a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Definitely spring

The waters have receded to a more normal spring level and the daffodils are out. These are where we retire our daffodils when they get too crowded in other parts of the garden. I was not sure the bulbs would survive the dry, hot summer but they do and get enough rain and light in the spring to proliferate.

I love seeing the hazel flower – tiny as they are. There are two on the stem underneath the catkin.

I see the white-tailed bumble bee queens during the winter but it has to be spring before I see the queen Carder bumblebees. They love the dead red-nettle and there is plenty of it in the garden just now.

The biggest spring event for us is when the old plum tree flowers. It is a festival of perfume, buzzing and pollinators.

Such an opportunity for photographs.

Bees and plum blossom are so photogenic.

I could go on like this for some time, but I won’t.

I did say pollinators in the plum tree so I must insert my token butterfly. Probably a tortoiseshell.

I am not going closer than a tortoiseshell. I don’t think it was a small tortoiseshell but please feel free to leave a comment if you know what it is. Before anyone asks – I do not know what colour its legs were, I was lucky to get the picture I did.

Being a frugal type I decided to plant the hyacinth bulbs I had inside for their perfume, after the flowers had finished. My trusty garden tool is used for everything and I swing it around with wild abandon.

I was chilled to realise, when digging the hole, that I had nearly decapitated a hiberating toad. I think it must have been the root that saved him. I had to pick him up to make sure he still had four legs.

He sat quietly to the side while I redug a hollow under the root. He accepted his repositioning calmly and looked less upset than I was.

So all is well in the garden with the Carpenter bees swooping noisily onto the heather.

All the bees love the Hellebore and there are even more than ever this year.

But the biggest news today was that the Osmia cornuta males are emerging from the bee houses. I do love to watch them and if you would like to share you can see more of my photos at Bees in a French Garden.


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Walking in the Woods

A few days ago, our friends came over and picked us to go for a visit to the woods at Rioux about half an hour away from our home. Needless to say in the confinement of the car we all four wore our facemasks.

These special woods are covered with wild daffodils. Many of the daffodils were still in buds. Perhaps we arrived a few days early or as we saw later quite a few families had picked up bundles of flowers. That is why on arrival I did not notice the daffodils.

Walking actually into the woods, we did noticed hundredes of daffodils

There were also quite a lot of wild primroses

Another wild flower that I love to see in the woods around here is Asphodel. Now they are still shooting up.

This picture we took in previous years, of asphodels in flower. They are majestic – I feel.

I also love the flowers of Pulmonaria. They are favourite colour. The common English name is Lungwort, as the leaves somwhat reminds one of lungs.

I often see abandoned buildings in the countryside, like some archaeological site. I wonder about the family that must have lived in this one; the children that grew up and played in the forest.

All countrysides specially in remote rural areas look to me neglested and yet at the same time loved. An abandoned house or an old dead tree that perhaps the children used to climb or swing from it,

A little further and we came across a small farm. A beautiful horse lonely in a field

And a road sign that I must have missed when I learnt the highway code

First I noticed one lonely sheep, perhaps expecting a lamb,

And further along we saw the rest of the flock and one proud sheep with her lambs.

A most pleasant walk in the woods, despite the confinement.

Kourosh


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Bees in the heather

“That’s not a honeybee!”, said Kourosh. He was right! There were plenty of honeybees in the winter flowering heather but he was not one of them. Yesterday morning (16 February 2021) was warm and sunny and the cute little bee was not a honeybee. I thought he looked like a male bee because he had elegant long antenna and the furry face looked like some of the solitary male bees I have seen.

As I watched him another, slightly larger bee, alighted on some nearby heather flowers and he immediately leapt on top of her. Well, that settled the question rapidly.

You would think I would know what type of bees they are but these photographs are not good enough to identify them. There are just under 1,000 species of bees in France (20,000 species in the world).

However, it was a very special moment and it brought home to me that spring is coming. Everything is on the move and it is worth keeping your eyes wide open.

If anyone is interested I have more photographs in Bees in a French Garden.


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A pond for the garden

The rain has been more or less continuous this week but I am surprised that as soon as there is a break in the downpour the bees are out.

I suppose the Hellebores are ideally suited for this type of weather as the flower heads face downwards, keeping the pollen dry and making natural umbrellas for any bees caught out.

