30 April 2010

Inventory: flowering plants and trees

We don't have an exceptionally flowery yard. We focus most of our energy on growing vegetables, and enjoy both the flowers and the harvest we get from the vegetable garden.

The best flowers for my style of gardening are perennials, including bulbs and flowering trees. In the way of bulbs, we have not only irises, but jonquils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, tulips of various colors, and crocuses. Most of these were already here when we bought the house seven years ago, along with a lot of wild cyclamens and primroses that come up in early spring.

Just irises today

We also have a lot of flowering trees, as I've mentioned. All these were here when we arrived too. There's an ornamental cherry as well as a fruit-bearing cherry tree; five apple trees; and an ornamental plum tree. The two fruit-bearing plum trees that we had blew over in a storm a couple of months ago, and they'll soon be firewood. Meanwhile they had a lot of blossoms on them last week. And I have two other little plum trees to plant in their place. We also have a pear tree and a lilac tree. The latter flowers every other year, it turns out.

We have peonies, columbine, saxifrage, roses, various violets, and blue bellflowers that appear every spring. Not to mention a couple of wild purple orchids, some cowslips, and a lot of dandelions. And we have a good collection of dahlias donated by a friend on the other side of the village. Not to mention the rosemary and thyme plants we've put in and that are in flower right now.

Oh, and don't forget the sage, which has beautiful purple flowers in May and June, and the big stand of St-John's wort, which will flower in yellow over the course of the summer. And the wild chicory (cornflowers), plus a stand of of yellow-flowering sedum that I brought back from my mother's house in North Carolina five years ago. It complements the pink-flowering sedum we found here when we moved in.

Since we've been here, we've planted lily-of-the-valley that was given to me by a friend in Normandy (I dug the plants up in her garden and brought them home), a fig tree that we bought, two plum trees that I grew from pits I got from the neighbors' tree, and a red-flowering sage plant that we took as cuttings from plants on the Ile d'Oléron when we went there on vacation a couple of years ago.

Wow. I had never done an inventory before. We do have a lot of flowering plants, and a lot of flowers in different spots in the yard at different times. Right now the irises and peonies are putting on a show. The ornamental plum has nearly finished, and we didn't get too many apple blossoms this year — maybe that means we won't be buried in apples in 2010.

The roses will start soon. One rosemary bush is absolutely loaded down with blue flowers these days. I guess I have to take back what I said at the beginning of this. It turns out we have a very flowery yard — though not exceptionally so by Touraine standards. It's just that our flowers are spread over a big yard, not concentrated in what the French call massifs.

Oh, I forgot to mention the two kinds of lavendar... and the mint. And probably others.

P.S. Staring out the window just now, I realize I left off: forsythia, tamarisk, linden (tilleul), prickly-pear cactus, and calla lilies. Plus a couple of flowering shrubs that I have never identified.

29 April 2010

Yellow flowers... name that plant

You might recognize these yellow flowers, or you might not. You don't usually see them in cut form, in a vase.

? ? ?

You might think "mustard" if you are from California. Or "canola" if you are from Canada — "colza" in France. Or "rape" (photo of flower) — a.k.a. "oilseed rape" (Wiki article). But it's none of those.

? ? ?

In Touraine in April, there are wide fields of similar yellow flowers all around the countryside. In fact, mustard, rape, and the plant in question are all members of the cabbage family.

The leaves of the plant

These flowers (and leaves) grew in our vegetable garden. They survived the winter. I pulled the plants out yesterday and spent the day trimming, cleaning, and cooking the leaves.

Eight pints (one gallon) of cooked greens

After you've looked at the other two pictures in this post, you might have a better idea. And knowing my Southern background will help...

28 April 2010

Bertie's a climber

It's a quiet week. Bertie the cat has settled into a routine. Callie the dog is acting like she's missing something, or being deprived of something. I think the dog knows that there's a cat living in the garage, and the cat certainly knows that there's a dog living in the house.

That's as far as we've gotten in the area of canine-feline relations. Meanwhile, our work crew took a week off to go do a job in the Paris region, so it's quiet here.

A close-up view of the vineyard road
from an attic window

A couple of evenings ago, I came back from a long walk with the dog. I told Walt I would be out for a while, so he had time to bring the cat up into the house for nice long visit.

When I got home, I left Callie downstairs while I went upstairs to see what the situation was. Walt was snoozing in a chair out on the front terrace. "Where's the cat?" I asked him. "Out here on the deck," he said. I looked around, but there was no sign of Bertie.

