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



Thursday, 20 September 2012

The last official day of summer bought the sudden arrival of a gang of swallows; wheeling and screaming over the pool and olive trees. At first their darting shadows alarmed me as I cut the lawn, then melancholy set in as I realised what it signified. They’re gorging all the insects they can for their long flight over the Mediterranean to warmer winter climes.

On the ground there are real signs of the changing seasons too. First one, then two, then dozens of orchids revealed themselves. Autumn Lady’s Tresses - probably the last* orchid of the year, a demure little thing barely six inches high with spirals of greeny-white flowers. Subtle. Possibly too subtle to be of much interest to anyone but the confirmed plant geek...

However, there’s still plenty of colour in the garden. The sages - salvias - are really coming into the fore at the moment on the Arena (the new garden created in response to a huge oak tree felled by snow in February. Pictures here

I’ve planted a couple of dozen varieties of this amazingly varied genus. There are over 900 species of almost every colour under the rainbow. And they Just Keep On Flowering. How glad I am..

Salvia 'Wendy's Wish' and Stipa tenuissima.

More images on flickr 

*although the wild flora here has been full of surprises for me, not least the strange and sinister 4ft spikes of the dark purple saprophytic orchid Violet Limodore (sounds like a Victorian detective heroine or a drag queen) Limodorum abortivum that appeared overnight in the forest above the garden in May.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Planting starfish

Lively storms mark the end of summer - strobe-like lightning and long rain that seems ceaseless. The visible relief on peoples’ faces as the everyone takes a deep, joyous breath and enjoys the last days of the great summer carnival. The last week of August is a week of limbo, nothing has geared up but everyone’s slowly preparing for the start of real life again in September.

So it seemed appropriate to be doing that least showy of garden tasks, bulb planting. It’s the only gardening job that actually makes the garden look worse immediately after you’ve done it.

It’s still too early for most things, but there are several to get in quick at this time of year. Not least the massive Foxtail lilies -  Eremurus robustus and the strangely pungent Fritilaria persica that look more like grenades than flowers at the moment. Not to mention 1000 autumn-flowering Crocus speciosus...

The Foxtails are bonkers plants; huge starfish-like roots and 9ft flower spikes. 

If you believe in Creationism, God must’ve got really bored one day making nice little ferns and mosses, had a big drink and said “Right then...”

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Edible Heaven

M said to me the other day "Do you think we've enough tomatoes?" To which I replied "errr" (knowing full well it was a rhetorical question and we have more than it's possible to eat).  33 puny little seedlings back in March have become a veritable forest of plants that regularly need re-staking because of the weight of the fruit.

And what tomatoes they are! Of the eight varieties we've grown, the undoubted showstopper has been 'Black Krim' (top left)- a huge tomato of indeterminate colour that's utterly impossible to buy as it's the savoury equivalent of a really ripe peach. Absolutely un-transportable, they're squashy, soft and so flavourful they literally stopped me in my tracks the first time I ate one. They can get to the size of a small grapefruit and are never regularly shaped.

Trusty 'Sungold' (top centre) are the other end of the spectrum - tiny; extremely sweet, yet a little tart at the same time.  Fantastic on a pizza with lashings of our own olive oil. Bon appétit!

Monday, 13 August 2012

Land of the giants

Summer's scorching, shimmering heat brings big things to the south of France. Not least the super-yachts and enormous cruise liners that I watch daily from the garden as they wallow lazily across the horizon, white blobs in the haze where I'd forgotten there was sea.

In the garden too, there are outsize happenings.... including my pumpkins (Musquée de Provence) -  two seeds planted on the old compost heap (a great tip if you have the space) -  have now become a mountain of leaves 35ft across, still expanding rapidly...

All these giant plants got me thinking as I was weeding some newly planted echiums the other day. It struck me as I steadily got more and more contact dermatitis from handling them; it felt just like when I was weeding the borage in the potager the day before. They’re family, of course....

Our humble European borage is a coarse, weedy-looking plant with dazzling blue flowers essential for the perfect Pimms. It’s really nothing to look at (apart from when surrounded by sweet alcohol and chopped fruit).  But, strand its ancestors on a rocky volcanic outcrop in the middle of the Atlantic for a couple of million years and you get something truly spectacular.

Photo courtesy of flickr ID: dcols. Echium wildpretii wild on Tenerife
They metamorphosed spectacularly into some of the most magnificent and unusual plants in cultivation, which show evolution in isolation at its finest. Like the Galapagos finches - a different beak on every island to adapt to specific conditions - which helped inspire Darwin’s theory of evolution, these Macaronesian [Canary Islands and Madeira] plants have evolved to fill highly specialised niches. 

