First signs of spring 2014

It is wise to be cautious in gardening, but here in the Loire Valley it is even harder to ignore the clear signs of approaching Spring.

jan 2014

Wild Hellebores thrive under the Sequoia

Even the most pessimistic and wary of the locals were convinced when hundreds of cranes flew over the town this weekend. Like many a British pensioner, they have been overwintering in south-west Spain and are now migrating to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. We often have them spend the night nearby: the river Cher and the lakes of the Sologne are ideal for a good nights rest and a snack before moving on.

The mild weather has encouraged an early flowering of many plants in gardens around the village. We have a couple of Camellias I full flower and there are many others to be seen on our regular walks. This morning we found a huge Magnolia soulangeana covered with deep purple flowers and our own M. stellata is beginning to open. The White Border should be a real picture very soon with Magnolia stellata, Viburnum burkwoodii and Clematis armandii all about to flower. There are increasing numbers of Daffodils and Crocus out while a large number of early Prunus are colouring the gardens white and pink. If the birds and the flowers think its spring, who are we to doubt it?

Chaumont_FESTIVAL_2014We have just heard that Chaumont Garden Festival, surely the one “must see” European event for garden designers and enthusiasts, is opening between 25th April and 2nd November this year, a slight extension at the end of the season which should prove popular. Between students, garden tour clients and general visitors, we visit this show up to a dozen times each year and never tire of it. This year’s theme is “Gardens of Deadly Sins”. I can’t wait!

Frustratingly, this morning’s post brought our copy of the Yellow Book of UK gardens open to the public. Frustrating, because we visit the UK only very rarely these days and have little chance of enjoying any of the 8,800 gardens detailed in the handbook. It has been suggested from several corners that I organise a series of English garden tours, so I guess you never know. I commend the Yellow Book to you along with visits to as many gardens as possible; it’s all for charity and a fantastic learning experience for any gardener.

IMG-20140218-00146

Salon Vegetal trade show 2014

On the other hand we had a great day out at the Salon Vegetal trade show last week and our membership of the Association of Parks and Gardens allows us access to all sorts of private and public gardens in the centre of France. Only last week we were invited to a chateau only recently open for garden visits and conveniently close to our home. The chateau de Poulaine is sure to attract plant enthusiasts and we will be keeping a close eye on developments.

High on my list of gardening events this year is the Floralies at Nantes, an international garden show hosted by France every five years. One of Europe’s largest floral events, it is to be held over ten days from May 8th. I hope to visit with Academy students who are coming to us from Oman for a two week course on cactus growing. Apart from the garden show, I gather the botanic garden in Nantes houses one of the largest collections of cacti in France.

IMG-20140220-00149

New potager behind the Academy classroom

Most of my gardening time has been spent catching up with the weeding and pruning to prepare for the rapidly approaching new season. I have also just completed our little potager behind the cabin and will soon be turning my attention to two additional projects: finally building our Moon-gate, the materials for which have been sitting around on a pallet for far too long, and to sort out the compost section, a disgraceful area at present. It all takes time, but I am getting there.

One last event which put a smile on my face; my propagation bench was bought through Thomson and Morgan. The polythene cover features an array of zips and openings making it a very practical piece of equipment, but a year of sunshine, supplementary lighting, dust and general use had left it in a rather sorry state. I noticed that although it was bought in the UK the packaging was German so I decided to contact the original supplier, Bio Green to ask if I could purchase a new cover. Not at all, I was told, we will supply one free of charge on warrantee. Service beyond the call of duty, I thought; Bio Green are on my favourite suppliers list from now on. The propagator is full of emerging seedlings….I do love this time of the year!

Advertisements

New Year, new season

Ahtirrhinum Purple Twist

Antirrhinum Purple Twist

Soon after the New Year celebrations had died down and well before we deposited the empties at the bottle-bank, we were sowing seeds for the new gardening season. Up in the loft under the skylight, where we keep the heated propagation unit, we now have trays full of seedlings of Salvia farinacea Victoria, Petunia F1 Reflections Mix (Suttons Seeds) and Red Hot Pokers. I always used to think of Antirrhinums as being something rather old-fashioned but have been won over by a new variety – Axiom mixed, which we have grown for three years running now and Purple Twist, both from T&M.

Foxglove Silver Cup

Foxglove Silver Cup

We have grown different varieties of Foxgloves each year to plant in the shadier parts of the garden, particularly under the Sequoia, and have selected yet another from this year’s T&M catalogue: Silver Cup, with soft hairy silver foliage and white flowers. You will have noticed a few perennials in this list and we will be sowing many more; a fabulously inexpensive way to populate a new garden.

Our seed propagation unit is a little bit of an embarrassment which I hope never to have to show our students or gardening friends, but it does work. It consists of a little polythene tent erected on a trestle table under a Velux window in the loft. I have added supplementary lighting made from spotlights reclaimed from the kitchen when that part of the house was remodelled. A foil heating unit covered with sand warms the base of the seed trays to give good temperatures and moist air for germination. It’s all a bit Heath Robinson – System D, as they say in France – but I recently read an advertisement for a complete growth room offered for €10 on a web site where people sell unwanted goods. This unit would cost around €800 when new, being the sort of equipment people use to grow Cannabis in their spare bedrooms, so I imagine the price was an error. You never know your luck however, so I have emailed the seller in the hope of acquiring a much more sophisticated unit. When I look back at the huge computer-controlled growth rooms we built when we ran a commercial seedling and young plant nursery in the UK many years ago, I cannot help but smile. Of course, we were also buying Begonias in 100,000-seed containers in those days!

