a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Onward in January

We returned from the U.K. with some plants that are a lot easier to source there and with an idea for the empty area created when the large pine tree was cut down.

New border at pine tree

Agreed, it does not look very impressive but it is the thought that counts.  There are four willows of the red stemmed variety Salix alba Chermesina (or Scarlet Willow) planted in a zig zag fashion.  These I hope to coppice so that they become bush-like.  Although willows are reputed easy to root I bought mycorrhizal fungi and added this to help them adapt to their new home.  I am not sure if such a large evergreen tree could have changed the micro-environment of the soil over time and so they might need a helping hand.

I also bought my first Mahonia.  I had steered clear of Mahonias as some can be as prickly as holly so they need to be sited where they will not be brushed against.  This Mahonia is Mahonia eurybracteata subspecies ganpinensis “Soft Caress”, as the name suggests – no spikes but soft frond like leaves!  It was chosen as Plant of the Year at Chelsea Flower Show 2013.  My new Mahonia also benefited from a helping of the same mycorrhizal  fungi so I hope lots of intimate root associations are being made  in this damp warm weather that we are having.

So far, so good but after more reading I found out that my new Mahonia may not be the plant that I am hoping will flower at this time of the year.  I think that it maybe an earlier flowering variety as it is reputed to start flowering in October.  Locally I have seen beautiful Mahonias flowering just now but with the spiky leaves. These were in a park with plenty of space.  I’ll have to find a suitable spot  in the garden as the flowers were fragrant and  full of bees.

Another purchase in the U.K. was Rosa mutabilis from David Austin.  Roses are not my favourite plants but I had seen so many beautiful pictures of it in Christina’s garden (http://myhesperidesgarden.wordpress.com) that I was completely seduced by this rose that flowers over a long season with few thorns and a perfume that attracts butterflies and bees.  However, once again I should have been more careful.  I have bought the variety Rosa mutabilis and not the variety Rosa mutabilis x Oderata.  That means I have bought a rose with no perfume!  For me that’s the best thing about roses, I just hope the bees won’t mind – I expect the pollen and the nectar is just as nourishing for them.  Once again I used mycorrhizal fungi to encourage the new rose to have a healthy supported root system in its new home.

A tall blue Salvia brought over from my friend Linda’s garden completes the border which is now filled in with with summer bulbs and lots of Alliums.

New border

Behind the new border many years worth of dropped pine needles had accumulated.  I used these to mulch over the border hoping that it will prevent weed growth.  There was lots more left after I had finished the border so I was able to use it in other parts of the garden.  It is supposed to be good for strawberries so they had their share too.

hoped for screen

This is the sort of screen I am hoping to create but I suppose it will take two or three years to reach this stage.

Between the stump and the new border there is a barren patch of ground where nothing has grown because the shade of the pine tree was so dense.  I wonder if, now that the ground has been cleared of the pine needles, whether this might be an ideal site for mining bees to make their nests in the spring?  Many types of mining bees like bare, sandy soil with little or no vegetation.

mulched snowdrops

Elsewhere in the garden there is not much floral interest but my first snowdrops have arrived and I have surrounded them with a mulch of pine needles to keep the chickweed at bay.  The weather is rainy and extremely mild with temperatures going as high as 16 degrees Centigrade.

Sarcocca confusa

One of the great successes in the garden is the Sarcococca confusa.  It stands in the shade of a wall and gets very little direct sun but it thrives there and perfumes the corner that it grows in.  After the white flowers come shiny black berries and now I find I am getting a lot of self-seeded plants.  Some of the earlier babies are attaining a reasonable size and I have retrieved some smaller ones and planted them against a wall in the back garden that receives the same amount of light.

Red Admiral 3.1.14

Red Admiral 3.1.14

The winter flowering honeysuckle is still in flower and provides nectar for the bees and over-wintering butterflies on the rare sunny days when the rain stops.


