A February visit: warts and all

A question we are often asked is, “How will you divide your time between the two homes?”. The answer is not straightforward as we both have busy working lives and family commitments. Some kind of answer will evolve over time but one principle we have adopted is to try never to leave either home abandoned and alone for more than a month or so at a time. A good way of measuring whether we are successful at doing this is to ensure that we visit every calendar month, regardless of the time of year.

I have returned today to Sussex from my February visit, made solo as R was travelling elsewhere for work meetings. Here’s a quick resume of my February visit:

I arrived in the midst of a tempête (very high winds) to find the electricity down and our farmer neighbour S zooming up and down the properties along the line trying to identify whether (and if so where) a branch might have fallen onto the line. Thankfully power was not off for long but in the meantime I thought it prudent to go in search of more torches. I bought the last one in our local Gamm Vert.

I spent some time looking ruefully at all the sticks and branches brought down by the wind, and all the leaves still hanging around from last autumn. What do other people do with so many leaves? We have gazillions, far more than can be put into a leaf-mould enclosure.

I collected an old pine wardrobe/chest of drawers, bought secondhand through a Facebook group, with the help of our trusty Man with a Van.

On Wednesday I had a visit from an arboriculturalist (arboriculturist?) and tree surgeon to review the future of the large number of mature and post-mature trees and to share information for the preparation of his devis (quotation).

A chimney sweep visited for the first time in our ownership of the property, and we now fully understand why the wood-burning stove in the sitting room wasn’t working … and will not do so again.

For the third time in succession I failed to light a bonfire. This is a major blow as my record as a fire-raiser was previously unchallenged. Can anyone recommend a fire-raising workshop?

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Back in the days when I successfully had bonfires …

The leaves of the Musa Basjoo had been fried by January’s very low temperatures so I decided to tidy it up. A tidy up turned into a bit of a massacre. However I hear that the grues (cranes) are beginning their migration so I’m taking this as a sure sign that winter is now on the wane and am trusting that I’ve not acted prematurely.

 

The weather this week has been glorious, sunshine and rising temperatures. In sheltered spots the temperatures hit the high 20s.

Digger Dave visited to talk about how we might adapt the perimeter fencing to be more successful at keeping rabbits and badgers out. There is enough open countryside for miles around to feel quite justified in asking them to stay on the other side of our fence.

Our trusty electrician visited to upgrade a junction box which will ensure that the final flaky area of electrics no longer trip when they feel like it. Electrics in France are very different from the UK.

I tried to help our lovely French neighbour C catch one of her chickens which had found itself in an area of no-man’s land between our two properties. I’m not sure what the final outcome was …

I did a bit of pruning, all the non-climbing roses and two  large budleias. I don’t know what cultivar they are but last summer’s flowers were enormous and fragrant. I also hacked (I can’t say pruned) most of the hibiscus (not my favourite shrub) of which there are many. I don’t expect them to survive the master plan.

But I still haven’t managed to prune the small number of lavender bushes. They may be done for. If so it won’t be a disaster as lavender is a short-lived plant anyway and this is probably not a long term position for them.

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We haven’t started planting yet so flowering interest is few and far between. Here’s one or two.

The first lizard of the year appeared on the south-facing front of the house. Subsequently more appeared in the warm sunshine as the week wore on. I wish they wouldn’t lurk in the window frames, ready to leap out and shout “boo!” every time I open a window …

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The first lizard of the year, on a south-facing wall

It was great to see the new French windows, traditional style, which had been installed in a downstairs bedroom since my previous visit. Further discussions took place about next phases of work with the menuisier (window/door/joinery man) and maçon (stone-mason). The shutters do need to be repainted …

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Oh, and I treated myself to Eggs Benedict at Gatwick Airport last Monday morning prior to departure.

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Eggs Benedict with field mushrooms @ Jamie’s

I will return to some of these topics in more detail in future posts. Which ones would you be most interested in? Why not follow my blog so you can follow along with our French adventure?

Inspirations: Château de Marqueyssac

Three summers ago while on holiday in the Dordogne with friends, before we thought of buying a property in France, we visited the gardens at Château de Marqueyssac, one of France’s Jardins Remarquable. I had read about the gardens, and seen Joe Swift’s * feature on Gardener’s World in October 2011, and determined that we must go. So the opportunity was perfect.

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Situated on a cliff top high above the Dordogne river, the Château overlooks verdant and productive agricultural land in the alluvial river valley, and woodland on distant hillsides. It was built at the end of the 17th century by Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac, Counsellor to Louis XIV. The original design of the garden is attributed to a pupil of Andre le Notre (designer of the gardens at Versailles) and featured terraces, allées and a kitchen garden immediately by the Château.

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Garden foreground, landscape background, seamlessly merging from one to the other

In the middle decades of the 19th century a chapel was constructed, and from 1860 a new owner began to plant thousands of boxwood trees (over 150,000 of them today) and have them clipped into fantastic shapes. Various other trees were also planted (including limes, cypresses, hornbeams), a number of structures built, and over 5k of walks laid out. Time again took its toll with the gardens falling into disrepair and abandon but a new owner in 1996 began extensive restoration work and Marqueyssac was opened to the public in March 1997. It is now the most visited garden in the region.

