August in Oloron…

Amelanchier alnifolia ‘Obelisk’, Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Black Beauty’, Plantago major rubrifolium, Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather, with Paulownia tomentosa behind, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2021

It has been a very Scottish summer here in Oloron so far. A few very hot days, but mainly showers and a lot of low cloud- whereas on the other side of Toulouse in the Languedoc, people and plants are being cooked. But for a garden in the first summer of cultivation, this is probably what the doctor would have ordered as it is granting time for growth to take place in a relatively unstressed situation.

The Barn Garden is partially walled and also has tree presence from next door with sun cover from some very substantial trees on the other side of the wall. On planting up and rock removal, I was aiming for a super-jungly effect with a lot of architectural shapes and good foliage form. It’s not a big space but I wanted it to make a big presence and statement. So with the help of semi-mature favourites from the old Tostat garden and some purchases, I can begin to see what I was aiming at.

In the photograph above, plants from Tostat include Amelanchier alnifolia ‘Obelisk’, a small but slim shrub/tree, with flowers, berries, autumn colour and a good shape. It had toiled a bit in a large pot, but is now so much happier in the ground although needing a little extra water in dry periods in this first year. The Caryopteris is one of three cuttings taken last summer and is really enjoying the protection of the overhead canopy. It is just about to flower, and then you have the lovely clash of quite a bright blue with the golden green foliage. I love it.

The Pennisetum is new to me this year, the Plantago came from seed last year, and has been a fantastically good ground cover in the new garden, made even better by the vertical flowerspikes in a good, firm brown. The Eupatorium had a good outing in the last post so I won’t repeat myself, and so we come to my pollarding experiment, which is all new to me this year – Paulownia tomentosa. It is only a baby, aged 21 months, and there are 3 of these big babies to take care of. The idea being to cut them to the ground in the Spring and encourage dinner plate sized leaves and maybe 2 metres of growth- but not 40, which would be the full tree size. A nice bit of Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ can be seen on the far right, also brought from Tostat.

The big baby aged 19 months, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2021

Story so far is that I am beginning to see where I was headed, and so I try to go into the Barn Garden and stand or sit in a different place. It is so easy to see only what you have always seen and, for me, to look at individual plants rather than take a broad perspective on the whole. So I try and envisage the plants at full size that are destined to create the big shapes for the jungly feel, and overall, I think it’s doing pretty ok right now but will just need thinning out of some of the filler plants as next year goes on. It’s all fluid and I like that. Got to leave space for tinkering too…

Nearer the ground level as it were, sometimes great things happen in small ways. Salvia spathacea is a Californian sage which prefers shaded, woody areas, not what you expect. But here in the protected semi-shade, it is growing well and spreading rhizomatously, right next to the Rhamnus frangula alnifolia ‘Fine Line’ which struggled in the more exposed Tostat garden. I love it for it’s thready, feathery look and slim shape. I have also planted a ground cover sage, Salvia procurrens, which should run nicely underneath some of the bigger shrubs. It looks like a strawberry plant with bright foliage and runners, plus small blue flowers. This may prove to be an invader too far, but it’s worth a shot, we’ll see.

Salvia spathacea, Helleborus argutifolius, Rhamnus frangula alnus ‘Fine Line’, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2021

And now to some more survivors that came through me losing all the plant labels in the move. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purple Fall’ is a slightly needy grass, but so pretty. This is the first time it has flowered in the six years since I bought it, it never settled in Tostat but it is finally at home here and told me that by flowering.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purple Fall’, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2021

Today’s big surprise was realising that what I thought was a pretty hopeless hollyhock is in fact Kitaibelia vitifolia. Some time last year I bought seed of this, a tall hollyhock cousin from the Balkans, because it is tough, takes sun and poor soil and flowers in the second half of the summer, which is always specially welcome. The labels disaster struck and new things grown from seed for the first time vanished into the pot muddle which lived in the courtyard till Spring this year. Then I dusted off the survivors, mistook this (not a bad guess just askew) for a hollyhock but did plant it in a good place as it happens. So, though a little stunted by the poor treatment, it is still going strong. Roll on next year.

Kitaibelia vitifolia, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2021

My latest purchase is Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’. This is a close relative of ‘Amistad’ but apparently a tad hardier and also more compact in size. The black calyxes are fantastic, giving the blue a real shimmer of excitement, whilst the foliage is that good vibrant green of ‘Amistad’. I will find an outdoor space this winter with a little protection from winter wet and try it outdoors, with a few cuttings for insurance.

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2021

Burnout…or not quite

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Looking again…Yucca with Bupleurum fruticosum, Miscanthus strictus, looking across to Hydrangea Annabelle, Tostat, July 2017

The last two weeks of June were a flurry of gardens, visiting friends and reprogramming my eyes to a different kind of English luxuriousness and verdant views.  More of all of this in time.  But coming back home on Saturday evening to 11C and pelting rain, we lit the woodburner to warm ourselves and our frozen housesitters.  Venturing out early on Sunday morning, with eyes still working to English levels of greenness,  I was aghast.  The garden looked as if it had had a blowtorch taken to it.  More than a week of temperatures in the high 30Cs and not a drop of rain, not to mention hot winds had really taken its toll, despite the care and attention of the housesitters.

