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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

May flowers

May - my favourite month of the year! So much changes in the garden during this month and the colours of my flowers change from predominantly blue earlier on, to the beginnings of pinks and mauves with a few splashes of yellow and orange by the end of the month.

The first of the cranesbill geraniums to bloom is Geranium phaeum. This is by far my favourite cranesbill, as its flowers last for ages and is the only one I have which will come back into flower again later in the year. It grows in both total shade and semi shade and has beautiful leaf markings. It also self seeds which none of my others do - not necessarily a good thing! It is a flower really loved by bumble bees and starts flowering as early as April, and just goes on and on.

Lilacs have been and gone, and this bush proved itself to be much loved by the Cabbage White butterfly. I really should check whether this is a large white or small white, but as a veg gardener I'm afraid either of those two is a Cabbage White to me!

There have been bright wacky colours from my two rhododendrons; this one is a dark pinky red although the colour fades as it matures, and close up it looks quite pastel. Yet another flower much loved by bees and hoverflies alike. I have seen my old friend, the Heineken Hoverfly, again on these flowers. The following photo isn't him (her?!); this is another kind of hoverfly. They are far less flitty than bees and much easier to photograph!

I've already shown a number of flowers from earlier this month during the blue phase, including many blue aquilegias which came from seeds from my mum's garden which I just threw around here and there. Last year I decided to add some new ones to the mix by sowing some Nora Barlow seeds but only three managed to germinate and survive. Here's one which is quite stunning. Unfortunately the other two just seem to be rather pathetically small double versions of the same deep blue as I already have! Sod's law!

This next is Weigela florida 'Alexander'* which I treated myself to last year. I'd had one in another garden and had to leave it behind when I moved. I just love purple foliage and here it is in full bloom already, with some rather tall self seeded corn cockles growing through it, against the backdrop of my lime green smokebush (variety unknown). Freckles is saying "No, focus on me!" in the background! Sorry Frecks, already got loads of photos of you!

* I've always known this Weigela as Alexander, but it seems the internet is divided between those who call it Alexander, and those who call it Alexandra!

Strange lighting and graininess as I took this next photo one evening. Blue aquilegias in the foreground with the first of the zantedeschia flowers against a backdrop of french lavender. Unfortunately the french lavender has gone rather woody and scruffy looking and a big chunk broke off in the wind a few weeks back, that same wind which knocked the top off a conifer tree and detached my honeysuckle from the wall. Not sure whether to replace it or not, as the two cuttings I took and planted in the back garden died, so maybe they are not very hardy? Hmmm decisions :-/

Edit: Problem solved. Just been to Lidl (cheap supermarket chain) and they had some young ones in bud for only €1.99, about a third cheaper than a garden centre where they would already have finished blooming, as everything is forced into flower far too early at these places.

Not entirely May flowers, these heartease violas flower for about 9 months of the year but I don't think I've featured them yet. They are so glorious close up, and yes I have a new camera which I am just learning how to use!

I have to admit that I don't know what kind of irises these are. All I know is that they are not the bearded ones! I have two clumps which came from a friend's garden last year and already they have spread and are looking amazing! They are planted in quite a shady place which may not be good for them so first I need to do a little research as to what conditions they like as I will probably divide a clump in the autumn as they deserve to be planted in more places!

The chives are flowering now and they are just covered in bumble bees all the time.

My front bed. It still looks very green in the photo but there is plenty flowering here! The reddy pink flowers are valerian which is quite happy in this dry bed and the few blobs of pink in the left foreground are Lychnis coronaria. I love this plant and it self seeds easily but really doesn't like dry conditions, even though having small furry grey leaves is an indication that it's a drought resistant plant. Not here, unfortunately.

May also sees summer clematis and roses just starting into flower. Meet Clematis 'Miss Bateman', who is growing in a planter with a trellis attached to it.

My roses will really be coming into their own in June but I can't resist introducing you to the first few flowers opening up on 'Zephirine Drouhin'. She's an old French variety of rose, thornless, climbing and perfect for the archway she's been planted up against, as no chance of snagging your clothes or getting scratched if she gets out of hand! She's only been in place 2 years and has a lot of growing to do. Her perfume is exquisite and she throws her scent out a long way, so when we are sitting up near the barn and chicken shed we can smell her lovely scent.

That's it for now, I really must stop. June will probably get out of hand..... ;-)

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Ponderings, wanderings and an award

First of all before it is too late, I would like to thank Steve at Mr Tomato King who recently gave me a Sunshine Award! That makes two I've received although you miserable lot who I passed it on to the first time didn't join in! Steve is a very knowlegeable tomato grower who has grown them professionally for decades in many different climates, so if you have any tomato queries I suggest you pootle over and have a look at his very informative blog.

