a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Sunny November

We are still in autumn. The Koelreuteria tree in the front garden has lost its leaves but other trees are still holding onto theirs. When a breeze disturbs them, a snow of dead leaves floats down.

The weather has been fine with plenty of opportunities for walking.

We keep waiting for winter to set in and on Wednesday we had lunch outside on the terrace of our favourite restaurant by the sea. The sun was shining and people were sitting in the sun in T-shirts. We have had several “last” lunches outside this year!

Wednesday brought so much sunshine that this small copper butterfly settled on our Mme. Isaac Pereire rose in complete denial of the calendar date.

During the day the blue skies warm up the garden with strong sunshine.

However, the nights with clear skies bring low temperatures and we have found ice on the birds’ water dish in the morning.

I have decided to coddle my abutilons this year. I swore I would never keep fragile plants in the garden. The abutilons have been with us for years, their leaves freezing in winter and then shooting again in late spring. Now I feel they have been so courageous to survive that they are going to get some help.

We have also got a Salvia leucantha that will need protection soon.

I just cannot manage to do justice to this beautiful flower when I take a photograph. It too will get special attention.

The lemon tree is still outside. It will go into the spare bedroom with gro-lights during the day but I could not deprive it of the beautiful sunshine we have been having lately. We do protect it with a fleece at night if the skies are clear.

Today is cloudy and more autumnal.

I hope nevertheless to be able to still enjoy some more days sitting in the garden drinking our tisane, See who joined us on Wednesday morning.


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Potter wasp in October

It is the end of October and the garden is changing into its autumn colours although the weather is mild and many of the plants are late in flowering.

This wasp is working late into the season too.

On the ninth of October this little potter wasp was making probably its last nest on our house wall. I always marvel at the perfect little pot she builds. It is not far from the birds’ water bath so she has plenty of water to make her “clay”, mixing soil and saliva with her mandibles.

I think she is Delta unguiculatum or Eumenes unguiculatum, whichever nomenclature is current. She will lay her egg on the top of her pot and will then bring in a paralysed caterpillar to become the nourishment of the growing larva.

Watch this short video to see her engrossed in her work.

These wasps are not aggressive and have never caused us any problems. In fact, she is a good natural pest control for the garden.

When all is finished it will be covered by more special mortar, to cover one or more little pots. Her offspring will stay inside, metamorphosing into the adult during the cold winter but she will never see them fly. Her work is finished, she will never see them fly because she will not survive the winter.

The offspring will, hopefully, join the flowers in the garden next spring.


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A discovery in the small vegetable garden

We have a part of the small vegetable garden that we try to keep for herbs. We have several friends who prefer tisanes to black tea so I grow mint, lemon balm. lemon verbena, camomile and dry them to make tisanes. I sometimes make them for myself, as I would like to wean myself off black tea, but it’s taking some time to change my preferences. We also grow any other bits and bobs and young plants that need keeping an eye on.

It tends to get a bit overgrown with the lavender encroaching and some seedling trees growing faster than expected and the Echium turning into amazing self-seeders. So, with our incredible spell of fine weather I decided to put some order into the plot and get lots cut back.

All went well until late in the afternoon, when it was sunny and warm, I noticed some Ivy bees flying around the border I was trying to straighten!

They looked as if they were trying to find their nests! I had a sinking feeling that I could have destroyed their nesting site.

I marked the edge with tiles and decided that all that could be done would be to cover the area with cardboard and leave it for a year in case the burrows were left intact.

I still surveyed the area daily and then I noticed two burrows.

The first was near tiles placed perpendicular to the edge, so at least all was not lost. The other was not far away but nearer the edge.

When I saw one enter the burrow, I waited patiently and photographed her as she made her exit.

I have been fascinated watching her enlarge the burrow. The proportions of earth that she is removing compared to her size is amazing. The slope of the hole is her total length long.

