a french garden


Snow in the garden

An almost black and white view of the garden in the afternoon of 19 March 2018.

A different view of a patch of hellebore.

The Oleander was completely bent under the weight of the snow.

The hyacinth looked rather shocked by their surprise topping.

The hives are the most sheltered under the trees and I am glad we decided to insulate them this year.

The snow has all melted now and is nothing compared to what falls regularly in the winter in many parts of the world.  It is unusual though to have snow like this in March in this part of the world.

It is a snowfall to remember for us, the day before the spring equinox.



March in the garden

Up till now we have been subjected to chaotic changes in the weather this March.  High winds, freezing temperatures overnight, sunshine and rain and more rain and clouds with temperatures about ten degrees under seasonal average take turns to fill the days.

The first of March saw the plum tree flowers frozen and brown.

Whereas a week earlier it had been full of flowers.

Four rows of broad beans were frozen overnight in an extremely low temperature.  I could have avoided the damage by simply covering the plants with a fleece or even some newspaper but they completely slipped my mind.

It has not been all bad news and the Goat Willow (Salix caprea) is open and welcoming the honey bees, bumble bees, solitary bees and butterflies – especially when it is sunny.  As you can see our hives are very close to the willow, which is on the left of the picture, so they can take advantage of short sunny spells in between the rain.  Standing under the tree and listening to the hum above your head feels so peaceful.  There is a 19 second video if you would like to share the bees.

It is good to see the girls collecting such healthy sized sacs of pollen.

The willow provides nectar as well as pollen.  This is a  Andrena cineraria (Ashy mining bee).  They have nested in the past under the large plum tree.

Checking under the plum tree I saw a number of male Andrena cineraria flying over the ground and this one was kind enough to pose on a daisy for me while he had a snack.  It looks like they are keeping to the same nesting area.

Last week the Osmia cornuta emerged from their holes.  The males emerge first and on sunny days they fly constantly around the bee hotels hoping for a female to emerge.  I have just seen a female prospecting one of the bee hotels so it will soon be time to watch the nest building.  Check out last year’s post if you would like to see more.

On the opposite side of the garden from the bees is an area that has always been full of lesser celandine (Ficaria verna).  I do my best but I find it difficult to do more than try and keep it out the borders.

I probably would not mind it so much if the bees liked it but usually it is only flies that I see on them.

One thing you can be sure about bees is that you can never say never, when it comes to their behaviour.

Keeping on the unusual – this is a double headed daffodil.  It is the first one I have seen.  Is it unusual?

This hyacinth is probably easier to explain, as it looks as if it has self-sown.  Not very striking but at least it is a pretty colour.

It might be worth looking under your Hellebores as there are lots of seedlings under mine.

Looking closer the second leaves are just starting to appear but they could easily be overlooked by an enthusiastic weeding.

This spring has been so wet and windy that I have come to realise how useful the downward facing flowers of the Hellebore are.  The pollen is kept dry for the bees and they are sheltered from the winds that make flying and nectar gathering difficult.

The green tubular structures are that the bee is visiting are the Hellebores nectaries and provide nectar which is collected by honey bees and so very valuable to the overwintering queen bumble bees when they awaken on warmer winter days.

This year my previous year’s seedlings have all done well and are settling into positions at the base of deciduous trees and plants.  I have my seed trays all ready so my next job in the garden is to fill them up with more Hellebore seedlings as I have already marked out in my mind where I can plant them in the autumn.


The plum tree finds its name

We inherited the plum tree with the house so we never had any idea of what kind of plum tree it was.  It grew quickly and became a very special tree.  To begin with, it is the first plum tree to flower in the neighbourhood and I think it is admired by all as a sign of spring.  We can have lunch under its branches in the summer when it is so hot that parasols cannot protect you from the heat of the sun’s rays.  The branches are sturdy enough to support a swing and they give just enough shade for the colony of Ashy mining bees (Andrena cineraria) that lives in the grass close to its trunk.  We do not get plums every year because in the colder years the flowers or newly formed fruit get frozen.  We have had years that the grass has been carpeted with fallen plums and I can gorge on the little yellow fruits as I collect them and pass them on to friends.  Those are the years of plentiful plum jam and compote.

This year it has not disappointed us and on the 12 February I captured the first flower to open.  I was not the only person to be watching their plum tree, reading the blog of Vincent Albouy I have discovered the name of the plum tree that I had always referred to as my wild plum tree.  So now I have a host of names to chose from.  It is a Prunus cerasifera and has the common names of cherry or myrobolan plum.

