Winter arrives in France (at last!)

Holly berries in the snow

Somehow we all knew it would end in tears. The weather has been milder than Nature intended throughout the winter; plants have been flowering unseasonably and the summer bedding seems to have hardly noticed the passing of the months. Farmers, growers and gardeners, while perhaps enjoying the show, have been nervous for some time, fearing damage to blossoms and the ruining of crops when and if the weather finally turned cold. Peach and Apricot growers in the South-West have featured on the evening news, looking more than a little concerned.

Phormium - New Zealand Flax

Yesterday the snow arrived and we are told that not far behind are bitter Siberian winds. Walking the dog in the countryside has been a pleasure however, with the sun out and photogenic scenes at every turn.

In the meantime the local gardening shop’s promotional brochure arrived today, highlighting the agrarian nature of this country and its people. The leaflet features seed potatoes, nothing unusual there, but also rotavators with reversible plough attachments, bee hives – the real thing, not ornaments – and hatching equipment for your chicken eggs. When was the last time you saw these in your local Wyevale? Not to be left out, the hypermarket is offering above-ground swimming pools, ride-on mowers and a range of rainwater recovery kits, including one utilising linked underground storage tanks, each of 2650L capacity. Gardening is different in France, but just as big as in the UK.

Mimosa in the front garden at the Garden Design Academy

A Gardener’s Christmas wish list.


Mahonia x. media

The festive season has arrived at the Elliott household (we found a bottle of port at the back of Mother-in-Law’s cupboard, 40 years old, if it is a day – the port, not the Belle-Mère) and I’m writing my list for Santa.

Naturally, plants are a priority.

We have just passed through the mildest and driest autumn since 1900 and December shows no sign of altering the trend. Roses and Geraniums are still throwing out the occasional flower and spring flowering Rhododendrons and Camellias are already opening. Despite this, with memories of summer excess still strong in the memory, the garden seems to be lacking colour. I am hoping Mahonia  x. media ‘Charity’, ‘Winter Sun’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’ would bring bunches of scented sunshine into the cool, misty mornings. As an ex-gardener at the Saville gardens, Windsor, I am very fond of Charity and her rarely seen sisters, Faith and Hope, which were bred at the nursery there.

Viburnum x. bodnantense

I already have my eyes on a sucker of Viburnum x. bodnantense in a garden in the village, although I am not sure of the variety. The cross of Viburnum farreri (formerly V. fragrans) and V. grandiflorum was originally made by Charles Lamont, the Assistant Curator at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1933. He didn’t rate the resulting plants as being any better than their parents, so did not propagate them. In 1934 and 1935, the same cross was done at Bodnant, hence the name. ‘Dawn’ was the first cultivar to be named, ‘Deben’ was another and, after he died, ‘Charles Lamont’ was also named in honour of the original raiser. I am trying to find out if the French have their own hydrids.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna is a great little evergreen shrub that we have grown in several gardens, but do not yet have here in Chabris. It’s the sort of plant you hardly notice until, in December, it produces small, but intensely fragrant white flowers. Our front door faces north and this plant is ideal for these conditions. A small bed, which this summer contained a New Guinnea Hybrid Busie Lizie, awaits.


I noticed a specimen of Chimonanthus praecox poking over the wall of a rather grand house in the village last year. This and Hamamelis are certaining worth growing for winter colour. We already have Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ growing amongst other woodland plants near the Sequoias, so a Wintersweet would make a nice addition. Close by, variegated Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot seems to have been in flower forever, Ilex Blue Angel provides a few seasonal berries and further down, a group of Erica Springwood White mark the start of the White Border.

The more you think about it, the more desirable plants come to mind. Then there are books: “Planting the Dry Shade Garden is already on order with Timber Press, a company whose stock list is one of the most desirable for gardening enthusiasts. Two other’s recently published by the same company are on my list: Contemporary Colour in the Garden and Designing with Grasses. A £500 Timber Press gift voucher, if such a thing exists, would be easy to spend.

Richard Ford’s book on Hostas (Crowood Press) is one of the best I have read on the subject and would have been on the list had I not already ordered it via the Garden Design Academy bookshop. I have also been reading “In the footsteps of Augustine Henry”, a recent purchase from the Garden Art Press, which I have been comparing with an original copy of Wanderings in China by Robert Fortune, another 19th C plant hunting hero. I will never tire of gardening books, or of plants, but I realise buying them for me is not easy…..hence the list.

What are other gardening enthusiasts hoping for this Christmas?

Winter gardening down-time

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”~Marcus Cicero, 106-43 BC, Roman statesman and philosopher.

Winter can be hard on the gardener. We are longing to be outside but are generally stuck indoors while all around us blizzards rage. This is not strictly true in my more gentle part of the world, but I feel you those of you in less equitable climes. While Cicero may have left out a few essentials with which my adopted home is well blessed (art, music, wine, food, anyone?), garden books make it much easier to survive the dreary weather.

