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Friday, 31 August 2012

August flowers

It's been a dry month, often very hot and a fair amount of wind too. This has taken its toll on the flowering side of the garden, as more of my gardening time has been spent watering to keep it looking alive rather than tidying up. Consequently I have in places rather an overgrown jungle - there isn't the time (or quite frankly in the heat, the energy) to be chopping back, deadheading, weeding etc. Also the veg garden is taking up my time with harvesting and sowing more crops so the ornamental side gets left, although I have been finding the time to do a bit more of a big tidy up during the last week with cooler days. Oh the joy of being able to work out in the sun in the afternoon without dying of heat!

At the beginning of the month the coneflowers looked good, now they are faded but the perovskia is still looking colourful and quite fresh.

Gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus) enjoying the Coneflower nectar,
with Perovskia behind

Bronze fennel was at its best earlier in the month and surprisingly attracting many honey bees - when I say surprisingly - as I've not grown this before and it is closely related to dill I wasn't expecting this, as dill doesn't seem to attract bees. My brother was here staying with us at this time and we were wondering what fennel honey would taste like! A bit aniseedy and odd, we thought.

Bronze Fennel covered in honey bees

The plants above are located in this bed at the front of the house which has full sun from morning until early evening, consequently it dries out very quickly and needs drought resistant plants in it. I still have to water as few so-called drought resistant plants are tough enough to withstand the dryness here without showing signs of suffering. Even wild thyme goes yellow and frazzles here without added moisture!

I call this my butterfly bed as there are many herbs
and other flowers here attracting them,
such as the large lavender in the foreground

My large lavenders have continued to flower and attract butterflies, moths and bees throughout the month.

Female Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus) on Lavender

Jersey Tiger Moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) on Lavender

We have a bed with hot coloured dahlias in, but they haven't been very spectacular this year and are tailing off a bit now. Maybe it's the weather, going from wet to dry and cool to hot. Who knows?

Dahlia, not sure which one!

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' started flowering earlier on in the month and looks quite stunning, but it's a hard plant to keep looking good as this and the coneflowers need so much water I really shouldn't have them in my dry garden at all - I feel they would be much better suited to a bog garden, for the amount of water they need! Consequently they are quick to droop and crisp up so the foliage never looks very good, only the flowers.

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'

Sedums, on the other hand, are happy in my free draining soil and during this month the purple varieties flower and are loved by the bees.

Purple Sedum with Perovskia behind

Honey bees on purple Sedum

Another plant much visited by all sorts of pollinating insect is garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) which I grow more for the pretty flowers than for the edible leaves!

Garlic Chives, purple Sedum and Catmint in the background along by the veg patch fence

Various flies enjoying the Garlic Chives

I'm always a bit surprised when Japanese Anemone starts blooming in August because I think of it as an autumn flower. It grew enormous this year for the first time due to the rain earlier on, but consquently it's fallen forwards and gone rather floppy!

Japanese Anemone

On the two sunny sides of the house where there is hard standing I have all my tubs and pots of pelargoniums and a few other tender perennials, which overwinter indoors.

A few of my unknown varieties of Pelargoniums in tubs along by the house wall;
the blue Plumbago was just starting to flower on the left

Nerium Oleander, unknown variety.
Smells beautifully of almonds but is poisonous
and has a nasty spike on the end of the leaves!

South west-ish side of the house which has full sun
from midday until late evening.

All month the star of the show continues to be Verbena bonariensis, attracting the most butterflies and daytime flying moths of any other flower in the garden! Here is a poor Swallowtail which has completely lost both hind wings - it was able to fly but was having problems balancing on the flower head to drink the nectar. This is only the second Swallowtail that I have seen this year, which is rather sad, as usually they are quite common.

Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) on Verbena bonariensis

Finally, this month the sunflowers around the edge of the veg patch have been a blaze of colour although one snapped off yesterday due to the wind. Never mind, I have a vase full of sunflowers on my dining table now and there are many more to come on that plant.

Multi-headed giant Sunflowers attracting bumble bees

Wednesday, 29 August 2012


We are used to seeing the Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum) here during the summer. It's a regular visitor which I think comes up to us from the south as it's known as a migratory moth; some years it even crosses the channel to England.

However quite recently I was surprised to see what I thought was a different kind of Hummingbird Hawkmoth - it looked the same just a different colour! I ran inside to grab the camera and took some pictures. After looking up hawkmoths on the internet I found that it was in fact the Broad Bordered Bee Hawkmoth (Hemaris fuciformis) - not some exotic species but in fact one that actually resides and breeds even in England!

As I hadn't ever seen one before (in fact I'd never even heard of them as they don't appear in my book of common Northern European moths) it's exotic as far as I'm concerned and it's a real beauty. It flits about from flower to flower just like the aforementioned HB Hawkmoth but just that little bit slower - still needs patience and a lot of following it about to capture it on camera but I was quite pleased with the results!

One even came back again a few days later and I hope to see more of it in future! The caterpillars feed on honeysuckle and various Galium plants, both of which I have here (although the only Galium I'm aware of in my garden are cleavers/goosegrass, which is an early spring horribly invasive, swamping everything in its path, weed). They are welcome to eat as much of it as they please!

