Back from Provence

Such a long gap in my writing is almost unheard of, but the preparations for our annual  holiday, the holiday itself and all the work awaiting us on our return has kept me very busy indeed.

Salers – one of the most beautiful villages in France

Our journey down took us through the cool mountain scenery of the Auvergne, with a night in one of France’s most beautiful villages, Salers. 16th century buildings in dark volcanic stone sit on a hill overlooking pastures full of the local red cattle breed of the same name. Locating them is easy even in the morning mist, with clanking bells dangling from their necks audible over huge distances. After walking in the mountains and countryside for half a day we headed further south to Murat, and a night at the lake below Gustave Eiffel’s wonderful Viaduct de Garabit, built over the river Truyère in 1885. From their it was a six hour drive to our destination in the sun.

We based ourselves in the Provence this year, for a week or so of exploring the sights of the region around Hyères. We rented an appartment on the presquîle de Giens, a paradise for divers, kite surfers and nature lovers, jutting out into the Mediterranean sea near the port of Toulon. I dived a few times with a local club, my first in France and in French.

The land in this region is important horticulturally and nurseries of all kinds fight for space close to tourist villas, salt marshes and vineyards, in an area blessed with a superb climate and high light levels.

Hyères old town

Castel Sainte-Claire

The lovely old town of Hyères contains the villa of the American novelist Edith Wharton, who wintered here annually from 1919 until her death in 1937. Castel Sainte-Claire is open to the public, who are free to wander the terraces of this

very atypical garden, full of tender plants.

I spotted a slection South American plants alongside native species – Lantana in many colours and huge bushes of Erythrina crista-galli. Many Salvia species were in flower but the rare Salvia divinorum formed large, flowerless bushes. Natives includes Santolina, Lavender, Phlomis and a host of plants adapted to the dry climate, often highly scented and covered  in insect life.

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Picking up the pieces – the joys and frustrations of the spring garden

Easter weekend; it’s cooler than we would like but the predicted rains did not come, much to the pleasure of visitors and the disappointment of local gardeners, who have not seen rain in months. The annual Donkey Fair and flea market took over the streets of nearby Poulaine, a huge success, attracting crowds of locals and weekend trippers from as far away as the capital, Paris.

Cherry blossom time in central France

Local gardens, ours included, are bursting with spring blossom – Daffs and tulips going over, Cherries at their peak and Lilac just starting – distracting the eye from the damage caused by the single tough week of winter we experienced this year. Each day we are out there, checking for signs of life from plants which look like they will never recover. And each day there is another happy discovery of tiny buds opening at the base of an otherwise lifeless shrub, or shoots pushing up from a bare patch of ground.

Once the extent of the problem is clear I can get out the secateurs, cutting out dead wood to make way for new healthy shots. Santolina was hard pruned a couple of weeks ago and is now covered with tiny green leaves; Phlomis, both P. fruticosa and P. purpurea, have recently had the same treatment. Reddish buds are expanding all along the shots of the flowering Pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Rubrum Flore Pleno’, a fine little plant given to me by a local gardener. I have since successfully taken cuttings from a large shrub in a friend’s garden and those too are budding up.

Still a few Tulis around

Our three Phygelius varieties are all now starting to grow from ground level and today I spotted buds at the base of the hardy Fuchsia magellanica gracilis ‘Tricolor’. As exciting as all this is, there are also disappointments. Two varieties of Phormium look as if they have departed this world, along with Hebe Great Orme and a white flowering species whose name escapes me for the moment. You can knock me over with a feather if life returns to our Leycesteria Golden Lanterns: such a pity.

Lemon trees? Don’t talk to me about Lemon trees! We have lost many, but not all, of our Camellias and the Mimosa, Sophora, and Erythrina are no longer with us. They can stay in the ground for a while yet to give them a chance to prove me wrong. A few plants bought this winter didn’t even see the soil before they succumbed – I wouldn’t want you to get the idea I’m bad at this gardening lark, but unfortunately the list is even longer than this. I refuse to dwell on it further. A gardener has to develop a philosophical attitude or you would give up after the first few disasters. Failure comes with the territory I’m afraid.

The plant fair at Chateau de La Bordaisiere

Easter Monday is a public holiday and the third day of the plant fair at La Bourdaisiere, a chateau close to Tours in the Indre-et Loire. I have talked about this chateau and its amazing tomato collection before, but this was our first visit. It is a lovely chateau with formal terraces and Italianate stairways in a wooded park above the River Cher. The walled vegetable garden is around 4 acres in size and in the season they also have a notable Dahlia display. The plant fair was spread around the grounds encouraging visitors to explore as much as possible. There was a good selection of plant nurseries and some interesting gardening accessories but to my surprise we left empty-handed, apart from a large sack of a new mulching material called Strulch, developed by Leeds University and marketed by an English company. Perhaps it’s just as well, with the new swimming pool excavations causing chaos throughout the garden. Time enough to buy more plants when this work is done and a new planting plan agreed upon.

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!