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Monday, 30 April 2012

April flowers

April, the month of blossoms. It all started out with everything rushing into bloom after the unexpected warm spell in late March, and then came the cool weather and continual April showers, interspersed with sun. It's been a very strange month weather wise with daytime highs often being no warmer than 13C (55F) and the rain has totalled up to a really good amount to make up for the shortfall so far this year - currently on 140mm and it could well rain some more today!! You'd think the grass and weeds would have grown like crazy, but the cool weather seems to have kept growth to a minumum, a good thing really as it's a bit hard to mow or hoe right now!

First up, all the plum family blossoms. The blossom from my fruit trees came and went very quickly, but the blackthorns in the hedgerows lasted for ages.

I can't say for sure whether this is Damson or Blackthorn - it's a wild
straggly bush/tree growing in my woodland area.

The ornamental cherry trees beside my pond have blossomed really well this year.

Ornamental Cherry

White cherry blossom started next, but very staggered; my big old tree was flowering weeks ago yet another smaller tree has barely opened up its flowers yet! As for the apple blossom, that will have to feature next month as it is only just starting.

Looking back at last year's photos, we are now a good 3 weeks behind last year in terms of what was flowering, but that was an exceptional warm dry month and with only 6mm of rain. What a difference this year!

Forget Me Nots in front of Bronze Fennel.

I adore forget me nots, and last year I finally got around to buying some seed. I'm so glad that I did. The plants haven't opened fully to that frothy haze of blue stage yet as they have been slow to get started. The sight of them reminds me of my grandmother, along with the scent of many of the highly perfumed roses.

The rain has really benefitted my Rhododendrons too - there are far more blooms on this one than last year and I have another one with darker pink flowers which will flower later (last year it didn't bother, it was just too dry which was so sad).

Rhododendron looking amazing

There's also the carpet of zingy yellowy green from all my Euphorbias. This is E. polychroma with a little visitor. I took this photo with my OH's SLR camera - I can't zoom in any more but I really like the light with his camera. It just needs updating as it's quite old now (why does technology move so fast - it's great for some things but costly replacing items which become obsolete after about 5 years!).

Euphorbia polychroma

Cheat photo taken last year, only because I haven't got around to taking a photo of my Dicentra yet. I adore these flowers but unfortunately the plant then spends several months looking a mess as it dies back after flowering! So I have to enjoy it now.

Dicentra spectabilis

And the last for this month, Angelique tulips. They are only just beginning to unfurl and some look rather stunted and sad so will probably not turn into the big showy girls that they should, as like everyone else, they are getting rather fed up with the rain and wind!

Tulip 'Angelique'

I shouldn't finish on a sad note, but such is gardening. First, our once lovely Mimosa mentioned in February flowers has been chopped down, as it has now been frosted 3 out of the last 4 years, and was just getting weaker and weaker and looking more and more tatty and couldn't really have taken any more pruning of dead branches.

The other great disappointment is my Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'. A month ago it was covered in flower buds and as the month has gone by, they have been dropping off and now only a very few remain, whilst the leaves are just beginning to show signs of emerging. I don't know what the problem was, perhaps it was the frequent hail knocked them off. It's such a shame as I only bought this shrub/tree last year and I had wanted one for so long, and finally saw one in a garden centre. I had searched for years but they weren't even available by mail order, so despite it being the most expensive plant I have ever bought at a whopping €60, I had to have it! However it was for the heart shaped purple leaves that I bought it and any flowers will be a bonus. Maybe next year.

Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Wind damage

Wednesday was a horrible day with howling gales (along with the all too often April showers at the moment), so consequently there was some damage.

The poor honeysuckle was the first to cop it. I don't have an up close photo of it as it was only in bud but it's the bushy shrub in the top left, in front of the wall and behind the little red leafed tree. The wind was coming from behind the wall and just blew it and the trellis off the wall, and only the poor little tree was holding it up!

