Spring in the air

When it comes to a change of seasons, I’ve always preferred to go by the astronomical dates (solstices and equinoxes) rather than the meteorological dates; the latter are, I suppose, mathematically neater and perhaps more consumer friendly but I’m still not a huge fan. All of that said, I also think whether a new season has truly arrived or not depends very much on what is actually happening outside and a sort of intuitive feel . . . and so I would say, spring arrived for us here during the second week of March. Listening to the return of the chiffchaff’s song and watching a pair of them flitting about the garden, I suddenly realised that the fieldfares had left to spend the summer in more northern climes; we have had huge flocks locally, their garrulous clacking such a feature of the colder months here, but now it is time for the songbirds to gather strength and dominate the choral scene instead. Pied wagtails aren’t migratory but they don’t spend winter in the garden so it was lovely to see a pair back again, chirping from the rooftop and wagging their way across the grass, especially after Roger had done the first small cut. There is much interested activity around all the birdboxes ~ including the brand new one I mentioned last time ~ and a good deal of territorial behaviour, too: I watched with fascination as three robins, helping to clear the remnants of seed from beneath the feeders, held a showy stand-off, puffing up their chests and arching their heads backwards in an attempt to display the reddest breast. The plum and blackthorn blossom are fully out, the air is dancing with insects and tawny owls are calling night and day; no swallows yet, but I think we can say spring is well and truly here.

Of course, we’re not out of the woods yet where wintry weather is concerned. As a naturalist, it’s a wonderful time of celebration, seeing new life burgeoning, everything waking and stretching and responding to the lengthening days and rising temperatures; as a gardener, in some ways it’s time to sit on my hands. It’s so easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by a run of pleasant days and feel the temptation to plant, plant, plant . . . but there is no rush since we have such a mellow autumn here and I haven’t forgotten that the only snow we had last year fell on 1st April. Patience is a virtue (even if not an easy one). The good news is that it has continued to rain and the butts are all full to overflowing, including the two new ones; this means we have the best part of 3000 litres of stored water now, and as the ground is finally getting the steady soaking it needs, I’m tentatively hoping this bodes well for a less frustrating summer. Roger has been shifting buckets of water from the fast-filling butts to the slower ones to ensure they are all full and I have been carting cans from the biggest collection system near the house to give the polytunnel a good soaking; it’s a fair trek each time but I’d rather do it in 13°C now than 31°C in summer when the smaller butts nearer the tunnel are definitely more attractive! It would be very typical after all this if we end up having a dismally wet summer but I’d rather be over-provisioned than scratching around to keep things alive like we did last year. Let’s see what the season brings.

Collecting rainwater is one valuable way of tapping into the waste stream and making garden compost is another. For us it’s a way of life and I simply can’t imagine not doing it; I visit the compost heap daily, sometimes more than once, and empty the bucket of biodegradable kitchen scraps (as we eat piles of vegetables, there’s always plenty) on to the current pile, adding other ‘green’ materials like annual weeds and grass clippings layered with ‘browns’ such as dead leaves, sawdust and cardboard until the bay is full to the top. I also add the occasional handful of comfrey and yarrow leaves which are great activators and help to speed up the decomposition process and bless the pile with liquid gold (urine) whenever possible. As the current pile had reached its height limit this week, it was time to start a new one, not as straightforward as it sounds because there’s a knock-on effect here: first, the bay of ‘finished’ compost needed emptying, so that the other two could be turned and a fresh one started in an empty bay. Time to get busy and shift that pile of gorgeousness.

Although everything had rotted down well, the compost was a bit on the coarse side as a fair amount of bulky woody material had gone into this particular mix; not a problem in itself, as my intention was to spread it as a top dressing over the lasagne beds where I plan to plant greedy feeders like sweetcorn, beans and squash. The compost was heaving with tiny pink worms ~ perfect! The fact that I could even contemplate tackling this task yet alone do it is testament to how well my back is healing now and I can’t begin to describe how happy that makes me feel. 😊

Given the drought earlier this year, it’s amazing how green the grass has stayed and with a rise in temperatures it has started to grow rapidly. Roger did a first cut of some grassy areas this week and that produced another of my favourite ‘waste’ materials: grass clippings mixed with chopped dead leaves, perfect for layering in lasagne beds, the compost heap or in this case, mulching the broad bean plants which haven’t looked back since going in the ground last week.

Now let’s talk about peas because the next (and most crucial) stage of Operation Pea-off Rodents had arrived. Some of the plants weren’t quite as big as I’d liked but the roots were so immense that there was no question they had to be planted out before they knitted themselves into an intricate tangled mat and, given that peas hate root disturbance, that was something that needed to be avoided at all costs. I split 30 tubes of three plants each into a double staggered row which I have to admit felt a bit weird and formal because normally we would just rake a wide row and scatter pea seed all over it. Having found a couple of random bags of pea seed knocking about in the cave (who knows when we last bought loose pea seed and why weren’t they labelled?), I had planted small trays some weeks ago to check viability and between them they yielded 20 or so extra plants which I stuffed in between the rows. Well, fingers crossed this will work, it’s all part of the fun . . . and when it came to taking a photo, I didn’t have arms telescopic enough to capture the length of the roots so apologies for a split picture!

