Alive and well in 2013

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Jasminium nudiflora in flower Christmas 2012

I am glad the world did not end at the end of last year. The French took it all in their stride, but various individuals descended on a tiny village in the Pyrenees to await the planet’s final days, convinced there were aliens hiding under the mountain and hoping to hitch a ride out of the impending disaster. Apparently the Mayans, or perhaps the Aztecs, said so. No-one could pretend the health of the planet is in good shape these days but that particular hiccup seems to have passed us by safely; my wife’s birthday, Christmas and New Year were all celebrated by our household without difficulty.

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Hebe Great Orme. This plant was raised from a cutting as an insurance – just as well as the mother plant died last winter.

In the meantime, I have had several requests for the results of my Christmas garden flowers survey so here is the small list of flowers from our garden in Central France:

  • Jasminium nudiflorum
  • Wallflowers (in several colours)
  • Hebe Great Orme
  • Pansies (mixed colours)
  • Erica carnea Springwood White
  • Calendulas (self-seeded in the gravel)
  • Mahonia media Charity
  • Viburnum tinus
  • Helleborus nigra
  • Helleborus foetidus

christmas 2012 002In addition we have a house full of orchids, a couple of Poinsettias’ and a Cyclamen in the windowsills, all flowering their hearts out and a real joy at this grey time of year.

You might like to compare this list to last years, when we had 31 plants in flower following a period of very mild weather:

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None stop flowering in Almeria, Spain

Immediately after Christmas I had business in southern Spain, where it was a very different story. Gardens and street planting featured many flowering plants, most of which would be treated as houseplants in this part of the world.

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.

Plants for friends, plants for customers

As autumn approaches, thoughts turn naturally to this year’s planting season and we are arranging the delivery of plants to a number of our clients this month. These days we do not have teams of eager landscapers willing and able to construct my gardens for our customers, but I still like to involve myself in the planting for a number of reasons.

Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes (Bailtier) showing autumn colour in our garden in central France

Disappointingly, I find many professional landscapers and garden designers woefully lacking in plant knowledge. This is something we try to address at the Garden Design Academy, where a number of our courses encourage students to improve the range of plants with which they are familiar. In reality however, it just takes interest and motivation; it also takes time to fully understand a wide selection of the garden plants available to gardeners.

We therefore offer to locate and supply the plants we specify for our gardens, either just delivering them to site or more usually, placing them out on the newly cultivated beds to the planting plan and plant list we have produced as part of the design of the garden. Although there are plenty of fine growers here in France, we often find we need to purchase our plants from the UK, Belgium or Holland to fulfil our requirements.

We also like to give plants as presents to our friends and I much prefer to have grown them myself than to buy them: it’s a more personal gesture, I feel. Frustrated nurseryman that I am, I have a heated tunnel in the loft in which I sow seed and establish cuttings and while not everything does well (of course, I like to try the most difficult plants!) we do claim some success at producing batches of plants to give away. I had cleared the tunnel and turned off the under-soil heating before our recent trip South, but have just reinstated it for my next attempts at propagation.

Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii in flower today by the front gate

For myself I have taken cuttings of New Guinea Hybrid Impatiens from the single plant which has brightened up the shady border by the front door this year. I expect I will dig up and pot the main plant, which is now quite large, attempting to over-winter it out of the frost. These cuttings are my insurance policy and I have done the same with Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii, which we grow in a pot by the front gate and which will also need protection during winter. Other tender plants will be given similar treatment.

For friends I have  cuttings of Hebe Great Orme and Cistus corbariensis today and a list of a number of others I will attempt to root during the next week or so. It has been fascinating looking at notes I made almost forty years ago, listing the appropriate months to take cuttings from a wide range of shrubs. I have decided to give young Colin the benefit of the doubt and concentrate on the plants he suggests.

Echium fastuosum in its native habitat

In the post box most mornings are offers of plants from a number of mail order companies, suggestions I can resist without too much difficulty. On the other hand I have found a French grower on eBay, of all places, who lists a really interesting selection of unusual plants and clearly knows her stuff. I decided to give her a try and have ordered Echium fastuosum, whose towering blue flower spikes are a spectacular feature of the flora of Madera, Kniphofia Dorset Sentry, an acid-yellow variety of Red Hot Poker and Hedychium Tara, a hardy plant related to Ginger featuring luxuriant foliage and delightfully scented, bright orange flowers. We are looking forward to growing all of these and will report back on their arrival and progress.

Hibiscus, Hydrangea, Hebe, Hemerocallis and Hosta

From the wide range of plants flowering in our garden, “H” seems to be the letter of the day; it is also the birthday of my Father, Henry, who at 85 is still as keen a gardener as he was when he ran his nursery and flower farm in Cornwall, south-west England.


