Sunday, 10 November 2013

Returns to La Mou

Late October and an invite to La Mou.  I jumped at the chance.

Peering excitedly through the plane window I still feel a great thrill in the first glimpse of the Mediterranean over the crumpled mountain ridges of central France. Sombre-looking forests and bare beige rocks give way to turquoise sea and the deep reddish glow of the sandstone of the massif de l'esterel. Colour replaces black and white – I can see why this special corner of France has held people’s affection for so long.

Dusk was falling and I approached the garden with some trepidation. How would it look? Would my ‘grand finale’ of experimental plantings have all failed, sizzled to a crisp in the relentless southern summer? I’d planted a lot in those last few months, hundreds upon hundreds of plants; many bought, many propagated by me. A lot of pride, as well as cash, was at stake.

As I crept out in the morning, lightly hungover from a very warm welcome, trepidation turned to delight on every corner. To an uninformed observer it must’ve looked as though I was having a very slow seizure, as I ooh-ed and aah-ed, bent over, stood back and generally gasped a lot.

The fat leafy clumps of Echium pininana, thigh high when I left in March, had become three-metre monsters by my first visit in early June, towering over visitors and inviting comment from far and wide (right). Now at the other end of summer, the echiums were long gone but the tiny slips of Salvia confertiflora planted nearby greeted me at head height, waving their long wands of fuzzy red flowers invitingly in the breeze (below).

Curving steps of ancient and weathered railway sleepers lead up from the Arena, to two south-east facing terraces. On clear days mountain villages dozens of miles away appear from the haze in the river valleys that snake between La Mou and distant Nice. These terraces, long since abandoned save for a solitary olive tree, are the site of two experimental gardens. Un-irrigated, wild, woolly, "naturalistic" gardening, betting on their summer survival was the perhaps the biggest gardening gamble I'd ever taken. To be continued...

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Hacking Season

No, I’ve not joined News of the World, but still, a ruthless spirit of ‘editing’ has permeated my work this week. Perhaps I have some Viking roots that my parents kept quiet - this week has been a full-on gleeful spree of hacking, cutting, slashing and burning [although fortunately not much raping or pillaging].

It’s that time of year when the garden is at its very barest and one can be most objective. Every leaf that’s going to fall has fallen, nothing has grown much in a couple of months, and the garden’s structure is at its most visible. Standing back looking at the rockery, it suddely struck me how overgrown the Rosa banksiae were. Cue hard pruning - the removal of a whole truckload of ‘geriatric wood’ - what I call the overgrown old stems that look a bit gnarly and seem to have forgotten what they’re there for, producing neither flowers nor leaves in any great quantity.

Sometimes when you see a plant every day it’s difficult to realise when it needs a damn good seeing-to. Pruning saw in hand, roses sleek and rejuvenated, I felt flush with the achievement of doing something that had so sorely needed doing for such a long time. And so procedeed to set about three hugely tangled wisterias and the doddery old roses along the front drive - plenty of geriatric wood there.

The most fun part I saved till last, the ornamental grasses. Now is the time to cut the deciduous ones right back, down to absolutely nothing. Noel Kingsbury advocates strimming, raking then using a lawnmower on the highest setting.  The wonderful Paul and Pauline McBride at Sussex Prairies have an even easier, nature-inspired solution. A match.

Most grasses have evolved with fire (it keeps landscapes open, preventing dense forests from shading them out), regrowing rapidly from ground level. Here’s a small bed of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ doing what it does naturally:

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A new year and two new terraces, cold frames bursting with unusual and interesting plants ready to go; utter joy for a confirmed plant geek like me.  But geekery does not a garden make... and herein lies one of the biggest problems keen gardeners face.

Growing as many different plants as possible - and let’s face it there are literally thousands to choose from - poses a huge challenge in terms of design. The ‘one of everything’ approach gives a garden a haphazard, unsettled appearance, spotty like a Monet viewed at too close range.

The answer lies, in my opinion, in giving the garden what Penelope Hobhouse (everyone do the cross sign over your heart, for she is the patron saint of gardeners) calls ‘good bones’. A structure from which to hang all the loose diaphonous planting, billowing perennials and interesting little Phlomis that would otherwise just sink into the general woolliness. “Good bones” can involve hard landscaping and sometimes even earth contouring, but tends to mean hedges and topiary.

