Protecting plants from the first frosts of autumn

Frosty spider

The barometer was at its highest for months and while the days were sunny and warm, the nights became progressively colder.

Then it happened: on Friday 21st October we had our first frost. It was just a light one that day but the following morning we were greeted by a liberal sprinkling of dazzling white frost crystals, sparkling in the morning sun.

By Sunday it was all forgotten; the barometer plummeted, the rain came and with it much milder weather. When will it return? Who can tell? But return it will and next time it will be harder.

Last year we were caught out and lost several precious plants to a sudden cold snap. This year we have been planning ahead, lifting tender specimens and placing them under cover. We have rooted precautionary cuttings and begun mulching some of the plants which are on the border line of hardiness in our region and in our soil.

Lemons cannot be grown out of doors in central France and last year we lost two fine specimens in spite of providing fleece covers. It was the best we could do at the time: the plants were far too large to have in the house and the old metal and glass conservatory was full of office equipment; the log cabin was not yet built. This year we have a lovely new Lemon plant and have already moved it to the conservatory which, although unheated, will give sufficient protection for the time being. The conservatory is more than 100 years old and keeps much of the north side of our house dry and warm. We have replaced many panes of ancient broken glass and it should be cosier this year, in spite of a rusty door which fails to close completely. We have several dozen plants sheltering there, ranging from recently potted cuttings to established specimens in substantial pots. Bedding Geraniums have been gathered together in trays of home-made compost.

Lemons awaiting a glass with gin and tonic

The recently built log cabin classroom is the second building which will be pressed into support of tender plants. It is a large structure with a covered, but open sided patio area occupying 25% of the floor space. By using this patio, some protection can be provided in reasonably light conditions. I also propose building a bench in the cabin by a large, south facing window for cuttings currently rooting in the tunnel under the loft skylights in the main house. I have installed electric heaters which, because of the superb insulation of the thick wooden walls, will keep the temperatures up at minimum expense. If Garden Design Academy students or other guests need to use the cabin before the spring, I trust they will understand that in this household of gardeners the plants always come first!

Over most of our garden the soil has a light, sandy texture. The drainage this provides in winter is very helpful to plants which might otherwise rot at the roots. We leave Gladioli and Dahlias in the ground without problem for instance, something which would have been risky in our previous garden in England. In one bed in the rear garden we have many plants from the Mediterranean, north and South Africa and from South America, including Salvia argentea and Aloysia citrodora, which have overwintered each year without problem. Just in case, I have recently sown home-produced seed of the Silver Clary and taken cuttings of Lemon Verbena, but I hope not to need them and give the plants away next season.

Cistus - if you need to prune, wait until the spring.

A couple of cultural techniques have proved of value when overwintering half-hardy plants. I do not prune tender plants until the frosts have gone, allowing the foliage and stems produced last season to protect the shoots and buds which will grow next year. This is especially true of late-blooming plants which would have little chance to regrow if pruned after flowering. Cistus, Convolvulus cneorum, Lagerstroemia and Lavatera are examples of plants which I delay pruning until the spring.

We use leaf mould, generously collected and left in vast heaps around the outskirts of town by the local authority, both as free compost and as winter protection for tender plants. Delicate roots are given a liberal mulching and if heaped up around and over stems, these too benefit from the protection this provides. Where taller branches need similar treatment we use hay, straw and the stems of ornamental grasses, secured with twine if necessary. Our Olive bush was buried in Miscanthus stems last year and came through temperatures down to -17°C.

I love this region of France for its seasons, bringing daily changes to the plants we grow and to those growing wild in the countryside around us. By taking a few precautions, plants which a more reasonable gardener would never attempt, sail through the winter and provide a wider range of gardening experiences than if our choices were more conservative.

The mushroom glut and other good gardening news.

With the unseasonal weather set to continue well into August, Nature seems very confused. The recent rains have provided a huge glut of edible (and other) fungi which are normally expected in the autumn and we have been washing, slicing and freezing basket-loads of Ceps every day for a week or more. It has made the French national news broadcasts: initially upbeat reports of nature’s bounty and impromptu mushroom markets in the south-west, but now including cautionary notes as the hospitals fill up with poisoned tourists. It pays to know what you are putting in your mouth, I find.

