Author Archives: Cathy

About Cathy

An English-speaking gardener in a French garden

Easter Sunday 2019 & the Mirror Garden

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I was up very early on Easter Sunday this year, because I couldn’t sleep.

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A special experience to sit on our balcony and watch the sun come up over Chatillon from about 6.30am. I’ve done this often enough during the summer when that time of day is the only relief we get from the sun until the cool of the evening.

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But I love my bed too much to do it often on a cold April morning. The old village on the ramparts and its little chateau are always enchanting in the early light.

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Fired with enthusiasm, I rushed upstairs in my dressing gown to the little Juliet balcony off our spare room to take pictures of the Mirror Garden.

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This is the oldest part of the garden, created by the sculptor who previously owned the house as an outdoor exhibition space for his work.

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I tend to take it for granted now, but with the grass just cut the day before, even this difficult part of the garden was looking superb.

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Why is it difficult? Well, there’s perhaps a foot of topsoil up here (at the very most) before you begin to hit the rock on which the ramparts were built. The ‘lawn’ was previously watered by the sculptor during dry summer weather, but I don’t bother. And it shows. A paradise for dandelions and other weeds.

Originally I wanted to make a garden in grey, green and yellow, simply to compliment the view and the mirror. I won’t clip the box until I see the first signs of the Box Tree Moth caterpillar. Clipping the beasts off and then spraying with Bacillus thuringiensis was quite successful last year, although the little dumplings are still trying to recover properly.

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Euphorbia rigida (above) and E. characias subsp. wulfenii are happy, but my favourite E. characias subsp. characias (with the black eyes on its frogspawn flower faces) died.

With a difficult garden like this, you have to learn to love plants that many gardeners consider to be weeds. The number of complaints I’ve read about self-seeding habits on other blogs. I’m just glad something showy can create a pretty picture.

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I put in a special request with the Bon Viveur to bring more Euphorbia cultivars (particularly ‘Black Pearl’) back from England. Unfortunately when he arrived it was with ‘Silver Swan’.

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An elegant but less than tough form that will expire without a doubt up here. I’m going to plant it down on the Rose Walk and then maybe take cuttings, so I can try it in different places in the garden.

The two Helleborus x sternii seedlings (from a  Hardy Plant Society member’s plant of ‘Boughton Beauty’) do well – the pink-flushed seedling, closer to the parent, has not died although I thought the weather might be too cold for it.

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The blue pots sit in place of the two large sculptures for which the garden was made. Overall, the design is very architectural and the layout of the box hedges leads the eye and begs for something more dramatic than my blue pots and their contents. So far I have tried to fill my pots with artichokes, Melianthus major and (last summer) the tall Salvia ‘Mystic Spires’. Nothing works!

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I want delicately twisting double-helix metal shapes, in a kind of wild, modern style, to evoke the ‘spirit of the place’.

The border below the mirror should be full of greys and yellows. But there is only about 6 inches of soil, so most things struggle.

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The climbing yellow rose ‘Lady Hillingdon’ hated it here and is now living elsewhere in the garden. Artemsia ‘Powis Castle’ and ‘Lambrook Silver’ don’t do badly, but I realise that I need to regularly replace them. This year 4 new seedlings were planted out.

What do you suggest?

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The crowning glory at this time of the year is always the Banksian rose, Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’.

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It was cut hard back in autumn 2018 and has proved to flower well on the new wood. The haircut was to save the tower wall (incorporated into the house, but part of the old ramparts) from being covered in the aggressive seedlings of Muelhenbeckia complexa – that planting was definitely a mistake!

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The only chemical I use in the garden is glyphosate (Roundup). The Muelhenbeckia is giving way, but I don’t know what I’ll do when I get through my stock pile of glyphosate. Hopefully I’ll have won the battle by then.

The other side of the rampart wall is the village street and, as you can see, our car parking area (we are gilets-jaunes friendly around here).

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From over the wall the tourists can enjoy the lavenders I planted to edge the Mirror Garden. But the bees enjoy them more …

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It’s a bit late to be wishing you Happy Easter, so I’ll wish you happy May Day instead!

