This has been one tough winter, with snow so deep it buried several trees, including my nearly two-metre tall dwarft pear tree. Broken branches, trees bent to the ground, rosebushes in pieces on the ground: the damage has been great, and the budget will have to stretch to several replacement plants.
But it’s not all gloom and doom, now that the snow is gone and the sun is making the veranda toasty again. The plants have loved all this winter moisture and many are showing more buds than we usually see.
And the pond has suddenly come to life!
We’ve only seen a couple frogs, tiny ones, in the past, after seeing many tadpoles. But we still had so much snow even two weeks ago that we couldn’t reach the pond, and we haven’t seen a single tadpole.
Today 10 or more frogs the size of a small fist have poked their heads out of the mud to sunbathe. And there are two clouds of frog spawn floating on the surface of the pond, so it looks like this is frog party year.
The little frogs sneak out of the pond to hide in the ivy around the edge, at the bottom of my rock garden.
The rock garden is offering us its first flowers after a handful of crocus blooms – pink and purple pulsatilla, or Paque flowers.
I expect to see nature hard at work to get the creatures balance right in coming weeks. The frogs will be happy about our bugs, and I hope they become expert at catching the flies from the cows next door. On the other hand, we are on a kind of neighborhood autoroute for cats, and I think we’ll see them sunbathing on the edge of the pond, waiting for the frogs.
The garden cleanup chores, and there are plenty, suffered a bit from the frog-watching today, but it was worth it.
Two weeks of very unusually warm weather and, even in the mountains, we’re tempted to call it spring.
My elderly neighbour, who has spent her life here and who remembers the weather from past years, like a good farmer, says we’re having August in April, “and that’s not normal!” she worries.
I resisted the temptation to plant, as at 1,100 metres altitude, the days might be warm, but the temperature spread can be huge, with still-chilly nights.
Last weekend I had to mow the lawn, very unusual here before May, and I finally admitted today that Nature’s clock is ahead of mine.
I made out my “urgent” garden chores list this morning:
- scarify the 75% of the lawn I didn’t do last weekend
- use the little handcutter to tidy the edge of the grass, especially along the walk and edge of the veranda
- straighten the wonky fences
- drive in the stakes we put in for small border fences last autumn – they would only go in halfway, with baked soiled back then
- use my little 3-pronged light plastic tool to gently pull out dead leaves from around the bushes and clippers to cut off some of the dead flowers, leaving enough old stalks above them to protect them a bit in case of a sudden cold spell
- convince someone else to reduce the foot-high dead tree stumps, from winter clearing, down to ground level
- separate and move strawberries that I’ve decided will fill a hillside space I created by digging up hopeless grass (more holes than greenery).
And if I have any energy left after that, there is the little weeding tool for reducing dandelions and clover to more manageable populations. People here eat dandelion leaves with bacon and hard-boiled eggs for a spring salad, and since we don’t use chemicals I could do that, but have never made it a priority.
Maybe this is the year to try.
One last chore is to tidy the rock garden: dig up the unwanted flowers that ran down hill reproducing all the way, cut down a few small bushes that suddenly outgrew the garden, and remove dead plant life to make room for the new that is pushing up everywhere.
Next to the hilly rock garden is a lovely pond, fed by an underground stream, a “bisse” as they are known in Valais, one of the thousands of mini-streams fed by glacial melt. It’s filled with dead leaves, grasses, detritus including bits of old flowerpots.
But it is thrumming with life, suddenly filled this week with tadpoles. A friend who knows about these things assured me last year that frogs love having hiding places and a pond that isn’t too tidy, so cleaning it will have to wait until the tadpoles make it to the next stage of their amazing lives and jump out of the pond.
I’m new to the frog business, having unwittingly swept them out and over the edge of our pond for a couple years. It’s fed by an underground stream, then has a little waterfall on the lower end. Last year, to my astonishment, I discovered that the blob of little balls floating on the surface was frog spawn. Don’t ask how well I did in biology classes.
I rushed to the Internet and friends to learn more and, in the process, I fell in love with these funny little creatures who fill our pond in the spring. Last year they happily reached the tadpole stage and I think I spotted one tiny frog later, but they mostly just disappeared.
Shirley Curran, who writes the GenevaLunch book blog and creates our new crosswords, is a general knowledge marvel, and she told me that at a certain stage they need a little meat to survive. I had visions of every cat and rat in the neighbourhood coming to nibble on bits of meat left at the edge of the pond.
Then yesterday my husband, busy preparing our Sunday brunch, decided to toss a couple snips of raw bacon into the pond.
