Gardening in Spain, gardening in France and plans for 2013

Gardening with 'houseplants' in Spain

Gardening with ‘houseplants’ in Spain

We have just returned from walking the dog in the fields close to our home. The sky is clear and a crisp frost decorates the countryside, which sparkles in the bright winter sunlight. The village fishing pond shimmers enticingly, with wisps of mist gently drifting across the surface of the water. It is disturbed only by the occasional moorhen or other water-bird, flapping away once our presence is noticed. Town gardeners are out doing the pruning to keep warm.

We have not seen a frost since our return from Spain 10 days ago. The Castile y León region in the north of Spain, centred on the city of Burgos, gave us thick fog and hard frosts in turns, with snow visible on the higher hills and mountains. This was to be repeated several times on the two day drive south and on our return a few days later. We have been to Andalusia in southern Spain several times, both for business and pleasure, but this was the first time we had driven via the north (rather than along the Mediterranean coast). The trip took in some wonderful scenery – huge, scarcely populated open spaces and brutal mountain ranges – in addition to the shock of the motorway system around Madrid and the austere cultivated plains to the south. From the fishing ports on the Atlantic we drove through cattle country, rolling grain prairies, vast fields of melons and vegetables grown under vast circular irrigation systems, and the vineyards of Rioja and Valdepeñas. Later there were olive groves as far as the eye could see, the deserts of Andalusia and finally, close to the coast, Europe’s salad capital in Almeria Province, with mile upon mile of colossal plastic structures providing perfect growing conditions for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other crops. Outside, citrus trees and date palms thrive. On this journey we experienced below freezing temperatures, snow, frost, fog and gorgeous, warm sunny days, depending on the terrain and the region.

Bougainvillea grows both as a free-standing shrub or trained as a climber

Bougainvillea grows both as a free-standing shrub or trained as a climber – if you have the climate

The point of our stay in Almeria Province was two-fold; we dropped in on my parents for New Year and visited a client with a garden to build. One of the main reasons we moved to central France was to make international garden design appointments easier. We can get to anywhere from here, with the UK, France and many other European mainland countries reached in a day, while even the furthest points of Spain, Portugal or Italy are only a couple of days away by car. Not having to cross the Channel each time we travel beyond the shores of England has been a real bonus.

People often ask how it is possible to design gardens in other countries. I have rarely found it to be a problem – the principles of garden design are universal, only the technical details change and local growers and other experts can always be found to assist if needs be. In Almeria they garden with what for the British are houseplants, but we have assisted with several gardens in the region. The important thing is to respect the surroundings and the traditions of the country when considering a new garden and this is why a three or four day visit is essential at some stage in the process.

Viburnum x. bodnantense in flower today in central France

Viburnum x. bodnantense in flower today in central France

Back in France, I am rather pleased to see some cold weather. Camellia flowers are beginning to open and daffodils poke out of the ground. This cool spell should hold everything back a little and avoid the catastrophic destruction of buds and flowers we experienced last year. Is it me or is their optimism in the air? Bookings for courses and guided garden and vineyard tours are going very well; we have students and customers coming from Australia, USA, Britain and a large group for three weeks from Greece. I am trying to fit garden and trade show visits into the schedule for the year: Salon Vegetal at Angers, Courson, St Jean de Beauregard and of course the gardens festival at Chaumont sur Loire. I’ll include as many as I can but already I accept there will not be time for IPM-Esson, or the British garden shows at Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court this year, unless a visit to a client happens to coincide with one of them.

One of this springs "must see" garden events

One of this springs “must see” garden events

I am spending a lot of time sorting out the web sites of the Academy, the Garden Design Company, Loire Valley Gardens and the rest, each of which need updates and improvements, our English garden design site undergoing a complete overhaul. There seem to be new opportunities everywhere and new demands from every direction – more indications of an exciting year to come. I am spending more time getting to know French gardening and horticulture, meeting some of the major characters of the industry during seminars, shows and other events. It’s proving fun to exchange experience with other enthusiasts and experts in a new language. At the same time we have many new and existing students undertaking distance learning courses, all of whom must be given attention and support.

