Monday, 25 November 2019

The Local Buzz...all about life in SW France

Le Jardin Paysan has just started blogging for a popular SW magazine  - The Local Buzz. We have added a link to the magazine's blog at the bottom right of this website, but here is my first contribution - perfect for November; get those leaves swept up and stacked ready to become beautiful leaf mould in about a year's time:

Waiting for those last leaves to fall - usually in the last week of November

As I sit looking out of the window on a rainy November day I get the sense that the garden really is preparing to go to sleep for the winter. But don’t be fooled. The more you can get done during the winter months, when your garden is supposedly dormant, the better your garden will be next year. So….time to get down to work and look forward to 2020.

Your garden may well be like mine and covered in leaves which, throughout November will fall from the trees making the whole place look an absolute mess. They are invaluable to your garden however, and, given the right treatment will make a superb organic soil conditioner and mulch in about a year’s time. Don’t leave them where they fall, because they will look untidy and although they will be fantastic at stopping weeds from germinating underneath them (or will stop the grass from growing) they will also take valuable nutrients from the soil – such as naturally occurring nitrogen – as they rot down. In woodland this does not matter and naturally occurring leaf mould is an important element of the slowly evolving forest floor, but in your garden leaf litter in the wrong place will suffocate and starve what you are trying to create.

Rake your leaves up and put them somewhere out of the way to rot down. By doing this you not only tidy the place up, but you create your own leaf mould, which can take over a year. The resulting crumbly dark brown material can then be spread back onto the soil as a mulch and conditioner, feeding the soil, inhibiting weed growth and, very important in this part of the world, helping to retain moisture.

This is how we do it in our own garden:

Ideally choose a day when the leaves are wet. Moisture is an important part of the plan and your leaves will be heavier and less likely to blow away. Sweep all of the leaves off the flowerbeds and onto the grass with a springtine rake, making sure that you do not include stones and large twigs. Then, get out the lawnmower and mow over the leaves (while they are on the grass). This will chop them up and speed up the rotting process. Once you have done this, sweep them up into manageable heaps. You can then store your rotting leaves in bags or in a bin.

The bag method – this is quicker, but does involve the use of garden refuse quality plastic bags. Fill your bags with leaves, make sure the leaves are wet, fasten the bags and punch some holes in the bottom. Put them in a pile somewhere out of the way and leave them for a year. Make sure you pack them next to one another and on top of one another because the communal warmth they create will speed things up. That’s it. I have done this very successfully in the past, but this year we are using a variation on the more old fashioned, and slower, method of using a leaf mould cage. We are doing this for two reasons – as part of my drive to use less plastic, but also because our friendly local badgers, for two consecutive years, have ripped open the bags and scattered the leaves everywhere. They are searching for the worms and insects which move into the bags (through the holes) to help the composting process.

Neatly bagged up - at least until the badgers attack

Creating a leaf mould cage – The traditional method for doing this is to create a cage about one to one and a half metres square and of similar height out of chicken wire and then simply sweep your leaves into it. You fasten the fourth side shut with more chicken wire and leave it for a year or two. The leaves gradually rot down and voila you have your leaf mould. The badgers have thwarted me here too, in the past, by ripping through the wire and once again throwing the leaves everywhere. I love wild animals as much as anyone, and accept that we are all part of life’s great cycle, but sometimes it is a battle to outwit them.

This is bigger than most leaf mould bins - it is in Central Park, New York.

THIS YEAR I am experimenting with a leaf mould pen made from old wooden pallets. It will sit next to our compost bins, behind the hen run, and, I hope, be strong enough to keep the furry little blighters out. Watch this space.

Points to note when making leaf mould are:

·      Not all leaves are equal. The best leaves to use are thin – such as oak, hornbeam or beech. Pine needles and thick leaves such as holly or laurel will eventually rot down but they are slow to do so (and in the case of holly they are painful to handle), so either keep them separately and compost them in the slow lane, as it were, or use them on woodland paths/add them to general garden waste. We have walnut and fig leaves in our garden, which are not the best to use, but once chopped up by the lawn mower they rot down well.
·      Make sure the leaves are wet enough. They need moisture to help with process of decay. If they dry out in their plastic bags they will remain like that for years.
·      Don’t be upset when you find lots of little red worms in your leaf mould. It is a sign that things are working well.
·      It is an annual cycle and initially you require patience – collect your leaf mould now for use early in 2020 or even 2021. In 2020, you collect leaves for the following year and so on.

Next year, when you have your leaf mould you can use it to mulch around appropriate plants to help control weeds, retain moisture and as a soil conditioner. I will write about all three of these in future blogs.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Little power packs ......bulbs and corms to plant now.

Last weekend I planted more bulbs and corms - I say that because every year I plant hundreds. We have been here almost three years now so this is year three of the current bulb planting regime and the pattern is something like this.

Year One: plant a moderate amount of what you like where you would like them to be.
During Year One - watch how they flower and whether they really do live up to expectations. If you have bought bulbs and corms of reasonable quality then they almost always put on a fantastic display in that first year, because, basically, you have planted ready packed flowers.

Year Two: be a bit more experimental and plant something different, somewhere else.
During Year Two - watch how Year Two's bulbs flower BUT ALSO observe how Year One's bulbs have got they come back in profusion in the second year or are they dwindling.

Year Three (i.e. me, this year): Increase the planting of the Year One bulbs which thrived, plus try a few more adventurous bulbs.
During Year Three.....well you get the picture.

