It’s not Spring ‘til the old lady says so.

I have been consulting the old folks in the village; “I’ve never seen the river so high”, I tell them. “The last flood was in February 2002”, they inform me, and go on to recount the tales of the River Cher flooding the park and all the houses on the low ground, regularly sealing the town off from the civilised world for a week or more. At the moment it is 45cm from ground level at the Ganguette, where they hold the weekly dances throughout the summer: I’ve measured it. Huge logs float down-stream in the churning, muddy waters and areas where we would normally walk the dog are impassable. We’ve had plenty of rain, but it’s the mountains to the south which are providing much of the flood waters and at the moment they are still rising.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel.

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Flowering in our garden now in Chabris, central France.

I have been able and prepared to do a little work outside in January and February in an attempt to stop the gardening tasks piling up and overwhelming me later in the spring, but I am under no illusions – it’s not Spring until the old folks say so. I am champing at the bit to get a new lawn sown but it is far too cold and wet for that. I have an area of sloping ground near the swimming pool to level, a raised vegetable bed to construct and a security gate to fix. All are on hold for the time being. Pruning and weeding has started and I am pleased with the progress I have made in tidying the place up. Upstairs in the loft, in a Heath-Robinson propagation unit I have installed under the skylights, I already have my first batches of bedding plant seedlings up and soon ready to prick out.

The poor weather and the cultivated space that will eventually become a lawn, both conspire to prevent me looking around the garden as often as I would wish but plants are growing and on my last hunt I discovered Snowdrops, Heathers, Hellebores and Witch-hazel in flower. It’s always a good idea to site winter flowering plants close to the house, so that they can be seen when it is inclement. I tell you this and it is a perfectly reasonable statement to make, but of course, in a perverse gardener’s logic, I place them away from the house to encourage me to search them out whatever the weather conditions.

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Château de Chevilly on a dull day in January

Although work for the Garden Design Academy and our many and various web sites keep me busy enough, I am using the quiet time of the year to get to know my fellow French gardeners. Having joined the APJRC, an association made up mainly of chateaux owners who open their gardens to the public, I am attending monthly tutorials led by the “names” of the French gardening world, who are teaching the rest of us the secrets of their art. Last month the lecture was given by a garden designer famous for her traditional and very formal chateaux gardens, Alix de Saint Venant, owner of the château de Valmer. I found her to be extremely competent and an excellent communicator, who discussed the design of large geometric gardens, making a number of interesting points about form, shape and perspective. She also talked about the choice of plants, trees in particular, when your vision of a garden includes the features the grandchildren will have to deal with when they, in their turn, take over the property. It is very different world view to that of the majority of my clients, who want a garden to look good immediately and may well have moved on in ten years’ time.

The lecture was held around the ancient dining room table and in the park of the Château de Chevilly and was punctuated by a series of interruptions from journalists and local dignitaries, eager to catch a glimpse of the famous lady. I enjoyed the lecture, the tour and the mid-day meal enormously and was delighted to talk gardening in French with the group. Eager for more, I have signed up for the next session at the Jardins des MétamorphOZes, where Patrick Genty, the former head gardener of Chaumont-sur-Loire, will be talking to us about the use of natural and “alternative” materials for garden structures and getting us out into the garden to harvest material and assemble some. Having a sculptural project in mind for one of our Sequoias, I am keen to hear more. We have been asked to bring seceteurs and a number of other tools but my Felco’s have disappeared; having owned that pair since 1990, I’m very upset.

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

Hippeastrum hybrid on the window sill

The big joy of our gardening life at the moment is our Amaryllis (Hippeastrum), which we have been watching come into growth and bloom since December. Fantastic flowers are produced from a large bulb which we had earlier allowed a dormant period in the garden shed. Four huge, translucent and lightly perfumed blooms sit on the top of a thick flower stem, two foot tall if it is a day. It makes quite a sight on our dining room windowsill where it seems very at home in light but cool conditions.  It’s a south american plant of 90 species (I’d always thought it was south african, but that’s just the bulb Amaryllis belladonna) which the Dutch have been hybrizing since the 18thC.