A fine bush of Jasminium nudiflorum in a neighbour's garden

A fine bush of Jasminium nudiflorum in a neighbour’s garden

There is much to do in the garden before the season gets underway: a new lawn to sow, the areas around the swimming pool, behind the classroom and around the house to landscape and tidy up. Soon there will be seeds to sow – the first package has already arrived from Thomson and Morgan – and I’ll be too busy to undertake anything major.

So much to do, so little time to do it all! It’s what keeps me motivated and my gardening life eventful and joyous.

Alive and well in 2013

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Jasminium nudiflora in flower Christmas 2012

I am glad the world did not end at the end of last year. The French took it all in their stride, but various individuals descended on a tiny village in the Pyrenees to await the planet’s final days, convinced there were aliens hiding under the mountain and hoping to hitch a ride out of the impending disaster. Apparently the Mayans, or perhaps the Aztecs, said so. No-one could pretend the health of the planet is in good shape these days but that particular hiccup seems to have passed us by safely; my wife’s birthday, Christmas and New Year were all celebrated by our household without difficulty.

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Hebe Great Orme. This plant was raised from a cutting as an insurance – just as well as the mother plant died last winter.

In the meantime, I have had several requests for the results of my Christmas garden flowers survey so here is the small list of flowers from our garden in Central France:

  • Jasminium nudiflorum
  • Wallflowers (in several colours)
  • Hebe Great Orme
  • Pansies (mixed colours)
  • Erica carnea Springwood White
  • Calendulas (self-seeded in the gravel)
  • Mahonia media Charity
  • Viburnum tinus
  • Helleborus nigra
  • Helleborus foetidus

christmas 2012 002In addition we have a house full of orchids, a couple of Poinsettias’ and a Cyclamen in the windowsills, all flowering their hearts out and a real joy at this grey time of year.

You might like to compare this list to last years, when we had 31 plants in flower following a period of very mild weather:

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None stop flowering in Almeria, Spain

Immediately after Christmas I had business in southern Spain, where it was a very different story. Gardens and street planting featured many flowering plants, most of which would be treated as houseplants in this part of the world.

In flower this Christmas

As promised, between the champagne and the Christmas duck, I muffled-up warmly and paced about the garden looking for flowers. I have included only those I have found in my own garden; extended to include others in the village, the list might be much longer.

This fine seasonal ritual has been practiced by British gardeners for generations, with the results being posted to the Letters to the Editor section of some of the more serious papers for the education and edification of interested readers. Now that there are no serious papers to speak of, I continue this traditional pastime here, in the Gardener in France blog.

“Dear Sir,

Please find herewith my Floral contribution to the Health and Happiness of the Nation, and may God bless all who sail in her.

Starting in the back garden and moving in a clockwise gyration, we find Jasminium nudiflorum, reliably dotted with bright yellow flowers. Moving on to the side bed, there are Begonias, Petunias and Violas still in flower and extending the summer bedding display to the end of this unusual year. At the far end of the same bed, against the cabin wall, our Daphne odora Aureomarginata is covered in buds and just starting to open. Close by, I found one sky-blue flower of Salvia uliginosa amongst a big, sprawling clump.

Across to the other side of the garden where Rhododendron yak. Sneezy is looking very pretty in pink, next to an Ilex x. meserveae Blue Angel with berries and Skimmia japonica Majic Marlot, permanently in bud. Further along, at the beginning of the white border, Viburnum burkwoodii has started into bloom, with Erica Springwood White covered with blossom and a single flower on Hebe Kirkii. In the herb garden, Rosemary still carries plenty of flowers.

We have a little collection of Semperviviums in hollowed out rocks against the south wall of the house and one variety has been in flower for some time. Moving on to the central bed our two species of Phlomis, P. purpurea and fruticosa are blooming, as is our single plant of Penstemon Melting Candy. I have seen several other Penstemons in flower around the village. A Calendula looks dazzling on this grey day and other bedding in flower including Nasturtium and Dianthus. Finally, Lavandula stoechas Victory has produced buds and flowers following a haircut after its more usual flowering period.

