a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Birds and other beasts in the garden

We were checking out our Persimon tree for ripe fruit when we noticed that the bird house had opened by itself, so it was a good time to clean it out. However, instead of old nesting material there was a little tree frog inside it.

We were not sure whether the tree frog had hoped to take shelter in the nest box or had got trapped there but we felt it wiser to put him out.

A little inter species help never goes wrong. Can you see the hole the bumble bee has made in the Sage flower? A honey bee could not make holes in the outside petals of flowers to get quickly and easily at the nectar, but the honey bees and other bees can make use of the holes made by larger bees.

We have Redstarts that visit the garden and several couples nest in the garden. We enjoy seeing them, of course, but as insectivores we hope also they could have their uses.

We have a mass of wild Fennel in the front garden for the birds.

The little Warbler that is often in the Fennel eats insects too, I believe.

We even provide a variety of bathing places for all the birds.

So I was a bit surprised when I saw all these caterpillars eating a rose shoot.

I am not too into butterflies so I was not surprised when I could not at once find what butterfly these strange caterpillars would turn into.

When I realised they were sawfly larvae (probably Arge ochropus) and in addition, they were going to turn into flies, I felt a bit let down by our feathered friends.

You’re on half rations of seeds from tomorrow!


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Persimmon and Saffron

The Persimmon tree, at the front right of the photograph, is still hiding its fruits well.

You have to get right underneath it to realise that there are already ripe fruits on the tree. Of course, the birds found out first.

We did not realise how much fruit there was until one of the branches broke. We will keep the fruit indoors and hope that it ripens. Persimmons will ripen indoors and once they have fully swollen we will be able to bring them in. They are delicious to eat just as they are or to make them into a dessert with fresh yoghurt.

The first saffron bulbs have flowered although most of the bulbs have just broken the surface of the ground. From now on I start my daily collection of the pistils for air drying inside the house.

I had this planter full of basil and lemon balm but decided to change it to spring bulbs. I am going to see if I can grow different bulbs at different depths. So I started with hyacinths and tulips and then added crocus and muscari. I have never tried this before so we shall see what happens in the springtime.

To empty the container we had to tip it right over onto the grass and much to our surprise we found four marbled newts (Tritorus marmoratus) and what I think looks like a little toad. The newts are such gentle creatures and it was easy to displace them and suggest they found a better place to hibernate.

Autumn is being kind to us here and we have sunshine after the rain. The cosmos have almost finished flowering and I am itching to remove them to tidy up the garden. I have left the straggling plants as the seeds are appreciated by the goldfinches and warblers. I prefer to see the birds than to have a tidy garden.


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Life and death in the Asters

There are lots of asters in groups in the garden just now.

The queen bumble bees are the most amusing to watch. They are big and graceless. Speed a low priority attribute.

The Small Copper butterflies have enough time to play with such a bounty of available nectar.

It’s not just bees and butterflies that come to the asters, lots of different flies, like this hover fly, are attracted to them.

Of course, the honey bees don’t miss out either.

I’ve noticed the lizards keep a beady eye on the proceedings. There are plenty of wall lizards in the garden that must appreciate the little flies.

I was just about to take a photograph of the European hornet when a honeybee that I had not noticed suddenly disappeared.

After the sudden strike the hornet dropped lower into the asters and with commendable care and precision, started to dismember and package the prize. I was surprised at how rapidly the honeybee succombed to the hornets sting. There was no struggle as the bee hung limply in the hornets grip, pollen still attached to her hind legs. Once the bee was firmly installed in the hornet’s powerful mandibles, the hornet took off rapidly and easily. A redoubtable hunting machine.

So although the asters are a constant source of pleasure and amusement for me, the many visitors risk their lives for the nectar.

My French marigolds are till providing colour and nectar for the bees. I mentioned that I have read that they are edible.

I did not exactly risk my life to try one but I felt I really should. I was pleasantly surprised as (although a bit crunchy) they had a fresh herby flavour. I even convinced Kourosh to try one (it was easier than I had anticipated ;)). He said they had a similar flavour to fresh dill with a peppery plus.

