Autumn in the Loire Valley

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Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

The circus has come to town: a sure sign that autumn has arrived. In the square behind our home a riotous collection of goats, lama, camels, long-horn cattle, geese and other creatures are incongruously dotted around the lawns of the Place de Foire, calmly awaiting the first show tonight, like the professionals there are. We can hear the music and the announcements of the promotional vans.

After a short, hot summer, autumn has been variously warm and wet or cool and wet, conditions which are driving vineyard owners to the point of despair. The grape harvest started in mid-October and depending on the variety, will continue in the rain for the next few weeks. This is going to be a challenging year to produce fine wine in the Loire Valley and I feel for the growers.

I have three weeks’ worth of residential garden design and CAD courses starting on Saturday and am desperate to get out and tidy up the garden before students start to drift in from around the globe. Our first Israeli garden designer arrives for a week of CAD training on Saturday, while a parks manager from the Sultanate of Oman will be with us at the end of the month for two weeks of study. We work a lot with garden professionals from Oman and I find their horticultural skills to be of a very high standard: I must get the weeding done!

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Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

Despite, and in some cases because of the rain, there is still plenty going on in the garden. Yellow flowered Buddleja x weyeriana has been in bloom for months and shows no sign of wanting to stop. Salvia species like S. coccinea, S. patens, S. leucantha, S. elegans, S. microphylla, S. uliginosa and S. involucrata are all looking superb and I am taking cuttings of many of them at the moment for insurance purposes – some may be killed by a cold winter. Grasses are also looking good; we have several Miscanthus sinensis varieties, the majority in flower at the moment, while there are signs of autumn leaf colour on shrubs such as Rhus and Hamamelis. Anemones are showing well, especially Honorine Jobert in the white border and in the oriental garden the Colchicum Waterlily are in full flower. I know, Colchicum autumnale is a European native – I do things like this to see if you are concentrating.

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Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

Under the trees in the parks of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, both great and small, blankets of pink and white Cyclamen are in bloom but in the borders the gardeners are removing summer bedding ready to replace them with winter / spring flowering varieties. A great garden like Chenonceau must always look good, so the change-over brings out dozens of gardeners to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Sunday will be the last opportunity to see the gardens of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire; it closes its doors to the public on 20th October and reopens with two dozen new gardens in the spring. I shall be going with a group of garden designers to see how it has progressed since my last visit earlier in the summer. In the mean time we look forward to the 2014 edition, which will try to conjure up both the faults and the excesses of our time and the free, spiritual universe of eternal gardens, with the show theme: “Garden of the Deadly Sins”; expect to be challenged!

Sadly, because I am teaching, I will not be attending the plant fair at Courson, south of Paris this autumn, saving a great deal of money by missing a favourite plant-buying expedition. There will be other opportunities I have no doubt.

Chaumont International Garden Festival 2011

We are taking it easy today after a busy week hosting a group of garden design students, over here for a 6-day residential course. Happily the weather has returned to normal for this time of the year after a below-par July. Now it is warm, sunny and calm and we have passed the day gently, collecting mushrooms in the woods, gardening and swimming down at the old mill on the river Cher.

The Dining Room

One of the highlights of any of our residential courses is a visit to the International Festival of Gardening at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire. We also offer Loire Valley garden tours which drop in on the show. The chateau and park are lovely in themselves but the festival, which has been running annually since 1992, now attracts large numbers (around 400,000 p.a.) of visitors from around the world, many of them knowledgeable or professionally involved in art or horticulture.

For those who have not come across Chaumont, the format is somewhat different to garden shows like Chelsea. There are no trade stands, just around gardens, around 25 of them designed and built by invitation and to a very limited budget. The gardens are constructed and planted ready for the opening in April and are maintained until it closes in October. It is a wonderful event where new ideas are trialed by designers and artists of all descriptions, some coming from as far away as China and South America to participate.

