Life in a Dol house
2018  -  Week 34

It's that time of year...

It's hot outside. Really hot still. 

Over +34ºC, so having gone out to do some work after my siesta - don't forget that taking a siesta here is obligatory in July and August - I got the ladder out to check the roof where some damp has been getting in, took a couple of photos of render which is failing and decided I would retreat back inside until it cools a little. 

The direct and reflected solar radiation was just a little too much to work in. 

But rather than waste the time, I decided I would look at some plantings for the top orchard. 

It's that time of year when plant and bulb catalogues start to thump through the letterbox, or arrive with a clang in the email in box, which I prefer. 

Depending which hemisphere you are in when you read this, it may be Autumn and Winter plantings (Northern) or Spring and Summer plantings (Southern), but either way the glossy photographs of beautiful plants covered in flowers, in improbably perfect settings make you stop and look. 

Plants are adaptable, to a degree.  There are some things which will only grow in certain soil types. Plant them in the wrong soil and they will simply curl up and die...

Beautiful Camellias, Azaleas, Calluna, and Blueberries are all Ericaceous

They have to have acid soil conditions to grow. My soil being a clay loam, with a lot of limestone deposit is a high alkaline soil, so if it's Ericaceous, the only way I will get it to grow is in a pot. 

I'm actually doing that with some blueberry bushes. They are alive, but hardly thriving.

What I have found this year, even with the limited amount of summer rain we have had, is that the trees I have planted in the Top Orchard have not required very much in the way of water. 

The soil is, apart from in one area, deep and fertile. 

This was at one time an olive grove, although only one of the original trees remains but there are a few dead stumps. 

It has been home to goats and chickens, who have added to the composition of the soil, and because of the tall plum trees, the annual leaf litter has added to the soil, improving its texture and composition. 

The one area which differs is quite small, and is a spoil heap from the cess pit that my next door neighbour dug many years ago. In common with those times, the spoil was just heaped on any nearby land - preferably someones else's land. 

So there is a heavy, sandy, stone ridden subsoil, to the depth of about a meter, covering an area of around 20 square meters. This has now been roughly levelled and it is where I am going to put a small ornamental pond. 

To the north there is a lovely warm, creamy coloured stone wall, some two meters tall. 

Being south facing, it gets the winter sun, absorbs the warmth then radiates it and acts as protection from the cold winter Bura winds which sweep off the Central European Plateau. 

Against this wall I have planted Jabuticaba, Guava, Kiwi and Mango. 

This autumn I will put in some steel to make a frame for a half poly-tunnel. Facing south it will not need heat, and will protect the more tender plants inside and at the same time allow me to extend the growing season for salad crops and the like. 

I am using part of the orchard as architectural salvage. All the stones and reclaimed timber is here, in an area where I would eventually like to have steps leading down from a walled garden. 

I have more stones than I know what to do with at the moment. The only slight problem is that some weight 300 kilograms or more... 

Smaller stones will become a rockery around the spoil heap and pond, perhaps with a small seasonal waterfall.

With my rain water harvest system now in place and functioning, the orchard will be moist because of a Swale

But what I would like, as well as a functioning orchard, are some plants, shrubs and trees which look nice, winter and summer, so the orchard can be enjoyed whatever the season. 

Currently there are three varieties of plum, two varieties of sweet cherry, three dessert Olives, two Persimmon, two Avocado, two Loquat, a very sweet dessert apple and a Japanese Pear. 

I have room for a couple more fruit trees, but what I am thinking about is what to plant around the pond and against the southern low boundary wall, which happens to be in the partial shade of two large Walnut trees. 

I have several trees which are in pots, having started as small saplings, purchased specifically for this orchard. 

There are three Japanese Acers

These are acid loving trees, so I am going to need to make sure that where they are planted, the soil Ph is on the acid end of the scale. 

Then I would like to have some winter flowering shrubs. Things like HamamelisChimonanthus praecox 'Luteus' and Sarcococca confusa

Then there is the Lantana, a colourful flowering shrub which grows well here and attracts myriad insects and pollinators.

But behind all this is the need to make sure they are low maintenance - plant and forget - that they will withstand high ambient summer temperatures, and because of climate change, drought tolerant at least once they are established. 

So, there is not much of an ask there, is there?

So a good starting point is an examination of the macro and microclimate

During the winter, a normal winter that is, there are occasional hoar frosts, between January 1st and February 14th, the latter being the effective last day for frosts in the region.  Only once in four years has the daily temperature remained below zero C all day - in the New Year 2017 freeze.

Although as happened this year, you can get a sudden cold snap, when we had snow in March which killed the blossom on the plum trees. 

The macro environment is a Köppen Classification Csa. Temperate with dry, hot summers. 

Unlike North America where there are several very high definition systems, down to individual post code areas, to identify exactly which USDA hardiness zone you are in, Europe has only recently started out on this project. 

Work by the University of Vienna has only recently been published with very high resolution climate maps, using actual normalised data from 1876 to 2011, and then a projection to 2100. 

Up to 2060 will do just fine for me. The information is available as a compressed KML file to download and then import into Google Earth on your computer desktop. 

Another brilliant site which can help is the Pacific Bulb Society

Here some highly knowledgeable specialists have delved even deeper into the science behind heating and cooling days, moisture and climate. 

There is an entire section which lists the climate in different parts of the world

But beware, once you start to explore this website, time will evaporate... 

I'm now in my fourth year of living in my Dol house, so have a better idea of what to expect in the way of seasonal weather. 

