Loire Valley gardens and the first seed sowing.

We are hardly into January and already it feels like spring: we are getting busier on all fronts. There has been such interest in our study tours of the Loire Valley that I have been panicked into resuming work on a web site I started last year – Loire Valley Gardens– in which I describe the gardens of the region, listed by department (county).

Loire Valley Gardens

Loire Valley Gardens La Chatonniere page

This web site started its life programmed in a heady mix of Flash, html and css and was so complex I had to give it up as beyond my capabilities. I eventually settled on a far more simple style and, just as importantly, a more straightforward coding method, but wasted so much time with the first version that I ran out of time to complete it.

At the moment I describe 15 gardens of the Loire valley on the site, with the gardens of the chateau La Chatonniere my latest. This is an amazing place with twelve themed gardens – the French do like a theme, the artier the better – surrounding a beautiful Renaissance castle. I won’t say more here: you can look at the details on the site if you are interested http://www.loirevalleygardens.com/chatonniere.html . I am looking forward to seeing how the gardens are progressing in 2012 and to learn if they have plans for more themes. The last major development was in in 2008 when The Garden of Luxuriance was built to feature 400 David Austin roses, adding to the collections of roses displayed in other areas.

Soon Loire Valley Gardens will list and describe thirty-four gardens. As I revisit these gardens and discover more the site will continue grow and I hope this will prove a useful resource for clients, students and others interested in this fascinating region.


The first of my seeds are now sown and in the propagator: Begonias, Antirrhinums and Coleus, all absurdly small seeds which are applied as a ‘dust’ to the surface of moist compost. There are around 88,000 Begonia seeds per gram making them difficult to see and to sow, even with modern, sophisticated machinery. In my days as a grower we had a machine which would sow them from a series of units dropping four or five at a time and with the bounce as they hit the compost created a pretty good covering of a seed tray. Begonia seed is very expensive but we also sold plants in compost plugs and it was important to only have one or two seedlings in each if we were to make a profit. For these we resorted to pelleted seed, each grain being given a coating of clay which allowed our seed sowing equipment to place them one by one at the centre of each plug. All clever stuff. One of the Begonia varieties I sowed this week was pelleted seed: Torbay Mix, from Suttons.

Antirrhinums are large by comparison to Begonias – 7,500 to the gram and Coleus is around the same, but they are still hard to work with. When my order of Vermiculite finally arrives from EBay I shall get the Geranium seeds done – 200 seeds per gram – even I can see these!

An unusual task this week will be to dismantle the seasonal display of foliage and berries we constructed in the conservatory for Christmas; I have my eyes on the berries of the Butcher’s Broom and plan to sow them under the Sequoias. The branches of this plant were collected from plants found in local woods, so I have every hope they will do well.


Ruscus or Butcher's Broom

If the squirrel leaves them alone we can expect a patch of these adaptable plants for next year and by sowing a large number of seeds hope to have both male and female plants, giving berries for many a Christmas to come.

January gardening, sowing and lighting systems.

Some of you may know that in a previous life I grew seedlings and young plants, hundreds of thousands of them, for the bedding plant industry. Our nursery, Opax Farm in Headley, on the Hampshire / Surrey border, was a state-of-the-art affair consisting of 6 ½ acres of glasshouses on a nine acre site. It had computers controlling everything from the ventilators which opened according to wind direction, the percentage of CO2 in the air, the pH of the water and of course, the air temperature. In case anything broke down we had two of everything and, in event of a power failure, a generator, which could have lit a small town, automatically kicked in, powered by a huge, Rolls Royce engine. This piece of equipment was thoroughly tested in the week we took over, when a passing hurricane cut off our valley from the rest of the world for more than a week!

Begonia seedlings

These days my growing is a little less high tech but I will shortly be sowing Geraniums and Begonias in the propagator I have set up in the attic and I’m concerned that they may not receive the light they need to grow well. But why do we need light in plant cultivation? The major horticulture issues are:

  • photosynthesis — converting light, air and water into carbohydrates and oxygen to support plant growth.
  • chlorophyll synthesis —building the plant cells that perform photosynthesis.
  • photoperiod — sensitivity to the length of day.
  • phototropism — movement toward a light source.

