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.

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.

Wordless Wednesday Whorls

A close-up which reminds me of wool.
From a distance, reminds me of a hippo’s head emerging from the water.

This was taken on my “Neolithic walk” in the forest last week, when the sun came out. I’m back indoors today, no inclination to head out into the murky greyness. I think I’ll light a fire instead, and work on my newsletter for gardeners in Belgium…

Forest wandering with Neolithic man

I had a very pleasant afternoon reliving my childhood dream of being an archaeologist. After finishing my morning’s English teaching, helping a group of European diplomats sound more persuasive and, well, diplomatic, I grabbed the camera and hopped out on my bike, forest bound. This is the great advantage of working as a freelancer, you can seize the moment. I had no clear objective other than to enjoy the first blue skies and sunshine we have had in weeks.

Taking a moment…

My first stop was just a scrubby clearing near the entrance to the forest, but I like this place because you get a bit of a vista, and something about the landscape is even vaguely Mediterranean, with Spanish broom and pines growing in the open ground. It’s off the main track, and nobody else comes here – there is only the faintest little grassy path.

A scrubby clearing with pines on the horizon

After some time just taking it in, I hopped back on my bike and went a little deeper into the forest, on Chemin des Deux Montagnes. This takes you to an intersection with the intriguingly named Chemin des Tumuli, which is where the Neolithic site is located. This is what you initially see as you approach it, looking over a low hedge, just a gentle dip in the ground with two mounds either side of it, and the stubs of some felled trees.

Yet there is definitely something suggestive of human sculpting of the landscape, there are quite clearly visible earthen mounds.

Looking from the top of one mound to the other, with a felled tree trunk in the foreground.
Looking from the opposite perspective, towards the smaller of the two mounds.

A small sign by the road indicates that this is the listed archaeological site of Deux Tetres (or Tumuli), that sits alongside the remains of a camp belonging to the Michelsburg civilisation, an important Neolithic culture in central Europe between 4400-3500 BC. They occupied a swathe of western-central Europe from Northern France, through Belgium and into Germany, where one of their most famous sites was found on a hill in Michelsburg, whence they get their name.

A map of the archaeological site

What I love about sites like these are two things: the ability to just scramble around them unheeded and unshepherded by anyone, and the exercise that unfolds imagining the lives of the people who lived here some 6,000 years ago, just a short bike ride from where I live now. My Dad took me to similar sites of mounded earth on trips to visit family in the south-west of England, and I found them mesmerising. The same giddy imagining overtook me on a visit to Merv, the ancient Silk Road city that the Mongols razed, and of which just rounded mud-coloured mounds remain.

Stumps mark the felling of trees to protect the site

The only modern-day interference that is visible here is the felling of trees to ensure that the site is not damaged by them. The sign states that while the cover of the forest did help limit erosion for a long time, the planting of several beech trees in 1808 and their subsequent aging threated serious damage, should one fall and uproot large sections of tumuli!

The site marks a high point in the forest here (good for defensive purposes), but just down the hill there is plenty of water. I don’t know if the people on this particular site practised agriculture and how much forest there was at that time. Archaeological evidence suggests that colonists from the Michelsburg culture were instrumental in the spread of agriculture to other parts, including Scandanavia and the British Isles.

A lake a short way downhill from the site: water and civilisation are never far apart

So after some scrambling around and taking photographs, I whizzed down the hill to the lake, which is a peaceful spot, despite the fact that today lots of school kids were walking about there. I am glad they are getting their exercise.

A bridge over the water

As I contemplated the lake, I looked down at my feet and saw hundreds of acorns. There are a few European oaks in this predominately beech forest, but what was odd was that some of them were pink. This made me look closer, and I realised that many of these nuts were just germinating. If you look closely, you can see the process beginning. If anyone knows why they go pink, do let me know!

Acorns, and the beginning of germination
A closer look, and a distinctly pink seed bursting out of its hard casing.

After that, it was time to go home, as I’d already missed my lunch. So up the hill I peddaled, out of the forest, along the avenue of houses of the extremely wealthy right by the forest, to the train station, across the main road, and into my neighbourhood. Fast forward 6,000 years of civilisation. So I wonder, 6,000 years from now, who will be trudging over earthen mounds and contemplating our lives, will they even be human or will we have left the earth by then?

Only a brief look back

I don’t like to spend too much time mulling over the past (despite being a Nostalgic Gardener!), and what I really like about New Year is the sense of possibility it offers for what’s to come. Rather like this fox (a lino print made in one of my lovely art classes), I like the feeling that there’s something round the corner that could really be rather good! Happy New Year to everyone, thanks to those who have welcomed me, a newcomer, into their blogging communities this year, or who have taken the time to leave a comment every now and then. I look forward to sharing more photos and garden stories with you in the coming year.