a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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A discovery in the small vegetable garden

We have a part of the small vegetable garden that we try to keep for herbs. We have several friends who prefer tisanes to black tea so I grow mint, lemon balm. lemon verbena, camomile and dry them to make tisanes. I sometimes make them for myself, as I would like to wean myself off black tea, but it’s taking some time to change my preferences. We also grow any other bits and bobs and young plants that need keeping an eye on.

It tends to get a bit overgrown with the lavender encroaching and some seedling trees growing faster than expected and the Echium turning into amazing self-seeders. So, with our incredible spell of fine weather I decided to put some order into the plot and get lots cut back.

All went well until late in the afternoon, when it was sunny and warm, I noticed some Ivy bees flying around the border I was trying to straighten!

They looked as if they were trying to find their nests! I had a sinking feeling that I could have destroyed their nesting site.

I marked the edge with tiles and decided that all that could be done would be to cover the area with cardboard and leave it for a year in case the burrows were left intact.

I still surveyed the area daily and then I noticed two burrows.

The first was near tiles placed perpendicular to the edge, so at least all was not lost. The other was not far away but nearer the edge.

When I saw one enter the burrow, I waited patiently and photographed her as she made her exit.

I have been fascinated watching her enlarge the burrow. The proportions of earth that she is removing compared to her size is amazing. The slope of the hole is her total length long.

Now that I know that there are at least two active nests in that area, I will take the greatest of care and protect them until next year.

The female ivy bee is laying her eggs with a supply of pollen and nectar to nourish the future larvae and the adult bees will not emerge until this time next year.

I did see cuckoo bees on the same day I saw the first bees and I took this photograph.

I had already seen two different sorts of Epeolus bees on the asters. These bees are cuckoo bees and target Colletes bees like the Ivy bees (Colletes hederae). They will enter the Ivy bees’ nests and lay their eggs so that their larvae will survive rather than the Ivy bees.

Nature is tough but I will guard my nests of Ivy bees as best as I can.


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A swarm in September

It was Tuesday morning (21 September) when Michel phoned and said his friend in Royan had a swarm of bees on his drainpipe. We were all surprised. Bees swarm in the spring. However, all three of us sprang into swarm catching action and we picked up Michel outside his front door and headed to Royan, thirty minutes drive away on the coast. This was the latest swarm Michel had ever come across in his years of bee keeping and we were regaled with bee stories until we reached his friend’s house.

The three of us were lost for words when we saw the “swarm”. There are not enough bees to form a colony that would last the winter. We could not assure that there was even a queen present.

So what to do? They were cold and not flying around. We presumed they would not last long. The ruchette was there so Kourosh picked them up in his hand and gently placed them inside. They accepted their warm polystyrene shelter with good grace.

Once we got them back to the garden we decided to look for a queen. Without a queen there would be no point in going on any further. To our surprise there was a queen! Can you see her?

Here is a clue.

Here she is close-up.

The weather was fine and they seemed to be making a go of it, so on Sunday, Kourosh cracked and stole a frame from one of our hives. It was a difficult decision to make as he took a frame with some brood and young bees which could leave the original hive short for their winter supply of bees.

The frame and young bees were powdered with icing sugar to confuse their odour and then added to the polystyrene ruchette with the queen and her small court. We closed the ruchette and kept it in an outbuilding for two nights in case the young bees wanted to return to their original hive. All was quiet and when we opened their door in the morning there were no signs of battle. They new girls had been accepted.

On Wednesday we were excited to see that they were making the best of the good weather and bringing in pollen. At a guess I would say that it is gorse pollen, there is plenty of ivy around and our other hives are bringing in some ivy and some of this lovely orange pollen.

Kourosh has reduced the entrance to make it easier for them to guard against robbers or worst of all the Asian hornets.

Then on Wednesday our friend Christian phoned to see if Kourosh could help with a swarm that had to be re-homed. The bees had set up home behind closed shutters in an upstairs bedroom with the window blind closed. This would have provided a good spot in the summer and they had gone undisturbed for two or three months as the house had not been occupied.

Sorry about the quality of the photograph, but Kourosh’s flash did not go off.

This was a different proposition and Christian was prepared with frames on which he could fasten the already formed brood nest. The frames were placed in a ruchette and left until nightfall for the colony to enter. In the evening of the same day the ruchette was brought back to the garden, and we are now the adoptive parents of this colony until the spring when they can be moved. Christian will be away for six weeks and the colony will need feeding and protection during this time.

