Thoughts on planting and weeding…

Verbena bonarienisis with Daucus carota, Tostat, July 2019

Forced inside by the massive heat last week, I took to reading about gardens rather than gardening. Also, I am in a reflective state about the garden at the moment as I am noticing the changes from having less ‘arm’ to do maintenance, and I am curious about how this will shape up over the summer. So, picking up Noel Kingsbury’s article about planting density, which I would ordinarily have saved for a rainy day, set me thinking. I won’t recount all the detail as you can pick this up via the link, but working backwards from his reasons as to why more dense planting makes sense made great sense to me. He posits three main reasons for dense planting:

  1. Denser planting reduces the need for weeding
  2. It increases biodiversity, providing more cover and food opportunities for essential garden wildlife
  3. More plants mean more biological activity which supports an effective ecosystem

So, possibly post-hoc rationalisation, but here is what I think is going on in ‘The Mix’ my perennials/grasses/shrub combination underneath the cherry tree at the back. A spot of analysis follows…

The Mix, Tostat, May 2019

This May photograph is a little late to qualify as Spring, but it will do. You can see the massive importance of the wafty Stipa tenuissima, the tall Allium nigrum coming through, and the pink of the Oenethora all work well together.

Just now, early July, those Alliums are still there as seedheads, but the whole look has gone up a gear in height and variation. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is sparking red through the planting, and an annual tall daisy, with many small, white flowers, which self-seeded itself last year, and has really romped this year, has taken the eye up further, whilst the Phlomis longifolia var.bailanica is giving stature with seedheads, and the grey-silver of the Helichrysum rosmarinifolius ‘Silver Jubilee’ (now also seen as Ozothamnus) planted 2 years ago is poking through nicely.

The Mix, Tostat, early July 2019

In mid July, the whole scene will change as Monarda fistulosa, which has just begun to open, will ripple through the scene with warm pink long-lasting flowerheads and will compete as the daisy goes over to take over as the main theme. Later, Patrinia scabiosifolia will come in at early August with electric-yellow umbels shooting through leading to Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ in September.

The first flower, Monarda fistulosa, Tostat, early July 2019

All that I have done is chosen some plants and threaded them between one another fairly closely, allowed a little room for self-seeders, and other than removing the odd dandelion or plantain, I have left it to sort itself out. What I have realised is that between me and it, we have built up a flow of plants that move into the foreground and change the dynamic as time passes- giving way to others as they go. Very little has needed to be removed, and the shrubby elements, the Phlomis bailanica, Berberis thunbergii ‘Maria’, Helichrysum rosmarinifolius ‘Silver Jubilee’ and Miscanthus ‘Gracillimus’ have created the beginnings of a permanent structure as a backdrop.

The other article that continues to set me thinking was Alys Fowler’s article last week on weeding. I always like her thoughtful articles, and this year weeding has taken a back seat in Tostat. I have been surprised at how little this has bothered me, and I have learnt that I have only to wait for plants to grow up and over, thus hiding the interlopers. Then summer heat will finish most of the rest off. I just need to stay calm for the month or so in the Spring when it looks as if all is lost. I am going to go easy again on weeding next year. I adore the combination of the Verbena bonariensis and the wild carrot, Daucus carota and will welcome that back. (see top)

Where I will not go easy is my eternal battle with bindweed. But, 3 years ago, I grew and planted out Tagetes minuta all over the garden where we were under siege from bindweed. Tagetes minuta seedlings have continued to work away since them, and we have a very different garden thanks to them. I have ordered more seed for next year to bulk up the population.

Tagetes minuta still doing battle for me, Tostat, July 2019

One-armed gardening

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Auricula Jungfrau, Tostat, May 2019

So, the tendons are mending- but largely one-armed gardening continues as I am keen not to mess it all up again, which is probably what I did in the early Spring.  So, some parts of the garden are engaged in slugging it out with annual weeds and that nightmare called ‘Sticky Willy’ in Scotland…whilst other parts have benefitted from my rather feeble attempts with the left hand.  I have to just accept it.  Most things are in their 2nd/3rd years or older and so will eventually tower over the rubbish, which will start to wilt once the warm weather arrives.  Be stoical, I say to myself.

