Pressing on

It may not be the New Year, there are still few days left of 2012 but it is not too early for me to have started my reflections on the past year with WordPress.

Early in 2012 my son suggested I started a blog as a way to create a journal of the garden and to reach out to other interested gardeners to share experiences, hopes, successes and disappointments that only other gardeners would appreciate.  It seemed a reasonable proposition but it soon took on a life of its own.

Cherry blosssom
Cherry blosssom

I realised that a picture was worth a thousand words, so my interest in photography which had languished for many years was rekindled.

Pear blossom
Pear blossom

I enjoyed taking pictures of my flowers but as I looked for photo opportunities, I started to see more than flowers.

Meloe violaceus in the pansies
Meloe violaceus in the pansies

I came across strange things when weeding, Tricked Again

Chafer in the cherry blossom
Chafer in the cherry blossom

Some creatures were strange and hairy.

Azuritis reducta
Azuritis reducta, Southern White Admiral, on Philadelphus

Others elegant and attractive.

Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea)
Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea)

I started to see things I had never seen before.  Dragonfly pond update

White and blue wood anemones
White and blue wood anemones

I saw things I used to walk past. What colour is a white wood anemone?

White-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lucorum) in Spanish beans
White-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lucorum) in Spanish beans

I always loved my bumble bees but I paid more attention to them the more I photographed them.

Red-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius)
Red-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius)

I enjoyed noting the different species that visited the garden and was delighted when I found two bumble bee nests in the garden.

Tiny grey bee in Lavatera
Tiny grey bee in Lavatera

I noticed lots of solitary bees in the garden as well as the honey bees and started to follow some of the amazingly interesting and informative “bee blogs” on WordPress such as Aventures in beeland, Miss Apis Mellifera and Beelievable to name only a few.  I have to admit this has sparked another interest and I would love to be brave enough to embark on keeping bees myself.

Carder bumble bee (Bombus pascuorum) in quince
Carder bumble bee (Bombus pascuorum) in quince tree

They keep me company in the garden and in my walks in the surrounding countryside.

Carder bumblebee with pollinaria
Carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) with pollinaria

It is often only when I review my photographs that I see something I had not noticed when I took the picture.  This bumble bee seemed to be carrying a lump of pollen stuck to its head.  I had seen them dusted over with loose pollen but never with such a strange package attached to them.

Bombus pascuorum with pollinaria
Bombus pascuorum with pollinaria

I discovered that this bumble bee was on a  special  pollination mission and had been selected by an orchid to carry its pollen to another orchid.

Orchids have evolved a special method of transporting pollen for cross fertilisation between plants by insect vectors.  Instead of releasing their pollen to the four winds like say the grasses, orchids have compressed bundles of pollen that will stick to the insect pollinators who will pass it onto another orchid that they visit.

This I would never have known, nor recognised on my bumble bee if it were not for WordPress fanning my interest in bees and bumblebees and the Bumblebee Conservation Organisation for supplying me with the information.

WordPress has stimulated my interests in photography, bees and nature but none of this would have been so enjoyable without all my gentle WordPress friends whose interesting blogs and helpful comments lighten and brighten the year.

La pigeonnière

A lot of birds come into the garden.  Some visit only seasonally, others are here all year round.  At the moment two couples of collared doves honour us with their presence and one pair has nested high in an old elm in the back garden.

My grandfather kept pigeons or “doos” as they are called in Scotland, which he also raced.  His pigeon loft was neat and practical but a far cry from the beautiful dovecots in the “chocolate box” pictures of an English country garden.  I prefer my pigeons and doves free but they have been associated with man from the beginning of civilisation and have been housed in varieties of different structures all over the world.  I have admired many dovecotes in beautiful gardens in the UK and seen pigeonnières and colombiers in France.   “La pigeonnière” is usually associated with other buildings such as a château whilst  “le colombier” is more frequently an isolated structure or dovecot , the columbine being French for dove.