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Notre Dame …

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If you are French, English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, Dutch, Italian, Portugese or Spanish and you have a craftsperson or builder in your very distant past, the chances are your ancestor was coerced or paid to assist in the building of Notre Dame de Paris way back in the 12th century when Europe really began to blossom.

If you are an American from one of these racial groups, you are equally involved. And there were many others, from many lands.

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This is a tragedy for all Europeans and those of European extraction – even those who, like the English, refuse to recognise that this is what they are.

I experienced a huge crying jag on hearing that the three main rose windows seem to have survived.

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Why? Most of all – although I remember the cathedral as the place where Mary Stuart, later Queen of Scots,  celebrated her marriage to Francis II of France – this relief was about the preservation of crucial craftsmen’s work that contributed to making this cathedral the unique jewel that we Europeans created in Paris over 800 years ago. Who does not remember the effect of light when entering a cathedral?

And it was also a recognition of how desperately sad it would be to lose Notre Dame at this particular moment in history.

Notre Dame is – and will be again – supremely beautiful, just like the narcissus I’ve chosen to illustrate this post. Did you read the account of the young boy, taken out by his mother this morning, Tuesday 16 April,  to see the awful mess, who exclaimed: ‘She’s still there!’

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How very wonderful that so many people all over the planet have understood how special Our Lady of Paris is. A spiritual home for all of us, if we wish. Whether Christian or not, she is a testimony to our many talents and aspirations if we direct them well.

And how very bizarre that this should have happened in Holy Week, just before Easter.

Let’s not let pleasure in beauty and the desire to share our talents with neighbours disappear from our lives. Even in the 12th century these were positive fuels that fired each human being involved or coerced into helping to build the miracle that is Notre Dame de Paris.

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Catching up & looking over my shoulder

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I’m a singularly uncommitted blogger, but that doesn’t mean I’m not out there, almost daily, still doing it! My garden calls to me more than the computer does, I’m afraid.

Every year it’s more rewarding. Having started the garden in 2012, there are some shrubs I’ve planted during the last five years that have probably given me real pleasure for the first time this year.

The winter-flowering honeysuckles finally did that thing of wafting their scent to me as I passed them. I planted two: Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’. Blow me if I can tell the difference (did I used to know?), but the pictures are of ‘Winter Beauty’.

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Up in the Mirror Garden, the Chimonanthus praecox ‘Grandiflorus’ is actually flowering a little in its first year. Hurrah – I thought it might only begin after I was long gone from Chatillon and I was hanging back on the planting. Sad that the Bon Viveur was not here to see it, since he egged me on (his speciality).

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At the top of the Long Border I finally have a nice show from Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’.

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In the same area of the garden I’m beginning to think that perhaps the bank (full of rubbish and the debris from the days when no one had the privilege of a regular bin collection) really will be covered in comfrey and hellebores before I’m gone.

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Shame the honesty (Lunaria annua) won’t settle down in there – this year I’m trying my seedlings elsewhere in the garden.

The little woodland garden doesn’t look too shabby this year either. The Cornus mas is eventually going to live up to memories I have of wandering through large plantings of this sweetly scented winter shrub as a student, while I learned my plant names. Strange thing about the past … at the time we never realise that a hurried moment sandwiched between lunch and the afternoon slog will become such a precious memory. Savour those moments!

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The woodland corner gives me much of what I ever wanted from a spring garden. Primroses …

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…hellebores, Cyclamen coum …

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… and the odd Fritillaria meleagris (they don’t really like the summer heat here, even in the shade).

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Snowdrops and the happy little winter aconites are a memory now, but there’s still the pictures.

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Narcissus ‘Jet Fire’ and ‘Peeping Jenny’ now in full flood. ‘Jet Fire’ is always the first daff here.

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For some reason little white ‘Jenny’ (in the Rose Walk) does not ‘stay’ and bulk up as much as yellow and white ‘Peeping Jenny’. Don’t know if it’s the position (drier, more shade in summer), or perhaps something else.