Now that I know that there are at least two active nests in that area, I will take the greatest of care and protect them until next year.

The female ivy bee is laying her eggs with a supply of pollen and nectar to nourish the future larvae and the adult bees will not emerge until this time next year.

I did see cuckoo bees on the same day I saw the first bees and I took this photograph.

I had already seen two different sorts of Epeolus bees on the asters. These bees are cuckoo bees and target Colletes bees like the Ivy bees (Colletes hederae). They will enter the Ivy bees’ nests and lay their eggs so that their larvae will survive rather than the Ivy bees.

Nature is tough but I will guard my nests of Ivy bees as best as I can.


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A swarm in September

It was Tuesday morning (21 September) when Michel phoned and said his friend in Royan had a swarm of bees on his drainpipe. We were all surprised. Bees swarm in the spring. However, all three of us sprang into swarm catching action and we picked up Michel outside his front door and headed to Royan, thirty minutes drive away on the coast. This was the latest swarm Michel had ever come across in his years of bee keeping and we were regaled with bee stories until we reached his friend’s house.

The three of us were lost for words when we saw the “swarm”. There are not enough bees to form a colony that would last the winter. We could not assure that there was even a queen present.

So what to do? They were cold and not flying around. We presumed they would not last long. The ruchette was there so Kourosh picked them up in his hand and gently placed them inside. They accepted their warm polystyrene shelter with good grace.

Once we got them back to the garden we decided to look for a queen. Without a queen there would be no point in going on any further. To our surprise there was a queen! Can you see her?

Here is a clue.

Here she is close-up.

The weather was fine and they seemed to be making a go of it, so on Sunday, Kourosh cracked and stole a frame from one of our hives. It was a difficult decision to make as he took a frame with some brood and young bees which could leave the original hive short for their winter supply of bees.

The frame and young bees were powdered with icing sugar to confuse their odour and then added to the polystyrene ruchette with the queen and her small court. We closed the ruchette and kept it in an outbuilding for two nights in case the young bees wanted to return to their original hive. All was quiet and when we opened their door in the morning there were no signs of battle. They new girls had been accepted.

On Wednesday we were excited to see that they were making the best of the good weather and bringing in pollen. At a guess I would say that it is gorse pollen, there is plenty of ivy around and our other hives are bringing in some ivy and some of this lovely orange pollen.

Kourosh has reduced the entrance to make it easier for them to guard against robbers or worst of all the Asian hornets.

Then on Wednesday our friend Christian phoned to see if Kourosh could help with a swarm that had to be re-homed. The bees had set up home behind closed shutters in an upstairs bedroom with the window blind closed. This would have provided a good spot in the summer and they had gone undisturbed for two or three months as the house had not been occupied.

Sorry about the quality of the photograph, but Kourosh’s flash did not go off.

This was a different proposition and Christian was prepared with frames on which he could fasten the already formed brood nest. The frames were placed in a ruchette and left until nightfall for the colony to enter. In the evening of the same day the ruchette was brought back to the garden, and we are now the adoptive parents of this colony until the spring when they can be moved. Christian will be away for six weeks and the colony will need feeding and protection during this time.

So this is Christian’s ruchette (it will be secured to the poles in due course to protect it from high winds).

And this is the tiny colony. Will either of them survive the winter? The chances are low – approaching zero for ours, much better for Christian’s. It will depend on the weather. At the moment our weather has changed from sunshine and mild temperatures to rain and cloud. We will see.


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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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Blue flowering shrubs in August

Some years ago (2016),I bought two blue flowering shrubs for the bees at the same time. This one is called Vitex agnus-castus or also in France, Gatillier or if you prefer “Poivres des Moines” meaning monks’ pepper. Perhaps all that was too much for me given that the other blue shrub also has multiple names.

