French Christmas garden flowers and Gingko from seed.

It’s that time again; these days I tend to get fewer toys as gifts so while the kiddies are playing with theirs, I have taken myself out into the fresh air, a glass of Vouvray in one hand and a pen and paper in the other, to compile my ‘in-flower’ list for Christmas 2013.

This year is better than last, with 15 plants in flower on Christmas Day compared to 11 in 2012, but cannot compare to the whopping 31 plants seen in 2011. Those of you with larger, more established gardens will not be impressed, but I’m quite pleased. The error I continue to make is not to group some of these plants together, so that real floral impact is never really achieved: I need a winter garden.

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

The house is a riot of colour with the orchids in particular performing well. Out in the garden several herbaceous plants, grown from seed over the last few years, are also performing: Digitalis, Penstemon, Wallflowers and even Stocks have blooms in greater or lesser quantities. As you might expect, Helleborus nigra, the Christmas rose, is looking good in the bed by the front door. We finally bought a Mahonia media Charity last year and this has rewarded us with its first flower spike. Nearby, Jasminium nudiflorum is showing plenty of colour against the boiler-house wall.

Erica – white Heather

Less probable, Hebe Great Orme is covered in flowers and I found one yellow bloom on our Buddleja weyeriana. The dainty red climbing Rose Amadeus also has a couple of flowers. The white border offers a couple of plants: Erica Springwood White has masses of flowers while Viburnum burkwoodii is putting on a brave show with a handful. Over the other side of the garden our Arbutus, severely cut back by the cold winter of a couple of years ago, has formed a nice evergreen bush with plenty of lily-of-the-valley style blooms. Viburnum tinus, bought last year to hide the bins in the front garden, is covered with flat heads of flower.


Our son graced us with his presence over Christmas and we took the opportunity to pack in a bit of tourism, visiting amongst other things, the wonderful apothecary museum in the 16th century hospital buildings at Issoudun. Outside in the gardens the ground beneath a tree was covered in fruits, which at first I took to be Mirabelle plums. On closer inspection the tree turned out to be a Gingko, beneath which was a huge quantity of off-yellow fruits. I took out a plastic bag and greedily began removing the stone seed from inside the soft, smelly fruit, quickly gathering a few dozen.

Ginkgo biloba is a tree whose leaves increase circulation in the brain. It is a popular herb in Chinese medicine and has been linked to improving memory and cognitive functions. The unique fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree make it a popular ornamental as well. In the autumn these turn bright butter yellow before falling but fruits are only produced on female plants. I have seen in excess of 50 cultivars listed and no doubt there are many more: not bad for a plant which was thought to be extinct until discovered by Engelbert Kaempfer in around 1700.

Ginkgo fruits - Issoudun

Ginkgo fruits – Issoudun

The germination of ginkgo is a little tricky, but there are a few tips that will increase your success. Freshly picked seeds are covered in a somewhat malodorous fruit. The ginkgo fruit contains small levels of urushiol, a skin irritant that is found in poison ivy and poison oak. No-one told me this and my hands were covered in blisters by the end of the day. Ginkgo biloba seeds have a long germination period and a tendency to pick up mould on the outer shell. Carefully cleaning the shells with a mild bleach solution will help.

Germination is encouraged by both stratification and scarification, so seeds are often left in pots of sand for the winter or put in the refrigerator. They are then either chipped with a sharp knife or filed with sandpaper to allow moisture to more easily penetrate the hard outer shell, before sowing in a well-drained compost in the spring.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Early spring gardens in the centre of France

Such an exciting time of the year this; every day when we tour the garden or are out and about with the dog, there are signs of movement in the gardens and countryside. Our own young garden is now alive with Crocus and Snowdrops, while many other bulbs are pushing their shoots up out of the ground. Shrubs and herbacious plants are starting into growth and there are a few buds and blossoms here and there.

Viburnum x bodnantense

Viburnum x bodnantense. A dark form grown in a few Chabris gardens.

We certainly do not have enough winter and spring flowering plants in the garden but the construction of a front wall has opened up many more planting opportunities and I am sure this will be corrected in time. I have my eyes on a lovely dark form of Viburnum x bodnatense, scented, of course, growing in three or four locations around the village. The flowers aredeeper than I am used to but perhaps it’s Dawn or perhaps a French variety. If anyone knows I’d be pleased to hear about it. One of the local specimens has a good sucker or layer just waiting for a new home!

Our Snowdrops are charming but nothing can compare to the sight of them growing under trees in large quantities. The local mill, now beautifully restored and used for sculpture, painting and other art courses, has hundreds of thousands of them in flower at the moment. I keep recieving emails from English gardens inviting me to see the Snowdrops and the NGS web site lists many more open to the public at this time of the year. Worth a trip out, I would have thought.

Scent and Spring seem to go together as the few flowering plants compete for the available pollenating insects. Our new Daphne odora Aureomarginata was planted by the door to the log cabin classroom and is just starting to give off its perfume, a reward for making it to the end of the garden on a grey day like today. I was in the classroom this morning, having lugged the big HP plotter down from the attic to be available for students to print out their work later in the season. There is another to bring down and install once my back has recovered from lifting the first one.

Snowdrops at Chabris Mill

The completion of the log cabin, the new front wall and the approaching spring have all encouraged me to get serious about the garden once more. I am discovering however, that I am not as young as I once was and the work, some of it very physical, is having to be spaced out across the week. Between student marking, updating the Academy web site, creating a new site on French gardens and a fair bit of home DIY, I am digging beds, moving plants and planting. Cracking out an old concrete path edge and drain has given me impressive blisters but who knows, if it doesn’t kill me I might find I get fit. “Everything in moderation” as French TV adverts  like to say when warning us about the evils of alcohol. Personally,  I could do with a decent drink after an exhausting afternoon digging, and France is the ideal place to be if you like a tiple in the evening.

Happy gardening, but take it gently and I’ll try to do the same.