Category Archives: French gardens to visit

Delphiniums and other dreams


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Euphorbia x martinii & Tulipa praestans

This site is called ‘Garden Dreaming at Chatillon’, but I never really write about the main dream. Today, when the dream seemed so far away, I refocused and pondered whether or not I actually needed some help in the garden.

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Tulip ‘Sweet Impression’. Still flowering since planting in autumn 2014. Definitely a ‘stayer’.

Since I was about 26 years old my biggest dream has been to have a very large, very beautiful garden and to share its beauty with other people. Sad, I know, but that’s kind of the way some of us think. That dream led me through endless evening classes in London, jobs in parks departments and finally to RBG Kew, where I did rather well.

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Narcissus ‘Peeping Jenny’.  I add to them every year.

Ok – there were other dreams too. I wanted, for instance, to be an excellent flautist (now I am the worst flautist in the local orchestra). I also wanted to be a passing good artist (I love it, but find very little time to do ‘the work’). I also dreamed of playing the violin (I still do, but the cats leave the room).


News today! Narcissus poeticus ‘Actaea’ is flowering. So sweetly scented and one of my favourites, but later this year with the cold weather and rain.

That’s life, isn’t it: if you don’t dream and reach, what are you?

I’m about 1 and a half months behind with work in the garden at the moment (there are very good reasons, but I won’t bore you with details).

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The veg plot is a mess. But there are broad beans, and soon there will be peas!

And it’s going to be open to the public for the first time on Sundays May 27 and June 10 under the Jardins Ouverts scheme here in France. Today I looked at the garden and thought: how can you possibly say that this garden is worth looking at? It’s a mess! Sometimes I think it looks a bit like a four-year-old’s drawing of what a garden should be!

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Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii doing its thing in the (weedy) Mirror Garden

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The steps by which visitors will enter the garden. The hazel at the bottom of the steps needs a close eye kept on it – otherwise people will feel less than welcomed!

Moreover, since I now write a monthly column in an Anglo-French paper called The Connexion, I have a very small reputation to keep up. Ok, so I am a trained horticulturist and I do know what I’m talking about. But it’s starting to feel like ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’.

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The Hornbeam Gardens, where I was working today. Weeds – and scarce a delphinium in sight!

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The geranium and grass border in the Hornbeam Gardens is now overrun by weeds and Saponaria officinalis. I was attracted by the knowledge that the National Trust still clean their fabrics using a solution concocted from this plant.  I had no experience of its desperate tendency to run – and only the odd tapestry to clean.

There are weeds everywhere (I can rationalise and say that most of my borders were virgin soil in 2012 to 2015, and I’m still getting rid of field weeds, but how is that going to help me when people are actually walking around this place?)

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My little Magnolia stellata still braving it out on its weedy bank. Another slope in our garden planned to be ‘managed’ with thick shrub plantings … cough, a natural planting?

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So pleased that the cowslips like us – they are early this year, I think.

So, what I think I need is something called a ‘WWoofer’. The daughter of my Canadian cousin introduced me to this idea when she stayed with us in 2015. She was working her way around Europe, mostly cooking (magnificently) for other people on organic farms. WWoofers are young people who travel round organic smallholdings and are given bed, board and ‘knowledge’, in exchange for their physical labour. When she spoke to me about the concept, I really didn’t take it seriously. Now I’m tempted. Any WWoofers wanting a month in north-east France apply here!

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In the midst of everything I did still manage to replace my hazel clematis supports in the Rose Walk. Not bad – the previous lasted 3 years and I would have spent a lot of money on something that rots just as fast as the hazel I already have growing here.

The delphiniums of the title are another dream gone bad. I have spent so much money on them since the Bon Viveur forced this passion on me about 3 years ago. They have systematically died away after giving their best. His was a passing whim, but now mine is a real addiction.

Long nights over the winter trying to work out why I lost them. The answer is probably that I’m growing (or rather, buying and killing) the ‘Pacific Giant’ series that were bred in on the west coast of the States in the 20th century. They were specifically bred as biennials/short-lived perennials. Which is why they are much cheaper than your standard Blackmore and Langdon type. So, having established that I am buying cheap, short-lived delphiniums, what’s the next move?

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The greenhouse is just grand (although not properly set up yet) and I finally have seedlings germinating that will not be lop-sided.

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Annual lupin ‘Blue Javelin’ making a dramatic showing today.

I decided this year to buy yet a few more cheap Pacific Giants (one is already dead, still in the pot!) …

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My pathetic delphiniums …

… and to invest in some seed of a new New Zealand strain which is bred to be truly perennial. (I could also invest in Blackmore and Langdon plants – I may still! – but it would set me back about £70 for 6 plants, including delivery to France). So, I now have two packets of seed from the ‘New Millenium’ strain (‘Super Stars’ and ‘Pagan Purples’), courtesy of Jelitto Seeds in Germany.