We have a trip to the UK looming (hence this quick post trotted out sooner than normal as I shall be ‘off air’ for a while) and the question is what to do about certain plants in our absence. As gardeners trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, there is never a ‘perfect’ time to go away; certainly, it’s better now than in a month’s time or the middle of summer, but even so there are decisions to be made. Our heated propagator is one of the best investments we ever made but it’s well over 20 years old now and a possible fire hazard if left untended so I’ve potted on all the resident sweet pepper and Cape gooseberry seedlings which can now sit in mini cloches on sunny windowsills until we’re back. The tunnel is a wonderful asset but also a bit tricky at this time of year, when things can feel totally tropical during the day but tumble to slightly arctic at night: we had a frost so hard this time last year that it turned the potato plants completely black, a serious hit from which they never fully recovered. There is no question that the door has to stay closed because of overnight temperatures but I don’t want things like the summer cabbage or lettuce plants cooking during the day. What do do? It’s hard to know where best to leave trays of young plants so that they don’t dry out or get too weather-beaten although my biggest concern is something scoffing them. In the end, I decided to put half of them in the ground, even though they’re a bit wee, and chance the rest left outside in their trays; I’m beginning to think I should fashion a colourful ‘belt and braces’ to wear with my gardening togs as it seems to be the number one mantra these days.

Perhaps a special pocket for our battered old magnifying glass would also be a good idea since I now carry it around with me everywhere just in case I see something small that needs examining closely. Roger was highly amused when I whipped it out to study a green cutworm he’d found in the soil although if I’m honest, they are the sort of insect presence we could manage without especially with young plants going into the ground. Fingers crossed the robins will do their duty. With a few days of warm and sunny weather between the rain showers, I have noticed quite an increase both in the number and variety of insects out and about this week; for instance, as well as the red admiral butterflies that have been flying for a while, I have also seen brimstones, small tortoiseshells and commas. Things got very exciting when I saw two Orange-tailed mining bees, also known as the early mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa), exploring a patch of mud under the washing line and later feeding on the flowering currant, then doing a circuit round the flowering dandelions, I saw my first Yellow-tailed mining bee (Andrena flavipes). Note how the flower is full of tiny black beetles, too.

Something I am becoming more aware of, too, are the feeding patterns that seem to exist; for instance, on that same day, the heathers had been full of honeybees all day but mostly White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) in the morning and Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) in the afternoon, all queens. As I watched one of the latter feeding in a purple heather, she took flight and landed nearby in the wilder of our two flower beds. I was very chuffed because it had so far been impossible to follow any bumbles after take-off, they all seem to fly off too high or too quickly into the distance, so here was my chance . . . and maybe ~ just maybe ~ she would lead me to her nest site, especially as that particular bed is full of old vole holes which I know are a favourite spot. No such luck, she alighted and sat very still on a dead leaf in the sun but as I homed in with the camera and took a few shots, she started to lift a middle leg and wave it at me. In my previous bee-ignorant life, this would have been a meaningless gesture but I knew from reading Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s Dancing With Bees precisely what was going on here. Quite simply, she was indicating that she didn’t like my presence and was asking me to step away and give her some space. The next move would have been to lift other legs before turning over to show me her sting but I decided against pushing things that far, not because I was frightened of receiving a sting (highly unlikely) but because it felt rude and disrespectful to stay when she was obviously looking for some peace.

I went back to trimming old growth from the perennial plants in the Mandala Bed (which is what I had been doing before wandering off to look at the heathers) and I don’t know whether it was good karma coming round or simply coincidence, but as I snipped away, breathing in the wonderful herbal scents and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face, a huge White-tailed bumblebee queen flew down to join me. She took herself to the section which has turned itself into a strawberry bed, wriggled underneath a pile of leaf mulch and disappeared down a big black hole below. Had I found my first nest of the season? I truly hoped so. The next day, I found a second, this time by following a Buff-tailed bumblebee queen who dived down a vole hole above a stone wall below the huge bay tree near the house; this is a pretty canny spot by all accounts, well-hidden and camouflaged, and one I won’t be nosing at too much in the coming weeks since the tree will be full of nesting birds.

Busy lifting and potting up another tray of volunteer lettuce plants in the tunnel and off in my own little world as usual, I suddenly became aware of a bumble buzz amongst the salad leaves: a beautiful Buff-tailed queen rummaging through the mizuna flowers. Crouching down for a closer look, I could see that she wasn’t taking pollen but sipping nectar with the most incredibly long tongue. What a perfect partnership; she was enjoying a hearty breakfast in the warmest spot on the property and we should benefit from a crop of mizuna seeds if the dusting of pollen on her face was anything to go by. There have been butterflies and honeybees in the tunnel this week along with a host of small flying insects so I’m hoping the flowers on the peas and broad beans will appeal to some of them. Leaving a few plants to flower in this way is a great strategy as it allows us to collect and dry seed for future crops and also encourages volunteer seedlings to pop up in a self-perpetuating way; we will probably never need to sow rocket, lamb’s lettuce, mizuna, landcress, lettuce, coriander, flat-leaved parsley or calendula in here again and many of the plants in the photo appeared of their own volition.

When Roger discovered an old trough hanger (we’re still finding ‘stuff’ left by the previous owners, even after more than two years) and suggested he could fix it to the fence by the front gate, I was delighted and wasted no time finding some pansies to plant in it; I love the way that very slowly, the house is beginning to look like it’s set in a garden rather than a car park, and as the perennials and self-set annuals in the gravel start to bloom we should have a riot of colour this year. I’m not a huge fan of bedding plants but I do love winter-flowering pansies, they flower for so many months, cheering everything up and setting a bit of seed in the gravel as a bonus. What I have found interesting is that they are a flower that strongly divides opinion when it comes to the question, are they of benefit to bees? On one side, there are plenty of people advocating pansies as being one of the best flowers you can grow for bees being very attractive ~ ‘perfect’, even; on the other, those who say they are of no use whatsoever because they either have no pollen and nectar, or bees can’t access them if they do. I’ve even come across people castigating gardeners for growing them, saying they should be banned and everyone should grow primroses instead.

