Courson Plant Fair 2012 – happy 30th birthday!

If you have been following these pages for any time you will know that one of my favourite plant fairs is the Journées des Plantes de Courson, in the countryside south of Paris.

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky-­‐Winky’. Award winning Hydrangea at Courson 2010

Held twice a year since 1982, the October 2012 edition of the show is its 57rd and its 30thbirthday. Clearly the stops will be pulled out for this session and 230 growers from around Europe will be selling their wares to an enthusiastic public; 30,000 visitors are expected over three days.

Each year the show has a theme and for 2012 the Hydrangea will be holding centre stage. Following on from a major international symposium on Hydrangea held in Angers earlier this year, the festival will be focusing on this genus and the related climbers, Schizophragma and Decumaria. Few visitors to previous shows will have failed to be impressed by the many new Hydrangea varieties on offer – I have succumbed to their charms myself

Hydrangea paniculata Great Star bought at Courson in 2009

  – so imagine this year will see the launch of several more.

As in previous year the Garden Design Academy will be offering guided tours to the festival, together with visits to the International Festival of Gardens at Chaumont sur Loire and a number of other important Loire Valley Gardens.

Perhaps we will see you there!

Horticulture shows and wild February weather in France

February has been a wild switchback ride for gardeners in France this year. The month started off spring-like and I was nervously reporting the early flowering and growth of many of our plants. Then the cold weather hit us and temperatures plummeted to below -20C, hovering there for a fortnight. This damaged many plants, as can be plainly seen now that frost-free nights and warm sunny days have replaced the biting cold. It’s far too early to panic, but I am sure some of my choicest young plants will be lost.

Salon du Vegital show, Angers 2012

Amazingly, after floods in the south of the country at the end of the year, we now told that we are already in the middle of a drought, the likes of which have not been seen for decades. President Sarkozy has announced €1 billion of support for suffering farmers and growers after similar problems last year. With the French presidential elections to be held in nine weeks’ time, Sarkozy and all the presidential hopefuls have been at the Agricultural Fair in Paris this week. The exhibition is huge and attracts around 650,000 visitors annually – around 5 times more than the UK’s Smithfield Show – an illustration of just how important agriculture and horticulture is to the French people. Despite job losses there is a desperate need for staff in the industry; eight per cent of French voters work directly in the sector, with many more involved in the supporting industries, so it is still very important both socially and economically.

Gardenia augusta 'Crown Jewel'

We have recently returned from our visit to an important horticultural show in Angers, as noted in my last post. My main interest was in meeting growers and seeing what new varieties they were offering; I was not disappointed and have promised to spend much more time at the event next year. Many new varieties come to the market through the SAPHO organisation, which protects and distributes plants to propagators, who in turn supply the wholesale growers who grow the plants for garden centres and other outlets. We were excited about a number of their varieties, including a hardy Gardenia, best known as a scented houseplant. Gardenia augusta ‘Crown Jewel’ may not be totally hardy in the sort of conditions we have recently experienced, but it would be great in a pot on our classroom patio – want one! There are a lot of lovely new Hydrangea paniculata about and Sapho were showing Diamant Rouge, the most red variety so far available. Their new Corydalis x BLUE LINE also looks as if it might far a place in our garden, perhaps a swath planted under the Sequoia.

Corydalis x BLUE LINE

Garden Orchid is the marketing name of a selection of Cypripedium orchids which should do for the hardy species what the Dutch breeders have done with orchids as house plants. They are currently offered in five varieties and I hope to be trying them all and reporting back on progress.


Peche de Vigne and other autumn planting temptations.

At the Saturday market, Roger the market gardener was offering Peche de Vigne, a fruit I had only vaguely heard of. “What is the difference between a normal Peach and a Peche de Vigne?” I asked, and was told that they were not grafted but grown from seed. Also the fruit was not as good as a grafted variety but used in cooking.

Clearly this was not the whole of the story so I investigated further. Peche de Vigne is not really a variety but rather a type of peach, late flowering, fruiting at around the same time as the grape vines and used as an indicator plant in Lyonnais vineyards in the way that roses are in the Bordeaux region. Both the rose and the Peche de Vigne are very prone to mildew, so if you plant them at the head of your row of grapes they act like a canary to a coal miner, warning of troubles ahead. Apparently selected varieties exist and there is said to be a collector in Saint-Etienne d’Estrechoux in the Herault with 120 different varieties gather from all over France and fruiting over a 5 month period. Many of them have red flesh and this form is commercialised in Soucieu-en-Jarrest, self-styled Capital of Peche de Vigne, south-west of Lyon.