We were out in the howling wind trying to hold it up so we could hack it back, all whilst trying not to tread on too many plants in the flower bed underneath. It's not a pretty sight now and most of the flower buds have gone. I know it'll grow back (and we need to do something to hold it up a bit better as it's got really quite big with huge woody stems now, but that can wait for better weather) but it look a mess right now!

Later on we discovered that rather surprisingly, a conifer (Spruce I think) in the woodland area had snapped clean off. We'd never noticed that just above where it broke, the trunk forked off into two leaders, which is quite unusual. It landed on top of a Mirabelle plum, Elder and narrowly missed my lovely Hawthorn. Quite a few tall thin Elms were snapped in two as well. Luckily this was behind our wood shed/shack out in the woodland so the top of the tree was leaning against the tin roof, so that's probably why the other trees underneath didn't get totally flattened.

It'll be a bit brighter in this corner now half this tree has gone!

Oh well on the plus side, at least there is some firewood here, but it needs to season for several years; the downside is getting rid of loads of branches which will mean a number of trips to the tip with our little trailer. The other trees survived but have branches and bits knocked off but Elder is very resilient, so although it looks a bit of a mess I'm sure it will be fine. It was just that it happened in a spot which looks pretty at various times from the blossoms of all three trees. The Mirabelle has only produced one fruit in 7 years so I will chop that back as it's all bent over now; if it doesn't like it it's not like I'm going to be missing any fruit! Why it was ever planted here in the first place I have no idea.

As for my poor old Purple Sprouting Broccoli! It was already leaning over at an angle as the veg patch is very exposed and I have to stake tall veggies up. But now most of them are flattened, but they've not done well this year and some of the main stems are rotting and I've no idea why. Some are only just starting to get flower buds which is so late.

It could have been much worse, but even so it's still a shame when trees and shrubs are damaged, but I'd rather a bit of that than find the chicken shed tin roof in the next door field. Or even my own house roof, god forbid! 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Indoor gardening

I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever get my maincrop spuds in which are getting a bit overchitted but it's just not worth even trying at the moment. We've had some really good rain the last 3 days, about 35mm which is brilliant for keeping the stream running and doing my garden a world of good, but it's too wet to try doing anything involving soil outside. 

We managed to get a new tap and all the paraphenalia needed for our out of use IBC (the taps don't last very long - about 5 years before they start cracking/leaking which is a nuisance) and although the tap and postage from the UK cost about half what the 2nd hand IBC cost in the first place it's still cheaper than buying a new one. It's now full!

So indoor gardening is probably the best thing I can do right now. I've even sown some mustard and cress out of desperation to see something grow!

I always grow and keep basil indoors all year round - Thai basil because I love the flavour and it doesn't seem to like getting wet outdoors, and regular basil because although it grows very big in the veg patch it gets quite woody and the leaves become tough, and they are not nice to eat like that.

Thai basil sown in March; I'm already pinching it out.

Tomatoes on the other hand are difficult to raise inside as they grow very leggy. I have to start them, chillies and basil in a heated propagator but the basil and chillies don't seem to suffer from the legginess anywhere near as badly.

Tomatoes, chillies and 10 year old Lemon Grass seed - I think one has germinated!

Yesterday I brought my potting thingy into the cellar-cum-mud-room as I didn't want to take my little seedlings outside in the cold to the potting shed and got on with the pricking out.

I've just raised two kinds of cherry tomato from seed - Gardeners' Delight and Apero, from saved seed from a self seeded plant from last year. It came originally from a F1 plant but I couldn't see any difference at all, even though F1 plants are not supposed to come true from seed. Apero is one of those oval shaped cherry toms and is prolific and tasty. I've pricked out 10 of each and hope to give some to my neighbour as I certainly don't need that many!

Once I start getting them out in the cold frames next month to harden off they will start to thicken up and in a month or two you'd never know they started off so thin and leggy. What I also do is every time I pot them on I bury the leggy stems; it doesn't seem to do them any harm whatsoever and that way they don't get too tall.

