June goings-on…

Mix 0619
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.

Pap som 0619
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.

Penstemon Dark Tower 0619
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.

Trifolium rubens 0519
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.

Trifolium White Tiara 0619
Trifolium pannonicum ‘White Tiara’, Tostat, June 2019
Philadelphus Starbright 2 0519
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.

Phlomis var bailanica 0519
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….

Rosa Pacific Dream Martine 0619
Rosa ‘Pacific Dream’ Jardin de la Poterie Hillen, Thermes-Magnoac 65, June 2019.  Photo credit: Martine Garcia






It’s here…the reckoning for climate warming…

Salix gracilysta ‘Mount Aso’, Oloron Sainte Marie recuperation ward, August 2022

I have two bits of garden. The Barn Garden, at the back, is a recovered minibus stand, with some shade from mature trees hanging over the old garden wall. At the front, is another piece of recovering land, with a stony slope on the left hand side which I am developing into a ‘garrigue’ influenced landscape, and on the right, a recovering orchard, now with 2 cherry trees and no bamboo. Andy pickaxed and dug metres of rampant bamboo last year, and now we watch and wait to catch any returnees. I don’t water any of it, other than plant establishing watering in the first while after planting, and lack of rainfall water was not a serious issue last year.

But we are now in the middle of our 4th serious heatwave since mid-May. Lasting more than a week this time, with temperatures between 34c and 40c, this wave is slightly easier because the mornings are just a tad cooler. This morning there was a surprise half hour of rain. But essentially, we are in double whammy territory- cumulatively a drier spring and winter leading to a lower water table in any case, and recurring bouts of heat every 2-3 weeks that creates seasonal sustained drought that is never relieved by rainfall. On the planetary scale in terms of damage to species, human food production, stress and illness, not to mention the forced migrations of people trying to find water, this is truly terrible and, worst of all, all home-made by us humans. And here in my garden? I am rescuing plants that need help, and changing plans and thinking to bolster and support my no-watering policy.

For example, this poor Salix gracilysta ‘Mount Asos’ above, is in the recovery ward. I think it will make it. But it can’t be planted back into the ground, even in the shadier conditions in the Barn Garden, where it was before. It is so pretty, I can’t bear to lose those hallucinogenic pink catkins in the Spring. So where am I with maintaining my rainfall-only principle in the face of increasingly difficult conditions?

Salix gracilysta ‘Mount Aso’, Oloron Sainte Marie, February 2022

I am changing my thinking. Or to be more accurate, refining my thinking. Plants that I have tried in the Barn Garden, like the Salix, were always a bit of a longshot, but this summer has made me realise that longshots are now out of the question, and I need to work harder to research and find plants that will embrace the direction of the climatic conditions. I think that I have to consider our garden as summer-dry, winter-damp- so that nudges me more towards a Pacific North West kind of climate consideration than a Mediterranean one. Having said that though, the stony front slope, mainly because of the exquisite drainage, can look more to the Mediterranean palette albeit with decent frost tolerance built in. I like frost tolerance to -10c just to give a good margin.

And so I am looking to new reference points to help select those plants that will make it through this volatile climate picture. For example, in thinking of adding two more small trees in the ex-orchard area, I am thinking of Chitalpa tashkentensis ‘Pink Dawn’ and Albizia julibrissin ‘Summer Chocolate’– both of which look impressively tolerant of summer dry conditions.

Meantime, back at the ranch, there are some surprising discoveries, even in this week of heat. I planted a pot of Dietes grandiflora last Spring. The first flower appeared in December, just before Christmas, and the second flower appeared this week. I suspect rather young bulbs at the start as the main culprit, and so will carry on waiting, assuming that, with maturity, will come flowering. The raindrops look good from this morning.

Dietes grandiflora, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2022

And early this year, in a front sunny, exposed situation, I took a chance and planted a clematis, Clematis fargessii ‘Summer Snow’, against a dead apple tree, putting the roots into the shade of the old garden wall. it has flowered and looks very happy, though the flowers are pretty tiny, a result I assume of the dryness and heat. But who would have thought it?

Clematis fargessii ‘Summer Snow’, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2022

Looking amazingly at home is the Eriogonum fasciculatum at the bottom of the dry, stony slope. I knew that it would like it there, but these small fists of tiny flowers joined together are really charming- good, because the rest of the plant wouldn’t win any awards, closely resembling a bunch of green sticks. But the plant is a fantastically useful source of food for bees and many other pollinators, so looks ain’t everything.

Eriogonum fasciculatum, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2022

In the Barn Garden, I have finally succeeded in growing Patrinia scabiosifolia. In Tostat, it withered away, and here, it seems to have found just enough moisture to come through. It got fairly bashed in the second heatwave and so the flowering panicles, similar to a yellow Verbena bonariensis though less tall, have all gone to seed, but it still looks good, draped over Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’. You would have thought that this Caryopteris would try the eyeballs with the vivid lime-yellow leaves, but I love it for the brightness of the foliage, never mind the blue flowers which will start in a few weeks.

Patrinia scabiosifolia and Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2022

Here’s a plant that is a bit more thirsty than it should be, in my experience. At least it is much happier in the summer with a little rain, winter rain is not good for it, so I have it in one of the drier sections of the ‘garrigue’ slope. I hope it makes it through the winter and I will a) buy another plant and b) take some cuttings. It used to be called Justicia, sometimes Jacobinia, but the botanists at least have settled on Dicliptera suberecta. I saw huge mature plants of it in big tubs in St Jean de Luz this week, which is a bit more frost free than us here in Oloron.

