The joys of late summer

Hesperantha coccinea 'Major' or Kaffir Lily

Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ or Kaffir Lily

The clear, sunny mornings now have a distinct chill to them and while mid-day temperatures are well into the high 20’s, you cannot help but be aware, with a tinge of sadness perhaps, that summer is slowly drifting to an end and autumn is on its way. On the other hand the changing temperatures, dewy mornings and the shortening days are signals to a range of plants that it is time to get into flower. A selection of South African bulbs are doing well at the moment: white Nerines we grow in a pot in the white border, Crocosmia varieties in odd corners all around the garden, a big patch of Schizostylus, now Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ which has been slow to establish but is now producing flowers in good quantities. They seem to have enjoyed the extra moisture provided by this year’s spring weather, as so many Cape bulbs do. In my day, these were called Kaffir Lilies, but I expect this is politically incorrect now!

Gladiolus papilio

Gladiolus papilio

One of the joys of this morning’s tour of the garden was the discovery of another South African native: Gladiolus papilio flowering amongst a recently planted Euphorbia. I had forgotten it was there but love the effect of the subtle, drooping spikes of flowers in muted shades above the bright, stripped foliage of E. Ascot Rainbow. The slender buds and backs of petals are bruise-shades of green, cream and slate-purple. Inside, creamy hearts shelter blue anthers while the lower lip petal is feathered and marked with an ‘eye’ in purple and greenish-yellow, like the wing of a butterfly.

Garden Design Academy garden in August

Garden Design Academy garden in August

There is so much to enjoy in the garden at the moment and, dare I say it, I have more or less caught up with the weeding, so I have a little more time to appreciate it before the next group of garden design students come for a tour of Loire Valley gardens with me.

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Troglodyte flower show in central France

Villentrois mushroom cave

At the end of a beautiful, warm and sunny autumn week, we decided to visit the tiny village of Villentrois, near Valencay, at the northern tip of the Indre department. The village (population 625) had a thriving mushroom growing industry until recently, utilising the caves created during the excavation of Tuffeau limestone for building materials. The whole village, including the ancient castle, is made of this soft white stone and it has been used for restoration work on the great chateau at Chambord and other historic buildings.

One of these old mushroom caves is now a village hall and hosts events including the annual flower show, held this weekend. It is a happy, unpretentious affair attracting locals and day-trippers from further afield, who can also eat a hearty meal from tables set up for the purpose in one of the larger galleries. The school children and the library construct themed floral exhibits and local nurserymen, landscapers, florists, producers and artists sell their wares from decorated stands in corners around the caverns. The walls and ceilings are decked in foliage and fairy lights while the pathways are lined with flowers, softening the chilly atmosphere. Chelsea it is not, but it brings a smile to the faces of the visitors and on such a lovely Sunday afternoon it was certainly drawing in the crowds.

Floral display in the mushroom caves

Mushrooms are still produced in the artificial caves of the region, although it is not the cottage industry it once, deferring to the more efficient industrial producers who make up the bulk of my students on the Garden Design Academy Mushroom Growing course. We have had some interest in it recently from English owners of houses in France who, discovering they have a mushroom cave or troglodyte shed in the back garden, decide to make use of it. The French are generally keen to support local growers, so some have found a profitable niche market, selling to restaurants or shops and keeping the food miles down. These caves are ideal for mushroom production, but also make great wine cellars for much the same reason: the rock caverns provide very stable temperatures and great insulation. Some are lived in and they can make very cosy dwellings.

Carving the tuffeau stone

Mushrooms have been the subject of much debate in the gathering places of the area this week. The woods outside Valençay have become temporary home to more than 50 caravans, as gypsies arrive from around the country to hunt for wild mushrooms, especially Boletus edulus – the Cep. Selling at around 25 Euro a kilo and up to twice that in Paris, they are being collected by the lorry full to sell in the capital, damaging large areas of private and public woodland in the process. Given that these woods are important sources of revenue as hunting grounds in addition to the timber and associated products, a serious conflict could be on the way. We discreetly collected a few Ceps on the way home, but in quantities unlikely to upset the natural balance of the woods, or the tempers of the landowners.

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.

