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Monday, 30 January 2012


I wasn't planning to post anything today, but then the weather decided for me. My inner big kid is having a great time just watching out the windows and secretly hoping for lovely deep snow, followed by sunshine, so I can go out and build a snowman and takes lots of pretty photos.

Taken out of the kitchen window

Taken out of the living room window

Tomorrow is another day however and I've looked at several weather forecasts for the next week. So tomorrow my grown up will be back and thinking:

1. We don't have a 4-wheel drive car
2. We have a steep slope up to our garage
3. To get to the village 2kms away we have to go up hill and down dale
4. There are no snowploughs in rural Brittany. In fact there probably aren't any in Brittany at all and only major roads get gritted.
5. The forecast is predicting minus 11C in a few days time!

But just for today I shall enjoy! :-)

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Weeds for wildlife

There are many plants which are extremely beneficial to wildlife but the following that I am listing are purely those which I have growing here and which although are classed as 'weeds' by some, are allowed to grow here (in the right place that is!) for the very reason that they support many species which I wish to encourage. There is a wealth of information on the internet on all these plants, and more, and as I am no expert I can't begin to list all the species which benefit from these plants. I'm just writing about what I have noted over the years from my observations of what is going on around me, with extra knowledge gained from books, the internet and the telly!

Ragwort and Groundsel
There are arguments both for and against both of these wild plants, but I leave some of it to grow here predominantly as a foodstuff for the Cinnabar Moth caterpillar. I've read this moth is in decline in the UK - I don't know about France but going by the amount of ragwort around on the edges of cultivated fields or even in hay and grazing fields (neither farmers nor French horse owners seem to care about it!), I don't think they are going short of food here. Perhaps that's why I see this pretty daytime flying moth during the summer months but I like to encourage it and I have no livestock to worry about so ragwort gets the go ahead at Chateau Moorhen, and I don't hurry to weed out groundsel the moment I see it either.

Stinging Nettles
As well as its culinary purposes (actually I've never tried it and don't really feel intrigued enough to) and as a nitrogen rich fertiliser, it is the foodstuff of the caterpillars of Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies. I have the first three in this garden in abundance. I have read that nettles are also a sign of a nutrient rich soil; in that case my soil must be very good!

Various Grasses
OK not exactly a weed as such, but we tend to mow it rather than leave it to just grow wild (although a mown lawn will still provide grubs and insects for birds unless you have some kind of perfect bowling green replica). I am clueless when it comes to grass and can't tell what kind is what but I do know that there are many species of butterfly caterpillars such as the Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper and Marbled White, all of which we have here, which both feed and pupate in various grasses so plenty of clumps of what I call 'paddock grass' and other kinds are just left unmown to do their bit. Of course grass is also host to all sorts of insect life too so if you want to do a bit to help nature leave some patches to grow long, and if you have a sunny spot you can have a bit of a meadow and you may even be rewarded with some pretty meadow flowers. Birds will enjoy the seeds too.

I do realise I am probably defeating the object here
by letting the chooks out! - but I don't let them out
too often and they tend to stick to one part of my wild area.

Lesser Hawkbit
This grows all through my lawn - it's not really noticeable until summer when the grass stops growing or goes brown when it is dry and then this drought tolerant plant comes into its own. Part of me really dislikes it because it looks so darn messy and more irritatingly, it doesn't half tickle your ankles with its long flower stems! But this is about what the wildlife likes, not me, and I've found through observation that my ducks like eating the leaves, moorhens like to take mouthfuls of the fluffy seed heads and one year we had a huge flock of green and gold finches, including young, descend on a great patch of it and spent a week or so eating all the fluffy seed heads (it looks like dandelion), so we don't rush to mow it off, however irritating or messy!

The only reason I have a photo of this plant is obvious!

Another 'weed' of my lawn and wild patches. This amazing pretty purple flowered plant has the ability to withstand being mown repeatedly and will flower either as a 4 foot high plant or as a low growing mown specimen! Butterflies and bees love it. Which is good because there's tons of it here!

