a french garden


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Carcassonne visit

Last Saturday morning we realised that if we did not take the chance to get away for a few days we would have no time to fit it in before I go back to the UK in May to be with the family.  A couple of hours later we had booked our hotel in the Mediaeval Cite of  Carcassonne.

There has been no work done in the garden this week but if you would like to share our visit to Carcassonne – here are some photographs of the places we saw.

The area is really beautiful and we hope to return another time to explore more of the countryside.


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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 (http://www.domaineduseudre.com/).  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.


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Distractions in the vegetable garden

This Privet Hawk moth (Sphinx ligustri) appeared while I was weeding in the vegetable garden.  Excuses to stop weeding don’t come much better than that.

The poor creature was unlucky enough to fall into our hands but endured stoically our admiration and picture taking.  There are no privets around us but lots of ash trees and elders and the caterpillars also use these tree leaves as their food.

The chrysalis remains underground during the winter and our moth had just emerged and was still pumping up its wings while we had the pleasure of examining it.

It was quickly placed in the shade of a tree and left to recover from the indignities it had suffered and I hope to see it soon feasting on the nectar from our honeysuckle flowers.

It is not my favourite hawk moth, my favourite is the humming bird hawk moth, Macroglossum stellatarum but I have not seen one yet this year.


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Sage

My sage is extremely popular with the bumble bees at the moment.  It is full of flowers and is another plant that gives rich rewards for very little attention.  It likes sunshine, a soil that does not stay damp (no problem with that in my sandy soil) and seemingly does not like limestone (I do not think it is that fussy as I am in a limestone area and it has not complained.)  It was unaffected by the two straight weeks of sub-zero temperatures we had last winter and will stand the full sunlight of the Charente-Maritime which is very strong.

The red tailed workers are the most common visitor to the sage flowers although they have other flowers to choose from.

As far as using it as a herb, it is a flavour I do not appreciate so for me it is purely decorative and a great filler of difficult places.  However, it has been valued in the past for its properties to encourage longevity.  Dutch merchants could trade three chests of Chinatea against one chest of sage leaves in the seventeenth century.  A sage sandwich is said to help digestion, although I cannot see myself tucking into a sage sandwich after a heavy meal.  Sage tea is supposed soothe coughs and colds, combat diarrhoea and be a nerve and blood tonic.

More recent claims report sage as a mood enhancer and memory improver (http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v31/n4/full/1300907a.html).  Maybe I should start eating the leaves.

Putting its herbal and culinary properties to one side, I think that sage is a very useful perennial for difficult dry spots in the garden that might defeat tender plants and it attracts and nourishes the bees as well.  I have my sage growing almost like a shrub on a sunny, dry spot on the outside fence of the garden where not much else could thrive.


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Mea culpa…

Mea culpa, I’ve caught a butterfly in my Asiatic hornet trap!

Indignant but proud the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera) waits for release.

A little coaxing was needed to encourage an exit from the trap.

Too tired to fly she looked at me accusingly.

O.K. I really am sorry!  Perhaps a drop of sugar solution would set things right?

So you want to be spoon fed!

Now that tastes good!

I’m a bit low on my energy reserves.

This is the best sugar solution I’ve tasted in a while.

At least their tiles match my colourings.

The decor is nice and the cuisine acceptable but now it is really time to go.  The open window becons and I’m off to greener pastures that do not have tempting blue plastic bottles suspended in their trees.

This was a happy ending but it is a downside of the hornet traps.   It has only happened to me once before and I had another successful rescue.  The jury is out at the moment on wide scale  trap use but as I survey mine closely, my decision is to protect my bees.  As it so happens I have not had any Asiatic hornets since the batch in the spring and I have only one trap in the front garden at the moment (just in case).


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Summer approaches in the woods

Everyday sees changes in the countryside.  The warmth, the cold, the rain, the sun all conspire to bring about subtle changes that made no two days the same but there comes a point where our coarse senses remark a change that cannot be ignored.

The vibrant, frenetic days of spring are past and summer is approaching.

I feel this in the woods as the canopy of the trees fills in and covers over, changing the flowers that grow underneath.  A few still linger, like the Asphodel but the Wood Anemones have totally disappeared leaving only their leaves as witness to their presence.

Only an odd violet can be seen here and there along the path.  I shall be sorry to see them go but I took my first photographs of the wild violets in my garden at the end of March so their season has not been short.

The Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum commutatum) is content to stay in the shady areas under the trees and so is just starting its flowering season.

Once open the elegant bells attract the bees and bumbles who feast on the pollen which they carry off in their pollen sacs which become  stunningly white.  I tried to get a photograph but they were too quick for me, trying to manoeuvre amongst the long stems of the Solomon’s seal which are over a metre tall.

I couldn’t miss the swarm of bees over a puddle in the middle of the path.  I had read that bees have a requirement for water but I could not understand what attracted so many of them to the same puddle at the same time.  When I got closer I discovered it was not the water that they were interested in but the mud it was providing for them!

They are Mason bees looking for a supply of mud to seal up their cache of eggs which could be somewhere in the woods in a hollow twig or convenient hole in a tree.  Mason bees belong to the genus Osmia, I cannot go further than that with identification but I do think they have really cute eyes!

The butterflies still accompany us on our walks like this Comma butterfly ( Polygonia c-album) and

the Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) which always adds colour in the woods.

The Common Heath Moth (Ematurga atomaria) enjoys flying in the daytime in sunny spots but

the Speckled Yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia) was a bit more frisky.  It is always lovely to have their company even though they are less appreciative of ours.

These two seem a bit surprised to see each other alight so close to each other when there are so many flowers to choose from.

The Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is in luxuriant bloom on the edges of the woods and roads and is being visited by an astonishing number of insects.  The bees and bumbles are visiting in substantial numbers.

Predators will always be attracted to to the abundant food supplies of their prey.  The European Hornet (Vespa crabro) did not find any bees on this fly past and rapidly left our presence.  They are an unloved species and their nests are frequently destroyed by humans, however, it is a protected species in Germany and a native European insect.

For me it just does not have the same appeal as a fluffy bumble bee clutching onto the clover flower and  sipping the nectar.