A kind of anniversary

January anniversary 151
This picture could easily be captioned: ‘How plants cope with drought, damp and freezing conditions’. Clever Salvia sclarea does it all with the fine covering of little hairs on its leaves and stems. I admire its rugged adaptability – perhaps I’ll learn to emulate in 2015!

January will always be a kind of anniversary for me. It was in January 2012 that I first picked up my fork and spade and got going (two hours a day, an easy schedule) in our new garden. We moved into the house in September 2011, and in late autumn that year this is what the garden looked like.

Chatillon November to 10 December 2011 056Chatillon November to 10 December 2011 069

There were very few plants in the garden that I valued. The four hazels, the wonderful box hedges, balls and pyramids planted by the previous owner, some purple Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea and a little thicket of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ were the exception – oh yes, and I think there was a lovely white aster called ‘Scheekissen’, lost in the ensuing hurly-burly of change.

The hazels were coppiced in the winter of 2013/2014 and regrowth has been terrific, although no catkins this year.January anniversary 132

By April 2013 I had already planted the Rose Walk (and the roses were already being killed off by voles and European chafer). Nick decided to straighten up the awful concrete slabs that had been inserted as a kind of retaining wall. (With little dosh, you make do with what you have!) Once again the Rose Walk and the (as yet undug) Long Border became a kind of building site. Have a look at the picture below … it was so dry in early April that year.


Today I have the bones of the top garden – it doesn’t look much in winter, but last year in late summer I felt for the first time that I had started to make a garden. The work of establishing new levels on the slope and adjusting the lines continues.

January anniversary 005

It’s been a long haul to get this far. For three years I’ve had failure upon failure (caused by the voles, the chafers and – I began to think – the loss of my green fingers, assuming I ever had them). This has easily been the most difficult garden I’ve tried to make.

From me to me …
Over the past three seasons I’ve bought ‘a few’ plants, including 37 seven roses (three of which are still on ‘intensive care’ watch). But I’m definitely breathing a bit easier re our resident garden threats and this winter it was time to go for something other than roses. So, in the middle of December, my birthday and Christmas presents arrived all at once – 26 new shrubs, ‘from me to me’.

It’s difficult to buy plants here in France. There are only two decent nurseries in our area, both specialising in herbaceous perennials. One about 3 hours away, the other about 3/4 of an hour away. Consequently, unless I want something like a forsythia or a Viburnum tinus, every shrub or tree must come in by mail order.

I’ve worked in two really superb gardens and enjoyed what they taught me – especially in winter as it happens. For me, making a garden here has been a bit like assembling a group of friends around me, known and loved for many years, and enjoying getting to know them again.

I thought perhaps I would post a bit over the next few weeks about the plants I chose and why I chose them. It being January, it seems obvious to start with the winter flowering plants. Warning! The pictures you are about to see may shock! The plants are tiny; it was only by buying very small plants that I was able to afford my ‘selfie’ present.

Winter-flowering shrubs are going to be tricky to incorporate in this garden. We are always advised to plant them near the house, so that we can enjoy when the weather is harsh. It’s just not possible here. In my mind’s eye I already have a picture of an 80-year-old me struggling down to look at (for example) Daphne ‘Jaqueline Postill’ and breaking a leg (or arm, or wrist) as I descend the steps!

There is, however, a small area with a stepping stone path through it where I’ve begun to plant some winter interest. I also have the option of planting in our tiny border on the street, but I prefer to put summer flowering annuals in there.

January anniversary 257Admittedly my first choice is not very striking at the moment. A tad on the titchy side? But it did only cost me 18€ and these are expensive plants.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ Call me a stick in the mud, but in my book hamamelis should be yellow. My most vivid memories of winter botanising are of the sweet scent of Cornus mas (planted here last year) and this hamamelis. I never really got ‘into’ the ‘Jelenas’ & ‘Dianes’ (although I still drool at the pictures posted on the blogs of gardeners more knowledgeable than I!).