Dicliptera suberecta, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2022

Another survivor that is enjoying the heat, coupled with a little shade is Rosa ‘Astrid Gräfin von Hardenberg’, which has recovered itself really well from hating where I had planted in Tostat. This rose is also often sold as ‘Nuit de Chine’, but I prefer the German name in honour of the woman herself. I wrote a post about the naming of this rose five years back. The rose is a glorious deep deep crimson, almost black, and has a scent that even I can pick out. In the photograph taken this morning, you can see that the heat has bleached some of the dark colouring away.

Rosa Astrid Gräfin von Hardenberg, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2022

Despite all, Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henrik Eilers’ is coming through, strong as ever in the Barn Garden. It has these delicate quills of petals and is such a refined rudbeckia, quite different and much more classy in my view than the old warhorse ‘Goldsturm’. It is really tough, having pulled through when armies of slugs were chewing it up in late Spring. It is quite tall, maybe 1.4m or so, but is very happy being allowed to weave in and out of other plants.

Back to the research now…

Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henrik Eilers’, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2022

Heat, now and in the future…

Looking up the ‘garrigue’ slope to the house, early morning, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

This summer is showing us the beginning of how the future will be. There is no doubt that in the last 12 years, the old summer weather patterns have been lost. Rainstorms breaking the heat every 5 days or so was the norm but gradually these patterns have gone, to be replaced by serious phases of heat and drought breaking out sporadically, and summer rainfall declining. In the last 2 summers in Tostat, there was hardly any summer rain for up to 3 months. Here, in Oloron, we have the maverick benefit of being nearer the Pyrenees, which can bring stormy rain unpredictably, but the overall drought pattern is the same. This year, for the first time ever, beginning in mid May, we have experienced 3 serious phases of unusual heat, between 35-40C for up to 6-9 days at a time.

I already know that some plants, even in the back barn garden, with some tree shading, will not make the cut in the future. My response is to doubledown on sustainable planting which, when rooted in, will need no summer irrigation by me. This is the objective of the ‘garrigue’ slope at the front, which I started planting last year.

Last week, after the severe heat, I went down very early and photographed the state of it. Some plants have been lost, but there is a good chance that they will re-appear when rain returns in September. But the main questions are: How does such a garden look after a battering of heat, and can I live with it? So here, with no retouching, is what it looks like.

This Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ is not looking good at all, but I think will survive. The esteemed dry plant specialist, Olivier Filippi, whose books have the scientific rigour to explain what works and doesn’t in dry gardening situations, only gives a score of 3 out of 6 for this Pittosporum, and, clearly, in this spot, my plant is being tested to the max. Two other plants elsewhere on the slope are in better shape. I will wait and see.

Pittosporum tobira ‘Nana’ hanging on in there, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Down at the bottom of the slope is a 5 year old Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’, a fabulous small tree for a dry situation. Astoundingly it has even produced some fresh pink foliage in the heat. This tree gets no additional water. I underplanted it with Achillea crithmifolia, which is allolepathic and I hoped it would protect the tree from bindweed and bramble. This has worked really well, and although the achillea is a little toasted in places, it will recover rapidly with a change in humidity.

Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’ with carpet of Achillea crithmifolia, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Here, in the midslope position, maybe the most difficult part of the garden, is a small Phlomis purpurea, the pink flowerheads of the Pyrennean Centranthus, Centranthus lecoqii, and some small recently planted seed-grown Stipa tenuissima ‘Pony Tails’. The plants are small. They are ok. The deal with these dry garden plants is that you have to be patient for growth. I know from Tostat that it can be 3 years before a plant will be ready to put on growth. The Phlomis has turned it’s leaves in slightly to protect the plant from water loss, but this is a natural response whereby the plant survives.

So, aside from ‘summer brown’, flowering being curtailed by heat or season, the slow early growth of many plants suited to dry situations requires us gardeners to be patient and wait for results. Garden designers who work with these plants talk of the delight of finding clients who will be patient and wait for what these plants can do in difficult conditions. James Basson, in a recent article for Gardens Illustrated, refers to this in describing the long term relationships that he develops when making sustainable gardens.

Conditions close-up, small Phlomis purpurea, baby Stipa tenuissima ‘Pony Tails’, and pink flowerheads of Centranthus lecoqii, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Here is a plant that is truly at home in the heat and the dry. Eriogonum fasciculatum was in the last chance saloon for me, having tried and lost it twice in Tostat. But in the ‘garrigue’ garden, it is really happy and looks utterly untouched by the heat. It’s not a showy plant, but I like the combination of the long stems reaching up and the bushy, busy Achillea crithmifolia with it’s soft, feathery foliage.

Eriogonum fasciculatum, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Also looking at home is the yellow chartreuse of Euphorbia segueriana. I bought this about 10 years ago from Beth Chatto’s nursery, and this was a small cutting from the Tostat plant. It is compact,a nd well behaved, and flowers much later than the early Spring of the bigger Euphorbias.

