Orchid moments

Over the past couple of months I have been amazed at the number and variety of orchids that I have seen, in my garden and in the surrounding lanes and woodland. I used to think orchids were rare, and I’m sure many are and that they are rare in many locations, but some are almost ten-a-penny around here! These are the ones I have come across locally:

Early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) [French: Orchis mâle]

Usually the first orchid to flower each year, the early purple orchid has 3-8 basal leaves which are shiny, dark green and usually marked with large dark purple spots, although they can be unspotted. There are 2-3 further small leaves sheathing the stem which can be washed purple. The inflorescence is oval when the flowers are fully open and carries between 10-50 flowers which are deep pink. Occasionally pure white flowers are found but these are rare.

There are hundreds of these in my lawn, and have been since late March.


Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) [Orchis bouffon]

The green-winged orchid flowers very soon after the early purple orchid to which it is superficially similar. However, the less common green-winged orchid can be identified by the greenish parallel veins on the two lateral sepals which form the ‘hood’, which are never found on early purple orchids. Also, the leaves are never spotted. Most plants have purple flowers, but some produce pink or very pale, even white, flowers instead.

I initially confused these with early purple orchids, but there are still hundreds in my lawn, mixed in with the early purples.


Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) [French: Orchis pyramidal]

Pyramidal orchids get their name from the conical shape of the young infloresence of this plant. However, once the flower is fully developed it becomes more cylindrical or egg-shaped. They are a very strong, bright pink, especially when young.

These are gradually taking over from the early purple and green-winged orchids as the most prevalent orchid on my lawn, first appearing in late April.


Early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) [French: Ophrys araignée]

Another early arrival in my garden was the early spider orchid, probably appearing back in March. I have only found one plant, but it is still flowering, just. The appearance of early spider orchids can be quite varied, and the flowers change as they age. In general, the sepals and petals are greenish-yellow, sometimes marked with reddish-brown, and the lip is dark reddish-brown and velvety in appearance, fading with time.


Woodcock bee orchid (Ophrys scolopax) [French: Ophrys bécasse]

Ophrys scolopax is often confused with Ophrys apifera – the bee orchid – but the flowers of Ophrys scolopax are smaller and narrower, with a pointier ‘tail’ (the lip of the flower). The flowers usually have pink sepals and petals but occasionally specimens with green or white sepals and petals are found.

There are a number of these dotted around my lawn and occasionally along the nearby lanes.


Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata) [French: Orchis brûlé]

The burnt, or burnt-tip orchid, has dark red buds that open to white, giving the infloresence the appearance of being burnt at the tip of the flower spike. The infloresence is dense initially but becomes more lax as the flowers open.

Again, there are a lot of these across my lawn, although I see them less frequently along the lanes and in the woods.


Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) [French: Ophrys mouche]

The fly orchid is not exactly the most colourful or noticeable of orchids, but like most, its name is very descriptive. It is said that “the flowers closely resemble little flies – the lip forms the body of the insect, the speculum is shiny like the folded wings of a fly and there are even two glossy depressions at the base of the lip which represent the insect’s eyes”. I find the flowers look more like flies when viewed slightly side-on, when it looks like brown-black flies have landed on the stem.

I have only spotted these in our woods, mostly in the slightly more open areas.


Long-lipped tongue orchid (Serapias vomeracea) [French: Sérapias à labelle allongé]

Sometimes referred to as the ploughshare tongue orchid, it is the long hairy lip that is the distinguishing feature of this tongue orchid. The leaves form around the base of the stem and are erect, narrow and pointed. There are further bract-like leaves along the stem which, along with the flower buds, I find the most striking feature. The colour of the flowers is variable but they are often orange-to dark red.

I have several clusters of this growing in the lawn as well as a few other single specimens dotted around.


Narrow-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) [French: Céphalanthère à longues feuilles]

The narrow-leaved or sword-leaved helleborine has leaves that are dark green, long and tapering. Flowers are white with a yellow-edged labellum and usually open only during the warmest and brightest hours of the day. Each plant usually produces one flower spike, but can produce several.

