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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…