Birds don’t recognise borders.

I found out about a orchard planting initiative in my village almost by accident. An old fashioned piece of paper dropped in my letter box said a field was being planted with trees the next day and volunteers were welcome. 

A long field on the edge of the village was staked out with pegs and bare rooted pear and apple trees lay waiting to be pruned and planted. A knowledgeable man snipped off almost every branch with great care and precision and holes were dug to place the trees in. A pleasant community endeavour you might think, but what was was more remarkable than that people were giving up Saturday for the good of birds, was the fact the the land was in France, the trees were Swiss and the people were French, Swiss, German and British.

This slice of hope in  a crazy world was funded by an anonymous donation in Switzerland that was to help little owls increase their tiny claw hold in Europe. The land was donated by a French family who love birds and the work was undertaken by locals, Swiss volunteers from over the border and school children. Little owls were extinct in the area, but very careful management and cooperation between bird lovers in three different nations is slowly recreating the tree and hedge rich habitat they need to survive and move effortlessly between countries. The generosity of someone I will never know, across a border that means nothing to wildlife, may hopefully help the spread of this beautiful bird.

While borders seem clanging shut across the world, this seems something to celebrate!

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On not being tidy.

There is a great desire to tidy up the garden at this time of year; to sweep away, to cut down and the housewife in me itches to do away with all the dying vegetation in a great autumn cleanup.

It has taken me a few years of enjoying my own garden to realise that this urge really stems from the mistaken belief that tidying away the old season, will hasten in the new. Old flower stems, mushy leaves and lank shrubs seem to cry out for a short back and sides, but having subjected my garden to such tidy mindedness in my first few years of real gardening, all I was left with was brown soil, bristling shrubs and flat grass. As there are months and months to go before the first bulbs appear and leaves soften the stark branches, I slowly realised that there is no rush to clean up and precious little point to loosing the interest bequeathed by the dying year.

Not being tidy means the seeds have time to ripen in the seed heads and the dry stems give architectural beauty lost in the tidy garden . Spiders sling their webs between the stalks and the first frosts jewel them with diamonds. The leaves shelter the worms, the beetles and the bugs that will feed the hedgehogs and the bushes are roost sites for sparrows and larders for bluetits. The unpicked grapes are pecked off by the blackbirds and the apples forgotten in the grass will feed the starlings.

The weeds that have escaped the tidy hoe in the vegetable patch find space to miraculously flower and prickly blue borage is noisy with the last honey bees.  Nothing is to be gained by pulling them up. There will be time much later in the long, long winter to make space for next year’s explosion of life.

Until them I will resist the urge to tidy and let my garden move at its own  pace: quietly, messily giving life to the winter world.

Nothing Gold can Stay

Robert Frost

Nothing Gold can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

“…running through my hands”

 

The Seed-Shop

By Muriel Stuart

HERE in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone and shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry –
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.

Dead that shall quicken at the voice of spring,
Sleepers to wake beneath June’s tempest kiss;
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee find here roses that were his.

In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That shall drink deeply at a century’s streams;
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.

Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;
Here I can stir a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

 

I love this poem, especially the last stanza, though I never see seeds as ashes or shrivelled, just glossy and plump with potential for the next year.

After such a glorious autumn the sleet and cold wind of this weekend are reminders that the first days of November arrive this week. I went out in the sleet to pick the last flowers and filled my pockets with the seeds I have been meaning to collect all  month. In my trouser pocket I found a black acorn I had picked up under a local oak tree earlier. The path is meely with crushed fallen acorns, every single one regulation brown except this perfect black seed. A genetic variation that will maybe heat up faster in the spring ready to germinate, or maybe it is less palitable to squirrels or mabe just unusual enough to be prized by a passing human and planted somewhere new…. “ and in my hand a forest lies asleep.”

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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Ode to Autumn.

This has been a real autumn. The grapes have loaded the cottage eves heavy enough to fill bottle after bottle of sweet grape juice. Last autumn there was nothing at all after a terrible frost struck following a precociously  early spring. There were no apples, no plums, no walnuts and no grapes. The apples press next door was utterly silent and the wine growers of the Alsace said the couldn’t cover their tax bills.

This year has been a wonderful contrast. The clink of bottles filling with apple juice has been continuous since the pressoir opened a week early. Thanks to the generosity of a friend with apple trees, we have 70 litres of cider bubbling in the garage . This weekend we harvested our own seedy red grapes. I got spectacularly stung by a wasp that hit me between my fingers as I picked and put my swollen hand in a sling for two days!

The real grape harvest started three weeks earlier than usual in the proper vinyards and it promises to be an excellent year for wine.

Here on the coldest edges of the wine country, we have enjoyed a lovely pass the parcel of plums and apples, mirabelles, and blackberries as each neighbours passes their lucious surplus on across the hedge.

This really is a proper autumn!

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Apples going to be crushed for cider.

Wide Eyed.

Deadly Night Shade has a beautiful name in English and in Latin. It’s English name ushers us in to dark oblivion, but the Latin name shows us something more dangerously seductive. Atropa Belladona, used as a poison works quickly and effectively, but used in very small doses it apparently dilates the pupil of the eye and makes the user strangely attractive to the viewer – she becomes the bella donna.

Blossoming and fruiting together on its long stems, this Deadly Night Shade seemed well hidden by the forest. The fruits are black and disturbingly luscious, but I think no eyes dilated on seeing them here beneath the cool beech trees. Atropos, the fate who can cut the thread of human life, held her breath. Everything was quiet and innocent in the woods: only the names of the flowers breathed murder and lust.

 

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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.

Elizabeth (and her German Garden)

Some writers you love, even though you know you shouldn’t.

