Distractions in the vegetable garden

This Privet Hawk moth (Sphinx ligustri) appeared while I was weeding in the vegetable garden.  Excuses to stop weeding don’t come much better than that.

The poor creature was unlucky enough to fall into our hands but endured stoically our admiration and picture taking.  There are no privets around us but lots of ash trees and elders and the caterpillars also use these tree leaves as their food.

The chrysalis remains underground during the winter and our moth had just emerged and was still pumping up its wings while we had the pleasure of examining it.

It was quickly placed in the shade of a tree and left to recover from the indignities it had suffered and I hope to see it soon feasting on the nectar from our honeysuckle flowers.

It is not my favourite hawk moth, my favourite is the humming bird hawk moth, Macroglossum stellatarum but I have not seen one yet this year.


My sage is extremely popular with the bumble bees at the moment.  It is full of flowers and is another plant that gives rich rewards for very little attention.  It likes sunshine, a soil that does not stay damp (no problem with that in my sandy soil) and seemingly does not like limestone (I do not think it is that fussy as I am in a limestone area and it has not complained.)  It was unaffected by the two straight weeks of sub-zero temperatures we had last winter and will stand the full sunlight of the Charente-Maritime which is very strong.

The red tailed workers are the most common visitor to the sage flowers although they have other flowers to choose from.

As far as using it as a herb, it is a flavour I do not appreciate so for me it is purely decorative and a great filler of difficult places.  However, it has been valued in the past for its properties to encourage longevity.  Dutch merchants could trade three chests of Chinatea against one chest of sage leaves in the seventeenth century.  A sage sandwich is said to help digestion, although I cannot see myself tucking into a sage sandwich after a heavy meal.  Sage tea is supposed soothe coughs and colds, combat diarrhoea and be a nerve and blood tonic.

More recent claims report sage as a mood enhancer and memory improver (http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v31/n4/full/1300907a.html).  Maybe I should start eating the leaves.

Putting its herbal and culinary properties to one side, I think that sage is a very useful perennial for difficult dry spots in the garden that might defeat tender plants and it attracts and nourishes the bees as well.  I have my sage growing almost like a shrub on a sunny, dry spot on the outside fence of the garden where not much else could thrive.

Let’s here it for Iris

Over the years I have come to appreciate irises more and more.

I have them planted along the wall of an outbuilding.

I have planted them on the outside of our garden wall.  This is not an original idea.  I adopted it because our area I saw so many irises planted along the outside walls of houses blazing into colour at this time of year.  It seemed such a lovely way to brighten the roads and share your flowers with any passer-by.

Shortly they will be scorched by the sun and stay in the dry earth throughout the summer and re-appear triumphant next May.

There cannot be many plants that will thrive on such rough treatment and yet look so beautiful and elegant.  All my iris are bearded iris that have been acquired as bits broken off from the roots of friend’s plants or bargains in end of season sales.  However, there are many varieties to suit almost any site from shade to full sun, from dry sites to places that are boggy all year round.  My iris are all tall and can get blown over in the wind but my garden is very sheltered so that is not a problem.  You can find shorter varieties for windy sites.

The range of colours available is enormous and there are so many different hybrids that you can choose which is best for your requirements.

I have been told Bearded iris like sunshine on their rhizomes but I have planted them in shady places under trees and the spring sunshine through the light canopy seems to be sufficient to allow them to flourish and flower.

Iris grow wild in France and  these wild iris grow in water and around the water close to our house.

The wild iris is no quite as “flashy” as some of the hybrid iris but is still beautiful.  It is certainly a tough survivor and wins my respect.

This iris completely amazed me.  It is flowering on steps leading to the beach at St. Palais-sur-Mer in the Charente-Maritime close to where I live.  It has made its home in a crack between the wall and the steps and has braved winter temperatures this year which stayed below freezing for two weeks.  It has braved the harsh salt winds and survived several long periods with no rain since last May.

There are not many plants that could take that sort of treatment and look so good after it!

A good choice for the gardener who doesn’t like fussy plants?

Mea culpa…

Mea culpa, I’ve caught a butterfly in my Asiatic hornet trap!

Indignant but proud the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera) waits for release.

A little coaxing was needed to encourage an exit from the trap.

Too tired to fly she looked at me accusingly.

O.K. I really am sorry!  Perhaps a drop of sugar solution would set things right?

So you want to be spoon fed!

Now that tastes good!

I’m a bit low on my energy reserves.

This is the best sugar solution I’ve tasted in a while.

At least their tiles match my colourings.

The decor is nice and the cuisine acceptable but now it is really time to go.  The open window becons and I’m off to greener pastures that do not have tempting blue plastic bottles suspended in their trees.