It all seems rather fitting as here we are basking in beautiful warm sunshine at last. All the trees finally have their leaves and everything looks lush and green. Although overall it's been a dry month, we did have a good amount of rain last weekend so the grass is still green and the stream is still flowing into the pond. Swallows are zooming around over the garden and stopping to perch on my veg patch fence which is so delightful. Pipistrelle bats are out at dusk and one is roosting behind a shutter during the day and the crickets are making their racket again - one of those sounds of summer which you never notice when it starts - just suddenly there it is, like it was never gone.  There's even green stuff in the chicken runs again although it's 90% weed rather than grass, but anything is better than bare earth!

The only sad thing is that the moorhens seem to have moved on to pastures new. Both their early attempts at nest building were swamped by the April rains and it seems that they don't want to try again, at least not here, so looks like we'll be baby moorhenless this year, which is a real shame. But I'm quite sure they, or another couple, will be back at some point. That's just the way it goes.

So, I've been pondering about something. Wondering whether if you write a gardening type of blog whether you'd cover it all in one year and then after that it would all be rather samey. A bit like my Christmas letter to my relatives when I think, what have I done all year? There's only so much one can write about chickens and vegetables without boring the pants off people and they do tend to do rather the same sort of thing year in year out. But then I think, I've been taking so many photos and meaning to write about this that and the other, and especially in spring when everything is changing so much, that I really don't have the time to keep blogging about it all. So I think that yes, I can easily keep this up for at least two years and cover some of the things I've missed next year!

Back to my wandering (as opposed to wondering!), you see I never finished off showing the photos I took when I was out looking at the horses and that's over a week ago!

At the edge of our hamlet up a cart track is this old ruin. It's in a lovely secluded spot with an orchard next to it. I'm surprised it has not been snapped up as a renovation job, but who knows, maybe it's not for sale. The sign on the boarded up window made me laugh. It says "Danger: Asbestos". Oh never mind that the gable end has crumbled and the roof is in imminent danger of collapse!

The hawthorn is out too and looking pretty.

There are so many wildflowers at the moment, all looking especially good as the grass on the roadside verges is still green. Here is red clover, one of my favourite wild flowers.

Common fumitory and newly emerging bracken fronds beside a field of barley. Barley seems to be the 'in crop' this year which is unusual. EU subsidies for barley this year, anyone know? Normally it's wheat and maize everywhere with just the occasional field of barley, so this year it is very noticeable.

Pignut or not pignut? That is the question. I suspect the following is a pignut (Conopodium majus) as I've been studying them at home compared to another plant which has very similar flowers but different leaves, and the pignut's leaves are barely noticeable and already going yellow and dying back. I don't know what the other plant is yet and I still haven't tried digging up a pignut - I'll leave that for next year!

Close by to home there are a lot of old walls around some of the manor houses which are home to many species of plant life (and very probably insects too). I wish I had a wall, but on the other hand this wall has crumbled in places and the poor guy who owns it had it repaired, no doubt at vast expense, only for another bit to collapse soon after. So maybe a hedge is cheaper to maintain!

There are ox-eye daisies here which caught my eye and a sedum which I have in a pot; also I've seen poppies and even a wild rose growing out of it as well as all sorts of other wild plants, mosses and lichens.

So now I've caught up (sort of) I can get back to my veg patch, which needs tending, and also updating on this blog! Happy sunny Saturday everyone :-)

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Making my first ever comfrey tea

At long last my comfrey is big enough to harvest the leaves from to make a fertiliser. Everyone I know who has this plant swears by it as it contains both nitrogen and potassium and is good for fruiting plants which have high potash (potassium) requirements such as tomatoes, courgettes and squash.

I planted my small comfrey out several years ago on the boggy side of our pond - I think leaky might be the correct term for it as it stays moist on this far perimeter side whilst everything wilts from lack of moisture on the other, garden side. I'd heard comfrey was tough and spreads like crazy so thought in amongst the nettles and wild bog type umbellifers it should manage to hold its own. I was not disappointed and it's spread really well over the last two and a half years and hasn't been swamped by any of these other rampant plants!

The comfrey is the plant with the white flowers

You can see its oval shaped leaves better in this photo.
It's not the leaf in the centre foreground though, that's some big boggy plant that loves
the growing conditions here and in the ditches.

Once I'd collected all the leaves in my bucket I added water to just about cover the leaves. The bucket originally had fat balls in it for the wild birds; I thought this would be perfect as it has a tight fitting lid and I have heard ALL about how vile comfrey smells as it rots down. I'm quite looking forward to finding out just how horrible it is! Yes I am a bit wierd but I need to know these things!

I thought that would be it and leave it for a few weeks with some sniff tests along the way, until something caught my eye in the bucket. Luckily for it.

