Gardening Organically

I found this great post and I just pressed the reblog button in my enthusiasm. I didnt have time to ask for permission and I really hope The Wildlife Gardener doesnt mind my hasty action, but it is a really good piece and it expresses the need to ditch the chemicals much better than I can!

The Wildlife Gardener

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It’s tempting to reach for the chemical sprays or powders when your walk into your garden and find your favorite rose overrun with aphids or Japanese beetles, or find your cauliflower beset by cabbage worms.  After all, what harm can a localized spray possibly do?

The answer is quite a lot.  The fact is 90% or more of all insects are beneficial and harmless, and no matter how “localized” the spray, the chemical will kill all insects, not just the “pests.”  A diverse collection of insects in your garden/yard translates into good pollination and fruit development, and a natural, non-toxic check on the growth of “pests.”  We need insects in the ecosystem.  The alternative would be hand-pollinating our fruit and vegetables to continue our food supply; clearly not a viable or reasonable alternative.

Beneficial insects, if allowed to flourish, will curb the spread of pests.  The two most effective ways to encourage…

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Chocolate dusting

These bracket fungi remind me of Christmas spice biscuits: white sugar and a dark chocolate top, all dusted with cocoa powder. The honey fungus to the left look like marzipan decorations, but I am not eating any of it. Foraging maybe fashionable these days, but a spectacular number of people die every year from picking and eating the wrong mushrooms. I am fascinated by fungi, but know enough to recognise how different the same species can be, at each stage of its growth. Even the most experienced can make mistakes and while this can just lead to a badly upset stomach, it can also lead to fast, fatal poisoning. So I just admire from a distance and eat real chocolate instead!

On the same walk in the woods, where I spotted these deceptively edible treats, I saw a commotion in a fir tree which took a moment to understand. There was ungainly flapping and an odd hissing/cooing noise. The flapping was a buzzard and the hissing was a very small red squirrel racing along the trunk of the tree to escape. The buzzard chased it up the tree and then down again, flapping its wings against the trunk to dislodge the mammal. The squirrel ran for its life making the strangest soft cooing noises. Eventually it reached the safety of the floor and buried its self in the undergrowth. The buzzard flew heavily away with a disgusted croak.

I have seen a buzzard with a dead red squirrel in its claws, but never watched them hunting like this before. We don’t get Grey squirrels here at all and the red squirrels are much less obvious. I have always thought of buzzards hunting voles and rabbits, but when you see how crafty they are in the depth of the forest, it is no wonder the red squirrels with their soft voices, are so cautious and hard to see.

Pivot..End of August…..

Nine o’clock at night and it is night, as the end of summer darkness has come quickly. The commuters have all gone. The swishing tyres are silent. On the curve of the hill a tawny owl calls . Again and again more distant now as the darkness thickens.

My near neighbour is clearing the dinner plates. Her voice is full of urgent news and chatter. There are no spaces for replies. Through the lighted window her daughter stretches up her arms after a full meal. The chatter disappears, the owl returns. In the street a car drives away. The daughter and her boyfriend leave her parents to a quiet, tidy house.

Madame Charlotte’s feral cats appear: quiet, black, quite aware that I am no threat to them, they drink from the hedgehog bowl and delicately sniff out the cat food discarded by my pampered hygienic moggies. I think I can hear earthworms slithering. An apples falls heavy from a tree onto the cooling grass behind me.

In front, Madame Charlotte’s 45 year old son parks up under the eves of the old barn. He lets out a prodigious belch and fumbles into the house. The lone bat leaves the high eves and goes out across the orchard to feed.

The mosquitoes are feeding on me. Time to go in: the autumnal kitchen door slams behind me.

Alsace in August.

There have been three weeks of punishingly hot weather here, but today it was finally cool and we could emerge from our firmly shuttered house and enjoy the countryside.

The skies are full of huge storks . All the youngsters have successfully fledged from their roof top nests and have followed every plough and harvester to gather up the crickets, slugs and voles and turn them into gigantic terydactyl sized birds. I love seeing the white storks raise their noisy broods in such public places. They are a wonderful European sucesss story . In the Alsace they were nearly shot to extinction only a few decades ago, but now with bettter education and legal protection these truely iconic birds are flourishing once again. When I arrived in our village 8 years ago, to see a stork in the sky was a real event, but now they feed regularly in the meadows and the local school is putting up a stork basket to encourage the first pair to nest here for many years. Some things do get better!

