Gardening in Languedoc – tips for spring

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The beginning of 2014 with a full year of “The Natural Gardener” behind us.

What more is there to say?

Every reader now has his/her perfect garden?

Well, not quite, so this spring I’m not going to give you one more list of things to plant: I’m going to recount things that have gone wrong in my garden so that you can, hopefully, avoid the pitfalls.

Firstly, there was the wind. The wind last autumn.

Languedoc has 13 or 14 NAMED winds so we can expect a bit of breeze occasionally, but 13! (I can only name three of them – Tramontan, Marin and Mistral.)

When we bought the house the south wall of the garden had a sprawling old yellow chevrefeuille (honeysuckle) so I hung a trellis next to it and tried to capture it.

Then I put up an adjoining second trellis and planted a couple of Rambling Roses under it. Too much! In October the high wind got hold of the whole thing – chevrefeuille and roses – and they collapsed into the garden, bringing both trellis off the wall.

This did give me the opportunity to thoroughly dig over the whole bed – something I wasn’t able to do before, not with those old honeysuckle roots in the way.

One further tip on trellising that I learnt – don’t fasten it directly to the wall. Better to sink one of those circular pointed uprights flush with the wall: give it a little concrete reinforcing if possible – then bolt the sides of the trellis to that.

I’ve now put in six Iceberg rose BUSHES (not ramblers) at 1 metre spacing. Iceberg has a full flush of flowers and doesn’t mind a little shade. (The wall is about 1m 40cm high.) Between the roses I may put Ribes, a red flowering currant that tolerates shade. It may be redundant when the Iceberg reach their full size – they should grow a bit above the wall and nearly as wide. (I ended up filling the gaps with an old favourite, Vibernum Tinus, which flowers in early Spring, offsetting the Iceberg which should start in June).

Lessons learnt:

• Make sure wall-trellising is well attached

• Don’t overload it.

Secondly, there were those old white fig trees. We have several old red fig trees as well and the white fruit was never much good.

So I chopped back both the white ones, attached some trellis (more trellis!) and planted four or five climbing roses. That was about five years ago. Things seem to grow and thicken more quickly down here compared with UK. Whatever, by last summer all these climbers had grown, clinging to the trellis and the fig trees, until a final height of some 3-4 metres. Not only that, it was a curtain of shade for the lawn and several flower beds. So I made up my mind to take it all down and start again.

That was when the fun started. This was like chopping through virgin Amazon forest – it’s easier to cut through the front door of No.10 than a fully grown thorn-rose. And the worst error I’d made those years before was not checking the thorn behaviour of the climbing roses. Belatedly, after checking Google, one of my favourite climbers in our garden in UK had been Zephirine Drouin, a Bourbon rose from Réunion: and what’s its common name – “Thornless Rose”! Of the four or five I’ve now sent to the décheteerie, three had hard grey thorns like grappling hooks!

Lessons learnt:

• For climbing/rambling roses, make sure they are against a support and they won’t block the sun from anything: (I have a wonderful Rosa Banksia Alba on our north wall on the road.)

• Look very carefully at the size of thorns on climbers/ramblers (Bushes are nowhere such a peril) and choose from the numerous thornless types.

Thirdly – removing the roots of the roses that had covered the old white fig trees. The two largest roots took me two hours of digging, levering and cutting. And when the largest root finally came free I learnt another lesson. The root ball was just that! All the major roots – now as thick as 3cm – were still curled around the main stump, just as they had been (though much thinner) when I bought the pot some five/six years ago!

So when you buy a rose bush in a pot, you knock off the pot and plant it, make sure you pull the major roots away from the mass and spread them around in the hole (at least twice the diameter of the plastic pot).

Don’t worry about losing any of the soil around the roots in the pot, or worry about the roots drying out, unless you leave it uncovered more than half an hour or so.

Fourthly, that Dry Garden. It’s coming along now, but it’s had a mixed history.

When I first decided that this neglected space would be a “dry garden” I simply assumed I could root out anything I didn’t want and plant Cacti and Succulents. Not so: I found there were small pockets of compacted clay, very wet and unsuited to these plants. I’ve now introduced some gravel (gravier) and coarse sand.