Last looks before we go…


February garden, Tostat, 2017

Next week, we hand over the house and garden to our lovely French-Canadian house-sitting family, and we head off to Fes, Morocco, where Andy is doing an intensive Arabic course, and I?  Well, I will be tootling around, doing some yoga and whatnot, reading, taking photographs with the new-to-me camera, and also planning a visit to Marrakech.  I want to re-visit the Jardin Majorelle, and visit The Secret Garden for the first time.  And, thanks to a lucky exchange over a blog, I will also visit, as recommended by Angelica Gray, the author of The Gardens of Marrakech, the Anima Garden just outside the city.  What a weekend to look forward to.

Meantime, this is the first period of more than one day when we have been out working in the garden.  It feels so good.  At first, it’s overwhelming when you look round and see what needs doing, but then, as you settle in to tackling it all bit by bit-  it is joyous. This would, of course, sound completely mad to non-gardeners.

This is what I noticed in my madness:


They are so coy…Hellebore caught by the sun, Tostat, February 2017


Almost at their best when you have to hunt for them, Tostat, February 2017


I love the delicate freckles, and the architecture of the flower itself, Tostat, February 2017


To my eye, this Iris unguicularis is more of a purple than a blue, but gem-like all the same, Tostat, February 2017

And the terracotta of the old bread oven is taking on a Spring-like hue…


Dusty the cat, the bread oven and the setting sun, Tostat, February 2017

It is sad to miss some things, but oh, so exciting to be going…..more from Morocco.







Small things do you good…


Tostat looking South to the Pyrenees, February 2017

Like coming back across the fields with Molly the dog late this afternoon, and noticing the light on the snow in the distance, and hints of green appearing in the fields if not yet in the trees.  Also, looking down the river Adour this afternoon, which is replenished by the recent rain, and not just a pebble-run as it has been most of the winter, I thought to myself how very lucky I am to live here- I am often prone to thinking this when I contemplate a visit to a city!  Not that I don’t really enjoy the hustle and bustle, but it can be too strong a contrast sometimes.


The river Adour this afternoon, February 2017

Back in the woods around Tostat, we have some wonderful swathes of snowdrops, they seem really glorious this year, maybe because they made us wait till about 3 weeks ago to put in an appearance.


Tostat woods, Februar7 2017

Back in the garden, continuing the big attack on my congested border by the wall, Andy was hacking away at a long-past-best Phlomis fruticosa, more dratted wisteria adopting guerilla tactics behind it, and some Kerria japonica, which is also getting the order of the boot.  I love the yellow pompoms but that is all it does- not enough for me to continue to love it.  It has been a neglected spot, and one of those parts of the garden I have been avoiding- not any more.  The soil is actually quite good as there is some spring activity which keeps it from being bone-dry,  and although technically North-facing and with our boundary wall behind it, it actually gets a lot of sun in the morning catching it coming in from the East and then again in the mid to later afternoon.  So, it will be a good place, I think, for plants that don’t need it to be boiling and bone-dry.

So, I am going to thread some grasses through it, beginning with Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Red Head’ and then moving on to a new-to-me Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’.  In some ways, I need more Miscanthus like a hole in the head, but this variety is so gorgeous, golden and upright and not tall, maybe just over a metre, and so I will man up for the seedlings.  More about this grass when I get a chance to blog more about ‘Le Jardin Champêtre’ in Caunes-Minervois, which was where I saw it for the first time a couple of weeks back.  Yes, I have got it so bad that an order went in pretty much immediately.

Then I have a lovely rose that survived my attempt to over-test its drought tolerance, Rosa ‘Alissar Princess of Phoenicia’, which spent last summer recuperating and is now back on song.  And in amongst that will be a new perennial for me, Kalimeris incisa ‘Madiva’.  This should have masses of light lilac daisies all summer and should not behave like sprinting Asters, which have almost been eradicated from the garden.  I am also going to try out my Abutilon megapotamicum drifting in arches over the heads of these plants, as I think I will be able to persuade it to do that with a bit of judicious plant support here and there.