Advertisements

Gardening in Spain, gardening in France and plans for 2013

Gardening with 'houseplants' in Spain

Gardening with ‘houseplants’ in Spain

We have just returned from walking the dog in the fields close to our home. The sky is clear and a crisp frost decorates the countryside, which sparkles in the bright winter sunlight. The village fishing pond shimmers enticingly, with wisps of mist gently drifting across the surface of the water. It is disturbed only by the occasional moorhen or other water-bird, flapping away once our presence is noticed. Town gardeners are out doing the pruning to keep warm.

We have not seen a frost since our return from Spain 10 days ago. The Castile y León region in the north of Spain, centred on the city of Burgos, gave us thick fog and hard frosts in turns, with snow visible on the higher hills and mountains. This was to be repeated several times on the two day drive south and on our return a few days later. We have been to Andalusia in southern Spain several times, both for business and pleasure, but this was the first time we had driven via the north (rather than along the Mediterranean coast). The trip took in some wonderful scenery – huge, scarcely populated open spaces and brutal mountain ranges – in addition to the shock of the motorway system around Madrid and the austere cultivated plains to the south. From the fishing ports on the Atlantic we drove through cattle country, rolling grain prairies, vast fields of melons and vegetables grown under vast circular irrigation systems, and the vineyards of Rioja and Valdepeñas. Later there were olive groves as far as the eye could see, the deserts of Andalusia and finally, close to the coast, Europe’s salad capital in Almeria Province, with mile upon mile of colossal plastic structures providing perfect growing conditions for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other crops. Outside, citrus trees and date palms thrive. On this journey we experienced below freezing temperatures, snow, frost, fog and gorgeous, warm sunny days, depending on the terrain and the region.

Bougainvillea grows both as a free-standing shrub or trained as a climber

Bougainvillea grows both as a free-standing shrub or trained as a climber – if you have the climate

The point of our stay in Almeria Province was two-fold; we dropped in on my parents for New Year and visited a client with a garden to build. One of the main reasons we moved to central France was to make international garden design appointments easier. We can get to anywhere from here, with the UK, France and many other European mainland countries reached in a day, while even the furthest points of Spain, Portugal or Italy are only a couple of days away by car. Not having to cross the Channel each time we travel beyond the shores of England has been a real bonus.

People often ask how it is possible to design gardens in other countries. I have rarely found it to be a problem – the principles of garden design are universal, only the technical details change and local growers and other experts can always be found to assist if needs be. In Almeria they garden with what for the British are houseplants, but we have assisted with several gardens in the region. The important thing is to respect the surroundings and the traditions of the country when considering a new garden and this is why a three or four day visit is essential at some stage in the process.

Viburnum x. bodnantense in flower today in central France

Viburnum x. bodnantense in flower today in central France

Back in France, I am rather pleased to see some cold weather. Camellia flowers are beginning to open and daffodils poke out of the ground. This cool spell should hold everything back a little and avoid the catastrophic destruction of buds and flowers we experienced last year. Is it me or is their optimism in the air? Bookings for courses and guided garden and vineyard tours are going very well; we have students and customers coming from Australia, USA, Britain and a large group for three weeks from Greece. I am trying to fit garden and trade show visits into the schedule for the year: Salon Vegetal at Angers, Courson, St Jean de Beauregard and of course the gardens festival at Chaumont sur Loire. I’ll include as many as I can but already I accept there will not be time for IPM-Esson, or the British garden shows at Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court this year, unless a visit to a client happens to coincide with one of them.

One of this springs "must see" garden events

One of this springs “must see” garden events

I am spending a lot of time sorting out the web sites of the Academy, the Garden Design Company, Loire Valley Gardens and the rest, each of which need updates and improvements, our English garden design site undergoing a complete overhaul. There seem to be new opportunities everywhere and new demands from every direction – more indications of an exciting year to come. I am spending more time getting to know French gardening and horticulture, meeting some of the major characters of the industry during seminars, shows and other events. It’s proving fun to exchange experience with other enthusiasts and experts in a new language. At the same time we have many new and existing students undertaking distance learning courses, all of whom must be given attention and support.

A fine bush of Jasminium nudiflorum in a neighbour's garden

A fine bush of Jasminium nudiflorum in a neighbour’s garden

There is much to do in the garden before the season gets underway: a new lawn to sow, the areas around the swimming pool, behind the classroom and around the house to landscape and tidy up. Soon there will be seeds to sow – the first package has already arrived from Thomson and Morgan – and I’ll be too busy to undertake anything major.

So much to do, so little time to do it all! It’s what keeps me motivated and my gardening life eventful and joyous.

