I wrote a post in the spring about my plans for the potagers and new areas in the rest of the garden.
Once again this was a difficult year for leafy vegetables due to the high temperatures and dry conditions. Cauliflowers, broccoli, Swiss chard were not successful but I did have a constant supply of lettuces for 6 months. As with last year, Mediterranean vegetables did very well and I had hundreds of tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and French beans, as well as melons. I grew fennel for the first time here and although they were quite small, the fennel heads were good. As I anticipated in the spring, the broad beans were very good and cropped for several weeks.
Over the winter I am growing winter lettuces, endives, red chicory, spinach, chard, leeks, red and green kale and still have celeriac in the ground.
I finished planting the 2 new oval beds in the spring with many different grasses and herbaceous plants. They have been watered well and have established well despite the drought conditions. I was very pleased to have a colourful display throughout the summer.
I also made a small cut flower bed next to the potagers and have been picking Cosmos in different shades of pink and white, marigolds and a wild flower mix. I have picked at least 2 bunches of flowers for the house every week and even managed to fill a vase last week.
In the autumn I planted grasses around the pond, and I have also been planting bulbs- snakeshead Fritillaries and Narcissus around the 3 Betula trees, and many Narcissus, Alliums, Fritillaries, and Crocus in the front garden, including Saffron Crocuses in a pot. This month I am going to plant Tulips and more fritillaries.
During the winter I am planning to plant some more shrubs and herbaceous plants in the woodland border. I planted 2 new bamboos in the spring, after a tricky start they now seem to be growing well.
It’s typical April weather here, with several seasons in one day. I have just about mastered the art of rushing back to the house with everything that isn’t waterproof as soon as dark clouds appear on the horizon. The late tulips are still flowering, my 3 lilacs, which are pale lilac, white and deep purple, are flowering and the roses have just started. I am hoping that this year I won’t be visited by the deer who ate so many flowers and buds last year!
I have been busy planting Swiss chard, lettuces, cauliflowers and calabrese. I have lifted all the leeks and celeriac remaining from the winter crops, and have been making lots of soup. Broad beans have just started cropping and I think this is going to be the most successful year for them. This is surprising as it has been quite a dry winter and spring until now but perhaps the ground was just too sodden for them to grow properly last year.
I have also been buying plants for my 2 new oval beds and more plants to go around the pond. I have found it quite difficult to buy good herbaceous plants here in south west France, the nurseries and garden centres do not have a large stock. I am intending to visit a garden and nursery at St Avit St Nazaire, which is a village about 15 minutes from where I live, as it sounds interesting and independent nurseries often have much more unusual plants. I am looking for more grasses and late summer perennials, and some more pond plants, both water plants and marginal plants.
I have 4 large bags – known as ‘les big bags’ in France – sitting near my potagers, which were delivered about a month ago. 2 contain compost and 2 contain woodchip mulch. I have been busy spreading the compost around crops, fruit bushes and trees, and the mulch around the roses and lavender in the front garden. It is very good quality and I bought some compost from the same person 3 years ago.
I have planted 2 more Betula utilis near the pond, and have also had some Prunus caucasica planted around my hideous gas tank. I am hoping they will grow quickly!
The tongue orchid Serapias lingua and Serapis vomeracea have been putting in a fantastic display as always in the wilder part of the garden.
In south west France the roses flower in May and I will be visiting the Jardin de Boissonna, a famous rose garden, at Balleysagues near Duras at some point during the month. I am also looking forward to a garden visit later in May to a garden east of Bergerac with my gardening club.
In late July I am going on a garden tour in Kent and East Sussex, which visits 9 gardens, including an evening visit to Sissinghurst, Sarah Raven’s garden at Perch Hill, and Christopher Lloyd’s garden at Great Dixter. I will be taking lots of photographs!
January is a time for planning changes and improvements to the garden. It’s often too cold (or wet) for much gardening, but it’s pleasant to sit indoors with good gardening books and seed and plant catalogues and do some blue sky thinking and planning. Having said that, here in SW France the weather has been cold but pleasant with clear blue skies and a lot of sunshine, so it has been possible to do a lot of walking in the countryside and some weeding and tidying up in the garden.
In the autumn of 2017 I had a pond dug in a corner of my garden, just beyond 2 oak trees which drape their branches close to the ground. I think they are marsh oaks, they are certainly in the wettest part of the garden. A couple of years ago I got a tree surgeon to cut off the lowest branches, so that the branches still trail down to the ground but it is possible to sit underneath the trees in the summer. It’s like sitting under a marquee, but one you can see out from, and is the coolest place in the house or garden in our hot summer months.