Rosa Allissar, Princess of Phoenicia, Tostat, August 2016


Kalimeris incisa ‘Madiva’ photo credit:


Chinese lanterns of Abutilon megapotamicum, Gill Pound’s garden, Caune-Minervois, June 2016

So we will see.  And the last delight?  Seedlings coming up of Colutea x media upstairs.  It was on ‘last strike or out’ stage after I have lost two previous small plants.  But these seedlings look really strong, so maybe they will make it.






Smells of spring….


First flowers on Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, Tostat, February 2017

First day of cold wind, but sun, after the big storm Marcel passed over us at the weekend. The sun has brought the buds out on the Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata‘ just outside the back door, and the strong, deep scent is on the wind.  This bush is now about 1.5m x 1.5m, having started out life as a 10cm twiglet about 12 years ago.  It is a slow grower and takes all the heat of summer with its waxy, cream-lined leaves in a sharp green.  It is in a spot that gets some afternoon shade in the summer and is not utterly bone-dry, but I do think that it is a tougher customer than many UK sites suggest.  The flowers keep coming from now until the end of March or even a little longer, and when they are warmed by sun, the scent is gorgeous.  I have planted another twiglet of it across the way from the big plant, but it is only 20 or so cms high as yet- best to leave it to grow away and then be surprised when it suddenly seems to appear one spring in the future.

Today I was planting out the plants I bought at Kate Dumbleton and Imogen Checketts nursery, ‘Le Jardin Champêtre’  in Caunes-Minervois, about 3.5 hours drive from us.  I hope to do another blog post when I have had a chance to interview them, I am really interested in their approach to gardens and plants, and impressed with their feistiness in setting up here in Occitanie, the new name for our big region of Languedoc-Rousillon-Midi-Pyrenees.  So more of their story anon.

I bought Phlomis Chrysophylla, the golden-leaved sage of Jerusalem.  I adore Phlomis and have several, including another golden-leaved one, called Phlomis x termessii.  The golden-ness comes with the summer growth, and it likes razor-sharp drainage and full sun.  Right now, a junior, but it will make a good, rounded shrub of Im all round, maybe by the end of this year.


Phlomis chrysophylla, Tostat, February 2017

Another cistus- but they are such good plants and I haven’t got masses of them, so why not?  This one is Cistus heterophyllus, which will probably get to 1.5m all round in the end.  I find that the growth accelerates as the roots finally make it through the stony soil, and this might take 2 years or more.  But, a pretty pink flowerer, and really reliable.  Some say that they are short-lived, but I have not found this.  Grow them hard and tough, and ignore them seems to work fine for me.

Salvia leucophylla was another purchase.  I am becoming a bit of a Salvia nut, and so the chance to buy one that I hadn’t come across anywhere else was too tempting.  This one is a Californian native, but from altitude, so it can handle more chill than some others.  We will see.  I’ve put it into the dry, stony, south-facing border, which has thrown off our month of -5C–7C with reasonable aplomb.  It should make a 1.5m round shrub, with light bluey-purple flowers in early to midsummer. The leaves have a felted texture and looked great today in the sun, even in February.


Salvia leucophylla, Tostat, February 2017

And, lastly, because the smell of the crushed leaves, even in winter, is so evocative of a hot, dry summer, I bought Origanum syriacum.  This is the herb that Ottolenghi uses in his za’atar mix, and is the wild oregano, staple of Lebanese and Palestinian cooking.  The brilliant Millenium Seed Bank Partnership at Kew, has conserved seed as it is now endangered in the Lebanon. You can see from the link the importance of their work and how to help them to save seeds, and, even species outright.  It is still at the back door while I try to choose the best place to plant it, near enough to pick and smell, and dry and stony enough for it to be happy.

So many portents of the summer to come in these four junior plants- I love that.