Alive and well in 2013

christmas 2012 017

Jasminium nudiflora in flower Christmas 2012

I am glad the world did not end at the end of last year. The French took it all in their stride, but various individuals descended on a tiny village in the Pyrenees to await the planet’s final days, convinced there were aliens hiding under the mountain and hoping to hitch a ride out of the impending disaster. Apparently the Mayans, or perhaps the Aztecs, said so. No-one could pretend the health of the planet is in good shape these days but that particular hiccup seems to have passed us by safely; my wife’s birthday, Christmas and New Year were all celebrated by our household without difficulty.

christmas 2012 016

Hebe Great Orme. This plant was raised from a cutting as an insurance – just as well as the mother plant died last winter.

In the meantime, I have had several requests for the results of my Christmas garden flowers survey so here is the small list of flowers from our garden in Central France:

  • Jasminium nudiflorum
  • Wallflowers (in several colours)
  • Hebe Great Orme
  • Pansies (mixed colours)
  • Erica carnea Springwood White
  • Calendulas (self-seeded in the gravel)
  • Mahonia media Charity
  • Viburnum tinus
  • Helleborus nigra
  • Helleborus foetidus

christmas 2012 002In addition we have a house full of orchids, a couple of Poinsettias’ and a Cyclamen in the windowsills, all flowering their hearts out and a real joy at this grey time of year.

You might like to compare this list to last years, when we had 31 plants in flower following a period of very mild weather: https://gardendesigncompany.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/in-flower-this-christmas/

christmas 2012 014

None stop flowering in Almeria, Spain

Immediately after Christmas I had business in southern Spain, where it was a very different story. Gardens and street planting featured many flowering plants, most of which would be treated as houseplants in this part of the world.

Winter arrives in France (at last!)

Holly berries in the snow

Somehow we all knew it would end in tears. The weather has been milder than Nature intended throughout the winter; plants have been flowering unseasonably and the summer bedding seems to have hardly noticed the passing of the months. Farmers, growers and gardeners, while perhaps enjoying the show, have been nervous for some time, fearing damage to blossoms and the ruining of crops when and if the weather finally turned cold. Peach and Apricot growers in the South-West have featured on the evening news, looking more than a little concerned.

Phormium - New Zealand Flax

Yesterday the snow arrived and we are told that not far behind are bitter Siberian winds. Walking the dog in the countryside has been a pleasure however, with the sun out and photogenic scenes at every turn.

In the meantime the local gardening shop’s promotional brochure arrived today, highlighting the agrarian nature of this country and its people. The leaflet features seed potatoes, nothing unusual there, but also rotavators with reversible plough attachments, bee hives – the real thing, not ornaments – and hatching equipment for your chicken eggs. When was the last time you saw these in your local Wyevale? Not to be left out, the hypermarket is offering above-ground swimming pools, ride-on mowers and a range of rainwater recovery kits, including one utilising linked underground storage tanks, each of 2650L capacity. Gardening is different in France, but just as big as in the UK.

Mimosa in the front garden at the Garden Design Academy

Loire Valley gardens and the first seed sowing.

We are hardly into January and already it feels like spring: we are getting busier on all fronts. There has been such interest in our study tours of the Loire Valley that I have been panicked into resuming work on a web site I started last year – Loire Valley Gardens– in which I describe the gardens of the region, listed by department (county).

Loire Valley Gardens

Loire Valley Gardens La Chatonniere page

This web site started its life programmed in a heady mix of Flash, html and css and was so complex I had to give it up as beyond my capabilities. I eventually settled on a far more simple style and, just as importantly, a more straightforward coding method, but wasted so much time with the first version that I ran out of time to complete it.

At the moment I describe 15 gardens of the Loire valley on the site, with the gardens of the chateau La Chatonniere my latest. This is an amazing place with twelve themed gardens – the French do like a theme, the artier the better – surrounding a beautiful Renaissance castle. I won’t say more here: you can look at the details on the site if you are interested http://www.loirevalleygardens.com/chatonniere.html . I am looking forward to seeing how the gardens are progressing in 2012 and to learn if they have plans for more themes. The last major development was in in 2008 when The Garden of Luxuriance was built to feature 400 David Austin roses, adding to the collections of roses displayed in other areas.

