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.

IMG-20140218-00146

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.

IMG-20140220-00149

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!

Discovering new Loire Valley gardens

Prieuré D’Orsan

Prieuré D’Orsan, which kindly opened its doors for us.

Readers of the Garden Design Academy blog will have read that in a previous life I worked as a Royal Gardener at Windsor Palace.

For the last two weeks however, I have been teaching and touring with an active Royal Gardener: the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman.

Staying at the Academy for a residential course on garden design and CAD, he spent time with us both in the classroom and outside in the French countryside, studying the widest possible assortment of garden styles in the Loire Valley.

Mag.Betty

Magnolias were flowering in every garden we visited – Magnolia ashei ‘Betty’

The list of gardens we viewed this trip covered five out of the six departments (counties) of the Central region of France: Apremont and the Priory of Orsan in the Cher, Bouges in our home department of the Indre. To our north in the Indre-et-Loire we visited Chenonceau, Chatonnière and Villandry then Chaumont-sur-Loire, Cheverny and Plessis Sasnières in the Loire-et-Cher. Finally we travelled up to the Loiret to the gardens of Grandes Bruyères and La Source at Orléans.

Several gardens that opened their doors to us were closed to the public and despite a very late session we were exposed to wonderful displays of Magnolias, Cherries and other flowering plants. The variety of plants grown and the extraordinary skill of the garden creators were inspiring and we did not miss the opportunity to talk with garden owners and their staff whenever possible. We discussed and debated the designs we saw, considered imperfections and design solutions, looking at depth at the thinking behind the landscapes we walked through.

Apremont

The Chinese bridge at Apremont

Of the eleven gardens we visited this trip, three were new to me and all proudly declaring their English inspiration recommended to us by the association of parks and gardens for the region.

The chocolate-box village of Apremont is officially one of the prettiest in France and reminds me of some I have seen in the English Cotswolds. The gardens in the grounds of the chateau of the Duchess of Brissac, was the work of Gilles de Brissac in the 1970’s and is very much in the English style. A series of follies animate the scene – a Chinese bridge, a belvedere, a Turkish pavilion – in a garden inspired by Sheffield Park, Biddulph Grange, Sissinghurst and the English cottage garden. Attractive planting complements impressive landscape features resulting in a very pleasing scene. We were fortunate with the weather, which was bright and warm.

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères host an important collection of Magnolias which were just starting to flower amongst the last blooms of the winter flowering heathers. It was, regrettably, a little early for their other notable collection – flowering Cornus. We were guided around the woodland garden by the owner, Brigitte de La Rochefoucauld who, like her husband Bernard, speaks English beautifully. Theirs is a garden full of rarities and a wonderfully relaxing place to wander on a sunny day. Yet again, English landscapes come to mind easily here, perhaps Surrey this time, although a more French feature of clipped Box and Rose-laden pergolas is sited near the entrance and the house. The garden which today looks so peaceful and natural was carved out of the forest by the owners, who were assisted on occasions (as at Apremont) by some notable personalities of the golden age of landscaping: Russel Page and Tobie Loup de Viane.

Plessis Sasnières

Plessis Sasnières

The final recommendation was for Plessis Sasnières, which was hosting a visit by a coach load of garden designers from Russia when we arrived. The late season did not contribute to the visit but it was still a pleasure to stroll around the garden in the company of the family Labrador, who insisted I should throw a stick for him to chase all morning. I have seen pictures of the rich English herbaceous borders but we had to content ourselves with the Magnolias and the uncluttered design of this attractive landscape. Rooted in the French countryside it is nevertheless very English in tone and has been open to the public since 1996.

Malus Royalty

Malus Royalty in the ornamental kitchen garden at Chenonceau

This was the last of the gardens in our program and at the end of the visit we drove back to Vierzon for the train to Paris and for my guest his flight back to Oman. After two weeks of study and touring we were sorry to see him go but pleased to have some time to recover before the next students arrive.

Easter weekend: the first Cuckoo and the second plant fair.

Flowering Quince in a spring garden

Flowering Quince in a spring garden

Easter was not warm; in fact it has been the coldest March in the north of France since records began. Sheltered from all directions here in the centre of France, even we have had cool nights with temperatures down to zero or less, and rising above 10°C only with difficulty. Despite gorgeous-looking sunny days, it seems more like winter than spring, although we hear our first Cuckoo of the year when we were walking the dog in the woods this morning.