It was after I ate the first one, which I had only given a brief flush under the water tap, that I started to think how much grit and insect life might be concealed tightly inside the flower head. They were pretty crunchy, after all, and grew quite close to the earth.

I decided to give them a quick flush and then soak them inverted in clear water.

Thankfully, no sediment or bodies dropped to the bottom.

I would recommend a thorough clean – just to be sure.


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Rain at last!

The rain has come too late to have much effect on the summer vegetables but in the end the tomatoes yielded enough fruit for our needs for sauce and late salads.  The butternut have yielded seventeen – not all very big but an improvement on the raised beds of last year.

At least now I feel confident enough to put in some brussel sprout plants.

Golden leaves carpet underneath the Liquidamber.  The leaves are golden as the Liquidamber has not changed colour yet and these are dry leaves it has cast off in an effort to survive the lack of water.

The Ginkco is turning yellow and the parched leaves give the garden a true autumnal feel.

In the middle of the photograph is the struggling hydrangea “Saville Garden” that I planted in 2014.  I really must find a better place for it.  there is just not enough moisture for it in this spot and even too much shade for a hydrangea.

The Nerine Bowdenii fair better as they have bulbes that allow them to survive through the dry months.

I’m glad they provide nectar for the bumble bees, too.

I’m not sure where this bumble bee has been to get so covered with pollen, I think he needs to stop and have a good groom.

The Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli) is still coming to the asters.  I misidentified this last week as a blue.  In fact it is a native of Southern Africa but has been introduced with Pelargoniums for gardens.  Pelargoniums are hugely popular in France to be used in pots outside houses in France.  They do not survive the winter and so have to be re-bought the following year.  Good business for the suppliers but I personally prefer the perennial geraniums which are very easy to grow in pots or the soil and can be divided and propagated year after year.

And also, (I am sure you have guessed,) the bees and pollinators can use the perennial geranium flowers but not the pelargoniums.

A bee that I have seen often on the asters is Epeolus fallax.  It is a cuckoo bee; like the cuckoo bird it does not have its own nest but lays its eggs in the nest of other bees.  The cuckoo bees are usually parasites of a limited number of species and not just any bees in general.  The Epeolus are cleptoparasites of Colletes bees and I have found them at nesting sites of Ivy bees (https://beesinafrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/la-bourgade-revisited/).

However, the Ivy flowers are not open yet and the Ivy bees will not be building their nests yet.  So perhaps they are targeting another Colletes bee at the moment.

I saw this tiny bee sitting on the leaf of our potted lemon tree.  You can get an idea of how tiny it is as the photograph has made the leaf’s stomata visible.  I was not absolutely sure it was a bee but the photograph allowed me to see the three simple eyes placed in a triangular pattern on the top of the bee’s head.  It looks much more like a bee now, magnified larger than life-size.

The French marigolds (Tagetes patula) that I planted as companion plants in the vegetable garden are doing well now and are popular with the honey bees.  In France they are called “Oeillets d’Inde” which roughly translated means Indian carnations!  If you ignore the orange colour they do ressemble carnations.

I like to use flowers, like borage, on salads and cakes but I did not realise that French marigolds are edible too.  their petals can be used to colour desserts like fruit salad and have been given the name of saffron of the poor.  I have to look into this!

Temperatures have dropped considerably these past few days and it is hard to imagine that we were watching the sun set on the beach at Mescher-sur-Gironde a week ago.  The beach is only a half hour drive from the house and we were able to enjoy an evening swim with temperatures of 34 degrees as the sun was setting.

I do not think that will be repeated until next year.


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The last of the lavender

The lavender is just about finished in the garden now but this carder bumble bee seems determined to extract the last drops of remaining nectar.  There are several clumps of lavender in the garden and the lavender that was in full sun is well and truly grilled.  These clumps were in partial shade and flowered later.

The Russian sage is likewise pushing out the last flowers.

The Verbena bonariensis is losing the round shapes of the flower heads as the last flowers push forth.  Just as well for the short tailed blue butterfly (Everes alcetas), (actually  Geranium Bronze [Cacyreus marshalli] see Dromfit comment below)who is still around for the moment and is pleased to pose for photographs.

The sedum which I always think of as a butterfly trap has been disappointing.  I have not found it covered in butterflies as I had hoped, in fact I have found this year generally a poor year for butterflies in the garden.

