Fruit salad

It’s been a strange couple of weeks with far too many necessary chores distracting us from projects in the garden and a rollercoaster of good news, bad news, sad news . . . I’ve spent several days in a flat spin, chasing my tail, juggling too many balls and running the whole gamut of emotions. That said, I’m not given to wearing my heart on my sleeve too much or making dramas out of situations – it’s simply life, after all. They say life’s a peach, but personally I’ve always considered it to be more of a fruit salad: sometimes you get the sweet strawberry and other times, the slimy banana. Ups and downs, smiles and tears, worry and relief: what I need in moments like these is a sense of balance, of perspective and calm. Where better to find those than in the garden?

Although I’ve not spent anywhere near as much time outside as I would have liked recently, I’m pleased at how suddenly it is starting to feel like the space we imagined when we moved here. Everything is going full tilt, the trees heavy with their fullest, deepest summer foliage and other plants stretching, blooming, jostling for elbow room; it’s a time of exuberant fullness and plump plenty. The stark canvas we started with now flaunts shameless curves and hidden places in a cheerful kaleidoscope of colour and an energetic buzz of life. Slowly, slowly, a garden is emerging . . .

I’ve been piling layers onto the mandala bed, the latest being a thick blanket of hay cut from one of the meadow areas. It’s a big job, but there’s no rush and I can potter away at it in snatched moments. With any luck, this time next year it will be a joyful expression of all that is good in the summer garden.

Adding height to the garden is a long term project – trees take time to grow, pergolas to build and cover – but desperate for at least some vertical interest (and to screen that ugly shed), earlier this year we made a basic and very rustic ‘thing’ from hazel poles. It has looked a bit odd, although a rescued clematis has done a decent job of prettying it up with deep purple velvety blooms, and sweet peas (sooooo slow this year) and climbing nasturtiums have now joined the scramble. Suddenly, there seems to have been a huge surge in growth upwards, not least from the sunflowers. Just over a week ago, I was soaked to the skin trying to tether them as they flailed about in a brutal storm; several were snapped off, a couple blown out of the ground – little surprise, the soil was saturated – but the survivors are well above my head now and really going for it. Well, it is sunflower country after all, despite the rough weather of late.

One of the saddest things about this week is that Sarah and her family should be here with us, enjoying a long-awaited summer holiday, but that was cancelled in light of the ongoing Covid situation. It’s eighteen months since we last saw them – saw any of our family, in fact – and that is starting to feel like an unhealthily long time, especially with our little grandchildren growing up so quickly. It’s so easy to dwell on what we should be doing: planning picnics, barbecues and camping nights in the garden, playing tag and hide-and-seek, building dens and houses for unicorns, splashing in the paddling pool, building stone domes and bug hotels, doing art and craftwork on the picnic table or a quilt thrown on the grass, telling stories, singing silly songs, making muffins and ice cream . . . I should be feeling the impatient tug of little hands eager to explore the garden, to wander and sniff and poke and pick and nibble, to hunt for squirrels and ladybirds, to collect pebbles and feathers, stroke petals, pick posies, steal strawberries. There is no substitute for this, no consolation to be had: this is most definitely a horrible slimy banana moment. Yet in spending time with the flowers, bright and cheery as a child’s paintbox and buzzing with as much noise and boundless energy as those little monkeys I’m missing, there is a certain peace and solace to be found. We are all safe and well, and for that I am truly grateful. We will see our loved ones again, we just need to be patient. Hush now and wait. Smell the flowers. Watch the bees and butterflies. Breathe.

There are flowers in the vegetable garden, too, which is just how I like it to be. After a slow and seriously unpromising start, the Bean Circle is now thickly abundant, the Asturian fabas spiralling to the tops of their poles, cucumbers clambering up their tripods and trailing chaotically through everything else, thick clumps of coriander and dill scenting the air and bright flashes of calendula and cosmos pulling in the pollinators, with the fire of sunny rudbeckia to follow.

Then there’s the squash. If ever I needed any proof that hügelkultur works, then I need look no further than the squash plants that have tumbled down the sides of their hill and are now zipping enthusiastically across the grass in every direction. They are covered in yellow flower trumpets, full of pollen-dusted bees, and are setting a grand amount of fruit. Our Spanish specials – five seeds saved from the same squash last year – have done their usual trick of forming totally different fruits to each other, a process that never fails to fascinate me. Good old ‘Crown Prince’ and butternut ‘Hunter’ are hard on their heels and it looks like we’re in for a decent harvest. We have to move that seat on a regular basis for fear of being ‘squashed,’ as it were!