Euphorbia segueriana, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Going back to my original questions, ‘How does such a garden look after a battering of heat, and can I live with it?’, I think that I am astonished by the resilance of these plants, and there is plenty in the garden that shows promise and creates optimism that gardening with a different aesthetic and objectives can be rewarding and pleasurable, and yes, I can live with it easily. I enjoy the idea that a neglected space can be brought to life in this way. The search for new plants to add into the mix continues…

Mirabilis jalapa…

Mirabilis jalapa behind the raised vegetable beds, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

It’s so hot. So hot for 5 more days. I am up around 7am watering the pots in the courtyard and the back, and by noon am reduced to jelly in the brain, watching the Tour de France in a dozing state. As for the rest of the garden, emergency watering only is happening, and I am crossing fingers for the rest. Oloron is on the whole, a kinder place to garden than Tostat. There we baked in an open, exposed situation. Here, the barn garden at the back has some tree shade from over the wall, and the courtyard takes the sun first on the house side, with some shade in the afternoon, whilst the other side plays the reverse game. So, the pots do get some time off from full sun.

The gingers are loving it. I had always kept these in very large pots in Tostat, for watering purposes really. But here, we had a massive stone trough in the courtyard which we filled with compost and the gingers went in- their first time altogether in a fairly deep and wide trough. they are blooming right now, not, of course, lasting in the terrific heat, but looking very pleased with themselves I reckon.

Hedychium gardnerianum, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022
The ginger trough, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Another plant that is also loving it, despite being in only a part sunny situation in the barn garden, is Mirabilis jalapa. I love this plant. Talk about easy- this plant personifies easy. I had this plant in the early days in Tostat, all over the place. In ignorance, I ripped masses of it out. But, later reading about it and realising my ignorance, I let it come back from a butchered state.

This plant is a wonderful thing. From small tubers, the easiest way to get it going and very cheap, planted in the Spring, this will make a 1.25m bush in height and width as soon as the temperatures warm up. Give it room and it may need some staking depending on the amount of heavy rainfall. In summer, when you need a good doer, masses of tubular flowers appear for a day at a time, and they keep on coming all summer long. It needs no additional water, even in a hot, dry spot, and it will also be happy in partial shade.

The flowers are described as perfumed, but, honestly, I can’t smell a thing, however I do have the world’s most hopeless nose. The small, round, shiny seeds drop out in the autumn and you probably won’t ever have to buy tubers again. It is pretty hardy too, contrary to what some sites say. It has always re-appeared for me in Tostat, and here in Oloron, no matter how cold or wet the winter has been. Tostat often had week long or longer periods of -10C and we get plenty of rain in the winter in Oloron. Maybe a heavy soil might trouble it?

The colours are very varied. Mine have always come out yellow, from the palest ceam to bright yellow to freckled yellow. I have one plant that does pink, but sadly not the deep pink or even red that grows up the road. I must get to know that neighbour.

It is considered a weed by some. No worries for me there, bring it on I say. We are revisiting so many of our 19th century ideas about what constitutes a weed, so Mirabilis jalapa deserves rehabilitation along with many others. If cow parsley can make it, why not Mirabilis?

Now for history buffs, this plant has a serious history. It may have been brought to Europe on one of Sir Francis Drake’s voyages in the 16th century, but before he got the idea, the Aztecs were growing it, using it pharmacologically and for eating, and also possibly making early plant selections based on colour. Linnaeus catalogued the plant in the eighteenth century but Mirabilis had been grown in Europe for 200 years before Linnaeus. In addition, Thomas Jefferson, in his garden at Monticello, received seed in 1812 of another Mirabilis, Mirabilis longiflora, and grew it there, and it is still grown there to this day. For more on the history and recognition of this wonderful plant, see Julian Raxworthy‘s interesting article.

Mirabilis longiflora, this cousin of Jalapa, looks rather amazing, and I have found some seed and will give it a go here as I can’t resist it. It is supposed to be heavily perfumed- maybe even I will catch a whiff.

Mirabilis longiflora, credit: Hillview Hardy Plants

May and then now, mid-July, in the front garden…

Anisodontea capenisis in the pink, Allium nigrum still waiting for the sun, Lupinus arboreus and masses of self-sown Nigella also waiting for the sun, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022

Two months later, it’s July 14th, and we are locked into an 8 day canicule with temperatures of 35c minimum during the day. Last week, in cooler times, I had the idea to take photographs in roughly the same spot as I had in May- to assess for myself what’s happening in the ‘garrigue-ish’ landscape at the front. This is my hot, stony, dry spot, totally exposed, which I started 18 months ago. I don’t water this at all, except in emergency in the first year of planting.

The May photograph above really shows how freshly green the plants are in mid May. The alliums hadn’t fully flowered and the Nigella makes a green froth weaving in and out of everything. The Lupinus arboreus alba with just a hint of blue, is just starting to flower.

July shows a more mature scene, although a little further down the slope than the May photo, and we are heading towards summer brown. In between, we have had had two belting weeks of 35-40c separated by cooler days and a lot of rain, especially rain at night with electric storms most nights. The plants that are coming through well are the Anisodontea capensis, still flowering and green, the Senecio Viravira, which has silvered up well, but the tree lupin is burnt away completely on the right hand side. The other great survivor is Phlomis chrysophylla to the centre of the photograph.