It feels a little autumnal today; temperatures have dropped ten degrees to around 20° C and as if to prove the point, plant catalogues have started arriving in the post. I am a cynic when it comes to this end of the gardening market; outrageous claims, dodgy photographs and a lack of Latin names are a feature of these publications. Offers seem too good to be true and generally are, and why do they think price draws and free gifts are a good idea? I guess I am not their ideal customer profile.

In France, Jacques Briant is perhaps the acceptable face of this genre and their autumn catalogue has made interesting reading. An inserted special offer leaflet with four David Austin roses for 28€30 attracted my attention and had me turning pages. I arrived at page 18 very rapidly, but paused to look at Camellia williamsii Anticipation – 9,99€ for a 7cm rooted cutting….I don’t think so! Seven pages later a primrose caught my eye – Zebra Blue has sky blue veins over a white background – very pretty and five times the price of Suttons in the UK, but then, Suttons don’t send plants to France.

Fruit next and yes, they offer both white and red-fleshed Peche de Vigne. There’s a selection of Apples, Pears, Plums and Cherries, including Bigarreau Trompe Geai, with yellow-white fruits, unattractive to birds. Being France, there are also Apricots and other fruits, more or less exotic to the English gardener. They give a half page to the self-fertile Kiwi (Actinidia) Solissimo, which I bought from a rival company in the spring. My plant arrived in a pathetic 7cm pot and finally convinced me I was never going to buy from Willemse again.

Rushing on to page 48 to look at the shrubs. Abelia Kaleidoscope is a lovely looking plant, already growing happily in the front garden, as my reader will be aware. Mahonia ( nitens) Cabaret is doing well in the back garden, as are Daphne odora (Aureomarginata) – full Latin names are not always used – and several others featured here. By pages 52/3 we have moved on to Hydrangeas, including some tempting new varieties. I think I’ll wait until the Coursan plant show to buy a few more, perhaps Hydrangea arborescens Incrediball, with truly massive white flower heads.

Moving on past several interesting climbers, including their own Schizophragma Rose Sensation, which we planted this year, interesting looking Akebia quinata rosea and several attractive Clematis, we finally arrive at the trees, where several plants take my fancy.

I have always felt the front garden needed a tree and considered moving a speciment from the back to the front, but obviously we want to sho off a bit! Three other possibilities leap out from the page: Albizia (julibrissin) Rouge Pompadour a gorgeous Mimosa-like tree of sculptural form with fluffy red flowers, Acacia Casque Rouge (actually Robinia Pseudoacacia Casque Rouge, but I’m sure they know that) a deep pink form of the Robinia that grows wild all around us and, Chitalpa x.taschkentensis Summer Belles. This last tree is really rather interesting. A recent hybrid between Chilopsis and Catalpa, the original breeding work was undertaken at the Uzbek Academy of Science in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the 1960s before being introduced internationally in the mid 1970s. This small hybrid with a rounded form initiates flower bud in June / July, opening to produce an abundant display of frilly pink flowers with yellow throats for the rest of the summer.

Other forms exist but this could be the answer.

The catalogue continues up the order form at page 120 by which time I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand some interesting plants, on the other, French retail prices and irritating marketing methods which do not inspire confidence in this gardener.

The mushroom glut and other good gardening news.

With the unseasonal weather set to continue well into August, Nature seems very confused. The recent rains have provided a huge glut of edible (and other) fungi which are normally expected in the autumn and we have been washing, slicing and freezing basket-loads of Ceps every day for a week or more. It has made the French national news broadcasts: initially upbeat reports of nature’s bounty and impromptu mushroom markets in the south-west, but now including cautionary notes as the hospitals fill up with poisoned tourists. It pays to know what you are putting in your mouth, I find.

