a french garden


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Back home

It was good to be back home and back in the garden.  The weather was kind to me and my first day was warm and sunny and I was out first thing to take stock of the garden.

Potager overgrown

It is frightening to see how overgrown the garden gets with some warmth and rain.

Flowering radishes

Even the radishes had flowered!

Flowering leeks

So had the leeks.

Halictus bee in leek

This Halictus bee enjoys the leek flowers as do the bumble bees so I don’t have the heart to cut them down.

Potager

I have cleaned up this part of the potager.  A word of warning – do not weed in low rise jeans and a short tee shirt.  I now have nasty sunburn across the lower part of my back.

Blackcurrants

There is so much to do!  The blackcurrants need picking.

Cherries

The cherries are just about ready and strangely the birds have left us some this year.  Perhaps because they are not very sweet and don’t have much flavour this year.  I was relieved to hear that other people around have the same complaint so it must be the strange spring we have had.

Reine de Reinette

The Reine de Reinette apple tree has an annoying habit of setting too much fruit so the little ones have to be knocked off so that decent sized fruits mature.  I have two Reine de Reinette trees.

Hydrangea cutting

The Hydrangea cutting K. took from our bush has flowered before we have found it a place and planted it.

Salvia

The little Salvia my friend Linda gave me at Christmas was put in the trough so that I wouldn’t lose it in the borders.  No need to worry about losing it now!

Anthophora in Salvia

My cute little Anthophora love the Salvia.  They remind me of little koala bears the way they hold onto the flowers.

Halictus species on radish

This is another problem, the bees totally distract me.  they are everywhere and I keep finding different ones.  This Halictus is feeding on the radish flowers.1-IMG_9571

The poppies are everywhere, just like the bees.

Halictus/Lassioglossom

The poppies are favourites of tiny Halictus or Lassioglossom bees.

Two bees

They are so tiny you might not realise that they are bees unless you look very closely.

anthidium

Every time I pass the Nepeta, the bees attract me.  This one is Anthidium florentinum, I think, a new one to the garden.

Bobby James

I try to appreciate the flowers that are almost past like the Bobby James rose that is only getting established now but like a lot of ramblers will only flower once a year.  I’ve entirely missed  my peonies.

Valerian seed

The Valerian is just about over and the seed heads are floating  around the garden and new plants will probably appear next year.  They are very welcome and are a bright addition here and there.

New Dawn

Several of the roses like “Shropshire Lad” have not done well in the cold rainy spring but “New Dawn” above has kept its bright green foliage even though it is not well-situated in a shady area.

Canna leaves

This Canna leaf has me guessing.  I don’t know what has made the holes but if it was moving from right to left it was finding the Canna very nutritious and growing at a steady rate.

There is so much to do in the garden that I despair to getting it back into some semblance of working order.  There are still seedlings to plant out that are flowering in their seed trays but the garden is still beautiful, if unkempt.

My first dinner back home was sea bass caught in the Gironde estuary by K. served with our new potatoes and fresh-picked peas followed by our strawberries for dessert.  It re-enforced the good points of having a garden and I  looked more calmly at the work ahead with a full stomach.


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Fête des Abeilles

I promise; I promise, this will be my last post on behalf of Amelia who will return back home tomorrow.  However, I could not resist sharing with you all, my visit today to the Fête des Abeilles – The gathering of the members and the friends of the Association of Apiculture of the department of Charente Martitime, where we live.  By this time of the year, that is to say the summer solstice, we should have really nice weather, and we have had two or three days when the temperatures soared to about 30 C [that is about 86 F].  But sadly today was not one of those and although it was not cold at all, we had a drizzle most of the day.  But it did not deter the people and they came to see the main attraction which was the extraction of honey.  For me, however, the great excitement was something else that I had never seen at close quarters.

They had chosen an interesting location which is a center recently opened to study and shelter wild birds along a corridor of the busy motorway A10 which runs between Bordeaux and Paris.

The Bird Sanctuary

The Bird Sanctuary

On one side is a forest and the several acres of land was purchased partially because it has a lot of lime trees, in full flower at this time of the year.

Lime tree o "tilleul"

Lime tree flower or “tilleul”

Those perfumed flowers produce some of the best honey I have ever tasted.  For that reason, different members of the association of apiculture  have left some of their hives in that center.

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The extraction was demonstrated by one of the members who had opened one hive and had removed a few of the elements.  He first showed how with a special knife the waxy coating was to be removed.

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They were very keen to encourage and educate the participants, specially the curious young children.

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Several children participated in the preparation of the elements for extraction.  They even placed the elements in a transparent extractor and were in a practical manner taught how the centrifugal force works.

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But as I said for me the absolute excitement was being able to see her majesty the queen bee in her court. She is not normally removed from her hive, but this day when Michel had removed one of the element for transport in a glass hive, he had not noticed that he had also transported the queen.  She is in the middle, larger than the others with a prominent back – may be it is there she wears her crown!

