Storm damage

More torrential rain in Belgium with further flooding in places, more upturned cars (a phone typo had this as ‘upturned cats’, as far as I know this isn’t a phenomenon but you never know) and muddy streets. Hope those climate talks are going well. A particularly heavy shower today brought down a heavy dahlia stem, so in they came!

The sea urchin is Dahlia ‘Bora bora’, and there’s also Dahlia ‘Antibes’ and scented pelargonium leaves. Sometimes I am reluctant to cut perfectly good flowers for a vase, but in this case the weather decided for me.

Summer days: butterflies, blight and Banksy

Guide to common butterflies in Belgium

Things are rarely entirely good or entirely bad, and so it is with summer in Belgium this year. On the bad side, we had the terrible weather and the terrible flooding in parts of the country. The clean-up is going to be long and expensive. Plus, we still have the confusion and uncertainty over how and when we can get to the motherland for our longed-for visit to see friends and family, and just imbibe our culture for a while. I want fish and chips, and a dip in the channel, and a lazy Sunday morning with the papers.

A Red Admiral on Buddleia

The garden brings its share of good and bad too. The sad news here is that, perhaps unsurprisingly given the unprecedented wet and humidity of previous weeks, blight has struck. I’ve got to this point in my gardening life without ever having had to lose a tomato plant to this fungal disease which can devastate entire countries, as happened during the Irish potato famine. So it was with a heavy heart that I pulled out several plants and binned them before the problem got any worse. I also had to harvest all the potatoes rather too early, they were also affected. I’ve left the tomatoes with the best-developed fruits, removing most of the leaves, to see if they can ripen nice and quickly. Has anyone dealt with Blight successfully? Am I doing the right thing? Advice appreciated.

Tomatoes ripening

Good news in the garden includes:

A frog has moved into our new pond (bad news: the cat has discovered this and has to be repeated chased off with the hose…grrrrr).

The great tit family has successfully reared its young and they have fledged the nest. The youngsters are hanging around the garden excitedly chirping as their parents teach them how to survive in the big, bad world (bad news: the cat is harassing them, grrrrr).

Butterfly counting has commenced. A local charity is asking members to identify and count those that visit their gardens. They have sent a helpful identification guide which I’ve pinned to the fridge (bad news: French common names for butterflies are nothing like the English ones. Good news: my French vocabulary is expanding into yet another new area).

A Red Admiral

It’s good to see Red Admiral (French: Vulcain) and Peacock (French: Paon du jour) visiting the Buddleia davidii ‘Black night’ that I planted specifically to attract butterflies.

Peacock butterfly and a Red Admiral feeding

The cabbage whites (French: Piéride du Chou – at least that’s easy, as chou is cabbage) are also here, quite a lot of those. They are particularly enjoying the lavender and oregano, and also like the flowering privet. Luckily I don’t grow cabbages.

A Cabbage White butterfly feeds on oregano

As well as a month for butterflies, July is also the month of the sales in the shops. My son and I have been fully inoculated against these after visiting a Banksy exhibition in Brussels recently. One of the key messages of the British street artist is that worshipping at the altar of consumer capitalism is going to get us into an awful lot of trouble. A better occupation might be to count the butterflies.

A work by Banksy

Here’s to flower power.

A work by Banksy: one of his most iconic images

Finally, here’s a little slideshow of what’s flowering well this month in the garden.

Are you also counting butterflies in your garden or out in the countryside? Have you noticed numbers going up or down, or fewer types than before?

Saving the Planet One Pond at a Time

I’ve wanted a pond in the garden for a while now, and after a quick afternoon’s digging in the rain-softened clay with assistance from my son, who likes to dig, we now have one. It’s small, very small, but at 2m by 1m it just about officially qualifies as a pond. It’s located in the east-facing border which skirts the side of our house, and is I hope far enough from the big mature trees along the back wall to avoid the worst of the leaf fall.

It was easy to create, and free! We just used what we had to hand – large compost bags cut into sheets, four of them layered one over the other over the hole we dug, to give added strength. It doesn’t have to last forever, this is just an experiment. We’ve had a wet week and so plenty of rainwater was available to fill the pond.

If you feel you don’t need a pond in your garden, just read this book by bumblebee expert and scientist Dave Goulson (big thanks to Gill at Off the Edge Gardening for the recommendation), and prepare to have your mind changed. His chapter on ponds in this engaging and interesting exploration of garden wildlife explains how garden ponds have come to replace rural ones as a refuge for wildlife. In the U.K., 70% of rural ponds have been lost since 1890, and the majority of those that remain are polluted by a nasty blend of pesticides and herbicides from agricultural run-off, or by salty run-off from roads. It’s likely to be the same story in other parts of the world. How sad. So although garden ponds are small, or minuscule in our case, there are lots of them, and so they provide a network of vital habitats for wildlife. Gardeners are saving the planet, once again!

