Among the fields of barley

We walk most days in the countryside around the house and each day we see something new and different.  Watching the trees and the fields you see the seasons change and it leads you through the year.  We often pass this field and watch the barley growing.  I took my first shot at the end of April and yesterday was a hot, sunny day and the barley was mown.

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The old well

It’s been nearly six years now that my husband has wanted to clear out the old well and try to bring it back to how it once must have been.  The old well shaft still looks good but once piped water had been joined to the house no-one seems to have cared about the well.  There is still a mark on the stone wall of the house where the machinery must have been attached but that has long since been removed.

The first problem in restoring the well was obvious.  The well had been used to dump unwanted rubble over the ages so it was a simple case of constructing a pulley and removing the offending stones.  The pulley tackle was bought, but during our first few years here there were always more pressing issues to deal with than clearing the old well.

Two years ago my husband finally decided to tackle the well, however, it was not as simple as that.  First of all it was autumn and a group of our beloved newts (Triturus marmoratus) appeared to be settling down for the winter. They are such gentle creatures and we often come across them if we turn over a stone or lift up some overgrown plants in the garden.  So he felt he could not really turf them out to fend for themselves in the winter.  They are not exactly an endangered species but their numbers are being watched as their habitat is under threat, but not in our garden.

They do not move quickly and so have to endure being lifted stroked and replaced with care.  They take it very stoically and do not seem to mind being held.

They have to find their way to water to breed and the male has a raised crest on its back during the aquatic stage.  The newts mate during their aquatic stage and the female deposits the eggs in water.

I have only seen them around the garden and so I have never seen the raised crest and I cannot tell the males from the females.  They all have a red line down the middle of their back and combined with their green and black mottled colouring they are easy to identify.

I think it is when you find the baby animals in the garden that you develop a paternal (or maternal) feeling towards them.  The tiny little baby newt is a miniature replica of the adult with the red line developing on its back, it is not yet as highly coloured as the adults.  (I notice I’ve forgotten to wear my gardening gloves, again.)

Spring came and they were still there, so we did not like to disturb them during the breeding season…and so it continued.

Always hopeful that he might find the well vacant my husband had another explore recently.  Not only were there the usual newts in a good quantity but they were happily sub-letting to some other amphibians.

There was a common toad (Bufo bufo) which was obviously enjoying the damp conditions at the bottom of the well.  We often come across one in the garden hiding in damp places under flowers.

He has lovely golden eyes with horizontal pupils.

The surprise was to find fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) in the well as we had never seen them in the garden.  The nearest I had been to them was the flattened ones run over by cars on the road.  Once again they are easy to identify being bright yellow and black but it is not advisable to touch them as they are capable of exuding a venomous liquid onto their skin.

This is certainly a useful deterrent as the venom is capable of killing most of their likely predators and could be an irritant on contact with human skin or if transferred into the eyes accidently.

The reproduction of the fire salamander differs from the newts in that they mate on land and the larvae develop internally.  The female only requires going to water to give birth to the larvae.

This is a snapshot of what we found during one day, what may pass through during the year makes us wonder.

The well cleaning project does not look imminent.  Perhaps some time we will have a hot, dry summer and they will all clear off giving us time to do a bit of excavating.

Old tights, a dead tree and human hair.

On one of our walks a few weeks back we noticed something hanging in a vine field that we had never seen before.  In fact, as we got closer we could see there was more than one.  I immediately thought that packages of herbs had been suspended on the wires to ward off unwelcome insects and was curious to find out what they could be and whether it was something I could consider imitating in the garden.



The package looked as if it was home made, using recycled tights which seemed an economical method of distributing the treatment.

I thought I could hazard a guess at what the herbs might be if I took a closer look  but when I got near I could see it was not herbs but hair inside the tights.  What is more –  it definitely looked like human hair!

There is something about cut human hair that makes me shiver.  While it is still attached to someone’s head it has quite a different character but once cut; it remains human but unembodied.

A lone dead tree guarded the field, itself remarkable and stark against the horizon.

We came home with no comfortable answers to the questions we were posing ourselves.

I plucked up the courage to mention it to a few people but questions of the sort, “Do you often hang packages of human hair in the vines around here?” were getting negative responses combined with strange looks.  It was an uncomfortable feeling but it aroused my curiosity.

In the end I asked my neighbour who is in charge of the local hunting club, he smiled, understanding my concern, and to my surprise he admitted that it was actually him who had put them up!