As the squash looked far from pleased when they first went out, I put a couple of butternuts – always the most diffident of the lot – in the tunnel as a sort of insurance policy. I think it’s fair to say they’re very happy in all that heat and they are certainly doing what’s expected of them.

Creating a productive vegetable garden from what was in essence a barren field has been – and continues to be – a big task, what the locals would call a boulot. The Potager certainly lacks any sense of maturity and there is still so much work to be done, but it’s wonderful to be at the point once again that all our vegetables are home grown; wandering around in the sunshine one evening, filling my trug with goodies for the table, I recalled the day we planted potatoes in a forlornly empty patch of earth, wrapped up against a bitter northerly wind.

Well, we’re tucking into those (delicious!) new potatoes now and the rest of the patch looks a little different to say the least; I’m glad to report it feels a lot warmer, too.

It’s hard to believe those thuggish courgette plants needed so much pampering in the early days; we’re keeping on top of the harvest for now . . . but only just.

We’ve had a good crop of broad beans and peas with surplus left for the freezer but in the last couple of weeks, the French beans have shimmied into the limelight. We’re eating the beautiful waxy purple ones daily and the next crop (a green variety) is following on closely behind.

I’ve just planted a third row of mixed plants grown in a tray of compost; this method of pre-sowing seems to have worked a treat in beating the bean seed fly problem we’ve had and the plants never look back. If we have a ‘normal’ run of weather now (do I even dare think that after the year so far?) then we could easily be cropping beans well into the autumn. They’re not alone; in what has become a bit of a nursery bed are rows of chard, carrots and leeks, a block of celery, winter cabbages to transplant, a selection of young brassicas and a newly sown row of Florence fennel. I’ve had to hazard a bit of a guess with the right planting time for the fennel, it hates the heat but needs enough time to grow and develop. It’s all a bit of a learning curve this year, but fingers crossed at least some of these young crops will be successful.

On which subject, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the permaculture principle of ‘observe and interact.’ I believe gardening should always be about observation but this first year in particular is crucial; we’ve gardened together for well over 30 years so yes, we have a lot of experience but that doesn’t automatically mean that what we know or do are the best things for this particular patch of land. There are many adjustments to make, much trial and error going on and a lot of considerations to take on board. We’ve been up against terrible weather, terrible soil and a rush to put enough land into cultivation to suit our needs this year but it’s vitally important that we watch and learn, accept feedback from what’s happening and adapt our approach and plans accordingly. So, for example, I’ve come up with a new plan for strawberries this week.

Early last spring, we bought the most unpromising bundle of bare-rooted strawberry plants from the farmers’ co-op; they were tiny, pathetic little things and quite honestly, I thought if any of them grew it would be a bonus. Grow they did, flowered and fruited too (photo above); I know I probably wasn’t supposed to let that happen but I have no patience with all that plant control stuff. We planted some in pots and left them in Asturias when we moved, collecting them on a trip back there in February. Poor things! They’d had a mild winter and were happily flowering and setting fruit, only to be plunged into the shock of icy northern weather. They suffered a fair bit of neglect, too, drying out in their pots several times – my fault completely, but things were a bit hectic at the time. With nowhere ideal to plant them, I stuffed them into a hastily cleared bed of rubbish soil, little expecting them to do much apart from maybe die. Well, how wrong was I? They have romped away and we have been eating the fruit for weeks, such sweet and flavoursome berries, some of which are enormous.

Even better, they have sent out runners in all directions (I think they’ve been watching those squash) and as I love a bit of easy propogation, I’ve been pegging them down into pots of compost and wow! Not only have the new plants already formed healthy rootballs, but they’ve started flowering too. I’ve decided that such enthusiastic troopers really need a bit of proper love and recognition, so enter the idea of a designated Strawberry Circle; Roger has cut another swathe of hay to make room and once I’ve fetched my next load of cardboard from the déchetterie (the lovely, lovely, lovely Monsieur in charge there says I can go back as often as I need and take away as much as I want every time 😊 ), I shall start sheet mulching in preparation for a gorgeous circle of strawberries next year. I know curves cause a bit of chaos when the grass needs cutting around them but I don’t like straight lines much and this is going to look so pretty – especially when I’ve added that best of all companions, beautiful blue borage – and the plants can send their runners out without bothering anything else and we will have strawberries for ever and ever.