Traces of the past…


Behind our young multi-stemmed Betula Jacquemontii, you can see one of the surviving oak children from the original oak forest, Tostat, January 2017

Our house faces East at the front, whereas most village houses face South, and are at right angles to the village road.  Back in the eighteenth century, we wondered if whoever built it, was a self-aggrandiser, who wanted to make a big statement about his importance and presence in the village.  He might have been that, but, recently, we discovered that back then, the rear of the house was totally protected from the Westerlies ( our prevailing weather direction) by a forest of oak trees which extended as far as the Adour river, 2 fields away.  This morning, as an exceptional freezing fog lifted to brilliant sunshine, I was struck by the frosted silhouette of an oak tree in the field where the forest had been, adding grandeur to our garden horizon and the birch tree, so tiny when we first came nearly 13 years ago.

The freeze this winter has been unlike any other we have experienced in the house. At least half of December and all of this month, temperatures at night have hovered around -4C or down to -7C several times, and not got into double figures at all during the day.  I keep doing morning checks to see what may be in trouble in the garden, and I am actually astonished not to find corpses everywhere. I think that this is solely due to the dryness of the soil, and the fact that we have had very little rain- which may presage a wet Spring- but then, who knows anymore what is normal.  Don’t talk to me about Trump.

Today will be the last of the bitter cold, they say.


Frosted Eucalyptus gunnii ‘Azura’, Tostat, January 2017


Frosted olive, Tostat, January 2017


Frosted Miscanthus Strictus caught in the sun, Tostat, January 2017




Unknown women and well-known roses…


Madame Alfred Carrière, Tostat, May 2015


Frosted Madame Alfred Carrière, Tostat, January 2017

A dull winters day, and I turned to thinking about names of plants, and, remembering that I had explored the story of Madame Legrelle in a blog in 2015, I was wondering about Rosa Madame Alfred Carrière.

MAC as she is fondly called in the press, is one of my favourites, and is a total workhorse, growing stoutly in dry, stony soil and throwing herself over the wall with abandon- especially when I remember to tie down the new growth.  And she flowers from late spring till just before Christmas.  What a goer.

But, strangely, and this may be the way with plants that achieve workhorse status, the only photograph I have is this one from nearly two years ago.  So I set out to repair the damage of being too well-loved and hence ignored, by trying to find out about the origins of the rose and the woman it was named after.

MAC was bred by a roseriste in his prime, Joseph Schwartz, and was first made available to the world in 1879.  His story bgan earlier, when he shot to fame as the chosen successor to Jean-Baptiste Guillot-Père, one of the most important rose-growers in the rose capitol of France, Lyon.  Born in 1846, Schwartz moved to Lyon as a very young man to be apprenticed to Guillot-Père, and he must have greatly impressed the older man with his dedication for him to have been chosen as the new owner of the nursery.  He must also have been able to raise the money for the purchase- no mean feat.

Almost immediately the roll-call of famous Schwartz roses produced by his nursery attracted international attention, including the release in 1872 of the ‘Reine Victoria’ rose, which was hugely admired throughout the rose world.  A few years later, in 1879, he exhibited ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’.  When first launched, MAC was described as ‘worthless’ and so, during his lifetime, it was not regarded as one of Shwartz’ successes.


Rosa Reine Victoria, Schwartz 1872. Photo credit:

By the early 1880s, Joseph had married Séraphine Riggotard and was the proud father of two very young children, Louise and André, when Séraphine died. Marrying again to Marie-Louise Trievoz, his professional career triumphed with honours bestowed on him in France, and an invitation to a prestigious horticultural event in St Petersburg followed.   It is said that the travel back in the winter created the conditions for the illness that followed, and at the age of 39 in 1885 , he died.  He left the business to the young Marie-Louise, newly a mother herself to Joseph’s third child.

Marie- Louise had grit, determination and talent.  She continued to grow the reputation of the nursery with roses of her own, including the reknowned ‘Madame Ernest Calvat’, and at the age of 48 in 1900, she herself handed the nursery on to her stepson, André.  She held her own in the male-dominated world of rose-growing and is to be admired as a person of courage and energy who became as famous as her husband, although, a modern indignity, she remains known almost entirely as Widow Schwartz, ‘Veuve Schwartz’.

