A Gardener’s Christmas wish list.


Mahonia x. media

The festive season has arrived at the Elliott household (we found a bottle of port at the back of Mother-in-Law’s cupboard, 40 years old, if it is a day – the port, not the Belle-Mère) and I’m writing my list for Santa.

Naturally, plants are a priority.

We have just passed through the mildest and driest autumn since 1900 and December shows no sign of altering the trend. Roses and Geraniums are still throwing out the occasional flower and spring flowering Rhododendrons and Camellias are already opening. Despite this, with memories of summer excess still strong in the memory, the garden seems to be lacking colour. I am hoping Mahonia  x. media ‘Charity’, ‘Winter Sun’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’ would bring bunches of scented sunshine into the cool, misty mornings. As an ex-gardener at the Saville gardens, Windsor, I am very fond of Charity and her rarely seen sisters, Faith and Hope, which were bred at the nursery there.

Viburnum x. bodnantense

I already have my eyes on a sucker of Viburnum x. bodnantense in a garden in the village, although I am not sure of the variety. The cross of Viburnum farreri (formerly V. fragrans) and V. grandiflorum was originally made by Charles Lamont, the Assistant Curator at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1933. He didn’t rate the resulting plants as being any better than their parents, so did not propagate them. In 1934 and 1935, the same cross was done at Bodnant, hence the name. ‘Dawn’ was the first cultivar to be named, ‘Deben’ was another and, after he died, ‘Charles Lamont’ was also named in honour of the original raiser. I am trying to find out if the French have their own hydrids.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna is a great little evergreen shrub that we have grown in several gardens, but do not yet have here in Chabris. It’s the sort of plant you hardly notice until, in December, it produces small, but intensely fragrant white flowers. Our front door faces north and this plant is ideal for these conditions. A small bed, which this summer contained a New Guinnea Hybrid Busie Lizie, awaits.


I noticed a specimen of Chimonanthus praecox poking over the wall of a rather grand house in the village last year. This and Hamamelis are certaining worth growing for winter colour. We already have Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ growing amongst other woodland plants near the Sequoias, so a Wintersweet would make a nice addition. Close by, variegated Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot seems to have been in flower forever, Ilex Blue Angel provides a few seasonal berries and further down, a group of Erica Springwood White mark the start of the White Border.

The more you think about it, the more desirable plants come to mind. Then there are books: “Planting the Dry Shade Garden is already on order with Timber Press, a company whose stock list is one of the most desirable for gardening enthusiasts. Two other’s recently published by the same company are on my list: Contemporary Colour in the Garden and Designing with Grasses. A £500 Timber Press gift voucher, if such a thing exists, would be easy to spend.

Richard Ford’s book on Hostas (Crowood Press) is one of the best I have read on the subject and would have been on the list had I not already ordered it via the Garden Design Academy bookshop. I have also been reading “In the footsteps of Augustine Henry”, a recent purchase from the Garden Art Press, which I have been comparing with an original copy of Wanderings in China by Robert Fortune, another 19th C plant hunting hero. I will never tire of gardening books, or of plants, but I realise buying them for me is not easy…..hence the list.

What are other gardening enthusiasts hoping for this Christmas?

Peche de Vigne and other autumn planting temptations.

At the Saturday market, Roger the market gardener was offering Peche de Vigne, a fruit I had only vaguely heard of. “What is the difference between a normal Peach and a Peche de Vigne?” I asked, and was told that they were not grafted but grown from seed. Also the fruit was not as good as a grafted variety but used in cooking.

Clearly this was not the whole of the story so I investigated further. Peche de Vigne is not really a variety but rather a type of peach, late flowering, fruiting at around the same time as the grape vines and used as an indicator plant in Lyonnais vineyards in the way that roses are in the Bordeaux region. Both the rose and the Peche de Vigne are very prone to mildew, so if you plant them at the head of your row of grapes they act like a canary to a coal miner, warning of troubles ahead. Apparently selected varieties exist and there is said to be a collector in Saint-Etienne d’Estrechoux in the Herault with 120 different varieties gather from all over France and fruiting over a 5 month period. Many of them have red flesh and this form is commercialised in Soucieu-en-Jarrest, self-styled Capital of Peche de Vigne, south-west of Lyon.