I have found that these are fairly common alongside the paths in the oak woodlands around us.


Violet limodore (Limodorum abortivum) [French: Limodore à feuilles avortées]

The violet limodore, or violet bird’s-nest orchid, is a tall orchid that blends in well with its surroundings, making it hard to spot. It feeds via mycorrhizal fungi and forms a thick rhizome underground, with numerous strong roots tangled together like a nest. The plant does not appear above the ground until after 8-10 years of underground existence!

It is found in coniferous woodland, scrub, and grassy woodland clearings often on rocky terrain. The violet limodore is one of those orchids that can disappear for several years during periods of drought or if the vegetation surrounding it becomes too dense, and then it reappears when conditions become more favourable. This may make this orchid hard to find rather than rare.

I have been lucky to spot one of these unusual looking orchids in a slight clearing, right beside the narrow rocky path that leads into the woods near our house, and a further three beside the lane not far from our house on a steep bank.


Military orchid (Orchis militaris) [French: Orchis militaire]

The military orchid grows up to 60 cm tall and has 2-5 basal leaves which are a fresh bright green. There are further smaller leaves sheathing the stem. The inflorescence is cylindrical when the flowers are fully open and typically carries between 2-25 flowers, sometimes more. The common name of this orchid derives from the helmet-shaped hood formed by the upper petals and sepals, although it also has a rather proud, upright and military bearing!

There is a large patch of these growing beside the road on steep stony ground just outside our hamlet.


Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) [French: Orchis pourpre]

The lady orchid grows up to 80 cm tall and has a basal rosette of 3-8 large erect leaves which are glossy green and unmarked. The flower spikes can contain anything up to 200 individual flowers. The upper sepals and petals from a dark red hood above the lip of the flower which is white and strongly marked with deep red. The shape and markings of the lips of the lady orchid are extremely variable but there is no mistaking it when you have found one – its size, and the vivid white and dark red flowers make it quite distinctive.


Well, that’s about it (for now). I have some big fat buds coming through which I think will turn out to be lizard orchids, slightly later flowering, and I will update this post as and when I find any other orchids near my house.


Acknowledgement: much of the info above has been taken from my three favourite wildflower-identification websites: NatureGate , First Nature and overthebrink.com.



I’m gonna live forever!

I’ve become a huge fan of sempervivums over the past few years. I’m not sure what it is about them that attracts me so much – maybe the huge variety of colours and forms available, or the fact that they are so easy to grow.



The name sempervivum translates as ‘always/forever living/alive’. This might refer to the fact that they are evergreen, succulent perennials, or to the way that they reproduce. Also known as houseleeks, from the practice of growing them on rooftops, and ‘hen and chicks’, for reasons that will shortly become obvious, sempervivums reproduce via offsets. Each sempervivum rosette will quickly become surrounded by these little offsets, which will put down roots. The offsets (chicks) are initially connected by a stolon to the parent plant, but when the stolon withers they become independent plants. Sempervivums will flower after a few years, but then die after flowering. However, by then they will have created lots of baby ‘chicks’ to keep them ‘living forever’! Once the offsets have produced roots, they can be carefully removed from the parent plant, with an inch or so of stolon if this hasn’t yet completely withered, and replanted elsewhere. Even pushed into a crack in a wall, with virtually no soil, they are likely to establish themselves.

Sempervivums growing in wall

Sempervivums on a mossy stone wall. Note the offsets attached by stolons to the parent plant.