Senecio Viravira, silvering well, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Senecio Viravira is a fabulous plant, always providing an accent anytime of the year. It is, however, very brittle, and easily breaks if brushed against. The good side of this is that plentiful cuttings can be taken from the broken bits which root easily in water. So, great though it is, it’s maybe best planted away from where feet or legs might go.

Anisodontea El Rayo,

This is a new Anisodontea to me, and it has been in the ground since April. ‘El Rayo’ has a deeper pink, and slightly larger, flower than the capensis, but it is looking as tough and resiliant as the older plant. Here it is below, two months later, and it is bushing out nicely, whilst continuing to flower splendidly.

Anisodontea ‘El Rayo’, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022
Erodium ‘Stephanie’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022

You don’t see Erodium Stephanie once the heat builds. It dies back but returns happily in the Spring. This is a new variety for me, and was only planted out in January this year. It’s a small but sturdy plant, with ferny foliage and makes a small clump eventually. If it behaves like Erodium pelargonifolium, which I grew from seed, it will really take off next year.

Phlomis ‘Le Sud’, Eryngium eburneum gathering height, Gaura and some of the many huge stones, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022

Further down the slope, are more cuttings from the old garden in Tostat. Phlomis ‘Le Sud’ simply adores Oloron. From a small cutting last year it has grown to well over a metre across and tall. Just starting to flower in mid May, it is over in mid July below, but the fantastic seed heads remain for months. Give it room, it needs it. Similarly, the Eryngium eburneums, that came as tiny babies and suffered until their tap roots got down into the rocky soil, but this year, were looking strong in May and flowering prodigiously in July. As the plants fatten and spread, there will be countless babies by next year, I am willing to bet good money on that.

The red Gaura is still struggling though. These were 3 plants planted out in early Spring this year, but they have not yet found their feet. A few feet away, the species plant, Gaura lindhemeri, is spreading and flowering profusely. This is the second group of red Gaura that I have planted, and it maybe that my slope is just too tough for them. Well, it’s three strikes and you’re out in my garden!

Phlomis ‘Le Sud’, Eryngium eburneum, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Another plant new to me this Spring is Medicargo arborea. Small now, and I think not tender, it will make a sprawly bush with good roots for stony soil, being a member of the pea family. It looks good in the lower photo from July.

Medicago arborea, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022
Medicargo arborea, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

And here is a real survivor that just deserves a little more more limelight, and an award for endurance. I had lost all my tree lupins in Tostat. But, in our last summer, I noticed that a tiny seedling had re-appeared and carefully dug it up. There must have been viable seed in the ground which got a cha,ce at life when I dug something up or planted something in. Amazing. Tree lupins are fabulous.

Lupinus arboreus close-up, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022

Hooray for the Yellow Book…

NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022

One of the few things that I miss about the UK even after nearly 20 years living in France, is the totally wonderful Yellow Book scheme. For those who don’t know, the Yellow Book is an indispensable guide to largely private gardens across the UK that are open for visits, mainly in the warmer months, to raise money for charity. For small sums, owners welcome you to their gardens, sell small plants to you, even afternoon teas (another delight) and are often willing to chat to you about their gardens and plants. It is such a brilliant and simple idea- and a source of great inspiration. By chance, I was in London in mid June, just for a few days and was able to catch the NGS Spitalfields Gardens event.

Spitalfields is a fascinating area on the edge of East London, squeezed between Bishopsgate and Brick Lane surrounding the temple-like Hawksmoor church, Christ Church. It has a rich history, an area that was always teeming with new waves of immigation from the 17th century onwards, and was home to the largest group of Georgian artisan housing in London. Much of this legacy was threatened by city reconstruction and slum clearance, only halted by the brave and militant group that later became the Spitalfields Trust. Around 200 houses in the Spitalfields streets have been saved, and restored or repurposed.

So, on a sunny Saturday, a good handful of restored Georgian houses opened their gardens to us, the gardening nuts, the nosey people and their own neighbours probably. These small back courtyards, with the exception of the rectory garden next door to Christ Church, were bounded by high brick walls and some were being seriously gardened, whilst others aimed for a more theatrical use of a small, largely shady space. You walked through the narrow entrance hall of the house, allowing a few quick peeks into living rooms, which curiously heightened the drama of emerging into the garden spaces. Some gardens went further adding a few extra touches such as the ‘gateway’ below using a good brick that chimed well with the original bricks of the house.

NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022

The garden below had a more contemporary feel. Massive iron giders spanned the garden planted with climbing roses, drawing the eye up to the four windows placed asymetrically at the back of the house.

NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022

The ground floor level had been opened up with a curved bridge over a new retaining wall creating a pool. Not my cup of tea really. It just felt a bit gimmicky and the planting wasn’t loved enough to wash that feeling away.

NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022

Another garden had taken a different approach to that basement situation. This was a much loved garden tended by a gifted and enthusiastic young man, who, faced with the drop to a dark basement, had planted a tree fern, which had grown to create a fabulous natural umbrella shape and was almost level with the ground floor of the courtyard. Some owners did a ‘meet and greet’ at the entrance, but this young man was in the garden, talking enthusiastically about his plants and their well-being.

