Winter Buds

We had a bitterly cold December, but according to local lore, the polar vortex over North America has given us a balmy January. Temperatures that barely count as winter, low levels of rain and snow only on much higher ground, disappointed skiers and confused garden plants.

I put in bulbs in a tiny patch of land behind our kitchen. The house is over 500 years old, the property divisions are inexplicable and bizarre. There is an old rose which thrives against the shady wall – in summer, of course, not now. We never know when some of these plants were first put in – one vine was planted in 1947.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

In springtime, the little sliver of shaded kitchen garden territory looks like this, more or less. This is an old picture from when I first put in the garden patch – the plants are all much larger now and we’ve installed a woven fence.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I planted a few bulbs in a pot back in September. They seem to think it’s already time to come out.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

As does the misguided peony.

Photo: PK Read

The tiny red slivers are the new peony buds. I use the old stalks to create a protective nest above them for overwintering.
Photo: PK Read

And the hydrangea, which I bind into a tipi form that is usually snow-topped around now, is sending out fresh buds against the flowerheads from last year.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read


The crazy rosemary on the other side of the house, a huge and unruly bush that I started cutting back in autumn, is budding up. It was planted right after WWII and really needs to be completely renovated.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I know snow will come and cover all of this. Sooner or later. I guess I’ll just have to see which plants have the strength for a second attempt come spring.

Hedged Chaos

It’s autumn, so my gardening to-do list is longer than during those lazy summer days of light irrigation, the occasional pass with the lawnmower and a bit of deadheading to encourage just a few more blossoms. I am a dedicated but sometimes slothful gardener, happier to carry the weight of guilt than wield the clippers more than absolutely necessary.

Our lawn in its natural state Photo: PK Read

Our lawn in its natural state
Photo: PK Read

The lawn is green and full, but not always with grass; the flower beds are alive with color, butterflies, bees and hawkmoths, and not a few unsprayed aphids.

And a confession: I don’t always pick up the windfallen apples and plums right away. I sometimes let them nestle under the trees, earthbound air fruit, and watch the birds feed and fight over them. Guilt’s sharp prods aren’t as persuasive as watching the birds swoop in to feast.

Now I’ve found some vindication, or at least a bit of support that my shaggy approach isn’t all bad.

Our rural corner of France is being built upon at an astonishing rate, developed, redrawn in asphalt lines, flat lawns and Lego-straight hedges.

A lizard on our stone fountain. Lots of refuge to be found in the mass of untrimmed rosemary around it. Photo: PK Read

A lizard on our stone fountain. Lots of refuge to be found in the mass of untrimmed rosemary around it.
Photo: PK Read

But according to more than a few sources, a garden allowed to get a bit fuzzy around the edges is a garden that encourages more life for the locals – birds, small mammals, beneficial insects, and the plants themselves. With an wary eye still kept on the spread of any invasive species, allowing a bit of chaos is all in the order of life.

Leaving the fallen fruit returns nutrients to the ground, and draws insects, which in turn attract native wildlife.

We see the occasional hedgehog waddling up the length of our garden wall this time of year – I’ll be leaving the garden gates open and a pile of leaves heaped near the woodpile just in case.

By which I mean to say, I am ready for another cup of tea, and I might not get through today’s gardening to-do list. Again.

Rampant trumpet vine on the house wall. Photo: PK Read

Rampant trumpet vine on the house wall.
Photo: PK Read


Gardenista postCould we please be less fanatically tidy by Kendra Wilson

The Wildlife Gardener by Kate Bradbury


Sober Expectations

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California Photo: PK Read

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California
Photo: PK Read

I saw recently that Napa Valley wineries had already started their grape harvesting season as of August 1 this year, almost two weeks earlier than the average, due to a short winter combined with a long and mild spring.

So I wondered whether our long, wet, cold winter, combined with a long, wet, cold spring and a massive hailstorm, had affected harvest expectations in our wine region of western Switzerland.

The answer, in a word, is: Yes.

Expectations for the Swiss vendanges – the wine harvest – are not high this year. The June 20 hailstorm destroyed around 6% of the Swiss vineyard crop within five minutes, affecting a potential 6 millions liters (1.6 million gallons) of Swiss wine. Harvesting isn’t expected for the remaining vines until well into September.

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm Photo: Les News

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm
Photo: Les News

Over in the French Champagne region, about three hours north from where we live, violent hailstorms from July 26-27 destroyed large swathes of vineyards – some areas experiencing a 10% loss, others 100%, with an overall loss expected of around 30% of this year’s crop. The same holds true for the Burgundy region.

