Canberra and home…

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Canberra scene, October 2018

Canberra was an extraordinary place- specially-created as the capital city to avoid tensions between Melbourne and Sydney, with architecture from the inspired end of concrete brutalism that is pretty much all of a piece in the city centre.   This photograph taken close to the National Museum of Australia sums up the strangeness of it, the Prisoner-like hovering ball art installation, a solitary car, one person.  It was like no other capital city I have ever visited.  Healthy middle-class professionals jogging round the paths and lakes of the city centre juxtaposed with the dug-in determination of the 46 year Tent Embassy Aboriginal protest outside the old Government House- these colliding presences seemed to capture something of Australia.  A country struggling with the tensions of colonialism still.  But from a British perspective,  I felt shame for our overlord activities, and some pride that Australia shows its tensions openly- heart on sleeve.

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The Aboriginal Tent Embassy protest camp outside Old Government House, visiting schoolchildren posing for their teacher, Canberra, October 2018

There is huge pain in the Aboriginal Memorial, 200 hollow log coffins which commemorate the thousands of indigenous people who have lost their lives since 1788 in defence of their land and their ways of life.  I was deeply moved and shamed by it simultaneously.

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The Aboriginal Memorial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, October 2018

The museums are world-class and absolutely to be recommended.  Three hours was not long enough to take in the history of white settlers and indigenous loss, but history can smack you in the face and overwhelm sometimes.

Later in the afternoon, with warm golden sun shining, we visited the Australian National Botanic Gardens.  The world’s largest collection and archive of Australian flora did not disappoint- there was so much to be seen that was new and strikingly different from European flora that I was a little bedazzled.  We were yet to see the incredible flowering wattles later in our trip to the Flinders Ranges, but there were some fabulous varieties on show in the Garden, a feast of yellow.  And orange and red…without a botanical label I had no chance, and I have tried via the internet, but maybe Jane from Mudgee can help with this Banksia, as she kindly did in confirming the Grevillea robusta from the previous post.

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Unknown Banksia, Australian National Botanical Gardens, Canberra, October 2018
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This one was labelled! Banksia integrifolia subsp integrifolia, Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra, October 2018

And three views of the simply gorgeous Dendrobium falcorostrum– I defer to the Rock Lily Man here (follow the link)- he says it all about this fabulous plant- which, if you need a short-cut, is an epiphytic orchid.  In other words, a non-parasitic plant that fastens onto other plants but is, in fact, air and water-fed- the host simply provides an anchor.

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I loved the starkness of the Red Centre– the part of the Gardens that re-creates the harsh, elemental conditions of central Australia.  The stunning grass clump to the left of the photograph is Triodia scariosa.

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The Red Centre Garden, Australian National Botanical Gardens, Canberra, October 2018
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Triodia scariosa detail, Red Centre Garden, Australian National Botanical Garden, Canberra, October 2018

And the postman has just knocked with my Australian- inspired parcel- my order of Callistemon sieberi ‘Widdecombe Gem’, a medium sized  frost-hardy (to about -8 hopefully) Callistemon with a lemon yellow flower, and three massive Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue’– which I have just re-potted to make 8 smaller plants to over-winter.  Australian heaven.

Here and there…

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Colquhounia coccinea, Tostat, December 2018

Since we came back about 4 weeks ago, we have had only tiny frosts and some really warm, up to 20C, days.  It seems quite weird to be looking at flowering shrubs and plants that have been flowering non-stop since mid October and still are.  Colquhounia coccinea was a new addition in early Spring this year.  The link takes you to Louis the Plant Geek, who is also in love with this shrub. A bit of a risk as it is not reliably hardy, probably not to -10C which is my normal benchmark for hardiness- but I thought I would try it, keep an eye on it, plant against a southerly wall though facing North, and be prepared to dash out with the fleece as soon as it flags.  It is quite a big beast, already nearly 2m tall and about 1.5m wide, so no chance of a pot-solution.  So we will see, but right now it is flowering beautifully and we have warmish forecasts for the next week.

