Winter garden dreaming again

Snow in a French garden

Waiting for summer - snow in a French garden

I don’t know about you, but this time of the year always encourages introspection and navel gazing in this gardener. It’s partly the enforced idleness, with freezing conditions, snow and rain keeping me inside and partly the lack of sun, warmth and vitamin D. New Year parties have never excited me: I just want to get back to work and get outside in the garden.

I had been brooding yet again over garden design as a maligned and misunderstood art, when up popped an offer of work by email. I have been cultivating a valuable contact in China for many years and he has an offer for me. I was asked to come up with proposals and drawings for the landscaping of a 120,00 sq.m. luxury housing development; I had 10 days to complete it, no budget, no design brief, no visit or photographs: just a “read only” Autocad plan of the site with notation in Chinese. A rough sketch would do, I was told, with a design fee offer at around one twentieth my rate for the full plans. It’s a competitive tender and my drawings will be key to winning the contract. I’ll do what I can, of course; I can come up with ideas – I have theories and a rough scheme in mind – but give up Christmas to create a plan and visuals good enough to win a major contract? I don’t think so.

A scene in the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the Little Prince, comes to mind. The Little Prince demands that the narrator draws him a sheep. After three attempts at drawing sheep are rejected, he draws a box: ” The sheep you wanted is in the box” the narrator explains. Little Prince is delighted with the result. Perhaps I’m missing a trick here.

box (sheep)

There is never enough time to achieve everything I wish to do in a week, but I have lately been sparing the odd moment to read Rory Stuarts’ Gardens of the World; with luck, it’s on your Christmas list. There’s a great quote towards the end from Men and Gardens, a book for the 1950’s
by Nan Fairbrother: ” …most of our gardening books are not about how to make gardens at all, but on how to grow flowers. For it has seldom occurred to us that they are quite different things, as building a house is different from arranging the ornaments on the mantelpiece.”

I’m not sure where this meditation is leading, accept to say that I understand that in the great scheme of things garden design is a luxury permitted the wealthy nations and if it disappeared tomorrow humanity would probably muddle through somehow; but if I am going to design gardens I like to do the best I can: it’s an art that takes time and patience, extensive knowledge across a range of disciplines, experience, proficiency and (in all modesty!) talent. As a result, it’s also going to cost you.


This is the time of the year when I write books and courses, design and redesign our web sites and plan our business for the following season. All of these things are connected and one of our big projects revolves around the gardens of the Loire Valley. We are introducing garden tours to the Garden Design Academy and being close to many of the finest, these are to be the subject of our next book and, we hope, a series of tours for garden enthusiasts. The web page is launched and a full site may follow. The Loire Valley region of central France is known throughout the world for its chateaux – the ancient homes of the kings and aristocracy of France. It is also an area of great natural beauty and it was in recognition of the regions balance between architectural heritage and the natural environment that UNESCO has listed the Loire Valley as a World Heritage Site for its cultural landscape.

French garden style

The parks and gardens of the region are equally well regarded, often enhancing the chateaux which have made central France famous. Our home in northern Indre is surrounded by many of the great gardens of France. Several dozen of the best are within 2 hours drive and some are just around the corner. We are very excited about the possibilities and have already been approached by one UK-based company to lead tours in the region.


Creating a new garden is wonderful, but one of the frustrations of a young garden is the lack of cutting material for the house. This seems especially true during the winter, when it is delightful to bring a little home-grown colour and scent inside. We have planted evergreens and winter flowering plants of course, but there is not enough and they are far too small to spare the quantities needed for regular floral displays. We have therefore been looking to the countryside and to neighbours gardens for material, with limited success. Braving the snow and the cold we have cut flowering branches of Ivy from the boundary wall, Ruscus aculeatus (Butcher’s Broom) complete with a berry or two from the woods and huge balls of Mistletoe, which is plentiful in France. Holly, a common wild plant in the UK and a traditional Christmas cutting plant, is rare in these parts. I can think of none in the woods and hedgerows nearby and in the village there can’t be more than three or four cultivated plants; this year I have seen no berries either.