It took me hours to uncover her own name.

From left to right, Marie-Louise Trievoz, before marrying Joseph Schwartz, Joseph Schwartz, and Marie-Louise in later life known as ‘Veuve Schwartz’.  Photo credits:,

It would be not until 1908 that the National Rose Society proclaimed MAC to be the best white climbing rose and it was not until 1993 that the RHS awarded MAC its Award of Garden Merit, more than 120 years after release.  She had a slow birth as a celebrity, you could say.


‘Madame Ernest Calvat’, produced by Marie-Louise Schwartz, Lyon, 1888 photo credit:

But my original quest was to discover who ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ was. Who was she?   There is, unfortunately, no trace that I could find of her, or even a name of her own.  Her husband, Alfred, was the editor-in-chief of the important gardening journal, Revue Horticole, in France and was apparently a keen amateur rose-grower, though, only amateur in the money-making sense as he was a well-known botanist by profession.  But she remains unknown and lost to history.


Pruning MAC, South Cottage, Sissinghurst photo credit:

But another woman was to really make the name of Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’. Vita Sackville West immortalised MAC when she chose her as the first rose she planted in her new garden at Sissinghurst Castle.  She and Harold Nicholson planted the rose on the day that their offer to buy Sissinghurst was accepted in 1930, and it still flowers today.  The last words on growing and pruning roses belong to Vita.  Read them here.





Bordeaux botanics


Asclepias curassavica, Bordeaux Botanical Garden, September 2016

The rain is pouring down, and so the mind turns to drier delights experienced in the last few months.  We had a fabulous introduction to Bordeaux courtesy of a weekend visit guided by our friends, Hyacinthe and Martine.  Knowing that there would be no stopping me if a garden was in the offing, we spent an hour or so in the original Botanical Garden, tucked away near the Jardin Public.  Sometimes, botanical gardens can be amazingly dull- it seems to me as if the science impedes the space working as a pleasure for the visitor.  Bu this small garden was a delightful, human-scale, slightly topsy-turvy mix of some very lovely plants- and so it felt personal and inviting.  Here are some of the plants that caught my eye.

Asclepias or Milkweed has not worked for me, but I have tried.  Their main claim to fame is their attractiveness to the monarch butterfly, native but under threat in the US.  The eggs are laid in the milkweed foliage, and so the plant is a vital part of the survival of this butterfly.  But, there is a flambuoyance about Asclepias that I really enjoy.  The orangey-red hooded flowers are really eye-catching, although, to be honest, the foliage is nothing much to write home about.


Asparagus broussonnettii, Bordeaux Botanical Garden, September 2016

This plant is a complete mystery. I have been able to find almost nothing about it, except that it features in the index of ‘Le Bon Jardinier’ the Almanach for 1856, written by Vilmorin amongst others and published in Paris.  This journal appeared annually from 1755 until 1962.  Versions have since been published but it is no longer the French encyclopedia of choice for the serious gardener.

The photograph doesn’t really capture what drew my eye.  I think it was the myriad stems and fine needle-like leaves together with the small bobbles of flower buds, it looked like a friendly barbed wire in its tangle and complexity.


Erythrina crista-galli, Bordeaux Botanical Garden, September 2016

This Erythrina crista-galli, on the other hand, is a real head-turner. For something so exotic and tropical looking, it amazes me that it is as hardy as it is.  Root-hardy down to 14F, which is pretty Arctic by our standards.  The flowers are produced on this years wood, and hang in very fetching bunches and swags.  Very Carmen Miranda.

Here is a cousin, Erythrina falcata, seen a little further along the path.  This makes a much bigger tree in California, up to 50 feet, but again is surprisingly tough.  Though maybe not when you consider it grows at 6000 feet in Bolivia. I would go for one of these for definite if our frosts were lighter than they can be.  Stunning.


Erythrina falcata, Bordeaux Botanical Garden, September 2016

This member of the climbing pea family, Pueraria lobata var montana is a giant of a plant. Daily growth can be more than 30 cms- see what I mean!  So, although the flowerspikes are very attractive, hence the photograph, this plant is a big beast and a serious pest in parts of the Ukraine, South Africa and the US.  Best not.