Such extremes . . . and who’s right? Well, as I’ve said before, observation is important and all I can say is that we have had bumblebees visiting the pansies for some time; the black carpenter bees in particular seem to like them and one actually made me jump this week when it flew up out of the hanging basket I was watering. Of the spring flowers on our patch, it’s the ‘weeds’ like dandelion, celandine, speedwell, daisy and red deadnettle that are being visited the most but I can categorically say, hand on heart, I haven’t seen a single insect in the primroses, despite us having drifts of the pale yellow native variety and a few pink crosses, too. There have even been more visitors in the daffodils which aren’t usually a first choice for foraging so I’m not altogether sure what to make of the expert advice. At the end of the day, I think we just have to keep leaving as many patches of wildflowers to flourish as we can throughout the year whilst constantly adding to the range of flowering plants in the garden . . . and no, I’m not going to apologise for those pansies! 😊

March meanderings

So many weeks have passed without rain that waking to the sound of it pelting down on the roof one night last week left me momentarily confused. What a strange time of year to experience such prolonged drought! The next morning, after setting my pot of tea to brew, I opened the kitchen door, stood on the step in my pyjamas and breathed in that wonderfully powerful smell of rain after a long spell of dry weather. It’s officially called ‘petrichlor’ but there is something about the word that I’ve never really liked, to my ear it’s just too harsh and clumpy a name for something so beautiful that it almost defies description. How can I find the right words for the rich mineral scent of wet stone, the spiciness of damp leaves and bark, the sharp herbal breath of rain-drenched grass, the mushroomy, mossy perfume of moist earth or the penetrating, dizzying freshness of rain-laden air? It’s a good job my teapot was wrapped in a thick cosy, I’d as good as forgotten about it so immersed was I in the sparkling morning. Sparkling it was, too; after weeks of everything looking so pinched and dusty, so crouched and clemmed, suddenly ~ like the sweep of a wet brush across a page in one of those children’s magic painting books ~ the bleached grey landscape was awash with vibrant colour. I wasn’t the only one to be revelling in the change, either; there is a pair of blackbirds building their nest in the bay tree and the male was singing his heart out in the way only blackbirds can after rain. What a wonderful start to the day.

Incredible how quickly everything responds, too; there is a sudden burst of blooms around the garden now, the first of the blossom opening in delicate pinks and whites, daffodils in bright drifts above celandines and violets and by the kitchen door, Vita’s dainty narcissi fill the air with their sweet perfume, reminding me of a wonderfully kind neighbour and soft Asturian springs.

It’s still too early to launch into full-scale planting as things could go horribly wrong with the weather for a while yet but it’s felt good to be able to do at least a few bits and pieces this week. For starters, I pricked out a tray of aubergine plants; given these little seedlings have so far spent their lives in the wrap-around warmth of a heated propagator, it always feels a bit cruel to turf them out but they had their first true leaves and were getting very leggy so D-Day (or Jour-J as it is in France) had arrived. I always try to be as kind as I can, taking them down to the polytunnel where the air is calm and toasty and the compost and water are both several degrees warmer than their counterparts outside. I talk to the seedlings soothingly and stroke them gently as I uproot them and place them into individual pots ~ I’m not sure it benefits them, but it makes me feel better about the whole thing. I then put them in mini- cloches (upturned former fat ball buckets) on the sunniest windowsill in the house where they now receive lots of daily love; they will do their utmost to die over the next couple of weeks but hopefully the majority will toughen up and make it to the next stage like last years’ brave little troopers.

No such Softy Walter stuff from the broad beans, I’d been hardening my pre-sown plants off outside for several days and with the ground now wetter and warmer, it was time for planting. Not a moment too soon, either; their root balls were tremendous to the point it was a struggle getting them out of their pots. Of the double row of beans planted in late autumn, only a single plant has survived; they grew too quickly in the unusually mild conditions then blackened and crumpled when the first hard frosts rolled in. It’s all part of the learning curve we’re still travelling along but we’ve decided there is absolutely no point in autumn sowing in the future, better to pre-sow under cover in February and start the spring with strong, healthy plants.

You might have spotted a few rogue lettuce plants amongst the beans, the result of using our own non-sterile compost and a bit of a bonus in my book. These are ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’ or ‘Wonder of Four Seasons’ or ‘Four Seasons Wonder’ or ‘Four Seasons Marvel’ depending on where you look (and that’s just in English!) but the point is they’re robust little things that aren’t too bothered by inclement weather and can be grown as a winter variety. As we already have a tunnel full of volunteer lettuce plants and a tray of seedlings growing on for outdoors planting, I decided to stick the extras straight into the ground outside; they’ve got two chances and my hunch is they will be just fine. Next to go in were the three perennial kale plants grown from gift cuttings; I’ve been warned they need lots of space which is fine because that’s what the big perennial food bed is all about. I’ve spaced them out generously between raspberries and rhubarb and hopefully they will be providing us with a reliable crop of leafy greens at this time of year in the future. Note the phacelia seedlings bottom left, they are popping up all over this bed where I scattered dead seedheads around last autumn in a self-planting green manure sort of way. Lazy gardening once again. I love it. Mind you, I’ve made a mental note not to let phacelia out-thug the row of newly-planted Jerusalem artichokes like it did last year; of course, I’ll leave plenty to flower and set seed but certain patches are most definitely in for the chop and drop treatment sooner rather than later.