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Colquhounia coccinea detail, Tostat, December 2018

From the detailed photograph, you can see that it has felted stems, and certainly the growth pattern is very similar to a buddleia.  The colours are sensational, stacked on each stem so the bush is covered with flowers- really unexpected so close to winter.

I have some salvias that I am very fond of, that grow really big at the very end of the flowering season, and this year I am risking them staying in the ground and having the fleece to hand.  Once they get touched by the frost, I will cut them back to half the size to protect them from wind and then get fleecing.  Salvia ‘Phyllis Fancy’ won’t make it through without all this help, and it may not be enough, so I am planning on sprouting some cuttings in a jar of water tomorrow.  Same goes for Salvia ‘Anthony Parker’.  Both plants can easily reach 2m x 2m, so pots just get too heavy and unwieldy.

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Salvia ‘Anthony Parker’, Tostat, December 2018
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Salvia ‘Phyllis Fancy’, Tostat, December 2018

Other than that, I am waging early winter war on my blasted Michaelmas daisies.  I have no idea what variety they are, and you might think that they have been sent to torment me.  They were here in the garden when we arrived, and, mistakenly thinking that they were rather bonny, I spread them about a bit.  In Scotland, they were quite mild-mannered, but here in France, they are no respecters of decency at all.  They will burrow under, swamp from the sides and generally bully, any other plant that you care to name.  Getting them out, or trying to, is usually a Spring ritual- but this year I thought I would hit them while they are still standing and, even though I won’t 100% succeed, I will throw my best at them.

Back in Australia, picking up on the sensational colour-theme, there were so many incredible plants to be found, although I haven’t been able to identify all of them.  Here are some of my favourites to warm up early winter for us all.

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Erythrina x sykesii, Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens, October 2018

This coral tree, Erythrina x sykesii, was a knock-out flowering against a brilliant blue sky in Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens. The oldest specimen in cultivation is actually in the Australian National Botanical Gardens in Canberra, where it has been growing for over a hundred years, but somehow, I missed it there.

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Erythrina x sykesii detail, Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens, October 2018
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Acacia havilandiorum, Australian National Botanical Gardens, Canberra, October 2018

Raining golden bobbles, this was one of the showiest wattles that we saw in the whole trip.  The slender, curving leaves encase the flowers- and the flower colour is exactly that brilliant yellow as in the photograph.

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Golden Grevillea, variety unknown, Grafton, NSW, October 2018

This very fine Grevillea was draping itself gracefully over a garden wall in Grafton, New South Wales.  It could be Grevillea robusta…perhaps.  if it is, it has an AGM from the RHS and is surprisingly hardy, down to about -8C, and is recommended for xeric gardens.  But topping out at 22m or so, makes it a big choice for most of us gardening in more ordinary circumstances.  But doesn’t that colour make you glad that it exists?


Living between the micro and the macro…

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In Julie’s Canberra garden, this could be Grevillea ‘Goldrush’, October 2018

Having fulminated more on than off in the last 2 years about the basketcase that is Brexit, last year we both became French citizens.  It is very touching to become a part of a country that we have lived in for 15 years, and have made our home here.  But, the mind belongs to the UK, and particularly Scotland.  So, switching off from all the Brexit pantomime is not really an option.  And so, it occured to me this morning that life has taken on an-on-the-edge feeling of shifting uneasily between the macro big-stuff political and economic world, and the micro of the garden, daily life here, and very dull stuff like housework.

Yesterday, four Tostatenfleur volunteers, our two commune part-time employees, Sebastien and Marc, and I planted up Tostat’s version of the Promenade Planté.  Clearly, not so grand as Paris, but a good 60m stretch of roadside planting, six 6m x 3m squares of perennial and some shrub planting, interspersed with squares of seeded grass.  If you are in Tostat, you need the Route d’Escondeaux and you will find it.  The morning started out a fairly chilly 3°, but warmed up later to a very pleasant 14° in the sun.

