Strawberry delight

I thought I had discovered all the plants in my garden by now (see my Garden Plants page for details), but when clearing out a lot of the self-seeded and overgrown plum saplings from one of the garden boundaries, I was amazed to discover a small strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) smothered under the other bushes. It is more of a strawberry shrub at the moment, being less than three feet tall, and the main stem is growing at a 45 degree angle where it was trying to get some light, but it is smothered in flower buds and has a few fruits on it.

Strawberry tree

The flowers and leaves are a bit reminiscent of pieris, which is what I mistook it for at first.

Interestingly, the berries take about a year to ripen, so are found on the plant at the same time as the next year’s flowers.

Arbutus unedo fruit

They are edible, high in sugars and said to be similar in flavour to a fig, but they are more often eaten cooked, or made into jam. I tried one, and found it to have no flavour at all really – a rather thick skin, the inside with the texture of a peach, and altogether fairly nondescript. Still, I am pleased to have it for its decorative value, as I suspect it will be decades before it bears enough fruit to make a jar of jam!

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Braving the veg patch

Autumn is now upon us, with a long spell of beautiful sunny days and cooler, or sometimes chilly, nights. The most obvious change is the colours of the trees, but I have also been noticing where and when the last rays of sun fall on the garden. The sun drops behind our trees just before 7pm now, whereas a month ago it was 8pm.

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October sunset

Just recently I also noticed that the overgrown vegetable patch is now in shade towards the end of the afternoon which, seeing as temperatures are still in the high 20s (°c) at the moment, makes it feasible to get in there and start doing a bit of work. So today I made a start. Just a small start, as I think it is a job that will take all winter. Here are the results of an hour’s work:

Veg patch before clearing

Before. This is just the top third of the vegetable patch.

Veg patch before clearing

Before – you can hardly even get in there.

Veg patch after an hour's clearing work

After an hour’s work, you can at least get in to see what’s what.

Taking the short cut

Since nurseries and garden centres are a bit harder to come by in France than in England, and often have limited opening hours (generally open for a couple of months in the spring, closed in summer, and otherwise open by appointment) I have decided the best way to increase my stock of plants is to propagate my own. Encouraged by a French gardening magazine to ‘bouturez et partagez‘ (take cuttings and share), I have been taking cuttings of all the plants in my garden that I would like more of. At least I know that they will grow well here.

At this time of year, we are talking semi-ripe cuttings. It’s a pretty straightforward method that can be used for a lot of different types of plants.

First, cut a piece of healthy stem about 4-6″ long. Cut the bottom just below a leaf node and the top just above one. Remove the lower leaves and reduce the surface area of the remaining leaves if it is excessive.

Dip the end in hormone rooting compound (‘hormone de bouturage‘) and stick the cuttings around the edge of a pot of seed and cutting compost (‘terreau de semis et bouturage‘) mixed with a bit of grit or perlite.

Bay cuttings

Then water well, allow to drain, and cover with a plastic bag to keep the cuttings moist.

Lavender cuttings

The plants I have taken cuttings of are as follows:

  • Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Bay
  • Box
  • Viburnum tinus
  • Mexican orange
  • Photinia
  • Sarcococca ruscifolia
  • Euonymus
  • Trachelospermum jasminoides
  • Hibiscus (I will also try to propagate this from seed)

I also took cuttings of these, but subsequent research has suggested that I’ll be very lucky if they take!

  • Hazel – better propagated by layering or from seed (nuts)
  • Buddleia – better as softwood cuttings in the spring
  • Butcher’s broom – better done by division or from seed

One exception to the method I have described above is oleander. Oleander cuttings can be rooted in water. Prepared in the same way, put them in a jar with water covering the bared nodes. They should develop roots in the water and can then be potted into soil.

Oleander cuttings

I have also put some hazel nuts that have fallen from the tree into pots of seed and cutting compost. Not quite knowing which was best, I have done a pot of ‘whole’ nuts, and a pot of nuts whose shells I cracked slightly. Let’s see what comes up!

Hazelnuts

It’s just not cricket!

Cicadidae - Cicada orni

Cicada

I thought it was time to work out what is making the noise that is the background accompaniment to my summer days (and sometimes nights). I knew it was either crickets, grasshoppers or cicadas.

