Friday, 24 November 2017


"The tide rises, the tide falls
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls..."

- H W Longfellow

Sunset over Gironde Estuary
Ebb tide on the Gironde near Meschers

Winter evenings can often produce spectacular sunsets and even the mudflats become photogenic, dotted with grassy islets and silhouetted shore birds.

The bubbling call of the curlew is particularly atmospheric and distinguishes it immediately from the similar-looking whimbrel, another bird with a curved bill which feeds along this coast.

A new carpet of ash leaves on the driveway
Leaves are falling thick and fast by the middle of November and I must admit to a slight obsession with sweeping them into piles and picking them off shrubs like lavender, to keep the foliage dry and their shapes defined.

I also find it's a useful warm-up task to get my arms and shoulders working before tackling more constrained jobs like weeding and planting that tend to give me neck ache.

Spring-tine rake
A good rake makes leaf-clearance a pleasure!
Early in the 'fall' season we managed to break the old spring-tine rake which was our main implement for sweeping leaves off grassy areas and pulling them off hedges (no leaf-blowers needed here).

We also have a useful rubber rake which takes care of leaves on the gravel driveway and in plant borders where you need a gentler action - and less sharp tines.

It's not until you're forced to try a new version of an old favourite that you realise how much a standard tool can be improved over the years, especially as they tend to be more lightweight and rust-proof these days. 

Red leaves of Cotinus coggygria (left) and
Physocarpus opulifolius (right)

Wielding this new rake, I can clear our leaves in half the time and with much less effort than before, dumping as many as possible into a caged area to attract worms and become rich leaf-mould.

The remaining ash leaves, which are pretty small anyway, can be heaped up under trees and shrubs where they will rot down naturally over winter and provide a mulch to help alleviate some of the dryness.

Cotinus coggygria or smoke bush
Cotinus coggygria or smoke bush is a must-have
for its dramatic leaf colour, in spring and autumn

Yellow field maple and
young liquidambar
Contrasting leaves inevitably make one reach for a camera at this time of year and I usually head off to our neighbour's lake and the stretch of river where he and his son planted a variety of colourful trees and shrubs.

In addition to natives like the ash and field maple (left) he has recently transplanted a number of lovely young liquidambar trees which were growing in his nursery area.

Sometimes these autumnal tints are so bright that I almost prefer photographing them on a foggy day when their colours are gentler and more painterly...

Liquidambar styraciflua
Liquidambar styraciflua or Sweet
Gum tree - dressed to kill
Liquidambar styraciflua

But if you want colour that will blow your socks off then this is definitely the tree for you!

Once she puts on her scarlet ballgown, this lady doesn't keep her foliage for long and you have to be quick to get photo's.

Even as a small tree, the shiny red leaves are eyecatching (see above) and resemble those of a maple in shape.

Its foliage changes colour dramatically from purple through to red, followed by a rich golden yellow - and then the leaves drop, rolling out a carpet every bit as luxuriant.

Liquidambar styraciflua
Liquidambar leaves

This is a tree which can grow up to 20 meters tall and originated in the eastern US.

There are now several named varieties, such as 'Worplesdon', as recommended by the RHS, and they will grow in any reasonably moist soil so long as it's lime-free.

The flowers are insignificant but it does produce globular, spiky autumn fruits which are left to decorate the bare branches once its leaves have disappeared.

Crabapple Trees

Female blackbird samples some ripe crabapples
Because of their more compact size, the flowering crabs or crabapples are more suitable for a small garden and I wish we'd planted one in our hedgerow as the fruits seem to be very popular with birds.

As it blossoms quite early in spring, the nectar also attracts bees and other insects which help to pollinate any regular apple trees you may have.

Wild crabapple, Malus sylvestris, is becoming rare in British hedgerows but it's well worth planting an ornamental variety in your garden.

Malus floribunda or Ornamental Crabapple
Malus floribunda or Ornamental Crabapple -
beautifully tinted leaves and abundant fruit

Clouded yellow butterfly on Autumn hawkbit
Clouded yellow butterfly
Butterflies are getting scarcer now but a reliable forager at this time of year is the clouded yellow, seen here feeding on an autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis) which is flowering in many of our vineyards, together with the wild marigold whose pretty orange blooms brighten up many a misty morning.

Other butterflies still on the wing tend to be species like the red admiral which hibernate during winter.

Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha)
Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha)

We now have several varieties of ornamental sage which provide us with plenty of vibrant colour from early summer up to the first frosts.

One of the last to come into bloom is the exotic Salvia leucantha from Mexico with its long, furry flower spikes resembling purple caterpillars!

Although we mulch the plant with leaves, it can easily be killed in a hard frost so it's advisable to take cuttings and protect them over winter.

Iberis sempervirens 'Snowflake' in November
Iberis sempervirens 'Snowflake'
Two other Mexican sages are still performing vigorously: the late-blooming Salvia elegans in our sunny front garden has been in flower for over a month; and the smaller Salvia coccinea in the back border has continued flowering for several months despite a distinct lack of direct sun.

Although this area is in permanent shade from late September until spring, we still manage to get colour from a few roses, the odd Salvia microphylla, and now some Iberis sempervirens has come into full flower.

Ash tree and fallen leaves
Our ash tree, generously dispensing leaves over
the car windscreen!

Pyrus calleryana - ornamental pears in autumn
Ornamental pear trees (Pyrus calleryana) holding onto their
vivid colours until the temperatures plunge

Friday, 3 November 2017


"It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth."

- Edward Thomas

Autumn colour, Charente Maritime

As long as the soil stays warm - and before all the leaves fall in earnest - it's an excellent time to divide perennials and plant fresh rooted pieces where there are spaces to be filled.

Hibiscus underplanted with
Geranium clarkeii 'Kashmir' -
a white-flowering variety that

tolerates dry sunny sites
This year we've concentrated on splitting up roots of established hardy geraniums to make useful ground-cover under trees and shrubs.

The space under this bushy hibiscus plays host to some beautiful dark tulips but has now become congested with grape hyacinths (muscari) which produce masses of bulblets but fewer flowers as they get more compacted.

I dug up as many of these tiny bulbs as I could, improved the soil with home-made compost and tucked in some rooted pieces of Geranium clarkeii, which has already proved itself in this location and will provide large white blooms in late spring - uninterrupted by all that stringy muscari foliage!

In tidying up this area, I took the opportunity of pulling out lengths of couch grass which sneak in from what we laughingly call 'the lawn'.  Although our edging stones won't deter it completely, they do help to delineate and protect the bed from invasive weeds.

Vineyards in autumn, Charente Maritime
Vines are turning yellow now - and what looks like a cypress
tree is actually a telegraph pole disguised with ivy!

After a spell of back-breaking work in the garden, it's a relief to get out for a walk and enjoy the rapidly changing autumn hues. Once the early morning chill has lifted, days can still be surprisingly warm.

Cow and newborn calf (Blonde d'Aquitaine)
Cow and newborn calf
Out on the marais calves like this one are still being born, licked into life by a caring mother under the curious but protective gaze of other cows who have come to watch.

Many of the cattle here are a breed called 'Blonde d'Aquitaine', which are known to be hardy and docile, able to give birth and look after their offspring without help. They are often left out in the field until late December.

Many of them have wonky horns unfortunately, as does the cow in this picture who looks to be in imminent danger of poking herself in the eye!


On another walk, we came across this small-holding with a flourishing orchard where the owner was busy harvesting his apples.

Several of his trees were weighed down with fruit so it looks to have been a good harvest despite anxiety over the effects of a late frost.

It seems that those long hours of sun we enjoyed in the second half of September, and well into October, more than made up for our erratic weather in spring which ruined so many early grapes.

Friendly Poitevine goats
Friendly Poitevine goats - not just pretty
but productive too

At the same small-holding there's a herd of attractive Poitevine goats - a breed which provides milk for the delicious chevre cheeses sold all over Poitou Charentes.

We've been eating it for years now - usually the creamier, milder types - and find it's tastier and more digestible than the soft bries and camemberts from Normandy.

Fallen acorns
Another testament to the ripening effect of our autumn sunshine could be the vast quantity of acorns which crunch underfoot whenever we walk along paths lined with oak trees.

Their abundance this year will provide the wild boar with plenty of carbs to see them through the winter.

In other places it's easy to spot where they've been digging up meadows and verges in search of roots or bulbs to feed on. 

Cosmos sown in a field, Charente Maritime
Meadow of cosmos enjoying a second flowering in October

At the end of our walk we paused to photograph the same meadow which I featured back in July when it originally came into bloom.