It was only recently that I was able to go into the ruins of a seventeenth century pigeonnière near here at the Domaine de Seudre (  Previous visits to their restaurant had been in the evening and I was impatient to see what the inside of the pigeonnière looked like.

It was not at all what I had imagined.

When I saw the terracotta jars (cruches) I wondered if I had mistaken the purpose of the tower.  I had expected to see ledges or little boxes.

I asked the Mme. Cardineau, the proprietor, about the pigeonnière and she assured me that it was a traditional style, built using the terracotta pots for the pigeons to nest in and that although they were deep the pigeons were very clean and would keep their nests clean.  The fertiliser that they recovered from the floors of the pigeonnière was very important for the crops of the estate.  I have discovered that another word for this fertiliser is “la columbine” which seems such a beautiful word when you compare it with a lot of English words that we might replace it with!

Not everyone was authorised to keep pigeons, it was a right only granted to a noble  “lord” or “seigneur” of the correct social standing and who possessed a large estate.  It was explained that the right was given to keep one pair of pigeons for every “are” of land in the estate.  An “are” was roughly the amount of land one labourer could work in a day .

In addition, the workers on the estate were given a pigeon a week for food.  The pigeons were certainly a blessing providing food and fertiliser but they could also ravage the crops in search of food and the pigeonnières were sometimes enclosed to keep the pigeons inside when crops were being sown.

They were also a ready reckoner to calculate the wealth of the nobleman.  In the sixteenth century the pigeonnière  would still have been under feudal rules which limited the number of pigeons a nobleman could keep according to the size of his land and so the size of the pigeonnière was a direct guide to the wealth and standing of its owner.  Of course, the pigeonnières often faired better than the fortunes of their owners and this has given rise to the French expression “se faire pigeoner” which means to be cheated or “conned”.  For instance, a prospective suitor might be persuaded that the family he was marrying into was wealthier than he estimated by looking at the size of their pigeonnière.

Today the pigeonnières have fallen into disuse and you are more likely to find tourists living in renovated ones than pigeons living in the real thing.

Post on a post with a digression

In May I was walking in the woods nearby and I saw something up in front of me that was unfamiliar.  As I got nearer I could see it was insects over a large puddle of water in the middle of the path.

As I got closer I could see it was bees.  I had never seen them drinking before and I went closer to watch them.  What I observed was that they were avoiding the deeper puddles of water and were more interested in the mud.  I immediately assumed that they were Mason bees collecting mud to seal up their nests.

Luckily, a bee keeper(Adventures in Beeland) saw the post and contacted me, (see my post comments “Summer approaches in the woods”).  These were not Mason bees but honey bees!   There may be some variation of types within the bees but with the photographs available it is not possible to be any more definite, apart from saying that they are not Mason bees.

The first question that came to my mind was – Why are bees collecting mud?  Answer – They are not collecting mud, they are drinking water even though that is not what it appears at first glance.

In fact, bees are known to seek water at some sites that look rather insalubrious to us.  I first conceived a complex idea that they are in need of minerals from the soil or whatever substrate they collect the water from.

It could be a lot simpler than that.   The risk of  finding themselves in the water and drowning while gathering water from deeper sources is quite high.  Self preservation is a strong driver in behavioural traits and this is a safer way to get water.  Anecdotally, I can remember frequently seeing wasps drowned in water but never bees.  Wasps will come to the edges of water dishes left out for birds but I have never noticed bees do this, although I have read that bees can be drowned while seeking water from sources like this.

Another reason for the bees to choose water from shallow sources is that the water will usually be warmer and a bee chilled by a drink of cold water will have more difficulty in flying.

I have now two improvised bee drinking stations in the garden; one with unused sponge scouring pads in a plastic container and a second in a converted bird feeder lined with straw and water and hanging in a tree.  The ground is extremely porous in this area and there is very little surface water available during the day but there is always a very heavy dew which must provide them with a short-lived but convenient water supply.  However, so far, the bees seem singularly unimpressed with my innovations.