Hailstorms (and even a “mini-tornado”) destroyed vineyards, but to a lesser extent, in the Bordeaux region as well. The French and Swiss Ministries of Agriculture are looking into adjusting insurance strategies to allow for ‘climatic risks’ in the future, as the assumption is that extreme weather will only increase.

French language viticulture news stories make for grim reading these days. What’s left of the crop will be harvested late.

Photo: RTS Info

Photo: RTS Info

So I guess California’s Napa Valley was a winner this year in vineyard climatology.

As for my single, heroic muscadet grape vine, which usually produces around 20-30 kg (45-65 lbs) per year, I don’t expect we’ll get more than a few good bunches this season – the cold, the wet, the wind have all done their part and our vine is the barest it has been in almost twenty years.

I do have one good harvest story this year, though – the lavender I planted last year as a part of a bee and butterfly section has attracted a healthy colony of bumblebees, who come and harvest pollen every afternoon. Their loud communal buzz fills one side of the garden, an industrious song for the summer heat.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year – most colonies only number 50 or less, so I’m assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby.
Photo: PK Read

Waiting for Eggs

Bird nest in the cherry orchard next doorPhoto: PK Read

Bird nest in the cherry orchard next door
Photo: PK Read

Grey skies, but it’s stopped raining for the moment, so I thought I’d share a few photos of bird’s nests that are waiting for eggs this morning. All of these are located within about thirty seconds of our front door. The nests look a bit worse for wear, but within a couple of weeks at least some of them should be busy with activity. The birdsong this morning is loud, varied, and all around.

Swallow nests - some supported, some not - in the neighboring barnPhoto: PK Read

Swallow nests – some supported, some not – in the neighboring barn
Photo: PK Read

A nest blending in to the trumpet vine on our house Photo: PK Read

A nest blending in to the trumpet vine on our house
Photo: PK Read

We have a few chocolate eggs to be distributed, but we don’t otherwise celebrate Easter, or Pâques as they call it here in France. Up until last year, the bells of our village’s 12th-century church would be silent from the Thursday before Good Friday until the morning of Easter to mark the death of Jesus. Children were told that the bells had all flown off to Rome to visit the Pope, and when they rang out again on Sunday morning, that the bells had returned. Hence the prevalence of chocolate Easter bells in France. The stories are still told as they are every year, but sadly, the historic church was gutted by fire last spring, and the bell tumbled to the ground. The church is now under renovation, the bell has been recovered for repairs. We’ve missed the sound of the old bell, but like the swallows and the geese I saw flying overhead yesterday, with any luck it’ll be back again next year.

Sparrow nest in a wallPhoto: PK Read

Sparrow nest in a wall
Photo: PK Read

Moon and Moss

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

It finally stopped snowing here. We had a single glorious clear afternoon and night last week, during which I took the picture of the full moon rising behind the budding plum tree in our garden. Depending on the culture (according to the Farmer’s Almanac), this is the:

Full Worm Moon – the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins.

Full Crow Moon – when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter

Full Crust Moon – the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night.

Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation.

Lenten Moon – the last full Moon of winter.

Since then, non-stop rain. At least the moss on our trumpet vine is having a season of plenty.

Our mossy vinePhoto: PK Read

Our mossy vine
Photo: PK Read

Lush Life

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I planted two witchhazel bushes in the garden last year so there would be spots of color against the snow.

It’s been nothing but grey, yet the red of the bushes stands out.

Another standout against the grey of this late winter weekend was my wonderful neighbor, a fourth generation gardener whose ancestors tended the gardens of the local château until that was sold. I saw him working in his garden – he was getting ready to prune his grape vines. He offered to come by afterwards and trim our single muscadet vine to save it from my clumsy clippers. Of course, there’s something in it for him, too – every year, he gets several kilos of some of finest grapes around from our garden. It’s a mystery, but our one rather old vine seems to be a very happy single dweller, producing around 30 kilos of grapes every year. Much of which goes to our neighbor. A nice gardening cycle.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

So even with gloomy skies above, it’s a lush life this weekend.

Of Blight, Wine, Grafting, and a Kind of Success

I found a poster hanging in a small local bistro just over the border in Switzerland, one of my favorite places to eat for lunch. It’s a vintage poster for a French seed nursery in eastern France – but it’s also an historical document of an agricultural calamity.

wine, switzerland, blight, france, vineyards

Poster for American grape vine stock in Switzerland, Photo: PKR

At first glance, it shows a young, robust 19th century woman among grapevines on the southern end of Geneva but on the French side of the border.. But what it is really showing is the effects of the great agricultural, economic and culinary calamity known as the French Wine Blight. Actually, the blight affected all of Europe and the UK, and was apparently due to the introduction of a non-native wine louse, Grape phylloxera into the regions.

