Six on Saturday: 11 Sep 21: Keep it in the family

The Balat Greenhouse, 1854

This week’s Six on Saturday comes from my favourite section of Belgium’s botanical garden at Meise, just north of Brussels. It’s called the Cronquist garden (after the American botanist, Arthur Cronquist) and houses an enthralling collection of herbaceous plants, arranged neatly by family in beds – Cronquist was apparently instrumental in developing a new classification system for plant families. The beds are set off by an elegant glass and steel greenhouse built by Alphonse Balat, the court architect of Belgian King Leopold II. I was there on a rainy Friday this week, so apart from the gardener, I had the place pretty much to myself and was happy as Larry, darting around from one eye-catching plant to another.

1 Ipomoea lobata, also known as the fire vine, firecracker vine or Spanish flag. This really was like a firecracker, immediately catching my attention as I entered the garden and making me wonder why I didn’t have one of these beauties in my garden. I love the gradation in colour in those flower buds. It’s native to Mexico and Brazil; I have a theory that plants from that part of the world have done really well this year due to the intense humidity.

Ipomoea lobata

What was quite clever was the way it was planted up a simple steel grid structure, with individual vines planted on either side, seven in total. The height was also perfect, not much taller than me, so around 1.6 metres, or 5 foot 4 inches if you prefer imperial – so no ladders required!

2 Aster novi-belgii. Every garden should have an aster for a September display, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Aster novi-belgii

3 Tagetes patula. These are French marigolds, or are they? The French think of them as Indian, as in their common name Oiellet d’Inde, but the Dutch associate them with Africa, Kleine Africaan. But they’re all wrong, they are native to Mexico and Guatemala! In any case, whatever we call them, these are delightful, with purple hints in the stems and leaves, and good height of around 1 metre.

Here’s an idea of how to combine them in a border. Just look at that yellow Helenium behind, weighed down with all those flowers, and there’s a tall Eupatorium on the other side.

4 Phyla nodiflora. I thought this was a charming little combo from the Verbenaceae family: an endearing little ground cover plant growing around a lemon verbena, Aloysia citrodora. The Spanish and Portuguese brought lemon verbena over from South America in the 17th C and cultivated it for its oil. I am less familiar with the Phyla nodiflora, aka the frogfruit or turkey tangle, presumably it got that name in the southern United States, where it is commonly grown as groundcover and perhaps where turkeys get tangled up in it, poor things!

5 Abelmoschus esculentus. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied these wonderful-looking seed pods, but it’s only when I checked the label that I realised these were Okra, or Lady’s Fingers, making them both delicious and beautiful. Who would have thought we could grow these here and end up with such a fine specimen for the September garden and the main ingredient for a delicious ‘bamya’ stew: okra cooked in tomato sauce with whole garlic cloves and served with basmati rice? I absolutely must try growing them next year!

Abelmoschus esculentus

6 Periscaria orientalis. Now, judging from my own garden, there are a lot of floppy plants at this time of year, weighed down with the weight of their blooms. But not this one, standing proud and poised as a ballerina.

Periscaria orientalis

Well I had to tear myself away from this lovely garden, where I could easily spend hours examining plants, and I also have to tear myself away from writing more as I’ve reached the limit of six, which is just as well, otherwise you’d all get bored dear readers! You’ll find other botanical sixes from all around the globe here too, on the Propagator’s site.

In my own garden, I’ve tasted the first of the sweetcorn, which was delicious but the cobs were only half-developed, probably not enough sun and heat this year. There are still a few sweet peppers and chillis coming along, and I think there are some radishes growing up on the shed roof, I really should get up there to investigate! Hope everyone has a good weekend – it’s looking a bit gloomy outside but I might try to get a bike ride in.

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.

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.

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: 23 Jan 2021: Catkins

I’m still a little high on the novelty of a patch of blue sky and a few weak but welcome rays of sunshine, which arrived here yesterday after weeks of grisaillle (the Belgian/French word for miserable, grey weather: as grim as it sounds). Today also looks promising and mild. I had a lovely bike ride in the forest yesterday, getting a bit carried away with archaeological imaginings at a 6,000 year-old Neolithic site, and noticed that the beech nuts on the forest floor were germinating. On that encouraging note, let’s get started with this week’s Six on Saturday (six things in the garden on Saturday):

1 Rose pruning. I’ve done the two climbers, and the six bushes along the front path. Tick! Next up is the more intimidating job of pruning the old and too tall apple tree. The other half will need to help (he can go up the ladder, I’ll stay safe on the ground holding it I think!).

2 Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Edge’. A dwarf euphorbia which I planted last autumn to bulk up the cottage garden planting near the pink roses. As I was doing my rose pruning, I noticed the slightest hint of pink on some of the leaves.

3 Pieris japonica ‘Variagata’. Another white, green and pink number. They say everyone has a good side and less flattering side in profile, and this is the good side of my Pieris. She’s rather bare on the other half, but never mind, perhaps she needs a good prune to stimulate growth.

4 Tropaeolum tuberosum. I had been looking out for a supplier for these edible nasturtium tubers. There was a waiting list for them with a French supplier that fellow gardening blogger Fred had recommended to me for seeds (merci Fred), and as soon as they became available again, I snapped them up. There are three tubers, one of which has already sprouted, so I had better pot them up this weekend.

5 Clematis armandii ‘Apple Blossom’. Really looking forward to seeing this in flower soon, just look at those fat buds. I have to admit, this was an impulse buy. I was supposed to be getting one for a friend while visiting a specialist clematis supplier deep in the Flemish countryside, but it was March, the plant was in flower, and was simply irresistible. Luckily, I happen to have a warm, sheltered wall for it to clamber up. Phew…

6 Hazel catkins. I have two trees planted next to each other, right outside the front of the house, and we get a pretty view of the yellow catkins from the living room window. Hazel is wind pollinated, and has both male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious if you like a technical term). The male flowers are born in huge numbers on the catkins, and for the first time I noticed the tiny female flowers with their crimson styles (see last photo). No need to attract the bees, no need to be showy!

Tiny female flower visible just above the end catkin

So there we are, thanks as always to our host The Propagator, you’ll find many other Six on Saturday contributions on his blog from many corners of the globe. From this Belgian corner, I wish everyone a great weekend, may the weather be kind to you!

The horse, the goats and an outraged heron

“Something very odd is going on in that field. Will you take a look at that? Really, it’s hardly decent!”, thinks the young heron, watching the goings-on across the lake.

“Looks fairly normal to me, just a tranquil horse munching some grass…”, thinks the photographer.

“Hang on a second, are those goats? Goats and horses, do they mix? Well it seems they do, and as it happens everyone seems to be getting on just fine”, concludes the photographer.

“Well, you said fine, but you know, boys will be boys, and goats will be goats”, says the horse. It seems that there is a bit of competition for the attentions of a certain lady goat.

“It wasn’t me!”, says one male goat.

“Wasn’t me either!”, says the other male goat.

“Err, that’s not what I saw”, says the young and slightly outraged heron.

“Seen it all before. No big deal”, says the horse. “Think I’ll eat some more grass”.

“Well, spring is in the air”, thinks the photographer. “Wait a minute, we’re in December, we haven’t even had Christmas yet…very strange times we are living through”.

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!