Westering home…

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Lonicera fragrantissima, Tostat, end January 2019

I have struggled to have a ‘song in my heart’ this week, and I will continue to struggle for another whole week.  The westerlies have arrived, big, brassy, dark-skied storms fresh from the Bay of Biscay, which bring swirling dollops of rain, hail, snow if you are higher up than us, and filthy, grey skies from dawn till dusk.  The garden is sodden.  This is good for the general water table for sure.  We have had hardly any rain from the end of April last year till now, and the river Adour has been struggling to get past its own rocks.   But it is hard on the psyche.  We lived in Scotland before moving here, and we have obviously gone soft as a week of rain, or more, just brings the grumbles on.

However, plants that venture out this early are toughies, and carry on regardless.  Though as the hellebores start to flower, I do notice a real difference between my home-grown Helleborus orientalis– based plants, and those more fancy creatures that I have paid money for.  The former have broader, more jungly-looking hands of leaves and the flowers are generally tall and held securely above the foliage with fat stems.  The leaves are fantastic and last all year with us even in the hottest spot.  They really work hard for their living.  They produce masses of baby plants within a few weeks, it seems, of flowering being over, and many have to be yanked out or they would be the only plant left in the  garden.  The flowers can become a muddy pink with cross-polinating, but actually I don’t mind- though some do.  These plants are only in bud now, whereas the more exotic ones are in flower already.

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Un-named variety, double dark crimson red Hellebore, Tostat, January 2019

The more exotic-flowered hellebores that I have bought are rather different.  Their growth rate is much slower.  They are much shorter,  with smaller, brighter green hands of leaves, and the flowers remain tightly attached to the leaves almost, so they have to be lifted by hand to see the flowers.  I love doing this, but with the added rain factor, their natural droopiness has become very pronounced.  I am guessing that selection for flower power doesn’t necessarily mean that the strong, good leaves of the old ‘orientalis’ make the cut.  No matter.

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This un-named single variety hangs the flowers like plums, Tostat, January 2019
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The last of my deep crimson Hellebores, a double with frilled petals, Tostat, January 2019

I love the contrast with the creamy white varieties, especially those that are freckled.  This is only a small patch of plants under the protection of the big pine tree, and although they are not fast growers- they are slowly colonising a 2m patch.  And they really are to be looked forward to- very cheering.

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Double plus flower, with extra heavy petals on the outside and pink freckles, Tostat, January 2019
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Different again, a single flower but with a frilly, double centre tinged with yellow, and pink freckles, Tostat, January 2019

Otherwise, in the garden, flowering is in short supply.   Lonicera fragrantissima is worth its leggy, twiggy, tumbling growth for the strength of perfume from the tiny flowers that absolutely cover the branches. Winter brings out the best in this plant- and today, the damp and wind obscured the fragrance, but on a still day, you can smell it from 5 m away.

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Tiny flowers of Lonicera fragrantissima, Tostat, end January 2019

A more sightly, but also tangled and twisted, scented shrub which is only just opening up right now is Daphne odora Aureomarginata.  This year must be its 12th, I think, and buds are sprouting everywhere on it- no scent yet, but it will be gorgeous for the next 2-3 months.  This may be a slow grower but it is really worth it.  We have it close to the back door, and on a sunny March morning, it is sublime.

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Cerise-pink buds on Daphne odora Aureomarginata, Tostat, January 2019

It’s smaller cousin is also worth growing, though again, not a fast grower.  Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ flowers all year round for me- with a few pauses in the winter, but it pretty much keeps going.  Small bunches of flowers, white or pink,  smell fabulous and it likes sun, and once it has roots down, it is pretty drought-tolerant.  I think it will make a neat 1m mound, whereas the bigger cousin is more of a jumbled bush at 1.5m and not at all neat.  The buds are pink in this photograph but the flowers do come out white in the end.

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Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Tostat, January 2019

Nipped out for 20 minutes to take these photographs and now back inside, and guess what, it’s belting down with rain.

 

 

 

 

 

Darkest winter in 100 years…

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Single white Hellebore, with lovely collar, Tostat, January 2018

It is, apparently, the darkest winter since 1887 in the Northern Hemisphere.  I really feel that.  Despite being a month in to the slow return of light to the day, I am still unable to wake in the morning without an alarm, and we have only had two, maybe three, days when the sky has not been grey and almost black with rain. Plants brought into the house lean ever more desperately towards the window seeking the light, never mind sun.  Goodness me.  I almost wore sunglasses to watch Monty Don’s ‘Paradise Gardens’ programme the other night. I jest but only a little.