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Of bees and blogs

Bee in Cellandine 17.2.13

It usually starts in February.

Early bumble bee February 2013The bees start sneaking into my posts.

Bee 1.4.13

By April things are hotting up.

Bee on Forget-me-not.18.4.13

They appear on Forget-me-nots.

Andrena fulva.25.4.13

I show the solitary bees pollinating our blackcurrants.

Carpenter April2013

The bees are getting bigger.

Bee on Dame de onze heure.19.4.13

The more flowers that appear the more bees that arrive.

Bee in Holly hock.13.7.13

Summer brings even more bees.

Bee-Geranium 5.7.14

The geraniums in my blog are accompanied by bumble bees.

Bee in Chicory.11.8.13

The Chicory flower is accompanied by a colourful solitary bee.

August poppy

In August the bees are in the Hollyhocks.

Bee in Dahlia.11.8.13

In the dahlias…

Bee in Dahlia-28.8.13

For a gardening blog I fear there maybe a bit too many bees.

Bumble in Sedum

I can’t help it they are too appealing (c’est plus fort que moi!)

I do, however, want to learn and understand more about solitary bees and so I have decided to separate (to some extent) my passion for the bees from the garden.  I have started a new blog Bees in a French Garden .  This is a more serious blog to find out if there is anyone else out there interested in solitary bees.  It would be nice to find people to exchange ideas with as has happened with my garden blog.  I have learnt so much following some great gardening blogs so I am hoping my bee blog will be rewarding too.

My French Garden Blog will continue as the garden changes through the seasons incorporating the advice and help from friends and bloggers.


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A walk after the storm

Our garden borders the river Seudre.  We have left a part of the land next to the river somewhat wild forming a little forest.  After the recent storm it now resembles a war zone with broken trees scattered along it, waiting for the autumn when I will drag the branches to an open space and burn them.

We are still in the middle of summer and summer storm are not unusual here, but I was reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s Ode to the West Wind:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing – 

Amelia and I often walk on a path only a couple of minutes from our house, that takes us along the river and then through a forest to the nearby hamlet of Madion.  It is a pretty walk that usually takes less than an hour, if Amelia doesn’t stop too long photographing the bees.  Today we took the same path for the first time after the recent storm.

The wild mint is flowering just now and is adored by the bees and the butterflies.

The wild mint

The wild mint

The hemp agrimony ( Eupatorium cannabinum ) remains a favourite of the butterflies.

Butterflies on hemp agrrimony

Butterflies on hemp agrrimony

A little while later I realized why not many people had walked along the path lately.  Between the river and the field of maze, the path was blocked by a broken tree.

IMG_2787We maneuvered our way through the field of maize as many have fallen victim of the storm and were flattened.  On the other side of the fallen tree, I encountered a patch of my worst hidden enemy in the garden: the stinging nettles.   They were covered with caterpillars.  Well my consolation is that at least we will have more butterflies.

Collage catepillars

Like all little boys, I am fascinated by the form of the little snails.

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In the stillness and the heat of the late afternoon, I could see a few  damsel flies and even the dragon flies.

Collage damsel flies

I am not a biologist, but merely an engineer, but it seemed to me that each wild plant and wild flower has its purpose in the life of the countryside.

Wild flowers

I could see that my path was yet again interrupted by another fallen tree.

IMG_2809Never mind, I will turn right through the forest.  That is my favourite route: so peaceful, and yet so full of promise.

IMG_2811A few minute later the forest path was also blocked.

IMG_2813We fought the branches and emerged yet again successfully on the other side and then left the forest into a much more open countryside. along the vineyards.  On my left, a bunch of mislteoe:  Perhaps waiting there for a stolen kiss?

IMG_2823And then a field of pure warm sunshine:

IMG_2827I do not know the people that live in that little farm building, but I have often thought that they have indeed chosen a corner of heaven.

