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

 

 

 

 

 

Jazz hands in the garden…

Phygelius aequalis ‘Yellow Trumpet’ with the pink Scabiosa columbaria peeping through, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Cuttings from one garden to another is such a good and friendly way to build a garden. Here, in Oloron, I have a lovely neighbour with whom I am sharing cuttings and offshoots, and I am really enjoying her choice of plants, quite a few of whom, like Melianthus major, I failed with in Tostat as winters were sometimes both too cold and too damp.

Phygelius aequalis ‘Yellow Trumpet’ was both a seed grown plant and a cutting from me to me. I love the robustness of this plant, glossy bright green foliage whatever the conditions and these elegant cool yellow trumpets that go on for months. It is really pretty and bombproof. As it gets more substantial and clumps, it will make an almost shrub-like presence and it may well spread through running roots if it really likes you. No problem I reckon, just more plant material for friendly sharing and swapping.

Another gift to myself were some small cuttings of Monarda fistulosa. This is the only Monarda I can grow that doesn’t succumb to any mildew at all. With us, even ‘Gardenview Scarlet’ reputed to be mildew-free, is just as riddled with mildew, and this opinion comes from Bernard Lacrouts, the best plant nurseryman for miles around. I love this plant and it seems to be really enjoying the slightly shaded position, out of the hot afternoon sun, here in Oloron. Easy as pie from seed.

Monarda fistulosa, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Fancy another tall, floriferous and elegant plant that flowers like a train in July and August? I give you Alcathaea x suffrutescens ‘Parkrondell’. I took my cuttings from a village planting last summer, and now my cuttings are taller than me, and bushing out really well, and will next year be a beefy but elegant shrub. This plant is not well known at all, and it should be. Easy, undemanding, hardy and tolerating even dry conditions, it brings a ruffled elegance to the garden. I had hoped I had taken cuttings of the sister, ‘Parkfrieden’, which has cream and very pale pink flowers, but I will have to wait and see what happens with the other two plants to be sure. There is a third sister plant, ‘Parkallee’ which is entirely cream coloured. There is a bit of the hollyhock about them, but they absolutely merit being better known and grown more.

Alcathaea suffrutescens ‘Parkrondell’, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Rosa ‘Woollerton Old Hall’ was a rose I gave to a good friend, who did the perfect friend-thing and grew a cutting on for me as a present for my birthday last year. I was really touched by that, and so the rose has a good position in the new barn garden, and with a slightly shaky start, has really picked up and got going. This rose has all the full beauty of an old rose, but with a slightly open centre, so that it does work for pollinators even though the flowers qre loosely double. The scent, and ok, I am not the best nose on the planet, has a warm clove type body to it, almost savoury rather than sweet, and very unusual- not ‘rosy’ in tone. The cream and butter colouring is lovely, almost apricot towards the centre. A treat.

Rosa ‘Woollerton Old Hall’, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

And now to some survivors of the winter and being largely abandoned in their pots…Pelargonium sidoides is a fighter of a plant, albeit on the tiny side. It has come back from being reduced to tiny sprigs by the end of winter, and is flowering hard. The flowers are strange. They are definitely pink- no two ways about it. But they should be a very dark maroon, almost black. What’s going on? In every other respect, it is sidoides….not just the fact that the seed came from a reputable source, but the foliage is dead right. Ah well.

Pelargonium sidoides, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021…..and curly foliage below….
Salvia cacaliifolia, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Salvia cacaliifolia is a stunner. Not only do you get spires and spires of gentian-blue flowers, but the triangular shaped leaves twine and curl, and if you wish, with a few bits of twiggy support, you almost have a climbing salvia on your hands. It does need winter protection, mea culpa there, but this need only be a roofed over area or a cold frame as it doesn’t need warmth as much as dry conditions. Cuttings are easy in the autumn from sideshoots, and I would have lost mine altogether if I hadn’t at least taken a cutting.

And for a strong whiff of a Moroccan desert in full sun, try the tiny but indomitable Pelargonium abrotanifolium, which is a bit of a mouthful and not the easiest name to remember. Again, dry cover in the winter is needed, but brush against these delicate, filigree leaves in the palest green, and the scent is released. It’s like a fix for the holiday you haven’t had. On top, these tiny, but memorable flowers with dark purple throats appear all summer. Could be grown anywhere in a pot as long as it has full sun, as it doesn’t grow big. Doesn’t want to be swamped by big-boy plants I reckon- another good reason for a pot.

Pelargonium abrotanifolium, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Talk about jazz hands… the Cardinal Vine has both fabulous foliage and glowing red hot flowers which flower non stop for one day only. What a show. Full sun, some moisture and a little bit of feeding to keep it powered up. I bought this in Oloron market and have twined it through a pair of metal Moroccan window shades which the previous owner kindly left us. Just for a bit of drama, you know.