Unknown hybrid of Hibiscus moscheutos

Of the several hundred species of Hibiscus most gardeners are familiar with, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, is a tropical species, the national flower of Malaysia and a house plant in our climate. The other common species, Hibiscus syriacus, is hardy in Europe but comes from Korea where it too is the national flower. While both the French (Minier) and the English (Notcutts) have been growing and breeding this species since the 17th C and the Washington National Arboretum created the first triploid forms, some of the more interesting newer varieties are coming from its country of origin. Hibiscus syriacus grows easily here and many gardeners train it as a flowering hedge. Neighbours keep giving us self-sown seedlings to try but two of our newer named varieties are double flowered Purple Ruffles and semi-double, white with red China Chiffon.

A third Hibiscus form is becoming increasing popular: hybrids of the American the Swamp Hibiscus, H. moscheutos and similar species, which feature very large flowers in a range of colours. Fleming Brothers of Lincoln, Nebraska (USA) are well known breeders of this plant while the Sakata Seed Corporation in Japan was also involved from the 1960’s onwards. The big difference between these and H. syriacusis that they are herbaceous: they die down every autumn and regrow the following year. I have bought and planted a couple of colours from a grower at the local market but, as is so often the case here, he was unable to tell me there names. Perhaps they were a mix batch of seed raised plants but I was told they were from cuttings so I may eventually be able to identify them. As implied by the common name, while they like good sunshine they also require moist soil. I have chosen two sites with slightly different conditions to see where they do best.

 Hydrangea paniculata Kyushu

Hydrangea paniculata Kyushu

Hydrangea macrophylla varieties have been flowering for some while and now our H. paniculata are blooming. Kyushu has huge, rounded heads of white flowers which bend towards the ground under the weight. Great Star was a discovery from the renowned French garden of Princess Sturdza, Le Vasterival at Varangeville-sur-Mer, a few miles west of Dieppe in Normandy. The flowers open to large, white, wavy, star-shaped florets that can be up to 4″ in width.

I am a great fan of Hebe and of the 1001 gardens I have designed over the years few cannot have had a Hebe Great Orme in some prominent position. After its third year with us, ours is finally producing flowers in the quantities we are used to. Our other Hebe, in the White Border – a shadier spot than Great Orme was given – has flowered more quickly. This is H. Kirkii, a natural hybrid between Hebe salicifolia and Hebe rakaiensis which was discovered in 1868, near Canterbury on New Zealand’s South Island and was named after botanist Thomas Kirk.

We grow a number of Hemerocallis (Day Lilies) in a range of colours and these have being flowering for several weeks. One clump was recovered from the side of the road where someone had dumped it, but most are named varieties including Cream Drop, Burning Daylight, Royal Red, Vanilla Fluff and Congo Coral. This is the theory: in fact, some of the plants are not flowering anything like the colour expected and I suspect a mix-up at the nursery…..either that, or they ran out of one variety and bunged us what they had left.  In the dry conditions we are experiencing they have needed regular watering but have produced spectacular amounts of flower, whatever the colour.

Last on the list is Hosta, a plant we grow few of, lacking the water margin conditions they prefer. Variegated Great Expectations was said to be challenging to grow but has done well here, while a large patch of Hosta ‘Guacamole’ surrounds our Japanese granite bird bath. This variety is a sport of ‘Fragrant Bouquet’ and has huge, glossy, apple green leaves surrounded by streaked, dark green leaf margins just like an avocado. Flared flowers are appearing now: pale lavender and very fragrant.

A cool patch? Let’s get gardening again!

A delightfully cool morning prompted me to get some more work done in the garden. I like to do a little gardening every day, even if it’s just a spot of weeding with a cup of tea in one hand. It’s been some time since we saw clouds that look as if they mean it however, so I took the opportunity of the reduced temperatures to tidy up the garden of our holiday rental gîte.

Rose 'Paul's Himalayan Musk'


We named it Rose Cottage soon after we bought the place and imagined climbing and shrub roses in a romantic sheltered garden at the front of the property. In the end, someone stole the name plate and our only rose is a huge Paul’s Himalayan Musk we brought over from David Austin’s nursery in Northampton, UK.

The rose is very vigorous and the long stems are tied in and side-shoots cut back to around four buds. It now covers a twenty foot stretch of wall, turns a corner and buries a wire boundary fence, so it definitely earns its place in the garden. On the other hand we rarely have occupants in the gîte when it flowers and attempts to grow Clematis through it have so far been unsuccessful. The front garden, with its heavy clay, imported soil, is the only part to suffer from slugs and snails and these seem grateful for the several Clematis I have fed them with over the years.