Wild Lamium/Deadnettle
One of the earliest flowering 'weeds' in the garden so a good source of nectar for bees that are around on an early spring sunny day.

Ivy (again!)
The flowers are a source of nectar for bees and other insects and the foliage and stems are good cover and anchorage for birds' nests.

Nectar from the flowers, fruit for birds, little mammals and humans, a certain protection I would imagine from the dense coverage of a wild bramble patch (at least from human beings!), and some solitary bees bore into bramble stems to lay their eggs.

There's plenty more wild things like thistles, ox-eye daisies and foxgloves (the latter both growing wild in the woodland as well as in the flower beds) all of which are beneficial in some way or other, but I think I had better stop before this gets so long nobody will want to read it! I've probably forgotten something really obvious that I'll remember after I publish this and kick myself. Never mind, that'll give me something else to write about another day ;-)

Edit - I jolly knew I'd forget something obvious! Brambles!!! (added above)

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Giving nature a helping hand

We are very lucky here to have a huge garden with a lot of natural habitat for the wildlife, but there has to be a happy medium between land that we can enjoy ourselves and get around in yet still have plenty of wild patches where creatures can go to hibernate, nest or pupate without fear of being disturbed. So, on the one hand where I may be clearing up a load of brambles and twiggy stuff from around my perimeter fence or principal pathways, I may well pile some of it up in an undisturbed corner somewhere else where it can rot down over time. I have a pile like this from a few years back just chucked over the top of a rotting tree trunk on its side and now it's all covered in fallen leaves I can see an entrance hole that something has made to the interior.

We have some stragically placed mini log piles here and there in amongst the trees with spaces for little things to get into, which is now all covered in ivy so there's even more protection. We inherited a pile of logs when we bought the house which turned out to be pretty well rotten and not much good for firewood, so it all got restacked and this area is left wild with bracken and brambles to do what it likes and I hope it's full of beetles and little mousey things and hedgehogs making the most of it. We do have hedgehogs living in the garden which is great but how do I know that - because they leave disgusting poos all over the place! Plus I've seen them!

We also put a couple of nest boxes up in some trees facing east but there's no sign of anything having used them, other than some peck marks around the entrance hole. Maybe this is a good sign, as there are several dead or dying trees full of holes which the birds love and hopefully they are nesting in them. Our oldest apple in the woodland, which doesn't flower any more and has a dead branch that needs taking off before it falls and damages the living part of the tree, was being inspected by a blue tit the other day. When it flew off I had a better look and hadn't noticed these holes before!

I collect tons of fallen wood for kindling obviously but there are always lots of twigs for the birds to use and I can see all the messy nests that the magpies and crows make up in the tops of the trees. And of course the good old ivy taking over my trees that I pathetically try to control is magnificent for the little birds to nest in amongst and there will always be tons of ivy for them (there are not enough hours in the year for me to get all the ivy off all of the trees - it would be a bit like painting the Golden Gate Bridge I reckon!).

This does look like a jungle, but
it is a great place for birds to nest unseen

There are many species of bees in the garden and our new project is a 'bee hotel'. A friend on a Brittany forum got my interest piqued as I used to have one of these, but had to leave it behind when we moved here as there were bees in residence. However they are easy to make (if you are, or have, a Project Man that is!) so my new box is already half made, and is just waiting for me to select some old broken bamboo canes to use, plus raspberry canes when it is time to cut them and elder, which is supposed to be good too. A good link with loads of info about building them plus other information on wildlife friendly gardens is here.

