Autumn in the Loire Valley

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Autumn colour – flower and foliage – from Miscanthus and Rhus

The circus has come to town: a sure sign that autumn has arrived. In the square behind our home a riotous collection of goats, lama, camels, long-horn cattle, geese and other creatures are incongruously dotted around the lawns of the Place de Foire, calmly awaiting the first show tonight, like the professionals there are. We can hear the music and the announcements of the promotional vans.

After a short, hot summer, autumn has been variously warm and wet or cool and wet, conditions which are driving vineyard owners to the point of despair. The grape harvest started in mid-October and depending on the variety, will continue in the rain for the next few weeks. This is going to be a challenging year to produce fine wine in the Loire Valley and I feel for the growers.

I have three weeks’ worth of residential garden design and CAD courses starting on Saturday and am desperate to get out and tidy up the garden before students start to drift in from around the globe. Our first Israeli garden designer arrives for a week of CAD training on Saturday, while a parks manager from the Sultanate of Oman will be with us at the end of the month for two weeks of study. We work a lot with garden professionals from Oman and I find their horticultural skills to be of a very high standard: I must get the weeding done!

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Salvia involucrata in flower at the Garden Design Academy

Despite, and in some cases because of the rain, there is still plenty going on in the garden. Yellow flowered Buddleja x weyeriana has been in bloom for months and shows no sign of wanting to stop. Salvia species like S. coccinea, S. patens, S. leucantha, S. elegans, S. microphylla, S. uliginosa and S. involucrata are all looking superb and I am taking cuttings of many of them at the moment for insurance purposes – some may be killed by a cold winter. Grasses are also looking good; we have several Miscanthus sinensis varieties, the majority in flower at the moment, while there are signs of autumn leaf colour on shrubs such as Rhus and Hamamelis. Anemones are showing well, especially Honorine Jobert in the white border and in the oriental garden the Colchicum Waterlily are in full flower. I know, Colchicum autumnale is a European native – I do things like this to see if you are concentrating.

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Chateau de Civray sur Cher and its wild Cyclamen

Under the trees in the parks of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, both great and small, blankets of pink and white Cyclamen are in bloom but in the borders the gardeners are removing summer bedding ready to replace them with winter / spring flowering varieties. A great garden like Chenonceau must always look good, so the change-over brings out dozens of gardeners to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Sunday will be the last opportunity to see the gardens of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire; it closes its doors to the public on 20th October and reopens with two dozen new gardens in the spring. I shall be going with a group of garden designers to see how it has progressed since my last visit earlier in the summer. In the mean time we look forward to the 2014 edition, which will try to conjure up both the faults and the excesses of our time and the free, spiritual universe of eternal gardens, with the show theme: “Garden of the Deadly Sins”; expect to be challenged!

Sadly, because I am teaching, I will not be attending the plant fair at Courson, south of Paris this autumn, saving a great deal of money by missing a favourite plant-buying expedition. There will be other opportunities I have no doubt.

Autumn colour, autumn harvest

Autumn has crept gently into central France, producing muted colours with fiery highlights rather than the dazzling displays of less mild years.

Some trees and shrubs dropped their foliage at the first sign of a frost while others, confused by the warm, wet spell that followed, have hung on for another month or more, before dropping in a desultory, half-hearted and uninspiring fashion.

Every now and then however, I am stopped in my tracks by a spectacular sighting of a single Gingko or maple tree, a whole bank of Rhus or Cotinus, or a patch of forest oaks. Then Camus’s line: “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, makes sense again.

Autumn colour is one of the great features of this season and in many countries a tourist trade has developed around its arrival. In our mild climate we are never treated to stunning displays like those in parts of the United States or China, extending over hundreds of miles and involving millions of plants, but we have our moments. Nearly one third of the land area of France is covered in trees, an area of woodland six times greater than those of the UK. When one of the great French woodland regions gets autumn colour just right, it is a sight to be seen!

Plane bark and autumn colour

In deciduous trees and shrubs the production of green chlorophyll drops away with falling autumn light levels, while other plant pigments contained in a leaf – yellow, orange or red depending on the chemical involved – are on the increase as plant sugars concentrate. A crisp, sunny autumn will produce the best leaf colours and we have hopes of a decent end-of-season display in this part of the world is this weekend, when fine weather is forecast. Already the days are superb, despite ugly conditions on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and we were out picking mushrooms in the woods this morning.