The soil and aspect of this little garden do not make for ideal gardening conditions and remind me in many ways of the garden we left behind in Harpenden (UK). I have planted a conifer, Cupressus Goldcrest, Weigela florida variegata and Heuchera Palace Purple, all of which we had in that garden, together with our latest, bought at a nursery in Letty Green, Escallonia Apple Blossom.There are many plants suitable for these conditions and you just have to be aware of the limitations if you garden in soils of this type. A perfect candidate would be Hebe Great Orme, especially as it can be relied upon to flower all summer and well into the winter. We bought a plant from the same nursery in Hertfordshire during our last trip to the UK and immediately took cuttings so we could have it in more than one location. We give pride of place in the back garden to the main plant but one of the cuttings will certainly end up in the front. Spares can go to friends once they are well established in pots.

By mid day the sun was out again and temperatures were back up to the high 20’s; shirts came off, shorts replaced long trousers and after a leisurely lunch in the garden it was time to work inside, Chantal preparing the gîte for our next guests and me on the computer writing this article.

While roses are not my favourite subjects (I have the scars to prove it) I love pruning and I am in good company here, where French gardeners are totally obsessive about it. While I prune to assist flowering and create a pleasing shape, the French do it to be tidy and in many gardens every bush is cut back and trimmed to such an extent that they never flower; but they are tidy! I have known a few English gardeners who work the same way but, I am glad to report, very few. Surrounded by all this excessive behaviour I seem to have my secateurs out more often than I used to and several plants are flowering twice a year as a result. Cut back immediately after flowering, plants will often respond with new growth and a second crop of flowers. Lavender, perennial Geraniums, Nepeta, Lavatera and many others have been given this treatment and respond very well. Although our growing season may be longer than yours, anything that flowers reasonably early on new growth is a candidate. A little feed and water rewards them for all this additional effort but otherwise you just sit back and enjoy the show.

Miscanthus Zebrinus


We have brought a number of ornamental grasses over from the UK and added them to local purchases from French autumn garden shows. Grasses are at their best now with many of them flowering at the end of the season. I like to leave them untrimmed to enjoy the frosted brown stems over winter. My favourite are the Miscanthus and while we grow them in much smaller clumps than when we gardened on three acres in the UK, we currently have four varieties. Golden variegated Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus forms chest high thickets even before flowering and ours fills a difficult patch under a Cherry tree. The colour comes from gold bands which run across each leaf blade in a regular pattern, while M. S. Cabaret has conspicuous white stripes and is planted at the far end of a bed featuring sun-loving plants. A young Miscanthus Purpurascens has almost been swamped by a silver Artemisia and will need moving next March. The leaves turn purplish green with pink midribs in the summer and develop red and orange tones in autumn. Another Miscanthus variety (I lost the name: possibly Gracillimus) provides dappled shade to our purple-leaved Japanese Maple, which might otherwise scorch in high summer.

I had never grown Stipa gigantea before starting this garden and we are enjoying the sight of this tufted plant with tall, oat-like flower spikes, bringing a softening effect to a shady dell amongst Skimmia, Hydrangeas and Geraniums. Stipa tenuissima is a delight, with fine leaves and feathery flowers waving in the slightest breeze. It has been planted in quantity in the local trading estate as it was in our last English garden and is high on my wants list. Other grasses in the garden include Festuca glauca, Carex buchananii from New Zealand and Imperata Red Baron, which looks superb in the evening sun.

Some readers will know that we traded out of a beautiful log cabin during our last months in Hertfordshire. I imported the building from Finland and had it built near the entrance to our landlord’s garden centre after they announced they wanted to sell the bungalow we had rented as our office for the previous ten years. When we decided just a few months later to make the move to France, my landlord and several others wanted us to abandon the building. After much wrangling and several angry letters, we finally had it dismantled and brought here and just this week, two years later, workers have started to erect it in our back garden.

Gooseberry Espera Lubera - it's on the "wish list"


The cabin covers nearly 100 square metres and will become a classroom for the Garden Design Academy when we hold residential courses. We plan to modify the roof so that we can grow Sedum and other plants on it and collect rainwater to irrigate the vegetables. A fruit garden is planned using plants we have been growing in pots for a year now – apricots, peaches and grapes – together with our young Bramley apple and soft fruit we plan to obtain from the UK. I have been very tempted by a new range Suttons will be offering this autumn: Gooseberry Espera, Raspberry Twotimer, Blackberry Navaho and Redcurrent Lisette. These will join a hybrid berry collected as a cutting from my Grandmother’s Cornish garden before she died.

For me, the gardening we do in France is little different to what we have done over the years in the UK. I find no difficulty assisting clients in China or the USA and while we learn much from these diverse gardening experiences, the principles are universal. I hope you enjoy these snippets from our new life in France and manage to adapt some of the tips to your own gardens.

Festuca glauca and Hebe Great Orme