Uh-oh, poor spiddy spider drowning. I quickly fished him out, along with an earwig and checked for other bugs. Popped them on the leaves on the ground so they could dry out a bit and amble off. The earwig ran around a lot enjoying its freedom whilst the spider just looked at me. And probably said something I wouldn't want to repeat on a nice blog like this.

Actually, there is a bit of a story behind this comfrey. Originally it came from my mother's garden, who has quite a bank of it. Mum brought me over 3 teeny tiny little plants in her luggage which I duly potted up and nurtured. One day it became apparent that actually one of these plants was slightly different from the other two. As they grew it became apparent that one was, in fact, very different from the other two, so the two were nutured and repotted better than the one. As I was curious I posted this photo on a self sufficiency forum asking what the rogue plant which wasn't comfrey was.

So which one is the comfrey?

OK I don't mind you having a laugh at my expense all you comfrey growers out there. Yup, the answer came back - the rogue plant IS the comfrey. The other two plants you have been tending, nuturing, talking to and repotting are teasels!!!

So comfrey quickly got repotted and tended to whilst the teasels were planted out in a wild patch near the pond on the dry side, where they flowered pathetically, never to be seen again (it's just too dry on that side). And yes, on further questioning my mother she does have teasels in her garden from time to time..... I will be wary next time she brings me small seedlings! 

A teensy edit to say: it has been pointed out to me that the spider is more than likely a Harvestman, which although of the family of arachnids, is not actually a spider. Also it's missing one leg which I hadn't noticed!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Horses and foals

I love horses. I've ridden on and off since I was a kid, but after having taken it up again in my 40s after having only ridden a handful of times in my 30s and not having fallen off during that time, I soon learned that meaning of the phrase "I don't bounce any more". Oh yes, even falling onto sand in a sand school hurts like hell and I managed three falls over the space of about a year: one which half crippled me for weeks and I even went to the doc who sent me for an X-ray of my coccyx; another which left me with a buttock that was black and blue and I could hardly sit down for about two weeks; the third was initially remarkable as I sat in the sand thinking "I don't hurt!!!". Until I got up that was, and realised something was rather wrong with my foot.

It was 'only' a broken metatarsal so I thought, no big deal, footballers have these injuries all the time and they're up and playing football again within a month. Oh how wrong I was, I was still hopping around on crutches 6 weeks later with a foot the size of a balloon. Complications set in and after 6 months I finally managed to persuade my doctor to send me for physiotherapy. A year of that and it was somewhat better but took about two years to heal totally, and I still get the odd twinge. Of course the fracture happened one August so you can imagine how awful it was for me to watch my veg patch and flower beds get weedier and weedier, fruit rotting on the trees and my poor OH struggling to get the basic chores done inside and out. I decided then and there that my garden was far more important to me than my love of horses and riding, in fact just my own two feet and mobility were more important than anything. So now I just admire horses from the ground!

We are in quite horsey country around here - OK by 'around here' I mean just the immediate vicinity between our little hamlet and the village 2 kms away. My English neighbours have a number of horses and there's a French lady who breeds Trotters who has them in several fields dotted about. Then there are the Breton heavy horses who come and go as they move around from field to field. When I noticed they were back in the hamlet a few days ago and there was a mare and foal in one field I just had to get out and have a close up look, especially as I knew there was a Trotter foal further up the road too.

The Breton mare and foal. Bretons are usually this beautiful colour with blonde manes and tails.

Shame about the fencing in the way! There's sheep wire, old and new
barbed wire and hurriedly put together electric fencing - which wasn't even on
as baby was touching it when I was stroking it!

All the excitement and baby had to have a little lie down

On the other side of the road there were some really chunky ones

I'm not sure about the ones in the background, they are rather slimline and
may be Breton crosses.

Then I walked on about 1km to see the Trotter mare and foal. At first I thought they'd disappeared but they were inside the field shelter. When they saw me they seemed to take an interest and got up and had a trot and canter around the field for my benefit. I am so stupid though as I thought I'd set my camera onto sports mode but had put it on the wrong setting, hence not very good photos when they were moving.

Strange woman alert!

Let's provide her with a photo opportunity, that she can stuff up!

Every now and again they'd stop and mum
would give me the evil eye :-)

I loved the way they did everything in unison with baby copying mum.

Meh. Bored with this now so I'll stick my tongue out at you.

I'll end with a funny. I can't even be bothered to crop off the strange black bits at the top and bottom but old photos and slides need (in most cases, in my opinion) to be left in their natural state as it adds to the charm. What on earth is in front of the camera, the strap?!! But I would like to say that I did learn to ride somewhat better than this! How d'ya like those lovely baggy jods? :-)

Friday, 18 May 2012

Buzz off!

