a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Plants and places

Sometimes you get it right – sometimes you are a bit off. Here, I am happy we have a Madame Isaac Periere rose just by our doors.

The rose is a deep rich pink and highly perfumed.

What is a bit off is the bright red poppies that I have sown underneath. Not a harmonious choice of colours at all.

The poppies will only be there in the spring and I would prefer to see the bees in them than to go for the colour match. I have also noticed that Anthophora “buzz” pollinate. I thought that it was a phenomenum unique to bumble bees but these Anthophora bounce on the flowers and buzz them to release the pollen.

One of the most difficult places in the garden are the shady, dry spots. I find the Arums cope well. They have huge tubers at their roots and they must store the moisture in the winter and survive on this during the summer.

The Tellima grandiflora manage to survive in the shade and dry and provide delicate flowers that are appreciated by the early bumble bees. They are good at providing a ground cover during the summer and self-seed but are never over powering and unwanted plants are easily removed or transferred.

I am not so lucky with the Iris. Just now, in this region, even the most reticent gardeners have beautiful displays of Iris in a host of beautiful colours.

These Iris are in the border of the front garden. I am not sure how they got there (Kourosh?)

These Iris are at the bottom of the back garden and have been taken over by weeds. There lies my problem. Iris are beautiful when in flower but they do not have the decency to disappear afterwards, like tulips or daffodils. Their rhizomes should be left open to the sun but other plants and weeds seem to find this a great place to grow in.

These Iris are growing outside our front wall and although they look charming at the moment, their ever increasing rhizome base makes it difficult to control throughout the rest of the year.

I do like Iris but I would love to hear how I could grow some or rather where the best place is to put them in a garden.

Some flowers I do not like. These are red hot pokers or Kniphofia. They are just not my colours. We were given a split for our early garden but even with few flowers, I asked Kourosh to dig them up. He did, but pleaded for their relegation to a stony, inhospitable site where nothing else could grow. I relented and then noticed that the bees like them!

I had thought the flowers too narrow to allow the bees to enter. I had not realised that the flowers widen as they mature and the bees can access the flowers. I have never seen any take the pollen.

Here you can actually see the drop of nectar that the bee is lapping with its tongue.

Well. despite the colour the Kniphofia has the right to a place in the garden!

We choose the plants but the frog chooses us. He is happy as we have had our first rain in ages and he likes to sit on the potted lemon tree and make his presence known.

Don’t jump!

Please do not go in there. It may look like fun but you always end up getting stuck in the spout.


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End of April

This is our Persimmon tree. All the new leaf shoots have been frazzled by the frost we had a week or so ago but the damage is only becoming apparent now. Even the Redstarts are confused. They have been coming to survey the bird boxes in the Persimmon tree and I think they are puzzled that there are no leaves.

Not all the plants were affected and the Choisia Sundance is in great form while right beside it the Hydrangia is in a sorry state.

The flowering Ash tree (Fraxinus ornus) looks completery bedraggled with burnt leaves and some sad flowers.

This is what the flowering Ash looked like on 12 April 2019. It was not that the low temperatures were so low this year but our previous temperatures were so high, fooling the plants to think summer had come. This week the temperature has gone up to 29 degrees Centigrade here (84 degrees Fahrenheit), so the yo-yo-ing of weather continues with no rain.

We take advantage of the good weather to enjoy coffees outside. The tree peony is flowering.

The flowers are big, blowsy affairs with a touch of red in the centre. The flowers don’t last too long but at least we are getting sunshine to enjoy them.

Tucked away close bye are a group of blue and pink forget-me-nots. I would never have been able to tempt them to grow where they have appeared but the self-seeders always seem to find a place for themselves.

Poppies are the masters of self-seeding and our first red poppies are out and managing to attract some of the Anthophora bees away from the Cerinthe.

They are noisy bees.

Our first Camassia has flowered in our container. We have a big tub of Camassia near where we sit for coffee. Between the bumble bees and the Anthophora there is always a buzz.

The little tree frog outcompetes the bees. He perches on the lemon tree in its pot on the patio and watches us taking our coffee. I must get a recording of him as he has a powerful croak that belies his tiny size.


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Highs and lows

For the first time the first buds of our Wisteria in the front garden have been frozen. On the second of March I took a photograph of the first flower buds. I should have realised, as they normally flower at the beginning of April, that it was much too early. These first buds have now been freeze dried and crumble to the touch. The front garden looks strange without the Wisteria, They will flower again later in the season but it is never the same as the first flush of flowers before the leaves.

