Life after confinement…

Nymphaea ‘Hermine’, Tostat, July 2020

Long while since I last wrote a blog article. A lot of life seems to have happened and I haven’t had the attention bandwidth to get to it. Having felt strangely guilty about that for a few days, this morning seemed the moment to dive in.

And we have made a surprise big decision since the end of the confinement at the beginning of June- we are moving to a small town nearer the Pyrenees and south of Pau- and therefore our house is on the market. It was a decision that we both came to- a move that we had thought we would wait five years or so to make. But something about confinement made us both feel that it was better to make the move sooner rather than later, and we astonished ourselves with the rapidity of the turnaround.

And so the garden feels different. No more planting to be done, and an interesting mixture of excitement, sadness and also distance has crept into my mind. My eye has turned to which plants are worth taking cuttings of, taking seed from, or just plain digging up and potting up to take with us when we go. Which could be anytime this year or next…so everything is being assessed and catalogued, a busy mental activity which substitutes for real gardening.

Nymphaea ‘Hermine’ has produced two flowers simultaneously- quite a feat for a plant that has only been in the new pond since the end of April. Single flowers have been coming for a while- they last a few days or less if it is hot and dry. I love the sharpness of the shape, lifting itself proudly out of the water. It is a dwarf variety, but I may not get to see the final size next year.

Dicliptera suberecta, which used to be called Jacobinia, is a great plant that will definitely be on the list to come away with us. I bought three small plants last autumn, took 2 cuttings, and all five plants have done brilliantly. They reach to about 25 cms in flower so far, with these fabulous scarlet slender trumpets, and are super drought tolerant with grey felted foliage. I am giving them some water today as we have had no rain for weeks and it is over 30C, so even they are toiling a little. If kept in very well-drained, stony soil, I reckon they would handle -7C or so, but no winter damp, so they are not as tender, I think, as many UK sites would suggest. Full sun needed.

Dicliptera suberecta, Tostat, July 2020

I grew these from seed this Spring, but owing to a cold and damp May, I never planted them out- and then there seemed not much point. But, for all that, I would grow them again, as they are just charming and easy from the off. Leonurus sibiricus, if planted properly, would make erect and steady spires with candelabras of pinky mauve flowers- and the foliage is pretty and interesting in itself. I will buy or collect seed and try again.

Leonurus sibiricus, Tostat, July 2020

On the pinky mauve front, you can’t have a more charming or floriferous medium arching shrub than Lespedeza thunbergii ssp.thunbergii Edo Shibori. Shoot describes it as wanting light sandy soil, but I think it needs a bit more beef than that, and certainly more moisture- though this may say more about our conditions here. But, the shape is elegant and easy on the eye, with the tiny pea-like flowers massed up and down the arching branches. I have cuttings, which are looking promising.

Lespedeza thunbergii ssp. thunbergii Edo Shibori, Tostat, July 2020

Pink is it. Here is a plant that arrived three years ago, died, and has now done a spectacular Lazarus act to return in fighting form this year. Another candidate for a hot, dry spot, Ononis spinosa has one downside- spikes, as the name warns us. But it’s bushy, upright and covered in pink pea-like flowers and is doing magnificently. Well done it. I love the old English name- Spiny restharrow.

Ononis spinosa, Tostat, July 2020

Staying with pink- how lovely Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ looks in the early morning sunshine- a lovely gift from a local gardening pal, merci bien Karen!

Pennisetum Karley Rose, Tostat, July 2020

And, since I am a dab hand at plantain, here is one you might want to try growing instead of ripping out. This has been a real surprise- from seed, it’s a bit slow on the uptake and looks, well, sickly for at least 6 months. While your back is turned, it seems to become turbo-charged and before you know it, it looks ready to take on the world. Here it is in the Australian-inspired bed I made two years ago, unwatered and handling drought like a pro. Not everyone might like the beetroot coloured leaves, but I do!

Plantago major Rubrifolia, Tostat, July 2020

Moving to coral…the ‘Summer Song’ rose is gorgeous, but annoying. Maybe it’s me, but the growth is spindly and very weak, so the lovely blooms get dropped downwards and they don’t last more than a day. So, I dug it up this Spring and put it in a recovery pot, and will do my best to feed it up and see if it will buck up. I hope so.

Rosa ‘Summer Song’, Tostat, July 2020

And to violet-mauve….this is the Powdery Alligator flag as it is called in the USA or Thalia dealbata to you and me. I get the powdery moniker, because, as you can see, the twisted purple flowers are shielded with a powdery grey covering and never completely open. But the real star element is the foliage. Elegant, slim paddles on thin, tall stems, give an Egyptian fresco feel to the plant. It would not look out of place in Tutankhamun’s tomb. It grows tall, up to 2m, and needs submersion in water. But what a knockout it is. It will need bringing in during the winter.

Thalia dealbata, Tostat, July 2020

Moving to deep pinky mauve, here are two Vernonias. The first I grew from seed last Spring, and it amazed me by handling drought and heat with aplomb, and then roaring back this Spring as a really good-sized clump from one tiny seedling. This year it is coming into flower now, and it is a beauty. The foliage is good too- feathery and dainty, making about 1m in height. I give you, Vernonia lettermannii. A fantastic plant.