Nerium oleander

Oleander

Last week we decided to combine a food shopping trip with a visit to a local garden centre which was advertising a sale. Amongst other things – seed compost, for example – we came back with two Oleander bushes and a large variegated Hebe: all at €2 each. I was delighted with these purchases, but you do have to be careful: I have noticed more than a few Vine Weevil infected plants offered as “bargains” in such sales. The Oleanders are now in the unheated conservatory waiting for warmer weather. They’ll be great in big pots on the terrace this summer.

My big project for this year is the potager behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. The four raised beds in oak are now built and with spare soil left over from these beds I intend to build another alongside a neighbour’s wall. This time we will construct it from woven poles of Hazel, secured with pegs of Robinia, all to be cut from the surrounding countryside. Slowly the garden is developing and I am particularly pleased to deal with this area as it is seen from the main window of the classroom. Already locals are asking why I did not build a French Garden with beds of Box. Firstly of course, it is a French garden, but medieval in style rather than renaissance. Secondly, pests and diseases of Box are threatening this fundamental feature of French gardens and I have no wish to deal with the issue when, inevitably, it arrives chez nous. Three Peaches have been planted, along with an English Bramley apple and a cutting of a hybrid berry from my old Granny’s garden. In addition I have acquired a large collection of vegetable seeds from Sutton’s and T&M seeds ready to sow when conditions are appropriate; I’m beginning to get very excited.

Loire gardens tour – day 4

The Most Beautiful Potager in France – Chateau de La Chatonnière

Finally I have completed the task of sorting out the bed alongside the swimming pool. After months of neglect caused by poor weather and the presence of builders, this involved hand weeding and forking all the planted areas and digging over the remaining broad band of soil, loosening up the compacted earth. This has been a tiring, but not tiresome exercise, straining muscles I expected never to use again and perhaps damaging a number of vital organs! As a reward for my efforts, I planted bear patches as I went along using, in the main, bedding plants we had grown from seed. The only major task that now remains is to sow a small L-shaped area with grass seed to create my “pelouse anglais” – my English-style lawn. Of course, in the UK I would have laid turf, but this time saving product is more or less unavailable here.

A quiet corner of Chateau de La Chatonnière

Back to the gardens tour, and Saturday is a free day for our students and visitors, giving us and them a chance to recover from the excitement of the previous three days of garden visits. There are plenty of sights to see in the area and this group decided to take a train journey up the Cher to the city of Bourges. On their return, the swimming pool and one of Chantal’s regional themed evening meals awaited.

Sunday was tour day four, another treat involving a drive to the area between Azay le Rideau and Tours to visit two exceptional gardens: Chateau de La Chatonnière and the Chateau de Villandry.

The renaissance-style kitchen garden at Chateau de Villandry

Both gardens feature ornamental vegetable planting but while La Chatonnière is, for the most part, contemporary in style, Villandry is famous for its traditional gardens. La Chatonnière was built almost single-handed by its illustrious head gardener over the last twenty years and it is still a work in progress, with an amphitheatre as his latest project. Ahmed Azéroual, who came to the chateau from Villandry, is often on hand to chat to visitors and his amazing, leaf-shaped Garden of Abundance recently won an award as the Most Beautiful Potager in France. In total, twelve themed gardens have been created on the site since 1986 and with the roses, irises and Hemerocallis just coming into flower we enjoyed touring them all, before stopping off for lunch in Azay.

Azay le Rideau is a touristy town and we eat touristy food – OK, but not wonderful – “correct”, as my Mother-in-Law would say. It is just a short drive from here to Villandry, with its famous renaissance chateau and even more famous gardens, at the junction of the rivers Loire and Cher. And what gardens they are! The stunning recreation of the renaissance design was undertaken between 1908 and 1918 replacing an English-style garden and park. Further areas have been landscaped since, including a herb garden in the 1970’s and the recently constructed Sun Garden.

The water garden at Chateau de Villandry

The decorative kitchen garden is a mix of colourful flowers and vegetables planted in a chequerboard plan, while the ornamental garden is composed of box hedges forming musical symbols, hearts, scrolls, butterflies, fans… allegories of love – tender, passionate, fickle and tragic.

The water garden is grand and tranquil: here the pool takes centre stage, with the sound of the fountains and the great lawned spaces bringing to visitors a feeling of calm and tranquillity. This is the most peaceful garden you could find, in spite of thousands of tourists sharing it with you.

The new Sun Garden – Chateau de Villandry

There is a herb garden, with its medicinal and culinary plants and a maze, which I didn’t visit. The new Sun Garden was excellent, divided into colour-themed parts – Sky (blue and white) and Sun (yellow and orange). The great success of these was their immense scale, allowing a very skilful designer to really achieve his idea of planting in a single colour – and all the variations of it – for a stunning, year-round effect. I have had a couple of clients over the years insisting I must not plant yellow, a curious idea that saddened rather than challenged me in my plant selection. I would have loved to show them this garden, padlocking them to the gate posts until they understood!

Villandry – Garden Design Academy tour May 2012