Troglodyte flower show in central France

Villentrois mushroom cave

At the end of a beautiful, warm and sunny autumn week, we decided to visit the tiny village of Villentrois, near Valencay, at the northern tip of the Indre department. The village (population 625) had a thriving mushroom growing industry until recently, utilising the caves created during the excavation of Tuffeau limestone for building materials. The whole village, including the ancient castle, is made of this soft white stone and it has been used for restoration work on the great chateau at Chambord and other historic buildings.

One of these old mushroom caves is now a village hall and hosts events including the annual flower show, held this weekend. It is a happy, unpretentious affair attracting locals and day-trippers from further afield, who can also eat a hearty meal from tables set up for the purpose in one of the larger galleries. The school children and the library construct themed floral exhibits and local nurserymen, landscapers, florists, producers and artists sell their wares from decorated stands in corners around the caverns. The walls and ceilings are decked in foliage and fairy lights while the pathways are lined with flowers, softening the chilly atmosphere. Chelsea it is not, but it brings a smile to the faces of the visitors and on such a lovely Sunday afternoon it was certainly drawing in the crowds.

Floral display in the mushroom caves

Mushrooms are still produced in the artificial caves of the region, although it is not the cottage industry it once, deferring to the more efficient industrial producers who make up the bulk of my students on the Garden Design Academy Mushroom Growing course. We have had some interest in it recently from English owners of houses in France who, discovering they have a mushroom cave or troglodyte shed in the back garden, decide to make use of it. The French are generally keen to support local growers, so some have found a profitable niche market, selling to restaurants or shops and keeping the food miles down. These caves are ideal for mushroom production, but also make great wine cellars for much the same reason: the rock caverns provide very stable temperatures and great insulation. Some are lived in and they can make very cosy dwellings.

Carving the tuffeau stone

Mushrooms have been the subject of much debate in the gathering places of the area this week. The woods outside Valençay have become temporary home to more than 50 caravans, as gypsies arrive from around the country to hunt for wild mushrooms, especially Boletus edulus – the Cep. Selling at around 25 Euro a kilo and up to twice that in Paris, they are being collected by the lorry full to sell in the capital, damaging large areas of private and public woodland in the process. Given that these woods are important sources of revenue as hunting grounds in addition to the timber and associated products, a serious conflict could be on the way. We discreetly collected a few Ceps on the way home, but in quantities unlikely to upset the natural balance of the woods, or the tempers of the landowners.

Gardening gifts (or the gift of gardening)

Heaven knows I do my best! I get up in the morning, full of enthusiasm for the tasks I have planned for the day, but so often it all goes delightfully wrong.

Lilac flowering today

Take yesterday for example; we received a telephone message telling me to rush ’round to a neighbour who has something for me. The poodle and I set off on our normal afternoon walk in the countryside; a couple of swims for her and a bag full of wild asparagus shoots for me, we eventually arrive at our friends house to see what all the fuss is about. I was given a spade and a fork and ordered to start digging. This grape vine would be better in our garden than hers; that Pomegranate is one of ten she rooted a couple of years ago and we should have it; it’s good luck to have Lily of the Valley so here is a huge bundle of the pink form and finally, the “piece de resistance”, a clump of the hardy orchid Bletilla striata for our Oriental garden. Of course I lifted and replanted a cherry tree for her, staying long enough to exchange views on various local builders and put the world to rights over a cup of tea. Life does not get much better than this for a gardener but it doesn’t get the work done!

The day before was much the same when half way through the morning walk the dog decided to go off on a tangent to visit another gardening friend. She greeted us warmly and demanded we stay for coffee and gateau, not allowing us to go us go until I had knocked in support canes for her Dahlias and taken a few pots of her Coeur de Beuf tomatoes. She would not accept cherry tomatoes in return and is reserving the right to refuse chilli peppers.

The weather has been splendid for a month or more with summer temperatures this spring reaching the high twenties and the season, according to local vineyard owners, around two weeks in advance. Plants are not sure what to make of it: we have daffodils and tulips flowering alongside wisteria, lilac and Cercis in a wild mix of spring and early summer blossom. Visit the garden twice in an hour and you can see the plants growing!

