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.


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.


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!

Great gardens of France – the final day

The kitchen garden at Cheverny

There are two ways to end a concert, a play, a novel or a garden tour: with a grand, spectacular display of colour, virtuosity or pyrotechnics, or gently, softly, pulling together all the elements and laying them out for quiet review. Dare I say it? I think we achieved a bit of both on our final day of touring the gardens of the Loire Valley.

Our first port of call was Cheverny and its famous château which, unusually for such a grand French palace, is available to visit inside and full of fine furniture and art. We did the tour after visiting the gardens, starting with the potager which, for some reason, I had never seen before. This section was a marvel, a beautiful example of kitchen garden mixing traditional and modern design, with rows of vegetables and flowers artfully arranged into the prettiest garden imaginable.

Photo opportunities at the Apprentices’ Garden, Cheverny

From here we moved on to the recently constructed Apprentices’ Garden which links the château to the orangery. Again, traditional and modern design mix to make a very satisfying whole. Around the château itself was a formal garden of the most strict design imaginable, but the final and largest area was the park in the English style, featuring many fine specimen trees, a place to explore and linger – but we had to push on, with lunch time beckoning.


The journey was definitely part of the trip today. On the way to Cheverny we drove up the old driveway, miles of perfectly straight road aimed directly at the gates and doors of the château and lined with wonderful old trees. On the way to lunch we indulged in a detour to pass the Château de Chambord, a royal palace in the centre of a vast forest, the extravagant hunting lodge and pleasure park of the kings and queens of France. Lunch was in an old inn, now serving food of great quality, in the centre of the Sologne region of forests and lakes. Here we did linger, a little too long if truth be told, but the meal was rather good!

Iris germanica hybrids at La Source

Our last garden was quite different, the gardens of La Source, on the outskirts of Orleans amid the campus of the university. The river Loiret emerges in this park after a subterranean journey from, it is thought, the River Loire some way upstream, below a fine chateau and surrounded these days by a municipal park of the highest quality. Wonderful displays and trials of Iris, roses and bedding plants are a feature of the park, which is well used by locals in addition to garden visitors from all over France and around the world. Given our late arrival we rather galloped through the gardens, which deserved more time and consideration, but enjoyed the visit nevertheless. There is hardly a formal French garden feature to be found here; we found a very large, relaxed space dotted with horticultural interest and allowing us to reflect on the huge diversity of gardens we had experienced during the week.

The rose gardens and the chateau at Orleans La Source

Marie-Chantal had arranged an informal meal for our final evening, with local wines, cheeses and other products summing up the gastronomic life of the region in which we are pleased to live. Tomorrow our gusts would need ferrying to railway stations and the clean-up would begin. The tour had been a great success, we all agreed, and we counted our blessings in having had such a great group to spend our week with, exploring some of Europes great gardens.

Ferns and other inconveniences

The local paper is up in arms! A hypermarket had bought a patch of land next to its store to expand its activities at a total project cost of 15 million Eurors, only to be told it cannot proceed because of the existence on the site of a wild fern, Ophioglossum vulgatum.

This plant is not especially uncommon in Europe but has protected status in several areas, including the Sologne, on the edge of which the hypermarket is located. The Adder’s-tongue Fern is an unusual fern that grows in old grasslands, on hillsides, along woodland rides and on sand dunes. It usually appears between June and August, spending the rest of the year underground as a rhizome. Looking more like an Arum than a fern, it is considered a good indicator species of ancient meadows and can be found alongside Common Spotted-orchids, Quaking Grass and Devil’s-bit Scabious. For centuries it has been used as a treatment for wounds, using a preparation of it known as the ‘Green Oil of Charity’.

Ferns (but not this one) are one of the solutions recommended in Graham Rice’s new book, “Planting the Dry Shade Garden”. Billed as the only book deal with this growing condition, I was interested to read what was advised, having several dry-shade areas in my own garden. The book starts by discussing the nature of the problem of planting against shady walls or under trees. It goes on to explain how to improve the situation by reducing shade and increasing the amount of available moisture around trees. Crown thinning, crown thinning and tree removal are suggested options to increase light levels while a range of techniques are available to improve fertility and soil moisture content.

