Planting by pick-axe : part one…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schefflera taiwaniana, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

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

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

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

Helleborus sternii Boughton Beauty, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

Great depths and tiny miniatures…

Looking down the well, Oloron Sainte Marie, February 2021

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

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

Sunset, Tostat, March 2020

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

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

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

Erodium pelargoniflorum, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021

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

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

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

Scilla peruviana, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2021

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

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

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

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

Smitten by carmine and orange…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erodium pelargoniflorum, Tostat, January 2020

Of pineapples and Cornus Mas…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The relief of rain…

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

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

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

Achillea crithmifolia, Tostat, August 2020

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

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

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

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’, Tostat, August 2020

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

Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’, Tostat, August 2020

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

Russelia equisetiformis, Tostat, August 2020

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

Sunset 2 nights ago, Tostat, August 2020

Scorched earth…

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

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

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

Hibiscus trionum, Tostat, August 2020

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

Phillyrea angustifolia, Tostat, August 2020

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

Plantago rubrifolia, Tostat, August 2020

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

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

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

Tagetes lemmonnii, Tostat, August 2020

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

Penstemon schoenholzeri and Tanacetum vulgare, Tostat, August 2020

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

Penstemon Russian River, Tostat, August 2020

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

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

Dianella caerulea Cassa Blue, Tostat, August 2020

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

Abutilon pictum, Tostat, August 2020

The summer-dry crash…

Helenium ‘Helena’, Tostat, early August 2020

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

Helenium ‘Helena’, Tostat, mid July 2020

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

Achillea ‘Cerise Queen’, Tostat, mid July 2020

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

Bupleurum fruticosum, Tostat, mid July 2020

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

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

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

Filippi garden, October 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Pelargonium sidoides, Tostat, early August 2020

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

Nierembergia scoparia, Tostat, early August 2020

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

Life after confinement…

Nymphaea ‘Hermine’, Tostat, July 2020

Long while since I last wrote a blog article. A lot of life seems to have happened and I haven’t had the attention bandwidth to get to it. Having felt strangely guilty about that for a few days, this morning seemed the moment to dive in.

And we have made a surprise big decision since the end of the confinement at the beginning of June- we are moving to a small town nearer the Pyrenees and south of Pau- and therefore our house is on the market. It was a decision that we both came to- a move that we had thought we would wait five years or so to make. But something about confinement made us both feel that it was better to make the move sooner rather than later, and we astonished ourselves with the rapidity of the turnaround.

And so the garden feels different. No more planting to be done, and an interesting mixture of excitement, sadness and also distance has crept into my mind. My eye has turned to which plants are worth taking cuttings of, taking seed from, or just plain digging up and potting up to take with us when we go. Which could be anytime this year or next…so everything is being assessed and catalogued, a busy mental activity which substitutes for real gardening.

Nymphaea ‘Hermine’ has produced two flowers simultaneously- quite a feat for a plant that has only been in the new pond since the end of April. Single flowers have been coming for a while- they last a few days or less if it is hot and dry. I love the sharpness of the shape, lifting itself proudly out of the water. It is a dwarf variety, but I may not get to see the final size next year.

Dicliptera suberecta, which used to be called Jacobinia, is a great plant that will definitely be on the list to come away with us. I bought three small plants last autumn, took 2 cuttings, and all five plants have done brilliantly. They reach to about 25 cms in flower so far, with these fabulous scarlet slender trumpets, and are super drought tolerant with grey felted foliage. I am giving them some water today as we have had no rain for weeks and it is over 30C, so even they are toiling a little. If kept in very well-drained, stony soil, I reckon they would handle -7C or so, but no winter damp, so they are not as tender, I think, as many UK sites would suggest. Full sun needed.

Dicliptera suberecta, Tostat, July 2020

I grew these from seed this Spring, but owing to a cold and damp May, I never planted them out- and then there seemed not much point. But, for all that, I would grow them again, as they are just charming and easy from the off. Leonurus sibiricus, if planted properly, would make erect and steady spires with candelabras of pinky mauve flowers- and the foliage is pretty and interesting in itself. I will buy or collect seed and try again.

Leonurus sibiricus, Tostat, July 2020

On the pinky mauve front, you can’t have a more charming or floriferous medium arching shrub than Lespedeza thunbergii ssp.thunbergii Edo Shibori. Shoot describes it as wanting light sandy soil, but I think it needs a bit more beef than that, and certainly more moisture- though this may say more about our conditions here. But, the shape is elegant and easy on the eye, with the tiny pea-like flowers massed up and down the arching branches. I have cuttings, which are looking promising.