We're having warm days but chilly, dewy mornings.

This is about all the moisture that the grapevines
are getting these days.

We proceeded to search all over the house. No cat. Had he jumped off the deck? That's a pretty good drop, but cats are capable of such things, I think. I went back down to the garage to see if Bertie had jumped down and then gone in there through his open window. No sign of him in the garage either.

Callie was waiting patiently as I went back upstairs. Walt was searching high and low in every room in the house. I figured he'd find him in a minute or two, under the bed or in a closet, so I climbed the ladder up to the attic space to see how hot it had gotten up there on a sunny afternoon.

Here's the ladder that the cat climbed up
to get into the attic.

And you know who was up there, right? Bertie the black cat had climbed up the ladder. He was perched in the front window, enjoying a panoramic view of the neighborhood. Neither Walt nor I really believed that a cat would climb a steep ladder like that.

Yesterday, to see if he could do it again, I brought Bertie into the house. Then I climbed the ladder into the attic. Not two minutes later, I saw Bertie climb up too. No problem. Then this morning I brought Bertie into the house after he ate his breakfast and Walt took Callie out for her walk. The cat headed straight up the ladder.

A ladybug on a branch

He likes it up there in the attic. It's the one place where he is perfectly safe from the dog, I guess. That won't be the case when we get the staircase up it.

27 April 2010

Plum trees, and others

They grow all around us. In season, there are trees full of little red plums, big round yellow plums, or smaller dark purple ones. Some of the plums (called prunes in French) are very sweet. Others are tart. Some are really juicy. Some are better for cooking than for eating right off the tree.

Out walking the dog the other afternoon, I passed by the tree that blew over in our late-February storm and got propped up again. It's on a strip of land just to the north of our property, at the edge of a big parcel of grapevines. That's when I realized that growing under that tree and the one next to it were at least two dozen smaller plum trees. They surely came up from pits that landed on the ground when ripe fruit fell there.

Fruit trees all around the vineyard are covered in
white blossoms now. This is a cherry tree.

These are big yellow plums that are sweet and juicy. They are delicious to eat just as they are when they are good and ripe, and they make good pies and jellies too. I'd love to have such a plum tree growing in our yard. Our own plum trees — the two that were uprooted in the storm a couple of months ago — produced medium-sized, greenish-purple plums that could also be sweet and juicy, but they would go over-ripe before you had time to pick them all. Wasps got more of them than we did. And some years they didn't bear at all.

Here are two photos of the new plum trees I've potted up.
There are two trees in the pot.

So what would you do in my place? What I did was this: I went out a few mornings ago and dug up one of the small trees growing under the yellow-plum trees. It's actually two trees growing together. I hope they aren't the kind of trees that need to be grafted — I see no evidence that the parent trees were.

I planted the two little trees in a pot to see if they would survive and, if they did, to keep them until we could figure out where to plant them in our yard. At first the leaves drooped noticeably, and I thought my experiment might be a failure. But after 36 hours, the trees perked back up, and now they look perfectly healthy.

A prunus tree in our back yard is covered in pink blossoms
right now,
but it's ornamental and doesn't bear fruit.

Looking around the yard for the ideal spot, I noticed that our fallen plum trees have also produced at least one baby tree. So when we cut our trees up for firewood this summer, we'll now have two new plum trees to plant in their place. One kind will produce yellow plums, and one purple.

And that is sans mentionner the little pruniers that I grew two years ago from the pits of tiny, tart red plums I picked up under a neighhbor's tree across the street. Those trees are doing very well where I planted them out back.

Two litttle trees that will produce loads of small, tart, red plums —
they had blossoms in March, so we may get fruit next month.

Why go buy trees when they are available all around? And when they are varieties that you know will grow strong and sturdy in the local soil, in this climate. Provided they don't need grafting to produce good fruit...

I also noticed that my favorite cherry tree, also out on the edge of the vineyard, has lots of little cherry trees coming up under it too. It produces sour cherries, good for pies and sauces. It's a rustic variety. Now I have to go dig one of those up, before somebody comes with a big mower or brush cutter and chops them all down.

Wild orchids are in bloom around the vineyard too.

