a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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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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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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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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Birds and other beasts in the garden

We were checking out our Persimon tree for ripe fruit when we noticed that the bird house had opened by itself, so it was a good time to clean it out. However, instead of old nesting material there was a little tree frog inside it.

We were not sure whether the tree frog had hoped to take shelter in the nest box or had got trapped there but we felt it wiser to put him out.

A little inter species help never goes wrong. Can you see the hole the bumble bee has made in the Sage flower? A honey bee could not make holes in the outside petals of flowers to get quickly and easily at the nectar, but the honey bees and other bees can make use of the holes made by larger bees.

We have Redstarts that visit the garden and several couples nest in the garden. We enjoy seeing them, of course, but as insectivores we hope also they could have their uses.

We have a mass of wild Fennel in the front garden for the birds.

The little Warbler that is often in the Fennel eats insects too, I believe.

We even provide a variety of bathing places for all the birds.

So I was a bit surprised when I saw all these caterpillars eating a rose shoot.

I am not too into butterflies so I was not surprised when I could not at once find what butterfly these strange caterpillars would turn into.

When I realised they were sawfly larvae (probably Arge ochropus) and in addition, they were going to turn into flies, I felt a bit let down by our feathered friends.

You’re on half rations of seeds from tomorrow!


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Persimmon and Saffron

The Persimmon tree, at the front right of the photograph, is still hiding its fruits well.

You have to get right underneath it to realise that there are already ripe fruits on the tree. Of course, the birds found out first.

We did not realise how much fruit there was until one of the branches broke. We will keep the fruit indoors and hope that it ripens. Persimmons will ripen indoors and once they have fully swollen we will be able to bring them in. They are delicious to eat just as they are or to make them into a dessert with fresh yoghurt.

The first saffron bulbs have flowered although most of the bulbs have just broken the surface of the ground. From now on I start my daily collection of the pistils for air drying inside the house.

I had this planter full of basil and lemon balm but decided to change it to spring bulbs. I am going to see if I can grow different bulbs at different depths. So I started with hyacinths and tulips and then added crocus and muscari. I have never tried this before so we shall see what happens in the springtime.

To empty the container we had to tip it right over onto the grass and much to our surprise we found four marbled newts (Tritorus marmoratus) and what I think looks like a little toad. The newts are such gentle creatures and it was easy to displace them and suggest they found a better place to hibernate.

Autumn is being kind to us here and we have sunshine after the rain. The cosmos have almost finished flowering and I am itching to remove them to tidy up the garden. I have left the straggling plants as the seeds are appreciated by the goldfinches and warblers. I prefer to see the birds than to have a tidy garden.


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Life and death in the Asters

There are lots of asters in groups in the garden just now.

The queen bumble bees are the most amusing to watch. They are big and graceless. Speed a low priority attribute.

The Small Copper butterflies have enough time to play with such a bounty of available nectar.

It’s not just bees and butterflies that come to the asters, lots of different flies, like this hover fly, are attracted to them.

Of course, the honey bees don’t miss out either.

I’ve noticed the lizards keep a beady eye on the proceedings. There are plenty of wall lizards in the garden that must appreciate the little flies.

I was just about to take a photograph of the European hornet when a honeybee that I had not noticed suddenly disappeared.

After the sudden strike the hornet dropped lower into the asters and with commendable care and precision, started to dismember and package the prize. I was surprised at how rapidly the honeybee succombed to the hornets sting. There was no struggle as the bee hung limply in the hornets grip, pollen still attached to her hind legs. Once the bee was firmly installed in the hornet’s powerful mandibles, the hornet took off rapidly and easily. A redoubtable hunting machine.

So although the asters are a constant source of pleasure and amusement for me, the many visitors risk their lives for the nectar.

My French marigolds are till providing colour and nectar for the bees. I mentioned that I have read that they are edible.

I did not exactly risk my life to try one but I felt I really should. I was pleasantly surprised as (although a bit crunchy) they had a fresh herby flavour. I even convinced Kourosh to try one (it was easier than I had anticipated ;)). He said they had a similar flavour to fresh dill with a peppery plus.

It was after I ate the first one, which I had only given a brief flush under the water tap, that I started to think how much grit and insect life might be concealed tightly inside the flower head. They were pretty crunchy, after all, and grew quite close to the earth.

I decided to give them a quick flush and then soak them inverted in clear water.

Thankfully, no sediment or bodies dropped to the bottom.

I would recommend a thorough clean – just to be sure.


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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.