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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
Dianella and Libertia sound a bit like obscure Greek deities as celebrated in a very long poem by Alexander Pope in the 18th century. They are actually part of a wonderful group of strappy, elegant, evergreen plants that are vital to the feel of the garden in the Spring particularly, but which I constantly overlook simply because they are such stalwarts. They deserve several odes to their qualities, but I am not an ode maker, and so this post will be my celebration of them.
They are such stalwarts that all of them got left behind in the move to Oloron nearly 3 years ago. Fortunately, Libertia ixioides ‘Goldfinger’ had inserted itself into pots single-handedly, but the Dianella had to be rebought, and then, all of a sudden, some seedlings appeared self-managed in pots. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just shows you- sometimes the overlooked can sort themselves out.
Libertia ixioides ‘Goldfinger’ was originally bought as three small plants easily twelve years ago. Forming a tuft of upright, slender leaves, this plant is a 365 days of the year hero. It takes anything that weather and sun chuck at it, and once it is happy with you, there will be sprays of small flowers later in Spring, but honestly, that is a cherry on the cake. The foliage darkens to a bronze-gold colour in the winter, and backlit by sun, it is magnificent. It will make more tufts and spread gently, and will happily poke through any other plant to accompany it. I haven’t tried to grow it from seed, but would have if I hadn’t rediscovered it. A brilliant plant.
The Dianellas are just as tough and useful in all sorts of ways, in pots, in drifts, weaving in among other plants, you name it. UK sites often say that these are tender, but that is not my experience. I agree that they would not fancy waterlogged ground, but I have grown them in poor soil in full sun with very little irrigation, in shady and semi-shady spots in better soil and no irrigation, and it seems to me that they always bounce back from the cold and the sun.
‘Cassa Blue’ will get to 0.5m tall, maybe a little more, has a glaucous blue tinge to the green leaves, and will clump up vigorously. It has never flowered for me, but that’s no loss as the plant itself is so good. In Tostat, I grew it threading through small grasses and it makes a great linking plant bringing a planting together. Here in Oloron, I have small groups of it on the ‘garrigue’ slope, and in very hard conditions. This means that the plant is taking more time to establish but this year, I think it will have cracked it.
Dianella revoluta ‘Little Rev’ is growing really well in the shade and semi-shade of the Barn Garden, and I am already dividing clumps and threading the new plants through the roses and other shrubs. Above you can see it lining the rough path to the new Loropetalum ‘Fire Dance’ in the blue pot. Dividing it couldn’t be easier. Each clump consists of many smaller plants that are growing together. The rootballs are compact and strong but can be gently pulled apart to make ready-made starter plants of whatever size you want, and will quickly root back into a new position. ‘Little Rev’ is shorter than ‘Cassa Blue’ and is a strong green.
Not related other than thematically is another Spring favourite, Aristea ecklonii. Again, this is an older photograph, but two years later, I now have 2 tall zinc vase-shaped tubs and will need to divide up and repot them in the autumn to make 2 more. I grew this from seed originally about eight years ago, and though it is evergreen in our protected courtyard against a wall and with half a days sun to warm it, it’s real hightime is the late Spring, when the plants almost sit up in the pot and then fire the elegant flowersprays out for the world to see. The tall pots really show it off the best and I raise them up balancing them on the wide ledge of the stone trough where the gingers are still sleeping. By the time the gingers get going, the Aristeas will be happy to sit down and regroup. It is easy from seed, just needing the patience to wait as you do for perennial seed.
Winter returned good and proper at the weekend and for most of this coming week, and, rare, for Oloron, we had a good dusting of snow yesterday. The temperatures have been so volatile that I think the spring bulbs are stopped in their tracks until they have good experiential evidence of spring being on the way. But, I was really pleased to see all these baby Allium nigrums growing in amongst the clumps that I planted on the stony, ‘garrigue’ slope at the front. I think that I planted about 80 bulbs in groupings up and down the slope in the early winter of 2021, and probably 95% of them came good and flowered in May last year. After May, the slope was pretty much baked right up to October, But this seems to have really suited the Alliums.
Heavens knows why I didn’t take a photo last year, but here’s one from 2019 in Tostat. It is the simplest and, I think, the purest of all, white heads with emerging green seedheads as the flowering goes over, so though they may only be in flower for 3 weeks or so, the green heads remain until felled by weather. They are not expensive so lavish drifts are available to all! And if they reproduce as much as they seem to have this year, I will be joyfully awash with them, hooray.
A first timer to flowering, my pretty small Cornus Mas, now a good Im tall and wide having been planted as a stick 2 years ago, has flowered on bare stems last week. There is a scent, but my nose not being the greatest, I didn’t catch it really. The brilliant yellow flowers may be small, but they will pack a punch in years to come.
This photograph below is what inspired me to plant my one very small Cornus mas. This big planting of Cornus mas in the garden of The Pineapple, was so incredible that sunny day three years ago. I’ll have to wait a bit.
