a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Definitely spring

The waters have receded to a more normal spring level and the daffodils are out. These are where we retire our daffodils when they get too crowded in other parts of the garden. I was not sure the bulbs would survive the dry, hot summer but they do and get enough rain and light in the spring to proliferate.

I love seeing the hazel flower – tiny as they are. There are two on the stem underneath the catkin.

I see the white-tailed bumble bee queens during the winter but it has to be spring before I see the queen Carder bumblebees. They love the dead red-nettle and there is plenty of it in the garden just now.

The biggest spring event for us is when the old plum tree flowers. It is a festival of perfume, buzzing and pollinators.

Such an opportunity for photographs.

Bees and plum blossom are so photogenic.

I could go on like this for some time, but I won’t.

I did say pollinators in the plum tree so I must insert my token butterfly. Probably a tortoiseshell.

I am not going closer than a tortoiseshell. I don’t think it was a small tortoiseshell but please feel free to leave a comment if you know what it is. Before anyone asks – I do not know what colour its legs were, I was lucky to get the picture I did.

Being a frugal type I decided to plant the hyacinth bulbs I had inside for their perfume, after the flowers had finished. My trusty garden tool is used for everything and I swing it around with wild abandon.

I was chilled to realise, when digging the hole, that I had nearly decapitated a hiberating toad. I think it must have been the root that saved him. I had to pick him up to make sure he still had four legs.

He sat quietly to the side while I redug a hollow under the root. He accepted his repositioning calmly and looked less upset than I was.

So all is well in the garden with the Carpenter bees swooping noisily onto the heather.

All the bees love the Hellebore and there are even more than ever this year.

But the biggest news today was that the Osmia cornuta males are emerging from the bee houses. I do love to watch them and if you would like to share you can see more of my photos at Bees in a French Garden.


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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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My Tetradium daniellii or Bee-Bee tree

Tetradium daniellii is such a mouthful of a name for a tree. Especially as this tree can be known as Evodia or “Arbre à miel” or “Arbre aux abeilles”. I first heard it mentioned by bee keepers in France who talked in reverential  tones about trees they had seen, but it appeared rare here, and I had never seen one.

I decided to buy one but this proved difficult to source here until I found one listed on the online site Planfor. Here, I made a mistake with my button finger and ended up with an 11 cm. plant! It was duly planted in November of 2014. I did source another larger tree in a pot from another nursery but that tree did not survive, so I had little hope for the 11 cm. stick.

I was wrong to be pessamistic. After a slowish start the tree grew rapidly but I had no idea of how long the tree would take to produce the first flowers. In July of 2018 we had the first flowers from the Bee-Bee tree.

What impressed me most was that the honeybees were attracted to the flowers almost before they opened and worked at the flowers to gain access to the nectar.

I think you can almost see the bee smiling.

The little flowers contain large amounts of nectar and also provide a yellow pollen. It is impressive to see the number of bees of all sorts that the tree attracts.

So this year in January 2020 we bought another Tetradium darlienii from the same online nursery, but with more confidence we invested in a larger potted plant.

We were very excited to see it push forth its new shoots at the end of January. Such pretty new leaves too!

So this year we have had two surprises. Firstly, it flowered in the summer time and secondly the flowers produced seeds!

The seed pods are an attractive pink colour.

As the seeds ripen the pods open to reveal the black seeds. These are reputed to be eaten by the birds but I quickly gathered mine. I will be interested to see if I can germinate them in the springtime.

So why has my first Tertradium not produced any seeds?

Some sources say that the Tetradium daniellii is dioecious – that is that you get male and female flowers on the same plant. That would surely mean that I should have already had seeds on my older tree.

Other sources say that the tree is monoecious – that is individuals either produce male or female flowers.

That would mean that my first tree produces only male flowers and my new tree produces only female flowers.

However, yet other sources say that individuals can be monoecious or dioeceious. So my first tree could be male and my second produce both male and female flowers.

Luckily the bees do not care as both male and female flowers produce the nectar and pollen that they seek.


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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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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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Rain at last!

