a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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It’s cold

It’s cold. Sub-zero mornings followed by blue skies. By the afternoon it heats up to about eight degrees, so beautiful to walk in. However, I am glad we chose to insulate the hives again this year with an aluminium wrap as well as the usually top insulation.

Yesterday, 14 January 2022, we were out walking when we came across this patch of violets opening up in the sunshine at the edge of a wood.

I got down on my hands and knees and gave them a good sniff. They released a gentle perfume typical of violets. The air temperature never went above 8 degrees centigrade yesterday so although the perfume was not strong, I believe this would be because of the cold. Hopefully, we can return soon if the weather gets warmer and see if the perfume is stronger.

Another surprise was to see a few tiny snowdrops appear in the first few days of January. This has never happened before. I have tried over the years, I admit I never managed to find any “in the green” and at the beginning of the garden there were no Internet sites that I knew of, but I did plant any bulbs I could find. I have got some later snowdrops but last year I resigned myself to give up as we have lots of other lovely flowers. Kourosh, however, picked up a packet of snowdrop bulbs last year. I cannot remember where. Possibly a DIY store or a supermarket, but I completely ignored the purchase except to warn him that it was his job to plant them and find a place near the house as it was not worth planting snowdrops far away from the window. He obviously heeded my warning and the bulbs grew up – just to spite me!

Often the “wisdom” of nature and natural creatures is vaunted and compared favourably to our blundering passage through this life. I am not too convinced of the consistency in this innate knowledge. Two days ago Kourosh alerted me to a bumblebee asleep at the front of our house in the winter honeysuckle. It was early evening, the sun was getting lower and the temperature falling – and yet she slumbered on. We could not leave her there. If she has returned to her snug nest she would have escaped the sub zero temperatures but not staying out in the open.

I popped her into a plastic box and put her in an unheated bedroom and she did not move until I brought her into the dining room after midday the following day. I dropped some honey into the box. I would like to point out that the Bumblebee Conservation Trust advises not to use honey but to make sugar syrup but I was not sure she was alive at this stage – and it was easier. As she warmed up she made for the honey and mopped it up and took a second helping.

I took her into the sunshine and let her take wing, which she did with a disgruntled buzz rather than a thank you.

The Chimonanthus praecox is just starting to flower. It has more flowers this year. I hope it will be more impressive. We have put it in a shady position and do not benefit from its perfume as much as I anticipated. Once, more of the flowers are open I will cut some flowering twigs and bring them inside.

I saw my first Bombus pratorum queen, or early bumblebee, on 7 January 2022. That is early. The photo is not great but she is very quick and I was pleased to at least capture her with the date on camera.

I hope she did not misjudge the weather and has made a warm nest somewhere.


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January 2022

The garden enters 2022 with trepidation.

Red Admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta

I took some photographs in the garden on the 31 st. of December 2021 – the last day of the old year. It was a fittingly bizarre day with a temperature of 17 degrees Centigrade (62.6 F) and bright sunshine for the second straight day in a row. There were butterflies on the flowers.

And of course the bees were out and busy bringing loads of pollen into the bee hives.

We were able to sit and read outside as the sun descended and the birds were singing like a spring evening. It is still mild but the temperatures are moving towards seasonal norms. I just wonder how perturbed nature will be this year.

In the meantime the bees take advantage of the fine weather and I thank Philip Strange for reminding me that buff-tailed bumblebees can keep up nesting throughout the winter even in the south of England. Thus the pollen on the bumblebees legs.

She did not gather the pollen from the Mahonia – I have only seen the bees take nectar from the Mahonia.

This winter, despite some frosty mornings, the Anisodontea has kept its flowers and attracts the bees on sunny days.

As soon as the flowers open the bees push themselves inside. They often try when the flower is not completely open.

At the bottom of the garden we have planted an Arbutus unedo. It is a poor spot for a tree with such lovely flowers that are much appreciated by the bumblebees but it has survived and is producing flowers.