Design your own garden course in France

On several occasions recently we have been asked why we have moved to France at this stage in our lives.  People seem to accept that a holiday home in France might be a pleasant option while an early retirement with plans to return to the UK later is the dream of many. When we explain that we are nowhere near retirement and must earn a living in France they look quite puzzled. When we add that we have sold everything we own to move here permanently, they are sure we have taken leave of our senses.

We made the move nearly two years ago now, seeking an easier life following a series of major operations which put Chantal’s wellbeing at risk. We are relieved of the responsibility for the employment and welfare of a staff of more than twenty and the gentle climate and affable, laid-back lifestyle we have discovered in central France suits us extremely well. There are other ex-pats in the region, some who have their own stories to tell of recovery from ill-health, failed marriages or financial problems, so we are in very good company! Mostly we choose to mix with the locals however and my understanding of the language and their ways of doing things increases daily. Having a French wife, albeit one who left the country as a teenager, has been invaluable in helping me to integrate.

One of the solutions to our self-imposed exile has been the teaching of the subjects which have been my life since the age of fourteen: horticulture, gardening, landscaping and design. We now offer courses in these subjects to students around the world and some of our first will shortly be taking examinations with the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley.

Most of our courses are supplied on CD, with support, encouragement and marking of assignments provided via email and telephone from my little office in a corner of the lounge. My favourite course is residential however and last month we had a party of ladies from Kent staying with us for a week of lectures and garden visits on our “Design your own Garden” workshop. The idea of the week is to come and enjoy the sites, the food and the wine but return having created a new plan for your garden with our assistance. This suits people who want a more “hands on” approach to garden design rather than have the designer do it all; it is also very good value.

Course schedule May 2010 – Design Your Own Garden

The course is a great excuse to discover some of the magnificent gardens of the Loire Valley region and each time we select somewhere different. On this occasion we explored the gardens of the chateau at Bouges, famous for its Italianate, Renaissance building and stables housing a collection of carriages. Outside, the walled flower garden and greenhouses are a delight, while surrounding the chateau itself are classic Italian water gardens and a very French garden of intricately clipped Box hedging. Fascinating though these are, my favourite section is the English-style park, stretching to over 80 hectares and decorated with rare trees. A ribbon lake lies beyond aristocratic wildflower meadows, reaching into the surrounding countryside and planted with thousands of orchids, cowslips, Salvias and Ox-eye Daisies. The chateau is full of period furniture but we gave the visit a miss, preferring to take in a wine tasting at nearby Valençay on our way back for lunch.

The course is not all hard work and during a free afternoon the ladies took themselves to Chenonceaux, Catherine de Medici’s country palace and Renaissance gardens, standing beautifully astride the river Cher. The French garden style imposes huge geometric shapes on the countryside, a demonstration of wealth, power and control designed to impress. Here, a series of formal gardens includes a circular maze and a vast rectangular island of flowers containing 130,000 bedding plants. The chateau itself is in the middle of the river to further emphasise its control over the natural world, contrasting with the wild forests beyond.

Essential to the “Design your own Garden” course is the visit on day 2 to the Festival of Gardens at Chaumont sur Loire. After a day of lectures on garden design theory and an evening slide show, the festival provides further inspiration before students begin to work on their own gardens. Nearly 30 show gardens are on display and free to wander around. We walked as a group, to enjoy, understand and discuss what we were seeing while visiting, over lunch and later that evening. There was something to learn from each of these although one, which purported to illustrate the discovery of the “facts of life” by children, left us all totally bemused! As always there were themes, interpretations, techniques, materials and plants which you can expect to see in gardens at Chelsea Flower Show in a couple of years time, as ideas flow from creative events such as this into the world of mainstream gardening.

When finally the students were ready to consider their own gardens they had been thoroughly prepared to do so. Paper, pencils, pens and other drawing tools were provided and as they settled down to work gardens emerged as if from nowhere. Some needed more guidance than others and one lady was keen to try working on the computer rather than with pencils. Their plots varied in size from a tiny back yard to landscapes of many acres and in one case the grounds surrounding a flint cottage and barn was divided into five separate gardens.  By the end they were all tired but happy, having created exciting projects to construct and plant on their return to England and learned a great deal from their trip to France.

