A great gardening weekend in France

Last Chance - a bearded Iris spotted at Bourdillon last year.

Last Chance – a bearded Iris spotted at Bourdillon last year.

As if our life was not exhilarating enough already, this weekend is one of the most important in the French gardening calendar.

I am still reeling from the joys of the Courson Plant Fair and a tour I organised for Australian guests to visit eleven notable Loire Valley gardens.

Oriental Poppy Lambada at Bourdillon.

Oriental Poppy Lambada at Bourdillon.

No matter – Bourdillon, a local Iris, Hemerocallis and Peony nursery with a well-deserved national reputation, is holding its open days from 31st May to 2nd June and in spite of all the rain, this should not be missed. I am off to my French language classes on Friday morning, government sponsored, in an attempt to improve my employability, so I may well drop in on my way home. On second thoughts, Chantal would like it and she holds the cheque book: we can go together in the afternoon. They sell Oriental Poppies too, and I have a marvellous gap awaiting a group or two of these lovely plants.

The gardens at chateau de Rivau - a first time visit this year

The gardens at chateau de Rivau – a first time visit this year

Rendez-vous aux Jardins, now in its 11th year, brings together nearly 2,300 public and private parks and gardens for an exciting open weekend. While many of the better known gardens have a range of events for the weekend, over 430 are opening to the public especially for the weekend, with 260 open for the first time this year.

We live in the Region Centre which includes the Loire Valley and other areas of great natural beauty, and are given a choice of 126 gardens to visit in just two days. Tough decisions will have to be made!

I was not aware they had a chateau in Poulain, a village a few miles away from us, more famous for its annual donkey fair than any horticultural prowess. For the first time this year the grounds of the Chateau de Poulain are open for viewing so I have emailed them advanced warning I am on my way. It seems we have B & B guests on Saturday so one garden will have to do, but I hope we can go out and find at least two more on Sunday, with a decent meal thrown in for good luck.

It’s a tough life, but it has to be done!

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Easter weekend: the first Cuckoo and the second plant fair.

Flowering Quince in a spring garden

Flowering Quince in a spring garden

Easter was not warm; in fact it has been the coldest March in the north of France since records began. Sheltered from all directions here in the centre of France, even we have had cool nights with temperatures down to zero or less, and rising above 10°C only with difficulty. Despite gorgeous-looking sunny days, it seems more like winter than spring, although we hear our first Cuckoo of the year when we were walking the dog in the woods this morning.

Our new lawn is finally seeded however and, now that we have been to our second plant fair of the year, there is plenty of planting to be done. Today I concentrated on a sunny piece of border between the new lawn and the gravel terrace, at the edge of the White Garden. A Thyme collected in Spain now graces the junction between gravel and grass, swiftly followed by Cistus ladanifer bought at the Chateau de la Bourdaisiere plant fair from a couple of young nurserymen based in Cahors. We like their knowledge, enthusiasm and plant range. The Gum Cistus carries white flowers with crimson marks at the base of the petals and should look quite at home next to existing Santolina. We bought some bare-root Phlox yesterday including a white variety, the next plant in this new grouping and three Allium White Empress bulbs are now planted amongst the Santolina to give a little extra height. Finally for today, I lifted two, out of our three, white Hemerocallis (Daylilies), spreading them out to occupy part of the new space created by redefining the lawn. A very happy hour and a half was spent doing this and weeding the areas immediately around the new plants, but there is still plant of work to do in the White Garden.

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ attracting early Bumble Bees

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ attracting early Bumble Bees

Beyond this section we have created an oriental garden which has also benefited from the new lines of the lawn, with plenty of additional planting opportunities created. A Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’, smothered with white flowers, has already been planted and this is glowing in the spring sunshine. I have planted it to one side and in front of a large granite Japanese lantern. To the other side and further back, I have placed, but not yet planted, a Pieris with red flowers, labelled as Mountain Fire, a variety which features white flowers! I believe it is actually Valley Valentine. I am continually having arguments with French nurserymen about their labelling: no labels, poor labeling or incorrect labels are all too common here. Anyway, the plant looks good, with bamboo to one side, Japanese orchids and dwarf Rhododendron yakushimanum in front. It is also very close to a young plant of Magnolia Black Tulip which, with luck, will flower around the same time.

Pieris Valley Valentine, if I'm not mistaken

Pieris Valley Valentine, if I’m not mistaken

I have been hunting for two of the plants we bought yesterday for some time, although neither is particularly rare in English garden centres. Clematis macropetala is just coming into flower now: four lance-shaped petals an inch or two long and many smaller, blue or cream petal-like stamens in the centre, creating delightful semi-double bells. We haven’t decided where to plant it but we are so pleased to have it. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis is a dwarf evergreen shrub with superbly scented winter flowers. I’ll plant it in the bed next to the front door, to amaze our visitors. This has been on my wants list for ages so I am delighted to have found such a large, healthy specimen.