The tree is commonly called a strawberry tree, for obvious reasons. I took the photograph of the fruit on the 13 December but there are no more fruits on the tree. The birds have eaten them and, although they look delicious, the fruits are somewhat acid and bland. They can be made into jam as they are not poisonous, but I could think of easier ingredients for jams.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I took all these photographs on 31 December 2022 in the sunshine and unseasonable warmth. In the evening I noticed one of our little green tree frogs sitting enjoying the sun inside a planter on the patio. It is two days later and he is settling down for another night in the same place. The temperature is forecast to fall during the night.

Shall I take him out a blanket?


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Sunny November

We are still in autumn. The Koelreuteria tree in the front garden has lost its leaves but other trees are still holding onto theirs. When a breeze disturbs them, a snow of dead leaves floats down.

The weather has been fine with plenty of opportunities for walking.

We keep waiting for winter to set in and on Wednesday we had lunch outside on the terrace of our favourite restaurant by the sea. The sun was shining and people were sitting in the sun in T-shirts. We have had several “last” lunches outside this year!

Wednesday brought so much sunshine that this small copper butterfly settled on our Mme. Isaac Pereire rose in complete denial of the calendar date.

During the day the blue skies warm up the garden with strong sunshine.

However, the nights with clear skies bring low temperatures and we have found ice on the birds’ water dish in the morning.

I have decided to coddle my abutilons this year. I swore I would never keep fragile plants in the garden. The abutilons have been with us for years, their leaves freezing in winter and then shooting again in late spring. Now I feel they have been so courageous to survive that they are going to get some help.

We have also got a Salvia leucantha that will need protection soon.

I just cannot manage to do justice to this beautiful flower when I take a photograph. It too will get special attention.

The lemon tree is still outside. It will go into the spare bedroom with gro-lights during the day but I could not deprive it of the beautiful sunshine we have been having lately. We do protect it with a fleece at night if the skies are clear.

Today is cloudy and more autumnal.

I hope nevertheless to be able to still enjoy some more days sitting in the garden drinking our tisane, See who joined us on Wednesday morning.


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Summer flowering trees

This is our Heptacodium. I love it. So why is it not in a prime position in the garden? Unfortunately, it goes down to poor planning. When we first planted it there was more light – not a lot, but more.

Now it is so hemmed in that I had difficulty getting a photograph that did it justice. Kourosh in the end obliged by using his phone!

We have another Heptacodium quite nearby just a bit off to the left of the other one. It too is suffering from the same problem of shade from the large Ash trees and now competition from the ever growing bushes of Hybiscus syriacus. I grew these plants, also known as Rose of Sharon, from seed when I first started the garden and never expected them to reach over two metres even with their annual pruning.

The Heptacodium does deserve a good position in a garden. The flowers are delicately perfumed and attract all manner of pollinators.

Having grown the Hibiscus syriacus from seed, I have a mixed bag of colours, ranging from white to various pinks and blues. I have never succeeded with cuttings and although they seed easily, I would recommend buying the plant already rooted if you wanted a specific colour.

Despite the abundant pollen they are not as attractive as one might imagine to pollinators. The bumble bees do like them and perhaps at this moment the pollinators are spoiled for choice in the garden.

I have seen the Rose of Sharon grown as a small tree around here and I think it is an excellent choice and is very easy to shape through pruning in the autumn.

The Lagerstroemia indica can be seen clearly and has been given a prime position in the front garden, largely as it was a present from friends. It has just started flowering.

There is no doubt about the flowers attraction to the pollinators so gives us plenty to watch over coffee on the patio.

In France, around here, most people call this tree Lagerstroemia although it has a common name “Lilas des Indes” or the Lilac of the Indes. I have also seen it written in English as Crape myrtle. Now I would read the first word in the same way as I would “crap”, which does not seem too flattering to me. It reminds me of the last post of Garden in a city where he bemoans the common name of “Hoary Vervain”.

In one corner of the vegetable garden we have grown Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) we like to grow this as it is a natural insecticide if it is cut and dried.

We are at last going through a warm sunny period so it is a good time to dry out the plants. When you cut the stems there is a strong medicinal smell but I do not find it unpleasant.

Despite the plant supposedly having insecticidal properties, the bees and other pollinators are attracted to the flowers.

“He’s behind you!”

Pollinators can be attracted to strange places. Kourosh managed to snap the above photograph from our patio whilst I was stalking the bees with my camera in our front garden.


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Open doors

We have specially planted our garden to welcome any creatures to share our space.

