French Christmas garden flowers and Gingko from seed.

It’s that time again; these days I tend to get fewer toys as gifts so while the kiddies are playing with theirs, I have taken myself out into the fresh air, a glass of Vouvray in one hand and a pen and paper in the other, to compile my ‘in-flower’ list for Christmas 2013.

This year is better than last, with 15 plants in flower on Christmas Day compared to 11 in 2012, but cannot compare to the whopping 31 plants seen in 2011. Those of you with larger, more established gardens will not be impressed, but I’m quite pleased. The error I continue to make is not to group some of these plants together, so that real floral impact is never really achieved: I need a winter garden.

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

The house is a riot of colour with the orchids in particular performing well. Out in the garden several herbaceous plants, grown from seed over the last few years, are also performing: Digitalis, Penstemon, Wallflowers and even Stocks have blooms in greater or lesser quantities. As you might expect, Helleborus nigra, the Christmas rose, is looking good in the bed by the front door. We finally bought a Mahonia media Charity last year and this has rewarded us with its first flower spike. Nearby, Jasminium nudiflorum is showing plenty of colour against the boiler-house wall.

Erica – white Heather

Less probable, Hebe Great Orme is covered in flowers and I found one yellow bloom on our Buddleja weyeriana. The dainty red climbing Rose Amadeus also has a couple of flowers. The white border offers a couple of plants: Erica Springwood White has masses of flowers while Viburnum burkwoodii is putting on a brave show with a handful. Over the other side of the garden our Arbutus, severely cut back by the cold winter of a couple of years ago, has formed a nice evergreen bush with plenty of lily-of-the-valley style blooms. Viburnum tinus, bought last year to hide the bins in the front garden, is covered with flat heads of flower.

……….

Our son graced us with his presence over Christmas and we took the opportunity to pack in a bit of tourism, visiting amongst other things, the wonderful apothecary museum in the 16th century hospital buildings at Issoudun. Outside in the gardens the ground beneath a tree was covered in fruits, which at first I took to be Mirabelle plums. On closer inspection the tree turned out to be a Gingko, beneath which was a huge quantity of off-yellow fruits. I took out a plastic bag and greedily began removing the stone seed from inside the soft, smelly fruit, quickly gathering a few dozen.

Ginkgo biloba is a tree whose leaves increase circulation in the brain. It is a popular herb in Chinese medicine and has been linked to improving memory and cognitive functions. The unique fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree make it a popular ornamental as well. In the autumn these turn bright butter yellow before falling but fruits are only produced on female plants. I have seen in excess of 50 cultivars listed and no doubt there are many more: not bad for a plant which was thought to be extinct until discovered by Engelbert Kaempfer in around 1700.

Ginkgo fruits - Issoudun

Ginkgo fruits – Issoudun

The germination of ginkgo is a little tricky, but there are a few tips that will increase your success. Freshly picked seeds are covered in a somewhat malodorous fruit. The ginkgo fruit contains small levels of urushiol, a skin irritant that is found in poison ivy and poison oak. No-one told me this and my hands were covered in blisters by the end of the day. Ginkgo biloba seeds have a long germination period and a tendency to pick up mould on the outer shell. Carefully cleaning the shells with a mild bleach solution will help.

Germination is encouraged by both stratification and scarification, so seeds are often left in pots of sand for the winter or put in the refrigerator. They are then either chipped with a sharp knife or filed with sandpaper to allow moisture to more easily penetrate the hard outer shell, before sowing in a well-drained compost in the spring.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Autumn colour, autumn harvest

Autumn has crept gently into central France, producing muted colours with fiery highlights rather than the dazzling displays of less mild years.

Some trees and shrubs dropped their foliage at the first sign of a frost while others, confused by the warm, wet spell that followed, have hung on for another month or more, before dropping in a desultory, half-hearted and uninspiring fashion.

Every now and then however, I am stopped in my tracks by a spectacular sighting of a single Gingko or maple tree, a whole bank of Rhus or Cotinus, or a patch of forest oaks. Then Camus’s line: “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, makes sense again.

