The hike in temperature from minus seven to plus twenty degrees within the space of a week has been dizzying; one minute it was all thermal base layers and double welly socks, the next we were stripped down to t-shirts in the garden. The air is full of birdsong, hazel pollen and the hum of insects – industrious honey bees, fat velvety bumbles, shiny blue-black carpenter bees and huge buttery brimstone butterflies – as though everything has suddenly woken up and stretched after the long, dark days of winter, lifting grateful faces and hearts towards the kiss of the sun. Me, too. It’s a very joyful thing.
We have needed no persuading to spend all day, every day, outside and it has been a wonderful feeling to be able to make so much progress in the garden at this time of year, not to mention being able to eat our lunch and enjoy an afternoon mug of coffee or evening glass of wine outdoors. In fact, we are so busy that I really don’t have time to blog so please accept photos with captions this time, rather than my usual waffle!
I’ve become so used to those soft southern winters that I’ve forgotten how it can go in more northern climes. The days lengthen, the birds find their voices again as they flit and flirt round the garden, tree buds noticeably thicken, sprinklings of sweet flowers open . . . it is so easy to believe that there is a delicious, longed-for, gentle hint of spring in the air. Cue nature, in its indomitable way, reminding me that winter is still very much here, sending several centimetres of snow blown in on a bitter north-easterly, the kind of wind that makes my eyes run and toes tingle within moments of stepping outside.
The snow is soft and powdery, turning readily to crunchy ice beneath my feet; the sullen grey skies of morning clear to the sharpest and most brittle of blues, the sun sparkles on the snow like dusted sugar. The landscape has been transformed and it is hard to believe we spent the previous few days beavering away in the garden.
When we lived in this area before, our neighbour Rolande was completely baffled as to why I wanted to work in the garden at this time of year. Growing vegetables is a local way of life but the approach is very different to our own: do nothing until mid-April, then rotavate the entire patch and plant everything at once – potatoes, carrots, onions, haricot beans and salad stuff, with the addition of some tomato plants a little later on. To be out in the cold weather, puttering about the patch was to her complete madness on my part and as for actually planting anything . . . what could possibly be going into the ground in February? Broad beans? Cattle feed! Parsnips? Horse fodder! Honestly, Rolande, they’re good food and really tasty. Bof! (As an aside, the year I decided to plant purple and white carrots as well as orange ones, she was horrified and declared them to be only fit for rabbits; the look on her face was second only to Roger’s when he discovered my precious gift of seeds from Finland contained 26 varieties of squash and I intended to plant them all . . . 😂). Back out in a chilly Mayenne garden, I’ve been thinking fondly about Rolande this week; she is one of the kindest and loveliest people I have ever known and one of these days, I shall cycle along the lanes to visit her. She introduced me to Rustica, a French gardening magazine which is packed with useful information and fascinating articles in a holistic approach that focuses on health and well-being as much as growing a beautiful garden. I love the way state-of-the-art science rubs shoulders happily with the lunar gardening calendar, it’s a wonderful eclectic mix and a very pleasant way to improve my French. I did smile to read that February is the time to be planting rose garlic; phew, that’s alright, then . . . just don’t tell the neighbours I’ve done it!
I’ve also been remembering how it was here that I cut my blogging teeth, starting seven years ago with what was, in effect, a garden diary; when it comes to jotting down what and when we’ve planted and harvested through any year I’m a hopeless case, so at least flicking back through a few blog posts is helpful. This is what we’ve been up to this week:
Planted rose garlic – 83 cloves
Sowed a row of parsnips ‘Demi-long de Guernesey’
Marked out main vegetable patch and space for tunnels
Started digging main vegetable patch
Put potatoes to chit in the cave – 50 ‘Charlotte’, 12 ‘Blue Danube’ and 10 ‘Mystery Spud’ (ones I’ve dug out of the garden, a waxy salad variety but beyond that, who knows?)
Lifted small grapevine and potted up to grow on terrace this year
Lifted several self-set ash saplings and relocated in hedge
Transplanted oak tree sapling and found perfect spot for pond!
Pulled brambles out of hedges
Cut down ‘arch’ and left brush as wildlife habitat
Replaced support for large grape vine
Cleared around soft fruit bushes
It seems somehow very apt that garlic was our first crop planted in this deep, fertile soil; it’s not enough to see us through a year of cooking but we have to be pragmatic in this first season; it will take time to prepare the size of growing area we need so we will have to curtail our planting habits a little. Still, it was a lovely thing to be doing, as well as sowing a row of parsnips which will be a staple next winter. What a difference a day made, though.