Planting the dry-shade garden - Graham Rice

In dealing with the soil the suggested actions are to raise soil levels, improve soil quality, install irrigation and mulch regularly. Container planting is also proposed. Increasing soil depth is a common but controversial technique, and one which may have your local authority tree officer rushing ’round to intervene. Few trees can confidently be predicted to thrive or even survive if more than four inches of fill are placed directly over their roots, so great care must be taken when gardeners construct raised beds as suggested. The rule of thumb is to preserving the existing levels in a circular area around the tree, equal in diameter to at least one-foot for every inch of stem diameter. This means that I should protect an area of 100 feet (30m) around our 150 year old Sequoia which is 8ft 4″ (2.55m) in diameter!

The other issue not discussed here is the serious harm which may be done to trees by planting amongst their roots. Regular cultivation of the soil can also remove or damage delicate feeding roots and introduce soil-borne diseases, so a high degree of care must be taken when gardening under trees.

As Graham Rice points out, what can be grown in dry shade depends on how bad the problem is – after all, some on the world’s finest gardens are woodland gardens. The main part of the book describes a range of plants suitable for the toughest conditions, a source of inspiration to those gardeners who have about given up hope with their own shady areas. Around 130 plants are listed and illustrated, with descriptions written in a style that suggests he knows them personally. The well-illustrated sections are divided into Shrubs, Climbers, Perennials, Groundcovers, Bulbs and Annuals and Biennials. We already have a few of the plants suggested in our bed under the Sequoia and  in the shade of the neighbour’s Lawson Cypress, but I am happy to say that I learned a thing or two and plants I might have not considered were brought to my attention. It is the nature of such a book that a few of my favourites were left out, while some of the suggestions would need controlling if they were not to take over more favoured parts of the garden.

All in all I would recommend this book to gardeners of both the armchair and the hands-on kinds. It is written by a well-respected and knowledgeable plantsman and aimed at garden owners on both sides of the Atlantic. At just over £10 from the Garden Design Academy bookshop, it could make an ideal stocking filler this Christmas.

Too busy to garden?

This is a busy and exciting week, with a group of students staying here on a residential ” Design your own Garden” course, this time with a Feng Shui twist, featuring an expert in the subject, Elizabeth Wells, over from the UK.

Still I find time to do a little weeding and admire this week’s new flowers, a welcome break after several hours of lecturing in the classroom. A small tree of Clerodendrum trichotomum is one of the current highlights, covered in sweetly smelling flowers and sheltering a pink Dahlia at its base. Close by is a large clump of Aster novi-belgii ‘Schone Von Dietlikon’, compact, Mildew clear and attracting Butterflies and other insects.

By email another batch of new students have just signed up: Cottage Gardens, several for RHS Certificate Level 2 and for the first time, RHS Certificate Level 3, second part (Certificate in the Principles of Garden Planning, Construction and Planting). Courses are checked, burned to CD and posted with a covering letter, nipping out to do this and buy the bread for breakfast. We get through huge quantities of bread: I blame the baker, the fresh air and Chantal’s home made jam!

In the post a couple of new textbooks have arrived and need reviewing; these will have to wait until next week, when I plan to sit by the Mediterranean and read, but they look as if students might find them useful useful: Residential Landscape Architecture for the designers and Turfgrass Management for the parks people.

At lunch times, indoors mostly because of the uncertain weather, friends keep dropping in to meet the students and give us little gifts: golden Girolle mushrooms from the Sologne, where a friend has a farm rented out for hunting; perfect-looking Quinces from a local garden, the first walnuts of the season and an impromptu jam swap.

But there is work to be done and transport to confirm to take us all to the Chaumont Festival of Gardens (see earlier posts). Normally we drop in on a vineyard on the way back and I have just the one primed and ready to offer samples. There’ll still be time to garden, I am sure, although the circus has just arrived in the village square!

Signs of Spring and Spring Gardening Shows.

img_0114We saw our first Cowslips today, on a grassy bank by the River Cher during a dog walk this afternoon; earlier in the week our first Camellia flower in the front garden of a house in the town.