Autumn colour is one of the great features of this season and in many countries a tourist trade has developed around its arrival. In our mild climate we are never treated to stunning displays like those in parts of the United States or China, extending over hundreds of miles and involving millions of plants, but we have our moments. Nearly one third of the land area of France is covered in trees, an area of woodland six times greater than those of the UK. When one of the great French woodland regions gets autumn colour just right, it is a sight to be seen!

Plane bark and autumn colour

In deciduous trees and shrubs the production of green chlorophyll drops away with falling autumn light levels, while other plant pigments contained in a leaf – yellow, orange or red depending on the chemical involved – are on the increase as plant sugars concentrate. A crisp, sunny autumn will produce the best leaf colours and we have hopes of a decent end-of-season display in this part of the world is this weekend, when fine weather is forecast. Already the days are superb, despite ugly conditions on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and we were out picking mushrooms in the woods this morning.

Berries, fruits and seeds are the other big feature of the season and this year I have been collecting some of our own to sow alongside those we are buying from the seed companies. More for fun than in any great hope of success I have sowed a pod of Lilium regale Album, which has rewards my efforts by producing seedlings in their dozens. Spurred on by this, I have since sowed Salvia argentea seeds and have a pod of Fritillaria imperialis on my desk awaiting its turn.

I am a great fan of allowing plants to self-seed but sometimes the results are disappointing, either not germinating or being ruined by my over-zealous weeding of the garden. We have had many successes however; Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings replaced an original plant which died after the first year, Verbena bonariensis is gradually establishing itself around one end of a sunny bed and many plants appear spontaneously in our gravel patio. As with outdoor cuttings, I often sow seeds I have harvested at the base of the parent plant, if only to be able to find them later. I am beginning to think that if I really want success I should be sowing in seed trays either in the garden or under cover, as I do with those I buy in packets. Some of the more simple bedding plants – Calendula, Opium Poppies and Nigella – do very well however, needing weeding out when they begin to take over.

Calendula - one of our more beautiful "weeds"

Our second delivery of packet seeds arrived today, this time from Suttons. These included a Banana, Ensete ventricosum, from their Eden Project range. I have only once, many years ago, had success with Banana and last years’ seeds (of E. glaucum) from Thompson and Morgan yet again failed to germinate. The species I have bought this time is African rather than south Asian and said to be hardier. Packets come with instructions to soak in warm water for 24 hours and I did this immediately, aware that they need to be sown at the earliest opportunity. I have found, by the way, a site “dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of the tropics in inappropriate climates” called Cooltropicalplants.com, which is amusingly written and full of sensible advice on a range of plants, including this one. I now understand that Bananas need temperatures of around 30°C to grow and I may not have provided this in the past. No criticism intended T&M!

Rendez-vous aux jardins 2011 (French national open gardens event)

Rendez-vous aux jardins 2011

Les jardins des Metamorphozes

This weekend was too good to be missed: a three day festival of gardening with, in our region of Centre, 97 gardens open. These ranged from the vast gardens of local chateaux to those of a much more domestic scale. Having spent ages putting together a web site on Loire Valley gardensI was keen to try some of those smaller, less polished gardens, the passion and pride of their private owners.

Rendez-vous aux jardins 2011

Les jardins des Metamorphozes

Rendez-vous aux jardins 2011

Domiane de Prieure at Valaire

The list of great gardens was tempting but we did resist, choosing as our first port of call the Domiane de Prieure at Valaire, where an art gallery and garden have been established in the grounds of an 11thC priory. It is a pretty place, with interesting planting and sculptures dotted about, created as a private garden but open now to the wider public. Les jardins des Metamorphozes offers a series of garden styles in a small space: formal and informal, with French, English and oriental influences inspired by notable gardens visited by the owners.

Chatting with the owner we were recommended to another garden on our way home, the Jardin du Pouzet at Couddes. An enthusiastic ex-nurseryman has retired and failed to sell his business (we can sympathise, having had the same problem in the UK). After a period watching his enterprise deteriorate he decided to create a garden from the old nursery, finding a new use for the site and recycling to remaining plants.