It's sadly ironic that someone who champions bees and pollinating insects has to call out a pest controller to destroy a nest of honey bees. But, as we have discovered, there's a huge difference between the gentle humming of bees out in the garden and the very irritating drone of bees inside your living room. We really weren't meant to live side by side with them so unfortunately when a swarm of bees decides that your chimney is a good place to build a nest something has to be done about it.

At first we thought they were swarming inside the large stone chimney stack, so after several days of bees appearing in the living room and getting a bit fed up with catching them on the windowsills and window panes with a glass and putting them inside, we thought that if we lit the wood burner and just made a small fire, maybe the warmth would discourage them and they'd go elsewhere. However! Result - no fire, a lot of smoke pouring out of every crack in the wood burner filling the living room to choking point. Hmmm think they've build their nest inside the stainless steel flue! After that we had bees both inside the wood burner and still coming out of the chimney itself (which has fireproof plasterboard and insulation around the flue to keep the drafts out and the heat in).  Muggins here was letting unhappy bees out of the wood burner and putting them outside, whereupon those that were not half dead promptly flew back up to the top of the roof and probably came back down the chimney again. As well as the noise and the by then continual sweeping up of half dead bees off the floor they were secreting sticky stuff (honey?) all over the windowsills and it was beginning to get beyond a joke.

Obviously it had to stop, so after a call to the Mairie we were given a few phone numbers to try. One company didn't do heights. Errr, that's no good when we're talking chimney stacks here on a tall house! The other guy said he didn't normally get down our way and to leave it for several days to see if they went away of their own accord; if not, call him again. Well they didn't go so he was called again and thank goodness he was able to come out on Monday to deal with the problem.

I should point out that Mr 'Sam Pic' is not a wanton destroyer of bees - he works with apiarists if there is a way to collect the swarm and move them on. Not possible inside an 8 metre tall stainless steel pipe however.

He also didn't have the right kind of ladder with him to deal with our Nantaise gutters, so plan B had to be put into action. I watched him sit on the roof outside this window and put the roof ladder which hooks over the ridge together, section by section. I get vertigo just watching people on roofs so after that I left him to it and my OH took the rest of the photos!

It looks so bare without the Mimosa tree now

All suited up

Rather him than me!!!

Putting poison powder down the flue

You can just make out a few dark blobs in the photo which are bees

Mr Sam Pic said that it was very unusual to have a nest actually inside a chimney flue as it's difficult to get it to stick to the soot on the sides. He said the treatment may take up to a week to work and he'd come out again if we still had a problem, included in the charge. Thankfully (for the bees as well as us) it seems to have been instantaneous as we've not had a bee since and the living room seems oddly quiet and still. We have to leave the nest to dry out for several months before getting the chimney sweeps back to clean it out before we can use the wood burner again in the autumn. Thank god it's May and thank god we have back up central heating! Cost: €120 plus the cost of the chimney sweeps again - they were only here in March!

So if you are reading this and you live in northern dept 35 or dept 22 and ever have a problem, he is your man for dealing with wasps, hornets, bees, rats and processionary caterpillars/moths (Tel: 0800 10 10 26). Now apparently is the time to put out pheromone traps for the pine processionary moth and he'll charge you €160 to do so. It might be cheaper to look online for the traps yourself! We have them in our pine trees but as they haven't taken up residence inside the house I'll leave them to it, but I am well aware of the problems they can cause and know exactly what they look like, having encountered gazillions of them crawling in procession up in the Pyrenees mountains.

Overall a sad tale but here's something he said that was interesting. "You could get a hive" he said. "Oh no, we've thought about that and decided that beekeeping would be just too time consuming and like having another kind of livestock to look after" replied my OH. Ah but apparently no, you can install a hive and just leave them to it - you don't need to collect the honey or DO anything. It's just a dry shelter for them to use and they'll get on and do their own thing and it will discourage them from looking inside your house walls or chimney for a place to make a nest! Food for thought and something I am going to look into.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The morning light

This morning's beautiful sunshine had me out bright and early in my fluffy dressing gown and wellies. I could see the light streaming through the newly emerging purple foliage of some of my shrubs and there was a heavy dew, even a slight touch of frost on the grass.

Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'

I love purple foliage and there was only one tree with purple leaves when we moved here which is a small tree which I assume to be some kind of purple sycamore. I've since planted shrubs and another tree with purple foliage, and other shrubs and plants with interesting or variegated leaf colours, but more about them another time.

The young emerging leaves of the purple sycamore, with
a horse chestnut in the background

Mature leaves

Bearded iris with dew on the petals

A bud emerging from its papery cocoon, looking like ice

Heuchera with emerging flower stalks

Bugle (Ajuga reptens) looking like it is covered in ice crystals from the dew.

I'm also going to add a photo I took yesterday in the last of the evening sunshine. I took this through the kitchen window so it is not as clear as it should be, but I was too lazy to go outside and I loved the way the last rays were shining on my purple smoke bush.