It probably sounds faintly ridiculous coming from a (lapsed) student of permaculture but I really struggle with garden design. It’s not because I lack ideas or don’t know what to do but I’ve always felt that gardens are more about evolution than creation. It takes time to get to know a new space, to grasp the essential factors such as aspect, sunshine and shade, prevailing wind, rainfall, topography, soil, resident wildlife and that unique mix of benefits and drawbacks that comes with every patch. Strictly speaking, what we should do is leave everything as it is for a year, sit on our hands and observe. Well, that’s not going to happen but there’s much truth in the old adage that fools rush in so it’s important to give ourselves time and let ideas develop and mature like a good cheese, rather than commit anything to paper at this stage. One of the features we are planning to add is a pond; they are very typical of the area and are one of the best wildlife habitats we could possibly create – I’ve been astonished at how many birds are drinking from our temporary water bath when there is a stream at the front of the house and a wealth of ponds nearby. What a special moment it was earlier this week to draw back the curtains and watch a huge hare taking an early morning drink from the pond across the lane; I could watch many wildlife documentaries with stunning photography from all around the world and yet nothing could beat the magic of that moment, the peace, simplicity and complete ‘naturalness’ of it. I smiled to realise I was holding my breath! So, we had come up with a rough idea of where to site our new pond but all that changed this week when we dug out a random oak sapling and relocated it in a hedge; we’ve had a lot of rainfall but as Roger lifted the spade from the hole, it became obvious our pond plan was in the wrong spot.
This sparked a happy half hour reconsidering our original ideas, because if we moved the pond, then the areas we’d pencilled in for the main vegetable garden and polytunnel would need changing. We love this kind of activity, pacing areas out this way and that, looking at everything from new angles, chewing the fat and considering a range of possibilites. What has transpired is that the area I had covered with tarpaulins for the beginnings of a veg patch will now be inside the tunnel, and the potager itself will shift towards the house and eventually form an L-shape. We stuck markers in the ground as a reminder, then Roger started the mammoth task of digging; of course, I would be happy to help but we currently only have one spade between us . . .
Not that I’ve been idle. With two of the existing patches prepared and ready for planting, I turned my attention to the last one. This is planted mainly with soft fruit bushes: a few currants, a couple of gooseberries and a pile of raspberries plus one or two as yet unknown. It’s a real bonus to inherit something like this but I think they are going to need a lot of love and attention as they are hardly in the the best of shape. The fact that so many of them are lichen-encrusted suggests they are growing somewhere that is too shady and damp (a quick squint at the surrounding bowl of tall trees confirms that one, even at this time of year) and also that they are lacking in vitality – in short, they are struggling. No surprise, really, when I counted twenty plants crammed into an area that scarcely amounts to four square metres and also clocked a rather bizarre pruning method which seems to have involved cutting out all the young vigorous growth and leaving old and dead stems behind. I’ve cleared the weeds from around them so we can give them a good feed of organic matter and assess exactly what we have as the season unfolds. What they really need is a designated spot, open and sunny with lots of space between them and we’re planning to give them just that as part of the main potager, where hopefully they will flourish.
The cutting back of healthy growth seems to have been a bit of a theme here and there is hardly a tree on the property that hasn’t had the chainsaw treatment; this isn’t pruning, coppicing or pollarding but simply the lopping of strong and healthy trunks and limbs, in many cases of very mature trees. It’s brutal and monstrous, and the damage that has been wrought in some cases makes me want to weep. Who thinks to cut the top out of a beautiful cherry?
Its neighbour hasn’t fared much better but at least stands some chance of survival.
As for this poor little apple (I think), what can I say?
Wanton destruction of living things is not something we’re prone to but some removal of plant material is going to be necessary in the first instance here; I console myself that we will – without question – plant far more trees, shrubs and other plants than those that have to go. In fact, the receipt of a generous ‘new home’ gift has us already planning to spend it on something special, an unusual fruit tree perhaps, to grace our new garden. That poor old cherry really has to go but our first job was to clear out the rubbish it is growing in, including an arched ‘entrance’ to the so-called Secret Garden. The entrance hadn’t been made by shaping or training plant growth but rather by pulling a conifer to horizontal then fixing it to the privet hedge beyond with a variety of devices; in short, it was a complete mess and impossibly low. We took the whole lot out and piled the brush under a hedge to rot down in its own time; it will be an excellent temporary wildlife habitat and the wrens were in there straight away! Removing it has let more light in and gives us the chance to sort the hedges out – it would be good to lay the hazel properly – and create a tidier entrance that doesn’t require limbo dancing. It also revealed just what a state that cherry tree is in. Time to look for a replacement, I think.