Although I don’t know its name, the type of sempervivum pictured above are found in quite a lot of the old stone walls and gravelly corners of my garden. However, I was very lucky to recently be given a whole host of new varieties of sempervivum as a birthday present (thanks Mum and Dad!). This seemed like a good place to list what they all are before I lose the labels:

Sempervivum arachnoideum tomentosum:

Sempervivum ‘Bronco’:

Sempervivum ‘Boule de Neige’:

Sempervivum ‘Black Mini’:

Sempervivum ‘Engle’s’:

Sempervivum ‘Maigret’:

Sempervivum ‘Purple Haze’:

Sempervivum calcareum ‘Extra’:

Four of these were planted in a lovely old stone planter that is almost part of the garden structure. As (it seems) you cannot buy horticultural grit in France, and sempervivums like a very gritty soil, I used a combination of terracotta crocks, pouzzolane (a sort of volcanic rock, sold as small chips for use as a mulch or to improve drainage), cactus compost (a fine, sandy compost low in nutrients) and then dressed the top with decorative limestone chippings – sempervivums are fairly unfussy about the soil they grow in, so I figured that this would do them no harm.

Whilst they look small in their planter at the moment, they will hopefully soon spread and start to fill it out.

SV in planter

Four of my new sempervivum planted out in an old stone planter

The other four were planted in a low terracotta pot, with some of my ‘special stones’ I have collected over the years for decoration:

SV in pot

The other four planted in a pot

The stones look even better once the pot has been watered to settle in the plants:

SV in pot wet

Sempervivums with decorative (wet) stones

Now can you see why I like them so much?

Signs of spring

In the past couple of days we have had frost, snow, sleet, hail, rain – and even a little bit of sunshine. However, despite the cold and particularly wet winter we have had, the first shoots of spring have already started to push through in the garden. This being our first spring here, it is very exciting, as I do not even know what some of them are going to be!

The clumps may be small, but I was very pleased to see these daffodils pushing through on either side of the little side gate:

Side gate daffodils

There are a few other small clumps of daffodils around the garden, like this one near the front door:

Daffodils by sempervivums

Then I have a few patches of what I think might be tulips, although for some reason I didn’t really expect tulips to thrive here. I hope they are and I hope they do! They are growing in very poor, stony soil, including on the edge of the gravelly driveway.

I know that these (first photo below) are crocosmia shoots, because I did see the tail end of them flowering last year, and the second photo shows what I think are more of the same, although they are in an area that was deep in wild plum saplings that I have cleared a bit, revealing new life.

Crocosmia shoots

Crocosmia shoots?

Do you remember my discovery of Madonna lilies (Madonna unveiled)? These are also in that area where I have cleared away a lot of weak and overgrown plum saplings. They have now started to produce their summer leaves and shoots – the winter basal leaf rosettes will die away.

And then my first, and almost only, spring flowers so far – a little clump of sparsely flowering white hyacinths. I have brought a few sprigs indoors and they scent the kitchen beautifully. There also seem to be plenty more flowering shoots coming through, even though it has already been flowering for several weeks.


In the hedgerows, all down the lane and around some edges of my garden, the Cornus mas are about to break into flower, and this one little sprig in my garden has opened:

Finally, my biggest surprise: I have noticed patches of these small rosettes of broad leaves pushing through the lawn grass in several areas since late autumn or early winter. They initially looked to me a bit like tulip leaves, but obviously far too early. Clearly quite hardy, I assumed they must be some sort of pernicious weed, but decided I should just leave them to see what they turned out to be.

And a few days ago it dawned on me, thinking back to early spring last year when we were house-hunting and I was spending a lot of my time identifying and recording wild flowers (see my Wildflowers page). It seems I have a lawn full of orchids: during a quick walk around in the rain I counted over a hundred!

They will come

At the start of winter, I decided to hang bird feeders to try to attract bird life to the garden. I got some fat balls and some seed for my seed feeder, and hung them out expectantly. Nothing happened. Day after day, they remained untouched. “They will come”, my Dad said to me, as my aunt had once said to him. “Just wait, and they will come”.

And a week later, they came. In their dozens. Within days it seemed like I was feeding every garden bird in the Tarn-et-Garonne. Word had obviously got around!