The rain has come too late to have much effect on the summer vegetables but in the end the tomatoes yielded enough fruit for our needs for sauce and late salads.  The butternut have yielded seventeen – not all very big but an improvement on the raised beds of last year.

At least now I feel confident enough to put in some brussel sprout plants.

Golden leaves carpet underneath the Liquidamber.  The leaves are golden as the Liquidamber has not changed colour yet and these are dry leaves it has cast off in an effort to survive the lack of water.

The Ginkco is turning yellow and the parched leaves give the garden a true autumnal feel.

In the middle of the photograph is the struggling hydrangea “Saville Garden” that I planted in 2014.  I really must find a better place for it.  there is just not enough moisture for it in this spot and even too much shade for a hydrangea.

The Nerine Bowdenii fair better as they have bulbes that allow them to survive through the dry months.

I’m glad they provide nectar for the bumble bees, too.

I’m not sure where this bumble bee has been to get so covered with pollen, I think he needs to stop and have a good groom.

The Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli) is still coming to the asters.  I misidentified this last week as a blue.  In fact it is a native of Southern Africa but has been introduced with Pelargoniums for gardens.  Pelargoniums are hugely popular in France to be used in pots outside houses in France.  They do not survive the winter and so have to be re-bought the following year.  Good business for the suppliers but I personally prefer the perennial geraniums which are very easy to grow in pots or the soil and can be divided and propagated year after year.

And also, (I am sure you have guessed,) the bees and pollinators can use the perennial geranium flowers but not the pelargoniums.

A bee that I have seen often on the asters is Epeolus fallax.  It is a cuckoo bee; like the cuckoo bird it does not have its own nest but lays its eggs in the nest of other bees.  The cuckoo bees are usually parasites of a limited number of species and not just any bees in general.  The Epeolus are cleptoparasites of Colletes bees and I have found them at nesting sites of Ivy bees (https://beesinafrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/la-bourgade-revisited/).

However, the Ivy flowers are not open yet and the Ivy bees will not be building their nests yet.  So perhaps they are targeting another Colletes bee at the moment.

I saw this tiny bee sitting on the leaf of our potted lemon tree.  You can get an idea of how tiny it is as the photograph has made the leaf’s stomata visible.  I was not absolutely sure it was a bee but the photograph allowed me to see the three simple eyes placed in a triangular pattern on the top of the bee’s head.  It looks much more like a bee now, magnified larger than life-size.

The French marigolds (Tagetes patula) that I planted as companion plants in the vegetable garden are doing well now and are popular with the honey bees.  In France they are called “Oeillets d’Inde” which roughly translated means Indian carnations!  If you ignore the orange colour they do ressemble carnations.

I like to use flowers, like borage, on salads and cakes but I did not realise that French marigolds are edible too.  their petals can be used to colour desserts like fruit salad and have been given the name of saffron of the poor.  I have to look into this!

Temperatures have dropped considerably these past few days and it is hard to imagine that we were watching the sun set on the beach at Mescher-sur-Gironde a week ago.  The beach is only a half hour drive from the house and we were able to enjoy an evening swim with temperatures of 34 degrees as the sun was setting.

I do not think that will be repeated until next year.


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The last of the lavender

The lavender is just about finished in the garden now but this carder bumble bee seems determined to extract the last drops of remaining nectar.  There are several clumps of lavender in the garden and the lavender that was in full sun is well and truly grilled.  These clumps were in partial shade and flowered later.

The Russian sage is likewise pushing out the last flowers.

The Verbena bonariensis is losing the round shapes of the flower heads as the last flowers push forth.  Just as well for the short tailed blue butterfly (Everes alcetas), (actually  Geranium Bronze [Cacyreus marshalli] see Dromfit comment below)who is still around for the moment and is pleased to pose for photographs.

The sedum which I always think of as a butterfly trap has been disappointing.  I have not found it covered in butterflies as I had hoped, in fact I have found this year generally a poor year for butterflies in the garden.

However, just as I was mulling this thought over, a Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) came to my dahlia – something I have never seen before.  I think the butterflies just like to keep me guessing.

My fuschia have been coping very well with the heat and lack of rain.