Passionate and knowledgeable, the owner will guide you around and show you his horticultural treasures if he likes you, and I am delighted to say we got on very well indeed. It has to be said that this is not a garden as many visitors understand it and some will go away disappointed, but it features 200 varieties of Rose and depending on the season, thousands of bulbs, bedding plants and herbaceous plants in new beds amongst the established trees and shrubs, many rare or not often seen. He also has France’s biggest collection of Gingko and we spent a contented couple of hours exchanging plant stories as we toured his collection.

A tree new to me seen in this garden: Euodia / Evodia, now called Tetradium daniellii, a meliferous plant from S.W. China and Korea. It is named for William Daniell, an army surgeon who, in the 1860s, collected a specimen in Tientsin province , China.

Rendez-vous aux jardins 2011

Gingko variety at Pouzet

I hope we have made a few friends today and it was suggested we join an association of parks and gardens of the Central region so that we can meet more gardens owners. I am very keen to get involved with local horticulture and have sent them an email to see if they will have us. I gather our garden will have to be inspected by experts….is it good enough?

After some recent rain, the first in several months, the garden at home is looking much happier, although the gravel patio has almost as much growth on it as the lawn, which is now in need of a cut. We have a number of projects on the go…..but more on these later.

Bordeaux funeral, Parc Bordelaise and Parc de Majolan

I’ve been to too many family funerals in the last twelve months: my Grandmother’s in Cornwall, a favourite cousin on my wife’s side in the Camargue and last week, my Mother in Law in Bordeaux. Anne-Marie Dal Bon died in St André Hospital around mid day on 11th November, as we were speeding down the motorway to be with her.

Bridge at Parc de Majolan

We spent a dreadful ten days in what is undeniably an elegant and prosperous city, dealing with the legal formalities and with family members who flew in from all over the world. To create breathing space during a period of otherwise unrelenting ugliness, we took off to the countryside using our dog as an excuse to escape the unpleasantness and preserve our sanity. As an Auden character says: “Healing is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing nature.”

The Parc Bordelaise is just around the corner from my Mother in Law’s house: 28 hectares of city park designed by master landscaper Eugène Bühler and opened in 1888 by the then President of France, Sadi Carnot. After storms in 1999 brought down more than 700 trees the park, which had suffered from years of neglect, was renovated and replanted and is now hugely popular with the residents of this part of Bordeaux. It is an area populated by well-dressed joggers and stylish ladies; dogs are kept on leads. Our dog failed to understand the rules and twice a day rushed about chasing squirrels and letting off steam. I have posted photographs on this blog of some of the magnificent trees to be found here but this time did not take pictures of the wonderful autumn leaf colour; I regret this but was not in the mood, even though the Liquidambar and Gingko combination near the lake did it’s best to lift a heavy heart.

Parc de Majolan - grottoes viewed from across the lake

A trip to a stormy beach also pleased the dog but my favourite was a visit to the newly reopened Parc de Majolan north of Bordeaux at Blanquefort, an amazing creation built between 1870 and 1880 by banker Jean Auguste Piganeau. Practically abandoned, this treasure was purchased by the town and gradually renovated to reveal at least some of its former glory. The park features a lake of 4 hectares and outstanding caves, canyons, fountains and bridges built in the romantic baroque style from iron, limestone and concrete. We have a few features constructed the same way in our garden here in Chabris, also in need of renovation.

Finally returning home, the relief was palpable, in spite of mountain of paperwork and hundreds of junk emails. Chantal is concentrating on her Mothers affairs while I busy myself with the Garden Design Academy. Some interesting offers of international design work have come in while we have been away and of course, there are enquiries to reply to and students’ assignments to read, comment on and mark.

Parc de Majolan - in the artificial caves

There were also Iris germanica to plant, removed from my Mother in Law’s garden to be grown on here with us and when a neighbour heard we had returned he dashed over with Hibiscus seedlings because we had once admired his plant in flower. We found Ceps in the wood and cheered ourselves with steak, wild mushrooms and a bottle of Bordeaux red. Life goes on……