Making a garden in south-west France … and much more …
Author: The Renaissance Gardener
Global issues, natural world, gardens, plants, family, music, books, laughter. Lives in West Sussex & is making a garden in south west France. Professional event organiser by day, and opinions about most things.
Like many bloggers, the gaps between my postings have been varied and often far too long. I have sworn to myself that I’ll never use the words “sorry I haven’t posted for ages”, “wow, I’m back at last”, “It’s been far too long”, or similar. I’ve spent some time considering how to write, when to write, how often to write, illustrations to include. I’ve known that I haven’t written enough but haven’t been clear on how to resolve that issue.
Writing has formed a significant part of my working life, so I’m not a novice nor am I daunted by the blank page. In the early 90s I was working with Jeremy Myerson (an accomplished journalist and author, founding editor of Design Week, for many years a Professor at the Royal College of Art) on a project and asked him how he managed to keep on writing. “Sheer technique” he responded. He wasn’t being arrogant at all, just helpful. The meaning was clear: just write. And so I did, and his advice has stood me in good stead both in my professional life, and my personal life too.
The biggest stumbling block that keeps me from writing and publishing more is that I spend much of my working life sitting in front of a computer so the last thing I want to do in my time outside work is … to sit in front of a computer. I know some people blog from iDevices but that’s not for me. I need a proper screen and keyboard to produce anything (at least at this stage in my blogging life). And a second block is that I tend towards perfectionism, possibly putting off writing/publishing posts because I can’t see a long enough window of time to “get it right” (whatever “right” is – to misquote Prince Charles in his famous engagement interview so many years ago).
But this morning I received some photos from Steve, the groundworker/heavy machinery guy, which he took at the end of his work yesterday. And I want to share them with you. So, here I am, publishing a new blog post two days’ running (and writing it at my desk in front of my computer in the middle of the working day). No worries; I shall just work on a little later this evening to catch up.
The stump grinder, and stumps still to be worked on. The white gates are our neighbour’s.
Stumps now fully ground, tractor and harrow going over the area to smooth it all out, looking towards the south-east
And the job finally completed, looking north towards the house. We are absolutely delighted with what has been achieved by the team and really feel ready to move on.
This last picture shows a little under a third of the garden, what we describe (at the moment at least) as “the front garden”. The two big remaining trees on the right of the picture are both ash, in good condition, and will give us an upper storey to that area of woodland garden.
The laurel hedge in the background is a boundary (forming a bit of a dog-leg in our plot) and in front of that we will be creating a new parking area (screened by new hedges from the rest of the garden) with an ornamental garden and petanque court in front of that.
The shadows on the left come from five large and ancient plane trees, dating from Napoleonic times, which appear to be very strong and healthy.
Between the plane trees on the left and the woodland garden on the right we will have an open area of lawn which will give sweeping views from the house. Its exact position still to be determined, there will also be an area where we will plant spring bulbs to naturalise in the grass and encourage wild orchids to seed themselves. In the foreground we will plant a hawthorn hedge which we will keep fairly low to keep the view open. Friends have successfully established hawthorn and I was very inspired by Arne Maynard’s hawthorn hedges at Allt-y-Bela when I visited last spring.
Which varieties of trees would you plant in the new woodland garden?
My four nights at the house last week went all too quickly. There is always so much to pack into the time over and above our normal life which doesn’t go away (i.e. work which I mostly do from home, whichever home I’m at).
On this particular trip I also wanted to visit a couple of vineyards, Chateau la Verriere because the red wine we’d bought in August had all been taken back to the UK leaving us without any stocks in France of their very good red, and Domaine du Grand Mayne because a new release of their fizzy pink (Méthode Champenoise), was now in stock. And our trusty electrician, Stephane, was expected to continue with adding new sockets and generally updating the electrics in the house.
Update on the tree work
First, the tree work. The transformation since my previous visit two weeks earlier was tremendous. Almost all of the trees marked for removal had gone leaving the ground looking rather like the Somme although perhaps not as bad as we might have feared due to the helpfully dry weather which allowed the heavy machinery to move around without causing too much damage. The tree surgeons were still cheery; the job was going well for them and they were enjoying it too.