Her majesty the queen bee

Her majesty the queen bee

Michel assured me that a separation of a day should not disrupt the harmony of the hive.    I was so absorbed by the events of the day that I did not notice until I was  leaving that there was another queen bee amongst us.

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And so, or as they say here “et voilà”,  I  thank you for all the encouraging comments that you wrote for the last few blogs and I leave you in the good hands of Amelia.  Au revoir    – K


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Uninvited Guests

I had believed that after my last post as the ghost blogger for Amelia my duties would be over, as I am expecting her to come back early next week.  However, the problem with nature is that we can not predict its course, we can only observe and wonder.

When I returned from England on my own and opened the house I noticed quite a number of bees dead near each window.  Then as the evening approached and I sat down with a cup of tea in the stillness of the setting sun I could hear them under the roof space.  Looking outside I saw that a lot of bees had found a couple of small holes and were coming and going.  I telephoned my friend Michel, the bee keeper, who kindly came and inspected and then returned a second time, fully “armed” and placed an empty hive fully laced with honey and a special product to attract the bees.

IMG_0886In the hours that followed the bees did come out of the roof space and seemed very happy to discover a new source of food so close to home.

IMG_0894More and more bees were attracted to the hive No 2.

IMG_0897But, as Michel explained to me, once the hive was covered by the bees, the queen would no longer enter the hive.  So we left it like that for a few hours more.  Michel left and I started to get ready for bed.  It was then that I noticed what had happened.  The queen apparently had abandoned the roof space [thankfully] but indeed had not gone to the new hive, but had settled on the branch of the apricot tree nearby.  And the bees had swarmed around her.

IMG_0916There was nothing else I could do as a heavy rain had just started which continued throughout the night.  I did telephone Michel again and he returned once more in the morning.  This time he brought the hive down from the roof.

IMG_0928and removed the slats inside it.

IMG_0929He then shook the branch of the tree and collected all the bees and the queen in a bucket.

IMG_0936He made sure that as many bees were collected.

IMG_0937Once he was satisfied that he had indeed collected the bees, he literally poured them into the empty hive.

IMG_0940He then proceeded to replace the slats one by one into the hive.

IMG_0948Finally he replaced the cover.

IMG_0951He has now left the complete hive in the garden to give any straggler the chance of returning to their new home.

So,  Amelia, I know you always fancied having a bee hive of your own.  Now, whether you like or now, for the moment you have a bee hive right in your front garden.  Come back soon, please!  – K

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Home Alone

I joined Amelia in England for a couple of weeks, but now I have just returned to our home in France and to Amelia’s “afrenchgarden”.  She is still in England, staying with my daughter and her new baby girl.

So, I have decided to write this short blog updating you of some of the things that have happened in our garden whilst I was away, and I suppose address the blog also to Amelia, telling her what she is missing and reminding her of her neglected duties.

Our neighbours have told me that whilst I was away it rained, and rained.  The evidence for me is the knee deep grass, and an abundance of strange giant weeds.  The climbing roses with their branches  full of flower are tumbling on the ground.

Veilchenblau Rose

Veilchenblau Rose

The peony under the olive tree looks somewhat neglected but still is charming.

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In front of the house, the rose Pierre de Ronsard [or as sometimes called Eden Rose 85], as well as the malva are impressive, although a little untidy.

Pierre de Ronsard against the wall

Pierre de Ronsard against the wall

Amelia has been planning to grow alpines in the  large stone trough near the house.  In her absence a giant lettuce  and a few tomato seedlings have grown in the midst of the saxifraga and delosperma.

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The vegetable patch is now full of broad beans, as well as peas and spicy mixed salad leaves.  I am sure that Amelia would have loved some fresh salad for lunch.

Broad beans planted in November 2012

Broad beans planted in November 2012

The cherry tree that we carefully transplanted last autumn and have kept our fingers crossed, has not only survived well, but has born fruit. 

Transplanted Cherry Tree

Transplanted Cherry Tree

I am not sure why nepeta has been called catmint, for to me it is a butterfly and bumble bee bush.  At this time our several nepeta bushes are laden with a variety of bumble bees and butterflies.

Nepeta Cataria

Nepeta Cataria

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Painted lady, Vanessa cardui

I have not neglected my duty to check on the newer bee houses that I made and we placed under the large plum tree.  “She” will be pleased to know that the tenants have indeed moved in and four of the holes are now filled – I am not yet sure if by mason bees or some other species.

Room to let to mason bees

Room to let to mason bees

More holes have been filled in the older bee house that we positioned in the front garden.  I believe that they are occupied by a small fruit wasp, as well as mason bees.  Just below the wasp I also saw what I think is an Anthophora  female who hopefully has chosen the bamboo to nest in, as she has been flying back and forth to her preferred hole.

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Near the terrace the poppies are rampant.  I think some of the wild poppies sadly have to be “weeded.”  Sorry I did say that I will have more respect for the weeds.

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But I am glad that last year Amelia placed a marker where a pyramid orchid had grown.  This year the weeds had not stopped the sweet plant which is once again in bloom.