And here, whilst on the subject of Cornus mas, is the variegated form. The leaves are almost ghostly and make a fantastic effect cut through bright light. I have a suspicion too that the variegated form needs a good deal more moisture, so lusting after it is probably a dud idea. However, the regular form is actually really tough and drought tolerant, as evidenced by the fact that it is coping really well with the front slope.
On the ground level of the front slope, I have many Euphorbias, but this one, Euphorbia rigida, is a real favourite. It needs the sharpest drainage possible and then it creeps along the ground and will eventually start sitting up more to form a small bush. Yellow is the colour.
I am really pleased with my two Medicargo arborea, each now standing a good metre high and beginning to fill out. They have what I would call a firm presence in the’garrigue’ garden because they remain green and upright regardless of the heat and drought. And I am a bit surprised that they have each produced one or two bright custard-coloured flowers despite the cold. I think the bit of rain that we finally had last week probably kicked them into action. It’s a pea relative as you can see.
One of the saddest things I did when we moved was to fail to properly protect my Plectranthus ‘Erma’ which I had grown from seed. I have never yet been able to find seed again, though I routinely look for it throughout Europe online. Last summer, though, I bought cuttings of Plectranthus zuluensis from an Etsy seller in Hungary, which amazingly rooted and filled out a terracotta trough. This winter, I brought it into the house and it is cheerfully flowering away in the sitting room window. The buds are brilliant, like a multi-headed arrow, and the soft blue flowers are small but quite lovely.
Ok. Buckle up. We now have a new climatic phenomenon, winter drought. I am not complaining, especially as Venice has drying out canals. But just realising that there is a new experience to integrate into what and how we garden. Newly planted shrubs in the Barn Garden are crying out for water, and I did crack this morning and give a can or two even though, for the first time in more than 30 days, some rain is expected this week. But, unless it is slow and unrelenting, and continues for days and days, it will not restore the water table and we will go into the Spring with a big deficit. I would never have thought, being so close to the Pyrenees that I would need a water butt. But I do. And will be installing one very soon.
So, in the garden things are looking very sorry for themselves and not really very early Spring-like at all, whereas we already have had sunlit evenings lasting until 7pm. A spot more plant removal has been going on this week. Four clumps of hellebores that are seriously struggling with the drought and the unexpected sunshine have been lifted and are being convalesced prior to finding a spot in the Barn Garden, where at least I can guarantee some shade, if not damp. That might be enough to restore their fortunes.
About 5 years ago, I had a go at growing Helleborus sternii from seed bought from Derry Watkins‘ fantastic Special Plants. She has a seed list to die for. I grew five little plants successfully, gave one away to the Eldest Daughter, and kept four in the Barn Garden. Ironically, the one that is doing the best is actually the one almost in some winter sunlight. The others are nearby, but underplanting a Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’. The snag is that the Mahonia, grown young in semi-shade, is a spot contorted and has provided almost too much cover for the Hellebores, which have responded by flowering almost along the ground. Never mind, some corrections to be made later on.
Helleborus sternii is not a blingy plant, it has tough, spiked, deep green leaves, and almond shaped buds that open to a soft green flower, with prominent stamens. I really love it. Two of the other plants have gone the bruised look- a strongish purply crimson colouring in the green of the leaves, and flowers that look as if they’ve been in a boxing ring- losing. But they are also very beautiful in a discreet kind of a way.
Only 5 or 6 years ago, I used to grow Cerinthe from seed in the Autumn, plant them out before Christmas and would know, for sure, that they would be bushy plants by March. This I did last year, and now I am looking at spriglet plants trying their best, but essentially only a few leaves bigger than when I planted them out. This is a bit sad. But they are flowering, and they are not just yellow but also have these inky bottoms to the flowers. I can’t remember if I bought a special variety- but on the whole I do like the yellow form although the ubiquitous blue is also good. Easy peasy, bu they do need rain.
I wouldn’t want to oversell this. I bought this Loropetalum because I have lifted all the wayward growing Eucomis bulbs, of which more another time, and replanted the big pot with this early flowering shrub. I do love the pinky crimson finger shape of the flowers and am really looking forward to this becoming a very handsome addition to the Garden. But this is it’s first winter, and probably because it flowers on old wood, all the flowers in this first year are underneath the leaves. Still, this will change. The foliage is a lovely dark purple and so looks great even in the winter. I really wanted a darker red variety, but this is a newish shrub to France and there wasn’t much choice. No big regrets so far.
Back on the kitchen table, I briefly adored the bright yellow crocus flowers with brown striations, which our lovely bio lady at the market had sweetly potted up with her own moss. Gone now, but they were fabulous as a precursor to the bulbs in containers outside. This is the frustrating part of early Spring when waiting for plants to get going seems to slow down. Let’s pray for rain.