Our only problem was cutting the special eco-bache, designed to protect the plants and impede weeds.  Fabulous though it will be, especially as it will degrade into the soil over 3 years as the plants mature- it is a pain to cut!  Meaning that only 2 of us had enough arm-power to force our cutters through it, and this made planting a bit fraught to start with.  But we made it- and as always, the jokes and ribaldry kept us all going and laughing as well as the odd, supportive toot from passing cars.  Photographs to follow in the Spring when growth gets going.

Today, with no tennis elbow amazingly, it feels really good to have finally pulled off this project, which has been 2 years in the planning, including pulling together the dossier to apply for the funding at inter-communal level, and waiting for answers, plants and the weather to allow us to proceed.  Of course, it all looks very tiny and insignificant, but you just wait for next year….

Of course, by then, whatever happens will have happened with the Brexit nonsense.  Maybe that is the only way to live on the macro-micro edge- invest in the micro to combat the effects of the macro.

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MJ and JP on their knees in the first planted square, Route d’Escondeaux, Tostat, November 2018
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Heads down, going for broke, on the last planted square, Route d’Escondeaux, Tostat, November 2018

Back to the micro….

Meantime, back in Canberra, Australia, where I spent a lovely hour talking plants with Julie, the Head Gardener of her mainly-Australian-natives garden, some stunning grevilleas were in bloom…the first photo in this post, is, I think, likely to be Grevillea ‘Goldrush’.  A recent addition to Julie’s garden, it has sensational golden flowers with just a hint of red, and seems to be a modest grower to maybe 1.5m rather than the more giant Grevillea ‘Canberra Gem’ which I grow and is now nearly 2m tall and wide.

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Grevillea ‘Canberra Gem’, Tostat, 2017- on the old camera…

This adorable apricot Grevillea was also just coming out, as well as a very delicate pink one. Bit of a Grevillea heaven really.  They are such good and undemanding shrubs as long as you can offer some shelter, though rosmarinifolia varieties seem to me to be really tough.  The range of colours available in Australia is a revelation to those of us used only to traffic-light red.  I have searched and there are some appearing in the UK, if not France.  Burncoose offer a soft yellow Grevillea juniperina Sulphurea, which would probably be hardy enough for us to grow with ‘juniperina’ in its name.

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This apricot Grevillea was just coming out, Julie’s garden, Canberra, October 2018
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Delicate, powder-pink, more spidery, Grevillea, Julie’s garden, Canberra, October 2018

Another pretty thing in Julie’s garden was, I think, a Prostanthera, an Australian shrub from the mint family.  These are more widely available in the UK- usually making a neat, rounded shrubby shape of about 1m high and wide, sometimes with a tumbling habit.  Crocus, for example, offer as ‘an alpine mint’ Prostanthera cuneata, with pure-white flowers.

That feels better…

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Prostanthera unknown, Julie’s garden, Canberra, October 2018


Travelling through…

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Mount Kosciuszko, Snowy Mountains, New South Wales, Australia, October 2018

If you are ever stuck for a while at Waterloo Station, take a short 5 minute walk to Lower Marsh to the delightful and unexpected bookshop, ‘Travelling Through’– not only do they make you a very good cuppa and always a delicious nibble- my favourite being a sort of almond ball- but you can sit, think, browse and be inspired by travel books of all kinds.  Having just come back from our Moscow-Trans-Siberian-Beijing-Japan-Australia journey,  I am really looking forward to what leaps out from the shelves when I visit ‘Travelling Through’ in a few weeks.

On the trip, we sampled the beginning of autumn in Moscow, the brilliant sunshine and golden colours of Siberian birch forest as well as Mongolian steppe, an Indian summer in Japan- and then shifted backwards a gear to mid-Spring in Australia- where we could be knee-deep in snow unable to walk up Mount Kosciuszko, while three days earlier we had been walking in semi-tropical bush.  We could watch King parrots feeding in the back garden of kind friends who were putting us up one week, and two weeks or so later, watch pelicans swimming in the Murray River.