Next up, a trip to the garden centre for some aquatic plants, oh yes, the best bit, new plants to get to know. Here we had to part with a bit of cash but not much: the pond is small, after all.

We bought: a white dwarf water lily (Nymphaea pygmaea ‘Alba’), flag iris (Iris pseudacorus), hedge hyssop (Gratiola officinalis) and creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) to line the edge. Apart from the water lily, the plants are European natives so they should be to the liking of the local wildlife.

The first mosquito has already paid a visit, not so sure that’s a good sign but everything is balance, or at least food for frogs who I hope will visit this cosy new abode. Do you have a pond? Any advice on maintaining it to keep it healthy? And what’s your favourite pond creature?

Les bonnes nouvelles (good news)

Some scenes from an afternoon bike ride through forest and orchard, and a pit stop at my favourite local café, where good news was on offer.

The forest was lush and green
Long grass in the orchard
Wildflowers aplenty: clover and buttercups here
A favourite café in the neighbourhood

A list of good news from around the world was displayed on the board on the pavement outside the café, including:

  • Mexico has banned glyphosate (a broad-spectrum herbicide, used in weed killers) and GM corn.
  • Kazakhstan has abolished the death penalty.
  • Electric fishing is banned in Europe.
  • Herrings communicate through passing gas (good news? Or just funny?)
  • A European law has just been passed against the obsolescence of smart phones and washing machines, which should now have a repairability rating.
  • In the state of Virginia, in the US, capital punishment has been abolished. It is the first southern state in the US to do so.
  • Species previously thought extinct are reappearing, including a species of turtle, wild dog and frog.

It’s a lefty, liberal, environmentally friendly kind of neighbourhood, and I love it for that. I haven’t fact-checked the items on the good news list, but it certainly added an extra touch of sweetness to my latte and crepe with lemon and sugar.

Belgium’s most famous bluebells

This morning I was in Hallerbos (Dutch for Halle Forest), a stretch of woodland in Flemish Brabant, just half an hour’s drive from Brussels. It’s famed for its carpet of blue at this time of year: it’s not just England that can boast this beautiful spring phenomenon!

Bluebells are often an indicator of very old woodland, and Hallerbos is a remnant of the ancient charcoal forest that once covered vast swathes of Europe, now scattered and dissected by roads and settlements, and of course greatly reduced from its original size. Hallerbos also suffered the misfortune of being razed by German forces during world war one, but was replanted, mainly with tall, stately beech, between 1930-1950.

Now in the interests of honesty, I will tell you that this lovely forest has a major downside. There’s a great big roaring motorway running right alongside, audible above the birdsong even when you venture deep inside. I notice that people tend not to mention this in their Facebook posts. I suppose it’s a reminder that true wilderness is getter harder and harder to find.

Whisperings of war among the marsh daffodils

A prisoner at the camp of Bôsfagne

Where once RAF pilots were shot out of the sky by enemy fire, and Russian prisoners of war awaited their fate in a harsh wilderness, now a patch of naturalised daffodils grows. I’m in the high fens of eastern Belgium, or Ostbelgien, right up against the border with Germany, an atmospheric, wild place, borderland country which once belonged to Prussia, became Belgian after the first world war, only to find itself occupied and its inhabitants forced to fight in the German army in the second world war.

We came here for a much-needed change of scene, to walk in the wooded hills, and to visit Belgium’s largest nature reserve, a remarkable upland plateau of marshland and sphagnum peatbogs, barren, cold, but beautiful, where streams the colour of whisky gurgle through the swampy tussocky marshes and birds of prey hang eerily in the thermals, awaiting the moment to strike.

Boardwalks protect the park and prevent the visitor from sinking into the swamp!
A typical view of the upland plateau

German influences can be seen and felt everywhere in these parts, even though the region is now largely French-speaking. Despite that, Belgium’s German-speaking minority are officially recognised with their own parliament, and German is one of the three official languages of the country. In the village of Sourbroedt (Sour Bread?) a disused train station where those unfortunate Russian prisoners of war disembarked, has an unmistakably Germanic air.

Sourbroedt Station

The rusty trucks parked up on the rails reminded me of the troublesome trucks from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, and an old signal tour marked the beginning of our walk.

The landscape of wooded hills and small fields gives way to sparse moorland, which like other moors I have visited (Dartmoor and Exmoor in England), has an eerie air to it, a sense of secrets buried in the swamps. It’s also very cold, with patches of snow still on the ground, and the weather is wildly unpredictable: we set off in gentle sunshine, but made it back to our car just as a lively snowstorm was getting underway. This is Belgium’s highest point, where the moist winds coming off the North Sea meet their first major land obstacle, and so it’s often cold, snowy or damp.