On looking closer, though, you can see how damaged the inside petals are.  Any ideas what causes that?

There are always lots of bumble bees visiting the fuschia and their front legs grip tightly onto the petals so that they can get to the good stuff.  From the number of marks on the petals it looks like the fuschia provides generously for the bumble bees.

I don’t grow a lot of clematis but this “Helios” has always been a favourite of mine.  It grows on a north facing wall and is not abundant.  I would really like to find a better place to grow it as it cannot be seen to advantage – a project for next year.

My Leycestria has survived the heat well and is now producing its pretty deep red/black berries.  They can be eaten and have a caramel flavour.  Unfortunately, they often squash between your fingers as you pick them so they are not a good berry to harvest for enjoying later.  In France the common name is “Arbre aux faisans” or pheasant tree.  The perfume of the fruits are reputed to attract pheasants who are apparently extremely partial to these berries.  We have not been overrun by pheasants yet and none of the local birds seem interested in the berries and they are left to dry up on the plant.  I don’t know why.

It is the season to say goodbye to a lot of the bees.  I do not usually see the wool carder bees (Anthidium manicatum) now.

It is likely to be the last time I see this Megachile (probably centuncularis) if the predicted storms and rains arrive and keep the weather cool and wet.

It made me realise how long our carpenter bees keep us company as I don’t think a week of rain will keep them away.

And lastly, our first queen bumble bee has arrived in the garden and taken possession of the caryopteris bush.  She is a white tailed bumble bee and a considerable size with a bumbly comportment fit for a queen of her dimensions.  She has fallen asleep on the bush some nights but I am sure the light shower of rain this afternoon will alert her to find a dry spot under some leaves to start her hibernation.  We will not have seen the last of her this autumn and she will be back visiting the flowers on the better autumn days.


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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.

We have a very moderately sized patch for vegetables.  We grow only the vegetables that we know we will use.

The summer’s main crop is tomatoes that I have sown from seed that I kept back from the most successful tomato plant of last year.  I have three rows of tomatoes but as I do not have a proper green house, I cannot sow the seeds too early and so the tomato plants have still some way to go.

I must confess, I did plant two yellow tomatoes I grew from commercial seed and these seem to have produced the first standard sized tomatoes.

The Sungold cherry tomatoes on the Wigwam have already produced green fruit, so we should be starting to eat them soon.  I always plant Sungold as I have never tasted a cherry tomato that I find as sweet flavoured.

Some weeks ago our friend Michel asked if I had planted any French marigolds.  I said I had but strangely they had not come up so I was just going to rely on the self-seeders I knew would appear.  He was not satisfied with this and said I really needed them to protect my tomatoes and that he had plenty of little seedlings.  Kourosh duly planted a line of the seedlings and added a couple of my French marigolds for good measure.  We have now found we have a line of Cosmos sulphureus coming up so Michel has either got his seeds or planting markers mixed up!

Today I planted out fifty leek seedlings that Michel has given us.  It is more than I think I will need but at least I am pretty sure that they are leeks!

Elsewhere we have green courgettes…

…and a couple of yellow courgettes.

Last year I tried to grow butternut squash in a raised bed without much success.  This year I have raised more plants and the fruit has already started to form.

We also have another small patch that is given over to experiments and herbs.  The big blue untidy patch is Echium vulgare that I have grown from seed.  It is a biennial.  I have never grown it before and it seems like a long time to wait for the flowers.  The bees tell me it was worth it.

I grew Echium amoenum at the same time but I only managed to produce two plants into the second year to flower.  They flowered earlier, in May, and were supposed to provide me with flowers for herbal tea.  As you can see, there is not much to show for such a long wait.  However, the bees liked the Echium amoenum just as much and I reckon it might be easier to sneak them in somewhere in the garden so I have kept back the seeds for another try.  I think the E. vulgare takes up too much space.  The bees disagree.

We have been having cloudy, dull weather lately and I have been surprised by our little Judas tree producing red seed pods that are very decorative and something new, as the young tree had only this year started flowering.

I was delighted to see that our old bee house in the front garden has been taken over by some bees.  They are using the drilled holes and the bamboo tubes.  At the moment there is a lot of cleaning out going on.

