First Fruits.

Cherries, red currants and raspberries: plump and red and ready!

Last year there wasn’t a cherry and there wasn’t a walnut after a catastrophic spring frost that destroyed so much fruit that no kirsch was distilled and virtually no grapes were harvested in the Alsace to make the wonderful perfumed wine.

This year has been blissfully different. Spring was late, but this meant that not a flower was lost to late frost and now the cherry trees are growning under the wieght of thick black cherries  and magpies are swaying in the boughs drunk on lucious ripe fruit.

My tiny cherry tree has a real crop for the first time. The red currants survived the monster hail storm and the raspberries escaped all dangers and have loved the heat and the extraordinary rain of the last few weeks. There is so much fruit to come that I hope there is space in the freezer to accommodate it all.

However the one thing gardening has taught me over and over again is how changeable life is, how precariously perfectly balanced for a single moment on the grass blade edge between feast and famine . I inhale and savour the first sweet raspberry!

 

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Slow Business.

Earlier in the year I found a Roman snail shell close up for for the winter, safely sealed behind a calcerious  door. Well, spring is here and the snails are out and about, looking for love. On a damp Sunday afternoon, these two plump snails found each other and slowly, very slowly, did what snails do.

After their amorous interlude, they may have been tempted to go back to bed, as the temperature here has fallen dramatically in the last few days . It seems that the Ice Saints are back again; that strange dip in temperature that is well known in southern Germany and northern Switzerland during during the middle of May.

This odd blip in the temperature is named after the saints days that occur at this time . At the moment we are enjoying cold Kalt Sofia, but my favourite is Saint Pancreas, who is yet to arrive ( maybe there is the wrong type of ice on the tracks!).

 

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Astonished.

Apparently this is now my third year of blogging on WordPress, which seems astonishing.

I started the blog on a cold wet day, when I just had to write about gardens to total strangers, to somehow compensate for the late spring.

The following spring was glorious, the best apple blossom I have ever seen and cherries already starting to form, when from a summer sky we had thick snow. Just as the snow melted, the temperatured plumeted and every flower and new leaf was coated in thick ice . The ice stayed for a day and a night and we lost every cherry, apple, plum and walnut of the year. It nearly broke my heart.

This year the spring was a little slow, but eventually the blackthorn came out, and now the cherries are in bloom again. They could all be frozen off for a second year, but the forecast is good. The sun is strong, the bees are out in force, even the rain has stopped.

So from my third year of blogging about the same garden in the same lovely corner of the earth, I send you pictures of the cherry trees and good wishes for a fruitful, peaceful year for us all!

 

 

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Adaptability.

EC9CFFB2-BD9D-43C2-8395-B84A29A6648CLast weekend there was forsythia blossom and frog spawn in the ditch and this weekend there is thick, thick snow covering over the world again.

Like Juliet’s father in Romeo and Juliet “ my fingers itch “ to be planting and tidying in a spring garden . However it is Pixie the cat on the warm radiator who understands real adaptability and the contentment that only cosseted cats can ever achieve!

Last week I found an old apple tree blown down in a storm. No over zealous farmer had tidied it away and chopped it up for fire wood ; the bole of exposed roots had made a new cliff of light horizontal out of what had once been vertical and deep. Moss and fungi had colonised the new surface, unidentifiable creatures had dug out homes: adaptability is everywhere – except in my itchy fingers!!

 

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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!

 

 

 

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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.

 

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Patience.

Winter’s grip seems relentless.

After months and months of torrential rain, a few spring flowers tentatively appeared and then the real cold descended and stunned them into immobility. Shrunk by hard frosts, thin snow and polar days they lie flattened across frozen earth. Blackbirds fluffed to twice their normal size stab at apples from the supermarket and only the sedums are unmoved by the cold, waiting unperturbed in their perfect symmetry for the next season.

 

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Kaskhstan. All My Gardens Part 8

The strangest place I have ever tried to garden was Kazakhstan.

Our first apartment had two balconies. The first faced into the courtyard of the concrete blocks . It had a washing line and you could glimpse the steppe from the top floor as it rolled out, brown and flat to distant Russia. I realised that growing things here would be difficult when after a couple of seeringly  hot months my washing froze to cardboard cutout stiffness over night.

The other balcony was boxed in with wooden sides and glass. On the shelves there were still pickles and jams, left by some previous tenant, making use of the cold space to store carefully preserved food, as everyone used to do before the supermarkets came. There was no window sill for plants, but there was an extraordinary view of the Tian Shan mountains . This was Almaty, at the far south east tip of Kazakhstan, the old capital and the most stunningly located city sprawling between the snow capped mountains linked to the Himalayas in the south and the central Asian steppe to the north.

When I lived there remnants of the former USSR were every where, but so too was the newly independent Kazakhstan rediscovering its nomadic and Muslim roots.

In our first year we managed to grow nothing, but the school had a remnant apple orchard, which was so perfumed and perfect in the spring it made me cry. Almaty is supposed to be named after the father of apples and the genetic parent of all apple trees does apparently originate in the country.

Bonkers the magnificent came with us from Zambia and after a lot of bribery and some crying, we got him through customs in one piece. He hated the apartment, there were no chameleons to chase and indoor life did not suit him. We put him on a cat lead and took him to the orchard, but he collapsed as though his back was  broken and then escaped up a tree, only to be retrieved with a broom.