Our new lawn is finally seeded however and, now that we have been to our second plant fair of the year, there is plenty of planting to be done. Today I concentrated on a sunny piece of border between the new lawn and the gravel terrace, at the edge of the White Garden. A Thyme collected in Spain now graces the junction between gravel and grass, swiftly followed by Cistus ladanifer bought at the Chateau de la Bourdaisiere plant fair from a couple of young nurserymen based in Cahors. We like their knowledge, enthusiasm and plant range. The Gum Cistus carries white flowers with crimson marks at the base of the petals and should look quite at home next to existing Santolina. We bought some bare-root Phlox yesterday including a white variety, the next plant in this new grouping and three Allium White Empress bulbs are now planted amongst the Santolina to give a little extra height. Finally for today, I lifted two, out of our three, white Hemerocallis (Daylilies), spreading them out to occupy part of the new space created by redefining the lawn. A very happy hour and a half was spent doing this and weeding the areas immediately around the new plants, but there is still plant of work to do in the White Garden.

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ attracting early Bumble Bees

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ attracting early Bumble Bees

Beyond this section we have created an oriental garden which has also benefited from the new lines of the lawn, with plenty of additional planting opportunities created. A Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’, smothered with white flowers, has already been planted and this is glowing in the spring sunshine. I have planted it to one side and in front of a large granite Japanese lantern. To the other side and further back, I have placed, but not yet planted, a Pieris with red flowers, labelled as Mountain Fire, a variety which features white flowers! I believe it is actually Valley Valentine. I am continually having arguments with French nurserymen about their labelling: no labels, poor labeling or incorrect labels are all too common here. Anyway, the plant looks good, with bamboo to one side, Japanese orchids and dwarf Rhododendron yakushimanum in front. It is also very close to a young plant of Magnolia Black Tulip which, with luck, will flower around the same time.

Pieris Valley Valentine, if I'm not mistaken

Pieris Valley Valentine, if I’m not mistaken

I have been hunting for two of the plants we bought yesterday for some time, although neither is particularly rare in English garden centres. Clematis macropetala is just coming into flower now: four lance-shaped petals an inch or two long and many smaller, blue or cream petal-like stamens in the centre, creating delightful semi-double bells. We haven’t decided where to plant it but we are so pleased to have it. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis is a dwarf evergreen shrub with superbly scented winter flowers. I’ll plant it in the bed next to the front door, to amaze our visitors. This has been on my wants list for ages so I am delighted to have found such a large, healthy specimen.

Much as I’d like to spend all day in the garden, I also have to prepare the classroom for the first of the years students, who arrives next week. We have been asked to put together a tailor-made, two week course for the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman, who would like to hone his skills in garden design and computer-aided design (CAD). I always look forward to welcoming fellow professionals on our courses, adapting the content around their existing skills and the training required. There is always a great deal of preparation to be done and in this case a number of Loire Valley garden visits will punctuate the course, giving additional insights into European gardens in all their many styles.

The first garden show of the year and other excitements

As spring takes hold of central France the season is confirmed by a flurry of garden and plant shows, not to mention all the local spring fairs and Easter events coming up at the end of the week. Of course I have chosen now, just when life is getting busy, to go down with a flu-like bug of some sort, which has put me to bed for one whole day and ruined my sense of humour for more than a week.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

There is no time to be ill so I have done my best to ignore it and last Friday attended a seminar with three dozen other gardeners and chateau owners at La Source, the marvellous public garden in the university district of Orleans. The subject of the day was colour theory and how it relates to the design of herbaceous and bedding plant displays. A couple of good speakers, one from parks and education and the other a plant producer, simplified a subject which is not always straightforward to explain and left the delegates eager to get to work producing new schemes for their respective towns and gardens. At La Source itself the Cherries were just starting to flower and there were huge areas of dwarf daffodils to admire.

march

A corner of the Cheverny plant fair

After another half day in bed to recover from my outing, we went to the chateau at Cheverny on Sunday for the first of the year’s plant fairs. The show is an annual charity event and well supported by both the public and the trade. As usual we bought a few plants, but not as many as I expected to. The tree surgeon we employed to care for our ancient Sequoias was on site demonstrating his skill with a chain saw, producing sculptures from huge pieces of wood, the waste from his previous weeks work maintaining trees in the park of the chateau.

Chain saw art

Chain saw art

Next weekend is Easter, with events all over the region. We have been invited to more vineyard open days than we can possibly take in and the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisiere. Then there is the unmissable annual Poulain Donkey Fair and a host of other events all conspiring to keep me from working in the garden, where there is so much to do!