Thank goodness for the heavy machinery.
This cage affair was loaded onto the lorry (in place of the big green Benne)
Watching Steve load the trunks was watching a master at work.
The guys worked in a very methodical and orderly way from the first tree to the last one.
The view at the front has been nicely opened up.
The big green Benne
I was surprised at how compact the chain saws were
I was also surprised that access to the penultimate poplar was initially via a ladder!
Matt gets roped up ready to climb. This was the only climbing I saw as they hadn’t started climbing on my previous visit, concentrating on dropping the poplars close to the electricity wires.
Another view opened up. This will be the site of a new pond in the dip, surrounded by an exotic style garden (lots of large leaved plants). The overflow from the fosse septique drains through here so it should be fertile!
A ground out stump, and the house all closed up ready for my departure.
An annoyingly dark picture! I was slightly late leaving for Bordeaux airport and rushed it instead of checking where the sun was. Ah, well.
And today, as I write this blog update, I understand that the final work (taking a harrow over the Somme-like area of “lawn”) will have been done concluding a mammoth four full weeks of work.
What comes next …
We aren’t worried about the grass growing back. Grass just loves to grow and as we now move to cooler, damper weather it possibly won’t even need re-seeding. My major preoccupation now is to move forward with the overall design of the garden (which hit snags which I won’t go into here) so that we don’t lose any more time in getting some structural planting done. I’m off to a planting masterclass at KLC Design School in London later this week, focusing on trees and shrubs, led by Matthew Childs and Mark Straver (founder of Hortus Loci which I know will help to inform and inspire.
Beating the bounds … and badgers …
When I arrive I usually “walk the perimeter” (beat the bounds?) but I didn’t do this until the following day for some reason. I was disappointed to see that a new access hole had been dug under the fence by what we think are badgers deciding to visit. So I blocked it up with rubble from the garden (mostly debris left from a ramshackle barn which we had demolished at the beginning of last year). Its a rather Heath Robinson (attempt at a) solution but perhaps it will work. Perhaps it won’t … You will see that we have added some chicken wire to the base of the fence to try to keep rabbits out too.
A few people are surprised that we want to keep mammals out of the garden. The reason is that we don’t want them to trash our planting once we start. We are not against wildlife – of COURSE – but they have the whole of France at their disposal on the other side of the fence. They eat tender vegetation and dig holes at random both of which are unwelcome. Are we likely to succeed, or doomed to fail? Time will tell. At least we’ve kept sangliers (wild boar) out so far …
A glorious morning to visit a vineyard
My first vineyard visit was to La Verriere. We were introduced to this wine by some lovely friends, Lawrence and Sally, and have been converts ever since. I had to be at the vineyard at 9 and the sun was shining warmly so it was a glorious drive. I took the opportunity to take a few photos on the way back which somehow summed up the gloriousness of the morning for me.
It might be autumn, but there are still some remnants of summer hanging on.
But there are also many signs of autumn to be seen
I was very taken by these (what I think are) self-sown maize left from a previous year’s harvest, catching the light beautifully.
And this open barn is such a typical sight in our part of rural south-west France, although the palm tree is less often to be seen. Rather an interesting juxtaposition I thought.
I kept seeing swathes of this yellow wild flower on roadside verges. I’m not quite sure what it is. Traffic is so light that I was able to keep stopping the car and jumping out to take photos. Only once did someone want to come past and they waited patiently. There is little to hurry about in our part of the world (except for school run time of course!).
Having subsequently bought several cases of the Grand Mayne fizzy pink I was delighted when our gardening helpers popped round which meant that I could crack open the first bottle and share it with them.
And on another day I had coffee with a friend in the Café de Paris in Eymet, a nearby bastide market town. For some reason I ordered a cappuccino rather than my usual grand café. I won’t be making that mistake again, not being a lover of squirty cream!
There is a beautiful sense of counterpoint to our dual lives, each strand differing from, yet complementing, the other. Our lives in West Sussex are lived in a tiny modern house with a garden smaller than most people’s pools in south-west France. So we tend to go out garden visiting (Garden Bothering?) at the weekends when based in Sussex.