Much as I’d like to spend all day in the garden, I also have to prepare the classroom for the first of the years students, who arrives next week. We have been asked to put together a tailor-made, two week course for the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman, who would like to hone his skills in garden design and computer-aided design (CAD). I always look forward to welcoming fellow professionals on our courses, adapting the content around their existing skills and the training required. There is always a great deal of preparation to be done and in this case a number of Loire Valley garden visits will punctuate the course, giving additional insights into European gardens in all their many styles.

Loire gardens tour – day 4

The Most Beautiful Potager in France – Chateau de La Chatonnière

Finally I have completed the task of sorting out the bed alongside the swimming pool. After months of neglect caused by poor weather and the presence of builders, this involved hand weeding and forking all the planted areas and digging over the remaining broad band of soil, loosening up the compacted earth. This has been a tiring, but not tiresome exercise, straining muscles I expected never to use again and perhaps damaging a number of vital organs! As a reward for my efforts, I planted bear patches as I went along using, in the main, bedding plants we had grown from seed. The only major task that now remains is to sow a small L-shaped area with grass seed to create my “pelouse anglais” – my English-style lawn. Of course, in the UK I would have laid turf, but this time saving product is more or less unavailable here.

A quiet corner of Chateau de La Chatonnière

Back to the gardens tour, and Saturday is a free day for our students and visitors, giving us and them a chance to recover from the excitement of the previous three days of garden visits. There are plenty of sights to see in the area and this group decided to take a train journey up the Cher to the city of Bourges. On their return, the swimming pool and one of Chantal’s regional themed evening meals awaited.

Sunday was tour day four, another treat involving a drive to the area between Azay le Rideau and Tours to visit two exceptional gardens: Chateau de La Chatonnière and the Chateau de Villandry.

The renaissance-style kitchen garden at Chateau de Villandry

Both gardens feature ornamental vegetable planting but while La Chatonnière is, for the most part, contemporary in style, Villandry is famous for its traditional gardens. La Chatonnière was built almost single-handed by its illustrious head gardener over the last twenty years and it is still a work in progress, with an amphitheatre as his latest project. Ahmed Azéroual, who came to the chateau from Villandry, is often on hand to chat to visitors and his amazing, leaf-shaped Garden of Abundance recently won an award as the Most Beautiful Potager in France. In total, twelve themed gardens have been created on the site since 1986 and with the roses, irises and Hemerocallis just coming into flower we enjoyed touring them all, before stopping off for lunch in Azay.

Azay le Rideau is a touristy town and we eat touristy food – OK, but not wonderful – “correct”, as my Mother-in-Law would say. It is just a short drive from here to Villandry, with its famous renaissance chateau and even more famous gardens, at the junction of the rivers Loire and Cher. And what gardens they are! The stunning recreation of the renaissance design was undertaken between 1908 and 1918 replacing an English-style garden and park. Further areas have been landscaped since, including a herb garden in the 1970’s and the recently constructed Sun Garden.

The water garden at Chateau de Villandry

The decorative kitchen garden is a mix of colourful flowers and vegetables planted in a chequerboard plan, while the ornamental garden is composed of box hedges forming musical symbols, hearts, scrolls, butterflies, fans… allegories of love – tender, passionate, fickle and tragic.

The water garden is grand and tranquil: here the pool takes centre stage, with the sound of the fountains and the great lawned spaces bringing to visitors a feeling of calm and tranquillity. This is the most peaceful garden you could find, in spite of thousands of tourists sharing it with you.

The new Sun Garden – Chateau de Villandry

There is a herb garden, with its medicinal and culinary plants and a maze, which I didn’t visit. The new Sun Garden was excellent, divided into colour-themed parts – Sky (blue and white) and Sun (yellow and orange). The great success of these was their immense scale, allowing a very skilful designer to really achieve his idea of planting in a single colour – and all the variations of it – for a stunning, year-round effect. I have had a couple of clients over the years insisting I must not plant yellow, a curious idea that saddened rather than challenged me in my plant selection. I would have loved to show them this garden, padlocking them to the gate posts until they understood!

Villandry – Garden Design Academy tour May 2012

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.

Hibiscus

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.

Iris, Hemerocallis, Poppies and Peonies

Pivoine Marie Crousse

Peony (Pivoine) Marie Crousse

After Courson, our last flower show visit, we followed up the discovery of a local grower to visit them at their nursery. Bourdillon specialise in Iris, Hemerocallis, Poppies and Peonies and their beautifully illustrated catalogue mentioned an open weekend on 21st and 22nd May.

We dutifully turned up on the Sunday with a gardening friend only to discover, with a season three weeks in advance of normal, they had held it early this year. There was still plenty to see however and we happy roamed the fields for several hours before returning to the office to buy a few things. Their web site (http://www.bourdillon.com) shows their full range of plants but here are a few photos from my visit……..

Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami

Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami

We finally succumbed to temptation and bought one of the Itoh peonies I described having seen at a show earlier this year – Bertzella – while our friend chose a potted Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami which she later divided and shared with us. The Japanese Water Iris is native not only to Japan but is very widespread in China, Korea, India & eastern Russia and needs boggy conditions in the spring. We have planted it in a shady spot in a new bed which contains many recent purchases, but plan to move it in the autumn to a spot next to a Japanese water basin to which I add water often, the overspill moistening the ground for the nearby Hostas and other plants.

Poppy Lambada

Oriental Poppy Lambada

The weather here continues to be warm and dry; temperatures in the twenties, usually 10°C higher than the UK and no rain to speak of since February. Water restrictions have started in many regions of France and agriculture is in trouble, although there are a few regions of the country where they have had plenty of rain.

At the recent Comice Agricole at St. Aignan, a country show also involving the 16 villages surrounding the town, the talk was of little else. We hoped to try comparing the white wine from each of the communes (for educational purposes and of course, in moderation) but it was so warm we could not summon the energy for more than a brief visit before leaving to sit in the shade of a Willow by the River Cher and cool off. A TV crew spent some time filming our standard poodle as she said “Hello” to the competition goats, the first in the family to achieve fame in this country.

Hemerocallis Edge of Darkness

Hemerocallis Edge of Darkness

Mail order plants, autumn bulb planting and autumn colour

I’m not a fan of catalogue retailers of plants and bulbs. I have no problem with normal nurseries offering their wares mail order: it’s those glossy, strangely unnatural colours and the “two plants for the price of one / free gifts with every order / you have definitely won a small fortune in our free draw” companies I dislike.

Granny used to buy from one such company in England and I, forgive my innocence, have just tried one here in France. To encourage me with my first order, Willemse told me I was to be given a years supply of Strelitzia, free delivery and a big wet kiss from the van driver (I exaggerate for effect, as is my way, but not a lot). In addition, I had definitely won a great deal of money: how could I lose? I ordered loads of stuff. I also kept a copy of the order form and filed the catalogue safely away for future reference.

Fruits on our Arbutus, newlt planted against the walls of the Garden Design Academy log cabin classroom

When the bulbs and other plants I had ordered arrived several weeks later, we noticed some were missing: a pack which was supposed to have nine plants only had three. I emailed the help desk and was told that our order was fine: three plants as ordered. I explained in which respect it wasn’t fine but was told it was definitely fine: three plants as per my order. I sent them a copy of the order: “No, you ordered the one of each variety, super discount offer”. I sent them a photograph of the page in the catalogue which provided details of their offer to supply nine plants and was told it was not the case: what I had ordered was three plants. Just as I was considering driving over to impress on them my disappointment, they replied to a further email with the news that they would send me the six missing plants I had paid for and not charge me for them: in effect, I was told, they are free! And sure enough, the offending plants arrived a week later and are now out in the garden: three groups of three Hemerocallis.

 

Miscanthus

Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus - autumn leaf and flower

Is it me, or do people who order a number of plants expect to receive that number? I was, and still remain, unimpressed. Anyway, I am looking forward to the huge amount of money I have definitely won; when I do, it’s all ’round to Elliott’s place for a champagne party!

Fritillaria dreaming

This is not my first mail order gardening problem in France, but may well be my last. Attentive readers will remember my fight with Thompson and Morgan, a seed company with whom I have traded happily for years in the UK; unfortunately in France you have to deal with their French office, with inflated French prices and a French attitude to customer service. My wife, by the way and in the interests of balance, uses a number of mail order companies for clothes and other things and has had few problems. Perhaps it is just me.

The bulbs were OK as far as I could see. I planted dwarf Daffodils next to our new Mahonia nitens, tulips with pansies in the front garden, Crown Imperial Fritillaria amongst variegated Cistus and Euphorbia wulfenii. Drifts of Ixia and Ipheion have been inserted into patches of gravel below the washing lines while broad lines of Muscari wind around new planting near the log cabin. Japanese Iris went to the oriental garden next to a new clump of Arum Lilies bought at Courson. The Hemerocallis? Three creamy-white Vanilla Fluff were planted in the white border while the two other varieties, Double Royal Red and Congo Orange went to the other side of the garden. Three of each. Not one.

We have had three frosts so far, the last a week or so ago. These pulled the leaves from the grape vines giving us no autumn show at all. The forests and countryside however, have carried on as normal and are gradually gearing up for a fantastic display of autumn leaf colour (fall color, if you are from the other side of the Atlantic). Several plants in the garden are also putting on a show, with Euphorbia giffithii Fireglow perhaps the best. As the season moves on I shall be posting up photographs for all to admire. It’s a glorious season!

Euphorbia Fireglow, young plants showing autumn leaf colour in the garden at Chabris