a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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First baby toad emerges

Yesterday we saw our first baby toad – almost adult, without a tail.

Taking a picture was non too easy as he was quite frisky.

Today I realised he was not alone and a group of them were becoming more adventuresome and coming right out of the water to use their newly developed lungs.

I went to get a little bit of netting to help them climb out the plastic pond more easily but I need not have bothered as they were already on the stones surrounding the pond and in the grass.

Now we are frightened to go near the pond in case we stand on them!

They still like to keep together and there are plenty of damp places around the pool under the stones. In fact, all around the pool you can see baby toads, despite there still being tadpoles in the pool.

We first noticed the eggs on 21 May 2021. However, it is possible there were other spawning events before or after that date. The other tadpoles may just be late developers. Seemingly, once the toads leave the water they only return eventually to breed. They have chosen a good time to enter the garden because it is warm and damp, which sounds perfect for baby toads.

I do not expect to find any slugs in the garden now!


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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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There is more in the garden than flowers…

1-Disturbed toad

Our hose drips where it is attached to the outside tap and the corner stays damp so that underneath it was very overgrown and needed a good spring weeding.  However, more than the plants had appreciated the dampness and a large common toad (Bufo bufo) had made the corner his home and even constructed a comfortable tunnel under a large stone.

1-Toad in hand

He did not object to being handled and posed peacefully for a close-up shot.  It makes me wonder how often he has done this for us.  My husband likes the toads and I think they are now trained to come to hand when he discovers one.

1-Marbled newt

Beside the toad was a marbled newt ( Triturus marmoratus) who was also enjoying the damp spot.  We often see the newts in the garden or in the old well.

1-Marbled newt with crest

Next to appear were much younger newts and for the first time I saw one (the one on the left) that still had its crest.  The males have a crest during the aquatic stage but this will gradually disappear as they proceed into the terrestrial stage and begin to become more coloured.

1-Juvenile Western whip snake, Hierophis viridiflavus

The other day I needed a stepping stone to use to get through the border to my bee hotel so I looked for a suitable one at the bottom of the garden.  When the stone was lifted there were two young snakes curled up together underneath it but they soon made off.  The above photograph is a set-up.  The stone was replaced and lifted again the next day but this time only one of the snakes was underneath it.   The snake is a juvenile Western whip snake, (Hierophis viridiflavus), they are quite common around here but are non-venomous and not aggressive.  We have lots of wall lizards and these provide an easy food source for the snakes.

Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera

My bee orchid is still doing well and I was quite excited when I thought another orchid might be growing in the garden.

1-Bud Orobanch amethystea

First a shoot like an asparagus appeared.

1-Bud growing Oroba amethystea

Then the bud started to open.

1-IMG_0376.Orobanche amethystea

I thought the flowerlets looked like orchids.  Wrong!  There are similarities but there is no central single lip which is a common feature of orchids.  This is a new plant to me – it is an Orobanche amythystea.  These are not orchids but plants that do not produce chlorophyll and obtain their nutrition by parasitising other plants.  Orobanche amythystea can use various plants as a substrate including wild carrot, sea holly and ivy.  I do hope mine is a parasite of my ivy!  I cannot see where the roots of the Orobache are reaching under the soil but I’d like to think it is joining me in my never ending battle with invading ivy.

The flowers will eventually form seeds but these seeds will be unable to germinate unless they find themselves near roots of their host.  There are many different species and they can become problematic if the host plant is an arable crop.  In France some of the other species can infect tobacco and legumes.

Anthophora plumipes male

Yesterday morning, just after 10 o’clock my husband called me to see the bee he had spotted asleep on a Hydrangea bud.  It was an Anthophora plumipes male.  They are extremely fast moving bees so it was fun to snap some shots of him while he was fast asleep and motionless.

Flowers and trees make up the backbone of a garden but it is all the unplanned arrivals, plant and animal, that make gardens so special.


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The old well

It’s been nearly six years now that my husband has wanted to clear out the old well and try to bring it back to how it once must have been.  The old well shaft still looks good but once piped water had been joined to the house no-one seems to have cared about the well.  There is still a mark on the stone wall of the house where the machinery must have been attached but that has long since been removed.

The first problem in restoring the well was obvious.  The well had been used to dump unwanted rubble over the ages so it was a simple case of constructing a pulley and removing the offending stones.  The pulley tackle was bought, but during our first few years here there were always more pressing issues to deal with than clearing the old well.

Two years ago my husband finally decided to tackle the well, however, it was not as simple as that.  First of all it was autumn and a group of our beloved newts (Triturus marmoratus) appeared to be settling down for the winter. They are such gentle creatures and we often come across them if we turn over a stone or lift up some overgrown plants in the garden.  So he felt he could not really turf them out to fend for themselves in the winter.  They are not exactly an endangered species but their numbers are being watched as their habitat is under threat, but not in our garden.

They do not move quickly and so have to endure being lifted stroked and replaced with care.  They take it very stoically and do not seem to mind being held.

They have to find their way to water to breed and the male has a raised crest on its back during the aquatic stage.  The newts mate during their aquatic stage and the female deposits the eggs in water.

I have only seen them around the garden and so I have never seen the raised crest and I cannot tell the males from the females.  They all have a red line down the middle of their back and combined with their green and black mottled colouring they are easy to identify.

I think it is when you find the baby animals in the garden that you develop a paternal (or maternal) feeling towards them.  The tiny little baby newt is a miniature replica of the adult with the red line developing on its back, it is not yet as highly coloured as the adults.  (I notice I’ve forgotten to wear my gardening gloves, again.)

Spring came and they were still there, so we did not like to disturb them during the breeding season…and so it continued.

Always hopeful that he might find the well vacant my husband had another explore recently.  Not only were there the usual newts in a good quantity but they were happily sub-letting to some other amphibians.

There was a common toad (Bufo bufo) which was obviously enjoying the damp conditions at the bottom of the well.  We often come across one in the garden hiding in damp places under flowers.

He has lovely golden eyes with horizontal pupils.

The surprise was to find fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) in the well as we had never seen them in the garden.  The nearest I had been to them was the flattened ones run over by cars on the road.  Once again they are easy to identify being bright yellow and black but it is not advisable to touch them as they are capable of exuding a venomous liquid onto their skin.

This is certainly a useful deterrent as the venom is capable of killing most of their likely predators and could be an irritant on contact with human skin or if transferred into the eyes accidently.

The reproduction of the fire salamander differs from the newts in that they mate on land and the larvae develop internally.  The female only requires going to water to give birth to the larvae.

This is a snapshot of what we found during one day, what may pass through during the year makes us wonder.

The well cleaning project does not look imminent.  Perhaps some time we will have a hot, dry summer and they will all clear off giving us time to do a bit of excavating.