Planting by pick-axe : part one…

The Barn Garden before we started, February 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

Planting by pick-axe is a new skill requirement for me- and is toughening up my arm muscles like I don’t know what. But planting is happening, and despite hitting 3-4 massive river galet stones with each hole that I dig for one of my transported-from-Tostat plants, I am really enjoying it. I have never been in quite such a ground-zero gardening situation before, as I have often modified or re-created areas of garden but never gone into a site with nothing in it before. Many of my plants are halfway or nearly mature, and so this helps give a sense of volume, but there is a lot of bare ground to cover and deal with. This year, I need to live with the blanks and gradually fill them as plants leaf up and I can get a better sense of what I am dealing with.

So, in the Barn Garden, behind the huge barn (bigger than the house), we have a south-facing space the size of an average town garden in the UK probably. Walled all round, apart from a gap where we have put green wire fencing, and with some mature trees leaning over from the neighbouring side, I am thinking that we will have some shade protection from those trees, which will reduce heat and enable more moisture retention in the soil than we had in Tostat. And the far corner, by the pale green chair, in the picture below, is actually in shade most of the day. This really excites me as I can try growing some plants I have never dared to before.

The Barn Garden, installing the concrete base for the table, February 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

So, under some of that shade, we have made a concrete hardstanding for our summer table and chairs, which will face three big raised vegetable beds, made with with old beams from a house in Tostat. A curly-wurly grassed area will separate the raised beds from the eating area, and the remaining swirl-shaped area will be planted with shrubs, small trees and perennials. I want a dramatic foliage-based planting in the shady corner, softening out to a semi-shaded mix of favourite shrubs, roses, grasses and perennials, then a hot, zingy, tall perennial and sub-shrub area in full sun. I want my cake and to eat it!

The raised veg beds being set up, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

The local municipal composting plant kindly let us have a trailer-load of rough compost for filling the bottom half of the raised beds and we nabbed a dozen big bags of horticultural compost on offer at the garden centre which will gradually top up the beds as they settle. Leaving some of the massive river galets in place, and using two favourite blue pots to create a destination, we have made two rocky paths into the planting, so that you we can get up close and personal with the drama of it all- I hope! So here are a fewof the plants I am using…

Barn Garden beginnings from the barn end, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
Barn Garden beginnings from the other end, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

I have bought a Schefflera taiwaniana for the shady corner spot. It’s only a baby now, but I am hoping it will make 3-4 metres in height in the next 3 years. I had also fancied a Schefflera alpina to be planted not far away, but it’s not yet available so I am boxing and coxing with a plan B there for the moment.

Schefflera taiwaniana, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

Brought from Tostat, and looking good despite a full winter outside is my Salvia Spathacea, which I grew from seed about 5 years ago. It has flowered for me, quite spectacularly in 2016, but not for the last couple of years. Despite being Californinian, it prefers a shadier spot than you would think, so I hope that I have got a better sun/shade balance here than in Tostat.

Salvia spathacea, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie
Salvia spathacea, June 2016, Tostat

And new to me, but I am a complete sucker for Hellebores, is Helleborus sternii ‘Boughton Beauty’. It has the classic sternii spiky leaves in almost bluey glaucous green, and a fistful of flowering buds. So, it’s on it’s own, away from the other Hellebores, in a possibly vain attempt to reduce cross breeding…but actually, I will love them whatever happens.

Helleborus sternii Boughton Beauty, March 2021, Oloron Sainte Marie

Scorched earth…

Burnt echinaceas and 2 surviving Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, Tostat, August 2020

It rained, 12 cms or so, yesterday evening and overnight. I felt as if I could feel it on my own skin even though I was indoors. My no-watering policy has been tested almost to the limits of my endurance, never mind the plants. Of course, the pain is caused by my playing with the edges of what the garden can take, and this summer, I have discovered more hot spots than I knew existed in nearly 17 years of gardening here. These hot spots haven’t always existed- but they are new evidence of the effects of climate heating in our part of the world. If and when we move to a new house, my garrigue garden plans are essential as I manoeuvre to find ways to grow plants that will make a garden a a good space for animals, insects, birds and humans.

