The Big Birds are Back.

Storks are the regional emblem of the Alsace and tourist stalls are loaded with stork hats, stork plates, stork stuffed toys and stork snow domes, but these magnificently huge birds were almost completely wiped out in the twentieth century and numbers went as low as 9 pairs in the 1970s.
Birds were shot at, electrocuted on overhead wires and poisoned. Many starved in their African wintering grounds due to droughts.
They were completely extinct in Switzerland by 1950, but a determined school teacher from Solothurn went to Africa to find chicks, which he reintroduced to his country and here in the Alsace and Southern Germany programmes of captive breeding slowly pulled the White Stork back from the brink.
By feeding birds here to encourage them to avoid the hazardous migration south, numbers have increased to the point where breeding and feeding stations in local villages like Rodersdorf have recently been closed, as the population is thought finally to be stable enough not to need intervention.
The sight of storks returning to their nests on the rooves of local churches, on random telegraph posts and the even mobile phone towers is a sight to gladden the heart at this time of year.
The birds can live for thirty years and nests can weigh from 60-250Kg. Nests can be used year after year and many other birds can nest in the lower reaches of the bigger nests including sparrows and starlings.
Courtship and pair bonding is accompanied by wonderful clacking as they throw back their heads and point their huge beaks upwards. An average of four eggs are laid and chicks that hatch later in the season often do better than those who hatch earlier, as they avoid the perils of a cold wet spring. Successfully reared juveniles may opt to stay in Europe during the winter, especially where food many be plentiful as for instance around the zoos in Mulhouse, Basel and Zurich, but others will attempt the long migration into Africa to feed for insects, small mammals and amphibians in warmer surroundings .
So whether they have crossed continents, just hoped the border in our tri region area, or spent the whole year in the same spot; their nesting brings another generation of these magnificent birds back to my part of France, where they were so nearly lost forever.

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All my Gardens-Part5 England and almonds.

Some garden are yours for only a brief time .

After Costa Rica there were three short lived gardens.

The first was in Cheltenham, England and was basically a window box overlooking a courtyard. In a small space I kept hebes and cyclamens and tolerant bulbs. In the shelter of a town and the lea of an old building they flowered all year, untroubled by the cold and frosts of the real countryside. For the first time I understood the improbable things that are grown on upmarket London city balconies shielded from the seasons.  The flat was in a Georgian town house with great high ceilings and long shutters and along the front balcony wisteria grew. Most of the year wisteria is an unpreposessing green vine, but for two weeks in the spring it blossomed forth with pendant purple flowers that filled the room with the fabulous, heady smell of honey.

The next garden was in Spain.

A slab of bare dry earth surrounded by a wire fence at the back and a slice of an almond orchard at the front.

It was the end of summer and nothing was growing. To water plants in a town where toilets were flushed with sea water would have been criminal and so I saved every drop of water we washed clothes and dishes in and showered stood in buckets to catch the used water. All of this saved water was thrown on the dry “garden” and soon seeds began to germinate and morning glory started to clothe the ugly fence with green and flowers. We were allowed to harvest the ripe almonds and we managed to crack the hard shells in the jamb of the front door and roast the nuts slowly in the oven after soaking in salted water. As the world is a stranger and more dangerous place than we often think, we did not stay long enough to watch this  garden grow and left with only a couple of bags of salty nuts to remember it by.

Back in Cheltenham again, we took possession of an unassuming flat with a tiny balcony, just big enough for a single chair. I ranged narrow planters on the edge and clipped pots to the rails and in the next summer grew geraniums and nasturtiums and a wonder wall of perfumed sweet peas that leaned gratefully on the rails and provided a little display of flowers for the table for what seemed like months.  From the balcony we watched the fire works that declared the millennium and waited for the world to end when the computers stopped working, but it didn’t.

All my Gardens -Part 4: Costa Rica and the big world.

Some times you do something that changes your life forever.

I took a job in Costa Rica. I packed up the house in Wales, confident I would be home in two years and we left to see the world.

The first thing I recognised in San Jose were bizzie-Lizzies  flowering in cracks of the  city streets and that is where the familiar stopped. I didn’t recognise anything else.

Outside of the city there were active volcanoes belching steam and spewing larva; in the uplands resplendent  quetzals plucked wild avocados from cloud forest trees. On the Caribbean coast there were jaguars on the beach and on the Pacific coast giant turtles hauled themselves out of the surf to lay soft ping pong ball eggs in the moist sand. This was my new found land, my America and the exhuberence of the tropical forests; dry forests; clouds forest and beaches blew my mind.

