New Year, new season

Ahtirrhinum Purple Twist

Antirrhinum Purple Twist

Soon after the New Year celebrations had died down and well before we deposited the empties at the bottle-bank, we were sowing seeds for the new gardening season. Up in the loft under the skylight, where we keep the heated propagation unit, we now have trays full of seedlings of Salvia farinacea Victoria, Petunia F1 Reflections Mix (Suttons Seeds) and Red Hot Pokers. I always used to think of Antirrhinums as being something rather old-fashioned but have been won over by a new variety – Axiom mixed, which we have grown for three years running now and Purple Twist, both from T&M.

Foxglove Silver Cup

Foxglove Silver Cup

We have grown different varieties of Foxgloves each year to plant in the shadier parts of the garden, particularly under the Sequoia, and have selected yet another from this year’s T&M catalogue: Silver Cup, with soft hairy silver foliage and white flowers. You will have noticed a few perennials in this list and we will be sowing many more; a fabulously inexpensive way to populate a new garden.

Our seed propagation unit is a little bit of an embarrassment which I hope never to have to show our students or gardening friends, but it does work. It consists of a little polythene tent erected on a trestle table under a Velux window in the loft. I have added supplementary lighting made from spotlights reclaimed from the kitchen when that part of the house was remodelled. A foil heating unit covered with sand warms the base of the seed trays to give good temperatures and moist air for germination. It’s all a bit Heath Robinson – System D, as they say in France – but I recently read an advertisement for a complete growth room offered for €10 on a web site where people sell unwanted goods. This unit would cost around €800 when new, being the sort of equipment people use to grow Cannabis in their spare bedrooms, so I imagine the price was an error. You never know your luck however, so I have emailed the seller in the hope of acquiring a much more sophisticated unit. When I look back at the huge computer-controlled growth rooms we built when we ran a commercial seedling and young plant nursery in the UK many years ago, I cannot help but smile. Of course, we were also buying Begonias in 100,000-seed containers in those days!

Nerium oleander


Last week we decided to combine a food shopping trip with a visit to a local garden centre which was advertising a sale. Amongst other things – seed compost, for example – we came back with two Oleander bushes and a large variegated Hebe: all at €2 each. I was delighted with these purchases, but you do have to be careful: I have noticed more than a few Vine Weevil infected plants offered as “bargains” in such sales. The Oleanders are now in the unheated conservatory waiting for warmer weather. They’ll be great in big pots on the terrace this summer.

My big project for this year is the potager behind the Garden Design Academy classroom. The four raised beds in oak are now built and with spare soil left over from these beds I intend to build another alongside a neighbour’s wall. This time we will construct it from woven poles of Hazel, secured with pegs of Robinia, all to be cut from the surrounding countryside. Slowly the garden is developing and I am particularly pleased to deal with this area as it is seen from the main window of the classroom. Already locals are asking why I did not build a French Garden with beds of Box. Firstly of course, it is a French garden, but medieval in style rather than renaissance. Secondly, pests and diseases of Box are threatening this fundamental feature of French gardens and I have no wish to deal with the issue when, inevitably, it arrives chez nous. Three Peaches have been planted, along with an English Bramley apple and a cutting of a hybrid berry from my old Granny’s garden. In addition I have acquired a large collection of vegetable seeds from Sutton’s and T&M seeds ready to sow when conditions are appropriate; I’m beginning to get very excited.

The first frosts of autumn 2012.

After a very mild period the warm air has rushed back down to North Africa or wherever it came from, leaving a vacuum to be filled by cold winds from the far north of Europe and Russia. The Mediterranean regions have been experiencing violent storms and rain in unreasonable quantities (“a month’s rain in an hour” and similar phrases are frequently heard on weather reports) confirming the wisdom of our choice of region to settle in. Not for us the extremes of other parts of France. In the meantime the east coast of the United States is being battered by hurricane Sandy.