However, just as I was mulling this thought over, a Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) came to my dahlia – something I have never seen before.  I think the butterflies just like to keep me guessing.

My fuschia have been coping very well with the heat and lack of rain.

On looking closer, though, you can see how damaged the inside petals are.  Any ideas what causes that?

There are always lots of bumble bees visiting the fuschia and their front legs grip tightly onto the petals so that they can get to the good stuff.  From the number of marks on the petals it looks like the fuschia provides generously for the bumble bees.

I don’t grow a lot of clematis but this “Helios” has always been a favourite of mine.  It grows on a north facing wall and is not abundant.  I would really like to find a better place to grow it as it cannot be seen to advantage – a project for next year.

My Leycestria has survived the heat well and is now producing its pretty deep red/black berries.  They can be eaten and have a caramel flavour.  Unfortunately, they often squash between your fingers as you pick them so they are not a good berry to harvest for enjoying later.  In France the common name is “Arbre aux faisans” or pheasant tree.  The perfume of the fruits are reputed to attract pheasants who are apparently extremely partial to these berries.  We have not been overrun by pheasants yet and none of the local birds seem interested in the berries and they are left to dry up on the plant.  I don’t know why.

It is the season to say goodbye to a lot of the bees.  I do not usually see the wool carder bees (Anthidium manicatum) now.

It is likely to be the last time I see this Megachile (probably centuncularis) if the predicted storms and rains arrive and keep the weather cool and wet.

It made me realise how long our carpenter bees keep us company as I don’t think a week of rain will keep them away.

And lastly, our first queen bumble bee has arrived in the garden and taken possession of the caryopteris bush.  She is a white tailed bumble bee and a considerable size with a bumbly comportment fit for a queen of her dimensions.  She has fallen asleep on the bush some nights but I am sure the light shower of rain this afternoon will alert her to find a dry spot under some leaves to start her hibernation.  We will not have seen the last of her this autumn and she will be back visiting the flowers on the better autumn days.


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Insignificant flowers

There is a patch of wild mint not far from the house that we often walk past, but because of the heat this summer we have taken to walking early in the morning.  It is very pleasant in the early morning but I have been missing my bees and butterflies at this early hour.  At last we have had sunshine and reasonable temperatures that have allowed me to check out the mint.

At this time of year it is the Adonis blue butterflies that are attracted to the mint.

The male is a bright blue and the female has brown wings with only a hint of blue on the hairs of her body.

The Knautia also attracts them.

The Knautia also attracts the wild bees but I think many of the wild bees have gone with the passing summer.

The Malva is also managing to flower despite the lack of rain.  I’ve had to pull many of these plants out of the garden and they have roots like parsnips – often branched.  They are difficult to remove for a gardener but perfect for storing moisture for the plant.  The Malva provide a late pollen and nectar source for the bees like this red tailed worker bumble bee.

Some wild flowers can be difficult to deal with in the garden but scabious in its more ornamental forms is welcomed by gardeners, often with the hope of attracting butterflies like this Meadow Brown.

The only colour I have seen in the wild scabious here is a very attractive shade of lilac.  It has not appeared spontaneously in the garden and I have never encouraged it by trying to seed it.  I am too nervous of past mistakes with other wild flowers.

We have had more clover this year and it has benefited from the rain we had a couple of weeks ago.  The red clover has flowerlets that are too long for the honeybees but perfectly acceptable for the bumblebees, like this carder.

The clover nectar must be good as usually I find the Clouded Yellow butterflies quite flighty and difficult to photograph but this one was intent on his food.  The clover often finds its way into the garden but never causes me any problems.

Just behind the wild mint patch there is a huge swathe of Cat’s Ears.  Now these do find their way into the garden.  In fact, just in front of our bee hives is being taken over by this weed.  We have made no effort to eradicate it as we are totally besotted by the Dasypoda bees that make the flower heads bounce around in the summer.

There is no sign of the Dasypoda this late in the year but the honeybees were gathering nectar from them and had bright yellow pollen on their legs.

All these flowers are quickly recognised as flowers by us but there are others that are not so obvious.

