Swallow Chatter; A Rose by any Other Name; Through My Window; Bedding Bliss.

We’re just back from our annual week’s holiday. Strangely for reasons I won’t bore you with, we can’t actually choose the week we’re away and so this year it landed in early July. Hardly the best timing for keen gardeners, but at least it took us away from the verdant, wet Welsh landscape to the boulevards and open spaces of Paris.

En route to a pre-holiday weekend stay with relatives in Surrey, we were held up for a few minutes by traffic lights just before Brecon. Travelling as we usually do with a window ajar, I was surprised by the volume of bird chatter drifting in from the rural scene and was about to mention it to Fiona when a movement in front of me, just below the bottom centre of the windscreen, caught my eye. A small head had appeared from beneath the bonnet. A swallow chick had taken the pause in movement of the car to raise its head from the gutter, draining windscreen rain away. How it had come to be there and stay there for the hour or so of the journey to that point we have no idea. Fiona was able to remove it and place it at the side of the road in low vegetation, but it almost certainly would not have survived the following 24 hours.

Our timing meant we could share the tension of watching Andy Murray’s heroic efforts at Wimbledon. And contemplate how, whilst the natural world and much of British agriculture somehow has to cope with the terrible effects of wet and cold on plant growth and breeding cycles for many smaller insects and animals, urban society closes the roof, shuts out the weather and carries on as normal. (Well, not quite in Murray’s case). By way of light and healthy relief after all this armchair tension, our host took us for a long pre supper walk after the end of the match, which was lovely up to the point of seeing a barn owl flying low, quartering the fields bordering a swollen stream and canal in early evening sunshine. Just beyond this, the path crossed a now submerging footbridge over this same stream and then required us to wade through knee deep water for a hundred yards or so where the stream had flooded the margins of a wheat field. So even the normally dry summer Surrey countryside had not escaped the deluges.

Once in Paris, via Eurostar, we discovered the city surprisingly green, and the residents as fed up as Carmarthenshire folk with the lack of any real summer weather – largely cloudy, cool and with some rain – though nothing to rival the recent British downpours. This being a garden based blog, I’ll concentrate on some garden and nature based observations from our week’s stay but also briefly record the July 14th Bastille day celebrations with pomp, parades and fireworks, and our first trip to the Pere Lachaise cemetery.

I had to include this pre parade gathering of mounted troops just outside the St. Phillipe de Roule Metro (thanks to Fiona for all the Paris images).

There is a strange city like feel to the small stone ‘houses’ which line many of the ‘streets’ at the cemetery, and wandering around, one wonders about the motivation for such semi-permanent reminders of a life, or several, in the case of the many family vaults which, in various states of repair, protect shafts dug into the limestone of this very white capital city. Personally, I’d rather reflect on Chopin’s and Rossini’s lives through their legacy of music. Or indeed the prose of Oscar Wilde, rather than the lipstick adorned, security glass modern walls around his stone tomb.

The streets of the dead at Pere Lachaise cemetery.

But huge numbers of the world’s movers and shakers are interred here, and attract the crowds. Having seen it once we probably won’t return.

The white city’s roofs at dusk.

A return trip to the Parc Bagatelle on the eastern edge of the Bois de Boulogne found the roses in the formal areas still in full bloom, and once again these stunning extensive gardens were largely devoid of people. Perhaps they were all at the cemeteries? Or attaching love locks to the Pont des Arts bridge over the Seine, a craze that seems to have developed over the last couple of years.

Another few years, and officials will have to get the bolt cutters out to prevent the bridge collapsing under the weight of love padlocks. Pont des Arts.

There must be hundreds of much more, romantic than padlocks, rose varieties, laid out in formal beds at the Parc Bagatelle:- bushes, standards, climbers trained up pillars and over rope swags and pergolas with no under planting at all and many contained within low box edged beds.

The only other people in the rose garden were half a dozen gardeners. Don’t the French visit gardens as often as many British tend to? If this had been Wisley on a sunny weekday in July, I guess it would have been heaving.

Not at all our style of gardening with roses but fascinating nevertheless. What we hadn’t noticed on a previous visit was firstly, that there are annual trial areas with many new varieties with simply a number and as yet no name, waiting to be assessed for comparative performance.

(The winning rose from the 2011 trial bed. Little scent, but what pretty flowers and no foliage disease).

And secondly, that all the existing cultivars are labelled with name as well as date of origin and breeder details.

Another overall view of the formal area of the Rose garden at the Parc Bagatelle, Paris.

Wandering around I was struck by how many vigorous disease free roses there were which derived from the Kordes firm based in Germany, and also that two of our most healthy roses even in this dire summer, were bred by the French firm of Meilland, based in Provence. For anyone interested, there’s some fascinating information on the firm’s website if you ignore the quirkiness of the Google translation which I needed to navigate the site. Roses ‘Bonica’ and ‘Felicia’ were the two Meilland cultivars which are our stalwarts, and I was interested to see on our return, that they were still performing really well after 6 weeks of incessant damp weather and no chemical spraying – in marked contrast to a recently acquired lovely and supposedly ‘disease resistant’ British bred Rose ‘Chandos Beauty’. Perhaps having been bred in the drier East of the UK, this rose never got assessed for vigour in wetter climates before commercial release?