Abelia Kaleidoscope

A summer of mild, wet weather is not what we signed up for when we decided to cross the Channel and settle in central France. It has brought benifits however, in terms of garden plant growth. Establishing a new garden is an expensive affair, especially if you have to buy plants at French retail prices. The humidity has helped the settling in of these treasures and for that we are most grateful. A large number of plants have been bought this year but recent purchases have included a new variety of Abelia,  A. ‘Kaleidoscope’, bred for its leaf color and dense, compact form. I have planted it in our new front bed, next to clumps of orange Crocosmia and scarlet Phygelius, both blooming as we speak, and in front of another new plant, Erythrina x. bidwillii, currently in bud but promising clusters of pea-shaped, dark red flowers. This hot scheme should be worth building on as more plants become available, creating a stunning show against a sunny garden wall, which already features Sophora and Mimosa and should be ideal for other half-hardy plants.

Lagerstroemiais high on my wish list for this bed; we now have three varieties of this plant which for me is still very exotic and I would like to try taking cuttings from a red-flowering form for the front and perhaps a softer pink than we currently grow, for the back garden. The oldest of our specimens, a Demartis variety called Yang Tse, was planted in half sun but has since been moved to a much warmer spot in the gravel patio. It is now in full flower while the other two, a white and a red, are still in bud. I have my eyes open now for suitable plants and will no doubt shortly start begging for cuttings.

I have been taking lots of cuttings recently, inspired by students who are doing the same on our Plant Propagation for Beginners course. I have a small plastic greenhouse with undersoil heating installed in the loft under a Velux window and I am having great fun swapping cuttings with neighbours and or increasing some of our own plants to give away to friends. Our first batches are now rooted and being hardened off in a sheltered spot and include Campsis, Hydrangea paniculata, Viburnum bodnatensis and pomegranate.

In the mean time back in the loft we have Brugmansia, Rosemary, Curry Plant, Ceratostigma, Acer palmatum, Camellia and Cornus florida all doing well. I have always loved propagation and have had several opportunities to grow plants from seed or cuttings on a commercial scale. As a lad, I even entered the Young Propagator of the Year competition run by Horticulture Week. The temptation to start a nursery when we moved to France was only held at bay by lack of garden space and perhaps it is just as well: the Academy is more than enough to keep me occupied.

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.

Spring / not Spring

The mild weather has got central France moving; in back gardens and allotments throughout our region gardeners are stirring from their winter hibernation. Frames and tunnels are breaking out all over and the national sport of shrub pruning has been resumed with enthusiasm. We are far from immune, urging the season on so we can get out and garden, smell the flowers and revert back to the outdoor life we love.

Viburnum bodnatense

Viburnum bodnatense or something very similar

I have been creating new beds, cutting a new line into a weedy gravel patio to create more, and more interesting, planting opportunities. I’m quite excited about this new shape, which reconciles the formal house with an original 1890’s water feature we have converted into a flower bed and dining island. A few plants can then be moved and a bed I was never quite at home with will be transformed into something far more appealing.

There are signs of live everywhere in the garden, but few plants flowering as yet. Our Hamamelis is a joy and around the village crocus, Camellia, and Primroses are appearing. Snowdrops are in full flower, having popped up a couple of weeks ago only to be promptly buried in snow.

Snowdrops at Chabris mill

Snowdrops at Chabris mill

The weather is very up and down. In the course of a week we have had mild spring-like days and gentle rain, clear frosty nights and mornings and then, this weekend, one of the worst storms for decades hit the west coast of France, turning the Vendee and Charente Maritime coasts into disaster zones. We had plenty of wind here, but short of few trees and a handful of roofing tiles down the town had no great problems. Someone’s polythene greenhouse flew in overnight, ending up in a flower bed, ruining our tree Peony. We hardly slept, listening to the storm battering our Sequoia and ripping the polythene sheeting off the stack of wood in the front garden.

The postman has delivered our “publicity”, a post-box full of brochures from DIY chains, supermarkets and gardening stores offering plants, equipment and accessories for the garden. Specialist mail order nurseries over here, as in the UK, produce catalogues featuring plants of unlikely colours and descriptions making the most ordinary variety sound like the crown jewels. The flowers are bigger and the fruits juicier than any normal plant but amongst the hype and nonsense there are some interesting plants. Jacques Briant is offering a delicious new Hydrangea paniculata variety called Vanille Fraise at 10 Euros a pot. At 1.25 Euro our local hypermarket offers stainless steel stakes in a spiral shape for supporting tomato plants, something I promised myself after watching early fruits suffer in the damp last year. The other item I have my eyes peeled for is solar powered garden lighting: I am hoping to rig up something to use with our Japanese granite lantern but have yet to find the solution I am looking for.