It feels a little autumnal today; temperatures have dropped ten degrees to around 20° C and as if to prove the point, plant catalogues have started arriving in the post. I am a cynic when it comes to this end of the gardening market; outrageous claims, dodgy photographs and a lack of Latin names are a feature of these publications. Offers seem too good to be true and generally are, and why do they think price draws and free gifts are a good idea? I guess I am not their ideal customer profile.

In France, Jacques Briant is perhaps the acceptable face of this genre and their autumn catalogue has made interesting reading. An inserted special offer leaflet with four David Austin roses for 28€30 attracted my attention and had me turning pages. I arrived at page 18 very rapidly, but paused to look at Camellia williamsii Anticipation – 9,99€ for a 7cm rooted cutting….I don’t think so! Seven pages later a primrose caught my eye – Zebra Blue has sky blue veins over a white background – very pretty and five times the price of Suttons in the UK, but then, Suttons don’t send plants to France.

Fruit next and yes, they offer both white and red-fleshed Peche de Vigne. There’s a selection of Apples, Pears, Plums and Cherries, including Bigarreau Trompe Geai, with yellow-white fruits, unattractive to birds. Being France, there are also Apricots and other fruits, more or less exotic to the English gardener. They give a half page to the self-fertile Kiwi (Actinidia) Solissimo, which I bought from a rival company in the spring. My plant arrived in a pathetic 7cm pot and finally convinced me I was never going to buy from Willemse again.

Rushing on to page 48 to look at the shrubs. Abelia Kaleidoscope is a lovely looking plant, already growing happily in the front garden, as my reader will be aware. Mahonia ( nitens) Cabaret is doing well in the back garden, as are Daphne odora (Aureomarginata) – full Latin names are not always used – and several others featured here. By pages 52/3 we have moved on to Hydrangeas, including some tempting new varieties. I think I’ll wait until the Coursan plant show to buy a few more, perhaps Hydrangea arborescens Incrediball, with truly massive white flower heads.

Moving on past several interesting climbers, including their own Schizophragma Rose Sensation, which we planted this year, interesting looking Akebia quinata rosea and several attractive Clematis, we finally arrive at the trees, where several plants take my fancy.

I have always felt the front garden needed a tree and considered moving a speciment from the back to the front, but obviously we want to sho off a bit! Three other possibilities leap out from the page: Albizia (julibrissin) Rouge Pompadour a gorgeous Mimosa-like tree of sculptural form with fluffy red flowers, Acacia Casque Rouge (actually Robinia Pseudoacacia Casque Rouge, but I’m sure they know that) a deep pink form of the Robinia that grows wild all around us and, Chitalpa x.taschkentensis Summer Belles. This last tree is really rather interesting. A recent hybrid between Chilopsis and Catalpa, the original breeding work was undertaken at the Uzbek Academy of Science in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the 1960s before being introduced internationally in the mid 1970s. This small hybrid with a rounded form initiates flower bud in June / July, opening to produce an abundant display of frilly pink flowers with yellow throats for the rest of the summer.

Other forms exist but this could be the answer.

The catalogue continues up the order form at page 120 by which time I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand some interesting plants, on the other, French retail prices and irritating marketing methods which do not inspire confidence in this gardener.

Winter garden dreaming

In my last article for the monthly magazine Hertfordshire Countryside, I allowed a smug comment about our mild weather to creep into the text and was rewarded, a few days later, by six inches of powder snow and temperatures down to minus 12 degrees C.  The distances I travel to visit clients have increased enormously since the days when I was based at a Hertfordshire garden centre, so observations of that sort will be kept to a minimum from now on, in the interests of road safety.

These visits see me gardening in an ever increasing variety of climatic conditions: a trip to Cornwall in January was swiftly followed by a garden in the Sologne region of forests and lakes of central France; in a few days time I will be in the Dordogne to help turn a muddy field into a glorious garden for an English ex-pat family.

Frosted Hellebore

Frosted Hellebore

While growing conditions are different at each of these properties, my teaching involves me in the gardens of students from around the world. We have one who lives at 6,000 feet in Colorado Springs, where there are frosts for 200 days of the year. Other challenges include low humidity, fluctuating temperatures, bright sunlight, heavy calcareous soils and drying winds, which often restrict plant growth more than low temperatures. Another student studying garden design with us is currently living in semi-tropical Australia. I am learning as much as I am teaching these days.

Our own garden is still nowhere near completed so perhaps I can be forgiven for dreaming about how it could be. No longer do we have teams of landscapers at our disposal, keen to help out the boss when work is slack. Now, if I need a patio or a new lawn, I have to either lay it myself or pay a landscaper to do it for me, just like any other homeowner. Unlike our clients, I will not be witnessing the creation of an instant garden and this time it is likely to take us several years to sort out. Perhaps that’s how it should be.



