a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Reflections at the end of September

The weather has been fine, so we have left the butternut and the potimarron to finish ripening. Some days have been warm enough to enjoy the last days at the beach. Fruit wise this year, it has been poor. Some apples only and a second crop of raspberries that go very well with yoghurt and our new honey.

The Salvias are still adding colour to the garden and at last I was in the right place to get a photograph of our Hummingbird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). We don’t have hummingbirds in France but these day-flying moths are beautiful and hover close to the flowers they take nectar from. Their wings beat at 80 times a second and so appear as a blur in my photograph.

I had a quick look on the net to find out where they lay their eggs and what their caterpillars eat. Their preferred plant food comes from the genus Gallium. I was horrified to find that “Sticky Willy” (Gallium aparine which I loath but I admit does find its way into the garden. I’d have liked to encourage it – but that is going too far. I have been trying to grow Gallium odoratum as a groundcover but so far I have been unsuccessful so this is a reason to try harder.

The cosmos are finishing but the asters are still providing lots of colour and attracting butterflies and bees.

The new queen bumble bees are very grateful for the nectar the aster provide.

This is an Epeolus bee which is a type of parasite or cuckoo bee as it lays its eggs in the nests of other bees. The ivy has just started to flower here and I have seen the solitary Ivy bees (Colletes hederae), it is likely that this cuckoo bee is looking for the nests of the Ivy bees and just stopping on the asters to refuel on nectar.

We have always had to put up with moles but this year they have invaded the front garden. There are even more molehills there since I have taken this photograph. I do not go for perfection in the garden – but this is a plea for help. Is there anything that can be done to dissuade them?

They are usually mainly confined to the back garden – but there too they are running riot. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Finally, a tribute to the cosmos that are still attracting the leafcutter bees and other pollinators.

Some of the cosmos are falling over while still flowering but also producing seed heads that bring the goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) into the garden. It is well worth having the garden a bit messy and watching these lovely birds.


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Is it worth it?

We have always believed that we share the house and garden with the animals that frequent it ( see the old 2017 post “We give nature a home..”. In fact, they share their garden with us rather than the other way around.

A Barbastelle bat had been visiting us since 2016 (see “Return to the garden in March”) and recently we have noticed what we think is a common Pipistrelle bat behind the shutters and sometimes in our garden parasol. I did not think that roosting behind shutters in wet weather was an ideal site for the bats.

In the winter of 2019, Kourosh built and installed a bat box. We looked through the internet to get the best advice we could find on sizes and places and height to mount the box. You can see that the box has been placed on a sheltered spot. The problem is that access is difficult and so we were never sure if it was being used.

Last week Kourosh decided to get out his long ladder and have a look. The tell tale droppings on the ledge underneath the box was enough to reassure us that the box was being used.

After the installation of the first bat house, we realised that it would be difficult to monitor and also I had my doubts about the suggestion of such a high position for a bat box. After all, the bats had chosen the downstairs shutter and quite a narrow installation. Kourosh listened to my concerns and built me a MarkII bat house with the same interior width as the space behind the shutter.

The problem is that underneath the bat box MarkII it is difficult to see any droppings because of the flowers.

Once again Kourosh came to my rescue because there is no way you can see inside a long bat box. He had purchased a Potensic endoscope some years ago before even he had a smart phone. Now he was able to join it to his mobile phone and guess what!

The lower bat box had an occupant which you can see on this short (6 sec.) video.

I think it is a common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). The best way to identify bats from a photograph is to look at their ears. Like many identifications from photographs, it is not exact and if anyone is more knowledgeable about bats I would love to hear from them. I believe that a more exact identification can be made using equipment that can detect their echolocation cries which are specific to the species of bat and these detectors are used by people who study bats.

Here, in the Charente Maritime, the fields for monoculture of vines, maize, sunflower and oilseed rape are increasing in size as hedges are cut to join up the fields and woodland is removed to create more arable land. This means less habitat for the bats and of course the flying insects that they consume. In addition, modern farm buildings offer less places for the bats to roost.

We were very happy with our discoveries and sat down to enjoy a morning coffee.

We needed to use the parasol because of the sun but when we opened it we found it was already in use.

I’ve turned this image to give you a less upside down image of the bat. Needless to stay, we had to get our sun hats to enjoy our coffee outside! Luckily, the bat does not always take up residence in the parasol.


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First baby toad emerges

Yesterday we saw our first baby toad – almost adult, without a tail.

Taking a picture was non too easy as he was quite frisky.

Today I realised he was not alone and a group of them were becoming more adventuresome and coming right out of the water to use their newly developed lungs.

I went to get a little bit of netting to help them climb out the plastic pond more easily but I need not have bothered as they were already on the stones surrounding the pond and in the grass.

Now we are frightened to go near the pond in case we stand on them!

They still like to keep together and there are plenty of damp places around the pool under the stones. In fact, all around the pool you can see baby toads, despite there still being tadpoles in the pool.

