Global local gardens.

Green roof with Sedum and Virginia Creeper

We like to think of ourselves as having a global reach, both as garden designers and as horticultural educators, with clients and students located throughout the world. I have long maintained that a well-trained gardener can practice his craft anywhere and is able adapt to local conditions.

I still believe this to be true, but have on occasions been stopped in my tracks by comments from home-grown amateurs or professionals.

I recently contributed to an internet landscape forum discussion about green-roof

Virginia creeper - invasive?

gardening, suggesting a reference book I thought might be useful to an American garden designer, while innocently mentioning our own green roof here in France. We have covered the top of a concrete tool shed with Sedum and it does very well, as does the Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, which offers a change of leaf scale and gorgeous autumn colour. Insects are pleased with both plants and the combined effect is both attractive and practical. “Virginia creeper”, I was told, “is invasive”.

Turkey Oak -Quercus cerris

I quite fancy myself as a plantsman but here is an aspect of plant selection it would be easy to get wrong; designing a border in a foreign country could get you into hot water, when your favourite flower turns out to be the bête noir of local environmentalists! In the USA the National Invasive Species Council keeps a watchful eye on these things and their web site links to pages dedicated to each State, detailing the noxious weeds which are a problem around the country. There is a Federal List noting those considered noxious throughout the country and in addition each state has its own list.

And what a range of plants! Across the country 106 plants are prescribed in this way, while California lists 242 on its own. The UK has problems with Rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum), Indian (Himalayan) balsam, (Impatiens glandulifera) and Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) famously causing difficulties in the wild. The UK organisation Plantlife has a substantial list which, like those in the States, contains some surprising plants including Ailanthus altissima, Quercus cerris and several Cotoneasters.

Here in central France, the river Cher is slowly being clogged up with Water Primrose

Water Primrose on the banks of the Cher

while the Oak woods are taken over by Robinia pseudoacacia originally grown for vineyard support posts. The story does not end with plants. Hornets accidentally imported from China in garden pots are currently finishing off the honey bee population, already under pressure from disease and agricultural pesticides. In the Canal du Berry which follows the river, American signal crayfish are decimating young fish and imported Coypu undermine the banks.  Gardeners and landowners are largely to blame and it would seem we have to be much more circumspect in the choices we make. I have noticed a tendency of many of my American students to select native plants so perhaps the message has got through over there and it is we Europeans who need to learn the lessons.

One country’s weeds are another’s prized specimens. For the record, when I design a garden in another country I either use a local plant expert to assist with plant availability and desirability or research the issues myself using local gardening associations, university horticultural departments, growers and other sources. That way I am less likely to make a fool of myself by suggesting inappropriate plants. It’s not always straightforward, being a globe-trotting landscaper, but I am glad I am still asked to work around the gardening world.

Dirty hands and green fingers

The icy weather having finally gone there are signs that spring is approaching. Of the migrating birds, the Cranes have been the first to return and around the river banks we have been watching Ragondin fuss about. The Ragondin, or Coypu, was introduced to France from North America in the 19th century for its fur but is now considered a pest. Introduced plants, just starting into growth, are also causing problems locally.

Ragondin or Coypu

Pokeweed, American Grape – Phytolaca americana – was originally imported for its dye extract which was used to colour wine(!) and paper. I am fighting it in the back garden and the authorities are concerned about it thriving in the sandy soils of the Sologne. On the banks of the Cher and many other local rivers, the pretty yellow aquatic Ludwigia peploides and L. uruguayensis Water Primroses are clogging up the waterways and forcing out local flora. It would be nice to think we no longer do these things, introducing foreign species with little thought and even less care, but of course it happens all the time.


Water Primrose in the river Cher


Reacting to the milder weather ourselves, we have been digging out our boxes of old seed to see what might be worth sowing this year. A treasure trove of vegetables and flowers, I am well aware that many of them will not germinate or will grow poorly. We have so many that we are going to try them anyway and have sent away to Thomson and Morgan for an electric propagator. The plan is to start a nursery in the loft, on a raised bench under one of the larger Velux windows.

T&M have a strange system for trading in France. They have a company over here but when you order on-line the goods are sent from the UK. The UK company will not supply us, so there is little alternative but to pay the (more expensive) French price and wait for the parcel to arrive. Less than ideal.

In the mean time the ground has thawed and after weeks of frustration we are able to get out and garden. Weeding the central border was a rare pleasure; hands in the soil, pulling out the weeds one by one so that any seedlings of useful plants would not be damaged and emerging bulbs and herbaceous plants could be carefully avoided. It is a chance to see close-up what is happening in the garden, without the detachment which comes from using tools or, worst still, chemicals. This is what gardening is all about: getting your hands dirty, communicating with nature and polishing those green fingers.