A Christmas Letter – Part 2 “the garden”

As the first year when I wouldn’t be distracted from the garden by work, 2020 was intended to be a year of significant garden development. We know what happened; distractions far bigger than work conspired to put a stop to those plans. However gardens and plants never stand still and here we are just a few days before the end of the year; time to review progress and look forward.

When we bought the house five years ago we decided we would do our very best never to be absent for longer than a month. By and large we have been able to stick to that, with occasional months extending into 6/7 weeks if work commitments determined. However this year we were absent between 19th January (when I left the house with an as yet undiagnosed and untreated broken ankle) and 15th June when we were on one of the first trains through the tunnel after the first French lockdown was lifted.

On first glance, the garden was in very good shape. Of course on closer inspection there were things that had been done that disappointed us, and the weeds were still prolific at ground level, especially couch grass and field bindweed. R had two weeks of annual holiday, we stayed for a third week, and for much of that time (when we weren’t away on our splendid mini-break in Eugenie-les-Bains, or R working in week 3) we were on our hands and knees weeding. Nevertheless we felt it was time very well spent and we felt rejuvenated to be enjoying outside play again.

When we returned to France in mid-July for 5 weeks (reduced when the UK quarantine system was introduced and we had to make a dash back to the UK) the temperature had rocketed as usual. Most gardening (other than early in the morning) drops off the agenda at that time of year.

I returned at the beginning of October for two weeks, when I mostly re-organised the compost heaps getting them back into a proper system. And then of course I returned as a Brefugee on 31st October and have been here ever since. It has been just wonderful to be able to spend more time in the garden, doing things how we want them to be done. I research deeply anything I’m involved in (its my nature) so it really goes against the grain when things happen that shouldn’t (e.g. next year’s flowering wood cut off shrubs to name but one). There’s currently a real sense that we are reclaiming the garden for us. We enjoy gardening together, something that we know we will be able to do more of in the future. In the meantime I’ve gone ahead to fly the flag and establish our base.

I’ll go round the different areas of the garden and describe where we are and what lessons we have learnt. But I’m going to start with the project that is about to begin, the orchard.

The orchard and kitchen garden
We inherited half a dozen fruit trees in a couple of different places, some past their life span (which have now gone) and others in a position where ground works had to be done for the construction of the pool so which have also gone. However it was always our intention to plant an orchard and just yesterday we laid it out, with much use of measuring tapes and bamboo canes. We just need the trees to be delivered (next Tuesday) and we can plant them. They will populate an area which has previously been close mowed grass, up to the highest point of the property, so we will be introducing some much needed shade and vegetation. Watering will need to be a priority for the first couple of years at least until the trees have established.
We used to have an allotment (well, actually three!) in the UK and loved our vegetable growing. We had originally decided not to try to do so in France, but on planning out this new area for development we decided we should earmark an area for a kitchen garden. R was calling it a potager yesterday but on balance we’ve decided to stick with kitchen garden as potager implies a greater level of formality (and box hedges) which we do not currently plan on. I’ll write about the detail of the orchard and kitchen garden in due course.

The rose garden
By and large this has done well. I was very thankful to have completed pruning on our January visit, so the plants got off to a good start. Apparently there were issues with black spot during the spring which led to them being cut back harder than I would have done at that time of year. I’ve always had issues with black spot so tend to just turn a blind eye. The roses recovered and we enjoyed wonderful blooms some of which are still going strong. One or two bushes didn’t flower at all although they grew robustly. Unfortunately, because the original planting was rushed (so often the case when only here part-time), we didn’t label well so I’m not quite sure which varieties are the culprits. Hopefully I will rectify the labelling in months to come. I will try a different pruning regime on those that didn’t flower and if they don’t respond to that they will come out and be replaced by others that will reward us with flower. My decision to focus on fragrance has really paid off and although we haven’t – yet – gone and just sat in there we enjoy wandering round sinking noses into flowers. A deadheading session usually produces at least one mounded barrow full and takes some time.
We have planted a dozen small climbers to grow against pillars (extra tall fence post like structures); I’m not 100% sure how successful they have been. I’m hoping that being here more, able to tie in more regularly, will help improve the effect. Some have tended to look rather scrambly.