I know it will remain warm until the first Autumnal rains arrive in September, then it cools gradually until someone switches the sun off in late November (when it rises late and spends most of the day behind the hill to the south of my home). 

I am in a thermal belt, south facing but in the lea of a hill to the south.  I have two very distinct and different microclimates because of the composition and previous use of the soils, the sunshine hours, especially in winter, frost pockets and moisture.  A year round feature is the Katabatic wind, which cools the Citrus and Drupe orchards but the Top Orchard is protected by buildings and trees, and as already mentioned the walls and the radiated heat they give off.

This was why I placed the apples and pear trees, both of which need a number of cool to cold winter nights to produce fruit, where I did.

So knowing the climatic environment, I can characterise my plant requirements for an orchard which can be lived in year round. 

It needs to use rainfall effectively without compromising on colour and style, there needs to be visual interest around the trees which provide fruits for the table, the trees and plants needs to harmonise naturally, be low maintenance and easy to keep.  Easy!

This chart is another from the Pacific Bulb Society website, for the Mediterranean region, breaking the region down by temperature and rainfall.  Dol is G2, Cold with average winter lows of -1ºc to +4ºc during January and early February and wetter in summer with an average of 51mm over two months.  "Wetter" is relative to the rest of the region though!

I have a book that I purchased years ago when I was in the Stanford University Book Store, in Silicon Valley.

I see it's dated as a "new and revised" version - 1979!  How times flies....

Simply called Sunset Western Garden Book , it is an invaluable reference work complete with climate maps, for horticulturists who garden in areas of the world which share a similar climate to somewhere in California, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest, which here in Dol we do, as I suspect 75% of the rest of the world does too. 

I assess that Dol is in zone 19 or 21 - the difference between them is subtle - based on extreme minimum winter lows of -5ºc or -6ºc. 

The Sunset climate zones are more specific than the USDA climate zones which cover greater areas, but I think Dol is in a USDA 9b or 10a. 

There is a completely new version of the book out now, ISBN-13: 978-0376039200, but the older versions are available at really sensible prices from people like Abe Books

But what all this means is that when you look at a plant label, or look up a plant on line, you see either a Sunset, USDA, or RHS tag showing the best growing zones. To get the best from your plants and trees, you need to understand this information.  The Pacific Bulb Society publish a handy comparison guide for Europe.

Another sunset publication is "The Unthirtsty 100". 

A small 1988 booklet with a detailed listing of 100 dry landscape plants, again a useful guide, providing you can tailor the advice to your individual plot. 

I also have The Dry Garden by the prolific horticultural author Beth Chatto which is another good reference source. 

However having a shelf bulging with good gardening books, in what one of my neighbours calls my "Bibliothèque" is no substitute for actually having an in depth understanding of the different microclimes of your property. 

The books are great to look at on cold winter nights and baking summer afternoons, but even a serial experimenter like me, knows where I have to draw the line...  Rhododendrons are not an option!

Perhaps a subject in its own right for another week is the 12 books every gardener must have on their shelf? 

I have a few more than 12, but just by looking at the dust cover, where there is one, the corners and fore edge of the book block, I can see the ones which have been used regularly over the years, and those which are more 'coffee table' volumes.

Everywhere olive trees grow is said to be the true Mediterranean climate. 

Well around Dol there are olive trees in abundance. 

But the features of our Mediterranean climate are not only found around the Mediterranean basin, they are also replicated in parts of South Africa, coastal Chile, Southern California and south west Australia, so researching what will grow where becomes infinitely more interesting. 

It's back to the catalogues for some ideas... 

But first I have to have the basic plan. What is already planted where and what microclimes do I have. 

Then this week as I was on my way for a haircut - yes even on idilic Mediterranean island, there are the normal things in life to take care of - I saw a small new plant shop had sprung up in one of the squares in Stari Grad. 

There were a number of border plants, but what I noticed was a row of Salix Integra "Flamingo". 

Salix I immediately recognised as the family name for Willow, that tree or shrub that heralds spring with an abundance of catkins and pollen. 

But the variety I didn't know and I associate Willow with damps spots, around ponds and water courses, a thirsty plant, quick growing with invasive roots. 

Not something you see here on the island. I resisted the impulse purchase so I could research it a little. 

But I think I could find a corner somewhere in the orchard, especially as this shrub demands full sun - something I have in abundance.

There may eventually be some orchard grass under the trees, but no lawns. 

It will be chaos without it being chaotic. Somewhere to stroll and enjoy

Pathways will be stones set in gravel with drifts of colour to please the eye.

Drought tolerance is the order of the day, so I think some Rudbeckia and their cousins the brightly coloured Echinacea, some Senna (Cassia nemophila) which already grows wild on the hillside above Dol, plants to encourage pollinators, water to encourage reptiles and aquatic insects, a willingness to allow weeds to grow so that things like the Katydids, which like those areas can thrive against a backdrop of boundary shrubs, like the Flamingo Willow. (Memo: Add to shopping list for next week)

My vision would be for a walk through the orchard, which is only 600 square meters, to be a walk on the wild side, with interesting vistas, some seats where mosquitoes can come and feed on you, masses of insect life and interesting plants, with the chance to "pick your own" fruit as you pass local trees like Žižula (Zizyphus jujuba), 

a Chocolate Pudding Tree (Black Sapote - but bring your own ice cream) and the Myrobalan plum

It is about creating a mixture of useful fruiting varieties with exotics (I have a single, solitary pineapple growing) and flowering shrubs.

That's not too much to ask is it?