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I’m still excited when the daffs appear. Sadly, this year there will be far fewer tulips, because the budget allowed me to purchase zero bulbs last autumn. But even that has a bonus, because now I can look at the garden and see what are real ‘stayers’ and make notes.

 

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Meanwhile, although many clumps don’t carry two leaves curled around each other to announce the arrival of a flower bud in the centre, the foliage of Tulip ‘Sweet Impression’ is still good value for money at this time of year in the Rose Walk.

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And, for the first time (in the frame that stands to the back of the Rose Walk), I have some lovely juicy lettuces, raddichio, kale and rocket that passed this mild winter under a cover of fleece.

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Time to start sowing again. This garden has the reputation of being the ‘earliest’ in the village (salad being an esssential ingredient of every French meal) and, after spring 2019, it seems I am finally beginning to live up to it!

I’m still getting muddy digging new borders in the rain – this must be an immutable facet of my stubborn personality, because I remember when I was little in my grandmother’s large garden I’d spend hours playing in the wet ditch that surrounded her rockery or raking autumn leaves to form the rooms of ‘mansions’ on the lawn. I do come in on time for my tea these days, however, and I’ve graduated to the pleasure of feeling clean after a nice hot bath.

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Finally finished – my first orchard border, which now needs the mirroring border on the other side to make up the symmetrical pair.  Next year. This year will involve removing a lot of couch grass that I’ll have left behind when I dug, but it doesn’t matter really … the first year is always a battle, then it gets increasingly easier if you stay on top.

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The hemerocallis you see in the picture below are shooting in the Long Border. At this time of year they look so lush with young angelicas that have seeded about.

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But, since this is the only stage at which I like them, they are due to go down to the new orchard border and the slopes above. The slopes are a (very) wild planting on a hard-to-garden site that is increasingly crammed with cast-off bulbs and shrubs moved from elsewhere

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The Hornbeam Garden hedges (planted in 2015, I think) are finally beginning to look like something and spring is the best time down here. I need to increase spring and particularly autumn bulbs, since it’s dry and parched in the height of summer.

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Unfortunately I seem to have lost two lovely spring shrubs (Viburnum ‘Watanabe’ and Philadelphus ‘Virginal’ – still small) in the summer drought last year, so I’ve definitely got to think again about how to clothe what is essentially a steppe or dry prairie habitat.

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I’ve now forgotten about the problems with the voles that ate every damn thing I planted (unless it was in a wire basket) in my first and second years, the ‘vers blancs’ (chafer grubs) that consumed all my lovely dahlias – then started on the sedums – in the third year, even the box tree moth caterpillar that threatened the plants so important to the structure of the garden last year.

Although it has to be said that the moth and its evil progeny are an ever-looming problem. My pheromone traps are currently up at the house to be recharged for late March, April, May duty. You can see one hanging on the Vine Terrace in the picture below (no tulips in the blue pots this year).

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Enough chat and on with the show … the sap is rising on the two old vines on the Vine Terrace under which the Bon Viveur had to painstakingly create his blue pergola.

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And the insects were busy really early this year, during our lovely fortnight of sun and warmth at the end of February.

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Curious – I’ve noticed that the carpenter bees that must be lodging in our stone walls love Helleborus foetidus more than Helleborus orientalis.

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Before lunch last year the Salvia ‘Mystic Spires’ next to the greenhouse brought them out in droves, to be replaced by honey bees in the afternoon. Perhaps they have a long afternoon nap?

Since it is now pouring with rain (again! – how I love spring rain), they’re well advised to doze away the rest of this wet Monday.

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In a vase on Monday

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This is kind of an ‘hello’, ‘I’m still here’ vase, rather than a proper post! The Bon Viveur is home at the moment (until Wednesday), and so there’s little time, but a desire nonetheless to pick flowers.

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These were for our dinner table on Friday night. Still looking lovely on a misty, first day of October. We were lucky enough to get some rain and the temperatures have finally dropped.

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The michaelmas daisies (divided and replanted in the spring) are looking irresistible. They came as small plugs from Hayloft Plants about 3 years ago and were worth every penny, because asters do so well on the clay, in dry conditions.