Autumn colour from Rhus in a garden in Chabris, central France

The first frost last night touched some of the more tender plants and I have been out collecting pots from the garden and putting them under cover, either in the unheated conservatory at the front of the house or in the cabin in the back garden. Here, I have constructed a bench from an old cupboard door laid over a couple of desks, in front of a large, south facing window. Electric heaters should keep plants cosy at around 12°C over winter: ideal from Geraniums, Fuchsias, Salvias, Brugmansia, Abutilon and the like, of which we have plenty.

Our so-called hardy banana has been wrapped up in straw and fleece in an attempt to keep it alive out-of-doors. Time will tell if this was the wisest approach. It is also time to lift the Dahlias and Cannas to get them stored in boxes of leaf mould away from the cold for the season. Dahlias will often overwinter in the ground here – we generally leave Gladioli in the beds too – but I have also lost a few. Perhaps this technique of lifting and overwintering will ensure greater survival rates.

Thompson and Morgan have suggested in a recent newsletter that gardeners should be sowing seeds of perennials now, leaving them to germinate in a cold-frame. I shall have a look to see what packets of seed I might have and give this a go. I have collected Lilium regale seed as I did last year and have it in mind to sow a few ornamental grasses like Purple Millet, but I may have to fight off the birds feeding on the seed-heads! Our old conservatory should serve very well as a cold-frame.

Pyracantha berries sparkling in the clear autumn sun today.

It’s turning into a very good year for Pyracantha this year, with huge crops of berries in a range of bright colours on plants throughout the town. We have just one named hybrid in the garden, which I am patiently training along an ugly concrete boundary fence, but several which have arrived as seedlings thanks to the gardening efforts of wild birds. The photograph is of one of a pair in an abandoned garden in the square close to our house. The other was eaten by a camel when the circus came to town, but is recovering well!. Red, orange and yellow berried forms can all be seen in local gardens and it is often used as a thorny boundary hedge. Mixed berry colour hedges can look particularly attractive but some care has to be exercised when pruning to ensure they produce flowers and berries.

Spring gardening in France -2012

Such a wonderful time of the year – spring – but it’s never easy to say when it has started and when it has finished.

Officially, the four seasons are determined by changing day-length, which is currently increasing by more than 20 minutes every week. This change is determined by how the earth orbits the sun and the tilt of its axis. On the first day of spring—the vernal equinox—day and night are each approximately 12 hours long; the actual point of equal day and night occurs in the Northern Hemisphere a few days before the vernal equinox. The sun crosses the celestial equator going northward; it rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west. The first day of summer—the summer solstice—is the longest day of the year, when the sun reaches its most northern point in the sky at mid-day. After this date, the days start getting shorter.

The first Primrose of spring

So, spring starts officially on Tuesday March 20th and ends Tuesday June 19th, but here in the centre of France the plants and birds beg to differ: they are pushing on regardless. We are having our lunches in the garden now, and the resident lizards are popping out at regular intervals to see it we drop anything. In the warmer gardens Primroses have started flowering and up in the greenhouse in the loft, seeds are germinating like there is no tomorrow. It’s all very exciting.

As usual I am growing more than we can cope with and as seedlings are ready they come down from the loft to the dining room windowsill and from there to a bench I have set up in the cabin by a big, south facing window. I am leaving the Begonias upstairs in the warm for a while yet but we have so far moved on a nice little selection of plants:

  • Geranium Moulin Rouge
  • Gazania Daybreak Tiger Stripe
  • African Marigold Golden Puff
  • Aubergene Amethyst
  • Antirrinum Axium and
  • Coleus Kong mix

Having completed the marking of student assignments for the day I have a little time to sow a few more trays or pots of seed and perhaps move one or two more down. Impatiens have germinated well and I am hoping my home grown plants will be successful. Impatiens downy mildew – Plasmopara obducens – is a new disease, found for the first time in the UK in 2003, which perhaps arrived on imported commercial propagation material (seed or cuttings). Controls have since been ineffective and 2011 was saw the biggest UK outbreak yet. While wholesale propagators like Ball/Colegrave are continuing to grow Impatiens in 2012, Thompson and Morgan will not be offering young plants and the DIY chain B&Q will not be selling their usual 20 million or so. They are encouraging customers to buy Petunias, Geraniums and Begonias instead but I refuse to be put off and will grow my own. No doubt I will be unbearably smug if all goes well and blame foreign imports if it doesn’t!

