Category Archives: Thoughts

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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Be careful what you wish for …


And yes – you know, it really is almost the end of September.

I am not a faithful blogger. The last time I sat in front of my WordPress blog, it was late on a July night in Scotland and I was far from my own garden.


Which now looks a (very lovely) mess!


I can’t stop looking at the asters in the garden, buzzing with bees, hover-flies and other insects.


After my first Scottish inspiration blog, some people asked about my roots. I’m a Scots-Canadian (I’ve no English blood at all) who was dragged back and forth across the Atlantic more times than she cares to remember before the age of 11. This may account for my disinclination to go out any more?


My Canadian grandmother and great-aunt were passionate gardeners. The aunt was quite ‘big’ in the gladiolus breeding world in Canada. I have fond, rather lonely, memories of weeks spent on her 2 acres in Ontario. My grannie was … well, just my lovely grannie, and irises and lilacs will forever pop into my head when I think of her.


I went to school in Scotland from the age of 11, and then to the University of Edinburgh. Who couldn’t be won over by the beauty of Scotland (especially if your Canadian ancestors, and yourself, come with a ‘Buchanan’ name tag on them)? And I was so lucky to spend my adolescent years in one of the most beautiful corners of Perthshire.

If I could garden there now … I would in a heartbeat!

Like many Scots I was forced down south to London for work (in publishing) when I was 21 years old. I do hope that this doesn’t happen to young Scots any more, given a more vibrant economy.

Spent much time in the capital and was finally very relieved (being a country girl at heart) to move to a small cottage in Suffolk at the age of 32, after working at Kew and completing the Kew Diploma in Horticulture.


I don’t live in France by choice. It’s a country I never even particularly wanted to visit. I follow my husband’s work.

We were excited back in 2007 when we thought we might be living in Italy. Didn’t happen (I still mourn it). So, I make the very best of where I am and my husband is home much more frequently than he was when we lived in Ireland – sometimes every weekend!

And, since I am such a good, optimistic realist, I am learning to love where I am. What I am particularly learning to love is singing in the French language. How amazing is French as a language of song?

You will hear more about this! Whether you like it or not.


What’s happening in the garden?  Be careful what you wish for …


The Bon Viveur, once again unemployed for over 2 months, is recreating the battle of the Somme in the Hornbeam Gardens. Yes, I know your two great-uncles died there, Nick, but is this really necessary? Even as an remembrance of what happened 100 years ago?

I am assured it will be very lovely (later on) – and much easier to use. I won’t slide on my bum down the wet, grassy slope. But yes, sigh, there are more steps.


And more steps.


It really is all very lovely. I have the arches I have been yearning for and the beginnings of edges to my borders.


But I think even Nick didn’t estimate the amount of earth moving involved.

Looking down to the recently planted area in the shrub part of the lower Hornbeam Gardens. What a mess!



I’ve been fiddling in the veggie garden. I terraced this about 2 years ago. It was a continual slope and I had a deep desire to have some flat beds to work with. Last year I took both box and Lonicera nitida cuttings to make an edge to the terraces.


It worked! Most have rooted, so this is a good plan for we gardeners who are ‘financially challenged’.

Now I am doing a ‘motorway’ style planting to retain the banks on the slopes, again with direct-stuck cuttings. I’ve no idea if this will work.

It’s an experiment. On the top slope, direct-stuck cuttings of Lonicera nitida (should be ok).


On the lower slope, lavender cuttings – I doubt this, but if you don’t try you don’t find out.


I spray them over every evening.

The veggies have not been completely disastrous this year, considering I started very late. Broad beans always do well on our heavy clay (I do an autumn and a spring sowing). French beans can’t fail.

Best sweet corn in the last four years.


The broccoli is desperately late, but still good when picked and cooked. Brassicas only do well in this garden early or late – they hate heat and flourish when the nights are cooler.


Lower down the soft fruit garden is ready to plant this autumn.


And I’m finally going to create my huge herbaceous borders in the orchard, under the four Prunus ‘Tai-haku’.

Unfortunately I did a bit of glyphosate weed control down here (apologies to those who don’t approve).


Meanwhile, I’m so glad I have so many asters in the garden – they are alive with peacock butterflies and bees at the moment. I’m almost coming to enjoy the insects more than the flowers. And for that I have to thank other blogs that have opened my eyes. Look here


And, about 5 months after planting, Cobaea scandens is finally managing to produce more than one flower at a time.


