We all need Phlomis in our lives…

Phlomis lanata ‘Pygmy’, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

I am trying out a brave and maybe foolhardy experiment in the sloping, stony and hitherto uncultivated front garden. Given that it is stony and pretty unforgiving, as well as being in full sun almost all day, I had already thought that it could offer a great opportunity to grow cuttings of many of my dry garden plants from the old garden in Tostat. So, I had originally imagined that I would tip much more gravel on top of the stony ground and plant through that, having pulled or dug out as much as I could see that I didn’t want, too many dandelions and way too much bindweed and bramble for example. But….it wasn’t possible to buy any gravel in lockdown, and so, watching the early spring passing by, I went for the Big Gamble.

What if I just planted my small plants anyway? Waiting wasn’t a good option. Firstly, plants like this get impatient in pots generally having massed fibrous root systems or tap roots, both of which want to be in the ground when young. Secondly, I thought that, as long as I didn’t let the bindweed and bramble get too boisterous, with any luck my plants would begin to bulk up this year and be in really good shape next year to dominate any existing plants without me having to wage war on their behalf.

So, in they all went, probably more than 50 small plants grown as cuttings and some new plants bought small, as well as various others kindly given to the new garden. Most were planted by pickaxe as huge numbers of river boulders, probably from surrounding walls that had fallen down, were everywhere. One plant took more than an hour to get into the ground, as 4 or 5 massive 5kg boulders had to be hand extracted by pickaxe. There was a lot of sweat and much swearing.

Phlomis lanata ‘Pygmy’, Tostat, April 2020

And 4 months later, I am quietly confident that the Big Gamble has paid off. To be completely fair, I still have quite a bit of bramble and bindweed, and a sprinkling of very mixed existing plants, such as self-sown Nigella and some flowering weeds. But I am not very bothered by them. The idea was to make a planting of plants that would respond well to the conditions, and let them manage the landscape, accepting those existing plants, whatever they are, that can co-exist. The new plants are slowly taking their place and beginning to be visible through the mix, which means that next year, the space will look very different. Some things have failed, particularly one or two of the bought plants- but my homegrown plants are gaining traction, particularly the Phlomis.

Phlomis lanata ‘Pygmy’, which flowered last Spring in Tostat, later unluckily (it is very small) was strimmed to the ground by Andy, so what came here was a seriously pygmy ‘Pygmy’. But the photo at the top of this post shows you the plant today- looking very good and seriously grown-up to the fullish height of 0.25m.

Phlomis x termessii, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

The golden Phlomis, x termessii is really looking at home. It has had a bit of a heat problem during our very dry patch of six weeks or so in Spring, but the new growth looks really great so I am looking forward to it tripling in size and flowering in April next year. Like everything else on the slope, I have only spot-watered when a plant looked to be in serious trouble, so I am ok with plants struggling a bit as this will stimulate better and deeper root growth for the future.

Phlomis boveii subsp. maroccana, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

I am really looking forward to this Phlomis boveii, it has tall, pale pink flowers in the late Spring, and is bulking up really well. Early leaves got a bit burnt by dryness in February, but the plant has recovered well and looks set for next year.

Senecio vira-vira, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Moving to a plant that was new to me, I am surprised and delighted by this funny-looking Senecio vira-vira. It is incredibly brittle, so don’t plant it anywhere where it will be knocked or bashed. I didn’t put it in the best places, but the upside of bits breaking off is that they root in water in a bright kitchen within 10 days or so, so I have generated about half a dozen new plants already. The flowers are insignificant as the foliage is the real deal, silvery white and felted, so that it looks like very touchable marble. I really like it. I think it will make a mound in the end.

Phlomis purpurea and Greek Oregano, Tostat, April 2020

I didn’t bring Phlomis purpurea. A mistake. It is a lovely thing, so I am on the hunt for one.

Eryngium eburneum, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Eryngium eburneum has had a struggle but looking at the new growth at the base of the rosette, I reckon that it has cracked it and will be back bigger and stronger next year.

Euphorbia pithyusa ‘Ponte Leccia’, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Euphorbia pithyusa ‘Ponte Leccia’ is a beautiful, elegant and refined euphorbia. It develops into a finely wafting mound which offers the same movement as a grass, with soft green fronds that blend in really well even if planted closely to other plants.

I went for broke and also wanted to try out planting Achillea crithmifolia as a protective barrier around my new acquired Rosa mutabilis. I have been reading a little about allelopathic plants, and thought that this would be an interesting experiment in miniature. So far so good, not much has got through, just a twig of bindweed which might be too butch for the Achillea to manage. We will see.