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When stopping for a rest, I looked closely at this Douglas fir branch . There is a new cone sticky with resin, but there are also the remains of old cones, with just the sharp, strong centre remaining. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are said to originate in the Alsace starting with pine tree brought into the house and decorated. The old upright cone stalk looked exactly like the metal spike used to secure candles in times gone by and I wondered if this natural shape had given people the idea of attaching the little candles that illuminate Christmas trees still,  while we stand by with the fire extinguisher on Christmas Eve.

Thirty storks flew high over the garden today. The migration has started – Christmas is coming!!

 

July (lying in a hammock)

The afternoon heat rises, the brown cases of lunilaria, peeled back to reveal the secret moonlight of the seed septum, scratch light along the stones.

Small bees vibrate in the Russian Sage .  Blue tit fledgelings are unexpectedly insistent: hungry, hungry, hungry in the sallow.

And then again, the quiet.

The church clock dolles out the half hour of stillness, one note at a time . The crow with sore throat calls familiar.

Nothing.

A frill of swallow song thrown over head and then gone.

A car. The ravens roll distant above the forest .

The bees…the bees….. bee…. b…

 

 

( for James Wright)

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Sun rise, sun set …..

I love being on holiday and having the time to spend whole days in the garden, not just snatched moments between work and sleep!

Evening primroses are wonderful flowers that uncoil themselves in the twilight and become luminous saucers of pale yellow in the darkness. Watching their opening from a garden seat,  as the blackbirds fuss themselves down to sleep, is one of the great pleasures of high summer. The flowers are open all night and as soon as the bees and butterflies wake up in the morning, they throw themselves into the generous feast of pollen and nectar .

In the early morning, there  is time to explore the fields that we usually blurred by in the morning commute.

Green finches wheeze companiably from the hedgerows; sparrows explode in raucous flocks from the ripe wheat and poured over everything, like thick cream, is the complex beauty of the blackcap’s song.

On the edge of the yellow wheat, poppies are starting to open. The green calyx of the bud is being shrugged off like an uncomfortable hat. The flower stem is vibrating visibly with the effort of releasing the petals. A moment’s waiting as the sun rises and the poppy is open; crimson petals still frilled with the shape of the bud. A moment more  and a bumble bee has found it and vibrates in ecstasy in the brand new black pollened centre of this poppy, that will have dropped every scarlet petal by the mid day sun.

The opening of the flowers mark each wonderful, transient day of our holidays and of our lives. Enjoy!

Snow in Spring time.

Along the stream crack willows grow. Planted generations ago to provide wands for basket weaving, periodically the willows are still cut back  hard and I fret about the birds that used to feed and nest in them.

And then they grow back thicker and lusher than before, noisy with black caps, loud with lovely yellow hammers and wheezy with green finches.

And then they set seed and a blue May morning is filled with down shaken from a pillow and impossible snow flakes drifting down, caught on a breeze, confusing the eyes with delight.

Look hard at the blue photo and you can follow their transient trajectory too!

Weekend.

There is so much to write about at this time of year I don’t know where to  begin. Winston brought me a slow worm and dropped it delicately at my feet to admire. Pixie brought me a vole and chased around the kitchen and killed it. The garden is filling with flowers. There are orange tipped butterflies on the wild ladies smock blooming in the lawn. There are violets in the tussocks and wasps shaving the wooden garden bench to make their nests. The cat drug valerian is managing to grow faster than they can rub it back down in their ecstasy . We have seen our first swallows and our first house martins as they swooped on by . The ants have woken up . There are bee flies on the honesty flowers and humming bird hawk moths on the cowslips. The blackthorn is still beautiful . The peas and the potatoes are planted. The only absurd part of this wonderful race of fantastical spring glory is that some joker still expects me to leave it all on Monday and go to work!!

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New season resolutions for Earth Day.

The garden has just started to wake up after a bruisingly long winter. The forsythia is about to burst into golden Easter glory, the daffodils are straightening up to trumpet the new season and the birds are all shouting their spring songs.

There is still snow under the hedge and birds are still very hungry. It seems to be the same every year: every shop in France, Germany and Switzerland has run out of sunflower seeds, bird seed and fat balls just when it gets really cold and the end of season birds need our help most of all to survive until the spring can feed them with insects.