NGS Spitalfields, London,June 2022
NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022
The Rectory garden, Christ Church, Spitalfields, London, June 2022

The Rectory garden was a more expansive space. The Rector’s partner was on hand, to explain that the garden is tended by a devoted volunteer, as the house itself is very much a communal space for the local community. There is such love for this space in evidence here. The domestic rather than the theatrical is the theme of the garden, with home-made plant frames from repurposed wood and shrubs and herbaceous plants growing happily. The borrowed landscape of back windows from the neighbouring houses, and the great presence of the church itself framed the garden beautifully.

Rectory garden, Christ Church, NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022
Rectory garden, Christ Church, NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022

In one of the tiniest back garden spaces, a dedicated owner gardener had gone big time on the Italianate. Huge urns and pots were raised on stone plinths, with a superabundance of Dracaenas, Yuccas and flowering annuals. It was a crazy Waddesdon in miniature, with so many plants that it was almost impossible to take a photograph without falling in an urn.

NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022

I don’t remember which garden contained this calming collection below. The warm tones of the Salvia and the Penstemon with the foxglove and the glaucous foliage behind was one of the best memories of a charmed few hours. Thank you, Yellow Book.

NGS Spitalfields, London, June 2022

A week in Provence…

Sarracenia ‘Red Velvet’, Jardin de la Citadelle, Luberon, May 2022

It was only a week in the Luberon, but it was a week of such contrasts. The beginnings of the season could be found at Jardin de la Citadelle, as planting was underway and a new Head Gardener about to start work, whilst at Colorado Provençal, all that was required was for humans to stand back and admire the extraordinary remnants of an rural industrial past. Art, sculpture, architecture and Bob Dylan combined at Chateau La Coste in a wild and managed setting, and at Chateau Val Joannis, a mature garden designed in the 1970s evoked the discipline and severity of the eighteenth century, but yet remained warm and homely in scale.

I always think of Sarracenias standing tall as organpipes, yet this variety ‘Red Velvet’ had all the crumpled, lax beauty of a Crown Imperial. It was a real and stunning surprise, but I have not been able to find a supplier to link to, so maybe it’s a newish variety? Jardin de la Citadelle rises up in stages from the vineyards of the Chateau below, with wonderful views across the Luberon, and is a passion project for the owner, Yves Rousset-Rouard, along with his wine. He was driving a little buggy around, delivering new plants to planting sites for the new season, stopped and talked to us about his plans for the future of the garden. He’s in for the long haul.

All his plants are grown in big, deep, beautifully made planting boxes, raising the plants off the ground, which, for many of the aromatics, gives them a chance to shine as they are not often tall plants. All of his signage in the garden is beautifully written by hand on big slates, one for each box, and each stage of the garden is marked with big carved stones, denoting the purpose of each level. Wide paths lead you up the hill opening the views up with each rise. It was a beautiful morning in a thoughtful place.

Trifolium pratense, Jardin de la Citadelle, Luberon, May 2022

In Chateau La Coste, the investment of the owner, Paddy McKillen, is similarly generous, though on a far grander scale, reflected in the most modern ambitions of quality wine production, and both landscape management and support for art, design and architecture. Each artist or designer chooses the site for their work in the Chateau landscape, and the only stipulation is that no trees can be felled to site the work. The work must nestle into the landscape and not disturb it. Bob Dylan’s Rail Car, recently installed, is given a site opening out into the landscape, but protected by woodland.

Rail Car by Bob Dylan, Chateau La Coste, May 2022
Looking through the Rail Car to La Galerie by Richard Rogers, Chateau La Coste, May 2022

It is a massive and bold work, mounted as if just uncoupled on a siding, on a stretch of rail track and looks across to the orange cube of Richard Rogers, where there is a partnering exhibit of some of Dylan’s paintings.

Flanking the planted vineyard between the orange cube and the Rail Car, was a stretch of gloriously red Trifolium rubens. Fabulous.

Trifolium rubens, Chateau La Coste, Luberon, May 2022
Silver Room by Tia-Thuy Nguyen, Chateau La Coste, May 2022

There were so many intriguing and distinctive artworks placed within the huge landscape, but maybe none more ethereal than the Silver House, which trapped the woodland light, amplifying it and making mysterious shadows with it. And none more simply poetic than the Donegal bridge, evoked and exquisitely made with only the ancient techniques of stone balancing stone.

Donegal by Larry Neufeld, Chateau La Coste, May 2022

Le Colorado Provençal is another extraordinary landscape, forged between 1871 and 1993 by the extraction of ochre deposits laid down millions of years ago. What is left behind is a startling and beautiful range of colours in the mined valleys and dips.

Le Colorado Provençal, Luberon, May 2022
Le Colorado Provençal, Luberon, May 2022
Le Colorado Provençal, Luberon, May 2022

This is a very fragile landscape, and with the heat and drought of the last few weeks, extreme care has to be taken to protect it from fire and tourism damage. But, it is a beguiling experience to walk in such colour, and well worth it- with care.

Chateau Val Joannis, Luberon, May 2022

Chateau Val Joannis presents itself with all of the precision and diligence of the eighteenth century classic French garden, but beautifully belies this severity with soft, everyday planting and some touches of lightness and confidence in simple choices. Take the stone snail working across the courtyard for example, positioned against the immaculate hedging and stepover apples, with the potted cycad and palm being delicately silverised by the light of the sun. There is nothing more, nothing less.