Back in my days at Opax Farm we had a number of lighting systems for a range of plant growing tasks. Strings of ordinary tungsten bulbs had been used by the previous owners to control flowering in crops like Chrysanthemum. This plant requires a very specific day-length to flower and if you need to produce flowers throughout the year you will at times have to completely block out the light, while at other periods of the year create light. Plants that bloom in the winter, such as Christmas cactus, poinsettias, gardenias and chrysanthemums, don’t flower unless the nights are longer than the days. They are referred to as long-night plants and for the most sensitive long-night plants even one minute of bright light during the night is enough to prevent them from blooming. In general, long-night plants need a maximum of 10-13hours of light per day to flower.

Last year's Begonias

Plants that typically bloom during the summer don’t flower unless the nights are shorter than the days, so they are called short-night plants and include many bedding plants and vegetables. Short-night plants need 14-18 hours of light per day in order to flower. Other plants bloom regardless of the length of the photoperiod, so they are called night neutral plants. Many of these plants are sensitive to temperature variations however, and bloom when the nights are cooler than the days. For early growth and development, plants need the opposite photoperiod: young long-night plants should have long days for the first month or two to encourage full growth before blooming, while young short night plants should have short days. Day length can be manipulated for other reasons, such as the selection of male or female plants early in the cycle, by inducing flowering.

We had a number of growth rooms at Opax in which we germinated seed in optimum conditions. Some plants need light to germinate while others prefer the dark. Trays of recently sown seed went into different growth rooms depending on their requirement for light and heat. With sufficient light levels it is possible to grow plants without any natural light.

Greenhouse lighting

Several of the plants we grew were needed early in the season when light levels are low: we started sowing Begonia sempervirons for bedding plant growers before Christmas. These plants were placed in an area of the greenhouse where we had lighting to supplement that of the sun, ensuring good, strong, compact growth at the darkest time of the year. Attempting the same thing in our attic later this month, I have assembled a lighting rig to increase the light levels for the seedlings I will grow there. This structure incorporates a number of domestic halogen lamps which I trust will provide a useful boost in light levels but be inexpensive to run. I’ll let you know how we get on. I did have a quick look at the new LED Grow Light units currently being promoted for indoor growing but the cost was far too high for me to justify on my hobby, so my Heath-Robinson construction will have to do for now.

Several Garden Design Academy courses look at the complex subject of plants and light, also considering the types of light most suitable for horticulture by cost, light spectrum, heat emissions and other factors. Some of our RHS courses and the Certificates / Advanced Certificates in Horticulture, are particularly good on this.

Gardening gifts (or the gift of gardening)

Heaven knows I do my best! I get up in the morning, full of enthusiasm for the tasks I have planned for the day, but so often it all goes delightfully wrong.

Lilac flowering today

Take yesterday for example; we received a telephone message telling me to rush ’round to a neighbour who has something for me. The poodle and I set off on our normal afternoon walk in the countryside; a couple of swims for her and a bag full of wild asparagus shoots for me, we eventually arrive at our friends house to see what all the fuss is about. I was given a spade and a fork and ordered to start digging. This grape vine would be better in our garden than hers; that Pomegranate is one of ten she rooted a couple of years ago and we should have it; it’s good luck to have Lily of the Valley so here is a huge bundle of the pink form and finally, the “piece de resistance”, a clump of the hardy orchid Bletilla striata for our Oriental garden. Of course I lifted and replanted a cherry tree for her, staying long enough to exchange views on various local builders and put the world to rights over a cup of tea. Life does not get much better than this for a gardener but it doesn’t get the work done!