We found another apartment in the centre of the city . It had another boxed in balcony full of pickles under which trams rattled and shuddered. This was in the same street as the magnificent state opera house, which broadcast its music for free on summer evening to those who could not afford the tickets to the plush boxes, but who could listen to the outstanding performance on the street, cooled by the great glaciers fed fountains .  Bonkers preferred this apartment, as the balcony that faced the courtyard was laticed with bird cage wrought iron and he could catch a breeze while watching the bats plunge out of the plane trees and listen frustratedly to the scops owls calling in the summer time.

He was never allowed out, as he would not have found his way back up to our top floor home and there were rats bigger than he was by the bins. The rats grew plump on the bread left out by my neighbours who considered it a sin to throw bread away and so it was left carefully off the floor for whoever, or what ever may need it.

To assuage his terrible yowling I ocassionally carried him down to the courtyard, where he would be admired by neighbours who would bring their own imprisoned moggies to their own windows to be introduced in a mixture of Russian, Kazakh, English and German.

On the bird cage balcony I grew red geraniums; hung spider plants and tradescantia and grew the best sweet peas ever, trailing up the iron work until the summer heat burnt them off . French marigolds grew well and a jasmine reminded me of Zambia and of Greece. Everything had to come in before the temperatures crashed for the long cold winter, the double glazing closed and the city wide heating  turned our sunny kitchen into a greenhouse.

I remember tiny bunches of the first real  flowers from the steppe: miniture  tulips and irises sold by old ladies infront of the cathedral on my birthday and wishing I could explore more of the steppe myself, and feeling the cold air falling from the mountains on my back and wishing I could really explore them too.

We explored the balcony and watched an extraordinary city instead.

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ALL MY GARDENS PART 7 : ZAMBIA .

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It’s all gone Pete Tong!

Spring and a lot of the world seems to have gone seriously Pete Tong (wrong)! Yesterday there was a blizzard. Gigantic fat flakes of white that just got warm enough to melt a little and coat the whole garden in water, before the night time temperature crashed and everything was encased in ice.

The buds of the vine are destroyed, my peonies are mush, the hydrangea is dead to half its height , the wonderful flush of apple blossom is crisped and brown and my loves lies bleeding is collapsed and white.

And that is just the garden.

Don’t get me started on the rest of the world !!!

Random.

These extraordinary patterns were on the inside of glass house in the village. The complexity and decorative exuberance of the ice crystals looked like the most expensive etched crystal. Each pane of glass had a different pattern: some like sea urchins; some like ferns ; others like samphire or horsetails and some like nothing I have ever seen before,  all drawn in ice by organic random chance.

 

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W. is for Winter.

Some winters don’t really deserved the name, being just muddy and  greyer versions of autumn; but this year deserves a capital W . After months of hard frost , now we have snow in all its guises and as soon as a path to the bird feeders is shovelled and swept, down it comes again in all it’s infuriating smothering simplicity.

So it is a time for reading and at the moment I am reading Helen MacDonald’s

H Is for Hawk “. The book is outstanding and her prose is razor sharp. It is an unlikely description of training a female goshawk to distract the writer from what threatens to be overwhelming grief after the death of her father. Rather like my description of most winters, this explanation does not begin to do justice to her visceral, uncanny imagining of the inside of a bird’s brain, the need to kill and devour and the need of both bird and woman to be free.

I am also reading “Falling Awake ” poetry by Alice Oswald. She also has an extraordinary clarity when describing the natural world, but there is an emotional distance between her words which leaves greater space for an intellectual juggling of creatures and shadows.

It has started snowing again. A few parrot faced goldfinches are still delicately pulling niger seeds from the feeder. A blackbird is gorging on a cut apple before the snow covers it over again.

Next week the temperatures are going to plummet to record lows according to the forecast. I hope we will all survive the coming cold.

Squeaky Snow and Frozen Flags

Today was wonderfully cold. Minus 10 overnight and utterly clear and bright during the day. The snow is squeaky and every blade of grass poking above brandishes a tiny banner of ice.

Our footprints carve their mark on the fresh fall and all around us are the patterns of creatures that were out before us. Most of the marks are rabbits, who I now realise feed much further from their burrow than I appreciated; deep neat marks are deer ; round footprints are cats and light prints are martins. Some longer prints maybe hare and small dog like prints maybe fox. Out in the open three grassy circles with smooth snow edges would seem to be the spots were deer lay down as the snow fell heavily, though why they stayed out in the fields, when the shelter of the forest was so close, I do not know . Under apple trees a mole hill is brown and fresh above the snow although the soil  is already frozen hard. Coin sized round holes in the snow indicate where voles had emerged at some point from their runs under the white blanket which now keeps them safe and sheltered from the hungry buzzards wheeling above in a cold blue sky.

 

Dead and alive.

First snow has fallen and the world seems dead under its soft white pall. Each twig is freaked with it and each branch heavy with a defining stark line. And yet on close inspection not only are the leaf buds for the spring already formed and waiting, but hazel catkins were ready on the twigs before the autumn leaves had even fallen. There is no dead time, the cycle never stops: only the speed changes.

 

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