For those of you who follow these things, my plant of the week on Pinterest is the Daffodil, which have begun to flower again after last month’s cold spell.

The World’s most expensive Snowdrop

Just two weeks ago I made the Snowdrop our Plant of the Week on Pinterest and noted that new varieties can fetch very high prices.

Hot off the press comes news that yesterday, after a bidding frenzy involving 30 enthusiasts, Thompson & Morgan, the Ipswich based mail order plant and seed company, acquired the world’s most expensive snowdrop, Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ for £725. This is a unique and striking variety with a golden yellow ovary and yellow petal markings. The price is almost double the previous world record price for a single rare bulb of Galanthus ‘Green Tear’ sold for £360 last year.

Thompson & Morgan hopes to be able to reproduce this variety but  Galanthus are notorious for their slow rates of multiplication. They hope to be able to produce it in large numbers by tissue culture, as they did when they purchased the world’s first Black Hyacinth ‘Midnight Mystique’ in 1998 for £50,000 a bulb. It took 15 years before it was available to the general public and since that time demand has always outstripped stock.

Last year T&M sold over 1 million snowdrops; the stunning snowdrop Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ was named after the owner of the garden where it first appeared as a unique seedling in a Scotland a few years ago.

See for offers on Snowdrop bulbs (but not this one!)

Something for nothing again – Thompson & Morgan seeds.

I’m a great fan of growing plants from seed and have been using Thompson and Morgan in the UK for years. Now based in France, we use the T&M Worldwide site at from which this screenshot is taken and who have agreed to provide a prize to readers of this blog.

On offer is a £20 parcel of seeds including the T&M Flower of the Year and Vegetable of the Year as illustrated here.

To win this box of goodies please “Like” this blog post and leave a message including your email address, name and address and a winner will be picked out of the proverbial hat at the end of the month.

Thompson and Morgan would like to send you occasional newsletters and offers but please tell us if you do not want this and we’ll make sure you are not bothered.

I already have seedlings of Sweet Pea Ballerina but there is still plenty of time yet. The rest of my sowing will start in January, with the Begonias and Geraniums, using a heated propagator bought from T&M last year.

With the co-operation of suppliers I hope to regularly run competitions and give-aways, so have a go at this, our first and watch out for more in future posts.

To have a chance of winning this box of seeds please “Like” this blog post and leave a message including your email address, name and address and a winner will be picked out of the proverbial hat at the end of the month.

Fame (and fortune?) for A Garden in France

A month or so ago I took part in a telephone interview with freelance writer & editor Eleanor O’Kane who was researching ex-pat blog writers in France. The result was this article in the December issue of Living France magazine.

I blog to promote our various businesses, to educate and inform the gardening world and as a place to show off my plant photographs. Mostly I do it to amuse myself. I have made some great contacts with amateur enthusiasts and professional growers, designers or artists as a result and on occasions I receive interesting or supportive comments; mostly I receive spam. It’s a funny business, this blogging: a bit like writing a diary and leaving it open for people to read. I’ve been doing it for many years now.

Completely new to me is Facebook, Twitter and the other ‘social media’, as I gather they are called. This blog is forwarded to our pages on a whole host of these sites but I have never really got to grips with them. I recently realised that I had two Facebook accounts, one with a silly photo and one slightly more sensible and that posts seemed to be going to one or the other, seemingly at random. I have therefore deleted one account to concentrate on the remaining one and set up an additional page for the Garden Design Academy. I have probably offended and alienated dozens of “friends” in the process.

Having created the Academy Facebook Page, I now need to work out what to do with it. I have never been shy about promoting the Academy in this blog, but it seems to me that the Facebook page should be much more focused and serious, concentrating on courses and distance learning in the horticultural and gardening industries, rather than the trivialities of my daily life. We’ll have to settle down and plan the thing but one thought is a discounted “course of the month” feature. People like something for nothing, as I have already observed in these pages.