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In the open ground there were more bees and butterflies.  Even a queen bumble bee with her sac of pollen.

Bumbles and butterflies in the open

The grains of grapes are swelling.  Perhaps summer is already approaching its end?

IMG_2845And more wild flowers and berries preparing the countryside for the summers to come

IMG_2831In this part of France they often plant sloe (prunus spinosa) along the edges of the fields.  Its white flowers are pretty in early Spring, its fruit is eaten by some wild animals, and its thorn inhibit the intruders.

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The wild blackberries are already ripening.  Last year we collected several kilos of blackberries at this spot and Amelia made delicious jelly.

IMG_284715th of August is the Assumption day.  It is a National Holiday in France and some towns will have the last fireworks display of the season.  After that the French holidaymakers start returning home to prepare the children for the rentrée scolaire.  

On our return home, after nearly two and half hour of walk, I look again at the devastation that the storm caused in the countryside.  I think back at that night of the storm with 150 Km/hr wind tearing the trees down, and I can’t help but think again of Shelly:

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free

Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even

I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven 

We are really lucky here that we have a mild climate and do not suffer from ‘uncontrollable’ wind very often.  Our summers are warm, but not too hot and we are able to enjoy the last days of beautiful warm sunshine well into October and and when autumn at last comes we will return to the task of clearing Amelia’s afrenchgarden.

K


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After the Storm

Fallen ash tree

On Friday night 26 July a storm raged across the garden.

Fallen branches

The wind flew past at 150 kilometres and hour and 58 centimetres of rain fell.  The rain was welcome but the wind was scary.  We sat watching the spectacle with our oldest granddaughter.  The storm seemed to stay overhead for a long time with a constant flickering interspersed with impressive forked lightening.

Changed skyline

The next morning the garden was different.  The skyline had changed at the bottom but we didn’t notice the missing tree top immediately as lots of large Ash branches had fallen on the left hand side of the garden making access difficult.

Topped Christmas tree

The ex-Christmas tree had been summarily lopped.

Top of tree

The wind has made a very neat job and saved us the trouble as the tree is becoming over-sized.

Fallen branch

This was not the case for most of the fallen branches.  The fallen branches caused a lot of work and it took us four days to clear away the debris to the bottom of the garden, stacking the larger logs for  further cutting for the fire and smaller branches for a bonfire in September when burning in the garden will be permitted.  No possibility of removing the debris – it has to be seen to understand the quantity involved.  We haven’t had the heart to look too closely at the very bottom.  some trees are down and large branches will have to be cut up but we are too tired to start and we want to enjoy time with the grandchildren who are visiting.

Telephone line down

Across the road a branch of our neighbour’s Ash tree fell on the telephone line where it lay for over a week cutting us off from the Internet.  We did manage to check our emails once by going to MacDonalds.  Thank you, thank you MacDonalds.

We also lost our electricity during the storm, which is a common occurrence in France – a heavily wooded country with overhead power and overhead telephone wires.  We were fortunate and were reconnected on Saturday afternoon.  All those broad beans from this year’s monster crop saved!

Nobody was hurt in the vicinity and it was a fairly localised storm although random storms have been blasting all of France during this exceptionally hot and thundery July.  The Sunflower and maize fields suffered.

Herve's maize

The maize field at the bottom of our garden was flattened but the good news is that it is all standing to attention again!  Perhaps all the rain gave it strength to recover.

Fallen cross

The cross at the entry of the village wasn’t so lucky.

Fallen cross

I doubt whether it will be replaced.  It was quite a landmark with its magnificent lavender bush.

Please excuse the lack of communication on my part.


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Lilies

Lilies

The lilies are doing well this year in the garden.  I am seduced by the cheap packs of bulbs I see in the UK after Christmas.  I haven’t really a plan of where they should go.

