June goings-on…

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The Mix, caught in early sunlight, Tostat, June 2019

At this time of year, the light becomes so bright that photography is an early morning or late evening activity. The light creeps over the house in the morning like a ranging searchlight, and the other day, it was the right place and the right time.  Standing by the Mix, my now 3 year old perennial planting with the occasional small shrub and grass, the sun spotlit the tops of the clumps of perennials, picking out the Monarda fistulosa and the Lychnis chalcedonica ‘Salmonea’ as the tallest in town just yet.  This area has been a real experiment- made even more experimental this year by the one-armed bandit requirement of ‘no weeding’.  About 6 weeks ago, it looked pretty awful.  But now, with the rain and sun we have had, the perennials are powering upwards, and, unless you have a pair of binoculars, you mostly can’t see any serious weed activity.  There is a lesson here for the future.

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Papaver somniferum, from Biddy Radford, Tostat, June 2019

This has been a good year for self-seeding- another bonus for one-armed gardening.  Opium poppies, Papaver somniferum, have popped themselves all over the gravel paths and into some of the more orthodox places as well. As self-seeders, you can get years when the colours are very washed out- but this year has been loads better with good mauves and soft pinks.  The bees and insects love them- and I do, for their unfurling architecture as much as for the flowers.

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Unfurling Opium poppy and Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’, Tostat, June 2019

Playing with Penstemons has become a bit of an obsession.  I grew some Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ from seed the year before last, and so with the wait, this is the beginning of seeing the plant in action.  Slim, upright growth, dark beetroot colouring on the stems and leaves, and buds which are creamy-yellow.  Not yet a big player, but with potential.  I also bought some Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ a cross between ‘Husker Red’ and ‘Prairie Splendour’.  Now this is a big, beefy plant.  Strong upright, dark crimson, darker than ‘Husker Red’, stems and leaves, altogether bigger and more imposing, and then, on filigreed stems, big pale mauve flowers. So far, so very good.  Not yet tested for drought tolerance, but that will come.

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Trifolium rubens, Tostat, June 2019

Two years ago, visiting the stunning gardens at Kentchurch Court, I was seriously smitten by what seemed like giant clover flowers on speed.  It was a variety of Trifolium, and so I have been growing some from seed since last summer, and it is just about to flower.  This is the species form of Trifolium ochroleucon– more to follow.  But, I have also bought plants of two more Trifoliums, Trifolium rubens and Trifolium pannonicum ‘White Tiara’.  Both are doing well so far in their first year, seeming to cope well with the conditions- the true test will come.

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Trifolium pannonicum ‘White Tiara’, Tostat, June 2019
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Philadelphus ‘Starbright’, Tostat, June 2019

A bargain basement buy this year in the new area, still covered in cardboard, and holding its own, is a newish variety of Philadelphus called ‘Starbright’.  A recent Canadian selection, it has dark-red stems and strong, single white flowers and is very cold and drought tolerant- hence my giving it a go.

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Phlomis longifolia var. bailanica with Allium nigrum behind and a sprinkling of Dianthus cruentus, Tostat, June 2019

This has been the year of the Phlomis- all my plants have adored the weather and conditions.  Phlomis longifolia var.bailanica has doubled in size, and has emptied the custard tin over itself, with incredible Birds Custard coloured flower heads.  I am responsible only for the Phlomis and the Allium nigrum, also enjoying life- the Dianthus cruentus is self-seeded, I think from a few feet away.

Tomorrow, we are off to visit Jardin de la Poterie Hillen– this should be a lovely garden day with great patisserie as well.  Not to be knocked.  And some splendid planting, such as this extraordinary rose, Rosa ‘Pacific Dream’, photographed by my friend Martine in case I missed it….

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Rosa ‘Pacific Dream’ Jardin de la Poterie Hillen, Thermes-Magnoac 65, June 2019.  Photo credit: Martine Garcia

 

 

 

 

 

Late Spring in the Languedoc…

Looking into the garden from the house in the evening sun, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021

Not that we have seen anyone much for the past year, but it is curious that two couples, who have been great mates for us for more than 40 years, live only a few hours drive away from us, in the same country. Our friends in the Languedoc beat us to it and have been living in a small village in the hills near Lezignan for more than 30 years. The hills rise up from the vine-filled hot plain and, from their house nestled into the rise of the hills, you can see the dark mass of the Montagnes Noire, and the Pyrennees in the far distance if it’s clear. It is a big view and weather commands the senses. The land is seriously tough terrain, peppered with paths worn by animals over the years, strewn with rocks and outcrops, and as dry as a bone. It lends a whole new strength to the word ‘dry’.

