A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends

The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden shed.photo 1-4


And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next door.photo 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy petal.photo 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the difference.photo 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM

Pot of Gold

We spent the week cutting thick bramble runners and digging out bramble roots with a pickaxe, raking and digging and smoothing the ground, enduring the amusement of neighbors who came by offering their supplies of Round-up herbicide.

Like any simple problem left unattended for too long, the bramble roots ran deep and the thorny vines fought their removal. Underneath one very large mass of vines, I found a decaying tree root that put up real resistance to the pickaxe. Why? Because embedded in the old tree root was a rusty pot. And all around the pot was the detritus of  home life that had been put here back in the 1940s or thereabouts.

A couple of crockery shards, some glass bits, a plastic-handled knife that is definitely from a more recent time, the old pot.

The stuff from under the tree root. Note the pickaxe hole punctured in the side of the pot.

The stuff from under the tree root. Note the pickaxe hole punctured in the side of the pot.

This past week, I’ve been working on a corner of the garden that’s always been my bête noir, a ragged patch of annoyance.

Our small garden, not directly adjoining our house but opposite the driveway, was once the home of the village ovens. The stone ovens were taken down by the first foreign owner when she bought the house and its property back in the 1970s. But this little house and plot of land have been inhabited and worked since the 15th century.

The garden, when we moved in, had seen a few owners come and go since the ovens came down, and each gardener only added, they never took away. By the time we got here, there were corners that had been thoroughly overplanted and then neglected, hedges that had gone untrimmed, brambles that had multiplied unhindered. It was a glorious mess around the edges, which were encroaching on the tidy middle section.

The old garden.

The old garden.

We’ve been reluctant to do anything over the years because I liked the crazy romance of it all, but beating back the bramble jungle became too much. So over the past year, we’ve been streamlining. Those raspberry canes that were stunted and fumbling under a cherry tree grown too large? Gone. The nine flower beds (9!) that were choked with ground elder? Gone. The new raised beds that carry my signature gardening style of ‘Haphazard’ are easy to maintain and require less water. The pebbled path that runs the perimeter of the garden where the sun rarely shines is free of moss and weeds. The herb garden is a collection of pots and containers.DSC02240

But that one stretch of hedging that runs along the road, that part remained old garden. Thick brambles between five different hedge bushes, fronted on our side by a decorative veil of peonies and roses meant to distract from the other stuff. Sure, we could just dig the whole thing up and slap down a lawn.

What fun would that be?DSC02239

We used to think we might find a pot of gold in the garden, some buried treasure or at least an interesting cache of old jewelry or coins that someone in all the centuries of this land being gardened might have left behind. So far, it’s been mostly shards. I did once find a pre-WWI French centime, which I gave to a neighbor who had been born in that year, 1912.

Still, every time I come across the remnants of our predecessors, I have the sense that we are a part of something longer, something with a backwards and a forwards. An awareness that we’re the current bead in the pearl string of gardeners here, which is its own kind of treasure.DSC02244