I will be sowing them this week – more internet research here! – after leaving them to moisten for 48 hours in the embrace of 2 damp towels. I hope to goodness this works! Delphiniums are an expensive habit. Watch this space if you are unfortunate enough to share this addiction …

Gone are the days when I used to pride myself on not losing plants!

What’s your dream – and do you have any tips for keeping the dream alive when all seems lost?

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The irises of Merian Gärten, Basel

Botanic Garden.19 May 2011 023I am waiting for the irises to bloom here. The buds are large and tempting.

While waiting (and looking at irises on the blogs of other gardeners), I was reminded of a perfect iris collection that used to be only a bus and tram ride away from where I lived in Alsace. The pictures are not great, but I thought I’d share the garden all the same.

The iris collection at the Merian Gärten, Basel, is a ‘must-see’ if you are in Basel during May. I’ve tagged this as a ‘French’ garden to visit, which of course it is not, because Basel is in Switzerland.  I hope you’ll forgive, because the French border is so close – and the life so cross-pollinating between the two peoples – it hardly makes a difference. If you do visit Basel in May, you’ll find more than one beautiful park  created around the homes of some of the richest people to live in the city during the 19th & 20th centuries.

Botanic Garden.19 May 2011 009This garden used to be the estate of a wealthy agriculturist, Christoph Merian, and is open from dawn until dusk every day.

If you are there for the irises you should make sure you catch the wonderful peonies too.

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Botanic Garden.19 May 2011 011There is also an 19th century orangery and an excellent cafe (opening at 9am) at the back of what I believe must have been the original Merian home, which you saw in my first picture. The Swiss, Germans and Austrians really know how to handle a coffee break.

I’m afraid I don’t know the names of any of the cultivars in my pictures. I was too busy drooling and falling in love.

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Botanic Garden.19 May 2011 033When we first bought our house here at Châtillon, the Merian Gärten had worked a bit of magic and I fancied creating long ribbons of iris colour down in the area we call the Orchard. I still haven’t done it – that’s the last area of garden to come under cultivation, and I’m due to tackle it this autumn and winter. In the picture below, it is just above the area where the grass circle has been cut around the young walnut.


The straight lines of colour would run out, away from the terraced garden and house (I thought). I’ve changed my mind now, on account of the sulky nature of the iris for 90 per cent of the year. There will be herbaceous plantings instead (probably featuring a lot of grasses, to cope with heat). But the irises will, for sure, find a home. I think everyone reading will understand when I say: ‘I want MORE!’

Meanwhile, our own Iris Garden is lovely and tidy – last Friday it was waiting for the first blooms to open.


We named this terrace for the wild iris that the previous owner had planted along the base of the main south-facing wall. These have been replaced with fancier cultivars and  I’ve added irises to the right of the box hedge you can see below (it needs weeding at the moment, but I’m frightened to break any buds).


Wild irises are already flowering on the walls behind the Rose Walk …


… just below the level of the Mirror Garden.


In the Rose Walk itself the iris I call Iris pallida (rightly or wrongly) is flowering. A few rhizomes were stolen from the village street where it grows wild and gives a lot of joy in May (see my last Wordless Wednesday post, and don’t tell anyone here that I’m nothing but a common thief).


And, since Sunday, Dutch iris ‘Gypsy Beauty’ has struck up a bit of a dance in the Rose Walk.


As of Tuesday, we had the first Iris Garden blooms from ‘Forrest Hills’. All my named cultivars arrived here in 2014 as two discount collections and have already been moved once (in August 2015). The collections were from Peter Beales and Jacques Briant. I didn’t really rate the rhizomes from the French nursery much – they were tiny and have taken forever to establish, whereas Peter Beales’ collection are romping away and all have buds this year.

‘Forrest Hills’ is the one that has produced the biggest, happiest clump in those two years.


This terrace is also where I’m planting crocuses in the grass (you can tell I ‘grew up’ in a botanic garden – there’s a sad botanical logic to my madness). Of course, the foliage of the crocuses is a bit of a nuisance when you start mowing in late April/early May, but worth it for the pleasure of them in February.

There’s lots to come – I’ll leave you with a promising bud of one of my favourites, ‘Foggy Dew’. Still waiting …




The beauty of hornbeam

Berchigranges + granges 001For some time I’ve been meaning to share pictures of a garden about a two-hour drive from here, much deeper into the Vosges mountains and the département des Vosges, but still in the same administrative region as Châtillon-sur-Saône.