Sometimes we will visit an NGS garden, benefiting from the brilliant new app which makes identifying open gardens so easy. Or we might go to one of local National Trust gardens such as Nymans, sometimes meeting up with other members of the family who make the most of their annual membership to enjoy some very low-cost outings. This last weekend we visited Parham House which is just a few miles from us and a real gem.
Parham House, now owned by a Charitable Trust, is in the top 20 of Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Houses and its foundation stone was laid in 1577. The gardens consist of beautiful pleasure grounds containing a lake and a labyrinth, and a four-acre walled garden. There are also stunning herbaceous borders, a glasshouse, vegetable garden, orchard and a 1920s Wendy House.
The back of the house, looking towards the church
The Fountain Court
When we first moved to West Sussex we brought few plants from our previous family house and garden in Surrey, partly because we preferred to leave everything in place for our successors, partly because I was desperately busy with work in the immediate run-up to the actual move, and partly because our new garden is so small. However I did bring two large potted aeoniums which had been kept going from the previous summer, overwintered in our Surrey greenhouse. We enjoyed them all summer on our warm, sheltered, south-facing patio. As autumn approached, with nowhere safe to over-winter them, I realised that we would either watch them die a slow and painful death or I could look for someone who had facilities to look after them who might welcome receiving them as a gift. Via Twitter, I approached Tom Brown, Head Gardener of Parham House, and he expressed gracious delight at the offer. I duly delivered them to a deserted glasshouse in an equally deserted garden during the lunch break on one of their closed days (and slightly naughtily took the opportunity to spend a few minutes whizzing around a deserted and oh, so, beautiful garden). I’ve stayed in touch with Tom on Twitter (the dreaded aeonium lady, I suspect!) and we’ve visited the plants a couple of times to enjoy seeing them in Parham’s wonderful glasshouse. On Saturday I had the opportunity to meet Tom face to face for the first time and we spoke fondly about the aeoniums …
Parham House hold a number of events throughout each year and we were there on Saturday for the Harvest Fair. The weather was absolutely glorious, clear blue skies and warm sunshine. The event was well organised with plenty to see and do and a number of stalls with items for sale. I found myself buying three books that have been on my wish-list for a while, Nick Bailey’s 365 Days of Colour in Your Garden, Georgie Newbery‘s The Flower Farmer’s Year, and Jinny Blom’s The Thoughtful Gardener. We also signed up for a weekly fruit and vegetable box from Riverford Organic Farmers.
Old carts were on display in the Fountain Court
and a collection of old mowers and similar tools could be seen near the house.
We enjoyed watching a demonstration of dog training with the cutest 5-month old retriever puppy behaving far more impeccably than any fully-grown (supposedly) fully-trained dog I’ve ever owned.
Parham is very dog-friendly, welcoming dogs on leads at all times into the garden. There were plenty visiting on Saturday.
We arrived part-way through Tom Brown and Richard Ramsey of Withypitts Dahlias in conversation about the dahlia trial beds.
Parham House is known for its trial beds, which this year have featured dahlias and zinnias. Huge number of cut flowers are produced for the house, up to 30 buckets each week, Tom said and dahlias and zinnias are obviously ideal for this use. Tom said he is currently obtaining his zinnias from the US in order to get the necessary stem length for use in a vase.
This wonderful display had been created in the main marquee by gardeners and a florist.
And this arrangement at the entrance to the house also caught my eye.
And later we enjoyed listening to Tom talking about highlights of the garden in September/October. He’d kindly listed the plants he talked about.
Tom’s particular pride and joy at the moment is the Lagerstroemia indica located in the Fountain Court which has rarely if ever flowered but is doing so this year with joy and abandon.
I didn’t like to mention that we have a small one newly planted in our French garden, courtesy of a friend visiting last summer, already flowering its socks off.
The garden contains some rather fetching nymphs and cherubs
And there are some interesting doors and frames to be seen
And evidence of irrigation systems from centuries past
And of course we spent a considerable amount of time walking around the garden where we saw some wonderful planting combinations.
Persicaria is a plant that I believe will be important to the planting plans in our French garden and a number of different versions can be seen at Parham
Salvia confertiflora was used in a number of different combinations to great effect. I absolutely love this plant, which I first saw at Great Dixter. I’ve tried to grow it myself without much success but will try again in France.