Anacamptis pyramidalis

Anacamptis pyramidalis

So my tasks are all ahead of me: to cut the grass, to harvest Amelia’s precious broad beans as well as the peas, in addition to finding places for all the new plants that Amelia has sent with me to plant in the garden.  A busy second half to this June.


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Reading matters

A sting in the tale

Arriving in the U.K a few weeks ago I was given a present by my sister.  She had been listening absent-mindedly to BBC Radio 4, while driving, when the words “bees” and “Charente” made her tune in to the programme.  She managed to absorb that they were discussing a book “A Sting in the Tale” by Dave Goulson and took the chance that I might find it interesting.

I did!

Usually I read my books very methodically reading any introductions etc. to begin with; however, I noticed a chapter “Chez Les Bourdons” so I couldn’t resist finding out what it was about immediately.  A bourdon is a bumble bee in French so I thought it might be devoted to the identification and natural history of French bumble bees.

It was not.

It was about his experiences in buying a small farm in the Charente.  This realised a dream to have land he could manage for nature and of course for bumble bees.  I felt an immediate empathy for him as we had bought our house and garden in the Charente-Maritime at about the same time.  I turned to the beginning of the book and started to read from the beginning with even more enthusiasm.

His style is very readable and personal.  If you ever wondered what Biology professors are like when they are little boys, now is your chance to find out.  He lightly traces his own life through his academic career with lots of anecdotes which never come to light reading the formalised style of a research paper.  He is hoping to create natural meadow land on his land in France and is experimenting to compare the different techniques of returning the farm land to flower rich meadow.  His ownership of the land secures this long term project from the vagaries of budget cuts and direction changes in funding bodies.

I was also fascinated to learn how bumble bees had been introduced to New Zealand in the late nineteen century to help the pollination of red clover being grown for fodder.  They were, of course, not the only animals and plants the settlers imported to “improve” their new home.  However, the short-haired bumble bee has now disappeared from the U.K.  Reading about the efforts being made to reintroduce the short-haired bumble bee to the U.K. brought home the problems man has created in his efforts to “improve” nature.

Even seemingly harmless bumble bees can upset established ecological systems as Goulson has seen for himself on his visits to Tasmania.  Australia has no native bumble bees but buff-tailed bumble bees (Bombus terrestris) which are excellent pollinators for tomato plants appeared in Tasmania in 1992.  Of course, the importation of non-native bees is forbidden in Australia and New Zealand but the first bumble bees were observed in Tasmania in 1992 which strangely coincides with the commercial production of bumble bees for pollination, particularly for tomatoes.

He explains in his book how the seemingly harmless introduction on a new species of bumble bee has effected visible changes in the ecology of Tasmania in a short period and speculates on possible future changes.

The book is full of personal stories and you can catch a backstage glimpse of the creation of the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust, the charity he set up for bumble bees in 2006.  One of projects of the Trust was to re-introduce the short haired bumble bee to the UK.  Once again the book offers you a very person peep into the beginnings of this fascinating project.

Goulson endeared me by admitting that one of the reasons he started to study bumble bees was that they were “rather loveable”.  I think whether you are a bumble bee person or just interested in nature and life you will find this book a fascinating read.

 


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Weeds in the garden

I recall when I was very young often asking my father the names of various plants, specially the flowers of the beautiful wild weeds in the garden.  I remember him looking at me and saying: “Why do you call them weeds?  They are only another pretty flower that as yet we do not know their names.”

In our garden in France we do not to use chemical pesticides, and as much as possible we have learnt to live with the wild flowers.  There are patches, specially near the river bed that all sorts of wild plants grow.  They seem to add some special charm to the rustic nature of our garden.

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There are, nevertheless a number of plants that I have systematically pulled out, as they tend to become  invasive.  One such weed is a little green plant with yellow flower that often grows in the crack of the walls.  It is pretty whilst it is in flower and is still small, but the plant soon seems to grow smothering anything else around it.

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A couple of weeks ago when, in Amelia’s absence, I visited the Fête de Printemps at the neighbouring village, I noticed that one nursery lady had potted the very same plant and was selling them, each at 4 Euros!  I learnt that the little plant is called in French chélidoine, or the Chelidonium majus (greater celandine).

Greater Celandine

This plant does have a confusing name, as the greater celandine actually belongs to the poppy family, whereas the lesser celandine which frequently grows along the paths in early spring belongs to the buttercup family.  We have a clump of lesser celandine at the bottom of the garden which attracts a lot of bees and butterflies in the early spring, much to Amelia’s delight.

Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria

Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria

The orange colour juice (the latex) oozing out of the cut stems has been used throughout centuries for the treatment of warts, giving the common name of the plant as tetterwort.  Different parts of the plant have numerous pharmacological properties.  It is said to be analgesic, and the latex has also been used to cauterize small wounds.

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Chelidonium majus – Greater celandine

The greater celandine is considered toxic and should be handled with a little care as it might be allergenic and cause dermatitis.  Nevertheless, I will not dig this little plant as ruthlessly as I used to do and remembering what my father told me, I have yet again gained greater respect for the weeds that often I do not know their names.