Rosa mutabilis and Achillea crithmifolia, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

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

Bits and bobs…

Cynara cardunculus, Tostat, July 2019

The last week has starred all kinds of weather including 20 minutes of typhoon scaled wind and massive stair rods of rain. The weather can be incredibly local, and we were very lucky as a 2km wide band passed within 500m of us and didn’t touch us. Those it touched lost trees, and even more importantly in the season, prized vegetable gardens and crops. This is the first time that the Cynara cardunculus has produced so many flowering branches- and it came through the storm unscathed. A brilliant architectural plant and a good self-seeder- you just need the space.

The rain was very welcome despite the strength and power of it, and clearly refreshed everything growing in the garden, with some roses generating a fresh small flush of flowers. With these weather outbursts, sometimes plants return that you have completely forgotten about.

Digitalis ferruginea, Tostat, July 2019

I adore the colouring of this Digitalis ferruginea. This was a surprise appearance 3 years ago, when a strange rosette of leaves started to grow which I did not associate with seed that I had sown the year before. I potted up the mysterious rosette and then planted it out, having no idea what it was. Since then, the rosette has returned each year with taller and more stately flowerspikes every year. In the bright warm early morning sunlight, the rust colouring almost hits orange- and this year with our cool, wet spring, it measures well over 1.7 metres tall. Wow.

Eryngium eburneum has been truly statuesque this year too. It is an utterly undemanding plant, and in return, you get months of the tall, bobbly, prickly flowerspikes which complement any style of planting in my view, and then, over winter, the flowing foliage forms beautiful clumps, made even more gorgeous when touched with frost. I guess all you need to give it is space- allow 1m all around the plant- and stony, well-drained soil. No pampering required.

Eryngium eburneum backlit, Tostat, July 2019

Another strange plant that I adore, but have only succeeded once with, is Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’. This can be regarded as an invasive weed in the US, but probably not here in Europe. It is undemanding, but requires very precise conditions, or in my view it does! Sun, but some shade, moist, but not wet and must be well-draining, and it prefers some cover from other plants over winter. The one that didn’t die is grown amongst a Hydrangea paniculata, Bupleurum fruticosum and Phlomis russelliana- and I never know for sure that it’s made it until the first bright-green feathery leaves poke through. It is not a powerful grower, so even after 5 years, I usually only have 2-3 spikes of it- but it is a lovely presence, a stretched bright-green feather duster of a plant which is totally vertical.

Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’, Tostat, July 2019

I don’t know what I have done to deserve these lovely flowering garlic scapes- but I love them, and do my best to pot them up and save them to weave in amongst other plants, like a strange extra-terrestrial that has been welcomed to the planet. You can eat them like spring onions or chives, but I want them in the garden.

Flowering garlic scapes, Tostat, July 2019

This tiny little Penstemon pinifolius is perhaps the smallest of all. I couldn’t get a plant anywhere and so I grew a small bowl of them from seed about 3 years ago- this is the first flower from that little bowl. It looks like spikes of short hair, the slimmest, stringiest leaves you can imagine which pays witness to the drought tolerance- it is very drought tolerant and needs super-sharp drainage- but it is hardy. So, only water if it looks wan.

Penstemon pinifolius, Tostat, July 2019

This is a really different Rudbeckia- Rudbeckia triloba ‘Prairie Fire’. Tall, slim and multi-flowering, with small bright yellow and orange daisy flowers, it seems to be an easy plant. These are one year old, grown from seed last year- and I am hoping that they will clump more next year- apparently short-lived, so either I buy more seed or if I’m lucky, it will self-seed. I think that it needs more moisture than some sites suggest and not baking sun all day.

Rudbeckia triloba ‘Prairie Fire’, Tostat, July 2019
Salvia confertiflora, Tostat, July 2019

Salvia confertiflora is flowering- more than 2 months earlier than in previous years. I think it has taken it’s cue from the scattered very hot days we have had. This is a tender Salvia, so I bring it in every winter, but the orange-red velvet tall flowerspikes are a real bonus in the garden- even more just now as the garden slows up for the hot period.

And today, I discovered more seasonal bonuses. Two Baptisia australis seedlings that have popped up in pots of Salvia, unbeknownst to me. Baptisia has been a seed disaster for me, really quite tricky, so this must be some stray seed that got recycled into some potting compost by mistake. Good mistake. And some good, tough little Achillea millefoliums that had self-seeded into the parking gravel- brilliant. Bonus tough plants for difficult areas.

Work in progress….