There is horribly worrying research to show how insect numbers are collapsing in Europe because of our love of pesticides and desire to cut every road side verge, grub up every  hedgerow and trim every garden shrub to a stump. Now the research shows that bird number are also crashing and especially here in France. Birds need insects and without them the birds will simply cease to exist.

I have been lucky enough to live in this corner of France for eight years now and in that time I have seen so many hedgerows grubbed up; old trees taken out and not replanted and ditchs shaved and shorn of every plant week on week in the growing season; so that there is nowhere left for wild flowers; for the insects that rely on them and for the birds that feed upon the bugs.

I hadn’t planned on this article being so shouty. Gardens are places to escape bad news, they are peaceful havens of good sense in a crazy world; but even our gardens are linked to the wider world. The birds that fascinate us through the winter feed and breed in the countryside around us. The butterflies that surprise us on a warm afternoon need flower filled meadows to feed on; the bees need orchards to sustain them.

We can’t control what happens in the countryside, but we are in control of our own gardens. I moved to France for space and for the ultimate luxury of a real garden and this has become my sanctuary and often my salvation.  As we look forward to a new season and take pleasure in every unfolding blossom and every green shoot,  let’s decide to make our gardens places of real beauty and wonder for as much life as possible.

Let’s NOT

use pesticides

use hebicides

cut down trees and bushes

be afraid of letting the grass grow

cover the soil we own in concrete.

 

Here’s to a fantastic year full of colour and fruit, beauty and life. Here’s to the gardens, allotments and parks of The World !

 

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” And for that minute a blackbird sang”

As there is nothing to do in the garden except morn the flowers buried under the snow I thought I would share a poem instead.

Adlestrop

By Edward Thomas
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Source: Poems (1917)

This is a great favourite. It is a poem about nothing; about a delicious absence of unwanted noise and movement and about the great beauty of the sound of blackbirds.

Blackbirds are the first to sing in the morning and the last bird to chuckle down to sleep in the evening.  Gardens are plotted and mapped out by the territories of singing blackbirds  :  ” all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” and all the places beyond are the kingdoms of blackbirds.

 

 

© cathysrealcountrygarden. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and images without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathysrealcountrygarden with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Murmuration.

Some words are worth saying just for their sheer beauty  – murmuration is one.

Try saying it out loud and enjoy the rolling, soothing sound.

The word describes one of the great unexpected delights of bird watching: the huge, sweeping, boiling cloud that starlings form before they settle to roost in enormous numbers.

If you want to remind yourself of this magnificant fluid aerial spectacle, click on this link.

The last time I watched it was at Llangorse Lake in Powys Wales. For thirty incredible minutes the sky was alive with the twisting and blooming shapes of thousands upon thousands of noisy starlings wheeling and dancing before stettling suddenly in the reeds to sleep.  Not only was it visually extraordinary, but the noise that starlings make is as raucous and sociable as teenagers squealing with supressed news on the first day back at school .

My garden is still covered in snow and loud with competitive bird calls, as they squabble over apples and the last of the bird seed. The blackbirds cluck and fuss, the field fare hiss and stamp, but they all step back for the 30 boisterous starlings that periodically descend from the winter skies to hoover up everything going.

Starlings were once very common, but are now on the UK red list of endangered birds due to a dramatic and not fully understood decline. I can’t imagine they are doing any better just over the water here in France, so I am delighted to share my bumper bags of cheap Coop ugly apples with them.

They chatter, wheeze, pipe and trill to each other: a Twitter storm in the real world of real, beautiful birds in a cold early spring!

 

 

 

© cathysrealcountrygarden. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and images without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathysrealcountrygarden with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

Couscous and chicken for the birds.

E9383AE1-1FAC-4BBC-A936-B352CF5742C2.jpegThe unusually low temperatures have continued here. It is the end of a long winter, the birds are tired and hungry and I have time, for once, to feed them.

The cold has brought new visitors. Gangs of blackbirds demolish the apples thrown out for them. Starlings have come to ground to flaunt their shiver of green sparkles against the dead grass. The marvellously painted goldfinches have finally discovered the niger seed feeder they have ignored all winter and a solitary field fare, puffed and fluffed against the cold eats sultanas and the apples left over by the black birds.

The sparrows can’t eat their crumbs fast enough before they freeze and I have taken to putting out hot couscous that stays unfrozen just long enough for them to eat it on their table.