The blocks will be drilled with different sized
drill bits for different kinds of bees, plus
canes of different diameters placed above

Then there's all the foodstuffs of various different birds, insects and caterpillars, which I hope I leave enough of or try to provide (and no I'm not talking about the cabbage white caterpillars - god knows they get plenty!) plus plenty of nectar rich flowers for the bees and butterflies and other pollinating insects, but I'll waffle about that another time!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Decisions, decisions

Yesterday was so gloomy and dismal, faced with another day attempting to clear up some of this

or stay inside and make this

there really was no contest! This is an apple and fresh ginger cake, and whilst it didn't really make any inroads into my egg mountain I did get to use up some of the last of the Granny Smith apples which are going off, and chucked in some chopped walnuts for good measure. The recipe is easy and it is now one of my few absolutely foolproof recipes which I make again and again (foolproof for me is something I've made at least 3 times and has never failed me!). The recipe is here.  After baking the cake I even sewed up some of my jumper too!

And now the sun is shining and I am off outside!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Chickens again

I did wonder how long the new run would last before it became trashed! They are working very hard on it but the good news is that there is grass actually starting to grow back a little bit in the other runs.

I must spend hours trying to take decent photos of my chooks, but they just won't pose for me, and always move just at the moment I'm clicking the shutter! The only one who does stand still a lot is Freddy, who likes to do his old man impersonation. Marleen though has been a bit fascinated by the camera this morning.

Finally, three of the hens standing still for a second!

And Freddy, just being Freddy.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Sheep, winter jobs and birds' nests

In other words a bit of general waffling!

I was pleased to see my neighbour's sheep back in the paddock across the lane that borders my orchard. There usually are sheep there from time to time but as this particular paddock and attached old barn and derelict house have recently been sold, I wasn't expecting to see any back. But as no work has started on the renovation I guess my neighbour was given permission to put her sheep there, as she doesn't have that much grazing land at her place and the grass here is going to waste. I can see most of the paddock from my bedroom window and it's not so much the sheep that excites me (they aren't the most attractive of breeds, whatever they are), it's the imminent arrival of the lambs I want to see. There's only two breeding ewes and one has a rather large tum, so we shall see. Not a great photo as it was taken through my rather grubby window but it's nice to see life in the empty paddock for a change. There are often horses in the fields behind this one too. Note though that when I say 'neighbour', I tend to mean anyone in our hamlet of 14 houses!

Right where was I? Oh yes, the waffling. Well that brings me to one of the winter jobs that I really enjoy doing, that is the attacking of ivy and brambles which always threaten to take over and I can only really find enough time to keep the brambles at bay rather than actually get rid of them. Some places I just leave them be as little wildlife havens - they do after all have their uses although on my land where it is dry, and in shady places, they are not really producing much in the way of blackberries. They also serve a purpose where they grow down by the water's edge because it stops the ducks from eating the lake bank in those places. 

The ivy on the other hand has been getting out of control over the last few years and it's all I can do to try to cut it back at the base of my bigger, better trees and not let my perimeter fence get taken over. It's a job that really needs doing before about the end of January, as to my horror and shame last year when I was doing a last bit of clearing up I disturbed a tiny little bird nest, only about a foot off the ground, nestled in the fork of a multi stemmed elm in amongst the ivy. Thank goodness no eggs in it but you can imagine how awful I felt :-((( 

This next photo is NOT that nest - this one blew out of a tree a couple of summers back and it was just so beautiful I had to photograph it.

What is so remarkable about it, aside from being a perfect work of art, is all the local materials used to make it. The lichen, moss and bits of dried grass are woven together with the tail hairs from my neighbour's two mares, one chestnut and one black. The soft inside is lined with wool from the sheep across the road and the soft downy feathers from my white ducks. In fact that's another reason for getting more ducks - I'm sure half the birds in the neighbourhood collect these feathers to line their nests! Nature is just wonderful.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Plant catalogues and Basque chillies

I have to share something with you that I found quite hysterically funny. But first some background - most of you probably know there are quite a few veggies that are pretty well unknown in France. You can't buy them in the shops or markets and you can't find seed for them either, unless you go for a mail order company such as T&M France, which has a more, shall we say, British variety of veg. But then you may as well use T&M UK or any other seed company which will send to France!

