About Sel Calderbank

I'm a journalist, English teacher and gardener in Brussels, Belgium. I love gardening and writing about my garden, so I hope you enjoy reading my blog and sharing your gardening moments and photos too.

Six on Saturday: 05 Dec 2020

Nipped out into the garden on Friday afternoon to take some photos, nearly froze my hands off, there was a very lively, bone-chilling easterly blowing. This could be the one that finally strips bare the Lime trees, adding the final valuable consignment to the leaf mould pile. The sky was wiped clean to reveal a raw, stunning blue.

Looking down towards the forest from the back patio on Friday afternoon

In keeping with this winter season of reckoning and contemplation, I’ll be taking a broader view with my Six on Saturday, looking ahead to next year, and mulling over a few changes.

1 Leaf Mould. Next year’s potting mix and mulch, I hope. Being more organised about it this year. The pile is looking respectable, and am even keeping it damp. Still got some clearing up to do, as you can see.

Looking up from the back patio, these Lime leaves will bulk up the leaf mould.

2 Compost. Every gardener’s biggest investment in the future, I think. I turned the pile, and am happy with this dark, crumbly result. Good compost is a beautiful thing. When you compost, you are participating in the life cycle of the garden. Am also very happy with the recycled crates, free from the garden centre, and assembled by hubby, which almost make a feature out of this area under the old apple tree.

3 Veg patch pathways. The main raised bed will be going into its third year of production next spring. A lot of things have congregated around it, pots of strawberries, a new apple tree, some herbs, a blackcurrant, and a raspberry bush or two. So I need to get some decent pathways around this area. Landscaping fabric and woodchips over the top might do it, what do you think? Or will the slugs make it their abode?

The veg patch

4 The neighbour’s shed. I call this colour Highlighter Orange, I imagine it might look good under the sun somewhere like Buenos Aires, but it’s not a colour for our Northern European light. As the large Forsythia drops its leaves, we see more and more of it. The dilemma is, how can I screen it without entirely cutting off this point of contact with my neighbour? We occasionally chat over the gap, and I have handed over my chickens (sadly not with us these days) to do slug clearance in her garden. Seeds, veg, plants and even honey (see her beehive on the roof?) get swapped this way too. In front is the new border, waiting to spring into life.

5 Time to remove the Japanese Quince. I have always been underwhelmed by this Chaenomeles japonica, currently in flower against the back wall. This is very warm and sheltered spot, south facing, under the trees just the other side of the wall, but not too shaded by them. I was thinking a fig tree trained against the wall could work well, though it would have to do battle with the climbers (Clematis armandii, Trumpet Vine and the Rambling Rose ‘Alberic Barbier’).

Close up of the Quince, admittedly it looks better from this angle
The overall effect, a bit wishy-washy I think
Just above the Quince, Clematis armandii ‘Apple Blossom’ is thriving

6 The Christmas Tree. So pleased it made it for a year in its pot and is looking decent. A bit scruffy in places, but nothing that can’t be hidden with some strategically placed decorations. It’s been cleaned, combed and brought up onto the patio by the back door, and it will have a brief sojourn inside over Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas, I hope everyone is staying calm in the face of it. Here in Belgium, there is little sentimentality. If you want to meet up over the festive season, you are allowed one guest from outside your household, or a maximum of four people in the garden (if this can be reached without going into the house). One of those four people is allowed to use the toilet in the house. This country is well know for its surrealism (see Magritte’s painting: Ceci n’est pas une pipe, etc.). How to negotiate who gets to use the toilet? I suppose if the other three garden guests are desperate, there’s always the compost heap!

Looking forward to seeing other gardeners’ gardens on the Propagator’s Six on Saturday page. Till next time.

Picasso’s Tree

So named because if you can spot the face on this tree, you will find only one eye, a misshapen nose and a turned down mouth. Can you see him? It’s hard to believe that some kids haven’t been carving shapes out with a knife, but I think it’s natural. The light is a bit gloomy, as this was taken just as the sun was going down in the forest this afternoon, but I think it suits the general gloominess of the expression and perhaps the general mood at this time of year, this year in particular.

