a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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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.


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Mid April in the garden

Blue skies and sunny days often bring overnight frosts and after the high temperatures we had two weeks ago most of the plants have suffered from frost damage. The leaves hang, a bit droopy and sad but they will recover.

We too are passing our second April in confinement, not so strict this time, we can go 10 kilometres from the house which is more then the one kilometer distance for one hour of exercise that we endured last year. Like the plants we will survive.

Nature continues and we have baby blackbirds in the garden. They do not fly away when you approach but this careless attitude will only last a few days and we do not have cats.

We have more and more Honesty (Lunaria annua) self-seeding over the garden. I love the colour and it seems to be able to find better places to grow than I would have imagined. It is perfect to attract all the pollinators.

The furry bee flies look cute but are parasites of solitary bees so I cannot help feeling a twinge of antipathy towards them.

This little bee had a slightly metallic sheen to it and it could be a Lasioglossom (perhaps morio)

Butterflies also take advantage of the Honesty and the orange-tip butterfly is especially photogenic.

I checked ot out onthe Butterfly Conservation web site. Guess what? It lays its eggs on Honesty in gardens. I have never noticed any caterpillars on them so the site must be correct that it prefers some of the wild flowers that are around just now. I’ll try and remember to keep my eye open for signs of caterpillars.

The last of the tulips are fully open now in my layered planter. So providing interest from the middle of February until late April is a worthwhile effort.

The last white tulips (Mount Tacoma) looked better on their own than while the pale pink (Candy Prince) were open. The pink was definitely a candy pink and looked pallid beside the pure white tulips.

Live and learn!


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Definitely spring

The waters have receded to a more normal spring level and the daffodils are out. These are where we retire our daffodils when they get too crowded in other parts of the garden. I was not sure the bulbs would survive the dry, hot summer but they do and get enough rain and light in the spring to proliferate.

I love seeing the hazel flower – tiny as they are. There are two on the stem underneath the catkin.

I see the white-tailed bumble bee queens during the winter but it has to be spring before I see the queen Carder bumblebees. They love the dead red-nettle and there is plenty of it in the garden just now.

The biggest spring event for us is when the old plum tree flowers. It is a festival of perfume, buzzing and pollinators.

Such an opportunity for photographs.

Bees and plum blossom are so photogenic.

I could go on like this for some time, but I won’t.

I did say pollinators in the plum tree so I must insert my token butterfly. Probably a tortoiseshell.

I am not going closer than a tortoiseshell. I don’t think it was a small tortoiseshell but please feel free to leave a comment if you know what it is. Before anyone asks – I do not know what colour its legs were, I was lucky to get the picture I did.

Being a frugal type I decided to plant the hyacinth bulbs I had inside for their perfume, after the flowers had finished. My trusty garden tool is used for everything and I swing it around with wild abandon.

I was chilled to realise, when digging the hole, that I had nearly decapitated a hiberating toad. I think it must have been the root that saved him. I had to pick him up to make sure he still had four legs.

He sat quietly to the side while I redug a hollow under the root. He accepted his repositioning calmly and looked less upset than I was.

So all is well in the garden with the Carpenter bees swooping noisily onto the heather.

All the bees love the Hellebore and there are even more than ever this year.

But the biggest news today was that the Osmia cornuta males are emerging from the bee houses. I do love to watch them and if you would like to share you can see more of my photos at Bees in a French Garden.


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My Tetradium daniellii or Bee-Bee tree

Tetradium daniellii is such a mouthful of a name for a tree. Especially as this tree can be known as Evodia or “Arbre à miel” or “Arbre aux abeilles”. I first heard it mentioned by bee keepers in France who talked in reverential  tones about trees they had seen, but it appeared rare here, and I had never seen one.

I decided to buy one but this proved difficult to source here until I found one listed on the online site Planfor. Here, I made a mistake with my button finger and ended up with an 11 cm. plant! It was duly planted in November of 2014. I did source another larger tree in a pot from another nursery but that tree did not survive, so I had little hope for the 11 cm. stick.

