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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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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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.

We have a very moderately sized patch for vegetables.  We grow only the vegetables that we know we will use.

The summer’s main crop is tomatoes that I have sown from seed that I kept back from the most successful tomato plant of last year.  I have three rows of tomatoes but as I do not have a proper green house, I cannot sow the seeds too early and so the tomato plants have still some way to go.

I must confess, I did plant two yellow tomatoes I grew from commercial seed and these seem to have produced the first standard sized tomatoes.

The Sungold cherry tomatoes on the Wigwam have already produced green fruit, so we should be starting to eat them soon.  I always plant Sungold as I have never tasted a cherry tomato that I find as sweet flavoured.

Some weeks ago our friend Michel asked if I had planted any French marigolds.  I said I had but strangely they had not come up so I was just going to rely on the self-seeders I knew would appear.  He was not satisfied with this and said I really needed them to protect my tomatoes and that he had plenty of little seedlings.  Kourosh duly planted a line of the seedlings and added a couple of my French marigolds for good measure.  We have now found we have a line of Cosmos sulphureus coming up so Michel has either got his seeds or planting markers mixed up!

Today I planted out fifty leek seedlings that Michel has given us.  It is more than I think I will need but at least I am pretty sure that they are leeks!

Elsewhere we have green courgettes…

…and a couple of yellow courgettes.

Last year I tried to grow butternut squash in a raised bed without much success.  This year I have raised more plants and the fruit has already started to form.

We also have another small patch that is given over to experiments and herbs.  The big blue untidy patch is Echium vulgare that I have grown from seed.  It is a biennial.  I have never grown it before and it seems like a long time to wait for the flowers.  The bees tell me it was worth it.

I grew Echium amoenum at the same time but I only managed to produce two plants into the second year to flower.  They flowered earlier, in May, and were supposed to provide me with flowers for herbal tea.  As you can see, there is not much to show for such a long wait.  However, the bees liked the Echium amoenum just as much and I reckon it might be easier to sneak them in somewhere in the garden so I have kept back the seeds for another try.  I think the E. vulgare takes up too much space.  The bees disagree.

We have been having cloudy, dull weather lately and I have been surprised by our little Judas tree producing red seed pods that are very decorative and something new, as the young tree had only this year started flowering.

I was delighted to see that our old bee house in the front garden has been taken over by some bees.  They are using the drilled holes and the bamboo tubes.  At the moment there is a lot of cleaning out going on.

I have no idea what they are but from the time of year they could be a species of leaf cutter bees.  Once they start to fill up their holes with eggs and start working nearer the end of their tubes I will be able to see them better.  Also once the nests are sealed it will give me a clue as I will be able to see what materials they are using to seal the nests. As you can see from the end of the bamboo tubes, they are very small (internal diameter of the tubes approximately 0.5-0.6 cm.).

The Magnolia grandiflora is getting bigger.  We have planted an apple tree to close to it and have decided to remove the apple tree in the autumn.   The white perfumed flowers only survive one day once they open just enough for the honey bees to gain entrance.  After that the bees come in groups of five or six and the petals and stamens soon hit the floor.

The bees provide never ending entertainment in the garden.  Watch this short video of the honeybees visiting the Magnolia flowers.

 

 


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The poppies are finishing

The poppies self-seed all over the garden, front and back, even in the cracks of the path.

The Californian poppies, Eschscholzia californica, look very gaudy in our garden and I do not find that they attract as many bees as the red wild poppies.

When the bees do go onto the Californian poppies, the pollen that they gather is a beautiful deep yellow/orange.

The favourite poppy for all the bees is the showy oriental poppy, a variety of Papaver somniferum but I find these pass over only too quickly, much to our regret and that of the bees, I suppose.

The common red poppies are called ” coquelicot in French and their botanic name is Papaver rhoeas.  Not all the red poppies are completely red, the photograph above shows a light white touch on the outer edge of the petals.

Some have vivid red markings in their centre and some have black pollen which can easily be seen in the cells of the honey bee hives at this time of year.

Some have frilly edges.

But all the poppies are loved by the bees for the pollen whether they are the wild bees like this Amegilla or honey bees from kept hives.

The slight differences in colourations like the different outer petals of this poppy…

the white border on this poppy were noticed by the Reverend William Wilks.  He also noticed coloured variants and from 1880 he tried by selection to produce colourful varients of the wild poppy.  These are called Shirley poppies because he was the vicar of Shirley in England.

There are also Iceland poppies, Papaver nudicaule, which are also coloured and can be bought as seed.  I have never tried any of these.