If anyone knows about these things and is inclined to tell me about them, I am sure I will be grateful. In the meantime there is, as always, gardening to be done.

Hidden in a box somewhere is a copy of the Unwin’s guide to growing Sweet Peas and I am sure, had I managed to find it, it would have recommended winter sowing. The idea of this is to have well established plants ready for planting out as early as possible and is the technique used by all exhibition growers of sweet peas. Seeds have a tough outer casing and to assist germination I left them in a glass of warm water over night. The following day I sowed them in seed compost, three to a pot, and placed them in a heated propagator.

Sweet Pea Balerina Blue

Last year we had great success with Ballerina Blue, a new variety from Thompson and Morgan, so this year we are trying their Flower of the Year: Sweet Pea ‘Prima Ballerina’ and White Supreme, destined for the wall of our White Border. Once germinated I shall be growing them on slowly to create stocky, well rooted plants for planting out in the spring.

Autumn colour, autumn harvest

Autumn has crept gently into central France, producing muted colours with fiery highlights rather than the dazzling displays of less mild years.

Some trees and shrubs dropped their foliage at the first sign of a frost while others, confused by the warm, wet spell that followed, have hung on for another month or more, before dropping in a desultory, half-hearted and uninspiring fashion.

Every now and then however, I am stopped in my tracks by a spectacular sighting of a single Gingko or maple tree, a whole bank of Rhus or Cotinus, or a patch of forest oaks. Then Camus’s line: “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, makes sense again.

Autumn colour is one of the great features of this season and in many countries a tourist trade has developed around its arrival. In our mild climate we are never treated to stunning displays like those in parts of the United States or China, extending over hundreds of miles and involving millions of plants, but we have our moments. Nearly one third of the land area of France is covered in trees, an area of woodland six times greater than those of the UK. When one of the great French woodland regions gets autumn colour just right, it is a sight to be seen!

Plane bark and autumn colour

In deciduous trees and shrubs the production of green chlorophyll drops away with falling autumn light levels, while other plant pigments contained in a leaf – yellow, orange or red depending on the chemical involved – are on the increase as plant sugars concentrate. A crisp, sunny autumn will produce the best leaf colours and we have hopes of a decent end-of-season display in this part of the world is this weekend, when fine weather is forecast. Already the days are superb, despite ugly conditions on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and we were out picking mushrooms in the woods this morning.

Berries, fruits and seeds are the other big feature of the season and this year I have been collecting some of our own to sow alongside those we are buying from the seed companies. More for fun than in any great hope of success I have sowed a pod of Lilium regale Album, which has rewards my efforts by producing seedlings in their dozens. Spurred on by this, I have since sowed Salvia argentea seeds and have a pod of Fritillaria imperialis on my desk awaiting its turn.

I am a great fan of allowing plants to self-seed but sometimes the results are disappointing, either not germinating or being ruined by my over-zealous weeding of the garden. We have had many successes however; Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings replaced an original plant which died after the first year, Verbena bonariensis is gradually establishing itself around one end of a sunny bed and many plants appear spontaneously in our gravel patio. As with outdoor cuttings, I often sow seeds I have harvested at the base of the parent plant, if only to be able to find them later. I am beginning to think that if I really want success I should be sowing in seed trays either in the garden or under cover, as I do with those I buy in packets. Some of the more simple bedding plants – Calendula, Opium Poppies and Nigella – do very well however, needing weeding out when they begin to take over.

Calendula - one of our more beautiful "weeds"

Our second delivery of packet seeds arrived today, this time from Suttons. These included a Banana, Ensete ventricosum, from their Eden Project range. I have only once, many years ago, had success with Banana and last years’ seeds (of E. glaucum) from Thompson and Morgan yet again failed to germinate. The species I have bought this time is African rather than south Asian and said to be hardier. Packets come with instructions to soak in warm water for 24 hours and I did this immediately, aware that they need to be sown at the earliest opportunity. I have found, by the way, a site “dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of the tropics in inappropriate climates” called, which is amusingly written and full of sensible advice on a range of plants, including this one. I now understand that Bananas need temperatures of around 30°C to grow and I may not have provided this in the past. No criticism intended T&M!