But when I was lucky enough to walk amongst mature cultivars every day in winter, it was this one I craved. And there’s probably only room for one here. What would your choice be?


Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ A winter garden is not complete without the joy their scent adds, so  I couldn’t leave them out. However, they are not the most beautiful shrubs in summer and lon%20purI think there might have to be one or two ‘exits’ in less strategic places at the top of the garden to accommodate them. Forsythias – your days are numbered! With the addition of some tough late-flowering clematis I think they could be a luxury (in a relatively small space) that pays off.

The picture is of L. purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ – they are pretty similar; I was just being a bit of a ‘collector’ acquiring both!


January anniversary 273Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’ flowers earlier than ‘Charity’; and I must have a good, big mahonia to enjoy in winter. This one is a candidate for the street, since mahonias are also quite architectural plants and its possible that other people living in the village will enjoy it. You don’t see a lot of Mahonia x media around here!

Given that mine is so tiny, you’d hardly call it ‘architectural’ at the moment. But I it will also probably live quite comfortably in our narrow border on the street for many years …

I also bought Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ January anniversary 259after seeing it and craving it on so many people’s websites this summer. But it will have to live permanently in a pot, I think, and come indoors in winter. It is almost unbelievably a mahonia, soft to the touch and as delicate in foliage as a bamboo or a grass. I have a small grass/bamboo collection on our supper terrace, as well as a few hostas and camellias in pots to benefit from the shade, and I think this mahonia will be a plant I appreciate all year.

January anniversary 350Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ Only room for one Viburnum x bodnantense and ‘Dawn’ was not available at the nurseries I used. It’s a kind of similar situation to winter-flowering loniceras really. In order to place it, I think something else will have to move home (fortunately the bank down to the Long Border is quite big, and I have a lot of duplicate weigela, philadelphus and so on that I did from cuttings that can go down to the bottom of the garden). And, great excitement, my plant is big enough to flower!

January anniversary 266Sarcococca confusa They are essential for their scent, hardiness and evergreen character, aren’t they? I’d have them all – and probably will in the end. Fortunately easier to place than the big shrubs, because (with clipping) this is not going to grow above about 50cm tall. They also got me thinking that when I finally get the greenhouse I dream about I’d like a little mist unit to take cuttings of evergreens. Hollies for example, as well as sarcococcas.

Next week I’ll list a few more of those special ‘from me to me’ plants as well as posting pictures of the new part of the garden (which I’ve just started digging) where the spring-flowerers will find a home.

22 thoughts on “A kind of anniversary

  1. Amy

    It’s encouraging to see someone else making good progress on a budget and with small, mail-order plants…! I have a similar 3/4 of an hour to get to the nearest useful nursery though I have to admit many purchases also from the garden centres at the nearby hardware stores. They have a better selection than I would have thought. At any rate, I enjoy seeing what you’ve done with it all. That viburnum – can’t grow it here, of course – looks a treasure 🙂

    1. Cathy Post author

      Yes – isn’t it nice to know that there are a few of us with the distance issue! Thanks for putting in a comment, Amy, because you’ve reminded me it’s been a while since I stopped off at your blog to see how you are getting on. Soon …

  2. Helen Johnstone

    I think you have achieved loads and you should pat yourself, and your husband, on the back. My garden slopes and I know how hard it is to work out levels etc with little or no budget.
    I also buy myself Christmas and Birthday presents which are usually plants!

    1. Cathy Post author

      You are very kind Helen. I’ve watched your amazing progress on your own slope with great interest – hard on a budget, but very satisfying if one finds good solutions. Nice that we are kind enough to give ourselves the presents we really want!