Rose hips

Still a few berries about

The garden designer’s computer – anything to keep out of the snow!

Snailman (sculpture by David Goode) in the snow

With snow thick on the ground I have been setting up my office, moving out of the lounge to a new desk in the reception room of the house, where my wife Chantal also works. Having just purchased a shiny new computer I thought it would be interesting for those starting a career in garden design to see how I am organising myself. I do not claim to be anything other than an experienced PC user, certainly not an expert and I await with interest the comments of any reader who is….although having bought it, any criticism is a bit academic now, for me at least.

My new machine came from Dell in France; my son, a computer professional with an honours degree in Web site design, Multimedia and Playing games, considers this company to be the spawn of the Devil, but you can’t please everyone!

For those who like to know about these things, or would like to compare my system with their own, this is the specification:

Intel core i7 processor ( 2,93Ghz, 8MB); 8MB memory 1333 DDR3; 2TB Hard drive; 1 GB graphic card (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460) Windows 7 operating system (in French, which adds a whole new dimension to what was already a tricky transition from my previous system); CD/DVD/Blueray player and writers. I decided to recycle a Dell flat screen I am rather fond of rather than buy a new one and a Microsoft cordless mouse and keyboard (in English) although a French keyboard was thrown in.

Ice and snow in the woods of Chabris

It’s basically a multimedia / games machine, selected because I need speed and memory to use umpteen demanding programs at the same time and hard disc space to store all my drawings.

Apart from Windows itself, it came with no software so I have been hunting about in the loft and elsewhere, looking for installation discs and stored copies of all my favourites, with only partial success.

First I needed the internet and Chantal came up with the Orange installation discs which I passed a happy hour or so being rude to before Orange finally agreed to let me on line. We also use a Netgear router so that both Chantal and I can have the internet and with a little more swearing I had her PC and my PC wired in and the laptop running wirelessly. Next I wanted protection: ESET Smart Security immediately replaced the trial version of McAfee and I added Ad-aware, Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware, Spybot, SuperAntispyware, with Tuneup Utilities for luck( not that I’m paranoid, or anything!).

So far, so good but I needed a stiff drink and a lie down at that point, leaving the machine to download literally dozens of updates.

The next day it was the turn of communications, word processor and other essentials which required Microsoft Office, although my son begged me to use the free and much more trendy Open Office instead. A jolly hour or two later and I had mail coming in from all my email accounts. I do a lot of work with .pdf files so Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro was also an early installation. I transferred my custom dictionary, with thousands of correctly spelled plant names, from my laptop to Word on the new PC using a flashdisc. Again, the PC found a further few dozen updates and loaded them.

As a garden designer I’d be lost without my CAD software; installed to date are Autocad 10, TurboCAD Pro 16, Sketchup Pro 6 (all of these are about two versions out of date but good enough for the time being). Somewhere I have a copy of Vectorworks 8, but hunt as I might I could not find it. I do not use Vectorworks Landmark very often but students demand it so I like to keep in touch with the software; fortunately I have it on my lap-top. I did find several versions of the Australian equivalent called Landworks so, assuming they still install, I may add that later. I regularly use Photoshop so I have installed the CS5 version but could not find Indesign, which I occasionally use for Garden Design Academy leaflets. Again, it’s on the laptop if I need it. In the mean time a student of ours in the USA suggested we look at Realtime Landscaing software from Idea Spectrum, so I have requested a download copy to evaluate. Watch this space for a review.

St. Phalier's grape vines in the snow

A great deal of my time is devoted to the Garden Design Academy web site and for this I use Dreamweaver CS4. My son tells me the CS5 version is worth having but for now this will do nicely.