The courtyard, Chateau Val Joannis, Luberon, May 2022

The Kniphofia uvaria, a popular plant in gardens for more than a century, stands tall with another popular garden plant, Red Valerian, in the background. Other well known herbaceous plants wait their turn.

Simplicity in the planting, Chateau Val Joannis, Luberon, May 2022

A shaded long pergola runs the length of the garden, with more Red Valerian, roses such as ‘New Dawn’ and clematis. The cream paving slabs are broken by alternate rougher slabs, as a repeating pattern down the length. Simple but effective.

Rose covered Pergola, Chateau Val Joannis, Luberon, May 2022

Serried mature olive trees are ranged in a grassy park at the back of the garden as the land gives way to the vineyard. With the bright sunlight and the dark shade, their silvery leaves gleam.

Silver olives in a grass meadow, Chateau Val Joannis, Luberon, May 2022

Pinpoint topiary pyramids and graduated levels of contrasting hedging frame the emerging foliage on a fruit tree, with only a tall clump of Red Valerian paired with White.

Breaking blossom, Chateau Val Joannis, Luberon, May 2022

And hidden amongst the artworks, the sculptures and the architecture at Chateau La Coste, a lone orchid flowers. A wonderful week.

Anacamptis pyramidalis, Chateau La Coste, May 2022

The peskiness of March and April…

March light line-up, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2022

That fickle March light can be amazing. This area has only been ‘in’ for a year, but, on the whole, it has done really well here with some morning sun, some late afternoon sun, and the shade and protection of the big wall. Reading left to right, there is an unknown Helleborus sternii, Salvia spathacea ( which got zapped by some frost in January and is growing out of the frost damage), Amelanchier alnifolia ‘Obelisk’ which is just coming into leaf, Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Sweet Winter’ to the right with Fatsia polycarpa ‘Green Fingers’ at the far right. The Amelanchier and the Mahonia came as mature plants from Tostat pots, but the Fatsia has shot up in a year from a thin little thing to becoming an imposing plant. And the foxgloves all appeared on their own, probably as a result of us turning the earth as we planted, removing rubble andd massive river stones. Oh, and Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ is at the very back, a cutting from our Tostat plant.

Second March line-up, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2022

Looking further along, more illumination picks out Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’ in front of Calycanthus floridus, Muhlenbeckia in the blue pot, some winter-brown from Hakonechloa macra which takes time to get going after winter and the dull-green winter leaves of Cestrum far right. It is such an exciting time.

Syringa laciniata foliage, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2022

Well, it was exciting for a while. And then April, apart from maybe 6 sunny days, was cold, wet and grey and now early May is not doing much better. Sorry to moan about the weather, but it has really tried my patience and I ain’t no saint. Rain we have had, and here is the back garden – weeks later than the first photographs in this post.

The back Barn Garden today, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022

So, the foxgloves have loved it and are close to 2m high, but the bright red flowers of Heuchera x brizoides ‘Firefly’ give it a little buzz despite their relative size. I did have a baby Tetrapanax at the far left, but it didn’t make it, so I planted a Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ a month ago and so far, so good. The foxgloves will be enjoyed this year, and then I’ll take half of them out, plus any seedlings and plant them somewhere else next year- only because they have obscured everything else in the first photograph entirely. The other plants will need the space.

On the sunnier side of the stone path, Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ is adoring the cooler, damper conditions in Oloron, and has almost covered Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ and Salix gracilistyla ‘Mt Aso’, although you can still see the fresher green of the Salix through the Geum. I think that both look great with the Geum, but a spot of Geum thinnning might be done next year. On the wall, Rosa ‘Lawrence Johnston’ with it’s eggyolk coloured blooms is also loving the move to Oloron, and the much criticised (by me) Digiplexis, could be Illumination Raspberry, but I’m not sure, has actually come back this year and spread a bit. Only one plant did make it though out of 4 or 5 plants that went in, so I think my main beef with it remains.

The other shrub that is so glad to be in Oloron is Cestrum elegans Rubrum. This was a rescue plant at the beginning, but really struggled in Tostat, and is utterly reborn and is literally covered with bursting wine-red buds, it will be fantastic this year.

Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Salix gracilysta ‘Mt Aso’, Cestrum elegans Rubrum, Rosa ‘Lawrence Johnston’, the Barn Garden, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022
Syringa laciniata in rescue, Oloron Sainte Marie, end April 2022

Meantime, from a terrible spot in the front garden where I abandoned it last year, I have rescued the Syringa laciniata and it is in intensive care in the courtyard. It will recover, despite being a bit one-legged from dieback, and I will plant it out next year in a kinder place; I do love the ferny foliage and the pretty lilac flowers, so I hope it forgives me.

The front door of our old house has been changed over the years, and this Spring, the front window (ex front door) was being ridden out of town by a big conifer, almost reaching the roof. So we took it out, and have replanted with a really lovely columnar Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’. It is beautifully narrow, about 1m, and grows to about 6m, but has all the attributes of the bigger ones, with glossy green leaves and, cross fingers, great autumn colour.

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022
Liquidambar foliage close-up, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022

And on one of the rare sunny days, a touch of class was provided by Tulipa ‘Ronaldo’ and ‘Jan Reus’. ‘Ronaldo’ has just a hint of blue about it to my eye, whereas ‘Jan Reus’ has a warmer scarlet tint to it. The tulips are so worth it for their sheer exuberance, and this year, I will dig a trough in the front and stick them in there. You never know.