A few days later I saw one again, but this one looks a bit tattier and has lost some of the hairs on its back. I've no idea if it is the same one getting older or another one.

I've seen the Hummingbird Hawkmoth around many times too but more so during June/July than during August. I managed a few shots of it but have already posted some photos that I look last year when I spent many more hours stalking the poor creatures to try to get a decent photo! I posted them on my article about Verbena bonariensis - the flower that is in all these photos. As well as this flower they are also partial to single flowered Ivy Leafed Geraniums (Pelargoniums). I've never seen them feed on any other flower.

A few nights ago one of the large kinds of hawkmoth flew into our cellar and I managed just one photo whilst it momentarily rested on the wall - the rest of the time it was buzzing around the light. We did get it to go outside eventually.

This is a Pine Hawkmoth which seems to be called either Hyloicus pinastri or Sphinx pinastri and the caterpillars feed on various pine trees and Norway Spruce, which I have plenty of.

Two years ago we saw another hawkmoth which my OH managed to get a shot of and I've identified this one as the Convolvulus Hawkmoth (Agrius convolvuli). The caterpillars feed on bindweed so I'd like to see more of these lovely moths about to lay as many eggs as possible on the bindweed!

Now I just want to see an Elephant Hawkmoth. In fact it's the caterpillar that I want to see more than the moth itself. I've only been waiting years! Oh, and a Death's Head Hawkmoth would be cool.... remember Silence of the Lambs?!!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Gerroff my damsons!

This is not the best year for plums of any sort and I was lucky to get some damsons from my tree. I only managed 1 kilo as much of the fruit was already succumbing to brown rot (Monilinia, or Moniliose as we call it in France) and flies were already moving in on some of the better fruit. Needless to say I only picked the healthy fruit as I knew which ones the flies had been after as they were soft and squidgy.

I found the different kinds of flies fighting over the fruit rather interesting so (you probably know me by now!) I couldn't resist taking some photos of them. If this is not your sort of thing then scroll down to the chutney making photos and the recipe! :-)

Big fly has its head over the hole eating the flesh whilst smaller fly looks on enviously.

I love this pic as the big fly is kicking the blue/green bottle out the way!

This is one of the fruit affected by Monilinia (brown rot) - the tell tale signs of mould
on the surface are a giveaway. No idea what this fly or any of the other flies are.
Hoverflies are more my sort of thing!

The same two flies that were in the top photo with some healthy fruit in the background.

Right. So if you are still with me I'll move swiftly on to chutney making!!

This recipe is adapted from a recipe called "Red Tomato and Fruit Relish" from a preserving book called "Art of Preserving" by Jan Berry. I have changed both the dried and fresh fruit and the type of vinegar, but kept her original quantities and spices, so leave the credit there for her.

Mixed Fruit Chutney

250ml cider vinegar
310g brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon celery seeds
2 teaspoons sea salt
1.5kg damsons, weight before de-stoning and roughly chopping
0.5kg apples, peeled, cored and chopped
0.5kg tomatoes, peeled and chopped
250g dates, chopped
250g dried apricots, chopped
125g golden sultanas
125g raisins
Juice and zest of 1 lemon

Place the vinegar and the sugar in a large, nonreactive pan over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the garlic, ginger, curry powder, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, mustard and celery seeds and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and boil for 1 minute, over medium heat.

Add the remaining ingredients and return the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 2 hours or until the chutney thickens.

Ladle it into hot jars straight out of the oven which you have sterilised at 120C for half an hour and seal immediately.

The jars can be opened after 1 month. 

All the fresh and dried fruit prepared - it does take time.
Note, there are NO critters in these damsons. I always check!

Chutney mixture ready after 2 hours of slow simmering.

Finished. Just needed labelling when cold.
Actually it's a little disappointing to only have 7 jars, but really 2 jars is enough
for me, and the rest make great gifts for friends and family!

Bon appetit!

Friday, 24 August 2012

French Friday: the zoo at the Chateau de la Bourbansais

Somewhere along the line I picked up a leaflet for this place, and having not visited a zoo or wildlife park in at least a decade, I thought it might be rather fun to go when my brother came over. This chateau is not far from Combourg so only about half an hour's drive from home.

So a few weeks back we had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon spent here. I was quite surprised by the chateau itself, which is quite a big 'posh' one for these parts!

You can pay extra if you wish to have a guided tour of the chateau (which we didn't) or just pay to visit the zoo and the attractions. A whole afternoon is needed if you want to make the most of it. You could eke it out to a whole day if you take a picnic as there are picnic areas and a large playground area for kids with bouncy castles etc (I wasn't allowed - not by the staff I hasten to add, but by my OH!).

Foodwise - well the leaflet said there was a restaurant, so originally I thought we'd go and eat there. Until I discovered the menu on their website. OK, if you really fancy ham sandwich, ham salad, ham and chips, sausage and chips or saucisse galette then fine. If not, take a picnic!