With them is Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’.

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I like the way that even when the zinnia doesn’t do its double ‘thing’ (and it frequently doesn’t), it still sometimes makes a small effort!

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Go over and look at the other lovely vases on Cathy’s ‘Rambling in the Garden‘. I will do my best to visit everyone’s vases after life has returned to a less than sparkling ‘normal’ speed!

In a vase on Monday

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I have a bit of a secret passion for Hybrid Tea roses – this isn’t very trendy at the moment, but I’ve never been ‘cool’; I just can’t help it! I love their perfectly shaped flowers when in bud and half open. I grow so many old-fashioned roses, but they never quite do that bud-perfection thing, in my eyes.

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About three years ago I planted three HTs in the cut flower garden: white ‘Pascali’, red ‘Mr Lincoln’ and (for the Bon Viveur who has a fetish for all yellow flowers), ‘Grandpa Dickson’. The white and red are great successes, which is just as well because I spent hours researching ‘best red HT for cutting’, and so on. ‘Grandpa Dickson’ has been less than willing, however, showing the usual problems with roses on my soil – they take two or three years to settle, before quitting their habit of dying back a bit during the season.

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I teamed ‘Pascali’ with cornflowers and clary sage (Salvia hormium), both from a very disappointing sowing of Sarah Raven’s ‘Amethyst & Sapphire Mix’ annuals. I tried to keep the ground moist, but the Alkinet (Anchusa ‘Blue Angel’) that I really wanted didn’t show. I think I might buy seed separately and sow in cells in the greenhouse next year. I wasn’t so bothered about the lack of Verbena bonariensis, also included in this four-variety mixture, because there’s plenty self-sowing elsewhere in the garden. It’s a nice idea – although it remains ‘theory’ here!

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I just scattered seed, which doesn’t usually work on my soil. Usually I sow cornflowers in situ with pot marigolds and nigella, because I like the way they all flower for a long time and hold each other up.

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But this year I had planned to change the position in which I put them (down in new beds in the orchard). Unfortunately the beds never got dug, so the annuals were never sown! But I’m already flexing my digging muscles to get it done this autumn.

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There’s also some statice (Limonium sinuatum), which started producing very late this year. In the past I’ve grown the more perennial sea lavender, Limonium latifolium, from seed. But when planted in the garden they just petered out.

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The container was a present from an ex-partner over 30 years ago. The little duck’s a bit of a cutie, but he’s usually swimming away from his vase in another (dusty) part of the house, currently being decorated.

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It was quite nice to reunite them – for probably the first time in about 10 years – with this IAVOM post. Hopefully they’ll become inseparable again now.

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The duck is actually a little trinket box. For the same incredibly long 30 years he’s been home to some flowers of edelweiss given to me by the gardeners when I left an garden in the Bavarian Alps where I did an exchange for a few weeks. I swore I’d go back, but they were right, I never did.  How many poignant little memories we all have tucked into dusty corners of our homes!

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The ususal cluttered home for my Monday vases!

Go on over and see what all the Monday vasers are doing at Cathy’s ‘Rambling in the Garden‘ blog.

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September musings 2

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My first proper harvest of Cox’s Orange Pippin. Shame this isn’t a French heritage variety – but I love it so much and I did get the scions from the Croqueurs de Pommes to graft, so someone around here also appreciates it!

My goodness, doesn’t failure excelerate the rate at which we learn?

The top half of the Hornbeam Gardens, where the cut flowers are, is doing just fine because they are treated like vegetables and watered regularly.

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Asters, of course, don’t really mind dry conditions. But these are just behind my delphiniums and are watered regularly.

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Self-sown Ammi visagna beginning to set some lovely seed for 2019

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The arch next to the dahlias has been ‘sort of ‘clipped now, but needs refinement, because the hedging is still being established. It is also where ‘Rambling Rector’ is growing.

But the lower Hornbeam Gardens have not at all lived up to the picture I had for them in my mind’s eye. I imagined a natural spring shrub garden, that would feature grasses and perennials during the summer.