Each year a theme is set and the designers must consider and use this to inspire their gardens. This year it is “Gardens of the future or the art of happy biodiversity”. What the designer makes of such a title is half the fun of it and often these themes are deliberately obscure or play on words (in French) to make the challenge and the range of responses as interesting as possible. Each year some gardens are more successful than others, but in a year or two you can expect to see ideas gleaned from the festival recycled at Chelsea in a garden costing 100-times more.

I like to visit the gardens starting near the restaurants, work my way down the slope to the far end, break for lunch and complete the tour in the afternoon. It generally takes us around four hours to “do” the show. If I want (as I do) to get something out there this evening I will have to look at the gardens in several attempts. This is part one.

The first garden was entitled The Dining Room and was designed by students and staff of the Okinawa University of Arts in Japan. On the sign placed at the front of their garden they say: “This garden evokes a j

The take-away garden

oyful table, glorifying the benefits of the orchard and the vegetable patch in the heart of the garden.
The cycle, which comprises “eating and being eaten”, is the basis of the food chain. This basic cyclical profile is absolutely essential to life continuing. Happiness is its end product. To sum up, eating const

itutes the basis of nature’s benefits. This makes the food chain a happiness system. This food biodiversity must therefore be preserved and taken care of.”

The second on our tour was called Garden of Tides, a Dutch / British collaboration intended to evoke the hidden and neglected beauty of undersea gardens, gardens of the future to be preserved.

The Take-away Garden was British, well thought out and nicely executed. The sign explained:  “Imagine a world where every citizen has the opportunity to look after his or her own personal micro-habitat.  From roof terraces to car parks, from suburban gardens to industrial waste ground – no space is too small for a portable bag (le sac), with a single tree and associated eco-system.  Instead of feeling helpless in the face of the loss of biodiversity, caring for just one bag is a small step on the path towards gaining back respect and responsibility for the environment.”
Ton bags normally used for delivering gravel and sand were here used to grow little habitat gardens: orchard (le verger), forest (la foret), maritime heath (la lande maritime), woodland edge (le petit bois), hedgerow (l’haie) and marsh.

Blue Biodiversity looks at the numerous chromatic options offered by plants. It plays both on the diversity of plants and on the infinite diversities of the shades of blue. It is described by the designer as :A subtle dialogue between the plants and coloured stones which is delicately presented, just like steps in colour.

La biodiversité bleue

I hope you’ll drop back in to the blog to see the next exciting installment of my review of this years Chaumont Festival.

Winter gardening down-time

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”~Marcus Cicero, 106-43 BC, Roman statesman and philosopher.

Winter can be hard on the gardener. We are longing to be outside but are generally stuck indoors while all around us blizzards rage. This is not strictly true in my more gentle part of the world, but I feel you those of you in less equitable climes. While Cicero may have left out a few essentials with which my adopted home is well blessed (art, music, wine, food, anyone?), garden books make it much easier to survive the dreary weather.

Pyracantha with berries

Pyracantha with berries in Chabris

My own collection runs into scores and ranges from antique, leather bound works by eighteenth century radical agriculturist William Cobbett and the plant hunter George Forest, to those great little “Expert” books by DG Hessayan. My first copy of Be Your Own Rose Expert set me back Two shillings and six pence and was bought to assist customers on my parent’s nursery in Cornwall. I have several others in the series, one or two in multiple additions as they were updated to reflect new varieties, new techniques and gardening fashions.

We moved to the Loire Valley from Hertfordshire 16 months ago and have been slowly organising our home, social and business life ever since. There are still unpacked boxes in the loft and buildings awaiting renovation and most of my books are stored out there somewhere.

We did come across a few in the early days and the RHS Encyclopaedia was one of the first to be unpacked. A boxed set of two volumes, this is the third edition that I have owned and is completely indispensible to me. It is not perfect –  in a world where new varieties are released every year it is impossible for a book like this to be completely comprehensive and up to date – but it is about as good as such an ambitious work could be.