Abelia Kaleidoscope

A summer of mild, wet weather is not what we signed up for when we decided to cross the Channel and settle in central France. It has brought benifits however, in terms of garden plant growth. Establishing a new garden is an expensive affair, especially if you have to buy plants at French retail prices. The humidity has helped the settling in of these treasures and for that we are most grateful. A large number of plants have been bought this year but recent purchases have included a new variety of Abelia,  A. ‘Kaleidoscope’, bred for its leaf color and dense, compact form. I have planted it in our new front bed, next to clumps of orange Crocosmia and scarlet Phygelius, both blooming as we speak, and in front of another new plant, Erythrina x. bidwillii, currently in bud but promising clusters of pea-shaped, dark red flowers. This hot scheme should be worth building on as more plants become available, creating a stunning show against a sunny garden wall, which already features Sophora and Mimosa and should be ideal for other half-hardy plants.

Lagerstroemiais high on my wish list for this bed; we now have three varieties of this plant which for me is still very exotic and I would like to try taking cuttings from a red-flowering form for the front and perhaps a softer pink than we currently grow, for the back garden. The oldest of our specimens, a Demartis variety called Yang Tse, was planted in half sun but has since been moved to a much warmer spot in the gravel patio. It is now in full flower while the other two, a white and a red, are still in bud. I have my eyes open now for suitable plants and will no doubt shortly start begging for cuttings.

I have been taking lots of cuttings recently, inspired by students who are doing the same on our Plant Propagation for Beginners course. I have a small plastic greenhouse with undersoil heating installed in the loft under a Velux window and I am having great fun swapping cuttings with neighbours and or increasing some of our own plants to give away to friends. Our first batches are now rooted and being hardened off in a sheltered spot and include Campsis, Hydrangea paniculata, Viburnum bodnatensis and pomegranate.

In the mean time back in the loft we have Brugmansia, Rosemary, Curry Plant, Ceratostigma, Acer palmatum, Camellia and Cornus florida all doing well. I have always loved propagation and have had several opportunities to grow plants from seed or cuttings on a commercial scale. As a lad, I even entered the Young Propagator of the Year competition run by Horticulture Week. The temptation to start a nursery when we moved to France was only held at bay by lack of garden space and perhaps it is just as well: the Academy is more than enough to keep me occupied.

It’s always summer in the South of France

We have just returned from a trip to see customers in three regions of France: one near Carcassonne, another near Antibes and the final visit close to Vichy. Three gardens, three different clients, soils and climates. We combined these visits with a short holiday, staying in a hilltop village near the Mediterranean for a week, while overnighting on the way down and on the journey back, close to our clients’ homes. This, we felt, would give us a good feel for the potential of each garden while also giving us our first break in a long while.


Garden in the heart of the medieval fortified city of Carcassonne

For reading material I took a witty novel by Terry Darlington called Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, which seemed rather appropriate given one of our stops. I also had the new UK version of the Thompson & Morgan seed catalogue which arrived on the day of our departure and Gardens of the World by Rory Stuart, a new book on the development of the pleasure garden in different cultures of the world.

We were very pleased to acquaint ourselves with other parts of this beautiful country and to have three exciting new projects to work on. As we often do these days, in each case we prepared initial surveys by CAD on our laptop, allowing us to check and confirm measurements before we left the site. Spending that much time in the garden, looking at it in detail and in the round, also gave us ample opportunity to absorb the environment and consider design options.

We loved each region for different reasons. The first property is a typical vineyard house, tall and solid with local stone walls and terracotta tile roofs. The layout is rectangular with stables opposite the house connected by other working buildings, now converted to accommodation. There is a large swimming pool and a collection of palms and olives but otherwise we have a blank canvas to work with. Not far away is the magnificent medieval city of Carcassonne, separate from the 18th century town with its grand buildings and Canal de Midi port. All around are vineyards and farmland but wild, wooded limestone hills are also close by.


Exotic planting by the harbour at Cannes

The second is in the hills behind Nice and Antibes; a modern villa on steeply sloping, rocky ground. The climate is very hot in summer, but with surprisingly humid air as it rises towards the Alps from the sea. The soil is good when there is any, but in places there is just bare rock. There are lots of olives and citrus fruits and cacti do very well. In this part of the world a pool is a must, although there are plenty of mosquitoes in the evening, enough to drive inside all but the most resilient. We left the centre of France with the autumn fast approaching, to find ourselves back in summer temperatures. The mountain scenery is particularly spectacular here, but we did find time to visit Nice, Antibes, Cannes and other coastal resorts and ports. Monte Carlo was denied us by huge traffic jams and Grasse was a real disappointment in its shabbiness.

