With much excitement my order of Mediterranean plants arrived from southern France last week. It is no longer easy to import plants from Europe and the hoops through which we now have to jump are numerous. We once took such choice for granted and, as with so many other issues, we now find ourselves unprepared for such a radical change. British nurseries were not prepared for this severance from Europe and need time to gear up to start producing here. So we have to plan further ahead, go without or propagate ourselves if we are to negotiate the choices we might need to make for a changing climate.
The idea behind my sand garden has been to familiarise myself with a palette of plants that can cope with the extremes we seem to be experiencing in terms of winter wet and drier periods in the growing season. The ‘final’ round of planting for the sand garden this year are plants from the great Olivier Filippi and his Jardin Sec and nursery. His list of available stock was published in late summer and I secured my plants immediately to avoid the “feeding frenzy” that Peter Clay warned me about. Peter, the buyer for Crocus and holder of the requisite import licence, was my go-between for this order. First for certification in Europe, followed by quarantine in his nursery and finally on to here. All in all, my new plants feel precious.
Olivier’s plants are remarkable. He has spent years honing a palette of gardenworthy Mediterraneans. Plants that have been tried and tested for a climate that is increasingly drier, with many unique to him collected on his plant hunting expeditions. Together with his wife, Clara, the chief propagator, they have also refined their methodology. The plants are all about the root, which has been encouraged to be strong and enterprising in its ability to take to difficult conditions. Top growth is nipped back to a neat and well foliated bush to reduce evaporation and encourage energy into the root.
Specially designed pots are tall, narrow and square with vertically ridged sides to channel the roots downward, develop a deep root system and ensure that they do not wind around the pot. Finally, an open grille at the bottom works like an airpot system to encourage branching in the root. The pots in the nursery are kept off the ground so, when the roots reach the grille, they burn off and branch to encourage a fine network of hair roots. All these factors lead to healthier plants and much better establishment.
When planting in the Mediterranean Olivier advocates autumn planting and making a basin around the plant to harness the winter rains. He is tough with water in his garden near Montpellier, watering deep but sparingly in the first year and then weaning plants off water altogether in the second and third years. The roots do the searching and allow for more waterwise planting. I will not be making basins here, for fear of the plants drowning with our increasingly wetter winters, but an autumn plant is always preferable to spring. I am happy to be getting the plants in now so that all available warmth in the ground is harnessed for root growth over the winter. By spring the plants should have engaged with their surroundings and be ready to seize the new growing season and push away new top growth.
It took me the best part of two days to set my last round of plants out into the partially planted sand garden. Working away quietly, with my planting plan in my head and not on paper, I had to imagine the plants I have yet to get to know. How they might adapt to our hearty ground once they get through the sand mulch, which will protect their necks from the winter wet. How they might differ when given a growing season that will offer them comparative luxury to the long periods of summer drought that preside in their homelands. Bupleurum from Gibraltar cliff faces, Phlomis and musk-scented Cistus from boulder-strewn hillsides, where rain might not fall for months, rather than a few weeks in summer.
I kept in my mind their stature and presence and the need, when planting with as many evergreens, for there to be breathing space for the perennials and the ephemeral bulbs. For Gladiolus tristis to spear above the mounding Balotta and the sway of foxtail lilies that I plan to push through gold Asphodeline in an open clearing below the Mount Etna brooms. The Eremurus need the light to flood onto their early growth and feed their roots before summer dormancy. The space beneath the brooms will also allow the mounding evergreens nearby contrast and roominess. It is thirty years since I last grew Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ in the Barn Garden at Home Farm and the joy in setting out their curious spidery roots hasn’t dimmed. Hailing from the high steppe lands of the Middle East, they also require perfect drainage.
The perennial areas amongst the shrubby plants in the mix are deliberately low to keep air in the planting, both for good visuals and good health. Several of the groundcovers are allelopathic, producing their own growth inhibitors to diminish competition from interlopers. I have planted these along the boundary of the garden, where this year I noticed the grasses and native perennials were blowing in from the meadows. Ground-hugging Achillea crithmifolia and Centaurea bella are both evergreen and will hopefully help in protecting the front line of the garden. These low groundcovers are also ideal as a foil for bulbs which can push through them. The bulb layer will mostly wait for planting until this time next year, once I can see how things have settled.
I am already fretting about the winter with my self-imposed challenge of unchartered territories. Last year saw two freezes that razed the shrubby Euphorbias to the ground, blackened our bay tree and browned the Jerusalem sage. So, until they are established, I will be adapting a clutch of hanging baskets and lining them with fleece, so that I can easily pop a hat over anything vulnerable. The evergreens will be most at risk to wind when there is freeze in the ground and water isn’t available.
Glass cloches will keep the wet off the plants I know I am pushing the boundaries with here. I have not seen the silver-leaved Convolvulus oleifolius growing in the UK, but am determined to see if it is as viable as Convolvulus cneorum. The Californian Salvia clevelandii, would also rarely have periods of prolonged winter wet, so protecting the downy leaves from our winter wet conditions makes sense, at least for the first year. More mature plants tend to be more resilient, so I deem my increased levels of parenting to be acceptable until my new guests have made themselves at home and shown me what they are made of.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 18 November 2023