Cuckoos, spring blossom and the Cheverny plant fair

Magnolia stellata in the white border at the Garden Design Academy

People have been telling me for ages that the cuckoos have arrived but now I can report that they genuinely have returned to the woods around Chabris. Last Friday was our first sighting (hearing?), within the range of arrival dates we have been noting since we moved to central France.

The cuckoos tend to bring the warm weather with them and it has been very warm these last few days, with temperatures in the shade a full 10°C above normal. Apricots, peaches, and cherries are all in flower in the gardens and here and there deciduous Magnolias, in colours ranging from purest white to deepest purple, can be seen in many gardens, including a M.stellata smothered with flowers in our own. Visiting the plant fair at the Chateau de Cheverny over the weekend, we photographed a stunning yellow variety called Magnolia (acuminata x. denudata) ‘Elizabeth’ bred by Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and named after a benefactor, Elizabeth van Brunt.

Magnolia Elizabeth at the Fete des Plantes at the Chateau de Cheverny

Having a young yellow hybrid tree already we resisted the temptation to buy this, but did come back with a nice handful of plants. Tiarella Spring Symphony is one of the new hybrids with highly attractive leaves and improved flowers. This repeat flowering, clump-forming variety blooms in spring, producing 15cm spikes densely packed with pink blossoms. Its deeply cut foliage is compact, with black markings along the midrib. Tiarellas are at home in moist woodland environments and we hope it will be just perfect under the Sequoia. I should have bought half a dozen really, to form a ground covering group.

Tiarella Spring Symphony

Our left-hand bed will need a complete redesign once the swimming pool goes in, and we thought Arundo donax Variegata would be ideal, adding vertical lines and an exotic feel close to the water. It was bought from the stand of the local horticultural college, who were not at all impressed that I offer courses to students via the internet! Calycanthus occidentalis, the Spice Bush native to the mountains of central and northern California, came from the National Arboretum Des Barres, who were offering all sorts of rarities for sale. I have never grown this shrub, but have seen it in a number of gardens and we look forward to having it in flower this summer.

Olivet nurserymen Piermant are specialists in Hydrangea and Viburnum and from them came evergreen Viburnum x globosum Jermyns Globe. A chance seedling of V. x globosum (V. davidii x V. calvum) found at Hillier’s West Hill Nursery, ‘Jermyns Globe’ is a large shrub, extremely dense and rounded in habit. White flower heads are followed by blue fruits, which persist until the following spring. Most gardeners will think it is a form of Viburnum tinus, so it should be a conversation piece. Our final plant is a very interesting find, Forsythia koreana Kumsun, a most unusual and unique form. While having familiar, golden-yellow flowers in early spring, it leafs out to reveal highly unusual, variegated leaves – an intricate network of decorative veins in the leaves that is extremely rare in nature and incredibly attractive. Since this leaf colour lasts throughout the entire growing season, it takes the ornamental value of forsythias into a whole new season – from the emergence of flower buds in early spring, through the luxuriant growth of summer, to the arrival of frosts in late autumn. Tim Wood, of Spring Meadow Nurseries in the USA discovered it while visiting Kwan-gnu-ng Arboretum and Sungkyunkwan University in Korea in 1999, since when it has been on trial with several nurseries.

Forsythia Kumsun leaves

The ‘fête des plantes’ was a great success with well over 100 exhibitors this year, raising money for Rotary Club good causes and attracting a good crowd of visitors on a gorgeous, sunny weekend.


Busy with spring business

When we moved to France we had no intention of becoming part of an Ex-Pat community: my parents live amongst Brits in Spain and we were not looking for a life remotely like theirs. On the other hand, when you live abroad you do seem to gravitate towards your own kinsmen and while this area of central France has nothing like the density of English found in areas like the Dordogne, where English language newspapers, English shops and “tea like Mother makes” are common, we do have several English friends.

Troglodyte house in St. Aignant for sale

Community spirit is high amongst ex-pats and last week we found ourselves rallying around a friend who, having successfully advertised a property in the Financial Times promptly took ill and retired to the emergency ward of a hospital in Manchester. His clients were coming for viewings from Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Paris and the UK so we spent a week collecting them from airports and railway stations, providing food and accommodation, showing them around the property and the region and sending them away rejoicing. I only hope our friend recovers and we have been successful in selling the house for him. Time will tell on both counts and we are glad to be able to move back down a gear or two and live again at the pace to which we have become accustomed.

Of course, there are local excitements too. Only last weekend we had the Poulaine Donkey Festival, an annual event attracting competitors from all over the region. Next week promises to be special too, with eight teams coming for a boules championship and I gather the circus will be in town once they clear the square of the boules. International competitions for rifles, pistols and crossbows are all coming soon, ensuring Chantal’s B&B will do brisk business leading into the summer season. Events such as these are however less common than in the autumn, because spring makes such high demands on people’s time. In spite of low produce selling prices and the general flight from the countryside, this is still a very agrarian country and life moves with the seasons.