One of the sunny days in April, Tulipa ‘Ronaldo’ and ‘Jan Reus’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2022

Don’t sit under a banana leaf..

Narcissus Geranium, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2022

I love Spring bulbs, especially daffodils and tulips. But I seem to be unable to get them to rebloom a second time, admittedly that is more a tulip problem than a daffodil. So, every year I slightly grit my teeth at the throw away money needed to plant up a few old zinc basins- but then, when it comes to the moment, I love watching them gradually fatten up, and of course, the colours are wonderful. So, because I just pick the bulbs I like the look of, I can never remember what I’ve planted and have to go back and check the order. This Narcissus Geranium is simply gorgeous. Huge fat buds give way to branching flowerheads with orange centres, as for fragrance, there is a slight sweet fragrance, but that could just be my nose. If we had big storms, the weight of the heads might cause a problem, but, for now they are simply lovely. And it’s an heirloom narcissus, so pre-1930 from the Netherlands- don’t you love a bit of history?

Pelargonium quercifolium, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2022

This Pelargonium quercifolium is a really tough customer and it always flowers really early for me, and carries on for months. It has a woody, aromatic scent to the robust leaves, and grows into a firm bushy shape which can get to 75 cms easily. This year, I kept it fairly dry and close to the wall of the house, so it was protected from heavy rainfall and weather, but not covered. It was totally fine. My friend from Tostat who gave me a piece from her garden has it in the ground in a courtyard setting, and it pops back every year bigger and better. So, a sheltered UK setting, kept fairly dry and it will be fine.

Heuchera ‘Caramel’, Tostat, June 2019

And here we come to the title of this piece- don’t sit under a banana leaf. But first, a small preamble on the subject of heucheras in general. Until about 3 years ago, I was definitely in the snobby stable of thinking that heucheras were not for me, too highly coloured, and in my opinion not doing very much for the money. But, strike a light, I was converted. Visiting a garden that potted up dark and golden heucheras in big pots in a shady position struck me dumb. They looked sensational, vigorous, with so many leaves vying for attention. I was sold. I bought 2, ‘Caramel’ and ‘Obsidian’, and I grew ‘Firefly’ from seed. Such seed, so many plants produced, and I even brought 6 or so with me to Oloron. So, ‘Caramel’ looked really strong and happy in a dark blue pot, sheltering under the banana for a little sun protection.

Last week, I wandered over there, because we had cut the banana back as usual, and ‘Caramel’ was looking very sad in the pot. No wonder. All the root had gone and although small roots were re-growing, it looked as though the 8 plants had either rotted away in the wet from too much direct banana leaf down pour or something had literally eaten them away. You could lift the plants out with your little finger as they were barely attached. Now your Heuchera is a robust plant, and so 4 hours later, after a good soaking and removal of all dead bits, they are in temporary accommodation till I am sure that they are re-rooted, but so far so good, and I think they will make it.

My main suspect is banana downpour.

Early spring surgery….

Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Rosy’, Ist year flowering, Tostat, July 2017

I say this every year, Eucomis comosa bulbs are really worth the price, and give you colour and then flower for almost 6 months before gradually withering away till the next year. They do want some sun, and some water, but preferably a dryish winter. They don’t have to be lifted, providing you give them some protection in periods of hard frost, and you can plant them in a pot and leave them. They do all the heavy lifting themselves.

But….they do gradually reproduce, which is a big tick, and at some point, some surgery will be needed. As you can see, two years and even three years in, all is well and they simply look lush and magnificent. For me, the foliage is the star, a bright crimson for about 3 months and then fading to dark greeny-purple by the time the flowers spikes erupt.

Eucomis ‘Sparkling Rosy’, 2 years later, Tostat, July 2017

So, last year I knew I had missed the surgery boat. They looked fine in the Spring, brilliant points of colour in the back Barn Garden in half sun and some afternoon shade. But by the end of the summer, total collapse had set in and everything had to be propped up till flowering finished. It is also possible that they were getting a bit more rainfall then we had in Tostat, but the likeliest culprit was overcrowding.

Eucomis ‘Sparkling Rosy’, new growth in the Barn Garden, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2021
Eucomis ‘Sparkling Rosy’, fighting for space, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

So today was the day for the scheduled operation. This is one massive pot, and I only have one partially working shoulder at the moment, so I was being super careful. There was a really good youtube video which I watched, just to confirm that my idea of butchery would be appropriate, thank you so much to Potted Jewels for the video, and I started. The good news was that with a little loosening around the edges, and tipping the pot towards the ground, the giant ‘nest’ came out easily. But it was clear that what had been 3 bulbs in 2017 was now at least a dozen, all pushing and shoving for space. Pulling some of the spent compost away, and, inevitably, a bit of root, I was astonished to find a veritable wormery inside the pot as loads of worms struggled to the surface. So, I decided to spread the spent compost complete with the magnificent worm collection all over the border, why not? Free soil turning and generally a good thing.

Eucomis ‘nest’, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2022

So, the trusty saw then dealt with the separation of the bulbs. I did try pulling as per the video, but these bulbs clung on determinedly, so the saw just went where it made sense to make divisions.