We first noticed the eggs on 21 May 2021. However, it is possible there were other spawning events before or after that date. The other tadpoles may just be late developers. Seemingly, once the toads leave the water they only return eventually to breed. They have chosen a good time to enter the garden because it is warm and damp, which sounds perfect for baby toads.

I do not expect to find any slugs in the garden now!


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Self seeders

I often think that the plants that just decide to settle down and flower in my garden do better than the ones I seed and coddle and fret over.

I have a lot of Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) flowering in the garden at the moment (I must admit that I have moved some of the sef-seeders when they were small). I love the colour of the flowers and the height of the plant.

The pollen is a valuable source of pollen for the bees at this time of year. As the pollen is bright orange it is easy to see the bees bringing it into the hives. It is a biennial so it gives you plenty of time to pull out any unwanted plants and they lift out easily.

The tomatoes are way behind this year. I have no fruit on my main crop yet and only a few tiny green ones on the cherry tomatoes. After high temperatures at the beginning of June we have had cooler, cloudier weather with thunderstorms. One night 100 mm. of rain fell which is unheard-of in this area.

On the other side of the vegetable garden we have another small patch that is mainly for herbs.

This patch is at risk of being over powered by the Echium vulgare that has self-seeded and I have not had the heart to remove.

It is very difficult to remove plants that you know the bumble bees love so much.

In amongst all the Echium vulgare is Echium amoenum. If you look very carefully, you will be able to see one pink petal. My intention was to grow Echium amoenum for their flowers for a herbal tea. The Echium vulgare was in the same seed catalogue so I thought I would grow that for the bees. The plants are very similar but the E. vulgare is much taller and more robust but it is very difficult to tell the difference between them at the seedling stage when they self seed. So far this year the bees are doing much better than I am as I have not had enough flowers yet to make even a small cup of tea.

My geraniums that self seed everywhere have been a blessing. They have filled in a lot of difficult places in the shade and cover a multitude of sins.

This poppy is a self seeder from poppy seeds we brought from Barcelona over six years ago. They are usually a dark pink, but this one is a delicate pink and white mix. I must try to remember to pick a seed pod, it would be interesting to see what happens to these next year.

Another surprise comes from our wildlife pond where the water lily is spreading and should help to control over growth of algae. We had noticed another creature in the pond so Kourosh decided to have a closer look at it.

This little creature is about 4.5 mm. long and swims around like a little fish amongst the tadpoles. With the help of Google we have made a tentative ID as a damsel fly larva. I would be thrilled if we had damsel flies. We have often seen damsel flies and dragon flies in the garden in the summer.

Elsewhere in the pond the toad tadpoles are doing well. There are some now with four legs. Some have two rear legs with the front legs still budding from the body. Sorry about the quality of the photos but it is very difficult to get tadpoles to pose for the camera.

We discovered the eggs on the 21 May 2021 so it could be still another month until we finally see little toads emerging.

I do sometimes photograph other things in the garden apart from bees and beasties. This is a Painted Lady butterfly.

The butterfly even has a beautiful name, Vanessa cardui or La Belle Dame in French.


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Of Millepertuis and tadpoles

Hypericum perforatum owes its name to little transparent pockets in the leaves. These appear as holes if you look at a leaf against the light.

These flowers grow around where we live and they are just coming into flower just now and the will last until about mid August. In past times it was considered a magic plant with the ability to chase the devil away.

For the past couple of years I have collected the flowers to make a solarised oil. The flower heads are much smaller than the cultivated varieties. You can see the size of the flower compared to my hand and also the red staining of my index finger and thumb that I use to pull off the flower heads.

I stuff the flower heads into a glass jar and top up with sunflower oil and leave it in the sun. I have read you should not expose it to moonlight but I’ll leave that consideration to you.

Gradually the colour changes and after 22 days all the oil looked red.

All that has to be done is to decant the oil into a smaller container. I could not believe that it worked the first time I tried – it did seem like magic!

I love the gentle, soothing perfume, it makes a massage oil and also I use it to make body bars with our bees wax. The liquid is phototoxic and should never be applied to the skin that is going to be exposed to the sun. It would not surprise me if it could cause allergies and irritations in sensitive people.

Luckily, I have had no negative reactions to it but I would not recommend it generally. I do find the light perfume soothing and it is a pleasant memory of summer during the winter time.

I have got quite a lot of Hypericum bushes in the garden that are blooming at the moment. I am not sure of the variety as I grew them from seed given to me by a friend.

I have one bush of Hypericum inodorum whose flowers have longer stamens. The bees seem happy with both sorts. Notice the orange pollen on this bee. The bumblebees also collect quantities of this pollen. The flowers are not as attractive to the pollinators as Cotoneaster which is also blooming just now. However, the Hypericum flowers for a much longer time.

We discovered the toad spawn on the 17 May 21 and so exactly one month later our tadpoles are starting to look like little toads with tails.

It was only after I had taken the photograph that I noticed that the eyes had developed.

I have seen one or two with legs but this was the only one I could photograph.