Berries, fruits and seeds are the other big feature of the season and this year I have been collecting some of our own to sow alongside those we are buying from the seed companies. More for fun than in any great hope of success I have sowed a pod of Lilium regale Album, which has rewards my efforts by producing seedlings in their dozens. Spurred on by this, I have since sowed Salvia argentea seeds and have a pod of Fritillaria imperialis on my desk awaiting its turn.

I am a great fan of allowing plants to self-seed but sometimes the results are disappointing, either not germinating or being ruined by my over-zealous weeding of the garden. We have had many successes however; Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings replaced an original plant which died after the first year, Verbena bonariensis is gradually establishing itself around one end of a sunny bed and many plants appear spontaneously in our gravel patio. As with outdoor cuttings, I often sow seeds I have harvested at the base of the parent plant, if only to be able to find them later. I am beginning to think that if I really want success I should be sowing in seed trays either in the garden or under cover, as I do with those I buy in packets. Some of the more simple bedding plants – Calendula, Opium Poppies and Nigella – do very well however, needing weeding out when they begin to take over.

Calendula - one of our more beautiful "weeds"

Our second delivery of packet seeds arrived today, this time from Suttons. These included a Banana, Ensete ventricosum, from their Eden Project range. I have only once, many years ago, had success with Banana and last years’ seeds (of E. glaucum) from Thompson and Morgan yet again failed to germinate. The species I have bought this time is African rather than south Asian and said to be hardier. Packets come with instructions to soak in warm water for 24 hours and I did this immediately, aware that they need to be sown at the earliest opportunity. I have found, by the way, a site “dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of the tropics in inappropriate climates” called, which is amusingly written and full of sensible advice on a range of plants, including this one. I now understand that Bananas need temperatures of around 30°C to grow and I may not have provided this in the past. No criticism intended T&M!

Thinking of Autumn

Autumn is a gorgeous time of the year here in Le Centre, bringing mushrooms, the grape harvest, wild game and relief from the heat of summer. It is a time of harvest festivals celebrating everything from Berry green lentils, to apples and pumpkins and, it seems, life in general. And all of this is played out against a backdrop of rich autumn colour from cultivated as well as wild trees and shrubs.

Apple Festival in the Sologne

Apple Festival in the Sologne

France is a good country to see truly spectacular displays of autumn colour. So often the weather is fine at this time of the year, giving the ideal combination of sunny days and cool nights. Here in the Indre, we are surrounded by forests of oak, birch, hornbeam and other trees and nearby chateau parkland hosts fine, old heirloom trees that put on a magnificent display each year.

Autumn colour at the Chateau de Courson

Autumn colour at the Chateau de Courson

But autumn colour is not just for grand spaces – it can be created in your own garden, giving you a display that is every bit as exciting. For many people planting in the garden often revolves around the spring and summer months – but autumn too is a time when the garden can be a place of real beauty.

Between our gardens at home and those we have planted for clients we grow a very wide selection of plants exhibiting autumn foliage colour and I am always disappointed when we are asked for a garden that is largely evergreen. When a garden does not change with the seasons, one misses out on the wonderful transformations that come with a natural landscape.

Acer palmatum disectum with autumn colour

Acer palmatum disectum with autumn colour

Our best area at home features both trees and shrubs with many, such as Sorbus, also carrying berries. With a background of hawthorn and hornbeam hedges, pride of place must go to the Japanese maples, of which we have four sorts including the deeply cut foliage of our old Acer palmatum atropurpureum, currently turning deep crimson. Even more spectacular is Cotinus grace, now a huge bush after five happy years with us and Euonymus europaeus Red Cascade, a variety of our native spindle bush which grows wild in the countryside and gives us both colourful leaves and fruits.
Part of the skill of a garden designer is to exploit plants to enhance seasonal effects. For me, there are two ways to use autumn colour well. The first is to scatter appropriate plants throughout the garden so that the eye is drawn from one plant to the next in a visual journey. This technique sounds simple enough but with so many other factors to consider it can be difficult to achieve without compromising other planting – having carefully created a ‘white garden’ for instance, bright red autumn colour in this same area may come as a bit of a shock. And autumn colour viewed against a background of dead and dying herbaceous plants will inevitably detract from the effect unless you cut back to clear the area around them.
When designing your borders keep autumn in mind and if you have not included something autumnal by the time you are halfway down the bed, now is the time to add something. A deciduous Berberis here, a group of Ceratostigma there, adds areas of red and orange to the scene and creates hot spots of colour throughout the garden. For those with a mature garden consider removing one or two under-performing plants and replace with a clump of ornamental grasses or perhaps a small tree such as Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis, which provides both autumn foliage and flower.