Many times on the pages I have suggested that if there is not much in the way of flower or interest in your garden at a particular time of the year you should take a look around a garden centre or nursery to see what plants will fill the gap.  In our last garden I used to make a point of counting the flowering plants over the Christmas / New Year holiday and could normally find a dozen or two species. This year we had just two plants flowering outside – Jasminium nudiflorum and variegated Skimmia Magic Marlot – and a couple of Camellias in the unheated, north-facing conservatory. There were a few berries too, from Pyracantha and a Holly planted in the shade of our ancient Sequoia, but this lack of colour and interest must be addressed with some urgency.

One plant I miss from our English garden is Sarcococca. I planted one close to patio doors where its sweet scent could be enjoyed for many months over the winter. We had it hidden behind a black stemmed bamboo so that visitors could smell it but not see it without a bit of effort. Sarcococca or Sweet Box is amazingly easy to grow and thrives even in shade. A suckering evergreen shrub, it comes in a number of varieties from Sarcococca confusa, the largest at up to 6ft tall, to diminutive Sarcococca humilis. Our plant was S. hookeriana var. Digyna, tidier and with pinkish flowers on an elegant little bush. As a Chinese native I have mentally reserved a place for one in our Oriental Garden.


Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill’

Fragrance is one of the benefits of many winter flowering plants; our potted Camellias sasanqua and grijsii are both delightfully scented and give pleasure to anyone coming to the front door. A favourite scented plant I have yet to own is Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, ‘Peter Smithers’ or the similar ‘Penwood’. While my heart says to go for the first, the other two are more reliably evergreen and equally perfumed. Any of these will satisfy me however and I trust one will be planted here before too long. I have a Daphne mezereum in the garden but, as so often happens, the plant has been grow in a nursery field and potted before sale, resulting in damage to the root system that prevents it thriving. The scented purple-pink flowers of this European shrub are a joy at this time of the year but I have been singularly unsuccessful in growing it so far.

We already have a fine Witch Hazel, Hamamelis x. intermedia Arnold Promise which, while not flowering for Christmas did not keep us waiting long. H. x. intermedia is a cross between species from China and Japan and this variety was bred in America by the Arnold Arboretum in 1928. The incredibly fragrant, bright yellow flowers appear just a few weeks before Forsythia and so can be thought of as providing a kick-start to spring.  It would be nice to also grow one of the red flowering cultivars and of these Diane perhaps the best.

Iris unguicularis

Iris unguicularis

We have planted a selection of bulbs and both Snowdrops and Winter Aconites are ideal for early flower. Snowdrops spread rapidly and the gardens around the old mill at Chabris have thousands growing in the lawns. Iris reticulate and unguicularis can be relied upon for winter flower while some of our Daffodils also begin to flower in February.

The list of “missing” plants I dream about includes some common plants like Mahonia media, a plant I rarely fail to specify for the gardens of my clients. Again scented, again yellow, I like the story about the naming of the three Mahonia varieties Faith, Hope and Charity, bred at the Royal Gardens, Windsor were I worked under Hope Findlay.

Chaenomeles, the flowering Quince, is commonly grown here but has yet to make an appearance in our garden. With more than 70 varieties to choose from I shall be looking for something out of the ordinary, perhaps Cameo or Geisha Girl in peachy-pink, Lemon and Lime with pale green flowers or C. ‘Toyo-nishiki’ which displays flowers in red, white and pink variations and has large fruit ideal for jam making.

Helleborus hybrid

Helleborus hybrid

I find it hard to accept that we grow no Hellebores and jealously eye flowering plants in neighbours’ gardens. We have always had Hellebores in our gardens, either H. orientalis, the Lenten Rose, or H. niger, the Christmas Rose and used to carefully select seedlings to maintain interesting colours. Now hybrids exist between many species and the range of colours, leaf forms and flowering times has expanded along with their popularity. With plants selling for up to £25 over here I shall be hoping to buy one during a UK trip or beg for seed from a local gardener.

So many people tell me that they rarely venture into their gardens during the winter and this seems such a shame. Those who brave the cold weather should be given some encouragement and reward for doing so in the form of beautiful garden plants. I hope this review may inspire you to add extra colour and scent to your own garden.

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 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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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!