Ipomoea guamoclit or Cardinal Vine, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

We all need Phlomis in our lives…

Phlomis lanata ‘Pygmy’, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

I am trying out a brave and maybe foolhardy experiment in the sloping, stony and hitherto uncultivated front garden. Given that it is stony and pretty unforgiving, as well as being in full sun almost all day, I had already thought that it could offer a great opportunity to grow cuttings of many of my dry garden plants from the old garden in Tostat. So, I had originally imagined that I would tip much more gravel on top of the stony ground and plant through that, having pulled or dug out as much as I could see that I didn’t want, too many dandelions and way too much bindweed and bramble for example. But….it wasn’t possible to buy any gravel in lockdown, and so, watching the early spring passing by, I went for the Big Gamble.

What if I just planted my small plants anyway? Waiting wasn’t a good option. Firstly, plants like this get impatient in pots generally having massed fibrous root systems or tap roots, both of which want to be in the ground when young. Secondly, I thought that, as long as I didn’t let the bindweed and bramble get too boisterous, with any luck my plants would begin to bulk up this year and be in really good shape next year to dominate any existing plants without me having to wage war on their behalf.

So, in they all went, probably more than 50 small plants grown as cuttings and some new plants bought small, as well as various others kindly given to the new garden. Most were planted by pickaxe as huge numbers of river boulders, probably from surrounding walls that had fallen down, were everywhere. One plant took more than an hour to get into the ground, as 4 or 5 massive 5kg boulders had to be hand extracted by pickaxe. There was a lot of sweat and much swearing.

Phlomis lanata ‘Pygmy’, Tostat, April 2020

And 4 months later, I am quietly confident that the Big Gamble has paid off. To be completely fair, I still have quite a bit of bramble and bindweed, and a sprinkling of very mixed existing plants, such as self-sown Nigella and some flowering weeds. But I am not very bothered by them. The idea was to make a planting of plants that would respond well to the conditions, and let them manage the landscape, accepting those existing plants, whatever they are, that can co-exist. The new plants are slowly taking their place and beginning to be visible through the mix, which means that next year, the space will look very different. Some things have failed, particularly one or two of the bought plants- but my homegrown plants are gaining traction, particularly the Phlomis.

Phlomis lanata ‘Pygmy’, which flowered last Spring in Tostat, later unluckily (it is very small) was strimmed to the ground by Andy, so what came here was a seriously pygmy ‘Pygmy’. But the photo at the top of this post shows you the plant today- looking very good and seriously grown-up to the fullish height of 0.25m.

Phlomis x termessii, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

The golden Phlomis, x termessii is really looking at home. It has had a bit of a heat problem during our very dry patch of six weeks or so in Spring, but the new growth looks really great so I am looking forward to it tripling in size and flowering in April next year. Like everything else on the slope, I have only spot-watered when a plant looked to be in serious trouble, so I am ok with plants struggling a bit as this will stimulate better and deeper root growth for the future.

Phlomis boveii subsp. maroccana, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

I am really looking forward to this Phlomis boveii, it has tall, pale pink flowers in the late Spring, and is bulking up really well. Early leaves got a bit burnt by dryness in February, but the plant has recovered well and looks set for next year.

Senecio vira-vira, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Moving to a plant that was new to me, I am surprised and delighted by this funny-looking Senecio vira-vira. It is incredibly brittle, so don’t plant it anywhere where it will be knocked or bashed. I didn’t put it in the best places, but the upside of bits breaking off is that they root in water in a bright kitchen within 10 days or so, so I have generated about half a dozen new plants already. The flowers are insignificant as the foliage is the real deal, silvery white and felted, so that it looks like very touchable marble. I really like it. I think it will make a mound in the end.

Phlomis purpurea and Greek Oregano, Tostat, April 2020

I didn’t bring Phlomis purpurea. A mistake. It is a lovely thing, so I am on the hunt for one.

Eryngium eburneum, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Eryngium eburneum has had a struggle but looking at the new growth at the base of the rosette, I reckon that it has cracked it and will be back bigger and stronger next year.

Euphorbia pithyusa ‘Ponte Leccia’, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Euphorbia pithyusa ‘Ponte Leccia’ is a beautiful, elegant and refined euphorbia. It develops into a finely wafting mound which offers the same movement as a grass, with soft green fronds that blend in really well even if planted closely to other plants.

I went for broke and also wanted to try out planting Achillea crithmifolia as a protective barrier around my new acquired Rosa mutabilis. I have been reading a little about allelopathic plants, and thought that this would be an interesting experiment in miniature. So far so good, not much has got through, just a twig of bindweed which might be too butch for the Achillea to manage. We will see.