We put water out for the birds and bees.

We are entranced with the variety of wildlife that descend on the flowers.

…even though I have a preference for the bees.

However, yesterday morning while we were having breakfast with the doors open – a border collie bounced into the room. I immediately got up and shut the doors, expecting the owner to follow straight after. However, no one came.

She was not in the slightest disturbed to stay with us and eventually Kourosh went in search of the owner in the neighbouring hamlets and talked to as many of the nearby “doggy” people he could find. After that it was the Mairie and the gendarmerie without result.

By this time we were firm friends and she had completely trained us to give her plenty of cuddles. However, delightful as she was, in the afternoon we took her to the local vet who read her tag and was surprised that she had an appointment for a vaccination in one hour’s time!

So her owner was telephoned and turned up to claim her. Her owner lives in a hamlet two kilometres away. We discovered our little collie was called Stella.

It was rather difficult parting with her and I wonder if she will ever visit us again.


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July finishes

As July finishes the weather forecast predicts clouds, rain and lower than usual temperatures for the beginning of August.

This is not our usual August weather but no one is surprised as “normal” becomes a word to put behind you and take each day as it comes.

The baby birds in the garden at the moment keep us amused.

They seem to have adolescent bad hair days.

The young blackbird will soon change and become an elegant bird with sleek black feathers but the feathers on the head have stayed brown and mottled.

There are another two occupants of the front garden that have lived with us for six years now but never made it into the blog.

These are our two tortoises, Pegah in the front and Posht behind him. They were born in a friend’s garden in the nearby town of Saintes. Originally from North Africa their forebears were brought over as pets for children long since become adults.

There are always plenty of tasty green leaves to tempt the tortoises. They nibble and go and eat a wide variety of plants. I have noticed my sedum leaves being consumed.

In the spring the poppies are in high demand.

It is not only leaves that they eat but the flowers too. Given the opioids in all parts of the poppy, I imagine that they pass a very happy, contented springtime in the garden.

In the summer we cannot help but give them the odd treat of banana or watermelon but I have read that they should not be given an excess of fruit so I limit our treats to tomatoes.

I am not sure quite how the nutritional requirements are derived because they seem to have similar habits to goats and will browse on anything that takes their fancy. I feel they would eat any fallen ripe fruit that might come their way.

In fact, although these tortoises are reputed to be completely vegetarian, they very happily eat snails – shells and all!

Perhaps it is because these are French tortoises.


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The summer garden

We don’t have a big vegetable garden. I like to have plenty of tomatoes for eating and also for freezing as sauce. This year they are very behind. It is the same tomatoes that I have been growing for some years but they are about a month behind their usual growth but it is the same for everybody else nearby. Instead, we have plenty of lettuce this year – just one cucumber plant grown from seed but you can’t win them all.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sown parsley without success, so far (any hints gratefully received). I have planted my leeks for the winter as I am already thinking of winter soups.

It looks as if we are going to have at least one butternut.

I also grew some Uchiki Kuri plants from seed as I thought they were the same as the French Potimarron. I was also in search of the fragrant pumpkin flowers I raised in the garden one year. So far, I have not noticed any perfume from these flowers but it is very fleeting and maybe I was not around at a propitious time. I’ll keep sniffing them as the season advances.

Kourosh has always fancied a climbing grape vine. A friend brought us this vine and assured us it was a type that would climb. It looks as if we may get our first grapes from it this year.

The vegetable garden is hard work. I would rather be watching the Megachile bees building their nests in the bee house. These are leaf cutter bees and they seal off each cache of egg and pollen with either a piece of leaf or chewed bits of leaf. You may see some suspicious circles on your plant leaves as if someone has been at them with a little hole punch. I hope you don’t grudge them these little bits of leaf as it does not harm the plant.

Actually, it is tough to have favourites as I love finding the Tetralonia bees still asleep in the summer mornings tucked inside the flower of a Hollyhock.


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Green grows the grass

I had to take this photograph from upstairs to show the grass still green in the middle of July. Usually this space is more brown than green at this time of year, certainly last year we had had no rain for a long time and the grass was brown. This year the grass has been so wet that it could not be cut.

