In the lion’s teeth.

It’s snowing here, but soon the sun will be out again and the dandelions will be in flower again – such is the fickle nature of spring. Faffing about flowers when the virus has us all enthralled seems absurd, but we must stay sane and nature turns unperturbed by our concerns.

Those of us fortunate enough to have lawns are watching them grow and as the world beyond the garden seems increasingly unsafe, we attempt to impose order on our own small patch. I think the first blog I ever wrote four years ago was a plea not to mow the lawn in the spring time and here I am again with the same plea for peaceful inaction!

Dandelions are beautiful.

Their huge golden flowers are the first food for so many bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies. If you are home instead of the office, then lie on the grass and watch a bee burying itself in the profusion of pollen that dandelions offer up. Watch the bee revel in the yellow gold, its whole body dusted in it and the pollen sacs on each back leg bulging with the riches it will take back to the hive.

Then put away the mower for a few weeks and let the dandelions be.

The English name for them is a corruption of the French “dent de lion” – lion’s teeth and they are “ lowen Zahn” – lion’s teeth in German too. Both names come from the shape of the seed, not the flower. The common French name is “pissenlit “ which literally means piss the bed, which is the diuretic result of eating too many of the delicious leaves!

I am eating a lot of dandelion leaves at the moment. I am eating them Greek style which is  boiled or steamed for a few minutes and then dressed in olive oil and salt. You will be relieved to know they have not lived up to their French name so far!

So enjoy the spring flowers on your lawn: feed the bees: eat free greens and stay healthy!

 

 

“Livin’ in a box, livin’ in a cardboard box….”

This cabbage white butterfly hatched out and is now in the shed waiting for spring. It was so fresh and yellow I thought it must  be a citron, but the butterfly recorder assured me it was just a sparkly cabbage white, who had jumped the gun.

I know how it feels. After warm late winter weather the spring seems very much on hold as cold air and lashing rain reminds us spring has not really begun. Couple that with fears of Coronavirus and the world seems greatly contracted suddenly.

The big out break in Italy has brought it very close to home. The trains from Milan draw up in Basel every hour and it is not surprise that the virus has crossed the Alps to Switzerland very quickly. It is in Germany and over the Rhine in the Alsace where we are too. It is a worry for everyone and people in Asia have been living with the great shut down for much longer than we have.

It is hard to know how seriously to take it. Carnival in Basel has been cancelled, as have so many events that attract crowds and spread the virus.

I am no doctor and take the WHO advise seriously and so am staying home. I also have an immune system that is profoundly compromised by my medication, so it looks like I am in the cardboard box with the butterfly until things calm down.

I hear the sales of jigsaws and board games are up!

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The curse of tidy.

A warm week has sent me out into the garden . The place is wet and the mud weighs down my boots,  but the air smells almost like spring and tidying over takes me.

There is plenty of dead vegetation to trim and forgotten leaves to rake and my enthusiasm is intoxicating. However it is only January and there is along way to go until spring. Tidying, trimming and raking wont make the days longer or the earth turn faster,  so not only is my decimation of the garden pointless, it is also positively  harmful.

Last years growth is full of over wintering wildlife: butterfly caterpillars, lady birds and hedgehogs and tidying up is not the same as emptying a kitchen sink of washingup; this is habitat destruction in my own tiny bit of the planet.

So, I move away from the shears and the pruners, put down that rake and leave the garden in peace! There will be time in the spring to make way for the new growth and rushing the season will just make less space for the wildlife that badly  needs somewhere  quiet and safe to spend the winter.

Much better for the planet to have a cup of tea and do nothing!

Shall I be mother?

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Holiday reading

I love having time to reading, but only when the world is cold and wet, do I really get properly down to it.

At the moment I am reading “The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet“ which was a Christmas present that was spot on. Dave Goulson is passionate about his garden and evangelical about how much wildlife we can all cram into our on private gardens, if only we eschew pesticides, herbicides  and all the other things we are encouraged to buy to make our potential slice of paradise, tidy and dead. I was horrified to read how many suburbs of the USA are regularly drenched in pesticides from the air to “control pests”  and that gardeners have no choice at all in this annual destruction of all the micro fauna on their own land.