So this is Christian’s ruchette (it will be secured to the poles in due course to protect it from high winds).

And this is the tiny colony. Will either of them survive the winter? The chances are low – approaching zero for ours, much better for Christian’s. It will depend on the weather. At the moment our weather has changed from sunshine and mild temperatures to rain and cloud. We will see.


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Reflections at the end of September

The weather has been fine, so we have left the butternut and the potimarron to finish ripening. Some days have been warm enough to enjoy the last days at the beach. Fruit wise this year, it has been poor. Some apples only and a second crop of raspberries that go very well with yoghurt and our new honey.

The Salvias are still adding colour to the garden and at last I was in the right place to get a photograph of our Hummingbird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). We don’t have hummingbirds in France but these day-flying moths are beautiful and hover close to the flowers they take nectar from. Their wings beat at 80 times a second and so appear as a blur in my photograph.

I had a quick look on the net to find out where they lay their eggs and what their caterpillars eat. Their preferred plant food comes from the genus Gallium. I was horrified to find that “Sticky Willy” (Gallium aparine which I loath but I admit does find its way into the garden. I’d have liked to encourage it – but that is going too far. I have been trying to grow Gallium odoratum as a groundcover but so far I have been unsuccessful so this is a reason to try harder.

The cosmos are finishing but the asters are still providing lots of colour and attracting butterflies and bees.

The new queen bumble bees are very grateful for the nectar the aster provide.

This is an Epeolus bee which is a type of parasite or cuckoo bee as it lays its eggs in the nests of other bees. The ivy has just started to flower here and I have seen the solitary Ivy bees (Colletes hederae), it is likely that this cuckoo bee is looking for the nests of the Ivy bees and just stopping on the asters to refuel on nectar.

We have always had to put up with moles but this year they have invaded the front garden. There are even more molehills there since I have taken this photograph. I do not go for perfection in the garden – but this is a plea for help. Is there anything that can be done to dissuade them?

They are usually mainly confined to the back garden – but there too they are running riot. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Finally, a tribute to the cosmos that are still attracting the leafcutter bees and other pollinators.

Some of the cosmos are falling over while still flowering but also producing seed heads that bring the goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) into the garden. It is well worth having the garden a bit messy and watching these lovely birds.


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Is it worth it?

We have always believed that we share the house and garden with the animals that frequent it ( see the old 2017 post “We give nature a home..”. In fact, they share their garden with us rather than the other way around.

A Barbastelle bat had been visiting us since 2016 (see “Return to the garden in March”) and recently we have noticed what we think is a common Pipistrelle bat behind the shutters and sometimes in our garden parasol. I did not think that roosting behind shutters in wet weather was an ideal site for the bats.

In the winter of 2019, Kourosh built and installed a bat box. We looked through the internet to get the best advice we could find on sizes and places and height to mount the box. You can see that the box has been placed on a sheltered spot. The problem is that access is difficult and so we were never sure if it was being used.

Last week Kourosh decided to get out his long ladder and have a look. The tell tale droppings on the ledge underneath the box was enough to reassure us that the box was being used.

After the installation of the first bat house, we realised that it would be difficult to monitor and also I had my doubts about the suggestion of such a high position for a bat box. After all, the bats had chosen the downstairs shutter and quite a narrow installation. Kourosh listened to my concerns and built me a MarkII bat house with the same interior width as the space behind the shutter.

The problem is that underneath the bat box MarkII it is difficult to see any droppings because of the flowers.

Once again Kourosh came to my rescue because there is no way you can see inside a long bat box. He had purchased a Potensic endoscope some years ago before even he had a smart phone. Now he was able to join it to his mobile phone and guess what!

The lower bat box had an occupant which you can see on this short (6 sec.) video.

I think it is a common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). The best way to identify bats from a photograph is to look at their ears. Like many identifications from photographs, it is not exact and if anyone is more knowledgeable about bats I would love to hear from them. I believe that a more exact identification can be made using equipment that can detect their echolocation cries which are specific to the species of bat and these detectors are used by people who study bats.

Here, in the Charente Maritime, the fields for monoculture of vines, maize, sunflower and oilseed rape are increasing in size as hedges are cut to join up the fields and woodland is removed to create more arable land. This means less habitat for the bats and of course the flying insects that they consume. In addition, modern farm buildings offer less places for the bats to roost.