I must digress here to say how much I have learned from either comments made to me or what I have picked up from reading other people’s blogs.

I have been so impressed by the quality of photographs in blogs that I have been toying with taking up photography again but I know nothing of what is required in the way of equipment. I timidly enquired at a brilliant photographic blog, Focused Moments, and was rewarded by really personal, focused advice which meant such a lot to me.

Taking pictures for the blog made me look more closely and think about the creatures I was photographing and made me very aware of my ignorance of the life around me, I find Bug Girl’s blog fascinating.  An entomologist who can write, amuse and inform!

Living in the country I am sensible to the fact that my neighbours are more interested in their potagers and although I grow vegetables, I hold my flowers and trees in higher esteem than they do. So  I enjoy watching other people’s gardens especially in different countries such as My Hesperides Garden ( in Italy, Denobears in Bulgaria and The Anxious Gardener in the UK to name only a few.

I am also enjoying following the joys and tribulations of being a bee keeper and learning about the  complex life of bees with Miss Apismellifer and Adventures in Beeland  (

End of digression but I just had to get it out!

with only the Celandines to tell of hope

Gardening is not just about weeding and watering and tilling the earth it is about dreaming of the shape of things to come as a consequence of these menial tasks.  Well, I try to convince myself it is.

I had a design for the bottom of the garden, a woodland glade sheltering spring flowers and providing welcome shade in the summer.  Unfortunately, the area had been left to fend for itself for a long time before we took over.  It had not coped very well.  It had been invaded by brambles that choked the growth of most plants, except the ivy, which managed to see off the rest of the plants and was starting to cover the trees.  There was no choice but brute force and the brambles were cut back and the roots dug out but the ivy has not yet been finally defeated.

However, after the removal of the brambles I could see a natural glade appearing at one end although the level of the soil was low at that part.  This was quickly (relatively) remedied by our neighbour who was creating a pond and had nowhere to dump his soil!

Finally my dream of the woodland scene in spring lit by the yellow Winter Aconites was becoming a reality.  Before actually possessing a garden I had been an avid reader of gardening magazines and I had read several articles on Winter Aconites.  They provide a carpet of sunshine in the dark days and are happy to live under the canopy of deciduous trees. Even the Latin name Eranthis hyemalis, meaning winter flower in Greek fitted in with the theme.

There is a beautiful time lapse film by Neil Bromhall on You Tube showing the Winter Aconites pushing through the melting snow. 

The bulbs of Winter Aconite can be bought and planted in the spring time.

Only I forgot this crucial stage.

Never the less, this spring my woodland glade was covered in a carpet of yellow Winter Aconites.  They do look beautiful and I had to ask myself if I had really planted them and forgotten about it.  Then I thought about the soil from our neighbour’s garden. Then there was more doubt and searching for close-up photographs of Winter Aconites on the Internet.

I quickly realised that my bright yellow flowers, like large buttercups were not Winter Aconite, the leaves are not similar.  This left me with another problem.  What were they?  My kindly neighbours do not know the name of anything you don’t eat so I could get no help there.

I decided to post an identification request on a French web site

I got a rapid reply from a member and could confirm that what I had was Lesser Celandine or Pilewort.

What’s in a name?  But I must admit I was very disappointed. My woodland glade was carpeted with Pilewort, old herbal remedy for haemorrhoids.

It warranted further research.  Ranunculus ficaria , Lesser Celandine in the UK and Fig Buttercup in the States does not get a universally good press.  It is considered an invasive weed in the UK and in some states in the USA.  One suggestion I found was to treat it with a systemic weed killer.

It is not all bad news as it is a native plant in the UK and Europe and provides an early source of pollen for bees just coming out of hibernation. Many people look forward to seeing this bright yellow flower as a sign that spring is on its way.  Good enough reason for me to keep it where it has grown.

It was supposedly William Wordsworth favourite flower and he wrote three poems on the Celandine.

The Celandine has also found its way into English literature, “Throughout the gusty winds of March dust-laden and with only the celandines to tell of hope…”  The Lone Swallow by Henry Williamson.