Rosa mutabilis and Achillea crithmifolia, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

The merry month of June…

Aristea major, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

June started with the only flowerspike of Aristea major opening up to give us the shot of blue that always surprises, and giving the hoverflies a good morning snack. It can’t speak to me, but I know that the Aristea found the move unpleasant, and the wet January was not to it’s taste either. So, weekly liquid seaweed feeds seem to be cheering it up and normal growth of new leaves is resuming. It was a five year wait from sowing seed to the first flower, so I am really invested in it’s recovery.

I split this lovely yellowy-green Hakonechloa macra Naomi into five plants, which had orginally been two plants in a pot. This is a very obliging and beautiful Japanese grass, which is altogether more tolerant of sun and dryness than many sites would suggest. I think that what it needs to be super tough is to really develop the root mass to support the leaf growth, so if you have either planted it or split it, expect to keep it watered regularly for the first few months, but it will probably need very little extra water thereafter. I grew the golden variety in full sun with dry soil very successfully and one plant gradually spread to easily cover a metre over 10 years. So, of the original two plants, I now have four growing in the Barn Garden and the last piece in this lovely cracked pot.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Naomi’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021
Isoplexis canariensis, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

I have seriously sinned against this plant, Isoplexis canariensis, and despite my letting it freeze outside in the pot, it has valiantly clung on this Spring, and in the walled protection of the Barn Garden, I am risking it and have planted it out into the ground. I do, however, adore the colouring- the burnt orange of the flowers, and when happy, the slightly glossy dark green foliage is quite lovely. But I saw the near cousin, Isoplexis isabelliana ‘Bella’, offered this Spring and so have one in a pot in the courtyard. So far, so good, it came as a teeny plant and is now bushing up nicely and starting to flower with the same burnt orange colouring as the shrub. ‘Bella’ looks as though she will be shorter, just over a metre, and bushier than the Canariensis, which can get leggy, and it will need some help to get through a damp winter. But for orange lovers like me, it is otherwise not at all demanding.

Andy Sturgeon used Canariensis to really good effect in his Chelsea garden of 2016- his website has some great photos of the garden.

Isoplexis isabelliana ‘Bella’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

This is a really lovely Penstemon that I grew for the first time last summer, Penstemon ‘Russian River’. It starts off as a misty dark grape colour almost frosted with a light patina, then romps into full-on juicy dark blue/purple as the flowers open out. Unlike some, this Penstemon stands tall and erect from the off, even before flowering. Cuttings virtually take themselves, so buy one and then propagate to have sturdy young plants for next year.

Penstemon ‘Russian River’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

And in theory, I should love Digiplexis. But, I have come to the conclusion that they are probably more trouble than they are worth. They don’t reliably over-winter and can be quite moody till quite late in the year, so despite the fact that the colours are really good, and the plant is bushy rather than being a very tall single spike, I won’t be rushing to find any more. Graham Rice is pretty cutting about the name alone, never mind the actual plant.

Digiplexis ‘Berry Canary’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021
Digiplexis ‘Illumination Raspberry’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

I am very proud of my seed-grown Paulownia tomentosa though. For a start, a good friend now no longer with us, gave me the seed, and then 2 years later, here we are with thriving young plants. I am going to do the coppicing-thing, as no way can I handle a full-size tree, but 2m tall and dinner plate sized leaves sounds good to me. Next to it, is one of the divided ‘Naomi’ plants, which is looking a little uncertain in it’s new position, but it will come through this phase. I am confident.

Paulonia tomentosa, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

Another remarkable survivor is Rosa ‘Lawrence Johnston’. Saved last year from a very poor choice of planting spot, this tough rose is making a great come-back, although I do wonder about the naming, as my rose looks very different from others photographed on sites. It is also pale apricot rather than yellow really, and more double than semi, but, sigh, I love it anyway.

Rosa ‘Lawrence Johnston’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021
Nierembergia scoparia, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

Nierembergia scoparia is a strange, loose, wiry plant which I grow in a pot in amongst other plants, so that the flowers emerge as if by magic through the undergrowth- well, that’s the theory. But the flowers are really pretty and it is far tougher than it looks, so it may go in the ground next year in a sunny, sheltered spot.

So this will be the ‘pond’- a rather grand old bassin for watering cattle will get a new life. It may need a liner as there is a slight fissure seeping water high on the side, but we are experimenting to see if this is really required. This time, a submerged pump will gently agitate the water, no Versailles effects for us, and I am thinking papyrus, and other tall stuff at one end, with a small lily, Nymphaea ‘Paul Hariot’ providing coverage and flowers.

Soon to be a small pond, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

And here’s a surprise- to me at least, a small scale Alchemilla epipsila, which will hopefully be as pretty and long lived as the bigger Mollis, but less invasive in a small garden. It is the most adorable thing when droplets of dew or rain sparkle on the serrated edges of the leaves.

Alchemilla epipsila, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

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