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!

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

Winter garden dreaming

In my last article for the monthly magazine Hertfordshire Countryside, I allowed a smug comment about our mild weather to creep into the text and was rewarded, a few days later, by six inches of powder snow and temperatures down to minus 12 degrees C.  The distances I travel to visit clients have increased enormously since the days when I was based at a Hertfordshire garden centre, so observations of that sort will be kept to a minimum from now on, in the interests of road safety.

These visits see me gardening in an ever increasing variety of climatic conditions: a trip to Cornwall in January was swiftly followed by a garden in the Sologne region of forests and lakes of central France; in a few days time I will be in the Dordogne to help turn a muddy field into a glorious garden for an English ex-pat family.

Frosted Hellebore

Frosted Hellebore

While growing conditions are different at each of these properties, my teaching involves me in the gardens of students from around the world. We have one who lives at 6,000 feet in Colorado Springs, where there are frosts for 200 days of the year. Other challenges include low humidity, fluctuating temperatures, bright sunlight, heavy calcareous soils and drying winds, which often restrict plant growth more than low temperatures. Another student studying garden design with us is currently living in semi-tropical Australia. I am learning as much as I am teaching these days.

Our own garden is still nowhere near completed so perhaps I can be forgiven for dreaming about how it could be. No longer do we have teams of landscapers at our disposal, keen to help out the boss when work is slack. Now, if I need a patio or a new lawn, I have to either lay it myself or pay a landscaper to do it for me, just like any other homeowner. Unlike our clients, I will not be witnessing the creation of an instant garden and this time it is likely to take us several years to sort out. Perhaps that’s how it should be.



Many times on the pages I have suggested that if there is not much in the way of flower or interest in your garden at a particular time of the year you should take a look around a garden centre or nursery to see what plants will fill the gap.  In our last garden I used to make a point of counting the flowering plants over the Christmas / New Year holiday and could normally find a dozen or two species. This year we had just two plants flowering outside – Jasminium nudiflorum and variegated Skimmia Magic Marlot – and a couple of Camellias in the unheated, north-facing conservatory. There were a few berries too, from Pyracantha and a Holly planted in the shade of our ancient Sequoia, but this lack of colour and interest must be addressed with some urgency.

One plant I miss from our English garden is Sarcococca. I planted one close to patio doors where its sweet scent could be enjoyed for many months over the winter. We had it hidden behind a black stemmed bamboo so that visitors could smell it but not see it without a bit of effort. Sarcococca or Sweet Box is amazingly easy to grow and thrives even in shade. A suckering evergreen shrub, it comes in a number of varieties from Sarcococca confusa, the largest at up to 6ft tall, to diminutive Sarcococca humilis. Our plant was S. hookeriana var. Digyna, tidier and with pinkish flowers on an elegant little bush. As a Chinese native I have mentally reserved a place for one in our Oriental Garden.


Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill’

Fragrance is one of the benefits of many winter flowering plants; our potted Camellias sasanqua and grijsii are both delightfully scented and give pleasure to anyone coming to the front door. A favourite scented plant I have yet to own is Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, ‘Peter Smithers’ or the similar ‘Penwood’. While my heart says to go for the first, the other two are more reliably evergreen and equally perfumed. Any of these will satisfy me however and I trust one will be planted here before too long. I have a Daphne mezereum in the garden but, as so often happens, the plant has been grow in a nursery field and potted before sale, resulting in damage to the root system that prevents it thriving. The scented purple-pink flowers of this European shrub are a joy at this time of the year but I have been singularly unsuccessful in growing it so far.

We already have a fine Witch Hazel, Hamamelis x. intermedia Arnold Promise which, while not flowering for Christmas did not keep us waiting long. H. x. intermedia is a cross between species from China and Japan and this variety was bred in America by the Arnold Arboretum in 1928. The incredibly fragrant, bright yellow flowers appear just a few weeks before Forsythia and so can be thought of as providing a kick-start to spring.  It would be nice to also grow one of the red flowering cultivars and of these Diane perhaps the best.

Iris unguicularis

Iris unguicularis

We have planted a selection of bulbs and both Snowdrops and Winter Aconites are ideal for early flower. Snowdrops spread rapidly and the gardens around the old mill at Chabris have thousands growing in the lawns. Iris reticulate and unguicularis can be relied upon for winter flower while some of our Daffodils also begin to flower in February.

The list of “missing” plants I dream about includes some common plants like Mahonia media, a plant I rarely fail to specify for the gardens of my clients. Again scented, again yellow, I like the story about the naming of the three Mahonia varieties Faith, Hope and Charity, bred at the Royal Gardens, Windsor were I worked under Hope Findlay.

Chaenomeles, the flowering Quince, is commonly grown here but has yet to make an appearance in our garden. With more than 70 varieties to choose from I shall be looking for something out of the ordinary, perhaps Cameo or Geisha Girl in peachy-pink, Lemon and Lime with pale green flowers or C. ‘Toyo-nishiki’ which displays flowers in red, white and pink variations and has large fruit ideal for jam making.

Helleborus hybrid

Helleborus hybrid

I find it hard to accept that we grow no Hellebores and jealously eye flowering plants in neighbours’ gardens. We have always had Hellebores in our gardens, either H. orientalis, the Lenten Rose, or H. niger, the Christmas Rose and used to carefully select seedlings to maintain interesting colours. Now hybrids exist between many species and the range of colours, leaf forms and flowering times has expanded along with their popularity. With plants selling for up to £25 over here I shall be hoping to buy one during a UK trip or beg for seed from a local gardener.

So many people tell me that they rarely venture into their gardens during the winter and this seems such a shame. Those who brave the cold weather should be given some encouragement and reward for doing so in the form of beautiful garden plants. I hope this review may inspire you to add extra colour and scent to your own garden.

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!