So what has happened in drought tolerance that has changed in this summer? Hibiscus trionum is a pretty and tough shrub- this one I grew from seed about 12 years ago, and is now a 1.5m slim bush which has taken care of itself with no problems in previous summers. This summer burnt it, though it will shake the burn off as temperatures cool a little and with some more rain.

Hibiscus trionum, Tostat, August 2020

Phillyrea angustifolia is a tough, slow growing shrub which resembles an olive tree in leaf form and robustness. This one below was in a pot for the previous two summers, and this spring I planted it out in a mixed border. It had obviously not had enough time, even with four months or so, to get roots down enough into the soil. Not yet being very big, and my garden eyes being exhausted by all the heat and dryness, I didn’t spot it suffering in time. I think it will make it though.

Phillyrea angustifolia, Tostat, August 2020

Last month I took some photos of Plantago major rubrifolia looking beautifully ruby-coloured in the new tear-shaped border. I am so pleased with it, as the colouring has faded and the seedheads are dried to a crisp, but that plant is still here and will definitely survive.

Plantago rubrifolia, Tostat, August 2020

In the Stumpery, the ferns and persicaria have absolutely bitten the dust, the ferns will probably try for a comeback, the persicaria may not this year, but hey, Salvia spathacea, the rare Californian Salvia, grown from seed, is still green if a little bashed. I shall be overjoyed if it flowers, but that may be asking too much.

Salvia spathacea hangs on, Tostat, August 2020
Salvia spathacea flowering, Tostat, July 2016

Tagetes lemmonii has the most extraordinary smelly foliage- which even I can smell. Burnt coriander mixed with lemon gets close as a description, and my plants are slow to grow, actually needing plenty of heat to even get above ground, but the feathery foliage is pretty and green when not much else is looking so fresh and the custard-coloured marigold flowers come in October.

Tagetes lemmonnii, Tostat, August 2020

Cheating here, as these penstemons grow near a pot or in one- which I do water daily in the summer. Penstemon schoenholzeri flowers for months, scavenging water from the overflow of a scented pelargonium, and is a total joy especially when the tansy gets going. I got Tanacetum vulgare ‘Crispum’ as a small clump years ago, and it has always been very well-behaved for me. The foliage is standout in my view- fresh green all summer and beautifully frilly and ferny in appearance- and to top it all, you get the bright yellow button flowers as well.

Penstemon schoenholzeri and Tanacetum vulgare, Tostat, August 2020

This smokey purple Penstemon is a new one to me this year, and is in a pot ready for departure when we move. I have taken masses of cuttings already, as I love the cloudy coating on the buds before they flower, and the whole plant has a very upright and sturdy form. Penstemon ‘Russian River’ is splendid.

Penstemon Russian River, Tostat, August 2020

In the tear-shaped border which I made last year with an Australian emphasis celebrating our trip there 3 years ago, Dianella caerulea Cassa Blue has been a great choice. The first year was a wee bit touch-and-go, but this year, with no irrigation, it has really settled in and seems unphased by cold or drought. It is not tall, being about 50cms maybe, but the foliage is upright, clumps well and holds the blue tinge in the name really well in the second year. Tiny flowers came in our very hot spring, which will probably look a bit more impressive in later years. I like it.

Next to it, you can see the toasted foliage of Pittosporum tenuifolium Golf Ball, which is one tough customer normally, so I hope it will recover. The feathery foliage in the foreground comes from Vernonia lettermannii– a super good plant which I wrote about a few weeks back. It’s called Ironweed for a good reason.

