Having spent much of another week on hard, physical work outside, I’ve found myself recalling Einstein’s famous take on insanity. How many times in our lives together have Roger and I left a beautiful and highly productive garden to start all over again from scratch, carving a new one out of a field . . . and why am I surprised that it doesn’t get any easier? Well, Albert knew a thing or two and perhaps we really are mad but I have to admit that, despite the aching muscles, the sore hands and the need to be tucked up asleep by nine o’clock every night, I still get a huge buzz from this kind of thing. It’s hard-going and progress can seem very slow: our ideas and plans twist and change and there’s a certain impatience in wanting to do everything at once, but gradually some sort of framework – a garden skeleton, if you like – is beginning to emerge. It’s fresh and new and exciting, like the spring growth unfurling so rapidly around us.
Without doubt, one of the hardest parts of our move is that we have gone from being almost self sufficient in fresh fruit and vegetables to having nothing to harvest except a few herbs. It feels strange having to buy them all but in a way, it’s an interesting experience which has given me the opportunity to reflect on how central the kitchen garden is to our lives and what an enormous proportion of our shopping the fruit and veg haul now is! It’s pretty expensive here (not that I mind that, I don’t believe food should be cheap) but there is a great range to choose from, the quality is excellent and I’m impressed by how much things have swung towards organic in recent years in France. Still, it’s just not the same as wandering around our own patch, foraging bits and pieces for dinner, so the race is on to get prepared and start planting . . . and if I seem a bit over-excited about the prospect of that first crop of fresh rhubarb (all mine, Roger doesn’t like it) then that’s because I truly am!
Although digging beds is still the predominant activity, there have been several other key jobs to be done this week and I’ve finally got round to tackling a couple of monstrous things that have been bugging me ever since we moved here. First, the compost heap, a bit of a Heath Robinson affair which looked to be a mess in need of sorting out. We have plans for a bigger and more organised system of (hopefully) three bays; anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know I’m a bit of a compost monster and I do love a good heap so I’m very excited at the prospect of eventually having an all singing, all dancing set-up on the flat. Like everything else that will take time, so for now we will carry on with what was already here, albeit after a bit of a makeover. The left bay was full of oak leaves so I shifted them onto a hügel bed, then set about moving the compost pile across from the other side. Now I don’t mind jobs like this; partly-rotted vegetation really doesn’t bother me, it’s all part of a wonderful natural cycle, but I do have an issue when it’s all wrapped up in plastic, piles and piles of cellophane-type stuff plus various bits of metal and other non-biodegradable rubbish. Cue a lot of Muttleyesque muttering and cursing: this is not what composting is about! As with so many other things, what had seemed a fairly straightforward job took much longer than expected but the good news is I did find some decent compost at the bottom – enough to almost fill a dustbin, in fact – so it was well worth the effort. I’ve covered the heap in thick cardboard to allow nature to work its magic and started a new plastic-free pile on the right.
The second big task to be tackled was the bonfire site at the north end of the Potager area. Given it was a large circle of bare earth, this promised to be an almost ready-made planting bed once the pile of unburnt leaves and bits of wood had been removed but I hadn’t reckoned on the mess I’d find on closer inspection. The area had obviously been used to burn household rubbish and bits of furniture (illegal in France, and totally unnecessary given the highly efficient and accessible local rubbish and recycling facilities) and was full of plastic and metal detritus. Even worse, an old unburnt tarpaulin had been dumped on top and had shattered into thousands of tiny blue plastic strands which were everywhere; to say picking them all out of the soil was painstaking would be an understatement but it had to be done. Still, with the warm sun on my back and the air full of joyful bird noise and the sweet smell of spring, I did at least have lovelier things to focus on.
Back to the digging, and although it feels like we’re making progress in creating planting spaces, when we stop to consider everything we’re intending to grow, it still seems woefully inadequate. The original Shed Bed already has garlic, broad beans and parsnips in it and once we’ve added onions it will be full. The Secret Garden will be the shadiest patch through summer so perfect for lettuce and other salad leaves, beetroot, chard, celery, parsley, radicchio and overwintering brassicas like kale and broccoli which we know will flag in the full heat of summer.
