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.

Best February sighting…

Allium nigrum coming up, February 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

I loved this surprise. Having planted about 60 Allium nigrum and atropurpureum bulbs in late November on the stony, garrigue slope at the front, it was grand to see all of them, bar a few, poking through so strongly in early Feburary. Of course, weeks will pass while the stems elongate and finally the buds break, but it feels good to be at the beginning of that process.

First flower, Erodium pelargonifolium, February 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

These Erodium pelargoniflorums are one of my early year favourites. Easy to grow from seed, three years later, they are seriously clumping up, in fact I will need to chop some bits off next year as gardening is a little smaller scale here in Oloron. They are a beautiful emerald green presence, and happily die back in the summer to re-emerge in the winter. Such good house guests.

And then there are the Hellebores. I left so many behind, which occasionally breaks my heart, but I am slowly and steadily adding to the few that I brought with me. I think that if there was only one spring flowering plant for me, the Hellebore would come in in a tiebreaker with the Erodium. I like narcissi, tulips and all the rest, but for sheer staying power and absolute reliability, they are outrun by the Hellebore and the Erodium.

If I was really smart, I would have made raised beds so that you don’t have to lie down or hold them by the neck to see their exquisite formations. This beautiful cream, more than white really, collared one came from the old garden, I adore the pale yellow and green glints in the collar. The thing about raising them up is that I also really appreciate their jungly foliage which carries on through the year, and it looks best at ground level with the rest of whatever you have around them. So I continue to bow to the Hellebore and get down to get up close and personal.

White collared Helleborus Orientalis, February 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

The brilliant white stamens on this one almost glow in the morning light.

Purple collared Helleborus Orientalis, February 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

This one is a new one this year, the delightful pointed petalled ‘Pretty Ellen White’ which also has delicate freckling, another adorable feature. This one was bought online here in France, and here we encounter the ‘naming problem’- that is, that the horticultural name in Latin and often the variety name in English, often gets mangled in the translation. So my flower looks entirely different from the flower on the link. With Hellebores, which are very promiscuous and prone to running away with strangers, it doesn’t massively matter- what matters is that you like what you are growing, and who knows, your own plants may be unique to you. Though too much interbreeding gets you pink mud coloured flowers- not so good.

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Pretty Ellen White’, February 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

This sternii Pewter form came from seed from Special Plants– who, not their fault, have had to stop sending seed to France, again. How I hate Brexit. Enough. Each of the four plants I grew is slightly different and perhaps Hellebores are just determined to be different. But the sternii features are also, though less glamorous than others, greatly to be appreciated. Tight, tough buds that break into this bruised colouring, and then, what glorious false-eyelash stamens which make a big statement on a small plant. Mine are growing in semi-shade not full sun, but seem to be doing fine.

Helleborus x sternii Pewter form, February 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

From a serious gardener friend in Yorkshire, comes this other x sternii plant. The bud has only just broken so I wait to see what happens to the stamens, but the other outstanding feature of x sternii is the foliage, strong, held up, sometimes silvery, but always striking.

Helleborus x sternii from Simon, February 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

And a slightly romantic fuzzy focus, a wobble in the taking, of another small Hellebore from the old garden, which has, at times, looked unhappy in the new situation, but is beginning to bounce back. The variety is endless, you just have to go and play in Hellebore World.

Unknown double freckled hellebore, February 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

January frosts…

Salix gracilistyla ‘Mt Aso’, January 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

It has been a clear, sunny but very frosty period this January, repeated frost have really turned the soil as ‘hard as iron’, and expectant plants are stacking up in the courtyard waiting for the earth to warm enough. Now there’s a thing that I have discovered about the courtyard and that is, the power of the house to keep a metre distant from the walls above frost temperatures. Durr, you might say, but I wasn’t confident of that last winter (our first in the house) and this only applies to the south-facing wall, double durr. But this year I crowded slightly tender salvias, the pot of Isoplexis isabelliana ‘Bella’ that I got last year and some other more fragile pot inhabitants, right up against the window and the wall, and they are doing fine. I am keeping them fairly dry, and it should work through till Spring assuming we don’ get a -10c overnight. I also stuck a glass jamjar over my only surviving original remnant of Plectranthus argentatus ‘Silver Shield’ and that seems also to have worked. Too much self-doubt around.

The Salix gracilistyla ‘Mt Aso’ was a risky purchase last Spring, mainly guided by a mad desire for those cranberry, fluffy winter buds. It had a bit of a struggle in the Barn Garden, as being a willow, it really wants plenty of water, but I watched out for it, and it made it through the hot period. So the buds have been very slow and quite small, and I did think that maybe it had been too much of a gamble. But time will tell, and it’s got to be a good sign that it’s growing in size.