Spring poppies fill the island area, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021
Looking across the plain to the Montagnes Noires, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021

So the story of this garden, so close to wilderness, is one of gentle progress over the years, to find a way of creating a garden that lives with what it is, is therefore unconventional, and which makes a beautiful and sustainable space to enjoy. Making a garden here is about developing humility as well as knowledge, rolling with the punches when plants fail, and reviewing realistically what is possible. I realise that I may have majored on the pain in the previous sentences, so to counterbalance that, here is what makes this space so addictive. There is rise and fall with paths and rocks, for those who might remember Dan Pearson’s beautiful recreation of rocky Derbyshire at Chelsea in 2015, there is something of that big landscape feel in this garden. It has panoramic views, and although not huge in size, it is of a piece with the natural surroundings.

Dan Pearson for Laurent Perrier, Chelsea 2015
Dan Pearson for Laurent Perrier, Chelsea 2015

In the last few years, Derek and Cherrie have worked with Imogen Checketts and Kate Dumbleton from Le Jardin Champêtre in Caunes-Minervois. This collaboration has helped them to follow their instincts, using the clues of the landscape to creata paths and planting areas, and finding, with plenty of trial and error, the plants that will bring the best out of what they already have.

These didn’t need to be shipped in….
The garden cabin looks very happy there….

When green, silver and grey are the predominant foliage colours, form and punctuation points of concentrated colour bring the planting alive. A tiny, but indomitable delospermum (I think) begins to trail over a rocky outcrop, you may not be especially aware that it is there, but it will draw your eye.

Probably a delospermum growing to the light, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021

Two olive trees are picked out by two or three judiciously placed pencil conifers, and under the canopy of mature trees and shrubs, smaller perennials get that little bit of protection from the sun. To garden here means to accept that summer brings dieback and stasis, till the temperatures drop back and some rain comes- so spring is to be really celebrated for colour, and form and foliage need to hold the fort till the autumn.

Some individual plants caught my eye, some being the result of happy accidents, like the very pretty native pink Cistus self-seeding on the higher banks, and growing on the slopes themselves, this pale pink Allium looked far too delicate but clearly isn’t. I think it may be Allium lusitanicum.

Probably Allium lusitanicum, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021

Still with pink, I took a clump of this pretty small convolvulus home- it is everywhere on the hillsides of the Languedoc, but for all that, I am trying it on my hot, dry slope. It must be tough, so here’s hoping.

Probably Convolulus oleifolius, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021

From the nursery of Le Jardin Champêtre, I suspect, is this very pretty pale yellowy-cream Salvia with dark stems.

Probably Salvia x jamensis ‘La Luna’, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021

And trying hard to be a gentian, Salvia farinacea with astonishing blue stems, it almost looks painted on. This is quite tender I think, so although I love it, it’s not for me.

Salvia farinacea, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021

I have always associated Silene with damp, but I am pretty sure that this is the wild form, almost finished but not quite.

Probably Silene vulgaris, Beaufort, Languedoc, May 2021

And the weekend was over, too quickly.

Le Jardin Champêtre…à visiter

Looking towards the pine trees, le Jardin Champêtre, Caunes-Minervois, May 2021

The very first time I came across Imogen Checketts and Kate Dumbleton, I was very nearly struck by lightening. Nothing to do with Imogen and Kate, but everything to do with a sudden mad storm which hit Caunes-Minervois in the summer of 2016. There was a huge crack and a blinding flash shot to the ground a metre in front of me. Thanking my lucky stars I carried on to Gill Pound’s open day in her garden, sheltering from rain in her barn. Next door, two women had a stall of plants which was the beginning, I guess, of le Jardin Champêtre, and the two women later turned out to be Imogen and Kate. The following Spring we visited, and the rest is history.

They have built and developed a remarkable garden space, design business and nursery since then, and the land is transformed- as well as the gardens of local clients who have warmed to their style of gardening. They work with the conditions, using poor soil, rocks, gradients, and existing ingredients to make purposeful gardens that grow into the landscape rather than exist on top.

Imogen Checketts and Kate Dumbleton, the first visit, February 2017

In lockdown, I caught a free video from Garden Masterclass, in which Imogen and Kate talk about their journey to Caunes-Minervois and what inspires their approach to gardening in a tough climate. The link takes you to the main Gardening Masterclass page featuring their video and there is a youtube link you can click on. I really recommend it. Imogen and Kate talk simply and effectively about what they do, and I really enjoy the clarity of their approach and words. My own 2017 blog article about them can be found here.

Early days, looking towards the pine trees, February 2017, le Jardin Champetre, Caunes-Minervois, France

This photograph isn’t exactly taken to show the differences between 2017 and 2021, but it does give you a very good feel for how the garden space has developed in the 4 years. The photographs speak for themselves, I hope, but for me the exciting features of how they work include positioning plants so that they mirror each other, pinpoints of colour and contrast, and clever choices of shrubs and trees, assisted by strategic pruning. Below, the multi-stemmed small tree has had the canopy lifted just enough to expose the mirroring stems of the big Kniphofia just behind it.

