The first garden show of the year and other excitements

As spring takes hold of central France the season is confirmed by a flurry of garden and plant shows, not to mention all the local spring fairs and Easter events coming up at the end of the week. Of course I have chosen now, just when life is getting busy, to go down with a flu-like bug of some sort, which has put me to bed for one whole day and ruined my sense of humour for more than a week.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

There is no time to be ill so I have done my best to ignore it and last Friday attended a seminar with three dozen other gardeners and chateau owners at La Source, the marvellous public garden in the university district of Orleans. The subject of the day was colour theory and how it relates to the design of herbaceous and bedding plant displays. A couple of good speakers, one from parks and education and the other a plant producer, simplified a subject which is not always straightforward to explain and left the delegates eager to get to work producing new schemes for their respective towns and gardens. At La Source itself the Cherries were just starting to flower and there were huge areas of dwarf daffodils to admire.

march

A corner of the Cheverny plant fair

After another half day in bed to recover from my outing, we went to the chateau at Cheverny on Sunday for the first of the year’s plant fairs. The show is an annual charity event and well supported by both the public and the trade. As usual we bought a few plants, but not as many as I expected to. The tree surgeon we employed to care for our ancient Sequoias was on site demonstrating his skill with a chain saw, producing sculptures from huge pieces of wood, the waste from his previous weeks work maintaining trees in the park of the chateau.

Chain saw art

Chain saw art

Next weekend is Easter, with events all over the region. We have been invited to more vineyard open days than we can possibly take in and the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisiere. Then there is the unmissable annual Poulain Donkey Fair and a host of other events all conspiring to keep me from working in the garden, where there is so much to do!

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France’s great garden trade fair – Salon du Vegetal

Yesterday we drove to Angers for the Salon du Végétal, the massive annual exhibition for the garden industry. Unlike many similar trade shows in the UK, plants are particularly strongly represented by a large proportion of the 600 exhibitors. Around a quarter of them where from outside France – 13 countries in all – but sadly UK nurserymen were very thin on the ground: I spotted just three – David Austin Roses, who had French staff on the stand and were clearly open for business, Fairweathers Nursery (for liners and Agapanthus) and Whetman Pinks, who are also very active in France. It’s a pity because France is a very large market for garden products and their retail prices are higher than in the UK. On the other hand there were 50 Spanish exhibitors, 34 came from Belgium, with Italy and Holland each sending around 30.

A slipper orchid from the Garden Orchids range: Cypripedium regina

A slipper orchid from the Garden Orchids range: Cypripedium regina

Around 15,000 trade buyers from 13 countries attend the three day event but again, Brits were remarkably absent ( I was told by the staff on one stand that they had chatted to Paul Rochford but disappointingly we did not meet up ). Still, I enjoyed myself looking at new plants on the market and making contact with a number of useful potential suppliers of plants and landscape materials. The highlight of my plant discoveries was found on the stand of Anthura, a Dutch company specialising in Phalaenopsis orchids, Anthuriums and hardy Cypripedium orchids. I had spotted Garden Orchids on their stand last year, but now they have really got their act together with superb packaging, I am sure they will be a best seller Europe-wide. Lady Slipper Orchid – Cypripedium calceolus – is one of Britain’s rarest flowers with only a couple of known clumps. I am now the proud owner of a number of plants of Cypripedium kentuckiense or Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, a less rare but stunningly beautiful American species and I shall be reporting on their progress throughout the season. Nights here in central France are down to -3°C at the moment, with clear, sunny days reaching around 13°C, so although they are said to be hardy down to -20°C I am taking no chances: for the time being they are staying under protection in their pots. The company offers five species of Slipper Orchid and I was told they have another 100,000 Kentucky back at the nursery – more than are said to exist in the wild.

Part of the Plant Planet stand

Part of the Plant Planet stand

Another intriguing stand was that of Plant Planet. Their idea is to take plants threatened with extinction in the wild and popularise them to ensure their survival. To this end they use micropropagation techniques to create large numbers of plants, and amusing marketing campaigns to get them known by the widest possible clientele. Their range includes Red List plants like the Hawaiian Palm, Brighamia insignis, Gloxinia-like Sinningia leucotrichia (named Puppy Ears for its silky foliage), Euphotbia milii ‘Lucky Eight’ , Calathea ‘Network’ (a part which apparently thrives in the darkest corners of a house) and Sansevieria ‘Friends’, voted Student Plant of the Year for its indestructability.