The arch in the picture below is the gateway to a kind of little hell on earth for plants.

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I’ve been losing a lot of shrubs down there, because of dry conditions – and I do water, but only when I feel it’s essential. So far this year I seem to have lost a Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and my little Viburnum plicatum ‘Watanabe’. Also feared dead is Philadelphus ‘Virginal’, although this may be shooting from the base. I am vaguely hopeful that ‘Black Lace’ will come back again next spring.

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I’ve watered down there on average once every 7 days during our dry spell (I’m of the Beth Chatto school, when it comes to watering). This dry period lasted roughly  from 8 June through until the present. We had rain for maybe 1-2 hours (once for a whole morning) every fortnight, but it was not really enough given the temperatures. In 2016 the temperatures were actually higher – regularly up to 37- 39 degrees celsius – but that lasted for only 2 months. This year it’s been 4 months of average 33-35 daytime temperatures, although it does seem to have broken now (fingers crossed!).

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So, how to make this part of the garden more beautiful in summer? The things that do well: bulbs, Knautia macedonica (a menace here, self-seeding into any other ‘precious’ plant), Salvia nemorosa cultivars (‘Caradonna’ and ‘Rose Queen’), Sedum spectabile ‘Brilliant group’, Monarda ‘Beauty of Cobham’ and ‘Cambridge Scarlet’, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, Coreopsis verticillata, asters like A.  lateriflorus var. horizontalis, Geum ‘Lady Strathenden’ and ‘Mrs Bradshaw’, aquilegias, Campanula persicifolia, Amsonia tabernaemontana ‘Blue Ice’ and – especially – grasses like Deschampsia cespitosa and the species tulips. The hardy geraniums are also doing not badly and, surprisingly, Aconitum carmichaelii hangs on in there (but is never satisfying).

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I should have recognised the fact that the grass in this area (previously just field) was thin before I dug it up – for some stupid reason I didn’t listen to the alarm bells that were definitely ringing. After research and dredging up memories from the past, I’ve concluded that what I have here is a ‘dry prairie’ (the soil is much lighter on this slope). And, surprise, surprise, the species that are doing well down there are either the same that thrive in dry prairie, or relations. I’m currently compiling a list of plants that could suit.

I’m about to get a bit adventurous: ceanothus, if I can find hardy enough species, Panicum virgatum, Smilacina stellataBaptisia and prairie clovers (Dalea), Delphinium exaltatum, Asclepias (although perhaps not hardy enough, like Agastache, which dies in the winter here), Symphyotrichum sericeum, and so on. Currently I’m feeling inspired although nervous – any suggestions to add to the list I’m trying to compile (which I hope to eventually post on this blog) gratefully received.

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Just outside the lower Hornbeam Gardens, towards the river. I’m nearly finished clipping the hedges down here now. I’m quite pleased with the way they are establishing, but I think a midsummer clip next year would help them to really thicken and look tidier.

Another problem with my original planting is the sloping nature of the site. This means that relatively middle height sedums planted at the front of a border obscure anything behind them (coreopsis, for example). And the shrubs that are doing well (lilacs are terrific, as is Viburnum opulus) tend to want to run/slope downhill! It’s annoying, but again I’ve learnt something huge as a first-time ‘slope’ gardener.

Further up the garden I’ve learnt that things like lettuce, carrots, spinach, spring onions and radish (all benefiting from water and a little shade in the intense heat) should go in small (one person) quantities in what I call my ‘cold frame’.

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This is handy for the greenhouse, so gets watered easily once a day.

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The greenhouse is probably ready to have shading removed. This area is still being developed but I’m very pleased at how tidy it is starting to look in comparison with when it was finished in December last year.

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And also pleased that the yew hedge that was planted to the back of the Rose Walk (to disguise another slope and an ugly concrete retaining wall) is providing a much-needed bit of part-day shade for plants which are growing in the hottest part of the garden.

