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.

Advertisements

First day of spring? Let’s go to a plant fair!

Last year at the Cheverny plant fair

Today is the first day of spring and here in central France we were greeted by a crisp frost, swiftly followed by a gorgeous, sunny day. Time to start planning our gardening event diary, I think.

Spring gets off to a great start this weekend with both a Fête des plantes at the Château de Cheverny while, in the village of Cour-Cherverny around the corner, one of our favourite wine producers is holding an open day. Life doesn’t get much better! Cheverny has a page dedicated to its gardens on the Loire Valley Gardens web site.

Forsythia for the first day of spring

At the end of the month I plan to visit the Fête des Plantes Vivaces at Domaine de Saint-Jean de Beauregard in the Essonne department, 30 minutes south of Paris. I say “plan” because every year so far something has prevented me attending this, one of the major French plant fairs. More than 200 exhibitors will be showing their wares at the show and a series of lectures and conferences are to be held over three days. They even accept dogs on leads, so Pixie the Poodle can come. We have our tickets and nothing short of a national disaster will keep me away this year.

Plants on the move and Chaumont news

Herbaceous perennials – plants which live for several years but have soft growth which dies down in the winter – should be lifted and divided every few years to maintain their strength. It is often an opportunity to increase stock so that a single plant may become a group of three or more within a few years. We use this method of propagation, but we also lift and divide when we decide to move plants from one area of the garden to another. We use herbaceous plants as temporary ‘fillers’ between shrubs to give extra colour while the more permanent plants grow to size, moving them as the shrubs fill the space.

This year we have decided to construct a swimming pool for holiday guests and Garden Design Academy students. Its placement was the subject of much debate and we used it as a surveying and design exercise with a group of visiting garden designers and landscapers last year. The size and area having been agreed upon and a skilled constructor having been appointed, I have been left with the task of clearing the plants to allow work to start at the beginning of April.

Most of these plants are on the move

The site runs along one boundary, connecting the house with our log cabin lecture room. As none of the boundaries, buildings or features is parallel to each other, we have had to decide if we would install the pool perpendicular to the house, to the cabin or neither. With the advantage of CAD and a room full of design and construction specialists, it was soon clear that the way to proceed was at a right-angle to the cabin rather than the house. This leaves a border that narrows into the distance when viewed from the house, emphasising the length of the garden, an illusion popular with French garden designers at the time the house was constructed.

Asters looking for a new home

The bed has been planted for only two years or so but is already beginning to look established in places. It was also used as a nursery, a home for plants with no home and a place to root hardwood cutting. The design was beginning to show through the jumble however, before I started to rip it apart. I measured and pegged out the pool and its surrounding paving so that I could see what plants needed to be moved: quite a few. I started with the trees, of which there are far too many. The Clerodendrum trichotomum, acquired as a sucker from a local plant, took some lifting. Despite negative reviews from some American sources I think this is a beautiful tree, a native to Western China and named in honour of Paul Guillaume, a French missionary and naturalist in Central China. It has very fragrant, pretty white flowers in August. These are followed by outstanding and eye-catching, metallic-blue berries in autumn. The star of this bed in 2011, it has now been moved to the front garden.

A Liquidambar has been potted and may be given to gardening friends, but the Golden Catalpa is now in a pot on the patio, under-planted with yellow Crocus as it was when it was growing in the side bed. The trees out, I am now turning my attention to the herbaceous plants. Sedum spectabilis and Geums have now been lifted, divided and planted in another front garden bed, close to a relocated modern French shrub rose and established Delphiniums and Asters, the whole having a very English feel. Homes still need to be found for many more plants but I feel I have broken the back of the work now. In addition I have a collection of newly potted plants to give away to friends.

Chaumont 2010 - Garden Design Academy students hard at work

In the mean time I have had a number of invitations to gardening product launches and events. Unfortunately, everything seems to be arranged for 9am in central Paris and as no-one is paying my hotel bill and I am reluctant to get up for the 6am train, I am attending very few of them. I can tell you however, having turned down an invitation to the press launch, that the theme of the Chaumont Festival of Gardens for 2012 is “Jardins de délice, jardins de délire”. There is a note about this, and links to details of every festival since its beginnings in 1992, on the Loire Valley Gardens site: http://www.loirevalleygardens.com/chaumont_sur_loire.html

Our own Loire Valley Gardens study tour is beginning to attract bookings from as far away as Australia and details of the spring tour on 22nd -29th May can be found here: http://www.gardendesignacademy.com/Res_Loire_Gardens.html