Beautiful large Miscanthus grass clumps, and smaller Stipa tenuissima dots are lit up by small but very effective Allium and native Gladiolus byzantinus plantings.

Below, more huge clumps of Kniphofia are given the space to take their place, uncrowded by other plants or features.

Big big shrubs like the giant Genista, I think, below are paired with a trio of pencil conifers, and other small ground-hugging shrubs and perennials fill in beautifully.

Now is the time for alliums, and nothing could be finer than the deep purple heads, spotted through the garden. The simple white Allium nigrum flowers were nearly over, but I was reminded that Allium nigrum was the only Allium I managed to grow in Tostat, and I must buy some for next year

Now here is another example of simple being gorgeous. Strapping aloe flowers, backed by probably Miscanthus ‘Adagio’, nothing more nothing less.

And a favourite of mine that afternoon as we strolled in the Languedoc drizzle, was this Lavandula viridis, with the tufty top of a French style lavender with a fresh greeny-yellow point. Very pretty.

Lavandula viridis, le Jardin Champetre, May 2021

And lastly, I was really taken by this delicate pink hooded white Phlomis, which I can’t identify, but will ask about. Visit the nursery and garden if you can- this year or next. It will only get better and better. Thanks for letting us wander there, Imogen and Kate.

Lovely pink hooded white Phlomis, le Jardin Champetre, May 2017

New and old surprises…

Aristea ecklonii, resting temporarily in a trough, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

We are nearly at mid-May, and yet, despite some warm days, the season so far has been so dry and latterly cold, that it feels as if everything is only now beginning to trust the conditions enough to get going. I grew Aristea ecklonnii from seed probably 7 years ago now, and it has never quite found it’s stride- till now. I am astounded by it. It’s in the same pot, no extra anything except for a very wet January, and it has loved it here. Maybe all it wanted was to be against a wall and more in the shade than before. Compared with previous years, it is looking positively baroque and commanding attention and notice. Which I am giving it, with a lot of congratulatory pep-talk every morning. The blue is as close to a gentian blue as a non-gentian can get, and the flowerstalks reach out to 80 cms either side of the plant. Even without the flowers opening, it was looking splendid. I keep it outside all the time so I think it is a tad hardier than the link site suggests.

So pretty close up…

I had never come across Dietes grandiflora until we saw it growing all over Brisbane and in botanical gardens in the Australian Spring of 2018. So, spotting the bulbs for sale was an offer not to resist. I am a sucker for tall, thin, striking plant shapes, and in an Iris-alike sort of way, that’s what happens until the flowers come.

Dietes grandiflora, new to me and Oloron, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

And when the flowers arrive, I am hoping for this….or something similar. This close cousin was flowering fabulously in Sydney in October 2018.

Dietes robinsonia, The Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney, October 2018

In the same vein, though with fatter, stumpier leaves, is this Bulbine frutescens ‘Medicus’ which is in a twinned position across from the Dietes pot. Three baby plants are so far doing fine. Like the Aloe, the stumpy fat leaves are apparently good for healing abrasions on the skin. But whatever the medicinal qualities are, I love orangey yellow and so it is already scoring highly in my view.

Bulbine frutescens ‘Medicus’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021
Helleborus x sternii ‘Pewter’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

With little belief that I would be successful, I sowed some seed for this beautiful Helleborus x sternii ‘Pewter’ in the late summer of 2019. Some while later, 4 tiny plants came through and made it to the small plant stage- one found a new home in Glasgow with the Assistant Gardener, and three came to Oloron- and wow, they look happy. it is a lovely variety with almost translucent or even pearlescent foliage with small teeth and finely pointed ends. Delicate veining and red stems just add a little pzazz. Well worth the wait. And they have quadrupled in size since I planted them out in late February.

Physocarpus ‘Panthers’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

This is a new Physocarpus to me, but guess what, it has the darkest purple, almost black crinkled foliage, and it grows to be a nice, slim column- even though it looks rather fatter in the link photograph. I grew Physocarpus ‘Tiny Wine’ in Tostat, and grew to love it for its toughness, the stunning foliage in the Spring and Autumn and for being a really handsome shrub. Cuttings didn’t seem to take, but, luckily, the last one did and I have a strong small plant ready for planting out next year. So, ‘Panthers’ has a lot to live up to.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’, stunning spring foliage, Tostat, April 2020
Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ and Plantago major Rubrifolia, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

This limey-green Caryopteris x clanonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ was one of those reliable small shrubs that, in theory, should have done really well in Tostat. In my view, though, it was just on the limit of dryness tolerance that it could take, and so, often struggled with my no-watering policy. Here, in Oloron, I am trying again with a good sized cutting plant that I brought. It’s in the back barn garden, in a semi-shaded position, and so I am crossing my fingers. The brightness and vivacity of the foliage is the key for me, but if it flowers, which would be a good sign in late summer, the deep blue flowers are a gorgeous contrast with the foliage. Chumming up with the Caryopteris is a real star perennial, grown from seed, and such a good and tough performer- and it’s a plantain, that plant you pull out in your garden. Well, give in and grow this beautiful green and maroon plant, it will colonise any space with any soil in pretty much any position and looks superb. I give you Plantago major Rubrifolia. In my case, I bought seed through the post from the wonderful Derry Watkins at Special Plants. No more thanks to Brexit.

