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.
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.
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?
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. 😉
6 thoughts on “March meanderings”
Glad you’re enjoying the rain. Can’t say we’re enjoying the hail here! I’m halfway through that bee book already… And yes, always pleased to have the favoured plants already available. The kales are looking nice and strong. You could probably sample the Taunton Deane already.
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The rain is wonderful, the butts are all full to the brim and the polytunnel soaked ~ just hope it carries on and makes up the deficit before summer. Hail? Meh, never good news for a garden. Fingers crossed for the kales, I shall nurture them as best I can . . . would maybe start sampling but we still have a pile of annual kale to eat plus the first of the PSB. Happy days! 😊
Oh these images do my heart good! Happy beautiful wet spring!
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Thank you! I’m so happy to have the rain and so is everything else in the garden, I think. Hoping spring is in sight for you now, do you still have snow?
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So that’s why my bought Nicotania failed to excite? Not a whiff to be had! Feckers. Wouldn’t you think in interests of transparency they could put info on the label: This is NOT a real specimen. Bred to be boring, scents removed and bottled for sale separately.
Wishing you a happy St. Patrick’s Day.
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Ah, don’t get me started, Páraig . . . it would be like growing a knee-high, scentless, colourless sweet pea and who in their right mind would seriously want something like that? Mind you, I don’t ‘get’ decaffeinated coffee or fat-free anything, so maybe I’m the wrong person to comment.😆 If you can get hold of the original beauties they are worth every penny, especially when it’s the sort of warm summer evening for sitting out with a glass of something. On which subject, happy St Patrick’s Day to you, too ~ hope you have a great celebration. Sláinte is táinte!