Pink lily

Its easier to find a place for them in the winter when you have forgotten what other perennials you have planted and it looks as if the place is empty.  I don’t regret squeezing them in as their perfume is mingling with the second flowering of the Wisteria and filling the garden with perfume.  I never see much interesting life on them: the odd spider or fly – certainly no bees!

Dull moth

I was so surprised to see this dull moth sitting on one of the lilies sipping nectar!

not closeThen I saw the orange flash.  I had never seen a hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) at rest on a flower.

This moth had worked out that it could expend much less energy at rest on the lily and still reach the nectar.

Better hover

He still couldn’t resist the odd hover from time to time.

mmm. so good

The moth spent a few minutes on the lily and seemed to be enjoying it as a nectar source.  I had always thought that the lilies either had poor nectar or they were not recognised as nectar sources because they are “exotic”.

What are other gardeners experiences with lilies?  Do you get interesting critters on your lilies (maybe bees :))?


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Do bees have different characters?

On July 10, Sue posted Bird Brains maintaining that birds do have different characters – which I definitely agree with.

Taking things a step further I now wonder if bees have different characters too.  I have just met a bee with attitude.

Anthidium on camera

I must admit that it is really “bee time” over here and I am having plenty of models to take photographs and identify (hopefully).

Anthidium bee on camera lens

Usually they pay little attention to me and I have to follow their movements as they visit the flowers but this one seemed curious of the camera.

Anthidium bee and camera lens

Luckily I had my trusty assistant on hand to photograph my friendly bee.

Anthidium on camera lens

She was certainly not camera shy but had not quite got the idea of posing in an alluring position on a colourful flower.

Anthidium on back of neck

Tired of posing she seemed up for a game of hide-and-seek.  I think she has the advantage over me for this game.

Anthidium

I thought it was time for my trusty assistant to borrow my camera which was equipped with my Macro lens to see if we could get a close up.

Bee kissIsn’t she sweet!  I would call that a bee kiss and we haven’t even exchanged names.

I think she is Anthidium manicatum but I am not too sure about her species name.


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Gym fête

My biggest social event of the year is the Gym fête celebrated as a mechoui.  Our gym club meets in the old school in the village and there are three classes a week for an hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.  We are about 25 – 30 members but the fête attracts more like 120 people.  The preparations for the fête are all done by the members and friends.

Salles de Fêtes

The village has a Salles des Fêtes.   These public buildings are common throughout France and can be hired for weddings, parties and can be used for public meetings.  Ours suits the gym club fête perfectly.

The provisions arrive

The arrangements for the fête start to be brought together the afternoon beforehand.

Setting up tables

The tables and chairs belong to the hall but they have to be set up and paper table clothes laid to add a festive touch.

Table decorations

There are even fresh flower arrangements for the table made by a member with flowers from her garden.

Boxes of lettuce

On Saturday afternoon the action in the kitchen  intensifies and the salads for the entrée are prepared.

Pots of beans

Quantities are generous, there were three large pots of beans.

Kitchen

There are plenty of helpers as there are a lot of tomatoes and cucumbers to slice and melons to cut.

Cherries

Like the cherries a lot of the produce comes from the helpers gardens.

lamb

It is eight o’clock in the evening and the lamb has been roasting for 2-3 hours.

Aperatif

The dinner starts with the aperitif – a delicious selection of home-made savoury cakes and other tit bits.  The drink of the moment for the apero is rosé wine and pineapple juice.

Entree table

The entrée is a selection of salads and flans.

Jean-Pierre

The party is animated by the redoubtable Jean-Pierre who has the crowd singing and waving their napkins in the air!

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French fêtes are family affairs and all ages are present.

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In between dancing there is time to pop into the kitchen to keep the surfaces clear and keep on top of the washing up.

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It is nearly eleven o’clock and the lamb is about done.

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The local butcher lends his expertise to carving the lamb.  The lamb is served with beans as the main course.

The lamb is followed by a cheese course and lettuce salad.