I can’t wait for Spring to arrive and most years sow things too early or plant them out when it would be wiser to keep them under cover. It will be interesting to see how our first spring in France works out. Certainly the locals have been busy in their vegetable plots and assure us we would be unlucky to see a frost now.

The garden show season will soon be with us and I have already been invited to several. Courson has its Camellia Weekend 14th and 15th March and its famous Journees des Plantes from 15th – 17th May. We expect to be so busy in May that for the first time in ages we will not be going to Chelsea this year; I’m sure they’ll manage witout us.

We are planning to exhibit for the first time in France this year, showing garden design at the May Bank Holiday plant fair at La Ferte Saint Aubin in the heart of the Sologne. This will be a good test of my ability (or otherwise) to sell our services in French, at a medium sized event with a good reputation amongst plant enthusiasts.

A seasonal affair

Rhus showing autumn colour in a Chabris garden

Rhus showing autumn colour in a Chabris garden

The grapes have been picked in the vineyards of the Touraine and at village fetes throughout the area Bernache, a bubbling, still fermenting grape juice is offered by good humoured stallholders, while local musicians play in nearby cafes to help celebrate another successful harvest.






Here in central France the people are in touch with nature in a way I haven’t seen since my childhood in Cornwall. Although there are more than a few commuters from Paris in the area, everyone seems to be involved with the land in some way or another and the seasons are keenly followed.

At the moment while many are preoccupied with the wine, pigs are being prepared in the old way: family and friends getting together to turn an animal into delicious pates, sausages, and hams for preserving and storing. There are mushrooms to be picked from the Oak woods and meadows at the weekends, dodging the hunters who are out with their dogs after game. Deer, wild boar and anything that flies are persuaded out of hiding by scores of dogs, nearly as wild as their prey. On the river banks the fishermen are in place as usual, perhaps snacking from the fallen fruits of a nearby Walnut tree as they wait for a bite at the end of the line.

Gardening too is a seasonal affair and I am working hard to clear the overgrown wilderness around our house. When we arrived there were complaints that snakes had been seen coming from our property into the street, so the removal lorry had hardly been emptied before I was out with the strimmer tidying the front. Since then I have worked through front and back gardens removing brambles, young trees and chest high grass in an effort to tame the jungle.

I have planted a few shrubs I brought from the UK, an easy task in the light sandy soil with which we are blessed. On the other side of the town the influence of the underlying limestone gives much heavier, limey clay soils in which corn, sunflower and maize do well, but closer to the river and especially in the Sologne to the north of us, the soils are acid and much less fertile. These are the areas where grapes, strawberries and asparagus are grown and in gardens, Camellias and Rhododendrons thrive.

Once the weeds have been controlled I will be able to begin the planting of our garden in earnest. The plan was prepared a year ago but has been changed several times since. For someone who designs gardens for a living and has seen over 1,000 completed, I have found my own very hard to finalise.  I hope you will enjoy following its progress as much as I will.

Autumn in the Loire

One of the gardens at this years garden show at Chaumont

One of the gardens at this years garden show at Chaumont

There is no doubt the summer is coming to an end. While we continue to enjoy a long period of warm, sunny days, the mornings are cool and there is heavy dew on the ground until late in the day. The grape picking starts here in a few days and no doubt all eyes will be anxiously scanning the horizon for signs of deterioration in the weather.





This area is rural, made up of towns, villages and hamlets dedicated to farming and horticulture in the gentle rolling countryside on the borders of the Touraine, the Berry and the Sologne in the geographical centre of France. Paris is not far by motorway or train but feels like a life-time away. 

It would be all too easy to spend our time in this peaceful backwater doing very little while the money gradually runs out; rarely have we felt so relaxed and contented. We have a business to run however and it will take several months to have the renovations done on the house and get our office and ourselves into gear. In the mean time I have garden plans for UK customers to complete and a handful of French clients to visit.