Each island has its own species. Some, like E. pininana (12ft blue spires familiar sight in gardens along the Atlantic fringes of the British Isles), come from the laurisilva - the cloud forest of exotic trees distantly related to our culinary bay tree. Others bask in the arid heat of the islands' volcanic slopes - the most spectacular of which, E. wildprettii, I have three precious little plants.

...and the perfect place for them.  

A problem corner, near a cypress by the front of the house - sun baked with dry impoverished soil, full of gravel from the nearby path. 

A perfect replica of those parched volcanic slopes? We’ll find out...

Monday, 23 July 2012

Vegetable delights

We had some rather "top end" visitors to the garden the other day. 

The owner of one of the local perfume houses (for which Grasse is world-famous); an immaculately dressed lady, all dark glasses and pearls; came for a look around the garden. I was weeding the new potager, which five months ago was a bare terrace; she had a long look up and down the rows of tomatoes, chard, the box balls, sculpture and oblongs of calade and pronounced it...


I could’ve kissed her.
It's amazing what a difference a few months can make: February, April, June and July

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Waters of Life

Just as boilers have a habit of giving up the ghost on the first cold weekend of autumn, so the irrigation system chose mid-June, The Most Critical Point of The Gardening Calendar, to deprive us of water. Hundreds of newly planted flowers, vegetables and herbs cowered under the hard bright blue dome of sky and unrelenting sun.
The only sensible thing to do is to wait till the cool of evening and get out there with hoses and cans. It’s a real discipline, getting the right amount of water to the plants at the right time. No good wetting the leaves at midday with a high pressure hose. A minute’s gentle trickle of water at the roots in the evening is worth half an hour’s sprinkling in the sunshine.
And it’s a great way to get to know the garden. Normally you’re so busy “doing”, there is no time, as W. H. Davies said, to stand and stare. Great ideas come from peaceful rumination and gentle care.
Sometimes though, it’s difficult to keep looking at the plants. The sun sets and the mountains sink one by one into inky shadows, jet trails catch the last coppery rays of light; - then fireflies come out and remind you - you’ve not had dinner yet.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
rom Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)   

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Weeding and Seeding

A few weeks ago I gaily sowed my Agastache (hummingbird mints), red plantains and Stipa tenuissima (which the French rather poetically call cheveux d’ange - Angel’s Hair. In English it’s the rather terse Feather Grass) etc;  watered well, stood back, and waited.  

I then watched aghast as an increasingly dementedly vigorous field of fat hen and wild oats sprang up instead.
Everything I’ve put in as a growing plant has taken - even the tiny transplants of sea hollies (which insist on flowering despite my best efforts to discourage them). But the direct seeding plan has been what politicians would call ‘a learning curve’.  One definite lesson has been the difference between gardening here and the city gardens I’ve become accustomed to over the past few years - the phenomenal seed bank that can build up in rural gardens.
All I can do is groan, wait for a sunny, windy day and reach for the hoe, and admit defeat in my direct seeding experiment.  Hoeing away on a warm day with stupendous views isn’t all bad. I’m going to re-sow my chosen plants in modules in the shelter of the cold frames and hope to plant out in the autumn once it cools down and the rains return. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Rape in the Garden..

In the midst of the lush fullness of early summer something sinister lurks. In dark corners, innocent green leaves and bright flowers give way to an altogether more malevolent breed of plants.
In the woodland, perched above the high cliffs where jackdaws circle cawing their own clattering nonsense, a stange and rather remarkable plant has burst through the leaf litter with breathtaking speed. Three weeks ago there wasn’t a trace of it and now, metre-high spikes of deep purple flowers.
It is an orchid, Limodorum abortivum, which spends up to ten years growing quietly underground, parasitising the fungi of the woodland floor before deciding it’s time for a bit of sex. It doesn’t bother with mundane things like leaves or branches, just roots to feast and flowers to fornicate. If I get reincarnated as a plant I hope it’s this one!
Now seems to be the moment for such charlatans plants to shine. A broomrape (Orobanche) has appeared in the cold frames, much to everyone’s amazement. It’s no-where near as pretty as the orchid - more of a cross between asparagus and a yellow deadnettle - but interesting nonetheless. 

Broomrapes are a large group of parasitic plants - often mere curiosities to gardeners in Eurasia, but serious pests to farmers elsewhere in the world. There are hundreds of different kinds adapted to grow on everything from ivy to yarrow to potatoes.
And finally... one I didn’t just 'find'. Back in the winter M said to me “Here’s some mistletoe, think you can grow it?”  To which I said “errrm”.
We let the berries ripen on the cut sprigs until early March, then I smeared the berries on branches of an olive tree (better not tell The Olive Man) and this is the result:

PS apologies for the lack of pictures on this entry. Will post more when I get a replacement memory card for the one that has just died...

