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.

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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.

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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!

Rivers of Snowdrops

The Cher in flood 1

The Cher in flood 1

Its been wet, very wet, and the River Cher is as high as it can safely be.

The Cher in flood 2

The Cher in flood 2

We walked the dog out to the old mill to see what the flooding looked like and to admire the Snowdrops.

This is what we found…….

Drowning Snowdrops

Drowning Snowdrops

Snowdrops at Chabris Mill

Snowdrops at Chabris Mill

It’s not Spring ‘til the old lady says so.

I have been consulting the old folks in the village; “I’ve never seen the river so high”, I tell them. “The last flood was in February 2002”, they inform me, and go on to recount the tales of the River Cher flooding the park and all the houses on the low ground, regularly sealing the town off from the civilised world for a week or more. At the moment it is 45cm from ground level at the Ganguette, where they hold the weekly dances throughout the summer: I’ve measured it. Huge logs float down-stream in the churning, muddy waters and areas where we would normally walk the dog are impassable. We’ve had plenty of rain, but it’s the mountains to the south which are providing much of the flood waters and at the moment they are still rising.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Flowering in our garden now in Chabris, central France.

I have been able and prepared to do a little work outside in January and February in an attempt to stop the gardening tasks piling up and overwhelming me later in the spring, but I am under no illusions – it’s not Spring until the old folks say so. I am champing at the bit to get a new lawn sown but it is far too cold and wet for that. I have an area of sloping ground near the swimming pool to level, a raised vegetable bed to construct and a security gate to fix. All are on hold for the time being. Pruning and weeding has started and I am pleased with the progress I have made in tidying the place up. Upstairs in the loft, in a Heath-Robinson propagation unit I have installed under the skylights, I already have my first batches of bedding plant seedlings up and soon ready to prick out.

The poor weather and the cultivated space that will eventually become a lawn, both conspire to prevent me looking around the garden as often as I would wish but plants are growing and on my last hunt I discovered Snowdrops, Heathers, Hellebores and Witch-hazel in flower. It’s always a good idea to site winter flowering plants close to the house, so that they can be seen when it is inclement. I tell you this and it is a perfectly reasonable statement to make, but of course, in a perverse gardener’s logic, I place them away from the house to encourage me to search them out whatever the weather conditions.

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Although work for the Garden Design Academy and our many and various web sites keep me busy enough, I am using the quiet time of the year to get to know my fellow French gardeners. Having joined the APJRC, an association made up mainly of chateaux owners who open their gardens to the public, I am attending monthly tutorials led by the “names” of the French gardening world, who are teaching the rest of us the secrets of their art. Last month the lecture was given by a garden designer famous for her traditional and very formal chateaux gardens, Alix de Saint Venant, owner of the château de Valmer. I found her to be extremely competent and an excellent communicator, who discussed the design of large geometric gardens, making a number of interesting points about form, shape and perspective. She also talked about the choice of plants, trees in particular, when your vision of a garden includes the features the grandchildren will have to deal with when they, in their turn, take over the property. It is very different world view to that of the majority of my clients, who want a garden to look good immediately and may well have moved on in ten years’ time.

The lecture was held around the ancient dining room table and in the park of the Château de Chevilly and was punctuated by a series of interruptions from journalists and local dignitaries, eager to catch a glimpse of the famous lady. I enjoyed the lecture, the tour and the mid-day meal enormously and was delighted to talk gardening in French with the group. Eager for more, I have signed up for the next session at the Jardins des MétamorphOZes, where Patrick Genty, the former head gardener of Chaumont-sur-Loire, will be talking to us about the use of natural and “alternative” materials for garden structures and getting us out into the garden to harvest material and assemble some. Having a sculptural project in mind for one of our Sequoias, I am keen to hear more. We have been asked to bring seceteurs and a number of other tools but my Felco’s have disappeared; having owned that pair since 1990, I’m very upset.

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

The big joy of our gardening life at the moment is our Amaryllis (Hippeastrum), which we have been watching come into growth and bloom since December. Fantastic flowers are produced from a large bulb which we had earlier allowed a dormant period in the garden shed. Four huge, translucent and lightly perfumed blooms sit on the top of a thick flower stem, two foot tall if it is a day. It makes quite a sight on our dining room windowsill where it seems very at home in light but cool conditions.  It’s a south american plant of 90 species (I’d always thought it was south african, but that’s just the bulb Amaryllis belladonna) which the Dutch have been hybrizing since the 18thC.

A typical French Autumn

Autumn leaf and flower colour from Rhus and Miscanthus in our garden this morning.

Every day this week has been different to the last. Today it is mild and drizzling on and off, while yesterday it was dry, with just a few clouds passing by. The day before was a most glorious warm, sunny day but it began with a hint of frost. Sunday it poured down while Saturday it kept mostly dry – a bonus for guests who I took to see the grape harvest coming in at local vineyards. In short, a typical autumn week in central France.