O.K. the flowers of Elsholtzia stauntonii are not a true blue so I think the description I was given when I purchased the plants was somewhat unclear and both plants took their time flowering for me. Elsholtzia stauntonii is also called “Menthe en Arbre” or tree mint which looking at the flowers clears things up a lot for me. The leaves are supposed to be aromatic but I had to really squash them between my fingers to release the odour – which for me was not mint or menthol. We have not had rain for a while so the poor plants are perhaps cutting back a bit on unessential perfume essences just to survive.

I find the flower of the Vitex more attractive but once again I was not able to sense the aromatic perfume that it is meant to exude without squashing the leaf between my fingers. I recommend you trying this, if you ever get the chance, as it is a interesting perfume and not at all unpleasant. I will have to wait until the berries appear and crush those to see if they are more aromatic. It was these berries that the monks were reputed to eat to calm any unchaste ardour. The berries are used in herbal medicine but sound too potent for the uninitiated to play with.

The Elsholtzia has been disappointing up until now to attract bees, perhaps the wild mint that we have allowed to grow in patches of the garden is enough for them.

The third shrub is beautiful at the moment and attracting lots more bees than the other two. It is the Caryopteris “Grand Bleu”. Each garden is different and I am sure the plants will behave a little differently in different soils and climates but gardeners do a lot to support wildlife in these times where the planet is so heavily stressed.

My main crop from the vegetable garden is tomatoes which usually grow so well here. This year has been a disaster as you can see from the empty wigwams and bare poles.

The tomato plants have succumbed to mildew. It was the fate of all the neighbours’ crops too. For the first year I have had to buy tomatoes to make coulis to freeze for the winter. The African marigolds have done well, perhaps we have them to thank for a healthy crop of butternut and the red Kuri squash.

At least we are going to be self-sufficient in squash for the winter this year.

The Cosmos provide a lot of colour in the garden at the moment. They are a magnet for the bees.

It is not only the honey bees that benefit from the nectar and pollen provided by the Cosmos, this is a little Halictus bee.

My Cosmos are very tall, and they often fall over or I break their stems accidentally. I wish that there were shorter varieties. Does anyone know of any shorter coloured Cosmos?

We have lots of Cosmos sulphureus in shades of yellow – some darker than others and I find they do not grow so tall and are probably even more popular with the pollinators but I do like the variety of colour provided by the other Cosmos.

We have had no rain now for some time and I notice that some of the trees, like this cherry tree are accumulating yellow leaves. I do not think that it is just the lack of water.

This is a male red-tailed bumblebee. This to me signals the beginnings of autumn. The red-tailed bumble bee queens will be starting to produce new queens and males. These will mate and the new queens will have to survive the winter before she too starts a colony of bumblebees. The old queen will be slowing down and she will not survive long into the autumn.

In the Charente-Maritime it is warm and sunny and I am looking forward to autumn days in the garden with the autumn flowers. I hope you will enjoy a mild and mellow autumn in your garden.


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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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More eggs

Some years ago I planted Allium cernuum bulbs and loved the flowers but larger plants grew over them and they perished.

A year ago I decided to plant seed and keep them in a pot. This is the result of the second year of my half packet of seeds. They came up so well that I decided to plant the other half of the seeds this spring – but I forgot to stratify them with a cold period. The second sowing has not germinated so I better look after these bulbs!

They are also called Nodding Onion and you can see the family resemblance in the papery covering of the flower bud.

Of course I grow them to watch the bumblebees that love them.

I love her heart-shaped pollen load!

The pot stays on the steps so that we can watch the bees from the living room.

I noticed that my blue geranium was not looking too happy and I decided to release her from the pot. The temperatures are shooting up this week to 35 degrees Centigrade (95 F) so I am starting to reduce my pots if possible.

It was a bit of a struggle to get the pot bound plant out of the small top of the pot (bad design!) but as I struggled I noticed things falling on the earth!

I think these are lizard eggs. A number of years ago I found similar eggs and kept them inside in moistened vermiculite until they hatched – and they were lizards. This time I have just covered them with soil and hoped for the best.