The Bonfire Circle will be just the place for climbing beans with perhaps some cucumbers for company, underplanted with salad crops and (of course) some floral beauties to tempt the pollinators in. The potatoes get their own super-mulched patch and the squash will go on the hügelkultur hump from where they can scramble to their hearts’ content all over the grass; oh my, what a treat it’s going to be this year not having to chase them off down a mountainside! It doesn’t sound too bad until we think about all the crops that still need somewhere to grow and then it’s obvious the remaining bed isn’t going to cut the mustard, despite the fact we are extending it daily. I think the Flower Garden hügel (of which more in a moment) will have to house courgettes this year, the potatoes will have to accept some close neighbours in an extension to their bed and we will need to tackle the space currently covered for the eventual polytunnel sooner than expected if there is going to be anywhere for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. Phew! Maybe it would be easier to carry on buying veggies after all . . .
Given the pressure to organise the Potager, it might seem an indulgence to be busy creating the Flower Garden, too, but knowing from experience how long it can take for things to become established, it’s important to at least make a start. I have to say that ‘flower garden’ is a bit misleading in some ways; the ‘flower’ bit simply implies they will be the predominant feature but there will be no shortage of vegetables and herbs in there, too. Although I’m capitalising the various areas for ease of description we don’t see the patch as separate gardens but something more holistic, so the Flower Garden is somewhere that should sit comfortably behind the house, morphing into a Wild Patch on one side and Orchard on the other. The fly in the ointment is the shed on the north side which is something of an eyesore; we know from old photos that originally it was much smaller – just the part on the right with the guttering – but it has been extended greatly in recent years and yes, that poor oak tree really is now ‘growing’ from inside it! In the long term we’d like to shrink it again and at the very least I’m planning to paint it a gentle green and grow plants up it to soften the impact.
I wrote last time about starting to dig the first bed (where that tarpaulin was) and this week Roger has been cutting stout hazel poles from the hedge to create a rustic trellis-type structure along the back of it; covered in climbers, it should help to screen the shed even more and give a sense of height and a colourful backdrop. I’ve made a bit of progress in digging the bed and plan to use some finer hazel poles to make support structures for sweet peas and the like; the rest will almost certainly be scattered with annual flower seeds for a cheap and cheerful whack of colour and insect heaven in this first season.
I’m very aware that in a perfect world, we would be creating all the planting spaces without digging but there are a couple of problems with that one. For starters, we would need vast amounts of cardboard, manure and compost which we just don’t have; also, the ground here has been mown for the last thirteen years with a heavy tractor like the kind used in town parks and has become horrendously compacted. I understand the whole no-dig thing, and after the initial preparation we will be using a minimal disturbance approach but I think there has to be an acceptance that just occasionally, digging is the right thing to do. In order to maintain a semblance of balance, though, (and not totally shred my permaculture credentials) we decided to start a second bed in the Flower Garden using the hügel principle; after all, there’s not so much of a rush to create immediate planting space there. Rather than the classic arched profile, this is much flatter – less German hügel, more Welsh twmp. I’m not quite sure what we’ve created, maybe an Anglo-French-hügel-lasagne-pancake bed, which sounds either like a delightful cultural co-operation or diabolical confusion, depending on your outlook! We started by breaking up a stack of rotten hazel poles that had been left leaning against a tree and used them to make the base.
