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

Living with Phlomis all year round

I have come to really love the whole world of Phlomis.  So many great plants, especially for those of us who are drought-challenged on occasion, and, in my garden, there is a phlomis doing something all year round.  I never set out to have so many, but I adore the shapes, the foliage, the flowers and the strong scent (which even I can smell) that the summer-flowering phlomis give off when the temperatures mount.

Phlomis russelliana 1215
Frosted Phlomis russeliana leaves, Tostat, December 2015

I have often blogged about Phlomis russeliana, so I won’t repeat myself.  Suffice to say that the foliage can be a bit dog-eared in the winter if it is a wet one, but, if not, it holds up really well and the hairy leaves attract the frost quite beautifully.

Phlomis purpurea started blooming for me in February, carrying on in full flush until the end of April, and still flowering off and on even now.  It may have regretted this, as February was a very wet month, and one of the plants is having a bit of a dieback right now.  But my experience of this plant is that it does periodically take the hump, but, usually, there are newer shoots that remain alive and kicking, and so some judicious pruning will allow those to carry on.  With me, growing in a hot and sunny position in poor soil, it reaches 1.25m high and wide.  It is a very sculptural shape, making a big bowl of standing stems with the delicate colouring of the flowers as a bonus.

Phlomis purpurea 316
Phlomis purpurea, Tostat, March 2016

The plant that started it all off for me was given to me by Professor Katherine Worth, of Royal Holloway College in London way back in the mid80s when Andy taught there.  She gave me the Phlomis variety that is probably the most commonly grown in the UK,  Phlomis fruticosa.  Against our garden fence in Surrey, it soon reached a massive 1.75m or so height and width, and made a very queenly statement in our first proper garden.  It remains evergreen all through winter, and is a truly great shrub in my view, but does need space.  I was forced to take action against ours last year, but really what I need to do is make that area a priority for next year, so that it gets the space it needs.  Hence, it looks a bit straggly in the photograph.

Phlomis fruticosa 516
Phlomis fruticosa, Tostat, May 2016

I know I did have a Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’, but I can’t talk about that as it has disappeared from the scene.  This has happened once before, so it may be telling me something.  But a tall, slender Phlomis cousin is doing very well and producing lots of little ones that I am busily potting up.  Phlomis ‘Samia’ is spectacular.  Upright, statuesque spikes with paired heart-shaped leaves are then joined by pale lilac, almost dusty brown flowers in the classic Phlomis whorled shape.  It takes a while to get going in my view, and absolutely prefers hot, sunny spots with poor soil, and no additional water than whatever turns up as rain.  It really doesn’t need good soil and would risk getting too wet in the winter which would kill it.  So I would recommend ignoring good soil requirements on many sites and in many books.

Phlomis Samia 616
Phlomis ‘Samia’, on the left, Tostat, early June 2016

Phlomis Samia 615
Phlomis ‘Samia’ close-up, Tostat, June 2015

Olivier Filippi, the topclass nurseryman and author on dry gardening, produced a hybrid bred from longifolia and fruticosa stock, and it is a superb plant.  Phlomis ‘Le Sud’ has a warmer yellow flower than fruticosa and more vivid green leaves with a hint of longifolia about them, and makes a mound just a bit more than a metre high and wide.  It is as tough as old boots but much prettier. Very drought resistant, evergreen, undemanding.

Phlomis le sud 2 516
Phlomis ‘Le Sud’, Tostat, May 2016

And another phlomis that I fell over, and am also fond of, which is, I think, going to be a little smaller in habit than ‘Le Sud’ is Phlomis longifolia var. bailanica.   It is often described as being only marginally hardy, but I would agree with Beth Smith of the Plant Heritage Devon Group.  She describes it as being hardy to -15C.  You can see her own photograph on the link which shows the longer, slimmer leaves better than mine.

Phlomis longifolia var.bailanica 516
Phlomis longifolia var. bailanica, Tostat, May 2016

If you would like a more exotic tint to your foliage, you could try this.

Phlomis x termessii 616
Phlomis x termesii, Tostat, June 2016

This tall phlomis, Phlomis x termesii, with a very upright habit, has wonderful golden-kissed felting on the young foliage, and longer, slimmer longifolia type leaves.  I bought this from Olivier Filippi’s nursery three years ago and it gets better every year.  Recently, from the new owners of La Petite Pepiniere, I bought my smallest Phlomis.  Phlomis cretica is a tot by comparison with the others, and doesn’t look much right now, but I know it will come good to make a small shrublet of about 0.5m high and wide.  It is a tiny star in the making.

Phlomis cretica 616
Look hard, it’s Phlomis cretica, Tostat, June 2016