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.

Salvias I have known

Yesterday was another garden tour day with clients, charming Americans this time, visiting the royal palaces of Chenonceau and Amboise, with a rather lovely lunch and a wine tasting thrown in for good luck. Not, it must be said, the worst day I have ever had!

Having a little time spare in the morning, I dropped in to a nursery near Montrichard, on the banks of the river Cher, which had been on my wish-list for some time.

Simier are growers of a very wide range of plants, mostly bedding, herbaceous and patio subjects, and work with a large number of local authorities. Their retail plant nursery is a joy and I immediately wished I had more time to explore. I did select a few plants: a purple Banana, Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’, a really exotic plant for our hot border, Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’, a pretty but invasive groundcover plant to act as a surround to the swimming pool shower, and two Salvias.

Salvia uliginosa

I have always liked Salvias and in England had a little collection grown in raised beds around the patio. Only one of these, Salvia uliginosa, the unfortunately named Bog Sage, followed us to France. It has wonderful, clear light-blue flowers which rock from side to side in the slightest breeze and are attractive to Bumble Bees. Bought at an English nursery, Salvia argentia has hairy silver leaves arranged in a ground-hugging rosette. It has off-white flowers after the second year but these are enjoyed at the expense of the leaves, which at that stage become much less silver. For this reason, the flower spike is often removed, but I tend to leave the odd one or two and hope for seedlings later.

Salvia argentia flowers

I am delighted with our plant of Salvia microphylla “Grahamii”, acquired as a cutting from the local park. It survived its first very tough winter and is now a delightful bush, dotted with pink-red flowers and with foliage mildly smelling of blackcurrant. There is a white form planted en masse in a neighbouring village which I also have my eyes on: never trust a gardener!

Our original plant of Salvia Golden Delicious

From Simier I bought Salvia involucrata Bethenii, a Mexican plant which I had in my collection in the UK. It is an exotic-looking plant, with rose-like buds opening to wonderful pink trumpet flowers. I have planted it on the site of a Pittosporum which passed away over the winter and I am hoping for great things from it. The other replacement Salvia is S. elegans Golden Delicious, with bright, pineapple-scented yellow foliage and fire engine red flowers. I had a group of these here a couple of years ago but lost both the parent plants and a batch of rooted cutting when temperatures dropped to -26°C last spring. This plant has been given pride of place at the front of a new border, created after the installation of the swimming pool. Again, I have high hopes for it and can see myself buying many more Salvias for the garden.