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

 

 

 

 

 

Stowaways and pots…

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

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

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

Plectranthus ecklonii ‘Erma’, Tostat, October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best blues ever…

Landscape at the Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Gentiana verna, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planting with a pick-axe: part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosa chinensis Mutabilis, August 2015, Tostat

Planting by pick-axe : part one…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schefflera taiwaniana, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

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

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

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

Helleborus sternii Boughton Beauty, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

Great depths and tiny miniatures…

Looking down the well, Oloron Sainte Marie, February 2021

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

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

Sunset, Tostat, March 2020

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

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

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

Erodium pelargoniflorum, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021

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

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

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

Scilla peruviana, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021

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

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

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

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

Smitten by carmine and orange…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erodium pelargoniflorum, Tostat, January 2020

Of pineapples and Cornus Mas…

It’s almost botanical, the fine detail of ‘The Pineapple’, Airth, Scotland, February 2020
The whole ‘Pineapple’, Airth, Scotland, February 2020

It has been a while coming, this blog post. I have had 3 months off from the blog. Getting the house in Tostat sold, packing up and moving ourselves over 7 gruelling days at the end of November pretty much wiped out all but survival energy. But we did it, during confinement here in France, and are now, though don’t count the boxes that are still unopened, very happily installed in our house on the edge of Oloron Sainte Marie. Leaving the garden behind was a wrench, but I had been taking cuttings, growing small plants on, taking plants out ready to go, for months. So, strangely, the process of leaving became very mundane, and although we took two whole vanloads of just plant and pots, by the time we actually left I felt as if the garden was with me, not back in Tostat.

And here, we are starting from ground zero. One of the trees that I am really keen to grow here, and although it is only a minnow at the moment, I think it will really enjoy the sunny, sloping ground at the front of the house, across a small lane. And it will bring back memories of the only trip we made last year. We were in Scotland for 10 days at the end of February, and on a glorious, crisp, blazing day of sunshine, we visited The Pineapple at Airth, and then walked around the small mediaeval town of Culross in Fife.

And there was Cornus mas- in all it’s bright, lemony, glory.

A flurry of Cornus mas blossom
The so-yellow flowers close-up
Orchard underplanting with snow drops, The Pineapple, Airth, Scotland, February 2020

Where have I been all these years in February that I have never before seen this beautiful small tree at the right time? The golden colour is almost shocking, way before any daffodils get going, and like Daphne, it flowers on bare stems, which somehow makes the exoticism of the flowers even more marked. Simply planted in a grid, with an underplanting of snowdrops, and mingled with other rows of nut and fruit trees, the Cornus mas had free rein to be the star of the show.

In Culross, the same afternoon, another glorious Cornus was growing in the back garden of Culross Palace almost luminous in the afternoon gloaming. That tree lodged itself in my mind. It seems to be tough enough to take all that might be thrown at it here, and I can’t wait. Waiting, however, is the order of the day for now. The ground is still frozen and we need to work out how to go about doing what we want do.

Whilst waiting, I caught a really great hour of interview and story telling from Imogen Checketts and Kate Dumbleton, two passionate and intrepid gardeners who have built a great nursery and garden ‘Le Jardin Champêtre in Caunes Minervois. This is available through the ‘Garden Masterclass’ Youtube channel– as are lots of other interesting people, gardens and talks. If you are in the UK, I would really consider joining as a ‘Friend’. You can read my post about Imogen and Kate’s nursery from 2017 here.

The gold of the Cornus complimenting the golden wash of the Palace, Culross, Scotland, February 2020

And ‘The Pineapple’ and the town of Culross make a fascinating double-act for a day out. Highly recommended.

It’s good to be back. Happy New Year, here’s hoping that 2021 is a kinder year for us all.

The relief of rain…

Echinacea ‘White Swan’, dying embers, Tostat, August 2020

And there was rain two nights ago. Monumental lightning and thunder produced a mop bucket full of water and probably saved most of the garden. There are still many burnt and crisped plants, but the following morning, by the amazing power of nature, you could feel the whole garden standing tall again. These Echinacea ‘White Swan’ still looked spectacular caught by the early morning sun a day later, and they will stand tall until frost cuts them down.

And there are some indomitable plants. I don’t know how I missed Achillea crithmifolium for all these years until this Spring. It is such an amazing small plant, only growing to 10cms tall at the tallest, and with the nice, but not amazing, cream coloured achillea flower. The knockout features are two- one, the beautiful fine, feathery foliage which ignores everything that the weather throws at it, and secondly, the allelopathic properties of the plant. Allelopathy is a young scientific field of study examining the ways in which some plants can reduce competition from other plants by means of chemical extrusion. So the tiny but powerful Achillea crithmifolium can fight off the opposition all alone- a great boon in a gravel garden situation. A very useful Mediterranean Garden Society article can be found by following the Allelopathy link above.

Achillea crithmifolia, Tostat, August 2020

Some shrubs have just rushed to autumn or even winter states to handle the heat and the dryness. Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’ has done exactly that- and is filling the rather depleted border with a glorious shade of brilliant red.

Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’, Tostat, August 2020

Poor old Euonymus alatus ‘Compactum‘ has skipped the autumn red and gone straight to winter. Two other bushes in the garden have hung onto their foliage and we may yet get autumn colour from them, but not this one. The buds look pretty good so I reckon it will come through, albeit by going bald.

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’, Tostat, August 2020

Strangely, a plant which I love but have always struggled to keep going, is looking fabulous. You may have noticed that I do have a thing for feathery foliage- and this Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’ really goes for feathery in a big way. One could say that feathery is all it does. Normally, this plant is nearly 2m tall and so qualifies as wafty as well as feathery- but this year, it had made barely a metre.

Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’, Tostat, August 2020

Russelia equisetiformis has been flowering since the beginning of May non-stop. It is called ‘Goutes de sang’ in France, and you can see why, the beautiful tumbling teardrops of blood-red trumpet-shaped flowers are really stunning. The foliage is a bit like masses of green string loosely tied to green stalks, but lifted up a little, a handy breezeblock will do it, the tumbling foliage and flowers are really gorgeous. It needs to be pretty bone dry in the winter and kept away from frost. I stick it in the open barn, and that seems to work just fine. Another lovely buy from Jardin de Champêtre, Caunes-Minervois in the Languedoc.

Russelia equisetiformis, Tostat, August 2020

And so the sun set two nights ago, behind the banana and the Populus deltoides ‘Purple Tower’ on a garden that will live to fight another day.

Sunset 2 nights ago, Tostat, August 2020

Scorched earth…

Burnt echinaceas and 2 surviving Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, Tostat, August 2020

It rained, 12 cms or so, yesterday evening and overnight. I felt as if I could feel it on my own skin even though I was indoors. My no-watering policy has been tested almost to the limits of my endurance, never mind the plants. Of course, the pain is caused by my playing with the edges of what the garden can take, and this summer, I have discovered more hot spots than I knew existed in nearly 17 years of gardening here. These hot spots haven’t always existed- but they are new evidence of the effects of climate heating in our part of the world. If and when we move to a new house, my garrigue garden plans are essential as I manoeuvre to find ways to grow plants that will make a garden a a good space for animals, insects, birds and humans.

So what has happened in drought tolerance that has changed in this summer? Hibiscus trionum is a pretty and tough shrub- this one I grew from seed about 12 years ago, and is now a 1.5m slim bush which has taken care of itself with no problems in previous summers. This summer burnt it, though it will shake the burn off as temperatures cool a little and with some more rain.

Hibiscus trionum, Tostat, August 2020

Phillyrea angustifolia is a tough, slow growing shrub which resembles an olive tree in leaf form and robustness. This one below was in a pot for the previous two summers, and this spring I planted it out in a mixed border. It had obviously not had enough time, even with four months or so, to get roots down enough into the soil. Not yet being very big, and my garden eyes being exhausted by all the heat and dryness, I didn’t spot it suffering in time. I think it will make it though.

Phillyrea angustifolia, Tostat, August 2020

Last month I took some photos of Plantago major rubrifolia looking beautifully ruby-coloured in the new tear-shaped border. I am so pleased with it, as the colouring has faded and the seedheads are dried to a crisp, but that plant is still here and will definitely survive.

Plantago rubrifolia, Tostat, August 2020

In the Stumpery, the ferns and persicaria have absolutely bitten the dust, the ferns will probably try for a comeback, the persicaria may not this year, but hey, Salvia spathacea, the rare Californian Salvia, grown from seed, is still green if a little bashed. I shall be overjoyed if it flowers, but that may be asking too much.

Salvia spathacea hangs on, Tostat, August 2020
Salvia spathacea flowering, Tostat, July 2016

Tagetes lemmonii has the most extraordinary smelly foliage- which even I can smell. Burnt coriander mixed with lemon gets close as a description, and my plants are slow to grow, actually needing plenty of heat to even get above ground, but the feathery foliage is pretty and green when not much else is looking so fresh and the custard-coloured marigold flowers come in October.

Tagetes lemmonnii, Tostat, August 2020

Cheating here, as these penstemons grow near a pot or in one- which I do water daily in the summer. Penstemon schoenholzeri flowers for months, scavenging water from the overflow of a scented pelargonium, and is a total joy especially when the tansy gets going. I got Tanacetum vulgare ‘Crispum’ as a small clump years ago, and it has always been very well-behaved for me. The foliage is standout in my view- fresh green all summer and beautifully frilly and ferny in appearance- and to top it all, you get the bright yellow button flowers as well.

Penstemon schoenholzeri and Tanacetum vulgare, Tostat, August 2020

This smokey purple Penstemon is a new one to me this year, and is in a pot ready for departure when we move. I have taken masses of cuttings already, as I love the cloudy coating on the buds before they flower, and the whole plant has a very upright and sturdy form. Penstemon ‘Russian River’ is splendid.