The Sophora japonica is typical of so many of the trees. They look O.K. until you examine them more closely and see their first leaves and shoots have been frozen.

Nothing has been seriously damaged, I don’t think. In fact, I am very proud of how the plants have stood up to our yoyo temperatures this spring. We have been having warm sunny days with temperatures going into the high 20 degree Centigrade with bright blue skies. Then we have had a few nights with temperatures going into the negative.

Some trees are tougher and can take the variable spring temperatures. The Elaeagnus umbellata is a very hardy, easy small tree that the bees love. I bought several small plants for 1euro70 in 2017. Now they are three to three and a half metres tall and I have changed their position from time to time as they have grown, to provide screening. The flowers are perfumed, what more could you want?

Actually, I also look for drought tolerance in my plants but the Elaeagnus ticks this box too. The rainfall has been up and down this year too. At the beginning of the year everywhere around us was flooded because of the heavy rains. Then the rain stopped and we have had no spring showers. The Cerinthe that usually produce flower after flower are not so productive and the leaves are yellowing. I notice the Anthophora starting to shop around the other flowers although the Cerinthe is his favourite. The ground is rock hard.

So we have started the year with floods but I just hope the rest of the year will not be as dry as last year.

There are so many flowering trees and shrubs. Our Amelanchier is a mass of white blossom.

No bees, though.

Not so the Malus or flowering apple, planted last autumn.

It too is a mass of blossom.

But the difference is that the bees love the flowers.

The flowers are very similar to our Golden Delicious apple tree that is in flower just now. The flowers of both Malus varieties are perfect for the bees but we can only handle so much fruit and the flowering variety is putting on a stunning show.

In fact, there is so much in flower at the moment, like the Lonicera tatarica.

Even the tulips that I would say do not attract bees have found favour with this little wild bee.

So what do bees do in the springtime when it is warm and there is an abundance of food?

They swarm!

We have had ten swarms in the garden between the 20 March and the 8 April. Please do not say we should practice swarm control. We only had three hives capable of swarming and we divided one of those. We could be responsible for say three but these are not cast swarms and are a good size.

We do have a lot of large rape seed fields around us and I have a suspicion that a professional beekeeper could have put his hives nearby and his swarms are coming to us.

It is either that or perhaps we are on a crossing of ley lines which is supposed to attract bee swarms? See Bees and Energy (Ley?) Lines by David Cushman.


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Layered pot

Last autumn I wanted some addition cheer on the patio for the spring and I felt like experimenting with something new.

The basil and lemon balm had finished in a big aluminium tub so I turfed it all out and started to plant it with bulbs to come up in sequence (I hoped).

This was taken on 17 February 2021 and already the garden was starting to brighten up. I was getting slightly impatient with my new planter but now at least I had some crocus and the Hyacinths were poking through.

It was not until 1 March 2021 that I thought – yes this might work.

Three days later and I can even see the tulips coming through.

On the 9 March 2021 I judged the display to be at its height.

Today 19 March the display was starting to go over with the Hyacinths finishing.

I decided to measure the pot (51 centimetres or 20 inches diameter by 29 centimetres or 11.5 inches tall) and dig out my bulb packets as I was sure someone would ask me how many bulbs I had planted.

Starting at the bottom, I planted 8 early pink “Candy Prince” tulips and 8 late “Mount Tacoma” tulips. Hold on! There seems to be an extra packet of tulips unaccounted for. Where are the 8 double white late “Mount Tacoma” tulips?

It looks like there are more tulips to come! Better late than never.

Anyway, after the tulips I put a packet of 10 mixed Hyacinths. Then 10 Muscari and finally 20 Crocus “Sieberi”.

I’ve had a lot of fun planting and watching the bulbs grow. I don’t know whether they should be left until the autumn,then tipped out and sorted for planting elsewhere or whether they could survive to reflower in the pot next year.

I think there are too many bulbs to be left but I would really love to hear from anyone who has done this before or has some experience with spring bulbs.


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Little things…

We are still under a curfew at 18.00 to 6.00. The restaurants, cafes and places of entertainment are still closed. You can go clothes shopping but I was never too keen on that and my garden has a very relaxed dress code.

So I have more time to pay attention to smaller stuff. Every morning I check my seed trays. There is great joy if I actually see a change! This is a Cupressus sempervirens seed that has just burst through its seed coat. The little root is making a tentative exploration into the potting compost. The first leaves are still hidden inside the seed coat.

The beginning can be tough if the seed coating sticks onto the new leaves.