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And, in spite of the weather, I still have a grass path here! The hedge itself (went in in about 2014, I think) is beginning to thicken up and develop, although it still has a way to go. Although I’m an experienced gardener, and should know better, I still can’t help marvelling at how far a little protection from overhead sun can go to protect and allow even sun-loving plants to flourish without much water.

Clematis ‘Arabella’ is below. The clematis in the Rose Walk are clearly doing nicely, thanks very much, because as we all know ‘feet in the shade, head in the sun’ is the rule.

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Because the soil stays moist for longer in this area, I get quite a lot of self-sowers. Although this self-sown Nicotiana (probably sylvestris) can cope with a lot of drought – they do very, very well here and I strongly recommend them for dry gardens on clay soil.

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Long may my learning curve continue!

I’d love to hear about your failures – and particularly about the plants you think would suit a dry prairie planting.

In a vase on Monday

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‘Noordwijks Glory’ is the dahlia face on here, with ‘Karma Choc’ to the right. Rose ‘Wollerton Old Hall’ just behind, with one flower of ‘Sweet Juliet’ to the right.

Here’s my contribution to Cathy’s meme at Rambling in the Garden. I used only dahlias and roses – and probably not as much foliage as I ought to have used!

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Dahlia ‘Karma Lagoon’

The dahlias are: ‘Karma Irene’ (red), ‘Karma Lagoon’ (purple), ‘La Recoleta’ (pom-pom, dark purple), ‘Karma Choc’, ‘Noordwijks Glory’ and the little single anemone-flowered ‘Totally Tangerine. Roses were ‘Wollerton Old Hall’, ‘Sweet Juliet’ and HT ‘Mr Lincoln’.

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‘Wollerton Old Hall’ (left), ‘Sweet Juliet’ (right), with a hint of Dahlia ‘Karma Irene’ beside it.

All are included just because they were ‘there’ and I wanted to try out a new plant-holder/vase, given to me by the kind parents of two 5- and 9-year-old children who I tutored in English this summer.

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This young couple from Lyon have close ties to Chatillon – both grandmother and great-grandmother live here – and spent the summer in the village before immigrating to New Zealand on 11 September.

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‘Sweet Juliet’

It’s a sad fact that rural France, in some areas, is increasingly depopulated with only oldies like me left. The French establishment and press refer endlessly to our ‘medical deserts’. And these are, of course, the areas where the oldies live! Places where the old doctors are retiring (or dying) and to which the young ones don’t wish to relocate.

The French health service is arguably unsurpassed in the world (a clever combination of a free public service and a top-up insurance service (referred to as your ‘complémentaire santé’), which patients pay for themselves monthly. So the public input is shored up financially by our own private input. But if you have a ‘carte vitale’ (and every French person has one, from a child) you are always entitled to all the health care basics.

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A slightly battered Dahlia ‘Totally Tangerine’

However, due to the size of the country, if you fall and break your leg (or neck, as has happened to two people I know), the emergency service in an area like ours will have to helicopter you to the nearest large hospital. Meanwhile, on the roads, fleets of taxi-ambulances (paid for by our ‘complementaires’) ferry patients the 50 minutes to hospitals for treatments such as dialysis or radiotherapy. And even as far as Paris (about 3.5 hours away), sometimes as often as once a fortnight, if you can only be treated there.

In winter the villages are quiet and nearly dead. But summer brings an inrush of grandchildren from Paris and further afield. Shouts of joy down by the river and bicycles in the streets again!

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It must be hard when parents, such as my students’ parents, decide to relocate to the other side of the world for a better life. Thiebault, the oldest, when asked what he was looking forward to most in New Zealand told me: ‘Living in a house!’ Apartment life in a city is the norm, life in the country the exception for most children. I hope they are settling in well, even if they are not in the house he dreams of yet!

I did try out my vase with different dahlias as well – more ‘Karma Serena’ and some ‘Playa Blanca’ – and this time added some snapdragons. The touch of green and the spikiness make it altogether a ‘perkier’ vase.

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Go on over and see the other vases at ‘Rambling in the Garden‘. They are always so different and inspiring. And have gifted me lots of new ideas over the years.

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