Installing printers is not an issue with Windows 7: you just plug them in and they work. I use an HP Deskjet 9800 for A4 and A3 printing, but have larger HP plotters printing up to A0 upstairs. The Canon digital camera was also instantly identified and I imagine the Wacom A3 graphics tablet will be to. This is such a great drawing tool (do avoid the smaller sizes) so I’ll try that in a little while.

The problem I am still wrestling with is what to do with documents. At the moment I have everything on two external hard drives. This is very handy because I can use them both on the laptop and the PC at any time. But hard discs don’t last forever, so it might be wiser to also have everything on the huge hard disc which came with the PC and use the external drives as security backup (Dell, God bless them, would like me to download and store everything on their server at great cost). I just wilt at the idea of transferring all those files but have a copy of Laplink Gold 12 and a special lead which makes automatic backups and speedy transfers relatively painless once the system is set up; I’m still considering this but have installed the software anyway.

The snow has stopped so we are off to walk the dog and reflect on how something as simple as the laying out of a garden could have become so technical, complicated and expensive.

French garden in the November snow 2010

Heather - Erica carnea - in the snow

Did I say yesterday that we might have snow?

A snow blanket over the flowers outside the church in Chabris, France


Well, we did, with North Indre / South Indre et Loir taking the brunt of it after escaping the worst for several days.

Today has been ideal weather for the kids, many of whom have been unable or unwilling to go to school – snowmen and ski tracks are appearing all around the town.

The woods were beautiful when we walked the dog earlier as you can see from the photograph and when we returned we grateful to have work to do in the warmth of our home; an interesting assignment from one of our Garden History students kept me busily reading for much of the morning.

Snow in the woods, Chabris, Loire Valley, France

French garden centres, snow, Mimosa and Moth Orchids

When my trusty leather working boots gave up on me this autumn I bought a new pair from one of the better garden centres locally. I like to drop in on Gamme Vert every so often but only rarely spend money there. Like most French garden centres, they have a limited range of plants at high prices and in the shop itself I am always surprised by their stock – both what they do sell and the things they don’t.

They carry a very good range of outdoor clothing however and I was pleased with the boots I selected, until two months later when a hook for the laces broke. I could not find the receipt and having had a poor experience with nurseries when plants died I was preparing for a fight. My lecture entitled Customer Relations and Good Retailing Practices was prepared but in the event not needed: they exchanged the books promptly and politely. I was so taken aback I bought a Mimosa to celebrate – see, being good to clients makes good business sense!

Mimosa Le Gaulois

Mimosa Le Gaulois is a cross between A. dealbata and A. baileyana, bred in the Cote d’Azure in the 1900’s as a cut flower variety. These days it is grown alongside later-flowering Le Gaulois ‘Astier’ to extend the season. Having lost a young ‘Mireille’ to the cold a year or two back we were keen to replace it and bring some winter colour into the garden. I carefully selected a strong, grafted plant and negotiated a small discount, thus concluding our business very satisfactorily. The Mimosa will stay in the cool of the front conservatory to fill the structure with flower and scent over winter and be planted in the garden in the spring. My plan is to plant an evergreen shrub over it to provide protection during particularly hard winters.

The TV news is full of snow reports, with regions from the channel coast to the Dordogne and of course, the mountain areas, suffering from its effects. Here in the Centre we have seen no more than a few flakes, but this may change (it is just starting to snow now). There have been four nights of frost so far this season and yesterday the temperatures dropped to -2°C, lower out in the sticks. A visiting gardening enthusiast expressed surprise that we grow Olive outside and suggested Phormiums should be protected. Cold hardiness is a funny thing, with so many different factors resulting in success or failure to survive the winter. We benefit here from a light soil which does not get too wet in the winter. It also warms up early and the long growing season we enjoy is another benefit. The garden is completely enclosed, providing a high degree of shelter from damaging winds while our practice of mulching and close planting protects venerable roots. The climate in the Centre is kind, neither too hot in the summer nor too cold in the winter and rainfall is sufficient but not excessive. All these factors combined allow me to grow a wider range of plants than I was able to in southern England, although I also take more risks here and loose a few plants as a result.