I think I will try and buy some Shirley poppy seed for next year to see what colours will come up.  I would be interested in anyone’s experiences with their poppy growing.


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May sunshine, flowers and fruit

Bottle brush

This May has been so hot and sunny, following an extremely mild winter that some of our plants are doing unusually well, like the bottle brush (Callistemon spp.).

bee in rince bouteille

Kourosh had bought it for the bees and I was concerned it would be too tender to do well here.  This year it is well established and attracts clouds of bees, they do not seem to object to fighting their way through the spiky petals so the nectar must be good!

Pink flowered succulent

I have been trying to grow more succulents in the pots this year so that they are easier to care for in hot, dry summers.

Succulent flower

I am happy to see that many of the succulents attract pollinators, too.

echium amoenum

Not everything succeeds in a garden.  I planted seeds of Echium amoenum last year to harvest the flowers to make Gol Gav Zaban tea.  I only managed to grow two plants which are now flowering but I do not think all their flowers would be enough to make a cup of tea.  In the meantime the bumble bees appreciate them and I have to wait to see how the Echium vulgare, planted at the same time, does.

Reine de reinette apples

Experience helps.  We have two Reine des reinettes apple trees in the garden.  I like the flavour very much and it reminds me of the U.K. pippin apples.  However, they have a tendency to set a lot of fruit.  At first we assumed a lot of the little apples would fall, in due course.  However, they do not fall and it results in lots of little apples.  Now, I knock off excess and leave no more than two at a time near each other.  Time consuming but worth it in the end.

Eleagnus angustifolia

We have planted an Eleagnus angustifolia on the hedge near the road.

Eleagnus angustifolia flowers

This year we have had plenty of the pretty yellow flowers, providing nectar for the bees and perhaps this year some fruit for us.

Loquat 1

This is the first year that our ” néflier du Japon ” (Eriobotrya japonica) or loquat has managed to hang onto its fruit through the winter.  I am looking forward to enjoying them and in the meantime I have been given a supply of the fruit by some friends whose tree is a bit more advanced than ours.

Raspberry

The yellow raspberries are ripening…

IMG_3786

as are the cherries but as usual I am sure the birds will beat me to the cherries.

Peas

So far, so good with the peas.  Does anyone know if all peas can be eaten as “mange tous”?

Lichen moth

This gorgeous moth was resting on my bee house otherwise I would never have spotted the perfect lichen-like camouflage.

wasp & parasol

Our parasol continues to attract visitors.  This time it is a little wasp.  The two spikes in the photo are where Kourosh knocked off the beginnings of its nest.  Now we have given up and are letting it be.  It is not the stinging type of wasp.

Car wasp

Because the car was not moving over the confinement Kourosh noticed this wasp bringing in a green caterpillar and taking it inside the window slot.  It has been busy for some time.  We will no doubt see the result in a few weeks or perhaps next spring.  I am sure it could have found much more convenient and stable sites.  It does not seem overly perturbed when its nest disappears for an hour and then reappears.

Philadelphus

More sunny weather is forecast for the next few days so we will have plenty of time to enjoy the garden and our coffees under the trees and enjoy the perfume of the Philadelphus.  The restaurants and cafes will not open in France until 1 June 2020 and with the inconvenience of social distancing they are not as tempting to us as pre-Covid times.


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May in abundance

Robinier (2)

When we first started the garden each new plant that managed to flower was greeted with amazement and it received daily pilgrimages  so that we could wonder and admire it.

Robinier flowers

I must admit the Robinia (False Accasia) manages to still attract our attention with its perfume.

Choisia

As does the Choisya in the different places in the garden.

Arum

The groups of Arum are in shadier spots, and with the rain this spring, have done remarkably well but I have just noticed the abundance of their flowers this year.

Cherries

The cherries…

Plum

The plums and…

Raspberries

The raspberries are powering on, thanks to this warm, wet, thundery weather we are experiencing.

B.pratorum

Of course, many thanks to the bumble bees for the sterling pollination service for our raspberries.  The little Bombus pratorum are great pollinators in the spring.  This one is a male so that means their season will be finishing soon.

Eaten rose

It’s not always good news in the garden.  The flowers and leaves of a rose (‘Madame Alfred Carrière’) were badly eaten.

Caterpillar (1)

I decided to look for the culprit.  Here it is on the stalks of the leaves it has eaten.

Caterpillar (2)

This angle gives you a better view and the little feet at the bottom LHS of the photo are a giveaway.  It was such a good camouflage I could not squash it.  I think it was just about ready to pupate anyway.

Broad beans

The broad beans have succumbed to ants and blackfly that stopped them reaching their full potential.  I still got a decent crop and I have finished the grueling podding and preparing and have frozen my booty.