Back inside the tunnel, and all things ‘pea’ are doing well. The early planted peas are climbing their supports and, like the broad beans beside them, starting to think about flowers. I have several pots of sweet peas bombing up and a couple of trays of peas planted as microgreens which I’m picking and tossing over salads. On which subject, at this time of year the tunnel really comes into its own, offering a wealth of delicious fresh ingredients for daily salads: several varieties of lettuce, rocket and mizuna (both with flowers, too), baby beetroot and chard, radicchio, spinach, landcress, lamb’s lettuce, chickweed, pea shoots, flat-leaved parsley, coriander, chervil, spring onions, calendula petals . . . I’m spoilt for choice, and soon there will be crunchy little radish in the mix, too. Outside, the new growth on chives, mint and lemon balm in particular make for tasty herbal additions, along with edible flowers such as daisy, primrose and violet.

Microgreen peas: I’ve already had several pickings of shoots from these little plants.

I’m happy to report that Operation Pea-Off Rodents is going well. Germination rate is high and although some of the seeds have pushed themselves above the compost line, this isn’t a problem in itself. The roots are ridiculously long, already out of the bottom of the tubes and beyond; I need the plants to be bigger before they go outside but at this rate, I don’t think it will be too long.

The whole allium family struggled badly right from the start last year but things are already looking more hopeful for the new season. The autumn-planted white (soft neck) garlic is going strong and this week I planted a couple of rows of pink (hard neck) garlic to join it, plugging a few gaps in the white rows as I went. The shoots should emerge at the same time as the first decent leaves on the comfrey plants which I will chop and tuck round as a mulch. I’ve left space between the rows to sow carrots as companion plants in a bid to outsmart carrot rootfly ~ not that we’ve had any at all so far, but you can’t be too careful. In the tunnel, I already have a tray of red and white Welsh onion seedlings doing very well; these are perennial clumping onions which did better than most in last summer’s conditions so I intend to plant them all over the place this year. The white and red annual onion seeds are also germinating and I’ve bought a net of sets, too, in the hope of covering all bases. Just the leeks to go . . .

A particularly cold and wet morning a few days ago which was neither conducive to gardening (me) or foraging (bees) presented itself as the perfect opportunity to make a concrete start on Project Bee. I trawled carefully through a pile of resources making a list of plant species identified as being beneficial to wild bees, then sorted them into three groups: those we have growing here in abundance, those we have but only in small amounts and those we don’t have at all. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, more a working document to which I can add as I read more articles and research as well as from my own observations, of course. For example, the list of preferred species I’ve made for the Long-horned bee (eucera longicornis) includes bramble, bugle, comfrey, clovers, vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and everlasting peas ~ all of which we have ~ but the female I saw in the garden last year was feeding on strawberry flowers (I can’t speak for the male, he was just ‘hanging out’ in the polytunnel doing nothing in particular). Also, basil hasn’t appeared on any list and yet I would argue it’s one of the most bumblebee-visited plants we grow; I plant lots of it in the tunnel with the express purpose of tempting the furry little beauties inside in the hope they will work their buzz pollination magic on the aubergines while they’re in there.

From this . . .
. . . to this, thanks to busy pollinators.

I compiled my list from sources focused on catering for wild bees and avoided anything too generic; I have a gardening book which lists over 100 ‘food plants for bees’ but without any indication of which particular species they cater for. Also, from what I’ve already learned about solitary bees in particular, it’s not just about food forage as certain species need leaves to cut, plant hairs to collect or hollow stems to nest in, too. My finished list came to 90 plants and I was quite pleased with the initial breakdown: we have 48% in abundance, 33% to a lesser extent and 19% missing from the garden (although some of those grow in the coppice and along the lane side). It’s a decent start and gives me plenty to think about as I plan this year’s garden activities. For instance, I’ve already been dividing and moving some roots of lamb’s ear; there were two plants here when we arrived, both of which are planted in less than ideal spots ~ as a Mediterranean, drought-tolerant plant I think it will be happier in the sunny gravel garden than a very damp and cold north-facing bed. It’s a nectar-rich plant, particularly helpful for bumblebees and very important for the Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) which I am desperate to attract; I mean, if ever there was a bee designed to appeal to me, here it is (well, the female, at least). She gathers fibres from the furry leaves, takes them back to her nest and ‘felts’ them into a cosy cell lining and door plug, fills it with pollen and then lays an egg inside so that the young hatch out inside their own personal woolly blanket with food on tap. Meanwhile, the males are extremely territorial, guarding patches of flowers by wrestling, headbutting or crushing to death potential enemies against spikes on their abdomen. Wow! Given that we have an abundance of great mullein which is another furry-leaved plant, I’m very hopeful of being able to see all this fascinating activity play out in the summer. Who needs television?

Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) on a knautia flower last spring.

