The organised gardener

For once I am so organised. Christmas presents for the family were all bought in November and my seed order from Thompson & Morgan has just arrived. I really enjoy growing plants from seed. Each year I order them from the T&M and Suttons catalogues, buy a few locally and collect seeds from gardens and parks as I travel about.

This season’s purchases, as always, include many novelties and new varieties, together with old favourites I have had success with in the past and could not resist.

I am growing many more vegetables next year and that seems to be a general tendency. In our case, we grow them in spare corners in the front and back gardens, but also mixed in with flowers in the borders. I shall be constructing a new fruit and vegetable garden behind the Garden Design Academy classroom, just a small one, and have bought four beautiful raised bed kits in Loire Valley oak from a local sawmill for the purpose. This will be my Big Winter Job.

Tomato : Suncherry Premium F1 Hybrid  We always grow Cherry Tomatoes in the garden and in addition to the unfailingly good Sungold I am trying a new variety called Santonio, with plum-shaped fruits. Last year was not good for outdoor Tom’s, but our plantation of Sun Cherry Premium was a great success. We grow a few Courgettes each year, you don’t need many, usually as a mixture to add interest on the plate This year I am trying BBQ mix; last year we had a good crop from another F1 variety early in the season, but Mildew eventually got to the plants and they had to go.

Sweetcorn : Lark F1 Hybrid  Sweet corn has not been a success here so far despite being a region where maize is grown commercially. I am hoping the new raised beds will provide better growing conditions provided I am more attentive to their need for water. I like the sweet varieties and have selected Lark F1 this time. Lettuces are traditionally grown amongst the flowers and seem to prefer the lighter soil in the back garden. Coloured foliage is always welcome and I have ordered traditional Lollo Rossa in addition to a Romaine type called Chartwell.

Artichoke : Originals  Growing perennials from seed is something we do each year as it’s a wonderful way to fill up a new garden. This is now extending into the vegetable garden with the purchase of a packet of Artichoke Green Globe Improved. I love fresh artichokes and I am determined to have a large clump despite them dying whenever I buy plants from the garden centre.

Climbing Bean 'Monte Cristo'  Beans are not something I do well but I persevere! For the first time since we moved to France we will be trying Broad Beans and have selected an RHS award-winning dwarf variety called Robin Hood. My wife loves to eat them raw. Climbing beans are my ‘bête noire’, always running out of steam before I have harvested more than a handful. I have been growing them on a pergola where a neighbour’s tree, now removed, competes heavily for nutrients and water. Monte Cristo is going to change all that, I hope.

Swiss Chard 'White Silver'  Finally, for a bit of fun, I am intending to grow Swiss Chard White Silver 3, of which I know very little but it was recommended in the T&M catalogue by Alan Titchmarch, no less. In addition I am trying Golden Berries (variety Little Lanterns), delicious and very trendy fruits which I last grew in a greenhouse with great success some 25 years ago. Wish me luck!

Advertisements

It’s seed sowing time again

After all the fun of selecting new and favourite varieties from the seed catalogues the real work is just starting in greenhouses, airing cupboards and on windowsills: its seed sowing time! Our own efforts began modestly around a month ago and the results, a few trays and pots of seedlings, are now out of the propagator and on the dining room windowsill. First out was Antirrhinum Axiom Mixed, a Thomson and Morgan variety which did particularly well in the bed by the swimming pool last year. The original plants are still out there and we are hoping that if they are trimmed back they will bloom again this year. If not, we have backups in the young plants I have grown from seed. We were so pleased with the Antirrhinums last year that we have also grown some white ones for next season. Our tray of Royal Bride will need potting on very soon and that’s when the problems begin: I just do not have enough growing space once the seedlings are pricked out.

I sowed Gazanias two days ago and they are already starting to germinate. I had forgotten they prefer to be germinated in the dark so it is worth reading the label! They were sown, like all the seeds, on the surface of good seed compost bought at the local garden centre. In this case the advice from T&M was to cover with the smallest amount possible of vermiculite and water in. The tray, containing bands of the four varieties I had bought, was then placed in an old plastic compost sack and this put in the heated propagator. The results have been very gratifying and they are now out of the sack and under supplementary lights which we put on whenever the sunshine is weak.

Bergenia in flower today in a neighbour's garden.

Bergenia in flower today in a neighbour’s garden.

Not that the sun is lacking today. It is a bright, clear but chilly day, encouraging Crocus, Hellebores and Bergenia into flower and birds into song.

Garden work is beginning to queue up as the days get longer, with recent rains slowing me down outside and office work keeping me busy inside. Today I realised that none of our seven web sites was working, thanks to an ‘upgrade’ of our server on 1and1. In that almost all our business comes to us from these sites, this has caused a bit of a panic. I had innocently assumed that all the clever bits would be dealt with by the technicians at 1and1 or that their software systems would handle everything automatically. Having a cynical side to my character, well hidden, I like to think, I took the precaution of backing up all the sites on my PC, just before pushing the button asking for the upgrade. These saved files, many thousands of them, are slowly uploading in an effort to rebuild our web sites; cross fingers!

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

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.

It’s Spring in central France: seed sowing and 700 Pear varieties

Spring is with us without a doubt and we were excited to hear that we may get some rain: we have not seen a sign of it in our corner of France in many, many weeks and the ground is dry. This certainly makes weeding easy and I have been taking the opportunity to spring-clean the garden for the growing season. New leaves and flower buds begin to show in the gardens and countryside as they come back to life and wildlife is responding – the garden is full of birdsong.

I have been up in the loft sowing seeds. So far these include the hardy Banana Ensete glaucum, which I hope to be able to grow and overwinter outside as a couple of others do in the village. Thompson and Morgan’s Flower Of The Year, Sweet Pea Ballerina Blue is finally in the propagator, having soaked the seed over night before sowing in individual pots. We like sweet peas but have yet to grow a really good crop – perhaps this year will be different.

For the kitchen I have planted cherry tomatoes and peppers; Suncherry is described as best in a greenhouse but will have to deal with a warm corner of the garden. We love cherry tomatoes, harvesting and eating them every day in the summer, with wine vinegar, salt and olive oil. I have the bush variety Sungold, to sow from seed, but also coming from Holland as grafted plants. I am looking forward to testing them to see the difference in performance. We have bought several hot pepper varieties, having discovered them a few years ago; I am not a lover of hot food but as with so many home grown vegetables and fruit, they are so much better than the shop-bought varieties. Inferno F1 is sown and two others await.

We are growing several Echinacea varieties in the garden now, so I thought it might be interesting to grow some from seed. We are trying T&M’s Magic Box this year and will see how we get on. A number of Garden Design Academy courses cover the growing of plants from seed but we are currently reorganising the menus to make it easier to find them all from the 70+ now on offer. New sections will include Home Gardening, Parks and Recreation courses and General Horticulture.

A change of subject: during our morning walks with the dog we stop to chat with many people we meet along the way: in the street, on their doorsteps and in their gardens. During one such encounter we were invited in to look at the plot of a man pruning his fruit. It turns out he is an internationally famous botanical artist and grows nearly 700 pear varieties (along with a couple of hundreds apples, a dozen cherries……the list goes on). His pear collection is the largest in private hands and people come from around the world to see them. Central France continues to delight and surprise!