The plantain flower looks dry and sterile but look at that pollen being showered from its head by the arrival of the bee!  The bee has a huge lump of the ivory pollen already on her legs although she rests on the plantain for only a few seconds.

However insignificant, the seed head of the plantain, denuded of its petals and pollen makes an excellent resting place for a dragonfly surveying the area.

Now, whether the purslane is one of your preferred veggies or not, the little yellow flowers are quite insignificant but very much appreciated by the bees.

Just look at that bright yellow crystalline pollen on the bees legs!

I am quite happy to admire the large patches of purslane knowing that the masses of little black seeds, that will soon follow the flowers, will not be dropped on our garden.

 

 


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Signs of autumn

Some of the leaves on the trees are turning golden and a few are scattered on the ground yet at the same time the bees can still find some flowerlets on the last of the lavender bushes to flower.

The quince tree has produced enough fruit for us but as usual they are not perfect and the worm eaten parts have to be cut out before they are used.

The sedum is just starting to colour and already the bumble bees come for the early open flowers.

The second crop of raspberries is doing well, thanks to recent rain and of course the bumble bees that assiduously visit their insignificant flowers.  It always seem to be the carder bumble bees that visit the raspberries at this time of year.

The Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) or pourpier is happy to see the rain.  This one is growing in my vegetable garden and trying its best to impersonate parsley, but I was not to be fooled.

I get large patches of this and it can be quite invasive.  It can be eaten as a salad vegetable but I confess I have never got passed the “having a nibble” stage.  It is O.K. and I should really pick some and try and make a real salad of it.

I was reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and she writes that one evening Thomas Cromwell had a salad of purslane.  It was a popular dish in Tudor times so I should not ignore it.  Does anyone else eat it?

This year we have had a lot of apples from our four apple trees.  We have given them away, I have made apple jelly and will later make chutney and Kourosh has taken charge of bottling them as compote.

Our favourite for eating is the Reine de Reinettes which is a sweet crisp apple that also is very good to cook.  It reminds me a bit of Cox’s Orange Pippin.  August seems so early to have so many apples.

At least the tomatoes have decided to ripen but I think I will have plenty of green ones this year for chutney.

In the meantime the extra tomatoes go in the pot for coulis to be frozen for the winter.

Will my butternut squash ripen before the winter?

Will this be a cold winter, for there seems to be more rose hips on the roses?

Hiding under a pot of geraniums this baby mouse was too young to run away.  Instead he rolled over to try and shelter under the leaves.  With all the fallen apples around I expect he will find plenty of food to grow up with and store away for the winter. whatever the weather throws at us.

 


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Problems in the potager

We are not great vegetable gardeners but I have always managed to raise lots of tomatoes.  This year, starting with the seeds of the excellent tomatoes I had last year, I have had problems.  The plants have been strong and healthy but the tomatoes are not ripening so quickly.  They are very large fruits and they taste good.  Last year the fruits were of a more even shape and I wonder if last year the bumble bees have been doing a bit of cross-pollination, giving me a different result this year.

I should not complain as they are starting to ripen now and I should have enough to provide enough tomato coulis to last us over the year.

This year,my sister sent me Golden Sunrise tomato seeds and I reluctantly put in two plants.  Actually, they gave great plants, well shaped fruit and ripened normally.  Of course, it goes without saying that my Sungold cherry tomatoes have been providing me lots of fruit for ages.

I think I will not keep the seeds of these tomatoes for next year and I would be grateful for the name of a good “heat resistant” tomato for next year.

My next enigma comes from the Pepper seeds “Havana Gold” sent to me by my sister.  These, unfortunately, germinated very easily from a few seeds.  As I am not sure what to do with them, I thought I would grow one plant as an ornamental in a pot and I put the other three into the garden to die quietly.

I quickly noticed that the pampered plant in the pot was being out paced by the plants in the garden, so I stuck it in beside them.

If you look carefully, you can see the small pepper plant between its sisters and the aubergine plants.  I cannot understand why the potted plant has stayed stunted.  Any answers?

The aubergine plants were bought and put in at the middle of May and are only now starting to grow and flower. (?).

