Sunday, 20 December 2009

Mistletoe and Christmas

As if on cue, snow has arrived in this corner of southwest France and very festive it is too.

The chateau at Campagne, a hamlet just nearby looks as if straight out of a fairytale or perhaps the set for Merlin. Just perfect.

Even rosehips have a yule-tide ring to them, napped with a little white stuff, good enough to hang on the front door.

Equally of the season, though a little more curious are the bunches of mistletoe growing in the trees.

I came across these just outside Bergerac on the route de Bordeaux. I just need to 'shin' up and take a bunch.

Well everything winds down for Christmas now as I contemplate the travel chaos that is Europe at the moment. If I can cross the channel without stress then I'll be thankful!

I wish you and yours a very peaceful Christmas and a happy new year.

Sunday, 6 December 2009


When's the best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago of course.

You see for me, that's exactly it, time. That most precious of commodities, ticking away, inevitably leads me to plumping up the till at various garden centres for that mature plant. Instant gratification. Well by way of an early new year resolution I intend to propagate more plants through cuttings and seed than in previous years for two good reasons; first it's immensely satisfying and second I'll save a small fortune. The only drawback is it all takes a little more time.

Pictured above are some Buddleja cuttings I took back in the summer. I can't tell you exactly which variety it is, it was a big bush just growing along the side of the road from which I took a few small sprigs, got them home, cleaned them up, cut just below a node and they rooted in no time.

But it gets addictive you know. In this cold frame I've got rooted cuttings of Nepeta 'six hills giant', Penstemon 'Mrs Hindley' and 'Blackbird' plus an unidentified one from a friends garden, Solanum, Fuchsia ricartonii, Sedum, a trailing mallow, again I can't tell you which as I didn't keep the original label, some variegated Ivy just for the heck of it and some seed grown plants of the deepest maroon hollyhock, Alcea rosea var. Nigra which came as a free gift with Gardens Illustrated magazine back in about August.

Of everything, I'm especially pleased at how easy it was to get the Solanum to root. This was an expensive plant to buy but it takes easily. I just made a cut between nodes and plunged the cuttings into a mix of sharp sand, grit and a bit of compost and it was away. Now I have twelve young plants which should grow into good sized plants next season, just a bit of time and patience.

Ok ok, I know, Sedum is possibly the easiest plant to propagate. For some reason I took seventy leaf cuttings and now have nearly seventy small plants. I really don't have space for them so I guess I'll give them away.

Finally, below are Box cuttings I took about three weeks ago. I've put them on the radiator in the kitchen window. Although November is a little late to take cuttings, the continued mild weather has kept many things in growth so they were worth a shot. With the radiator set barely above frost stat, I'm hoping that the gentle bottom heat will get them to root. I mist them with water two or three times a day so they've not dried out. I'll check for roots next weekend.

Now if there's one plant that takes time it's Box.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Forever Green

There's practically no colour left in the garden, none at all. Three or four nights of killing frost back in October put paid to that and it seems slightly strange in this unseasonably warm November weather that the only thing blooming is some herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) down near the river.

Well at least there's always green. Above are little pots of creeping thyme, (Thymus Preacox) 'Snowdrift'. Of little culinary significance these are not a chefs choice but come spring the new growth will spill over the sides and they'll just burst with hundreds of tiny white flowers.

I think Ivy is underrated. I know it has the ability to aim for world domination when left unchecked but who can blame it for having ambition.

These triple balls of Leylandii hold their own throughout the winter. During the summer, self seeding Himalayan balsam, Impatiens balfourii spring up in the cracks along the wall. Their wild habit looks great with the formal topiary and although they're another 'ambitious' plant, it's simple enough to weed out the extras.

Asplenium trichomanes, the Maiden hair spleenwort grows in all but south facing walls and rocks. Ever present, more and more appear as the foliage behind which they once hid dissapears.

The lily of the Valley bush, Mahonia x media 'Charity' is actually just starting to form its yellow blooms though it's the foliage I really like with this plant. It's a little slow growing for me, but eventually it'll get to about three metres in height and a fine specimen it will be.

Well what can I say, the embellishment at the end of the fence, well it's green right?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Stepping Stones

I know I've said it before, but this really is a busy time of the year for Karen and I here at Le Banquet. It's all systems go in the DIY stakes at the moment, both inside and out.

Apart from interior decorating, attending to plumbing issues and fitting new bathrooms, there's also hardscaping that needs to be done. I like that term hardscaping, I feel qualified to use it in my role as jack of all trades, and okay, possibly expert in none but all the same, hardscaping it is and I'm sticking to it.

I'm referring to my recently finished step building project. The old ones that lead from the parking area down to the path have disintegrated over the years. Winter weather always left them a little more perished come the spring and remedial patching up was exactly that, patching them up.

