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The Wheelbarrow Gardener - Signs of Spring

The Wheelbarrow Gardener - Signs of Spring

Trevor Bridge returns to his potager to plan the year ahead - it’s time to get planting! We also discover the enduring art of Topiary, perfect for the winter garden...



shutterstock 96583777For gardeners this is a stirring and optimistic time of year. In February early flowers such as snowdrops and primroses come into bloom, reminding us that spring is near, and as we progress into March, the bare branches of blackthorn produce masses of dainty white flowers brightening up our hedgerows. As the equinox approaches days lengthen, a stronger sun dries the soil enabling us to prepare for the season ahead, planting begins and the gardener’s year gets under way.

An average temperature of 8.7˚C makes February the coldest month in Poitou-Charentes and it can be the hardest month for frosts. Rainfall in February averages 59.6 mm. March is warmer averaging 11.7˚C and with slightly less rainfall at 56.4 mm.

Of course, the climate varies according to where you live. Coastal areas are moderated by the Atlantic and there are fewer extremes than inland. Also, each year is different; some warmer, some colder, some wetter and some drier.

We have to adjust and, more than at any other time of year, what to do now depends on our local conditions. It is better to wait rather than to sow seeds in cold, waterlogged ground where they could rot. Cultivating wet soil ruins its structure; you will do more harm than good.








Sow broad beans and early peas in February and March for a May and June harvest. Sow early Brussels sprouts in March for picking in August and September. Onion and shallot sets are sown in March, if the soil is fairly dry and warm. Onion seeds can be sown in March. Chit (or sprit) early seed potatoes ready for planting in mid-March. Sow sweet peppers, chillies and aubergines in late March under cloches. We’ve experimented at Le Fayard and gained a massive crop increase by starting them under cloches. Chillies especially need a long hot growing season and placing plastic bell cloches over them works wonders. Jerusalem artichoke tubers can be planted in March and it is a good time to establish an asparagus bed when starting from crowns. Parsnips are better sown in March when conditions are improving, rather than being placed in cold wet soil in February. Sow early varieties of turnips from March to June. Sow spinach every few weeks from mid-March onwards and sow a short row of lettuce every couple of weeks from late March to ensure continual cropping. Summer cabbage can be sown under cloches in multi-cell trays from late February until early May.



Gladioli corms can be planted and now is a good time to plant pot grown carnations and pinks. Lift and divide snowdrop and aconite bulbs. Lily bulbs can be planted during mild weather. Remove flower heads from daffodils and other spring bulbs as they fade but leave daffodil foliage intact for at least six weeks for bulb regeneration. Sweet peas can be sown outdoors, half-hardy annuals can be sown under glass and primulas and polyanthus are planted now. Flowering shrub and rose planting should be completed provided that the ground is not wet. Prune back hydrangea shoots. Prune forsythia and flowering currants during late March as soon as flowers fade. Trim back old shoots of perennials taking care not to damage emerging new growth. Cut away old foliage on Christmas roses to prevent hellebore leaf spot spreading.




Trevor 's tips

What to do in your garden now

• Start hoeing or pulling up weeds now to avoid a rush later. Weeding is easier while the ground is damp but be careful not to compact your soil. Place a board alongside the area you are weeding to walk on.

• Don’t use pesticides or outdoor insect traps. Less than 2% of the world’s insects are harmful. Beneficial insects such as beetles, ladybirds, lacewings, spiders and wasps keep destructive insects from devouring your plants. They also pollinate plants and decompose organic matter.

• Work out your rotation for this year’s crops.

• Force rhubarb for an early crop of sweet stalks. Cover established crowns with a clay forcing pot, bucket or upturned large plant pot at least 45cm high, and insulate the outside with straw or compost. The stalks should be ready to pull in 3-4 weeks.

• If you have a greenhouse, ensure the glass is secure and replace any cracked panes. Give it a thorough clean before it’s pressed into service.

• If a long freeze seems likely, dig some leeks up and heel them into prepared ground for easy access. Any leeks left in March should be harvested – freeze them for use in soups and stews.





My Great-Uncle Jack was the gardener at Rufford Old Hall, a National Trust property in north-west England. I spent much of my childhood with him as he skilfully renovated the gardens that had fallen into disrepair. He was a major influence when 

I later chose my profession as a landscape architect. One of his loves was topiary and fifty years later, his work is still there to be admired.



