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.

Early autumn in the Loire Valley

It seems just yesterday, and is actually not much more than two weeks ago, that I was swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean and eating breakfast on the sun-terrace overlooking the harbour on the presqu’île de Giens. Today in the centre of France it is feeling very autumnal: damp and cool, with the sun struggling to burst out of the clouds and a temperature hovering around 20° C. I know; I expect no sympathy from the English!

Grapes ready for the harvest at the vineyard of Chenenceau chateau

Actually I like autumn or, to be more precise, I love the seasonal changes throughout the year and autumn is no exception. In the vineyards of the Touraine it is harvest time and every village you drive through smells of grape juice and wine. I have visited quite a few recently and in spite of a difficult growing year, the excitement and optimism surrounding the “vendage” is palpable. Bernache, the partly fermented not-yet-wine, bubbling, cloudy and yeasty grape juice, is a wonderful seasonal treat here, sold in plastic water bottles – it would explode otherwise. It is drunk immediately it is drawn out of the vat, with roasted chestnuts and much good humour, despite having only 2% alcohol.

Wild Cyclamen carpet the ground in a local garden

There are plenty of summer flowers hanging on although the town has lifted most of its 20,000 bedding plants to prepare the ground for winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to take a few late cuttings before they did so but I do not expect a high rooting percentage at this stage in the season – plants are closing down for the year rather than rooting.

Autumn can be a colourful season, with leaf colour adding to the display both in the towns and the countryside. Under the trees in many gardens and parks the Cyclamen and Colchicum are in full flower.

Autumn is also one of the most important times of the year for planting hardy subjects and I am looking forward to the great buying opportunities at the famous Courson plant fair in a couple of weeks. At the local garden centre I spotted of fine batch of discounted Hydrangea paniculata Sundae Fraise, a compact variety growing to only 1m and with flowers which mature from white to deep pink. I bought a plant to get me in the planting mood.

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.

First post of a Gardener in France

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This Blog is written by Colin Elliott of the Garden Design Academy and rises, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of a number of similar blogs written over a period of nearly ten years.

After blogging my thoughts and posting hundreds of garden and plant photographs as a  garden designer, landscaper and horticulturist in the UK, the tone has now changed along with my new location in rural central France..

I trust  readers will enjoy what I have to offer, with it’s new French twist and more than a little support from le bon vin de la Touraine.

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