The day before was much the same when half way through the morning walk the dog decided to go off on a tangent to visit another gardening friend. She greeted us warmly and demanded we stay for coffee and gateau, not allowing us to go us go until I had knocked in support canes for her Dahlias and taken a few pots of her Coeur de Beuf tomatoes. She would not accept cherry tomatoes in return and is reserving the right to refuse chilli peppers.

The weather has been splendid for a month or more with summer temperatures this spring reaching the high twenties and the season, according to local vineyard owners, around two weeks in advance. Plants are not sure what to make of it: we have daffodils and tulips flowering alongside wisteria, lilac and Cercis in a wild mix of spring and early summer blossom. Visit the garden twice in an hour and you can see the plants growing!

The English have their standard Roses, the French their standard Wisteria

The first buds of Iris germanica are showing and catalogues from top Iris grower Cayeux arrived this morning, one in French and another in English. I was pleased to see that one variety we bought from him a year ago – the deliciously named “Ravissant” – has won medals at three international shows. I’m becoming quite a fan of these lovely plants and we now have a collection of eight varieties from various sources. Cayeux lists 600 so we have a way to go yet, but plan to visit the nursery fields when they are in full flower sometime in May.

Student assignments for marking arrived by email today as they do most mornings, one (RHS Level 3 Certificate in the Principles of Plant Growth, Health and Applied Propagation) from Argentina and the other (Certificate in Garden Design) from Florida. I am enjoying this unexpected international aspect of our work, with students from every continent now choosing to work with us. Many come from the UK for our residential courses and we have just added two more to our web site: study tours of Loire Valley gardens and a Feng Shui garden design course offered in association with British expert Elizabeth Wells. Early indications suggest these will both be popular.

Back in the garden and we decided to construct a pergola screen using materials from the Dutch manufacturer Hillhout, our favourite supplier when we were landscapers in Hertfordshire. It seems to be a general rule that if a company has offices in several countries, the French office will be the least effective and again this seems to be true. No amount of emailing would elicit a response from the Hillhout agent to our sales enquiry and eventually we ordered the products through a local garden centre, using code numbers found on the internet. The pergola is slowly coming together, two or three posts a day, when I need a break from marking assignments. Today I managed to get the first plants in: Rose Amadeus (a superb modern climber from Kordes which bears trusses of deep ruby red flowers that are repeat flowering and have a light spicy scent) and Clematis Vivian Pennell (deep violet blue and one of the best doubles).

Chateau de Valencay

We were recently invited to the Chateau de Valençay by the tourist office for the opening of the new season. While there we enjoyed a tutored wine tasting of Valençay AOC wine and AOC goats cheese and were guided around the chateau vineyard by the head vigneron . He spent a good deal of time explaining how they reduce yields to improve quality, starting with the site selection (a sunny slope on clay soil with bands of flint and limestone), pruning (to slow the sap and reduce the number of fruiting shoots), allowing competing weeds to remove water and nutrients, fruit bunch removal (maximum of two bunches per shoot), leaf removal and even fruit thinning. Of course, no irrigation is allowed, pesticides are used only in extremis and fertilisers are organic. The results speak for themselves: we like the white, Sauvignon Blanc with 10% Chardonnay, very much.

Changes to Royal Horticultural Society courses

In spite of all indications to the contrary, we have been very busy recently preparing for the new RHS Certificates and Diploma in Horticulture. The RHS Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture is by far the most popular of the courses run by the Garden Design Academy. As part of the Government reform of qualifications, a new structure has been introduced called the Qualifications and Credit Framework (or QCF). This is intended to make qualifications clearer, and to offer greater choice and flexibility to learners.

Cistus Rospico

New Rock Rose - Cistus x corbariensis Rospico

The RHS will be introducing a range of new qualifications through the QCF from September 2010. These will replace the existing qualifications at level 2 and level 3 although we may still offer these courses under another name. Partial completion of the current RHS qualifications can lead to exemption from particular units in the new QCF qualifications and from lessons or modules in Garden Design Academy qualifications.