It was good to get out on my bike, as I’d spent the morning doing tedious admin tasks, and the early afternoon coaching a very tired, run-down student. As usual, the forest was a great tonic, and shared with just a few hurried dog walkers and the odd dedicated jogger. I cycled up Dreve de Bonne Odeur (though I have never smelt anything in particular on this path other than the general foresty leafy odours). Another thing that stood out in the gloom was the silver birch trunks of these young trees, which contrast well I thought with the dark beech and the colours of the undergrowth. I haven’t got the kind of definition I would like on this image, but there are some good bands of colour.

Six on Saturday: 28 Nov 2020

I haven’t done much gardening this week, despite having had some lovely sunny days. There are still a few jobs to do, but there’s no sense of urgency now that the bulbs have all been planted, and I haven’t felt the urge to prune anything! I have been out taking photos though, and teaching myself a bit more about that. I may be getting a tripod for Christmas, and a book about digital photography, that might help.

Here are my Six on Saturday featuring wildlife, exotic and native, and a few plants of course. Join the tribe over at The Propagator’s blog to take part or just have a look.

1 Ring-necked Parakeets. Our exotic visitors are back. I have mixed feelings. They definitely add a splash of colour. However, they tend to hog the feeders, so that the little birds that come – tits, sparrows, finches, the robin – have to wait until they’ve gone. They are also very noisy and hang around in groups. Most importantly, they are a threat to indigenous birds, because they take over nesting and resting places. Back in 2014, there were 12,000 in Brussels. I imagine there are a lot more today. I will have to shoo them off.

2 Smaller native birds. This is more like it. Lots of blue tits and coal tits around, eating from the feeders and also nibbling some berries in the Viburnum bush. The bird bath is at their disposal in the glade, which is actually looking relatively pretty at this time of year.

3 Fern and Heuchera. Onto some plants. Most of the colour is fading out of the garden, but I quite like this toned-down combination of dying Ostrich fern leaf and resting Heuchera ‘Indian Summer Cranberry’. Both cope admirably with the dry conditions caused by the roots of the big trees nearby. I have another Heuchera, ‘Caramel’, in a pot, which would be nice planted out here.

4 Hakonechloa ‘All Gold’. I can never remember the name of this little tussocky grass, I had to look it up again. How on earth to pronounce it? It’s looking scruffy right now but I like the warm yellow colour and can’t get enough of it in my east-facing border, it brightens it up after the sun has gone. I want it to grow fast so I can divide it and add more in.

5 Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’. Still my favourite grass, with the seed heads now looking very fluffy. I only have one in a pot, I think I’ll have to divide this one too.

6 Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’. We haven’t had any proper frosts yet, but this Fatsia is nonetheless sporting a dapper ‘frosted look’. It’s in one of the Italian pots on the decking/terrace.

That’s it for this week, I hope we will all continue to find inspiration in our gardens and around us in nature to carry on blogging (or just carry on!). I intend to head out to the lakes at the edge of the forest with my camera to see what I can do.

The heron at Red Cloister

Red Cloister (Rouge Cloitre, Rood-Klooster), an Augustinian Priory founded in the Middle Ages, lies on the edge of the Sonian forest and the south-easterly neighbourhoods of Brussels. Founded in 1367, it was apparently one of the most prestigious in the Spanish Netherlands, and among other notables the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V stayed here. More importantly for my purposes, the lakes all around are full of fish and waterfowl, and today in the sparkling sunshine the Great Blue Heron was out, patiently stalking his prey in the reeds edging one of the lakes.

The combination of sunshine, water and a light breeze made everything feel very alive, in a way you don’t expect of the last week of November. New life is already in the making, as the tree buds reveal, highlighted against the water in the image below.

The sounds of the reeds and grasses rustling in the wind is very soothing, despite the background buzz of the nearby motorway. Is one ever very far from a road these days?

The heron was successful in his fishing expedition, and I watched him gobble up his snack (or did he watch me watching him?). Sadly this gastronomic moment was not caught on camera, as my battery had died by then. There’s always next time though…

Six on Saturday: 21 Nov 2020

This post is dedicated to the productive side of things, with a veg patch and mini greenhouse overview, plus a bulb planting fiasco. I have thrown in some violas and pansies for the prettiness factor. The unavoidable reality at this time of year is that a lot of the pretty stuff is found outside my garden, in the forest, where the beech is putting on quite a show, and along the lakes and ponds nearby. Favourite pic of the week is this Great Blue Heron, who lives in the grounds of a castle in ruins, and was leisurely grooming himself by a pond. Quite romantic!

