For more than twenty years I have recognised that there is something very wonderful about the way Mayenne does mornings but I can’t quite put my finger on why it is. A special quality to the light, perhaps or the surround sound of birdsong? Maybe it’s the curls of mist shimmering above the surface of the ponds or a freshness to the air that amplifies the scent of blossom, apple now gently nudging cherry aside? I’m really not sure but I do know that it is worth being up and about early to enjoy every moment.
The sun currently rises here at 6:54 am and a few minutes afterwards, it is officially squirrel o’clock; open the front door, look to the right and bang on cue, here comes the first bundle of mischief barrelling out of the stone shed. It’s always the foxy little red, I suspect the same one that was sitting on the windowsill on our very first morning here in December. It heads straight for the oak tree, scurries up it and performs several acrobatic tricks of astonishing aerial grace and daring.
A few moments later, in comes the new squirrel on the block, this one a deep chocolate brown very reminiscent of the squirrels in Asturias. After a bit of happy conferring, it’s time for the double act: up and down the trunk at breakneck speed, zipping along the branches in a heady game of chase and for the grand finale, whizzing round and round the girth of the trunk in a furry blur that leaves me feeling quite dizzy. Performance over, they sprint off across the grass to start weaving their mischief through the trees along the laneside hedge. Such entertainment – and all this before breakfast!
Talking of which, I’m very thrilled to be eating rhubarb again. It’s been several years since we had a plant in the garden and given the sorry state of the one here, I was beginning to wonder whether there would be anything worth picking this year. It’s our first real harvest from the new garden and I’m enjoying it for my breakfast; I keep a bowl of plain stewed rhubarb in the fridge and add oats, Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey to take the edge off the tartness. Delicious.
It’s a perfect walker’s breakfast and I have to admit I’ve been enjoying a few early leg stretches this week, too. We are spoilt with a wealth of choices when it comes to wandering routes from home but it’s no surprise that I’m currently drawn to the woodland tracks where everything seems to be greening up rapidly now and the bird noise is raucous.
The cherry blossom is still lighting up the landscape in billowy clouds of white and I feel that A.E Housman was on to something when he described them as the ‘loveliest of trees.’
There are smaller beauties, too, not quite the colourful floral carpets along the verges but very lovely in the morning light all the same.
Emerging from the woods, I follow quiet lanes through rolling countryside with only the cows and cuckoos for company . . .
. . . before coming full circle back to the wood, and into our patch of coppice where I sit on a rock for a few minutes and enjoy the beauty of spring all around me before wandering home. Three miles of bliss . . . and it’s not even 9am yet.
Morning exercise over and we’ve been spending our days being busy in the garden again. The weather is a tad frustrating: gorgeous sunny days with temperatures in the twenties but cold nights (although above freezing at last) and a stubborn cold easterly wind that just will not swing into the south or west. One of the first jobs each morning is to carry out the trays of seedlings that have been growing on windowsills; they still need to spend the nights indoors but it’s much warmer outside in the sunshine during the day, despite that tricky wind.
I do seem to have rather a lot of seedlings (does anyone need 70 tomato plants?) and so there is going to be a pretty mammoth pricking out session to be had very soon. We have piles of section trays and small pots but – needless to say – they are still in Asturias so I’ve been making some out of an old newspaper I found in the barn. I know you can make round ones using a glass for a mould but I like these natty little folded numbers and squares seem a lot more practical when it comes to putting them in trays. I’m using this method and once in the swing of things, I’ve been turning out each pot in well under two minutes.
It’s a lovely activity for several reasons. First, it’s an excuse to sit outside and be busy in a gentle way for a change, a welcome break from all that digging – it’s a very therapeutic activity! Second, I’m enjoying reading snippets of the local paper as I go; it’s from June 2019 and I was particularly struck by the weather forecast for our corner of Mayenne, with temperatures climbing to the mid-thirties and local authorities on standby for un canicule (heatwave). It’s a reminder of just how different summers are here to Asturias where temperatures that high are unusual; many of these seedlings should love it but we are certainly going to need those huge rainwater tanks. Third, it’s good to be doing something slightly crafty, a simple gesture that is both thrifty and beneficial to the planet.