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Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’, Tostat, March 2019

Sometimes, at any time of the year, you just turn around in the garden and, wham bam, the light spotlights something and you gasp.  And the other day, I just happened to have the camera around my neck, and ‘Tiny Wine’ obliged with photogenic new foliage breaking out in a flash of early morning sunshine.  This is such a good shrub.  Not too massive, though it is now about 1.5m x 1.5m, and such a good performer.  From this glorious happy coloured foliage, the leaves darken to a plum red, small pink flowers appear later in spring, and then in the autumn the first colder nights really flame the foliage.  I love it.  I can only grow it in a damper part of the garden as it really doesn’t do dry, but I wouldn’t be without it.

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Early light, Tostat, March 2019

I yank out Euphorbia chariacas subsp. wulfennii by the handful all year round in the garden as they are such prolific seeders, but in the spring, with the citrus lemon flowers shining, they are magnificent- so the next cull can wait till they have finished flowering.  They catch the light brilliantly- see top left in the photograph.

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Kerria japonica ‘Albiflora’, Tostat, March 2019

This Kerria japonica ‘Albiflora‘ was one of my bargain basement buys last year, and looked pretty weedy till last month.  Unlike it’s bright yellow cousin, which I also have, I have been smitten by the charm of this woodlander.  It likes semi-shade, moistish conditions, which, for me, means only one place, but it seems to have settled in well.  The soft cream-coloured flowers are charming and are matched with sharp, emerald green foliage.  If it is as tough as the yellow one, it will do just fine.

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Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’, frosted, Tostat, March 2019

Here was another turn-around moment this morning, catching Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ with a stunning, frosted outline.  Normally, I would have cleared the area around this little Ranunculus so that we can see it better, but this year, projects and tendons mean that it is still a bit covered with winter rubbish.  But the frosting makes the leaves sing.

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Rosa banksiae lutea, Tostat, March 2019

The frost doesn’t spoil the game for this rose, Rosa banksiae lutea, which is about to flower any minute.  Unfortunately, here in Tostat village, an over-helpful gardener has pruned our lovely Banksiae in the lavoir, including removing most of the buds.  You have to prune after flowering, and allow the rose to build up old wood for next year.  Darn it.  Actually, to be honest, I don’t even really prune it, I just lop off any over-excited arching branches that get in my hair, literally.  It doesn’t need more than that.

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Gunnera manicata, Tostat, March 2019

This plant, Gunnera manicata, always makes me think of zombie hands coming through the earth in any number of trashy horror films.  It really claws its way out of the winter debris around it- no need for a helping hand from me.  Growth rate is fast, pretty soon it will be towering above me, and drinking like a fish from the canal it is planted near.  It wouldn’t stand a chance otherwise.

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A little bit of daffodil ballet, Tostat, March 2019

I am sorry that I can’t remember the variety, but no matter, I thought of a daffodil pas-de-deux, it made me smile.  This one below is definitely Narcissus ‘Thalia’, which I really love for the drama of the dark greeny blue leaves and the pure white flower.  It is almost the last to flower with us.

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Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Tostat, March 2019

This is the first flowerhead on my clumps of Eryngium eburneum, which is such a good plant for me.  Forming big clumps of draping scissored leaves, and sending up flowerspikes to well over my height at 5 feet, it handles everything except winter wet, always looking a bit desperate by the end of winter.  But, within a few weeks, it picks itself up and gets going again.  A great sign for the year to come.

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Eryngium eburneum flowerhead, Tostat, March 2019

 

Inspiration from 2007…

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The ‘mix’ bit, featuring Libertia grandiflora, self-seeded Eschscholzia, Monarda fistulosa, Gaura lindheimeri ‘Gaudi Red’, Cerinthe major ‘Kiwi Blue’, Berberis thunbergii ‘Maria’, Tostat, May 2018

Three years ago, I tried an experiment.  Could I grow a whole area essentially from seed, or self-seeded perennials, with one or two shrubs added in? The last two years have been a waiting game, but now, I can say that I am on the way.  It was only the other day when reading about the founding of the recently established Königliche Gartenakadamie opposite the stunning Botanical Garden in Dahlem, Berlin that I remembered what had been at the back of my mind as images of how I wanted the ‘mix’ bit to be.  Isabelle van Groeningen works in partnership with Gabrielle Pape, the main force behind the new Königliche Gartenakadamie in Berlin- but it was Chelsea that first introduced them to me.