So onto my Six on Saturday, joining other gardeners posting the goings-on in their gardens thanks to a theme hosted by The Propagator. Visit his page for some November inspiration.

1 Egyptian Beetroot. Sown in August, leaves somewhat nibbled now but I should pick some for salads while they are still young. They are extremely good for one’s health.

2 Rainbow Chard. One of my favourite winter veg, both for taste and for those colourful stems. I agree with veg gardener and plantswoman Joy Larkom: the veg patch can, should and sometimes does look good, with a bit of imagination. I love her book, Creative Vegetable Gardening.

Chard, and a few Borage seedlings

3 Spinach. The final trio of my outdoor winter leaves, along with the chard and beetroot, and looking healthier than my summer crop, though nibbled (there is more than one patch of spinach, but I admit this is small-scale veg growing!). To the left is my green manure, Phacelia, and at the back the garlic lurks underground. Mousty the cat photo-bombed this shot, but serves to prove that my cat-proofing installation works!

4 Greenhouse salads. We’ve got rocket, parsley and winter purslane, and the oriental salad leaves sown last month are coming along, slowly. There’s also some mustard that had self-sown outdoors, so I scooped that up and brought it in here, hoping for the best. It’s a tad reluctant to grow. The rocket here is has already been harvested several times.

5 Bulbs. Bit of a disaster here. I’d been storing my tulip bulbs from a Dutch supplier in the shed for about a month, and on opening the packs, realised many had gone a bit fungal and had to be binned. A pity. I took my chances with those that still looked OK, and planted in the ground or in pots (varieties: Aladdin, Dillenburg, Barcelona, Uncle Tom, and a botanical tulip, Tulipa clusiana ‘Peppermint Stick’). Luckily the Alliums, purchased elsewhere, were fine, along with some Dutch Iris and the botanical tulip.

6 Pansies and violas. I promised something pretty, here we are. I have loved pansies and violas ever since my mother grew them along the driveway of my childhood home in Kent, and so this seems like an appropriate one to end on for The Nostalgic Gardener.

PS Perhaps even prettier are the beech leaves in the forest which I admit is not in my garden but feels very much part of it (cheating I know, but I’ll call it a borrowed landscape).

Swan Lake

Well, more accurately Swan Pond, but they wouldn’t name a ballet like that, would they? This is the same pond as the Heron’s Domain, but the heron was out fishing elsewhere, so instead I spent some time watching this juvenile swan feeding in the water. He (she?) is usually asleep by the edge, head tucked in nice and snug, or just sitting quietly watching.

The heron and his domain

Grooming time

Whilst this is by no means a perfect shot (with an old Nikon S9900 digital camera), I like the framing and those steely blue-grey feathers, and the snake-lie markings on the underside of his neck. This heron is always to be found by the lake in the Tournay-Solvay park, adjoining the Sonian forest and just below a romantic chateau, contrustruced by Alfred Solvay in 1878 (the Solvays are a famous Belgian family who made their fortune as industrialists and founded the Solvay chemical company). It is in the Flemish neo-renaissance style popular at the time, but has since been ravaged by fire and has fallen into ruin.

The former manor house of the Solvays

There’s a lot of wonderful wildlife in this area, a truly stunning potager (classical French-style vegetable garden), an orchard, an unusual rose garden and some sculptures in the parkland, so I’ll be posting some more about this place.

In the forest on a Monday

The Sonian forest, south of Brussels, is Europe’s largest beech forest, and includes the remains of the ancient Silva Carbonaria or Charcoal Forest. Over the centuries, it has played many roles: hunting ground of the Hapsburg nobility, timber supply yard for Napoleon Bonaparte’s shipbuilding efforts as part of a planned invasion of England (he apparently felled 22,000 oak trees for that), retreat for monks and nuns whose chapels and monasteries still stand lonely among the trees, and once home to wolves and neolithic man. Today, it is protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

Sadly, there was no way my phone camera was going to catch the shades of russet, copper and tumeric of the last remaining leaves. Instead, I did get up close to some fungi, here on a fallen silver birch trunk (there are a few among the towering beeches).