As ever, the shops run out of bird seed at this time of year, as they are determined to sell us spring things, whatever the evidence of their eyes tell them to the contrary.

So I dug to the back of the food cupboard to find what I could use instead and came up with: dried figs (chopped up), raisins, sun flower kernels, oats and couscous ( cooked) and rice (cooked). I found soya beans which I boiled up. The birds wouldn’t touch them. I also threw two chicken legs  onto the shed roof, which wonders of wonders, tempted in a red kite and a buzzard !

Possibly the most useful thing I have contributed so far is a regular kettle of hot water into the tin tray that is my bird bath. As all the water is ice at the moment, birds really need something to drink and the circles of ice in the picture are the emptied offerings, which shows how long it has been cold. My reward, when  I was pouring the kettle, was the distant drumming of a woodpecker and the high, sweet mewing of a buzzard calling for a mate in the clear air.

 

© cathysrealcountrygarden. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and images without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathysrealcountrygarden with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Carnival with forsythia.

It’s Shrove Tuesday and I forgot to make pancakes.

After an interminable month of grey skies and rain, the sun appeared for a whole, wonderful ice cold day. Greenfinches appeared in the birch tree, a few field fare burbled over and two loud ravens called across the blue sky, their heavy dark wings beating the air. In a thermal of heat, red kites and buzzards spiralled up, mewing and fighting in a confusion of lust and aggression.

Shrove Tuesday is the day to use up all rich foods before the abstinence of lent and the only memory we have of it in Britain is flipping pancakes in a village race.

In other countries it is part of carnival ; that hedonistic party before the forty days and forty nights of lent that prepared the faithful for Easter.

In my current neck of the woods (Basel ) carnival  is an oddly irreligious scaring away of the spirits of winter with three beautiful days of grotesque, frightening masks, discordant music, drums and solemn drunkenness .

My small contribution to frightening away the winter is to bring my first branches of forsythia into the house and watch them slowly bloom in the warmth of sunshine and firelight.

Embrace.

Before my first Christmas in Switzerland I went looking for mistletoe to add to the holy and the ivy of a traditional English winter decoration.

I was living in the suburbs and found ivy easily enough and holly in a nearby copse of trees , but no mistletoe. For me mistletoe is a mystical Druidic thing that loves apples trees, needs a golden scycle to cut it and will inspire strangers to kiss beneath it and is absolutely essential for Christmas.

In the copse  of conifers and hornbeam behind our apartment I found tantalising snippets of mistletoe lying on the ground; solitary twigs of two simple leaves and the odd pale white berry.  I looked up into the trees, searching for the familiar ball shape of a mistletoe plant suspended from a branch, but there was nothing. Maybe someone had been here collecting before me and these leaves were their debris.

Eventually I was reduced to buying an over priced  sprig in a local  florists, but I wondered where they had found it, so far from apple trees.

And then came the New Year storms: howling gales ripping off branches and uprooting whole trees. In the felled conifers were hundreds of little mistletoe plants, living their parasitic lives amongst the thick evergreen branches quite hidden to my ignorant eyes. It had never said in my English botany books that mistletoe lived in pine trees and yet here was the abundant proof, littered on the forest floor.

This week in France, the storms came again and the woods are crashed with fallen limbs and boughs, but I was still amazed to see the mistletoe in the unexpected embrace of the felled pine tree. Such odd, but comfortable bed fellows!

Rien à Déclaré

E3401D3B-4830-481B-BD0F-8C75AB96C701.jpegI have just finished rewatching a very funny Dany Boon French movie set on the French/Belgium border in 1993, the year European  borders were opened and no one needed customs officials anymore.

The film came out in 2010 and shows what happens in a little border town that basically is no longer a border and how the French and the Belgian customs men have to learn to accept each other as fellow human beings. It is a film about the stupidity of racism,  full of slap stick, silly stereotypes and a soppy romantic ending.

It opens on New Year’s Day, when the laws change and the people can move freely and the irony of watching it while waiting for Britain’s borders to slam shut was not lost on me.

I try hard to avoid all controversial subjects in this blog, for all the blindingly obvious reasons . Maybe it will be just as funny when the border guards and customs people separate Britain from our neighbours in Europe. Maybe standing in queues and being suspicious of foreigners will provide us all with a rich vein of reverse humour.