But.  As my eyes adjusted back to my own garden, I actually had a lot of cause for celebration which I came to see as I went round looking in detail.  First of all, not much had actually died.  I may have lost one Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’, but the other one is recovering even now, and so maybe it will too.  Burnt edges could be seen everywhere, but not much actual death.  And, this early July period is a bit of a ‘Potter’s Wheel’.  It’s always the time where the earlier summer flowering has gone over and the mid to late summer plants haven’t yet hit their stride, and really I should know this by now.

So major redesign panic over.   And a few days later, with sight fully restored to normal settings, I was able to appreciate the plants that had persevered and come through.  And there were one or two real surprises in the mix.  For example, new to me this year, was Kalimeris incisa ‘Madiva’– and it has proved a real stalwart.  In a new area, which I suspect does actually have some spring activity deep down, it is blooming really well, along with clumps of my cheap-as-chips Liatris spicata and a new annual purple millet that I grew from seed, Pennistum glaucum ‘Purple Baron’.  The Kalimeris is a 0.75cms high neat clump of bright green foliage, with mauve flowers fading to white, and is very pretty.  Let’s see what happens with spread and seeding, but it looks like a really good doer to me.

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Kalimeris incisa ‘Madiva’, Liatris spicata and Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Baron’, Tostat, July 2017

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Kalimeris incisa ‘Madiva’, Tostat, July 2017

The next morning, in the dappled sunshine early on in a part of the border by the wall that is a right mess- project for early 2018, even though my teeth were slightly setting at the disarray, a timid Southern White butterfly was enjoying Echinacea ‘White Swan’.  It seemed really good to be home.

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Southern White Admiral butterfly enjoying Echinacea ‘White Swan’, Tostat, July 2017

Come rain, come shine…

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End of the evening with Stipa tenuissima, Oenethora speciosa shutting up shop, and the last of Cerinthe major ‘Kiwi Blue’ in the distance, Tostat, May 2017

This May has been a bit of a rollercoaster, and in these moments, it is hard not to become totally obsessed with the weather forecast, and then what actually happens- usually not at all as predicted.  In summary, the dry soil sun-lovers have really enjoyed themselves and other things have not, some of which have hung on in there and one or two may have bitten the dust.  This is because I don’t water.  To be precise, I do spot-water things in extremis in their first year, but after that, I don’t.  Stubborn or what, you might well say.  But I am trying to finetune the selection and growing of plants that can live here unaided, and now that there is so much variability in the weather at any time of the year, it makes you feel a bit like William Tell trying to skewer that apple with both legs bound, and from a moving platform.

One of the plants that may have crashed and burnt is one of two Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’.  Interestingly, the one that is in the ER wagon is the one in the slightly less hot spot. I so wanted to grow this plant, having chosen it years ago as part of a planting design for my diploma course- and it was the devil of a job to find it here in France.  So I was mightily pleased when I found not one but two plants last year, and planted them in the early Spring.  It is a delicate, airy columnar shrub, which is pretty undemanding and is reputed to cope with almost any conditions, especially frost.  So, I will have to see if it will perk up from the bottom or find a way of making a comeback.   Meantime, some gentle watering on occasion as it is in the ER wagon.

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Verbascum bombyciferum, where it put itself, Tostat May 2017

Some delights have also turned up. That is not to say that Verbascum bombyciferum is entirely a delight as it can plonk itself slapbang where you don’t want it, and then you have to keep beheading it as it is impossible to get out, with a giant root system that practically goes to Australia.  But it is a mighty and impressive beast when it lands where you might not know that you want it, but you discover that you always did!  With us, the first year is quite a small affair, and then, aged 1-2, the giant seems to leap fully formed out of the ground in front of your eyes.  Felted, hairy and covered in custard-yellow small flowers, it is a one-stop insect feeding station.  It keeps the form and stature right through winter until, totally dried out, it keels over and you are tempted to shout ‘Timber’.

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Assorted foxgloves in dampish soil and sun, Tostat, May 2017

Curiously, it has also been a great year for foxgloves- all self-sown and obviously selecting the parts of the garden where they stand a chance.  That is one of the lovely things about not being too rigid about what goes on where, I love being surprised by what pops up and, also, flip side of the coin, by what doesn’t pop up.  Some years, the foxgloves don’t make much of an appearance- but they always return in the end.

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Euphorbia sikkimensis, Tostat, May 2017

Now here is a survivor.  Grown from seed and fairly weedy for a couple of years, this is the year where it has broken through youth to become a real plant of substance.  I think it’s Euphorbia sikkimensis anyway.  It’s at least 5 years ago that I grew it from seed and it wasn’t a happy sowing, as not much came up, and I lost the tag.  This plant is the only survivor of three.  But it really is worth it.  It is going to make a handsome 1m tall and wide plant, with these electric yellow flower bracts that form on the top of each stem.  Unlike some, it is not a thug, in fact, I would put it in the ‘shy and retiring’ category.  It flowers much later than the rest- sometimes as late as the end of June, and it is willing to cope with the driest, sunniest spot in the garden without any visible complaint.

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Evening sun and handling no rain pretty well, Tostat, May 2017

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Clematis viticella, Aruncus dioicus and the foliage of Paeonia lutea var.ludlowii, Tostat, May 2017