The exotic garden
The origins of this area were a steep bank with a damp dip in the bottom, all very overgrown with self-sown poplars, nettles, brambles, and other weedy specimens. The area was cleared when we had the tree work done in autumn 2017, and large quantities of soil were tipped down the bank to fill the dip and smooth out the gradient. The work was completed too late that year for any permanent planting so I sowed several boxes of mixed annual seeds which produced a wonderful show the following summer. Two summers later we are still enjoying some subsequent self-sown generations, mainly the orange Cosmos sulphureus. Unfortunately, in my absence, they weren’t edited as carefully as I would have done had I been here and a few important plants have been smothered. Lesson learnt (and much more easily avoided in future when I am here most of the time). We’ve lost quite a few plants from this area so far, another cause being lack of water/shade in high summer. Again this can be rectified in future, and more shade is gradually coming in as some of the upper-storey plants establish and grow taller and broader.
Some spectacular successes included:
An Ensete ventricosum maurellii which I bought in summer 2019 as a small summer bedding plant, fully expecting to lose it the following winter. To our amazement when we arrived in June there it was alive and thriving. And huge!
Amicia zygomeris (that always reminds me of Great Dixter where I first saw it) has also grown huge and flowered prolifically in the late summer and autumn.
Some Canna musifolia corms, kindly given to me by Philippa Burrough at Ulting Wick, were started off in spring in pots in Sussex and brought over in June. They have grown enormous and give wonderful colour, height and structure.
Arundo donax variegata which continues to thrive and spread (but not extending further than its welcome).
Phormiums which are happy as are Cordylines (growing much faster than they would in the UK)
Tetrapanax papyrifer rex, Zantedeschia (planted in the lowest dampest part) – surrounded by small self-sown new plants, Acacia pravissima, Eryiobotrya japonica (loquat), and many others.
A mistake was to plant a Phyllostachus nigra out from its pot. I believed some reports that its a clumper not a spreader. It is not a clumper. Sadly it has to come out it we aren’t able to keep it contained with a sharp spade from time to time.
Future plans include more underplanting to create more lushness, and extending the footprint of the bed itself so that it joins more closely with the huge Musa basjoo (hardy banana) on the other side of the steps down to the grassy area at the bottom.

The bottom bed
This needs a new name!!
This bed was the first to be planted, and some of the structural planting (including five silver birches, a ginkgo, and a variety of shrubs including several varieties of cornus) are beginning to look well established. The cornus have given wonderful colour through the autumn and now with their bare coloured stems.
About three years ago, to provide rhythm and fill gaps, we divided up and planted some Calamagrostis Karl Foerster (tall grasses) and Gaura lindheimii through the bed. They had become too dominant so we removed some of these in June to allow the shrubs to breathe. We’ve not done much else to this bed during 2020. I will be moving a lagerstromia into a gap from elsewhere, and dividing up and spreading a few of the herbaceous plants to fill more gaps.
A thriving Leycesteria formosa has become too big for its position close to the Ginkgo so that will need to be moved, possibly to the exotic garden. But I won’t do so until early spring as it will need to be cut down and I don’t want to risk the cut stems freezing in weather that we might get in January/February. Hopefully I might get several plants out of this one. Its a plant I’m particularly fond of.

The middle bed
The middle bed, which also needs a new name, also consists primarily of shrubs and some ornamental trees, with some herbaceous fillers including in this case some penstemon, hardy geraniums, cephalaria gigantea, and phlomis (the latter two welcome gifts from a Sussex friend). A few additions were made in June, including a vernonia that I hadn’t grown before but absolutely love. Sadly the flower spikes were cut off the phlomis as soon as they finished flowering, rather than left as structure as I would have wanted, but I did manage to retain the cephalaria seedheads which are still providing height and structure. The bottom bed and the middle bed are the beginnings of a real woodland garden in front of the house.

The barn bed
This bed, hastily planted in a heatwave in July 2019 (entirely the wrong time of year to plant) has been a great success against all odds. It was filled with a random collection of plants brought over from the tiny Sussex garden, augmented with some hydrangeas hastily bought from a local garden centre to provide a bit of height at the back against the barn wall. Hydrangeas will always be an important plant in this garden, not least because they are so quintessentially French but also because so many new varieties are being introduced. That first summer we just about kept everything alive. This year everything thrived and it looked quite lush at times. We added some large agapanthus (impulse buys in a garden centre) which were just splendid.