An incredible storm with the full thunder and lightening show, plus huge rain and twirling winds hit us last night with more to come this week. Maybe I give up with the rain dancing.

Musing in the rain…

A Russian gardener seen near Lake Baikal, Siberia, September 2018

It has been a really long time for the small plants since we had rain- and so this week’s continual and insistent rain, without wind, has saved a ton of bacon. For us humans, rain-watching is less attractive, but I really feel the sense of investment in the future garden that the rain brings. So, musing about this and that sets in, matched by a growing sense of ennui as lockdown continues. We will be freed from the 10k travel limit on Monday, so that’s really great, but non-essential shops are all still closed as are bars and restaurants, and we still have a 7pm curfew.

Morning in the vegetable garden, La Burra Verde, Orgiva, Spain, May 2018

James Wong was interviewed by Krishnan Guru-Murthy on a C4 podcast recently and Andy passed the podcast on to me, and I listened to it all the way through. Listening has had a powerful effect. His conversation chrystalised vague rumblings that have been in my head for ages, about the culture and heritage issues bound up in our views of what a garden is and what the gardening traditions we seem to treasure say about us. James Wong was questioning our love for the traditionally English look in gardening, and our investment in the greatness of the past. It struck a chord with me.

Nona’s cafe garden, Fez, Morocco, February 2017

I love to visit the great, classic gardens of Britain and would never pass up the chance, especially as I live far away now. But these are not the only gardens that matter, nor the only gardens that inspire. And yet the massively prevailing view in the British media and most of the mainstream gardening press and publications world is that unless you are a billionaire, dead in the case of the National Trust, and own or owned professionally landscaped acres, you don’t make the cut.

A small plant nursery, Fez, Morocco, February 2017

How many small town gardens get a spread in ‘Gardens Illustrated’ unless they have been designed by a gold medal winner at Chelsea with a budget to match? I get the magazine every month, mainly for design and plant ideas, but if you look at the range of gardens in the magazine, I would say more than 90% of them belong at the luxury end of the gardening budget spectrum, and most of them would fall into the ‘traditional English heritage’ category.

And yet millions of gardeners all around the globe are creating beautiful, useful spaces which their families and friends enjoy, and which can be every bit as inspiring as any of the classical greats. One of the incredible results of lockdown and Covid has been the use the BBC and ‘Gardeners World‘ has made of short 2 minute videos made by viewers of their own gardens and ideas. They have been fantastic viewing, bringing to life the great knowledge, great enthusiasm, great ideas and huge charm of gardeners everywhere, generously sharing of themselves.

The delicate precision of this Japanese gardener weeding gravel with a small knife, Kodaiiji Temple, Kyoto, September 2017

And what increasingly moves me is the power of the ‘ordinary’ gardener to connect with me, and as Wong says, to waken us up to our fundamental human embededness with nature and life, even if our ’18th century derived rationality’ strives against it.

The podcast lasts about 35 minutes and is well worth it.

Stowaways and pots…

Eucomis Sparkling Burgundy in the blue pot, and Cestrum elegans behind, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2021

For a tonic, I thoroughly recommend Eucomis. Expensive, but it will last and gradually increase your stock over the years, and what you get is stunning colour as the spring growth starts, followed by huge flowerspikes that last for weeks. It has wound up the competition with my Cestrum elegans, which is loving the new home. I have never seen it flower like this before. It’s a wee bit straggy, because it was a badly treated plant when I bought it, so I will carefully shape it next year to complement the very beautiful burgundy flowers.

The bright sunshine hides a really cold wind, and we have got the tailend of the Northern European cold snap. But, this week temperatures are slowly climbing, so the effects of the sunshine will encourage Spring growth, which is always exciting. However, with the packing of an entire garden (almost) into pots, there have been many survivors, but also some casualties. Although Plectranthus ecklonii ‘Erma’ is always slow to emerge in the Spring, I am fairly sure that it has had it- not enough cover in the colder nights and though I am still hoping against hope, I have a bad feeling about it. And being a South African native, it is busy flowering down there, and there is no seed available yet. So, patience and waiting is still the game. Just to remind you of the glory of it, see below… it flowers late, but before the flowers, the foliage is soft and really decorative…it doesn’t want baking sun and needs moisture, so is super happy in a pot with overwintering in a protected, dry, space- which is why I lost it.