I bought some tiny auriculas on my last but one visit to Chelsea, which puts it at at least six years ago.  I loved them dearly outside in a little raised, stony bed in Linlithgow and they loved the coolness of it all.  Needless to say, they have toiled here- but they hang on in there and I keep them in the shade, but sometimes with less moisture than they would like.  This year,  Auricula Jungfrau has been the best- it is a pale pinky-peach colour, normally a little inside the beige range for me- but up close, they have a miniature baroque quality to them, and they look as if cherubim with nothing on should be holding them in swags.  I am rather glad that they are not cream-coloured as Barnhaven suggest in the link.

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Cerinthe yellow, Tostat, May 2019

This year, following a link on Noel Kingsbury’s new blog from Portugal, I bought seed from a lovely man called Liberto Dario.  He has a Facebook page and if you would like seed from him, message him on Facebook and he will send you the lists.  I have been really enjoying trying the seed out.  This gorgeous yellow Cerinthe was something I tried early this Spring.  It is about the same height as the blue Cerinthe, but a bit bushier in inclination and the flowers are a lot shyer.  You have to look for them under the mottled leaves, but they are so fresh and pretty with the red splodge at the top and the vibrant yellow.  They seem to be as tough as the blue, so let’s see if I can get seed from them later in the year.

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Geum Totally Tangerine, Tostat, May 2019

Poor old Totally Tangerine, I think, found last summer altogether too much, too much heat and too little rain.  By last year, my clumps of this great Geum were really big- this year they have been on a diet, but are still there.  I may consider moving them back into the shade of the Daphne in the autumn and see if that perks them up.

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Cotinus coggygria Royal Purple, Tostat, May 2019

This is the time of the year when, if it’s sunny, you need to be up either really early or getting into the evening-  the light is already almost too strong for good photographs.  But I just made it with the new foliage on Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’- vibrant ruby coloured and just flushed with dew.

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Rosa Mrs Oakley Fisher, Tostat, May 2019

There is a story to Rosa Mrs Oakley Fisher.  I bought one 30 years ago for my Mum, who was a green-fingered garden lover. I thought she would love it for the apricot flowers and the slightly 1920s form of it.  Embarassingly for her, it died on her, but she didn’t tell me till ages later. So, when I saw it again last year for sale here in France, I wanted one to remember my Mum by.  Last year, it was very unhappy and I thought it might have gone the way of the original.  But no, this year, it looks as if it has cracked it, and the slim, elegant buds are just about to burst on the next sunny day.

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Convolvulus Cneorum, Tostat, May 2019

Frost is still around. This isn’t unusual but a bit annoying.  It is one reason, as well as the one-armed situation, why my tender pots are still all clustered, albeit outdoors, near to the house at the back where they get a bit of warmth from the walls.  Just a touch of frost though gives some plants a diamond-necklace look. It certainly doesn’t bother Convolvulus cneorum at all- one of life’s tougher troopers.

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Geranium maculatum ‘Espresso’, Tostat, May 2019

Here is a real surprise.  A comeback kid, that didn’t ought to have.  A too-late-in-the-season purchase last Spring, which I knew was a risk,  didn’t make it and I kicked myself-again.  But, only one small sprig, but alive neverthless, popped up, coming through the foxglove leaves to flower.  The other thing to remember about geraniums is that they really are tough- don’t give up on them.

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Rosa Alissar Princess of Phoenicia, Tostat, May 2019

Being of part-Persian stock, I bought this lovely little rose, Alissar Princess of Phoenicia, expecting it to be tough and able to cope with heat.  It has struggled a bit, but this year, in its 3rd year, may have got itself on an even keel.  The only slight disappointment is that I don’t get the rather charming colour change in the flowers from cream to pink.  This may be because it is in a sunny spot from the off, but all the same, it is pretty.

‘Good for the soul’ weekend in Paris part 1

I can’t even speak about Brexit because I am so angry and ashamed in equal measure.  Angry that all of this has been unleashed as a catastrophic error by Teflon Dave and his mates, and ashamed that so many of my generation and older, who should remember wartime, have denied our children the benefits of being European.