I started with You Tube clips of different sounds, but found it difficult to distinguish one from another and could never be certain which one I was supposed to be listening to. I’m pretty sure grasshoppers don’t make the same racket that the other two do. Indeed I have had a large grasshopper in my bedroom here, and although it did make a strident noise, it was once in a while, not constantly.

The grasshoppers I see quite frequently are called ‘long horned’ grasshoppers, because they have long antennae. This is a small one I found when pruning my grapevine – they vary a lot in size and colour, from greens to browns, and the bigger ones I have seen are 3 or more inches long when ‘crouched’. Confusingly, long horned grasshoppers are also known as ‘bush crickets’.

Long horned grasshopper

Long horned grasshopper

Long horned grasshopper found on grapevine

The ‘short horned’ grasshopper looks very different, and I haven’t seen them around here.

Short horned grasshopper

Short horned grasshopper (internet image)

Crickets look quite different to grasshoppers, apart from the long back legs, and are easy to recognise by the pair of spikes that protrude from the end of their abdomen. I’m not sure that I have ever seen a cricket.

Cricket

Cricket (internet image)

Two things made me certain that my friends around here are cicadas. Firstly, the alternative name for cicada is ‘tree cricket’, and the noise certainly comes from the trees. You get a loud background hum from the woods surrounding the garden, then often get one or two individuals that sit in trees nearer the house which you can hear much more distinctly.

Secondly, I stalked over to my apple tree one time when I could hear an individual making his shrill screech there. The noise stopped as I approached, but after standing quietly looking for it for a few moments, it flew back from an end branch to land on the trunk in front of my nose, and started screeching again, and it looked just like the internet pictures! Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me.

Cicada

Cicada (internet image)

Later, I found another one on the ground under the almond tree, trying to disguise itself among the soil and dead grass.

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Cicada under the almond tree

Interestingly, I read that cicadas only start singing when it reaches 22 degrees celsius, and they certainly do start abruptly as the day warms up.

 

Berry interesting

I thought autumn was the season for berries, but berries seems to be appearing, ripening and changing colour almost every day in my garden at the moment, and it’s still the height of summer. Among the beautiful, the poisonous and the edible, there are a few I’d like to share with you.

Firstly the beautiful, even if they are on a plant I’d rather not have in general – hedge bindweed. However, I can forgive them at the moment as the berries are so gorgeous to look at:

Hedge bindweed

Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

The berries turn from green through yellow and orange to a glowing red:

Continuing on the ‘attractive’ theme, I find these next ones quite fascinating. Again, these berries ripen very quickly from whitish-green, to red, to black, so that you often get a bunch of berries of markedly different colours. Then just as quickly they shrivel. The plant is Viburnum lantana, also known as wayfaring tree, as they are often found along waysides just as they are here.

Unfortunately the berries are not edible, with the Wikipedia entry saying “The fruit is mildly toxic, and may cause vomiting or diarrhea if consumed in large quantities”.

My most interesting discovery in the ‘berry’ department has been the Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, which again grows wild amongst the hedgerows, including at the edges of my garden.

Cornelian cherry

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas)

This is something of a gem. As well as looking good, the fruits are edible, with a slightly sour taste like cranberry or morello cherry.

Cornelian cherries

They can be used to make jams, a sauce similar to cranberry sauce, eaten dried, or distilled into vodka or liqueurs. They are high in vitamin C, and are fully ripe when they start to fall from the tree. Luckily they are fairly easy to see and to pick up, although you might have to walk a few miles picking up fallen fruit to make a batch of jam!

Cornelian cherries fallen

Cornus mas are also planted as ornamental specimens, as apparently in late winter they are covered in yellow flowers, reminiscent of forsythia. I look forward to that spectacle.

The ‘mas’ signifies the ‘male’ cornus, to distinguish it from the ‘female’ cornus, Cornus sanguinea. This common dogwood is probably the most prolific plant in my garden, in all the hedges as well as popping up in all the flowerbeds and crowding other plants out.

Cornus sanguinea

Common dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

The final fact that I like about Cornelian cherries is that their wood is very dense, to the extent that it sinks in water. This density has lead to it being valued for making tool handles and machine parts, and in older times, spears and bows.