So, there I was perusing a plant catalogue which came with my monthly gardening magazine, and flipping through the pages of pretty perennials until I came to summer annuals.  There, amongst the dahlias and more fancy annuals such as cleome, was...... wait for it......... purple curly kale!!! 5 plug plants for over €7.00 and not a mention of them being winter hardy or even, shock horror - edible! So next time you are wandering through a five star Ville Fleurie, have a closer look at that fancy bedding display in the middle of the roundabout - you never know what you might see!

I think they look pretty good in
the November garden too!

Another catalogue with plug plants has grafted chillies for sale of the variety Gorria - these are the famous Piment d'Espelette, an only very slightly warm chilli which is used liberally in Basque cuisine in place of black pepper; they even have salt and chilli powder on the table rather than salt and pepper! These chillies have an Appelation d'Origine Controlee and are very expensive to buy either whole and dried or in powdered form. I was hoping to find seed for sale when we were staying in Espelette in October but no luck. I guess their AOC makes them a rarity but I've found a site online selling 25 seeds for about the same price as the two plug plants - over €5.00!

You see, all I really want to do is decorate my house Basque style.  I think it might add a bit of warmth to a Breton winter ;-)

Both the photos are taken in Espelette. I may well share some more of my Basque country holiday photos with you on this blog, as I never got around to posting any for my friends to see - well by the time I'd sorted through the hundreds we'd both taken and put them all into a Picasa album and captioned them, there were still 138 in total and I guessed you'd all lose the will to live by then!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Before and after pics, house and garden 3

This is a corner towards the back of the house facing east where once there was a huge camelia. Yes it looks lovely flowering in the photo, but the rest of the year it was covered in sooty mould and looked grotty, blocked the light from the large bathroom window and we had some mould on the inside of the bathroom at the base of that wall, as it is a metre lower down than the soil level. So, with the aid of a neighbour's mini digger, out it came, some damp proofing was put in and the soil put back.


I then had to wait impatiently until the rest of the house was pointed before I could do anything with this corner and around the back of the house. I had flower beds planned and was itching to get started. It also is a fairly shady spot, with part of this area in total shade all day long even in June. Shade without tree roots is a rarity here so I was dying to be able to plant some shade loving plants in a place which would stay moister for longer than the rest of the garden.

March 2008

Having the pointing guys here came in handy for another thing; under the camelia was a large and extremely heavy rectangular lump of granite that I needed moving. I asked them if they could help move it up against the wall where I thought I could put a tub with flowers on top or something. However, when they moved it they turned it over and guess what was revealed? I was over the moon! I've seen these troughs for sale at €150 or more (not that I want to sell it, I hasten to add)!

And so, we landscaped and tidied up the area and removed any spilt limestone mortar and dug in compost, ready for planting. The hose outlet from the boiler had to be rerouted all around the outside of the house to meet up with the nearest drain. The space already looked miles better, even without any plants!

......and then I got to do the bit I love best. Before you ask, that is a duck deterrent fence and has proven invaluable, as whilst chickens do more damage with their scratching, large white ducks are very good at flattening young plants and they like to eat fresh compost!

Spring 2008

The next year it was looking lovely and mature. We also have the morning sun streaming into the bathroom - not to mention a colourful view out over this bed towards the veg patch and the field beyond.


At its peak the following year.


And now it is time to do some major renovation to this bed again, as the large hosta needs dividing, and too many things have self seeded, and the creeping plants have crept just too much and the trough has been taken over by lamium which both self seeds and spreads and is really a bit of a pest. And so it starts all over again. But that is gardening for you!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Happy chickens

The new chicken run is completed! We have so much space here yet it is not easy to find more space for an enclosed run as we have a path into the woodland and wood shed running alongside the chook run, so the only option was to extend back into the woodland itself. 

We couldn't give them more space because of a big conifer tree rather in the way. But hopefully this additional run which they will access through one or the other of the existing runs will do them until the grass and weeds start to grow again in the spring.

