Darkest winter in 100 years…

Hellebore SR 0118
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.

Daphne 2 0118
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.

Helleborus Christmas Carol 2 0118
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.

Acanthus Whitewater 0118
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.

Anemone x fulgens Multipetala 0118
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.

Anemone multifugens
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.

Aucuba japonica Crotonifolia 0118
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.

Libertia ixoides Goldfinger 0118
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.

Malvastrum lateritum 0118
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.

Salvia spathacea 0118
Salvia spathacea, Tostat, January 2018
Salvia spathacea 4 616
Salvia spathacea, Tostat, June 2016
Salvia spathacea and bee 716
Salvia spathacea and bee, Tostat, July 2016


I think I am a colour confused gardener…

Opium poppy self-seeded, Tostat, June 2015
Opium poppy self-seeded, Tostat, June 2015

You see, I look at this flowerhead this morning, scream with delight, fetch witnesses and the camera. and, immediately, I feel refreshed, thankful and overall delighted.  It is partly the sheer exuberance of the royal red colour, and partly the fact that the flowers have such fleeting lives, a few hours or less of wind or rain knocks them out.

It’s a self-seeded opium poppy from seed that my good friend, Jane who lives in Shropshire, gave me, and we did brilliantly with them about 3 years ago, and then hit a duff patch of soaking wet Springs which, I thought, had polished off the possibility of opium poppies in the garden.  More seed, and 2 years later, and this year, maybe the wet February and then hot 2 weeks at the end of May as a combination?, we have really enjoyed them.  Most have been pale mauve or raspberry ripple coloured, but this one is a knockout punch. Fantastic.

And then I look at the minimalist white of the only flower on my baby Gardenia jasminoides ‘Kleim’s Hardy’, which couldn’t be more simple and virginal, and all of a sudden, I love Scandinavian minimalism and dream of Ulf Nordfjell and his garden at Chelsea a few years back. Mind you, I can’t smell anything from it!  I know I don’t have the best nose, but maybe I am the only person with a non-fragrant Gardenia!

Gardenia jasminoides 'Kleim's Hardy', Tostat, June 2015
Gardenia jasminoides ‘Kleim’s Hardy’, Tostat, June 2015
Nordfjell garden, Chelsea 2009
Nordfjell garden, Chelsea 2009

I think that I just have to accept that with plant-aholism comes the split personality requirements of fabulous colour and cooling minimalism, and that my garden has touches of both, and probably all the combinations/variations in between. And in that sense, it is not a design achievement, in the same way as I would like to think of my client work.  It’s a personal garden, with what I love in it, from all parts of the colour spectrum and also suiting various different growing environments, for which experience I am very lucky. And maybe, you know, I would forever be changing, developing, trying new things, in other words, tinkering even if I did think that design was the most important thing.

Enough rumination. On with the practicalities…

Eupatorium capillifolium 'Elegant Feather', Tostat, June 2015
Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’, Tostat, June 2015

The thing you want to look at in the above photograph is the feathery-leaved plant, which is now in its second year in this spot. The spot is west-facing so gets a lot of heat later in the day, but is also relatively moist, as I suspect there is a spring nearby just keeping the soil on the fresh side.  We have many small springs, as we found when our plumber did some dowsing for us, the garden is peppered with them.  This plant,  which seems to really like it here, is Eupatorium capiliifolium ‘Elegant Feather’ and has a a bit of a chequered history. as often is the case, I fell in love with the ‘idea’ of the plant when I was researching planting possibilities for my design diploma, and so, when I found it at a local nursery last year, I bought first one, then another three a few months later.

The very knowledgable Bernard Lacrouts, a fantastic nursery at Sanous, just outside Vic en Bigorre, said that it wasn’t a surefire plant, often succumbing in the winter to one thing or another.  Well, two did bite the dust, and a third has been removed to a pot for hospital care till it recovers. But the original one, though slow to get going in the late Spring, is doing fine in its west-facing spot. So, a partial loss or success depending on how you look at it. But it is a very unusual and lovable plant- just these columns of vibrant green, feathery foliage, and completely upright, so it makes a good contrast with almost anything else. I daren’t move it, but I will move the planting around it and put in something more becoming next year.

Malvastrum lateritium, Tostat, June 2015
Malvastrum lateritium, Tostat, June 2015

And this was such a lovely surprise. Malvastrum lateritium is an amazingly enthusiastic ground cover plant for semi-shaded areas, I bought three small plants in the Spring, and they are all romping away, covering an area of about 1.5.m x 1.5m.  It looks a bit like a ground-creeper, but then the flowers turn out to be so exotic.  Apricot coloured with a reddish flush at the centre, so pretty and should flower till the first frosts.