Plant maturity is another issue, with the surface roots of newly planted stock particularly venerable.We have planted Lagerstroemia each year for the last three years and the first winter is always a worry. The cold weather usually takes all but a single shoot to grow the following spring but by the second winter the plant is strong enough to survive anything our climate can throw at it.

Moth Orchid - Phalaenopsis

With little to be done in the garden we are delighted that our collection of Moth Orchids – Phalaenopsis –  which increases by one or two specimens each year, is beginning to come back into flower. In truth, there is hardly a day of the year when at least one of them is not in flower. They surround us with life and colour and on Sundays at this time of the year we start  planning next season’s garden, with the seed catalogues out and important decisions to be made.

Spring / not Spring

The mild weather has got central France moving; in back gardens and allotments throughout our region gardeners are stirring from their winter hibernation. Frames and tunnels are breaking out all over and the national sport of shrub pruning has been resumed with enthusiasm. We are far from immune, urging the season on so we can get out and garden, smell the flowers and revert back to the outdoor life we love.

Viburnum bodnatense

Viburnum bodnatense or something very similar

I have been creating new beds, cutting a new line into a weedy gravel patio to create more, and more interesting, planting opportunities. I’m quite excited about this new shape, which reconciles the formal house with an original 1890’s water feature we have converted into a flower bed and dining island. A few plants can then be moved and a bed I was never quite at home with will be transformed into something far more appealing.

There are signs of live everywhere in the garden, but few plants flowering as yet. Our Hamamelis is a joy and around the village crocus, Camellia, and Primroses are appearing. Snowdrops are in full flower, having popped up a couple of weeks ago only to be promptly buried in snow.

Snowdrops at Chabris mill

Snowdrops at Chabris mill

The weather is very up and down. In the course of a week we have had mild spring-like days and gentle rain, clear frosty nights and mornings and then, this weekend, one of the worst storms for decades hit the west coast of France, turning the Vendee and Charente Maritime coasts into disaster zones. We had plenty of wind here, but short of few trees and a handful of roofing tiles down the town had no great problems. Someone’s polythene greenhouse flew in overnight, ending up in a flower bed, ruining our tree Peony. We hardly slept, listening to the storm battering our Sequoia and ripping the polythene sheeting off the stack of wood in the front garden.

The postman has delivered our “publicity”, a post-box full of brochures from DIY chains, supermarkets and gardening stores offering plants, equipment and accessories for the garden. Specialist mail order nurseries over here, as in the UK, produce catalogues featuring plants of unlikely colours and descriptions making the most ordinary variety sound like the crown jewels. The flowers are bigger and the fruits juicier than any normal plant but amongst the hype and nonsense there are some interesting plants. Jacques Briant is offering a delicious new Hydrangea paniculata variety called Vanille Fraise at 10 Euros a pot. At 1.25 Euro our local hypermarket offers stainless steel stakes in a spiral shape for supporting tomato plants, something I promised myself after watching early fruits suffer in the damp last year. The other item I have my eyes peeled for is solar powered garden lighting: I am hoping to rig up something to use with our Japanese granite lantern but have yet to find the solution I am looking for.

Hydrangea paniculata Vanille Fraise

Hydrangea paniculata Vanille Fraise

Also hard to find is lawn edging: amazing but true. The new edge to our patio needs edging and the least complicated and cheapest solution is plastic lawn edging. We have been searching high and low and the best we can come up with is to order it from the UK. Delivery costs will no doubt double the price.

Our ideal solution would be to use planks of Robinia – basically a weed around here but excellent rot restistance, better even than Oak. We would need to cut lines into the wood to enable us to create the curves we have designed but hope we can find someoen to lend us a bench saw to do so.