Beyond the trees and looking out of the garden, there is a view across vine fields and also into the small oak wood behind my house. This is the wildest part of the garden, so seemed a good place to site a wildlife pond.
The first year of the pond, 2018, I planted a few pond plants including 2 water lilies, various oxygenating plants, and some marginal plants in the shallow end of the pond and around the pond. I was very pleased to have visits from dragonflies and damselflies every day and wood pigeons and other birds dropping in for a drink. Some of the plants around the edge of the pond struggled in the very hot weather. This year I am hoping to incorporate some more home made compost or topsoil before more planting. I will be planting different grasses and flowering plants around the pond.
The woodland border close to the pond has good soil full of leafmould, but faces due west and is baked in the sun on summer afternoons. This limits the planting of many herbaceous plants, which find the summer conditions too drying. However shrubs and bamboos thrive in this border. I have bought 2 additional bamboo plants, one with green stems,(Phyllostachys aurea) and one with black stems, (Phyllostachys nigra) which I am ready to plant, now that I have purchased some bamboo barrier material to stop the roots from spreading too rapidly.
Close to the pond there is an existing silver birch tree which looks rather sad on its own. I have bought 2 more trees ( Betula utilis ramifie) and am going to plant them with the other in a small group of 3, which I think will look attractive particularly in spring with species daffodils planted underneath.
I am also intending to plant Fritillaria meleagris in this area around and underneath the trees as they enjoy the heavy and marshy conditions.
On 2 sides of the 2 large oak trees, I have had 2 oval beds dug by tractor, necessary on my heavy soil, where I will be planting grasses and tough herbaceous plants such as Echinacea and late summer perennials, which will hopefully thrive in the hot summers. At the moment I am thinking of having one bed with hot colours, yellows, reds and oranges, and the other with purples and deep reds. I will then have views from the trees of the wood, the pond, and 2 colourful perennial beds.
I have also had dug a small cut flower bed next to my potagers (vegetable gardens). I have found it difficult to buy attractive cut flowers in the supermarkets in France so am hoping to grow some of my own from annual seeds. Again the soil will need improvement with compost or topsoil particularly before planting small plug plants or sowing seeds.
It has always been one of my dreams to have a greenhouse, where I can raise plants from seeds and cuttings. At the moment I have a small planthouse on my terrace, but the capacity is not very big. As I live close to the Chateau de Gageac, I had to check whether I need planning permission for the greenhouse. Unfortunately the area of the garden where I want to put it, at the front next to the drive and close to the potagers, seems to suddenly have an underground spring which last summer was becoming more active.
If I can sort out the location, I hope to get the greenhouse installed this year. It is too hot here in the summer to use a greenhouse, so it would mainly be used for overwintering plants and cuttings, and raising plants from seed in the spring.
In September, I visited RHS Hyde Hall in Chelmsford, Essex. This garden which was originally a working farm, is situated on a hill in the very dry Essex climate and with heavy clay soil.
The garden was created by Dick and Helen Robinson starting in 1955. The site was cleared and 60 trees were purchased from Wickford market, forming the basis of the current Woodland Garden. In the 1960s shelter belts of Lawson and Leyland cypresses were created. A farmyard to the west of the hilltop was added in 1976. In the same year the Robinsons created the Hyde Hall Garden Trust. The site was bequeathed to the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) in 1993.
The garden contains many different areas, including:
Winter garden and lake walk
Clover Hill borders
Global growth vegetable garden
Hilltop garden which includes lawns, roses, ponds and herbaceous borders
The Robinson garden including a sunken dell and gabion wall
Dry garden containing mostly Mediterranean plants
Courtyard gardens with traditional and modern planting schemes
Woodland walk and bird hide
The Global growth vegetable garden was designed by Xa Tollemache and is based on a circular design symbolising a globe with 4 quarters representing Europe and the Middle East, Asia, North and Central America, and South America.
The Winter Garden opened in 2018 and features colourful stems and leaves, peeling barks and berries. There is a feature of coppiced willow and the varied plants include Prunus, Pinus, Acer, Cornus, Betula and Japanese cedar. There are 100 types of Cornus, forming part of an RHS trial.
The next stages which are planned include a large perennial meadow, Big Sky Meadows. This will be up to 20 ha or 50 acres of perennial meadows opening in 2019.The meadows radiate out from an old oak tree. There will be hundreds of species from Africa, North America and Europe including Agapanthus, Gazania, Echinacea, Panicum, Euphorbia and Kniphofia. The peak period of interest will be from mid-May to the end of August, then there will be autumnal interest and textures.
