Six on Saturday: 27 Feb 2021: action

Wooo-hoooo, it’s almost March! A month that seemed so out of reach in the gloomy depths of January, and the dog days of February. We are the survivors of that long trek to freedom through winter (for me, spring begins on 1st March, at least psychologically). We’ve had stupendously lovely weather in Belgium this week: many sunny days, with Thursday afternoon hitting 19 degrees C, adding to the sense of anticipation. This has propelled me into action, including seriously ODing on gardening on my day off on Wednesday, to the detriment of my non-gardening to-do list and my back. I only wish that we’d finished our winter pruning earlier, as now there’s so much to do.

This leads me on to Six on Saturday, the gardening pick-and-mix where we celebrate or bemoan weekly happenings in our gardens, hosted by the Propagator. PS this week’s photos are all quick snaps on the iphone, as I transition between cameras, apologies for the lack of artistry!

1 Hazel pruning. We have two hazel trees in the garden, giving us valuable privacy from neighbours. These supremely useful sticks will be used to make wigwams for sweet peas, edible peas, beans and morning glory, and maybe even the odd trellis structure if I figure out how – the oracle Youtube may be consulted. It’s been a time-consuming and boring task stripping the side shoots off, but we’re nearly done.

2 Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’. These flowered in time for the first alfresco breakfast of the year on the terrace. I love their intense colours.

3 Mulching. Remember my free supply of wood chips / green trimmings from the farm? I’ve used up the remainder to tidy up the area around the raised veg bed, which was getting weedy and untidy, as this area is impossible to mow. The two-stage process involved firstly laying carboard down (after arduously taking off all the labels and sticky tape), and then covering with a generous layer of mulch. Looks a whole lot better now, phew!

4 Veg bed tidy-up. While I was at the mulching, I decided I could now longer tolerate the mess of decimated chard, slug-munched spinach and feline toilet products that was the veg bed. So out it all came, while the green manure of Phacelia was dug in, and a new protection system against the cats was set up using the hazel rods – inspired by fellow gardening blogger Padraig’s bamboo cane technique. The autumn-sown garlic stayed in.

5 Seed-sowing. This has begun in earnest now, with broad beans, peas ‘Douce de Provence’, parsley and three varieties of tomato all sown. A new batch of sweet peas were sown on Valentine’s Day to replace those destroyed by the freezing weather earlier this month – they were in the unheated mini plastic greenhouse and didn’t make it. This is a pity, as I wanted to do an experiment to see if it really is true that autumn or early winter-sown sweet peas perform better than those sown around this time. Has anyone else tried both?

Sweet peas in the cellar

6 King Edward potatoes. These are being chitted on the window-sill of the cellar. Almost all Belgian houses have cellars, and they are incredibly useful. Stuff can be stowed away in them (nothing sinister mind), citrus consignments from Italy can be stored, and as you see, potatoes can be chitted. Ideal conditions here – cool but light, as the window faces south.

That’s all from me, so have a lovely weekend, thanks for reading and may the weather be with you.

The water gardens of Annevoie

It definitely felt like time to get out of Brussels last weekend. A static and at times dreary winter has taken its toll, and while it’s still not possible to leave the country to travel abroad or back to the motherland, we can move around within Belgium. A firm believer in the saying “a change is as good as a rest”, and with a promising spring-like weather forecast of 17 degrees C and sunshine for Saturday, I knew that the moment had come to pack my picnic.

Annevoie is the country chateau of the Montpellier family, and lies nestled in the hills of the Ardennes, a stone’s throw from the Meuse, one of the great rivers the winds its way through the wooded valleys and rocky escarpments of this part of the country. There is water everywhere even before you reach the gardens, from babbling brooks tumbling down the hillside along the road, to the languorous stretch of river snaking its way along the valley floor. So no surprise then that in 1758 Charles-Alexis de Montpellier decided to make the most of this plentiful resource and channel it, quite literally, into a beautiful water garden.

La Cascade francaise, the first creation of Charles-Alexis Montpellier
Looking back from the top of the cascade.

The garden has a French classical style, with plenty of symmetry and clean lines, but it also incorporates elements of English Romantic landscaping, where the water flows in more naturalistic streams, such as this rocky cascade through a wooded part of the garden.

This section was also beautifully planted up with hundreds of crocuses, a rare carpet of colour that was much enjoyed by the bees. Some snowdrops also hugged the banks of the stream, but for me the crocuses really stole the show.

The photos here can only convey part of the experience, as the sound of water is a major element, from roaring cascades, bubbling brooks, vigorous fountain jets, or quietly meandering streams, and sometimes totally still pools like mirrors, helping to give a different sound and therefore a unique feel and mood to each part of the garden. This was a large part of the magic of the place for me.