By the way, two apricot pits that I planted in a pot back in November have come up now. I think they were pits from an abricotier that grows on the edge of the vineyard too. Or maybe they were from store-bought fruit that I found especially delicious. I planted both kinds. Other friends of ours have successfully grown productive apricot trees from pits.

26 April 2010

Summery weather

I read about tornadoes in Mississippi and even in North Carolina, and I'm grateful we don't have to worry about that kind of weather here. Yesterday, the weather forecaster on France 2 TV was downright giddy with joy, predicting a week of summery weather conditions in France.

Sunrise out the kitchen window in late April

For us, that means temperatures as "high" as 75º F this week! That's not what I immediately think of as summertime heat, given my North Carolina background, but in fact it does qualify for that description here in the Loire Valley. It's pleasant and I'll take it.

25 April 2010

This cat thing

The cat thing is not working out so well. I think the cat needs more human contact and affection. Human-feline quality time, as it were. That's difficult when you have an excitable dog, one that is used to chasing cats. Up trees, when possible. That's the most fun.

Bertie sat on our next-door neighbor's doorstep yesterday
afternoon, watching us sitting on our own front porch with Callie.

But Bertie can't go to our neighbors — at least not the ones we know best. They are anti-cat, it turns out. Now we understand why the two sets of neighbors over the road don't have anything to do with each other. One household keeps several cats. The other neighbors, we now know, complain mightily that the cats do their business in their flower beds. They don't like the crottes. We were never aware of the problem until we told them we had inherited a cat from a departing Englishwoman.

He looked lonely, don't you think?

Sigh. We heard those neighbors shooing Bertie away yesterday when he was walking down to road, looking for a friend. Or une caresse, as they say in French. They clapped their hands loudly and hooted him away.

On a happier note: the lilacs are in bloom all around.

I had forgotten how divided the world is when it comes to dogs and cats. Most people who love one animal have very little use for, if not outright antipathy toward, the other. Now it feels like we are squabbling with neighbors who have been good friends to us for seven years.

24 April 2010

Getting the garden going

Nobody said it would be as easy as pie. If you want or need to do the work yourself, getting a vegetable garden ready for planting in the spring is hard work. Of course, if you don't otherwise work for a living, preparing the garden is the kind of work that is pretty satisfying.

Having a rototiller helps a lot. At my age, digging in the soil with a shovel and sheer muscle power would limit the size of my garden severely. Even with a machine, tilling the local soil — ours is heavy clay — is hard work. But you only have to do it once a year... make that twice. It takes two good passes with to get the soil right, but only the first one each spring is really hard to do. The second one is a piece of cake...

Here's what my gardening shoes look like
after I've tilled up a garden plot or two.

...until a wheel falls off the rototiller. That's what happened yesterday. It's not a wheel, really — it's a thin, sharp metal disk that cuts an edge where you want one. And the disks on each side really do stabilize the machine, the way wheels would. Anyway, Walt found a nut and bolt and we quickly had the tiller repaired.

Three vegetable garden plots are tilled and ready.
Rhubarb has come up, and winter collards are finishing up.

Planting for the year has already started, and winter crops are finishing up. Walt has radishes growing in planter boxes, and he plans to plant more out in the garden this coming week. I planted potatoes (thanks, J & N) a week or more ago. I'm waiting for them to come up. Walt also has tomatoes, peppers, marigolds, and eggplants growing in flats, getting ready to be set out.

Those are collard greens on the left, with yellow flowers.
I'm going to gather the seeds soon and pull up the plants.

It took a while for the weather to get nice this year, but it's gorgeous these days. A good week is forecast. I'm hoping for good weather in May, June... and so on until October. We plan to grow a good amount of sweet corn this year, if the weather allows.

23 April 2010

The new view

Yesterday one of the Vélux windows was installed. I assume the other one will be done today. The windows are a little higher up on the wall than I had thought they would be, but if you get up close, the picture below shows what you see.

Click on the pictures to see them at full size.

If you are less than say 5'9" tall (1,75 m), you might have to stand on your tiptoes. Still, the main point of the windows is to let light into the room. The view is a bonus. As you can see, we had another beautiful day yesterday. You can also see the ornamental plum tree in pink flower.

Here are some pictures I took while the window was being put in and after it was done yesterday afternoon. The interior finishing has yet to be done.

The window installer saved for us as many of the roof tiles as he could. They'll come in handy if any tile blow off the next time we have a big windstorm.

There were three heavy glass tiles in the back section of roof that were there to let light into the attic. We especially wanted to save those, as souvenirs.