  3. rusty duck

    You’ve made incredible progress in the time. It’s very easy to become disillusioned when you start. You want things to happen overnight and they don’t, apart from the visitations from everything furry and slimy for miles around all of whom seem to know exactly where your newest plants are.
    You’re going to have a very fragrant winter garden!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Let’s hope it is fragrant, Jessica, and thanks for the encouragement. I wanted to move the first year when plants were being killed. I’ve turned the corner, thank goodness!

  4. Christina

    I love your choices. I also have some problems buying plants, certainly anything unusual is extremly difficult to find. I will enjoy seeing all the other shrubs you’ve bought. Your winters are quite long and hard there aren’t they? I’ve been amazed at how quickly some plants grow here with the warm soil, but other plants that need more water than l’m prepared to give them are sooooo slow, the foliage never seeming to fill out, eg Cotinus.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Yes, Christina, I can imagine that watering would be more of an issue for you than me, and glad you enjoyed the shrubs. It’s not always very cold here in winter. This winter has been so short. A hard spell just after Christmas for a week and it looks like we are into another now. But surprisingly mild (which made me wish all the more for a greenhouse!)

  5. Julie

    Your garden despite the problems you have encountered looks beautiful, the setting and surround is gorgeous. I am looking forward to reading more of your journey, we have voles here too, what kind of damage does the chafer beetle do?

    1. Cathy Post author

      You are right, Julie. When it gets me down I lift my eyes and am cheered. The chafer beetle eats plant roots. As a result I have none of the dahlias left that I originally started by lifting and replanting every year. They died when the roots were eaten and before they were able to make more. It was sad. Ditto various herbaceous plants in newly dug (previously grass) borders. They also can cause severe wilt and possible death in young woody plants, if you don’t take remedial action (replanting, watering etc.) in time. But it’s definitely getting better – and at least I am past the disillusioned stage!

  6. Chloris

    It is amazing what you have done there. What an achievement. I love your choice of plants. It is so important to have things to enjoy in winter, specially fragrant plants. I don’ t think you will be enjoying Jacqueline Postill in 80 years though ; they are short lived. But what heavenly perfume.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks Chloris! I won’t be buying Jaqueline, it was just an example. Interesting it’s so short-lived. I’d have to wait 22 years to see it at the age of 80. Is that too long for a JP?

  7. Annette

    It’s amazing what you’ve achieved in such a short time, Cathy. It looks great! What a lovely idea to give yourself shrubs for your birthday. I do that too and your choice of them shows your a good plantswoman. I have Hamamelis Primavera but Pallida has a better scent I think. I also have Diane and want to have an orang-flowered variety. The Mahonia Soft Caress is sweet – I have it in the garden but it’s nowhere as vigorous as its sisters. I find it hard as well to source special plants in France. Guess I have to take the trailor in my next trip to the UK!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks Annette – nice to get positive feedback! I’m buying plants in France now, but by mail order (haven’t got a trailer and can’t afford to go to the UK with one, if I had it!). I’m going to add my nurseries to the site soon, since it has taken me three years to find companies that I am confident in … the packing and delivery is generally superb and the price of delivery just fine.

      1. Cathy Post author

        I’m going to try and do it this week Annette. I’m doing it mainly because I wish someone had given me that kind of info when I first moved here and discovered, to my dismay, that I had a big new garden and couldn’t find anywhere to buy plants.

  8. thetransmutationalgardener

    Your garden looks wonderful and everything looks so fertile! I like the idea of giving yourself shrubs or any other plant for Christmas and birthdays — I’ve done that myself a few times. I don’t spend much money on anything else for myself, so I figure I might as well give myself plants every once in a while. As spring approaches each year I begin heading for the nurseries to try to find something different to add to my garden, something that will thrive in our hot, dry weather as well as add a little color. As for shrubs, I especially enjoy forsythia and spirea.

    1. Cathy Post author

      And I will visit your blog shortly to see the results! Isn’t nice to be kind to ourselves in an rather unkind world? I love spirea too – but you could rehome my forsythia if you like! Thanks so much for reading …


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