It is an old method to protect the young vines from damage from the Roe deer (chevreuil).  I had not noticed that the vines were young.  The alternative would be to erect fences to keep the deer out which would be expensive and limit access.  It was indeed human hair that he collects from the hairdresser and stuffs into old tights.  The packages are then sprayed with cheap eau de cologne and this deters the red deer during the period when the shoots are growing rapidly.  The packages are sprayed periodically with more eau de cologne, but to be honest I never got that near to the tights to notice any perfume.  He assured me it was a very old method but not widely used these days.

I can sleep more comfortably in my bed now the affair of the human hair has been settled.

Thoughts on my modern rose

When we bought our property in France we inherited a pink modern rose in the front garden.  It had no perfume and managed to scratch me every time I  needed to turn on the water hose.

I was all for getting rid of it.  My husband, who likes roses more than me, pointed out that we had hardly any flowers in the garden – beggars can’t be choosers.

I excepted his logic but I told the rose that its days were numbered once we came over to live permanently.

We had the house and garden for four years before we moved and were properly able look after the garden.  The rose survived remarkably well for an unloved, uncared for plant.

The rose starts to flower early in the season and goes on late into the year, flowering abundantly when there are few flowers around to cut to bring inside.  It lasts very well when cut and looks excellent even as a single stem in a rose vase.

It never seems to suffer from the usual rose afflictions and now that it receives more care (from my husband) I have noticed that it does have a very light, delicate perfume.  It looks both good in bud and when it is fully open.

To cut a long story short, I find I cannot do without it for table decorations but I do feel I have been somehow manipulated by it.  Despite its lack of natural harmony – providing perfume and nectar and pollen- I do not want to do without it.

If it was only a modern rose and not other things that we find we cannot live without.

I was reading a blog yesterday and there is concern that there may not be enough natural resources for the bees that are being kept in London U.K., that there are too many bees for the amount of forage in the city.  Yet there are 3000 parks and open spaces in London.  The five Royal Parks in Central London cover 498 hectares and counting the three Royal Parks in the suburbs it mounts up to 1478 hectares of Royal Parks alone.

Could more be done to provide forage for the bees?  Are there choices that could be made in the choices of trees, bushes and plants to maximise their usefulness?  Or is it tidier to have mown lawns surrounded by clipped Yew trees.

Where do butterflies go when it’s cloudy?

It’s cloudy today, not cold just cloudy and there has been a short shower of rain.

But no butterflies.

A few days ago we went for a walk.

(Melanargia galathea, Marbled white)

There were butterflies everywhere.

(Melanargia galathea, Marbled white)

Just to prove what I am saying, I’ll show you a photograph of two at one time.

( Colias crocea, Common clouded yellow)

There were yellow ones.

(Pieris brassicae, Large white)

White ones.

(Aricia agestis, Brown Argus)

Brown ones.

The wild scabious was very popular with them.

(Azuritis reducta, Southern white admiral)

It was the same in the garden.

(Inachis io, Peacock)

The Peacock butterflies were abundant.

But not today.  Where do butterflies go when they don’t fancy taking a turn out to sip some nectar?

The bees I understand, they stay in their hives or nests if the weather is bad.  But the bees are still active today, if somewhat subdued compared to a sunny day.

Do butterflies suffer from depression if it is not sunny?

French stick insect

This little creature attached itself to us in the garden, or rather to the mug of coffee I had left on the grass.  It is not a fast mover and did not object to a close examination.

Close up it looks like a bad imitation plastic toy.

If you think it looks cute, you are not alone.  Stick insects are kept as pets and there are much more exotic varieties for the connoisseur than this one.  At least you would have no problem breeding it as this stick insect (Clonopsis gallica) is parthenogenic, the female can produce viable eggs and the continuity of the species is assured with no male intervention.

It  eats leaves, in particular those of wild roses, brambles, hawthorn and almonds. It is amazingly difficult to see amongst the greenery when it is not moving, especially when it aligns itself alongside a leaf stalk.

This one is bright green, as are all young ones but they will gradually turn darker and become brown, there is already a darkening behind the neck in this one.  I prefer its plastic green colour.

Broad beans, for the love of baghali polo

The vegetable patch in the garden has been planted to provide us with some of the vegetables that we use a lot, or are more convenient to have close at hand, or are difficult for us to buy locally .  I plant broad beans because I can never  find broad beans which are sufficiently large in the shops in France.

The broad beans are planted in the autumn here and overwinter happily as they can take the short periods of cold that we get in the winter.  They then take off rapidly in the spring and you can gather them before they get attacked by black fly.  2011 was so mild that I decided to plant a second crop in the early spring but despite constant treatment with soapy water the second sowing was ravaged by black fly and I swore, never again.