The chateau itself appears to levitate above its quiet pool. Do you notice something strange about the façade? It’s actually not quite straight, as it follows a slight curve along the valley. The building is currently undergoing renovation, but thankfully the scaffolding is around the sides and not along the handsome frontage.

Another highlight of the garden for me was the magnificent vegetable garden (for I can not call this a patch), laid out with perfect symmetry and enviable organisation. I like the curved lines of planting, with neat borders of straw, within each quadrant.

Space is not an issue here!

Now a little knowledge quiz for the keen gardeners reading this. Can you guess what this is? I will give you a clue: it is a seed pod of a certain garden plant that has featured heavily in recent garden blogger editions of Six on Saturday (the weekly garden round-up which many of my fellow gardening bloggers participate in).

What am I?

Are you ready? The answer is: a Helleborus niger seed pod. It’s a sculpture by the British artist Anne Curry. It was nice to see a bit of my country after all in this very French-style garden! Below are some more images of the vegetable gardens; just imagine how handy it would be to water the veg from the taps conveniently placed in each quadrant, to examine one’s plants from the tidy slate paths, or to stock the elegant lean-to curved glass house with a collection of exotics. We can but dream! Even the insects have it good here, with a deluxe insect hotel.

Near the vegetable garden is a quieter, more intimate area, where beech has been trained to cover a quiet walkway. A statue of the Roman goddess Minerva is tucked away in a little alcove at the back. Through it all, the Montpellier family rest in their crypt, perhaps continuing to enjoy their garden and its ever-flowing water.

And here is the main reservoir of water that powers all the water features in this garden, the grand canal, 400 metres long. Amazingly, there is no machinery to make things work, everything relies on the differences in level of this hillside location. Water has apparently been flowing naturally here for more than 250 years.

A section of the grand canal, looking like an infinity pool disappearing off the hillside.

So we’ve come to the end of my tour. If you’re passing though Belgium one day, you might like to stop off here to soak up a bit of the watery magic of the Ardennes.

Six on Saturday: 20 Feb 2021

There are multiple reasons to be cheerful this morning: waking up to the sound of bird song, looking out of the window at 7 am to see light already seeping into the sky, getting out into the garden at 8 am when it’s already light enough to take photos for Six on Saturday and looking at the weather forecast to see a continuous list of sunny days. The tide has turned! The tempo is quickening! Gardening is afoot, seeds need to be sowed, there’s lots to do. I’ll be visiting a chateau garden known as ‘the Versailles of Belgium’ that has opened this week for the school holidays, so there’s the added excitement of an outing today. Am writing this speedily before I head out, so let’s get started with Six on Saturday:

1 Wood chippings and green strimmings. Very lucky to have a free supply of these provided by our local urban farm. I’ve filled 8 compost-bags and am using them to line the chicken run paths, and to mulch around the compost area and the veg patch. Here I am shovelling away earlier this week.

The chicken run path, newly mulched

2 Casualties. The big freeze we had recently, when night-time temperatures dropped to -11 degrees C, has inevitably resulted in a few plant victims, though not as many as I had feared. I think this pot of cyclamen on the terrace table has bitten the dust. Then again, I do see a couple of upright new shoots, so perhaps I should give it a chance before chucking it on the compost.

Cyclamen in distress

3 Survivors. This Fatsia japonica, hardy to -10 degrees, was one of the plants that I didn’t want to risk losing, so it got molly-coddled with a nice fleece wrap during the cold spell, and looks absolutely fine. The sage in little tubs was also protected, but I’m not yet sure if my ornamental salvias made it (they got covered in old leaves and fern fronds). What about the little Agapanthus, given to me as a baby plant last summer? I think it’s tougher than it looks right now. Fingers crossed…

4 First primrose. I have a little collection of self-seeded primroses in a bit of lawn near the front door. We are planning to remove this lawn area to make room for a mini-gravel patio and a gravel path leading round to the back of the house. Work is due to start at the beginning of March, so I’m going to have to dig as many primroses up as possible and rehouse them. Soon!

5 Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’. Unusually-coloured foliage with red tips, looking ready to get going along the shadier side of the front path. There are wallflowers behind it in bright orangey shades, so I hope this will make a nice combo in the spring.

6 Trapaeolum tuberosum: a tuberous meal. In the pot is the first shoot of edible nasturtium. I bought three tubers earlier this year, and was surprised to see that this one has decided to sprout already. By this autumn, I might be able to harvest the tubers and eat them in a meal like this, made for a mid-week supper with tubers from the local market. Adds an interesting sweet almond flavour to roast vegetables. You can also eat Dahlia tubers, but I’m not sure how tasty they are: it might be better just to enjoy the flowers!