Elizabeth von Arnim was rich and incredibly privileged. She was born in to money and married into European aristocracy. She wafted through a beautiful garden admiring the flowers and thwarted in her desire to get her hands dirty only by her attentive gardeners.

And yet I love her passionately.

She wrote about virtually nothing, if you need exciting plots and varied stettings she will infuriate you. If you require complex characters and cliff hanging action, she will bore you.  However, if your heart yearns for green spaces, for gardens and perfumes and flowers, if you basically long for solitude and self determination then Elizabeth von Arnim is like walking into a quiet room after the deafening roar of a city street.

She is most famous for Elizabeth and her German Garden, but my personal favourite is the Solitary Summer .

This is opening to “A Solitary Summer”, which is free on project Guttenberg, as it is out of print.

“May 2nd.—Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will  into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.”

“Mind you do not get your feet damp,” said the Man of Wrath, removing his cigar.”

 

Elizabeth (1866-1941) was her pen name. She was born Mary Annette Beaucham in Australia, but only lived there for the first few years of her life and her cousin was the famous New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. She married a German noble man and they lived in Berlin until she discovered that her husband owned a country estate in Northern Germany.  The family was moved there and she revelled in the beauty of her garden and the surrounding countryside. She may have been wealthy, but she was still “only “ a woman at a time when women were expected to hold their tongues and uphold social niceties , when she would much rather be alone and free under open skies. Her descriptions of beauty are unsurpassed and I find her observations of humanity refreshingly witty and biting, which to me is an irresistible combination.

Her novel about leaving the rain of London with a group of other disappointed women, to find escape and peace for a short time in an Italian castle was made into a lovely  film “The Enchanted  April” which I can strongly recommend.

Elizabeth wrote to find her own voice in a restraining world; to revel in the beauty of a garden and to make money. She was hugely popular in her day and after her husband lost his fortune, she kept the family afloat. Eventually she divorced her German count and become an independent literary woman in her own right and grew her own  perfect garden in Switzerland .

I would dearly  have loved to swap cuttings with her!!

 

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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!

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!

 

Lurid

« Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room. »

I thought of those opening lines from Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms when I saw this wonderful boletus mushroom pushing up unexpectedly on the edge of the field. It has been hot and crackling with electricity here, as storm after storm explodes over the countryside.

The plants are tropically lush and the mushrooms early and plump with rain.

This lurid boletus seemed sturdy enough to push a tree aside. A scrape of the turgid yellow flesh revealed red pores which turned  bight blue as they instantly oxidised in the stormy sky.

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The Best things in Life are free ….

Living like an eastern potentate, this bejeweled rose beetle staggers through the pollen laden flowers of late spring gorging himself on plenty.

The Dame’s violets or gilly flowers are one of the great successes of my garden. Hesperis matronalis grows wild in Europe, but has long been cultivated in gardens for its sweet smell and tall purple blossoms. I dug this up from the green waste site in the village, when I first took possession of my utterly empty garden and could not wait to populate it with plants.

I bought all sorts of exotic flowers that secumbed to slugs or drought or rot, but the Dame’s Violet grew and multiplied steadily each year, until now it makes a spring show to over shadow everything else.  It seems the best things in life really are free and you can share them with the birds and bees and the Eastern potentates too!

Look!

BCE90CB6-0731-4540-99A3-A6BBAD0A4DC5Its real spring now and swallows are scissoring across the sky catching insects. Old meadows underneath the cherry trees are loaded with flowers before the mowers slice them down to make hay for the pampered ponies of the rich girls from Basel.

Amongst the grass there are ox eye daisies, buttercups and tall goats beards, meadow clary, eggs and bacon, hoary plantains, hay rattle and clustered bell flowers.

The moth trap has caught a few equally beautifully named specimens to admire in the early morning quiet; great oak beauties, muslin moths, pine sphinxes and this pale tussock who came to rest on my cap over night. Evocative names, unfathomable eyes and in the case of the pale tussock moth: disturbingly hairy claspers!

 

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Sulky ladies and leeches.

Snakeshead fritillaries have lots of names inspired by their nodding flower heads and extraordinary chequered pattern. Sulky lady appeals to me as I imagine a petulant girl with her face hidden in her bonnet, but I can also see the snake in the garden of eden with its head rearing out of the grass.

The wet winter has favoured this wonderful flower in my garden this spring and as its natural habitat are water meadows, this makes sense.  Before we drained so many meadows it was common in the south of England and great bunches of flowers were sent to market in London.  You can still admire them in meadows of Magleden College Oxford and other nature reserves where they are protected . The Oxfordshire village of Ducklington http://www.ducklingtonchurch.org.uk/fritillary/the-background-to-fritillary-sunday/.  has a snakeshead fritillary day on to celebrate their outlandish beauty.

On our walk through the fruit orchards today we spotted a newt in a pool and when peering down to get a second glance we realised that there were lots of leeches in the mud at the bottom of the clear water. It is the first time I have ever seen leeches . They had obviosly not fed on anything and were thin, but hungry looking! I took one out to admire it and it didnt have time to attach and feed. If it was a medicinal leech then it was a rare beast, as just like the snakeshead fritillary, they were collected almost to extinction. One for it beauty and the other for its blood sucking ability.

I know which one I would rather have in the garden!

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.

 

 

Ahh!

Champagne froth of white bubbles erupting out of the dark wall of a winter hedge: blackthorn should have a whiter, lighter more joyful name as its flowers explode into life . The first tree to break into proper, petalled glory, no timid unfurling of green leaves to prepare us: the little buds fatten in the first sunshine and then from twig to trunk it is all light, all flower, all beauty!

 

 

 

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