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

Mineral Relocation

Limestone is the key ingredient in cement, and is quarried around the world for mixing into one of the world’s most popular building materials. Limestone is composed mainly of CaCO3, calcium carbonate.

Coincidentally, the shells of the small snails shown above – like most gastropod shells – are also composed mostly of CaCO3. These little lopsided wonders, part of a small group of newly-identified members of the Plectostoma genus, live mostly on limestone hills in Malaysia, Sumatra and Thailand. Thor-Seng Liew of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, who describes them in his recently published paper, has dubbed them ‘microjewels‘.

Unfortunately for them and their Plectostoma brethren, limestone for cement is vastly more popular among humans that calcium carbonate found in snail shells, no matter how asymmetrically lovely and unusual.

Ten of the 31 micro-landsnails listed in the research have been assessed to be critically endangered – or rather, nine are critically endangered, one is already extinct. The researchers are submitting all of them for classification and possible protection under the IUCN Red List.

To be fair, the limestone hills themselves are disappearing at a rapid rate, their CaCO3 headed for cement to build new hills in the form of buildings, somewhere else, and without the delicate CaCO3 of their former inhabitants, the microjewel snails.

Or rather, with their CaCO3, but minus the snails.

Limestone extraction at Bukit Panching, Malaysia, 2003-2010. The top image was taken after the 300 meter hill had already been mostly removed. The lower image shows what is now a lake where the hill once stood. Source: SiputKuning

Limestone extraction at Bukit Panching, Malaysia, 2003-2010. The top image was taken after the 300 meter hill had already been mostly removed. The lower image shows what is now a lake where the hill once stood.
Source: SiputKuning





Dandelion Lawn

Our lawn in its natural state Photo: PK Read

Our lawn in its natural state
Photo: PK Read

I usually wait until the last possible moment to mow the lawn for the first time in spring. People set different lawn priorities – mine has never been a lawn of putting-green pristine uniformity. Every year I swear I’ll dig up our little patch in autumn and give it a face-lift. Every spring and summer, when it bursts forth with all manner of flowering weeds, I think to myself how much I like the random gathering of seeds that have taken up residence here. Then I mow the lot of them into a single level of green carpet. Yesterday was the day, and this was the yellowest corner of the garden, pre-chop. Usually the lawn would have been a-buzz with bees on the prowl – this year I only found one bee and a couple of bumblebees.

Garden snail (Helix aspersa) Photo: PK Read

Garden snail (Helix aspersa)
Photo: PK Read

I found this fat snail, a petit gris, meandering across our flagstones. When we moved here, the garden was in a much wilder state and I used to find dozens of brown garden snails every year. I tried to get rid of them, but one day, my elderly French neighbor saw me pitching them over the hedge into the street and stopped me. “I’ll take them, bring them to me.” For what? First, a round of gorging and hermaphrodite mating in the compost, then a bout of purging in a snail house, and then…the dinner plate. Of course.

I never picked up the habit of eating this particular crop from our garden, but I did start putting the snails into our compost when I found them, and they seemed happy to stay in that corner of the world. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years, however, that there are far fewer snails than there used to be. The snail I found yesterday was the first I’ve seen all season. I let it continue on on its way after stopping for a photo.

On the off chance that you might be interested in cultivating and consuming your garden snails rather than simply eradicating them:

Eating Garden Snails blog