The pool beds
Again, these beds were hastily planted in the July 2019 heatwave, out in the open without the benefit of the shade enjoyed by the barn bed. Nevertheless most plants survived and have established. It is planted with a mix of lavender, hardy small-flowered salvias, perovskia, cistus and teucrium. The timing of the planting was determined by the completion of the pool just two weeks before the family came to stay, and our desire to make everywhere look as lovely for them as possible. Everything was planted a little too close together, and I now want to broaden the bed down the long side of the pool by the addition of some ornamental trees, possibly lagerstroemia. At times during the summer it was alive with insects, bees and butterflies with many hummingbird hawkmoths (regular visitors to the garden).

The north terrace
A small terrace was created on the north side of the barn when the pool was built, and we added a small flower bed to link this with the main pool terrace. It was planted this summer with lavender, perovskia, and salvias, has established well. I intend to increase its size. The north face of the barn has now been pointed and the area around the pool heat pump will have more plants added to it in due course.

The bank above the pool
Until a few weeks ago this was still bare and a bit of an eyesore. There’s a bank at Architectural Plants near us in Sussex which has inspired the planting ideas for this area, see below. I’ve now planted 7 pencil cypresses as a first step. They are very tiny and I’m hoping they’ll establish better than if they were bigger. In early spring 2021 I shall add mound forming Mediterranean style plants, linking with the pool beds and the north terrace but introducing a few new varieties. This photo at Architectural Plants will continue to give inspiration!

The fosse bed
The fosse bed is a small bed directly over the septic tank (fosse septique), close to the main entrance to the house, so in an important position for welcome. There’s little depth of soil and when we bought the house it was planted with two large Buddleias and a Jasminum nudiflorum which had suckered and spread and all was held together with bindweed. Behind the bed was a small-flowered old shrub rose, with an ash tree self-seeded into the middle of it. The jasmine and the ash tree have now gone and my intention is to use this bed primarily for seasonal bedding, to give colour close to the house. During 2020 all kinds of random plants were put in there, almost all of which will need to be moved elsewhere. A Hibiscus moscheutos (the more tender large-flowered variety) was given to us by visitors and hastily planted there, as was a Lagerstroemia in the same circumstances. Both need re-locating, the hibiscus to the exotic garden and the lagerstroemia to a designated spot on the bottom bed. I’m looking forward to reclaiming this for its original intention.

The terrace bed
This bed is alongside the covered terrace on the west side of the house. We inherited two large hydrangeas and a trachelospermum jasminoides climbing up one of the wooden pillars. I’ve added more hydrangeas and more trachelospermums so there is now one climbing up every pillar. It was also a spot where some comfrey (Bocking 14), and sisyrinchium striatum were hastily planted on one of our trips a few years ago. I never intended the comfrey to stay there so long; it will be dug up in coming weeks and I will take as many root cuttings as I can with the intention of planting a long line of comfrey by the side of all the compost heaps. This will screen the heaps and will also be in the right place to cut leaves and add them to the active heaps at regular intervals. You can make comfrey “tea” but I prefer to use the leaves as a compost activator in the heaps.

The terrace itself
The covered terrace is huge. It is an old tobacco barn which was put onto the west side of the house, probably in the 1940s. Our predecessor cut the sides out to open it up, a genius idea, and it provides wonderful shade and shelter; an outdoor room of cathedral height where we have dining tables and chairs, and informal seating too. Unless it is dressed with plants it can look a little bleak. During the time when we were less often in France than in Sussex it was hard to keep any plants well looked after. So we would arrive for our long summer visit (5-6 weeks in the school holidays) and one of the first tasks I would do was to rush out to garden centres and buy loads of expensive plants to make a bit of a show. In future, spending more time here, I will be able to grow plants on myself, pot them up, and look after them well. From our 2020 summer visits we now have several dipladenia/mandevillas in large pots growing up canes, still going strong. They seem to be quite hardy and are still flowering. We also invested in several citrus plants on our August mini-break when we discovered a specialist citrus nursery in the next village to our hotel. And there’s a plumbago in a large pot. A period of colder temperatures with night-time frost is forecast from Christmas Eve onwards, so I may move the citrus and plumbago into the barn. The barn has reasonably good light from some large Velux windows and stays several degrees warmer than outside.

The drive
We inherited one large oleander bush about half way up the drive. I’ve added more, so there are now five each side, creating a sense of an avenue. I’ve planted mini-pencil cypresses in between each one. They are looking a little yellow at the moment. They’re getting plenty of water, but perhaps I need to water on a little fertiliser to get them going. I can envisage what its going to look like … let’s hope it gets there!