So I am in good company wishing no harm to my new arrivals.

Another happy ending?

It’s raining, it’s pouring…

It’s raining it’s pouring…Well, what does a gardener (an amateur one!) do on a wet Sunday in March?  First comes the guilt for going walking during the warm sunny afternoons last week but that doesn’t last long.  The temperatures soared into the 20’s and it was too good to stay in the garden and get started on the spring clean-up.  Today I can make a start on my seeds. I have not looked at my seeds since the autumn.  I have thought about them but I have saved up the pleasure of a thorough foray into my seed reserves for just such a day.


I have my two reserves.  My “treasure chest” for the collection of long term favourites, plus the unusual and new seeds collected during the past year to be tested for the first time.


Then I have my serious, working collection which I sort through regularly during the growing season checking for second and later sowings.


My “serious” seed collection does not look very serious as it is in an ex shoebox loving decorated by my granddaughter.  However, I can make a recommendation of this container as it has served me well for many years; keeps the seed packets in a neat and orderly fashion and in addition slides conveniently under my settee for storage purposes. A collage project for a wet Sunday, perhaps?


My first selections are practical; some mixed salad leaves, some radish and some baby spinach.  We have not had frost for a few days now so I will be optimistic and hope that they will survive in the open ground.  I cannot proceed with any flower seeds or more tender plants until I get my covered staging out of winter hibernation and I need some dry weather to organise that.

As I sort through the flower seeds I also remember the warm autumn days when I collected them.  I remember a very special day in September in a garden inEngland.   The garden was beautiful and a perfect backdrop for a family lunch outside.  The little brown envelope contains more than dried verbena seeds; it contains lots of happy memories.

The call of the sea

Yesterday I did potter in the garden, I did try to enthuse myself in the many tasks that have to be tackled to clear up after the big freeze and before the spring.  However, the afternoon was sunny and as they say over here “it was stronger that me” – I wanted to see the sea.

The slogan of Charente Maritime is “Entre Terre et Mer”, that is between land and sea.  I love the countryside, the woods and fields but I would not like to live too far away from the sea.

In half an hour I can be at the Grande Cote and overlook a beautiful sandy beach that extends for miles backed by pine forest right up to La Palmyre  a small, mainly tourist town. Yesterday the beach at the Grand Cote had few tourists, their places taken up by a few amateur fishermen using cane and spinning reel.  The fish are not abundant here but they might hope to catch a small bass or bream or even a conger eel.

Walking towards St.Palais along the cliff I was satisfied by the sound and the smell of the sea.  A seascape does not change so radically as the seasons change in the countryside but it is good to walk by the edge of the Atlantic and touch the edge of the rest of the world.

An oddity of the region are the “carrelet” that can be seen along the coasts here.  These little cabins that are connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge have a square fishing net that can be raised and lowered.  It appears to be a definitely low-key method of fishing and many people are seduced by these picturesque cabins –  finding their little island of tranquillity seemingly in the middle of the sea without putting their foot on a boat.  I have been told that the carrelet are a highly prized and expensive purchase used for leisure rather than for commercial fishing.  If you are interested in finding out more on carrelet in the region there is an informative web page

St Palais sur Mer is about three and a half to four kilometres along the coast from the Grande Cote.  It is a charming little town offering a selection of bars to rest to refresh before setting out on the return journey.

Nearing St Palais I saw some ducks  in the shallow waters of the natural harbour.  However, after a bit of research I find these birds were not ducks but Brant geese, Branta bernicla or Bernache cravant that over winter in the region.

Hopefully the sea air will refresh and revive.

Life is good!

Life is good!

It is three days after the glacial weather has finished here and the outside temperature has soared to 10 C in the garden.

It means relaxing with mugs of tea on the stone bench against the wall  and soaking up the sun.

The snowdrops are happy.

The crocus are happy.  Even one of our resident newts has come for a visit.

O.K.  the weeds are happy too.

But heck, life is good.