In the town, around the market and in the supermarket, all the talk is about mushrooms, or the lack of them. We have been mushroom hunting on our daily walks with the dog and while we bring back a handful most days, there are very few about. The weather is looking encouraging however, after many months without any serious rain, so we are hoping for great things by the end of this or the following week.

Chantal is making her annual autumn jelly from fruit collected on our walks: pears, apples and grapes left behind by the picking machine. To this she has added currents and other soft fruit preserved after picking this summer and a few herbs and spices for luck. We will be bottling soon and look forward to trying it out on friends who regularly offer us examples of their own culinary efforts to try. Last week the Marquis dropped around with a sample of his Two Salmons Rillettes and our lady plumber turned up one evening with freshly hunted venison. Food is important to the people of this community and recipes are commonly argued over in the market place.

Japanese Anemones continue to provide colour

Out in the garden I am pleased to have the ground wetted as I have been waiting to start cultivating the soil for our new lawn. The lawn will be sown as soon as I can so that it will germinate and establish itself before the winter. We are trying to rehabilitate a section of the garden ruined when the swimming pool went in and to link it with an area currently the site of a very poor quality lawn. I can manage about 50 sq.m. a day fighting with the rotavator, after which I need a couple of days of rest – one more push should see the hard work done though. The next task will be the raking off of old grass, weeds and stone, and creating rough levels using new lawn edging secured along the existing beds. The ground will then be trodden down firmly, levelled again to a nice tilth and finally sown with grass seed. A last gentle rake over and we leave it to Nature to work its wonders.

Many of the bedding and herbaceous plants are having a second lease of life in this damp and temperate season: the Begonias have never looked so good, Pot Marigold (Calendula) are in full flower and throughout the garden there are splashes of colour here and there. It looks as if the Salvia Golden Delicious will flower this year: each shoot is carrying a flower bud and one is just starting to show red. We continue to pick tomatoes and our lettuce crop is the best we have had all year.

Summer bedding has never looked so good!

In the park the rain has resulted in a huge rise in the level of the river Cher, but not enough to put off 60 or more swans who took up residence earlier in the week. The gardeners are busily removing summer bedding and replacing it with a mixture of winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to beg a few of last season’s plants from them for our own garden: bedding Dahlias and purple grasses, no longer. I have finished taking cuttings of tender plants for the year but have tried some Holly again, a particularly attractive form which grows by the town campsite.

On Friday I am taking clients to Bourgueil to look at vineyards and taste some wine, while on Saturday or Sunday we’ll all take a trip to the Courson Plant Fair, so it’s a busy week all ’round. We are watching the weather.

Iris, Hemerocallis, Poppies and Peonies

Pivoine Marie Crousse

Peony (Pivoine) Marie Crousse

After Courson, our last flower show visit, we followed up the discovery of a local grower to visit them at their nursery. Bourdillon specialise in Iris, Hemerocallis, Poppies and Peonies and their beautifully illustrated catalogue mentioned an open weekend on 21st and 22nd May.

We dutifully turned up on the Sunday with a gardening friend only to discover, with a season three weeks in advance of normal, they had held it early this year. There was still plenty to see however and we happy roamed the fields for several hours before returning to the office to buy a few things. Their web site (http://www.bourdillon.com) shows their full range of plants but here are a few photos from my visit……..

Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami

Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami

We finally succumbed to temptation and bought one of the Itoh peonies I described having seen at a show earlier this year – Bertzella – while our friend chose a potted Iris ensata Kishuu-Wakanami which she later divided and shared with us. The Japanese Water Iris is native not only to Japan but is very widespread in China, Korea, India & eastern Russia and needs boggy conditions in the spring. We have planted it in a shady spot in a new bed which contains many recent purchases, but plan to move it in the autumn to a spot next to a Japanese water basin to which I add water often, the overspill moistening the ground for the nearby Hostas and other plants.

Poppy Lambada

Oriental Poppy Lambada

The weather here continues to be warm and dry; temperatures in the twenties, usually 10°C higher than the UK and no rain to speak of since February. Water restrictions have started in many regions of France and agriculture is in trouble, although there are a few regions of the country where they have had plenty of rain.

At the recent Comice Agricole at St. Aignan, a country show also involving the 16 villages surrounding the town, the talk was of little else. We hoped to try comparing the white wine from each of the communes (for educational purposes and of course, in moderation) but it was so warm we could not summon the energy for more than a brief visit before leaving to sit in the shade of a Willow by the River Cher and cool off. A TV crew spent some time filming our standard poodle as she said “Hello” to the competition goats, the first in the family to achieve fame in this country.

Hemerocallis Edge of Darkness

Hemerocallis Edge of Darkness