In this way, supplemented by  bulbs' natural tendency to spread if they are happy, you build up a carpet of contented plants which look after themselves for years to come. But first....

Bulbs and corms in a nutshell, as it were.

Bulbs and corms differ in how they store the food photosynthesised in the leaves. Bulbs are basically the swollen bases of the previous year's leaves with the embryo of the next year's flower hidden in the middle. Each year the changing seasons trigger the development of new leaves and flowers and the plant may also reproduce vegetatively by developing new baby bulblets at the side.

Crocus corms ready for planting

Corms are slightly different in that they are swollen underground sections of the plant stem. Each year a new corm develops above last year's corm and you can also get secondary corms developing, again as the plants reproduce vegetatively. This is why it is so important not to remove the leaves of bulbs and corms until they have died back naturally. They need to have the maximum opportunity to store reserves of food for the following year. If they do not get this they can shrivel and die. You can also help the following year's bulbs develop by feeding them with a sprinkling of bone meal after the flowers, but not the leaves, have died back.

In Year One here I planted daffodils at the bottom of the garden - they are not doing brilliantly, despite the region being renowned for its wild daffodils. I think the area I chose may be too dry, so none have been planted there this year while I watch the progress of those already in situ for a bit longer. I had planted Narcissus obvallaris, which is found growing in the wild in the UK and which resembled the wild daffodils growing locally, so I am disappointed at their performance, but maybe they take a few years to establish or maybe that particular corner of the garden is simply too hostile.

I also planted Crocus Tommasinianus (this is a corm, not a bulb); a crocus which naturalises fantastically well in grass or borders if it is happy - and it is flourishing here, so last week I planted another 100 of them.

Crocus tommasinianus naturalised in grass - year one.

I also planted Muscari armeniacum, or grape hyacinths. These are doing so well they promise to become a menace, so I have bought another 100 of those too. They will be planted differently however - the crocus is planned to develop into drifts of purple which will flower under deciduous trees each February, while the Muscari  will be dotted in little groups around the borders to act as accents of colour in early spring. The experimental thing I am planting this year is a small daffodil called Narcissus tete-a-tete. This will be planted like the Muscari in small clumps dotted under deciduous trees in a bed which hosts shade loving plants for most of the year. I will see how it does compared to the daffodils planted in year one.

Year One also saw me planting Eranthys hyemalis, the yellow flowering winter aconite. This is best not planted at this time of year, when it is a dormant bulb, but in January/February when it has leaves on it ( known as 'in the green'). It did well last year and if it comes up again this winter I shall order some more shortly after Christmas. The other bulb/corm I plant in the green is the snowdrop and Cyclamen hederifolium. I planted these in Year Two, so will watch to see how they do this year and if they prosper will add to the collection. Cyclamen, snowdrops and aconites are wonderful and deserve a blog of their own, which I will try to remember to write in January/February.

This year's experimental planting was to have been Martagon lilies, but I spent so long wondering which one to get that by the time I went to my bulb supplier they had sold out......a lesson learned and a year's growth wasted.

The other thing I always plant is the tulip. My personal favourites are Apricot Parrot, Spring Green, Greenland and Princess Irene but there are hundreds of varieties to choose from and it is worth experimenting. In year one they go into pots. Then I either  leave the leaves to die back then take the bulbs out of the pots and keep them dry until about now when they go into the ground somewhere in the garden or I un-pot them as soon as they have flowered and transfer the clump straight into the ground. Year two is a bit pot luck, as it were, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, but it is always fun and there is always next year when I can try something new.....

Tulips 'Spring Green' and 'Apricot Parrot' together with lily of the valley.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The height of summer.....what can you grow that keeps on flowering

French Properties Direct is selling a gorgeous house and art gallery in Tarn-et-Garonne, South West France. We asked the owners how they keep their garden looking so beautiful. Here is how they do it:

La Barriere, an 17th century Quercy farmhouse, has been our home here for 25 years.  In choosing the property one of its irresistible attractions was a walled garden.  It had been neglected for 60 years so I had a blank, if very weedy, canvas to work on.  My gardening inexperience showed in the first few years as I was seduced into trying to grow totally unsuitable plants.  In attempting to keep them alive I landed us with colossal water bills.  Fortunately, there is a very supportive gardening fraternity in this area so I was able to find out what actually thrives here.  We regularly visit each other’s gardens, swap seeds, cuttings and growing tips.

Here in the S.W. the growing season is long but winter temperatures can dip briefly below minus 10 c., so tender plants need protection.

There are lots of annuals that self-seed prolifically and seem to survive our hot, dry summers.  I’ve had a lot of success with eschscholzia, tagetes, cosmos, nigella, larkspur, bidens   and amaranth.  I’ve picked out a couple of photographs of perennials though which are blissfully happy here.  The first is Campanula Poscharskyana.  It’s a low growing blue bellflower which spreads quickly and is good for sun or part shade.  When the flowers are over you are left with a neat clump of bright green foliage.  

The second favourite is Erigeron Karvinkianus ‘Profusion ‘.  It’s daisy like foliage turns from white to pink.

Now we have our house on the market and, for family reasons, intend to return to the U.K.  It will undoubtedly be sad to leave.  Gardens are never static and I’m sure new owners will make changes.  I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t evict all the very happy residents here in the form of plants, birds, bugs, butterflies and hedgehogs and even find room for more.

Catherine Smedley

Here is a photograph of Catherine's walled garden -

And you can read more about the property for sale here: