The hedge I’ve grown to hate

Slightly off-topic, forgive me. And this is also a bit of a rant.

But its that time of year when a huge proportion of British gardens are aflame with the fiery new shoots of Photinia (usually Red Robin) along mile after mile of recently planted suburban hedge. It is recommended for planting for spring colour, and it seems to thrive wherever it is planted. So we are seeing it more and more such that it has almost achieved Ubiquitous status. But is it a suitable plant for a hedge, or a small space?

What most people don’t seem to realise is that left to its own devices it grows into a large shrub with beautiful frothy white spring flowers interspersed with a few fiery new shoots. It needs space to do that. And space isn’t what most people give it.

So it is clipped and snipped and forced into shapes and sizes much too small for its inclinations. Flowering wood is cut off, and all we ever see are those new spring shoots, which let’s be honest are often more of a dingy brown than a fiery red. And their owners keep clipping and snipping throughout the year, so the poor shrub thinks it lives in some everlasting spring, so keeps sending out those new shoots. And it ends up looking much the same throughout the whole year, which rather defeats the object.

By contrast, here in South-West France where space is not at a premium and many people have large gardens if not land, we see many examples of Photinia which has been left to its own devices and is thriving and looking magnificent. Here’s a quick snap taken in a supermarket car park in Eymet in the southern Dordogne last week. Don’t you agree it looks better with the frothy flowers to offset those new shoots?


The first spring

We took over ownership of the French house at the end of November 2015, still pinching ourselves to be sure that this was really happening. Since then we have made a number of visits, enjoying unseasonably warm weather during December and then experiencing (not enjoying!) cold, wet, stormy weather throughout much of January and February.

By the middle of March signs of spring were beginning to appear, with plants being a clear 2-3 weeks ahead of progress in the south of England. Overnight temperatures were still quite low, with the odd frost, but when the sun came out there was warmth in it that those in the UK would only experience in late spring or early summer. The region is renowned for its plum orchards, plums destined to be turned into prunes, and the blossom is

Plum orchards in full blossom, acres and acres of them

currently at its peak. It is quite something to drive through miles of countryside past acre after acre of plum orchards in full bloom.

I have many ideas for the design of the garden, most of which are still quite undeveloped and disjointed. I have taken on board advice from those wiser and more experienced than I, to consider how the garden sits in the landscape, focal points, journeys around the garden. But I still have pretty much just a list of ideas. I’m going on a day’s course with Arne Maynard later this month to help me work towards a more cohesive design which sits well within its landscape.

Today two old ramshackle barns were demolished. They had been earmarked for demolition from the start as they were neither functional, beautiful nor historic. And after the storms in late January they were unsafe and quite dangerous. We didn’t expect them to be demolished today; indeed the Mairie earlier in the week told us not to before applying for permission. But the message didn’t seem to get through to the man with the bulldozer and so we will need to square this with the Mairie in due course. We will be pleased to see the back of the barns as they were eyesores as well as dangerous, and this will open up a key area in the journey around the garden.

Our land is this side of the fence, the farmer’s the other

We have been having perimeter fencing installed (mainly to keep visiting GrandBoys within the bounds). It is in a very rural, agricultural style, and we hope that it won’t suburbanise the plot nor act as any kind of visual barrier with the true agriculture on the other side of our boundary.

Our primary aim for the coming year is to continue to maintain the garden as we bought it, as we learn how the sun comes round, how the temperatures fluctuate in different areas, wind speeds and directions, soil type, rain, water retention … And of course to discover what plants are already in residence.

We can probably see and identify most of them, but I was very pleasantly surprised last week to find some lily of the valley coming up on the edge of the drive reasonably close to the house. That was unexpected.

Lily of the valley, unexpectedly appearing at the side of the drive

We won’t know what some of the trees are until their leaves are fully out (and maybe even flowering). We know there are plenty of “weeds”, for example too many poplars, some well past their best and quite unstable. So there will be some culling on a fairly grand scale.

And there is a lot of grass, a huge amount. Mowing is going to become an important part of our lives for some time to come!

Lady Smocks all Silver White

Cardamine Pratensis or Lady’s Smock, a link between our two homes

So, how did this adventure come about? Having listened to some friends talking about their ideas to buy a house in France (initially with not a little envy), being quite amazed to discover from RightMove quite how much value the French property market offered, we looked at each other with the same thought in mind, expressed out loud as “we could do that, shall we think about it?”.

So we thought about it. We discussed every angle of two-centre living, whether it was feasible financially (just, if we were careful), how we could manage our work (the wondrous internet), our family, and all aspects of our lives. However hard we tried we couldn’t find any flaws in the idea. Our close family’s response was unanimous: “Go for it!”. Finally, we widened the discussion to our circle of trusted close friends, and again the only responses were wholly positive and affirming.