Tithonia - or zinnia, perhaps?

By September it was turning to seed and losing most of its colour when the sudden change in weather - from moist and cool to warm and sunny - provoked a resurgence of lovely flowers, including these tall and handsome tithonia (I think) which we hadn't noticed the first time around.

When I recall how I struggled to grow a few rather weedy tithonia plants from seed a few years back, it's galling to discover how easily they take to being part of a prairie planting scheme in full sun...

Leycesteria berries
Leycesteria berries
Pheasant Berry

A small shrub which is easy to grow, I have mixed feelings about Leycesteria as it seeds itself rather too readily in our garden and isn't a thing of great beauty - apart from when the autumn sun shines through it, illuminating those pale leaves and contrasting dark fruits.

We've let this one stay in our dry front bed, which is a challenging environment for many plants, but I try and remember to remove the berries before they set seed!

Gleditsia triacanthos
Twisting seedpods on a Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust

This graceful tree, with its unusual seedpods that rustle in the wind, is popular in the US but less well known in Britain.

Our enthusiastic neighbour, Robert, is fond of any tree which provides good colour and has planted several of these near his lake. They are fast growing and the delicate leaves turn yellow in autumn. 

French country garden
French country garden
Deep reds and pinks seem to be particularly eye-catching in many gardens right now.

Here, in the courtyard of a typical country house, a tree full of pomegranates lights up the front door, whilst a hardy Fuschia magellanica drapes its scarlet blooms over the picket gate.

In our own garden the biggest splash of colour comes from our two meter tall Salvia elegans, which blooms in both sun and partial shade, and will carry on flowering until the first frost.

Salvia elegans with pennisetum
Red-flowered Salvia elegans with pennisetum

Autumn colours, Les Monards
Autumn skies can be as colourful as the foliage
Fishing huts on the Gironde Estuary
Fishing huts with a foreground of sea asters

Friday, 13 October 2017


"No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace
as I have seen in one autumnal face"
- John Donne

Barzan, Charente Maritime
View across our valley to Barzan

Cygnets on lake, Les Monards
The eight cygnets are still feeding at Robert's lake most days, but have now learned to fly and go out on daily excursions to explore the coastline and waterways.

From our garden we can hear the frantic batting of wings as they drive a path through the still water, testing their strength in preparation for a flight.

If we're really lucky, we can be there at the moment of departure when all eight line up under the watchful eye of Papa and then take to the skies, calling to one another as they swoop above the water and then disappear over the treetops.

Cygnets in flight
Cygnets in flight

On nights when it's still warm enough to leave the bedroom window open, you can occasionally hear that unmistakeable wing-beat and imagine their white shapes passing nearby, ghostly against a moonlit sky...

Tree frog  (Hyla arborea) in an echeveria
A young tree frog (Hyla arborea) sheltering in an echeveria

At a more down-to-earth level, the sociable tree frogs in our garden have also been providing us with photo opportunities.

This little fellow, cunningly inserted between the padded leaves of an echeveria, is not much bigger than my thumbnail but manages a sizeable croak when in the mood.

Damp weather in particular seems to rouse them and we hear them calling lustily to one another across the garden. 

Cyclamen hederifolium

Cyclamen hederifolium
Cyclamen hederifolium - glowing bright amongst
the falling ash leaves
This tuberous plant is happy to colonise the dry, sandy soil beneath our ash tree.

The pink ones seem to have spread more rapidly than the white but they're now starting to commingle rather prettily, catching the early light on a dewy morning.

It's amazing how they thrive in such inhospitable areas and go on to seed themselves quite liberally.

Amelanchier lamarckii - Snowy Mespilus
Amelanchier lamarckii - vivid red leaf tones

This little tree, also known as Snowy Mespilus, was one of the first to produce colourful leaves in our garden this year.

I've sung its praises before when enjoying the lovely creamy flowers back in March, followed by a host of attractive dark red berries which are small but tasty - why isn't this tree grown more often, I wonder?

Dahlia 'Bishop's Children'
Dahlia 'Bishop's Children'
- just one of the red/orange varieties available
And talking of red... What could be more flagrantly scarlet than this dahlia from a seed selection called Bishops' Children?