Newly planted Phillyrea wedges
For the two terraces I’ve chosen two different plants and taken ideas from two very different gardens. The lowest, the so-called ‘Mediterranean Terrace’ has “wedges” - differing triangular sections of Phillyrea latifolia that slice into the garden almost as if they were the fins of a school of sharks swimming underneath. Their glossy leaves are a particularly handsome shade of dark green which will contrast well with the many grey and silver-leafed plants. 

The inspiration for this came from a garden I looked at a few years ago for BBC Gardeners’ World; Weir House in Hampshire, England. Here the designer Jill Billington gave a beautiful 18th century house a modern yet sensitive garden. She doesn’t seem to have designed that many gardens, but that one really struck a chord with me, elegant yew wedges giving a contemporary twist to an idyllic English idyll of green lawn, apple trees and clear lazy stream running along the boundary. It’s open a couple of days a year for the National Gardens Scheme.  

The second, higher plot is the so-called ‘Southern Hemisphere Terrace’ (waiting for a more elegant name to present itself). Here lots of the plants will be darkish evergreen shrubs so the whole contrasting colours thing won’t work as well. Instead I’ve decided to work more on the shapes - using hedges as a unifying element, adding planes of light to otherwise again fluffy mass of foliage. Inspiration here came from a much better-known garden, Hummelo in the Netherlands, home another garden guru, Piet Oudolf. Good old Piet, he’s already spurred us to plant a Prairie Garden on the other side of the property, and now here he is among the Grevilleas and Leucodendrons.

Hummelo, October 2010
A big part of Hummelo’s genius is the fact that Piet’s wonderful, airy planting has a great backdrop in the large and undulating series of yew hedges at its periphery. 

These catch the light, adding wonderful shapes and solidity, amplifying infinitely the impact of the plants in front. 

In my own small way I have imitated this in a series of low, wavy hedges made from the dwarf myrtle - Myrtus communis subsp. tarentina.  They’re still small and sparse, but already they give a good idea of what’s to come. I can't wait to see them thicken up in the springtime. 

In the meanwhile here's a picture of the Grevillea 'Winpara Gem' bursting into flower just as the year gets to its coldest month. God Bless the Aussies! 

Grevillea 'Winpara Gem'

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Exciting changes are afoot in the garden. Almost exactly a year after the huge holm oak was toppled by snow, C has linked the ‘Arena’ (as we call the garden created in its wake) to the rest of the garden by a curvaceous sleeper staircase along the foot of the cliff. Funny how hard landscaping projects like this can totally change the feeling a garden... Suddenly a part that was just background blur becomes included in the field of vision, and one’s latent urge to design and plant comes into sharp focus... watch this space...

In the meanwhile I’ve been busy planting other, more readily accessible areas. Two terraces above the old potager which were just flat, empty; strimmed yearly to keep the Smilax and other horrors at bay. Except they weren't all horrors. Wild Cistus and Rhamnus alaternus clung to the edges. In early summer last year I’d planted that trusty South African, Nerine bowdenii along the baked edges of the terrace walls. With autumn rains these bloomed beautifully and reminded us that within these dull empty rectangles there was... potential.

The water bill arrived - incidentally during a huge cloudburst - and it was well, eye-watering, forgive the pun. An intensive day inside drinking tea, watching rain and ruminating gave forth the idea to create two new gardens, unirrigated, on the terraces. The bottom is a Mediterranean Garden using only the most drought-tolerant plants, which must look good in summer (not the natural state of affairs for the native flora round here which peaks in April/May and steadily goes into hibernation until the September rains). Quite an ask.

Nerine bowdenii on the terrace wall
The nature of the soil and site - plus the gaudy pink Saffa Nerine bowdenii blooming on and on till almost Christmas gave us the idea for the next terrace. It’s quite simply the warmest, driest, best-drained part of the garden, and a century or more of leaf litter cascading from the steep woods above has given the sandy soil a deep cap of leafmould.