Now I find it hard to keep up with demand, especially as peanuts seem quite hard to come by in France. Here are some of my regulars:

Great spotted woodpeckers



Great tits




Nuthatch 1Nuthatch 2


Blue tits

Blue tit 1Blue tit 2


And the ground feeders:








Robin 2DSCN0905




Compost bins for free

I have just finished building my first new compost bin, to replace the broken plastic one that came with the house, and I thought I’d share with you how I made it.

I started by collecting old wooden pallets and breaking them apart. It is surprising how many pallets it takes to make one compost bin, especially as it is easy to break a plank when you prise it off the pallet. I think I used around ten pallets of various shapes and sizes to make one bin, although I still have a lot of the thicker bracing pieces of wood left over.

Planks from pallets

Stack of wood from dismantling pallets

To make each of the four corner posts I nailed two of the thicker bits of wood together for strength.

Compost bin corner posts

The four corner posts

I then cut lots of the thinner planks to length (1m) and worked out how many I needed to make a 1m high bin.

Planks for compost bin sides

1m planks laid out ready to make the back panel

These planks were then nailed to two of the corner posts, taking care before I started to make sure it was roughly ‘square’, by measuring the diagonals.

Back panel

Back panel

The side panels were made in a similar way, but only nailed to one corner post. I added a diagonal bracing piece, primarily for strength while I was carrying them around before the bin was assembled.

Side panel

Side panel

I then moved the panels to site and assembled them one at a time, again just nailing the planks into the corner posts.

Assembling the bin

Assembling the bin on site

A strong piece of wood nailed across the bottom helps hold it all together.

Main structure of bin

Basic structure of bin

I have to thank my Dad for the design of the removable front panels – he has done the same on all of his bins. A bit tricky to work out the placing of the wooden ‘hooks’ and the corresponding cut-outs, but very effective once done correctly.

Front panel attachment system

System for attaching front panels

The bins were finished with a bracing piece across the top to stop the sides splaying out from the pressure of the compost once full, a plywood floor – just to make digging the compost out easier, at least initially before it rots, and a coat of wood preserver.

Finished compost bin

Finished compost bin (awaiting final front panel)

I intend to build a second bin as soon as I can, so that I can turn the compost by moving it from one bin to the other – this speeds up the composting process no end. Then in time, I will build more and more as my garden grows.


‘No dig’ for victory (against weeds!)

Since I made my first few tentative steps towards clearing the vegetable patch (see Braving the veg patch) I have been wondering what on earth I have let myself in for. There are 18 months’ worth of weeds there, growing up to six feet high, and I dread to think how many more years’ worth of weed seeds in the soil. I was envisaging a hard winter of digging and weeding, with the weeds taking over again any time that I dared to take my eye off the area for a week or two. That was until I was recently reminded of the “no-dig” approach to gardening.

A wealth of information about no dig growing – pioneered by Charles Dowding in the 1980s – can be found on the internet, so I will not try to repeat it here. However, I will list what I consider to be the main principles of it from a practical point of view, and the main benefits.

No dig basics:

  • A no dig bed can be established on almost any surface, including a lawn, a weed-covered veg patch, or even on concrete.
  • There is no need to ‘prepare’ the soil that you already have, because the no dig bed will essentially be established on top of it. If it is built on soil (as opposed to concrete) this will eventually be incorporated into the bed, and any weeds composted, by the action of worms and soil organisms, giving an even greater depth of well-structured, fertile soil.
  • Existing weeds can be suppressed by a layer of cardboard. A good depth (8-10 inches or more) of compost, manure, leafmould or similar is then layered on top of the cardboard to create the beds. The areas that are to be paths – it is very important not to walk on a no dig bed as this compacts the soil – can be covered in wood chippings or straw.
  • Your plants are then planted directly into the compost, allowing good root formation, a good supply of nutrients, and greatly reduced competition from weeds, which will be suppressed by the compost ‘mulch’.
  • At the end of each year, after cropping, another several inches of mulch (compost, manure, leafmould) are added on top of the beds (NOT forked in!). The worms do the job of mixing the layers, creating drainage and aeration channels, and converting nutrients into a form easily absorbed by plants.