The warmer weather has brought a return to insect activity around the garden and I have been wandering, camera in hand, to see who’s about. I have to say, strong winds (a rarity here) are not conducive to snapping small creatures on waving stems but I have at least managed to see and identify a few things, if not capture good photos of them. We’ve been toying with the idea of investing in some extra camera lenses for a while now but having done a bit of research this week, I was left giddy by both the choice and the prices. Ouch! When it comes down to it, if I can get one decent snap in focus then it’s simple enough to crop and zoom on the laptop to help with identification; otherwise, I’ve been carrying an old hand lens around in my pocket which has helped me to observe quietly and try to commit salient features to memory. It’s an ancient thing, scratched and battered, so I’m wondering if a half-decent botanist’s loupe would be a better investment. In the meantime, my eye was drawn to movement in a patch of sunny celandines growing in the gravel, I crouched down to eye level and snapped . . .

Mmm, a honeybee. No problem identifying that one. Wait, though: there was something else, not feeding in the flowers but rummaging about in the leaf litter. A European paper wasp (Polistes dominula), sporting bright orange antennae and possibly contemplating a nesting site in the barn. They are a very common species here and given their voracious appetite for caterpillars, a welcome ally in the garden.

Celandines are definitely proving to be a popular food source this week and as we have probably more than anyone needs (they are gorgeous sunny things but a bit of a pain when they creep into cultivated patches), there has been no shortage of visitors. I tried in vain to take a decent photo of a solitary bee in the hope of identifying the species; it (she?) was so tiny, several could have easily sat on my little finger nail. Zooming hasn’t helped with this one, but for what it’s worth, here’s the photo anyway; if nothing else, it shows just how wee she was.

Roger has commented that my garden activities seem to have become very ‘scientific’ this week, but I am still trying to concentrate on the jobs in hand as much as possible; we need our fruit and vegetable crops, after all, and there’s a lot of work to be done where flowers are concerned, too. That said, could I help but be distracted from weeding the gravel garden when a large carpenter bee (Xylocopa violacea) appeared in a potted rosemary plant? Still more brown than blue on those wings, but with a teasing little hint of that metallic brilliance this time.

Photo shoot over, I popped the camera back in through the door, only to grab it again instantly as with a squeal of excitement (yes, I really squealed ~ what is happening to me?) I spotted something different sunning itself on the stone wall next to the door frame. Needless to say, the instant I tried to take a picture she flew off but I did manage to catch her among the pansies in a nearby windowbox: not the best of snaps but enough to identify that ball of gorgeous gingery fluff as a tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva).

As an offshoot of this insect activity, I’ve realised that it would be a good idea to brush up on a bit of botany, too; if put to the test, my recognition and knowledge of plants far surpasses my insect awareness but there are still some gaps that need addressing. In my last post, I wrote that we didn’t grow viper’s bugloss which was ridiculous considering we had a mass of it growing wherever I’d sprinkled mixed flower seed . . . it’s just that I’ve always known it as ‘echium’ and wasn’t aware of the common name. Doh! Anyway, in the interests of blowing a few botanical cobwebs away, I’m doing a handy course on Memrise called ‘Common and Native Plants of Britain’ which is designed to help commit the names and pictures of over 300 plants to memory. As I’m already fairly clued up it would be easy just to zip through clicking on answers at top speed but I’m making myself take things slowly, really focusing on every detail in the photographs and illustrations: it’s amazing what tiny details come into focus, features of such well-known plants I’ve never really clocked properly. Also, there is most definitely a level of challenge in distinguishing accurately between several different types of forget-me-not or speedwell, for example.

There is so much that’s new and fascinating, too; for instance, I had no idea that scarlet pimpernel could sometimes have blue flowers. I’m also trying to absorb the Latin names correctly as I’ve always been a bit slapdash where they are concerned: if you put a Latin name in front of me, I could probably tell you what plant it is ~ or at least make a pretty good guess ~ but it’s going the other way that I always struggle with. I’ve already said that I don’t want to become a Latin-spouting know-it-all (horrible thought) but if I’m going to match the right insect with the plant(s) it needs, then I have to be accurate in my observations. At a fairly basic level, it’s a good idea to be able to identify typical features of different plant families but I’m also intrigued by some of the names, given my love of language; I never knew that the name of the ranunculus (buttercup) family comes from the Latin rana, which I recognise from Spanish to mean ‘frog’ because the plants can often be found growing in damp places.

For anyone wondering why I’m doing a refresher on British plants, the fact is that the wild flora here in Mayenne is very similar to that of Britain but where there are differences or new species to identify, there is a wealth of excellent French resources I can tap into as need be. Nothing replaces fieldwork when it comes to observation and familiarisation so I’m expecting to spend much of the summer crawling about on my hands and knees (now that I can again), getting down and personal with the native flora as well as the insects. Head down, bottom up. Probably a good job we don’t have any near neighbours. 🤣

Bring on the natives . . .

Wandering back to the house after a happy time planting beans and wondering if it was time to put the kettle on, I saw what Roger had been up to while I was busy in the potager. What a lovely surprise, another little birdbox made from offcuts and scraps of wood left over from the renovation work and coated with wildlife-friendly oil (he’s also added a smart green waterproof roof since I took the photo). It’s not difficult making this sort of box, even I have managed to make them with zero carpentry skills, and it’s wonderful to provide a safe space for birds to raise their families. Official advice tends to be to site new boxes in autumn to allow birds time to familiarise themselves with them but I think it’s easy to fuss about things like that too much; I’m not a gambling woman but if I were, I’d happily put money on there being a resident family in the new box this season. Looking round the patch for a good spot to site the box, we were aware of the grim sound of a tractor and hedgecutter flailing not too far away and not for the first time, I wondered whether the laws around hedgecutting should be reviewed, especially given climate change. The season ends here on 15th March yet I know we have birds building nests in our hedges already, particularly where there is holly, ivy and dense bramble so I can’t imagine it’s any different in field hedgerows.