Many different asters were distributed around the garden, seen here in combination with ammi
And we were interested to see and hear that Tom doesn’t deadhead as assiduously as some gardeners do, preferring to leave flowers to progress through all their stages and then leave seedheads for winter. Here is an ammi showing all stages of the life cycle of the flower which I was rather taken with.
I especially loved these planting combinations
And this plant was rather interesting but we couldn’t remember what it is. Any ideas? We saw just this one example in the garden
Parham House is in an idyllic situation, surrounded by gentle hills of the South Downs and very peaceful … except that from time to time the urgent noise of acceleration is heard from the light aircraft towing gliders into the air from the nearby gliding club. I just caught a glimpse of a glider soaring over the house. Rather a different hobby from Garden Bothering!
Debris from some fig and cherry trees that were badly disfigured
Last Thursday the tree surgeons arrived, two days earlier than originally planned, in order to prepare for Monday’s ErDF disconnection of the mains electricity which runs across the site. I had already decided to make a flying visit, arriving on Sunday (on hand for Monday just in case of issues) and staying for two nights. Sadly this meant cutting short a weekend with some of my oldest friends but that couldn’t be avoided (and as I haven’t missed one in 25 years I hope I will be forgiven).
It was necessary to involve ErDF because a number of the trees overhung the mains power supply and we didn’t want our activity to compromise that or to create safety issues for our contractors.
On arrival at the house I immediately noticed signs of activity, but little if any cut down wood or branches.
I was later to discover that the guys like to take away the wood and brash each day if possible, using their “Ben”.
On Monday morning the guys arrived, Matt with whom I was first in contact, Steve his associate who also does ground works and brings much of the heavy machinery, and Steve’s son Eddie. First things first for them:
Shortly after 9am, ErDF (previously EDF) arrived in force with 3-4 vehicles and a team of about 8 people, both male and female, some being on the team to take the opportunity to cut back some trees further up the line in an adjoining field.
Until the ErDF team arrived on site it wasn’t clear whether they would be able to do more than simply switch off the supply. This section of line feeds about 6 properties and we’d received an email some weeks ago pre-warning that the supply would be interrupted. That was a welcome email as it was the first (and only!) formal written confirmation that something would happen, although I should stress that the ErDF people (liaised with by Steve) were incredibly helpful and efficient once the right man had been located. The very good news was that the team-leader was prepared not only to switch off the supply but also to remove the lines altogether for a period of time. Although ErDF had originally said the supply would be disconnected for six hours (9.30am to 3.30pm) the team-leader told us on arrival that he could only be there until 11.30am as he then had to move on to another appointment. It was suspected that appointment might have been his favourite lunchtime restaurant … Nevertheless, having the lines removed altogether for a period of time gave the tree surgeons the opportunity to drop a number of the trees whole and thus save considerable time and ensure that the area around the lines was completely cleared during this very short window.
I wanted to include some video clips at this point but find that I need to learn how to upload to YouTube and then embed the urls in WordPress. Perhaps if I can quickly do that over the next few days I’ll write a mini-sequel to this post. I have one or two video clips that show the drama of the morning rather well. Here’s a picture of Matt on his cherry picker at furthest extent which gives an indication of the scale. A number of the trees were already down by that time.
We have also made the decision to take out a few of the ornamental trees including the paper mulberry which is an interesting oddity but in our climate far too dangerous in terms of its pioneer habits (otherwise known as rampant suckering).
Taking all these trees down may seem like wanton destruction. But all the trees coming out are either diseased, damaged, dying, or simply long past their best. So we decided to make the brave decision at the outset to avoid problems at a later stage and give us a clean slate for new planting.
We will be planting many new trees in the next months and years which will be far more suitable for the location and purpose of the property. I’ve not had much opportunity to plant trees before so making the right selections will be an interesting and exciting challenge.
And, finally, the sun came out on Tuesday so the guys were able to move their coffee/lunch place back out from under the covered terrace.
After many emails back and forth, meetings at the house, and several other site visits by the tree surgeon and his associates who have also had meetings, phone calls, and exchanged emails with various people and departments at ERDF the decision has been made.