Once free of the seed coat the new leaves green up. It is hard to imagine this tiny thread like shoot becoming a tree.

I’ve never grown Morning Glory before but Kourosh saw a video of bees swarming around some Morning Glory so he has decided to grow these climbers around one of our apple trees.

At least their germination is amusing.

No tiny first leaves for them.

They open up like butterflies.

Very impressive first leaves!

Liatris seeds germinating

Then of course there is the problem of how sparingly to sow the seeds. This depends on cost and availability for me. Sometimes you will only receive 4-6 seeds and if it is something you really want it means individual pots and special care.

Last year I grew Liatris for the first time and I kept all the seed. I’ve had no one to share it with this year and as I had no idea if it would germinate, I put all my seeds into one small tray.

Yes, you guessed! I think every seed must have germinated. Of course, I was delighted when I saw the little shoots popping out from their tufted seed capsules. They will not flower this year but form bulbs and flower the year after.

Just after the seeds germinated I noticed they were selling summer bulbs in packets at our local supermarket. I had a look and bought a packet of 15 Liatris bulbs for 2 euro 50, at least these will flower this year. Growing Liatris from seed does not seem an economical proposition but I will be so proud of my home grown ones :).

I often think of a taunt that used to be thrown at people when I was a child – “Little things please little minds.”


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Spring unfolds

I feel spring in our garden starts when our big plum tree flowers and the bees fill the tree making the petals of the plum blossom fall like confetti. There are still some flower buds opening but the big display is over and the total white haze is giving over to hints of green as the leaves start to open.

The perfume is still distinct but another perfume is taking over, especially in the late afternoon, from the Osmanthus burkwoodii that you can see in the bottom right hand corner of the photograph.

The flowers of the Osmanthus burkwoodii are not large or flashy but are highly perfumed and much appreciated by the bees.

The other strong perfume in the garden at the moment comes from the Hyacinths. I used to regard Hyacinths as indoor bulbs and stubby things to grow in a garden.

But I have changed my mind now for they add colour and exquisite perfume so I plant them as near to the terrace as I can. Although I do admit that I have to farm out some of the excess ones to spots further away as they are happy to reflower in the climate here.

In the mornings I like to check my bee boxes before there is too much sun. This is when I can find the Osmia, either still asleep after spending the night cosy inside a hole or just thinking about starting off their day.

Each day brings something different to see. The Bombus praetorum queens are quicker than the bumbling white tailed bumble bee queens, which makes them more difficult to photograph.

This is a better photograph of her but I like the first one better.

This carder bumble bee is a beautiful ginger colour over her entire thorax and abdomen. She is on the Cerinthe which has just started to flower this week. The Cerinthe self-seeds and started growing in the autumn and has not been damaged at all by the mild winter.

The Wisteria has started to open its flower buds. It is a formidable plant. It looks as if the bud is taking off its winter coat.

Another welcome flower has appeared on one of our succulents. I do not know what it is and we have grown it from a piece we have acquired. The succulents are another group of plants that I have grown to appreciate more and more.

We have had so much rain this spring that the early flowers are thriving and I feel that the daisies are bigger this year. It should be a good spring for the bees.

Kourosh is taking no chances and, in case he can tempt any errant swarms, he has placed a small hive at the bottom of the garden.

Also at the bottom of the garden, in a piece of rough ground that we use to compost down the garden rubbish, I noticed a clump of short daffodils/narcissi. I am not very fond of these and they seem to multiply excessively, however, Kourosh likes them. I had to cull them last year and asked Kourosh to dispose of the excess bulbs. Now I know where he put them.


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A pond for the garden

The rain has been more or less continuous this week but I am surprised that as soon as there is a break in the downpour the bees are out.

I suppose the Hellebores are ideally suited for this type of weather as the flower heads face downwards, keeping the pollen dry and making natural umbrellas for any bees caught out.

On Wednesday I saw the first bumble bee out for some time. She was very slow and obviously a young queen that must have woken very hungry from a dormant period. She walked over the flowers of the heather carefully taking the nectar.

It was not until I looked at the photographs, much later, that I realised that she was heavly infested with mites. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust say that these parasites may just be hitching a lift on bumblebees to take them to new nests and that they feed on nest debris. They suggest that heavily infested bumblebees could have the mites swept off them using a child’s paintbrush. I have never down this and I think it might not be so easy in practice.

The rain was forecast and we managed to get our pool in place in the hope of filling it with rain water. We have had a blue plastic sandpit hoarded for many years, and rather than buy a new piece of plastic we decided to reuse and recycle.