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Rainbow sun

It was just over two weeks ago that we saw this beautiful cloud iridescence in our garden while we were having lunch.

Today was too hot for the garden so we took off to the beach and at 13.06 Kourosh noticed a rainbow around the sun.

He shot off a few snaps with his mobile phone, not expecting to capture anything but I think these photographs give you an idea of what it was like. Unfortunately, the colours are not as vivid as they were. In fact it appeared as a circular rainbow around the sun.

These photographs were taken at Meschers on the Gironde estuary at around 13.06. According to Wikipedia these are formed by ice crystals in cirrus clouds. Indeed, the sky was very blue but there were some very pretty wispy clouds around.

Now I am going to check out more frequently what is happening above me.


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A stowaway

The saffron has just about finished now and I am only getting two or three blooms a day. I took this picture on the 21 October 2020 to show the average daily “harvest” I was getting at this period.

I always leave collecting the saffron until late afternoon so that the bumble bees can enjoy them before I pick them. However, after I collected flowers, I got busy and left the bowl until the next morning.

In the morning I started to open up the flowers and put the pistils to one side to dry. Then I saw my stowaway!

A little bee was in the saffron! At least this time I can be sure of my identification down to the family level. It is a female from the Halictidae family as you can see the groove or rima at the end of her abdomen. She is likely a Halictus scabiosa as I see them frequently in the garden.

She had slept inside the saffron all night in the dining room and was still sleepy in the morning when I discovered her.

She had the intention of passing the night outside inside the flower until I had picked the flower with her fast asleep inside!

She flew off quite happily with a little bit of encouragement from me.

She could be an over-wintering queen.

I wonder if I will see her in the garden next spring?


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Insignificant flowers

There is a patch of wild mint not far from the house that we often walk past, but because of the heat this summer we have taken to walking early in the morning.  It is very pleasant in the early morning but I have been missing my bees and butterflies at this early hour.  At last we have had sunshine and reasonable temperatures that have allowed me to check out the mint.

At this time of year it is the Adonis blue butterflies that are attracted to the mint.

The male is a bright blue and the female has brown wings with only a hint of blue on the hairs of her body.

The Knautia also attracts them.

The Knautia also attracts the wild bees but I think many of the wild bees have gone with the passing summer.

The Malva is also managing to flower despite the lack of rain.  I’ve had to pull many of these plants out of the garden and they have roots like parsnips – often branched.  They are difficult to remove for a gardener but perfect for storing moisture for the plant.  The Malva provide a late pollen and nectar source for the bees like this red tailed worker bumble bee.

Some wild flowers can be difficult to deal with in the garden but scabious in its more ornamental forms is welcomed by gardeners, often with the hope of attracting butterflies like this Meadow Brown.

The only colour I have seen in the wild scabious here is a very attractive shade of lilac.  It has not appeared spontaneously in the garden and I have never encouraged it by trying to seed it.  I am too nervous of past mistakes with other wild flowers.

We have had more clover this year and it has benefited from the rain we had a couple of weeks ago.  The red clover has flowerlets that are too long for the honeybees but perfectly acceptable for the bumblebees, like this carder.

The clover nectar must be good as usually I find the Clouded Yellow butterflies quite flighty and difficult to photograph but this one was intent on his food.  The clover often finds its way into the garden but never causes me any problems.

Just behind the wild mint patch there is a huge swathe of Cat’s Ears.  Now these do find their way into the garden.  In fact, just in front of our bee hives is being taken over by this weed.  We have made no effort to eradicate it as we are totally besotted by the Dasypoda bees that make the flower heads bounce around in the summer.

There is no sign of the Dasypoda this late in the year but the honeybees were gathering nectar from them and had bright yellow pollen on their legs.

All these flowers are quickly recognised as flowers by us but there are others that are not so obvious.

The plantain flower looks dry and sterile but look at that pollen being showered from its head by the arrival of the bee!  The bee has a huge lump of the ivory pollen already on her legs although she rests on the plantain for only a few seconds.

However insignificant, the seed head of the plantain, denuded of its petals and pollen makes an excellent resting place for a dragonfly surveying the area.

Now, whether the purslane is one of your preferred veggies or not, the little yellow flowers are quite insignificant but very much appreciated by the bees.

Just look at that bright yellow crystalline pollen on the bees legs!

I am quite happy to admire the large patches of purslane knowing that the masses of little black seeds, that will soon follow the flowers, will not be dropped on our garden.

 

 


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Comet Neowise over the garden

Yesterday was a beautiful day with the sky an all covering Charentaise blue.  We decided to look for the comet Neowise as darkness fell.

We localised the Big Dipper and there was the comet between the trees.

I have never taken photographs of comets or stars before so it was pretty hit or miss.  You maybe just able to see the shadow of our trees at the edges of the photograph.

This photograph is thanks to Picassa, but actually closer to what the eye sees.  The stars are showing as dashes as the world turns as I hold down my shutter release.

You should be able to see the comet for the next few days if you have clear skies.