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King parrot, Canberra, October 2018
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Pelican on the Murray River, South Australia, October 2018

Our experiences were so vivid and different that I didn’t think about home or our garden once.  I narrowly missed the chance to meet Jane of the blog, Jane’s Mudgee Garden, as we drove South through Mudgee.  That would perhaps have been a really surreal moment- finding real life colliding with a virtual life through our respective blogs and with me appearing suddenly on the other side of the world.

Coming back has been strange.  The garden has been doing its own thing by itself- and doing a pretty good, if slightly wayward job of it.  Strangely, now that I have got used to it again and it to me, I notice that I am not mentally compiling lists of things to be done, and for once I haven’t found it difficult to focus on the most important things to do. They seem clearer with the benefit of time and distance.    Just before leaving, I had been filled with a dread and panic about abandoning the garden in mid-swim.  Coming back, I can see that it has carried on growing and has had no need of my help. Given that fastidious tidiness is not my thing, maybe I can calibrate the need to be quite so attentive down a notch or two.

I loved this scene.  The Trans-Siberian had stopped, not far from Lake Baikal, en route for the Mongolian border.  A slow approaching and very long goods train had taken the single-track section up, and we had to wait for 25 minutes or so.  Just beneath the train was a small farmstead with a flower and vegetable garden, and the owners were tending the garden in the bright autumn sunshine.  The slow, repetitive motions of weeding, removing spent flower and vegetable growth to make way for winter planting were so familiar to me.  Despite the thousands of miles between us, we would have gardened well alongside one another without knowing each other’s language.  I found those thoughts very touching.

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Russian lady gardener near Lake Baikal, seen from the train, September 2018

At the last station stop in Russia before the Mongolian border, the owner of the shop was standing looking out at our train as we set off for the next country, caught in a moment of stillness.  She may have been regretting the loss of business, or she may have been barely registering the train with thoughts that were far away.  I don’t know, nor does it matter really.  But travel opens up the possibilities of encounters, of meeting or observations of people in other lives and situations than those you are familiar with.

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The owner of the last station shop in Russia looks out phlegmatically at the train, September 2018

I also loved this scene.  A young couple are just married, and friends are looking on and photographing them.  The smiles, the tilts of their heads, made me smile from my railway carriage- a silent, passing observer of their lives.

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In Siberian sunshine, wedding photos being taken at the station, September 2018

And in the garden, there is always another year, another season to think about and to experience.  Just as there is always more travelling to be done…

A long way home…

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Salvia africana-lutea, Tostat, November 2018

We are back, nearly 8 weeks after we left a hot, dry, dusty Tostat in September.  Coming back is such a strange experience.  Not just the usual hoo-haa of unpacking, washing clothes and re-discovering everything that has been inadverdently moved as our lovely housesitters made the place theirs- but re-connecting with the growing garden.  It feels as if the garden’s mind of its own has taken over- my brain struggled to remember names of plants, and some had radically changed in size and power with the late October rain.  The garden has become an alien, though still vaguely familiar place.  I have walked around it almost as if I am visiting it in the past few days.  So much change, so much growth- the small gradations of change have been obliterated by not being here, and the impact of it all was somehow viscerally unexpected.

The Salvia africana-lutea was a wonderful shock.  Firstly, I had expected the flowering bracts to be more of a dusty orange, but they really are as tropical an orange as the photo above shows.  Secondly, when I left, the plant was a one-year old baby, and had toiled a bit in the dry and the heat. Now, it’s the plant equivalent of a bonny, bouncing toddler and it is looking very strong.  I just managed to grow the one seedling to adult- I never find Salvias easy from seed, but I had to try as this one is hard to find.

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Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellii’, Tostat, November 2018

And here was another wonderful shock.  Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellii’ was a new one for me this year- and I bought it mainly for its very bright green leaves with a powerful aroma, so these marvellous fat rounded bracts and buds are really an extra surprise.  It does flower late in the autumn, but this year has worked really well for it.