The Vosges are a very old range of mountains. Their antiquity means that the peaks are not jagged and spectacular, more mellow and rolling.

When I lived in Alsace, near Basel, we used to be able to see the Vosges to one side of our town and the mountains of the Black Forest in Germany to the other. Their shapes mirrored each other perfectly.

I was often inspired to paint while looking at the mountains from the dirty pavements of Saint-Louis. And I was struck by the epithet (later used politically) coined in 1893 by Jules Ferry, a French statesman and politician: ‘La ligne bleue des Vosges’. The blue line of the Vosges, which Ferry wanted to face from his home town of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges when he was buried. Blue-green, misty and enticing on a hot summer’s day, emerging from the flat, heavily populated plain of Alsace.

From the plains


Don’t be fooled by the gentleness of these big hills. The Americans fought some of their  harshest campaigns during the Second World War in the Vosges, when they came from the south of France and used the mountains as a doorway to liberate Alsace from the Germans.


They came in the autumn of 1944 and the following winter was the coldest on record.

Nowadays people take happier advantage of the snow and cold. There are areas near the small town of Gérardmer in the Parc National des Ballons des Vosges where skiing is a big industry.

The Jardin de Berchigranges

Thierry Dronet came to Berchigranges, close to Gérardmer, in 1978 to establish his carpentry workshop on the site of an old 1950s granite quarry, planted with spruce after 1960. He built the blue chalet-style house you saw in the first picture and dreamed of  opening up the landscape and reinstating the wild flora typical of the region.

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In 1990 he met his future wife, Monique, who was running a plant nursery nearby and was in love with the cottage garden style – and from there the garden grew.

The land that drops away from the house reflects Thierry’s original plans, but the garden itself is much more formal. Here even the daffodils stand to attention. I can almost see Thierry getting his ruler out and measuring distances between bulbs as he plants. Aside from that minor flaw, the garden is a real pleasure in an area bereft of ‘good’ gardens (whatever that means!).

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They had to cut down thousands of spruce, relocate tonnes of rock and order in 200 lorry-loads of topsoil, not to mention collecting thousands of plants. A little perspective on my own strimming and digging?

If you go to visit the Jardin de Berchigranges, it is Thierry on his own that you see beetling about the grounds. However, he now has a staff of (I think) about 11 to help him cut the hedges, so don’t panic when you see the pictures that follow!

It’s the hedges I’ll focus on in this post. The pictures come from two separate visits, timed to coincide with the narcissus days they celebrate each year towards the end of April – hundreds of cultivars have been planted over the years.

I love they way they display cut narcissus on tables in the garden. Each bloom, with its name in a little jar. Just like being back at Vincent Square and visiting a Royal Horticultural Society spring show.

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Berchigranges 059Berchigranges 006There’s also a small nursery attached to the garden – one of only two places that I can actually drive to and buy decent herbaceous plants around here. Otherwise it’s mail order only.

The first year I visited (2014) the hedging was far more advanced than the second year (2015). The pictures from the two visits below have the advantage of showing the development of the bones of the structure into foliage cover.

Bienvenue au Jardin de Berchigranges  …

The Pinball Garden

Hornbeam hedges (much better in heavier soils and wetter conditions than beech) demonstrate how well plants can perform to give structure to a garden. The Jardin de Flipper lies at the top of the garden’s slope – inside it you are almost lost as if in a maze. Outside you look up to a colossus mimicking the ramparts of an imposing castle.

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And slightly later in a warmer season …

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Since I’ve recently planted a ‘walled’ garden made with hornbeam myself, I took particular note of planting distances for the hornbeam and the way in which each plant has gained full height before being clipped – this makes the hedges just as (if not more) spectacular when not in leaf.

Chambre des Dames

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Close to the Jardin de Flipper is the entrance to the Dames’ Room. I could have typed ‘women’s room’ there as a translation, but aside from making the area sound as if it was a outdoor toilet, there is an almost medieval feel to the garden that seems to demand we be ‘dames’ here. It’s a walled garden of hornbeam, in which to sit peacefully out of the wind and savour the scented plantings that the garden features (although not in April!) It also allows a closer appreciation of the beauty of hornbeam hedges.

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And a little later in a warmer season …

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The Pyrus salicifolia Hedge

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Well, I think it’s Pyrus salicifolia! And easily my favourite feature in the garden. The terracing in this sharply sloping position is, as you can see, created with logs and there is a serpentine path that winds below the hedge, just as the garden drops to the wilder valley. I believe (but am not sure) that this is the boundary of the Garden of Garlic & Ouch (Jardin Ail et Ouille). Plants from arid habitats – spines, grey-foliage and, of course, alliums – feature there, in the terrace garden to the left of my picture above. The hedge forms the boundary.