The arched entrance on the other side of the Secret Garden is in much better shape and high enough to walk under. The hedge to one side of it is an interesting mix of plants, including what looks to me like a long run of bachelor’s buttons (kerria japonica) which – if it flowers – should give a sunny splash of colour in spring. The whole hedge was being choked by brambles (they’ve even been laid deliberately as a hedge in another area of the garden which is a new concept for us) so I spent several hours pulling out what felt like miles of stems, and then several days picking thorns out of my fingers, despite wearing leather gloves. A patch of brambles in the right place is a hugely beneficial wildlife habitat and blackberries are always welcome but they do need to be contained at times. The hedge and arch look so much better without them, the stems standing tall again where they had been pulled down. I’m excited to see just what this will look like in leaf; several grey velvety seedpods suggest there is wisteria in the mix and that will be a wonderful floral treat indeed.
Discovering what is here is all part of gaining an understanding of the garden’s history and for me it’s as important as grasping those physical factors I wrote about earlier. There’s a rich and colourful story woven into this garden and like all good tales, it evokes a mixture of responses and emotions. We all have different ideas and tastes and that’s a very healthy thing, it’s what makes life and people interesting. I might hold strong opinions about what I do and don’t like in the garden but I’m always happy to debate them and to consider, appreciate and embrace alternative views. There are many plants here I wouldn’t have chosen for the garden myself, but they are a thread in that story that I’m not going to rush to unpick; let’s live with them for a while and see what transpires. On that note, I realise that there are people who would consider the structure below that had been built to support a grapevine to be an innovative, artistic and funky feature to have in the garden. The vine is mature and was dripping with black grapes when we first visited the property: no question that it is staying, but as for the structure? Mmm, we were not so much seeing ‘art’ as a pile of rusty metal, concrete blocks and a whole host of tangled mess holding it together.
Time for a makeover. We removed the entire structure and replaced it with a support running parallel to the hedge made from stout hazel poles and wires. It is only temporary as the hazel will rot eventually, but it will do the job until we can make something more permanent with better posts. There was a second vine nearby, much smaller and visibly struggling as it had been planted in the shade of a huge oak tree; we lifted it and potted it up as a temporary measure. It can spend the summer sunbathing outside the kitchen door and eventually we will find it a permanent home; like the soft fruit, I think the potager will be the perfect sun-drenched place for a few grapes.
Although I am keeping a fairly open and tolerant mind about what has gone before, there are some things that simply have to leave. I’ve written previously about the plague of solar lights and they’ve been joined in the recycling pile by various other bits and pieces, including a wealth of rusty metal containers minus their bottoms and several baskets so rotten I consigned them to the compost heap. Then there’s the plastic lion water feature (without water) stuffed ignominiously under the bay tree. I rescued that little patio rose it was harbouring but as for Aslan? No, no and no again.
Who needs lions when we have so much native wildlife to enjoy here? The blanket of snow has revealed another chapter of the garden’s story, one that usually remains hidden from us: the secret, nocturnal visitors. I’ve had a fascinating time following their tracks and discovering the favourite exit and entry points of those silent night-time ramblers and the paths they forge for themselves around the garden; I’ve been particularly amused by the fox pawprints perfectly stitched in a straight line but making a very deliberate detour to check out the compost heap!
There’s no doubt that we’re having a ‘real’ winter that feels every bit as glacial as the local weather forecast suggests. It’s all part and parcel of the natural turning of the year and brings its own kind of magic in a way. However . . . it’s a very long time since we were grappling with the chill of minus nine and I’ll cheerfully admit I shall be happy to see warmer weather any time it likes to arrive! 😉
“He that plants trees loves others besides himself.”
We have planted trees everywhere we have lived together in a wide spectrum of circumstances from pots of avocado and citrus trees raised from pips on a Mediterranean balcony to a couple of acres of woodland and orchard on a Welsh hillside. I haven’t kept a record – I’m really not that organised – but I know they number many thousands. We have only ever lived in one home long enough (thirteen years) to watch them grow to some level of maturity, so in most cases what we have done is leave an arboreal legacy behind us as we moved on. I have no problem with this as I happen to believe that planting a tree is one of the best things any human being can do; it has saddened me so many times over the years to meet the ‘why should I bother, I’ll never see it mature?’ mentality. Life isn’t all about me, me, me; instant gratification is a plague of modern society and it’s a shame that so much of life revolves around what’s in it for us here and now rather than what we can leave for the future. We planted trees, other people and wildlife enjoy the benefits. That’s a very wonderful thing!