The existing RHS Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture will be replaced by three courses:

RHS Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Plant Growth, Propagation and Development

  • Exams are only theoretical and can be sat, by arrangement, anywhere in the world.
  • The course involves 100 hrs of study
  • The course is now available through Garden Design Academy


RHS Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Garden Planning, Establishment and Maintenance

  • Exams are only theoretical and can be sat, by arrangement, anywhere in the world.
  • The course involves 100 hrs of study
  • The course is being written and should be available very soon


RHS Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Horticulture

  • This qualification is simply the two above certificates combined.
  • Can be awarded to anyone who completes the two certificates above.


In addition the RHS is seeking accreditation for a Practical Certificate to be taken in the UK only. Similar changes will be made to the RHS Level 3 Certificate in Horticulture so, as you can imagine, there is a lot of work to be done. Fortunately, the bulk of this work is being undertaken by our Australian partners ACS and we are looking forward to seeing how gardeners and horticulturists react to the new courses.

Penstemon Melting Candy

Penstemon Melting Candy

Back in the garden, some of our favourite summer flowers are blossoming. The variegated Cistus corbariensis Rospico was a very welcome addition to the garden last year and is doing well. Close by, Penstemon Melting Candy was less successful, with two of the three plants not overwintering. The remaining plant is looking delightful however, and I shall be taking cuttings to ensure I have backup plants if I have similar problems this winter.

And for those who commented on my photograph of Salvia argentea, here is what it looks like in flower.

Salvia argentea
Salvia argentea

This species is from north Africa and has been given the common name Silver Clary. It is said to be short lived so I am leaving some flowers in place in the hope of collecting seed later. Failing that, I see both Thompson and Morgan and Chiltern Seeds offer it.

French Regional Gardening at election time

Today was Regional Election Sunday. Chatting to locals it seems that half the people do not vote in the regional’s, arguing that they do so for the European, Presidential and Parliamentary elections and of course for the local mayor. But the town square was crowded today with people discussing politics in the cafe, at the baker, the grocery shop and outside the church. Preparations for this afternoon’s important boules competition added to the sense of carnival and as we walked the dog through the town a brightly coloured bicycle race poured down the main street.

In France there are three levels of local government: the commune, the department and the region. It is with the regions that the real power now lies following recent attempts at decentralisation. The region of Le Centre holds the purse strings and local mayors, for all the considerable respect they are given, have to go cap in hand to ask for cash for local projects.

Having left France for England before her 21st birthday, Chantal has never voted in France so we were ignorant and quite excited about the process. We have been asking everyone we know to tell us how it works and this had led to some delightfully animated conversations over the past week or two. In the end she took her voting card (in her maiden name) down to the Salle de Fête, fighting through the Sunday morning crowds to the voting hall. Each main candidate is represented by a sheet of paper indicating his name and those on his party list. Voters pick a selection of these sheets together with an envelope. They then disappeared into a booth where, hidden from view, they place the leaflet of their preferred candidate’s team in the envelope and present it to the officials sat at the table with the voting box. Next Sunday they will do so all over again for the two or three candidates remaining in the race.

Daphne laureola

Daphne laureola - native shrub of France

As a foreigner, I stayed outside with the dog, shaking hands with all the people we knew and complaining that the poodle and I were excluded from the vote. After all that excitement we headed off to the woods, me to hunt for flora and the poodle to chase the fauna. We found several wild Daphne shrubs amongst the trees, while the dog amused herself with a hare, a deer and several pheasants.

Daphne laureola is an undemanding evergreen shrub, ideal for dry soil in shade and an excellent backdrop for Hellebores and Snowdrops, which flower at around the same time. The slightly fragrant lime-green flowers are a god-send for early bees, much less showy than many Daphnes, but very welcome all the same. It grows wild on the greensand ridge near Ampthill in Bedfordshie and, we have discovered, on limey-clay in the centre of France. The list of plants coping with these conditions is not large, so a plant like this is very welcome. Plants tolerating the same conditions inevitably flower in the spring, before the trees take all the light and while there is still some moisture in the soil. I often plant Forsythias under conifers, especially the French variety Marée d’Or (Gold Tide), which grows only 60cm tall but 2m wide. This and many other fine Forsythia varieties were produced in Angers in the Loire Valley, the results of a breeding program involving exposing the plants to radiation. I gather this was deliberate, rather than an accidental leak from the local nuclear power station!