So many plants had made their home in the grass. The wild mint and Achillea make it perfumed to walk on but it has all been cut now to let me move in the garden without wearing wellington boots. The plants are doing well outside in the wild spaces and the side of the roads.

The bees are spoiled by the abundance of clover and other flowers that are blooming just now. The rain has stopped here and we are promised sunshine. At the moment the clouds are still plentiful but they are white ones and they let the blue sky through.

With the grass cut and fair weather in sight it is time to get to work in the garden again. That often means weeding and of course the weeds have been growing too.

I’ll be looking for places for some of the new plants that I have started off in patio pots. I have only the one colour of Fuschia in the garden and although it has done very well and we have split and replanted it throughout the garden, I am hoping this “Blue Sarah” Fuschia will prove as hardy.

The Carpenter bee has already given it her seal of approval even if she is “stealing” the nectar by boring into the source rather than bothering to go in by the conventional entrance. The hole she has opened will stay and be used by smaller, short-tongued bees, like some of the bumbles and honey bees, to give them easy access to the nectar.


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Roses and peonies

The roses are making their presence felt in the garden. This is the first rose Kourosh planted, Pierre de Ronsard.

It was a complete unknown to us as unfledged gardeners but it is a very popular rose. People here often think it is an old variety because it is named after the poet Pierred de Ronsard who lived four hundred years ago and wrote the famous poem “Mignonne, allons voir si la rose”. He looks at the fragility of the rose and encourages life to be taken while it can and be enjoyed – advice that holds good today.

In fact, this rose was created by the rose grower, Louisette Meilland in the 1980’s.

Phyllis Bede was created earlier by the rose grower Bede in 1923.

Despite the small size of the flowers, this rose charms her way into the hearts of her admirers.

The rose that is in its glory now is flowering well in a shady place under trees and also on a hedge in full sun. It is the oldest hybrid of all three previous roses, being created in 1909 by the German rose grower Schmidt. Veilchenblau means blue violet in German which is a clearly descriptive name.

The rose perfumes its surroundings.

It attracts the bees to gather its pollen so I can enjoy the perfume as I take my photographs.

This rose has no name but flowers continuously from now until the winter. It has a just perceptable fragrance but it the best rose to cut and has a beautiful shape of petals.

Kourosh has taken a cutting of this rose just in case of disasters.

If the rose flowers do not have a long life the peonies have an even shorter spell of glory. Mme Emile Debatene is an elegant, feminine peony.

My red peonies have no name and owe their existance to a moment of weakness in our local supermarket. I have no idea of the name but she is a blowsy, hot bloom that needs an exotic name.

I was glad to note that the peonies share their pollen with the bees too. This bumble bee had fallen asleep on the job and I took the photograph as she looked so cute.

Her nap was shortly disturbed by a curious hoverfly who could not be satisfied by one of the other peonies that were free.

Which all goes to show that even in the countryside, inside a peony flower – you are not free from unwanted disturbance.


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A rare event

We were sitting outside having lunch yesterday when we noticed beautiful colours in the sky above our olive tree.

We knocked on the door of our neighbours opposite and brought them outside to see the sky. I quickly took a photograph of the sky above our neighbour Annie’s house for her.

Kourosh took photographs on his phone too and sent them to Meteo France. Surprisingly, they sent us a beautiful reply explaining the phenomena. The general term is a  photométéore, which would include rainbows (I rather like this word, even if it is French and not English.) The phenomenon is rather rare and is associated with light being reflected by particles (water?) suspended on the surface of the clouds. So it is an iridescent cloud or irisation.

It was very beautiful and reminded me of watching the Northern Lights in Aberdeen.

Back in the garden I made a discovery that the clump of Oxalis, that I had planted years ago from some bulbs given free with a gardening magazine, was extremely attractive to the honeybees. I had never cared for it and it survived by finding a secluded spot here and there in the garden where it escaped being culled.

It is a strange flower and it will close in the middle of the day if there is not enough sunshine. It looks as if it is hiding (from me?) when it does that. When I looked closely the stamens held plenty of lovely yellow pollen.

Our wildlife pond continues to fascinate us. There are thousand of tadpoles now.

It is a great excuse to take a break and go and watch the tadpoles. Very relaxing. Have a look at this video and see what I mean.