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!

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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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Cat high.

In a muddy winter the passage of kitty paws has made feline motorways across my garden. The deepest ruts run from one hedge hole to the next, as my cats and the feral hordes from over the road go off to hunt mice and birds or to snooze under the hedge; but one track seemed to lead nowhere until I remembered the cat crack lurking in the innocuous corner of a flowerbed.

Last summer I realised my cats were rubbing themselves obsessively against a wild white valerian plant that had seeded itself in the garden. In the winter the plant had died down to nothing, but the narcotic allure of the root remained. Every cat in the neighbourhood had been slithering  themselves against the root, digging the earth away to expose it and yesterday I spotted Winston the cat actually licking and swallowing the mud around it. I have tried to protect the root of the valerian with a cage, but in their drug crazed  frenzy, the cats just knock it down and roll across the memory of the plant, mouths open, eyes closed; getting their daily fix of unexpected kitty herbal high!

 

Valerian and cats.

 

 

Older than liverspots.

 

Sometimes you glimpse another time in an unexpected place. On the dripping rock foundation of a fake castle, glorifying a fictitious romantic past I spotted liverworts: very flat; very green and really very old.
These simple and strange life forms predate all vascular plants by millions of years, have no internal means of transporting food and survive on the whim of a raindrop. Flat and granular against the rock, they glisten in their encasing film of water, surviving all human attempts at immortality,  to out live us all in a single sheet of slime.

 

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2018 – Work to be done!

A New Year and new hopes.

The garden is muddy, the leaves are unswept and the birds are always hungry. In the forsythia the flock of sparrows squabble. A shrew has dug up a tulip bulb and red kite swoops low to check on the edibility of the cat.

In the undug vegetable  patch parsley uncurls a few leaves after the snow, a red cabbages resigns itself to never being  picked and the mullein rosette settles the ashes from the wood stove amongst the soft, warm down of its winter leaves. It is all still here! There is work to be done!


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The Great Piece of Turf

My garden is now officially shut. I glimpse it darkly as I feed the morning birds and sense it fleetingly as I peel the potatoes for dinner, but the rest is darkness between work.

So I turn again to representations of the green I cannot see on  a work day in November and the most wonderful of all is Albrecht Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf.

This water colour was painted in 1503 in Germany and the detail and precision surpasses any digital photo I have ever seen. Dürer is more often remembered for the remarkably messianic self portraits of his undeniably commanding and attractive face; but this small picture contains the whole natural world in all its multifarious, magnificent complexity. Here are  the grasses; the lace edged tansy leaf; the seeding dandelion flowers and fleshy clasping plantain leaves. Here is the view from the ground, the vole’s eye view; an unnervingly clear eyed botanist’s view, who understood how marvelously interlinked and nuanced the living world is and reproduced it in this unassuming  slice of perfection for ever.81927DFF-8E14-4E40-A94E-C699DEF4AF41

 

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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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!

Early Summer.

 

At this time of year the season seems to be in a mad race with itself. The day is so long, the sunlight so bright, the rain so hard; the plants are pumping up so fast I swear I can hear them growing.

Every morning a new flower has opened; more and more leaves have unfurled; the beans have slithered up their poles; the marrows have pushed across the lawn. Bindweed has pulled a fruit bush down into the grass; spears of horsetails have erupted from out of the soil and the slugs have left a silver trail over everything.

Even in the deep forest strange things are growing. Perfect candles of white orchids shimmer in the dark and bird’s nest orchids, brown and saprophytic push out of the loose decaying leaves.

Sleeping seems impossible: what might be missed?

There will be plenty of time to sleep in the winter.

 

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Mind the Gap.

The hedgehog is back.  All prickly bristles and soft button nose, she trundles through the flower beds rooting out slugs and bugs. She also likes the odd hand full of cat biscuits and I have found her blinking in the lights under the bird feeder enjoying a few discarded seeds.  I love her muscular wriggle and the low tank of her little body pushing through the long grass and waving the flower stalks as she trundles on by.  Hedgehogs have an excellent sense of smell, but tiny eyes and so if the wind is in the right direction and I move slowly, I can get very close to her before she gets a whiff of me and shoots off with surprising speed.

Hedgehogs need to be able to roam over quite a large area to find food and I am sure my hedgehog visits many gardens in one evening and this is their problem.  Many gardens have fences and wire enclosures set in concrete all around them and no gap at all for a prickly slug killer like the hedgehog to squeeze through and without this freedom to roam they starve.

A few years ago my neighbor filled in a perfect gap under the fence. For two years we had no hedgehogs, so I did a little digging of my own and opened up the gap and now she is back!

We all need to mind the gap in our gardens and remember to leave a space for wildlife to get in and out and leave “untidy” corners with weeds and leaves, where bugs will be found and hibernation and nest sites will be made by these useful, delightful nighttime visitors.

(Photo from Hedgehog conservation soc  who are encouraging people in the UK to make whole hedgehog streets, where hogs can wander from one garden to another in safety.)

Melodious Linnets

The seasons are composed of arrivals and departures. The first house martin, the first swallow, the storks building nests, the first spring flowers, the first seeds being set and now the arrival of the wonderful sweet-voiced linnets.

Our garden is a riot of dandelion flowers. The lawn is a bouncy castle of pollen cushions on which every honey bee and bumble bee in the world seems to be rolling around in yellow pantalooned glee. In the sunniest corner of the garden the flowers are over and the seed clocks are spinning seeds into the breeze and this is what the linnets have been waiting for. Their arrival in our garden is timed perfectly for the seeds that they love and they proclaim their new territory from the top of the half dead plum tree.

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Linnets are slight birds with bright red streaky breasts and a longish forked tail. They are easy to mistake for sparrows in passing until they sing and their rich warbling, trilling song. An irresistible roll of song that seems the very essence of spring make them completely unmistakable and earn them the adjective melodious in their French name.