Does it matter if I’m right or wrong? This hedge and terracing are simply stunning.

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And a little later in a warmer season …

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If you are interested to find out more about Berchigranges, have a look at the Jardin de Berchigranges website.

I was quite keen on the idea of attending a workshop on perennials due to be held in May 2016, but then I noticed the cost was 95€ for the day (including a lunchtime meal – which would be a big affair, this is France!)

Still, they have to keep those hedges clipped somehow …

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Visiting the Jardin d’Ode

Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 048This post is really just to prove two things: first, that I do, occasionally, go out; and secondly that Lorraine has more gardens worthy of a visit than one might imagine.

I wouldn’t say we were a Mecca for garden lovers, but the gardens are there, if you know where to look.

Last week I visited this woodland garden, the Jardin d’Ode, with some friends. We were mainly in search of plants to buy. The garden is run by a mother/father/son team and they have a small nursery attached. Unfortunately they were in the midst of a massive upheaval and many of the plants were doing an unlabelled walkabout or were too tiny to sell.

But the garden itself is worth the visit. Romantic plantings of aquilegia, foxgloves, geraniums and so forth, all in a rather dreamy, but intimate, setting. When I was there last year the owners described it to us as a ‘jardin à l’anglais’. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 009 Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 006 Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 049 Yes – it’s really rather romantic as gardens go … Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 032 As romantic as this photographer! Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 002 This is a smallish garden (the whole site, including the nursery, is just over an acre).There are a number of different styles and areas under development, but the heart and genesis of the garden has clearly been the shelter provided by mature trees.

I do wish I’d asked if the owners had planted them themselves … One of those trees I recognise, I think, as a result of my walnut investigation!Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 030 Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 031 Lorraine is definitely not as hot as some areas in France (we rarely experience true drought, although watering at the moment is becoming a bit of a bore). But the plants will nevertheless appreciate the overhead canopy and it’s nice to see that they are happy snuggling up to what appears to be a Juglans regia.

As well as birch, which can be tricky in a woodland garden because they are such greedy, surface-rooting trees. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 008 And a cool pond to rest the visitor on a hot day. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 057 There are newer plantings of shrubs and small trees as well. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 021 Such as this wonderful Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 076 And what is rather an interesting attempt at a cloud-pruned Lawson’s cypress or perhaps a thuja? I’m not very interested in these conifers – pines being my only conifer loves – so I didn’t move in closer for a look, apologies. [Note added Saturday 13 June: a friend suggested – and I’m pretty sure he is correct – that this is actually a Juniperus media ‘Hetzii’. Have a look at the link here if you are interested.]

The rather pretty ‘cloud-pruned one’ marks the way to a change of mood in a Japanese-style garden where rhododendrons surprised my eye, simply because I can’t grow them here and I live only about a half hour away. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 065 Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 066 Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 023Best of all, the owners seem to have a bit of a ‘seat’ obsession. I heartily approve. The Jardin d’Ode taught me very clearly that I should be looking at brocantes (junk/antique dealers – even in agricultural equipment) for garden furniture and other items worth painting up.

I loved this chair and table in the ‘bambooserie’ (although I noticed that they had had to hack away at the surrounding bamboos a bit to restrain their enthusiasm). Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 025Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 027 And places to shelter from the hot sun: a seat at the end of a rose pergola and a gazebo which should provide for the tired garden aficionado in years to come when its roses are really up and running. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 016 Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 018 One did really feel the underlying structure without seeing massive evidence of expenditure in the form of expensive paving, pergolas or summerhouses. I think that’s quite a clever trick. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 041 And I wish I had one of these! Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 069 They do well here to add a new area of the garden every year, given that it seems only three of them work it. The last time I visited there was no trace of what has (out from under cover of the trees) become a succulent garden – quite astounding to see opuntias flourishing in Lorraine with our regular -15 winter lows. Or am I demonstrating my lack of opuntia knowledge? Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 053 A few plants leapt up and said ‘look at me!’ For instance this plant, growing up through metal hoops. I think it could be a herbaceous clematis and took the picture to ask before I left, then promptly forgot. Any thoughts? Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 001 And what a lupin! Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 042 This graceful peony was much more apricot in colour than my picture shows. Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 011 Tree Following & Jardin d'Ode 073 As I said, there are only three of them making this charming garden. What a place to enjoy the fruits of your labour at the end of a long summer’s day. Do visit Jardin d’Ode either virtually by taking a look at their website – or you could always visit in reality and stay overnight at Châtillon-sur-Saône!