Isabelle van Groeningen and Gabrielle Pape made a Main Avenue garden at Chelsea 2007- inspired by and strongly evoking the matrix- planting style of the reknowned German plant-breeder and nurseryman, Karl Foerster.  I remember that garden, not in detail, but in terms of the unusual effects it created.  Using plants as singletons or pairings, the garden seemed swarming with plants, but not arranged in clumps, but as a tapestry of individuals who all seemed to get on very well one with another, almost a ‘pointilist’ garden.  Back then, I was only at the beginning of my formal garden design study and it was all completely new to me.  I remember being disappointed that the garden only got a silver medal.

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Isabelle van Groeningen and Gabrielle Pape for ‘The Telegraph’, Chelsea 2007 photo credit: http://www.telegraph.com

This photograph doesn’t quite capture what I remember, the dotted planting of ones and twos of plants in a tapestry effect, but what you can see is the depth of planting and that crammed impression which I loved.  My version is much more clump-formed than matrix planting in the strict sense, but I have encouraged Stipa capillata to self-seed and this has created a wafty movement at about 0.75m high, which I really like.

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The ‘mix’ in early April, dew on Stipa capillata veiling Cistus ‘Gold Prize’ and Libertia peregrinans in winter orange, Tostat, April 2018

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The ‘mix’ featuring Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’, spikes up in blue, red spots of luminous Dianthus cruentus, Phlomis longifolia bailanica, Geranium albanum, Tostat, May 2018

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The edges of the ‘mix’, tall flowerheads of Eryngium eburneum, Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’, Monarda fistulosa, Cornus kousa, Tostat, May 2018

A key plant, which has take all of these three years to really get going, is Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’.  It is a much more intense blue than the photographs suggest and sits a good half metre above the other planting- so it really reaches for the sky.

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Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’, Tostat, end April 2018

It is very wafty so I am hoping it isn’t decked by strong winds- always a possibility.  For the past two months, the two self-seeders. Eschscholzia californica and Cerinthe purpurescens have behaved magnificently.  Purple and orange- so good together. Noel Kingsbury has some interesting and de-bunking comments to make about getting holier-than-thou about any one way of gardening,  but whatever else, closer planting helps but will not remove the need to occasionally sort out thugs and reduce competition.  With the ‘mix’ I am stuffing in and also actively managing, not just the plants but also the invaders.  Good news is that a spot of wild carrot is easily removed.

Lastly, I would like to remember Beth Chatto,  who died last week, and a fantastic visit made to her Essex nursery eight years ago on a wet and grey day- she was a one-off.   What a woman.

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Beth Chatto’s inspirational Gravel Garden, Essex, 2012

Gifts from a hot, dry summer…

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Bright, fresh Eryngium eburneum babies, Tostat, September 2017

This week, as we have the sun back but not the warmth, the snow is clearly visible not just on the peaks of the Pyrenees but gliding down the slopes too.  It may well melt as the cold spell passes, we hope, but it is still a signal of an early cool-down that has taken many plants by surprise- with signs of semi-frost activity on tender plants in exposed places.  Today is glorious, warming slowly to maybe 22C with a bright, blue clear sky. Quite different from how it has been.

And as if by magic, literally visible only in the last 10 days, the Eryngium eburneum has not only scattered seed, but that seed has germinated into a fine clutch of baby eryngiums that all look as fit as a fiddle.  They were a little hidden as the cherry tree is shedding leaves already, and so I had missed them until yesterday.  This has only happened maybe once before during and after a hot August in the 13 years we have been living here, so I look on them as a gift from a harsh summer.

Eryngium eburneum is a fabulous plant.  It likes hot, dry, poor soil, free-draining and stony is ideal.  It grows to a very stately clump of fine, saw-toothed leaves, creating a grand presence. And then, in May or June, up shoot the flower spikes, on thin, slender, but tough stems, each carrying a bunch of pale-green fuzzily dimpled acorn-shaped flowerbuds.  These last for a very long time, usually right through to the autumn, but this year, as you can see below, they have been brown and shrivelled- though still standing- for weeks.

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Eryngium eburneum flowering in June, Tostat, June 2017

For sure, it is not the most colourful plant in the garden, but I really prize it for the statuesque elegance it brings, and the fact that, with me, it does remain mostly green throughout the winter, if looking a little faded by Spring.  So it is an incredibly tough, undemanding plant with it’s own pale charm- and lots of presence.  It was also one of my first plants that I grew from seed back in the day- and knowing what I know now about how rarely the seed germinates, I was one lucky novice gardener back then.   Beth Chatto adores this plant, and she is a great hero, so that is another tick in the box for me.  Last week, her nursery was named as one of the top 10 online nurseries in the UK.  Follow the link to see why.

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Aunt not parent, as seen today, Eryngium eburneum, Tostat, September 2017