Libertia ixioides ‘Goldfinger’, January 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

This Libertia ixioides ‘Goldfinger’ was a purchase years ago which had self-seeded all around in Tostat. Another last minute grab before the move has given me 4 tiny plants, which although toiling at times, have come through splendidly this Spring. It is such a lovely thing backlit, and for a smallish plant in height, is easily seen from afar, in a good way. It does produce sprays of small, white flowers in early summer, so there’s an all season bonus.

Schefflera taiwaniana, January 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

I am really pleased with this Schefflera taiwaniana, bought small last Spring. Although a little decked by the frost, it is sturdily growing away and is almost 75 cms when standing properly. Sadly, though a Scheffflera alpina, supposedly the hardiest, which I planted small at the end of the summer has been felled by the frosts, life expectancy not good. I probably should have waited to plant till the Spring.

Eryngium eburneum, January 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

Another Tostat trusty, these are four tiny Eryngium eburneum, another last minute grab, and as I know they always struggle a little when small, I wasn’t surprised to see them looking in fine, if frosted elegantly, fettle. They should make really impressive clumps this year.

Anisodontea malvastroides, January 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

I bought this Anisodontea malvastroides for it’s bomb-proof qualities and I was really not much in love with it in Tostat. But cuttings took well, and came here to the stony, hot front garden and well, more hat being eaten by me. And I am even beginning to love it. It has flowered all the time since I planted it, got through the hot, dry period by waiting

Achillea crithmifolia, January 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

Achillea crithmifolia is a low lying groundcover Achillea, with pleasing cream umbel flowers to about 10-15 cms high- it’s the foliage that I love, feathery, soft, ferny as well if you can be feathery and ferny, and that slightly clinical hospital scent that I actually like. It is doing a wonderful job growing around my Rosa mutabilis, and keeping all the bindwind and other undesirables at bay. It is seriously tough as old boots and will take pretty much anything the weather will throw at it. It might be considered a thug by some, but for now, I am more than happy with the imperial tendencies. There are no proper links to nurseries selling this plane in the UK, but it is appreciated here in France as a suppressant ground cover, but one piece grown on will give you endless supplies of plants over a season, so it is really worth it to give it a go, on your hottest, dryest, stoniest ground.

Ruminations on ‘Light, shade, water and earth’…

Kiftsgate Court, The Water Garden, Gloucestershire, June 2017, and reflected detail below…

Water and earth. I started this theme before Christmas, ah well, so now to pick up on the ‘water and earth’ part.

My remaining ruminations…these feature images that have stuck in my mind and still catch my eye, some many years later. Kiftsgate Court Gardens may be overshadowed by the celebrity powerhouse garden which is a close neighbour, Hidcote. But in my view, it beats Hidcote to the ground with sheer heart and exuberance, and what’s more, it is the work of three incredible generations of women gardeners, and I would revisit in a heartbeat. ‘Kiftsgate Court Gardens: Three Generations of Women Gardeners’ by Vanessa Berridge celebrates the details of their accomplishments, it’s on my next present ideas list, that’s for sure.

This stunning water garden with bronze leaves floating in the wind is a miraculous re-using of an old tennis court and holds its own with the older parts of the garden really well.

Bryan’s Ground, near Presteigne, is one of my all-time favourites, full of excitement, fun and clever design. I love the long, thin, still water capturing the reflection of the noble hound sculpture and the fluffy green of the surrounding trees. Very simple but really effective. To my horror, I saw that Bryan’s Ground was up for sale in 2021 during lockdown. I really hope it survives and prospers.

Bryan’s Ground, Presteigne, June 2017

On a giant scale, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, near Wakefield, uses an immense landscape of rolling grass, water and formal gardens with real verve. I am pretty sure that this sculpture will have been changed since I took the photograph in June 2019, but the image has stuck in my head.

Tom Lovelace sculpture in the Upper Lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, June 2019

The pristine still water against a blue sky, surrounded by the earthen ochre walls of Taroudant in Morocco is the work of La Maison Anglaise eco-lodge. Specially chosen tiles protect the quality of the water and the planting is xeric, but irrigated from waste grey water refined naturally in a tank beneath a fountain in the front courtyard, so no new water is used for the garden. The long, thin shape of the pool is an echo of the traditional courtyard pool in Mudecar design- a nineteenth century version of which can be seen in the gardens of Carmen de los Martires in Granada.

La Maison Anglaise, Taroudant, Morocco, October 2021
Carmen de los Martires, Granada, October 2021

I think that these are my favourite-ever water spouts, part of the QVC garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 2009 and designed by Adam Frost. I love the rolled shape, like a flowerbud opening, and I remember that the sound of the water could be heard clearly over the buzz of the crowds, a good, but not too loud, splashing.

