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.

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Gardening in the real world

Godetia Rembrandt

Godetia Rembrandt from T&M. One of the bedding plants in flower in the garden today. Many visitors have thought it was an expensive Azalea.

“…sit back, relax and enjoy the fruits of your efforts earlier in the year” This was the advice provided by a gardening book I skimmed through recently, when describing the essential tasks for the month of August. I am not sure where this author gardens, but out here in the real world there is still much to do.

Marigold Golden Puff from Suttons with Antirrhinum Axiom (T&M)

After a poor start, the summer has turned out beautifully, with gorgeous sunny days welcomed by holiday makers but adding to the workload of the gardener. We are growing a fair amount of bedding this year, plenty of vegetables and have recently sowed a new lawn. We have also created a few new planting areas despite not yet having the existing beds up to scratch. All of these demand watering, so every other morning, before the day gets too warm, I start up the pump and provide the plants with the moisture they need. The well is deep and the water pure and rather cool. I have noticed many allotment holders fill up tanks from their wells to allow the temperature to rise a little before applying it to their plants. Of course, watering in the evening might be a better solution, but our life-style does not suit it. The plants might also be happier with watering every day, but that I am not prepared to do.

Lavatera trimestris ‘Twins Hot Pink’ from Thompson & Morgan

Weeding is an endless job here. This is a garden suffering from perhaps twenty years of neglect, so Bindweed smothers the new ornamentals if you turn your back to two minutes and after I have weeded an area it returns almost as strongly within the week. I find Bindweed very handy for tying up tomato plants and climbers but it is a constant battle to keep it down. Weed seedlings are an additional problem, but easier to control provided the job is done regularly. Most of the worst of the nettles and brambles have been dug out and destroyed but it pays to be vigilant. I have to say I quite enjoy weeding – it gets you out amongst the plants and there are always new surprises and delights hiding in the undergrowth! The work is satisfying too: you can look back at what you have achieved in the previous hour and clearly see that progress has been made. I like to flit about, tackling the worst patches or the areas where something attractive is just starting to flower. I flit – but I’m thorough with it, trying to ensure I remove all the weeds while at the same time tidying the ornamentals.

F1 Sunflower The Bees Knees – a dwarf, pollen-free mix which we are growing amongst perennial Helianthus

Talking of tidying, there is plenty of pruning to be done now; deadheading certainly, but also major replacement pruning of shrubs like Philadelphus. Our rambling Roses are in need of a serious amount of work, the Lavender hedges should have been trimmed a while ago and some of the herbaceous plants will have old flowering stems removed in due course.

It’s a great time of the year for cuttings and while Caryopteris and some Salvias have already been removed, newly rooted from the propagator, others are going in almost daily. At the moment there is a batch of Kiwi (Actinidia) cuttings, harvested from an overgrown plant belonging to a neighbour, a nice variegated Datura and a pretty little Salvia from the local park. Pushing my luck a bit, I am trying a few Magnolia stellata as give-aways for friends.

Sunflower Orange Sun

I have asked one of the characters I meet regularly when dog walking if I can have a few cuttings from his garden. He has a particularly fine red Lagerstroemia we have our eyes on, a hedge of those tricolor willows with the Japanese name which escapes me for the moment and an orange variety of Campsis, all of which are worth a try. We will perhaps wait until we return from our holiday in September before taking “security cuttings” – cuttings of plants which may or may not survive the winter when left out of doors. Salvias, again, are a good example, but there are many more and it is important to get these nicely rooted before the cold weather comes around again.

It is important to sit back and relax, and especially important to take time to enjoy your garden and the individual plants which make it up, but gardening, actually getting out and getting your hands dirty, is for me and many other simple souls, what it is all about. I shall continue to potter happily throughout the year and delight in doing so.

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.

Loire Valley garden tour – day 1

The new swimming pool

Finally I have a moment to write a blog post after a break of what, two or three weeks? The last fortnight has been dedicated to a Garden Design Academy guided tour and the straightening-up afterwards. I accumulated almost 2000 emails during this period and while half had been officially “dumped” by Mr Microsoft, they all needed checking to ensure I had not missed anything vital. The tour, a few rain storms and several weeks of chaos caused by the swimming pool installation, had also delayed all the usual spring season gardening tasks. Today, between bouts working on the computer, I have been rushing around the garden, partly to weed and plant, but also to make sure the swimming pools performs as expected: you can’t be too careful in these matters!

Our May tour of Loire Valley gardens was a great success with our Australian clients and the guide (me) all enjoying the wide range of gardens we had promised to show them. Day one was Bouges and Chenonceau. Bouges is very local to us so the tour started at a relaxed pace. The gardens are a great introduction to French landscaping and horticulture while the chateau visit was also fascinating. The gardens are divided into a walled flower and vegetable garden, a formal Italianate water garden, a classic French parterre and a large park in the English style.

After lunch at a local restaurant we went on to Chenonceau, a romantic place astride the river Cher, once the home both of French queens and a royal mistress. In addition to the park and maze, there are two formal flower gardens and a large, walled cut flower and vegetable potager. English television were filming when we arrived

Parterre at chateau de Bouges

Chateau de Chenonceau

Bank holiday gardening in the Loire Valley

Our Japanese Maple is enjoying the damp weather

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

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

La Chatonnière viewed from the countryside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.