They loved it! The tadpoles spent the rest of the day going after those bacon bits and by evening the little creatures already looked bigger to us.
Now to see if we get any frogs. It’s a jungle out there, next to the farmer’s field.
Passion in the ponds
The surest sign of spring at 1,100 metres altitude is not among the flowers, where the bees have been busy, or among the trees, filled with birds: it’s in the pond.
We watched the odd balls that hold spawn as days grew longer and warmer. About two weeks ago tiny, tiny tadpoles began to appear and the balls began to self-destruct.
The tadpoles grow by the day, have become more vigorous, and we are waiting to see if some will turn to frogs and stay with us. Every year in May they head downhill with the bisse (mountain irrigation) stream that feeds our pond and provides a small waterfall, and we rarely see the frogs before they disappear.
Shirley Curran has shared photos from her warmer, lower altitude ponds, where tadpoles have become charming, active and amorous frogs already!
Click on images to view larger (best viewed large, great detail!)
Shirley Curran normally writes about books, crosswords and skiing for GenevaLunch but it turns out she has another passion: ponds. She is our guest blogger, sharing the tresures of her Pays de Gex, France pond – not quite as close to the sky as my Alpine garden, but high enough.
By Shirley Curran
This morning I caught one of those rare moments – the yellow-collared grass-snakes (couleuvre à collier – natrix natrix) are usually very shy but this one was busy digesting an alpine newt (triton alpestre – triturus alpestris) he could barely move with his mouth so full, and I could even touch him. They are harmless to humans but wreak ravages on the newt, frog and tadpole population of the pond.
If you look carefully, you can see the newt’s feet. However, the newts are fairly voracious themselves – I have two varieties that are interbreeding – the alpine and the marbled kind (triton marbré – triturus marmoratus). They devour all the tadpoles!
My real loves are the yellow-bellied singing toads (sonneurs bombina variegata). We intervened to save them from being wiped out when a nearby pond was being bulldozed and they have returned to us every year since and breed in our ponds. They sing little high pitched notes and cheep and chatter very musically and softly.
They are intellingent and very curious and friendly – they like sitting on a warm hand.
Ed. note: I wrote to Shirley about my own surprising frog spawn, with questions because I’m new to frogs, and here is her reply:
My only advice about tadpoles is to be sure that they have somewhere they can put their legs and arms once they develop them. They are aquatic until then, but, at that moment, will drown if they can’t actually get a footing somewhere as they are amphibians from then on and need to be able to ‘walk’. They need stones near the water surface, or somewhere where they can get out of the pond. That’s why so many little kids have jars of frogspawn that die and rot – very sad.
Actually there’s a second bit of help – if you feed them dog or cat food in small quantities, or bits of raw meat, they will thrive on it – again, that is as they get their legs and change their diet (in a few weeks at your altitude – it’s altitude and temperature that control the speed of development). There are a couple of days before they become insectivore and leave the pond – I’m told they starve then, but doubt a lot of the rubbish that is in books, as my observations over the years don’t correspond.
Ed. again: so this leaves me wondering frogs? toads? the difference is? And here is what googling “frog toad difference” turns up: allaboutfrogs. We don’t have to declare them the experts, as Shirley reminds me, but I like to think all toads are frogs. And all frogs can become prince charmings.
An exceptionally long winter, with the garden buried for five months under nearly a metre of snow, has finally come to an end, and the garden has emerged. Unscathed – well, not quite. Broken branches had to be sawed off several bushes and trees, especially saddening on beautiful little Japanese maples, two of which now look lopsided rather than graceful. At 1,100 metres they don’t grow much over 1 of 1.5 metres, so they provide lovely colour and elegant lines at a midway height between bushes and trees.
Otherwise, the garden has benefited from a long, slow drink all winter, with several shrubs shooting up a few centimetres in height. Perennials are coming up strongly. Birds and bees are all active and noisy, and there is no sign at our place that the world’s bees are dying out, so perhaps we can offer them a refuge.
The greatest surprise was frog spawn, although I swept several balls out of the pond while cleaning it before I realized what I was sending down the bisse. Our pond is actually just a rock-edged pause in the mountain stream, coming in underground at one end and running out a small waterfall at the other end. We don’t keep fish because we can’t. They would quickly disappear downhill. So I never imagined frogs could breed here and they never have.
Here is what’s been growing my pond. Now to see if we get tadpoles or frogs from this. I know very little about these creatures, so telephoned a knowledgeable brother-in-law in southern England whose response was only “I hope you can still sleep if you get frogs!” Their nighttime chorus is loud to very loud. I looked up basic frog information online and found it contradictory, so I guess we let nature take its course and sit back to watch the show.