Dianella caerulea Cassa Blue, Tostat, August 2020

In the heat, some colours really did sing. In a watered pot because it’s a tender shrub is Abutilon pictum (also known as Red Vein and Abutilon striatum), which I bought from Gill Pound in the Languedoc before she retired. What an orange…

Abutilon pictum, Tostat, August 2020

Darkest winter in 100 years…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Salvia spathacea, Tostat, January 2018

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Salvia spathacea, Tostat, June 2016

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Salvia spathacea and bee, Tostat, July 2016

 

Service interruption…

I am interrupting my three-part Paris blog to post to you about what is surviving in the garden, and even looking good, despite the fact that we have had no rain for what seems like weeks.  It was a dry Spring once we got past the soaking of February, and that theme has continued.  Fortunately we have only had a few really warm or hot days, but even so, the accumulated effect is of deeply dried-out soil conditions.  Our neighbour, Odette, describes this as ‘a year of nothing’ as her superb vegetable garden buckles under the dryness.

I have, yesterday, resorted to the hosepipe, which I never otherwise use, for two newly planted areas.  Desperate times.

So what is surviving?  This Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ seems to be supremely tough.  Last year, the first year in the ground, it hung on through thick and thin, and it is powering over the conditions.  However, Leucanthemum ‘Banana Cream’, just peeping out bottom right, has mostly been terminated by the massive slug population.

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Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ with some returning Leucanthemum ‘Banana Cream’, Tostat, June 2016

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Geranium himalyense ‘Birch Double’, Tostat, June 2016

This little geranium, Geranium himalyense ‘Birch Double’ was mostly wiped out by the dryness last summer, but look, one small plant is holding on.  Possibly I did over-reach myself with planting it where I did, but well, sometimes it works.

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Lychnis coronaria ‘Gardeners World’, Tostat, June 2016

I love Lychnis, but it is a terrible pest in the self-seeding department.  However, here is Lychnis coronaria ‘Gardeners World’ which is sterile, therefore has no seed and the same gorgeous magenta flowers, but double.  I suspect that the plants are a little less robust than their more normal cousins, for whom the phrase ‘tough as old boots’ doesn’t even come close, but next year will tell.

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Sanguisorba ‘Cangshan Cranberry’, Tostat, June 2016

This lovely Sanguisorba ‘Cangshan Cranberry’ is really worth buying beyond the lovely name.  In it’s third year with me, and now a stately clump, it measures 1.5m across and 1.5m tall, growing in the slightly moister conditions near the banana.  This year, and I suspect that this is a sign of some stress, it has developed the slightly odd-looking albino striping on some of the flowers, but the foliage is doing fine for the moment.

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Monarda fistulosa, Tostat, June 2016

This plant is doing fabulously.  Introducing Monarda fistulosa, which I started off from seed last year.  Monarda has always rotted with me, too much heat and too dry, but this American native came highly recommended for a greater tolerance of drier conditions and resistance to mildew, thanks to Seedaholic. I am expecting those shaggy mophead whorls of flowers in lilac any time soon, but I am already saluting it’s general fitness.  Another survivor, as a very young plant, of our murderous housesitter, it has come back fighting with fresh, green foliage and will be a good-egg plant. I am looking forward to the flowers.

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Flowering spike of Salvia spathacea, Tostat, June 2016

This gorgeous thing has been a complete surprise.  Currently standing at about 1.5m high, this huge flowering spike is the first time my plants have flowered.  I tried this from seed about 3 years ago, tempted as I was by Annie’s Annuals’ account of scarcity in it’s native California.  It’s a very smelly Salvia spathacea, or Hummingbird Salvia.  Huge, felted leaves carry that strong (unmistakeable even to my nose) smell.  And that was all it was doing until last week.  As you can see, the spike is six layers of flowers, and so they come out slowly at different levels.  What a thing.

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Abutilon under stress, Tostat, June 2016

But mostly everything  else is trying to lie low, hoping for rain.   This abutilon has folded its leaves flat against itself in an attempt to reduce transpiration.  So, I am about to get the jungle drums out and am scanning the weather forecast.  No hope yet.