a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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The summer garden

We don’t have a big vegetable garden. I like to have plenty of tomatoes for eating and also for freezing as sauce. This year they are very behind. It is the same tomatoes that I have been growing for some years but they are about a month behind their usual growth but it is the same for everybody else nearby. Instead, we have plenty of lettuce this year – just one cucumber plant grown from seed but you can’t win them all.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sown parsley without success, so far (any hints gratefully received). I have planted my leeks for the winter as I am already thinking of winter soups.

It looks as if we are going to have at least one butternut.

I also grew some Uchiki Kuri plants from seed as I thought they were the same as the French Potimarron. I was also in search of the fragrant pumpkin flowers I raised in the garden one year. So far, I have not noticed any perfume from these flowers but it is very fleeting and maybe I was not around at a propitious time. I’ll keep sniffing them as the season advances.

Kourosh has always fancied a climbing grape vine. A friend brought us this vine and assured us it was a type that would climb. It looks as if we may get our first grapes from it this year.

The vegetable garden is hard work. I would rather be watching the Megachile bees building their nests in the bee house. These are leaf cutter bees and they seal off each cache of egg and pollen with either a piece of leaf or chewed bits of leaf. You may see some suspicious circles on your plant leaves as if someone has been at them with a little hole punch. I hope you don’t grudge them these little bits of leaf as it does not harm the plant.

Actually, it is tough to have favourites as I love finding the Tetralonia bees still asleep in the summer mornings tucked inside the flower of a Hollyhock.


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Green grows the grass

I had to take this photograph from upstairs to show the grass still green in the middle of July. Usually this space is more brown than green at this time of year, certainly last year we had had no rain for a long time and the grass was brown. This year the grass has been so wet that it could not be cut.

So many plants had made their home in the grass. The wild mint and Achillea make it perfumed to walk on but it has all been cut now to let me move in the garden without wearing wellington boots. The plants are doing well outside in the wild spaces and the side of the roads.

The bees are spoiled by the abundance of clover and other flowers that are blooming just now. The rain has stopped here and we are promised sunshine. At the moment the clouds are still plentiful but they are white ones and they let the blue sky through.

With the grass cut and fair weather in sight it is time to get to work in the garden again. That often means weeding and of course the weeds have been growing too.

I’ll be looking for places for some of the new plants that I have started off in patio pots. I have only the one colour of Fuschia in the garden and although it has done very well and we have split and replanted it throughout the garden, I am hoping this “Blue Sarah” Fuschia will prove as hardy.

The Carpenter bee has already given it her seal of approval even if she is “stealing” the nectar by boring into the source rather than bothering to go in by the conventional entrance. The hole she has opened will stay and be used by smaller, short-tongued bees, like some of the bumbles and honey bees, to give them easy access to the nectar.


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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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Mid April in the garden

Blue skies and sunny days often bring overnight frosts and after the high temperatures we had two weeks ago most of the plants have suffered from frost damage. The leaves hang, a bit droopy and sad but they will recover.

We too are passing our second April in confinement, not so strict this time, we can go 10 kilometres from the house which is more then the one kilometer distance for one hour of exercise that we endured last year. Like the plants we will survive.

Nature continues and we have baby blackbirds in the garden. They do not fly away when you approach but this careless attitude will only last a few days and we do not have cats.

We have more and more Honesty (Lunaria annua) self-seeding over the garden. I love the colour and it seems to be able to find better places to grow than I would have imagined. It is perfect to attract all the pollinators.

The furry bee flies look cute but are parasites of solitary bees so I cannot help feeling a twinge of antipathy towards them.

This little bee had a slightly metallic sheen to it and it could be a Lasioglossom (perhaps morio)

Butterflies also take advantage of the Honesty and the orange-tip butterfly is especially photogenic.

I checked ot out onthe Butterfly Conservation web site. Guess what? It lays its eggs on Honesty in gardens. I have never noticed any caterpillars on them so the site must be correct that it prefers some of the wild flowers that are around just now. I’ll try and remember to keep my eye open for signs of caterpillars.

The last of the tulips are fully open now in my layered planter. So providing interest from the middle of February until late April is a worthwhile effort.

The last white tulips (Mount Tacoma) looked better on their own than while the pale pink (Candy Prince) were open. The pink was definitely a candy pink and looked pallid beside the pure white tulips.

Live and learn!


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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?