I am also reading “Crime au Pressoir “ by Jean-Marie Stoerkel, where bodies are found lying  on the grapes about to be crushed in a wine press in nearby Ingersheim. Somehow it is all linked to the German annexation of the Alsace some 80 years and hopefully reading it will improve my French!

I have just finished “A Portrait of Elmbury “ by John Moore which is a memoir of Tewkesbury in England before the second World War. This is a part of the world I know well, but set in a time I didn’t know. Some of his observations seem crass in our more enlightened times, but some are timeless such as his admiration for the men who only work as much as they had to …”they were not conditioned to believe in the popular fallacy, that work itself is a virtue. They worked when they wanted to and their work was fun. They were in fact a sort of privileged class and their privilege was one which nowadays only a few great artists have.”  I also learnt that farm workers were given great slabs of apple pie to eat first, before the roast beef, to ensure that they didnt just fill up on meat and avoid the abundant produce of the local orchards.

The book  that I just unwrapped this morning, is however the  one I think I am about to enjoy most. “Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers” by Peter Marren is the book I have been waiting for to explain the wonderfully poetical names of moths, both English and Latin. My first dipping proved Marren knows his European languages too and he gives German and French derivations of the marvellous names that always seem so redolent of 18th century country vicarages.

The moth book definitely wins the best cover award. I normally take off dust jackets as they are fiddly and irksome, but this is staying on to remind me of the colourful wonder of the delights still to be found in my moth trap in 2020..

Oh, and I had to include a “Just William ” collection by the incomparable Richmal Compton as I read a story nearly every night to send me to sleep with chuckle!

Happy New Year to all!

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Living in the Modern world.

This swallow was nesting above the cutlery shelf in a busy English beer garden. Drinkers clattered by collecting knives and forks, ketchup and vinegar and bar staff plonked down ploughmans’ lunches, Sunday roasts and Branston pickle sandwiches on their way to tables ringed by hungry drinkers.  The swallow ignored them all  and safe between the electrical wires and heating ducts brought butterflies and bugs back to its brood of hatchlings .

I have put up artificial, purpose made nests for swallows and house martins all round my house, just above my garden which is heaving with insect banquets and the birds have spurned them all. I have laughed at the improbability of my neighbour ever populating his huge new house martin monster hotel as he insists on constantly shaving the grass beneath with noisiest  lawn mower known to creation. However, it seems I have been totally wrong about what these birds want, as this picture proves. To attract swallows to nest in harmony give them chatter, clatter, the smell of cooking and the fumes of plenty of good bitter beer!

Low thunder.

Summer rain, washing away the dust: cleaning and cooling the clouds and leaving grey sheets of warm perfumed air in its wake.

Butterflies shelter in the vine dry against the house wall.

The lavender is curved down by the wet weight of its own heavy loveliness .

Pale hollyhocks cup bees circling the stiff stigmas untroubled by the slanting rain.

The cat leaves off hunting sparrows sheltering on the bird table, in order to cringe from the low thunder.

Now it is glittering sunshine, now black towering clouds, now the suffocating perfume of budliea breathing through the saturated air.

Will there ever be a day like this again?

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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Breathe in.

Stripping lavender flowers from their stalks is the most peaceful task I know.

As you sit beside a basket of trimmed flowers and rub your fingers along each stem, the seeds are crushed: gently releasing a perfume that soothes the soul and relaxes the mind as it rises. The bowl  slowly fills with soft light flowers. Plunging your hand in and stiring releases more perfume, until you can taste lavender on your tongue and feel it on your eyelashes. The world is slowed down. You breathe deeply and everything seems safe and clean, fresh and very very  young.

I always leave the lavender until it is seeded, as the flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees that I would not deprive of their perfumed food. The seeds smell just as intensely as the flowers and this way I have the pleasure of their perfume and the sight of the butterflies too.

A few bunches are hung up for decoration and the rest will fill cotton bags to scent pillows and sheets in the linen cupboard. The smallest lavender bag will go in my work bag. When I need reminding of my garden I rub it between my fingers and I am back in the green shade inhaling the complex glory of lavender in a safe, perfumed summer garden.

In plain sight ( 2)

The garden is alive with butterflies by day and moths by night. Some moths are bright and some butterflies are drab. This ringlet took a break from feeding on marjoram flowers in the sun and rested a momement amonst the drying seeds. Blink and you miss it, but she had found the perfect camouflage and sat awhile until I had time to photograph her and then she flitted on in her unfathomable world.

