A fortnight in April: cool, damp, and much progress

We set off from Sussex with a car packed to the gunwales with the usual random collection of items, this time mainly plants.

 

Our drive to Portsmouth is quick and straightforward (apart from the 11 roundabouts around Chichester) and we were smoothly on to the ferry.

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where we quickly dumped our small bag in the cabin and went straight to the restaurant for dinner. Brittany Ferries put on an interesting selection of cold buffet for starters, followed by an OK main course and pudding. The wine list offers very good value. Eating dinner at a table near a window, watching Portsmouth Harbour gradually disappear, is a good way to pass a couple of hours until early bedtime.

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Sleeping in a 2foot wide cabin berth isn’t easy, and dawn comes with some relief. On this occasion it was also particularly beautiful as we arrived at St Malo.

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Soon after arrival we received a delivery of garden furniture from Sustainable Furniture in the UK, via a highly-recommended transport company working between UK and France, Safe Hands Haulage. I’ve been wanting to instal a tree seat around the walnut tree ever since the first summer when we discovered what beautiful shade exists in that spot in the hottest part of the summer.

 

And we also now have a few more garden benches to distribute around, not to give the “care home” experience but to provide coffee- and wine-stop opportunities during busy days.

We enjoyed a relaxing country walk with some friends and their dogs in nearby woodland, walking along ancient chemins, through small settlements, and alongside fields.

 

I saw the first banksia rose at close up. It wasn’t a particularly exciting specimen but made me more determined to ensure we plant one at some point, somewhere in the garden. They really are quite exquisite.

And a clump of lily of the valley was still looking good, despite growing in a wholly unsuitable place from where it will be moved on my next visit I hope. At the moment it is across the entrance to the new exotic garden; it will be moved to live under hedging.

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Traditionally, French people give each other posies of lily of the valley (muguet) on 1st May. Ours, being in a sunny spot, will be well and truly over by 1st May.

The irises we inherited are looking good. These also need some attention, both to move them into more suitable positions and to divide and separate congested old clumps.

 

French gardens are frequently full of the most wonderful varieties of bearded iris.

The roses on the front of the house are opening up.

 

The red rose is a beautiful strong form, packed full with petals. Unfortunately it has absolutely no perfume whatsoever (and I have a sensitive nose). The pale pink rose on the old tobacco barn (which forms a covered terrace at the side of the house) is perfumed. The virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) on the right side of the house is now growing back after it was completely cut away when the new shutters were fitted. We thought we wanted to get rid of it but it had other ideas and determinedly grew back; we are pleased with the result! This is a post with “warts and all” and the front step (originally the base for a lean-to porch many years ago) needs some attention. Its on the list …

 

As we arrived at the house and stopped at the entrance to open the gates there was a distinct sense of “ah, its becoming a garden”. Rather exciting. The planting in the front garden (originally mown grass punctuated randomly by many old and decaying poplars) is intended to eventually create a woodland feel, with upper storey trees, middle-storey shrubs, and all underplanted with small shrubs, bulbs and herbaceous.

The hedge we planted the winter before last is beginning to establish.

 

It is a mixed hedge of plants that are ornamental and/or have some edible characteristics. Our intention is to keep it only loosely clipped so that it billows and has some form of its own, as a link to the countryside around.

The shrubs and trees we planted last winter are also establishing well. Here are some:

A Gingko Biloba

 

A Crataegus Laevigata Pauls Scarlet

 

An Amelanchier Lamarckii

 

And a Cornus Controversa Variegata

 

Is it normal for the leaves to be rather droopy on these?

And then some of the shrubs and trees we inherited are also looking just fine.

 

Solanum alba growing up over a corner of the covered terrace (formerly tobacco barn), a chaenomeles, a very fragrant white lilac, the medlar and kaki trees; all good.

 

The rose garden is coming on with most if not all of the roses having started to put on weight. I spent a lot of time weeding this area as I want to try and ensure that any last remains of couch grass or other pernicious weeds are removed before it really gets going. The paths are currently very messy, but keeping them regularly strimmed will soon get them into shape. These photos don’t really do it justice to be honest.

And then there are some extremely “warts and all” areas to be found, including the grass/weeds prolifically growing along the boundary with the adjacent field, a large pile of weeds already grassing over (needs to be moved quickly!!), a carefully planted (last year) line of oleanders which have caught the winter weather rather badly, the ever present pile of twigs and branches which blow down from the large plane trees, weeds (always weeds), the driveway being washed away by a heavy deluge of rain, a flight of steps that doesn’t exist yet, a large pile of topsoil that needs a digger to deal with it, and a bonfire that needs a chain-saw before it can complete its life as a bonfire.

 

The pond is also a very warts and all area. We inherited it and have grown fond of the concept of having a pond (and the goldfish who continue to grace us with their presence despite absolutely no attention at all), but it definitely needs some redesign. It needs to be bigger for a start. And we need to get rid of the horsetail. Having had an allotment for several years we grew to hate horsetail. Although this is an ornamental version it shows too many similarities to the allotment variety and needs to be eliminated before it spreads its wings too far. It has already shown some signs of wanting to creep …

 

The old animal trough is currently supporting some self-sown aquilegias, some rooted offshoots of rosemary shoved into it by me, and some weeds. The well is next to the trough and is on our list of items to tackle as soon as we can. I feel nervous about not knowing how safe it is, and want to redo it such that there is a proper safe wall around it and a grille over the top. France (and perhaps other countries too?) has well specialists, I don’t remember their name … This area will be one of the final areas of the garden to be developed, as it is the access route for heavy machinery which is still needed to finish off the pool work and the new roof (starting within the next week or two).

A fleeting highlight is the Phacelia Tanacetifolia, self-seeded from last year’s annual flower sowing in the top soil scraped off from the car park area. Its growing in a place we don’t want to be wild (there’s actually a baby hornbeam hedge under there) but decided to enjoy it this year. Hopefully it will pop up again somewhere else next year.

 

Bees and other pollinators love it, and it has very good vase life with a fragrance that will fill a room. French farmers often grow it as a winter cover/green manure crop or along field margins. We notice more of that kind of agricultural planting in France than we do in the UK.

And then the journey home to Sussex, driving through quiet roads north to Caen for an overnight ferry back to Portsmouth. Through the Charente and into the Loire area we saw great swathes of these flowers growing by the side of the motorway. We were able to stop at one of the many road side stops, aires, (many of which just have a parking area and an – always clean – loo) and get a close up view.

 

I wasn’t sure what they were so posted the photos up in a Facebook group focusing on European wildflowers. It turns out they are Asphodelus, possibly alba although I think myself more likely cerasiferus. I didn’t think to get close up to test whether they have any perfume. Wikipedia is, as always these days, helpful on the topic.

After a quick dinner at an aire with a petrol station and a restaurant we reached Caen, navigated past a few sad yet hopeful people looking for (almost certainly illegal) transport across the Channel, and on to our ferry for a surprisingly good night’s sleep. The crossing was shared with some (distinctly middle-aged looking) French bikers, queuing up for the ferry at Caen before departure and then, coincidentally, parked just in front of us on arrival at Portsmouth.

 

And so resumed our Sussex life, for the time being, until our next visit.

Edit: a well specialist is a puisatier (thanks to Helen for the reminder)

 

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