It describes over 15,500 garden plants, many with photographs, and lists them in the only sensible way: alphabetically, by Latin name. The large format makes it a pleasure to leaf through in idle moments and for those times when you need to identify an unknown plant, a pleasant hour skimming through the pictures normally results in a find. If you know what you are looking for and just want to check cultivation notes, you can go straight to the plant concerned. Now that my growing is slightly more exotic I welcome one aspect that I used to find irritating: the number of plants in the encyclopaedia which I was not able to grow in southern England.

Before the RHS encyclopaedia was published, my favourite of this type was by the Readers Digest and every so often I still refer to my battered copy of The Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers dating from the ‘70’s. At half the price but with only a fraction of the plants, it remains a great reference book with a much more practical edge than the RHS encyclopaedia.

Mahonia

Mahonia brings a little winter cheer to the streets of Angers

Of course if you want practical, the Royal Horticultural Society does practical, and a series of publications approaching plants and gardening at different levels are available. I have various books under the RHS banner on plant pests and diseases, fruit cultivation, herbs, vegetables and many specialist subjects. They are all written by experts in their field, whose authority is beyond question.

A great deal of our time is these days spent teaching gardening, garden design and a range of horticultural subjects, mostly by distance learning. Our Chinese clients think this is an admirable thing to do: to pass on ones knowledge to those coming up behind. We have a surge of bookings for courses during the winter, with gardening amateurs and professionals using their down-time to improve their understanding of the subject. For much the same reason we always have plenty of garden design appointments at this time of the year.

I find teaching is both pleasurable and instructional: you learn a great deal, with personal prejudices challenged and memory stretched by the probing questions and demands of students. The internet gives them such extensive access to information that your task is to explain errors in judgement and interpretation rather than just to dish out facts to be accepted without question. Our courses now include some serious vocational studies like the RHS Diploma in Horticulture however, and facts are facts. These sometimes need to be checked, so I’m glad I still have access to all my old horticultural books from back in the days when I was a student at Pershore College.

Holly berries

Ilex meserveae Blue Angel

Now that we live in France it is fascinating to compare and contrast French gardening books and magazines. I subscribe to ‘Jardins de France’, the excellent revue of the SNHF, the French equivalent of the RHS, while still receiving The Garden from the Royal Horticulture Society in England. I also have a few French gardening books, although many of the best over here are translated from English. Le Guide Clause-Vilmorin du Jardin is the latest version of an encyclopaedia I have been using for many years, since working for the seed company Clause near Paris. It tries to be comprehensive and has sold over 5 million copies, but the use of common names, French common names, drives me crazy!

Before I lose the tenuous grasp I still have on the English language, I am determined to write my second book. “Was there a first”?  I hear you ask, as well you might for all the impact it made in the book shops at the time. At one stage I was considered an expert on bedding plants and this was the subject of my little book. These days I have CAD training to offer to garden designers and while we do quite well from residential courses it is suggested there is a need for a training manual on the subject. The outline is done and the plan is to complete the book this winter. It may have been last winters’ plan as well!

Another profitable way to pass time at this time of the year is with the latest editions of the seed catalogues. We are still sent these automatically by many of our favourite suppliers while others need to be hunted down and paid for each year. New varieties are the stuff of gardening and seed companies understand this. Old varieties are rebranded and presented as something new while, it is true, some genuine novelties appear most years. Planning your new floral displays and the vegetables you are going to eat this summer is one of life’s great pleasures and accompanied by mulled wine around a roaring log fire……or was that the latest Disney Christmas film?

Gardening is full of romantic images like this and it is hard to deny that it seems to fill some great need in the human psyche. Whether you consider gardening to be “the new rock ‘n’ roll”  or a connection with “the good life” with which so many of us have lost contact, the pursuit of gardening is something that links us to each other and with nature in one single, shared activity. If this activity is slowed or even brought to a halt by inclement weather and the passing of the growing season, we can still dream, surely?

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