This wasn’t Wales.

When there was so much to explore and so much pristine wildlife outside of the city to see, the personal domain of a garden seemed of less importance, but as l, like all other real people had a living to make, the jungle was only for the weekend and my garden was for the week.

Our bungalow in San Jose had a small wrap around garden with a car porch and a tall white wall on which sprawled the fastest growing bougainvillea in creation. An explosion of pink flowers cascaded from it all year and the huge spiny branches seemed to grow a metre a day. When we came back from a week away we had to hack our way through the gate.

At the Saturday market you could buy orchid plants hanging from scraps of wood and my car port was soon festooned in them. They went against all instincts, they seemed to have roots that should be covered in earth but were happy to absorb water straight from the rain. With some judicious spraying they periodically produced wonderful flowers, but the nakedness of the roots still disturbed me.

We hung up a sugar water feeder and a humming bird came to feed at the window. It was an utterly improbable jewelled mechanical toy that seemed suspended in the air by an invisible wire and to look into its bright eye was like looking into another geological age.

A tiny garden opened out from the shower with a burglar proof metal lattice above. This was the perfect place from which to suspend pots of more orchids and shade loving ferns and when I washed, I felt I was in my own miniature jungle.

Near the bedroom window a chilie bush grew, that produced very small, very fierce red chilies all year round. We tried  a few in cooking and they were all seed and heat. Lying in bed under the mosquito net we would watch a plump grey taniger pluck them one by one and toss them delicately down without a tear.

After a while we were troubled by an appalling smell from the drain outside and eventually discovered a decomposing cane toad, massive and bloated. The drain man tossed it into the empty lot next door where it continued to fester and stink for weeks, but its removal seemed to encourage another cane toad to take up residence in the garden. It was as big as a kitten and excellent at catching pests. I know that cane toads are considered the pests in Australia where they were introduced, but in Central America, where they originate, they are wonderful.

There were only two seasons: wet and dry and things grew in both. The rains brought the lushest growth, but the windy dry season was still green. There was no respite from the geckos and lizards, from the frogs and the birds and away from the city, the butterflies, the bats, the snakes and the monkeys.

To us the whole country was our garden of Eden.

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All my Gardens – part 3: Wild Wales.

My second rented garden was almost on the banks of the River Wye on the English Welsh border. Sand martins excavated holes in the crumbling overhangs of the banks and swans sometimes misjudged their flight over the bridge and landed inelegant and indignant in the midst of the traffic. Curlews picked over the drift wood of the broad river and king fishers flashed jewel bright over the green water.

I was there only for a winter and a spring. It was just long enough for me to be delighted by the masses of snowdrops that appeared and diligent enough to start waging war on the ground elder that pushed its way up everywhere. Appropriately yellow Welsh poppies flowered between the paving stones and I collected their seeds to take to my own first Welsh garden in the summer.

The first garden and until quite recently the only garden I owned, was oblong and uninspiring apart from one magnificent inhabitant: my oak. The oak was a surprising remnant from the farm land or wood land that had been lost to build our bungalow.  It was entirely out of proportion to the little suburban plot I owned and it was utterly magnificent.

I dug flower beds along the lawn and grew tansy and bear’s britches. Fox gloves loved the red sandstone soil and appeared everywhere and I adored watching fat bumble bees push their ways into the speckle lipped flowers. I grew a buddleia to attract the butterflies and killed it by pruning it too hard. I grew a Russian vine and nearly lost a fence because I couldn’t prune it fast enough.  My roses got blackspot in the wet Welsh weather, my drive grew a forest of moss and my lawn turned easily into a meadow  by planting  wild flowers in amongst the grass and only mowing it once a year, much to the neighbour’s dismay.

The Welsh poppies absolutely refused to germinate and no appeal to their patriotic duty convinced them to grow, but the oak grew slowly, but surely each year.

Grey squirrels loved the acorns and also the peanuts we put out for the birds. One particular squirrel would follow a trail of peanuts cross the lawn and into the sitting room through the French windows. My father was visiting one summer afternoon and was surprised to look up from his newspaper to see Charlene the squirrel, sat comfortably on the carpet watching the television with him in the sitting room.

The oak tree is still there and I have made sure it has preservation order on it to protect it from the tidy minded.  The  garden alas has now reverted to plain lawn and all the flowers I planted are gone. The poppies seeds still refuse to flower, but the warm wet Welsh weather has kept the drive sstill lushly  carpeted in thick green moss.