IMG_3631

We have decided we like the white Camassia we have in the pot, even though it was supposed to be dark blue.  I think they should really be planted out for next year in the garden but I will keep them in a pot for one more year and hope they will still flower.

Swallow on wire (2)

The swallows have returned and sit on the telegraph wire.

Swallow on wire (1)

They look fairly innocent and casual whereas, in fact, they are casing the joint.

Swallow in house

Leave the French windows open and in she comes!

Swallow on beam

We will have to stay vigilant until she chooses somewhere else.

We share the garden with nature but we draw the line at swallows nesting in the living room.


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Back to April showers

I’ve a great sympathy for this Anthophora bee that has taken to sheltering in one of the bee houses.  When it is cold and rainy she retreats back and waits until a ray of sunshine tempts her to check out whether the rain has stopped or not.

We have had rain and thunder and wind and rain… and some sunshine.

Our Viburnum opulus on the edge of the garden chose the warm sunny days to burst into flower.  Not only this is a fresh, generous shrub for the garden but the flowers look great cut for inside with roses.  It is called the guelder rose in the U.K.

In France it is known as “boule de neige” or snowball which I find is very appropriate.  A lot of the flowers have passed their best now and have lost their petals that transform into confetti that is taken by the wind to decorate the surrounding grass.

I have enjoyed a big pot of Camassia bulbs every April for a number of years.

They attract all sorts of bees and so provide our entertainment at coffee time.  I thought this year the bulbs were beginning to look very crushed in the pot and so they have been summarily deplaced to a hole made for them in the front garden.  I hope they will like their new home.  I have not made up my mind as to whether I should replace them with new bulbs in the autumn or choose something else.

I have also a large aluminium tub planted up with supposedly Camassia Leichtlini “caerulea” and Camassia cusickii (reputedly a short deep blue flower).  So far I have only seen this pale blue Camassia appear which looks as if it is going to be followed by a white flower.

This cistus has been grown from cuttings and we have no regrets as it has produced the same attractive crinkled-paper leaves as the parent plant.  And of course, it provides lots of pollen for the bees at this time.

I have several Choisia in the garden and my “Sundance” in the front garden is a real favourite, lighting up a shady corner, especially in the winter.  However, perhaps it is showing its age but the foliage did not look so good this spring and I think it is getting out of shape.  So should I replace it or will a severe pruning and cutting out of the old branches rejuvenate it after the flowers have gone?

The good weather allowed us to work a lot in the garden and get to grips with the weeds that have benefited from our mild wet spring.  For the first time I came across a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) in the garden, hiding under some dry leaves near some logs.  They are slow moving creatures and nocturnal so it is not surprising that I have only seen dead ones on the roadside.  They can grow up to 25 cm. (nearly ten inches) in length.  They can only prey on slow moving species like earthworms, slugs and snails so that makes them a welcome inhabitant of the garden as the slug and snail population at the moment is in full boom.

You can get an idea of the size of this baby on top of the gardening gloves.  They can exude an irritant from their skin so it is best not to touch them with bare hands.

The fire salamander was thought to be able to regenerate in fire and even extinguish fire; these beliefs being traced back to Aristotle and Pliny.  Francois I of France was born in Cognac Chateau in 1494 and he took the Salamander as his emblem.  Cognac is less than 50 kilometres from here and there are plenty of references to Francois I and his salamander in Cognac and throughout France.

His device was “Nutrisco et extinguo” or even ” nutrisco et extingo”, which although not quite correct latin means that the aspiration is to nourish the good fires of virtue, love, and faith, while reminding that he is the king with the power to extinguish all that he deems incorrect.  Quite a neat sentiment.

Returning to the garden, I notice that the Judas tree has started to produce pea pod shaped seed cases.  April is finishing but the garden seems to be speeding ahead helped by the rain and mild weather.


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New plants, new places

Spring continues to be mild with plenty of rain to support the abundant new growth.  The large plum tree on the right has finished flowering and has started to put on leaf.

The willows are still bright but I am keeping my eye on them as the leaf buds are just visible and soon they will have to be reduced to stumps providing lots of canes.  More than I will be able to use.

The flowers of the apricot trees stand out on the bare tree discretely.

I have seen the first flower on the Cornus mas.  My plants are quite young but I am hoping for a better show this year.

The Coronilla glauca has more flowers and the ever green leaves a good addition to the hedge.

The Eleagnus ebbingei has produced a good crop of berries this year.  I have read that all the Eleagnus varieties have edible berries (I said edible not tasty) so I will have to have a nibble when they are ripe.