Friday, 18 May 2012


The first task for the new Prairie Garden was to deal with weeds. And what weeds they were. Are. 
Part of the terrace was covered in imported soil in which I’d earlier noted a few weeds. When the time came to get cracking, I realised saying “a few weeds” was a bit like saying “My neighbours aren’t too great” and living in a trailer park with Freddy Kruger, Fred West and Anders Brevik....
The hearty mixture included plenty of  bindweed, half a dozen different thistles, and kikuyu. Utter bêtes noires of the plant world...

All that careful tugging, digging, lugging and slicing gave me time to think.  On day three it struck me... some of them are actually quite beautiful. Bindweed is but a hardy white Morning Glory.  Thistles, especially Onopordums, are regularly used by fashionable garden designers: - how farmers must scoff at those ruiners of pastures standing proud in artificial meadows at the Chelsea Flower Show.

But it goes to show, look closely and you might just find beauty in unexpected places. I got my macro lenses out and had a look:

The fabulously-named white ramping fumitory, Fumaria capreolata

Above and right: yellow hawkweed, Hierachium pratense

A wild mignonette, Reseda spp

Lawn daisy - Bellis perennis
Erigeron karvinskianus - "wall daisies" 

Scarlet pimpernell being well, not very scarlet...

Monday, 14 May 2012

Gardening Gamble

It's a huge gamble this, planting and sowing so late in the year. I'd be twitchy doing it so late on even in southern England, let alone southern France.  Every day the searing heat of summer gets closer so it's a real race to get things to grow enough roots beforehand to make it through to autumn.

However, various factors prevented it from happening earlier so I just have to hunker down and get on with it, fast! 

But what to plant.. I wrote last week about taking inspiration from the wild plants nearby but just as importantly I've inherited lots of plants bought last autumn when M drove back from the UK. In this kind of gardening, you intentionally limit your plant palette, and plant lots of each to maximise their impact. So each one is carefully chosen and has at least one purpose:

We have two grasses - Miscanthus nepalenis (a slightly tender, rather refined Miscanthus - its close relative Miscanthus x giganteus grows to 3.5m in a season and is used as biofuel). This will add height and its arching flowerheads should catch the light beautifully;

Next comes Stipa tenuissima (Feather Grass), which is small, soft and very tactile so will go nicely along the path - a delight to bare legs as well as the eye! It's extremely finely-textured, and turns a rich gold over the summer - one of the best plants I know for combining with others. Here we're pairing it with the fat, fleshy, red wine-coloured leaves of Plantago 'Rubrifolia', among others.

There are a few others - some potted, some direct sown - too many to detail here without the risk of making this blog into an essay! So I'll sign off with something that brought a smile to my face. I've sown various Agastache, Hummingbird Mints from the southern USA and Mexico. A well deserved common name, as this video shows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DJPy5X5M-s&feature=related 

Sunday, 6 May 2012

It was one of the ideas that brought me here; furiously stoking my curiousity and igniting my passion for design. A Prairie Garden, in Provence?

Prairie Gardens take their inspiration, obviously, from the Great Plains of North America - huge swathes of grassland full of a range of flowers Europeans could, until relatively recently, mostly only dream about. These landscapes inspired the ‘New Perennials’ movement that has emerged in Northern Europe over the last twenty years. It’s naturalistic, a far freer, a more sustainable look for the 21st century - compared to traditional hidebound notions of colour-themed mixed borders, staked, straightjacketed; over-fed and overwatered. Here you pick a limited palette of appropriate plants, flowering perennials and grasses, set them out en masse, stand back and watch the spectacle unfold.*

Yes the setting does help...
So far so easy, right? It’s now a tried and tested formula that has been proven time and time again... in northern Europe.
So how to translate it to a setting within sight of the Mediterranean, (i.e. drought from June to September), with no irrigation? Many classic prairie plants like Echinacea are drought tolerant but not really drought loving. We need plants that will actively thrive. Time to look at the ground beneath our feet..
The wild plants locally gave me some great clues - wild verbascums, poppies and sages all thrive on this dry alkaline soil and have cultivated (or cultivable) relatives that are worth looking at. The dreaded plantains, even, have a cultivated cousin - Plantago major ‘Rubrifolia’ - a fantastic foliage plant the colour of red wine which will make a great contrast to the tawny colours of late-season grasses. And it doesn’t even mind being trodden on occasionally - what a plant!

So - time to get weeding. Hoiking out these rambunctious country cousins (and a hell of a lot of thistles). It took two of us three whole days of pulling and digging to get the site clear.
My huge pile of thistles looking more like rather forked parsnips!
For orientation the Bay of Cannes is visible on the horizon

Getting a bit obsessed at the end of day three....
Some of the roots were as long (and nearly as thick) as my forearm
Beautiful drooping panicles of wild oats (Avena nuda) on a lower terrace.
It's a shame they're so invasive...
I'm going to use their much better-behaved cousins, the Stipa tribe.