Ordered from Chiltern Seeds in April, I sowed half of the packet into a tray which I pricked out and grew on in May, getting about ten sturdy seedlings to pot on.

Planted out in early July, these all developed beautiful bronzy red foliage with strikingly bold flowers and I was looking forward to lots of blooms for bringing indoors.

Well, that did happen to some extent but - after a very hot dry spell - several of the dahlias succumbed to mildew that soon discoloured most of their foliage. Those that were planted in damper, more shady areas managed to survive without ill-effect and, because the flowers were so fabulous, I'm tempted to keep their tubers to grow again next year.

Late Summer Vase
A late-summer vase showcasing orange and red
dahlais, yellow Rudbeckia hirta, blue caryopteris
next to Salvia guaranitica 'Black & Blue', and
the wine-red leaves of Cotinus coggygria

Polianthes tuberosa 'The Pearl'
Polianthes tuberosa 'The Pearl'

It's unusual to find much scent in the garden during October but last year we came upon this deliciously fragrant lily flowering in pots at Ham House near London.

For our friends' special anniversary, we ordered some rhizomes and potted-up three for them and three for us, crossing our fingers that they would produce more than just foliage...

Sadly, that was literally all they got from their plants, which was rather embarassing - although, being gardeners themselves, I think they are used to Nature's vagaries!

We had a 50% success rate with ours and one rhizome resulted in the mass of flowers seen here, whilst another produced about half that number. Their perfume is strong, reminscent of gardenia, but not as pungent as some exotic fragrances.

Care instructions say you should give them plenty of water and make sure they receive lots of hot afternoon sun... (Memo to self: try harder next year!)

Aster amellus 'Veilchenkoenigen'
Aster amellus 'Veilchenkoenigen'
Michaelmas Daisy

Another 'find' from our trip to the UK was this striking little aster from Beth Chatto's, which forms a neat clump about 45cm high and flowers for several weeks.

It's an established type of Italian aster - despite a German name - and is called 'Violet Queen' in English, just to complicate things further!

(Interestingly, whilst mildew might have been a problem when we grew asters in England, it's never bothered us here - although that may be down to the particular species we've planted.)

a plate of 'white' and black figs
Taste comparison
- a plate of 'white' and black figs
Autumn Fruits

The grape harvest began in mid-September this year, the earliest we've ever known it happen here.

Our fig season also seemed to start earlier and go on for weeks... those dark, jammy figs we call 'black' (which shrink in size the longer you keep them) giving way to the more bready, textured 'white' figs (actually green) which I prefer as they're not quite so cloyingly sweet.

Tree frog (Hyla arborea) on walnuts
Oh, and guess who found the walnuts ...!

Lake at Les Monards
Back beside the lake, Robert likes to grow a few eye-catching pumpkins, although he's disappointed they aren't a bit fatter this year despite generous amounts of beer and compost!

Talking of which, we find that now is the best time to cut back most herbacious plants and weed the soil, before spreading home-made compost all around. (Any later, and those falling leaves will have covered everything.)

Smooth landings have to be practised too!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017


"Gardening is a game played with Nature"

- Patrick Quibel

Farmland on Gironde Estuary, Charente Maritime
Patterns of surrounding farmland reminiscent of the
graphic landscapes of American painter Grant Wood

Agriculture, too, is a game played with Nature and I love the fact that here in South-west France these old patterns persist against the odds: vineyards and fields passed down through generations, sometimes intact with all the old rivalries, but still neatly delineated with few fences or hedgerows.
Our young olive tree underplanted with lavender,
white roses (in a pot) and Cosmos bipinnatus 'Purity'

Dappled shade is indispensible at this time of year, particularly in areas where you want to sit out and eat.  Here on the coast where it's usually breezy too, a large parasol can be more trouble than it's worth unless you have an expensive one which can be anchored against the wind and angled against the sun.
Shades of an Indian market with
these discarded blooms of
Cosmos sulphureus

Cosmos has also become indispensible to us as a source of late Summer colour.

We noticed a particularly tall variety of the bright orange Cosmos sulphureus growing in a local park and I kept a few seeds last year which have now provided us with several stately plants.

They do need daily dead-heading however and, in the case of the white Cosmos bipinnatus 'Purity', a certain amount of dis-budding is also required as it keeps producing a small cluster of terminal flower buds when you really just want a couple of decent sized blooms!