The final visit was to Vichy, the famous Belle Époque spa town in the Massive Central region of ancient mountains. Here the air was cool and the soil acid: ideal for Rhododendrons and all the other wonderful woodland plants. The house is large, traditional and on the edge of a village the time has passed by. It’s a lovely spot and warm in summer and cold in the winter – just as it should be but much harsher than our part of the world. I shall particularly enjoy the planting in this garden, which is the main part of our contract with the owner. Visiting the town on the Sunday we spent a happy few hours in the riverside park, with its amazing collection of rare trees. We tasted the famous spa water,which I am rather fond of, and the traditional sweets derived from it. We wondered around with the dog on this rather chilly day, enjoying the architecture and other sights of this most elegant town before setting off on the six hour drive to Chabris.


The park alongside the river Allier at Vichy is a tree lovers paradise.

Back home and we have a mountain of letters and emails to work through, several new students and the log cabin classroom to finish off. We bought a few plants of course, and these need planting. I am not sure I have the time to write this really!

We were quite self controlled I thought, with our plant purchases, but returned with a large Callistemon, two varieties of artichoke, a white Lagerstroemia to add to the pink and the red forms we already own, and a plant new to me: Leonotis leonurus, a South African plant related to Phlomis. I may be pushing my luck with this plant, but will repot it and attempt to overwinter it with a bit of protection, before planting it out next year.

Our next plant purchasing opportunity will be the unmissable Courson plant fair south of Paris, 15-17th October. If you have a chance to go, take it! More details and a review in  later blog postings.


Leonotis leonurus- Loin's Tail.

Paypal, bees and the classroom is halfway built

What do gardeners know about the internet?

I decided to take a look at a “free” trial of a well-known download service based in Germany and allowed the company to take 1 Euro from my Paypal account as proof of my identity. It took me all of five minutes to realise this service was not for me and I cancelled my trial shortly after.

Before I knew what was happening they had extracted ninty Euros from my account as a subscription (for a month, a year, who knows) and told me that a refund was out of the question.

I appealed to Paypal, who we use as our internet banking system for all our Garden Design Academy courses and a week or so later the cash was back in our account: marvelous! There seems to be no way to thank them on their web site but I can do what I like here so: “thanks Paypal”. It seems the web is a safer place to do business than most folks realise…..provided you deal with serious companies like Paypal (authors note: no, I am not being paid for this!)


Alsas my camera was not to hand to take this picture of a Hoopoe

Wildlife in our garden continues to give us much pleasure; while we were eating our lunch on the Flower Island today a Hoopoe (Upupa epops) was wandering around on the lawn digging for dinner – such a pretty bird – I do wish I had had my camera to hand. He gave us a quick flash of his crown of feathers before he flew off to continue his hunt for food next door.

Along with the pleasure comes great responsibility: the honey bees rely on me filling the bird bath with water every day. We have no idea where their hive is but at this time of the day ten to twenty of the little fellows will be fighting for position around the edges. The bats, on the other hand, just give without demanding anything in return. Their insect eating activities in the evening are most welcome and we generally have a dozen performing aerial acrobatics for us as dusk approaches. We recognise three species, called technically: little ones, medium ones and the occational big one!


Verbena bonariensis in flower in our garden at Chabris

Plants. We have had such mixed weather – hot days like today eventually and inevitably producing rainy days to follow and this has been great for the plants in the garden. Largestroemia are just starting to flower here (elsewhere in the village they have been doing so for some time) and the first Asters are also just showing. The garden, less than 18 months old, is a joy, with flowers, fruit and growth everywhere. This is such a generous country.

Talking of which, a neighbour who used to run a building firm in Paris has decided we are so useless he would take over the construction of our log cabin – the new classroom for the Garden Design Academy. As a result, the building is on its way up after two years of sitting in pieces under black plastic in the front garden. What a relief it is to see the progress and I am told it could be more or less finished by the end of next week.

Log cabin

Soon to be the Garden Design Academy classroom

Wedding anniversary and other tales of French gardening

It was our wedding anniversary yesterday so we decided to take the day off and visit the local chateau at Valençay. This palatial building was once the home of Prince Talleyrand, Minister of Foreign Affairs to Napoleon Bonaparte and used for both politics and pleasure: the King of Spain was imprisoned in Valençay in great style and comfort for six years and dinner parties for the illustrious were hosted here twice a week – Napoleon himself was not much of a party goer.

The chateau at Valencay

The chateau at Valencay

Marie-Antoine Carême, the famous nineteenth century celebrity chef and exponent of haut cuisine, cooked here for international royalty and the newly rich of Europe. Unfortunately he had long since departed, but we eat well in the orangery at lunchtime.