The benefits are numerous, but include:

  • No digging! My back, for one, will thank me.
  • Not having to worry about clearing the weeds from the area before you start.
  • Healthier and stronger plants, because of the healthy soil and abundance of nutrients.
  • No requirement for expensive chemicals.
  • More fertile soil allows for a greater density of cropping (the ‘square metre’ or ‘square foot’ approach – growing more plants in a smaller area, but mixing up different types of crop to reduce the likelihood of pest and disease occurrence, as well as growing successionally to reduce wastage).
  • Far fewer weeds to contend with. Weeds that were in the area to start with will be smothered by the cardboard and mulch, and will die off. Any weed seeds that land on the no dig beds will be less likely to germinate because the top inch or so of the no dig beds will dry out a bit, whilst maintaining good soil moisture underneath for your plants to tap into. Any weed seeds that do manage to germinate will be easy to remove from the compost-like bed.

So, I’ve made a start, collecting cardboard from the recycling bins beside the road to suppress the weeds. It’s amazing how much you can find – sometimes only limited by the size of your car!

I have prepared one half of the vegetable patch (or potager) – the other half may have to wait until next year. I did pull out some of the tallest and woodiest dead weeds, just to gain access, and then I went in with a lawnmower and mowed down the weeds. Goose grass, purslane, fat hen, thistles – you name it, I’ve got it. I’m putting my trust in this system – and a lot of mulch!

Potager - as was

Potager – as it was originally

Potager - structures removed

Potager – structures removed

Potager - weeds mown

Potager – weeds mown down

With the weeds mown down (but not collected up), I started laying down the cardboard, at least a couple of layers of thick cardboard deep. The bamboo poles are just to weight it down so it doesn’t blow away before I get the manure in.

Wheelbarrow full of cardboard

The first load of cardboard

First cardboard

Laid two or more layers deep

Cardboard weighted down

And temporarily weighted down against the wind

More cardboard

After a few more loads of cardboard, and a bit of rain

A few more sessions of cardboard collecting should do the trick, and then I will be onto my next challenge – sourcing a load of appropriate manure (fumier) from a local farmer, and somehow transporting it down to my potager.




Madonna unveiled

I have just got around to storing some seeds from a mystery plant that I found in the garden a couple of months ago. While clearing away some of the wild plum saplings from one of the borders, as well as a Strawberry Tree (see Strawberry Delight), I found several clumps of strap-like leaves growing, with some old flower stalks and seed heads still on some of them.

Lilium candidum leaves

Lilium candidum dead flower stalks

The flower stalks, brown and dried, were well over a metre tall, and quite sturdy. The seed heads looked a bit like daylilies (Hemerocallis), but the leaves are too short and wide, and the seeds did not look right either once I had extracted them.

Lilium candidum seed heads

I picked the dried seed heads at the time, and they have been sitting around drying further.

Lilium candidum seed head

Today I broke them open and found a large number of flat papery seeds in each head. After sorting the seed from the papery chaff, I have a decent pile of healthy looking seeds from just three seed heads, which I will store until spring or the appropriate time to sow them.

Lilium candidum seeds

Lilium candidum seedsI have found Facebook to be a wonderful resource for identifying mystery plants (search for plant identification groups), as well as all manner of other things, and it was Facebook to the rescue again to solve this mystery. What I have are in fact several clumps of Lilium candidum – the Madonna lily. These are the only lily to grow a basal rosette of leaves during the winter, which then die the following summer.

Lilium candidum - Madonna lily

Lilium candidum (internet picture)

I am pleased I decided to clear away some of the overgrown plum saplings, as I would never have found these otherwise, and any flowers they had next year would probably have been hidden. I will probably clear a bit more space around them now that I know what they are, and hopefully a bit of space, light and TLC will encourage them to put on a wonderful display next summer.