Trees and shrubs for Autumn colour

Trees and shrubs for Autumn colour

If you have the space it may be easier to take the dramatic approach – concentrating plants within a section to create an autumn garden. As leaf colour changes day by day there is little need to select specific shades when a wild mixture of plants creates the most exciting display. Given the time of the year it would be worth constructing pathways to make it comfortable to reach, while a gazebo, summerhouse or other ‘abri de jardin’ would create a cosy spot to view the colours. The Japanese often design viewing points into their gardens: a place to linger and appreciate the scene that has been carefully crafted for visitors.

Rhus typhina Tigars Eyes

Rhus typhina Tigars Eyes

While I have suggested the use of coloured foliage, there are also plants with berries and flowers at this time of the year and your autumn garden might also contain some of these to extend the all too fleeting period of display from the changing leaves. An example of this type of garden might include a tree, Liquidambar in a larger garden, Rhus or Amelanchier if space is limited. Liquidambar with its Maple-like leaves is a favourite here in France, while Amelanchier boasts attractive shrimp-pink new leaves, white flowers and black berries in addition to its bright red autumn leaf colour. Common Rhus is lovely but we have just planted the variety Tigers Eyes which promises spectacular leaf colour from a more modest sized tree.
Next we might add a shrub and Arbutus could fit the bill very well. It is evergreen and at this time of the year carries both Lily of the Valley-like flowers and fruits which resemble strawberries. More flower and scent too, could be added using rose pink Viburnum bodnatense Dawn, which will continue to give pleasure throughout the winter. Down at ground level you could try the Autumn Crocus or Colchicum, with huge pink or white flowers. Waterlily is a double variety which has given us much pleasure over the years.
In between these a few herbaceous perennials: Anemones like September Charm, and perhaps a few grasses. In our last English garden we had a huge clump of Cortaderia richardii, a form of Pampas from New Zealand, but also Miscanthus in several varieties, Pennisetum and others, all adding to the beauty of the garden with their feathery flower panicles.
While our new autumn garden is young you could fill in the gaps with some Pansies, but the allocated space will soon fill and give pleasure for years to come.

I am always being asked for my favourite plants – a impossible request when I love so many and my choice changes faster than the seasons – but I will suggest a few you might like to try.
Trees for autumn leaf colour
• Liquidambar (Sweet Gum) with maple-like leaves and corky bark, leaf colour in good forms is crimson and gold. Beware of cheap seedling-grown plants which may not colour well; try Worplesdon or some other known variety.
• Quercus rubra (or Red Oak) is a large tree planted extensively in local woodlands. Best colour is on lime-free soil.
• Sorbus aucuparia Asplenifolia has both orange berries and bright red foliage in the autumn. There are many other types of Sorbus, all of them worth considering.
Shrubs for autumn leaf colour
• Acer japonicum Aconitifolium and other Japanese Maples for attractive cut foliage turning crimson. Best in a little shade.
• Cotinus coggygria Grace is a spectacular variety of the Smoke Tree, native to the south of France, with purple-red foliage turning scarlet. The leaves are translucent so if you can, position it to be viewed in the evening sun.
• Deciduous forms of Azalea colour richly with yellow, orange and crimson forms according to variety. Bright flowers in the spring, often sweetly scented. If you have the space and soil which is not chalky, grow lots!
Autumn flowering plants
• Hebe Great Orme. A superb evergreen shrub whose pink and white flowers are produced over a very long period, often to Christmas.
• Kaffir Lily, Schizostylis, a South African bulb flowering in shades of pink and ideal for a warm spot.
• Anemone hybrida Honorine Jobert with pure white flowers and yellow stamens, looking lovely next to Maples in our garden.
• Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus. A late flowering grass with gold bands decorating the leaves. Great in cut flower arrangements.
Plants with berries / fruits
• Pyracantha is a spiny shrub often trained against walls or used as a hedge. Stunning crops of yellow, orange or red berries. The birds will thank you for it.
• Pernettya: highly decorative berries on small evergreen bushes, but only for acid soils.
• Malus. Crab Apples in a wide range of forms, but generally ideal for a small garden. I’m fond of yellow fruited Golden Hornet.
• Cotoneaster. There are low ones, tall ones, variegated plants and weeping forms. For a large space Cornubia is unsurpassed and for yellow berries match it with Rothchildianus

Ask me tomorrow and I would come up with a completely different list of favourites but I hope this brief look at the possibilities will inspire you to celebrate autumn colour in your own garden