You can see from this photo just how barren their space had become, even though I was alternating them between the two runs. So, compost and compost bins moved and then we (or should I say, he!) set to work. I did help with the post bashing in, honest. I held the posts whilst they were being bashed in and checked with the spirit level! At least at this time of year now the ground is no longer frozen the posts go in really easily - it's a different kettle of fish in summer when the ground is so dry it is rock hard.

Project Man was not deterred by a bit of drizzle. Finally it was completed but the chooks needed encouragement as they hadn't noticed a new hole at the end of the run!

It didn't take them long - soon as one noticed and started running they all started running!

There's quite a decent sized extra bit here with loads of trees and lots of places to dig where the compost bins had been sitting (now on the outside of the fence). The only sad thing is that Freckles the duck saw them and thought they had been let out to play with her, only to realise they were still behind a fence. I really must keep on with trying to convince my OH that we need more ducks, although this might involve a long drive to collect any that I might see advertised. I will, of course, keep you posted!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Peanut butter fudge

Over the Christmas period people kept talking about making fudge, which I haven't done since I was a kid. I saw this recipe mentioned on colouritgreen's blog who gave me the recipe and I'm afraid I just had to make it. I made one little change; I used light brown sugar instead of dark. Just because that's what I fancied using.

It's delicious and easy and I'm very glad the recipe doesn't mention calories, because you shouldn't even think about them. I'm going to try freezing some - I can't see why it won't work. It's funny how my OH suddenly likes peanut butter though! It's also even funnier how his 'diet' disappears out the window when I make something sweet - I tell him he doesn't have to eat any, but he says he ought to keep me company.....

Next experiment will be milk tablet fudge using sweetened condensed milk. Can't wait!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Four letter c word

I've been blogging for over a month now and haven't yet said that naughty word.


You didn't really think I meant something else did you? Shame on you!

Actually this is supposed to be chocolate brownies, but I was seduced by a recipe that used 6 eggs and lots of walnuts, both of which I have in abundance, so that made rather a lot of mixture which was a bit too much for my largest high sided baking tray. So it ended up as chocolate brownie cake which is about 2 inches high! I was worried it might be overcooked but in fact the crunchy outer bits are possibly even better than the squidgy inner bits, so this is a hit. Most of it is now in the freezer - even I can't eat that much!

For your information it doesn't contain any courgettes, or beetroot. You'll have to wait until summer for naughty four letter c words like that.

Frozen lake

I really wasn't expecting ice on the lake yet! From geraniums to this in a few short days.

I don't think Freckles was either as she was wandering around all of a dither!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Renewable firewood, Breton style

At about this time every year, the local farmers put down their hunting rifles in favour of their chainsaws and for the next month that is the main sound that fills the countryside. For the first few years that I lived here I just could not understand why the trees looked such a funny shape in winter and were then 'butchered' into an even uglier shape by what I saw as a chainsaw massacre.

It was not until we visited a temporary exhibition on trees at the Ecomusee de Rennes (well worth a visit anyway) that light was shed on a lot of the issues that I hadn't understood. Well I'd realised it was some sort of firewood harvesting, but quite why they did it like that I was totally in the dark about.

So, the history goes something like this. Back in the olden days, the peasant farmers who rented the land from the landowners were allowed to harvest the firewood from the trees which bounded their fields, but only up to so many metres from the ground. The landowner retained the rights over the tops of the trees. This explained why so many trees were nothing but a straight trunk with what looks like a small tree growing out of the top of it! 

It was done on a rotation basis - every few years all the whippy growth would be taken off and this would be bundled into what was called 'fagots' which were used to fire the breadovens, which most farms and rural hamlets would have as their only means of baking bread (not having ovens in their houses). Leaving the larger side branches a few more years would result in firewood for heating their houses. Also as the town of Rennes (the capital of Brittany) grew, the bourgeoisie were demanding more and more firewood to heat their homes, so this also became a means of revenue for the peasant farmers. 

A third reason for pruning the trees in this fashion was because the fields were very small and the trees would cast shade over the crops; cutting the side branches off the trees and keeping them straight like this with just a crown higher up would allow maximum light to penetrate.