Penstemon Russian River, Tostat, August 2020

In the tear-shaped border which I made last year with an Australian emphasis celebrating our trip there 3 years ago, Dianella caerulea Cassa Blue has been a great choice. The first year was a wee bit touch-and-go, but this year, with no irrigation, it has really settled in and seems unphased by cold or drought. It is not tall, being about 50cms maybe, but the foliage is upright, clumps well and holds the blue tinge in the name really well in the second year. Tiny flowers came in our very hot spring, which will probably look a bit more impressive in later years. I like it.

Next to it, you can see the toasted foliage of Pittosporum tenuifolium Golf Ball, which is one tough customer normally, so I hope it will recover. The feathery foliage in the foreground comes from Vernonia lettermannii– a super good plant which I wrote about a few weeks back. It’s called Ironweed for a good reason.

Dianella caerulea Cassa Blue, Tostat, August 2020

In the heat, some colours really did sing. In a watered pot because it’s a tender shrub is Abutilon pictum (also known as Red Vein and Abutilon striatum), which I bought from Gill Pound in the Languedoc before she retired. What an orange…

Abutilon pictum, Tostat, August 2020

The summer-dry crash…

Helenium ‘Helena’, Tostat, early August 2020

This is how much of the garden looks at the moment. It is the price of sustainability and is the face of summer-dry gardening. I have never completely got used to it, but I persist in hoping that the brown aesthetic will one day please me. Actually, I feel very pained when I see plants resorting to suicide tactics to preserve their root systems- but in another sense, I am keen to keep pushing to see what plants handle it better than others and I also rationally know that they will all be back in action next year none the worse. In many ways it is my own pride that I am fighting with, more than the natural survival tactics of unwatered gardens. And in the end, I do passionately believe that watering is a criminal waste of a scarce resource. See below for 3 weeks earlier- same plant.

Helenium ‘Helena’, Tostat, mid July 2020

The terrible truth is that our summers have radically changed since we moved here almost 17 years ago. We used to have reliable cycles of brief but powerful summer storms that punctuated the heat of summer bringing heavy rain. Now, we still have storms but they are rain-free. And though temperatures have not been high until the last 3 weeks, there has not been any rain of any use since early June. We have had to dig around the septic tank to inspect it for conformity for the house sale, and the soil is dust way beyond a metre down. Vegetables being the main French gardening activity, it is the damage to the summer crops that is bothering Tostat gardeners.

Achillea ‘Cerise Queen’, Tostat, mid July 2020

But there are rays of pleasure all the same. Achillea ‘Cerise Queen’ has been way too bleached away from her normal raspberry tones by the sun, but is gratifyingly flowering away all the same. And Bupleurum fruticosum, a Mediterranean stalwart, is looking very fresh despite the drought and is much appreciated by many greedy insects.

Bupleurum fruticosum, Tostat, mid July 2020

So, I am going to plan a garrigue-based garden for one of the areas of garden in our, hopefully all fingers crossed, new house. This will take a stony, ignored slope about 20m by 40m and push my understanding of how to work with full sun to a new level. I have always been very supported in plant choices by the work and books of Olivier Filippi, and so he will guide me through this next year. I can learn from him.

Olivier Filippi’s garden, Loupian near Sète, October 2013

I had the luck of joining a French gardening club visit to the Filippi nursery and the private garden which he uses for experimentation. He has created a garrigue garden, which working with the soil conditions, makes a wonderful landscape of mounded shrubs and perennials punctuated by trees, both conifers and native Mediterranean tough trees. So I hope this will be my next challenge…

Filippi garden, October 2013

Back in Tostat, although they are now in a sorry state but hanging on, the hydrangeas, both paniculata and macrophylla, were looking pretty good till mid July. I am very fond of this one, though I don’t get the fragrance at all, Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star Le Vasterival‘ has a fine mix of of a flowerhead.

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star Le Vasterival’, Tostat, mid July 2020

Mildew is always a problem with Monardas and dry conditions. But Monarda fistulosa is your answer if you want to grow Monardas in low water situations. A gorgeous shade of lilac-pink, and standing tall at over a metre, the heat will get it in the end, but for 3 weeks or so, you can really enjoy the statuesque flowers.

Monarda fistulosa, Tostat, mid July 2020
Pelargonium abrotanifolium, Tostat, mid July 2020

So, in the dryness and the heat, the plants in pots try their best to fill the gap. New to me, and a very tiny flower no bigger than my littlest fingernail, is Pelargonium abrotanifolium. Brush against the small plant and you are almost knocked out by the pungent odour, a very medicinal experience. But the flower is a miniature sweetie.

Pelargonium sidoides, Tostat, early August 2020

Similarly tiny, is Pelargonium sidoides. It should have dark black-crimson flowers, but mine has maybe got too hot and come out dark pink. However, I grew it from seed, so I am keeping it going no matter what, and it will be on the packing list.

Nierembergia scoparia, Tostat, early August 2020

Now here is a plant that will be a good summer-dry doer, I think. Currently in a pot, so next year will tell, but I already really love the wispy, trailing foliage and especially the dark hearted pale lilac flowers which bloom in abundance. Nierembergia scoparia will get a proper road test next year.