But…plants out there are trying their best against the elements.  I bought 3 small hellebores last spring from an ebay seller, Stephen Roff, who I would highly recommend.  They arrived, well packaged, small as advertised and in great condition, and have been settling in nicely in their new home, in the semi-shade near the big pine tree.  Hellebores like Tostat, and these have doubled in size and have just begun flowering.  I love the pristine clarity of the creamy colouring on the white one, and the complicated frilly collar surrounding the stamens- the leaves look very happy as well and although these are only in their infancy, I am looking forward to bigger and better.  This year, I also bought 3 more in the autumn, so they are really infants, waiting and seeing is what is needed.

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Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, Tostat, January 2018

My unphased Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ started out life as a 6″ weakling and now, 10 years later, has majestically taken over an entire corner near the back door.  She has been looking a little yellowy in the odd leaf, but I am not panicking, the flowers are massed and doing their best despite the endless rain.  Today, they brought to mind a job lot of Victorian bridal posies, the way they present themselves in little bunches.  There is not a lot of scent in the rain, so hoping for that when the rain stops.

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Helleborus niger ‘Christmas Carol’, Tostat, January 2018

This little Hellebore, Helleborus niger ‘Christmas Carol’, has spent too much time indoors, being a rush purchase just before Christmas, but the leaves are good, a dull emerald green with rounded ends, so quite different from the normal.  And I think it will have settled in by next winter.

Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ is a very fickle friend.  Acanthus should love the garden, and they do, but only after some considerable passage of time- like 7-8 years.  The ordinary Acanthus mollis is now a touch on the aggressive side, but did absolutely nothing for years.  It all hinges on the growth rate of the tuber.  And ‘Whitewater’, now 4-5 years old, is only strong enough to be seen in winter/spring conditions- it gives up and retreats underground when it gets too hot or dry- and no champagne-pink flowers yet either.   You have to be super-patient sometimes.

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Acanthus ‘Whitewater’, Tostat, January 2018

But look!  The expensive bulbules of Anemone x fulgens Multipetala that I bought last Spring are back and producing leaves- and I am thrilled, they are doing their best to imitate a hardy geranium at the moment, but that’s ok by me.

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Anemone x fulgens Multipetala, Tostat, January 2018

Because the gorgeous hot red fringed flowers are way out of the ordinary and something else in early Spring, and not to be missed.  I adore them.

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Anemone x fulgens Multipetala, Tostat, March 2017

Ok, sublime to the ridiculous.  The spotted laurel.  Which I always thought of as rather sinister as a plant, the sort of thing that would have enveloped the scary house in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.  But, in the right place, and especially if you can find one with a really zany splodge, my vote goes to Aucuba japonica crotonifolia– and I hope it will settle in quicker than the Acanthus.

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Aucuba japonica Crotonifolia, Tostat, January 2018

Now here is a survivor.  I bought 3 small plants of Libertia ixoides ‘Goldfinger’ and promptly planted them somewhere far too dry and hot for them.  Other things enveloped them, and to be truthful, I had completely forgotten that they were there.  Cut to last winter, when poking around, I found them again, now gently multiplied to about 10 small plants, but still going, if looking a bit thirsty.  I now have them planted as a weaving theme through the new perennial area I planted out 3 years ago, and they are doing really well, as winter colour especially in the low sun (when we get any) and as a bit of a small scale structural element when waiting for herbaceous stuff to come up.

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Libertia ixoides ‘Goldfinger’, Tostat, January 2018

And another survivor, Malvastrum lateritum in the driest, hottest spot, flowering albeit with teeny tiny flowers, but flowering now all the same.  I have to say that the flowers are normally much bigger, they get small when the plant is struggling a bit with heat or wet.  You have to be patient with the rambling nature of this plant, it lollops across other plants and pretty much follows it’s nose, so if you like it, you have to let it wander.

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Malvastrum lateritum, Tostat, January 2018

And here is a supreme survivor, Salvia spathacea. Rare now in the wild in California, I managed to grow one from seed a few years back and in 2016, it actually flowered for me with an immense 1.5m flowerspike, with tiered coral/magenta flowers- then it died that year.  So last year, I had another go at the seed, and this time managed to produce 3 tiny plants.  I decided to trust the dry shade reference, as I was sure that I had contributed to the demise of the original plant.  It really prefers shade, and forest type conditions, so I planted them out, with fingers crossed, in the Stumpery, with the ferns and the few other shade-tolerant plants that I have.  Eh voila!  They seem to be doing fine, despite the rain and cold…let’s see.

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Salvia spathacea, Tostat, January 2018
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Salvia spathacea, Tostat, June 2016
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Salvia spathacea and bee, Tostat, July 2016

 

Smells of spring….