On Wednesday I saw the first bumble bee out for some time. She was very slow and obviously a young queen that must have woken very hungry from a dormant period. She walked over the flowers of the heather carefully taking the nectar.

It was not until I looked at the photographs, much later, that I realised that she was heavly infested with mites. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust say that these parasites may just be hitching a lift on bumblebees to take them to new nests and that they feed on nest debris. They suggest that heavily infested bumblebees could have the mites swept off them using a child’s paintbrush. I have never down this and I think it might not be so easy in practice.

The rain was forecast and we managed to get our pool in place in the hope of filling it with rain water. We have had a blue plastic sandpit hoarded for many years, and rather than buy a new piece of plastic we decided to reuse and recycle.

We already have a waterlily plant ready re-homing and the stone was placed to mark the spot.

This is our first real pond but we have already aspirations of what may breed here.

This photograph was taken in 2015 from “Many Happy Returns”. I hear our frogs at the moment but I do not see them.

This is from “A February of Contradictions”. These little green tree frogs or Reinettes (Hyla meridionalis) are ever present in the garden but I have never seen their tadpoles.

This photograph is from last year in “Persimmon and Saffron”, the little newts (Tritorus marmoratus) were hiding together under one of my pots.

If they adults are cute the babies are even cuter see July last year “Garden Visitors”. Will they breed in the new pond?

We do not see the salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) so frequently but I found this baby one near the Manuka last year “Back to April Showers”. Note the rubber gloves. The salamander can exude an irritant from its skin, I still like its sleek form and yellow stripe.

I do not expect to attract a European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) but if he has already come here (“There’s an Emys orbicularis, in the garden”) – why not?

So the rain continues to fall and the stones get piled around the edges to conceal the shape. In the middle of the pool the stone has already attracted some wildlife. You can just see two black marks.

I have never noticed these before and I think they are Devil’s Coach Horse beetles (Ocypus olens). They are detrius feeders and I can attest to the fact that they are not good swimmers. Never the less when we rescue them, flicking them onto the grass, we find them back on the stone or floating inanimate in the water the next day.

So the rain has filled our pond and we have been able to put the water lily in its new home with a few weeds from the bee’s water bowl. We would like to add some more plants especially something tall to attract the dragonflies but it is a bit early yet for that.

We will not be adding fish as they will likely make short work of any spawn or tadpoles.

Our robin was in good voice today and I am sure he feels it will not be long until springtime here.


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More rain and floods

At the bottom of our garden the river has been rising.

France is now under a curfew at 6.00 p.m. in a winter that has been exceptionally dull and rainy. Many parts of France are suffering from floods. These winter floods are becoming recurrent and coupled with hot dry summers as the world climate becomes more perturbed.

The river Seine in the Paris region has flooded some houses so frequently that there is a plan by the municipality to buy the houses and revert the area back to nature. We wonder at the planning permission when we see films of the houses washed away by the rain and flooded by the high tides.

This is the road leading to our house. The house is just behind the line of trees on the right.

Looking from the same spot to the left of the road, the fields are completely under water. More and more in this area, the trees and hedges are cut down to give larger fields to cultivate maize, sunflowers, rape and cereal.

This is the canal that was dug about 70 years ago to make sure the road was not flooded. The land rises towards the house and the water passes into the vast stretches of marshland around the Seudre as it heads for the sea. Our little river is on the left of the photograph and although both strips of water are moving fast, I don’t expect it to get high enough to overflow into the garden.

This is a nostalgic photograph of one of the last apricot flowers from our garden. We have cut down the last apricot tree and I gathered the twigs and brought them inside to watch them blossom for the last time.

The highs and lows of our spring temperatures here mean that we seldom get a good crop of apricots.

However, our apple and pear trees are more successful and Kourosh has wanted a Nashi for some years after he found a tree with the delicious fruit nearby in an untended garden. The fruit was delicious, it looked like an apple but was extremely juicy with a flavour reminiscent of pears.

So the decision was taken to cut down the apricot tree (see stump on the left of the new Nashi.)

Kourosh had tried to graft the unknown fruit onto our apple trees. The grafts were unsuccessful and I wonder if this is because that despite its appearance of a sleek, round apple the Nashi is Pyrus pyrifolia – a pear.

So despite the rain we took the decision to buy a Nashi. We were able to source a Nashi “Kosui” and we hope it will thrive in its new home.

