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


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Glistening raindrops on Muhlenbergia capillaris with Andropogon gerardii ‘Rain Dance’ in the background, Tostat, November 201

Sizeable amounts of fine and persistent rain have fallen finally.  And now the River Adour looks like a river, not just a large puddle.  Not normally a gratifying experience, rain, but I have been quite enthralled by it, as has the garden.  Although it is becoming very chilly at nights, plants are still growing, and many have made a remarkable come-back from the arid conditions of the summer and autumn.  I have been wandering about, as well as doing more practical jobs, mainly noticing how much has in fact recovered.  One or two plants have gone beyond recovery and have actually mistaken all of this for Spring.  Both the Rosa banksiae, the yellow and the cream coloured one, have sporadically flowered.

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Rosa banksiae lutea, Tostat, November 2017

The cooling temperatures, and a couple of frosts, more predicted for tonight, have brought out the colours in some plants- something which I had thought we might miss out on owing to the dryness.  Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ is rightly one of those Autumn starlets, and the cold and wet, have given the leaves an almost glossy finish.

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Rain-soaked colouring on Euonymus elatus ‘Compactus’, Tostat, November 2017

The unknown orange Abutilon which I love very much for the endless supply of soft orange chinese lantern-type flowers, is still going, but the Berberis, with the very long name, has abandoned itself to scarlet, scarlet drop-shaped berries and the leaves.

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Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’, Tostat, November 2017

Having looked very sorry for itself most of the last few months, my small and experimental Stumpery is enjoying the cool and the wet.  The Persicaria is turning buttery, but the two ferns at the front, Dryopteris atrata, are growing back, and the blue-green fronds of the new Mahonia, well, new this year to me, Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ have handled the year well and are looking fresh.  This is a slow spot for growth, shady but often dry, and tough, tough stony, poor soil, but like everywhere else, I am just trying to see what will work, and grow, even in less than ideal conditions.

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The Stumpery, Tostat, November 2017

Today, one of the Salvia confertiflora flowers finally began to open, with small, cream-lipped orange-red flowers pushing through the red velvet bracts.  Now there’s something you don’t often see- even if it is inside in our cold, but not freezing hall.

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Salvia confertiflora, Tostat, November 2017

Looking back from afar….

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Molly in the mist of an October morning, Tostat, 2017

We had some misty, moisty mornings last week when Molly, the dog, and I were out for our early morning sniffs.  From here in sunny Alicante, with brilliant light shining off the sea and the sand, I was about to delete these photographs as they seemed, so, well, dull.  But in my constant battle to really come to appreciate a new aesthetic which accepts the becoming-permanent state of summer dryness and seasonal upsets, I stopped myself, and instead decided to talk about the aesthetic battle again.

In fact, these photographs are not dull.  Looking through some Oudolf images from his world-famous plantings and reading again his famous words ‘Learn to love brown’, I realise again that the perceived dullness is the product of my own battle with ‘perfection in the garden’.  A perfection that, as another great thinker and writer, Olivier Filippi, says in his book, ‘Planting Design for Dry Gardens’ has been largely created by an Anglicised ideal of garden perfection, the invention of the lawnmower and the business creation of chemical lawn control.

“…From the North of Europe to the south, and indeed in other parts of the world, the English garden model has become rooted in our collective unconscious as a symbol of happiness..”¹

Because, with the lawn, comes the rest of what makes so many British gardens so beautiful, the herbaceous borders and all the rest…only some of which is realistically attainable in a summer-dry setting.

So, I stub my toe constantly in my head in this battle between what is in my mind as the ideal and the reality of what my garden will do in my changing climate.  But, morally, it seems to me to be really important to stay in touch with this battle and to engage with it fully.  Only then can I do my bit, though my own garden and working with others, to help to create gardens and public spaces that can be beautiful within the ecological constraints of where you are.  And only by doing this, and showing this, can we hope to combat that English garden myth that is so well-rooted in our and others’ minds.

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A dewy, web-covered Miscanthus flowerhead in the mist, Tostat, October 2017

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And another one, Tostat, October 2017

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The stunning reds of Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar‘, Tostat, October 2017

¹ quoted p. 11, Olivier Filippi, Planting Design for Dry Gardens, Filbert Press 2016

January glimmers….

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Unknown double white hellebore, Tostat, January 2016

This week, inbetween the tropical downpours, there have been moments of clear, wintery sunshine- and so I have nipped out with the camera to see what there is.  The answer is, surprisingly, not a lot.  Despite our roasting, dry sunshine and temperatures up to 16C in the daytime for weeks right up to the New Year, only a few paperwhite narcissi dared to make an entrance.  Now we have had rain to make up for the dryness, and more normal winter temperatures are promised next week.  Just as well for the skiers, who have been crossing their legs or skis for weeks as snow falls and promptly melts.

This is the first hellebore out in the garden.  I have lost the name, but I love its crinkled, scalloped edges, and the pale green interior.  I don’t trim off the old leaves as you’re supposed to, mainly because the new foliage comes through so quickly that it hardly seems worth it, and any fungal activity seems to fade away as the weather dries.

Hellebores are pretty invasive here, seeding madly and roaring up ready to go as tiny plants in the spring, but I let them do what they want, and then just cull when needed. They keep their bright leathery green leaves throughout the summer no matter the heat, and can look quite tropical in some settings. This double one is not invasive, but I don’t know if that’s a general rule with double ones or not.

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First single white Hellebore, Tostat, January 2016

The single hellebores are the most promiscuous in my experience.  This can mean that you end up with some rather muddy pink ones, which are only marginally attractive.  I haven’t become so ruthless that I have got rid of them yet, but it’s in the stars to start again one year with some fresh stock.

And here is a surprise- the almond-shaped bright red berries are still there on the Berberis ‘Helmond Pillar, or to give it it’s full name, Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’.   This is such a good plant.  Upright, undemanding, takes full sun, grows to about 1.5m x 1m across, and is a great vertical colourful plant with almost anything around it all year round.  In the winter, the bare stems have these brilliant little berries, then the spring growth comes with leaves that turn red by early summer, small yellow-red flowers as well, and then often, beautiful autumn tints of flame-red.

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Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’, Tostat, January 2016

In the stumpery area that is slowly growing, I transplanted a Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ very brutally last year.  Fortunately, we did the hatchet job really early in the year, and so by the time we were hit with the heat, the Mahonia had got down into the soil with some new root growth.  So it survived and is doing pretty well.  The scent from the bell-shaped yellow cream flowers is delicious, but you do need to get up close to it.  Even so, it cuts a fine figure in the architectural sense, a bold, vase shape to about 2m high with firm branches and good, cut-leaf splayed foliage all year round.  It does like some shade, but as I know, will take more dryness than you might imagine as long as it gets plenty of moisture in the winter and early spring.  This variety is Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’.

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Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, Tostat, January 2016

There were one or two other good sights in the garden this week.

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Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Tostat, January 2016

This Cornus needs some sun to bring out the colour, but, when you get the sun, it is gorgeous.

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Concertina fan-shaped new leaves emerging on Melianthus major, Tostat, January 2016

The Melianthus major is taking a risk here, but it is in a bone-dry, sunny spot.

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One of the last fruits standing on the Passiflora caerulea, Tostat, January 2016