of lighting systems for a range of plant growing tasks. Strings of ordinary tungsten bulbs had been used by the previous owners to control flowering in crops like Chrysanthemum. This plant requires a very specific day-length to flower and if you need to produce flowers throughout the year you will at times have to completely block out the light, while at other periods of the year create light. Plants that bloom in the winter, such as Christmas cactus, poinsettias, gardenias and chrysanthemums, don’t flower unless the nights are longer than the days. They are referred to as long-night plants and for the most sensitive long-night plants even one minute of bright light during the night is enough to prevent them from blooming. In general, long-night plants need a maximum of 10-13hours of light per day to flower.

Last year's Begonias

Plants that typically bloom during the summer don’t flower unless the nights are shorter than the days, so they are called short-night plants and include many bedding plants and vegetables. Short-night plants need 14-18 hours of light per day in order to flower. Other plants bloom regardless of the length of the photoperiod, so they are called night neutral plants. Many of these plants are sensitive to temperature variations however, and bloom when the nights are cooler than the days. For early growth and development, plants need the opposite photoperiod: young long-night plants should have long days for the first month or two to encourage full growth before blooming, while young short night plants should have short days. Day length can be manipulated for other reasons, such as the selection of male or female plants early in the cycle, by inducing flowering.

We had a number of growth rooms at Opax in which we germinated seed in optimum conditions. Some plants need light to germinate while others prefer the dark. Trays of recently sown seed went into different growth rooms depending on their requirement for light and heat. With sufficient light levels it is possible to grow plants without any natural light.

Greenhouse lighting

Several of the plants we grew were needed early in the season when light levels are low: we started sowing Begonia sempervirons for bedding plant growers before Christmas. These plants were placed in an area of the greenhouse where we had lighting to supplement that of the sun, ensuring good, strong, compact growth at the darkest time of the year. Attempting the same thing in our attic later this month, I have assembled a lighting rig to increase the light levels for the seedlings I will grow there. This structure incorporates a number of domestic halogen lamps which I trust will provide a useful boost in light levels but be inexpensive to run. I’ll let you know how we get on. I did have a quick look at the new LED Grow Light units currently being promoted for indoor growing but the cost was far too high for me to justify on my hobby, so my Heath-Robinson construction will have to do for now.

Several Garden Design Academy courses look at the complex subject of plants and light, also considering the types of light most suitable for horticulture by cost, light spectrum, heat emissions and other factors. Some of our RHS courses and the Certificates / Advanced Certificates in Horticulture, are particularly good on this.

The new Academy Facebook page.

Amid huge excitement the Garden Design Academy has just launched its new Facebook page. We have taken the same approach to Facebook as we did with our web site. First sign up and put something on line; learn how it works and what we could do with it. In the light of this experience improve the site, and then improve it some more. The result is this Welcome page which can be found at http://www.facebook.com/GardenDesignAcademy

We believe it helps us to look much more professional and hope everyone will “like” it enough to visit the Academy web site. Comments to help us improve it further will be appreciated; our son, a qualified web site wizard, has already made a few suggestions which we have incorporated in this version. My wife corrected my spelling!

Observant readers will note that to celebrate the new page we have launched a new feature: Offer of the Month, an opportunity to give lots of money away and promote some of our latest courses. I believe “Managing Notable Gardens” is going to be very popular with the parks and recreation industry so this offer should please a few people.

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.

Troglodyte flower show in central France

Villentrois mushroom cave

At the end of a beautiful, warm and sunny autumn week, we decided to visit the tiny village of Villentrois, near Valencay, at the northern tip of the Indre department. The village (population 625) had a thriving mushroom growing industry until recently, utilising the caves created during the excavation of Tuffeau limestone for building materials. The whole village, including the ancient castle, is made of this soft white stone and it has been used for restoration work on the great chateau at Chambord and other historic buildings.

One of these old mushroom caves is now a village hall and hosts events including the annual flower show, held this weekend. It is a happy, unpretentious affair attracting locals and day-trippers from further afield, who can also eat a hearty meal from tables set up for the purpose in one of the larger galleries. The school children and the library construct themed floral exhibits and local nurserymen, landscapers, florists, producers and artists sell their wares from decorated stands in corners around the caverns. The walls and ceilings are decked in foliage and fairy lights while the pathways are lined with flowers, softening the chilly atmosphere. Chelsea it is not, but it brings a smile to the faces of the visitors and on such a lovely Sunday afternoon it was certainly drawing in the crowds.

Floral display in the mushroom caves

Mushrooms are still produced in the artificial caves of the region, although it is not the cottage industry it once, deferring to the more efficient industrial producers who make up the bulk of my students on the Garden Design Academy Mushroom Growing course. We have had some interest in it recently from English owners of houses in France who, discovering they have a mushroom cave or troglodyte shed in the back garden, decide to make use of it. The French are generally keen to support local growers, so some have found a profitable niche market, selling to restaurants or shops and keeping the food miles down. These caves are ideal for mushroom production, but also make great wine cellars for much the same reason: the rock caverns provide very stable temperatures and great insulation. Some are lived in and they can make very cosy dwellings.

Carving the tuffeau stone

Mushrooms have been the subject of much debate in the gathering places of the area this week. The woods outside Valençay have become temporary home to more than 50 caravans, as gypsies arrive from around the country to hunt for wild mushrooms, especially Boletus edulus – the Cep. Selling at around 25 Euro a kilo and up to twice that in Paris, they are being collected by the lorry full to sell in the capital, damaging large areas of private and public woodland in the process. Given that these woods are important sources of revenue as hunting grounds in addition to the timber and associated products, a serious conflict could be on the way. We discreetly collected a few Ceps on the way home, but in quantities unlikely to upset the natural balance of the woods, or the tempers of the landowners.