So we went for it; given that I’d owned the family house for 39 years it was hardly a sudden move! We found our ideal UK base very quickly, had to go ahead in order not to lose it, and for the first five months of 2015 owned two UK houses. This was a real challenge financially, but it enabled us to completely update, refurbish, and redecorate our new Sussex home. We never doubted that we were doing the right thing, even though the process ended up taking longer than we might have expected and required more patience and trust than we knew we had.

Driving back and forth between Surrey and Sussex, on an almost daily basis throughout the spring of 2015 as we supervised (and did many of) the improvements, was a surprisingly positive experience as we were able to watch and enjoy the hedgerows and wild flowers gradually opening and coming into flower. One flower I had never particularly noticed before was Cardamine Pratensis, commonly known as Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo Flower. We stopped the car several times to take a look and enjoy the delicacy of the colour and flower form.

Time passed, the family house was sold, we found our perfect French home, the legal processes chugged through, and eventually it was ours at the end of November 2015. Imagine my surprise, as I have been watching for signs of spring in France in visits over the last few weeks, to see Cardamine Pratensis appearing all over one part of the garden. It is almost as though it is acting as a special link between the two homes, reinforcing the rightness of our decision.

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he:
“Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!” O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
Love’s Labours Lost, William Shakespeare

Painting the Modern Garden

Monet chrysanthemums-1897I am firmly in the research phase for the French garden, gathering inspiration, and recording ideas.

Inspiration comes from a wide variety of sources, and yesterday we went to the Royal Academy in London to the exhibition Painting the Modern Garden Monet to Matisse. It was crowded, too hot in places, but very inspiring.


Monet cultivated gardens throughout his life, from his early days at Argenteuil in the 1870s until his death at Giverny in 1926. That much we already knew. We also learnt from the exhibition how many of Monet’s contemporaries shared his fascination with gardening as the modern pursuit that we enjoy today. Greater affluence and leisure time, and the growth of the middle classes during the 19th century, were creating new opportunities to garden purely for pleasure, and these artists took full advantage.

Ideas for the French garden abound, and one area may include blocks of herbaceous planting, including irises, chrysanthemums and paeonies (all with limited periods of peak perfection) interspersed with blocks of yew and hornbeam. I realised yesterday that this idea had quite likely developed from sub-conscious influences from Monet’s paintings. The designated area has a number of mature trees (poplars, planes and willow), so somehow it will be combined with a sense of parkland, as in this painting by Liebermann.

Liebermann Park Landscape


I am also planning a hydrangea walk (perhaps like this painting by Santiago Rusinol, Hydrangeas on a Garden Path)


And somewhere there will definitely be nasturtiums, even if only in the first year or two, perhaps slightly randomly to give quick colour, perhaps more controlled (as in Guillaumin’s painting, The Nasturtium Path)

The Nasturtium Path


So, just a few of the paintings from the exhibition for this blog, but many more in the memory for inspiration for this gardener.

You don’t need to be an art aficionado to be inspired by this exhibition; there is every reason for gardeners of all kinds to visit. Do go if you can, and do also treat yourself to the catalogue when you leave. Not only does it include the expected illustrations of the paintings in the exhibition together with extensive background and explanation from art world scholars, but it also includes a charming dialogue between Monty Don and James Priest, Head Gardener at Giverny.

The exhibition is on until the 20th April 2016 at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD and you can find more information here. 


Starting at the beginning

I have been thinking about writing a blog for a long time. I’ve even made a start once or twice. I know what I want to write about (everything, actually) but I was never sure what would be important enough to form the content of the first post. The beginning seemed to be too important to rush into. Thanks to a recent conversation on Twitter (and the establishment of #gdnbloggers) I have been encouraged to, well, simply begin. So, here goes …

I have had a lifelong passion for gardening. An early memory is of writing a gardening column in a class newspaper aged 7, orchestrated by a student teacher on work experience. Other early memories include the smell of geraniums (pelargoniums of course) and tomatoes in my grandfather’s Victorian conservatory, giving the Chelsea chop (years before I ever heard the term) to a stand of Michaelmas daisies, and the horror expressed by my mother as she assumed that year’s flowers were doomed as a result, and my father’s dahlias lined out in the front garden.

My gardens have included a north-facing strip of subsoil on a housing estate, a much-loved family garden on sunny, Surrey, sandy loam, three allotments which regularly flooded in winter, and a tiny walled space in West Sussex. And now we have an almost 3-acre garden in south-west France.

We are embarking on an exciting adventure, one which I rarely dared to dream of but which somehow has come about, to develop a beautiful, large garden. And I shall be writing about that adventure.

But I shall also be writing about the many other aspects of me, my life, my interests, and my concerns, hence the title of this blog “Renaissance Gardener” (with a respectful, yet humble, nod to Leonardo da Vinci and the great thinkers and creators, the polymaths, of the past).

One thing this blog will try never to be is one of those didactic lists of how to garden. There is more than enough of that kind of material already on the web and I don’t intend to add to it. I am not an expert in anything beyond what it is to be me.

I hope you enjoy reading my blog as much as I know I’m going to enjoy writing it.