Pueraria lobata var.montana, Bordeaux Botanical Garden, September 2016

Lastly, a great survivor.  Though to be honest, it is pretty hard to get rid of wisteria once you have it.  This wisteria was planted sometime in the 1860’s and makes a fabulous flowering tunnel in Spring outside the original building of the Historical Archives in the old city.   Unfortunately, the courtyard wasn’t open to visit when we passed (shame!) so I take it on trust.


Ancient wisteria sinensis, Hôtel du Ragueneau, Bordeaux, September 2016

Next time we go, we must visit the other Botanical Garden on the modern site, Jardin Botanique de Bordeaux Bastide….there will be a next time.



Big things and tiny things…


Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ seedlings, January 2017

This unprepossessing pot of three tiny seedlings has given me ridiculous amounts of joy the past weeks.  This was probably one of my madder, doomed to failure, experiments this early winter- attempting to germinate and grow seeds on sunny windowsills in the house in the winter.  And it has not been a resounding success- for obvious reasons really, light is needed and usually some warmth to persuade seeds to get going- and they have been up against it in both departments.  Some more than others- the ‘Limelight’ seedlings are in a sunnier South-facing window, whereas other trays have had warmth, but are in an East-facing window.  But I will keep the trays and see what happens as the days lengthen, keeping them just moist with misting to try and ensure that the seeds don’t rot.

On the other hand, there have been small successes, Salvia nutans got going with 4 tiny seedlings, I have since lost two but may end up with one strong one if I am lucky.  I have five decent Clematis tangutica ‘Helios’ seedlings looking pretty perky, and a handful of Penstemon barbatus var. coccineus seedlings.

These are not big returns on the numbers of seeds sown, but they have given me more pleasure, especially the ‘Limelight’ than mere maths and ROI would suggest.  This morning, Robbie Blackhall-Miles‘ article in ‘The Guardian’ really spoke to me of the joy of these very tiny messages of promise that seeds are. I would never have believed how much I adore this work with seeds- I would have thought I was too impatient to become skilled at it.  I am much better than I was, in terms of return, and I think, if anything, I am learning real patience and appreciation of the natural world from these little things.

Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ is going to be a joy, I know it.  A tender, big growing Salvia, up to 1.5m high and wide, it has chartreuse green leaves and dark, luscious purple flowers- which is one of my favourite colour combinations.  I have lusted after it for ages, but it is not available in France, and I am trying to wean myself off buying plants that come by post from other countries.  So when I saw seed advertised, I could not resist. Ebay done good, all the way from the USA.  Here is how it looks at one of my all-time favourite nurseries, Annie’s Annuals, in Richmond, California.


Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ photo credit:

Meantime, outside, big stuff is happening.  Noticing this morning that brambles are now as prolific at hurling themselves over our wall as the roses we grow, was a turning point.  The wall bordering the garden had really become a no-go area for me, I was very adept at looking the other way.  But the bramble count was too high this morning.

And so, in moments, the decision that has been dormant was made- to remove everything in that area, get rid of all the self sown wisteria and other rubbish, and terminate a Rosa ‘Mermaid’ that was not helping the situation by harbouring all the villains in its roots.  To be fair, ‘Mermaid’ though lovely, is a terrible and dangerous thug, and was a poor choice of mine ten years ago. So phase One of site clearance took place this morning as Andy, armed with his ‘Barbie’ Stihl saw,  set about it.  The saw is good, if domestic in scale and size, but it is the ‘Barbie’ saw to us as Mr Brun, our very lumberjack-style village woodsman, disparagingly refers to it in these terms!


The ‘Barbie’ saw in action with Andy, Tostat, January 2017


Phase one success, ‘Barbie’ saw reclining, and Andy, Tostat, January 2017

Phase Two is planned for after the freeze- we are expecting -8C this week coming.  One or two dahlias have certainly copped it.