I don’t remember when I first fell for abutilons big time. It’s the bell shape, the colours, the pretty, lax foliage in a maple shape- the colours maybe most of all, I am still lusting after a plant of Abutilon ‘Orange Hot Lava’ an American introduction which is taking its time to infiltrate France. Some UK nurseries have started to stock it. The abutilon is generally tougher than the Victorians thought. It’s largely South American lineage would seem to indicate a delicacy that it doesn’t usually need. If you think of it like a large dahlia, that would probably be enough to keep it going. Though if you regularly have winter night-time temperatures below -4C, the plant would be happier and safer in an open, roofed space with some wall protection.
I started out with an unknown orange one, see below. It was just a cutting and I planted it near the house, in one of our stony soil rectangles, and pretty much left it. It coped with annual fortnights of cold down to -10C, and always bounced back. The free draining conditions probably helped, so I’m not proposing those temperatures as a recipe for success anywhere! It became a rangy shrub just under 2m tall, about 1.5m wide, and it often flowered for almost 10 months of the year, with an endless supply of these soft orange flowers. It was such a staple that when we left Tostat, I forgot to take cuttings. I regret that!
I had no luck with the red ones, an unknown cutting failed, and ‘Red Trumpet’ passed away here in Oloron in the Barn Garden after limping along for a year when we moved. Another opportunity beckons when I next bump into one…
Meantime, a beautiful Abutilon, see the top photograph, Abutilon pictum has gone from strength to strength here in Oloron, and is in its pot, underneath the collapsing banana tree, outside, but with the substantial protection of the big banana leaves giving it a bit of a duvet. I bought this as a well rooted cutting from the legendary Gill Pound in Caunes Minervois, when she did a final sale before retiring from her nursery business. It is such a good colour, deep marmelade with prominent red veining, and is still flowering now in the winter, although the cold does dim down the colour a lot. Each spring, I just prune it a fair bit, as it is leggy, and use a seaweed fertiliser diluted with water. This year I will repot it, just to give it a freshen-up. Full sun is a bit much for it here, assuming we continue in the same vein as last year, so I just bring it out a bit more from under the banana, so that it gets some but not all of the sun.
Be careful though, many nurseries offer Abutilon pictum Thompsonii, which has variegated leaves. I find them a bit sickly in colour myself, so if you like the plain green leaves, you need to find Abutilon pictum without the Thompson tag, they are a bit harder to find.
Making a lightening dash to Leeds last weekend, we walked around Temple Newsam House and park. Inside the old glasshouses inside the walled garden, there were a number of good abutilons under glass, including this red one below, with a very old label just describing it, in fairly general terms, as Abutilon x hybridum ‘Light Red’. Red is such a hard colour to photograph and you have to imagine the colour as a really vibrant scarlet. Growing against wires on a wall, it was easily 3-4m high and wide, and very floriferous.
It reminded me of why I love them, though I prefer it as a shrub shape. But, below, is a great way to grow Abutilon megapotamicum. It loves a wall, or a structure to flop over, and has these bi-coloured ‘chinese lantern’ style flowers. It is really pretty tough, any space, any situation, barring total dry and hot sun. I have one in the Barn Garden, romping away, and a tad too enthusiastic for the wires I put up, so I am thinking of collecting it all up and draping it over a bamboo triangle or some such this Spring. And on an old photograph on my old camera from the early days of blogging, I found this photo taken in Gill Pound’s garden. It’s a full circle back to almost where I started!
It’s been a long time! So, what’s been going on? well, it is a story of heat and drought really…
Back in September, all that was happening was the waiting for rain, which didn’t come in anything like enough quantity to break the iron-dry soil. So the plants that I had planned to plant in to combat the likely effects of 2023 being as tricky to manage as 2022 had been, all these plants stayed under cover in the courtyard and waited, like me. We went on holiday for 3 weeks to Croatia and Albania, came back and still no perceptible rain. It was so warm, apart from 2 days of normal winter weather, that even our turned-down heating didn’t come on. By the end of November, we had had some rain at last. But, in fear of winter turning up, I hung back with planting. Christmas and New Year came and went very enjoyably with returning adult children and lovely friends visiting.
So this week, bitten by the unavoidable New Year feelings of excitement and optimism and continuing warmish weather, also some more rain, I finally spent 2 days in the garden, planting and sorting. It felt wonderful, an almost visceral feeling of re-engagement with the garden, and, as reliably inspiring and exciting as ever. Thank goodness. That was a hard sit-out this Autumn, doing nothing whilst heat and drought raged on. But, I think I need to start thinking very differently about the gardening year, and really shift my focus to the winter and early Spring, up to maybe April, for doing serious planting and revision. The other eight months from end of April to November, I need to view as time for enjoying (as in sitting), planning, small bits of this and that, but nothing more. It has to look after itself. My job is to enable it to do that with good choices, small risks, and saving big work for the winter and Spring.