30 poplars will be felled and removed from site, with all roots being either dug or ground out (depending on location). Some chipped material will be left on site for us to use in due course for mulching and/or creating paths in the short term. Heavy machinery will be involved, ERDF will be switching off the mains electricity for a period of time, and the work is likely to take about three weeks starting in the latter half of September.
The “shaving brush” pollarded lime will also go, and one or two other trees will receive minor adjustments to keep their growth away from telephone and mains electricity cables.
This work represents a major financial investment for us, but it is an investment in safety as well as providing us with the blank canvass we need to enable new plantings to be carried out. After the very careful preparatory planning work our tree surgeons have done we are confident that we have engaged the right people to carry out the job carefully and safely.
I’d better make sure I take some before and after photos!
Eating warm, ripe fruit, in the sunshine, straight from one’s own trees is an intense joy that we discovered last summer. We probably won’t be able to grow much, if any, vegetables and salad as we are not at the house full-time, but we can enjoy fruit and nuts we’ve grown ourselves, and we’ve inherited a few useful trees.
We’ve inherited a lovely walnut tree, in the top left-hand, north-west corner of the garden. It has a pleasing shape and creates welcome, dense, cool shade in summer. The grass under the tree grows better than anywhere else in the garden so this is a very good place to sit. I hope to install a tree seat, one that circles the trunk. Internet research has uncovered a wide range of budgets and styles on offer, from quite basic circles (most likely for us!) to sinuous, highly decorative works of art. The partner of the lovely lady who helps us in the house is a carpenter; perhaps he might be able to help? The tree produced many walnuts last year, but we left them to the birds and local wildlife not having the time or resources to collect and store them. Next year …
A hazelnut close to the top boundary with the farmer’s field had long since grown into an unmanageable thicket complicated by various long-decayed structures. It has recently been bulldozed by Digger Dave and fuelled a splendid bonfire; I have no doubt we will replace it in due course, whether as part of hedging or a nuttery I don’t yet know.
A few small fruit trees, including apples, have been planted closer to the house in recent years and I’ve concentrated on some serious pruning this past winter to try and encourage them to increase their fruiting on better-shaped trees. I am not sure whether they have a long-term future in the master plan, but they are good for now.
Two very sweet green figs fruited prolifically last summer/autumn, as did a black fig above the swimming pool. All are badly in need of thinning out and pruning.
Other fruit trees include cherries, black and white, mostly eaten by birds last year, some small, bitter peaches, a caci which didn’t fruit at all last year and which probably doesn’t have much future given that it is directly on the boundary, a medlar, a quince, and a mirabelle which seems to have suffered from last summer’s drought. My one and only previous taste of a medlar was one that “fell off in my hand” at John Brookes’ garden, Denmans (now sadly closed to the public) a few years ago. I was entranced by the toffee apple taste and determined that one day we must have one. Last autumn I picked a number, left them to blet (soften & ripen), then attacked them with excitement. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the number and size of the pips would rather get in the way of the enjoyment of the taste and texture of the flesh. Perhaps they are best transformed into medlar jelly or processed in some other way?
Incidentally, in 2011 we were booked onto a trip called “Gardens of Persia” which was to be led by John Brookes. Iran is a country I’ve always wanted to visit (my travelling great-aunt Doris spoke very highly of her visits there), and the opportunity to visit with John Brookes (who has so many links with the country) was so exciting. Sadly the trip was called off by the tour operator a few weeks before departure as Foreign Office advice changed to “no travel” as a result of an attack on the British Embassy. Finding ourselves with an unexpectedly clear diary we decided to go to an event at the Garden Museum (reopening this week after its amazing redevelopment) and who should be there but John Brookes, also finding his diary unexpectedly clear! We commiserated together.
Cercis siliquastrum – the Judas tree
When we bought the property one tree close to the house had that familiar French look, with one year’s growth in twigs splaying out from each pollarded branch. The OH set about this with excited fervour and re-pollarded it, feeling he had become a real Frenchman in the process. Only the beret was missing. Even after the task had been completed we still had no idea what the tree was. As the spring wore on we soon found out as the distinctive strong pink, pea-like flowers of the Judas tree opened directly from the branches, and we realised that we had probably cut off valuable flowering wood. This year we did no pollarding and intend to prune more selectively after flowering has finished to retain more flowering wood for next spring. The tree is grown widely throughout our part of France, most self-respecting gardens having one. Stunning while in flower, very attractive when in leaf, and then stunning again as its autumn colours develop, it is definitely a keeper.