I haven’t forgotten the ‘Scottish Inspiration’ posts – they are up my sleeve for a rainier, less busy day. Hope to see you again soon.










In a vase for Clare


This post is inspired by Cathy’s meme, In a Vase on Monday, but I am not linking in to it because my thoughts today have a more personal, rather than a horticultural, inspiration.

Do go over and see everyone’s vases, they are bound to be beautiful.

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A small group of us in north-eastern France had a very special friend called Clare who passed away last week at the age of only 67.

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Clare taught me many things about giving and loving. Her last words to me on 30 June were: ‘I want to come and see the garden!’

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That’s a huge and very special gift from one gardener to another … like musicians, we work all on our own, trying to create something that may never be appreciated by someone else.

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But we are unstoppable nonetheless! The strangeness of the inspired human being ..

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Last week was a turbulent week, wasn’t it? As we watched the Bastille Day fireworks from the garden of friends in Haute-Saône, little did we know of the horror that was taking place in Nice. Poor France. Hollande is correct – we are truly at war.

These  events have been a reminder to me (and I often need one!) that we need to hug our loved ones close today, because there may be no tomorrow.


I picked my first really big bunch of sweet peas last week (late, because of our season). They were simply gorgeous. I gave some to Clare, and I’m giving the rest to you – my friends in north-eastern France, in memory of our very special friend. I just want her picture on my (very public) diary …

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Dig this!

Croqueurs 162 Once upon a time there was a rather overweight 31-year-old female gardener who worked in a large English botanic garden. Each winter we (yes – it was me!) had to double-dig the order beds.

For those unaccustomed to botanic gardens, the order beds are the area lingering from the original botanic garden purpose – the place where the living specimens of plants are laid out according to someone’s botanical system – I think ours was laid out according to Bentham & Hooker’s scheme.

One January I decided to go on a diet, but I was also double-digging the order beds for about six hours each day and cycling 6 miles to work – then back again.

This is not my favourite winter on record.

I remember going back into the mess room for tea break one day. One of my colleagues suddenly said, ‘Will someone please hit me over the head with a spade?’ We were all stunned, our chatter silenced – Malcolm never said anything at all (and I mean, not a word). Suddenly here it was, the awful elephant, trunk raised in protest … We all earned our living doing something that would devastate our bodies, earn very little money and bore us to death in the process. Why?

Malcolm lived in a very tiny bedsit – he was probably about my age now when he made that comment. Worth, perhaps, giving to Perennial, the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society for retired gardeners? Out with the romanticism and in with the reality, I say.Tree Following February 062

So I don’t really like digging – that’s the point, in case you’re slow on the uptake.

When I moved to a lovely little cottage in Suffolk a few years later, I remember admiring my neighbour’s grandfather. He was in his eighties and went out to dig her plot with great vigour and enjoyment. (Why wasn’t she doing it? She was in her twenties.) He’d been the head gardener at Grundisburgh Hall before he retired, and clearly relished digging, even if it was only for the sake of the veggies. The philosophy of ‘digging’ is complex, and I’ve had plenty of time to ponder it over the last thirty odd years.

Years later I was working as supervisor of the order beds in another botanic garden. That’s a working supervisor. Myself, one other female colleague, and a student had to dig the beds every winter. I will pass quickly over the terrible fantasies suffered by one schizophrenic student (clinically diagnosed, on medication) forced to do this. Unfortunately I had informed her (in my stupidity) that our beds lay over a medieval Jewish cemetery.Tree Following February 099

My full-time colleague and I used to laugh, because when she went home to her husband and two children every night she admitted (to me, at least) that she crept into the marital bed still wearing the dirty t-shirt she’d been wearing during the day because she was so exhausted.


Such are the joys of digging!

My husband will confirm to anyone interested that probably my worst ‘complaining day’ has been digging a bed for planting potatoes in our previous garden in Ireland. It was really difficult, I promise you, and given the number of tree roots we really shouldn’t have been planting potatoes anyway!

Fast forward to today’s digging on 5 March 2015. I had a ball. When I’m digging with pictures of beautiful plants in my head – this is a totally different experience. Visions of Hydrangea sargentiana var. villosa and Viburnum plicatum ‘Watanabe’ dance in my head tonight. And thank goodness someone taught me how to do it!

How do you feel about digging – or how do you avoid it?