We were very happy with our discoveries and sat down to enjoy a morning coffee.

We needed to use the parasol because of the sun but when we opened it we found it was already in use.

I’ve turned this image to give you a less upside down image of the bat. Needless to stay, we had to get our sun hats to enjoy our coffee outside! Luckily, the bat does not always take up residence in the parasol.


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Is it autumn?

The trees are starting to have brown leaves.

Some of the leaves are starting to fall.

The new little Tetradium daniellii, tree which flowered for the first time last year, has not flowered this year and its leaves are turning yellow.

Luckily, I have another established Tetradium and my new little tree turned out to be a female and the flowers produced seeds. I planted them last December, just to see what would happen and now I have a little seedling!

The Caryopteris in the front garden is still flowering well and attracting the bees. Last year we cut it back after it had flowered so there was a considerable number of cuttings. I don’t know if it was the correct timing but Kourosh put six cuttings in a pot and they all took!

We put the cuttings in various places in the garden to bide their time until finding permanent homes and now they are flowering! That is quite a success story, so it must be an easy plant to take cuttings from, so if you have some in your garden…

The cosmos add so much colour to the front garden at this time of year.

The cosmos make great landing spots for all types of bees.

They are also a good source of pollen.

This year I noticed the honeybees on the sedum before it was completely opened.

I associate sedum more with bumblebees and butterflies but this year has been different, perhaps because we had such a dry August.

This year we had less summer honey than last year. Now we are treating the bees against the varroa mite with thymol which is a natural extract of thyme oil. It has a strong smell and the bees do not like it but Violette makes the most fuss.

It was quite hot on Monday so Kourosh supplied her with a parasol but she was still unhappy. As long as it makes her scratch the horrible mites off, then it will be worth it.

This week white cosmos have started to flower everywhere in the garden. As they are mainly self-seeded I do not understand why the white coloured cosmos have flowered later than the pink/lilac ones.

A new season is coming but it is reassuring to find a baby marbled newt (Triturus marmoratus) in the garden. Everything has been so strange and disturbed this year that it is good to see that these newts have continued to breed in the garden.


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Blue flowering shrubs in August

Some years ago (2016),I bought two blue flowering shrubs for the bees at the same time. This one is called Vitex agnus-castus or also in France, Gatillier or if you prefer “Poivres des Moines” meaning monks’ pepper. Perhaps all that was too much for me given that the other blue shrub also has multiple names.

O.K. the flowers of Elsholtzia stauntonii are not a true blue so I think the description I was given when I purchased the plants was somewhat unclear and both plants took their time flowering for me. Elsholtzia stauntonii is also called “Menthe en Arbre” or tree mint which looking at the flowers clears things up a lot for me. The leaves are supposed to be aromatic but I had to really squash them between my fingers to release the odour – which for me was not mint or menthol. We have not had rain for a while so the poor plants are perhaps cutting back a bit on unessential perfume essences just to survive.

I find the flower of the Vitex more attractive but once again I was not able to sense the aromatic perfume that it is meant to exude without squashing the leaf between my fingers. I recommend you trying this, if you ever get the chance, as it is a interesting perfume and not at all unpleasant. I will have to wait until the berries appear and crush those to see if they are more aromatic. It was these berries that the monks were reputed to eat to calm any unchaste ardour. The berries are used in herbal medicine but sound too potent for the uninitiated to play with.

The Elsholtzia has been disappointing up until now to attract bees, perhaps the wild mint that we have allowed to grow in patches of the garden is enough for them.

The third shrub is beautiful at the moment and attracting lots more bees than the other two. It is the Caryopteris “Grand Bleu”. Each garden is different and I am sure the plants will behave a little differently in different soils and climates but gardeners do a lot to support wildlife in these times where the planet is so heavily stressed.

My main crop from the vegetable garden is tomatoes which usually grow so well here. This year has been a disaster as you can see from the empty wigwams and bare poles.

The tomato plants have succumbed to mildew. It was the fate of all the neighbours’ crops too. For the first year I have had to buy tomatoes to make coulis to freeze for the winter. The African marigolds have done well, perhaps we have them to thank for a healthy crop of butternut and the red Kuri squash.

At least we are going to be self-sufficient in squash for the winter this year.

The Cosmos provide a lot of colour in the garden at the moment. They are a magnet for the bees.