Right-hand photo shows the tree left unpollarded this spring.
Trees along the drive
A number of ornamental trees line the west side of the drive to the house, and are described below. There is little if any connection between them, almost as if they were just planted randomly when money was available to buy a new one, so the jury is out as to which might stay and which might go. The drive is about 100 metres from the lane to the house, quite straight, and offers the opportunity for some kind of avenue. What we currently have couldn’t possibly fit that description!
Popular in the 60s and (annoyingly) with some vague charm at times, nevertheless the least said the better overall. Did I mention the importance of dealing with its suckers and seedlings?
I don’t know what variety this is. I’d wondered what the thickened girdle around the trunk at head height was and the tree surgeon explained that ornamental cherries are grafted onto tall stems, not at root height like many other trees and shrubs. This might be widespread practice but was news to me. There is a certain beauty in the way the petals fall like snowy confetti, but that’s a very short-lived experience. This one tree doesn’t relate to any others, and the jury is out on whether it stays or goes.
Broussonetia papyrifera – paper mulberry
This is a quite outstanding tree on many levels. I’d never knowingly seen it before and am indebted to Twitter, especially Helen Brown of Little Ash Garden in Devon for identifying it. It is outstanding because of the unusual way the leaves grow in different attractive shapes, sizes, and forms; very attractive. But it is also outstanding because of its invasive nature. In the far East it was originally used in paper making, and then more widely introduced as an ornamental. However it is now included on the Invasive Plant Atlas. Ours had spread extensively and we had to spend many hours cutting these suckers and self-sown seedlings out and shredding the proceeds. Let’s hope those shreddings don’t propagate themselves vegetatively!
The pond area
Calling this area “the pond area” is either rather grandiose (was it catching? – I hope not) or it is looking forward to the future. In fact it is the lowest point of the property so is therefore a natural drainage point and although it isn’t really a pond at the moment it is damp and boggy much of the time so offers opportunities for development.
An area of (probably) self-sown poplar and willow scrub needs to be removed from this area. Two or three other small trees of reasonable decorative interest will probably stay as they provide shade close to the house and the orchids that grow underneath them are a delight.
These include a tilia cordata (small-leaved lime) which is also impinging on wires, this time telephone wires. However, I will fight for its right to continue as the scent of its flowers is quite exquisite, and the sound and sight of the thousands of bees revelling in the experience quite mind-blowing. A little judicious branch thinning can apparently ensure its survival in its current position.
We’ve now received the devis from the tree surgeons. The numbers are eye-watering, but we are talking about the removal of at least 30 trees so perhaps that’s not surprising. We’ve also received a first draft of the master plan from the landscape architect and my next task, after publishing this blog post, is to put together our feedback and thoughts on some aspects to develop further. Having spent much of the last 15 months working on the house, it will shortly be time to begin working on the garden. I can’t wait!
We have inherited a number of trees at Les Vinsonneaux. The estate agent poetically spoke of “driving up through your own parkland” … but that is rather grandiose language to describe what we have which is actually a real mish-mash. There may have been reasons why trees were planted in their positions; but I suspect there was little rationale. They are what they are where they are because of acts of random history. Many of the trees are now in need of considerable work, so this seems an appropriate time to record what we have and where we are in our thinking about their future management. This blog post deals with some of what I will call the big beasts.
Five large plane trees stand guard and mark the entrance to the property. When gates were installed attention had to be paid to their position to ensure sufficient space for vehicles to turn and enter the drive. Digger Dave says they are likely to date from Napoleonic times. Certainly they have been there a very long time and our tree surgeon pointed out that they have grown to form a single crown. High within that crown is a large nest which we thought last year was occupied by buzzards (of which there are many to be seen circling overhead) but this year opinion has changed to kestrels. Might kestrels take over a nest previously occupied by buzzards?