I have no idea what they are but from the time of year they could be a species of leaf cutter bees.  Once they start to fill up their holes with eggs and start working nearer the end of their tubes I will be able to see them better.  Also once the nests are sealed it will give me a clue as I will be able to see what materials they are using to seal the nests. As you can see from the end of the bamboo tubes, they are very small (internal diameter of the tubes approximately 0.5-0.6 cm.).

The Magnolia grandiflora is getting bigger.  We have planted an apple tree to close to it and have decided to remove the apple tree in the autumn.   The white perfumed flowers only survive one day once they open just enough for the honey bees to gain entrance.  After that the bees come in groups of five or six and the petals and stamens soon hit the floor.

The bees provide never ending entertainment in the garden.  Watch this short video of the honeybees visiting the Magnolia flowers.

 

 


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Back to April showers

I’ve a great sympathy for this Anthophora bee that has taken to sheltering in one of the bee houses.  When it is cold and rainy she retreats back and waits until a ray of sunshine tempts her to check out whether the rain has stopped or not.

We have had rain and thunder and wind and rain… and some sunshine.

Our Viburnum opulus on the edge of the garden chose the warm sunny days to burst into flower.  Not only this is a fresh, generous shrub for the garden but the flowers look great cut for inside with roses.  It is called the guelder rose in the U.K.

In France it is known as “boule de neige” or snowball which I find is very appropriate.  A lot of the flowers have passed their best now and have lost their petals that transform into confetti that is taken by the wind to decorate the surrounding grass.

I have enjoyed a big pot of Camassia bulbs every April for a number of years.

They attract all sorts of bees and so provide our entertainment at coffee time.  I thought this year the bulbs were beginning to look very crushed in the pot and so they have been summarily deplaced to a hole made for them in the front garden.  I hope they will like their new home.  I have not made up my mind as to whether I should replace them with new bulbs in the autumn or choose something else.

I have also a large aluminium tub planted up with supposedly Camassia Leichtlini “caerulea” and Camassia cusickii (reputedly a short deep blue flower).  So far I have only seen this pale blue Camassia appear which looks as if it is going to be followed by a white flower.

This cistus has been grown from cuttings and we have no regrets as it has produced the same attractive crinkled-paper leaves as the parent plant.  And of course, it provides lots of pollen for the bees at this time.

I have several Choisia in the garden and my “Sundance” in the front garden is a real favourite, lighting up a shady corner, especially in the winter.  However, perhaps it is showing its age but the foliage did not look so good this spring and I think it is getting out of shape.  So should I replace it or will a severe pruning and cutting out of the old branches rejuvenate it after the flowers have gone?

The good weather allowed us to work a lot in the garden and get to grips with the weeds that have benefited from our mild wet spring.  For the first time I came across a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) in the garden, hiding under some dry leaves near some logs.  They are slow moving creatures and nocturnal so it is not surprising that I have only seen dead ones on the roadside.  They can grow up to 25 cm. (nearly ten inches) in length.  They can only prey on slow moving species like earthworms, slugs and snails so that makes them a welcome inhabitant of the garden as the slug and snail population at the moment is in full boom.

You can get an idea of the size of this baby on top of the gardening gloves.  They can exude an irritant from their skin so it is best not to touch them with bare hands.

The fire salamander was thought to be able to regenerate in fire and even extinguish fire; these beliefs being traced back to Aristotle and Pliny.  Francois I of France was born in Cognac Chateau in 1494 and he took the Salamander as his emblem.  Cognac is less than 50 kilometres from here and there are plenty of references to Francois I and his salamander in Cognac and throughout France.

His device was “Nutrisco et extinguo” or even ” nutrisco et extingo”, which although not quite correct latin means that the aspiration is to nourish the good fires of virtue, love, and faith, while reminding that he is the king with the power to extinguish all that he deems incorrect.  Quite a neat sentiment.

Returning to the garden, I notice that the Judas tree has started to produce pea pod shaped seed cases.  April is finishing but the garden seems to be speeding ahead helped by the rain and mild weather.