30 June 2007

My lemon (or lime!) tree's been attacked by scale insects!

When I worked in an Agricultual College in Périgueux I'd sometimes stop off to get bread on the way home. One day, walking towards the bakers, I noticed a pile of really sad looking plants in cardboard cartons, sitting outside a shop. Most of them had lost the will to live, and some had lost their names but they cost only a few euros, so I bought half a dozen, hoping to be able to revive at least one or two.

That was a few years ago and since then I've had a tremendous amount of pleasure from the four plants that survived. Two passion flowers and two lemon or lime trees. (The ones I chose had lost their labels.) When the weather's good, I put them outside on the terrace and they overwinter inside the house next to the French windows. I brought them out a few weeks ago, looking a bit straggly - but with new flowers and some tiny fruit. I had to cut one of them right down despite the tempting flowers and fruit because it was just too floppy but I couldn't resist leaving the other to let its fruit develop - even though I had to prop it up with a stick.

To be honest, I hardly ever have any problems with pests or diseases in my plants. So it came as a bit of a shock when I looked at the plant I'd propped up to check the fruit and noticed that it looked really tired with strange bumps, an awful lot of very busy ants on the leaves and suspicious looking spiders' webs hanging between the leaves and the branches.

I had a look in my books, then on the internet (fascinating stuff) and discovered that I had an attack of Scale Insects

So I used one of my favourite tools, my fingernails, to scrape them off gently one by one. The bloomin' things were everywhere even on the stem and I don't really understand where they came from, but I imagine the plant was a bit frail after being inside for so long and it got hit in a moment of weakness.

It's interesting that the other citrus plant which I pruned really hard is full of new healthy leaves and they're completely untouched by the scale insects.

So far, I've cleaned up about a dozen leaves and amazingly, the plant has perked up and as I really want to see how the fruit develops, so I'm going to continue cleaning it by hand.

I'm really looking forward to seeing this fruit when it matures and finding out whether it's a lemon or a lime tree.

It will be nice too to know that I can successfully grow on these plants for the winter when there's not much fresh fruit around instead of having to buy imported citrus fruit.

25 June 2007

Birds' nests and chicks

There are a lot of mature trees, hedges and climbing plants around our house and the sound of birdsong at the moment is wonderful.

Birds are building nests in the sheds, in the walls of the house and in the climbing plants on the terrace. This beautiful nest was in the Acacia just at the back of the house. I took the photograph yesterday, but couldn't quite get my balance to get a good shot of the chicks inside. So, today, equipped with a ladder, Fabrice climbed up and took this photograph.

We managed to identify the adult bird as a Chaffinch. (fringilla coelebs, Pinson des arbres in French)

Thanks to the internet, we've found out a great deal about this little bird and its beautiful nest. Here's an extract from a study done at the Department of Zoology, University of Glasgow. Glasgow. UK.

The chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, is one of a large number of birds from many families that use silk in the construction of their nests. Thirty-eight chaffinch nests collected from around the UK were examined to determine the nature and role of silk in nest construction. A regular survey of web, retreat and cocoon silk availability was made at a study site close to Glasgow, Scotland, over a 12 month period. The only spider web silk found in the nests was of the type produced by cribellate spiders. The majority of silk in nests, however, was spider cocoons, but there was no correlation between the amount of cocoon and web silk used. Nests with more lichen decoration contained more silk, and cocoon silk was particularly associated with the attachment of lichen. Nest construction at the study site took place from late April to mid-May. When nest building began, the availability of suitable web silk had doubled from its winter (lowest) level; however, its abundance continued to rise sharply until the end of May. The possible influence of silk availability on the timing of chaffinch nesting is discussed.

Still on the subject of nests, we've had Goldfinches building one in the Wisteria on the terrace just at the back of the house for a couple of weeks. They were making lots of noise with their excited chatter, then all we've heard for a while has been the whirring of wings as they passed by our heads to feed their young. We didn't disturb them as they're shy little things, but today the noise stopped and they've flown the nest, so we went up to investigate.

Goldfinch nest with moss, lined with Angora goat hair and a few pig or wild boar hairs.The tiny little nest about eight centimetres wide is really well constructed from twigs, honeysuckle shoots and other, finer climbing plants woven into the trunk of the Wisteria.

There's moss round the outside, a few thick hairs either from our pig or from wild boar and like most of the birds' nests around our farm, the inside is lined with Angora goats' hair.

24 June 2007

The beams for the first floor of the extension are almost finished

In between downpours, Fabrice has been slicing and cutting and lifting the beams to support the first floor of the extension. I'm very happy about the rain really because it means that I don't have to water the garden and our maize crop should be good if this changeable weather continues.

The rain will also help to weather the beams and make them look older, and it's good to give them a bit of time to settle in and dry out (They were only cut a few weeks ago.) before continuing with the walls and roof.