Their favourite food seed is called pissenlit in French which means piss the bed, as if you eat too many of the tasty green leaves in a salad, you may enjoy their diuretic properties later that night. In English the name dandelion comes from the French too as the little seed looks like a lion’s tooth – dent de lion. Linnets get their Latin name from their liking for hemp seeds and their English name for their fondness for the flax that was used to make linen.

For the linnets, the dandelion seeds on our drive are simply breakfast, dinner and lunch until they are all gone and the melodious linnets are more than happy to sing for their supper in return.

 

Valerian and cats.

In my garden I have planted cat nip in the past, but my cats and all the neighbours’ cats, rubbed both plants into oblivion with their ecstatic rolling and I have not subjected another plant to such a depressing fate. So, when I found a corner of my garden rubbed flat and an edging fence constantly pushed down, I decided to investigate the cause.

I have observed my cats Pixie and particularly Winston rolling and pushing their faces along the ground at this point and realized that they have exposed the root of a wild common valerian plant which seeded itself in the corner of the bed last year. As it is such a spectacular plant ( taller than me!) I had left it alone to flower and attract the bees during the summer.

I did not expect to come up again in the spring, but it has and the cats have discovered its narcotic and pleasurable effects all over again; rolling, rubbing and slithering in unashamed abandon on the now exposed white roots.

Apparently all cats love valerian as much as cat nip, but unlike cat nip it is the root they love not the leaves. I am not sure how long this plant will survive until the cats also love it to death; but as they seem to get so much fun from it, I shall leave them to roll in the spring sunshine while it lasts!

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The Cavalcade Rolls In.

There is such a longing, a waiting for spring. It starts slow with a little perking of the prickly plants that have survived all winter like the house leeks and then it bursts into unexpected life with the tiny fizz bombs of steppe irises.

 

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Splutters into primroses and then gets unexpectedly reticent with loveliest of  flowers the wild ladies’smock that feathers the lawn with palest  purple and is almost too impossibly delicate to capture in a photo.

 

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And suddenly spring is in full flower and the cavalcade of blossom is pouring out in flowering cherry and daffodils and heady scented hyacinths and when night falls it is completely star frosted clear. The brightest uncomplicated blue fades down to egg shell and pale yellow at the world’s edge and the first bat swoops out to slice the dark.

It’s all going green!

Under the trees, beside the streams, along the hedges it is all going green. Brown and hazy grey are the colours of winter and it seems weeks and weeks to wait until the trees unfurl their first leaves, but on the ground; in the corners; amongst the beech mast and the pine cones, the seedlings are already marching up!

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.

 

 

New Year wishes.

This massive gun turret is on the top of a maginot line WW2 bunker in the next village. It is testimony to the wars that have raged over this corner of Europe time and time again.

Now the bunker is lapped by a brown ploughed field and shaded by a few tall trees. The trees are frilled with the white seeds of old man’s beard and mistletoe is yellow and green in the winter sunlight. On the top of the bunker; which is still pock marked by bullets and shells; a rough grass land has formed with ant hills where green woodpeckers hunt.

May all remnants of wars meld back into the countryside like this.

 

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“A Providence in the fall of sparrow”

Shakespeare thought sparrows were so ubiquitous that he used them as an example of something so common that only God could find their death significant . In Europe they have been so common that we often over look them, but in fact there are many less of them than they used to be. Populations have crashed due to intensive farming, sowing winter crops that leave no stubble in the fields and our obsessively,  over-tidy gardens .

Like all wildlife the humble sparrow needs untidy patches with wild flower seeds and the split grain of sloppy harvesting that leaves something over for the birds.

It was in just such a rare scattering of maize seed on a country lane that I encountered a huge flock of mixed common sparrows and tree sparrows busily feeding on the ground. As they fed they kept up a incessant chatter that makes one of the most cheerful of bird sounds I know. It is the background noise of childhood and the sound of quiet gardens made rorcous, alive and safe .

As we approached they fell utterly silent and then wheeled away in an indignant cloud. They wheeled over our heads, so numerous that they looked like smoke for a moment before descending on a couple of old apples trees .  Their descent into the trees was so sudden and complete that they seemed to fall into the branches as if dragged down by a powerful magnet. No squabbling for places or hesitancy; they knew exactly where they were going and were silent and hidden within seconds.  Humans have grown up with sparrows, even evolved with them: we know that when the birds are singing there are no predators near and we are all safe.

When the singing stops we are still afraid.

To keep some closer to home I put out bread crumbs every morning on a bird table away from my cats. My reward is the sound of a dozen sparrows chirruping each day and their simple song make me feel a little safer.

Evening primrose

Oentheras are a wonderful example of the tenacity of beauty.

They arrived in my garden via a handful of seeds collected from flowers growing on gravel near the local airport and one plant made a rosette of long leaves. The next summer a tall spike emerged and the first irresistible lemon yellow blossom unfurled as dusk gathered, followed by another and another until it was studded with saucers of light reflecting petals in the darkness.

I know it is considered a weed in North America, but in Europe it has become a garden plant and is naturalized in many countries. The oil collected from the seed is famous for regulating hormonal imbalances in women and it has pain relieving properties in neurological conditions and in the the treatment of eczema .

I grow it simply for its beauty.

It self seeds and the plants move around the garden and appear where the seeds lodge and I always try to make space for them in the flowers beds or in the middle of the lawn.
Watching the flowers unfurl at night in real time is one of the highlights of mid-summer and is best enjoyed at eye level in a hammock with a glass of chilled wine to toast their uncoiling exuberance. As their Latin name is apparently derived from the Greek for wine, it seems the right thing to do!