Soon Loire Valley Gardens will list and describe thirty-four gardens. As I revisit these gardens and discover more the site will continue grow and I hope this will prove a useful resource for clients, students and others interested in this fascinating region.

————————————————–

The first of my seeds are now sown and in the propagator: Begonias, Antirrhinums and Coleus, all absurdly small seeds which are applied as a ‘dust’ to the surface of moist compost. There are around 88,000 Begonia seeds per gram making them difficult to see and to sow, even with modern, sophisticated machinery. In my days as a grower we had a machine which would sow them from a series of units dropping four or five at a time and with the bounce as they hit the compost created a pretty good covering of a seed tray. Begonia seed is very expensive but we also sold plants in compost plugs and it was important to only have one or two seedlings in each if we were to make a profit. For these we resorted to pelleted seed, each grain being given a coating of clay which allowed our seed sowing equipment to place them one by one at the centre of each plug. All clever stuff. One of the Begonia varieties I sowed this week was pelleted seed: Torbay Mix, from Suttons.

Antirrhinums are large by comparison to Begonias – 7,500 to the gram and Coleus is around the same, but they are still hard to work with. When my order of Vermiculite finally arrives from EBay I shall get the Geranium seeds done – 200 seeds per gram – even I can see these!

An unusual task this week will be to dismantle the seasonal display of foliage and berries we constructed in the conservatory for Christmas; I have my eyes on the berries of the Butcher’s Broom and plan to sow them under the Sequoias. The branches of this plant were collected from plants found in local woods, so I have every hope they will do well.

Ruscus

Ruscus or Butcher's Broom

If the squirrel leaves them alone we can expect a patch of these adaptable plants for next year and by sowing a large number of seeds hope to have both male and female plants, giving berries for many a Christmas to come.

Illegal grape vines and award winning wine

When Academy students are not in residence we like to make our rooms available to paying guests who are offered bed, breakfast and evening meal. One such guest stayed last night, an English lady with impeccable French, who has been living in the Chinon area for many years. It was during a pleasant meal, comparing notes on life in France and swapping amusing anecdotes, that we were introduced to the concept of illegal grape varieties.

She had tasted a wine made from the grape Clinton (we finally arrived at the name after considering a number of American presidents), a variety reputed to drive drinkers mad but which clearly had not done so in her case. All of this was completely new to me and sounded quite unlikely, so today I have been investigating with increasing amazement at what I was reading. Politics, big business interests and horticulture can make for a heady mix.

Firstly, the botany. All European wine grape varieties are derived from a single species: Vitis vinifera. The United States has sveral grape species including Vitis aestivalis, Vitis rupestris, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia and Vitis labrusca. An Asiatic vine Vitis amurensis, is also of interest. Both naturally occurring hybrids and deliberate crosses have been made between the species and varieties and Clinton is one of these, a spontaneous cross between the North American species Vitis riparia and Vitis labrusca dating back to 1835 when it was discovered in New York State by High White.

In 1840 European vineyards were ravaged by Powdery Mildew disease and the search was on for hybrid varieties combining the qualities of the European grape with the disease resistance of the American species. While early in America’s history the trade was in European varieties to grow in the new lands, gradually the trend was reversed. In 1873 it was discovered that Phylloxera had been imported along with the American plants. This root pest went on to wipe out the European vineyards. At the darkest hour for European vine growing it was discovered that some American varieties were resistant to Phylloxera, in addition to protecting against Powdery Mildew and Mildew. By grafting the “noble” European varieties onto rootstocks of American hybrids, total disaster was averted at the last moment and the wine production industry saved. In addition to Clinton, varieties included Noah, Othello, Oberlin, Baco, Herbemont, Jacquez and others.

Sauvignon Blanc

By the 1930’s the population of France was 35 million; wine production was around 91 million Hectolitres! There were huge problems associated with overproduction alongside alcohol related health issues and the French government were unsure how to deal with either. The result was a carrots and sticks approach, grants and propaganda on the one hand and series of poorly thought out laws which, amongst other things, banned the growing of the American hybrid vines. As late as 1950 posters were produced suggesting the wine made from these varieties was inferior and there was dark talk of Methanol and other dangerous chemicals found in the wine. The myth of poisonous foreign varieties undoubtedly helped protect the interests of large producers, while discouraging home production and folk memories persist in tales of “mad wine”.

