a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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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.”


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The colours of December

The colours of December are more subdued. The leaves fall in progression. The Liquidambar leaves are a gift whether they are on the ground or whether I have swept them up to decorate the borders where they hopefully retard the weeds and surely provide a good mulch.

The big Salix caprea or Pussy Willow at the bottom of the garden is still holding onto its leaves that have turned golden now and light up in the morning sunshine.

The Salix Alba “Chermiesina” catch the morning sun also and look on fire in the early light. I am not so happy about their mid-summer hair cut that left their lower trunks bare, but made the mowing easier. Hopefully, Kourosh will have a more restrained trim next year.

The Abutilon is still holding onto some of its flowers but the petals have become almost transparent with the cold.

The Hydrangeas are much more subdued but I like their dusky colours.

The Sedum’s colours have completely faded but hold their own against the pale blue of the Rosemary bush behind them.

The leaves of this Cotoneaster have turned an attractive copper. I’m not sure whether it is supposed to do this or whether it is going to die and this is its swansong.

Luckily, there are plenty of other cotoneaster bushes in the garden with plenty of berries for our blackbirds and thrushes.

This year we have added two Malus “Coccinelle” to the garden. I was pleased to see that in the first year the bees had plenty of flowers and now the nibbled “apples” show that they have been a success with the birds, too.

This is what we have been waiting to see. Our pear tree “Chanticleer” survived its first summer in the garden, which was extra hot and dry and has now its bright leaves. No fruit for the birds, yet, but perhaps next year.

The bright leaves in this photo belong to Diervilla rivularis (Honeybee). I was recommended this plant through the blog and brought two plants back from the U.K. in 2016 as they were not available in France at the time. I only bought two as they were quite expensive. The amazing feature is that they can survive at the bottom of my garden in the shade and dry. However, I say survive. In conditions like that it is not possible to have rampant growth! They are so pretty that I moved one this year to better conditions where it can be better appreciated. Certainly an interesting plant if you had a small garden and wanted a pretty little bush for a shady corner.

We had our first frost this week and some heavy rain has started. I will have to wait to see if the rain will wash away the bright colours of December.


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Plant of the moment – Mahonia

The sun and mild temperatures continue to keep the garden bright. The Cosmos sulphureus, that was dying off, has decided to push out more flowers and the other Cosmos are growing from this year’s seed and flowering. Today my neighbour went to cut down the dead growth on her asparagus plants only to find that they had shot up shoots for a second time and she was able to harvest a good quantity to eat.

Nevertheless, we are going into the season that is optimal for planting new trees and shrubs – or at least for planning.

I would like to share the stars and stalwarts of my garden in the hope it might give ideas to other gardeners and also to hear from other bloggers.

My Mahonia “Charity” is perhaps not placed in the ideal position for it as it is mainly in the shade but it is near the house, so it has to make do!

Mahonia Media “Winter Sun” is in a better position for light but it is very dry in the summer at the bottom of the garden. However, it blossoms abundantly despite the hard love it gets.

We have a second Mahonia “Winter Sun” which is very shady as well as dry in the summer. They all take this tough treatment without any special care and no sign of disease.

The flowers are adored by the bumble bees.

The honey bees and butterflies are attracted by the nectar too.

Of course, the downside of Mahonias are their sharp leaves. However, you can choose the variety “Soft Caress” which I have found to be just as resilient as my other Mahonias. The leaves really are fine and agreable to stroke, if you are in the habit of stroking and talking to your plants.

The only downside is that it flowers here in September when there are more flowers. It is also a smaller plant only growing to just over a metre tall. It is evergreen, like all the Mahonias, so still a beautiful plant for the early autumn.Mahonias are my sort of plants. I would love to hear about your tried and tested favourites.


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An exceptional November

The Liquidambar’s autumn colours say autumn.

I actually enjoy raking the colourful leaves and continue to mulch my front borders as I weed them and make plans for autumn replantings.

I am spending even more time in the garden as we are still confined to the house except for essential limited cases.

So things are different this year. The garden is different. It is warm and sunny here. The Cosmos sulphureus which have been wilting towards winter have started to reflower.

The coloured Cosmos which have finished weeks ago have started to grow from the seeds set this year and are now flowering.

The Salvia “Hot lips” is still going strong.

The Fuschia has fewer flowers but still putting on a good show.

My Abutilon are in their element and I am glad I attempted these plants that will not survive severe winters.

So we are still enjoying our coffee on the patio beside the Salvia leucantha in the sunshine.

The pollen sac on the white tailed bumble bee tells me she has decided to have a brood at the end of November. I hope her optimism is well founded.

After all the raspberries are still producing fruit.

The Mahonia bushes are full of bumble bees.

The Wall butterfly (Lasiommata megera) suns itself in the garden.

Our little green tree frog enjoys the sunshine behind the shutter. She appreciates the sunshine – confinment or conditions or covid – do not concern her.

Is she saying “Du calme, mes amis.” ?


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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.