I've also pricked out my precious and exceedingly expensive Gorria chillies - these are the variety of only slightly hot chilli which are better known as the famous Piment d'Espelette

Piment d'Espelette

I also have Jalapenos which are not hot despite what it says on the packet, but I'm happy with that as they are short thick skinned chillies brilliant for stuffing and quite delicious. I sowed Cayenne too but only 4 have germinated but that's fine as I have tons of dried ones from last year which will probably last me a couple of years. They make quite good decorations strung up with cotton and are still adorning door handles around the place....

Dried Cayenne Peppers

My windowsills are getting full and I do have to keep turning the trays around several times a day as the plants grow towards the light.

This isn't even all my seedlings! Need some plant swaps!!

As well as indoor gardening I guess this is cooking weather. I was amazed to collect this monster duck egg a few mornings ago. It weighed in at 155g - normal duck eggs are large but weigh on average 90-95g......


It was a lovely double yolker, so that plus another two duck eggs made up the 5 eggs needed for a quiche recipe, so with the grotty weather I had plenty of spare time to make shortcrust pastry, all by hand (even blind baking and all that malarky!) to make a quiche out of it.

OK, so I won't win any contests for the prettiest looking quiche.....

Left over pastry is brilliant for using up my jam and jelly by making jam tarts! The very last of the bits of pastry gets put out for the wild birds who love it, so there is no waste at all. That quiche was supposed to feed 4 according to the recipe but boy did we struggle eating a quarter each over two nights! Consequently the jam tarts are now in the freezer as that would have been overkill.  :-)

Monday, 23 April 2012

Woodland and wildflowers

Just to let you know if you haven't already seen it, I've added an About Chateau Moorhen page on the right just below my profile photo - this gives some info about us, the grounds and a map of our property.

In between the showers I've been getting out and taking photos in my little woodland area. It's slowly coming to life and getting greener by the day. Once all the leaves are out it becomes a dark mysterious place but at the moment it is still quite bright and light so the woodland spring flowers are flourishing.

The same trees (wild cherry on left, sycamore on right) from a different perspective. The wild cherries are flowering now but it's very hard to take photos as I can't get far enough away as there's always another tree in the way!

There are mown pathways and open glades which make a relatively small space appear larger as there's a choice of different paths to walk around. 

I don't know what these tiny flowers are,
but they provide pretty blasts of lime green colour here and there.

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) with
Ground Ivy in the left foreground

Thanks to the sun coming out suddenly the woodland appears to have turned brooding and quite menacing. I was trying to show the tree in the centre which is a dead Elm which long ago succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease but is much loved by birds for nesting places as it's full of holes. The one thing I'm disappointed about with my camera is that the zoom on this compact is not much good for photographing birds. One day I'll get a DSLR and make myself a little hide, as there is so much bird life here. Of course I'll get even less done in the garden then!

I have bluebells too! They may not be the English bluebells but I love them. There's also the odd pink one in amongst them.

A few weeks ago I noticed loads of tiny stripy spiders scuttling around in amongst the dry leaves (this was before the weather broke).

Another common wildflower is Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea). It's been flowering on the ditch banks out in the sun for longer but just coming to life in the shadier places. It's one of my favourite spring wildflowers.

Greater Stitchwort blowing in the breeze

A close up, just as this flower is getting a bit tatty
and the seed pod is forming

Looking up at the canopy coming to life.

And, as it's on the woodland side of the lake.... Moorhen nest no. 2!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Over the garden gate

Looking back in. The lilacs are just coming into bloom (although you'd need to click on the
photo to enlarge it to see that) and the big tree covered in blossom is our huge old cherry.