While mad wine is not a feature in any of the Garden Design Academy courses on viticulture, quality wine production is. This afternoon a Christmas fete was help in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher and we took the opportunity to visit the village wine co-op. We tasted a few and bought a few boxes, discussing their wines and the growing season with very knowledgeable staff. A white made from Sauvignon Blanc had been awarded a gold medal this year and was very good. We also tasted their Gamay primeur and asked them about our recent observations of this wine at the Montrichard wine festival.

Single guyot training system

We had identified a taste we were unhappy with in at least half of the dozen or so wines we sampled at the festival and we were told that it was a production problem, caused by the late rains initiating disease and a lack of due care in harvesting. Here they harvested only a small part of their Gamay crop for the Primeur, picking by hand and selecting only the best fruit. There was no “off” taste in this wine; something else we have learned this week.

At the end of our visit we walked the dog amongst the vines where pruning was well underway, single Guyot style. The soil was very sandy but with flints derived from the limestone beneath.

Wine production is a complex process involving both plant culturing and manufacturing and we have students in the UK and as far away as New Zealand studying the subject with us. I admire their courage and hard work and celebrate the result when it is a good as the wines we tasted today.

A Gardener’s Christmas wish list.

 

Mahonia x. media

The festive season has arrived at the Elliott household (we found a bottle of port at the back of Mother-in-Law’s cupboard, 40 years old, if it is a day – the port, not the Belle-Mère) and I’m writing my list for Santa.

Naturally, plants are a priority.

We have just passed through the mildest and driest autumn since 1900 and December shows no sign of altering the trend. Roses and Geraniums are still throwing out the occasional flower and spring flowering Rhododendrons and Camellias are already opening. Despite this, with memories of summer excess still strong in the memory, the garden seems to be lacking colour. I am hoping Mahonia  x. media ‘Charity’, ‘Winter Sun’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’ would bring bunches of scented sunshine into the cool, misty mornings. As an ex-gardener at the Saville gardens, Windsor, I am very fond of Charity and her rarely seen sisters, Faith and Hope, which were bred at the nursery there.

Viburnum x. bodnantense


I already have my eyes on a sucker of Viburnum x. bodnantense in a garden in the village, although I am not sure of the variety. The cross of Viburnum farreri (formerly V. fragrans) and V. grandiflorum was originally made by Charles Lamont, the Assistant Curator at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1933. He didn’t rate the resulting plants as being any better than their parents, so did not propagate them. In 1934 and 1935, the same cross was done at Bodnant, hence the name. ‘Dawn’ was the first cultivar to be named, ‘Deben’ was another and, after he died, ‘Charles Lamont’ was also named in honour of the original raiser. I am trying to find out if the French have their own hydrids.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna is a great little evergreen shrub that we have grown in several gardens, but do not yet have here in Chabris. It’s the sort of plant you hardly notice until, in December, it produces small, but intensely fragrant white flowers. Our front door faces north and this plant is ideal for these conditions. A small bed, which this summer contained a New Guinnea Hybrid Busie Lizie, awaits.

Hamamelis


I noticed a specimen of Chimonanthus praecox poking over the wall of a rather grand house in the village last year. This and Hamamelis are certaining worth growing for winter colour. We already have Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ growing amongst other woodland plants near the Sequoias, so a Wintersweet would make a nice addition. Close by, variegated Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot seems to have been in flower forever, Ilex Blue Angel provides a few seasonal berries and further down, a group of Erica Springwood White mark the start of the White Border.

The more you think about it, the more desirable plants come to mind. Then there are books: “Planting the Dry Shade Garden is already on order with Timber Press, a company whose stock list is one of the most desirable for gardening enthusiasts. Two other’s recently published by the same company are on my list: Contemporary Colour in the Garden and Designing with Grasses. A £500 Timber Press gift voucher, if such a thing exists, would be easy to spend.

Richard Ford’s book on Hostas (Crowood Press) is one of the best I have read on the subject and would have been on the list had I not already ordered it via the Garden Design Academy bookshop. I have also been reading “In the footsteps of Augustine Henry”, a recent purchase from the Garden Art Press, which I have been comparing with an original copy of Wanderings in China by Robert Fortune, another 19th C plant hunting hero. I will never tire of gardening books, or of plants, but I realise buying them for me is not easy…..hence the list.

What are other gardening enthusiasts hoping for this Christmas?