Spring? Surely…..?

Crocus in the Loire

Crocus, fresh up today.
These are cheering up an area of Iris germanica which are barely showing a sign of life.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day here in the Loire Valley, with temperatures up to 19°C at the (south facing) back of the house and 10°C in the shade at the front, after a frosty start.

Hundreds of Canada Geese are flying up the river to find an attractive feeding spot for the evening, huge, noisy V-formations passing overhead every half hour or so. Buds are swelling and the first few spring-flowering plants are making an appearance – we have Crocus flowers to admire today, adding their weight to the Witch Hazel, the Hellebores and other brave souls which have heralded this current spring awakening.

Snowdrops are still doing well, as here, under the Japanese Maple

Snowdrops are still doing well, as here, under the Japanese Maple

This morning I was chatting to the local Pear expert, out in the orchard attending to the pruning of his collection, the largest in Europe in spite of reducing the numbers last year; tomorrow I am taking a group of American tourists to see the vineyards, where the pruning is mostly finished but the tying-in has still to be done. We will be visiting (and tasting) a number of Loire Valley appellations in our day trip: Touraine Mesland, where we have an appointment with a bio-dynamic grower, my favourite Vouvray producer, the wine co-op at Montlouis-sur-Loire, the new appellation of Touraine-Chenonceau and the Touraine itself. It should be a very entertaining series of visits.

An interesting colour break on our Daphne odora. I will try to put some roots on it later and see if we can produce a new variety.

An interesting colour break on our Daphne odora. I will try to put some roots on it later and see if we can produce a new variety.

Here in the garden I am about to sow the new lawn having cultivated the soil again on Saturday (I have the blisters to prove it!). There is so much to do to prepare the garden for the new season and as always there is a hold up in the propagation of bedding and vegetables as seedlings take their time to grow to a size where I am happy to remove them from the propagator. I’m trying not to panic. We have added to the complications this year by advertising our apartment to the holiday-seeking world, and as guests expect access to the swimming pool all the corners where I usually throw the junk have to be urgently tidied. There is a door to put on the garden shed, a gate to erect to secure the pool and huge amounts of useful materials to move to new homes (tell me where!) so that in a few years they can be moved again, dumped or burned.

The gardening weather today will be…….not what you expect.

Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan taken yesterday

The weather continues to dominate the conversations of country folk, gardeners and it would seem, almost everyone else. Our honey man tells me there will be no spring harvest for him because the Robinia flowers frosted and died. A favourite vineyard has lost 100% of this year’s crop before the plants even had a chance to flower; winegrowing is a precarious business at the best of times with countless factors affecting quality and quantity, but this year is a disaster for many producers. Gardeners who learn to expect the unexpected are rarely disappointed.

Last weekend was Les Saints de Glace here in France, and everyone knows to wait until these days have passed before planting out their vegetables. The feast days of St Mamert, St Pancrace, St Servais – 11th, 12 and 13thMay – traditionally mark the end of night frosts and gardeners were out all over the village getting tomatoes into the ground, planting in neat rows between marigold plants to keep away the insect pests. The Church vacillates uncomfortably when faced with these ostensibly pagan rites, to the extent that the Vatican changed the saint’s days in 1960, but the tradition continues regardless.

Viburnum sargentii Onondaga at Drulon

The gardeners at the Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan and at Les Jardins de Drulon were all complaining about the unseasonal weather when we dropped in on them today, although as Piet Hendriks pointed out, when we bring our tour guests next week they will be able to see the Peonies which would normally be finished. They grow more than 300 varieties at Drulon so it would be a shame to miss them. These two stunning gardens will be highlights of our, Loire Valley Gardens tour next week, a trip I am looking forward to with eager expectation; given the late season though, the June trip ( 12th – 19th ) should be truly splendid as well.

The mediaeval castle at Culan, Cher, France

On the way home we drove via Culan, with its mediaeval castle overlooking the river Arnon. It has mediaeval-style gardens, but is not on the agenda this time. We walked along the river (only six salmon per day may be taken) and the dog went for a swim before we drove back, checking village restaurants for future trips, dodging rain storms and police radar controls at the beginning of this long bank holiday weekend.

The world’s worst landscape customer, Lily Beetles and the writings of Henry Mitchell.