Weapon of choice and 12 refreshed Eucomis bulbs, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2022

And there it was, 12 from 3 and, whilst this year, I may have left it a little late to do this, I am hopeful that all will be well very soon. I know that they need space, but this pot is big, so 4 went back in, with fresh compost and handfuls of aquarium grit to loosen the mixture up. Grit as understood by Gardeners World viewers doesn’t really exist in France, so I have also used builders sand, which works fine.

It’s a great return on investment, the Eucomis bulb, and I now have my original big pot (4), plus two biggish pots (3 each) and a smaller pot with 2 and I have the luxury of spreading the glorious colour around the garden. I find that they are fine, kept dryish, even down to a fortnight of -10C two years in a row, and left where they are. Just watch out for too much water in the summer, as they are not big drinkers.

In good shape I hope, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2022

Wild almonds and more…

Looking to the Pyrenees from above Beaufort, Herault, February 2022

I love a wiggly path, and this one with the Pyrenees behind, caught my eye. It was a cold but sunny and clear Saturday last week in the Languedoc. The sun was feeling warm on the back and wild almond blossom was cracking open on the trees and hedgerows, it really felt like Spring was well on the way. The wild almond, Prunus dulcis, is a real harbinger of Spring, breaking open just before the leaves start to appear. The blossom is really exotic if you get up close to the white froth that you can see from afar. Stunning warm pink stamens against the pure white petals with sometimes just a hint of pink close to the stamens. It’s a real celebration of life.

Prunus dulcis, first signs of Spring, Beaufort, Herault, February 2022

The vineyards were also frothing with the white blousy flowerheads of False Rocket or Diplotaxis erucoides. Growing and blooming in and around the vines, this early flowering annual provides great feeding opportunities for early bees and acts as a green manure for the vines which can be ploughed in later. This plant has a third name, white rocket, which distinguishes it from the more well-known peppery salad ingredient, Diplotaxis tennuifolia, which has yellow flowers and grew all around our garden in Tostat.

False rocket, Diplotaxis erucoides, flowering furiously in the veneyards, Beaufort, Herault, February 2022

The flowerhead is very pretty close up, with giant fat stamens and floppy hat petals.

False rocket, Diplotaxis erucoides, close-up, Herault, February 2022

In the rocky hills around Beaufort, we came across several ruined Capitelles, or shepherd’s bothies. Not for overnights, but more as a shelter against storms for a short while, these handcrafted stone cabins are beautifully made, using no mortar, just the skills of good drystone walling used to create a rounded roof and solid walls. This particular one resembled an Orcadian broch, but inside was only 2 metres across.

A beautiful self-supporting stone roof of a shepherd’s Capitelle, Herault, February 2022

Higher up in the hills beyond Minerve, we explored the garrigue landscape of an abandoned millstone quarry, Le Sentier des Meulières at La Livinière. A beautifully landscaped walk with excellent interpretative boards explaining the history of the quarry and the harshness of the work for all the quarry family members from youngsters to oldsters in crafting the millstones. Probably natural but assisted, the quarry has become a really good example of the high garrigue in the Languedoc. Mounding clumps of evergreen cling to the rocky rises and dips of the quarry, in design terms they created a plant equivalent of the drama of the stones and rocks in the quarry. Tough, resistant shrubs and stunted trees, supported by an undergrowth of equally tough subshrubs and perennials.

Le sentier des Meulières, La Livinière, Herault, February 2022

It was an educative experience as well as an enjoyable one, and it seemed to me that I am beginning to really appreciate the beauty of such harsh, dry landscapes- a beauty that I have always wanted to grasp, but being heavily influenced for much of my life by the lushness of the Anglo-Northern Hemisphere garden, I have found it difficult to make the jump. The photograph below is important in that respect. I loved the dark contrast of the almost colliding trunks of these slender trees against the bright light of the winter sun and the light gold dry grasses of the high plain. I love this as much as the grand display of a midsummer long border.

Midsummer border, Great Dixter, Sussex, June 2017

Some excellent garrigue plants, typical of the High Languedoc, follow. The spikey and invincible Juniperus oxycedrus, may never make the height of a tree in such tough conditions, but will sprawl in and around other tough shrubs making an impenetrable barrier. The mahogany coloured berries, used as a flavouring for gin amongst other things, have been prized by humans for centuries, even appearing alongside mummified remains in Egyptian tombs. Birds also enjoy them as winter food and disperse the seed through digestion and elimination.

Juniperus oxycedrus, le Sentier des Meulières, Herault, February 2022

I nearly stood on this. Luckily not. I thought it may be a scilla as the emerging bud is identical to the bud on my Scilla peruviana at home, but this identification is only provisional….

Possibly False Scilla, Nectaroscilla hyacinthoides, Herault, February 2022

Looking very golden in the warm sunlight, a flowering Phillyrea latifolia, and one very happy insect having a rest- this is a tough cuticled and robustly leaved shrub with all of the attractiveness of an olive tree. I have the more slender leaved Phillyrea angustifolia in my emerging garrigue influenced front garden.

Phillyrea latifolia, Herault, February 2022

And, lastly, the oak of the garrigue landscape, Quercus coccifera, which always seems to me to be trying to be a holly. What a defence system it has.

Quercus coccifera, Herault, February 2022

And just to prove that Scotland has wonderful Spring sunshine as well, here is a photo taken by my friend Jane of Belhaven Bay, Dunbar, Scotland in February. Gorgeous.