We’ve also installed a new batbox in what we’re hoping is an appropriate south-facing spot, on a mature oak tree which forms part of a long hedge line and is adjacent to the orchard where we often see bats flitting through on summer evenings. The box is designed to feel like a cavern with a crawling board at the base to help them access the entrance and should be suitable for several species of bat (chauve souris in French, literally ‘bald mouse’); we’ll be watching with great interest to see if someone decides it’s their perfect des-res. In the meantime, one of the aspects of increasing biodiversity I’m working on this year is to grow a good selection of night-scented flowers which are a perfect food source for moths . . . which in turn are fairly high on the bat menu. To that end, I’ve been sowing nicotiana seeds this week in the warmth of a mini-cloche inside the tunnel; also called tobacco flowers, they are a great favourite of mine, giving tall structure to a summer flower border in a fairly underwhelming way during the day but then as evening comes, opening their colourful trumpets in shades of white, pink and purple and releasing the most incredible perfume. I stopped growing them several years ago when the standard seed became difficult to find since dwarf lime-coloured ones without any scent had become highly fashionable. Why would you, I ask? What is the use of fashion in a garden that is all about providing as many habitats and food sources as possible for a wide range of fauna? I’d far rather be a ‘so yesterday’ dinosaur with a garden that brims with life than an on-trend flower fashionista. I’m just hoping the moths (and bats) agree. 😉

To bee or not to bee

Where reading material is concerned I’ve been in the mood for fiction of late so the copy of Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s Dancing With Bees, which I picked up in a charity shop, has been completely neglected for several weeks. Not any more! This has to be the most enchanting and fascinating book I have read in a long, long time and I am enjoying it so much that I am rationing myself to a few pages at a time as I really don’t want it to end. I’m glad I paid a generous price for it, too, since it won’t be going back for re-sale; like other treasured tomes on my shelf, I suspect I will be reading this one several times over. I’m not new to the world of bee love ~ my chosen WordPress profile picture features a beautiful bumble climbing into a Japanese quince flower, after all ~ but I am beginning to look at them through very different and extra-enthusiastic eyes.

There is so much in this book that resonates deeply with me that it could almost have been written for me. It arose from Brigit’s awareness that she had somehow lost the connection with nature that had been very profound in her childhood and studying wild bees has been a way for her to renew that lapsed relationship. I haven’t lost my connection with nature (far from it, in fact) but I am the first to admit that despite spending a large part of my time outdoors and immersed in the garden or coppice, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to identifying and identifying with much of the life around me. As a teacher in a rural primary school, I was saddened to find how few children in my class could name or recognise more than a handful of garden birds; however, there are 24 (or 25 depending on who you talk to) species of bumblebee in the UK and 44 species in France . . . and I’m not sure how many of those I could identify with complete certainty. I have no problem distinguishing between honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees, or telling bees apart from wasps which I know some people can find tricky; I also have a reasonable idea about their different social set-ups, nesting behaviour and foraging preferences but when I analyse my knowledge honestly, it’s all very generic. There is so much I don’t know, which is fine because I love learning. There’s certainly a lot to do.

It’s not that I’m not interested, engaged or observant. Quite the opposite, in fact; I would say it’s a rare day that I achieve everything I set out to do in the garden, such is my habit of being distracted by the life forms around me. Trust me, once that new pond is established and teeming with life, whole days will be lost! I was absurdly excited last year to find horned bees in the garden and some of my most absorbing moments were spent watching a solitary bee building tiny nests in the wooden handles of tools hanging in the Love Shack. Of course, there’s a lot more out there than bees and anything that catches my eye or imagination presents itself as a worthy excuse to down tools, grab the camera and observe.

I enjoy a bit of research so whenever I see something I don’t recognise, I’m happy to spend time identifying them and then reading up about them. The problem is retaining the information and then building on it, instead of ticking the box and moving on in a sort of mental ‘Eye Spy’ book way. Take carpenter bees, for instance, a species I came across for the first time when we moved to this area over ten years ago. I was totally captivated by their size and noise, their shiny black metallic armour and stunning bluey-purple gauzy wings, their restless habit and busy movements . . . and more than a little horrified when an initial internet search threw up far too many sites about how to destroy them. I love to see them in the garden but capturing them with the camera is always a challenge; I spent half an hour one day last summer trying to get a decent photo of a bee in the sweet peas (my inner colour nerd thought the combination was perfect). Sadly, my energetic subject had other ideas although I finally managed a shot in a patch of phacelia a few days later.

Half an hour of observations . . . but what do I know about these incredible creatures, without cheating and looking them up again? Well, what I think I know is that they are solitary bees, that the females are all black and the males have yellow on their face, that they like to nest in holes in wood hence the ‘carpenter’ bit (this is a habit which gets them a bad name as people fear their domestic wooden structures will be undermined), the female can sting but rarely does, the male can’t sting but can display aggressive behaviour in defending the nest. That’s pretty much it and I admit it’s really nowhere near enough, and even worse, might also be incorrect; even just writing this paragraph, I realise that the bee in the photo above is different to the others I’ve seen here before and in our Asturian garden because its wings are brown, not the startling blue that originally captured my attention. Have I been glibly referring to everything similar as carpenter bees without bothering to distinguish between different family members? As for what I don’t know about them, the list is a long one and I already have many questions to answer.

