a french garden


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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.

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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.


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Of Birds and Bees

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair –
The bees are stirring – birds are on the wing –
And Winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge Work without Hope, 1825)

What can I say about our winter this year in France.  Well as they say here, ce n’était pas normal – or in plain English it was pretty miserable.  Generally it was not too cold, but cloudy and rainy – a bit like England, to be honest.  Then all of a sudden we had two days of winter, with temperatures dropping to minus 7 degrees Centigrade and a touch of actual snow.

As we were warned, Amelia and I had placed additional insulation on top and around of beehives.

Virollet Bee hives

But thankfully for our little girls, the following day the temperature rose by 20 degrees,! And the bees were rushing out in great numbers in search of pollen and nectar.

IMG_0083

When we arrived in France on a permanent basis, we had very few birds visiting our garden.  The Robin was, of course, sure that this is his garden and we are only the new tenants.  He used to come every day at the beginning and even now he is the most friendly bird in the garden.

Robin at Virollet

I started feeding the birds on a regular basis (they eat more than five kilos of seeds every week!) and over the years we enjoy drinking our coffee and watching the birds on the patio.    Three years ago, my granddaughter on one of her visits here returned from a local fête having spent all her pocket money in buying two young doves.  She released them in our front garden and each year they seem to have raised two babies.  I see the older doves around our small hamlet, but the youngest ones visit us on a daily basis.

Doves at Virollet

I have been delighted to see that the two pairs of goldfinches that visit our garden have gained enough confidence to come to our patio regularly.  The blue tits, for whom I place the peanuts at this time of the year before they have young ones, looked at the goldfinches a bit suspiciously at first, but decided that there is enough for all.

Goldfinch sharing with blue tit

For the first time I have seen another new bird coming to the patio – a brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) or as is know here, a pinson du nord.

Brambling - Pinson du Nord

I do think that Brambling is rather beautiful.  However, another bird that is unknown to me – and hopefully someone can identify – is a really elegant lady-like bird.

Unnamed bird

The rain has brought back the water to the river Seudre running at the bottom of our garden.  Amelia literally dumped all surplus daffodils last year along the river bank, and they have awarded us with flower this year.

Virollet France (2)

But this is also beginning of the period when we start watching our hives in case they are thinking of swarming, and of course hoping to catch any new swarm that might be visiting our garden.  We have placed two six frames mini hives as traps, one at the bottom of the garden and one on top of the old chicken house, as there we have caught several swarms in previous years.

So we are set and ready.  Hurry up summer, we are tired of this winter.

Kourosh


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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.


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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.


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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.

 


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Frost

The last day of November brought frost to the garden.

For some flowers like the rose above and the pink Anisodontea it will herald the end to their flowering season.

The Mahonia will shrug off this slight inconvenience…

as will the winter flowering honeysuckle.

The frost will help keep the other Camelia buds tightly closed for a few months yet (I hope).

The flowers of the Loquat tree shrug off the frost and later were happy to diffuse their perfume and supply the passing queen bumble bees with nectar in the afternoon sunshine.

My Viburnum davidii looked attractive with its frosted flowers but I thought it was a spring flowering plant (?).  I must admit it has had a hard life.  In an effort to care for it I gave it a good dose of horse manure a couple of years ago.  Unfortunately, I had not left the manure long enough to compost down and the leaves promptly started to crinkle and look burnt at the edges.  The plant has only just recovered and is perhaps still reeling from my over zealous attention.

Its not just the flowers that look good frosted.  The Linden tree still holds some of its fruits.  I pick the flowers for their delicious tea but I have to leave some for the bees.

This cotoneaster looks particularly good as some of its leaves have turned red.

This is the only cotoneaster bush that still has berries.  All the others have been stripped completely, which seems a bit early for us.  I cannot understand how they could miss this bush.  The berries are bright enough.

They say Medlars taste better after a frost but we have already been eating ours and I have never noticed an appreciable difference in the taste.  We must take them in now, or at least a good portion, to finish ripening inside.  We will leave a share for the birds who have already been sampling a few of them.

I always feel sorry for the bees when it is cold, but their hives are in a very sheltered spot of the garden and they were able to get out for a while in the afternoon sun.