 

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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!

I am watching you!

Summer is so full of life. It is difficult to know where to look.

Huge oaks thrash in a thunder storm; the ears of a hiding fawn flick above tall flowers; a wet butterfly waits for the sun under a rain soaked flower.

Cameras give us the chance to see somethings we missed the first time. This angle shades moth is a tribal mask watching us more intently than we think!

(Thanks to Bruce Piercy for this photo).

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Slip sliding!

Cowslips were familiar to me from Welsh hedgerows. Taller than primroses with long carolla  they push their way up into the sun in a race with the lengthening grass. Oxlips were much less familiar. I had seen them occasionally in Oxfordshire many years ago. Here in the borders of France and Switzerland they are much more common and prefer shady spring woodlands. They are often the very first flash of colour under the bare trees. They are delicate  primroses on long stems as their latin name of primula elatior testifies.

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Since we started our French garden we have been trying to encourage as many wildflowers to grow here as garden varieties. When we arrived we noticed a single primrose in the lawn. By letting it seed and not mowing too hard we now have 45 primrose plants flowering in the grass. At the moment our lawn is yellow with dandelion flowers and flecked with cuckoo flowers. We have not heard a cuckoo yet, but we have had orange tip butterflies feeding on the flowers, just like it says in the book.  When admiring the “weeds” the other evening after work,  I was surprized and delighted to see a lone oxlip flowering on the lawn. It obviously doesn’t know it should be in a wood, but maybe it somehow it does know that it has set seed somewhere it will be perfectly safe.

P.s. assume the name “slip” is something to do with growing in cow or ox dung, but I could be wong!

 

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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Covered in bees .

Gardens are ground level and sky level.

Today there was real sunshine and my willow tree was absolutely covered in bees. The sallow just self seeded behind the compost bin a couple of years ago and we decided to let it grow, as attracting wildlife is not just about the things you decided to plant! This wild willow made pearl white pussy willow flowers all winter and when the spring finally really arrived she erupted into a three dimensional banquet for the bees, as each blossom furred over in thick yellow pollen. This morning there were comma butterflies, tortoise shells and peacocks and hundred upon hundreds of wonderful noisy, noisy, noisy bees.!!

I am so glad we didn’t trim the tree in the autumn, but left this feast for the bees and the soul in the springtime .

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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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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!

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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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Caught in time.

This tiny blue butterfly took a fancy to my hat and spent much of the day photogenically attached to me, as we wandered around an upland meadow earlier this week. It sat on my hair, when I took off the hat and it rested on my water bottle when it tired of riding on the hat. I don’t know what the butterfly got out of our interaction, but when I looked closely at his wonderful compound eye, I knew I was looking into something immensely old and extraordinary.
This photo was taken using a microscope of a fly caught in a chip of amber bought recently. The eye is concave from the pressure of the ancient resin, but still very recognisably and unchanged: an insect.

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Some other insect eyes from recent moth trapping, watching me across the ages, include lesser elephant hawk moth and oak eggar moth.

 

I wonder which one of us understands more of life on this planet?

Today is beautiful.

Today is so beautiful. I don’t have to go to work, the sun is shining and the garden is bursting with life.

Days like this make me count my blessings and I am acutely aware of how privileged I am .

It is not like this for most people in the world and the natural world is increasingly a luxury that few can afford.  I am also very aware of the great movement of people across Africa who want a better life in Europe where the rains come more regularly, the grass grows lush and green and there are butterflies.

For this they risk appalling journeys across land, risk drowning in the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and are then corralled and often deported to face the same life in  the dry countries where the rain doesn’t fall.

Response to this is difficult and mostly we try to ignore the images and hope somehow the migration will stop and everyone will stay home.

I don’t believe it will, and the real answer has to be in nature, in greening the dry countries; in making countries were people are happy to stay home, to grow food and to raise healthy children.

The Great Green Wall        http://www.greatgreenwall.org/great-green-wall/

seems to be an answer to this huge issue. It is an African lead  initiative to plant trees and to keep back the desert all the way across Northern Africa.

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It is hugely ambitious and utterly wonderful. The greenery will change the climate, rain will come back, food can be grown again and many more people can hopefully enjoy a beautiful day just like today.

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