Near the highest point of the Hautes Fagnes (High Fens) national park
Here fields give way to the dun-coloured marshes

So it was surprising in the midst of this melancholic landscape to suddenly stumble upon a cheerful cluster of daffodils growing right out of the marshy land. I cannot imagine who planted them, or why, but they have since multiplied and spread, unshackled and free to do as they please.

Not much further on, a striking contrast: the old site of a prisoner of war camp, known as Bôsfagne. Erected in March 1943, it held a group of Russians who had been brought to Sourbroedt by train from the eastern front, and put to work in the fens, cutting wood, clearing snow, working the fields and so on. Not a trace remains of the camp itself, except perhaps a whisper, and a cross in the Russian Orthodox style, which marks the spot. I found the old photographs of the prisoners, displayed on a modest board nearby, haunting.

Life at the prison camp
A cross marks the spot

As the war drew to its conclusion, allied troops approached this part of eastern Belgium, and the prisoners here were transferred to another camp, at Elsenborn, and then deep into Germany. Their fate is unknown, though two died during their internment, both of poisoning: one from eating wild mushrooms, another from indulging in wild game that had clearly past its best.

As we walked on, we came across another reminder of the tragic losses of war, at the site commemorating where an RAF pilot was shot down en route to Cologne.

There’s much older history too, like the medieval castle of Reinhardstein, tucked away on a rocky outcrop in a narrow, wooded valley. As we approached it, the snow started falling, and we were surprised to hear the sound of bagpipes coming from within the castle (I suspect this was for a group of visitors, not a ghostly musician).

Reinhardstein castle

The wet conditions in the woods encourage the damp-loving plants to make their home here. There’s lots and lots of moss, many ferns, and also waterfalls lined with what I now know to be opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. What a lovely feature this European native would make in a garden water cascade.

There were also large colonies of butterbur, Petasites hybridus, in shallow woodland streams. Also known as pestilence wort, or even Devil’s hat, this strange plant with pale pink inflorescences was used in traditional medicine as a treatment for infections and fever.

Among the thickets of woodland, bucolic scenes unfold, adding to the peaceful feeling of the place. Peace perhaps somewhat disturbed by Formula One racing cars, as the Spa-Francorchamps racing circuit is incongruously nestled among the hills. As is often the way in Belgium, it is a place of contradictions.

A country dwelling, looking out across the valley

The only way to choose a tree

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Harry’

For a long time now, I’ve been umming and ahhing and being generally indecisive about getting a new tree for the garden. Regulars will know that I don’t have a big garden, it’s a medium-sized town garden but with a woodland/country feel to it. We live in an area known affectionately as ‘la campagne en ville’ – the countryside in town – and we are lucky to have a whole forest of trees nearby, and lots of trees in the neighbourhood.

Magnolia ‘lolanthe’ buds

I’m still aching for another tree though. One option swimming around my head is a witch hazel. I saw several of them in full flowering splendour at Kreftenbroeck arboretum, a privately owned garden in the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant, which I visited one Sunday in early March. The trees were stunning against a bright blue sky, and I’m enjoying thinking about that right now as today has been grey and cold.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Moonlight’

The arboretum had a wonderful collection of witch hazels, mainly Hamamelis intermedia, which were grouped together along a secluded pathway that straddled the valley site. I would have missed them entirely, if I hadn’t caught a flash of colour and made my way up the hill to investigate.

A woodland pathway edged with Hamamelis at Kreftenbroeck

One thing that struck me about these trees is that while they are not large or tall, they are wide and spreading. Look how the branches expand outwards and even arch over the pathway. Although they are known to be slow growers, it is clear that they need space to expand and not be crowded out by others.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘August Lamken’

At their most pretty against a blue sky, they need that backdrop for their flowers to stand out. This made me realise, that stunning as they are, they weren’t going to be right for my garden. The site I have in mind is enclosed on two sides by a wall, covered in climbers, and has the neighbour’s mature trees overhanging it. The space wouldn’t be wide enough, nor the sky expansive enough.

Sharp yet curvaceous beech hedging

This didn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of other ideas from Kreftenbroeck that could be applied even on a small scale. Look at the wonderful structure this curved beech hedge adds, enhancing the natural contours of the hill. Sharp hedging is a big thing in Belgian gardens, and it adds so much structure and interest when designed imaginatively.

Yew clipped to perfection to make an intriguing arch, softened by more organic shapes at ground level

The usefulness and practicality of wood, as well as its beauty, were nicely demonstrated in this unusual bench.

And finally, here’s an idea to hide an ugly or dead patch in a hedge. Clever, isn’t it?

Making the most of a gap in the hedge

So the lesson I learnt from those beautiful witch hazels was to always see a tree growing at its best, in maturity, before making that all important decision. Perhaps a crab apple then…

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.