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The desserts table must have two pictures to give sufficient credit to the marvellous array of home made desserts.

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I haven’t commented on the drinks but these were served with the appropriate courses but being tea-total I am not well up on those.  We are in the cognac country so I know that is served towards the end of the meal.

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The dancing continued until well after two o’clock in the morning with a very mixed bag including the paso doble, old walzes, the Maddison and some more up to date tunes.

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All good things come to an end and the band of helpers is back the next morning to pack away the table and chairs and clean up the hall and kitchen.

The leftovers are not wasted and we retire for lunch to for a second feast in one of the members house.


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Fête des Abeilles

I promise; I promise, this will be my last post on behalf of Amelia who will return back home tomorrow.  However, I could not resist sharing with you all, my visit today to the Fête des Abeilles – The gathering of the members and the friends of the Association of Apiculture of the department of Charente Martitime, where we live.  By this time of the year, that is to say the summer solstice, we should have really nice weather, and we have had two or three days when the temperatures soared to about 30 C [that is about 86 F].  But sadly today was not one of those and although it was not cold at all, we had a drizzle most of the day.  But it did not deter the people and they came to see the main attraction which was the extraction of honey.  For me, however, the great excitement was something else that I had never seen at close quarters.

They had chosen an interesting location which is a center recently opened to study and shelter wild birds along a corridor of the busy motorway A10 which runs between Bordeaux and Paris.

The Bird Sanctuary

The Bird Sanctuary

On one side is a forest and the several acres of land was purchased partially because it has a lot of lime trees, in full flower at this time of the year.

Lime tree o "tilleul"

Lime tree flower or “tilleul”

Those perfumed flowers produce some of the best honey I have ever tasted.  For that reason, different members of the association of apiculture  have left some of their hives in that center.

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The extraction was demonstrated by one of the members who had opened one hive and had removed a few of the elements.  He first showed how with a special knife the waxy coating was to be removed.

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They were very keen to encourage and educate the participants, specially the curious young children.

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Several children participated in the preparation of the elements for extraction.  They even placed the elements in a transparent extractor and were in a practical manner taught how the centrifugal force works.

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But as I said for me the absolute excitement was being able to see her majesty the queen bee in her court. She is not normally removed from her hive, but this day when Michel had removed one of the element for transport in a glass hive, he had not noticed that he had also transported the queen.  She is in the middle, larger than the others with a prominent back – may be it is there she wears her crown!

Her majesty the queen bee

Her majesty the queen bee

Michel assured me that a separation of a day should not disrupt the harmony of the hive.    I was so absorbed by the events of the day that I did not notice until I was  leaving that there was another queen bee amongst us.

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And so, or as they say here “et voilà”,  I  thank you for all the encouraging comments that you wrote for the last few blogs and I leave you in the good hands of Amelia.  Au revoir    – K


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Uninvited Guests

I had believed that after my last post as the ghost blogger for Amelia my duties would be over, as I am expecting her to come back early next week.  However, the problem with nature is that we can not predict its course, we can only observe and wonder.

When I returned from England on my own and opened the house I noticed quite a number of bees dead near each window.  Then as the evening approached and I sat down with a cup of tea in the stillness of the setting sun I could hear them under the roof space.  Looking outside I saw that a lot of bees had found a couple of small holes and were coming and going.  I telephoned my friend Michel, the bee keeper, who kindly came and inspected and then returned a second time, fully “armed” and placed an empty hive fully laced with honey and a special product to attract the bees.

IMG_0886In the hours that followed the bees did come out of the roof space and seemed very happy to discover a new source of food so close to home.

IMG_0894More and more bees were attracted to the hive No 2.

IMG_0897But, as Michel explained to me, once the hive was covered by the bees, the queen would no longer enter the hive.  So we left it like that for a few hours more.  Michel left and I started to get ready for bed.  It was then that I noticed what had happened.  The queen apparently had abandoned the roof space [thankfully] but indeed had not gone to the new hive, but had settled on the branch of the apricot tree nearby.  And the bees had swarmed around her.