Next, we added the chopped remains of a couple of sacrificial ornamental conifers; please don’t mourn for them, they were nasty things and we’ve already more than replaced everything we’ve removed with native species better suited to the ecosystem. A thick blanket of grass clippings and dead leaves went on next, and finally a covering of inverted turf. I’ve read a couple of interesting articles suggesting that if the final layers of compost and topsoil are in short supply, then it’s possible to just keep adding organic matter – like a slow-burn compost heap – and simply plant into deep pockets of compost in the first season. I’d decided this would be the best approach; we could find enough topsoil but as that would mean digging a very big hole, it would sort of defeat the object, and perhaps courgettes planted in plenty of that retrieved compost is a good plan for this summer. However . . . I would, of course, love to have a few flowers in there too, and it occurred to me that I might be able to sow at least part of the bed this summer thanks to our very active population of moles. I must confess, I have a bit of a soft spot for moles with their velvety coats and outrageous paws but I know I’m the only member of the household who feels that way, especially when the evidence of their activity sweeps across the entire garden like chains of volcanic islands. The soil they throw up is amazing stuff, however, and I reckoned that a few minutes spent with spade and barrow scraping off the hills (or ‘oonty tumps’ as they’re charmingly called in Shropshire dialect) might render a bit of topsoil for a corner of the bed. A few minutes? Try well over an hour! In the end, there was enough soil to cover a good quarter of the bed to a depth that will readily allow me to scatter annual seed. Scraping each hill, I whispered my thanks down into the darkness of those secret tunnels and encouraged the little diggories to keep up their good work; well, for the time being at least – I probably won’t be feeling the love quite so much when they’re ploughing up the onions.
To an outsider, what is going on in the garden at the moment might well seem a chaotic puzzle but eventually some sort of shape will emerge and I’m hoping that by summer, it will all look very different – even if it’s currently hard to imagine. Looking at the stark layout of the Potager with its different shaped beds, hügel mound and mown avenues, I’m reminded of one of those computer- simulated models of Avebury Ring or Stonehenge and wonder if we should be incorporating some standing stones somewhere?
On a slightly smaller geological scale, and certainly more Hansel and Gretel than Neolithic Man, Roger has used a bag of white mulching pebbles left by the previous occupants to mark paths through what we’re planning as a Woodland Edge. The hedge against the lane is in a poor state but the row of mature trees is lovely and adding native planting to create a mini woodland below them seems just the right thing to do. Like our other projects, it will take time, especially as we’re planning to raise a lot of plants from seed, but in the meantime I’m enjoying following those moonlit pebbles on night rambles around the garden, whilst surrounded by the urgently romantic calls of barn owls and tawnies; ah, spring is definitely in the night air!
So, back to digging and although it’s hard, repetitive work, the one blessing for us is that this is the first of seven gardens spanning 24 years where we haven’t been digging up piles of other people’s rubbish. Yes, the compost heap and bonfire patch were pretty disgusting, but elsewhere the soil is blissfully deep, rich and remarkably free of stones. It is also full of the biggest worms you can imagine; no exaggeration, I’ve seen smaller grass snakes – no wonder the moles are so happy. I’m working as gently as possible so as not to disturb them too much and remembering the last French garden we created just a stone’s throw from here; there, instead of beautiful worms, every forkful turned up rubbish, mostly huge pieces of black plastic silage wrap and baler twine that wrapped itself around our tools and was a complete nightmare to deal with. It seemed to take forever to clear and yet we ended up with a very productive patch buzzing with life and colour, and crammed with food and flowers, in a relatively short time.
I know we will manage the same here, I just need to be patient and keep on digging. When my aching back suggests it’s time for a break, it’s lovely simply to wander about and see how things are changing with the season, the fattening leaf buds and first fresh green burst of willow and hawthorn, the delicate haze of plum blossom, the busyness of bees and butterflies and territorial posturing of birds. I can stand in the garden and watch roe deer grazing in a neighbouring field, red squirrels scuttling about in the oak trees and skylarks singing high above me. It’s all truly wonderful but – simple soul that I am – I find myself drawn time and time again to the Shed Bed where the glossy green spears of garlic push a little higher each day. Here is the wonder of nature, the miracle of springtime, the joy of growing vegetables. Here is our food of the future . . . and that makes me very happy. 😊