Seventeen years ago a pair of BBC reporters, Bella and David Gordon, gave up their London life and moved to a small village in the Loire Valley where they established a specialist plant nursery growing the dry-garden plants that the French didn’t realise they needed until the serious droughts of 2003-2005. At that point the chateaux, communes and municipalities started to give up their thirsty annuals and turned to Plantagenet Plants for the perennials that would transform the public gardens, parks and even the roundabouts of France.
Their own garden is the testing ground for many of the plants they sell. Nothing is pampered and each plant must prove itself resilient to the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
Today the wholesale nursery (not open to the public except for an open weekend at the end of September) supplies their plants to designers and communities throughout France producing 100,000 plants a year. Quite an operation for a couple who started with nothing more than some plants from their London garden. I will be telling the full story in the June 2016 issue of Country Living. www.plantagenetplantes.com
There have been times in the past several years since I planted the apricot tree that I have seriously considered chopping it down. It has produced very few fruit and I did wonder why I gave it space in the garden. Not this year though. Last month I had to thin the fruit, so laden were the branches and now the remaining fruit have swelled and are weighing down the branches with hundreds of glorious golden fruit. As far as possible, I have covered the most laden branches with Tendamesh (a very fine net) to keep the birds and squirrels at bay and so far it seems to be working. As the fruit turns a deep shade of apricot (how appropriate), we are picking them and either making compote, freezing them in halves (perfect for tarts later in the year) or spreading them out to ripen fully indoors. If we leave them, they tend to drop off the tree and get bruised or munched before we get to them. We may need to spread an old blanket on the ground for those that we can’t reach. I’ve started pruning the fruited branches and will shape the tree once all the fruit has been harvested in the hope that future crops will be easier to pick. Of course, the tree may now rest for several more years, but I think it is safe from the axe. I can’t remember whether it is Flavorcot or Tomcot, but it definitely is one of the Canadian bred varieties that flowers later to miss the frosts.
I recently had a wonderful day at one of Rosebie Morton’s Rose Days at her farm in a deeply rural part of Hampshire. She is best known as the founder of The Real Flower Company – the company that sends out the loveliest and most indulgent of handmade bouquets of fragrant roses and flowers – all grown on their own farms. Behind that public face is the wholesale business she has evolved to supply the roses, other flowers and foliage for her own company and the wholesale floristry market. The courses are run from her own house and garden next door to the flower farm.
Her story is very inspiring. As a young married woman she looked after the sheep on her husband Matthew’s farm – but small three children made this impractical so she decided to ask for a corner of one of the fields and initially planted 60 well-scented roses that in four years expanded to 300, then 1000 and then field scale – when she took over Matthew’s best wheatfield. It wasn’t entirely plain sailing – the soil is dreadful (she says if she can grow roses anyone can), established growers thought she was mad and her early attempts to deal with the Covent Garden Flower Market were very dispiriting because they cheated her unmercifully. Gradually as her knowledge grew she went directly to florists including Wild at Heart, Jane Packer and Paula Pryke who loved the natural appearance and rich scent of her roses. But she began to realize that the more delicate the rose, the more vulnerable it is to the weather and after a particularly traumatic event when a wedding order for 3000 roses was ruined by rain, the roses went undercover – these days there are 30,000 roses growing in polytunnels (the covers are removed in winter). These polytunnels are surrounded by row upon row perennials, shrubs, herbs and annuals that are used in the bouquets and sold to wholesalers, including one supplier at Covent Garden who had the wisdom to recognize a good rose when he saw one.
Our day started with coffee in Rosebie’s garden, sitting round a table decorated with jugs full of beautiful, very fragrant roses which Rosebie used as an introduction to our day. She has a lovely easy manner when sharing her knowledge and by the time we were walking through the paddocks of flowers we were firing questions at her and keenly listening to her answers. I liked her anecdote about Chandos Beauty – the rose she describes as her perfect child because it has all the virtues of fragrance, form, colour and upright habit that are needed for a cut rose – her description has resulted in her frequently being asked for rose Perfect Child. I came away with Margaret Merrill as my personal favourite – I can’t imagine why I haven’t grown it before. I love its soft champagne colouring and the way it opens from a perfect rosebud into a gently double flower that reveals its prominent stamens – and a delicious tea rose fragrance.
Chandos Beauty – aka Perfect Child
As well as enchanting us with numerous wonderful roses, Rosebie dealt with the practicalities of planting, feeding, growing and pruning – describing in detail, or demonstrating, so that we all left wiser by far – and with a wonderful bunch of roses to remind us of a very special day.
Oh, and there was a delicious lunch too.
Courses cost £145 and can be booked at www.rosebiemorton.com
What I did with my roses when I got home – with added flowers and foliage from the garden.