22 April 2010

Callie the collie

The focus has been off Callie for a while, and on Bertie. Bertie the brawler, I should call him. Cats really are wild animals — even a cat as affectionate and intelligent as Bertie. Or maybe it's just tomcats.

Meanwhile, Callie is just sweet. Even when she sees Bertie and gets all excited, barking and whimpering, she is just that — excited. Wanting to play. Have a game of chase. She isn't aggressive or really fierce about it.

Callie the collie

Bertie the brawler is much more ferocious, hissing and taking wide swipes with his paw at Callie's face, claws extended. He hasn't scored a direct hit yet, I'm glad to say.

Enjoying an afternoon walk

But direct hits there have been — on Bertie. Yesterday started off normally enough. I took a bowl of cat food down to the garage and there he was, purring and rubbing against my legs. Being a French cat, he eats packets of food called Marinades (pronounce it with a French accent, s'il vous plaît) — today it was chicken in a brown sauce, tomorrow it will be duck.

Callie soaking up the sun

Then I opened the garage window so that Bertie could come and go as he pleased during the day. That was that.

At noontime, I went down to the garage to see if he was there. He was, and he had a big bleeding wound on the top of his head. He was in a daze, I could tell. He was sitting in the window, as if surprised to have actually arrived at his new home again after his brawling or mauling.

Duck en sauce for the cat

I went and got a clean cloth, wet it with warm water, and bathed the wound as best I could. Walt came downstairs to hold Bertie and I spritzed some Bactine on his head. He didn't like that, but he didn't scratch. He spent much of the afternoon hiding among the boxes and odd pieces of furniture we have stored in the garage right now.

By evening, he was back up on his soft bed (which he soiled, but not badly, twice — he probably lacked the energy or was too confused to go to the litter box). He was quiet. I left him closed in all afternoon and evening.

Here's a plum tree that blew down in the February wind storm.
Some men came by with a tractor, set the tree
upright, and propped it up with posts.

This morning he was up and around, and obviously pleased to see me when I took his bowl of poulet down to him. His wound still looks oozy, so we'll have to go try to clean it up again this morning, and disinfect it. There's no way to know whether it was a brawl with another cat, or an attack by some other creature, that laid him low.

21 April 2010

Catching up...

...with some unfinished business...

1. The name Bertie has definitely stuck to the cat. The better we get to know him, the more we realize that he does recognize the name and respond to it.

In fact, I asked our friend who named him, and she told me this about why she called him Bertie: “The name comes via a mascot/brand identity for a type of liquorice sweet in the UK, Bassett's liquorice allsorts. The character in question is Bertie Bassett, and given his colour and the association with liquorice it seemed appropriate.”

So Bertie it is, and I like it. Here's a link.

2. About carrots — we finally did a taste test yesterday. I went and bought some ordinary carrots. We cut one of those up, and we cut up one of the carottes des sables from Créances in Normandy. Walt and I agreed that, raw, the Créances carrot had a better texture and a noticeable sweeter taste.

Then I cooked pieces of each carrot. The result was the same. The Créances carrot had a cleaner, more pleasant, and sweeter taste. It was also more tender.

So that's that sorted, as they say in British English. Les carottes des sables are superior, and selling them coated with sand is not just somebody's clever marketing gimmick. That restores my faith in good agricultural methods and honest advertising.

3. Yesterday was another gorgeous day. We had lunch out on the terrace, and we enjoyed the green asparagus with a home-made mayonnaise. It was a busy day up in the attic. Most of the plaster board is now in place, and electrical outlets are going in.

We don't have the Vélux windows installed yet, however. At last report, the installer might come do the job tomorrow, Thursday. The rest of the electical work will be finished by then, and the plumbing for our new steam radiators will be finished too.

The progress is amazing. We have a good crew doing the work.

20 April 2010

What the vineyards are producing in April

This morning, just as I was getting ready to tell you how there really isn't much going on the vineyard right now, Walt came back from his morning walk with Callie holding a huge bunch of green asparagus. He had picked them at various places around the vineyard.

Asparagus spears picked out in the vineyard

These are not spears of wild asparagus. They are escapees, I think, of the domesticated variety. I'm not sure how they got into the vineyard parcels, growing among the rows of grapevines. Maybe the land was used to grow asparagus at some point in the past, before it was replanted in vines. Or maybe birds or breezes spread asparagus seeds out there. Asparagus is a major crop in this part of the Loire Valley.