Beautiful water spouts, the QVC Garden at Chelsea 2009 designed by Adam Frost, May 2009

I really got into earth, as in, mostly nothing but earth, in Australia. I would never have imagined that I could love such arid spaces, but the colours of the earth and the rocks were mesmerising at different times of the day, and it was a landscape that really got under my skin. Lost traces of human habitation, places where no human had lived, maybe for thousands of years, and, in the Australian spring, the sight of tens of golden flowering wattles in the middle of nothing, was intensely moving somehow.

Remains of a walled garden, Apppealina, Flinders Ranges, Australia, October 2018
Sunset at Rawnsley Park Station, Flinders Ranges, Australia, October 2018
Ground cover grasses, Brachina, Australia, October 2018
Flowering wattles en masse, Flinders Ranges, Australia, October 2018

By complete contrast, the Water Gardens at Beth Chatto’s Nursery in East Anglia, were more squelchy than even my wellies could handle when I visited with a friend, Shelagh, in May 2012. Look at the prehistoric upward growth of the Gunnera and the Skunk Cabbage….

Yellow skunk cabbage, Beth Chatto Nursery, May 2012

New Year 2022…

The one and only flower, Dietes grandiflora, hunkering down from the cold, Oloron Sainte Marie, New Years Day 2022

New Years Day saw me emerging from a week of isolation to prevent the family from getting Covid. We succeeded in that mission, and on venturing outside, I was thrilled to find the one and only flower of my pot of Dietes grandiflora hanging on in the cold. Maybe it mistook the Northern Hemisphere for the Southern, but whatever, I was really glad to see it. I saw many different varieties of Dietes in Australia in 2019, and wanted to try them for hardiness in a pot permanently outside. The leaves do a good job on their own, strong, slim and spikey, I like them in a pot. So, maybe next year, the plants will have sorted themselves out to flower earlier than December- but they have been absolutely fine outside, although we have had only small frosts, if at all, so far this winter.

Salvia spathacea, who would have thought it?, Oloron Sainte Marie, New Years Day 2022

I grew this ‘Salvia spathacea’ from seed several years ago. It is a Californian native from dry woodlands , and, whilst handling full sun pretty well, I can say that semi-shade is what it really likes, and it has romped rhizomatously in the Barn Garden since planting it out last Spring. Already, it’s heading skywards so I hope it makes it, as the tiered flower spikes are spectacular when they happen. Cold doesn’t appear to bother it especially if it can get a little protection from shrub canopy or taller plants.

Mahonia eurybractea ‘Sweet Winter’, Oloron Sainte Marie, New Years Day 2022

A slightly odd angle to this photo, but I liked the stray bit of mistletoe that popped into the picture. Mahonia eurybractea ‘Sweet Winter’ is one of the two main, non-prickly, dwarf mahonias available. The other is ‘Soft Caress’ if you are interested. These are great shrubs, fanned, cut leaves make for a dramatic, tropical look, and they don’t get much bigger than Im all round, so can easily slot into any planting to give a jungly green look all year round. The winter flowers are bright yellow and softly scented, not as perfumed as the bigger Mahonias. I have grown to love these shrubs, especially as they took a lot of punishment in our old garden in bakingly dry shade. They like the Barn Garden better and have fattened out a bit, so looking much happier here. A new semi-dwarf variety, blooming from late summer, has appeared this year called ‘Volcano’ with spectacular orange hands of flowersprays, which I am seriously coveting, but isn’t yet widely available in France…..

Mahonia ‘Volcano’…..oh yes. Photo credit http://www.crocus.co.uk

Hamamelis ‘Orange Beauty’, Oloron Sainte Marie, New Years Day 2022

I bought this Hamamelis ‘Orange Beauty’ especially for the Barn Garden last year as a a small plant, and it has not grown much this year, but is flowering well for a small one, and so it is an investment for the future. There’s a lot to be said for growing babies on in my view- you really get to know them well, which I love. It really does look like someone has artfully draped orange peel on bare sticks, such a good colour in the winter.

Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’, Oloron Sainte Marie, New Years Day 2022

Another plant with weird timing… this rose, ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ was covered in 6-8 blooms, a bit washed out with the rain, so I thought the seedhead looked the more interesting of the two. A very happy looking bush I thought, thinking to the future….And just before Covid struck, I madly bought a bare root rose I didn’t know on the strength of an Isabel Bannerman photograph in Gardens Illustrated. ‘La Belle Sultane’ is a beauty and I couldn’t resist, she also survived 2 weeks in the post for various reasons, but is sprouting away in a large pot and seems fine.

Rosa ‘La Belle Sultane’ photographed by Isabel Bannerman, photo credit http://www.gardensillustrated.com

Happy New Year to everyone, gardeners and gardens!