By the 20 February many more flowers were open.  The leaves only appear once the flowers finish blooming.  There are cultivated varieties of this plum that have dark leaves and are grown more for their ornamental value than for the fruit.

It was only 8 degrees centigrade in the garden on the 20 February and we were amazed to see the bees and bumble bees on the flowers in the February sunshine.  Have a look at this short video to see what it looks like.

The plum pollen is a dark yellow/orange and it is easy to spot the bees bringing it into the hive.

Here is another short video of the bees bringing the pollen back to their hives at 3.47 p.m.

One advantage of the cherry plum tree is that it grows well from seed and a few years ago we found a sapling growing in the border not far from the big plum tree.  We hoped we were planting the right tree and we transplanted it to a better position at the bottom of the garden closer to the bee hives.  It has flowered for the first time this year, reassuring us that we have now got a second cherry plum tree in the garden.  It is now about the same size as the big tree was when we bought the house.  The bees will be grateful that the new plum tree is even closer to their hives on cold February days.



Of cold days and Hellebores

Mid morning today the temperature was not above four degrees Centigrade.  Such a quiet garden.  The Viburnum tinus had no visitors.

At least the willow buds (Salix caprea) are protected from the cold by their white, silky fleece.  There is no urgency for them to open as the wild bees will be still safely tucked into their nests in hollow stems or tunnels in the ground or perhaps in our house walls.  The honey bees will be in their hives while the cold prevails.

I think of the nectar and pollen that the willow will provide but for the willow the season will arrive and its pollen will be dispersed and seed will be set irrespective of the bees and other pollinators because it is wind pollinated.  The bees can help a bit but they depend on the willow much more than the willow depends on them.

The Hellebore are providing colour in the cold weather, oblivious to the chill.

My mainstay Hellebore is a dark purple plant.  I inherited several seedlings of them from my sister’s garden in the U.K. and it has taken some years to establish clumps of them around the garden.

She has been generous with her seedlings and whereas I was hoping my deep purple might revert, I think it is relatively stable.  This spotty pink is probably another of her seedlings.

This one has green markings but but is more likely to have come from a later seedling of my sister’s than a natural hybrid.

The Hellebore self-seed so well I thought I might try my hand at pollinating a white Hellebore with a dark one and collecting the resulting seed.  I opened a white bud and liberally rubbed pollen from the dark red Hellebore, closed the bud and tied thick red wool around the flower head.  I get ten out of ten for enthusiasm and enterprise but the poor flower is brown and shows signs of a too rough treatment.  I’ll try again but more gently.

I did treat myself to a named variety last year in the U.K. –  Helleborus Harvington.  Unfortunately, I have just discovered this refers to the Hellebore bred by Hugh Nunn at Harvington and there are many varieties of beautiful Hellebore that he has bred.  So I still do not have a named variety.

Luckily, I love all my Hellebore.  I do not mind that for the most part they hang their heads and conceal the beautiful interiors.

The bees care little about the position of the flower heads either.

I took the photographs of the bees on the Hellebore on 2 February and you can see the ivory pollen she has gathered.   The Hellebore are generous to the bees and also provide them with nectar.  I, in my turn, am rewarded with lots of Hellebore seedlings that I lift and tend in seed trays over the summer until I find a suitable place for them.

I am finding them very useful in the garden as they can be put under the shade of deciduous trees and will take being baked in the summer when they are established.

Hey girls!  I really am trying to make sure there is enough for everyone.


The bees in January 2018

After a long hot summer, we had a cold spell in December.  I feel the cold and in addition we attended a very interesting bee meeting with an interesting talk on the relative insulation value of the different types of hives and nucs.  That started me worrying about our bees and we decided that we should give them a bit of extra insulation.  They are already well insulated over the top of the hives.

Actually, the cold spell did not last long and in January I started watching the catkins of our purple hazelnut start to open.

There are a lot of hazelnuts (Corylus sp.) around us and we planted some in the garden as we read that these catkins are often the first source of pollen for bees.

I have another reason to keep my eye on the hazels at this time of year as it is now that they produce their tiny flowers.

Their petals (actually styles) remind me of the tentacles of sea anemones and it is surely a sign that spring cannot be far behind.  However, I have never seen a single bee on the hazel catkins.  Hazelnuts are wind pollinated but this does not stop the bees gathering the pollen.