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First flowers on Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, Tostat, February 2017

First day of cold wind, but sun, after the big storm Marcel passed over us at the weekend. The sun has brought the buds out on the Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata‘ just outside the back door, and the strong, deep scent is on the wind.  This bush is now about 1.5m x 1.5m, having started out life as a 10cm twiglet about 12 years ago.  It is a slow grower and takes all the heat of summer with its waxy, cream-lined leaves in a sharp green.  It is in a spot that gets some afternoon shade in the summer and is not utterly bone-dry, but I do think that it is a tougher customer than many UK sites suggest.  The flowers keep coming from now until the end of March or even a little longer, and when they are warmed by sun, the scent is gorgeous.  I have planted another twiglet of it across the way from the big plant, but it is only 20 or so cms high as yet- best to leave it to grow away and then be surprised when it suddenly seems to appear one spring in the future.

Today I was planting out the plants I bought at Kate Dumbleton and Imogen Checketts nursery, ‘Le Jardin Champêtre’  in Caunes-Minervois, about 3.5 hours drive from us.  I hope to do another blog post when I have had a chance to interview them, I am really interested in their approach to gardens and plants, and impressed with their feistiness in setting up here in Occitanie, the new name for our big region of Languedoc-Rousillon-Midi-Pyrenees.  So more of their story anon.

I bought Phlomis Chrysophylla, the golden-leaved sage of Jerusalem.  I adore Phlomis and have several, including another golden-leaved one, called Phlomis x termessii.  The golden-ness comes with the summer growth, and it likes razor-sharp drainage and full sun.  Right now, a junior, but it will make a good, rounded shrub of Im all round, maybe by the end of this year.

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Phlomis chrysophylla, Tostat, February 2017

Another cistus- but they are such good plants and I haven’t got masses of them, so why not?  This one is Cistus heterophyllus, which will probably get to 1.5m all round in the end.  I find that the growth accelerates as the roots finally make it through the stony soil, and this might take 2 years or more.  But, a pretty pink flowerer, and really reliable.  Some say that they are short-lived, but I have not found this.  Grow them hard and tough, and ignore them seems to work fine for me.

Salvia leucophylla was another purchase.  I am becoming a bit of a Salvia nut, and so the chance to buy one that I hadn’t come across anywhere else was too tempting.  This one is a Californian native, but from altitude, so it can handle more chill than some others.  We will see.  I’ve put it into the dry, stony, south-facing border, which has thrown off our month of -5C–7C with reasonable aplomb.  It should make a 1.5m round shrub, with light bluey-purple flowers in early to midsummer. The leaves have a felted texture and looked great today in the sun, even in February.

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Salvia leucophylla, Tostat, February 2017

And, lastly, because the smell of the crushed leaves, even in winter, is so evocative of a hot, dry summer, I bought Origanum syriacum.  This is the herb that Ottolenghi uses in his za’atar mix, and is the wild oregano, staple of Lebanese and Palestinian cooking.  The brilliant Millenium Seed Bank Partnership at Kew, has conserved seed as it is now endangered in the Lebanon. You can see from the link the importance of their work and how to help them to save seeds, and, even species outright.  It is still at the back door while I try to choose the best place to plant it, near enough to pick and smell, and dry and stony enough for it to be happy.

So many portents of the summer to come in these four junior plants- I love that.

 

 

 

 

Winter smells

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Lonicera fragrantissima, Tostat, January 2016

With our warm and, until last week, almost bone-dry winter, shrubs and bulbs are shooting up and out.  Lonicera fragrantissima is not a star in the good looks stakes at any time of the year to be honest.  It is a brittle, twiggy shrub that sprawls against a wall in one of the driest parts of the garden.  But, for a few weeks in early Spring, the lemony fragrance of these tiny, fragile flowers carries on any breeze- and makes it all worthwhile, although they suffer in the rain.

It was collected in China by the redoubtable Robert Fortune, the great Scottish botanist on his plant-collecting expeditions to China during the early 1840s and 50s.  There are many plants whose botanical name end in ‘fortunei’ though Lonicera fragrantissima isn’t one of them.  Robert Fortune came of humble stock and ended his life having restored the state of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and contributed hugely to the expansion of European interest in oriental botany.  Later, as a spy for the East India Company, Fortune also spirited away 20,000 tea plants, seeds and 8 tea experts from the Chinese which enabled the growth of the  Himalayan and Ceylon tea economies.  As the Dunse History Society said of him, he was one of the ‘lads o’ pairts’ for whom Scotland was famous. Canny, resourceful and clever.