That’s all for this week. I’ll be back later in the day after my sortie to the Belgian Versailles to check out the other contributions from Six on Saturday regulars, who can be found at our host The Propagator’s site. Have a great weekend everyone, thanks for reading!

Six on Saturday: 13 Feb 2021: whitewash

Many of us in the Northern hemisphere have had a snowy, cold interlude, thanks to a Siberian weather front, and whether or not you have enjoyed this probably depends on how many half-hardy plants you have in the garden! In my case, the wonderful bright light, blue skies and glimmer of frozen lakes has lifted my spirits. A change is as good as a rest, especially during these monotonous Covid days. As for the plants, well we’ll find out which have made it through soon enough. Onto Six on Saturday, the weekly garden round-up…

1 White, white, everywhere. Obligatory photos of the snow-clad garden taken earlier this week, before the sun came out and before snowball fights made a mess. I wonder if the chard in the veg patch will still be edible after the thaw. On the terrace, fleece has been deployed to help out the sage, and a Fatsia japonica, hardy to minus 10 degrees C. We got down to minus 11 one night, so it’s touch and go.

2 Crocus. Remember last week’s hopeful flowers? Well, they’re still here…tough plants.

3 Sedum with a bobble. Just for fun, and to show that sedum is a plant that looks good all year round.

4 Chilli seedlings. For those curious as to how my LED plant lights are working out, take a look at these straight chilli seedlings. I’ve had a great germination rate on the Thai Dragon (5/6), not bad on the Biquinho (4/6) and zero on my experiment using seeds from a shop-bought green pepper.

5 Dahlia splurge. A visit to the garden centre to get some seed compost and a packet of seeds resulted in the purchase of nine new Dahlia tubers, three each of Chat Noir, Bora Bora and Antibes. The tropics await me!

6 Robin. The ultimate cute winter bird. He was photographed on a walk in a nearby nature reserve, but as this is the best photo I’ve got of a robin so far, he deserves an inclusion here. Forgive me for breaking the rules.

That’s it for this week, let’s see what other gardeners have been up to around the globe on The Propagator’s site. Have a lovely weekend everyone.

Birds in the Big Freeze

The large lake at the medieval priory of Rouge Cloitre has completely frozen over, as temperatures here have plummeted to -10 degrees C, and so I take an early morning walk, imagining what it’s like to live in Siberia. As I take the photo, my hands already start to tingle with the cold; too long framing the shot and they start hurting. But what about the birds who live by the lake, like the blue heron who you might be able to spot in these photos? How are they coping with the cold?

Here, the heron finds a sunny vantage point, though there’s not much fishing to be had.

Well, I think life is tough right now for our feathered friends. Take a look at these little black balls with a dusting of frost. These are poor little coots, all huddled together in a small patch of water, heads tucked deeply in, together with a couple of Egyptian geese. Brrrr…

I have never seen so many ducks gathered by one small puddle of water.

As I was wandering around, I passed a man walking his dog, who greeted me and remarked how the place had become féerique, which means fairy-like, or magical, in French. It was indeed quite special, something I could appreciate when I wasn’t slipping all over the icy path (they don’t treat the paths in this reserve).

Slipping off this path would mean sliding down the steep bank and onto the solid surface of the lake. Ice skating, anyone?

The birds out of the water looked somewhat more comfortable, like this cormorant looking out onto the lake from a treetop.

The robin had puffed out his feathers, and was staying in the sun.

At the priory, the central heating was on, and at the stables a dung heap was steaming away. Warmth! Nobody was sitting out on the benches though. Cold! I was starting to feel it, and at a brisk pace, made my way back, wondering how cold the birds must feel.

On the boardwalk

“Under the boardwalk”, as the song goes. But can you spot anyone on the boardwalk?

It’s an Egyptian Goose, perhaps a little surprised – it could be the visual effect of the brown circle around his eyes, or it could be genuine astonishment at the snow, of which there is very little in Egypt! Egyptian Geese are two a penny here – we have got used to them, and apparently they have got used to the weather.

Then we came across another exotic visitor, which I have seen along the banks of the Nile, but never before in Belgium. It’s an egret. What’s the difference between a heron and an egret? Nobody is sure, it seems. The name egret comes from the French Aigrette, which means ‘silver heron’ and also ‘brush’. Though snowy white rather than silver is more accurate.