Plectranthus ecklonii ‘Erma’, Tostat, October 2019

But another hot season plant has done really well, so well that I have split it into two pots. Russellia equisetiformis can look a bit like an unruly clump of green string, but don’t be put off, it flowers like a train for months with sprays of coral-red trumpets and is completely no bother- except for some moisture and not being wanting to be entirely baked in sun all day. It took a while to settle in with me, but it is such a gorgeous sight, I forgive it. It’s now decorating a large pot near the raised beds in the back barn garden. It’s ok outside in the winter, though I usually park it under something bigger for a bit of protection, and I don’t think it would do winter wet very well.

Russellia equisetiformis in the Big Pot, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2017
Russellia equisetiformis, back in Tostat, July 2018

Another plant which looks like dead string in the winter, and is just coming to life is Muehlenbeckia complexa. In the next 6 weeks or so, it will gush forth with hundreds of tiny, green glossy leaves on very thin trailing stems, and it is a very pretty thing, except in winter. I bought this in a tiny pot, practically dead, and had no idea what it was. It’s a survivor. I am having an experiment with it’s bigger cousin, Muehlenbeckia grandiflora, as ground cover under trees, so I will report back on how that goes.

Muehlenbeckia complexa in the other big blue pot, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2021

In beginning the big job of the ‘pots’, there have been some stowaways which I am very grateful for. Many small foxgloves, self sown from mother plants last year, have turned up, and I am busy lifting them and planting them out, hoping for a good number of adult plants this year and next. Also, a naughty but lovely small creeping daisy, Erigeron karvinkianus, has crept into pots since last year, and will add to events in the back garden this summer. You can never have enough if it, and it can always be ripped out if it gets too boisterous. Such a cheerful plant.

Meantime, Andy has been shovelling gravel. We now have a golden gravel surface in the courtyard, or Oloron Plage as we are calling it…adds a touch of class. We just have to get the cats not to use it as a sparkling toilet. Good luck with that!

Last of the tulips on Oloron Plage, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2021

The best blues ever…

Landscape at the Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

We have two friends called Jim, and both of them would have loved this walk from yesterday. One of the strange after-effects of lockdown for me is the strange need for order in the day- which, is, no doubt, something to with trying to stem the chaos of nothingness that floods in sometimes. So I had to be persuaded to come out and do a walk. Of course, once we got out, on a warm and hazy day, I forgot my apprehension. We drove for 40 minutes to the top of the Col de Marie-Blanque, which is at just over 1000m, and then did a meandering 2 hour circuit that took us up and around. Another three friends called Elizabeth, Kate and Shelagh, who, like the Jims, don’t all know each other, would have gone potty at the wildflowers. As did I.

Anemone nemerosa growing in charred mountain pasture, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

Burning the hillsides is a spring activity in the Pyrenees, I have never asked why. But, here amid the burnt out stubble, the wild Anemones seemed to be on growth hormones, I have never seen such huge flowers, easily 1.5 ins across, with the pure white of the flowers standing out against the burnt backdrop.

Polygala calcerea growing on rocky hillsides, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

And then there were the blues- such a blue. Bluer than blue. Firstly, this little Polygala calcerea. I am pretty confident of this id of the plant, though it took ages and crossed eyes to find it. It looks like a small, fat bluebell that has been scrumpled up, and it was everywhere on the sunny, rocky slopes- so much so that, at first, I didn’t spot the gentians. I blame the sunglasses.

Gentiana verna, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

These small Gentiana verna huddle together in groupings, and are very tiny, but brilliant. The blue is bluer than the photograph which blandifies the colour a little. Their perky five petals stand out proudly and there are so many, you need to watch your feet. But then, the big brigade appears. The trumpet gentians, Gentiana acaulis, did really make me think of trombones, but there were many more than 76. Looked at closely, they are almost sci-fi in their construction with deep speckled throats- and again, the colour. These trumpet gentians seem to grow as often singly as in a group. Pollination must work well for them in spreading them around the landscape.

Gentiana acaulis, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021
Gentiana acaulis loving the sandy draining soil and position, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

And just one orchid- all alone, nestled in a grassy hollow on the rocky hillside. Andy spotted it before me, as I was way behind with the camera. I am not entirely sure about the id here, but I favour Orchis mascula because the colour was like the deepest burgundy wine. Purple doesn’t remotely cover it.

Orchis mascula, probably, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

I love Hepaticas in the spring, and there was a lovely mix of them showing the full range from white to blue to a delicate pink. the latter a bit lost in the sunshine. And for added effect, just a touch of wild Pulmonaria in pink.

A parade of Hepatica nobilis, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021
Looking to the Plateau of Benou, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

We sat looking at the view before coming down the rocky path, waiting for a bit whilst an entire local college group of 11-16 year olds came up the path with several teachers. The school bus was parked at the bottom, the driver no doubt taking a snooze in the sunshine through the windscreen.