In the summer this year, I wrote an article for the Mediterranean Garden Society for the first time. It describes the first 2 years of making the stony front slope into a garrigue-inspired garden. This article was quite a challenge for me. I have always started the blog articles here with the photographs that I have taken near the time of writing. The MGS journal had to be tackled in a different way as the journal has no photographs in it, but instead, some rather pretty line drawings. I also wanted to build a good narrative to tell the story, so I really worked the laptop to get there, but, at the time, the experience felt strangely denuded without photographic stimulus. However, this article is being written in the same way, text first and then I will find the photographs I want to include. And this time it feels exciting, like going on a long journey you have planned for months. Change is good for me!
Meanwhile, back in the garden….
I have taken quite a few big plants out of the barn garden, mainly because they were really toiling, and some because I have changed my mind. Changing your mind really is a part of gardening, I love that about it. Sometimes in life, there is too much investment to be able to change your mind, another liberating feature of gardening as a life pursuit. The garden in Zadar proved to be prophetic, as I have essentially removed any plant that was suffering last summer, and am focusing instead on tough but beautiful evergreens, with some spikey and tough perennials. The barn garden should look stronger this year as a result.
So, first into the survival bin was a really beautiful Salix, Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’, which I had bought when we moved in, and which had done really well in the first 2 years. In August, the dieback was so bad that I thought it was a goner. But slowly, the remaining 20% that was living is clawing back and although I reckon I will have to wait another 2 years, it will make it. It will stay in a pot in the shady part of the courtyard from now on. Add to that, a Syringa laciniata, which was being cooked in the front garden, my seed-grown Elsholtzia stauntonii, and a young witchhazel, Hamamelis intermedia ‘Orange Beauty’, now also in a pot and resting, and recovering well, in the courtyard.
And changes? I have taken out a couple of very good Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ from the back as they were doing, well, too well, actually so I will give them more of a romp in the front garden in a not-too-exposed position, also two Buddleia lindleyana are about to make the move to the front. They were a silly choice in a too-tight spot, and so will have some room to breathe at the front. I will replace them with another Pittosporum ‘Green Elf’, a fabulous, elegant plant with delicate green leaves on dark black stems, which will make a soft and airy chain with three others already doing well, to shade us a bit from the fence behind.
And I am giving Skimmias a try in the barn garden where conditions have been so dry and hot this year. To be precise, Skimmia japonica ‘Kew Green’ and ‘Kew White’. One of each, to ensure good berries as you need a male and a female. British sites generally say that Skimmia need moist soils but US sites insist that Skimmia are drought tolerant and pretty forgiving of soils conditions, so I am going to try them. I am already a little in love with the form and foliage colour, a graceful goblet shape and bluey-green glaucous leaves holding up like open hands. I have been a snob about Skimmia I confess.
A bit of spotted laurel? Nearly. How about Aucuba japonica salicifolia? All of the tough and adaptable virtues of spotted laurel, but instead of the spots, you have long, slightly spiky deep green, glossy glossy leaves and a lovely arching shape. The glossiness cannot be over-emphasised, the leaves almost shine in any light, and though I will need to wait a while for serious growth to happen, I am already deeply in love with this plant. It combines tropical beauty with serious toughness, and did I mention the startlingly scarlet berries? Hooray. It wasn’t easy to find here in France, just a couple of nurseries stock it in small quantities, so I had to wait, but it is really worth it.
So, now in the all-change bay in the courtyard, sit pots of Alcathea suffrutescens ‘Parkallee’ and ‘Parkrondell’, Phygelius ‘Moonraker’, two pots of Lavatera ‘Frederique’ that never got planted out last year, and other bits and bobs. These will be rehomed in the front garden, once we have located a good space. They are all tough plants, but need better topdown sunshine that they got in the barn garden in order to straighten up. Their drought tolerance will be tested though to the max. I am also repotting and moving my four big lots of Eucomis bulbs, which I adore, but they need topdown sunshine too to avoid looking like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
It is wonderful to be back in action. A very Happy New Year to us all. Gardening is a good salve for the rigours of a heating planet.
The summer is waning a little- some cooler nights and some rainfall every week to 10 days, though not nearly enough to break the drought stranglehold. We will have to wait till the end of the month, I reckon, to begin to see rainfall on a more regular basis. South West France has suffered plagues of mosquitoes, including the new extra-sized tiger variety, this summer, starting at the end of July and only just beginning to slow up. Being the person who blows up like a balloon and is always eaten alive by flying biting things, it hasn’t just been the heat that has kept me indoors, glowering balefully at the sunshine. It has been a fairly hard summer.
But difficult times call for re-thinking. On the plus side, the ‘garrigue’ garden at the front, having wobbled a little at the first of the heatwaves, has come through really well. One or two losses, a completely cooked tree lupin for one, but most other plants have dug in to successfully wait for the rain when it did come. Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’ was looking pretty sick in July, with barely a leaf in sight. But it has recouped, and even flowered, which is brilliant. In fact, I walked past it to start with, as I had been semi-averting my gaze in preparation for what I thought would be bad news. I couldn’t find a UK site with decent details of it, so the Texan site will have to do. And mine is still pretty spindly, but I live in hope.