The garden seems to have decided to push forth with vigour. The Hellebores are shooting up and I have so many this year I did not mind cutting some for a table decoration. Anyway, the bumblebees are not awake yet so they won’t miss them.

My Cornus mas or Cornelian cherry has just started flowering but the plants are not big enough to attract the bees – not enough flower heads to make it easy work for the bees.

On the other hand my bushes of Viburnum tinus are large and full of bees – so size does matter.

Every year I patrol our hazel catkins to get a photograph of the bees gathering pollen which my French sources say is one of the most important sources of pollen in the spring for bees. I have never seen a bee on the hazel catkins. So I was quite excited when I read in theFebruary 2021 issue of BeeCraft magazine that the bees will ignore it if other pollen is freely available.

So the bees can be choosy too!

The size of the actual flower does not count for the bees. We have lots of tiny blue speedwell growing in the grass and the bees visit them assiduously. The visit does not last long so once again it will be the quantities of flowers that attracts.

The girls are very busy at the moment. We put a layer of insulation over the brood box in December as we had freezing temperatures. We do not intend to remove it yet as it is only the beginning of February and colder weather is forecasted.

Nevertheless, the girls seem determined to get cracking. The short video (30 seconds) shows the different colours of pollen being taken into the hives. I like to watch them and guess where the pollen comes from.

As I have mentioned everything seems to be powering ahead to grow in an unseemly haste. These polyanthus have sprung into new plants on the seed heads of their old flowers.

Is it a vegetative growth or have the seeds decided to germinate on the flowerhead? It seems a good strategy on the part of the plant to find a less crowded place to grow – at least a flower stem’s length from the parent plant. I have never noticed this before. Is it common?


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Composting in the garden

We had not long started in the garden here when we were able to get a wooden composter (very cheap, thanks to an initiative from the European Union.) I liked the idea of recycling the household and garden waste but the composter filled up very quickly.

This led to us acquiring a second composter which made things easier as one could be left closed to compost while the other one was being filled.

Everything green from the garden goes in the compost when it is removed. We draw the line at nettle roots but even weed seed should be destroyed by composting. However, I have my doubts on that as I find masses of tomatoes growing in the garden and I feel these must come from the compost.

All the wasted ends and outer leaves of vegetables get put into the kitchen compost bin to be added to the outside one. Waste paper such as napkins goes in with moderation.

Our next acquisition was a free plastic composter -recycled plastic, but I do not know why the material was changed. This came at the time when bonfires were forbidden because of air pollution. Now any waste from cutting or trimming trees and hedges must be taken to the council dump to the green waste.

I am not sure of the efficiency of many cars burning petrol to get to the dump and then lorries removing the waste to save carbon dioxide emissions. Hopefully, someone a lot cleverer than me has worked it out correctly.

My green plastic bin was never the less welcomed with open arms as it is my special bin! In autumn I fill it with only fallen leaves and by next autumn I have a beautiful fine leaf compost!

With a strong belief that you could never have enough composters, I leapt at the offer of my fourth composter from a friend who had never used hers.

This has now been filled with autumn fallen leaves and topped with a layer of wood ash. In the winter we add a layer of wood ash periodically to the composts.

The spiral leaning against the composter allows me to turn the compost. I am not strong enough to fork it through, as is often suggested. It works like a corkscrew and mixes the different layers. I would imagine it is none too popular with the worms that make a hasty retreat when I drag them from their work lower down.

Last year Kourosh, knowing my passion for composters, made me an even bigger one out of pallets.

This is where the big stuff goes. The stuff Kourosh never thinks will compost – but it does, it just takes longer. Last year this composter was heaped many times and jumped on to pack it down. Yet at the end of the year we were able to take a good quantity off the bottom and the rest will serve to start this years “big stuff”.

Behind the composter is our Chimonanthus praecox. I do agree, it does sound like a strange place to plant a beautiful shrub but I thought at least I would have the benefit of the lovely perfume when I went to empty my kitchen compost bin in winter.

Also I did not have any other place for it.

The flowers are delicate and the perfume delicious but it has made me think of the importance of positioning plants. I planted the Chimonanthus or Winter Sweet in 2015 and it started to flower two years later but I feel it is lost in the border beside the compost bins.

I hope the plants in my new bed will have a better chance to shine.

Already the Sarcococca confusa is putting on a better show as a perfumed winter shrub.

The flowers are beautiful but are set of by the shiny evergreen leaves and the black berries.