IMG_0916There was nothing else I could do as a heavy rain had just started which continued throughout the night.  I did telephone Michel again and he returned once more in the morning.  This time he brought the hive down from the roof.

IMG_0928and removed the slats inside it.

IMG_0929He then shook the branch of the tree and collected all the bees and the queen in a bucket.

IMG_0936He made sure that as many bees were collected.

IMG_0937Once he was satisfied that he had indeed collected the bees, he literally poured them into the empty hive.

IMG_0940He then proceeded to replace the slats one by one into the hive.

IMG_0948Finally he replaced the cover.

IMG_0951He has now left the complete hive in the garden to give any straggler the chance of returning to their new home.

So,  Amelia, I know you always fancied having a bee hive of your own.  Now, whether you like or now, for the moment you have a bee hive right in your front garden.  Come back soon, please!  – K

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Home Alone

I joined Amelia in England for a couple of weeks, but now I have just returned to our home in France and to Amelia’s “afrenchgarden”.  She is still in England, staying with my daughter and her new baby girl.

So, I have decided to write this short blog updating you of some of the things that have happened in our garden whilst I was away, and I suppose address the blog also to Amelia, telling her what she is missing and reminding her of her neglected duties.

Our neighbours have told me that whilst I was away it rained, and rained.  The evidence for me is the knee deep grass, and an abundance of strange giant weeds.  The climbing roses with their branches  full of flower are tumbling on the ground.

Veilchenblau Rose

Veilchenblau Rose

The peony under the olive tree looks somewhat neglected but still is charming.

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In front of the house, the rose Pierre de Ronsard [or as sometimes called Eden Rose 85], as well as the malva are impressive, although a little untidy.

Pierre de Ronsard against the wall

Pierre de Ronsard against the wall

Amelia has been planning to grow alpines in the  large stone trough near the house.  In her absence a giant lettuce  and a few tomato seedlings have grown in the midst of the saxifraga and delosperma.

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The vegetable patch is now full of broad beans, as well as peas and spicy mixed salad leaves.  I am sure that Amelia would have loved some fresh salad for lunch.

Broad beans planted in November 2012

Broad beans planted in November 2012

The cherry tree that we carefully transplanted last autumn and have kept our fingers crossed, has not only survived well, but has born fruit. 

Transplanted Cherry Tree

Transplanted Cherry Tree

I am not sure why nepeta has been called catmint, for to me it is a butterfly and bumble bee bush.  At this time our several nepeta bushes are laden with a variety of bumble bees and butterflies.

Nepeta Cataria

Nepeta Cataria

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Painted lady, Vanessa cardui

I have not neglected my duty to check on the newer bee houses that I made and we placed under the large plum tree.  “She” will be pleased to know that the tenants have indeed moved in and four of the holes are now filled – I am not yet sure if by mason bees or some other species.

Room to let to mason bees

Room to let to mason bees

More holes have been filled in the older bee house that we positioned in the front garden.  I believe that they are occupied by a small fruit wasp, as well as mason bees.  Just below the wasp I also saw what I think is an Anthophora  female who hopefully has chosen the bamboo to nest in, as she has been flying back and forth to her preferred hole.

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Near the terrace the poppies are rampant.  I think some of the wild poppies sadly have to be “weeded.”  Sorry I did say that I will have more respect for the weeds.

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But I am glad that last year Amelia placed a marker where a pyramid orchid had grown.  This year the weeds had not stopped the sweet plant which is once again in bloom.

Anacamptis pyramidalis

Anacamptis pyramidalis

So my tasks are all ahead of me: to cut the grass, to harvest Amelia’s precious broad beans as well as the peas, in addition to finding places for all the new plants that Amelia has sent with me to plant in the garden.  A busy second half to this June.