A stray Gladiolus murielae flowered fleetingly from the compost heap! Always cheers me up when an escapee breaks out.
But returning to the re-thinking, I now know for sure that the back Barn Garden is far drier in the summer than I had orginally thought. This year we have slid headlong into summer-drought conditions, far too hard for some of my original choices of plant, and I need some more heat and drought tolerant presence during the summer months. This means, I have decided, taking out my 3 Sambucus nigra, grown from twigs years ago, and using the space differently. They won’t be wasted, I had originally planted them for their uprightness and their greeny purple foliage, but I need some colour and seasonal activity to hold the space together, so I will find them a home in the front garden where we are slowly making a tree and shrub space with some wildness. I cannot remember now what variety they are, but they aren’t ‘Black Lace’ which might have kept them where they are. I also have too much Calla lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, sprawling around, so some of that will go too.
And in will come….Physocarpus opulifolius. I was won over completely to this shrub in Tostat, where I planted ‘Tiny Wine’. It was wine-coloured by the summer but an astonishing vibrant orange-bronze in the spring, and stunning in the autumn. Tiny it was not, easily 2 metres high and 1m wide within 4 years, but what a good plant. Pretty spring flowers as well, so it wins on all fronts really. It also does well with other plants, being not so dense that other plants can’t weave their way amongst. So, a generous soul.
But I decided to try ‘Diable d’Or’ or as France seems to prefer it, ‘Mindia’. Working the name out took a while. So, ‘Mindia’ ups the ante, dark colouring in the summer, and souped-up bronze in the spring, and similar strongly coloured stems, another bonus. I am also very drawn to Diervilla x ‘Kodiak Orange’, but haven’t bought it yet. I think I will give it a go, as it sounds tailor made for me. Proven drought and heat tolerance, enjoying semi-shade, good colouring, structure, flowering in the spring, but it is a new introduction. However, my favourite shrub nursery, the wonderful Coolplants, run by a plantswoman of great taste, Cathy Portier, is stocking it, so I travel in faith.
The other change I will make in the back is to bring a little more structure and lushness into the sunnier end, where I have some great tall perennials but which need something else to lean on. So, I am going against a long-held dislike of Choisya, for the sake of this new variety, ‘Greenfingers’. It’s not at all related to a Fatsia, but ‘Greenfingers’ has just enough of the Fatsia about it, to draw my eye, and it flowers apparently with bigger blooms than the regular Choisya. And even I can smell the scent. I think it looks great, and there may be another one bought before I get planting in October.
And lastly, for the front, where we are slowly developing a treescape, with shrub support, I rather fancied this new variety of smokebush, Cotinus coggygria ‘Winecraft Black’. It does the smokebush thing, but makes a smaller rounded shrub than tree, and should handle the exposed, drier conditions at the front easily. The new growth starts out bronze, another plus. There’s a bit of a theme here, you will be saying.
At the beginning of August, the heat and drought was so intense that, at times, it felt as if the end of the month would never come. But here we are, and for the last week or so, we have finally had some belts of rain, which have saved the bacon for the humans and the plants. And the temperatures have slid back to the late 20s to 30c which is a good deal more tolerable. So, an intense period like the last six weeks inevitably prompts garden rethinks, and I have and am having many. In between though, some little pauses have been possible to recognise lovely things happening anyway.
For example, I grew some Eryngium from seed for the first time last summer. To say that they were weedy and underdeveloped, would be too much praise! And so I shoved them out of the way, and ignored them- a well-known gardening technique. This week, I have been astonished by the fabulous blue colouring on these rather pathetic plants, and so they are having a moment, as once again, I remember my own advice about tough perennials- that they take 2 years from seed. So I should shut up. The seeds were Eryngium alpinum ‘Blue Star’ I think, but of course, I’ve lost the label.
Last year, our repurposed stone cattle trough started out life as a small pond. And oh my, we have battled the green algae. In Spring, a friend gave me some spare pond weed from his pond, and recommended buying some water lettuce, Pistia stratiotes, to help get some coverage on the water. Both gifts worked really well, in fact maybe too well! But the algae has largely retreated, we now have 9 or 10 tiny fish ( the weed must have had eggs in it) and we are really enjoying the lushness of it. The waterlily is beginning to rise up in protest at overcrowding so some water lettuce will be yanked out as the temperatures drop back more. We are learning.
Last year, I bought 3 small plants of Andropogon hallii ‘Purple Konza’, a medium height upright tough grass, for the ‘garrigue’ area at the front. Come Spring, nothing to be seen. Come July, nothing to be seen. But some time in the middle of the heat, and then spurred on by the belts of rain, two of the three plants made a re-appearance and in 0-90 mph style, they grew to 75 cms tall and started flowering. So it really is a hot summer grass and obviously, despite my fears, likes full sun and very poor conditions. The flowerheads are really distinctive. They start off at 90 degrees, a bit like an old fashioned TV aerial, gradually opening out and darkening to brown-purple as they mature.