We have another plum tree in flower at the moment.  It is only small and is a shoot from a yellow plum tree that died and had to be cut down.  It is probably a shoot from the root stock and it will be interesting to see if we get any plums from it this year and what kind they will be.

We removed the vines from an area at the top of the garden to create another sitting area.  In the autumn we planted a Pyrus calleryana “Chanticleer”.  This tree has long been a favourite but we had not got a good position.  With the removal of the vines, we decided we could at last have this tree.  It has already produced some flowers but it will take some years before it will put on a show in the spring and shine in its autumn colours.

We have also been tempted to plant the ornamental apple tree Malus coccinella.  It too is quite small.

The little tree has managed to hold onto the little apples that are both decorative and hopefully feed the birds in winter.  I would be interested to hear from anyone with this tree on how keen the birds are on these fruits.

I grew this Loncera nitida from some small cuttings I took some years ago.  I have been very pleased with it as a ground cover plant and I have been transplanting rooted growth to areas I want to cover.  I hope these rooted transplants will take more quickly as the little white flowers are very attractive and much appreciated by the bees just now.

Elsewhere. the Hellebores continue to provide lots of colour.

They mix well with the heather and daffodils and provide good ground cover in the summer time.

The male Osmia cornuta continue to patrol the bee houses but it will be at least another two weeks before the females will come out, I think.  In the meantime they keep dry in the empty bamboo tubes when it is cold and wet and take nectar breaks when it is sunny.


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Mid January in the garden

The constant rain that was the garden’s lot before Christmas has eased up.  The temperatures have only teased around zero from time to time and the sunny days are rare but something that brings cheer.

When the sun does shine it is not the flowers but the willows (Salix alba “Chermesina”) that light up the garden.  I planted them in January 2014.

I was so optimistic about the effect my Winter Sweet (Chimonanthus praecox) would have in the garden when I planted it in February of 2015.  I planted it not too far from the back door so that I could enjoy the perfume.  It took util last year to flower and whereas the perfume is striking sampled from close, I do not find it wifts any distance as do my other perfumed shrubs.

It did not start flowering until last year and I find at this time of year the flowers become damaged in the rain.

Perhaps it is not happy.  I admit it is in a fairly shady spot in the summer and if any one has any ideas how I can improve its performance, I would love to hear.

The Winter Sweet cannot compete with the density of flowers on the Viburnum tinus which started opening in December.

All these flowers attract the bees and provide very valuable pollen.

Quantity is important when attracting pollinators and although the Anisodontea is still producing flowers of a very good quality, they are not attracting the number of insects they do in the summer.

This large clump of heather (Erica darleyensis) is always well visited but I have several other newer and smaller clumps around the garden but they do not receive the same attention – just yet!

Only the tips of the Mahonia are in flower now and the berries are beginning to set.

I thought the Japanese Medlar (Eriobotrya japonica) would have finished by now but I could still smell the perfume and found several still flowering bunches in the more sheltered areas of the tree.  It has been flowering all December and is worth its place in any garden solely for the perfume.

As one plant finishes its flowering season another one starts.  This primula is a bit quick off the mark.

But the prize for precocity (or stupidity) goes to the apricot tree – already in flower.  We planted our fruit trees as soon as we bought the house, with little knowledge but great enthusiasm.  I wish we had had the knowledge at that time to look for fruit trees more suited to this area.  We bought them tempted by the pretty pictures on their labels.

Our plum tree, we inherited, although it was very small and it flowers very early, it usually provides a great source of pollen and nectar for the pollinators and very good eating and cooking little plums.  It seems as determined this year to get going as soon as possible.

The winter flowering honeysuckle will keep the pollinators happy until the early fruit trees are in flower.

The bushes are not too high and so provide lots of entertainment watching the bees gather pollen.  The honeysuckle roots fairly easily and we have taken cuttings to give us now five bushes around the garden.

At the moment there is a lot of blue Speedwell (Veronica spp.) in the grass and the bees visit these tiny flowers.  They must have good nectar as this bee looked quite comical pushing its way into a flower that was not completely open.

I was surprised to see this wild bee on the Speedwell.  You can see how small she is as she fits comfortably into the little flower head.  I tried to see what she might be as I had managed to catch sight of the slit at the end of her thorax so I suspected the Halictidae family.  Steven Falk writes that bees in this group often nest underground and some have communual nests and even primitive eusocial communities.  So she could possibly be a fertilised queen getting ready to start her new brood.  Or are they like the bumble bee queens that come out of their shelters during the favourable days of winter to restock on fresh nectar?