The English have their standard Roses, the French their standard Wisteria

The first buds of Iris germanica are showing and catalogues from top Iris grower Cayeux arrived this morning, one in French and another in English. I was pleased to see that one variety we bought from him a year ago – the deliciously named “Ravissant” – has won medals at three international shows. I’m becoming quite a fan of these lovely plants and we now have a collection of eight varieties from various sources. Cayeux lists 600 so we have a way to go yet, but plan to visit the nursery fields when they are in full flower sometime in May.

Student assignments for marking arrived by email today as they do most mornings, one (RHS Level 3 Certificate in the Principles of Plant Growth, Health and Applied Propagation) from Argentina and the other (Certificate in Garden Design) from Florida. I am enjoying this unexpected international aspect of our work, with students from every continent now choosing to work with us. Many come from the UK for our residential courses and we have just added two more to our web site: study tours of Loire Valley gardens and a Feng Shui garden design course offered in association with British expert Elizabeth Wells. Early indications suggest these will both be popular.

Back in the garden and we decided to construct a pergola screen using materials from the Dutch manufacturer Hillhout, our favourite supplier when we were landscapers in Hertfordshire. It seems to be a general rule that if a company has offices in several countries, the French office will be the least effective and again this seems to be true. No amount of emailing would elicit a response from the Hillhout agent to our sales enquiry and eventually we ordered the products through a local garden centre, using code numbers found on the internet. The pergola is slowly coming together, two or three posts a day, when I need a break from marking assignments. Today I managed to get the first plants in: Rose Amadeus (a superb modern climber from Kordes which bears trusses of deep ruby red flowers that are repeat flowering and have a light spicy scent) and Clematis Vivian Pennell (deep violet blue and one of the best doubles).

Chateau de Valencay

We were recently invited to the Chateau de Valençay by the tourist office for the opening of the new season. While there we enjoyed a tutored wine tasting of Valençay AOC wine and AOC goats cheese and were guided around the chateau vineyard by the head vigneron . He spent a good deal of time explaining how they reduce yields to improve quality, starting with the site selection (a sunny slope on clay soil with bands of flint and limestone), pruning (to slow the sap and reduce the number of fruiting shoots), allowing competing weeds to remove water and nutrients, fruit bunch removal (maximum of two bunches per shoot), leaf removal and even fruit thinning. Of course, no irrigation is allowed, pesticides are used only in extremis and fertilisers are organic. The results speak for themselves: we like the white, Sauvignon Blanc with 10% Chardonnay, very much.

Wedding anniversary and other tales of French gardening

It was our wedding anniversary yesterday so we decided to take the day off and visit the local chateau at Valençay. This palatial building was once the home of Prince Talleyrand, Minister of Foreign Affairs to Napoleon Bonaparte and used for both politics and pleasure: the King of Spain was imprisoned in Valençay in great style and comfort for six years and dinner parties for the illustrious were hosted here twice a week – Napoleon himself was not much of a party goer.

The chateau at Valencay

The chateau at Valencay

Marie-Antoine Carême, the famous nineteenth century celebrity chef and exponent of haut cuisine, cooked here for international royalty and the newly rich of Europe. Unfortunately he had long since departed, but we eat well in the orangery at lunchtime.

The day was outrageously warm but we toured both the house and the gardens, taking in the floral lawn in the English-style park and a newly created culinary herb garden. Valençay itself is an attractive, white stone town, famous for both its white wine (Sauvignon and Chardonnay) and its goats cheese, the latter in the form of a truncated pyramid, the top originally removed it is said, to avoid offending Napoleon who had lost Egypt in a failed military campaign. A rich cake in the same shape is made in the town and reserved by us for special days like this.

The overly hot weather was broken last night by a series of violent storms, a weather pattern repeated several times this summer; dramatic stuff in a region better known for its gentle climate. The rain has been very welcome however and results in excellent crops of fruit and vegetables which have been popular with our guests. Breakfast jams are made from local cherries, strawberries, apricots, peaches, plums and other fruits, many given to us by neighbours while our own newly planted bushes and trees grow to fruiting size. Some fruits: apricots, nectarines and eating grapes, are sitting in large pots awaiting a new planting spot once our log cabin is finally installed. I recently planted a Bramley, king of the cooking apples, to introduce the French, who love apple tarts, especially their famous local delicacy Tarte Tatin, to this culinary experience.