Some photos now to illustrate what I am talking about! If you click on any of these photos you will open all of them full size which is a much better way to view them.  

You can see the whippy horizontal growth which
hasn't yet been cut off

A better example, this is a good size
tree and there's several years growth
to remove from the lower half

Even small trees like this
are not exempt from the treatment

So how does this translate into modern day practices? One thing that is very noticeable is that a lot of trees have their crowns cut completely off these days. This isn't killing the tree but it looks very ugly! It seems to be completely random, you'll get a line of trees with one or two cut like this amongst others that still have a crown. I still don't understand this. Another thing is what they do with the whippy growth that was used in the past in the bread ovens - we've all got ovens in our houses these days so they are very rarely used for their traditional use so I can only imagine this kind of wood is sold as kindling. I also feel that the trees are pruned on a much more regular basis than they would have been in the past as often there is not much in the way of any real firewood (i.e. logs) coming off them. So modern practices often involve just cutting down the entire tree for firewood which is very sad. Many of these don't coppice, not when they are mature trees, so when they are cut down that's it.

These trees have already had their side branches
and whippy growth taken off

Bit of a mix of pollarding and coppicing here

Done. I think this photo shows just how barren the
Breton countryside can look by the end of February!

I should point out that I no longer think of this as an ugly blot on the landscape but just accept this as a traditional practice which has been going on for centuries; after several years (and with understanding) I am not unduly bothered by it any more - and anyway, come summer when the leaves are out and the new growth albeit whippy starts growing you don't really notice at all.

However this is what I take exception to. When all the trees on a field margin are cut right down to the ground, they won't grow back again and this seems to be happening around where I live more and more. The view from my veg patch (facing north and east) now has very little in the way of any trees or shrubs to block the cold winds which blow - plus I LIKED seeing the trees on the horizon. But perhaps we have only ourselves to blame; whilst the current 'bourgeoisie' of Rennes are probably more reliant on CH these days, it's us lot out in the countryside demanding more and more firewood to keep us warm (and I bet, we want to be a darn site warmer than the folks of days gone by). On the other hand, who can blame us as it's by far the cheapest way to heat our houses and is in fact encouraged by our government who give us grants to install wood burners!

An entire line of trees on a field margin destroyed -
quite why one tree remains is a mystery. Perhaps they
haven't got to chopping that one down yet.

On our land we have the remains of an old field margin with an ancient oak which bears the scars of having had its side branches cut off over the decades (or possibly even centuries), but in recent decades since being part of an enclosed garden it now bears what looks like one tree growing out of the top of it and another growing off to the side! It has a huge girth and I keep meaning to get some string and measure it so I can try to figure out how old it must be. What it must have seen in the course of its lifetime!

Our tree - I'll try to take one when
there is no vegetation as it will show better

Saturday, 14 January 2012

January flowers

Winter has arrived with a short spell of below zero temperatures forecast over the next few nights which should put paid to the last of the summer/autumn flowers which have been going on and on. It's been somewhat wierd to see roses and geraniums flowering at the same time as the winter/early spring flowers which have started very early this year. Luckily I went out with my camera and captured some of the more photogenic ones the other day - granted you need a magnifying glass for some of the flowers like violets - but every little flower I notice brightens my day and I counted 15 different species in flower.


Snowdrops -
usually a February flower here

Rosemary -
this usually does flower in late winter

Tiny wild Viola, looking a bit munched, but
barely noticeable to the naked eye

Borage - such a beautiful colour

Primrose - not at all unusual to be flowering
all through winter, but has its main display in early spring

Ivy-leafed Geranium still flowering since about May

OK there were only 5 flowers on the whole shrub but!

Campanula - this plant usually has a 2nd flush
in the autumn, and has not yet stopped!


As well as the above, I have roses, coriander, violets, gaillardia and corncockles with flowers on. Not the showy displays of spring or summer but in mid January, anything is a bonus!