This was a happy ending but it is a downside of the hornet traps.   It has only happened to me once before and I had another successful rescue.  The jury is out at the moment on wide scale  trap use but as I survey mine closely, my decision is to protect my bees.  As it so happens I have not had any Asiatic hornets since the batch in the spring and I have only one trap in the front garden at the moment (just in case).

Summer approaches in the woods

Everyday sees changes in the countryside.  The warmth, the cold, the rain, the sun all conspire to bring about subtle changes that made no two days the same but there comes a point where our coarse senses remark a change that cannot be ignored.

The vibrant, frenetic days of spring are past and summer is approaching.

I feel this in the woods as the canopy of the trees fills in and covers over, changing the flowers that grow underneath.  A few still linger, like the Asphodel but the Wood Anemones have totally disappeared leaving only their leaves as witness to their presence.

Only an odd violet can be seen here and there along the path.  I shall be sorry to see them go but I took my first photographs of the wild violets in my garden at the end of March so their season has not been short.

The Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum commutatum) is content to stay in the shady areas under the trees and so is just starting its flowering season.

Once open the elegant bells attract the bees and bumbles who feast on the pollen which they carry off in their pollen sacs which become  stunningly white.  I tried to get a photograph but they were too quick for me, trying to manoeuvre amongst the long stems of the Solomon’s seal which are over a metre tall.

I couldn’t miss the swarm of bees over a puddle in the middle of the path.  I had read that bees have a requirement for water but I could not understand what attracted so many of them to the same puddle at the same time.  When I got closer I discovered it was not the water that they were interested in but the mud it was providing for them!

They are Mason bees looking for a supply of mud to seal up their cache of eggs which could be somewhere in the woods in a hollow twig or convenient hole in a tree.  Mason bees belong to the genus Osmia, I cannot go further than that with identification but I do think they have really cute eyes!

The butterflies still accompany us on our walks like this Comma butterfly ( Polygonia c-album) and

the Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) which always adds colour in the woods.

The Common Heath Moth (Ematurga atomaria) enjoys flying in the daytime in sunny spots but

the Speckled Yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia) was a bit more frisky.  It is always lovely to have their company even though they are less appreciative of ours.

These two seem a bit surprised to see each other alight so close to each other when there are so many flowers to choose from.

The Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is in luxuriant bloom on the edges of the woods and roads and is being visited by an astonishing number of insects.  The bees and bumbles are visiting in substantial numbers.

Predators will always be attracted to to the abundant food supplies of their prey.  The European Hornet (Vespa crabro) did not find any bees on this fly past and rapidly left our presence.  They are an unloved species and their nests are frequently destroyed by humans, however, it is a protected species in Germany and a native European insect.

For me it just does not have the same appeal as a fluffy bumble bee clutching onto the clover flower and  sipping the nectar.

A hole in the grass

This is a picture of a hole in my garden.

And why should this interest you?  Well in fact, it probably doesn’t interest most people.

For my sins, I found it very exciting.  To me it seemed an extremely interesting hole.  My immediate thought was that I had stumbled upon the entrance of a solitary bee’s nest.  I was delighted!

Well, just long enough to take a closer look and see how big it was.  Definitely not the entrance to a bee’s nest.  But it did have a well-travelled looking little path leading to the entrance.  Something was definitely going in and out and it was bigger than a bee.  I had no ideas about what it might be but I was desperate to find out.  So it was a matter of patience.

I settled down to out-stare the hole.

I was rewarded by some movement.   I got the camera at the ready and out popped a head.  A quick photograph, and I was still none the wiser.

A bit of movement and he was gone back down his hole, only re-appearing if I remained still and quiet.

This thing with the big bulbous head was not a beetle.  After some head scratching and some research on the Internet, I believe it is a field cricket.  It was the first time I had seen one.

Strangely the same night he (or a friend) came to sing in the front garden so I nipped out to take another photo.

And I had thought it was cicadas that had been serenading us all this time!  Now I know who sings to us in the summer.

Maybe next time I’ll find a solitary bee’s nest.

Mme Isaac Péreire

Madame Isaac Péreire is an old Bourbon rose.  Bred by Armand Garçon de Rouen in 1880 and originally called “Le Bienheureux de La Salle”  it was re- named after a wealthy banker’s wife in 1881.  I can imagine the original Madame Isaac Péreire wearing a stunning silk dress of the same rich pink as the rose.  In fact the petals have a blush that is reminiscent of silk.  With its heavy, spicy perfume, described as smelling of raspberries, it is a remarkable rose.

It grows in our front garden against the stone wall and was in its first flush of flowers on Sunday.  The perfume in the garden was exquisite, the rose on one side and the Wisteria still producing new perfumed  flowers on the other.