The day was outrageously warm but we toured both the house and the gardens, taking in the floral lawn in the English-style park and a newly created culinary herb garden. Valençay itself is an attractive, white stone town, famous for both its white wine (Sauvignon and Chardonnay) and its goats cheese, the latter in the form of a truncated pyramid, the top originally removed it is said, to avoid offending Napoleon who had lost Egypt in a failed military campaign. A rich cake in the same shape is made in the town and reserved by us for special days like this.

The overly hot weather was broken last night by a series of violent storms, a weather pattern repeated several times this summer; dramatic stuff in a region better known for its gentle climate. The rain has been very welcome however and results in excellent crops of fruit and vegetables which have been popular with our guests. Breakfast jams are made from local cherries, strawberries, apricots, peaches, plums and other fruits, many given to us by neighbours while our own newly planted bushes and trees grow to fruiting size. Some fruits: apricots, nectarines and eating grapes, are sitting in large pots awaiting a new planting spot once our log cabin is finally installed. I recently planted a Bramley, king of the cooking apples, to introduce the French, who love apple tarts, especially their famous local delicacy Tarte Tatin, to this culinary experience.

Salads come from the garden each lunchtime, with several varieties of tomatoes and lettuce grown amongst the flowers, giving a pleasing, cottage-garden effect. Diners also benefit from the vegetables in the garden, with green asparagus a particularly exciting find, a living memory of the previous owner from twenty years ago. We have added courgettes and sweet corn, annual crops which are so much tastier when freshly picked and cooked within minutes.

Lavatera Barnsley grown from a cutting given to us last year.

Our range of garden plants has been recently boosted by a trip to the UK. As always seems to be the way on these visits, we rushed around mixing personal with business matters. On this occasion we finally packing up our property in Bedfordshire, which had become an expensive liability rather than the useful bed for the night it was intended for. We managed to survey a garden for a client in Hertfordshire, visit Garden Design Academy students in Kent, talk to our bank in Harpenden, and buy a few dozen plants, while still finding time for a good pub lunch or two, one of the very few things we miss from our old life in England.

Our plant purchases were a strange mix of the unusual and the banal. Our garden of over 1,000 sq.m. had just two plants in it once the wilderness had been cleared: our priceless 150 year old Sequoias, after which we named the house. A few things have since pushed up to surprise us: wild orchids especially, but all the plants you might take for granted are missing.

Alchemilla mollis - begged from a student of the Garden Design Academy

We therefore find ourselves buying, or begging from friends, such common but essential plants as Alchemilla mollis, Potentilla Gibson’s Scarlet and herbaceous Geraniums. Recent purchases for the White Garden included good ol’ Potentilla fruticosa Abbotswood, “cheap as chips” Spiraea nipponica Snowmound and the rather invasive but pretty variegated grass Phalaris arundinacea Picta, while white Hebe Kirkii was also selected for this area.

On the other hand we returned with a number of plants which were new to me and would find a good home in the rapidly expanding garden: Salvia elegans Golden Delicious is a lovely dwarf foliage plant which we have planted close to shocking pink Lampranthus purpureus in a sunny border. We will need to take cuttings sometime soon to ensure we have plants next year – Salvia elegans is normally listed as tender and I expect this variety to be no different.

Salvia Golden Delicious

Another plant with yellow foliage has been planted in the shade of the Sequoias. Leycesteria formosa is becoming more popular but in my day was just used as shelter for game birds. With this new variety, Golden Lantern, I have been hooked and it has been given pride of place in the Oriental Garden, next to the Chinese granite lantern which I removed from our office show garden when we said goodbye to Hertfordshire. The flowers are fascinating, the foliage beautiful and the upright form a great contrast to more rounded bushes nearby.

Hibiscus Purple Ruffles “Sanchonyo” is a new variety to keep our China Chiffon company. Hibiscus syriacus are hardy shrubs (unlike H. Rosa-sinensis varieties which we grow as house plants) and come from China, India and in this case, Korea, where it is the national flower. Hibiscus are commonly grown as flowering hedges here in Chabris but our varieties are more exotic, double flowered forms, giving me an opportunity to show off when local gardeners visit. Hibiscus appreciates the sun and we have planted one in the gravel patio to the rear of the house where it benefits from reflective heat and light.