We already have a waterlily plant ready re-homing and the stone was placed to mark the spot.

This is our first real pond but we have already aspirations of what may breed here.

This photograph was taken in 2015 from “Many Happy Returns”. I hear our frogs at the moment but I do not see them.

This is from “A February of Contradictions”. These little green tree frogs or Reinettes (Hyla meridionalis) are ever present in the garden but I have never seen their tadpoles.

This photograph is from last year in “Persimmon and Saffron”, the little newts (Tritorus marmoratus) were hiding together under one of my pots.

If they adults are cute the babies are even cuter see July last year “Garden Visitors”. Will they breed in the new pond?

We do not see the salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) so frequently but I found this baby one near the Manuka last year “Back to April Showers”. Note the rubber gloves. The salamander can exude an irritant from its skin, I still like its sleek form and yellow stripe.

I do not expect to attract a European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) but if he has already come here (“There’s an Emys orbicularis, in the garden”) – why not?

So the rain continues to fall and the stones get piled around the edges to conceal the shape. In the middle of the pool the stone has already attracted some wildlife. You can just see two black marks.

I have never noticed these before and I think they are Devil’s Coach Horse beetles (Ocypus olens). They are detrius feeders and I can attest to the fact that they are not good swimmers. Never the less when we rescue them, flicking them onto the grass, we find them back on the stone or floating inanimate in the water the next day.

So the rain has filled our pond and we have been able to put the water lily in its new home with a few weeds from the bee’s water bowl. We would like to add some more plants especially something tall to attract the dragonflies but it is a bit early yet for that.

We will not be adding fish as they will likely make short work of any spawn or tadpoles.

Our robin was in good voice today and I am sure he feels it will not be long until springtime here.


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Composting in the garden

We had not long started in the garden here when we were able to get a wooden composter (very cheap, thanks to an initiative from the European Union.) I liked the idea of recycling the household and garden waste but the composter filled up very quickly.

This led to us acquiring a second composter which made things easier as one could be left closed to compost while the other one was being filled.

Everything green from the garden goes in the compost when it is removed. We draw the line at nettle roots but even weed seed should be destroyed by composting. However, I have my doubts on that as I find masses of tomatoes growing in the garden and I feel these must come from the compost.

All the wasted ends and outer leaves of vegetables get put into the kitchen compost bin to be added to the outside one. Waste paper such as napkins goes in with moderation.

Our next acquisition was a free plastic composter -recycled plastic, but I do not know why the material was changed. This came at the time when bonfires were forbidden because of air pollution. Now any waste from cutting or trimming trees and hedges must be taken to the council dump to the green waste.

I am not sure of the efficiency of many cars burning petrol to get to the dump and then lorries removing the waste to save carbon dioxide emissions. Hopefully, someone a lot cleverer than me has worked it out correctly.

My green plastic bin was never the less welcomed with open arms as it is my special bin! In autumn I fill it with only fallen leaves and by next autumn I have a beautiful fine leaf compost!

With a strong belief that you could never have enough composters, I leapt at the offer of my fourth composter from a friend who had never used hers.

This has now been filled with autumn fallen leaves and topped with a layer of wood ash. In the winter we add a layer of wood ash periodically to the composts.

The spiral leaning against the composter allows me to turn the compost. I am not strong enough to fork it through, as is often suggested. It works like a corkscrew and mixes the different layers. I would imagine it is none too popular with the worms that make a hasty retreat when I drag them from their work lower down.

Last year Kourosh, knowing my passion for composters, made me an even bigger one out of pallets.

This is where the big stuff goes. The stuff Kourosh never thinks will compost – but it does, it just takes longer. Last year this composter was heaped many times and jumped on to pack it down. Yet at the end of the year we were able to take a good quantity off the bottom and the rest will serve to start this years “big stuff”.

Behind the composter is our Chimonanthus praecox. I do agree, it does sound like a strange place to plant a beautiful shrub but I thought at least I would have the benefit of the lovely perfume when I went to empty my kitchen compost bin in winter.

Also I did not have any other place for it.

The flowers are delicate and the perfume delicious but it has made me think of the importance of positioning plants. I planted the Chimonanthus or Winter Sweet in 2015 and it started to flower two years later but I feel it is lost in the border beside the compost bins.

I hope the plants in my new bed will have a better chance to shine.

Already the Sarcococca confusa is putting on a better show as a perfumed winter shrub.