The next enigma is the cucumbers.  We were given the seeds by a friend, as we both like these little cucumbers, and he brings the seeds from Lebanon.  To be economical with the seeds, we decided to start the plants off in pots.  Nothing. Replanted. Nothing.  Perhaps the seeds are too old now?  So we stuck them into the ground, much too late and they grew like Jack and the Beanstock plants to give us lots of cucumbers.

I would be grateful if anyone had any ideas of what might be happening.

I do have good news.  We scrapped the raised bed for the Butternuts (here in S.W. France it is much too dry for raised beds, I think) and let them run over the strawberries that I have ceded to the slugs.  This works much better and I am going to have plenty by the autumn.

The raspberries, both the gold and red, have fruited again – many thanks bumblebees for the sterling pollination effort.  I find the raspberries much less frustrating than the strawberries.

As always, Kourosh manages to find things in the garden.  This is a long-horned beetle – pretty obvious – and I had a problem getting a good clear photo and keeping its antenna in focus.  The coin is a one euro, about the size of a pound coin.

The Cerambyx scopolii lays its eggs in a variety of wild forest trees and the larvae bore into the tree and can excavate galleries of up to 8-10 cm.  A heavy infestation would be harmful to trees or plantations.  The adults eat pollen but I have yet to see it any on flowers.  I think they keep to the forest flowers such as elders and hawthorns and the umbellifers.

Yesterday, was the find of a caterpillar of Acherontia atropos outside our back door on the grass.  I recognised the funny spike on its rear and Kourosh Googled the photo to get the identity of the Death’s Head moth.  I checked out, on the web, what it might eat and came up immediately with potatoes.  I thought – not in our garden!  However, looking further I saw that it would be tempted by any of the solanacea, such as Deadly Nightshade.

I do have some in the garden and there is plenty outside in the woodland.  It has been recorded on other plants so I do not think it is as fussy as that.

This huge caterpillar will turn into the Death’s Head Moth.  This strange moth has the ability to fool bees to allow it to enter their hives and steal their honey.

We have already found the moth near our beehives, so click the link if you are interested to see the adult moth.

 

 

 


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Dry garden

Yesterday the temperature was 38 degrees Centigrade (100.4 F.) and it was not only the plants that were suffering from the heat.  The vegetable patch gets watered daily as we have had no rain for such a long time.  I also water some of my favourite plants but the trees have to make do and the apples are dropping.

One of my favourite shrubs is my Eucryphia nymanensis.  the flowers are lightly scented and moderately attractive to pollinators.  I planted mine in November of 2015 and it can grow to 8 or even 15 metres, according to some sources, if it is happy in its position.  Mine is only surviving as it does not get the moist, rich, slightly acid soil that it is said to enjoy.

Still it is giving me plenty of lovely flowers and I do not really want such a big tree anyway.

Another plant that gets tough love from me is my Thalictrum delavayi.  It had been completely overshadowed by the olive tree, so although it likes some shade, I moved it so that it at least could have some light.  That was last year and it seems to be thriving.

The flowers are delicate and attract the bees.

In fact, everything is delicate about this plant – even the leaves.

I spotted one of my favourite bees on the lavender this week.  It is a Tetralonia (3 submarginal cells, for those that care) probably a male Tetralonia dentata.

I’ve never seen him on the lavender before but his huge green eyes and long antenna make him very appealing to me.

Our honey bees are doing well and appear very busy.  This sunflower field is not long from the garden and I am amazed that the sunflowers can grow with so little rain.  There has only been 2 m.m. of rain in total this July.

I can see the bees on the flowers but I wonder how much nectar they can find in plants so starved of moisture.

We have to have patience until we do our honey harvest in the second half of August.


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Comet Neowise – Take 2

Last night I could not resist trying for an improved photograph of the comet Neowise.

I felt this would be a “historic” photograph for the garden, so the camera is pointing straight down the middle of the back garden.  I ramped up the ISO to 6,400, opened the lens to f4 and held the shutter open for 17 seconds.  This time gave me the most pleasing photo.

Strangely, the comet was more difficult to see with the naked eye last night although I think the photograph is better.

It is just as well we don’t have comets too frequently because I do not think I could cope with going to bed at 1 a.m. on a regular basis.