After gently dismantling the old steps with a sledgehammer, I made up some wooden frames to form the shape for the new risers and mixed and poured concrete into the forms. A couple of days later and they were ready to be finished with stone.

Limestone is abundant all around Le Banquet and throughout this part of the Dordogne. It is and has been for centuries the principle building material in the area. Photographed above are the ruins of a once cannonball factory originally constructed during the reign of Louis XV. It's literally just behind the houses here and these days it serves as something of a folly with its grand arches and sheer scale. I spent many an hour wandering in and around this impressive structure as it sits immediately on the edge of my land as I scoured the ground for suitable pieces of rock and stone, most of which I gleaned from under the thickets of brambles by the river.

Luckily, I'd saved some good square pieces from a few years back when we renovated the old cattle barn. These simply needed cutting to size (ish) with a disc cutter, the flat pieces on the tops just 'dressing' a bit with a chisel and it was just a simple case of bedding them all in with sharp sand and cement once they'd all been cleaned. All that remained to do was to joint them up once the mortar had gone off.

Jointing up is the best bit as it pulls everything together. I used a locally quarried sand called Liorac which has a nice colour. It's used a lot for external render called 'Crepi'.

Above is a product called Rénocal. It's two thirds hydraulic lime to one third high performance white cement together with other additives to give water and weather resistance. It's used a lot in renovation over here. I mixed three parts sand to one part of this and proceeded with pressing it into all the joints. After covering it up overnight, the next morning when the mortar had partially gone off, armed with a soft wire brush I brushed out all the excess to leave clean joints and re -expose any small pieces of stone which may have been hidden. Very satisfying.

Et voilà. The steps are finished. I reckon it'll take a couple of weeks for the joints to harden fully and achieve the right colour. I pinched that pineapple thingy out of the little herb garden and set it on the top corner as a finishing touch.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Marseille to Cassis

We've recently returned from a short break sailing under blue skies on France's Mediterranean coast.

What a treat to drive down to Provence passing through the Languedoc en route to a special rendezvous in the old port at Marseille. Leaving the beautiful earthy Perigord for a landscape punctuated with tall Cypress, prostrate Juniper and silver Olive is a real tonic for diminishing daylength and ever cooler evenings.

Although our time in Marseille was limited, its history and grandoise intentions were inescapable as we left by ferry for our final destination, the Isle du Frioul where we were to meet Karen's family aboard their catamaran.

Visible from just about anywhere near the port, the Byzantine Romanesque Nouvelle Cathédrale de la Major is an imposing structure, its first stone was laid by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte on the 26th September 1852.

On board the ferry we passed the island fortress of Le Château d'If, located on the Îsle d'If.

In Alexandre Dumas' book 'The Count of Monte Christo', the principle character was imprisioned here, isolated on an island penitentiary where escape was theoretically impossible (think Alcatraz).

Ain't she beautiful? This was the real deal. On arrival at Frioul we were greeted by the catamaran Hakuna Matata, our home to be for the next few days.

My brother in law aka 'skipper' has sailed this boat across the Atlantic and back, toured the Carribean and visited many ports in southern Europe. It isn't even his day job! If you want to read more, click here.

Many a bonheur was spent sailing in and around The Calanques, a series of limestone cliffs, fjords and rocky promontories which plunge into the Mediterranean for about 20 km of coastline immediately to the south-east of Marseille before arriving at our final destination the ancient fishing port of Cassis.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

So Much To Do

Isn't Autumn the busiest time? So much to do. Pruning, clearing leaves, mulching, moving tender plants, fleece wrapping some in situ. emptying pots, turning the compost heap etc. etc. etc. Of course all this has to be done in ever shortening daylength and that's before I collect the three billion or so walnuts that practically carpet the gravel parking area.

Along with chestnuts (the tree of which is still occasionally referred to as l'arbre a pain, the bread tree, since at one time everyday bread was necessarily made of chestnut flour) walnuts were once a major part of the diet here in the Perigord. Highly calorific, they were good sustenance for a rural living spent working in the fields. I reckon on picking up enough to sustain a large family of bears through winter.

Of course these days, walnuts and chestnuts are vital ingredients in achieving confectionery perfection.

And then there are all those leaves. This is just the beginning. Soon the car park will disappear under a thick bed of feuilles, dutifully they will be raked, piled up and covered with a black plastic sheet. Left for a year or so, the result is top notch leaf mould. Veritable black gold.

This stuff is alive. As soon as we get 'killing' frosts and I can get to all the beds I'll spread this with abandon.

Talking of living things, my compost bins are a little depleted right now, but then over the coming weeks there will be plenty with which to fill them.

Another Autumn freebie I've been collecting are pine needles. The woods around here are full of pine and I have no doubt that the French probably think I'm just an insane Englishman raking these up, but I intend to try them as a mulch as I've heard good reports and Phillip over at Dirt Therapy thinks they're very pleasing on the eye.