A very good blog by Noel Kingsbury captures it pretty much.

But, the soul benefitted very much from a really great weekend in Paris, feasting on all things botanical.  And so to that.

I really went to Paris with Andy pretty much with the sole objective of catching the ‘Jardins d’Orient’ exhibition at the Institute du Monde Arabe, but ended up seeing and doing so much more.

But to start with the exhibition.  It was a rare opportunity to learn about the history of the Islamic garden, and the enormous and pervasive influence that it had on the Western world from before Jesus Christ till now.  The indoor exhibition was a comprehensive bringing together of artefacts, photographs, drawings, carpets and costume telling the story of the significance of the Islamic garden as a space for pleasure.  We spent nearly two hours inside taking in the exhibits.

There was a fascinating section on the technology and science of water distribution and retention which revealed much that we in the modern world could usefully adopt.  The one item that spoke to me was a small oblong of clay, dating back to 3500BC.  This tiny thing  was in fact a written contract to construct a canal for a garden.  The photograph below is not the exact item that I saw, but gives an idea.  It measured maybe 7-8 cms square.

Cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia detailing the numbers of animals owned by a man dating from approx. 3000BC. Photo credit:

Outdoors, in the courtyard of the IMA, accompanying the exhibition was a contemporary garden specially designed to evoke the spirit of the Islamic garden principles that the exhibition had explored.  The French landscape architect, Michel Pena, designed the courtyard garden, and the land artist, Francois Abelanet, created an anamorphosis or optical illusion to contribute to the space.

There were some lovely details in the garden.  Here is a pick of some that I noticed.

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The tiled sitting walls evoke Andalucia, and the pots of orange, oleander and olive make a convivial and attractive space, Jardins d’Orient, IMA, Paris, June 2016

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A stepped Corten steel water ladder fed a central canal that bisected the garden, Jardins d’Orient, IMA, Paris, June 2016

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A refreshing contemporary use of grasses, Carex testacea giving a bronze tone and Festuca glauca ‘Azurit’ contrasting with blue/grey tones.


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A striking use of red and yellow was scattered through the planting.

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A cool green and white planting of an olive tree surrounded by white French marguerites and salvia.

But, for me, although I would applaud the successful creation of a restful and convivial space in an otherwise unforgiving concrete environment, the design as a whole didn’t succeed in bringing all the elements together.

The vast numbers of large clay pots filled with roses could have made a perfumed paradise, but the choice of scentless modern hybrid teas had prioritised flowering power over perfume and attractiveness.  I couldn’t help thinking that a selection of species or old roses with varying flowering periods, but with beauty and scent, would have been a better choice.

The planting was too sparse for what was, in effect, a 3 month show garden, with the result that bark chippings predominated.  Shame.  And to be honest, the anamorphosis or optical illusion, a large tilted area, underneath which relaxing seats were placed, was a damp squib really.  Most visitors when I was there, struggled to see the ‘illusion’ without the use of phones or cameras.  It would have benefitted the space better to have created two or three pavilions, in a contemporary style, rather than dominate the proceedings with the anamorphosis, to my mind.

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The anamorphosis. You may be able to see the eight pointed star created around the central basin…or you may not!

Sometimes less is more.

But having said that, the garden did create a very pleasant interlude with mint tea, cakes and snacks available, that did capture the spirit of the Islamic garden in the way it was used.  And for many visitors, that would have filled the bill.  I enjoyed my snack lunch there too!

Oh joy! It is the season for…couchgrass

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Rosa sanguinea and friends, including….masses of couchgrass, Tostat, May 2016

I thought it would be best to confess.  I am one of the world’s greatest cultivators of couchgrass.  Well, I assume it is couchgrass although, according to various authorities, it may well be something else botanically.  But I am sticking with couchgrass as a generic term referring to what you see in large clumps above on my shitty bank.  My shitty bank is essentially stones and spoil from the swimming pool excavation, and so you may say, what do I expect?  And you would be right.  I have no expectations of not growing couchgrass.  But this late Spring season when, like last week, you get the fatal combination of warm sun and rain, is when the couchgrass seriously moves in.

And I am much more relaxed about it than I was eleven years ago.  I now understand that it just comes with the territory in a largely agriculturally surrounded village.  And, although I will welly in later when the rain stops and do some pulling up, knowing that this wet period makes the soil, such as it is, able to loosen its grip on the couchgrass roots- I also know that time will help me.  In about six weeks or so, shitty bank will be crispy dry and the couchgrass will burn and dry.  As long as I have made a bit of a dent in it with my pulling activities, time and weather will keep it at bay till the frosts come.  I also know that there is no point in planting small, delicate plants on shitty bank as they will not rise above the couchgrass guerrilla tactics.

Here is an example of how I have learnt to live with couchgrass in a damper part of the garden.

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Anemone hupehensis, Iris pseudacorus, Paeonia ludlowii….and a few wisps of couchgrass waiting to be pulled, Tostat, May 2016

Here, by the ruisseau, is a sunny and dampish part of the garden, which also increases the likelihood of bindweed.  Here, after various attempts at handling the couchgrass, I am opting for ground cover that will blot out most of it, leaving only what I call ‘wisp management’- same technique as above, but again, only after rain, the gentle, sharp tug will bring out root and all…for now.

Just to the left of this group, I have a new colony of Phlomis russeliana, which will do a grand job in a month or two.  I read about Phlomis russeliana as a weed suppressant in the helpful Noel Kingsbury blog.  He helped me see what I could have noticed for myself as I love this plant and have lots in the garden in all sorts of different spaces.  But, in the photograph above, you can see that the Japanese anemone works too…You just have to always manage the suppressor as well.  Otherwise the suppressor becomes the tyrant.

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Phlomis russeliana doing a great job in another part of the garden, no lovely creamy yellow flowers yet, Tostat, May 2016

On the subject, briefly, of bindweed, I have also grown Tagetes minuta from seed, following helpful advice from Sarah Raven’s website and the Wellywoman blog, another great source of help and advice.  I have about 25 good looking small plants, which I am going to plant in a couple of places and try out.  It sounds as if you need to plant them in groups around the affected area and the chemical extrusions from the tagetes root is what deters the bindweed.  It’s got to be worth a try, and at the worst, you have extra, feathery foliage that looks quite nice without much else in the flower department.

But meantime, I did do one thing in time this year- staking the herbaceous paeonies, and this one, not sure which it is, looked terrific even after another blasting by heavy rain.  Good for the soul.

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Droplets of rain on an unknown paeony, Tostat, May 2016

Hiding from the storm…

This is a tricky time for gardeners.  Impatience can be the name of the game, as warm, sunny days are followed, as now today, with battering winds and rain.  I am sitting here looking out apprehensively as a tall pine tree, within reach of the house, twists and turns in the wind with a full canopy of leaf and branch.  Our mad dog, Dave and I, were out earlier and beat a hasty retreat when a large 15′ tree branch crashed to the ground about 5m from us.  The only good thing is that, usually with us, a storm that brews up so quickly dies down quickly, even if it is a bit dramatic in spate.  I hope the daffodils, the first ones just ready to burst buds, are supple enough to take it and bounce back.

So, the mind turns to Spring and the new plants, as well as old favourites, that I am trying this year.  I have taken a firm line with my Miscanthus seedlings, dug them out, potted some up for a plant exchange in the village in April.  The same thing has happened to a slightly over-enthusiastic clump of Hellebores, orientalis and foetidus, all of which have been potted up for the plant exchange.   I really value Helleborus foetidus for its elegant, almost tropical foliage, and the beautiful red lip on the inside of the flower, which is glorious if caught in the sun.   It is also known as the stinking hellebore, something to do with the leaves when wet- but I have never noticed this.  With me, once established, it will sprint for England, so tight management is required.

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Helleborus foetidus in evening sun, Tostat, March 2015

This year, for the first time in years, I am having a go at using shrubs properly, and have invested in some that are new to me.  Monty Python has not exactly helped the shrub- nor indeed, has the over-enthusiastic use of quite boring ones in British gardens of the 60s and 70s.  But for several years, Noel Kingsbury, who I very much like as a garden writer, has been heralding the return of the shrub- so I thought I would join him.