Meantime, in the Barn Garden, Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ is really enjoying itself. These came as 3 tiny cuttings from Tostat, but the afternoon shade really suits them in the Barn Garden, and though it has been very dry, they have grown really well. Tostat was too hot and exposed for them. This is a lovely moment when the flowerheads start to colour up against the vibrant foliage.
Below you see the plant equivalent of a stowaway. Begonia grandis subsp.evansiana has spent years in and out of favour with me. I loved it at the beginning, grew annoyed when it inserted itself into every pot I had in Tostat, and hoped I had left it behind. Even last year, I was faintly growling when it re-appeared, the ultimate plant stowaway. But this year, I am admitting that I rather like the way it slowly emerges, emboldened as the summer moves on, and finally flowers now just when the other pot occupants have largely given up. You have to hand it to it for staying power. And what it does do, is drape beautifully. It just need to be managed, not grumbled at.
Second year in, and Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Black Beauty’ is looking very photogenic in the Barn Garden. This plant is further forward in the border than the other, and is doing better, so a little bit of light moving will happen later in the Autumn to bring the second plant into the sunshine.
I planted Salvia procurrens in tough, summer-dry shade to do battle with the bindweed. This could have been a risk as this fantastic Salvia does do world-domination as a hobby. But as you can see, it is doing a pretty good job and is a very lush and insistent ground cover. In Spring, it produces masses of slim stalks with bright blue flowers on them, they don’t last long but are very pretty. I think that this is a winner, untroubled by cold, wet or dry, but definitely for shade, not sun. And to manage it? Just pull it out every now and then.
Having the much bigger garden in Tostat got me into seed. We had so much space to fill, and slowly but surely, I got a bit better at it as the years went by. I learnt to use the heat that we get to advantage, and how not to drown my chances with over-watering. I haven’t grown much from seed here in Oloron yet, but this summer I wanted to remedy rookie errors I made last year- namely starting seed too late, and the silliest of all, labelling seedlings wrongly!
I adore what I call the ‘fried egg plant’, Romneya coulteri, which I grew in a daft place in Tostat but it liked it, so there it stayed. It chooses and you obey, it’s that kind of plant. But wouldn’t you welcome these giant flowers often on 2m stems telling you what to do? It’s a plant dominatrix. It hates being moved, so don’t bother trying. The hottest, driest spot in full sun that you have will do it just fine, and it needs nothing else, except space, so don’t crowd it into a busy herbaceous border. I bought some seed this summer in Oloron and have failed utterly to achieve germination, so I will end up buying a new plant.
One of the best plants ever that you can grow from seed is any kind of Cerinthe. Unfairly sometimes called the ‘shrimp plant’ because the flowerhead kind of curls over, like a shrimp?, but anyway, cerinthe is a brilliant plant. It grows almost immediately from seed planted, and if you don’t sow straight into the ground, pot it up when it only has the first pair of leaves, because the root system grows like a train, and even at that size, you will need a good sized 9cms plus pot. I love the yellow form, see below in Tostat in spring 2019, and it will self-seed wherever you have it. You can refresh the plants a couple of years later by chucking in some more seed. This year I have grown Cerinthe retorta from seed that I bought in 2020 from the amazing Liberto Dario and had kept in the fridge. Retorta has a cream and violet flower, so I have high hopes for some great plants in the Spring.
Back in 2011, I fell in love with Dianthus cruentus after seeing it sprinkled all over Cleve West’s Chelsea garden. Read my back story on this here. I grew it from seed, thank you the wonderful Special Plants, but stupidly didn’t take plants with me when we moved. So, last summer, I ordered some seed and managed to germinate them and develop the teeny plants that this special Dianthus starts out as. Or so I thought….
I had also bought some seed of Lavandula viridis, which I had seen in the another superb nursery in the Languedoc, le Jardin Champetre. The back story of this visit is here. Lavander has always escaped me- what do I do wrong? But after years trying, I tried again with Lavandula viridis. To cut a long story short, I wrongly labelled 2 batches of seedlings, and instead of Dianthus cruentus, I ended up with Lavandula viridis. So damn, but wey hey, I grew some Lavandula from seed- at last. The strange thing to also confess is that I have been randomly checking on these small plants for weeks, noticing that they were really enjoying our very hot weather, but it was only today that the penny dropped. Durr. And to cap it all, the other wrongly labelled seedlings turned out to be Dianthus carthusianorum. Ah well.
The only other plant that I started out last year from seed was Kniphofia citrina. The thing about growing bulbous plants from seed is that you need to hold your nerve and allow time to pass. Two months ago, pots of what looked like feeble green strings depressed me, but, today, the transformation has begun with the hot weather we have had. Clearly identifiable young strong plants have taken the place of the feeble green strings, so next year we should be in business with proper plants. GIve it two years.