Near some of the hazelnuts are gorse bushes and the bees will fly at least a kilometer from their hives in January to collect the pollen.  It is easy to see the orange pollen being taken into the hive and know where it comes from at this time of year.

The most pollen we see being brought into the hive in January comes from the Winter Flowering Honeysuckle.  There is a large bush about 20 metres from their hive and they visit this bush at amazingly low air temperatures.  It was only 9 degrees centigrade today but sunny and the bush was buzzing.

Today the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was sharing with the honey bees and the queen buff-tailed bumble bee.

A bit further away is the Viburnum tinus which buzzes on sunny days like today.  Size does matter and it is now a very large bush.  Not a bad investment for one euro at a fête many years ago.

The V.tinus pollen is a pale ivory and we like to watch the hives bring it in.  Most of the pollen is the yellow Winter Flowering Honeysuckle pollen, then the V.tinus pollen and also some orange Gorse pollen.  You can watch the video (less than 1 minute) of our busiest hive “Poppy” bringing in the pollen today.

My heather (Erica darleyensis) gets plenty of attention.  I am trying to increase this Erica as it does so well here but it is not a rapid grower.

The bees like to keep you guessing and I had not thought these early crocus would be so tempting.

Just beside the crocus some Mullein leaves are shooting up (Verbascum thapsus).  I try to keep as many as I can in the garden because their flowers attract so many pollinators in the summer, especially in the early morning.

There are no flowers in January but I wonder if the dew droplets become impregnated with minerals from the Verbascums leaves.  Mullein has a long history as a herbal plant.

It does not look as if it will be long before our willow tree (Salix caprea) will have the bees exploring the fluffy buds.

Until then we should follow the example of our green tree frog sitting in the sunshine today and take advantage of the day, wherever we are.



Rain, rain

Last night on the news it said that this January in France has seen the highest rainfall in a hundred years!  I must admit everyone around is bemoaning the clouds and the rain although, as a gardener, I tend to see the bright side of all this as everything was too dry last year.  In addition, we have had no local flooding – not yet anyway.

Most of the winter flowers seem happy to cope with the rain, humidity and low light conditions but not my Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox).  The wet fading flowers are being attacked by black mold, however, on the rare days we get the sunshine the wonderful perfume of the Wintersweet flowers permeates the air.

The Wintersweet only started to flower last year and this is last year’s photograph of the beautiful, waxy petals of the  flower.  I will have to wait another year to see it in full flower.

The birds on the other hand do not appear to mind the rain and the Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) come down to forage in our “lawn” ignoring the sparrows and the bird food on the patio.  This photograph has been taken through the window while it was raining so the quality is not excellent.

The grass is shooting up as high as the finch’s head and making him bedraggled.

I wondered what they could be eating until I saw that the grass is already producing ample flower heads and the grass seeds are easily seen sticking to its beak.  I had never considered that the grass seed would be so attractive to them.

Hey you two!  There is a new birdhouse all ready hanging in the apricot tree on the side of the garden that you prefer.  Take a look in while you are here.


Help for small gardeners

I take my composting seriously (sad but true).  So I decided to buy myself a pre-Christmas present in December and was excited when the box arrived a few days later.

I had coveted this strange item ever since I had “had a go” with it in a natural gardening open day.

To make good compost rapidly I have been told the compost needs to be mixed frequently and I have seen videos of large compost heaps being attacked vigorously with garden forks.

I do not have sufficient strength to dig into piles of vegetable matter and in addition we keep our compost in wooden containers to keep it tidy and to conserve the warmth of decomposition.  You would need to be tall to be able to fork through these compost boxes or be happy to demantle them every few days, which is not an easy job.

I do not usually feature the composting site on the blog, for obvious reasons.  I’ve had to leave the tops open as once I had used my Brass compost mixer (for those interested in etymology, brasser means to mix or toss in French), I noticed that the mixture was quite dry in parts.

In short, I am delighted with it.  I can burrow into my compost heap creating tunnels leading to the bottom layers and distributing the extracted cores on the top and sides.  This is a video of the inventor showing how it works.

The mixer is produced by the ESAT de l’ODET near Quimper which is run by the Association for the paralysed in France (l’Association des Paralysés de France).

I think all I have to do now is put on the top and wait for some warmer weather to speed up the composting – and of course, keep turning it with my new brass compost every few days.