I cross European borders everyday to shop, to visit friends, to go to the doctor, to work: it is as easy as crossing the street. I want everyone to feel as free as I do right now, walls do not always make good neighbours and the fun comes when you don’t need them at all. Then maybe we will all have Rien a déclaré.

Crow

img_1339Anything wild catches my eye.  Surrounded by day in Swiss concrete, there is little moving to distract me: except the crows.

In the bare branches of the stunted municipal trees they hunch and wait for a dropped sandwich; a popped pringle; an unloved apple.

They throw back their necks and caw jubilation to waiting mates .  Unfurl shake of black shawl wings and sky borne : quartering and dividing the dark tarmac, deciding  how to achieve the ground and to eat their quarry.

Swoop. Decent. Great wings folded and tidy they step delicately martial across their parade ground of discarded dinner and impale a morsel in anthracite black beaks .  Food inspected, assessed, consumed, they return replete to the bare winter tree  and watch us, intelligent sentinels, as the darkness falls.

Feed the Birds

Winston, my cat, is glowering at me from the mat.

He is not allowed out this afternoon , to give my birds a chance to feed. November has little to recommend it, but it does mark the start of the  winter bird feeding season. The feeders are festooned with fat balls, the tables are loaded with seed and the birds have arrived in style.

First the blue tits swarmed in, then came the great tits and sneaking in amongst them a jauntily quiffed crested tit.  Then the robin spotted the food, then came a few chaffinces, a solitary green finch and a smart nuthatch followed. The white back of the head stripe announced a coal tit and suddenly twice the size of everything else there was a fat billed female haw finch, who bullied everything else away for half an hour of solitary gorging.

Winston was still inside, still in a rage and then to add insult to injury a sparrow hawk swooped through the trees looking to do some feeding of her own from amongst my new guests.

Why is she allowed to hunt and not me?

Oh, Winston the injustices of the world are manifold. Have a stroke instead.

Looking for Crumbs.

As the season changes I am just about to start feeding the birds in the back garden. Big bag of bird seed is on the shopping list for Monday and the bird feeders are out of the shed waiting to be cleaned.

I have a bird table on the other side of the house, which up until now  has been the sole territory of the sparrows and has been filled daily with bird crumbs, leftover couscous, crumbled crackers and what ever else didn’t get eaten that day. In the last few weeks it has been taken over by blue tits, great tits and even a jaunty crested tit. There has obviously been some sort of turf war and I am curious as where my squabbling and normally numerous sparrows have gone.

Today, there was a new twist as I noticed honey bees rolling about in crumbs of discarded flapjack. The last flowers have secumbed to the first frost , but the warm weather has encouraged the bees to keep flying and the sugary flapjacks were obviously just what they needed to refuel  on a still November afternoon.

The Watchers.

We watch the birds and the birds watch us.

They are harvesting the maize here. The plants have ripened for months and are dry sentinels guarding the hard yellow cobs that will go for bio fuel or animal feed. Enormous harvesters are shredding the stalks and a glistening stream of grain pours into the following truck. And watching from the orchards are the chaffinches.

A few have been here all summer, but now there are hundreds and they are following the harvest. What do these huge roaring machines look like to these little birds? How did they learn that the rumble and diesel smell means grain to eat as they pick their way through the chaff with the newly arrived winter migrants?

The storks and the buzzards recognise the ploughs that turn over insects and voles to eat in the summer and my sparrows recognise the bread board being shaken each morning over the bird table to scatter crumbs for them.

We think we are the observant ones, but really we are just one set of eyes amongst many watching all around us!

Three quarters of the flying insects are gone.

This article from the Guardian newspaper explains the terrifying decline in insects that is happening in Europe. I heard about it on a radio programme as I was rushing out to work and like so much bad news, I jus hoped it wasn’t true.

Unfortunately it is true and I know it . 

When I would drive home in dusk twenty years ago, the windscreen of my car would be covered in dead insects. Driving down a country lane in the summer was to push through all manner of bugs and butterflies, but now the glass is hardly dirty.

The air is empty. We have trimmed all the hedges and the field edges, we have patioed our gardens and insecticided every crop and plant that we grow. We have tidied up everywhere and now there is virtually no where left for a bug to feed, which means no bugs for the birds to feed on, no birds for the mammals to catch and so on up the food chain.

I don’t want to know this. It is too depressing, but that won’t stop it being true.