I really enjoyed this visit which coincided with a spell of really warm and sunny autumn weather. The garden has a very open feel helped by the hillside location and the open Essex skies. The rose garden in particular was fabulous and the whole impression was of bright colours and very healthy and well cared for plants. There is also the opportunity to experience many different types of garden within the whole, and to learn from the experience, which is common to many RHS gardens.
The garden visit was also made more enjoyable by having a pleasant restaurant and shop, including a garden shop, and a new exhibition centre which at the time was showing an exhibition of textile art and embroidery.
There has been a long gap since my last entry, I have been trying to catch up with the garden following several months of rain and then very hot, dry weather. I have also been busy with garden design work.
The rain in the winter and spring had many different results – the shrubs in the woodland border have benefitted greatly, the Pitttosporum tobira has practically doubled in size and the Buddleia had much bigger flowers than usual. I had a great display of roses in May, unfortunately the deer also appreciated them and one deer in particular kept returning day after day to sample the latest blooms. It’s very unusual here to see a deer in the middle of the day. It eventually disappeared, perhaps an irate vigneron got tired of it eating the new growth on the vines. My hairdresser kindly kept a lot of hair for me, I put it in bags around the roses as it is meant to frighten the deer due to the human scent.
My vegetable garden did badly early in the summer and recovered later. The heavy clay soil was constantly full of water and the roots of the small plants were unable to breathe or take up nutrients. I lost a lot of plants but had to replant more lettuces, chard, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. The irony then was that after 4 months of intense sun and no rain the ground became very hard to plant. After the difficult start, I had huge crops of Mediterranean vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, and melons.
In the early summer, I visited 2 gardens. The first was at the Chateau de la Mercerie in Charente, with the local Club de l’Amitie in Gardonne. The Chateau was mainly interesting for the building, which is slowly being restored by the commune, and the beautiful setting. However they have also started to restore a rose, garden, I was puzzled by the names against the roses then realised they are the names of the people who have sponsored them rather then the names of the roses.Then I visited the Jardins d’Eyrignac with my local gardening club in Eymet. These formal topiary gardens are in the Dordogne but some 2 hours from here. They are one of the few French formal gardens still in existence, and date from the 17th century. The gardens were turned into romantic English style gardens in the 19th century, but restored by Gilles Sermadiras de Pouzois de Lite and his son Patrick from 1965 onwards.
The gardens are very green, with hornbeams, box, yew, cypresses and lawns. They consist of several garden rooms, including the hornbeam alley, avenue of vases and the green room, neo-Gothic arcades, the manor courtyard, the mirror (a 40m long pond), French parterre, white garden and olive tree garden. There are also new gardens, a topiary farmyard, garden of water sources and flower meadows. In the topiary gardens and the mirror gardens there is considerable Italian influence.
All the pruning of the garden is done by hand by the team of 6 gardeners.
I loved the atmosphere of the garden, the tranquillity and the beautiful setting in the dramatic landscape of the Perigord Noir in the eastern Dordogne. My favourite part of the garden was the white garden, full of many different white flowers in formal beds with ponds and fountains. Including Petunia, Gaura lindheimeri, roses, Hibiscus ‘Diana’, Hydrangeas, Cleomes and Dahlias and bulbs in spring.
I have recently come back from 2 weeks in the UK to find that as I expected, the weed growth has been phenomenal while I was away. I’ve spent a week weeding the rose and lavender borders in the front garden, and the beds around the terrace at the back. Every day new and exciting tulips have been coming out. Worth all the effort of planting them in the autumn!
The next week was too hot to do much in the garden during the main part of the day. However, it was wonderful to see the trees coming into leaf during the week, when they were largely still bare on the Monday. The flowering cherry looks stunning in its brief period of glory.
Whilst in London I visited Kew Gardens and Myddelton House in Enfield, and then staying with a friend in Buckinghamshire we visited Chenies Manor and Hughenden Manor. The weather was dreadful when we were at Kew and we got soaked running between glasshouses. However the Davies Alpine House and Princess of Wales Conservatory were full of beautiful plants and plenty of colour.
I had never been to Myddelton House before, and it is a beautiful spring garden. It was the home of E.A. Bowles (1865-1954) who was a famous gardener, plantsman and plant breeder, and also the vice president of the RHS from 1926 to 1954. There are many plants named by him or after him, including Viola ‘Bowles’s Black’, Erisymum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, Crocus chrysanthus ‘ E.P. Bowles’, and Crocus chrysanthus ‘E.A. Bowles’ was named for him, Iris reticulata ‘Cantab’,Philadelphus ‘Bowles’s Variety’, Bowles’s golden sedge Carex elata ‘Aurea’, and Bowles’s golden grass Milium effusum ‘Aureum’.