At the end of this workshop I was exhausted but with more guests arriving just two days later there was no peace for the wicked. Did I say we were looking for an easier life? As a result we could not spare the time for planned trips to the plant festival at Courson or the Iris nurseries of Giens and our garden is all the poorer for it. Fortunately this busy period was soon over and we were soon able to drop down a gear or two in pace with those around us. With clients to visit in south-west France and in the UK this summer I hope to drop in on a few nurseries during my travels and buy a few more plants.

Gradually I am discovering the keen gardeners in the region where we live and several have proved to be a great source of plants as we swap bits and pieces between us. Having brought a lorry load of plants from the UK and as a visitor of gardening events around the country our garden is becoming popular as a provider of cuttings and offsets to this group of enthusiasts. At the same time they are remarkably generous with their own plants and advice and our garden has benefited from both. As a professional in the UK I had forgotten the satisfaction of sharing with others in this way, preferring to buy all I needed from nurseries I did business with. It has taken this move to remind us of many of life’s simple pleasures and while earning a living and giving a good service is still essential we have adopted a very French attitude to the importance of family, food and the pursuit of happiness. I recommend it!

Author’s note: following a terminal computor crash the photos of these trips are not available until I can extract them from the hard drive. Sorry for that.

Busy with spring business

When we moved to France we had no intention of becoming part of an Ex-Pat community: my parents live amongst Brits in Spain and we were not looking for a life remotely like theirs. On the other hand, when you live abroad you do seem to gravitate towards your own kinsmen and while this area of central France has nothing like the density of English found in areas like the Dordogne, where English language newspapers, English shops and “tea like Mother makes” are common, we do have several English friends.

Troglodyte house in St. Aignant for sale

Community spirit is high amongst ex-pats and last week we found ourselves rallying around a friend who, having successfully advertised a property in the Financial Times promptly took ill and retired to the emergency ward of a hospital in Manchester. His clients were coming for viewings from Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Paris and the UK so we spent a week collecting them from airports and railway stations, providing food and accommodation, showing them around the property and the region and sending them away rejoicing. I only hope our friend recovers and we have been successful in selling the house for him. Time will tell on both counts and we are glad to be able to move back down a gear or two and live again at the pace to which we have become accustomed.

Of course, there are local excitements too. Only last weekend we had the Poulaine Donkey Festival, an annual event attracting competitors from all over the region. Next week promises to be special too, with eight teams coming for a boules championship and I gather the circus will be in town once they clear the square of the boules. International competitions for rifles, pistols and crossbows are all coming soon, ensuring Chantal’s B&B will do brisk business leading into the summer season. Events such as these are however less common than in the autumn, because spring makes such high demands on people’s time. In spite of low produce selling prices and the general flight from the countryside, this is still a very agrarian country and life moves with the seasons.

Poulaine Donkey Festival

Garden and flower festivals are part of the seasonal experience and we are hoping to be attending a local event at the Chateau de Bouges, south of Valençay. Further afield Fêtes des Plantes beckon from Saint-Jean de Beauregard, Courson, Chaumont, La Ferté St. Aubin and other attractive venues around the country. We are also beginning to receive invitations to prevue gardens and gardening spectacles such as the opening of the new plant house at the Natural History Museum in Paris and the Claude Monet garden in Giverny. For the second year in a row, there will be no time for Chelsea.

Shortly we have students coming over from the UK for one of our Design your own Garden weeks. These courses are a lot of fun for us and always include visits to local gardens and to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire. We have been going to this show for many years and has become our “must see” event. It consists of more than twenty gardens designed to a set theme and allowed to remain in place for the whole growing season. This year’s festival is the 18th and chooses as its theme “Body and Soul Gardens”.  It will look at gardens as a source of restfulness, peace and serenity, but also as the place that gives life to plants that care for the body. Horticultural therapy, phytotherapy and hedonistic therapy will all be touched upon in a show whose Chairman of the 2010 Jury is a neurologist and biologist who also writes on ethics, art and philosophy. When the French do this sort of thing, they do it so well.

Orchards in blossom and Chabris church

Spring has been delightful this year. The weather has been warm enough to eat in the garden on most days since late March, but it is not so warm that the season passes too quickly. Highlights of pink Apricot and Peach blossom were soon followed by huge drifts of foamy-white flowers from the Cherry orchards. After a slight pause these were joined by Pears and Apples until the whole village seemed covered in flower. Scented Lilacs burst open simultaneously on April 17th and by the following Monday most of the Wisterias were showing colour and adding to the perfume from Viburnum bodnatense, which had been flowering for a few weeks, providing another dimension to evening walks in the park by the river Cher.