Gardening has taken up some of my time and I have had some encouragement from the locals. When we arrived the grass was chest high and there was talk of neighbours complaining to the mayor: snakes were seen coming onto the road from our back garden! The front is now respectable enough and I am making inroads into the wilderness behind the house. Having spent my days drawing for the last few years I am not a fit as I was and find that I need a break of a day or two for every few hours of labouring. Ah, the joys of getting old!

I have uncovered the planting I did last year from its blanket of brambles and can report that most of my imports have survived. These include unusual Viburnum species and several Miscanthus grasses, but my cherished Eucryphia has died and will need replacing. We brought an eclectic mix of potted plants lifted from our old garden in the removal lorry but these still await the results of the clearance operation and are dotted around the plot to be planted at a later date. Amongst others I have a large Aesculus parviflora, the shrubby American Horse Chestnut, yet more grasses, a female version of the Golden Hop, a pot of Nerine bulbs and a Chinese Tree Peony, all waiting for new homes.

Strimming my way through the undergrowth, which was cleared at some expense only a year or so ago, I have produced heaps of material which will be composted to improve the poor sandy soil. I am undecided if I can clear the garden ready for planting just by cultivating the ground but have weedkillers standing by if need be. There is little pointing in undertaking planting in a meaningful way until the weeds have been brought under control. Our soil is very light and sandy and can be worked easily but needs organic matter to improve it. I have also noticed Rhododendrons and Camellias growing well in the sand areas so it would seem that the river valleys are acid even if the underlying geology is limey. I have high hopes for this garden!

Whenever I visit a new region I am excited to see what can be grown there. We have already been to a few local gardening events to meet amateur gardeners, nurserymen and landscapers and came back with a particularly lovely Camellia from one little local festival yesterday. I have spotted a few plants I consider unusual and note that some we would judge slightly tender – Campsis, Albizia Lagerstroemia, even Lemons – are in flower now and commonly grown. The local garden centre is unimpressive by UK standards but some of the nurseries are excellent, if rather pricey.

I usually find the huge range of plants I am familiar with are not to be found abroad and I am planning to import a lorry load from UK nurseries when the garden is ready to receive them. Who knows, we may even start a small nursery to supply our local clients. In the mean time we are keen to plant ornamental and fruit trees and may have to swallow our pride and pay French retail prices for them. The fete of Saint Catherine (28th November) is the traditional day for this, when success is virtually guaranteed. On the weekend of 17th October we plan a visit to the famous plant fair at the Chateau de Courson , south of Paris, where growers from all over France and beyond meet to promote their wares. I have bought plants here before and this may prove to be the ideal opportunity to acquire some interesting trees. Sadly, English growers have yet to discover this show although Dutch, Belgians, Italians and Spanish nurseries can all be found there.

My birthday treat this year has been a visit to another garden show, this time the festival of gardens and garden design at Chaumont, less than an hour away from us now, rather than the ten-hour trek we used to undertake each year.  This is one of Europe’s most innovative garden shows, attracting top designers to build gardens on themes which change each year. Unlike Chelsea, budgets are kept deliberately low and the gardens are on display for the whole summer season. We are hoping a few designers and keen amateurs will use our accommodation as a base to visit this and some of the Chateaux gardens of the Loire Valley next year.

This year’s event allowed designers to explore the themes of sharing and division, “en partage” and “à partager”, in French. This attracted designers from as far as the United States to participate with a range of garden ideas, as usual some more successful than others. We shared the park with coach loads of young children and most gardens encouraged a hands-on approach to viewing. The cheerful mix of the inspirational, challenging or outrageous gardens made for a very pleasant day out which was also enjoyed by friends we brought with us. Of course, I had my eyes open for new plants, new combinations of familiar plants, materials and techniques to use in my own design work.

On our journey back to home to meet yet another plumber we travelled through the vast vineyards of the Touraine, where machines were out gathering in the crop. These days it would seem there is less use for the gangs of itinerant workers who used to follow the harvests but in our village the wine growing is of a smaller scale and friends and neighbours still gather to help each other bring in the grapes. It is a social as well as an economic activity here and lunch times are spent together devouring great rustic meals of surprising sophistication, lubricated with large quantities of home produced wine. In the countryside, as in the garden, sharing is important and holds the social fabric of the village together.