With so many plants in the pipeline it was good to see our polytunnel arrive this week. It’s a really sturdy one so there’s little danger of it taking off down the valley in a gust of wind as its Asturian counterpart famously did. Roger has started putting the bits and pieces together but we can’t construct it just yet. As it is a new structure covering more than twenty square metres (it’s thirty two, in fact), higher than two metres and visible from the public lane we needed to submit a planning notification or declaration préalable to the local mairie. People moan about French bureaucracy but in truth it’s no worse than anywhere else and given all we’ve had to do is fill out a couple of forms and add a location plan and photos, it’s hardly difficult. There is no fee, the staff in our mairie and the local community council are incredibly accommodating and helpful and if we hear nothing after a month we can take it as read our application has been approved and Operation Polytunnel can commence. This is the fifth one we’ve put up together so once we get stuck in it should go smoothly and then I might just have a few things to plant in there. Just look at how dry that soil is, though; we are desperate for rain and could do with a really good soaking before the polythene goes up.
I’m very excited at the prospect of all that good food to come through the summer, I honestly can’t wait to be wandering about and harvesting more than a few sticks of rhubarb and bunches of herbs. The patches we’ve planted are starting to look like a proper vegetable garden at last but I find myself almost obsessively checking on progress and fretting that things aren’t growing fast enough. Mmm, all in good time; I just need to be patient.
There’s certainly the promise of more fruit to come: the myrobalan blossom has come and gone, the cherry blossom has been staggered which we hope indicates a mix of red and black varieties, the pear blossom is beautiful (and the perfume is gorgeous), there are flowers on the gooseberry and as yet unidentified currants and the apples are building up to a stunning performance.
Here, then, is a quick summary of this week’s activities:
- 17th April: hugel flower bed – sowed Moreveg bee and butterfly mix (mostly native perennials), French bright annual mix, field green manure mix with extra phacelia, buckwheat, borage calendula and double poppies, white clover and yellow trefoil round edge.
- 18th April: pricked out cardoon seedlings; dug new border along front of shed for climbing nasturtiums; carried on clearing front borders of weeds and identifying perennial plants already in there. Roger started digging a new bed in potager and constructing the polytunnel.
- 19th April: sowed wild flower seeds collected in Asturias; planted oca x 18; salsify; sowed granny’s bonnets, burning bush and hollyhocks in trays; pot of Red Rosie lettuce; Welsh poppies in front border – yellow and orange mix.
- 21st April: forked over circular climbing bean bed and raked in general-purpose organic fertiliser; planted wild flower seeds / shade-loving annuals in various patches. Jerusalem artichokes, rocket and second row of peas are all through the ground. Transplanted passionflower root from Asturias into painted planter and sowed beneath it (and grapevine in other planter) with mixed Californian poppies. Watered everything . . . again!
- 22nd April: planted third row of ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ peas, first row of dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’ x 56, second row of carrots ‘Red-cored Chantenay’ and ‘Autumn King’ and a small patch of ‘French Breakfast’ radish. Roger cut points on hazel beanpoles ready to make tripods (or quadpods or quinpods!).
- 23rd April: first potatoes through ground. Autumn calabrese up but no other broccoli yet – old seed, will it germinate? Made list of new seeds needed. Made biodegradable pots from old newspaper, enjoying the sunshine and birdsong.
On the subject of birdsong, the most exotic summer visitors – hoopoes – are back. We haven’t seen one yet but their unmistakable ‘hoop – hoop – hoop’ call is very much in the neighbourhood and it is only a matter of time – I hope – before they appear in the garden and start feeding on the ants, of which there are plenty. We’ve also had the first fledge of baby birds this week and the garden is full of their squeakings and clumsy flappings as they explore the outside world for the first time, sheperded by anxious parents. The swallows arrived on 30th March and are here in huge numbers now; afternoon and evening is their time in the garden, swooping low across the grass and weaving artfully between the apple trees.
The sun is tracking round so rapidly now that by the summer solstice, we should be able to see both sunrise and sunset from our bedroom window. The evenings are long and beautiful and – in a sheltered spot tucked out of the wind – blissfully warm. To the west, the sky is bright, paling to muted colours and a rim of fire as the sun sinks; in the east, the intense blue remains, the perfect foil for boughs of cherry blossom and a waxing moon. Yes, Mayenne does beautiful mornings . . . but the other end of the day isn’t bad, either.