Pyracantha with berries

Pyracantha with berries in Chabris

My own collection runs into scores and ranges from antique, leather bound works by eighteenth century radical agriculturist William Cobbett and the plant hunter George Forest, to those great little “Expert” books by DG Hessayan. My first copy of Be Your Own Rose Expert set me back Two shillings and six pence and was bought to assist customers on my parent’s nursery in Cornwall. I have several others in the series, one or two in multiple additions as they were updated to reflect new varieties, new techniques and gardening fashions.

We moved to the Loire Valley from Hertfordshire 16 months ago and have been slowly organising our home, social and business life ever since. There are still unpacked boxes in the loft and buildings awaiting renovation and most of my books are stored out there somewhere.

We did come across a few in the early days and the RHS Encyclopaedia was one of the first to be unpacked. A boxed set of two volumes, this is the third edition that I have owned and is completely indispensible to me. It is not perfect –  in a world where new varieties are released every year it is impossible for a book like this to be completely comprehensive and up to date – but it is about as good as such an ambitious work could be.

It describes over 15,500 garden plants, many with photographs, and lists them in the only sensible way: alphabetically, by Latin name. The large format makes it a pleasure to leaf through in idle moments and for those times when you need to identify an unknown plant, a pleasant hour skimming through the pictures normally results in a find. If you know what you are looking for and just want to check cultivation notes, you can go straight to the plant concerned. Now that my growing is slightly more exotic I welcome one aspect that I used to find irritating: the number of plants in the encyclopaedia which I was not able to grow in southern England.

Before the RHS encyclopaedia was published, my favourite of this type was by the Readers Digest and every so often I still refer to my battered copy of The Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers dating from the ‘70’s. At half the price but with only a fraction of the plants, it remains a great reference book with a much more practical edge than the RHS encyclopaedia.


Mahonia brings a little winter cheer to the streets of Angers

Of course if you want practical, the Royal Horticultural Society does practical, and a series of publications approaching plants and gardening at different levels are available. I have various books under the RHS banner on plant pests and diseases, fruit cultivation, herbs, vegetables and many specialist subjects. They are all written by experts in their field, whose authority is beyond question.

A great deal of our time is these days spent teaching gardening, garden design and a range of horticultural subjects, mostly by distance learning. Our Chinese clients think this is an admirable thing to do: to pass on ones knowledge to those coming up behind. We have a surge of bookings for courses during the winter, with gardening amateurs and professionals using their down-time to improve their understanding of the subject. For much the same reason we always have plenty of garden design appointments at this time of the year.

I find teaching is both pleasurable and instructional: you learn a great deal, with personal prejudices challenged and memory stretched by the probing questions and demands of students. The internet gives them such extensive access to information that your task is to explain errors in judgement and interpretation rather than just to dish out facts to be accepted without question. Our courses now include some serious vocational studies like the RHS Diploma in Horticulture however, and facts are facts. These sometimes need to be checked, so I’m glad I still have access to all my old horticultural books from back in the days when I was a student at Pershore College.

Holly berries

Ilex meserveae Blue Angel

Now that we live in France it is fascinating to compare and contrast French gardening books and magazines. I subscribe to ‘Jardins de France’, the excellent revue of the SNHF, the French equivalent of the RHS, while still receiving The Garden from the Royal Horticulture Society in England. I also have a few French gardening books, although many of the best over here are translated from English. Le Guide Clause-Vilmorin du Jardin is the latest version of an encyclopaedia I have been using for many years, since working for the seed company Clause near Paris. It tries to be comprehensive and has sold over 5 million copies, but the use of common names, French common names, drives me crazy!

Before I lose the tenuous grasp I still have on the English language, I am determined to write my second book. “Was there a first”?  I hear you ask, as well you might for all the impact it made in the book shops at the time. At one stage I was considered an expert on bedding plants and this was the subject of my little book. These days I have CAD training to offer to garden designers and while we do quite well from residential courses it is suggested there is a need for a training manual on the subject. The outline is done and the plan is to complete the book this winter. It may have been last winters’ plan as well!

Another profitable way to pass time at this time of the year is with the latest editions of the seed catalogues. We are still sent these automatically by many of our favourite suppliers while others need to be hunted down and paid for each year. New varieties are the stuff of gardening and seed companies understand this. Old varieties are rebranded and presented as something new while, it is true, some genuine novelties appear most years. Planning your new floral displays and the vegetables you are going to eat this summer is one of life’s great pleasures and accompanied by mulled wine around a roaring log fire……or was that the latest Disney Christmas film?

Gardening is full of romantic images like this and it is hard to deny that it seems to fill some great need in the human psyche. Whether you consider gardening to be “the new rock ‘n’ roll”  or a connection with “the good life” with which so many of us have lost contact, the pursuit of gardening is something that links us to each other and with nature in one single, shared activity. If this activity is slowed or even brought to a halt by inclement weather and the passing of the growing season, we can still dream, surely?

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