I don’t want to become an ‘expert’ or bee bore and I have no intention of going around quoting Latin or Greek, although binomial nomenclature is helpful in distinguishing between different species . . . and I must confess, I do quite like the word bombus (I think the photo above is of bombus lapidarius, the red-tailed bumblebee, but please don’t take my word for it). My plan is to become properly curious about the creatures we share our patch of earth with, to start with more focused observation and take it from there. No more stopping once I’ve taken a photograph and watched it for a bit, I need to climb inside the life of each one and search out the answers to many questions. Take the bee in the picture above, for example:

  • Am I right with my identification? Is it common, rare, endangered . . ?
  • Is it a queen, worker or male?
  • Where is it nesting? What are the preferred nesting sites/materials? (Follow it and see . . .)
  • How many bees are there in the colony at any particular time of year? I know bumblebee queens are the only ones to survive winter, but when does the first brood hatch? What size will the colony be at its maximum (and when)? Do all the bees live together or do the males live separately?
  • Are there interesting behaviours typical of this species?
  • What is its preferred forage? Are these leek flowers typical /a good source of food? Is it taking nectar, pollen or both?
  • What are its main predators?

Such questions are, of course, just a starting point and an example of how I’m planning to frame my investigations; I’m quite excited about spending time trailing these creatures round like some kind of zoological sleuth! More than anything else, I need to give myself time to stop and stare and wonder. I used the photo above a couple of blog posts ago and I’m as certain as I can be that it’s a buff-tailed (bombus terrestris) bumblebee queen; as I decided to focus on a single bee, what isn’t obvious from the picture is that there were at least half a dozen all feeding on that single heather plant. What a fascinating sight, those large velvety matrons, newly-emerged from their hibernation and feeding up in preparation for the busy breeding season to come. How I wish I’d taken a break from whatever I was doing in the garden to watch them ~ really watch them ~ and then perhaps follow and see where they were making their nests. One of the things I loved to do as a beekeeper was simply watch at the front of the hive, all the comings and goings, the exchange of messages at the hive entrance and the extraordinary variety of different coloured pollens being collected. My mission is to find bumblebee nests this spring, hopefully of several different species and spend time watching them throughout the year.

As a former beekeeper, I will always have a soft spot for honeybees (apis mellifera, the European honeybee pictured above) and I know a lot more about them than other bee species. I love to see them working around the garden, so industrious and focused in their foraging activities. Some afternoons last week when the sun had warmed the west wall of the house, our resident feral bees came piling out and made a beeline ~ literally ~ for the area around the front door. Puzzled as to what they were up to, I stood and watched them for a few minutes and realised they were taking water from the damp soil in the pots I had been watering and were trying to drink from the buckets of grey water waiting to be used. Bees need water in their nest for several reasons and some workers will have been assigned to water duty rather than food forage; in the current drought and dry air, it’s possible they are having to work hard to keep the young brood moist. It might seem strange, but they actually seek ‘dirty’ water from ponds, puddles, birdbaths and the like ~ it’s thought because of the nutrient value ~ so hence the attraction of wet soil. I wasn’t sure about the grey water, though, as despite the fact that our dishwashing liquid and bath products are all ‘eco’ it’s possible there could still be some harmful chemicals in there. I swapped the bucket for its lid to make a safe and shallow drinking spot for them, full of saved rainwater, and at least that meant we could use the front door again without being mobbed. Contrary to the last, they still preferred the plant pots.

Fond as I am of the little honeys, it’s sensible to keep their importance and role in perspective. There is a huge discrepancy in assertions about how much of the world’s food production is reliant on pollinators and in turn how much of that comes down to honeybees ~ a quick scout round the internet threw up figures ranging from 7% to 90%! Whatever the figure (it’s easy to forget that many plants are wind-pollinated or self-pollinating), pollinators do have an essential role to play but honeybees are a long way from being the only ones or the best ones. Perhaps it’s a result of their commercial value both as pollinators and honey producers that there has been such a spotlight on their plight in recent years, while so many other species of bees and insects have been in serious decline in the background. In the photo below, there are two insects busy in the flowers but only one is a honeybee.

To put things in perspective, of the 267 species of bee in the UK over 250 are native solitary bees (in France, there are over 800 species) and they win the brownie points every time when it comes to being the most efficient and effective pollinators. I’ve already mentioned carpenter bees but how about mason bees, miner bees, leaf-cutter bees, carder bees, blood bees, mourning bees, sharped-tailed bees, nomad bees and the delightfully-named hairy-footed flower bees to name but a few? I’m beginning to feel like this could take another lifetime. Let’s throw the net wider still: hoverflies, lacewings, wasps, beetles (including ladybirds), butterflies, spiders, moths, worms, snails, slugs and a whole host of other invertebrates, then of course reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Mmm, several lifetimes, maybe.

I’ve written more than once about how so much of our project here is about protecting and increasing biodiversity through providing a range of habitats and supporting various ecosystems: it’s not a case of ‘us and them’ but all of us together. It’s a given that we use no toxic chemicals anywhere. Ever. So far we have restored native hedgerows, planted trees, dug a pond, provided bird feeders from November to April, built stone walls and domes, made log and brush piles, left wide corridors of long grass and wild flowers around the boundaries, started to develop wildflower meadow and woodland areas, put up nestboxes for birds, bats, red squirrels and insects and planted or sown nectar- and pollen-rich flowers and shrubs. I think the time has come now to be really specific about what we do or grow in order to support as much life as we can and I’m hoping to get a better handle on that by studying a wide variety of beings more closely and tapping into advice based on research that isn’t often at the forefront of things. For example, many of the commercial ‘bee friendly’ seed mixes on sale are actually based on a list of plants favourable to honeybees and may not offer much in the way of forage for solitary bees which tend to have more specific or specialised requirements.