We are having difficulty finding these too and continue to research both on the internet. In the mean time the news is full of the disaster in the west of France, with sixty people drowned, thousands of homes damaged, the oyster industry laid waste and 10% of the farming land inundated with sea water.

Checking for signs of life

I know it’s still January and we can expect plenty of winter yet, but after a hectic week of catching up my work I just had to get out in the garden.

I have spent a week in the UK and chose the week when snow had brought the country to a standstill. France had plenty of snow as well but we English like to make more fuss. After driving uneventfully across France it came as a shock when I arrived off the ferry at Portsmouth. They had decided to leave all the snow and ice on the ground and it took nearly two hours to get the few cars and lorries which had made the journey unloaded. Portsmouth town roads were not much better so I had little choice but to stay the night.


Fuchsia flowering in Newquay on the day of Win Elliott's funeral 9th January 2010

The next day I had a beautiful journey crossing the New Forest, Dorset Downs, Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor before reaching my destination in Cornwall. My trip was a challenging one for other reasons. In addition to seeing a new client for garden design, I was here to assist my Father following the death of my 103 year old Grandmother at the end of the year. Walking with him in the freezing wind after the funeral we saw a few plants valiantly defying the arctic weather with a show of out-of- season flowers. She liked her plants did Win Elliott and I brought a few of them back to Chabris.

On my return there were clients to see, telephone and email, Garden Design Academy students to catch up with and a huge To Do list to work through. I’m slowly getting there…..

Fiddling about in the garden for an hour or so today was a well earned rest after the last few weeks of organised chaos. There is little happening but it was good to wander about anyway. Daffs are pushing up and nothing stops the weeds, but I was determined to lift and divide one of our clumps of Miscanthus. This was one of the plants brought out from the UK before we moved and put in the ground anywhere I could find a clean space. It is close to a lovely variegated Acer campestre which showed signs of scorch last summer. There are a number of possible reasons for this, but I thought that if I planted it on the other side of the Field Maple, the shade might help it.

I have cut the clump in two and replanted them close to a Daphne mezereum which I had thought was dead. A quick check revealed green under the bark so there is some hope it has survived. Last year, seeing signs of its ill-health, I sowed dozens of its seeds around it in the hope that if it died, it would live on in the seedlings.

Daphne mezereum

Planting and a bit of weeding done, I spent a little time looking to see what had suffered or thrived during the cold snap. Mediterranean plants are generally doing well, with variegated Sage, Rosemary, Artemisia (rooted from cuttings taken this autumn), Olive, Cistus,  Phlomis fruticosa and purpurea and many others all looking fine.

I have quite a few South African bulbs and herbaceous plants and while several of these are looking a mess I am sure most will pull through. Granny’s Crocosmia looks healthy enough but her Eucomis in the unheated conservatory is less so.

No doubt we will lose a few plants and there is still February to get through, but my spell in the garden was encouraging and raised the spirits of all concerned.

Snow in a French garden? Surely not….

It’s my own fault of course. Just a few days ago I was being smug about our climate in an article I was writing for an English magazine. ” Here in central France….I feel you those of you in less equitable climes….”

Waiting for the sun

Waiting for the sun to return.

Well, we had two inches of powder snow this afternoon and tempertures were low. Pixie, our standard poodle, was having great fun gambling about in it until she realised she was standing on 4-inch high-heels of  ice and compressed snow and demanded to have it removed.

It all looks pretty enough but I have an appointment in the wilds of the Sologne tomorrow so we will see what it looks like out there: if we can get out there.

The inheated Victorian conservatory which acts as our porch has a number of holes in the roof, so there were also patches of snow inside, decorating the tree fern and Grannies Chistmas Cactus. It does offer very valuable protection both to the house and the plants stored under glass and temperatures are  six degrees higher inside than out: and no wind (that’s the killer).

Snow in the conservatory
Snow on the tree fern in the conservatory

Out in the garden all is peaceful.