So, at the front of the house where I inherited some rather tired old bits of hydrangea, one of which I am keeping, I am planting 2 Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum  ‘Shoshoni’ between the windows where their width won’t get in the way of the shutters being folded back.  Here is a second cousin of ‘Shoshoni’ which I saw at the Inner Temple Garden in London last April, and really liked.

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Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariessii’ ( I think) at the Inner Temple Garden, London, April 2015

‘Shoshoni’ will, I think, be wider, flatter shaped and only about 1.5m high, ish.  But it will give a fairly classical look to the front of the house, which I don’t think wants a riot of colour, unlike what I love at the back!  My plant is currently about 20cm tall, so it will take a while, but, given the vagaries of rainfall, I think I am better off waiting with a little plant that will toughen up, than spending much more on a big one that could fail.

And, pairing up with ‘Shoshoni’ will be a couple of Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’ growing under the windows.  A small, slender, spreading deutzia, it will look very pretty there and not irritate the windows.  Now, it may be a little sunny there for the Deutzia, but there is a fair bit of rain run-off from the roof, which keeps it on the moist side of dry.  I was inspired to try this by the great blog written by Carolynn’s Shade Garden, whose selections are delectable and knowledgably written of, and photographed by Carolynn.  I don’t have a lot of shade, but she is a great reference point and thoroughly to be recommended.

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Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’ photo credit:

About 10 years ago, passing a super-cheap bag of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ bulbs at a Homebase somewhere, I bought the bag and planted them at the front of the house.  I have now mostly lifted them all to make way for the new shrubs, but it’s a blessing because, owing to the aforementioned rain run-off, these Crocosmia have spent their entire life flattened and flowering horizontally.  So, they will go to a better place in due course.  I adore Crocosmia, the colours, the fine, upright (well, except for these ones) leaves and the fact that they are totally bomb-proof.  I wish they flowered for longer with us, usually the late summer heat cooks them a bit.

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Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, just before flattening, Tostat, June 2015

I have another Crocosmia rain run-off problem which I hadn’t thought about till the last couple of years.  Underneath our beautiful and much-loved banana, well, actually nearly 2m away, I planted a stand of an unknown orangey Crocosmia, smaller than ‘Lucifer’, which I got at a plant stall locally from an old chap.  Trouble is, it only takes one big rainstorm in the summer, and the banana leaves create a Niagara Falls-type effect, pretty much flattening the Crocosmia altogether.   Here’s a snap of a really bad banana deluge after a massive storm in 2014.

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Banana and Andy, Tostat, summer 2014

So, the Crocosmia need to come out, be found a new home, and a more robust solution found.  I feel another shrub coming on…





The iris that thrives on sun and poverty…

This is the Iris for me. Iris unguicularis. Tough, obliging, very pretty and the only thing braving the snow today and deciding to flower.  This is the story of a ‘hit’ and a ‘miss’. I was moving some kniphofia last October, and I though that this was a baby kniphofia, odd that there weren’t any flower remnants, but well..Today I found out what it was.  All the books tell you NOT to move them, apparently they hate it. But, and this might be the upside of the mistake, late autumn is a window for moving, if you have to. So that probably saved the bacon.  As you can see from my picture, it is blooming in the snow.  My ground is pretty free-draining and that is also good for it.  It’s used to tough, hot Greek hillsides, so no pampering.

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Iris unguicularis Tostat Feb 15

On the ‘hit’ side of things, it is really pretty and I would have missed it as it had chosen to tuck itself away at the back of this not very inspiring clump of leaves, but I was looking for something else, and there it was. I consider that a ‘hit’.  Vita Sackville West was very partial to what she called the Algerian Iris, and wrote a piece for ‘The Guardian’ about it, and Noel Kingsbury, another great garden writer that I enjoy, also has a soft spot for it- his picture looks more like mine, unlike Vita’s more exotic looking one. Come to think of it, I think that I got this in a job lot of bulbs once, so I really have put no effort into it. What a result.