Back in Tostat, it has been so warm that this year the Lonicera still has leaves on it, well, from the knees downwards.   If you have less space, but want a winter smell that really does refresh, then Daphne odora Aureomarginata is a better all-year round performer.  With waxy, dark green leaves edged with creamy yellow, and a rounded, evergreen form, it makes a very pretty, contained shrub of about 1.5m x 1.5m at full stretch.

I have had mine from when it was six inches tall, and now it is a fully fledged beauty.  It is growing in a semi-shaded not-too-dry spot under the wisteria pergola, gets the early morning sun but has afternoon protection in the summer, and is in bogstandard soil, so it really isn’t picky.  It is, though, a slow grower, so if you have the cash, it would be an investment to start off with a bigger plant and not have to wait so long.

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Daphne odora Aureomarginata, Tostat, January 2016
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Daphne at full stretch

Right now, the bush is covered with flowers and the fragrance is really powerful,  a substantial full-bodied scent which even I can smell.  So, all I have to do is to stick my head out of the back door and grab a whiff.  Fabulous.  And a great hint of Spring to come.

 

 

Once a lavoir, on the way to becoming a place to stop and relax…

About 2 years before we came to France, Andy’s Mum gave me an enchanting book, which really inspired me to want to find ways in which gardening and design can support the development of public spaces for enjoyment. This slim little book, ‘Diary of a French Herb Garden’ by the well known cookery writer, Geraldene Holt, told the story of her restoration of an ancient potager once used by the local priest of the little village of Saint Montan in the Ariege.  The small plot was about to be taken as parking space when she asked the local Conseil if they would allow her to restore it into a public aromatic garden, staying true to the memory of priests supporting the community as the apothecary. They did, she did, and the garden remains to this day as a public space.

And as time turns around and comes around, I have been asked to think about how a village public space can be transformed into an engaging and easy to care for public space, offering time to stop and think.  This tiny little plot, by an ancient ruisseau or agricultural canal, lies just beneath a very small bridge over the ruisseau, and is bounded by walls and hedges.  But, when you step down into the plot, only 9m x 8m at its widest, it does feel as if you have stepped down into the past. The small road vanishes from view, and the rushing water, and the presence of an old upended washing stone, reminds you of how hard a woman’s life was before domestic machinery.

The lavoir from the small bridge with the upended scrubbing stone visible April 15
The lavoir from the small bridge with the upended scrubbing stone visible April 15

The telegraph pole is a bit in your face to start with, but, being wood, it begins to merge into the background.  The shopping bag is mine, with my measuring tapes and whatnot in it.

The view back to the lavoir from the other side of the bridge April 15
The view back to the lavoir from the other side of the bridge April 15

You can also see that an old kneeling stone survives so that the women would have been able to stay clean-ish themselves when bending down to do the washing.

Ancient lavoir with women doing the washing Photo credit; www.fontaine-fourches.com/
Ancient lavoir with women doing the washing
Photo credit;
http://www.fontaine-fourches.com/

So, how to make this into an enchanting space? I thought I should begin with attracting attention from the road with flowering planting that will last all year, and then also keeping the palate simple with good perennial cover that will take care of itself, and colours staying within the cream-yellow-blue range, with a flash or two of pink. I have drawn a quick isonometric sketch just to give an idea…

Lavoir isonometric Apr 15

Coming from the little road, you step onto big and small paving stones towards 2 angled slate benches underneath a pergola, shaped a bit like an open book. It will need to be a strong pergola that will support the full weight of the earliest rose, Rosa banksiae lutea, which will shower down onto the pergola in April-May. This rose will be followed by the white passionflower, Passiflora caerulea ‘Constance Elliott, which will flower till the frosts. Should be a showstopper.

This is the cream version of the rose I am planning. Rosa banksiae alba plena. Just imagine this...only creamy yellow. April 2013
This is the cream version of the rose I am planning. Rosa banksiae alba plena. Just imagine this…only creamy yellow. April 2013

Rosa banksiae is tough as old boots and thornless, all good things in a public space. Another rose, Rosa Jacqueline du Pre, will be nearby flowering white and cream later from summer into autumn, bright blue Louisiana irises will cluster at the water’s edge from June till August, and Saponaria officinalis Rosea Plena, the double form of the soapwort which was often planted near lavoirs in ancient times, will provide a good splash of pink.  Earlier in the year, Helleborus orientalis will robustly flower, leaving great foliage all year and a Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata, which we will have to wait a bit for, will scent the scene from January till March. Acanthus mollis will also fill in gaps with good greenery all year and pinkish flowers in early summer.

Let’s hope that people like the sound of it, and we all start saving plants to make it happen. With one or two purchases along the way.