I took this photograph from the window which will become a door leading into the first floor. There will be a staircase to the left of this door, lined with cupboards and then a door leading into the bedroom, with another door leading into a space in the loft which will provide me with storage for raw wool, dying materials and yarn when it comes back from the spinners. At the moment all the spun yarn is in the main house taking up half a bedroom and I have to store the raw yarn in the old chicken shed which is far from ideal !

19 June 2007

I just caught this view from the window today..

Looking from the extension to the front door at Sourrou...and I thought how nice it was.

It's strange when you're building. You can draw as many plans as you like, but you only get the real force of reclaiming land for your use when the walls start going up and you can see how things look; feel where the wind comes from, and watch how people, animals and cars move around the space.

Our front door is rarely used. Everyone come in the west side doors, straight into the kitchen and the tables under the porch all along the west wall are a dumping ground for anything that people happen to be carrying.
The result is that the entrance to our house always looks cluttered and messy with sacks of grain, tools, plants, wire, pots and pans and all the necessities of a farming life.

We have two horrible polytunnels at the back of the house which do the job of covering things we want to keep and I can see them being there for some time to come, but at least the exterior covered part of the extension will give us a dumping area and I can finally get rid of those bloomin' tables and put them out the back and reclaim the west side with the setting sun and cool breezes on hot summers' nights for a sitting and eating area - which was the original plan.

Musing on that, and seeing this little view from inside the extension is just enough to inspire and motivate us to put other things aside and get on with building!

14 June 2007

Flowers and Chicks

This sort of plant association is an intoxicating "feel good" medicine - I love it! In here there's a mixture of miniature Roses, wild Pansies, Poppies and Deadnettles and a few other seedlings waiting in the wings to come up once the early flowers are past their best.

The veg plot is almost finished, ready to just grow and take care of itself and now I'm going to concentrate on getting in a few more flowers, cut the goats' toenails which are really growing fast, then help Fabrice to do a bit more building work - something which has been a bit neglectd since the weather has been so wet.
We've been waiting for materials and they arrived this morning, so now there's absolutely no excuse!

We've lot of lovely things coming up at the moment. This Clematis is one of my favourites, although I should have attached it better to the chicken shed because it's leaning over towards the light, too close to the path. I don't like fiddling with Clematis too much, I've had a few die on me after I touched the leaves. I must find out why that happens.

We've also got lots of chicks, although the percentage of unfertilised eggs is high. I usually make sure each hen has about a dozen eggs under her once she starts sitting, (We choose the best eggs in our own version of genetic engineering.) but, so far the most we've had is five chicks from a batch.

I went through a "pretty little hen" phase a few years ago and eventually gave them all away because we were overrun with fluffy little things that I didn't want to kill. Still, it would be nice to see how these little things hatched a couple of days ago from Yan's Pocelain Pekin bantam turn out...

George our Brahma cockerel's chicks are about twice the weight of these little things and a real mix of colours, with some almost completely gold and some gold, brown and black like this little fellow.

The bigger chicks seem more curious, and not so scared of us - possibly that comes from the Brahma temperament. George is a really gentle cock and has never shown the slightest signs of aggression, unlike some of the Marans youngsters we've reared over the past few years.

8 June 2007

Couleuvre à collier ( Natrix natrix) Grass snake

At the moment we see snakes almost every day.

Usually they glide off, back to the compost heap, or under the goat shed or into the woods but this one hung around long enough for me to run back to the house and get my camera.

I think I've photographed this snake before. I also think he's (or she's) been around for a while, lives in the big compost heap near the greenhouse and knows our voices.

This is exactly the sort of thing that makes me so excited about living here in France with all this land around us and the freedom to spend all the time I want taking photographs of a snake.

I feel that each day is full of adventure and that we're surrounded by friends.

Here are some photographs of the snakes I've seen here when I've had my camera handy.

A 1.6 metre Green and Yellow grass snake – or Western whip snake - Couleuvre verte et Jaune (Coluber viridiflavus) in the hay - this one gave me a bit of a shock when I walked into the goat shed!

Lovely 1.6m grass snake in the hay

Smaller snake of the same variety in the compost heap

Couleuvre- Grass snake

Large thick-skinned grass snake pecked by our hens, which "played dead" until I took it away from them, then it moved fast out of harm's way.

get a good look at its eyes

Couleuvre or Grass snake - completely harmless and rather lovely once you get over the initial (and completely natural) jitters of seeing a snake. To see this snake larger and get a good look at it's round pupils, click on the photo then click on the magnifying glass above the photo in Flickr.

Couleuvre or Grass snake - completely harmless and rather lovely

We regularly see the chickens attacking snakes, the smaller ones are killed quickly with a peck to the head and the larger ones are pecked to death by a gang of chickens. This little grass snake didn't make it. I've seen our chickens killing vipers and yet none of the chickens has ever been harmed.

Chicken just about to kill a grass snake

Chick with young snake which it killed itself. Later the snake was pulled apart and eaten by a group of about 15 chickens.

Chick with snake

For more information on snakes in France, this Planete Passion site is excellent.

