I need hardly state the obvious: these are strange and difficult times. Everyone in their differing circumstances has a different set of challenges. However empathetic we try to be we can only really talk with any authority about our own challenges. Our own biggest challenge at the moment is the enforced separation caused by the “perfect storm” of Covid and Brexit. I’m here in France to establish residency, so that both of us will be able to benefit from the Withdrawal Agreement which protected rights now lost to so many. R is in the UK where his work is based. Because of Covid restrictions neither of us can visit the other. Today marks the end of week 10 of our second separation, the first having been in autumn 2020 for 7 weeks. The two separations were interspersed by 6 wonderful weeks together over Christmas and New Year. And of course I haven’t seen the children or grandchildren, each one of them utterly beloved, since the end of September. I know others have their own difficult experiences. These are ours.
We are now back in lockdown in France, or confinement as it is called in French. Lockdown itself for me here is much less of a trial than for very many as I’m a relatively solitary and self-sufficient person much of the time and I have a tremendous purpose in life with the continuing development of the garden. I could be busy every daylight hour and still never finish. That suits me. Nevertheless I am surrounded by very kind people all of whom are hugely appreciated and loved.
The weather in this part of France is challenging, often hitting extremes. It hardly stopped raining in December, January and the first few days of February. Floods were widespread and states of emergency were declared. It hasn’t rained at all since mid February until yesterday when the lightest of dampness filled the air, the kind of rain that is no longer wet once it reaches the ground. More is forecast overnight tonight and it is desperately needed. Moreover the wind has been consistently from the north and east, quite strong, and very drying. The ground hardens up very quickly in these conditions which makes planting and weeding more difficult. And of course plants wilt and need watering if they’re to have any chance of recovery.
Just as serious are the extremes of temperature. Just a couple of days ago it fell to minus 4 (yes, -4) overnight with the hardest frost of the winter, but rose to plus 20 (+20) during the day. A lot of damage has been caused to fresh new shoots. Many hydrangeas are badly scorched and even the new leaves on the five ancient plane trees at the entrance show signs of damage. Around us bonfires and candles were lit in vineyards and fruit orchards in an attempt to prevent damage to this year’s harvest. I understand that certain areas have been declared a state of agricultural emergency by the government and the harvest has been ruined.
Despite all these challenges the garden continues to provide me with solace and as usual, I walked around the garden on Monday morning with my phone in hand, taking photographs of what caught my eye, to keep my monthly review updated. Here’s what I saw, starting with some of the less good things! Its not all perfect in paradise!
At first glance these could be stepping stones marking a line of desire across the grass. But they are flattened molehills. We have gazillions of molehills in this garden. I’ve just started reading Monty Don’s most recent book, My Garden World, and he says that they can dig at a rate of 15 feet per hour and there are usually around four per acre. That makes 12 moles digging at a rate of 15 feet per hour here. No wonder we have so many molehills!
I actually took this photo to show the gorgeously architectural new shoots of Tetrapanax papyrifer rex. I’ve been waiting for the frosts to pass before pruning the old stems of Arundo donax variegata to the ground. Its looking extremely tatty at the moment, as is much of the exotic garden. These fresh new shoots are now wilting after this week’s frosts.
When we arrived at the house in June 2020, after a five month absence caused by my broken ankle and the first UK lockdown, we were astonished to see that the Ensete maurellii in the exotic garden was not only still standing but was thriving, lush and huge. Winter 2019/2020 hadn’t touched it. Not so winter 2020/2021 in which we have experienced very much more frost. I’m leaving this for the time being just in case there’s a viable growing point still in there. If not I shall simply get another in May to plant out as summer bedding, the original intention of this one. Actually, its such a wonderful plant I shall probably get three. And I’ll have the task of breaking this up for compost.
I know we all love wildlife. But there’s a huge amount of it here. Last Saturday I picked one flower from the Zantedeschia clump and took it to a friend made up into a little posy with an iris stem and some contorted willow. By Monday the other flowers were all full of these bugs. They like white roses too.