This winter brought unprecedented snow and sub zero temperatures in February and the broad beans were frozen and as limp as lettuce kept in a freezer.  I was definitely not going to replant in the spring so once the weather improved I clipped off all the slimy leaves and left them alone.  Some actually regrew, perhaps 40%.

The plants were healthy but it was not a heavy crop.

My desire for broad beans is to make a favourite meal.  This requires not only shelling the fluffy outer coat of the beans but slicing each bean in two to remove the bean coating leaving the broad beans shiny and bright.

This is the total of my garden produce of broad beans for this year.  Not a lot but a whole lot better than none.

Also I grow dill, primarily for my boghali polo which is a traditional Persian dish.  The prepared broad beans are layered with the chopped dill and steamed together with rice, the mixture of flavours is superb.

Just before serving I decorate the rice with saffron, this time the saffron was also home grown (see my blog “I’m just mad about saffron”).

Baghali polo goes very well with plain yoghurt and can be served with either roast lamb or roast chicken although on its own it makes a good vegetarian dish served with yoghurt.

So this is why I grow broad beans.  They take a lot of time to prepare like this but they freeze well.  There are short cuts that can be taken.

When I lived in the U.K. I used to buy my broad beans and invite my sister over to watch Wimbledon on the television (she does not have her own).  She would then sit and do the beans while she watched.  She fell for it every year.  Some people sip Pimms and eat strawberries and cream when they watch the tennis, others shell broad beans.

La pigeonnière

A lot of birds come into the garden.  Some visit only seasonally, others are here all year round.  At the moment two couples of collared doves honour us with their presence and one pair has nested high in an old elm in the back garden.

My grandfather kept pigeons or “doos” as they are called in Scotland, which he also raced.  His pigeon loft was neat and practical but a far cry from the beautiful dovecots in the “chocolate box” pictures of an English country garden.  I prefer my pigeons and doves free but they have been associated with man from the beginning of civilisation and have been housed in varieties of different structures all over the world.  I have admired many dovecotes in beautiful gardens in the UK and seen pigeonnières and colombiers in France.   “La pigeonnière” is usually associated with other buildings such as a château whilst  “le colombier” is more frequently an isolated structure or dovecot , the columbine being French for dove.

It was only recently that I was able to go into the ruins of a seventeenth century pigeonnière near here at the Domaine de Seudre (  Previous visits to their restaurant had been in the evening and I was impatient to see what the inside of the pigeonnière looked like.

It was not at all what I had imagined.

When I saw the terracotta jars (cruches) I wondered if I had mistaken the purpose of the tower.  I had expected to see ledges or little boxes.

I asked the Mme. Cardineau, the proprietor, about the pigeonnière and she assured me that it was a traditional style, built using the terracotta pots for the pigeons to nest in and that although they were deep the pigeons were very clean and would keep their nests clean.  The fertiliser that they recovered from the floors of the pigeonnière was very important for the crops of the estate.  I have discovered that another word for this fertiliser is “la columbine” which seems such a beautiful word when you compare it with a lot of English words that we might replace it with!

Not everyone was authorised to keep pigeons, it was a right only granted to a noble  “lord” or “seigneur” of the correct social standing and who possessed a large estate.  It was explained that the right was given to keep one pair of pigeons for every “are” of land in the estate.  An “are” was roughly the amount of land one labourer could work in a day .

In addition, the workers on the estate were given a pigeon a week for food.  The pigeons were certainly a blessing providing food and fertiliser but they could also ravage the crops in search of food and the pigeonnières were sometimes enclosed to keep the pigeons inside when crops were being sown.

They were also a ready reckoner to calculate the wealth of the nobleman.  In the sixteenth century the pigeonnière  would still have been under feudal rules which limited the number of pigeons a nobleman could keep according to the size of his land and so the size of the pigeonnière was a direct guide to the wealth and standing of its owner.  Of course, the pigeonnières often faired better than the fortunes of their owners and this has given rise to the French expression “se faire pigeoner” which means to be cheated or “conned”.  For instance, a prospective suitor might be persuaded that the family he was marrying into was wealthier than he estimated by looking at the size of their pigeonnière.

Today the pigeonnières have fallen into disuse and you are more likely to find tourists living in renovated ones than pigeons living in the real thing.

Fledgling help


I saw this new fledgling getting down to the serious business of removing all the beasties from the top of our plum tree.  He was not at all shy and did not mind that we watched.  He was obviously well brought up and it had been explained that we provide the extra seeds and water in return for natural pest removal.