Lespedeza thunbergii ssp. thunbergii Edo Shibori, Tostat, July 2020

Pink is it. Here is a plant that arrived three years ago, died, and has now done a spectacular Lazarus act to return in fighting form this year. Another candidate for a hot, dry spot, Ononis spinosa has one downside- spikes, as the name warns us. But it’s bushy, upright and covered in pink pea-like flowers and is doing magnificently. Well done it. I love the old English name- Spiny restharrow.

Ononis spinosa, Tostat, July 2020

Staying with pink- how lovely Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ looks in the early morning sunshine- a lovely gift from a local gardening pal, merci bien Karen!

Pennisetum Karley Rose, Tostat, July 2020

And, since I am a dab hand at plantain, here is one you might want to try growing instead of ripping out. This has been a real surprise- from seed, it’s a bit slow on the uptake and looks, well, sickly for at least 6 months. While your back is turned, it seems to become turbo-charged and before you know it, it looks ready to take on the world. Here it is in the Australian-inspired bed I made two years ago, unwatered and handling drought like a pro. Not everyone might like the beetroot coloured leaves, but I do!

Plantago major Rubrifolia, Tostat, July 2020

Moving to coral…the ‘Summer Song’ rose is gorgeous, but annoying. Maybe it’s me, but the growth is spindly and very weak, so the lovely blooms get dropped downwards and they don’t last more than a day. So, I dug it up this Spring and put it in a recovery pot, and will do my best to feed it up and see if it will buck up. I hope so.

Rosa ‘Summer Song’, Tostat, July 2020

And to violet-mauve….this is the Powdery Alligator flag as it is called in the USA or Thalia dealbata to you and me. I get the powdery moniker, because, as you can see, the twisted purple flowers are shielded with a powdery grey covering and never completely open. But the real star element is the foliage. Elegant, slim paddles on thin, tall stems, give an Egyptian fresco feel to the plant. It would not look out of place in Tutankhamun’s tomb. It grows tall, up to 2m, and needs submersion in water. But what a knockout it is. It will need bringing in during the winter.

Thalia dealbata, Tostat, July 2020

Moving to deep pinky mauve, here are two Vernonias. The first I grew from seed last Spring, and it amazed me by handling drought and heat with aplomb, and then roaring back this Spring as a really good-sized clump from one tiny seedling. This year it is coming into flower now, and it is a beauty. The foliage is good too- feathery and dainty, making about 1m in height. I give you, Vernonia lettermannii. A fantastic plant.

Vernonia lettermannii, Tostat, July 2020

The big sister is Vernonia arkansana ‘Mammuth’, which is a really well known plant for dramatic height (at 2m plus) in moist conditions. I grow it here near the canal, to give it the moisture, and near the banana clump, which gives occasional shade and also topples the Vernonia when it rains. You can’t win ’em all.

Vernonia arkansana ‘Mammuth’, Tostat, July 2020

A tall, dry, sunny spot thug- but who can’t fall for aerial fried-eggs? is Romneya coulteri. Do not plant this unless you are willing/able to give it 24/7 sun and shockingly rubbish soil. That’s what it wants- plus room. It will mow down smaller plants in its path, so think stone wall to stop it or hold it in. But against a blue sky….wow.

Romneya coulteri, Tostat, July 2020

And if you are looking for a house and garden where all of these plants, and others, live…click on the link below.

https://www.abafim.com/restored-18th-century-farmhouse-ref-AF23784.html

And now it’s early June…

Gertrud’s Penstemon, such a good plant, Tostat, June 2020

Where has this year gone? I cannot believe the evidence of my own eyes as I look round the garden and see that early summer arrived about 2 weeks ago. Most of the once-blooming roses are over and done with, and spring flowerers of all kinds were beaten by the last 2 weeks of 30C and no rain. But a plant that has just adored it, is my unknown Penstemon, bought 2 years ago at the lovely Jardin d’Antin, where Gertrud has a very good eye for a plant.