It is not only the honey bees that benefit from the nectar and pollen provided by the Cosmos, this is a little Halictus bee.

My Cosmos are very tall, and they often fall over or I break their stems accidentally. I wish that there were shorter varieties. Does anyone know of any shorter coloured Cosmos?

We have lots of Cosmos sulphureus in shades of yellow – some darker than others and I find they do not grow so tall and are probably even more popular with the pollinators but I do like the variety of colour provided by the other Cosmos.

We have had no rain now for some time and I notice that some of the trees, like this cherry tree are accumulating yellow leaves. I do not think that it is just the lack of water.

This is a male red-tailed bumblebee. This to me signals the beginnings of autumn. The red-tailed bumble bee queens will be starting to produce new queens and males. These will mate and the new queens will have to survive the winter before she too starts a colony of bumblebees. The old queen will be slowing down and she will not survive long into the autumn.

In the Charente-Maritime it is warm and sunny and I am looking forward to autumn days in the garden with the autumn flowers. I hope you will enjoy a mild and mellow autumn in your garden.


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Summer flowering trees

This is our Heptacodium. I love it. So why is it not in a prime position in the garden? Unfortunately, it goes down to poor planning. When we first planted it there was more light – not a lot, but more.

Now it is so hemmed in that I had difficulty getting a photograph that did it justice. Kourosh in the end obliged by using his phone!

We have another Heptacodium quite nearby just a bit off to the left of the other one. It too is suffering from the same problem of shade from the large Ash trees and now competition from the ever growing bushes of Hybiscus syriacus. I grew these plants, also known as Rose of Sharon, from seed when I first started the garden and never expected them to reach over two metres even with their annual pruning.

The Heptacodium does deserve a good position in a garden. The flowers are delicately perfumed and attract all manner of pollinators.

Having grown the Hibiscus syriacus from seed, I have a mixed bag of colours, ranging from white to various pinks and blues. I have never succeeded with cuttings and although they seed easily, I would recommend buying the plant already rooted if you wanted a specific colour.

Despite the abundant pollen they are not as attractive as one might imagine to pollinators. The bumble bees do like them and perhaps at this moment the pollinators are spoiled for choice in the garden.

I have seen the Rose of Sharon grown as a small tree around here and I think it is an excellent choice and is very easy to shape through pruning in the autumn.

The Lagerstroemia indica can be seen clearly and has been given a prime position in the front garden, largely as it was a present from friends. It has just started flowering.

There is no doubt about the flowers attraction to the pollinators so gives us plenty to watch over coffee on the patio.

In France, around here, most people call this tree Lagerstroemia although it has a common name “Lilas des Indes” or the Lilac of the Indes. I have also seen it written in English as Crape myrtle. Now I would read the first word in the same way as I would “crap”, which does not seem too flattering to me. It reminds me of the last post of Garden in a city where he bemoans the common name of “Hoary Vervain”.

In one corner of the vegetable garden we have grown Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) we like to grow this as it is a natural insecticide if it is cut and dried.

We are at last going through a warm sunny period so it is a good time to dry out the plants. When you cut the stems there is a strong medicinal smell but I do not find it unpleasant.

Despite the plant supposedly having insecticidal properties, the bees and other pollinators are attracted to the flowers.

“He’s behind you!”

Pollinators can be attracted to strange places. Kourosh managed to snap the above photograph from our patio whilst I was stalking the bees with my camera in our front garden.


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Open doors

We have specially planted our garden to welcome any creatures to share our space.

We put water out for the birds and bees.

We are entranced with the variety of wildlife that descend on the flowers.

…even though I have a preference for the bees.

However, yesterday morning while we were having breakfast with the doors open – a border collie bounced into the room. I immediately got up and shut the doors, expecting the owner to follow straight after. However, no one came.

She was not in the slightest disturbed to stay with us and eventually Kourosh went in search of the owner in the neighbouring hamlets and talked to as many of the nearby “doggy” people he could find. After that it was the Mairie and the gendarmerie without result.

By this time we were firm friends and she had completely trained us to give her plenty of cuddles. However, delightful as she was, in the afternoon we took her to the local vet who read her tag and was surprised that she had an appointment for a vaccination in one hour’s time!

So her owner was telephoned and turned up to claim her. Her owner lives in a hamlet two kilometres away. We discovered our little collie was called Stella.

It was rather difficult parting with her and I wonder if she will ever visit us again.