Our garden has been responding very nicely too. Our White Garden continues to delight as it matures and is already providing colour for most of the year. Every plant has been a joy but we were particularly delighted by the Magnolia stellata, bought from the Waste Not, Want Not nursery next to the Robin Hood pub in Rabley Heath in Hertfordshire. This charity assists people recovering from stress and mental illness and is dedicated to recycling horticulture materials and plants. I gather they are to be seen at Chelsea Flower Show this year.

Magnolia stellata

I love having a little tale to tell about every plant and as you continue down the re-shaped border from the White to the Oriental Garden, there are a number of plants which have made the journey from France to England and back again in their short lives. A number of plants and sculptures have been reclaimed from our English gardens, both from our old home and from the gardens at work, while others have been given to us or bought since we have been in France.

We continue to be invited to design gardens, increasingly in France but also back in the UK. A recent two page article in a magazine aimed at Francophiles concentrated on our gardening courses and horticultural teaching but resulted in several contracts with English settlers in this country.

My next design trip is to Toulouse and to the Dordogne, with two very different gardens to consider.

Spring in Central France

I’m beside myself with excitement: Spring has arrived here in the Indre.

Crocus

Spring Crocus in our garden in France

We had been suffering a bit from cool winds coming down from the north, prolonging winter and holding back the new growth. “When spring does come, it’ll arrive with a bang” we were telling each other in the morning queue at the bakers’.

Right on time, last weekend, the weather changed, the temperatures doubled and daffodils burst into flower. A little rain with delightful, warm sunshine and the beds have been transformed into a riot of competing growth, as garden plants wrestle with weeds over every centimetre of ground. Fortunately I have been weeding most days during the past month or more and the borders are under reasonable control. My random seed sowing is bearing fruit as ornamental annuals germinate alongside less desirable vegetation in between the more permanent planting.

Where once the ground was bare, bulbs and herbaceous plants are emerging from winter dormancy and in the sky, insects are again being hunted by swallows and bats. I heard my first Cuckoo of the season yesterday with money in my pockets, ensuring a prosperous year.

The first Daffodil of Spring

Several times a day I tear myself away from work to check the garden for new signs. Lilies appeared today which could not be seen yesterday; the Tulips have subtly increased in height; that Peony is definitely alive. One flower, then ten flowers, now the whole apricot bush is covered, in the space of three or four days. If this sort of thing does not move you then check your own pulse for signs of activity; out in the garden the symphony of life has just begun – you can smell it, you can see it, you can feel it.

Gardening in France…..promise

Villentrois 009

The Cinema - theme of Villetrois Flower Festival 2009

I have had a polite request; actually it was verging on the offensive, but as it was from a loyal reader I will try not to be offended. The printable bits said something like: “Please let’s have a blog about gardening in France rather than the shameless plugging of your many a various businesses, fine though they may be” (I liked that last bit)

So, never let it be said I ignore my adoring public: there will be no mention of Les Sequoias B&B in this one, the new courses on offer at the Garden Design Academy will not be referred to and the fact that Loire Valley Properties now has a couple of chateaux on its books will be neatly side-stepped.

Ch‰teau de Villentrois

Chateau de Villentrois

 Villentrois Flower Show. Set in the old mushroom caves cut into the tufa of the river valley, this little show is celebrating its 21st year which, for a village of some 600 souls, is not bad going.

Villentrois 001
Cave de la Poterie, site of the annual flower show.

It ran this year over three days and is free of charge. We chose to go on Saturday lunchtime when all the stand-holders were eating in a side cavern, so the passages were empty.

The theme this year was The Cinema and local schools, parks, landscapers and florists had created a series of displays based on this, occupying spaces cut in the rock which had once contained the mushroom beds of the company Malet. It was cold down there!

Villentrois 004

The film theme game was played by everyone: a stand full of fruit and vegetables had posters of films with appropriate names: Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes, Inspector Poirreau (=Leek, get it?) and many more. A lot of the French film references went over my head, but it was all good fun. This is what life in France is all about.