Last spring, the leaves began to wilt and look sorry for themselves shortly after they opened. Internet research indicated that this might be ‘plane wilt’ although our predecessors said “it happens every year”; certainly new leaves grew and the trees seemed healthy for the remainder of the year. We are waiting for our tree surgeon to observe this wilting, if it happens this year, and advise. Of course, the trees are so majestic that we will do what we can to retain them, but safety must always be a high priority and they are close to the lane. If they are infected with plane wilt we are told their life is limited, possibly only ten years from symptoms first becoming apparent. Many hundreds of plane trees are currently being felled along the Canal du Midi for this reason. We hope it will not turn out to be plane wilt as they frame the entrance so well and provide a tangible link to foregone generations. Here’s an article on the BBC website about the problem
A rather charming story tells that French farmers would always plant a stand of poplars to celebrate the birth of a daughter (see this blog post). Once the daughter and the poplars had matured the latter would be felled to produce income for a dowry for the former. The poplars would not be expected to stand for much longer than 20 years or so and indeed some local friends have recently harvested poplars at 15-years old. Ours are very much older than 15-20 years, probably at least three times that age. They are now very tall and long past their best with dying branches which look unsightly and shed dangerously on whoever or whatever is below.
One poplar blew down completely in the March storms (taking out a neighbour’s telephone wire), and others are very close to the main electricity cables. Something Has To Be Done. They will not be missed as they sucker and self-seed all over the place, and were never an ornamental garden tree, always intended to be a crop, but it won’t be an easy task to remove them.
The tree surgeons
We have begun working with a tree surgeon and his associates who have heavy lifting equipment and are now waiting for a devis (estimate) to remove unnecessary or dangerous trees and manage others that we want to keep but which need attention. They have visited a couple of times, and we’ve also had a visit from EDF to review the electricity cables which are compromised. I am hoping that we don’t have to wait much longer for the prices so we know the extent of the works that are possible. There isn’t likely to be much value in the wood that’s taken down, because of its age, but some resale value might help to mitigate costs. We will have considerable need of wood chippings for mulching and low-cost paths, so expect to retain some of the material on site. The tree surgeon asked me how much I’d like, “a couple of cubic metres, five cubic metres?” and looked a little surprised when I responded “a hundred cubic metres?”.
Two large weeping willows occupy a key area of the garden relatively close to the house, creating a distinctive look and offering useful dappled shade in summer. However there is no design rationale to their position as they are far from water so the jury is out as to whether they stay or go. At some point they have been pollarded but that was a long time ago and they have grown in a quite random and uncontrolled way since. They too shed considerable quantities of dead wood that has to be cleared before the grass underneath can be mown, and which also trails in an ugly way before it drops. The tree surgeon suggested they could be re-pollarded; the landscape architect suggested they should go. Decisions will be made in due course.
A large, old common lime tree was severely pollarded about ten years ago and now looks a little like a giant shaving brush. It also suckers extensively around the base of the trunk. Furthermore it is in a key part of the area which will be allocated to a new parking area in the master plan, so a long-term future it does not have. There are plenty of other examples in the gardens, villages and towns around us so the loss of this tree will not be felt adversely.
Leaf fall in autumn
The planes and the poplars particularly produced gazillions of leaves as last autumn progressed, and a hugely pressing problem was what on earth to do with them. The garden is too large and the leaves too numerous to gather them together for leaf mould (at least with the resources we had at our disposal in our first year). We discovered that one way local people deal with heavy leaf cover is to mow over the area, with the mower set to its mulch setting, to pulverise the fallen leaves, and then leave that mulch to rot down across the winter. I did collect some leaves, and put them on to the compost heaps, but generally we adopted this mulching method. Several times over the same area, at right-angles to the last pass, and one could hardly see that any leaves had ever been there. It might not be the ideal solution, but larger gardens demand new and fundamentally pragmatic solutions. I don’t rule out collecting a larger proportion of leaves for leaf mould in the future.
Trees on the skyline
We are able to enjoy many trees far outside our own property, on the skyline particularly on the west side of the property. We experience some amazing sunsets and these trees assume a starring role on these occasions.
Next time I shall write about the fruit, nut, and ornamental trees we have inherited