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Abelia grandiflora, Tostat, November 2018

I am a bit ashamed of my behaviour with this plant.  I picked it up as a bargain plant two years ago,  but it has merely existed so far in the garden and I have rather ignored it.  But, I should know that many shrubby plants take a good 2 years to get their feet down in our garden- and so it has proved with this Abelia.  But, it was very refreshing this hot, dry summer to have the Abelia grandiflora cultivar hit its stride in September with fresh, light pink blossoms and pinky-tinged leaves.

This autumn has, so far, been very calm and so the golden foliage on ‘Purple Tower’ has lasted and lasted.  This tree has also found its mojo this year and has put on really good growth no doubt with the assistance of roots having found the canal.

So the next week is about re-connecting, finding and remembering what I was doing 2 months ago, and beginning to make some plans for next year.  It’s a good time to be home.

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Populus deltoides ‘Purple Tower’, Tostat, November 2018






Living on the edge…

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Rosa Jacqueline du Pre, Tostat, August 2018

Feeling rather grumpy about my grumpiness about the scorched earth situation- and also chastened by kind comments from Australian and Californian readers basically saying that at least I can count on the fact that it will rain again…sometime.  I think that, even though I completely want to create the watering-free garden that I think we all have to embrace- I am still disturbed by the implications of my self-inflicted policy.  It all goes to show that changing our aesthetic to fully embrace sustainability is really hard and cuts to the core somehow.

Having said all of that, I am also aware that I don’t have (yet) to be an utter purist.  I can and should do what I can to garden as close to the edge of sustainability as possible.  But it’s ok to save myself with some watering as the edge moves away from me.  Watering is not to be despised.  So, I am doing some selective watering over the next few days.  I have allowed myself off the hook.  But, from the above, you can see that it has been a bit of a moral tussle.

So, to invoke cheeriness (and maybe rain!), here is what is still looking good without any help from me- though these are isolated spots in amongst a sea of brown.

I actually dug up Rosa ‘Jacqueline du Pre’ over a month ago and stuck her back into a pot, as she was looking nigh unto death.  So with a pot-watering regime, she has begun flowering again.  She is really ‘worth it’ to ape L’Oreal.

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Bouvardia ternifolia, Tostat, August 2018

Staying with the pots for a moment, Bouvardia ternifolia is looking very very happy- a true pillar-box red, tender, but can be tucked away dry in a protected spot in the winter, watered copiously in the spring, and up she comes.

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Plumbago auriculata, Tostat, August 2018

In a pot, and in semi-shade, Plumbago auriculata has just begun flowering.  On the tender side, I mistakenly left the pot out during the winter, and was pretty sure that I had killed the plant.  But, it’s always worth hanging on- and back she came in June.  Very late to get started, but looking absolutely fine.

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Cestrum elegans rubrum, Tostat, August 2018
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Fully open, Cestrum elegans rubrum, Tostat, August 2018

Cestrum elegans rubrum was a bargain-basement shrub I bought last winter.  A little on the tender side, I was feeling pretty smug about it until we hit the 2 weeks of -10C.  The shrub collapsed.  I thought it was time for an obituary notice, again.  But, two months later, signs of growth could be seen, and though a little shorter with the heat, I think that next year she will be bouncing back at 1m plus all round.  And clearly tougher than I thought.  I love those surprises.

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Rosa moschata, Tostat, August 2018

I bought Rosa moschata from Olivier Filippi‘s nursery in the Languedoc, maybe 5 years ago.  He is a serious dry-gardening expert and all his plants are worth trying especially with his advice.  I over-risked the dryness it would tolerate, and had to do yet another emergency transplant into a pot.  Note to self: This is the edge of sustainability looking at me, again.  Out of the pot, and in a new home 2 years ago against the central pillar of the outdoor barn, Rosa moschata is reaching for the roof, and is on her second flowering.  Only a dozen buds open, but the scent fills the barn- a deep old-rose scent, gorgeous.