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Topiary is the practice of clipping plants to develop and maintain geometric shapes. It has been around since Roman times and can, perhaps, be dated back even earlier as ancient Egyptian paintings appear to include topiary. The fall of the Roman Empire ushered in the Dark Ages when life was a struggle; the pleasures of civilisation almost disappeared and ornamental gardening was only kept alive in monastery cloisters and castles.

During the 14th century Renaissance, gardens were again developed for pleasure in Italy, inspired by classical times. Parterres, clipped hedges and topiary were revived. In France, complex parterres and high hedges enclosing vistas became highly fashionable, culminating in Le Notre’s massive 17th century designs at Versailles for Louis XIV. In England, a fascination for mazes and labyrinths kept the art of clipping alive and the Tudors developed knot gardens, dwarf hedging intertwined into intricate parterres. In Holland, the passion for topiary went much further than geo-metrical shapes such as cones, spheres and columns. They favoured green sculptures including animals, birds, people and abstract forms. When William of Orange went from Holland to become King of England, formal gardens with topiaries of animals, monsters, coats of arms and mottoes proliferated. Then, in the early 18th century, landscape architects such as Capability Brown reacted to this extravagance, destroying formal gardens and creating ‘natural’ landscapes with lakes and informal groupings of trees. This fashion for parkland spread to France where the new English style was copied. However the 19th century saw a gradual return of topiary, but with more balance. Clipped hedges and trees were placed close to the house in ‘garden rooms’ surrounded by less formal areas. On a much smaller scale, topiary is often a feature of cottage gardens, contrasting beautifully with the informality of seemingly random planting.



Creating and maintaining topiary

The plants used in topiary are usually woody evergreens such as box buis, and yew if, but bay laurier, holly houx, myrtle myrte, rosemary rosmarin and
ivy lierre can also be trained into shape.

Box and yew are adaptable plants, but prefer lots of organic matter and will not thrive in waterlogged soil. For hedges and parterres, space box at 30 to 60cms, depending on the variety, and yew at 60 to 100cms.

Prune in spring when all danger of frost has passed and on a dull or wet day as strong sunlight can scorch the edges of cut leaves. Canes and frames in shapes such as cones can be bought to guide and train topiary. To avoid damage as the plants grow, attach them with soft twine or flexible ties. It is only normally possible to train green wood as once it has turned brown, it will be too brittle.

Use secateurs, long handled shears and topiary or sheep shears. Start with long handled shears to create the overall rough outline. Choose plants as near to your desired shape before you start. For instance, for a cone choose an upright plant, find the central growth point and work evenly down and around the plant, standing on the opposite side to the side you are shaping. Stand back occasionally to ensure the cone is even and central to the plant. Do not worry if there are gaps; these will fill as the plant grows. For a sphere choose a globe shaped plant and use a loop of wire as a template, especially if you want several plants of the same size. Use sheep or topiary shears and secateurs for finer adjustment and maintenance. If a large amount of pruning is required, powered hedge cutters can be used. One annual clip is normally all that is required.




Box selection

RUDI BREURING is a horticulturalist with over 30 years’ experience whom I met recently. Since qualifying in Holland in 1980, he’s worked in Europe, the Caribbean and South America before moving to France where, three years ago, he spotted an opening for supplying high-quality box plants from the main growers in Holland and Belgium in an array of varieties, sizes and shapes. 

Rudi opened XtraVert, a garden centre in Vergt in the Dordogne, concentrating on box plants and all things associated with them.

This specialist garden centre is laid out attractively with gravel paths leading through blocks of labelled plants enabling the visitor to see what is on offer. Rudi explained, “We show the public everything from small young plants that gardeners can grow on and form into shapes themselves, to large ready-made topiary work at the other end of the scale where instant impact and maturity is required. All plants sold to the public are pot grown so can be transplanted straight away. We hold stocks of such shapes as pyramids, cones, domes, spheres and cubes and supply unclipped plants for use as hedging. It’s also worth remembering that several varieties look better unclipped as bushes or trees in their natural form - these can be used to contrast with formally shaped topiary. We even sell Christmas tree shaped box plants that can be used indoors and then placed outside in the garden once the festive season is over.”