Forsythia Gold Tide - Maree d'Or

Forsythia Gold Tide - Maree d'Or

Another standby for such challenging conditions is the Flowering Quince, or Chaenomeles. C. japonica and speciosa are Japanese and Chinese plants respectively, while Chaenomeles x superba is a hybrid between the two. These spiny plants come in a range of colours – shades of white, pink and red – and in heights from groundcover to 3m or more. They can be trained up a shady wall, shaped into a security hedge or allowed to ramble at the base of trees The Chinese use the fruits medicinally to assist blood circulation and relax muscles, having dried and sliced them after harvesting; we use them in jam.

Back in the woods again and we come across a deer that had been hiding in the undergrowth. The dog goes haring off in hot pursuit while I find myself in the middle of a huge clump of Solomon’s Seal. I have always considered this to be a rather choice plant, to be grown in the shade with other spring flowering herbaceous gems like Dicentra and Corydalis. There are a number of different species of Polygonatum and I make a note to return to this spot, take photographs and try to identify the plant. Nearby there are patches of Lilly of the Valley, Muguet in French, the flowers of which are sold by gypsy children in the market square for the 1st May.

Solomon's Seal

Solomon's Seal

Gardens in France tend to have trees so knowledge of shade loving plants is important. Our own garden suffers in places from the shade and dryness created by neighbours’ conifers and we have walls along two boundaries. One of them, we discovered, has been built in such a way as to steal a metre of garden from us along its entire length, requiring expensive correction at some stage. The French are not above taking the occasional liberty when backs are turned. While the walls create a little shade, the biggest shade challenge is also a delight: our two massive, one hundred and fifty year old Sequoias.

Sequoias are touchy-feely plants: they have soft, spongy, red-brown bark which would turn the most serious of you into a tree-hugger in the time it takes to open a bottle of Touraine. Guests at our B&B have complained about the brambles at the base which discouraged close inspection of the trees, so I have had to get out with the strimmer and clean them up. Later, when time and money allows, I plan to build a deck which will be cut to the shape of the trunk so that we will be able to sit with our backs against it and look up into the heavens through its branches. The trees are a magnet for wildlife; I have installed a lovely Japanese granite water bowl for the birds, insects and dog to drink from and gradually I am planting closer and closer to the base.

Our students’ geographical diversity has added an extra dimension to our gardening. We now have a large group studying the RHS Certificate in Horticulture and a few on the Certificate in Garden Design, all responding to our teaching with experiences of their own. Talking about shade loving plants brings comments about gardening in Canada, the USA, Australia, France and all over the UK which enhances our knowledge and excitement for the subject. With gardening, you never stop learning.

Garden Design Academy

My recent lecture to a group of visiting UK garden enthusiasts, made me think about my experiences of gardening and garden design in France.  I was also keen to show them slides from the International Garden Festival at Chaumont, which I have been going to for years.

Chaumont is challenging for the average garden enthusiast, but a “must see” event for professionals, being a show committed to the outer reaches of contemporary garden design. Abstract themes have been set each year since 1992 to encourage designers to create the unexpected, to think “outside the box”. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else, although imitators come and go. Every year a number of visitors stay at our B & B or gîte to witness this amazing gardening event.

The list of themes is interesting, but bear in mind that when written in French many of them have dual or obscure meanings in a deliberate attempt by the organisers to illicit a range of responses from garden creators. I’ve talked about this show before, I know, but not provided this list:

¨  1992 Pleasure

¨  1993 Imagination during the economic crisis

¨  1994 Acclimatisation

¨  1995 Unexpected gardens

¨  1996 Too much technique, not enough poetry?