The perfume of the rose attracts me to go and idle in the garden and to my surprise it attracts bumble bees too!  I had always understood that cultivated roses were not particularly attractive to bees, however, the open form of Madame Isaac Péreire allows them easy access unlike the closed  forms of the modern roses.

The centre of the rose is easily accessible.

The bees did not always fly directly to the centre but chose to explore a passage through the loose petals becoming invisible but easily detected by the echo of their humming in the petal maze.

There must be a generous pollen store in the  centre of the flower.

The bees were laden with heavy pollen sacs.

It was getting so busy that two bees were visiting the same flower.

There were buff-tailed bumble bees.

Red-tailed bumble bees.

Yellow bees.

And the most common bumble bee at the moment, which I cannot put a name to.

The Carpenter bee passed by as if looking for a piece of the action but did not join in, I think he was too big to slide through the silky petals.  There is still plenty of Wisteria for him to feast on.

May in the garden

May has been a wet month so far.

This was what the woods looked like on the first of May.

It has not stopped the garden flourishing but it has cut badly into the time I have been able to spend in it.

The lilac has flowered largely unappreciated, whereas it usually provides welcome shade in addition to its balmy perfume.

The apple trees are flowering now, our youngest is the Belle de Boskop.

Our oldest is the Reine de Reinette, which has a similar flavour to a Cox’s apple.

The third is a Golden Delicious, which was also the heaviest cropper last year.

The Medlar tree is also in flower.  I planted it specially as I love Medlar fruit and they are difficult to buy or even find in the shops.  I love the flavour and the fruit arrives very late in the autumn when almost everything else is finished.

It is not widely appreciated yet it is a lovely tree and has lovely flowers.  What more could you want from a tree?

It still has to put up with the indignities of being assaulted by a Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata).  According to Wikipedia they feed on flowers, nectar and pollen but the upside is that their larvae are detritivores consuming decaying vegetable matter and so just what I need in my compost heap.

The second of May saw the arrival of the first tree peony flower.  I did not realise it was such a hardy plant, it is only its second summer in the garden and I did not expect it to have survived this year’s harsh winter.  A gold star for tree peonies.

But May is really the month for the roses here, before it gets too hot for them.  The first rose opened in the garden was ‘Mme Isaac Péreire’ which climbs up the sunny wall in the front garden.  The perfume is an old-fashioned rose perfume and very strong.

Next was ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ climbing over the arch in the back garden.  You cannot have a french garden without French roses.   ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ has her own beautiful perfume.  The pleasure of a garden for me is as much how it smells as how it looks.

Lastly the bumble bees love  the Lamiastrum for the nectar and pollen and I love it as it covers up the weeds only too numerous and vigorous at this time of year.

It’s not just me…

I was amazed when I read that the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust amongst others had got into hot water with some bumble bee loving Swedes.


 I am a member of the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust (http://www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk/) which is based in Stirling University, Scotland and I think they are wonderful.

What amused me is that so many people seem to have such an attachment to these little, furry creatures.  Childhood memories?  Association with balmy summer days?  

Happily the Swedes have been reassured and the Brits have got their short haired bumble bee (Bombus subterraneus) and I wish them well in trying to re-establish this species which is now extinct in the U.K.  The bumble bee has a tough time in the U.K. several bumble bee species have become extinct in the U.K. primarily due to loss of habitat. 


Bumble bee rescue

Yesterday was the first day that it had not rained for some time.  The temperature was still low for the time of the year and when I went into the garden to check out the comings and goings in the Wisteria I found a bumble bee prostrate on the fallen flower heads.  It was not dead but it was certainly not very perky.  I guessed she was cold and hungry.

I brought her inside and made up a sugar and water solution and waited until she warmed up a bit.  I put the sugar and water in a saucer as I thought it would be easy for her to reach.

It was, but the saucer was really slippery and she could not grip well.  I’ll have to improve this technique if I use it again.  Perhaps an unglazed pot would have given her a bit of grip.

Definitely a spot of solution on something rough is required.

The warmth was working and she took the sugar solution.  It was really interesting seeing the tongue for the first time. The tongue is red and feathery at the end which is good to soak up the nectar.  Usually the tongue is kept safe inside a sheath which is tucked under its head when not feeding.

The sugar solution replenished her energy level and she was ready for the off!

But beforehand a good grooming session was needed while hanging from the Saxifraga.

The hind hairs are still a bit damp but she is able to start normal feeding.

A little less fluffy but a lot more active!

Bumble bees are gentle creatures and are not aggressive but the queens and females do possess a sting which they can use defensively.