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We were completely bowled over. At the risk of sounding pretentious the garden presents a real allegory of the tension between man and nature. Close to the Château the topiary is closely clipped and regimented (although very unconventional and flamboyant in design). img_6500The further one moves away from the building the looser the clip becomes, until at the furthest extremities of the park there is little difference between the plants one side of the boundary or the other. The garden is firmly rooted in its landscape.

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This area, in front of the Chateau, with rectangular blocks, is less often photographed
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A more familiar view, with buns, rounds, bobbles …

 

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The santolina and rosemary allée

I suspect many visitors stay within the manicured areas which are spectacular. But when you visit please be prepared to cover some distance and walk throughout the entire garden to enjoy the full effect of the amazing transformation from the hand of man to the hand of nature. I think you too will be overwhelmed by the exuberance, inventiveness, and sheer beauty of the garden and its location.

How did our visit to Marqueyssac inspire us?

A traditional French garden has many formal areas, relying heavily on clipped box (actually, French gardeners clip and pollard most plants if given half a chance!). We will be incorporating some of these elements into our design. The jury is still out on whether it would be prudent to plant much box in these days of box blight and box tree caterpillar.

Alternatives to box, for low close-clipped hedges, are currently being trialled at RHS Wisley in the walled garden (although I can’t find any formal reference to it online) and written about elsewhere. Opinions vary as to whether any truly viable alternative has yet been identified. Few if any alternatives seem to offer every advantage of box which is so versatile, so forgiving. We are keeping our ears and eyes open, still hoping that real remedies to both box problems will be found before we start planting so we can continue with the wonderful French box tradition.

The second main influence was to start us thinking about the sense of place, and the transition between formal near the house and natural at the furthest extremities. More recently (and I shall probably write about this in due course) I attended a day’s course with Arne Maynard at his wonderful house and garden, Allt-y-bela in the Welsh borders. Arne is a master at siting a garden well within its landscape, and moving gently but purposefully between man (house) and nature (boundaries).

Footnotes and afterthoughts

1 Joe Swift was on my most recent flight from Gatwick to Bordeaux, but I decided not to disturb him and left him in peace.
2 The friends we were holidaying with three summers ago decided not to come with us to Marqueyssac. Instead they spent time looking at French properties on Rightmove which they told us about when we returned … the rest is history …
3 The stone tiles on the roof of the Château weigh upwards of 500 tons

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The first year; an important decision

The best advice given to the owners of any new garden is to live with it for a year as it is before making any changes. Whether because we were directly following that advice, or whether because we were up to our eyes and ears in building work, we have assiduously maintained the garden as it was when we first took ownership and not made any changes at all.

Well, that in itself might be a rather ambitious claim as the previous owner kept the garden immaculate and I have attempted to do so but have had to make do with “tidy-ish”. It really isn’t too bad, and the most important thing is that this slight hiatus has allowed us time to come to an important decision.

I am full of ideas. An exotic style garden. A parterre. A labyrinth. An orchard. A flower meadow. Topiary. Of course. Lots of topiary. Pleaching. Edible hedges. A petanque court. A grassy area for childrens’ games. Flowers (in what I’m coming to understand is thought of in Continental Europe as the “English style”). Pebble mosaics. Water features. Gates. Paths. Rills. A pigeonnier. Pergolas. Seating areas in sun and shade. A new pool. Encouragement of the orchids. Compost bays. A hydrangea walk. Garden rooms galore. … … … and so on … … …

Yes, you’re getting the idea. I have so many ideas and not a little knowledge, but what is lacking is any real understanding of how to join this all up together so that there is a natural flow and journey around the garden, maximising enjoyment of the views and all the different areas. I wanted to avoid the sense that a random collection of garden features had landed from outer space, neither connected to each other nor to the landscape around.

In April I joined Arne Maynard, renowned garden designer and RHS Chelsea Gold medallist, at his house and garden, Allt-y-bela in the Welsh borders, for a day’s course. It was organised by the Garden Museum in London (of which I’m a Lifetime Friend), and around 20 of us (some professionals, some keen amateurs) explored the concepts around evoking the spirit of place. A warm spring sun shone for most of the day, and Arne’s own natural warmth made the day memorable, informative, and thoroughly enjoyable. I’d hoped that I’d return home with some magical new skill in garden design. Not so, rather I had an increasing awareness that I needed help.

Fortunately, when I broached the idea to my husband, he immediately agreed that we needed professional input. So I sent out some feelers, followed up several suggestions, and we have now appointed an English landscape architect who lives in Paris, who has the most interesting background and connections, to help us create the master plan for the garden. She has made her first site visit, and we have commissioned a géomètre (land surveyor) who has visited and taken all the measurements and readings. We await his  initial drawings, and then we will be in business to start work on that wonderful master plan.

Budget for implementation is limited, and we will undoubtedly develop the garden in stages as and when funds become available. But by having a master plan from the outset we hope to create something special, something that will stand the test of time and perhaps even outlive us. I hope it doesn’t sound too ambitious or perhaps even pompous to say that we want to create a great garden, one that people will want to visit, one that we will be proud of opening to visitors.

These are interesting and exciting times – in the truest sense of those words.

 

 

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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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)

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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.