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.

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.

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.

Horticulture shows and wild February weather in France

February has been a wild switchback ride for gardeners in France this year. The month started off spring-like and I was nervously reporting the early flowering and growth of many of our plants. Then the cold weather hit us and temperatures plummeted to below -20C, hovering there for a fortnight. This damaged many plants, as can be plainly seen now that frost-free nights and warm sunny days have replaced the biting cold. It’s far too early to panic, but I am sure some of my choicest young plants will be lost.

Salon du Vegital show, Angers 2012

Amazingly, after floods in the south of the country at the end of the year, we now told that we are already in the middle of a drought, the likes of which have not been seen for decades. President Sarkozy has announced €1 billion of support for suffering farmers and growers after similar problems last year. With the French presidential elections to be held in nine weeks’ time, Sarkozy and all the presidential hopefuls have been at the Agricultural Fair in Paris this week. The exhibition is huge and attracts around 650,000 visitors annually – around 5 times more than the UK’s Smithfield Show – an illustration of just how important agriculture and horticulture is to the French people. Despite job losses there is a desperate need for staff in the industry; eight per cent of French voters work directly in the sector, with many more involved in the supporting industries, so it is still very important both socially and economically.

Gardenia augusta 'Crown Jewel'

We have recently returned from our visit to an important horticultural show in Angers, as noted in my last post. My main interest was in meeting growers and seeing what new varieties they were offering; I was not disappointed and have promised to spend much more time at the event next year. Many new varieties come to the market through the SAPHO organisation, which protects and distributes plants to propagators, who in turn supply the wholesale growers who grow the plants for garden centres and other outlets. We were excited about a number of their varieties, including a hardy Gardenia, best known as a scented houseplant. Gardenia augusta ‘Crown Jewel’ may not be totally hardy in the sort of conditions we have recently experienced, but it would be great in a pot on our classroom patio – want one! There are a lot of lovely new Hydrangea paniculata about and Sapho were showing Diamant Rouge, the most red variety so far available. Their new Corydalis x BLUE LINE also looks as if it might far a place in our garden, perhaps a swath planted under the Sequoia.

Corydalis x BLUE LINE

Garden Orchid is the marketing name of a selection of Cypripedium orchids which should do for the hardy species what the Dutch breeders have done with orchids as house plants. They are currently offered in five varieties and I hope to be trying them all and reporting back on progress.

Cypripedium

Salon du Vegetal growers trade fair

The 27th edition of this internationally important trade fair opens its doors in Angers, France from 21st – 23rd February. Around 16,000 visitors are expected over the three days of the show which highlights the products of the 630 exhibitors, mostly French plant nurseries. Fourteen other countries are represented however, including eight from Britain under the COMMERCIAL HORTICULTURAL ASSOCIATION banner.

I shall be attending under my three hats: as a gardener designer and by default, plant buyer, I am interested in new trends and techniques and in discovering plant varieties long before they are offered in the UK; as a freelance journalist I am unofficially flying the flag for British horticulture and the Garden Media Guild while as an educator with the Garden Design Academy I hope to develop more contacts with the European horticultural industry. It could be a busy day!

I’m a sucker for new and innovative products and the section at the show featuring some of the best is called Innovert. Twenty-nine plants (and 19 horticultural accessories) will attract a great deal of attention; there are new Actinidia, Alstroemeria, Begonia, Buddleia, Calibrachoa, Clematis, Corydalis, Cyclamen, Dianthus, Gardenia, Hydrangea paniculata, Ligustrum, Limonium, Mandevilla, Petunia, Physocarpus, Primula, Quercus, Rhododendron and Rose, in addition to a red Potato and a lawn grass described as “self-repairing”. Pots, chemicals, tools and presentation systems make up the remaining new products, which also includes a fascinating green wall system from Belgium.

I shall be there on the first day and hope to meet a few other British horticulturists who have ventured out to see what is happening beyond the Channel.