This is also the time of year that I tend to get any outdoor repairs and DIY done. I'm currently rebuilding the steps that lead from the carpark using reclaimed stone. Building them is the easy part, finding the stone is another story. I must have scrutinised every inch of the grounds at Le Banquet trying to find suitable pieces. Each and every one has to be jet washed and many 'dressed' with a hammer and cold chisel but they should look nice when eventually finished. Anyway, I'll save this for anther post when the project is complete.

Oh, and did I mention all those leaves? Of course I did.

Friday, 9 October 2009


Finally the garden becomes more convinced that this is in fact October and Summer has past.

They've been a long time turning, but both the Virginia Creeper and the Sumac trees are starting to 'flush'. It all seems later this year. I know the reduction in daylight plays it part, but the unseasonably warm start to the month appears to have held things back a little.

It's been so mild in fact, that Karen and I sat outside with friends on the terrace until 1a.m. on Monday night, not usual at this time of year but hey, we profit from this kind weather known as a Spanish 'plume', an airmass with a long southerly track, it's origins in North Africa and which now bathes this corner of south west France.

This is the latest addition to the garden. Malus Evereste, a beautiful crab apple. The fruits look stunning and by all accounts the blossom is really something.

I've taken every effort to give it the best start possible, digging a hole twice the width of the tub and quite a bit deeper, shovelling in loads of compost and a good handfull or two of blood and bone which you can see pictured below

I'm so pleased with this tree, I wish it would reach maturity in say, a season but, patience is a virtue, right?

This rose shouldn't be here. It struggled for the first couple of years and I thought it was simply going to expire. Amazingly it's put on loads of healthy growth this year. I say amazing as I did my level best to neglect it. I planted it to replace an old rose that died in exactly the same spot. Little heed was taken about replant sickness and little ammendment was made to the soil at time of planting. To add insult to injury, I thought it was called 'Danse du Feu' but actually it's closer in appearance to 'Danse des Sylphes' though the bloom colour is a darker red.

Finally, the rougest of the rouge, dahlia 'bishop of llandaff' which has bloomed better in a pot than it ever did in the ground.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

It's that time of year. The markets around France are brimful with the season's best produce, I love it. These are a few snaps taken as Karen and I wandered around Bergerac market yesterday morning.

Oysters are everywhere. There are even stalls by the roadside. Generally available when the month has an 'R' in it, the French LOVE oysters and so do I.

Down in Basque country, they like to eat them with sizzling hot little spicy sausages called lou-kenkas which have some resemblance to the chorizos of Spain.

I like them with a finely diced scrap of red onion, a splash of tabasco and washed down with a chilled sauvignon blanc!

Chestnuts were once something of a staple here, along with walnuts, both are highly calorific.

Oh for a duck sausage with chestnuts and fried green apple on the side.

A glut of tomatoes. Sensibly, this stall sold enormous buches of basil. The air was perfumed, I could smell the basil from fifty paces.

Gateaux, gateaux, gateaux! lashings of custard with mine, or should that be the rather nicer named Creme Anglais.

OK, so I know it's just a box of carrots, but the point is this was just one of the many small holders selling true garden produce. There's no interference from the wise ones in Brussels here. You know the types, passing laws to ban bent bananas etc....

Finally, I leave you with a nice collage of gourds and things, so, just a taster of a French market. I'm off now as there's a bottle of 2005 Bergerac rouge with my name on it. By the way of stating the obvious, the post title is from John Keat's (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) Ode to Autumn.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Les Jardins du Manoir d'Eyrignac

Listed by the Ministry of Culture as a Jardin Remarquable, the formal gardens at the Manoir d'Eyrignac are an exceptionally fine example of the Italian influence that spread throughout French gardens during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The house and gardens have been in the possession of the same family for some 500 years and it's current glory today is the passion of owners Patrick and Capucine Sermadiras who, together with their son Gilles continue to live in the manor and oversee all aspects of the gardens development and upkeep.

Last Sunday was my fourth visit to Eyrignac this year. I'm fortunate in that it's only 25 minutes drive from here so it's easy to spend an afternoon exploring one of France's grandest green spaces.

Located over 4 hectares, Eyrignac contains fine examples of topiary and prides itself on using old methods wherever possible. Domed standards of White Mulberry are clipped expertly with shears as are striking 'cakestands' of Yew together with some 45,000 m2 of Box and Hornbeam hedges. All the clipping and mowing waste are collected and reused three years later as organic compost.

Even apple and pear trees have been shaped and trained into mature standards which looks quite something when they bear fruit.

Throughout, the gardens are punctuated with Cypress and prostrate Juniper, emblematic of Mediterranean lanscapes which together with gently trickling water features add a further dimension to what is really a very tranquil and calm place.