Another failure last year was sowing seed too late of this glorious plant with a very long name, Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra ‘Bleeding Hearts’. This was a shame. But this year, I have done another sowing and have 14 good little seedlings. Jimi Blake was the inspiration for this choice. I defy you to watch his little clip and not want to plant this plant, seed available from Special Plants for those of you in the UK, but not for those of us in the EU sadly.
And lastly, in this run of hits and failures, here is a new plant that is doing really well. I adore it’s rather strong, even I can smell it, sort of camphor and nutmeg smell, and the adorable tiny white flowers. I am not 100% sure that this is ‘Lillian Pottinger’ but it is a good guess.
Flowering at last is another complicatedly named plant, Salvia chamelaeagnea, which requires care when typing. A solid small shrubby Salvia, with short, stubby leaves, and then these, by comparison, big blue flowers with a very arched throat. Dry, stony soil, not too much water and it grows slowly but firmly. Slow but firm, the motto for my garden? I think so.
Venice in July! Hot and very crowded could be the overall impression- but this wouldn’t be entirely true.
There are so many streets and areas in Venice that are almost empty and still full of palazzos, beautiful churches and the beguiling beauty of the canals and waterways. You just need to brace yourself for full immersion in the narrow streets around the main square and the Rialto, as well as the environs of the railway station. Gardens and open spaces are enormously rare, private and hint at great wealth in the special chaos that is Venice. Most, however, like the top photograph are glimpsed as you pass on the sides of canals or through dense iron railings or over high walls from another building. The top photograph was taken through the decorative ironwork of a window space across the canal from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.
One such space, just off the Piazza San Marco and looking out over the Bay of Venice, is the tiny Giardini Reali, only 500m2, but now, though hidden behind tourist stalls of stuff, such a gem to find right in the heart of touristic and commercial Venice. But it was not always thus.
Until 2018, these gardens were abandoned and desolate, though not, luckily, forgotten. Founded in the very last years of the 18th century and styled by Napoleon’s artists to reflect his conquests and military defeat of the Venetian Republic, these gardens were intended originally only for the distraction and delight of powerful courtiers and royalty. By the mid 19th century, the gardens were restyled in the English tradition, and an immense iron pergola was installed cutting through the middle of the garden. By this time, the Venetians themselves were permitted to ‘walk through’ the gardens. The gardens fell into decay and neglect for decades by end of the 20th century. But, in 2014, the Venice Gardens Foundation took on responsibility for the Giardini Reale, committed to restoring the fortunes of the garden, and create for the citizens of Venice a garden space that would help rebuild civic pride and commitment.
A new design was developed, building on the historic bones of the past, as well as the original planting plans. From the start, the principles were to retain and amend, to create, as far as possible, a mix of large trees, small trees, shrubs and a limited palette of ground covering perennials to maximise shade cover and reduce evaporation. The gardens were re-opened in 2019 after five years of work.
The pergola with the sturdy, yet elegant, ironwork typical of the 19th century, shown below just after the restoration, is the main artery through the space, providing deep and reliable shade for passers-by and the protected planting conditions for hydrangeas and other shade lovers.
Now, nearly three years after opening, the tiered structure of the planting is impressive and successful in creating a protected and serene atmosphere. The top tier of the planting consists of tall, airy trees such as Sophora japonica, with wafting delicate foliage. The second tier is multi-stemmed smaller trees such as Eriobotrya japonica and Clerodendron trichotomum fan out to cast shade into the plantings alongside the pergola. Big shrubs such as Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ punctuate the corners of paths and soften the edges. Lastly, with no bare soil showing at all to preserve soil humidity, huge plantings of Iris, Agapanthus and Farfugium japoncium fill out the planting at ground level. The planting palette repeats and combines, bringing the small space into a brilliant, cohesive whole.
The careful discipline of the restricted planting absolutely works. Even with every bench filled with people sitting, talking or just resting, the garden is a calming and thoughtful experience. For even more detail on the history and reconstruction of the gardens, see the Venice Gardens Foundations excellent website, to which I am greatly indebted. Good for Venice. And see the last photograph….what a way to deliver trees.
Thank you again, Martin Lombezzi, for the photograph below.
I have two bits of garden. The Barn Garden, at the back, is a recovered minibus stand, with some shade from mature trees hanging over the old garden wall. At the front, is another piece of recovering land, with a stony slope on the left hand side which I am developing into a ‘garrigue’ influenced landscape, and on the right, a recovering orchard, now with 2 cherry trees and no bamboo. Andy pickaxed and dug metres of rampant bamboo last year, and now we watch and wait to catch any returnees. I don’t water any of it, other than plant establishing watering in the first while after planting, and lack of rainfall water was not a serious issue last year.