The pond
We inherited a small pond whose days are numbered because it is simply too small for the garden. Its located beside the well which needs some work doing on it so will probably be removed and filled in at that point. We’d like to create another larger pond elseshere. Its on the list …

Hedges
The mixed hedge across the front and down the boundary with our neighbour is doing well and some plants had grown to about 8′ by the end of the summer. I want this to have a very informal feel, no straight lines, so hedgecutters are out of bounds. When I arrived at the end of October I cut it all back with secateurs, stem by stem, and shredded the clippings. I must make a mental note to use more robust gloves when dealing with the blackthorn in future years. OUCH!
The yew hedge around the perimeter of the rose garden had developed a few gaps and I’ve now filled these in with new plants.
The hedge around the boundary with the field, at the base of the exotic garden, had also developed some gaps. This area gets very hot and dry in high summer and we hadn’t watered sufficiently. This hedge is going to be very informal, made up of ornamental shrubs/small trees such as choisya, eucalyptus azura, abelia, ……………. Hopefully they will grow together to give a sense of enclosure, but can also be managed individually according to their own growth habits.
All hedges need more maintenance than they’ve been getting around the base, at least until they bulk up. I’d love to have the bases of the hedges colonised by certain wild flowers. At the moment they’re just overrun by coarse grasses and weeds.

Self-seeders
I’m a huge fan of self-seeders and we will be encouraging where we can (always stringently editing where needed). Welcome self-seeders which have begun to establish include sisyrinchium, euphorbias (a couple of different varieties), a few verbena bonariensis (but not as many as I want …), cosmos sulphureus. A large thriving clump of Zantedeschia aethiopica has produced a few hundred small seedlings around its base. Others which would be welcome haven’t really got going yet. Erigeron karvinskianus, of which we have a few clumps (all bought in) hasn’t apparently self-seeded at all. Curious.

Grass
We have large areas of grass which is currently mowed regularly. Some orchids are dotted around, and I’m planning to go round with some canes to mark them to ensure they’re not mowed over as we obviously want to encourage them. So far we have seen lizard, bee, and pyramid orchids.

Weeds and edges
We are creating a garden. We are not engaged in a re-wilding project. Hence we need to keep certain areas very well weeded or it would quickly become overgrown. This is a big task. I have had some help but have had to cut back so this is a task which will never end. We’ve always had a zero weeds tolerance in our gardens and allotments, observing the old adage “One year’s weeds = seven year’s weeds”. In other words whip those weeds out before they set seed. Couch grass and field bindweed are quite prolific in the garden and we are determined to keep them under control by thorough and careful removal of roots.
Our soil is a heavy loam, quite sticky in winter and drying hard in summer. So we are adding organic matter and mulch as quickly as we can. This has helped enormously in making the soil more friable and therefore more easily weedable. Fortunately I actually enjoy weeding.
Another issue is keeping good edges on beds and we know from experience how important this is to give a good show and will be able to ensure it happens now that we have reclaimed our own style and methods of gardening.

In summary
So, 2020 … what a year. We’ve had our personal challenges, and we’ve shared the challenges that have affected us all. We none of us know what lies ahead. Some very serious roadblocks appear to still lie ahead. We will put those aside for now and enjoy looking back with quiet satisfaction, and ahead with confidence that whatever is thrown at us we will do everything in our power to make the best of it. We are blessed beyond measure by our French life, and we will never, ever take it for granted.

May 2021 bring peace, joy, health, safety to us all. And happy gardening!

10 thoughts on “A Christmas Letter – Part 2 “the garden”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading all about your garden and sensing your passion Sharon. Are you both here permanently now? One of these days will hopefully have an opportunity to visit and see the garden
    in person. Have a nice Christmas and let’s hope next year improves for us all.

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    1. I’m resident here now, alas not R for some time as he’s not ready to retire (he’s younger than me). I’m really hoping you can come and visit us soon. It’s easier to organise things now I’m here for more time … except of course we’ve been in lockdown since I arrived at the end of October. I think we are all longing for the vaccination to be shown to be successful so we can resume normal social contact! Happy Christmas to you both. X

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  2. Is pencil cypress the tall and columnar cypress, Cupressus sempervirens? That landscape looks quite Californian, with those windmill palms and what seems to be so me sort of eucalyptus. That could eventually get crowded.

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