French bred Rosa ‘Bonica’ today after a Welsh summer with no chemical spraying.

And French bred Rosa ‘Felicia’ – Vive la France!

By contrast ‘disease resistant’ and English bred R. ‘Chandos Beauty’. Lovely scent and flowers, but spot the leaves left after this damp summer!

The still family owned Meilland business trials any new varieties in 15 different locations around the world before deciding to release them commercially. Consequently my previous assumption that French roses coming from a very much warmer and drier climate than ours would be unsuitable for growing in the Welsh hills, was mistaken. Indeed glancing through the roll call of award winning roses from the world federation of rose societies you see a record number of Meilland bred roses, and surprisingly few British ones. Perhaps the following rose linked quotes are worth repeating here.

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.  William Shakespeare

‘In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be’ .   Hubert H. Humphrey

and finally,

‘One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today‘.  Dale Carnegie

A rare impressionistic bed sown with annuals, just off the Boulevarde periphique, and behind a street of curtained Transit vans stretching to the Bois de Boulogne. A more solicitous bedding, we think.

Making time to smell the roses has always been a keen life theme for me, so I enjoyed finding this last quote, and also in the way it links nicely to another Parisian moment. Walking back through the Jardin de Tuileries we found a large, new building just East of the Orangerie, which houses some of Monet’s latter huge waterlily paintings in 2 oval rooms. This new location was home to a photographic exhibition by the artist AHAE. That was pretty much all the promotional posters for ‘Through My Window’ told you, but since the exhibition was free, we thought we’d call in.

What an amazing vision and execution was revealed through this exhibition. Apparently, the hanging of it was the result of a serendipitous meeting between the director of the Louvre museum and a colleague over lunch in Malaysia, (Addendum, much later, though subsequent news on the suicide and biography of AHAE suggests a likely murkier origin). The exhibition shows a selection from over 2 million photographs taken over a 2 year period by the Korean photographer AHAE.

The limiting factor for this mammoth undertaking? All the pictures were taken through the open, small window of his studio which overlooks a rural scene on his organic small holding in South Korea incorporating a small pool, meadow, woods, hill and sky. But this patient, detailed, perhaps even obsessive, long term study captures in thrilling detail the ebb and flow of the seasons, light, movement, clouds and wildlife. Many of the images are stunning and have an impressionistic quality – and I think the decision to hang enormous images of firstly reflections on the lake surface, and secondly clouds, in two separate Orangerie-like galleries was inspired.


Some of the ‘reflections’ images from the “Through the Window” exhibition by AHAE.

Some of the photographs were perhaps on their own, less dramatic. But it’s the wholeness of this record of one place through time, along with a few verses written by AHAE, which made the ensemble captivating. It cries out to the viewer to make time to enjoy the world, particularly the natural world all around about them. NOW.

There were no images of AHAE, or even a biography of the artist that we noticed at the exhibition, perhaps a conscious decision not to detract from the power of the message of the show. But back home we discovered that there is a lot more to this Korean ‘photographer’ than this relatively late-in-his-career project. Click here to find more on his website.

Many public garden spaces throughout central Paris are laid out very formally with displays of annual bedding which in July are starting to fill out. I’d taken the reworking of the Victorian gardener William Robinson’s book ‘Wild Gardening’ by Rick Darke, as holiday reading, and it was fascinating to see how over a hundred years ago Robinson was railing at the effort, expense and habitat destruction necessary to create such displays of formal bedding plants.

A tiny fraction of the bedding used at the Jardin de Luxembourg, Paris.

Here, using mainly annuals or exotics, and digging over the entire bed at least twice a year. Robinson’s sentiments chimed with our own take on gardening whilst working with the grain of nature, rather than against it. But as we sat and rested our aching feet on seats in the Jardin de Luxembourg and tried to decide if we liked the ornate colour themed plantings which involved thousands of bedding plants over a huge area, I couldn’t help but notice a single bumblebee, which worked the entire length of one bed. Moving at speed over the vast range of flowers on show for the masses of human eyes, and pausing every so many yards as it reached a single yellow dahlia cultivar which provided it with something more than just eye candy.

Pretty much the only flower type getting insect visits was this single yellow Dahlia.

We returned home to find that the buds of the Japanese water Iris, ensata ‘Caprician Butterfly’ which we’d bought last year at East Bergholt plant nursery in dry Suffolk, still hadn’t opened, and that it had been so cool that the weeds hadn’t engulfed everything.

Then, suddenly, the weather flipped.

The rain stopped.

The sun shone.

The mercury rose.

The Iris buds opened! The Fox and Cubs lit up the bank. The grasses in the high meadow shone. Summer had arrived for us on July 22  2012.

Iris ensata ‘Caprician Butterfly’ buds finally opened. Worth waiting for, and these are huge flowers.

And so we opened the Velux rooflight in the bedroom to air the room, and forgetting to close it as we pulled the blind down as darkness fell, I was woken by a different and happier sort of swallow chatter this morning, as surviving chicks sat and nattered on the satellite catenary wire as a grey but warm and dry dawn suffused the valley.

Alchemilla mollis and Fox and Cubs. Oh, and some BLUE SKY.

High meadow grasses and Bird’s-foot trefoil.

Hydrangea macrophylla and Geranium psilostemon.

Honeybee on cornflower.

Interesting clouds at dusk.