Gardeners, in common with almost everyone else, always want what they can't have. One of the families in particular which seems to drive us all to distraction, so utterly different from northern hemisphere plants, is the southern hemisphere's precocious Protea family (Proteaceae).

I remember working on a shoot with BBC Gardeners' World at the stunning Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Isles of Scilly, stuffed full of the most weird and wonderful Proteaceae, from tree-like Banksias  with flowers like huge fluffy candles made of yellow fur to Protea susannae with its own equally mad-looking, UFOesque flowers. "Better than sex!" was how one elderly visitor summed them up. I was hooked.

Beauty comes at a price. They're a demanding bunch -  perfect drainage, as little frost as possible and acidic soil are the broad requirements. A challenge for a garden 1200ft up, mostly on clay and backed by limestone cliffs.

Still smarting a year on from the loss that fateful snowy night of our only member of this family, a Grevillea ‘Robyn Gordon’ which had been doing surprisingly well down on the sticky clay at the Guest House, I resolved to grow these treasures again, and to grow them well. This was to be their place. To be continued!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Happy New Year

It’s a nervous start to the year as watch the snow envelop ever closer ranges of mountains, only to retreat, regroup, return. Looking through the garden diary for this time last year it was the same, calm before the storm, bright sunny days, tender flowers blooming on and on, seemingly unaware of their imminent fate...

The prairie garden is putting on an unexpectedly good show: - about half the Miscanthus nepalensis decided to flower again in December, and now the glistening flowerheads are joined in colourful complicity by leaves which have turned every tone from olive green to brightest copper and deepest old gold. It’s a great contrast with the naked chalky-white stems of Perovskia and the ever-faithful Stipa (Nassella) tenuissima.

In the meanwhile I carefully fleece the bougainvilleas and echiums, praying for clement weather...

More recent photos here

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

If this blog were a plant it’d be called something like Sporadicus occasionalis; appearing after rain or somesuch event that spurs a bit of creative sap!

Somehow I always think of the year as a circle - and now on the bottom right corner, in freefall to the darkest moment - the solstice at the very base, I have the treat of watching the sun rise as I cycle to work every morning.

Sometimes Corsica (100 miles distant as the crow flies) appears, as if mirage; mountains floating on the sea, only to disappear once the sun has been up for a maximum of five minutes. Small private pleasures that seem only mine.

As I start work stunning shadows appear as low sun streams through sudden voids where the oaks have begun to lose their leaves -  summer’s dense uniform green canopies turning into airy vaults of gold and coppery leaves that shimmer as they fall later on windless afternoons.  Acorns are more prosaic, plummeting workmanlike to the ground and narrowly missing me as I weed the parsley in the new potager. On these still chilly mornings mist fills valley after valley, sliced through by dark needles of shadow from brooding cypresses on their ridges.

So much has happened in the last few months, both personally and in the garden, that I can scarcely keep up. Apologies for the lack of bloggage. The Prairie Garden continues to surprise - it continued to look great right until early November, the Perovskia and Miscanthus nepalensis being absolute stalwarts. Curiously enough some of the miscanthus have started to flower again - this relatively little-known kind is rapidly becoming one of my favourite plants.

The arena threw up a huge surprise, literally. Cooler weather in early November started to show the men from the boys so to speak, as it became suddenly glaringly obvious which plants were tropical and which weren’t. The trailing “morning glories” which have provided walls of colour throughout the summer suddenly started to look a bit like tatty net curtains. I’d heard somewhere that they’re closely related to sweet potatoes so dug them up carefully. And what a reward:

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

No Bison Yet

Our 'Prairie Garden' really has been a tale of the unexpected.

First came its birth from a weed-infested terrace - thistles with shocking roots almost as thick as my wrist; to the sudden discovery that the soil varied from clay so tough a potter might struggle with it - to almost pure sand. Not to mention the long delay caused by a snowstorm felling a huge Quercus ilex and changing the landscape of the garden forever (see last post).

Every cloud has a silver lining, and just as the huge crater left by the fallen tree has now become a lush garden full of exotic salvias with a spectacular, previously unseen 100m limestone cliff as a backdrop; my panic about planting so many hundreds of pounds' worth of plants in already-dry soil in May, just before the heat really gets turned up here has been spectacularly rewarded:

NB for further photos click here