The flowers are beautiful but are set of by the shiny evergreen leaves and the black berries.

On reflection, I think the Chimonanthus deserved a better setting.


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Gardening in January

Up until the end of December we had very mild weather but the weather forcast alerted us that things were about to change. The bees had been so happy up until now that we decided to insulate their hives as we had done in 2019.

We did not regret it.

The Anisodontea had kept flowering up until the first frosts but they have now received several sub-zero nights and single figure daytime temperatures. January has been a wintry month.

What surprises me is that the honey bees will fly to gather pollen and nectar on the winter honeysuckle at air temperatures of only 4 degrees centigrade when the sun is out. The nearest bush is about 3 metres away from the hives.

The Japanes Medlar (Eriobotrya japonica) is a few metres further on and with a few more degrees higher and in the sunshine the bees are into the flowers. These have not yet been destroyed by the frosty mornings. Will there be some left to give us fruit, like last year?

The winter flowering heather is further away and only tempts the bees on the warmer days. The bee’s head was dusty with pollen but she showed no inclination to gather it.

I do miss the bumble bees. I have not seen any since the beginning of the cold weather. The bumble bee queens must be tucked up, wisely hibernating where the deceitful sun cannot touch them and wake them up before the air temperature is high enough for them.

The weather is usually fine enough for walking here and very pleasant in the sunshine but when it rains…

Kourosh had bought me this book and I had put it away for when I needed a treat. Well, I needed a treat this January but although it is an excellent book it comes with a warning. I have never visited Sissinghurst and knew little about it but Sarah Raven has combined her writing with that of Vita Sackville-West to produce a fascinating read for a gardening enthusiast.

Actually, it was rather too good and here is the warning. It is not perhaps the best book to read within reach of your computer and online nurseries and seed suppliers. I did start more reasonably with pen and paper to make a provisional list but as the French say, “c’était plus fort que moi”. I prefer this phrase as it shifts the burden onto the temptation rather than saying “I” could not resist it as you would in English.

Anyway, I had decided no more plants until I had places for them. So…

Logically, that meant I’d have to create more space for planting. We settled on making the flowering Ash tree the focus for the new planting. The first thing was to move a big stone block we had found at the bottom of the garden up to the tree. That required a very big crowbar and the help of some friends.

That was Sunday and since then we have been busy removing the turf (almost finished, it is hard going.) It has left large piles of turf containing couch grass and perennial weeds. I say they will rot away, Kourosh says no.

We managed to move a Sarcoccoca confusa, an Abutilon, some Hypericum and an Aster before the rain started. I decided to wrap a fleece around the Abutilon but with mild wet weather it might be in with a chance.

We are still waiting for some plants we ordered but in the meantime in the rain.

It is back to thinking about what plants I could sow to cram into my new flower bed.

I can imagine me quickly being surrounded by seed trays this spring. I will not be going anywhere, that is for sure. At the moment there is a curfew beween six in the evening and six in the morning. It does not really affect us as all the restaurants, places of entertainment, gyms etc. are closed and meetings are banned so it leaves gardening with a pencil and paper and a lot of imagination.


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A story with a happy ending

O.K. a story starting with the photograph of a Butternut Squash does not seem to bode well for a riveting read, but wait there is a deeper message!

In August 2012 I wrote a blog “Pumpkin Perfume?” (yes, I was surprised too, that I’ve been writing my blog so long). I had grown a pumpkin that exuded a divine perfume!

I had no idea if this was something very common with pumkins or on the rare side. My friends who had given me the plant had no clue what they had given me as they grew different sorts every year and did not keep records.

Over the years I have had comments on the blog from other people who had occasionally had a whiff of this perfume while others had never noticed any odour. Then yesterday I had a comment all the way from Argentina from Carolina. She has grown butternut squash and like me noticed nothing in particular, but this year she is growing Uchiki Kuri squash and has noticed the wonderful perfume from the flowers in the early morning!

I quickly looked up Uchiki Kuri squash and found it is called Potimarron in France and is indeed a very popular squash here. It has a good flavour in soup with a hint of sweet chestnut.

I have already ordered my seeds for next year. Who cares if I get many potimarron, I just want to smell the flowers again. But here is the rub – the perfume is only for early risers. If you enjoy late morning rising you will miss this perfume.

What made me so happy was the thought of Carolina in Argentina contacting me. Often I have dark thoughts about the progress of technology and whether it has brought the benefits we hope for but I was so touched by Carolina reaching out to me and my cyber friend saying,

“Hi, I have got the answer to your question.”