I immediately washed and trimmed the "found" asparagus spears...

We've been gradually finding and keeping track of more and more spots where asparagus comes up spontaeously in the spring. Nobody else seems to be interested in it. We probably visit the vineyard more frequently and regularly than anybody else, including the people who own the land, grow the grapes, and make and sell the wine.

...and steamed them. We'll have them for lunch
with some mayonnaise or vinaigrette.

We will start getting the locally grown white asparagus this weekend. So far, the few stalks available have been too expensive — as much as 10 € a kilogram — and we know the price will come down signficantly once the crop really starts to come in. I bet we'll find good white asparagus at the market in Saint-Aignan next Saturday for 5 to 6 € a kilo — $3.00 lb., approximately.

Vineyard scenes, 19 April 2010

But as I was saying, there's not an awful lot going on out in the vineyard right now, at least on a visible level. Nobody is working in the vines. We've seen just a few tractors over the past weeks, and Walt did run into our neighbors the Guerriers out there last week — they are a two-person operation, and they always seem to be late getting their work done, pruning and spraying days or weeks after everybody else has finished.

The leaves are starting to open up now.

But of course a lot is going on under the ground. It rained last night, so the vines are soaking up moisture. And if you look closely, you can see the first leaves forming. It won't be long before what is for the time being fairly barren-looking will become a wide sea of green.

The Renaudière vineyard, 19 April 2010

Everything is late this year. We had a long cold winter. Springtime has some catching up to do. I was glad it rained last night, because I tilled up a couple more garden plots yesterday. We might plant some chard and other greens this week.

19 April 2010

Warm days

Maybe it's the volcano in Iceland that's heating up the atmosphere. The winds pushing that cloud of volcanic ash toward France seem also to be bringing us warm weather. It felt almost hot yesterday afternoon when we were sitting out back in the bright sunshine. I suppose it's just the season.

Work in the attic starts up again today. There's still some plaster board to be put up on the south-facing wall and in the dormer over the kitchen. I have to check to see if the flooring has been ordered, and make sure they ordered the style we wanted — chamfered planks 6 inches wide, tongue & groove. I'm pretty sure they won't be putting the finish flooring this week. But maybe the roof windows will go in today.

Looking down from the attic toward the entryway, two floors below

All the fruit trees around the hamlet are in flower now. Plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, quinces and more will be abundant unless the weather turns cold or too rainy. In the strips of land north of our property, where a couple of plum trees blew down in our late-February wind storm, some men with a tractor came on Saturday and set the trees upright again. They propped them up with big wooden posts. The question is, will they blow down again in the next big wind?

Springtime blossoms at la Renaudière

We don't have a tractor to use to set our fallen plum trees upright again, so we'll cut them up for firewood — after we see whether we can get one last crop of plums. Then we'll set a new tree or two out in their place. I planted some apricot pits in a pot a few months ago, and at least one of them has come up strong and healthy. It'll be a good candidate to replace a fallen plum tree.

Looking out a window into the vineyard

I also planted some plum pits a couple of years ago. As a result, I have two new plum trees that are looking strong and healthy. They have already flowered this spring, and in a month or two they might produce a crop of nice little red plums, which are good for pies and jams. So life goes on. Un clou chasse l'autre, as they say in French — a new nail pushes out the old one.

18 April 2010


Well, here we are — stranded. Poor us. There are no flights in or out of Paris (or anywhere else in northern Europe). The French trains, or a good number of them, are on strike. We can't go anywhere. I guess we'll just have to make the best of it.

Despite all the news about a cloud of volcanic ash and dust floating over all of Europe, we are having beautiful weather here in Saint-Aignan (and all over France, I think). Walt mowed the grass for the first time yesterday. Today I'll do some planting in the garden.

Red cowslips (coucous rouges) have come up again,
out on the edge of the vineyard.

We are enjoying a couple of days of peace and quiet, since the construction crew took the weekend off. There was talk of rain tomorrow, but Walt said the forecast has changed and now we can expect bright sunny conditions for the beginning of the week.

A nice walk with Callie yesterday morning early, in full sun

That means we can do some more work in the garden and yard, and it means the Vélux windows might very well get installed tomorrow or Tuesday. That will really transform the new upstairs room. It's going to be fun to move back in when the attic conversion is complete. We are getting a new three-story house.