We got home and picked up the news on tv, to hear that we are in a third national lockdown, and schools are closed from tomorrow. No more trips to the Col Marie-Blanque for a month. Glad the school kids got their walk in. And how I missed doing and seeing all of this without the friends who would have loved it.

Planting with a pick-axe: part two

View of our sloping, stony garden, early February 2021 with the first fence posts, Oloron Sainte Marie

I have grown to love stony, poor soil since leaving Scotland. Just as well, you might say, on looking at the front garden space. We are on the brow of a little hill, which creates the slope, and over the years, giant rocky pieces and massive river galets from drystone walls that have tumbled down have contributed to make our front area, just across a small lane from our gate, a not very inspiring start for a garden. But if you think ‘garrigue’, a mix of sub-shrubs, trees and grasses common in Provence and the Languedoc, it all begins to look very promising. These plants all need sharp drainage, poor soil, sun, and rock and stone to accompany them. This week, planting with a pick axe took on a whole new dimension of effort- more later.

On the other side of the stony slope, we have a woodland area with shade and more moisture in the soil as you can see in the photograph below. This is also where the dreaded bamboo incursion has taken place, wrecking the old stone wall and advancing towards us. But we are going to win, even if it takes us five years. We have the municipality on our side, who are planning to revive the old chemin (which the bamboo has crossed to get to us), and this will mean, cross fingers, that with their heavy gear, they will rip the bamboo out, probably finish off the remains of our wall but that’s ok, and restore the chemin. This will leave us to tackle the bamboo escaping in our direction, and to rebuild the wall if we can afford it, or fence.

View of the woodland side at the front, worker at rest, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
Reason why worker is resting, the Bamboo Battle, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

So, the front garden is a tale of two halves, but both are exciting, and exhausting. After 4 mornings of massive rock extraction and pick-axe planting, I have rediscovered arm muscles I had forgotten I had. But, aside from the flatter section at the bottom, the slope has been planted. These garrigue plants needed, I thought, very little around them other than the stones that exist naturally. So this is going to be a sort of bare planting, a path, sort of, naturally developing where we haven’t planted, and gravel pockets for each plant to preserve moisture. There are dandelions by the millions, some of which I have dug out, but the rest will stay, with us controlling them lightly with strimming. There is also some bramble, but not too much, so again, I will just keep yanking it out when I see it- a small amount of bindweed is also there and the same applies. A few years of vigilance will do the trick. Of course, just removing rocks and digging plants in will have shaken the undesirable populations into action, but we will be on it.

Meanwhile, on the sunny, stony side, pick-axe planting includes Cornus mas, Teucrium fruticans, Phlomis termessii, Cistus monspeliensis, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
And a grouping of Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow‘ and Phillyrea angustifolia, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
A view up the slope, showing Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow’ with a ribbon of Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue‘ above them, and an Agave brought from Tostat, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

In the photograph above, you can also see the fencing we have put up and the small gate that Tony made for us.

And in another view, the Stipa tenuissima shines in the sun, as does a favourite Eryngium eburneum, and from Beth Chatto’s nursery years ago, a delicate little Euphorbia seguieriana, in the foreground, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

And from last year, a photograph I took of Eryngium eburneum flowerheads, rising to 1.3 metres above the plant this time last year. The planted ones will take a while to get going, but I am looking forward to it.

Eryngium eburneum, the fabulous flowerheads, March 2019, Tostat
The delicate Euphorbia seguieriana just planted, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

The one plant that I didn’t take a cutting of, was Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’. I should have, as my huge specimen went in a bonfire in Tostat most likely. But I have just bought a good looking one to plant out- and this afternoon, right at the back of all the plants that I brought with me, I found a rose cutting that I had forgotten about. So, there is a good chance that I have a ‘Mutabilis’ cutting, it’s lost it’s label, so I need to wait and see- but that would be a good end to that story, wouldn’t it?

Rosa chinensis Mutabilis, August 2015, Tostat

Planting by pick-axe : part one…

The Barn Garden before we started, February 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

Planting by pick-axe is a new skill requirement for me- and is toughening up my arm muscles like I don’t know what. But planting is happening, and despite hitting 3-4 massive river galet stones with each hole that I dig for one of my transported-from-Tostat plants, I am really enjoying it. I have never been in quite such a ground-zero gardening situation before, as I have often modified or re-created areas of garden but never gone into a site with nothing in it before. Many of my plants are halfway or nearly mature, and so this helps give a sense of volume, but there is a lot of bare ground to cover and deal with. This year, I need to live with the blanks and gradually fill them as plants leaf up and I can get a better sense of what I am dealing with.

So, in the Barn Garden, behind the huge barn (bigger than the house), we have a south-facing space the size of an average town garden in the UK probably. Walled all round, apart from a gap where we have put green wire fencing, and with some mature trees leaning over from the neighbouring side, I am thinking that we will have some shade protection from those trees, which will reduce heat and enable more moisture retention in the soil than we had in Tostat. And the far corner, by the pale green chair, in the picture below, is actually in shade most of the day. This really excites me as I can try growing some plants I have never dared to before.