Salads come from the garden each lunchtime, with several varieties of tomatoes and lettuce grown amongst the flowers, giving a pleasing, cottage-garden effect. Diners also benefit from the vegetables in the garden, with green asparagus a particularly exciting find, a living memory of the previous owner from twenty years ago. We have added courgettes and sweet corn, annual crops which are so much tastier when freshly picked and cooked within minutes.

Lavatera Barnsley grown from a cutting given to us last year.

Our range of garden plants has been recently boosted by a trip to the UK. As always seems to be the way on these visits, we rushed around mixing personal with business matters. On this occasion we finally packing up our property in Bedfordshire, which had become an expensive liability rather than the useful bed for the night it was intended for. We managed to survey a garden for a client in Hertfordshire, visit Garden Design Academy students in Kent, talk to our bank in Harpenden, and buy a few dozen plants, while still finding time for a good pub lunch or two, one of the very few things we miss from our old life in England.

Our plant purchases were a strange mix of the unusual and the banal. Our garden of over 1,000 sq.m. had just two plants in it once the wilderness had been cleared: our priceless 150 year old Sequoias, after which we named the house. A few things have since pushed up to surprise us: wild orchids especially, but all the plants you might take for granted are missing.

Alchemilla mollis - begged from a student of the Garden Design Academy

We therefore find ourselves buying, or begging from friends, such common but essential plants as Alchemilla mollis, Potentilla Gibson’s Scarlet and herbaceous Geraniums. Recent purchases for the White Garden included good ol’ Potentilla fruticosa Abbotswood, “cheap as chips” Spiraea nipponica Snowmound and the rather invasive but pretty variegated grass Phalaris arundinacea Picta, while white Hebe Kirkii was also selected for this area.

On the other hand we returned with a number of plants which were new to me and would find a good home in the rapidly expanding garden: Salvia elegans Golden Delicious is a lovely dwarf foliage plant which we have planted close to shocking pink Lampranthus purpureus in a sunny border. We will need to take cuttings sometime soon to ensure we have plants next year – Salvia elegans is normally listed as tender and I expect this variety to be no different.

Salvia Golden Delicious

Another plant with yellow foliage has been planted in the shade of the Sequoias. Leycesteria formosa is becoming more popular but in my day was just used as shelter for game birds. With this new variety, Golden Lantern, I have been hooked and it has been given pride of place in the Oriental Garden, next to the Chinese granite lantern which I removed from our office show garden when we said goodbye to Hertfordshire. The flowers are fascinating, the foliage beautiful and the upright form a great contrast to more rounded bushes nearby.

Hibiscus Purple Ruffles “Sanchonyo” is a new variety to keep our China Chiffon company. Hibiscus syriacus are hardy shrubs (unlike H. Rosa-sinensis varieties which we grow as house plants) and come from China, India and in this case, Korea, where it is the national flower. Hibiscus are commonly grown as flowering hedges here in Chabris but our varieties are more exotic, double flowered forms, giving me an opportunity to show off when local gardeners visit. Hibiscus appreciates the sun and we have planted one in the gravel patio to the rear of the house where it benefits from reflective heat and light.

Hibiscus China Chiffon

I have learned, or been reminded of, a great gardening lesson this year: always give a plant a chance to recover. Several plants which we thought had not survived the winter and I might easily have consigned to the compost heap, are now growing strongly. I begged neighbours for Passion Flower seedlings because our P. “White Lightning” had apparently died. It is now has growth four metres long and is covered in flower buds. Lippia (Aloysia triphylla these days), grown for its lemon-scented, insect repelling foliage, had also been written off but is now doing well. Lagerstroemia, Fuchsia, Eucomis – the list of apparent winter casualties goes on – all saved by a decision to “wait and see”. I recommend it.

I have also rediscovered the joys of propagation. As a lad I entered a nationwide Propagator of the Year competition and did very well. Later, when I was selling plants and gardens rather than growing them, the craft lost its attraction for me and I preferred the instant gratification of buying my plants. Now I am taking cuttings regularly, mostly under plastic bag cloches scattered around the garden, but I also have a large heat controlled propagator in the loft. This little toy, bought at some expense from Thompson and Morgan Seeds in France, has so far been used just for seeds but is available to produce large quantities of rooted cuttings when called to do so. Many of our new plants are on a mental cuttings list, giving me the chance to give away a few unusual plants to gardening friends. Equally, there are a few interesting plants in parks and gardens locally I have my eyes on – if you spot a wild man with secateurs creeping around at night, please don’t call the gendarme, it may be me!