Few of the plants in the back garden have been with us more than three years so I am rather pleased with the progress, but the front is very newly planted. On a bank by the front gate Convolvulus cneorum is in full bloom and there is just one flower on the Campanula persiciflora Coerlea and a few on Agastache Fragrant Mix, grown from seed this year. In the bed against the front wall Abelia Kaleidoscope and the Mimosa are providing the display, while against the Apartment Garden fence, a single pink Rose flower braves this winter morning.

Camellia grijsii - scented white flowers by the front door in Chabris

Pride of place has to go to Camellia grijsii, in full bloom and covered in fragrant white flowers, placed in a large blue pot next to the front door where everyone can appreciate it. On the other side of the step, also in a large blue Chinese pot, Camellia reticultata Variegata sports its last flower of the year. Helleborus nigra, in the border nearby, is quite subdued in comparison.

So there you have it, 31 plants flowering for Christmas and I still haven’t bought a Mahonia media!

I remain Sir, Yours, etcetera,

Colin G. Elliott Esq., Chabris, central France”

Early Spring, Paris, the clock and the Sequoia

There is good news and there is bad news: where to start?

Before: Sequoia in the snow Dec 2010

Halfway: Sequoia before pruning

Going: Sequoia before pruning


We received a letter by recorded delivery from our next door neighbour on Thursday, demanding that we remove the overhanging branches from our Sequoia, or legal action would be taken. It would seem the honeymoon period is over and the gloves are off.: there is bridge-building to be done here, I suspect! To be fair, she has been asking us to cut down the Sequoia, 150 years old at a conservative estimate, since we purchased our house five or six years ago and the only time she has talked to us in the last couple of years has been to complain about it. On Friday the tree men came and I went to Paris for the day, hopeless coward that I am. Three branches have been hacked back to the boundary and today I have been cleaning up the mess. A happy bunny I am not!

After the pruning

My visit to Paris was not all about my reluctance to witness the damage being done to our beautiful tree; I also had clients to see and I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with this lovely city, which I used to visit very regularly. It was one of those trips with not quite enough spare time to do anything properly but I did have a pleasant stroll through the Tuillery Gardens between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde, now containing the Paris version of the London Eye. The garden is one of landscape architect André Le Nôtre’s first commissions and was constructed from 1666 to 1672, after which King Louise XIV became irritated with Parisians continually questioning his authority and he moved to Versailles. In 1667 the gardens became the first Royal Park open to the public. Around lunch time on an unseasonably mild January, the place was crowded.It would have been nice to take in an exhibition – Monet was in town and my clients were raving about it –  and I remembered too late that the Jardin Botanique, right next to the station I was to use to return home, had restored and re-opened their grand plant house and was surely worth a visit. Ah well, perhaps next time.

The weather is extremely warm for the time of year, encouraging bulbs to poke their heads out of the soil to see what is going on. Even in this young garden we have yellow Winter Jasmine – Jasminium nudiflorum and Hamamelis Arnold Promise in flower behind the house, heralding the approaching spring. After months of colour from our pot of Camellia sasanqua, placed on the stone steps by the front door, Camellia grijsii, in a matching blue pot, is just beginning to open. These marvellous plants have both proved to be pretty tough species with us but we will watch the weather and if it turns cold again move it into the unheated, north facing conservatory where the flower will be protected and the scent can be better appreciated.

Witch Hazel: Jan 2011

There was much sympathy from locals in the market square this morning for our prolonged session with influenza. People here are generally inoculated against it and those who prefer not to use homeopathic solutions. We were given a pot of a honey / thyme concoction which we are mixing with our regular green tea with mint and it is wonderful! It smells and tastes great and has eased our coughs better than the chemical goo our doctor prescribed. We were told that bees have been already seen swarming and one lady had an invasion which stripped all the flowers off her Hyacinths. These are strange times indeed.

Talking of which, we have finally fitted the clock to the outside of the log cabin classroom which we built under our famous Sequoias. It is powered by some clever electronics which chats to a satalite all day to ensure it has the correct time, but it has then to pass this information to the analogue clock sitting so proudly on the wall. I am, as we speak, talking to companies in London and Switzerland in an attempt to achieve this.

The clock: 5 hours out but soon to be corrected?