With its fine feathery foliage, the various types of Cosmos bipinnatus give your borders a light and airy feel on the hottest days. A wide range of colours is available from Chiltern Seeds.

Eragrostis trichoides 'Summer Strain' and Verbena bonariensis
Shimmering seedheads of
Eragrostis trichoides 'Summer Strain'
Ornamental grasses and other prairie-type flowers like Verbena bonariensis move around in the breeze, adding to this effect of coolness and helping to make up for the fact that our small garden lacks a water-feature.

We could have created something simple with a pump and a pipe, just to enjoy the sound of running water, but we suffer so much from limescale that it would probably give us problems after a while so we decided not to bother.

There are plenty of waterways nearby and the mixture of birdsong and rustling bamboo, as well as that cool wind through our ash trees, is enough to orchestrate a sense of calm.
In the part-shade of an ash tree, Michaelmas daisies
bloom alongside Nicotiana alata 'Lime Green'
and a red-flowering Salvia microphylla

Aster novae-angliae 'Betel Nut'
Aster novae-angliae 'Betel Nut'
Asters or Michaelmas daisies gradually come into flower during August and glow brightly through September as shadows deepen in the borders.

This particular variety called 'Betel Nut' was still flowering at Beth Chatto's nursery in Essex when we bought it in early October last year.

It grows to about 1.8m high and so far its blooms have been popping out gradually with plenty of buds still to open - very striking in colour and robust in habit, which is all to be welcomed.

Purple loosestrife - Lythrum salicaria
Purple loosestrife - Lythrum salicaria
There are vivid colours in the landscape too, especially along the water channels where bright patches of purple loosestrife stand out from the sere grassland.

Our neighbour loves the loosestrife so much that he's planted up a whole tub of it in his driveway!

Berries have been forming since the start of August, with huge swags hanging from the elder trees, and sunflower seeds are attracting busy flocks of finches and sparrows.This is when the pyracantha in our garden starts bursting into colour with its orange, red and yellow berries. We have one of each to liven up our hedgerows and birds love them! 

Purple loosestrife - Lythrum salicaria
Patches of loosestrife growing with marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis)

Seedheads of hairy willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum)
Clouds of hairy willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) along the pathway

Late Summer and Autumn are particularly beautiful on the salt marshes around these shores.

Seedheads of hairy willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum)
Willowherb billows around the
marsh bulrushes
Now I find it almost blinding to walk down the cycle path behind our house first thing in the morning.

Not only does the chalky track reflect light but the many thousand seedheads of hairy willowherb (aka great willowherb) shine like beacons against the shadowy woods beyond.

This picture of bulrushes lapped by glistening seedheads is almost abstract when you look into it and my wild flower book tells me that in the 18th century this hairy down was actually used as stuffing in bedcovers... not sure it would have lasted more than a few weeks!
Marais horses also seem to shine more brightly amongst the mallows

Sedums are providing smaller billows of colour in our borders and probably look at their best before they are fully out.
Sedum spectabile - prone to splitting
Each year we try to hold the bigger clumps together with wire or frames of some kind, but the pale Sedum spectabile always seems to collapse as it matures, leaving a rather unsightly gap in the middle.

I think it's one of those plants that needs lifting and dividing regularly so that you can just cut out the dead bit in the middle and start again with a compact offspring. 

Salvia coccinea
Salvia coccinea or Texas Sage
- a plant that goes on giving
Salvia coccinea or Texas sage is a plant I wrote about in early July when it first came into bloom.

Since then it has gone on branching out and producing new flower spikes, with each tiny hooded flower taking its time to open so you can go on enjoying the plant for weeks.

It doesn't need dead-heading until the whole spike has run out of steam and, by then, it's possible new spikes will have formed.

It's certainly easier to look after than our various cosmos which need constant attention, but I don't begrudge time spent on these tasks as they do leave you free to meditate and enjoy peering into all corners of the garden as you wander around with clippers in hand.  

Swan Lake

Earlier in the year I wrote about a family of swans which took up residence on our neighbour's lake and then moved on to new waters once their cygnets had all fledged.

Well I'm glad to report that they still come back for regular visits and we spotted them walking from lake to river the other morning.

The eight cygnets were all present and correct, waddling in a line behind their parents, and almost seemed to turn and greet us as they went past ...

Cygnets on parade
Dance of the cygnets!