So in the spirit of the saying that it is better to light a candle in the night, that to curse the darkness, I will not be tidying my garden this weekend. I shall leave every over grown plant and tatty seedhead; every untrimmed corner of rank grass and every heap of uncollected leaves in the hope that a few hard pressed insects will find a home there and survive for just a little longer.

Here’s to not gardening in the dark!

https://amp-theguardian-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/amp.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/21/insects-giant-ecosystem-collapsing-human-activity-catastrophe

Robin’s Bread

Spindle berries are my favourite fruit of the autumn. From inconspicuous little green flowers in the spring, the oddest, brightest and most extravagant seeds grow.

The fruitcase in an astounding lipstick vibrant pink and when ripe they open to display a fluorescent orange seed. Most plants make do with dry seeds in a papery dead case,  but the spindle pouts its glory in colours that seem almost artificial and unnatural in their unexpected vibrancy.

The wood is tough and sharp and was used to making spinning spindles, knitting needles and even toothpicks. Folk law says when used to make a meat skewer, the wood will keep all meat impaled upon it sweet.

In Germany it is called Rotkehlchenbrot or Robin’s Bread and from watching the bush in my garden I understand why . The robins adore the orange fruit and hang upside down on the long branches to pull them out from the pink lips. Black birds and black caps will eat them too and the poisonous seed passes harmlessly through their digestive tracts to be flown to new hedgerow places, where they take root and eventually make more bread for the hungry robins!

 

 

Autumn Equinox.

Today the sky was full of birds. Hundreds and hundreds of swallows passed over the garden on their long journey south.

Our village is on a major migration route in the autumn and the spring.  Serious birders set up telescopes on the field below the church and scan the skies as all types of birds leaving the north are funnelled by the river valley and the first folds of the Jura Mountains into columns high over head. The garden is under this line and my husband spots honey buzzards, bee eaters, ospreys, cranes, storks and even a vulture from the comfort of the front porch.

Today no binoculars were needed to see the birds . At times they streamed by, at other times they wove and stitched the air as they caught insects above the apple trees and the willow and all the untidy greenery of an autumn garden . Then the sky was clear and they seemed to pause,  come back and feed again, criss crossing the blue sky a thousand times and counting them became an utter impossibility. The air was all slicing wings, tail ribbons and unceasing movement and strangely all of it was completely silent. No twittering, just determined hunting and then moving on: the season has changed.

 

Hungry birds and missing caterpillars.

Having cleared out the earthquake emergency box and taken out everything that was out of date, I still can’t throw food away. So I continue to cook unwanted food for my colony of sparrows!

Having proven that house sparrows, blue tits and great tits will eat instant noodles, my latest experiment proves they will also demolish a packet of mini macaroni in 24 hours flat!

The bad news concerns the caterpillar living on the geranium on my desk at work, which grew visibly hour by hour . I did wonder how it would fare over the weekend with no one to admire its hairy plumpness and unfortunately my misgivings were well founded. On Monday morning he was gone. He may have crawled out the window;  he may have metamorphosed  into a butterfly and flown away in record time; or he may have squished by the cleaner. I leave you to decide.

On the upside a swallowtail caterpillar is eating the fennel in my veg patch safe from    offices and zealous cleaners. I am banking on this one making it to butterfly!

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Let it go!

When we moved into our home seven years ago, the drive was gravel. I think it must have been regularly sprayed with weed killer to keep it  bare and tidy- so we stopped. We collected handfuls of seeds from local wild flowers in the first  autumn and we threw them on the tidy, dead stones.

A blush of green appeared in the spring. Tiny pinks arrived first

 

IMG_1662.JPGand tentative wild marjoram. Dandelions scrambled yellow and I let them flower for the bees and then seed for the linnets to feed on. Yarrow sprang up eventually and garden lavender even set seed and bushes started to grow.

There is still a bare strip where the car comes in and out of the garage each day, but the rest is a riot of colour and life. Arriving home from work to drive through an explosion of butterflies and a wall of bumble bees is a million times better growling over dead stones and when I wake up in the morning, open my bedroom window and look down, I watch finches picking through seeds and house martins swooping through the insects that have found a home on our drive just because we let it all go!

Cuckoo in the nest.

When we lived in Wales we used to keep watch on the nest of a peregrine falcon. It involved long hours ensuring no one stole the eggs to sell to falconers in the Middle East and while we lay in the grass, we also got to watch cuckoos.