Isoplexis canariensis, the Lazarus of the garden, Tostat, June 2020

Years ago, I grew Isoplexis canariensis from seed and had two big pots blooming magnificently. I left them out over the winter once, bad mistake. But incredibly, last year, three small plants re-emerged from death and this year, with a guarantee of good behaviour from me, they are back. I had them kept dry but with protection in the open barn last winter, and they really liked that. Masses of water and some feed to kickstart them and they have flowered 2 months earlier than they used to. I adore the colour, and the glossy evergreen leaves are a great foil to the orange-rusty flowers.

Libertia ixioides ‘Goldfinger’, Tostat, June 2020

This is a really lovely Libertia. These plants have had a slightly chequered history with me, as I grew them successfully from seed and then planted them out in an area that was a bit too tough for them. So, out they came and went into the Mix, the massed perennial planting under the cherry tree. This slim Libertia is not a fastgrower, but it is especially good in the winter, when the orange stripes on the leaves really glow. But this is the first time they flowered, with a sprinkling of these charming white flowers- which, when woven in amongst the other perennials, charmingly catch the eye.

Nigella papilosa ‘African Bride’, Tostat, June 2020

I am a grumpy annuals grower- they aren’t really my thing, but I grew some of this Nigella that we were going to give away as ‘freebie pollinator’ plants at our Tostatenfleur event in April- but it didn’t happen because of covid-19. However, I have loved this slightly different Nigella for the drama of the petals and stamens combo. And in early morning sunshine, the stamens have a ruby glow to them. I am saving the seed for sure…

Oenethora speciosa, Tostat, June 2020

Some people hate this evening primrose, Oenethora speciosa, but the trick is to plant it in rubbish soil and full sun. Any conditions more luxurious will ensure you have a massive growth and it will run and run. And even with rubbish soil, be prepared to yank masses out. Having said that, in low light, the gorgeous shell-pink flowers, of which there hundreds every day, glow. I have been known to be snobby about it, but actually, it is a good doer in controlled conditions.

Pelargonium ‘Ardens’, Tostat, June 2020

This species Pelargonium is a delight- deep red flowers with an enticing darker splash, and needs no special treatment other than a dry winter, protected from the cold, and then watering to wake it up in the spring once frost has finished.

Punica granatum ‘Mme Legrelliae’, Tostat, June 2020

This is a great flowering shrub, which deserves to be better known really. There is nothing quite like the frilly-hankerchief look of the coral and cream flowers. It’s a non-fruiting pomegranate, but is hardy down to -15C and is very happy in not particularly great soil that is free-draining. It won’t like water round the roots in winter. I wrote a post a couple of years ago about the naming and history of the plant, a fascinating story of important, but unknown horticultural women.

Rosa ‘Alissar, Princess of Phoenicia’, Tostat, June 2020

This rose, Rosa ‘Alissar, Princess of Phoenicia’, which I bought with my pal Jane at Chelsea from Harkness several years ago, is a Persian descendant, and is bred for heat tolerance. It grows pretty well in a slightly damper bit of the garden. I love the early apricot-pink colouring, just a bit disappointing that it fades to what I would call a dull brick colour- but never mind. The open, single structure makes it more useful for pollinators than many roses.

Rosa ‘Cuisse de Nymphe’, Tostat, June 2020

Here is a ready-made bouquet of Rosa ‘Great Maiden’s Blush’ or ‘Cuisse de Nymphe’ here in France. It smells lovely and blooms off and on in waves all summer.

Rosa ‘New Dawn’, Tostat, June 2020

I am very fond of Rosa ‘New Dawn’– it has that perfect shell-pink, with a lot of cream in it, a bit of an ice-queen really. But the slightly angular petals appeal to me and it lasts well, flowering for about a month in a lazy droop over the garden wall.

Rosa ‘Tuscany Superb’, Tostat, June 2020

Rosa ‘Tuscany Superb’ struggles a bit with me, a bit too dry and hot for it I think, but the colour is fabulous. This photograph does not do it justice- think the deepest, richest crimson velvet, and you are almost there.

Salvia cacaliifolia, Tostat, June 2020

And now for the Battle of the Blues- won only just by Salvia cacaliifolia. This is a tender salvia, with bright light green ivy-shaped leaves, which will just about twine upwards with a little support. I have it supported by a bit of redundant barbecue grill, not yet wind-tested as a support, but it is working for the moment. The blue is deep, and electric.