What, then, should we be growing and doing for the benefit of the widest range of bee species (and others)? One of the effects of media focus on the plight of the honeybee has been an upsurge in interest in beekeeping and an acknowledgement that perhaps the conventional approaches aren’t necessarily the best for the bees. I’m all in favour of this but the danger of an increased number of hives in any area is that it can have a detrimental effect on the non-honeybee populations whilst research suggests that greater numbers of honeybee colonies in itself does nothing to help them. It’s another reason for us not to have hives again, but be content with our feral wall-dwelling colony and focus on consciously supporting all the bee species and other insects with whom we share this space. In short, it’s time to welcome everyone to the garden party.

There’s certainly no shortage of advice available but finding helpful information about some species is easier than others, and often everything seems to be set out in strict, unyielding black and white so I think a pragmatic, common sense approach is essential. For instance, I respect the sentiments behind schemes such as ‘No-mow May’ which are designed to encourage people to move away from manicured, weed-free lawns towards something more wildlife-friendly. However, it must be remembered that a short sward actually suits many species, especially those bees who build underground nests and ground-feeding birds, and also encourages low-growing beneficial plants such as bugle and white clover to flower. Our mown areas will soon be covered in dandelions in the insect version of a food festival, every bright flower an ‘eat all you can’ buffet which is a crucial source of forage at this time of year. Of course, areas of long grass and wildflowers have huge benefits, too; it’s all a question of balance.

Now, I realise that where I personally see a thing of beauty in the picture above, there are many gardeners who would recoil in horror at the idea of allowing even a single dandelion into their patch. I understand completely, because if I am going to commit to doing the best I can, then I will have to get over myself and introduce plants which aren’t exactly top of my favourites list. Let’s talk about heather. I don’t mind heather per se, I’m just not a fan of it in gardens (especially mine); I have hills and moorland in my blood and that’s where I love to see the cloaks of wild purple in late summer, preferably intermingled with some very productive whimberry bushes! However . . . I can’t deny that the handful of winter-flowering heathers planted in the bank behind the house is currently Bee Central and they are undeniably an excellent source of forage at a time when flowers are few and far between. That bank has proved to be an ongoing nightmare when it comes to making it an attractive part of the property: it’s heavy clay, so steep that it’s impossible to work in organic matter to improve it and overrun with couch grass, periwinkle and a host of other things that have simply got out of hand. The heathers are surviving despite everything so perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt here: plant more and accept that although they’re not really my thing, the bees will be well catered for.

What has made me happy is that a brief look at the quick planting guide on the excellent Bumblebee Conservation Trust website shows me that of the 23 recommended plants, we are only short of three: pieris, viper’s bugloss and Californian lilac (ceanothus). Well, there’s something we can do about that but I also want to find out exactly what would help all those solitary bees, too. Watching a short video clip of 25 suggestions on the Nurturing Nature website, I realise we’re already a long way there; obviously, these are UK sites and we have to be aware of a more diverse bee population in France and tap into local resources accordingly. I’m encouraged, though. We can do this. It might just take me even longer to get anything done in the garden, mind you . . . 😊

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant

When we lived on top of a windswept Welsh hillside, the chances of having daffodils ~ the national flower of Wales ~ in bloom for Saint David’s Day on 1st March were very slim; in fact, it was often close to the vernal equinox later in the month before drifts of yellow painted the garden with their welcome springtime beauty.

No such problems here! Tucked into sheltered, south-facing places, they are already weaving golden sunshine beneath hedgerows and trees in a joyful celebration of the season; like the primroses and violets scattered amongst them, their sweet pollen-rich scent is truly evocative and like nothing else. I love them.

I’m happy these beauties are growing in sheltered spots because March has certainly come in like a lion, with a powerful north-easterly wind snatching the smoke from the chimney and wreaking havoc where it can. It is eye-wateringly glacial, all iron and ice and ozone, swirling dead leaves in spiralling eddies and sending the crows skittering sideways across the sky. It is seriously drying, too, and the brittle air crackles and fizzes with static; my hair, usually a wild and wavy mop in more humid times now clings to my head here and sticks out at crazy angles there . . . I feel like Albert Einstein (without the genius part, obviously 😂).

The ground is baked hard, the soil dry and powdery, so much so that a tractor passing along the lane yesterday left a huge cloud of red dust in its wake. We are losing plants to drought, heart-breaking at any time but rather surreal so early in the year. There is nothing for it but to hope: hope for warmer days, for soft, steady rainfall and gentle breezes, for strong roots hanging on doggedly deep beneath the soil, for the promise of fresh new growth emerging from this wintry desert.

I’ve said many times before that gardening is a great metaphor for life, coping with the rough and the smooth, the ups and downs, the smiles and tears; at times like this, it can be hard to maintain a balanced perspective and sense of humour but if ever there was a symbol of optimism, it must be the daffies with sunshine in their frilly hearts. Here’s to March going out like a lamb . . . and in the meantime, Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus! Happy Saint David’s Day! 😊