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 Cooltropicalplants.com, 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!

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Protecting plants from the first frosts of autumn

Frosty spider

The barometer was at its highest for months and while the days were sunny and warm, the nights became progressively colder.

Then it happened: on Friday 21st October we had our first frost. It was just a light one that day but the following morning we were greeted by a liberal sprinkling of dazzling white frost crystals, sparkling in the morning sun.

By Sunday it was all forgotten; the barometer plummeted, the rain came and with it much milder weather. When will it return? Who can tell? But return it will and next time it will be harder.

Last year we were caught out and lost several precious plants to a sudden cold snap. This year we have been planning ahead, lifting tender specimens and placing them under cover. We have rooted precautionary cuttings and begun mulching some of the plants which are on the border line of hardiness in our region and in our soil.

Lemons cannot be grown out of doors in central France and last year we lost two fine specimens in spite of providing fleece covers. It was the best we could do at the time: the plants were far too large to have in the house and the old metal and glass conservatory was full of office equipment; the log cabin was not yet built. This year we have a lovely new Lemon plant and have already moved it to the conservatory which, although unheated, will give sufficient protection for the time being. The conservatory is more than 100 years old and keeps much of the north side of our house dry and warm. We have replaced many panes of ancient broken glass and it should be cosier this year, in spite of a rusty door which fails to close completely. We have several dozen plants sheltering there, ranging from recently potted cuttings to established specimens in substantial pots. Bedding Geraniums have been gathered together in trays of home-made compost.

Lemons awaiting a glass with gin and tonic

The recently built log cabin classroom is the second building which will be pressed into support of tender plants. It is a large structure with a covered, but open sided patio area occupying 25% of the floor space. By using this patio, some protection can be provided in reasonably light conditions. I also propose building a bench in the cabin by a large, south facing window for cuttings currently rooting in the tunnel under the loft skylights in the main house. I have installed electric heaters which, because of the superb insulation of the thick wooden walls, will keep the temperatures up at minimum expense. If Garden Design Academy students or other guests need to use the cabin before the spring, I trust they will understand that in this household of gardeners the plants always come first!

Over most of our garden the soil has a light, sandy texture. The drainage this provides in winter is very helpful to plants which might otherwise rot at the roots. We leave Gladioli and Dahlias in the ground without problem for instance, something which would have been risky in our previous garden in England. In one bed in the rear garden we have many plants from the Mediterranean, north and South Africa and from South America, including Salvia argentea and Aloysia citrodora, which have overwintered each year without problem. Just in case, I have recently sown home-produced seed of the Silver Clary and taken cuttings of Lemon Verbena, but I hope not to need them and give the plants away next season.

Cistus - if you need to prune, wait until the spring.

A couple of cultural techniques have proved of value when overwintering half-hardy plants. I do not prune tender plants until the frosts have gone, allowing the foliage and stems produced last season to protect the shoots and buds which will grow next year. This is especially true of late-blooming plants which would have little chance to regrow if pruned after flowering. Cistus, Convolvulus cneorum, Lagerstroemia and Lavatera are examples of plants which I delay pruning until the spring.

We use leaf mould, generously collected and left in vast heaps around the outskirts of town by the local authority, both as free compost and as winter protection for tender plants. Delicate roots are given a liberal mulching and if heaped up around and over stems, these too benefit from the protection this provides. Where taller branches need similar treatment we use hay, straw and the stems of ornamental grasses, secured with twine if necessary. Our Olive bush was buried in Miscanthus stems last year and came through temperatures down to -17°C.

I love this region of France for its seasons, bringing daily changes to the plants we grow and to those growing wild in the countryside around us. By taking a few precautions, plants which a more reasonable gardener would never attempt, sail through the winter and provide a wider range of gardening experiences than if our choices were more conservative.

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.

Wild orchids, Lily Beetles and a Plant Fair

The Cowslips have reached their peak here in central France and orchids are providing the excitement now. We have come across several Early Purple orchids in damp, shady patches but a recent find made our day: a meadow full of thousands of Green-winged orchids in the full range of colours from deep purple, through lilac pink to pure white. This delightful sight is in one of the fields we pass most days when walking the dog and I believe there are many more floral treats to come in this spot.

Wild orchid

Orchis morio...or is it O. longicornu in the meadows at Chabris

On Sunday we jumped in the car to visit the plant fair in Bouges le Chateau, leaving the dog in the house hiding from the heat. The gardens are interesting and will be better later in the season when there are more flowers, but in the English style park there were again thousands of orchids in the meadow running down to the lake, amongst Cowslips too numerous to think of counting. Around the chateau there is a very formal French topiary garden and an Italianate water garden. The chateau is not large but is privately owned and full of furniture; the same age as our house, Chantal was keen to see how it had been decorated. The plant fair itself was much less interesting but we did meet people from the Indre Horticultural Society and chat them up about our gardening courses.

The white form of the Green-winged orchid

The weather is a warm 24 degrees C today and I am trying to find as many excuses as I can to spend time in the garden. Anything I need to plant requires the creation of new beds so even planting a few sweet corn requires major effort. I check the whole garden several times a day for new signs of growth or flowering and as a result can easily remove Lily Beetles as I find them: three again today.

In flower only recently – Choisya Aztec Pearl – a hybrid between the American Mexican Orange Blossom C. arizonica and C. ternata, bred and  released by Hillier Nurseries in 1989 – we have it in the central bed formed from the water feature dating from 1890 or there abouts. It is close to the Dining Island which is fast becoming surrounded by flowers as we had intended when we started this project. Another wonderful plant here: Salvia argentea, with amazing silky white hairs all over its large oval leaves. It has overwintered and is growing spectacularly well in our light, sandy soil.

Salvia argentea