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The unknown red Abutilon, Tostat, August 2018

Last year’s baby Abutilon ebay purchase is in the ground, only about 20 cms high, but has already flowered non-stop since late May.  Abutilons fold their leaves down like wings when they are a bit heat-stressed- but they carry on anyway.  Real troopers.

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Vernonia crinita ‘Mammuth’ and Leycesteria formosa formosa, Tostat, August 2018

The Vernonia nearest the canal is the only one still flowering, wrapped in the arms of Leycesteria formosa– the crimson meets the purple.

And for sheer mystery and magic, this new-to-me Pennisetum, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Japonicum’ is hard to beat, close-up.  Note: In France, this plant is known as ‘Japonicum’- whilst in the UK, it is Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Foxtrot’.

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Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Japonicum’, Tostat, August 2018

Maybe I like the danger of the edge….


Scorched earth…

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Poilanthes tuberosa ‘The Pearl’, Tostat, August 2018

This is proving to be a very hard summer.  We are now in the 7th week or so of temperatures 90% of the time in the C30s, and with maybe 20mm of rain in that time.  It is a terrible test for my ‘no watering’ policy- in which I have endeavoured to find and grow plants that will survive by themselves with what nature provides.  It is now far too late for any panicky watering, which I have considered, as the ground is so hard and dry that genuine and very long-lasting gentle rain will be the only way to recover the situation.  I have made one or two exceptions for plants that were newly planted in the cold June we had, but otherwise, I am waiting to see what will happen.  Can I be accused of being reckless?  Maybe…

The plants in the pots are being watered- which takes about an hour and a half everyday.  Thank goodness for the expanding hose!  Not to mention the agricultural canal and the underground water sources that we can pump water out of…

But the potted plants are also feeling the strain of the heat.  Poilanthes tuberosa ‘The Pearl’ which has a simply gorgeous perfume, like warm baked custard with a hint of the exotic, has produced only one flowerspike from 3 pots.  It is the most beautiful thing too, but simply not in the mood for flowering at all.

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Poilanthes tuberosa ‘The Pearl’, all out, Tostat, August 2018

The potted Salvias are also on the fed-up side.  Even with watering.  I have just moved into survival mode, keeping them alive till we at last cool down.  I have taken 2 newish roses out and re-potted them, which has revived them somewhat- and my new Aspidistra plants are in deep shade in the cool, in pots.

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The very first flower on home-grown Clematis tangutica ‘Helios’, with the new camera, Tostat, August 2018

With watering three times a day from the squeezy bottle, or, when bigger, the small watering can, seed production has not, amazingly, been too bad.  I keep them in the open barn, so they get 3-4 hours of angled sunlight, and then shade- and I have really had to be on it to keep them all going.  But successes (for the moment) include Alogyne hakeifolia, a lovely Hibiscus relative which I fell in love with in Spain, Malva sylvestris ‘Zebrina’ has romped away from seed to small plant in 4 weeks, Heuchera cylindrica ‘Greenfinch’ and x brizoides ‘Firefly’ have done the same though they are tiny plants in comparison, Clematis tangutica ‘Helios’ and a lovely load of hollyhock seed from my friends in Winchcombe, are coming up beautifully.  Other plants I shan’t name, for fear of incurring the hubris curse.

From this, you can see that I am looking all the time at toughness in plants, mostly to do with drought resilience- but I own that this period is straining my willingness to live happily with brown.

Changing tack, the stunning Hibiscus palustris is very happy, right by the canal with roots certainly reaching the water.  The huge, chiffon paper flowers look fabulous with some backlighting, and although it can be invasive, it is not looking that way so far here.  Perhaps it knows not to wander far from the water.

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Hibiscus palustris, Tostat, August 2018
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Precision engineering, Hibiscus palustris in bud, Tostat, August 2018

So, looking ahead, we have maybe 5 mm rain offered to us this week, but nothing more.  I know that plants will come back from this, but I am feeling as if my policy has hit a murderous phase.