Chaumont Festival preview & Courson dreaming.

Prés du Goualoup, Courson.

Prés du Goualoup, Chaumont.

Last week we were invited to the preview of the Festival of Gardens at Chaumont-sur-Loire. This is surely one of Europe’s must-see events both for landscape / garden design professionals and the amateur enthusiast and runs from 6th April to 11th November this year. Unique design ideas tried out here will often appear at Chelsea or one of the other great garden shows two or three years later, so it’s a great source of inspiration for those in the garden business. When we were based in the UK we would always make the effort to visit; now it is a short drive from our home and I take groups to see it several times each year. Before the end of the month I will have been three or four times but I never fail to spot something new from each visit and to see it develop over the seasons is a real joy.

Domaine de Courson - Prés du Goualoup

Domaine de Chaumont – Prés du Goualoup

Each year there is a design theme and this time it is ‘Gardens of Sensations’, which leaves the designers plenty of scope (or perhaps rope!) to decide what this means for themselves. But before we looked around the 25 show gardens of this year’s festival we were determined to see the permanent gardens and installations in the Goualoup Meadow (Prés du Goualoup) the new 10 Ha extension to the site. First up was a garden by Yu Kongjian, a landscaper specialising in Feng Shui, with a winding path across dark water punctuated by clusters of bright red bamboo canes and which leads on to a reinterpretation of a traditional Chinese scholars garden by the architect and garden specialist, Che Bing Chiu – Ermitage sur la Loire. One of the courses at the Garden Design Academy involves considering garden design from a Feng Shui perspective, so we found this a fascinating garden to wander through.

Chaumont Garden Festival

Chaumont Garden Festival

On the day we visited the weather was quite perfect for the evocative installation entitled Permanent Clouds by Fujiko Nakaya while other artworks could easily have delayed us further from “doing” the festival; we had to be strong. My last visit to the site was in the company of the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman, over for a two week stay with us. He was hard to please (in the best possible way) and we spent many happy hours debating the design and execution of some of the gardens we saw.

May 2013 Chaumont Garden Festival

May 2013 Chaumont Garden Festival

For professionals the festival is like that. The designer / artist sets out his stall with an explanation of the garden he has attempted to create. It is up to the visitor to judge if what he has delivered lives up to the description; you are allowed to be critical but it is also important to be fair. Budgets are compulsorily low so that creativity rather than cash comes to the fore and these are gardens which will mature as the year progresses. Some gardens are incredibly competent, others have great individual features while, to be frank, others just don’t work as intended. But as a learning experience Chaumont is unequalled and is now in its twenty-second year of providing opportunities for designers from around the world to install thought-provoking and challenging gardens.

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Our enlarged white border is doing very well this year - White Lilac is in flower at the moment

Our enlarged white border is doing very well this year – White Lilac is in flower at the moment

Here in our garden in central France the spring is moving delightfully slowly, allowing fuller appreciation of each drift of flowering as the season progresses. Apricots are followed by peaches, plums to cherries, pears and finally to apples, as the orchards trees flower and set fruit. One moment Magnolias are the highlight, while now the Lilacs and Wisteria are just starting for fade and the Philadelphus (Mock Orange) is apart to bloom. Everywhere is flower, scent and the drone of excited insects. What a time and what a place to be alive!

Euphorbia in the island border at the Garden Design Academy

Euphorbia in the island border at the Garden Design Academy

Of course there are gaps in the garden and there are times when only a plant fair will do. One of Europe’s greatest is at Courson, south of Paris, and we are invited to the press / professional preview on Friday. We have a half-formed idea of some of the plants we cannot possibly be without but in any event will let the spirit take us around the show to pick out some of the brightest and newest plants on offer. We always spend too much, and often buy hopelessly inappropriate plants and never fail to come back exhausted but happy. I have seen a lot of plant fairs but nothing quite like this: I’ll let you know how I get on.

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Scented streets, plant fairs, food for free and hardy orchids

Robinia

Robinia pseudoacacia flowering in our Chabris garden today

For weeks the streets have been perfumed by the heady scent of Lilac and Wisteria, here in the centre of rural France: a delightful change from the smell of combustion engines we left behind in the towns and cities of the UK. These flowers are still going strong but for Easter weekend accompanied by the first, sweet-smelling roses and fragrance of the bee-friendly Robinia trees. When I plant a garden I always try to position scented shrubs near doorways, windows or frequently used pathways to make use of this extra, olfactory dimension to planting design. Our white Lilac is close to the kitchen window and we have a couple of fine Daphnes, D. odora Aureomarginata by the classroom and D. tangutica close to the house. Robinias are in flower here too, far too close to the ancient building: a weed in our area but a beautiful one.

The woods will be alive with bees in a few days as hives are brought back to their clearings in the forest, bee-keepers keen to capitalise on the harvest of Robinia blossoms, the source of fine local Acacia honey. During a recent walk in the woods by the River Cher we were pleased to stumble across a handful of Morels, an excellent edible wild mushroom which we devoured the same day with a steak of locally-raised beef and a good red wine.

Morels

Morchella mushrooms (Morels) from the local woods

Bletilla

Bletilla striata orchid in our woodland garden

Small purple Orchids are starting into flower in the woods and meadows too, with native, greeny-white Helleborines blooming alongside shocking-pink, Japanese Bletilla striata in our garden. A wide range of orchids thrive in these parts, Lizard Orchids seeding themselves freely in the countryside and in gardens. I miss English Bee Orchids, flowering in the field by our old Hertfordshire office and we always walked the dog over the Chilterns to orchid hunt in the summer, but here we are spoiled for choice.

Sadly, we missed the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisière on Saturday and the one at chateau de Bouges on Sunday; on Wednesday we have been invited to Giverney while on the 10th May a coach trip to the chateau park at Azay le Ferron has been organised by the town’s tourist office. Which of these we can find time to support, we have yet to decide, but nothing could make me miss my annual pilgrimage to Courson on May 13th.

Our guided trips to the gardens of the Loire Valley stop at several of these venues and I’m hoping to organise one for the national garden open weekend in early June, when more than 80 parks and gardens in our area are holding events. The delightful problem will be which to select for visits this year!

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.