Smitten by carmine and orange…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erodium pelargoniflorum, Tostat, January 2020

The spirit of New Year…

Early morning rainbow, Tostat, end November 2019

It’s a New Year. Curious, isn’t it, how the cycle of the seasons is so compelling to us- we follow the patterns of changing seasons- and this time of the year is one that absolutely leads to re-examination, re-evaluation, pondering and pottering. I am an inveterate potterer, with more plans in my head than I will ever actually want to achieve. The garden in winter prompts structural thoughts because there is spareness and space where the summer and autumn plants have died back, and then, clarity emerges as growth re-appears, showing you which and what has survived, prospered and is ready for another year.

This winter, so far, apart from biblical rain and wind in November, has been quite kind to us. A few frosts, but nothing major, and my plan of over-wintering slightly tender plants in pots in the open barn has worked fine. Some plants have really surprised me- like the Leonotis leonorus which flowered even to the very tallest stem in November, living through the wind and the rain in the open barn- so I haven’t cut it back yet, it is still there at 2.5m tall, green and contented.

Some new plants have taken the weather in their stride. Salvia lyrata ‘Purple Knockout’ which looked a tad weedy when a baby plant, has toughened up outside retaining the glorious red-purple of the leaves and shaking off the frost. It looks like a really sturdy plant, more useful for the tough foliage and the colour than the small flowerspikes in the summer- but I am very impressed. An easy, reliable plant from seed sown in August and kept out of the heat.

Salvia lyrata ‘Purple Knockout’, Tostat, December 2019

I had a go at another Erodium from seed in the summer. Erodium pelargoniflorum, grown from seed from Special Plants, is not going to be giant, more of a tough baby at 40cms max tall, but again, showing itself to be well able to cope with winter conditions and still look very composed. I need to find somewhere to plant them to make a drift near the front, or they will be swamped by the big guys.

Erodium pelargoniflorum, Tostat, December 2019

I adore bronze fennel. In the Latin, Foeniculum vulgare purpureum, the plants sounds as though it will be reddish-purple, but bronze is a better description. The spring growth makes a fabulous cloud of frothy bronze foliage which is indescribably romantic with roses, and it usefully covers bare legs. Normally, it would self-seed all over the shop with me, but this very dry summer left me with only a few small plants, so now I have about 50 plants grown this summer from seed. Feast or famine.

Foeniculum vulgare Purpureum, Tostat, December 2019

Santolina etrusca does get more than a bit floppy by the end of summer, but the first few months of astoundingly vibrant, fresh green, just when you need it, is worth all the flopping. Trouble-free and needing nothing, it is a good, though modest plant. From seed, the tiniest seedlings dig in and make plants. Just choose a calm day to sow the seed and then again, wait for another one to transplant the seedlings.

Santolina etrusca, Tostat, November 2019

A donated plant that needed a home, I have been amazed by the winter behaviour of this unknown sedum. I stuffed it in a pot, literally, and it is as happy as can be- with cold temperatures producing this gorgeous red colouring. I have never been that taken with sedum, but this is changing my mind.

Unknown stonecrop or Sedum, Tostat, November 2019

There will have been some casualties despite the easy ride we have had so far. I used to fret, but now I take this as another challenge- there must be a plant out there that I would like to grow which will cope and survive. Another dig in the ribs from the garden.

A very Happy Gardening Year to you….