To explain our property a bit, the main part of our garden, which is approximately 2 acres, is enclosed by a wire mesh perimeter fence. We do however own land on the outside of it. There's the little orchard across the lane, but then we also own the steep banks on the outside of the fence that slope down into the ditch, the ditch itself and then the grass verge up to about 1 metre from the road! Luckily the council comes around frequently during the growing season to mow the verges (although my OH does that anyway with his ride on mower) and at the end of the growing season, someone comes along and cuts back the vegetation in the ditches. This clears up a lot of the jungle that you see in the next picture and keeps it vaguely under control.

On the outside. You may just be able to make out a fence post - that's where the fence is. This is about the limit of where we managed to control the out of the control Leylandii when we moved here and turn it into a neat(ish) hedge. After that the trees are mostly Thuya and, basically, just left as trees as it's impossible to get to from the road side to trim them back.

This is also where I used to go blackberry picking, but I had to stand on a very steep slope above the ditch, using an alpine walking stick to help balance and also to whack wayward brambles and six foot high nettles out of my face. It was never very easy and of course, the better ones were always out of reach!

Now I've given up as many summers are dry and the blackberries are less than juicy so I am growing the thornless cultivated ones inside the garden and leave this patch over to nature. Many birds love the thickets of brambles, especially the blackcaps, and I often hear their song coming from this direction when I'm in the garden.

This is also where our stream comes out from the overflow, so in the foreground is actually running stream, but it's already getting overgrown with all the unidentified umbellifer plants that love the damp or wet ditches around here.

This is up the road a bit and round the corner with my property boundary on the right, towards the end of the lake. From where the bushiness stops and you see a couple of lone trees is where the stream is that runs into our lake. Anway, the real reason to showing this less than exciting for you photo is that I am jumping for joy that for the first time since we moved here, Farmer Giles has left an uncultivated margin.

I was reading in a newsletter last year from the organisation responsible for the ecology and management of the main river that runs through these parts (for which our stream is a tributary) that a 10 metre wide margin must be left between cultivated fields and watercourses. Yeah yeah yeah, I thought, like that ever happens. He always ploughs as close as he possibly can to our fence! Well, it must be a new law because it has happened which is great news! Also, from a purely selfish point of view, it means we can walk up here far more easily instead of stumbling over the edges of the ploughed furrows.

This is our fence that runs across the stream bed and our lake starts just the other side. This is why we need to get up here in the summer, when the stream has dried up, to check our perimeter fence from the other side, clear any overhanging dead branches and general debris that's washed up against the fence.

I walked a little bit further on, and whilst the stream is still flowing, it's not very fast. It's been helped by recent rain in April but we've still had very little rain this year and our department, Ille et Vilaine, is already on drought vigilance alert. Some departments are in a very bad situation and have water restrictions already in place.

You'll probably laugh, but I took this photo because I couldn't figure out what tree this was. I knew it wasn't Alder, googled Poplar but that has catkins too. I know those two trees grow all along beside the lake and up the stream. When I found out what it was I nearly kicked myself for not thinking of it. It's Ash!! We have ash trees here, but this is a young one so the flowers were low down - our ash trees are far bigger so I wouldn't have seen them in my face as it were!

Finally, I couldn't resist. All the grazing fields around here are an absolute picture at the moment with all the dandelions in full bloom. It's not as arty as I was trying to achieve but heck I was squatting down trying not to touch the electric fence or fall into the ditch so this will have to do! :-)

Monday, 16 April 2012

The edible lawn

A continuation of "101 uses for a weedy, scruffy lawn".

Every spring I like to go out for a forage around the garden to collect wild leaves to put in a salad. I usually only do it once as it's pretty time consuming and so many of the leaves are so small you could spend all day first looking for them, and then picking them! But it's fun to do and good to know that should famine or misfortune befall us I do have some knowledge of wild plants to eat. Although I do think we'd get very skinny.

There are many edible plants out there in the wild growing in all sorts of habitats, but it was lawns I was talking about in my previous post, so only those edibles that I know of that I find here in our lawned/mown areas are what I'll mention here. Many of them are more prevlent in our shadier, wooded areas but some grow all over the place.