Hydrangea paniculata Vanille Fraise

Hydrangea paniculata Vanille Fraise

Also hard to find is lawn edging: amazing but true. The new edge to our patio needs edging and the least complicated and cheapest solution is plastic lawn edging. We have been searching high and low and the best we can come up with is to order it from the UK. Delivery costs will no doubt double the price.

Our ideal solution would be to use planks of Robinia – basically a weed around here but excellent rot restistance, better even than Oak. We would need to cut lines into the wood to enable us to create the curves we have designed but hope we can find someoen to lend us a bench saw to do so.

We are having difficulty finding these too and continue to research both on the internet. In the mean time the news is full of the disaster in the west of France, with sixty people drowned, thousands of homes damaged, the oyster industry laid waste and 10% of the farming land inundated with sea water.

ICS visits Courson 2009

As noted in my previous post, last weekend I was the guest of the International Camellia Society and the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia group, as nice a bunch of people as you could hope to meet in a garden in France.

Friday we visited Les Journée des Plantes at Domaine de Courson, south of Paris. This is my favourite plant fairs and we try to go every year – so much easier now that we live in France, only two hours away by motorway.

Courson - the chateau from across the lake

Courson - the chateau from across the lake

The ICS had its own stand and I took the opportunity to meet them and buy a Camellia, a variegated sasanqua variety called Okina-Goroma, with pink flowers during the winter. I hope to keep this in a pot in the unheated conservatory which covers the north side of our house, to enjoy the flower and scent as you come to the front door.

As usual the range and quality of plants was astonishing and although I bought several, there were many wonderful plants I wanted which had to be left. Last year I regretted not buying a Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot and I made up for it at the stand of Pépinière Tous au Jardin, from whom I also bought a smashing Hydrangea paniculata called Great Star.

Hydrangea paniculata Great Star

Hydrangea paniculata Great Star

The nursery had many fine Hydrangeas and I was pleased to see they won an award for H. involucrata Mihara Kokomoe Tama, together with the Press Award for the best display.

Also on the stand was Mahonia nitens Cabaret, a new variety which is already on my “must have” list for next year.

Mahonia nitens Cabaret

Mahonia nitens Cabaret

It cannot be said that plants are cheap in France, and with my pocket money disappearing fast I had to be quite selective. Guillot supplied me with a couple of Roses, including one from their Generosa range, similar to David Austens modern shrub roses.

We have been meaning to visit the Cayeux iris fields for years but have yet to make it: next June I hope. In the mean time, I have satisfied my desire for their plants by buying three, together with a Hemerocallis called Burning Daylight. From Darmartis I bought our second Lagerstromia, this one a dark pink, purple almost, called Dynamite. They also had variegated Euphorbia Tasmanian Tiger and this was added to the collection in the plant creche.

I had replaced a couple of plants left in the UK: Salvia uliginosa and Phlomis purpurea, bought a couple of grasses and a very pretty strawberry coloured Hydrangea hortensis Mirai before I relaesed I couldn’t afford to eat for the rest of the trip and called a halt to it. I made do with looking at everything the other members of the group had bought, jealously eying the Magnolias in particular.

This show can bring out the worst in you if you are not careful!

Plant hunting and garden design back in England

Every so often I am invited back to the UK to design a garden and my most recent trip took me down to Cornwall. This is the county where I spend most of my childhood and my Grandmother, now 103 years old, still lives there.

Many things in the gardens seemed so different to those of my new life in central France; orange Montbretia (Crocosmia) was everywhere to be seen, in gardens and hedgerows, a South African plant which has naturalised in the county.

France 325

Montbresia growing wild on a clifftop in North Cornwall

I lifted a few of the common form from Grannies’ garden and from a nursery bought a pot each of Buttercup, Emberglow and George Davidson for a new border at home.

Hydrangea macrophylla varieties were in full flower in the South West, while the one in my garden, brought over from the UK in the removal van, had finished long ago. I’m afraid I could not resist buying a Hydranea as well, but this time chose H. paniculata Kyushu to go in the shady border under the Sequoia, which is developing into a Japanese / Chinese planting area surrounding a large granite lantern.

Cornish Hydrangeas
Cornish Hydrangeas

The garden we came to visit contains many fine plants and any new design will have to take these into account as far as possible. Plans for a swimming pond will mean that a few lovely specimens will have to go and we hope that by working in the dormant season we will be able to save some of them.