Dactylosphaera vitifolii

The phylloxera is a complex little piece of work, with a life cycle encompassing 18 stages in 5 main phases. Very difficult to eradicate, and indeed, there is still no known method to completely rid Europe and the UK of the pest. It arrived in the late 1850s, and wiped out an estimated 60-90% of European vineyards over the next couple of decades. One of the challenges was that it took ten years for those studying the problem to be able to locate its origin, namely, the phylloxera that took so many forms.

Nothing seemed to work against the pest, until the hybridization technique of grafting European grape varieties on to rootstock imported from the United States was discovered. And thus began the task of reconstituting the wine industry – a process documented in part by the poster I saw in Switzerland. No surprise that this poster was here – Geneva is surrounded by vineyards.

I posted recently that the old and very fruitful Muscadet grapevine located in our garden has been one of the few unaffected by a locally occurring pest. We don’t know why, except that we never bring in outside stock, we don’t handle other plants, and our garden is walled.

In Europe, there were a few tiny vineyards that remained unaffected by the wine blight. No one knows why. They still produce extremely rare vintages of wine made from pre-blight, ungrafted stock. One of them is a Bollinger Champagne, the Vieilles Vignes Françaises. Another is a port wine in Spain, and a third is a Sangiovese grape in Montalcino, Italy.

Did I mention why rootstock from the United States was the preferred import for grafting?

It’s because phylloxera itself is a North American import, brought to the UK and then Europe on hardy American rootstock for planting by horticultural enthusiasts. The American rootstock was, of course, unaffected because it was resistant against the phylloxera. I’ve heard American wine buffs proudly claim that the US saved the French wine industry, but it seems a bit of a stretch since it was our own little pest that ruined it in the first place.

It’s a remarkable example of the triumph of non-native species within an entire growing sector.

The great Mothervine, oldest grape vine in the United States
Located in Roanoke, North Caroline

Muscadet Autumn

Muscadet grapes

We have a grapevine that runs along one of our garden walls. It’s a  good ten paces long, not including the long droopy vines that hang three or four feet from the support wire to the ground. It was here when we moved here, and as I know that part of the garden was planted at least forty years ago, I’m assuming the vine is at least that old. I found, wired to its base, an ancient and barely legible label that read ‘Muscadet’.

I am neither a constant nor a patient gardener. Every year, our neighbor from the farm next door comes by during the growing season and tries to re-educate me on the finer points of trimming this grapevine. He usually misses my autumn pruning because I do it late, I do it stealthily, and he only sees the pitiful results once the damage has been done.

Four generations of his family, including his father, were gardeners for local aristocracy while they still lived in the small château up the road. His own large family garden has long stone walls, each heavily trellised with numerous grapevines. Every year, my neighbor wags his head and the occasional finger at my lassitude. I don’t know why I can’t remember the rules. The only real pruning rule I seem to keep in my head is the one passed along to me by my grandmother, who grew up on a farm herself in Washington State: Cut it all down, don’t be shy, cut it down as far as you dare.

I dare a little more each year, but my hand is always restrained by two considerations. First, what if I cut too much? I don’t want to kill the vine or any of the other old trees and plants in the garden. The garden was a wildness of wanton planting and careless attention when we got here, so I clearly fit in with the gardeners who have gone before me.

Second, and more importantly, I love the tangle of the vine. Its untamed strands weave and loop back upon themselves. They grow in the most impossible formations, they curl most helpfully around the support wires, they reach up or down at will.

So, today I did my usual ‘two steps forward-one step back’ type of pruning, and I know I will get a friendly lecture from my neighbor once he sees it.

Here’s the rub: The vine bears impossibly perfect grapes, every year. Fat, sweet, dark ruby, thick with scents from the apple and plum trees, the lavender, the sage all around. Not only that, no matter how I mistreat it, it never fails to bear 20-30 kilos (40-60 lbs.) of flawless grapes, far too much for us, our friends and even the greedy birds to eat during the harvest season.

Next door, my neighbor’s vines have been suffering over the past few years. Some kind of blight that sucks the life from the grapes, leaving them withered, pea-sized and ruined by August. Come the heat of late summer, he always asks me how my vine, abused as it is, has weathered the most recent attack that affects his vines and those of most of his friends.

I respond by bringing over a basket or two of the bounty. It’s a cheeky answer, because I don’t deserve any of the credit, and we both know it. It is pure luck that the vine is in a happy location, that it is isolated from other infected vines, that it survives each year of failed pruning at my hands.

I am merely an appreciative audience. The vine is an artist of itself.