What grows near you will depend of course upon where you live, the climate and your soil, but I think most of what I'm going to mention are very common in both the UK and France.

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

This is one of the best flavoured of the wild leaves with a peppery taste similar to cress or watercress. The downside is that the leaves are so small it's hard to find enough. It grows in lawns, flower beds and the veg patch but of course I couldn't find it in my lawn right now for a photo, so took one in the veg patch instead!

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Celandine leaves are abundant at the moment so it's not too difficult to harvest enough of them although it does take some time. I don't think they have that much in the way of flavour to recommend them, but they don't taste bitter or unpleasant, so I am quite happy to eat them mixed in with other leaves. I wouldn't eat a bowlful of these leaves alone though!

Edit: I've since read a few sites that have mentioned there is a certain toxicity which may upset those with sensitive stomachs, so either not to eat too many of the leaves raw, or better still, to cook them as that gets rid of the toxins. I've never eaten it in large quantities and will continue to add a few leaves to a salad as a few leaves here and there don't affect me, but I thought I'd better add this caution to those who have not tried it before.)

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Another good flavoured leaf, sorrel has a lemony zing to the leaves. Popular in France as sorrel sauce or made into soup (French name: oseille). In the photo the small young leaves on top grow all through the lawn, whereas the big clump are growing just out of the mown area in a wild patch. Harvest the young leaves for salad - they really are worth mixing in even with just some bought lettuce!

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)

I've tried them and find the leaves too bitter for my liking but it is possible to blanch them first which is said to remove the bitterness. They are popular in France but have a diuretic effect, hence their French name 'Pissenlit', which literally means 'wet the bed'! You can also make a kind of jam, more of a runny sweet yellow syrup, from the flower heads. One of my French neighbours gave me a jar and it was pleasant, with an almost honey-like flavour. You'll need a lot of flower heads though, so unless your lawn looks like the field above, you may need to go for a wander through some ungrazed meadows.

Jack by the Hedge/Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Some years we have an abundance of this interesting flavoured plant, but this year I've barely noticed them. Now that my OH has done the first mow of our woodland glades most of the few that were there have been mown off! They tend to grow on the edges of our wild patches spilling out into the lawned areas, but don't seem to be a plant of full sun. The flavour of the leaf is garlic with a hint of bitterness, or bitter with a hint of garlic, whichever way you look at it! It's quite pleasant and as the leaves are larger than most of the other leaves I forage, all the better for padding out that salad.

Pignuts (Conopodium majus)

Pignuts are the pretty frilly leaves with Celandine flowers on the left

I'm adding this here as, after photographing these leaves a few weeks ago, and not knowing what they were, lo and behold Chants Cottage writes a post on her blog about pignuts! Hey presto, I've found out what I have growing in great swathes in the woodland lawn, where not much grass is growing. It's not the leaves which are edible, but the tuberous roots which have a bulbous bit which resembles a nut. I realise eating this plant involves digging it up, and I've yet to try, but it's growing throughout the mown and unmown parts of my woodland garden, so I will be going out shortly with my fork and having a nosy and a taste test!

It also goes without saying that many of these plants are beneficial to insects and butterflies; they were not put on this planet for our usage alone, so don't strip any plants or whole patches of plants bare - think about the fauna. There are pollinating insects which feed on the nectar and pollen in the flowers and larvae of pretty butterflies that need to eat the leaves!

Important note and disclaimer: Please don't try eating anything wild unless you are 100% sure that you know what you are doing. If in any doubt, photograph the plant, and check in books and on the internet. Don't take the first photo on google images as gospel truth either. Check reputable sites. I have tried to check out both the common and Latin names and make sure that what I am showing in these photos is what I say it is - I've eaten most of them and I'm still standing, but I am not in any way an expert in the field of foraging.