Salvia patens, Tostat, June 2020

Salvia patens is just a tad lighter in tone, but scores for really big flowers. Oddly it has the same ivy-shaped leaves as cacaliifolia, but has more of a darcyii look about it.

Rosa ‘Woollerton Old Hall’, Ludlow, June 2017

I saw this rose in Ludlow a couple of years ago, and just the year before, I bought it for a rose-loving friend in Tostat, who has just returned the favour beautifully by growing on and giving me a very good looking cutting. I missed the flowers of my new rose in the rain, so luckily had a photo from 2017. I am so looking forward to it. Thank you, H and M, very much.

Early May…

Natrix maura in our pond, Tostat, early May 2020

No, not the Loch Ness monster- but maybe almost as exciting for the new pond. A native watersnake, non-venomous, has moved in. Our water snake, is actually only about 8cms long and it required David Attenborough-levels of patience to take these two photographs. It swims like the Loch Ness monster, though, doesn’t it?

Our dog Molly in lockdown has taken to barking at all birds in the garden, on the wing, on the ground, big and small. So the Hoopoe has only flown by, but it did drop in for a poke about in HG’s garden and he managed to get a great photo of it. The hoopoe is a theatrical costumier’s delight, see the black pompoms on the crest. A short appearance for a couple of weeks until next year.

The hoopoe in the our friend’s garden, Tostat, early May 2020
photo credit: HG, Tostat

The flowers are all out on ‘Tiny Wine’. I have often raved about this gallant shrub and the flowers are just as lovely as the rest of it. Some people might draw the line at a crimson bronze shrub, but I am not one of those.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’, Tostat, early May 2020

In Spring, the Aristea begin to look lively. I have left both Aristea major and Aristea ecklonii out in the open this year, though given the shelter of the thickly-growing wisteria on the pergola. They look all the better for it, though I would have rushed in with fleece if needed. This is a true, strong sky-blue embellished with golden stamens. This Ecklonii sprig is leaning against the big brother, Aristea major.

Aristea ecklonii, Tostat, early May 2020

For my money, this is the best-ever Cistus. Cistus x cyprius var.ellipticus ‘Elma’ wins no prizes for the length of the botanical name, but it is quite the best flowerer in my view. The foliage is a strong green, glossy and slightly sticky with a highly pungent fragrance, and the flowers are big, bold and the whitest of white with deep golden stamens. Not rain-proof sadly, though. This weekend will have given it a good smashing- lucky that the foliage is really bright and healthy all year round. One of the plants I bought several years ago at the dry garden specialist, Pepiniere Filippi.

Cistus x cyprius var. ellipticus ‘Elma’, Tostat, early May 2020

Another pretty crinkled Cistus is this one- Cistus heterophyllus, which I bought from Jardin Champetre in Caunes-Minervois about 3 years ago. It has, as ever, taken some time to settle in but it is looking really good this year. It is a lovely tumbling variety, so would look amazing hanging off a step or terrace wall.

Cistus heterophyllus, Tostat, early May 2020

Note to self- buy some more Allium nigrum bulbs for next Spring. This is the only Allium I have ever really succeeded with- and it deserves a medal for endurance. I love the architectural look it gives with the simple white/green flowerhead.

Allium nigrum and Phlomis longifolia ‘Bailanica’, Tostat, early May 2020

Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley-Fisher’ is a great love of mine. I have written about her before, and this year she is even earlier with the first of her apricot-honey coloured simple flowers.

Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley-Fisher’, Tostat, early May 2020

Lockdown makes me look even harder at the garden and the plants. So this is the first time I have ever noticed the Stipa flowering, and the light was just right making the contrast work in my favour.

Stipa gigantea, Tostat, early May 2020

Thalictrum were one of my first seed-growing successes, but now, more than seven years later, I probably need to have another bash at this one especially, as the powder puff flowers are lovely against early morning sun. Thalictrum flavum glaucum is much more of a beast and a brilliant self-seeder, but Aquilegifolium needs a bit of a boost.

Thalictrum aquilegifolium, Tostat, early May 2020
The pond settling in, Tostat, early May 2020

The pond is settling in really well, with all the plants at least visible on a photograph now. We just love sitting on the rustic bench and watching what’s going on and a new lodger has appeared-this rather chubby dragonfly with the china-blue tummy. It loves living dangerously, perching on the very sharp tip of the Agave…ouch…

Male black tailed skimmer dragonfly settling in, Tostat, early May 2020