*by using plants in bulk you maximise their impact, it’s incredible how much more you can get from them... don’t feed, don’t water, don’t stake, just let them do their thing and appreciate them for what they are.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Great Holiday. Not Many Dead...

How inconsiderate... getting hitched in April, I mean honestly!

To be fair to my dear friends Beth and Gemma they did announce their ceremony long before I'd even heard of this garden... but still I winced as I booked my tickets back to the UK -  even just five April days away from our menagerie of tender young plants is a big deal.

The infamous Pelargonium x ardens (in big terracotta pots
with  Aeonium 'Zwartkop') just beginning to flower.

Luckily everything survived: -  rare Canary Island echiums, tiny bottlebrushes and even the fabulously delicate Pelargonium x ardens whose deathwish I wrote about just a couple of weeks ago -  they all sailed through under the watchful eye of C.

....Apart from that is a tray of the commonest, easiest plants imagineable. African marigolds ('Simba') - which were to be a companion plant for the tomatoes. I didn't get time to pot them on from their tiny modules and now they have, just like Monty Python's famous parrot, "ceased to be"!

A salutory lesson that one shouldn't neglect potting things on...

Lots of leaves, not much compost + one hot windy day =

A walk on the wild side

A sunny spring walk with the Mediterranean Garden Society (MGS), and Benoit Beauvallet from Pépinière de l’Armalette up in the wilds of the Haut Var. If you'd like to see bigger images please click here

Euphorbia serrata - left - showing fantastic yellow bracts
Psoracea bituminosa (syn Bituminaria bituminosa) - a leguminous plant with leaves that smell of burnt rubber
Lonicera etrusca - members were surprised to see this growing as a shrubby plant, rather than the more usual climbing habit of many honeysuckles

Pistacia terebinthus  - left - the turpentine tree. Closely related to the pistachio. A deciduous tree with great autumn colour; was showing a good deal of bright red bloom on the day of our visit.

Rhamnus alaternus - buckthorn - a very adaptable evergreen, as good in shade as on baked slopes. 

Isatis tinctoria - left - woad - used as a blue dye in ancient times.
Juniperus oxycedrus - a juniper with large, toxic berries. Gin fiends beware!

Eryngium campestre - a demure native sea holly with subtle colouring. Alas many had suffered from being strimmed!

Amelanchier ovalis - left - the only native European amelanchier, showing flowers on some plants.

Asplenium ceterach - incredible to see a fern growing in such arid conditions - this one copes by going dormant and dessicating completely in the summer, to regrow whenever rainfall is sufficient!

Cephalaria leucantha - a giant scabious which harsh conditions had made somewhat more compact.

Rubia peregrina - wild madder - in the Rubiaceae tribe which includes coffee and quinine! a delicate looking plant with sharp scaly foliage.

Thymus vulgaris - commonn thyme, showing typical variation in habit and flower colour
Pinus halapensis / Pinus nigra - forming small woods
Viburnum tinus - well known shrub doing its thing in the wild.
Plantago sempervirens -  left - a very surprising find! A shrubby plantain, related to the dreaded lawn weed, as evident from its flowers

Euphorbia spinosa - a diminuitive spurge making neat mounds. Perhaps this would be a good alternative for gardeners who are sick of the invasive tendencies of E. cyparissias?
Lavandula latifolia - Spike Lavender - strongly aromatic lavender (more camphorous than angustifolia types) - distinguished by its branched flowerheads. Compact growth and dark blue flowers.

Anthyllis montana - Mountain Kidney Vetch -  see left - a real highlight of the trip - a splash of crimson on a high rock ledge, its flowers have an intoxicating scent of raspberries and vanilla. Benoit thought they may be used to make a type of jam!
Helichrysum stoechas - curry plant

Cotinus coggygria - another common garden plant doing its thing in the wild!

Helianthemum oelandicum - left - a tiny sunrose with bright yellow flowers. 

Stachys recta - dwarf stachys looking more like a shrunken salvia! Yellow flowers. Its size varies according to location.
Teucrium paulium - lovely little germander with very bright whitish foliage
Thymelaea diocia

Buxus sempervirens - common box, showing bright orange leaf coloration brought out by the cold winters.
Helleborus foetidus - stinking hellebore - in shady parts of the woodland.

Aethionema - a diminutive member of the cabbage family, Brassicaceae.

Globulara cordifolia (left) - delightful small plant with comparitavely large bluish-mauve flowers. 

Sedum sediforme - a great plant to grow anywhere - even under cypresses apparently!
Clematis flammula - a beautiful fragrant clematis with small white flowers, sadly not in bloom