“If people are unsure what to choose, we are happy to provide assistance in selecting a particular type of box for a situation and we will advise on planting techniques and maintenance.”

Whilst XtraVert concentrate on box, they also import yew and bay plants from their speciality growers. Bay is always supplied pot grown so it can be taken indoors to avoid winter frosts.

The garden centre is also a supplier of an innovative product called ‘Topbuxus Health-Mix’ which is a leaf fertilizer with trace elements on a 100% natural base. It is produced in Holland for strengthening and protecting box foliage, aiding the production of healthy green and shiny leaves and, very importantly, making the plants more resistant to diseases such as box blight. Two fungi cause box blight, Cylindrocladium buxicola and Volutella buxi, and Rudi tells me this product actually destroys the living fungi and spores of both of them. He said, “We see this as just as important as selling plants because we are committed to the battle against box blight. By promoting this product, we want to enable the public to use the same products as professionals.”
Rudi concluded, “In a similar way, we also want to provide the public with a range of plants that would normally only be available to professionals in the horticultural trade. Through our expertise and contacts we are able to give people choices that we believe are not available elsewhere.”




We asked Rudi for his recommendations:

Blauer Heinz’ is extremely slow growing, forming a very dense round shrub with quite small, rounded, dark bluish-green coloured leaves.

Green Balloon’ is unusual as it grows naturally into a rounded shape giving the appearance of a trimmed plant without being trimmed. It has a very dense habit with glossy green foliage.

Green Gem’ slowly forms a small rounded shrub about a metre in diameter with small narrow leaves. It is good for low hedging or topiary balls.

Dark Sky’ is excellent for hedging, putting on 30-40cm per year once established. It is very drought resistant.

‘Ingrid’ is a dwarf form that slowly forms a beautiful dense round shape with mid-green leaves.

Aurea Pendula’ has golden-yellow and green variegated leaves on gracefully drooping branches. It is fairly slow growing, tolerates light shade on well drained soils but dislikes dry areas.

Green Beauty’ is an excellent medium-sized box with deep-green glossy foliage with a little winter bronzing that can be used as a substitute for English box in sunnier locations. It responds well to pruning.

Newport Blue’ forms a very slow growing dwarf plant with stiff upright branches and large pointed oval shaped blue-green foliage.


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1 - Les Jardins du Manoir d’Eyrignac

‘Box embroidery on a cloth of green, yews sculpted into cylinders, diamond points and flat surfaces, hornbeams clipped into crescents,’ are amongst the attractions of the gardens at Manoir d’Eyrignac as described by renowned writer Marie-Françoise Valéry. Set in the heart of Périgord Noir, 13km north-east of Sarlat, these magnificent gardens are astounding for their sheer volume of immaculately maintained topiary. One of ‘Les Plus Beaux Jardins de France’, there are 10 hectares of topiary surrounded by 200 hectares of natural grounds. The original 18th century formal gardens were removed in the 19th century and replaced by an English style park. Forty years ago its owner, Gilles Sermadiras, set about reinstating the garden to its 18th century plan and his son Patrick has continued this work, resulting in a jewel of a garden.

Les Jardins du Manoir d’Eyrignac
24590 Salignac, Tel: 05 53 28 99 71


2 Les Jardins de Marqueyssac 

Château de Marqueyssac is a 17th century château set on a rocky outcrop with spectacular views over the Dordogne Valley, some 11k south-east of Sarlat. Its 22 hectares of traditional French-style gardens were transformed in the 1860’s when the owner, Julien de Cervel, planted 150,000 box plants set in parterres and carved into fantastical bubbly forms, many in groups of soft, rounded shapes like flocks of sheep or mimicking the surrounding rolling hills. These stunning works of topiary are full of movement; purposefully manicured to lack formal symmetry and punctuated by pines, cypresses, holm oaks and limes. 

The gardens fell into disrepair but were beautifully restored and opened to the public in 1996 and are classified as a ‘Jardin Remarquable’ by the Comité
des Parcs et Jardins de France.

Les Jardins de Marqueyssac
24220 Vézac , Tel: 05 53 31 36 36