But we are now in the middle of our 4th serious heatwave since mid-May. Lasting more than a week this time, with temperatures between 34c and 40c, this wave is slightly easier because the mornings are just a tad cooler. This morning there was a surprise half hour of rain. But essentially, we are in double whammy territory- cumulatively a drier spring and winter leading to a lower water table in any case, and recurring bouts of heat every 2-3 weeks that creates seasonal sustained drought that is never relieved by rainfall. On the planetary scale in terms of damage to species, human food production, stress and illness, not to mention the forced migrations of people trying to find water, this is truly terrible and, worst of all, all home-made by us humans. And here in my garden? I am rescuing plants that need help, and changing plans and thinking to bolster and support my no-watering policy.
For example, this poor Salix gracilysta ‘Mount Asos’ above, is in the recovery ward. I think it will make it. But it can’t be planted back into the ground, even in the shadier conditions in the Barn Garden, where it was before. It is so pretty, I can’t bear to lose those hallucinogenic pink catkins in the Spring. So where am I with maintaining my rainfall-only principle in the face of increasingly difficult conditions?
I am changing my thinking. Or to be more accurate, refining my thinking. Plants that I have tried in the Barn Garden, like the Salix, were always a bit of a longshot, but this summer has made me realise that longshots are now out of the question, and I need to work harder to research and find plants that will embrace the direction of the climatic conditions. I think that I have to consider our garden as summer-dry, winter-damp- so that nudges me more towards a Pacific North West kind of climate consideration than a Mediterranean one. Having said that though, the stony front slope, mainly because of the exquisite drainage, can look more to the Mediterranean palette albeit with decent frost tolerance built in. I like frost tolerance to -10c just to give a good margin.
And so I am looking to new reference points to help select those plants that will make it through this volatile climate picture. For example, in thinking of adding two more small trees in the ex-orchard area, I am thinking of Chitalpa tashkentensis ‘Pink Dawn’ and Albizia julibrissin ‘Summer Chocolate’– both of which look impressively tolerant of summer dry conditions.
Meantime, back at the ranch, there are some surprising discoveries, even in this week of heat. I planted a pot of Dietes grandiflora last Spring. The first flower appeared in December, just before Christmas, and the second flower appeared this week. I suspect rather young bulbs at the start as the main culprit, and so will carry on waiting, assuming that, with maturity, will come flowering. The raindrops look good from this morning.
And early this year, in a front sunny, exposed situation, I took a chance and planted a clematis, Clematis fargessii ‘Summer Snow’, against a dead apple tree, putting the roots into the shade of the old garden wall. it has flowered and looks very happy, though the flowers are pretty tiny, a result I assume of the dryness and heat. But who would have thought it?
Looking amazingly at home is the Eriogonum fasciculatum at the bottom of the dry, stony slope. I knew that it would like it there, but these small fists of tiny flowers joined together are really charming- good, because the rest of the plant wouldn’t win any awards, closely resembling a bunch of green sticks. But the plant is a fantastically useful source of food for bees and many other pollinators, so looks ain’t everything.
In the Barn Garden, I have finally succeeded in growing Patrinia scabiosifolia. In Tostat, it withered away, and here, it seems to have found just enough moisture to come through. It got fairly bashed in the second heatwave and so the flowering panicles, similar to a yellow Verbena bonariensis though less tall, have all gone to seed, but it still looks good, draped over Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’. You would have thought that this Caryopteris would try the eyeballs with the vivid lime-yellow leaves, but I love it for the brightness of the foliage, never mind the blue flowers which will start in a few weeks.
Here’s a plant that is a bit more thirsty than it should be, in my experience. At least it is much happier in the summer with a little rain, winter rain is not good for it, so I have it in one of the drier sections of the ‘garrigue’ slope. I hope it makes it through the winter and I will a) buy another plant and b) take some cuttings. It used to be called Justicia, sometimes Jacobinia, but the botanists at least have settled on Dicliptera suberecta. I saw huge mature plants of it in big tubs in St Jean de Luz this week, which is a bit more frost free than us here in Oloron.
Another survivor that is enjoying the heat, coupled with a little shade is Rosa ‘Astrid Gräfin von Hardenberg’, which has recovered itself really well from hating where I had planted in Tostat. This rose is also often sold as ‘Nuit de Chine’, but I prefer the German name in honour of the woman herself. I wrote a post about the naming of this rose five years back. The rose is a glorious deep deep crimson, almost black, and has a scent that even I can pick out. In the photograph taken this morning, you can see that the heat has bleached some of the dark colouring away.
Despite all, Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henrik Eilers’ is coming through, strong as ever in the Barn Garden. It has these delicate quills of petals and is such a refined rudbeckia, quite different and much more classy in my view than the old warhorse ‘Goldsturm’. It is really tough, having pulled through when armies of slugs were chewing it up in late Spring. It is quite tall, maybe 1.4m or so, but is very happy being allowed to weave in and out of other plants.