5 June 2007

That fallen tree is finally off the chicken shed roof, the Star Jasmine is in flower and we made a screen to hide the water butts

We had help to move the tree - some surprise visitors turned up who give us a hand. No damage was done and the Star Jasmine is absolutely in it's prime for this photograph - one of my favourites this week.
The walk down to the shed smells amazing, the Honeysuckle is still in flower and this Jasmine is throwing out a perfume which is heavenly.

Chickens weeding, no dig gardeningWe've also been making a new plot behind the chicken shed because I've run out of planting space. We mulched here last year, then again a few weeks ago, and I've planted courgettes and pumpkins and now after the rain the chickens are weeding and cleaning up the bugs from the soil, which has never been dug over.

All I ever do to make a new garden is clear the big roots like brambles and young trees, then I cover the whole area with a thick mulch. If any weeds do make it through the mulch, they're easy to pull up and the annuals weeds die because they don't get light.

Screen made from Chestnut regrowths hiding the water buttsI wanted to break this part of the veg plot up a bit to make the access easier and to make it prettier, so Fabrice helped me to make a screen to hide the water butts, the metal sides of the chicken shed and the compost heap. We started it on Wednesday, but then had an amazing storm with loads of rain, which filled up the three water buts in less than an hour!
So we sheltered in the chicken shed and cleaned out all the nesting boxes and tidied it up. I finished the screen yesterday and planted it up with rooted cuttings and they should cover it in no time.

Shaping a garden with chestnut cut on siteFabrice cut a little step from a tree root, making it easy for us and the dogs to use the path, rather than walking on the spaces between the veg (Soon there won't be any!) and the layout goes with the natural flow of how we use the garden.
I'll have to put up a few more sticks and wool to create a "psychological barrier" encouraging us to use the path, but I'll wait and see where we walk naturally to get from one part of the garden to another, then follow that shape and finally plant a hedge of permanent shrubs which will grow high enough to do the job just before the sticks and wool have rotted.

Here's an update on how the screen's coming along 2 months later. The Potato climber is now taking over - so much so that I might transplant it to somewhere where it can romp away and let the Clematis and Jasmine (the little green plant in the left corner) take over.

Screen almost covered by Potato climber planted 4th June 2007

The steps up to the bottom garden path

Here's another update on the screen in October, with a slideshow from Flickr:

The bottles are filling up with fruit and the garden's filling up with summer Veg

We've been working flat out getting our summer veg in, gathering soft fruit and collecting Girolles while we can.

This is a jar of wild cherries which we've filled over the past two days then covered with Eau de Vie, which is a distilled alcohol we make from figs or any fruit we have enough of, gathered at its peak and stored in a barrel until the man come with his still.

We're still filling the wild strawberries and the raspberry jars, little by little. It's great being able to just plop them straight into the Eau de Vie when we come in with a handful. It's a very easy, and very delicious way of storing fruit and if the jars are stored somewhere cool and dark, they'll last at least a year...well in theory anyway. We serve the fruit with coffee, or as a dessert with cream or use it as a cake filling. It's always delicious and a real treat.

We're under a lot of pressure, because Fabrice's uncle comes out of hospital tomorrow. His health has been deteriorating for the past few years so he has to rely on us, his sister and the nurses who visit twice a day to do everything for him. It's very humbling to think that he was once a big strong man who could cut down a mature tree with an axe in just a few minutes.

So, I've managed to plant out almost all the summer veg and cleaned up the garden ready for planting extra veg to extend the season. All the herbs and soft fruit are doing well and with the rain we've had, there's no need to water except when things have just been planted.
Early June organic vegetables in the potager
We let the chickens free range all over the place, but the price we have to pay for their cleaning and weeding the garden is that we have to work at protecting our newly planted veg with sticks - at least for the first two weeks or so. I re-use the sticks for the second round of planting once everything is growing well.

The chickens don't do a lot of damage really. (Although they do break my heart sometimes.) They grub up and eat a tremendous number of insects and slugs harmful to our plants, and they really throw the earth around and make it a lovely crumbly texture and of course they add their own nitrogen rich droppings as they work, so it's well worth the effort to let them get on with it.

After everything has settled and is growing well, I cover everything with mulch - the dry bedding from the goat shed, and the sticks keep the mulch (complete with goat droppings) away from direct contact with the stems of the plants.

I know you're not supposed to put fresh manure on, but goat droppings are dry and I find that the mulch doesn't heat up and do any damage because it's airy with lots of straw. This system suits us, because we empty the goat shed every year around this time (once the goats start sleeping outside) and it gives us the shed time dry out completely over the summer.

Emptying it now keeps the chickens busy eating the woodlice and other insects they find in all the crevices in the shed and they usually stay away from the newly planted veg until it's strong enough to withstand real life in our potager.

Courgettes are best when they're tiny - too big we give them to the pigs We've been eating lettuce for a few weeks now and had our first courgettes yesterday, the beans are almost in flower and the Borage is perfect for decorating new potato salad made with home made and very yellow, (thanks to the chickens' free ranging) mayonnaise.