On reflection, I think the Chimonanthus deserved a better setting.


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Gardening in January

Up until the end of December we had very mild weather but the weather forcast alerted us that things were about to change. The bees had been so happy up until now that we decided to insulate their hives as we had done in 2019.

We did not regret it.

The Anisodontea had kept flowering up until the first frosts but they have now received several sub-zero nights and single figure daytime temperatures. January has been a wintry month.

What surprises me is that the honey bees will fly to gather pollen and nectar on the winter honeysuckle at air temperatures of only 4 degrees centigrade when the sun is out. The nearest bush is about 3 metres away from the hives.

The Japanes Medlar (Eriobotrya japonica) is a few metres further on and with a few more degrees higher and in the sunshine the bees are into the flowers. These have not yet been destroyed by the frosty mornings. Will there be some left to give us fruit, like last year?

The winter flowering heather is further away and only tempts the bees on the warmer days. The bee’s head was dusty with pollen but she showed no inclination to gather it.

I do miss the bumble bees. I have not seen any since the beginning of the cold weather. The bumble bee queens must be tucked up, wisely hibernating where the deceitful sun cannot touch them and wake them up before the air temperature is high enough for them.

The weather is usually fine enough for walking here and very pleasant in the sunshine but when it rains…

Kourosh had bought me this book and I had put it away for when I needed a treat. Well, I needed a treat this January but although it is an excellent book it comes with a warning. I have never visited Sissinghurst and knew little about it but Sarah Raven has combined her writing with that of Vita Sackville-West to produce a fascinating read for a gardening enthusiast.

Actually, it was rather too good and here is the warning. It is not perhaps the best book to read within reach of your computer and online nurseries and seed suppliers. I did start more reasonably with pen and paper to make a provisional list but as the French say, “c’était plus fort que moi”. I prefer this phrase as it shifts the burden onto the temptation rather than saying “I” could not resist it as you would in English.

Anyway, I had decided no more plants until I had places for them. So…

Logically, that meant I’d have to create more space for planting. We settled on making the flowering Ash tree the focus for the new planting. The first thing was to move a big stone block we had found at the bottom of the garden up to the tree. That required a very big crowbar and the help of some friends.

That was Sunday and since then we have been busy removing the turf (almost finished, it is hard going.) It has left large piles of turf containing couch grass and perennial weeds. I say they will rot away, Kourosh says no.

We managed to move a Sarcoccoca confusa, an Abutilon, some Hypericum and an Aster before the rain started. I decided to wrap a fleece around the Abutilon but with mild wet weather it might be in with a chance.

We are still waiting for some plants we ordered but in the meantime in the rain.

It is back to thinking about what plants I could sow to cram into my new flower bed.

I can imagine me quickly being surrounded by seed trays this spring. I will not be going anywhere, that is for sure. At the moment there is a curfew beween six in the evening and six in the morning. It does not really affect us as all the restaurants, places of entertainment, gyms etc. are closed and meetings are banned so it leaves gardening with a pencil and paper and a lot of imagination.


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A story with a happy ending

O.K. a story starting with the photograph of a Butternut Squash does not seem to bode well for a riveting read, but wait there is a deeper message!

In August 2012 I wrote a blog “Pumpkin Perfume?” (yes, I was surprised too, that I’ve been writing my blog so long). I had grown a pumpkin that exuded a divine perfume!

I had no idea if this was something very common with pumkins or on the rare side. My friends who had given me the plant had no clue what they had given me as they grew different sorts every year and did not keep records.

Over the years I have had comments on the blog from other people who had occasionally had a whiff of this perfume while others had never noticed any odour. Then yesterday I had a comment all the way from Argentina from Carolina. She has grown butternut squash and like me noticed nothing in particular, but this year she is growing Uchiki Kuri squash and has noticed the wonderful perfume from the flowers in the early morning!

I quickly looked up Uchiki Kuri squash and found it is called Potimarron in France and is indeed a very popular squash here. It has a good flavour in soup with a hint of sweet chestnut.

I have already ordered my seeds for next year. Who cares if I get many potimarron, I just want to smell the flowers again. But here is the rub – the perfume is only for early risers. If you enjoy late morning rising you will miss this perfume.

What made me so happy was the thought of Carolina in Argentina contacting me. Often I have dark thoughts about the progress of technology and whether it has brought the benefits we hope for but I was so touched by Carolina reaching out to me and my cyber friend saying,

“Hi, I have got the answer to your question.”