I was wrong to be pessamistic. After a slowish start the tree grew rapidly but I had no idea of how long the tree would take to produce the first flowers. In July of 2018 we had the first flowers from the Bee-Bee tree.

What impressed me most was that the honeybees were attracted to the flowers almost before they opened and worked at the flowers to gain access to the nectar.

I think you can almost see the bee smiling.

The little flowers contain large amounts of nectar and also provide a yellow pollen. It is impressive to see the number of bees of all sorts that the tree attracts.

So this year in January 2020 we bought another Tetradium darlienii from the same online nursery, but with more confidence we invested in a larger potted plant.

We were very excited to see it push forth its new shoots at the end of January. Such pretty new leaves too!

So this year we have had two surprises. Firstly, it flowered in the summer time and secondly the flowers produced seeds!

The seed pods are an attractive pink colour.

As the seeds ripen the pods open to reveal the black seeds. These are reputed to be eaten by the birds but I quickly gathered mine. I will be interested to see if I can germinate them in the springtime.

So why has my first Tertradium not produced any seeds?

Some sources say that the Tetradium daniellii is dioecious – that is that you get male and female flowers on the same plant. That would surely mean that I should have already had seeds on my older tree.

Other sources say that the tree is monoecious – that is individuals either produce male or female flowers.

That would mean that my first tree produces only male flowers and my new tree produces only female flowers.

However, yet other sources say that individuals can be monoecious or dioeceious. So my first tree could be male and my second produce both male and female flowers.

Luckily the bees do not care as both male and female flowers produce the nectar and pollen that they seek.


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November flowers and fruit

We have been confined now for one week in the new second general confinement in France. We are allowed to go food shopping and attend medical appointments. Travelling to work is permitted when it is impossible to fulfill the job by staying connected on the Internet at home. When you do leave home, even for a walk of no longer than 1 kilometer, you should have an “attestation” indicating when you left home and for what reason.

As the cafes and restaurants are closed and visiting is not allowed, it only leaves me gardening and walking.

I have started weeding the front gardens and mulching with the fallen leaves from the garden.

The Persimmon tree leaves are a beautiful colour for the mulch but I have brought barrow loads of leaves from the Liriodendron and other trees in the back garden to fill up the border.

The Ash tree leaves are not so pretty and go in the back borders or the compost.

My three small heathers that I potted up for some winter colour on the patio have already started flowering.

As soon as the flowers open the bees find them. It looks like being a good investment for colour and entertainment.

The Carpenter bees visit the potted lemon tree on the patio and

also visit the Salvia uliginosa which has just about finished flowering in a nearby pot.

The Salvia leucantha has just started opening its white flowers in a big pot on the patio and also in the front garden. Its country of origin is Mexico and I have read that it is not frost hardy but it has survived in the pot that I brought indoors last winter. It has also survived outdoors in the front border where it is flowering now. I gave a division of my plant last autumn to my neighbour Annie, who planted it in her garden in a sunny spot and hers is a now a much larger specimen and is full of flowers.

My yellow buddeleia is still flowering. Attracting butterflies like this Peacock.

And this rather old Red Admiral.

I was given the original cutting by a beekeeper friend who assured me that the bees would be attracted to it. He was right! I prefer it to the lilac buddeleia.

This is what the Kaki or Persimmon flowers look like in May. They are very discrete flowers and you really have to look for them.

It is difficult to imagine that large red or yellow fruit the size of large tomatoes could be difficult to see in a tree – but it is true! Kourosh started his Kaki predictions this year by saying that he was surprised that it was going to be such a poor year as the summer had been warm. Later he changed his mind and announced we would be having enough to have a taste. Then he decided that there was more than he thought.

To cut a long story short, we have been collecting boxes of them. They have been being handed out to friends as they have been gradually harvested and I only wish we had weighed how much the tree has given us this year. Everytime more leaves fell we saw more fruit. Now the tree is bare except for some that we have left for the birds share.

They do not ripen all at once and ripen more slowly in a cool place. This year I have frozen some of the ripe flesh without the skin. I have never done this before but seemingly it is possible.

Our other November fruit is the olives. They can be left for a few days yet but then it will be up to Kourosh to prepare them.


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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.