Missed opportunities and great potential.

My wife and I have wasted the whole day fighting with Dell, the supplier of our PC’s – not the way a gardener should be spending such a lovely, sunny day. I won’t bore you with all the facts, but after a hard disc failure on my wife’s machine, Dell seem to be doing everything they can not to honour the 24-hour repair warranty we were persuaded to take out. The latest tale is that while they will repair it free of charge, we have to purchase a new copy of Windows 7, the operating system without which the PC will not function. It’s a bit like buying a plant at the garden centre, roots not included!

This has not helped our sense of humour or improved our sun tan. In the meantime not only did the Courson Plant Fair come and go without us overspending, or indeed attending, we also seemed to have missed the Chestnut season; how could this be? Gardening works with the seasons if it works at all – if you sit too long in the shade, the summer will just pass you by – you have been warned by one who knows!

Fortunately there are suppliers out there who can be relied upon and the loud thud which accompanies the arrival of the seed catalogues is enough to galvanise even the most lackadaisical and distracted into action.

Big Begonias growing with Petunias in our garden

Over the years I have noticed a change, discreet at first but now gathering momentum, as the seedsmen increasingly sell their more interesting varieties as young plants rather than seed. This is difficult for us, as most UK companies will not post to France. There is good reason for this; our testing of grafted tomatoes was ruined by the condition of the plants on arrival: only two out of nine survived. A trial of a new variety of Begonia was similarly blighted (although I maintain the grower was also at fault, a theory firmly disputed by the company concerned). Benary’s Begonia “Big” has finished the season on a high, but taken most of the year to recover from the damage inflicted by the journey from the UK.

Commercial growers and parks departments have been utilising seedlings and young plants for twenty years and most now leave this stage to the specialists. Many years ago we had a 6 acre glasshouse nursery providing this service on behalf of a French seed company. At the home gardener level, tricky and expensive plants like F1 Begonia, Geranium and Impatiens are important seedling / plug subjects, but the range available is increasing at a pace.

Plugs and seedlings

The Dobies catalogue features 25 pages of flowers and 11 pages of vegetables offered as young plants, in addition to bulbs and fruit plants. Suttons also list more than 26 pages of flowers and vegetable plants, while Thompson and Morgan have them scattered throughout their catalogue. As the nature of their customers’ changes from garden enthusiasts to a much wider public and gardening skills diminish, this convenient and profits-enhancing development is sure to evolve.

T & M was the first of these catalogues to arrive and my order was sent by email a while ago. We do not yet grow a wide range of vegetables as, for the moment at least, we don’t have a lot of space for a proper veg garden and those we do grow are scattered amongst the ornamental plants. We like our tomatoes however and Sungold, Suncherry and Sungella are our choices for next seasons salads. Courgettes do well here but the plants take up too much space for my liking. This year we will try the F1 hybrid Defender, which I gather is a much more compact plant and less likely to give us marrow-shaped fruits of the variety we grew this year. Lettuce Lettony is a new variety I thought worth a try. I am hoping the promise of being resistant to bolting holds true as we had too much of that this season. Golden Berry Little Lanterns completes our selection and I hope it will do well out of doors: we used to grow them in the greenhouse and I love both the look and taste.

Gaura lindheimeri

In flowers, we are trying a mixture of easy and challenging subjects, including a few herbaceous perrenials like Eryngium, Gaillardia, Gaura lindheimeri and Lupins. New this year is Sweet Pea Prima Ballerina, Papaver Pink Fizz (two-tone pink with frilly edges) and Godetia Rembrandt, while Calendula Chrysantha is a variety which dates from the 1930’s. We are trying some tuberous Begonias from seed in addition to double Impatiens and award-winning Geranium Moulin Rouge. We are growing Antirrhinum Axiom mixed and Sunflower for cut flowers, with Sweet Pea White Supreme in the white border.

As I write, Chantal is studying the other catalogues.