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The colours of December

The colours of December are more subdued. The leaves fall in progression. The Liquidambar leaves are a gift whether they are on the ground or whether I have swept them up to decorate the borders where they hopefully retard the weeds and surely provide a good mulch.

The big Salix caprea or Pussy Willow at the bottom of the garden is still holding onto its leaves that have turned golden now and light up in the morning sunshine.

The Salix Alba “Chermiesina” catch the morning sun also and look on fire in the early light. I am not so happy about their mid-summer hair cut that left their lower trunks bare, but made the mowing easier. Hopefully, Kourosh will have a more restrained trim next year.

The Abutilon is still holding onto some of its flowers but the petals have become almost transparent with the cold.

The Hydrangeas are much more subdued but I like their dusky colours.

The Sedum’s colours have completely faded but hold their own against the pale blue of the Rosemary bush behind them.

The leaves of this Cotoneaster have turned an attractive copper. I’m not sure whether it is supposed to do this or whether it is going to die and this is its swansong.

Luckily, there are plenty of other cotoneaster bushes in the garden with plenty of berries for our blackbirds and thrushes.

This year we have added two Malus “Coccinelle” to the garden. I was pleased to see that in the first year the bees had plenty of flowers and now the nibbled “apples” show that they have been a success with the birds, too.

This is what we have been waiting to see. Our pear tree “Chanticleer” survived its first summer in the garden, which was extra hot and dry and has now its bright leaves. No fruit for the birds, yet, but perhaps next year.

The bright leaves in this photo belong to Diervilla rivularis (Honeybee). I was recommended this plant through the blog and brought two plants back from the U.K. in 2016 as they were not available in France at the time. I only bought two as they were quite expensive. The amazing feature is that they can survive at the bottom of my garden in the shade and dry. However, I say survive. In conditions like that it is not possible to have rampant growth! They are so pretty that I moved one this year to better conditions where it can be better appreciated. Certainly an interesting plant if you had a small garden and wanted a pretty little bush for a shady corner.

We had our first frost this week and some heavy rain has started. I will have to wait to see if the rain will wash away the bright colours of December.


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My Tetradium daniellii or Bee-Bee tree

Tetradium daniellii is such a mouthful of a name for a tree. Especially as this tree can be known as Evodia or “Arbre à miel” or “Arbre aux abeilles”. I first heard it mentioned by bee keepers in France who talked in reverential  tones about trees they had seen, but it appeared rare here, and I had never seen one.

I decided to buy one but this proved difficult to source here until I found one listed on the online site Planfor. Here, I made a mistake with my button finger and ended up with an 11 cm. plant! It was duly planted in November of 2014. I did source another larger tree in a pot from another nursery but that tree did not survive, so I had little hope for the 11 cm. stick.

I was wrong to be pessamistic. After a slowish start the tree grew rapidly but I had no idea of how long the tree would take to produce the first flowers. In July of 2018 we had the first flowers from the Bee-Bee tree.

What impressed me most was that the honeybees were attracted to the flowers almost before they opened and worked at the flowers to gain access to the nectar.

I think you can almost see the bee smiling.

The little flowers contain large amounts of nectar and also provide a yellow pollen. It is impressive to see the number of bees of all sorts that the tree attracts.

So this year in January 2020 we bought another Tetradium darlienii from the same online nursery, but with more confidence we invested in a larger potted plant.

We were very excited to see it push forth its new shoots at the end of January. Such pretty new leaves too!

So this year we have had two surprises. Firstly, it flowered in the summer time and secondly the flowers produced seeds!

The seed pods are an attractive pink colour.

As the seeds ripen the pods open to reveal the black seeds. These are reputed to be eaten by the birds but I quickly gathered mine. I will be interested to see if I can germinate them in the springtime.

So why has my first Tertradium not produced any seeds?

Some sources say that the Tetradium daniellii is dioecious – that is that you get male and female flowers on the same plant. That would surely mean that I should have already had seeds on my older tree.

Other sources say that the tree is monoecious – that is individuals either produce male or female flowers.

That would mean that my first tree produces only male flowers and my new tree produces only female flowers.

However, yet other sources say that individuals can be monoecious or dioeceious. So my first tree could be male and my second produce both male and female flowers.

Luckily the bees do not care as both male and female flowers produce the nectar and pollen that they seek.