This is how the Zantedeschia clump looked on Monday morning. This week’s two very hard frosts have caught all the flowers which are now looking pretty mushed. Hopefully there are more flower stems hidden and protected further down amongst the foliage
A buttress at the top of this wall is an ideal spot for barn owls to rest. They like to leave a calling card to let us know they’ve visited. On the plus side some people pay good money for guano as a fertiliser; we get it for free! I’ll probably jetwash the wall … except that the jetwasher sprang a leak when I was using it earlier in the week to clean furniture on the terrace. I’ve identified someone who is prepared to take a look at it and see if it can be saved; otherwise it will be a new machine. They are an essential piece of kit here.
Two buddlejas (note the current spelling!) were planted on this flowerbed a few years ago by our predecessors. I suspect they were cute little plants at the time. Sadly they are now huge and we are worried they will compromise the septic tank (fosse septique) which the flowerbed covers. So I am not going to let them grow this year in the hope that they will die back. I daren’t try to dig them out in case I disturb the fosse underneath. Replacing a fosse would be a very costly exercise and certainly not worth it for two buddlejas. Its a shame as they have gloriously dark large flowers. But I will plant more elsewhere in due course. Buddlejas grow well in these conditions and we have enough space to let them stretch their limbs.
We have tried and tried to establish a yew hedge around the rose garden. Originally we would have used box but the moth is so prevalent here and we can’t rely on being able to keep on top of it by spraying or picking off, so we had to make the decision not to use it at all. Unfortunately the yews keep dying back. I replaced about 10 in the autumn, sadly more seem to be going the same way. I don’t think its either too wet nor too dry here so I’m not sure what the cause is. Any suggestions? At the moment far more are alive than suffering so I shall persevere for the time being. I know that it would be ideal to keep the bases clear from other competing plants.
I’ve written previously about the establishment of our potager. We only decided to create one fairly late in winter 20/21. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m going to be able to get the soil in sufficiently good shape to make much of it this year. Time will tell, and never say never and all that, but you can see that the extreme dry we have experienced since the middle of February has hardened and shrunk the lovely thick layer of composted manure that I spread on top of cardboard. You can see exposed cardboard patches in these photos. I don’t have enough home made compost to add (its all being used in planting elsewhere) nor do I have the time/resources to get any more topsoil in. So I may simply cover the beds with landscape fabric to keep the weeds down, lifting it from time to time to add grass clippings and other organic matter, so that I have some wonderful soil in which to grow vegetables and salad in 2022. However it goes, whatever decisions are made, I shall be sure to report back.
A rosemary and a salvia crammed into a planting hole with the parthenocissus on the front of the house have become very scraggy. The rosemary had spilled over onto the gravel and was very leggy and woody. I started to cut it back but decided it was too far gone. And in any case there was nothing to balance this planting so the rosemary and salvia will be coming out but the parthenocissus will stay as it looks wonderful throughout the leafy seasons. I have ordered some wooden planting boxes which will be filled with red pelargoniums for a summer show in their place. And the finishing touch will be a top dressing of gravel in front of the concrete apron, when I pluck up the courage to contact the quarry to ask for a delivery.
Incidentally, when we bought the house we thought we would remove the concrete apron. However we have observed how heavy rainfall can be at times and realised that it would have been added as a way of keeping water away from the walls of the house. Although it would be nice to have flowerbeds at the foot of the house walls, filled with climbers, practicality has to win every time.
I may have mentioned already that I was waiting to see what the flower looked like on the Melianthus major. I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath. Now I know why the recommendation is to cut them down hard. We have two in the garden and I will cut them down next week. They really are plants where the foliage is the thing. Sometimes one has to see things for oneself …
While digging planting holes for shrubs on the bank above the pool I uncovered these pieces of bone. I wonder if they were from a much loved family pet?