Appropriately for the garden of someone who was so dedicated to bulbs, the garden is full of daffodils, Crocuses and snowdrops.
An interesting area is the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ which contains unusual and bizarre plants, such as ‘Prunus laurocerasus ‘Camellifolia’ and the twisted hazel Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’. There are also some interesting glasshouses.
In this area I also visited Broomfield Park in Palmers Green where my friend June Dawes is one of the team of volunteers responsible for maintaining the fabulous collection of plants in the restored Victorian conservatory.
In Buckinghamshire I visited Chenies Manor and Hughenden Manor, both of which have interesting walled gardens. Chenies Manor was the better garden with many lovely spring bulbs, whereas Hughenden which was the home of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli did not have a very interesting garden, unusually for a National Trust house. However the house itself was fascinating and surprisingly not that large for such a prominent man.
The irises I discovered in my garden between the country hedge and cut-back conifer have been waiting to be divided since last summer. Now at last the ground is soft enough to lift and replant them and it is no longer raining. The gardening books tell you to cut between the tubers with a spade. In fact I found the pieces came apart quite easily and replanted them, not too deeply, the tubers need to be at ground level, in 5 or 6 different places in the front garden. It will be exciting to see whether they flower this year, and what colour they are.
Pruning fruit trees
The majority of fruit trees in this garden I have planted myself, and they are trained shapes – some U-shaped cordons (apples and pears) and what I hope will be fan shaped apricot, nectarine, 2 cherries, 3 plums and a quince. As fan-shaped trees are very expensive to buy, I bought bare root trees in November 2016 and am training them myself. It’s early days but if it works, as they were only 8-10 euros each it will be a good saving on the 100-150 euros charged for older ready-trained trees.
They are all pruned in the summer, so the only fruit trees for winter pruning are the 2 small apple trees which were already in the garden. Although I had about 20 fruit trees in my garden and allotment in London, I have always found pruning fruit trees a challenge as they never quite look like the illustrations in the books! I tried to concentrate on cutting out dead and crossing growth, and creating an open bowl type shape. Time will tell whether I did it properly!
Last year I had about 20 apples from one tree and none at all from the other. I also had to tie on tiny fleece bags around each small fruit, as the previous year all my tiny apples disappeared overnight. I suspect squirrels- as I have an oak wood behind my house there must be a lot of squirrels, although I have hardly ever seen them. Of course they are red squirrels here, and very shy- most of mine are nearly black, as they are melanistic.
So different from the grey squirrels in my garden in London, which were so fearless they would practically break into the house in search of food!
In front of part of my front garden there is a large pyracantha hedge. It is fearsome to cut; it takes the people who cut it about a day and they are battling the sharpest thorns known to humankind. However the white flowers are very pretty in spring and the red berries in autumn keep the birds fed for weeks. The hedge is so dense that many birds nest in there and at the moment the hedge is alive with their singing- perhaps nest building or establishing territories.
Anything planted less than 3 metres from the hedge seems to do very badly – especially after a dry summer like last year. I have just moved a rose which I planted too close to the hedge. I was also going to move an existing Cotinus coggygria (smoke bush) which has never done very well there, but it seems to have died over the winter. I will look at it again in a couple of weeks, if you scrape the bark there are some green stems, showing life, but it is not producing buds or leaves.
I always get interesting winter visitors in this garden. I have always had a lot of bird feeders and in London I was part of the RSPB London House Sparrow Project which aimed to increase the number of successfully fledged house sparrows by feeding live mealworms during the breeding period. It was interesting having a fridge full of live mealworms, but I grew to recognise ‘chirping males’ (the alpha males of the house sparrow world) and loved to see the fledglings being fed.
Here I have had up to 40 different species of birds in the garden, sometimes just for a few days or weeks. As well as bramblings and siskins this winter, I have had a lot of hawfinches, up to 12 at a time. In the UK they are normally only found in Scotland, but they are more widespread this year. I understand that it has been very cold further north in their usual winter areas in Scandinavia, and they have moved further south in Europe.
Pruning Cornus and other winter stems
Plants which are grown for their winter stem colour need to be hard pruned at the end of winter, so that they produce good coloured new growth. These include Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (red) and Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ (yellow) which I have in my garden. The red Cornus in particular has lovely variegated leaves in summer. The yellow Cornus is planted with a yellow evergreen grass, Hakenechloa macra ‘Aureola’ and Mahonia aquifolium which has scented yellow winter flowers.
The hard pruning should start after the first 2 to 3 years, to allow the plants to establish and I have decided to leave mine to their third year. It’s great to have the shining colours standing out against the dark background of the oak wood. Once they are pruned, you can use the stems in decorations.