The plump, barred birds picked caterpillars off the bushes and squeezed their inner ends down  their throats like a thrifty dentist squeezing the last of a tube of tooth paste. Since then I have rarely seen them and the only confirmation that the they still exist has came from the unmistakable call of the male bird.

When we first moved to France I heard a few each year and then there were none , but this year, while feeding my sparrows, I  heard a call, loud clear and wonderfully unmistakable .

On the same day we stopped by a thin line of reeds between two fields and listened to the sweet call of a very different bird. If you look closely at the photo you can see a very small bird singing. It is a reed warbler and it is smaller than a sparrrow and weighs the same as an envelope. This is the tiny bird that most often raises the young of the cuckoo. Their own chicks are thrown out by the cuckoo hatchling who has never laid eyes on its own parents . By mimicking the sound of a hungry baby reed warbler the cuckoo encourages its diminutive parents to feed the imposer until it dwarfs them in size. When it is fully grown the cuckoo sets off for the rain forests of central Africa, without ever having seen another cuckoo in its life.

It is an extraordinary story of how interconnected we are on this small planet and how a single evocative sound in one part of the world links us to all of the rest .

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Feathering your nest.

A soft feather pillow to sink into engenders peaceful  sleep and it seems sparrows know it too!

I had been shaking out an old feather pillow on top of the potato peelings on our compost heap and some the feathers escaped. They caught on the dry earth and within minutes our local sparrows were down stuffing their beaks with pillow feathers to line their own new nests. They continued to visit all afternoon until every feather was gone and a small trail of white duck down floated down the quiet street in their wake.

Sound scape.

I wake up to rave music.

The sickening machine deep thump like my own heart about to explode. I take deep, deep breaths. Windows kept shut,  the rumble of the kettle and the calming sound of a teapot filling, restores some equilibrium, until the loathsome perpetrator of this insult  lapses somewhere into unconsciousness and the cacophony stops.

Outside is birdsong.

The sparrows chattering companionably. A great tit proclaiming his territory. A marsh tit tapping open a sunflower seed on the the trellis. The electric cackle of a redstart . A chiffchaff. The first deep pollen furred rumbles of bumble bees.

The neighbour’s dog Harry is let out and barks . The first horse from the stable ambles down the road and Harry barks again. The horse shys and his hooves clatter sharp on the tarmac. Harry smiles.

In the garden the hum of bees is louder. The pear tree is in full bloom and every single tiny flower seems covered in honey bees. Blink and the tree seems still, squint and it is writing with pollinating frenzy.

Overhead a buzzard mews plaintively swinging  into a swoop to impress his mate hanging in the paintbox blue sky.

A couple of frantic and obilivious cyclists whoosh by on thin wheels shouting . Another neighbour retrieves the beer can he left last night in the garden before his elderly mother peers out to admire her pink ribboned Easter rabbit decorations.

After lunch there is laughter under the trees over a cigarette. A desolutotry teenager bounces a basket ball for a few minutes.

Magpies cackle and four black kites glide over head in total silence, their universe so huge, so distant and unbounded.

 

 

 

 

Bald Bush!

This forsythia was the only shrub that existed in my garden when we bought this house and the first spring it flowered magnificently. We took cuttings from it and they all rooted easily.

These daughter plants produced wonderful frills of yellow flowers on every inch of the branches, but the mother plant is now nearly bald of blossom every spring.  We thought we were pruning it at the wrong time, so we pruned in the late spring: no flowers, so we pruned in the winter: no flowers, so we didn’t prune at all: still no flowers!

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So then I wondered what had changed from when we first arrived and I saw the bird table we had place right next to it, which attracts a mob of house sparrows all year round, to eat our left over bread. Obviously the bread was not enough as I remembered I had seen a telltale yellow bud in a sparrow’s beak weeks before. In recompense for all the bread I have shared with them, behind my back they have been systematically stripping the flower buds every year, while we have been foolishly fretting about pruning régimes!

I love feeding the sparrows, so I guess I will just have to learn to love my raggedly parti coloured forsythia bush too!

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First cherry blossom.

The very first  wild cherry trees are blossoming . The white flowers are tiny and the mass of buds look like pearls against the dark branches.

In the forest oxslips are pushing up . This plant was growing on the rim of a badger latrine. I am always amused by badgers’ domesticity. They are very careful about where they do their business and favour dry banks where they can scrabble about without getting muddy and then move to a new site when the first gets too untidy.