Further along, I came across some more weird and wonderful fungi, this time on an upright but dead beech, marked for felling by the forestry workers.

The image above reminded me very much of a Smurf’s hat, appropriate for Belgium, where the surreal blue comic book characters were invented. They are called ‘Les Schtroumpfs’ in French. I can easily imagine them schtroumpfing around the forest when nobody is looking.

Today’s outing has made me once again crave a proper camera to better capture this ancient forest that I am lucky enough to have almost on my doorstep. With all this fungi around, I must also get hold of the recently published book ‘Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures’ by Merlin Sheldrake. Sounds interesting!

Six on Saturday: 14 Nov 2020

Feels like it’s been a long week, am probably getting lock-down fatigue. Work has been slow, with a lot of student cancellations this week, my son is still not back at school after the half term break, to be honest even the cat is getting on my nerves, following me around from room to room and being ever present. I have managed to do a few productive, redeeming things, including getting my Christmas cards printed, using a sketch I made of a robin last week, and I’ve been taking out my frustration on the new bed, which now is almost ready for the bulb planting stage. Better get on with that while the weather is still mild!

Here are my 6 highlights this week. Thanks to The Propagator for hosting, check out his site for more contributions!

1 Helleborus Argutifolius. The Corsican hellebore has just opened its first apple-green flowers, although we’re still a long way from January, when it’s supposed to flower. I think this is a trend a lot of gardeners are seeing this year – things are flowering on into autumn for longer, and the winter performers are turning up surprisingly early. I do like this hellebore, with its healthy, interesting foliage all year round, and its ability to thrive in tough conditions without complaint.

The Hellebore in the glade, with Fuchsia magellanica, Geranium, Viburnum and a Japanese Quince against the wall, plus some shouldn’t-be-there Trumpet Vine suckers.

2 Shasta Daisies. Who would have thought it, fresh as a daisy in mid-November? They are flopping about languidly along my front path, and some are a bit ragged, but they seem keen to keep on going. I did remember to deadhead them this year, so that might have helped.

Leucanthemum still quite perky, with Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Edge’
Scruffy yet enthusiastic Shasta daisies

3 Rose Hips. These need a perfectly bright blue sky to look their best, and luckily that’s just what we had one bright mid-week morning. I haven’t collected them to make cough syrup, as a couple of readers suggested, because they are too pretty to take down. I did get some very strange looks from my neighbour as I was trying to photograph them (not very successfully, I kept getting entangled in the bramble under the rose).

4 Copper and silver/white. We have a lot of beech around the place – a beech hedge along one end of the garden, a neighbour has a beech tree, and there’s an entire forest of beech at the bottom of the hill. Hence I have a ready-made copper mulch, and this makes a pleasing contrast with silvery foliage plants at this time of year. Here we have Carex ‘Everest’ and Pulmonaria, along the front path, and Cyclamen hederifolium in the back garden glade. It would be nice to add some Cyclamen coum here along the front path to pop up between the tussocks.

5 More leaves. Leaf clearance in this essentially woodland garden is a regular and at times seemingly thankless task. Nonetheless, it can also be quite zen, and I spent a pleasant hour raking the lawn one grey yet mild afternoon, while I set my still-not-back-at-school-son to clearing the terrace/decking area. This meant that for about ten minutes, things looked remarkably neat! There’s also some satisfaction in thinking of the leaves as a harvest, in the form of lead mold, which I have got serious about this year, with a new and improved leaf mold collection space at the bottom of the garden. There will be plenty more leaves to go in; as you can see from the photo, the Lime trees have yet to shed, yikes.

Tidy, for a moment!

6 Hosta. This is the last I’ll be seeing of my hostas for this year. They are all in pots now, as I see no point in putting them out in the ground as slug food. Here is one with a bronze Carex. The ornate Italian terracotta pot is a present from my hubbie. I hope nothing has to be taken out, as its got a wide belly and narrow top, but practicality aside, it’s nice to have a good pot or two on the terrace.

Oh, and a bonus number, here’s the robin sketch that will feature on my Christmas cards this year…