When we set about looking for our new home here, somewhere with a decent patch of woodland was high on the list. We wanted to be able to produce our own logs for fuel, to forage for useful materials and food and to help preserve and improve a precious environment; in the event of not finding what we were looking for, then a patch of ground big enough to plant a new wood was the next priority. Yes, we were prepared to start from scratch yet again! In the event, the property we both fell in love with had neither so we needed a Plan B which wasn’t too long in the hatching, since small tracts of woodland or rough ground are always for sale in this area. We found a couple within a few miles of the house and made an appointment to view them; neither was ideal, but the agent offered to show us an extra one that had only come on the market a couple of days previously and when she realised which house we were buying, thought maybe it could be the one. We couldn’t believe our luck to find the perfect coppice, deep within a much larger wood and a pleasant 8oo metre stroll from the house. The lovely surprise of an unexpected, happy event . . . true serendipity.
What a beautiful place this is, one that I know I will be drawn to over and over again. There is a dizzying mix of species and so much holly that even at this time of year, there is still a sense of ‘greenwood’ – although one individual certainly stands out from the crowd.
Unlike our garden, the woodland is set on a hillside and is quite steep in places. At its heart is an old quarry, the evidence of human activity long since gone, the space most definitely reclaimed by nature. For me, it is a place of wonder, of rocks and ferns and mosses; the trees are alive with birds and I can only imagine what magic there will be as their spring music reverberates around this leafy bowl. If I can’t be found at home, then Roger will know where to look for me.
There are no fences defining our coppice within this woodland which is a typical situation here but we know where the boundaries lie so we are in no danger of taking someone else’s logs. I like that there is mutual respect and honesty between neighbours and an awareness that open wildlife corridors are more important than demarcating people’s property. There are plenty of fallen trees for us to take as logs and the first to be hauled home was a large and very dense birch. By law, if we fell trees then we are duty bound to replant them and I like that, too; this is not about exploitation but careful management and preservation of a beautiful natural area. That we want it to be a haven for wildlife goes without saying and I am quite sure that there will be many happy hours of just simply sitting and observing to balance the hard work of logging.
Home again, and although much of my week has been spent painting ceiling panels, I have managed to grab some time in the garden. When we first came to view the property in early September, the flower border at the front was the only real splash of colour in the entire garden; apart from removing those horrible plastic solar lights (no offence if you’re a fan – I’m not!), everything has been left untouched. I’ve always refused to have a grand autumn tidy up of perennial plants since the stems provide shelter for a wealth of insects and other creatures over winter and also help to protect any precocious new shoots from harsh weather. In recent days, though, I had started to realise that under the old growth and deep carpet of oak leaves there were clumps of bulbs and the promise of spring flowers. Time for a bit of border action.
I have lost count of how many times I’ve started sorting out gardens like this, beginning with a framework of mature and often very lovely plants suffering from neglect and being quietly engulfed in a forest of pernicious weeds – not so obvious in the fullness of summer but their true extent now revealed to the world in winter. The brambles and ivy are horrendous, the nettles are on the rampage, the celandines are a rash. Over the years I have been advised many, many times to clear the lot and start again from scratch but that is not my way; this is partly because I’m a bit of an idle gardener who is happy to turn a blind eye to weeds wherever possible but mostly because I think it’s important to preserve a certain essence or spirit of the garden, to acknowledge that we are just a tiny part of its history and to carry some tradition forward. That said, those brambles and ivy have to be restrained and as I started to clear them, a fresh spring look started to emerge.
There are clumps of bulbs scattered all over but I was especially thrilled to find what looks to me like a patch of winter aconites that had been totally smothered. Now this is the sort of natural buried treasure I love.