¨  1997 Water, water, everywhere

¨  1998 Ricochets

¨  1999 Only vegetables

¨  2000 Freedom

¨  2001 Carpet bedding etc

¨  2002 The Erotic Garden

¨  2003 Weeds

¨  2004 Chaos: order and disorder

¨  2005 Gardens have memories

¨  2006 Play in the garden

¨  2007 Mobiles: gardens for a world on the move

¨  2008 Gardens to share

¨  2009 Colour

This year’s event was surprising in many ways, with many gardens seeming to lack colour rather than celebrate it. There was much discussion on the use of black (is it a colour?)  and on the nature of gardens (what is a garden?) but fear not gentle reader, there were also plenty of plants to admire. The gardens are left in place to develop and grow from March to October and maintained by students of the horticultural college on the site.

I often take students attending Academy residential courses to Chaumont as a stimulus to debate. Some of the more animated discussions have gone on well into the night, lubricated by more than a little Touraine wine; such is the provocative nature of the festival. Garden designers on our CAD training events have been very enthusiastic in general, but even amateurs with us for the ‘Design your own Garden’ workshops have enjoyed it.

Our most popular course has proved to be the RHS Certificate in Horticulture (level 2), offered by distance learning with course notes on CD and support by post and email. Garden Design and Garden History are also attracting students, mostly British but also a few Americans. A few students live in France as we do, but most do not. We work closely with a distance learning college in Australia which gives us access to a very wide range of professionally written courses.

While we now spend a great deal of my working day teaching the science, art and craft that is horticulture, gardening and design, it keeps our feet on the ground to see the country folk around us working with nature and the seasons.

Many of our neighbours have vast gardens while others work in the fields of the Berry or the vineyards of the Touraine. Gardening tasks are often (I was going to say, religiously) undertaken on Saint’s Days and planting on St. Catherine’s Day (25th November ) is a guarantee of success:  “a la Sainte Catherine, tout bois prend racine” – “on St. Catherine’s day, the trees take root”. We will plant a Magnolia grandiflora this year and have no doubt it will thrive, as did last year’s Cherry trees.

I like to talk to the locals about their customs and traditions and learn much about living in this rural community from them. We find we have adapted to the pace of life and like everyone, keep our eyes peeled for wild food such as mushrooms and walnuts while walking the dog through the countryside each day.

I also like to give something back and have helped identify plants, advised on pests and diseases and suggested horticultural techniques they may not be aware of locally. They don’t always accept my advice and no amount of self-promotion seems to impress them, but I have had some successes. I was recently discussing Cloque du Pécher (Peach Leaf Curl) because I needed a photograph of the disease for one of our RHS Certificate students. Would she be spraying for it? I asked the garden owner. Yes, I was told, but not until after the full moon! I should have known really: the region was once notorious for witch craft.

Teaching the science of horticulture is relatively straightforward: the facts are all in the course notes and students’ answers to test questions are either right or wrong. In addition to the RHS Certificate we also offer an Advanced Certificate and the RHS Diploma: a vocational qualification of some seriousness. Teaching garden design is different. The subject is a wide-ranging mixture of art, craft and science and opinions on garden aesthetics are subjects for debate rather than learning by rote.

Students are expected to work through the Certificate in Garden Design in around 700 hours but in practice you never stop learning with a subject like this. It involves everything from soil chemistry to playground health and safety, in addition to plant knowledge and drawing skills. The course has modules in garden history, surveying, drainage and rockwork. Even after designing more than 1000 gardens I would never claim to know it all and in fact one of the joys of teaching is learning from your students. It’s stimulating, challenging and still great fun after all these years.

Some of our students have asked me to get involved with projects they are working on. A recent design contract in Cornwall came to us from a student.

A few of our students clients have written to us to ask for references and many are amazed that training and qualifications are available in subjects like garden design and horticulture. I come across gardeners and garden designers in the UK and France with little interest, knowledge or experience charging as much as highly qualified professionals. I am proud to now be in a position to pass on what I know to those who wish to do better in the industry I have worked in all my life.