Dog Days

We’re in the middle of a significant heat wave here in eastern France – the French call it la canicule, a word which has at its root a reference to a celestial body other than the sun.

Between July 3 and August 11, the star Sirius rises almost in conjunction with the sun – and Sirius is the brightest star in the Canis Major, the Greater Dog constellation. Actually, the term goes all the way back to the Egyptians, who began their New Year with the return of Sirius.

For centuries it was thought that the star brought with it the heat of summer.

Hence, the ‘dog days’ of summer.

Sirius in Canis Major Source:

Sirius in Canis Major

I was out early this morning – as I am every morning these days – trying to save some of the garden plants from withering under the blazing sun.

We lost some beautiful trees in the deadly canicule of 2003. While I can’t save all the leafy friends, I have been trying to keep a couple of the more fragile ones from drying out, including a gnarled apple tree and a small Japanese maple.

Our garden is an old one – it’s been worked in one form or another for hundreds of years. When we arrived here twenty years ago, the small enclosed space was home to twelve flower beds and nine fruit trees scattered across a mosaic lawn. photo 1(4)

We re-planted the garden a few years ago to be much less water dependent and pollinator-friendly. We reduced the size of the lawn by around half, laid pebble paths through the shady areas, built raised beds,  put in lavender rows and planted grasses that fend well for themselves.

One of the trees that doesn’t seem to need much help is our mirabelle tree – sure, the harvest will be a fraction of what it was last year, but the tree is flourishing and 1(5)

We have large trays of water out for birds and insects.

The lawn – which I just reseeded this spring – is a loss. It crunches underfoot, but I don’t see the point in watering it. I’ll take the long view and replant in autumn for next year.

photo 3(3)

As I was watering a small fig tree I planted against a stone wall, a small bird emerged from beneath the hosta leaves that line one of the paths. It was looking at me, and looking at the spray of water, then back at me – so I inched the water a bit closer to the bird, and before I knew it, another bird had joined the first and they were chirping like mad as they enjoyed the short shower.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

If this is the shape of summers to come, I guess I’ll be reducing the lawn even further, and gardening for heat resistance.

In the meantime, with no end to the heat in sight, I’ll just do what humans have been doing in this situation for the entire length of history – try to take it easy, and pray for rain. If I can rely on the tradition of dog days and Sirius setting in early August, I shouldn’t have much longer to wait.

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France. Source: France Pittoresque

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France.
Source: France Pittoresque

Old Growth

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Across the border in Switzerland, and over in the next county of Haute Savoie, there are dozens of large-scale commercial apple orchards, hundreds of perfectly pruned trees grown to efficient picking height, neatly covered in bird-proof netting. They make for tidy rows of white and pink blossoms in spring.

In my neck of the woods, though, there are only old ramshackle orchards. These aren’t orchards that grow for resale, or at least, not on any large level. The farmers here still press the apples for local cider, the apples are preserved and given away as gifts, stored over winter, and a few crates might make it to a local market.

The number of these simple orchards grows ever fewer as they make way for apartment houses and roads.

One orchard on my running loop gives me hope.

Over the past four years, the twenty or so gnarled trees there have been slowly replaced by young saplings, just a few every year so that there is a mix of old and new growth.

It might just mean that this particular orchard will remain intact, or at least, that the farmer planting the orchard has no immediate plans to sell the land for development. Why else go to the expense of slowly rejuvenating an entire orchard?

There are only three old trees left. I assume this year they will be replaced, so I’ve been taking the time to enjoy their gnarled branches and unruly cascade of blossoms.

A Different Apple


Photo: PK Read

Apples are hanging heavy on our apple trees, although their numbers have been greatly diminished by a series of storms interspersed with very hot weather. The apple tree which holds pride of place, in the middle of our garden, is of a local variety. Or at least, local in the sense that my late neighbor, a gardener of unique talent, planted it there himself some fifty years ago with cuttings from his own garden – and that garden dates back well over a 150 years.

The apples are crisp, sweet and tart, and make delightful apple pies. Our neighbors (the children of the gifted gardener) still homepress vast quantities of juice and cidre for local sale from their orchards.

A study published this summer finds that apples – at least, the Japanese apples used in the study – are changing with the climate. According to the paper, this kind of research poses specific challenges, and “detecting long-term trends (…) requires data from apple orchards in which there have been no alterations in cultivars and management practices for extended periods.”

Studying 30-40 years of apple data, and carrying out a range of objective experiments on everything from acid concentration and fruit firmness to peel color and blossom dates, the study’s authors conclude that today’s Fuji and Tsugara apples are indeed different from the fruit that went to market four decades ago.

They are less flavorful, mealier, and more disease-prone, to be exact.

This doesn’t mean that other cultivars can’t pick up the slack when it comes to providing a wonderful taste and textural experience.

What it does mean is that apple trees, like everything else, must adapt to climate change.


Scientific Papers studyChanges in the taste and textural attributes of apples in response to climate changes by T. Sugiura, H. Ogawa, N. Fukuda & T. Moriguchi

Cider, hot off the presses!

Cider, hot off the presses!

I came home from a run to find this jug of fresh cider perched on my doorstep, courtesy of my cider-pressing neighbor. My favorite part, besides the delicious nectar I know is inside, is the friendly packaging for family and friends only – the ancient Spanish wine jug, rinsed, sterilized, reused. The organic, orchard home grown, hand pressed stuff inside is the same stuff he sells in fancy glass bottles, but this is the real deal. So lucky to live here!