At the moment the Philadelphus and the Linden tree are competing for most perfumed plant in the garden.

We have several Philadelphus in the garden, all very beautiful and all very perfumed but none of them attract the bees; strange.

The fledged Redstarts have flown the nest and we see them in the back garden but Kourosh noticed that a redstart was visiting the nest box again. On the first of June he tried for a photograph and found one newly laid egg!

On the fifth of June he tried to see if she had more eggs but – oops, she was in residence. On the eight June she has a clutch five eggs. They are a prolific pair as the last chicks had only left the nest a few days before she started laying again.

Our excitement this week was that our Melia azedarach tree has flowered for the first time. Kourosh planted seeds he had collected from beautiful trees we had seen flowering in Girona in Spain. We did not know what they were and it was only through help on this blog we found out what the tree was called.

There are not many flowers on the tree yet but it is a start.


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Is this the last bee swarm of the season?

For us, in this little corner of France Spring 2020 was a little unusual.  The winter was rather mild, and then we had quite a lot of rain in early Spring which together with warm weather pushed all the plants forwards – specially the nettles and other weeds.

So, during the self isolation period of the pandemic of Covid 19, Amelia and I spent a lot of time weeding, and gardening and weeding!

Bee on Glycine

But gardening has its rewards, as we could take our coffee breaks and smell the heady perfume of the wisteria along the fence.

Poppy and Bee

A few years I brought the seeds of a rather large poppy from Spain.  We simply named it the Barcelona Poppy,  It is now much appriciated in several spots in the garden.

Bee in Rose

Another favourite of mine is a rose bush called Phyllis Bide.  It has smallish flowers but very delicate colour.

Bee Swarm

During the cold months of winter the queen bees almost stop laying eggs as there is shortage of pollen and nectar outside,  But not in our garden.  Amelia has planted so many winter flowering plants that the bees pop out frequently for a little snack all through winter.  Of course outside in the open fileds there are also plenty of wild flowers like dandilions that are welcomed by the bees.   As the result the colonies grow quite fast and then nearly half a colony swarms forming a new colony.  We had our first swarm of the season on the 21st of March (the vernal equinox).  We collected it and placed it in a 6 frame nucleus hive.

Since that day until the 26th April, we had a total of 8 bee swarms all landing within a few metres of our beehives.  We know that at least two the swarms came from our own colonies.  Early last winter we lost two of our hives and so two large swarms were directly placed in hives.  Two other hives after swarming did not develop as well as we had hoped.  So after a couple of weeks that the newly arrival swarms had well developed, we mixed them with each of the less-developed hives after sugar dusting both colonies to help them accept the odour of each other.

Our friends who keep bees a short distance away also had similar experince and we gave them the other swarms.

Hives in Sring 2020

We had promised ourselves that we will not keep more than 3 hives at the bottom of our garden – OK, we said just 2 more in case we lose any.  But by end of April the bottom of the garden had become a nursery of hives and nucleus hives.

Field of Poppies

Each year, on 5th of May the Europeans commemorate the end of War in Europe.  On that day, I passed the centre of our village and noticed a field some half a kilometres long full of red poppies and it made me think of all those brave young men and women whose blood was spilled on the European soil.

Bee in Cotoneaster

The cotoneaster is now in full flower and you should hear the buzz of the honey bees as well as the bumble bees on them.  Sometimes when I pass the bushes, I wonder of there is a swarm, as they make so much noise.

Essaim 28.05.2020

Just when we thought the swarm season has finished, on 28th May we had another bee swarm very low on a branch of our loquat.

We are happy that we have now all our five hives active and we have placed super on them to hopefully collect some summer honey.  However, we did have to recombine 4 of the swarms with our colonies as they were weak.  We also gave four of the swarms to our friend as they lost four hives.  So, that is why I found this spring somewhat strange.

I hope that all is well that ends well.

Kourosh