Poulaine Donkey Festival

Garden and flower festivals are part of the seasonal experience and we are hoping to be attending a local event at the Chateau de Bouges, south of Valençay. Further afield Fêtes des Plantes beckon from Saint-Jean de Beauregard, Courson, Chaumont, La Ferté St. Aubin and other attractive venues around the country. We are also beginning to receive invitations to prevue gardens and gardening spectacles such as the opening of the new plant house at the Natural History Museum in Paris and the Claude Monet garden in Giverny. For the second year in a row, there will be no time for Chelsea.

Shortly we have students coming over from the UK for one of our Design your own Garden weeks. These courses are a lot of fun for us and always include visits to local gardens and to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire. We have been going to this show for many years and has become our “must see” event. It consists of more than twenty gardens designed to a set theme and allowed to remain in place for the whole growing season. This year’s festival is the 18th and chooses as its theme “Body and Soul Gardens”.  It will look at gardens as a source of restfulness, peace and serenity, but also as the place that gives life to plants that care for the body. Horticultural therapy, phytotherapy and hedonistic therapy will all be touched upon in a show whose Chairman of the 2010 Jury is a neurologist and biologist who also writes on ethics, art and philosophy. When the French do this sort of thing, they do it so well.

Orchards in blossom and Chabris church

Spring has been delightful this year. The weather has been warm enough to eat in the garden on most days since late March, but it is not so warm that the season passes too quickly. Highlights of pink Apricot and Peach blossom were soon followed by huge drifts of foamy-white flowers from the Cherry orchards. After a slight pause these were joined by Pears and Apples until the whole village seemed covered in flower. Scented Lilacs burst open simultaneously on April 17th and by the following Monday most of the Wisterias were showing colour and adding to the perfume from Viburnum bodnatense, which had been flowering for a few weeks, providing another dimension to evening walks in the park by the river Cher.

Our garden has been responding very nicely too. Our White Garden continues to delight as it matures and is already providing colour for most of the year. Every plant has been a joy but we were particularly delighted by the Magnolia stellata, bought from the Waste Not, Want Not nursery next to the Robin Hood pub in Rabley Heath in Hertfordshire. This charity assists people recovering from stress and mental illness and is dedicated to recycling horticulture materials and plants. I gather they are to be seen at Chelsea Flower Show this year.

Magnolia stellata

I love having a little tale to tell about every plant and as you continue down the re-shaped border from the White to the Oriental Garden, there are a number of plants which have made the journey from France to England and back again in their short lives. A number of plants and sculptures have been reclaimed from our English gardens, both from our old home and from the gardens at work, while others have been given to us or bought since we have been in France.

We continue to be invited to design gardens, increasingly in France but also back in the UK. A recent two page article in a magazine aimed at Francophiles concentrated on our gardening courses and horticultural teaching but resulted in several contracts with English settlers in this country.

My next design trip is to Toulouse and to the Dordogne, with two very different gardens to consider.

Central France in Spring mood

Spring is advancing very nicely here in the northern most part of the Indre, one of the departments that make up the Central region of France.

Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom: Chabris, France, 8th April 2010

Yesterday the Cherries started flowering, adding a white haze to orchards and gardens, already warmed by pink peach blossom. This combination creates a subtly beautiful scene when compared to the vivid colours of Forsythia and Chaenomeles which have dominated garden planting thus far. Interestingly perhaps, only the white cherries are in flower – the pink are nowhere to be seen. Pears and Apples will not be far behind.

The progression of the season is noticeable near ground level as well. Tulips replace Daffodils; Cowslips in their thousands adorn the countryside and on a recent walk we found long lines of hairy, brown caterpillars crossing the forest paths.


Cowslips - Primula veris

Our own modest contribution to all this growth and flower comes in the form of recently planted shrubs, bulbs and herbaceous plants. In the front garden a yellow-leaved form of the flowering current, Ribes sanguinea is attracting attention while in the back our Magnolia stellata is full of flower. Other flowering highlights are the supermarket-bought Tulips and the self-seeded Cowslips.

Cowslips have become rare in the wild in the UK but are abundant here. Primroses however, we hardly see, except in gardens. I have no idea why that should be but I’m very grateful for one out of two!

Not to rest on our laurels, we have installed a propagator in the loft and are busily sowing seeds. There is a tale to tell about this recent purchase and if the seed company I bought it from do not deal promptly with my complaints, all will be revealed.

Flowering current

Yellow-leaved Ribes sanguineum Brocklebankii

We are growing a range of vegetables and flowers in this device, which features a small plastic tunnel, a heat mat and a proper thermastatic control system. Its a miniature vesion of a commercial system and should give us great control over the germination environment allowing s to provide ideal temperatures and humidity. More on this later…….