Clematis Ville de Lyon.
Our plant for the week 20 on Pinerest:
http://pinterest.com/pin/254875660131789636/

I’ve built a lot of gardens over the years, as a garden designer and owner of a two landscape companies. I don’t have the figures to hand but basic mental arithmetic puts the total built at around 500, while we have designed perhaps three times that.

Some of the people we worked for were not nice, some were dishonest and others unreasonably demanding. But the worst client ever? It could be me!

Iris Frost ‘ n’ Flame, one of the twenty or so varieties of Iris germanica we have in flower at the moment.

The problem is I know too much. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, if a landscaper makes a mistake I can see it easily. While customers may complain about little things, they very often miss the fundamental errors which, in the case of our companies, I like to think I would spot and have corrected before any harm was done. Sometimes garden builders and landscapers will try to explain away the problems, justifying them, excusing them or denying they exist. We have years of experience behind us and can see through all that. That’s great if you are employing me to look out for your interests, but a disaster waiting to happen if you are working for us. I say “us”, but my wife is being much more mature and reasonable.

The Garden Design Academy and Les Sequoias, our B&B, are currently having a swimming pool built and I am not enjoying the process one little bit. I moan, I complain, I ask difficult questions, I get in the way. I know it’s not helpful but I just can’t stop myself. The French in general have a view about dealing with customers which is quite foreign to anything my clients expect and demand. I love it here, so I am reluctant to support the Anglo-Saxon stereotyping of the French by describing all of our problems, but I had hoped for a bit more service and consideration when I am spending my hard-earned cash with a company.

I mention all this mainly to address those of you who run businesses, and we have many students who do just that or will do so in the near future. I suggest they try to look at their operations from the point of view of a client. Are you welcoming, professional and transparent in what you are offering? Is your brochure easy to understand, your garden centre easy to navigate, your products easy to purchase? Have you thought about who your clients are and how you should address them, communicate with them, and explain things to them? Are you, your staff, your establishment and your marketing materials user-friendly? Do your products live up to the sales literature; can you do what you promise to do, on time and at a reasonable price?

Geranium Johnson’s Blue with Hostas in our woodland garden

From my point of view, what this swimming pool company lacks is a single point of reference for a client; someone who is in charge of every aspect of the job, can ensure that it is done well and that the client is kept fully informed. This person needs to be on site regularly. Teams of expert installers come and go seemingly at random – a day here, two days next week and three days the week after that. Most of them seem competent enough and reasonable friendly, but lacking hands-on leadership. We see minor and serious errors occur with each visit, and have to point them out ourselves. My wife spotted early on that the built-in stairway was installed in the wrong corner, averting the most serious mistake before it became too costly to correct. We have to repeat instructions and warnings to every team that walks in the door and I have lost count of the number of times I have asked them to be careful with our plants, only to watch them being buried under tons of earth, run over by machinery or trodden underfoot. I’m a nervous wreck now and can’t wait for them to go!

There is a place for human and other resource efficiencies and cost-saving business strategies, but when these interfere with good customer relationships it is time to reconsider your options. Do it anyway, on a regular basis and before minor irritations become magnified over time and customers are lost to more considerate competitors. At least the French don’t kill my plants and then demand Hobnobs with their tea!

***********

Lilium regale in flower last year

This is an incredibly busy time in the garden with seed to sow, seedlings to care for and pot on, tidying up the borders and lawns and weeding, weeding, weeding. A regular job cannot be ignored at this time of the year however busy one is. Every day, two or three times a day, we go hunting for Lily Beetles. This bright red beasties will eat every morsel of lily leaf they can find and must be collected and dispatched by hand, before they can do too much damage. It’s worth it, not only for the sake of the Lilies: if you have to deal with the larvae, disgusting things covered in their own excrement, the task is far worst. Those who grow a few Lilies and do not know this pest should look it up in gardening books or on the internet; I tried taking a photograph for this blog post, but they move as soon as they sense your presence. It is important to say that while all these tasks keep a gardener rushing around from one side of the garden to the other, time should always be found to admire the flowers which are everywhere at this time of the year. If not for pleasure, what is a garden for?

***********

We do not always receive as much response to these ramblings as I would like, but one recent comment on Cannas quoted the American garden writer Henry Mitchell. I was so intrigued by the remark that I ordered a copy of The Essential Earthman and have really enjoyed that gardener’s insights and observations. A real plantman, I have found myself reaching for the RHS Encyclopaedia several times to check on plants he recommends or otherwise. I like him, but suspect he was not always easy to get on with. He died on November 12th 1993, before I could read his articles “live”.