We’ve left three grass areas unmown this spring, mainly to encourage orchids to grow and flower undisturbed. There are no signs of any orchid flowers yet but I’m sure it will not be long before they show their face. In the meantime we’ve been enjoying daisies, speedwell, violets and ajuga in the area under the plane trees at the gate. In the orchard the dandelions have been incredible. And I’ve never seen so many daisies in grass as around the beds in the potager. I hope I’ll have some orchid flowers to show you soon.
Blue sky gives a fantastic backdrop to emerging leaves and catkins.
Many plants are already in flower for us to enjoy and the bees to visit. The perfume on the Daphne is just wonderful. And I was delighted to see the new quince tree flowering. Its a Cydonia Vranja, which we also planted on our Surrey allotment where we had a great harvest. I’m looking forward to a repeat here in South West France as we love the flavour of the fruits.
Walking past these euphorbias in the early evening is quite something. They are absolutely alive with insects.
Ribes speciosum is still flowering prolifically having started at the beginning of the year. Unsurprisingly a friend looked at it the other day and asked me how I get on with fuchsias. The flower is very fuchsia-like. I love it but, word of warning, wear armour before going close. The spikes are sharp. Ultimately I’d love to train it properly against the wall.
In the exotic garden frost has killed off the top growth on Amicia zygomeris, but new shoots are coming from the base. Cercis canadensis Forest Pansy is flowering, as is Acacia pravissima. Acacia dealbata (more commonly recogniseable as mimosa) is now over; I planted two this spring in the potager.
I can’t resist sowing seeds and propagating. No sucker or self-sower is safe from being potted up when I’m weeding. This setup is pretty inadequate so one can only assume it is a matter of time before we get a greenhouse or polytunnel.
I just loved the shadows on the ground beneath the old fig tree. I need to get in there at the base and remove the suckers and ivy before they get out of hand. The tree looks much better when the trunk is clean. I’ve planted a second fig to the right of this one, with stripy fruits (Panache), which is currently looking fairly sick. Fingers crossed the higher overnight temperatures to come will encourage healthy growth.
Three years ago we sowed some Phacelia tanacetifolia (mixed with other annuals) onto an area of garden bare after ground works. It gave us a lovely show that summer, and continues to do so as it moves around the garden deciding where it would like to grow next. This is one of several growing under a cherry tree in the new orchard. I’m planning to allow them to run to seed and hopefully populate more of the orchard for next year. We just love them: pretty fragrant flowers, great for pollinators, and good vase life too.
The mixed ornamental/edible hedge around most of the perimeter in front of the house is looking particularly beautiful at the moment with all the fresh new growth.
A Hemerocallis (day lily) is getting ready to flower. This is one of about four which were divisions from one initially living in our Sussex garden. They love our conditions. We have a small collection of a few more in a bed in front of the house but I must get more.
I planted no more than 100 tulips of five different varieties in November, as much as an experiment as anything else. They will go over more quickly here than in the UK, but have been successful enough to plan some more extensive planting this coming autumn. The vibrancy of their jewel like colours really pops out from the surrounding foliage and grass and is a complete joy.
Wonderful sharp lime green foliage on the Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime). Another month or so and the perfume from the flowers will be intoxicating to humans and bees alike.
In the rose garden the rate of new growth is just phenomenal, and so beautiful.
And finally a work in progress: the bank beyond the pool. The left hand photo shows planting that has been in for a couple of years and has become established. The right hand photo shows the end of the pool where I’ve planted a line of Teucrium fruticans. And the centre picture shows the steep bank, still being planted. I’m having to use a pickaxe to create the planting holes. I know what result I’m hoping to achieve. At the moment it all looks fairly pitiful partly because the wind has been bitter and cruel, and many of the plants haven’t liked that, and partly because it isn’t finished and hasn’t yet been mulched. I hope that my vision will come to fruition!
I hope you have enjoyed this month’s Monday walk around the garden. Do please leave any thoughts, questions, or suggestions in the comments.
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