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.

A cool patch? Let’s get gardening again!

A delightfully cool morning prompted me to get some more work done in the garden. I like to do a little gardening every day, even if it’s just a spot of weeding with a cup of tea in one hand. It’s been some time since we saw clouds that look as if they mean it however, so I took the opportunity of the reduced temperatures to tidy up the garden of our holiday rental gîte.

Rose 'Paul's Himalayan Musk'

 

We named it Rose Cottage soon after we bought the place and imagined climbing and shrub roses in a romantic sheltered garden at the front of the property. In the end, someone stole the name plate and our only rose is a huge Paul’s Himalayan Musk we brought over from David Austin’s nursery in Northampton, UK.

The rose is very vigorous and the long stems are tied in and side-shoots cut back to around four buds. It now covers a twenty foot stretch of wall, turns a corner and buries a wire boundary fence, so it definitely earns its place in the garden. On the other hand we rarely have occupants in the gîte when it flowers and attempts to grow Clematis through it have so far been unsuccessful. The front garden, with its heavy clay, imported soil, is the only part to suffer from slugs and snails and these seem grateful for the several Clematis I have fed them with over the years.

The soil and aspect of this little garden do not make for ideal gardening conditions and remind me in many ways of the garden we left behind in Harpenden (UK). I have planted a conifer, Cupressus Goldcrest, Weigela florida variegata and Heuchera Palace Purple, all of which we had in that garden, together with our latest, bought at a nursery in Letty Green, Escallonia Apple Blossom.There are many plants suitable for these conditions and you just have to be aware of the limitations if you garden in soils of this type. A perfect candidate would be Hebe Great Orme, especially as it can be relied upon to flower all summer and well into the winter. We bought a plant from the same nursery in Hertfordshire during our last trip to the UK and immediately took cuttings so we could have it in more than one location. We give pride of place in the back garden to the main plant but one of the cuttings will certainly end up in the front. Spares can go to friends once they are well established in pots.

By mid day the sun was out again and temperatures were back up to the high 20’s; shirts came off, shorts replaced long trousers and after a leisurely lunch in the garden it was time to work inside, Chantal preparing the gîte for our next guests and me on the computer writing this article.

While roses are not my favourite subjects (I have the scars to prove it) I love pruning and I am in good company here, where French gardeners are totally obsessive about it. While I prune to assist flowering and create a pleasing shape, the French do it to be tidy and in many gardens every bush is cut back and trimmed to such an extent that they never flower; but they are tidy! I have known a few English gardeners who work the same way but, I am glad to report, very few. Surrounded by all this excessive behaviour I seem to have my secateurs out more often than I used to and several plants are flowering twice a year as a result. Cut back immediately after flowering, plants will often respond with new growth and a second crop of flowers. Lavender, perennial Geraniums, Nepeta, Lavatera and many others have been given this treatment and respond very well. Although our growing season may be longer than yours, anything that flowers reasonably early on new growth is a candidate. A little feed and water rewards them for all this additional effort but otherwise you just sit back and enjoy the show.

Miscanthus Zebrinus

 

We have brought a number of ornamental grasses over from the UK and added them to local purchases from French autumn garden shows. Grasses are at their best now with many of them flowering at the end of the season. I like to leave them untrimmed to enjoy the frosted brown stems over winter. My favourite are the Miscanthus and while we grow them in much smaller clumps than when we gardened on three acres in the UK, we currently have four varieties. Golden variegated Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus forms chest high thickets even before flowering and ours fills a difficult patch under a Cherry tree. The colour comes from gold bands which run across each leaf blade in a regular pattern, while M. S. Cabaret has conspicuous white stripes and is planted at the far end of a bed featuring sun-loving plants. A young Miscanthus Purpurascens has almost been swamped by a silver Artemisia and will need moving next March. The leaves turn purplish green with pink midribs in the summer and develop red and orange tones in autumn. Another Miscanthus variety (I lost the name: possibly Gracillimus) provides dappled shade to our purple-leaved Japanese Maple, which might otherwise scorch in high summer.

I had never grown Stipa gigantea before starting this garden and we are enjoying the sight of this tufted plant with tall, oat-like flower spikes, bringing a softening effect to a shady dell amongst Skimmia, Hydrangeas and Geraniums. Stipa tenuissima is a delight, with fine leaves and feathery flowers waving in the slightest breeze. It has been planted in quantity in the local trading estate as it was in our last English garden and is high on my wants list. Other grasses in the garden include Festuca glauca, Carex buchananii from New Zealand and Imperata Red Baron, which looks superb in the evening sun.

Some readers will know that we traded out of a beautiful log cabin during our last months in Hertfordshire. I imported the building from Finland and had it built near the entrance to our landlord’s garden centre after they announced they wanted to sell the bungalow we had rented as our office for the previous ten years. When we decided just a few months later to make the move to France, my landlord and several others wanted us to abandon the building. After much wrangling and several angry letters, we finally had it dismantled and brought here and just this week, two years later, workers have started to erect it in our back garden.

Gooseberry Espera Lubera - it's on the "wish list"

 

The cabin covers nearly 100 square metres and will become a classroom for the Garden Design Academy when we hold residential courses. We plan to modify the roof so that we can grow Sedum and other plants on it and collect rainwater to irrigate the vegetables. A fruit garden is planned using plants we have been growing in pots for a year now – apricots, peaches and grapes – together with our young Bramley apple and soft fruit we plan to obtain from the UK. I have been very tempted by a new range Suttons will be offering this autumn: Gooseberry Espera, Raspberry Twotimer, Blackberry Navaho and Redcurrent Lisette. These will join a hybrid berry collected as a cutting from my Grandmother’s Cornish garden before she died.

For me, the gardening we do in France is little different to what we have done over the years in the UK. I find no difficulty assisting clients in China or the USA and while we learn much from these diverse gardening experiences, the principles are universal. I hope you enjoy these snippets from our new life in France and manage to adapt some of the tips to your own gardens.

Festuca glauca and Hebe Great Orme