Ok – yes, I haven’t been ‘following you’, as promised in my last post. This last fortnight has been truly horrendous, but we’ll pass quickly over the details. The nicest thing that came out of it all is that a friend taught me a French country motto, which is kind of the equivalent to ‘it’s not the end of the world’. ‘C’est pas la fin des haricots’ [‘It’s not the end of the French beans’], she said to me one night, when I was recounting my woes (her own family situation is many times worse).Tree Following February 066

I love things like that – things that remind of us of how hard life used to be and how lucky we are now. Everyone still bottles French beans in brine furiously at the end of summer around here. Just imagine coming to the end of those precious summer treasures, laid by in the sunny days, and imagine living for at least a month, maybe two, without anything green to eat at all? You’ll feel better, I promise! (If you don’t, it may be time to consider eating more healthily?)

Meanwhile – here are parting shots of the ‘simples’ garden belonging to the museum at Châtillon-sur-Saône. In a way ‘simples’ gardens (for useful culinary and medicinal herbs) are the early relatives of the order beds.

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Come visit next year? We are currently renovating, and it should be lovely when we’ve all done our bit.

Following You!

Galanthus 030There’s lots going on in the garden at the moment. I’m laying out the bones of the Hornbeam Gardens, enjoying my snowdrops and hellebores, and sowing sweet pea seed as well as vegetables. (See my pictures below.) But I find it so hard to post myself and take a look at what you’ve been doing. So I’m taking a (sort of) week off to catch up with you. I know whose blogs I’m catching up with. Let me know if I’m missing something!

Next Sunday I’m coming back with an update on the garden and the last of my special plant purchases.

Looking straight down onto the Hornbeam Gardens

Looking straight down onto the Hornbeam Gardens

Looking a little further to the right, towards the 'Orchard'

Looking a little further to the left, towards the ‘Orchard’

Walking out of the Hornbeam Gardens towards the Orchard

Walking out of the Hornbeam Gardens towards the Orchard

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Shrivelled but carrying on doing what it does!

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Galanthus ‘Sam Arnott’. See the flower, totally unsullied, pushing its way through the leaf cover? If only we could be so determined!

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My bravest snowdrop (‘Sam Arnott) again.

Did you ever make ‘rooms’ by raking leaves when you were small? I did. Sometimes I feel I’ve never stopped …

Some flowers for Charlie

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I was not on the streets marching today, either in Paris or Épinal (my closest town). Only because I don’t like large crowds. But my heart was with the others, nevertheless. In the afternoon the sun came out for the first time during this terrible week and I went out into the garden. It was like a blessing, and I’m sure the millions in the streets of France felt it too.

France is not an easy place for the ‘outsider’. Moslems and others –  particularly the Roma – are frequently marginalised and often ignored. It sometimes seems that French democracy is a thing reserved for those who are French, but only as long as their faces are white.

We have no vote here. You have to be French-born or naturalised to vote in France. But we pay our taxes. This has always seemed strange to me. This is, after all, the country that inspired the American Revolution with its cry of ‘no taxation without representation’. And it can make you feel as if your voice is of no importance – that one is merely ‘permitted’ to live here.

I remember travelling over country roads to Dijon a couple of summers ago with a friend and saying how lovely it was to suddenly see so many sheep. I come from Scotland, where you have to dodge them on the road in spring; young lambs always seem to me to express joie de vivre more than any other living creature – and they make me feel at home. ‘They didn’t used to be here’, she told me, with a bit of a sneer in her voice. ‘It’s only because there are so many Moslems now – it’s a huge market.’ A shiver ran down my spine.

Backlash against ‘the other’ this week has been a little frightening for those living in a region where a sizeable proportion of the population votes Front National. Le Pen’s statement yesterday did nothing to make one feel any more comfortable: ‘Désolé, mais je suis pas Charlie’.

But today, as I say, the sun came out in affirmation of the values of this secular republic. Not just liberty, equality and fraternity, but an articulate and loving rejection of hatred and intolerance. As the marchers had it: ‘I am a Jew; I am a policeman; I am Charlie!’ And a heart-warming: ‘They missed!’ Moslems, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Christians – all singing the Marseillaise. Tonight I feel proud of, and inspired by, my adopted country. Perhaps something powerfully good can come from this tragedy?

I was not on the streets today, but my heart was. Here is my bunch of January flowers for those who lost their lives this week.

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On est tous Charlie!