At the Garden Design Academy one of our American students, who had to describe a number of gardens as part of her project work, introduced me to the stunnng Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon. I pass on this web address in case you might be interested too:

St. Catherine’s Day planting and preparing for winter.

25th November – St. Catherine’s Day – when planting is guaranteed to be successful.

I had been saving the planting of my Magnolia grandiflora until today and plan to have a St. Catherine’s Day plant for every year we are here. Last year, our first autumn in France, I planted a couple of fruiting Cherry trees on the eastern garden boundary and the Magnolia is now settling in halfway between the two. The stocky plant has a couple of flower buds waiting to open and makes a nice evergreen punctuation point on that side of the garden.

Magnolia grandiflora

Magnolia grandiflora planted on St. Catherine's Day

There are no beds over there at the moment – I had been leaving that side uncultivated to allow access for the builders when our log cabin goes up. The planting hole was therefore dug out of an area hastily cleared for the purpose and is still surrounded by weeds in this neglected section. It’s had a good feed and plenty of water and I shall be talking to it on a daily basis; and with St. Catherine on my side, how can I go wrong?


This planting is also part of my preparations for winter which, despite all the mild weather, must be just around the corner.


ICS visits Courson 2009

As noted in my previous post, last weekend I was the guest of the International Camellia Society and the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia group, as nice a bunch of people as you could hope to meet in a garden in France.

Friday we visited Les Journée des Plantes at Domaine de Courson, south of Paris. This is my favourite plant fairs and we try to go every year – so much easier now that we live in France, only two hours away by motorway.

Courson - the chateau from across the lake

Courson - the chateau from across the lake

The ICS had its own stand and I took the opportunity to meet them and buy a Camellia, a variegated sasanqua variety called Okina-Goroma, with pink flowers during the winter. I hope to keep this in a pot in the unheated conservatory which covers the north side of our house, to enjoy the flower and scent as you come to the front door.

As usual the range and quality of plants was astonishing and although I bought several, there were many wonderful plants I wanted which had to be left. Last year I regretted not buying a Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot and I made up for it at the stand of Pépinière Tous au Jardin, from whom I also bought a smashing Hydrangea paniculata called Great Star.

Hydrangea paniculata Great Star

Hydrangea paniculata Great Star

The nursery had many fine Hydrangeas and I was pleased to see they won an award for H. involucrata Mihara Kokomoe Tama, together with the Press Award for the best display.

Also on the stand was Mahonia nitens Cabaret, a new variety which is already on my “must have” list for next year.

Mahonia nitens Cabaret

Mahonia nitens Cabaret

It cannot be said that plants are cheap in France, and with my pocket money disappearing fast I had to be quite selective. Guillot supplied me with a couple of Roses, including one from their Generosa range, similar to David Austens modern shrub roses.

We have been meaning to visit the Cayeux iris fields for years but have yet to make it: next June I hope. In the mean time, I have satisfied my desire for their plants by buying three, together with a Hemerocallis called Burning Daylight. From Darmartis I bought our second Lagerstromia, this one a dark pink, purple almost, called Dynamite. They also had variegated Euphorbia Tasmanian Tiger and this was added to the collection in the plant creche.

I had replaced a couple of plants left in the UK: Salvia uliginosa and Phlomis purpurea, bought a couple of grasses and a very pretty strawberry coloured Hydrangea hortensis Mirai before I relaesed I couldn’t afford to eat for the rest of the trip and called a halt to it. I made do with looking at everything the other members of the group had bought, jealously eying the Magnolias in particular.

This show can bring out the worst in you if you are not careful!

First Cuckoo

For the last six months we have been living in our rental gite, which we created a couple of years ago from a derelict garage, while the main house is slowly, painfully slowly, renovated. 

Its lovely, but after all this time we would like to stop living next to a building site and get our lives back. To cheer the place up we have been placing  colourful flowering plants near the door, including flowering shrubs in a terracotta pot.

It is rather nice to see a plant close-up several times a day: you learn to appreciate its sublteties and discover aspects of it you may not have noticed before. I have tried to select scented plants where possible and my seasonal selection started with Hamamelis Arnold Promise, an American variety of Witch Hazel I had not grown before. This has now been planted in the garden, as has the plant that replaced it: Daphne mezereum.

The shrub that is currently greeting us as we return to the gite is Osmanthus burkwoodii, another strongly scented plant, this time with white flowers and evergreen foliage.

Our pot full of Osmanthus by the door

Our pot full of Osmanthus by the door


The season is moving on a pace, with Magnolias and the first of the fruit trees in flower: Peaches, Pears and Cherries.

Oh, and I heard the first Cuckoo today!