A strange dichotomy of approaches has been puzzling me ever since we moved into the house. On the one hand, a vast array of cleaning products was left here, which in itself was a bit of a shock to someone whose cleaning list extends only to bicarbonate of soda, white vinegar and lemon juice. I had no idea you could buy or ever needed something called ‘daily shower clean.’ However, they are all top of the range greener than green super-eco things, many from Germany and Holland and all based on expensive essential oils; in fact, there is an orange essential oil wood treatment that is so luscious, I’m almost tempted to use it in the bath (for wallowing in, not cleaning the tub)! I can only begin to imagine how expensive they were; I shall be happy to use them up as it seems wasteful not to and there is enough to last a couple of years or more. Contrast that with the huge amounts of toxic garden chemicals that were also left here, every kind of herbicide, fungicide and pesticide imaginable including enough ant killer for the entire commune. There are sachets of rat poison scattered into every nook and cranny (given that not a single one has been nibbled, there doesn’t seem to be a rodent problem) and a dustbin full of what I had stupidly hoped might be organic fertiliser but is actually industrial strength insecticide. I was totally horrified; none of these things has any place in our garden and I am just hoping that the local déchetterie wil be happy to take them off our hands. There is a need for healing here, for getting back to working with nature rather than trying to obliterate it. Well, that sounds like my kind of challenge, doesn’t it? 🙂
On that theme, I had a lovely time doing the French garden birdwatch I mentioned in my last post. No surprise that blue tits were far and away the most numerous species, but there was a good variety to watch and count both at the feeding station and elsewhere. In order to submit my results, I had to register with the Oiseaux des Jardins organisation which means I can log observations of birds (and toads, red squirrels and hedgehogs) as many times as I want throughout the year. I’m planning to do it once a month as I think it will be fascinating to see the seasonal changes and also (I hope) an increase in numbers and varieties as we work to create and improve habitats. Although the bird count was national, the data is also collated and analysed locally and I have enjoyed a friendly exchange of emails with the Faune-Maine team who had questioned one of my observations as it seemed a bit unusual; thankfully, I managed to take a photo clear enough to confirm that it really was a cirl bunting – certainly not a bird we’ve ever had feeding in any previous garden. As our home is situated in the Normandie-Maine natural park which enjoys a protected status, these sorts of observations are important so I’m thrilled to be part of something so worthwhile. I just wish I could persuade one of those white herons to pay us a visit . . .
No herons, but there have been plenty of other white beauties to enjoy. I’m not a fan of heathers in the garden, preferring them cloaking wild hilltops in purple, but there is a dainty white one here nestled between mauve cousins in a pretty montage; at the very least, they are excellent early sources of nectar. It’s been several years since we had a viburnum tinus in the garden and I’d forgotten how sweet the scent of those lacy white flowers can be. The snowdrops are at their very best and I am meandering around the patch several times a day simply to enjoy their drifts of fragile beauty. Primroses and periwinkle are scattered in a pastel confetti and the daffies are hard on the heels of everything but I’m willing them not to rush. I love to enjoy the seasonal wonders of nature – after all, isn’t that the whole point of seasons? Like instant gratification, I think it’s a sad indictment of modern society that everything has to be charging ahead of itself all the time and of course, much of that has to do with commerce. If people really want to be thinking about Christmas in September, summer holidays and Easter eggs at New Year and ‘back to school’ in May, well of course, that’s up to them but I prefer to let myself be carried along by the rhythms of nature in the garden and the wild. There is no competition, no race, no rush. Relax. Breathe. Enjoy the moment, the beauty and wonder of what is here and now. The rest will follow in its own time, so let it.
Another little puzzle I’ve been pondering here is a group of three random lavender plants growing in seemingly the middle of nowhere; I think that perhaps at some point, there was a suspicion of a tiny island bed there, but now it’s just an odd overgrown patch in the middle of a wide open expanse of grass. I’d made a mental note to lift the plants in spring and relocate them to somewhere more fitting, but while I was rummaging about in the grass, I found what appeared to be a few very moth-eaten and rather pathetic hellebore leaves. Now that really caught my attention as hellebores are one of my favourite plants so I have been quietly nurturing the sad little thing with the intention of moving it, too, when the time is right. Just look at what a little beauty it has turned out to be, a perfect waxy Christmas rose . . . a little late as the calendar goes but then, that’s nature for you!
I’ve been a bit tardy myself in honouring my promise to Roger of a cake to say thank you for packing my bike but finally this week, I managed to organise a trip to St P which coincided with the boulangerie being open. I was delighted to find it is still run by the same family, they are such lovely, friendly people and their patisserie is amazing. I opted for two Paris-Brest cakes, divine rings of choux pastry filled with a hazelnut cream and fashioned to represent the wheels in the famous cycle race of the same name. Very apt, I thought, since I was on my own two wheels and also they just happen to be our favourites and are the biggest and best we’ve ever had anywhere in France. The icing on the cake – if you will excuse a terrible pun – is that the pretty patisserie boxes that Madame so carefully wraps her sweet treats in are the absolute perfect size to snuggle comfortably into my shiny new bike basket. Serendipity, indeed. Oh, happy days!