Vernonia lettermannii, Tostat, July 2020

The big sister is Vernonia arkansana ‘Mammuth’, which is a really well known plant for dramatic height (at 2m plus) in moist conditions. I grow it here near the canal, to give it the moisture, and near the banana clump, which gives occasional shade and also topples the Vernonia when it rains. You can’t win ’em all.

Vernonia arkansana ‘Mammuth’, Tostat, July 2020

A tall, dry, sunny spot thug- but who can’t fall for aerial fried-eggs? is Romneya coulteri. Do not plant this unless you are willing/able to give it 24/7 sun and shockingly rubbish soil. That’s what it wants- plus room. It will mow down smaller plants in its path, so think stone wall to stop it or hold it in. But against a blue sky….wow.

Romneya coulteri, Tostat, July 2020

And if you are looking for a house and garden where all of these plants, and others, live…click on the link below.

https://www.abafim.com/restored-18th-century-farmhouse-ref-AF23784.html

Thinking about laziness and sustainability…

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Verbascum nigrum with white valerian, white lychnis and achillea millefolium in the New Garden, Tostat, June 2019

Quite a bit of the garden has lived through one-arm gardening this year.  Generally, this means that I haven’t done my thorough spring weed clearance, and so the early weeds have regained some territory.  But I should not despair.

Reading Thomas Rainer‘s approach to gardening sustainably,  I have found some solace. He suggests that the garden can be seen as a meeting point between plants that we insert as gardeners and the natural response of the terrain to the conditions of life.  Most terrain is populated by plants already when we garden- and we are removing the plants that are linked to that terrain and eco-system, replacing them with others that may not. 

I am cutting to the chase here as Rainer uses science and botany to develop these themes.  So, in my case, the early spring growing and covering of the ground with annual plants/weeds that I did not plant is part of the ecological balance of the ground I work.  Rainer, I think, would argue that the essence of modern sustainable gardening is the point of equilibrium we can create as we balance the insertion of the plants we want with the plants that already exist there.  He would probably also be able to demonstrate that the plants I remove have an ecological function for the terrain, retaining humidity and microbiological balance.  He is looking for a more fluid and sensitive approach to gardening which works with nature rather than being in battle with it.

Take the New Garden in the photograph above.  A month or so ago, I felt that it had really run away with me irretrievably.  All the usual suspects were back and in action, and my new plantings from last year were overwhelmed.  But, now, the balance has changed.  My plants, the Achillea millefolium in particular, have surged into growth and the annual suspects are dying back.  It would still look a bit messy close-up to the Percy Thrower gardener (British TV gardener of the sixties much loved as a suburban gardening hero)- but I am wondering whether ripping out the usual suspects in Spring may not actually be damaging the resilience of this dry, hot area.

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Achillea millefolium, New Garden, Tostat, June 2019

The puritan work ethic in me wonders whether I am just developing a serious case of post one-armed gardening laziness.  But I am dismissing this thought, and going with Rainer.  I think that the dying suspects will end up mulching the ground around/between the plants, and once the heat is up (soon) nothing new will insert itself in there.  I will let you know.

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Verbascum nigrum close-up, New Garden, Tostat, June 2019

I grew some Verbascum nigrum from seed a couple of years ago, and they are still giving.  I adore the up-close exoticism of the cerise and orange stamens, and the stateliness of the bearing.  The flowerheads last for at least a month, slowly opening bottom to top.  I also have some white ones, which have popped up in another part of the garden.  What a pay-back.

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Verbascum nigrum album, Tostat, June 2019

Another surprise returner this year has been Centaurea, popping up to give little hits of colour as if I had sprinkled them there myself.  I grew Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Ball’ last year which is a gorgeous deep maroon, almost black.  I have quite a few returnees of ‘Black Ball’ and, also some of the regular blue have appeared.  A sort of seed reversion I guess, but I don’t mind.

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Ceantaurea, Tostat, June 2019

Ali, the Mindful Gardener, thank you Ali, recommended this great plant to me last year, and so I bought seed.  Erodium manescavii came through easily, and is just beginning to flower.  At first, it doesn’t over-inspire, but now that the plants have settled in and are filling out the space, I can see that it will be a good choice.  Tufty, divided leaves spread out from a crown, and the flowers shoot up, a little hardy geranium-like, but a good size.  I don’t have it in the driest spot, but it is fairly dry all the same, so I will report back as the summer develops.

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Erodium manescavii, Tostat, June 2019

Early morning sun can be wonderful.  Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’– thank you Karen from Marsac, made a lovely crown for Rosa ‘LD Braithwaite’ the other morning.  The Pennisetum is easy, fuss-free, and does well in a sunny, well-drained spot.  Rosa ‘LD Braithwaite’ is getting better and better by the year, our stony soil takes a while to allow newcomers in- I just need to deadhead more often.

Good that I am almost back to two-armed gardening.

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Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ and Rosa ‘LD Braithwaite’ in tandem, Tostat, June 2019