I'm not going to show lots of animals and birds here. Suffice to say, there is plenty to see, and we were pleasantly surprised that the areas/compounds that the animals were in were large and well landscaped, with plenty of moats around keeping some of the animals in rather than cages - hence so many fairly tame moorhens about, which I showed on this blog a few weeks back!

My favourite by far were the Meerkats though! They seem to do a mixture of posing for the camera, snuggling up together, playing and digging. Their run was sand and boy do they dig - some seemed to be desperate to dig their way out and were making deep holes at the base of the thick wooden stakes lining their run and I could see paws and snouts coming through the gaps between the stakes! Great fun and I could have watched them all day.  

The leaflet mentioned a new aviary which you could walk into and experience various birdlife from South America, but it was a bit disappointing with only 3 different species of bird. However the lemur enclosure was great fun. A huge open space that was well caged around the outside which you enter via double doors and there you can walk amongst all the different kinds of lemurs who will sit and pose for you, even beside you! (I do have a photo of my brother sitting beside one but I won't post it as I know he would not be pleased about it!)

There are other things to see as well as the main bit of zoo. This year they have started a new potager project - as you can see it is very much in its infancy but is a huge walled area that should look stunning and very productive in a few years time, with espaliered fruit trees, veggies and flowers side by side. There was only one guy working there when we visited and I could see it would take a team of people to look after (I was secretly rather pleased to see lots of weeds - and blighted tomatoes!).

Various displays are on several times a day, such as the flying display of (mostly) birds of prey which we were interested in, and a display of hunting dogs (spaniels of some kind, probably Breton, and beagles) which we were not. Later in the afternoon there's 'feeding time at the zoo' but we didn't stay for that. They have a huge variety of birds of prey which was interesting to watch but each bird's display was rather brief. It wasn't as good as the show at Rocamadour which we'd visited donkey's years ago where my OH took a photo of a hawk of some kind sitting perched on the top of my head! But it was still good fun. 

Don't ask me what all the birds are - I think the first one here is a vulture and there were various birds swooping in from here, there and everywhere including owls. The ones at the end are storks, beside the guy doing the commentary. My OH took these photos as he had the big camera with the telephoto lens - personally I'd rather just have my little pocket camera to slip into my bag whilst we are out and about, but realise now comparing photos that at a zoo a decent camera with TP lens is quite necessary.

Front view of the chateau from the moat. The drive way went on a long, long way beyond this! I didn't think much of the chateau's gardens though - this is pretty much the extent of interest, apart from those triangular topiary bushes in some of the bird of prey shots above, which were in a garden off to the side.

One last thing, having said (in not so many words) not very nice things about their 'restaurant' menu, there is something that was wonderful! At the snackbar beside the restaurant area they had an ice cream machine that looked a bit like a Mr Whippy type machine, dispensing gelato! It wasn't called gelato (or Mr Whippy; this is France after all) but if you've ever eaten real gelato in Italy you will know how different it is to normal ice cream - somewhere like a mix between sorbet and ice cream. Anyway, it was delicious and I'm so glad I had one.

There's another snackbar over by the children's play area and bouncy castles as well, so plenty of places to get drinks, ice cream and snacks.

The entrance fee at €18 per adult was quite pricey but I guess everything costs these days, and these are not things we do often, so it was well worth it, in my opinion.

Opening times, prices, location and all the information you need at their website:

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Skipper butterflies

Before this summer, I'd never seen a Skipper before. I'd heard of them vaguely - they were in my butterfly book but they didn't stand out shouting "look at me" like the Southern Festoon or the Apollo. Perhaps for that reason I had not read up about just how tiny these little creatures were, and therefore I did not have my 'look out for tiny butterflies' antenna on. 

Because it seems that once you are aware of something, you start to see them. And boy, are they small! Insignificant colourwise compared to the large beauties mentioned above, but just as gorgeous and fascinating close up.

I saw my first one, a Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) about a month back and was a really happy bunny! I couldn't believe how little it was and so fluffy and cute!

Then I saw a Mallow Skipper (Carcharodus alceae); now this one could so easily be mistaken for a moth, given its small size and the mottled markings. As its name suggests, the caterpillars feed on mallow plants, of which there are many growing wild around these parts - including my garden. In fact, it's one of the few chicken-scratching-proof plants that still manages to grow and flower in my chicken runs!

Then the other day I came across a very tatty specimen of what I think is a Skipper again, but I'm just not sure. It's about the same size but has lost a portion of its wings. It has no distinguishing marks and never opened its wings, but I can just make out a faint copper colour. It's not fluffy like a Small Skipper.

It doesn't help that it was in the shade and I had to take the photos with flash. Having spent at least several hours looking through innumerable photos of different kinds of 'plain' Skippers in Europe, quite frankly I give up! The most important thing is that I got to see it and to enjoy watching it for quite a while, so intent was it on drinking the nectar of the garlic chives!

The garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) that the butterfly is on in these last three shots is amazingly popular with insects at the moment. Not so much for bees, but the amount of flies and hoverflies crawling and hovering about it is quite incredible.

Not just a tasty plant for humans, then :-)