The Barn Garden, installing the concrete base for the table, February 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

So, under some of that shade, we have made a concrete hardstanding for our summer table and chairs, which will face three big raised vegetable beds, made with with old beams from a house in Tostat. A curly-wurly grassed area will separate the raised beds from the eating area, and the remaining swirl-shaped area will be planted with shrubs, small trees and perennials. I want a dramatic foliage-based planting in the shady corner, softening out to a semi-shaded mix of favourite shrubs, roses, grasses and perennials, then a hot, zingy, tall perennial and sub-shrub area in full sun. I want my cake and to eat it!

The raised veg beds being set up, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

The local municipal composting plant kindly let us have a trailer-load of rough compost for filling the bottom half of the raised beds and we nabbed a dozen big bags of horticultural compost on offer at the garden centre which will gradually top up the beds as they settle. Leaving some of the massive river galets in place, and using two favourite blue pots to create a destination, we have made two rocky paths into the planting, so that you we can get up close and personal with the drama of it all- I hope! So here are a fewof the plants I am using…

Barn Garden beginnings from the barn end, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
Barn Garden beginnings from the other end, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

I have bought a Schefflera taiwaniana for the shady corner spot. It’s only a baby now, but I am hoping it will make 3-4 metres in height in the next 3 years. I had also fancied a Schefflera alpina to be planted not far away, but it’s not yet available so I am boxing and coxing with a plan B there for the moment.

Schefflera taiwaniana, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

Brought from Tostat, and looking good despite a full winter outside is my Salvia Spathacea, which I grew from seed about 5 years ago. It has flowered for me, quite spectacularly in 2016, but not for the last couple of years. Despite being Californinian, it prefers a shadier spot than you would think, so I hope that I have got a better sun/shade balance here than in Tostat.

Salvia spathacea, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
Salvia spathacea, June 2016, Tostat

And new to me, but I am a complete sucker for Hellebores, is Helleborus sternii ‘Boughton Beauty’. It has the classic sternii spiky leaves in almost bluey glaucous green, and a fistful of flowering buds. So, it’s on it’s own, away from the other Hellebores, in a possibly vain attempt to reduce cross breeding…but actually, I will love them whatever happens.

Helleborus sternii Boughton Beauty, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

Great depths and tiny miniatures…

Looking down the well, Oloron Sainte Marie, February 2021

A week of highs and lows, with much connection between the two. Finding a 12 metre well under a lid in the courtyard was a high. Beautifully constructed and looking as if a child-sized builder had only just finished it, we need to figure out how we can use it, and restore the pump system- we need to find a well expert. Not one for the Pages Jaunes, I don’t imagine.

A few days later, a more sombre mood descended as possible news of the almost-total flattening of our old garden in Tostat reached us. For a few moments, the shock was almost visceral, even though, rationally speaking, the new owners are the new owners. Looking back over the photographs of the garden in Tostat last year, the image that spoke to me was this one of a March moon at sunset. Kind of said it all.

Sunset, Tostat, March 2020

But, here in Oloron, small things are doing their best to celebrate now and the future, whilst honouring the past. Thinking in advance last Autumn, I had bought a couple of handfuls of a new Crocus, ‘Orange Monarch’– apparently the first successful breeding of an orange crocus. Thinking that orange is good, bright and cheerful, I have been really looking forward to these popping up. The first signs were good, with a striking burnt brown colouring to the underside of the petals- leading to a slight feeling of being underwhelmed, as the promised orange leaned too far left to yellow for my liking. Mind you, the photographs do look more orange, dammit. Good try, but not orange enough!

Crocus Orange Monarch, Oloron Sainte Marie, February 2021
Crocus Orange Monarch, looking not orange enough for me, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021

I grew Erodium pelargoniflorum from seed in the Autumn of 2019, so these plants that I brought with me are in their second year now. Fresh green foliage and tough but delicate flowers are a lovely sight against bare ground. This Erodium might keep it’s foliage all year round in a cooler climate- but for me, they die down and disappear in summer, reliably coming back in the late Autumn.

Erodium pelargoniflorum, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021

Another tiny bulb treat that I gave myself at the end of 2020 was a couple of handfuls of this very sweet dwarf Narcissus, Narcissus bulbocodium Cantabricus, which at only a few centimetres high, opens it’s flowers, eerily reminiscent of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ from pale yellow to bright white. Totally adorable, and utterly tiny. A quick look at references tells me that there is considerable confusion and disagreement on nomenclature for this plant, so here is my French stockist for reference.

Narcissus bulbocodium Cantabricus, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021
And again….

