Planting with a pick-axe: part two

View of our sloping, stony garden, early February 2021 with the first fence posts, Oloron Sainte Marie

I have grown to love stony, poor soil since leaving Scotland. Just as well, you might say, on looking at the front garden space. We are on the brow of a little hill, which creates the slope, and over the years, giant rocky pieces and massive river galets from drystone walls that have tumbled down have contributed to make our front area, just across a small lane from our gate, a not very inspiring start for a garden. But if you think ‘garrigue’, a mix of sub-shrubs, trees and grasses common in Provence and the Languedoc, it all begins to look very promising. These plants all need sharp drainage, poor soil, sun, and rock and stone to accompany them. This week, planting with a pick axe took on a whole new dimension of effort- more later.

On the other side of the stony slope, we have a woodland area with shade and more moisture in the soil as you can see in the photograph below. This is also where the dreaded bamboo incursion has taken place, wrecking the old stone wall and advancing towards us. But we are going to win, even if it takes us five years. We have the municipality on our side, who are planning to revive the old chemin (which the bamboo has crossed to get to us), and this will mean, cross fingers, that with their heavy gear, they will rip the bamboo out, probably finish off the remains of our wall but that’s ok, and restore the chemin. This will leave us to tackle the bamboo escaping in our direction, and to rebuild the wall if we can afford it, or fence.

View of the woodland side at the front, worker at rest, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
Reason why worker is resting, the Bamboo Battle, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

So, the front garden is a tale of two halves, but both are exciting, and exhausting. After 4 mornings of massive rock extraction and pick-axe planting, I have rediscovered arm muscles I had forgotten I had. But, aside from the flatter section at the bottom, the slope has been planted. These garrigue plants needed, I thought, very little around them other than the stones that exist naturally. So this is going to be a sort of bare planting, a path, sort of, naturally developing where we haven’t planted, and gravel pockets for each plant to preserve moisture. There are dandelions by the millions, some of which I have dug out, but the rest will stay, with us controlling them lightly with strimming. There is also some bramble, but not too much, so again, I will just keep yanking it out when I see it- a small amount of bindweed is also there and the same applies. A few years of vigilance will do the trick. Of course, just removing rocks and digging plants in will have shaken the undesirable populations into action, but we will be on it.

Meanwhile, on the sunny, stony side, pick-axe planting includes Cornus mas, Teucrium fruticans, Phlomis termessii, Cistus monspeliensis, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
And a grouping of Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow‘ and Phillyrea angustifolia, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
A view up the slope, showing Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow’ with a ribbon of Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue‘ above them, and an Agave brought from Tostat, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

In the photograph above, you can also see the fencing we have put up and the small gate that Tony made for us.

And in another view, the Stipa tenuissima shines in the sun, as does a favourite Eryngium eburneum, and from Beth Chatto’s nursery years ago, a delicate little Euphorbia seguieriana, in the foreground, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

And from last year, a photograph I took of Eryngium eburneum flowerheads, rising to 1.3 metres above the plant this time last year. The planted ones will take a while to get going, but I am looking forward to it.

Eryngium eburneum, the fabulous flowerheads, March 2019, Tostat
The delicate Euphorbia seguieriana just planted, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

The one plant that I didn’t take a cutting of, was Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’. I should have, as my huge specimen went in a bonfire in Tostat most likely. But I have just bought a good looking one to plant out- and this afternoon, right at the back of all the plants that I brought with me, I found a rose cutting that I had forgotten about. So, there is a good chance that I have a ‘Mutabilis’ cutting, it’s lost it’s label, so I need to wait and see- but that would be a good end to that story, wouldn’t it?

Rosa chinensis Mutabilis, August 2015, Tostat

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.

Playing about in Handyside Gardens…

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Meet the snakepit, Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross, London, February 2018

The other Dan Pearson project that I was keen to see in a cold London was the small, but perfectly formed, Handyside Gardens, complete with play park, which slithers between new buildings at Kings Cross to make great use of a little ribbon of land.  I have borrowed 2 photographs from Dan Pearsons own site to show what I mean, thank you Dan Pearson Studio.

Handyside 1

Handyside 2
Handyside Gardens, aerial view at the opening, November 5th 2013 photo credit for both images: http://www.danpearsonstudio.com

All of the planting that was up looked in great shape, especially the flowering Cornus mas hedges which thread their way through the beds and playpark.  The bright yellow open pompoms were very welcome on a cold and wintry day.

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Flowering Cornus mas, Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross, February 2018

There was fun to be had- and not only from the snake sandpit, which I loved.  Pretending to be four years old, I climbed up the slide steps to get a bit of a view, nothing quite as aerial as the Dan Pearson photographs though.

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The swings, the pergola tunnel, and, just, the snake sandpit, rocks for climbing and jumping, soft surface and planting, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

The site sits on top of Underground tunnels and so soil depth was an issue.  Raising the planting up in parts of the site, using warm coppery Corten to make raised beds, also created lots of impromptu seating possibilities, especially near the play equipment.

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The big, bold, pergola tunnel wraps around the circular play area with the sandpit, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

I loved this massive, hefty pergola, underplanted with grasses and, in summer, probably a great play thicket as well as an adult pleasure.

From the aerial photographs, you can see the sinuous, elongated tear-shapes of the beds, which reminded me of the great John Brookes, whose sinuous Modernist design for Bryanston Square, didn’t survive the return of the traditionalists.  The design drawings for this simply beautiful design can be seen in the current Garden Museum exhibition on John Brookes, a man who speaks such clear sense about design.

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John Brookes’ sinuous design for Bryanston Square, London 1965 photo credit: http://www.pinterest.com

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Raised Corten steel beds, seating, and half a small water rill, spring planting just coming through, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

Two halves of a sweeping water rill bring you towards the canal end of the Gardens, with winter planting of the stunning Bergenia purpurescens ‘Irish Crimson’ and flowering Hamemelis.  No scent, as I think it really was too cold to be able to smell anything.

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Flowering Hamamelis, not sure which, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

But that Bergenia….well, an outrageous and simply brilliant beetroot red in the little bit of sunshine that broke through.  This variety came from the Irish botanical garden at Glasnevin, was tended and raised by the great Irish gardener, Helen Dillon, who then gave it to the great Beth Chatto, and from the Chatto Nursery, it has made its way into the trade, though it is not yet widely available.  Gorgeous, and who needs flowers?

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Bergenia purpurescens ‘Irish Crimson’, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

The underplanting that had already made it out was doing a very good job, and none better than Helleborus orientalis.  Flowering starts with me around late December, continues right through to late March, and, as the plants warm up, so the flowerheads rise up on growing stalks, so that the look of the planting in early March is quite different from early January.  And the foliage lasts, with a faintly jungly look about it, pretty much right through the rest of the year.  It’s a bargain.

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Hellebores do underplanting so well, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

Race you to the snake…