Their feathers were highly prized by European and American hat-makers in the 19th century, which sadly meant these beautiful birds were killed in large numbers. Senselessly cruel as this seems, we still kill animals for fashion – the Covid-19 outbreaks in mink farms in the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere recently highlighted the scale of mink farming in Europe. This article from Politico makes a solid case for banning mink farming in Europe, and I can’t imagine why that hasn’t happened yet.

A world away from such horrors, the snow draped everything with a gentle frosty coating.

Everything was quiet and still. Even the ducks dived quietly, and the Canada goose (more used to snow, this one) glided gently away.

The medieval priory of Rouge Cloitre in the background. Lakes were stocked with fish for the monks.

Belgian Garden Birdwatch: 06-07 Feb 2021

While we wait with great anticipation for spring, the birds seem to be a step ahead, and are singing away as if they can already feel the soft rays of sunshine and the surge of new growth. These photos were taken before today’s snow. I did try to take some snowy pics but they turned out grainy – too much noise due to a high ISO to make up for poor light. Still got a lot to learn.

This weekend is Belgium’s annual garden birdwatch, which we have participated in for a few years now. Organised by the wildlife charity Natagora, anyone in Belgium can take part: there’s more info on their website. Here are a few of our regular avian visitors:

1 Blue tits: little colonies scamper energetically around the feeders, flitting in and out at great speed. Catching them on camera can be tricky!

Blue tit
Blue tit

2 Robin: as lovely for the red breast (or orange breast really?) as for his piercing and melodic song. These fellows have a reputation for aggressively guarding their territory.

Robin

3 Starling: hanging around in boistrous, noisy groups of four to six, these remind me of a pack of adolescent youths, sauntering around like they own the place, yet awkward and definitely spotty too. We have a pair that usually nest in the eves.

Starling

4 Blackbird: the female here looks a bit like a song thrush, but has more indistinct spots on the breast. There are a couple of males around too, possibly vying for her attention, though in this photo she doesn’t look too happy about it. It’s good to see them around, given that their numbers were in serious decline due to the Usutu virus.

Female blackbird

5 Wood pigeon: their cooing in the trees around here is a frequent and soothing background sound. I think they have a lovely plummage.

Wood pigeon

6 Rose-ringed parakeet: they are back and up to their usual tricks! Looks like this one dropped his sunflower seed in the water. The legend goes that a zoo-keeper in Brussels set them free to make this sometimes grey city more colourful. They have bred very successfully, and there are several garrulous flocks of them around the place. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are responsible for eating the buds on my apple tree.

Parakeet

7 Greater spotted Woodpecker. A tap-tap-tapping usually alerts me to his presence up in the mature trees that overhang the garden. It’s always a real treat to see him.

Apart from the above, we had flocks of chaffinches, greenfinches and a dunnock today. All in all, a good year for birds, with higher numbers than the previous two.

Six on Saturday: 06 Feb 2021: Optimism

The weather is see-sawing between some truly optimistic, sunny, mild days and wintry, cold, misty days, confusing for all of us, but I think we get the sense that we’re heading in the right direction now, and gardening beckons! I’m going to ignore the forecast for temperature drops to -9 for next week (yikes, got to save my Salvias!). So here are six interesting things from the garden, my contribution to Six on Saturday, hosted by The Propagator and followed by many an avid gardener.

1 Sunbathing. I’ll stat this week’s Six on Saturday with a delightfully warm moment on Thursday, when I got a chair out onto the terrace between lessons and basked in the sun with a ladybird. That was the most lovely half hour of my week.

2 Crocus. I should have taken photos of these in the sun. I like the purple flush to white one, growing along the front path.

3 Rhododendron ‘Horizon monarch’ buds. There are three rhododendrons in the garden, and this is the only one I planted myself, along the shadier side of the front path. These buds hold so much promise, and I like the yellow tinge on the petioles and veins.

4 Rose hips. More from the front path. A few of these are still plump and ruddy, while many others have succumbed to the inevitable.

5 Green manure. Every year, I try a different technique to overwinter the sections of the raised veg bed that are not in use. Last year, I used cardboard. This year, it’s Phacelia tanacetifolia, a green manure. Such fresh, lovely lacey foliage that it seems a shame to have to dig it in. It’s a pretty plant in flower too, I grew it for its blue flowers along the front path last summer. Incredibly popular with the bees.

6 Narcissus ‘Paperwhite’. This has exploded into flower now, and what a pretty sight and an intoxicating perfume! I think I might have to grow the bulbs indoors every year, I have fallen in love…

So, regretfully that’s it for this week, there are many photos I haven’t included of new growth and sunny spells, but am going to be disciplined and stick to six. If an extra photo finds its way in, it’s clearly a glitch. Have a lovely weekend everyone!

A sunny spell, highlighting the hazel in full catkins down the hill.