New Year, new garden projects.

Half of Europe is coping with storms and floods and in the USA they are suffering from a cold blast of Arctic weather conditions; here in the centre of France, 2014 has started mild and dry. I don’t mean to sound smug and my fear is that the cold will come to us later, causing the sort of damage to plants that we witnessed a couple of years ago, when it dropped to -24°C and the vineyards died throughout the region.

I had a great deal of office work to catch up on after the Christmas break but the opportunity of getting back out in the garden has finally presented itself. Today I started installing the raised beds for the new vegetable garden behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. This small space has been used as a dumping ground for too long and I am delighted to be finally sorting it out.

raised beds

Under construction – the first two raised beds installed today.

When completed there will be four raised beds, arranged in a formal grid and connected by a pergola. The beds are made from local oak but the pergola will either be a Hillhout-style structure in treated pine or something more rustic and artistic, handmade from willow. I have so far installed two of these beds, having earlier planted three peach bushes along the south facing side of the classroom cabin. Paths one metre wide will divide the raised beds and the 1.2m wide ground-level beds along the garden wall and behind the classroom. It would be lovely to surface these paths in brick but I suspect this will have to wait for another year.

Nandina domestica with flowers and berries in the local park.

Nandina domestica with flowers and berries in the local park.

Water for this garden will soon be an issue and this will prompt me to install the gutters on the cabin – they have be laying there for several years now – and arrange to collect the rain water in a butt of some sort which has yet to be obtained. The compost area is also in a sorry state and needs to be dismantled and rebuilt properly. I have a collection of sturdy transport pallets which I shall use to construct the new compost bays.

If only there were eight or nine days in the  week!

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Plants for friends, plants for customers

As autumn approaches, thoughts turn naturally to this year’s planting season and we are arranging the delivery of plants to a number of our clients this month. These days we do not have teams of eager landscapers willing and able to construct my gardens for our customers, but I still like to involve myself in the planting for a number of reasons.

Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes (Bailtier) showing autumn colour in our garden in central France

Disappointingly, I find many professional landscapers and garden designers woefully lacking in plant knowledge. This is something we try to address at the Garden Design Academy, where a number of our courses encourage students to improve the range of plants with which they are familiar. In reality however, it just takes interest and motivation; it also takes time to fully understand a wide selection of the garden plants available to gardeners.

We therefore offer to locate and supply the plants we specify for our gardens, either just delivering them to site or more usually, placing them out on the newly cultivated beds to the planting plan and plant list we have produced as part of the design of the garden. Although there are plenty of fine growers here in France, we often find we need to purchase our plants from the UK, Belgium or Holland to fulfil our requirements.

We also like to give plants as presents to our friends and I much prefer to have grown them myself than to buy them: it’s a more personal gesture, I feel. Frustrated nurseryman that I am, I have a heated tunnel in the loft in which I sow seed and establish cuttings and while not everything does well (of course, I like to try the most difficult plants!) we do claim some success at producing batches of plants to give away. I had cleared the tunnel and turned off the under-soil heating before our recent trip South, but have just reinstated it for my next attempts at propagation.

Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii in flower today by the front gate

For myself I have taken cuttings of New Guinea Hybrid Impatiens from the single plant which has brightened up the shady border by the front door this year. I expect I will dig up and pot the main plant, which is now quite large, attempting to over-winter it out of the frost. These cuttings are my insurance policy and I have done the same with Solanum (Lycianthes) rantonnetii, which we grow in a pot by the front gate and which will also need protection during winter. Other tender plants will be given similar treatment.

For friends I have  cuttings of Hebe Great Orme and Cistus corbariensis today and a list of a number of others I will attempt to root during the next week or so. It has been fascinating looking at notes I made almost forty years ago, listing the appropriate months to take cuttings from a wide range of shrubs. I have decided to give young Colin the benefit of the doubt and concentrate on the plants he suggests.

Echium fastuosum in its native habitat

In the post box most mornings are offers of plants from a number of mail order companies, suggestions I can resist without too much difficulty. On the other hand I have found a French grower on eBay, of all places, who lists a really interesting selection of unusual plants and clearly knows her stuff. I decided to give her a try and have ordered Echium fastuosum, whose towering blue flower spikes are a spectacular feature of the flora of Madera, Kniphofia Dorset Sentry, an acid-yellow variety of Red Hot Poker and Hedychium Tara, a hardy plant related to Ginger featuring luxuriant foliage and delightfully scented, bright orange flowers. We are looking forward to growing all of these and will report back on their arrival and progress.