Hibiscus China Chiffon

I have learned, or been reminded of, a great gardening lesson this year: always give a plant a chance to recover. Several plants which we thought had not survived the winter and I might easily have consigned to the compost heap, are now growing strongly. I begged neighbours for Passion Flower seedlings because our P. “White Lightning” had apparently died. It is now has growth four metres long and is covered in flower buds. Lippia (Aloysia triphylla these days), grown for its lemon-scented, insect repelling foliage, had also been written off but is now doing well. Lagerstroemia, Fuchsia, Eucomis – the list of apparent winter casualties goes on – all saved by a decision to “wait and see”. I recommend it.

I have also rediscovered the joys of propagation. As a lad I entered a nationwide Propagator of the Year competition and did very well. Later, when I was selling plants and gardens rather than growing them, the craft lost its attraction for me and I preferred the instant gratification of buying my plants. Now I am taking cuttings regularly, mostly under plastic bag cloches scattered around the garden, but I also have a large heat controlled propagator in the loft. This little toy, bought at some expense from Thompson and Morgan Seeds in France, has so far been used just for seeds but is available to produce large quantities of rooted cuttings when called to do so. Many of our new plants are on a mental cuttings list, giving me the chance to give away a few unusual plants to gardening friends. Equally, there are a few interesting plants in parks and gardens locally I have my eyes on – if you spot a wild man with secateurs creeping around at night, please don’t call the gendarme, it may be me!

The white garden in spring

Sounds a bit pompous, calling it a white garden, but a stretch of the new bed which reaches out along the boundary fence towards the Sequoias, has been designed with a selection of white flowered plants.

Magnolia stellata

Magnolia stellata - a moving in present from English friends

Starting at the end of the herb patch outside the kitchen window with an Iris germanica variety called Frost and Flame, the bed features a white Lagerstroemia in a sunny spot and Philadelphus and white Lilac on a little more shade against the fence.

Clematis armandii

Clematis armandii against the wall in Chabris

At this time the evergreen Clematis armandii is providing early flower, with a Magnolia stellata given to us by English friends, also in bloom and showing a touch of pink in bud. Nearby are Narcissus of a cream-white colour with Lilies planted amongst them to continue the effect when the Daffs have finished.

A large shrub of Viburnum burkwoodii is about to perform and I am eagerly anticipating the sweetly scented flowers. Underneath, a white Wood Violet, recently discovered in the lawn, has been transplanted to this more appropriate spot. Another recent addition bears the same name as the Viburnum, is also sweetly scented, with evergreen leaves and white flowers: Osmanthus burkwoodii.

Both these plants were named after Arthur Burkwood who, with his brother Albert, started the Parkwood Nursery in Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey, England. Other plants containing this name include: Cytisus scoparius ‘Burkwoodii’, Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, Osmarea burkwoodii, and Cytisus scoparius ‘Burkwoodii’

White Narcissus

White Narcissus - not all Daffs are yellow

We will continue to add white flowered plants to the small selection in this border to ensure that we have something in flower there throughout the year. I have recently been expanding the bed both to create more space for future planting and to produce a much more interesting shape than we had at first. It has also had the effect of improving the growing conditions by providing a range of habitats. The Lagerstroemia, for instance, is far happier now that I have been able to move it out into a spot with more direct sun.

Journees des Plantes de Courson – the autumn show.

A press pack has just arrived in our post box, detailing the events and themes for this autumn’s Journees des Plantes at Courson, south of Paris.

Two plant shows are held at the Chateau de Courson each year, prestigious events drawing amateur and professional gardeners and horticulturists from all over Europe, both to visit and to exhibit.

It  is a highlihght of our gardening year and this year we have been invited to speak to the members of the International Camellia Society and the RHS Camellia, Magnolia and Rhodoendron Group on the Friday evening. Our theme is to be gardening and garden design in France, looking in particular at the annual GardenFestival at Chaumont.

Each year we limit ourselves on the amount of plants we can buy at Courson and every year I regret not buying so many beautiful things. In the days when we were building £100,000 gardens for a living a few plants here or there hardly registered on our budget. These days we have to watch our pennies a little more carefully!

Largetroemia indica

Largetroemia indica

Last year we bought our first Lagerstroemia indica, from the master of the genus, Demartis of Bergerac. We chose the variety Yang Tse, a family reminder that my Grandmother and Grandfather lived alongside the river of the same name, when he was architect to Shanghai Municipal Council prior to and during the invation of China by Japan.

This plant suffered during its first winter but is now a healthy bush, covered with flower buds which are just starting to open.


A Mimosa bought at the same time did not survive the cold; an appeal for a replacement from the nursery resulted in a letter telling me off for not looking after it! Caveat emptor!