Two years ago nearly, back in Tostat, we held our annual event for Tostatenfleur, and as a result, I came home with 6 baby Scilla peruviana– a wonderful bulb (nothing to do with Peru actually, which I had successfully killed in ignorance 12 years earlier. So here we are again, and of my 6 babies, 2 are the proud owners of an embryonic flower spike. I can’t wait…

Scilla peruviana, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021

Sticking with bulbs and small things, these beautiful candy-pink dwarf tulips are simply lovely. Tulipa fosteriana ‘Garden of Clusius’ is named for the famous botanist, Carolus Clusius, who founded the Hortus Botanicus at Leiden University in the Netherlands. I visited the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden in 2016, in March, so almost exactly five years ago. A beautiful place, with many historic details to discover, I was tempted by the tulip largely because of that connection, and it doesn’t disappoint. I think I like the early stages of the flowering, when the tulip looks like a 1950s lipstick being opened for the first time. Gorgeous.

Tulipa fosteriana ‘Garden of Clusius’, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021
Tulipa fosteriana ‘Garden of Clusius’, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021
Beehives beneath the inscription ‘God feeds all creatures’, Clusius Garden, Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, March 2016
View of the Clusius Garden, Leiden, March 2016

And I am getting to know so many rocks as we tackle the Barn Garden. Many of these friends are twice or three times the size of those pictured below. Think of us as we dig and make this a new garden for us.

Rocks I know too well, with pink shoe for scale, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021

Smitten by carmine and orange…

Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’, Oloron Sainte Marie, January 2021

As the days begin to lengthen a little more, and the cold snap has gone for now, I feel myself getting excited by the prospects of new beginnings, and, of course, despite the many many plants big and small that we brought from Tostat, there is always the lure of something new. And, of course, I succumbed. Here, we have 3 areas of garden, each of which offers something different. Firstly, there is the sloping, sunny, stony area which has ‘garrigue’ planting written all over it in my mind. Then, next to that, is a gently sloping wooded area, with some small trees and quite a lot of fairly uninteresting shrubs and a massive clump of advancing bamboo. The bamboo will be attacked on all fronts by us and a friend with a sturdy digging machine- and we will continue to wage war on it over the next 5 years to eradicate it completely. We are going to get the dull shrubs out, and I am envisaging a mellow, semi woodland area, with wild grass, some sculptural evergreen planting, and bulbs, spring and autumn, planted at the foot of the old trees.

Then, at the back of the big barn, there is another area, which is south-facing, has a lovely partial view of the Pyrenees, and what looks like not bad soil at all. Here, with two metre stone walls all around and tree cover from next door on one side, I think the world is my oyster- and I reckon that it is not bone dry either- which gives me the chance to try out some plants that I have never dared to experiment with in Tostat.

Here are two shrubs that I fell for badly in the first week after Christmas. Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’ could, perhaps be quite blingy for some. It really is this astonishing colour. The deep carmine pussy willow buds got me completely. Look at the frozen raindrops on the emerging carmine colouring, and the hat-shaped bud coverings that are coming away as the colour deepens- I find it stunning. A keen amateur plantsman in Japan called Dr. Tsuneshige Rokujo found and selected this beautiful variety in the 1970s, naming it for the highest volcanic peak in Japan, Mount Aso. I am hugely impressed by the quality of the plant I bought from Coolplants, a Belgian nursery near Bruges. It is beautifully shaped and ready to go. Thank you, Cathy Portier of Coolplants.

Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’, Oloron Sainte Marie, January 2021

I have never dared to grow Hamamelis- but have seriously lusted after one for years. So, along with the Salix, I ordered ‘Hamamelis Orange Beauty’ from Cathy Portier. This is a small but sturdy shrub, which should eventually form a beautiful mass of orange peel blossom in early Spring reaching a height and width of about 2 metres. I can’t wait. Both the Salix and the Hamamelis will be given special spots.

Hamamelis ‘Orange Beauty’, Oloron Sainte Marie, January 2021

So this will be their new home. I have some ideas as to what to do here, but, apart from dragging the soil to loosen big weeds and unwanted grass, I am going to take some time to get to know how the site works. This will involve drinking many cups of tea there and much ruminating… As you can see, there is nothing at all there just now- not an experience I have ever had in a garden, so tantalising times are ahead…

Barn garden as it is now, Oloron Sainte Marie, January 2021

This photograph is from last Spring in Tostat, but features a fabulous small early spring perennial which I would recommend highly and is a deadcert and easy from seed. Erodium pelargonifolium has sprightly, bright green foliage which stands proudly no matter the weather, and the geranium-like pink flowers appear for easily three months of Spring. It will self-seed I hope. Seed can be got from Derry Watkins at Special Plants– but thanks to Brexit, I will no longer be able to buy seed from her unless I have a planned visit to the UK. A great big ‘darn’ is what I say.

Don’t get me started on Brexit. I will just have to get better at sourcing seeds in the EU.

Erodium pelargoniflorum, Tostat, January 2020