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Up in the tree tops crows were mobbing a raven and the racket was wonderfully raucous. As we watched the commotion another large bird was flushed up . At first I thought it was a second  raven, but as it sat apart from the row, hunched and muscular we realised we were watching a female goshawk and I thought of “H. Is for Hawk” and felt privileged to be in her magnificent presence.

LBJ

No, not a new sexual orientation acronym, but little brown jobs: the birds that are hard to tell apart on sight, due to unremarkable plumage.

Chiffchaffs are definitely LBJs , but there is no mistaking their call, the onomatopoeic  “chiff -chaff” simple double note that gives them their name. To German ears they sing “zilpzap”and they have seem to have arrived here in the Alsace this very morning. They winter in Africa and summer in Europe. Redstarts seem to have arrived too along with a smattering of dunnocks.

While we listened a large hare loped out from under the hedge and sat a while on his long haunches, ears up to hear and admire some new sounds of spring and a brimstone butterfly that has survived the winter found a primrose.

All my Gardens- part 6 : Brazil – humming birds and high rise.

São Paulo Brazil has about 20 million inhabitants and from my first experience, only one tree.

I could see the tree from my apartment on the fifteenth floor. It was in a school yard a long way down and it was completely dwarfed by the high rises that surrounded it. São Paulo was the most relentlessly urban environment in which I have ever tried to grow a garden and yet a city more in need of green it would be hard to imagine.

When we arrived in our first apartment we stepped over the street children huddled together like puppies under blankets. When I looked out onto the balcony I felt I was falling into the most profound pit I had ever seen, as the earth that should have surrounded the building was being excavated to a terrifying depth, to build the sky scraper next door.

We didn’t stay long.

There were a few more trees near the next apartment we lived in, but they too were dwarfed into insignificance by the dimensions of the buildings.

 

From this second balcony I hung ferns in baskets and tried my best to make a wall of green with ficus trees, crotons and butterfly palms.  Bigonias are native to Brazil and an assortment of types gave colour and leaf shapes to my attempt to block out the view of the city.

Wildlife is more tenacious than we think however, and a feeder soon attracted a spectacular swallow tailed blue humming bird that had swapped a life sipping nectar from blossoms in the topical forest for a city life drinking sugar water from a plastic feeder. The blue grey taneger we had first met eating chilies in our Costa Rican garden appeared again in Brazil on this high rise balcony and even built a nest, as delicate as a wren’s, in an old plant pot. She even laid eggs, but three days of colossal thunderstorms sent apocalyptic lightening and biblical rain across the city and somewhere in the storm she was lost and her eggs were never hatched.

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(I found her photo in an old scrap book)

In our local bar, where we sat at pavement tables shouting above the roar of the traffic, fruit bats picked ripe fruits from the few road side trees. They must have been able to smell when the fruit was ripe and the bats appeared in their hundreds for a few day only hanging clustered like ghouls with their large intelligent canine faces, observing us drinking cold beer far below.

On the edge of Sao Paulo is a wonderful place called Pedra Grande. Before the city grew into the chaotic megalopolis that it is today, an enlighten city father decided to protect the city’s watershed. In order to do this a very large chunk of Atlantic forest around a rock outcrop was spared the axe and to this day Paulistas can walk amongst the real tropical sky scrapers of giant trees and delight in three toed sloths, howler monkeys and magnificent toucans only a short drive from down town. This remnant of paradise was our salvation and we spent each weekend there buried in the deep green and the brilliant colours that make up a tropical forest.

To climb to the top of Pedra Grande is to understand the true shape of the world.

The walker emerges from the shade of the thick forest, scrambles onto the smooth granite boulders and the conurbation of 20 million souls erupts into view. The tens of thousands of sky scrapers bristle up into the smog hazed sky and then slope away into infinity, as the curvature of the planet is revealed in this awful, breathtaking monument to the human ability multiply and to build.

No balcony garden anywhere could compensate for that knowledge.

https://cathysrealcountrygardencom.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/down-to-earth-in-switzerland-all-my-gardens-part-9

All my Gardens-Part5 England and almonds.

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

All my Gardens – part 3: Wild Wales.

All my Gardens: part 2 Garsington Manor and beyond.

In Cold Time (All my gardens :part 1)

 

 

 

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