I’ve always thought gardening to be a great metaphor for life so it’s only to be expected that not all is rosy all of the time. We have had many frustrations and several failed crops but without doubt, the most ongoing and maddening of those is what I’ve come to think of as the Battle of the Evil Weevil. I knew from living in the area before that brassicas were going to be high maintenance – well worth the effort, but up against it all the same. I was totally prepared for flea beetle, whitefly, caterpillars, pigeons and heat to be an issue but nothing had prepared me for the horror that is the cabbage stem weevil. We’ve never had them in the garden before and given that most of the available information about them refers to infestations in oilseed rape and other cruciferous crops, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a price we’re paying for gardening in an arable landscape. Whilst there are no OSR crops close by, it is definitely part of the local crop rotation system and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has been grown in the neighbouring fields in recent years. The weevils are like a rash; I can pick them off every brassica plant (there’s 110 of those so you can imagine that’s a boulot all on its own) only for them to be back the next day. It’s a bit like the Sorceror’s Apprentice with ugly brown snouty-faced insects in place of brooms and, much as I love wildlife and understand they are part of a natural system, I have to confess I’m getting very tired of them now. They are devastating our crop and it’s no exaggeration to say I’m not hopeful about harvesting a single plant. I’m desperately scrabbling to keep them going in the assumption that surely we must soon reach ‘peak weevil’ but whereas neighbouring vegetables are thriving, the poor little things are really, really struggling.

Back to permaculture once again, not just ‘observe and interact’ this time but also ‘the problem is the solution.’ What do we do about weevils? For starters, we’d already been discussing the possibility of some large moveable net tunnels for brassicas even before Weevilgate began; I can’t find any information about whether they would be effective against weevils, but they would at least help keep the butterflies away – the plants are weakened so of course, everything else is now piling in. Learning from our experience with French beans and sweetcorn this year, I’m planning to pre-sow lots of things into modules next year, brassicas now included; if they can go into the ground as strong established plants, they might withstand attack more easily. An holistic approach is definitely called for and soil improvement is top of that list; all our plants have been up against it this year but a richer, more nourishing soil should help them build resilience and resistance. I probably spend about 70% of my gardening time spreading mulch around all our fruit and vegetable plants and it’s a job I love; there’s something very nurturing about it, it’s a good excuse to get down and personal with every plant and check their health and progress and of course, it’s helping to build good soil all the time. I’ve done what I can to support the brassicas this year: filled their planting holes with compost, planted them between rows of beans, carrots and beetroot to afford them a bit of shade from the most intense heat, let naturally-occurring white clover run between them as a green manure and fed them regularly with comfrey and nettle tea. Given the general poor state of the soil and the scale of the weevil population it might not be enough this year. I can but try.

Something else to try and find out is what eats weevils: is there a natural predator I can encourage to come and fill their boots? Blackfly are another scourge of the garden at present, but my goodness, do we have some ladybirds tucking in! Breeding, too; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many larvae. Such welcome allies, but sadly I don’t think weevils are on their menu.

Sitting in a shady spot and enjoying the beauty and warmth of the evening several times this week, we have been captivated by the antics of a young red squirrel, one of the brood born in the eaves of the stone outhouse. It is so small and fragile, nothing more than a streak of fiery fur with a white bib and oversized bottlebrush tail but what it lacks in staure, it certainly makes up for in attitude. It has no fear of us, gambolling about the grass, rummaging in piles of mulch and shooting up the myrobalan to check for plums (mmm, cheeky), casually passing so close we could reach out and touch it. I find myself almost holding my breath and smiling from ear to ear; we might be missing Annie and Matthew this week but we can still enjoy the unrestrained energy and high jinks of other youngsters. Ups and downs, smiles and tears, worry and relief: it’s the great fruit salad of life . . . and everybody deserves the sweet strawberry sometimes!

One step forward . . .

In all the excitement and busyness following our move six months ago, it has been easy to lose sight of how we stand now in terms of our green credentials. For much of the time, in fact, I have been mourning changes and losses that have felt like giant steps backwards including:

  • leaving an established garden with excellent soil and a good variety of fresh produce, even in December
  • lack of fresh food from the garden
  • lack of stored foods such as jars of preserves, sacks of nuts and a shed load of squash
  • no compost or manure
  • no polytunnel or greenhouse
  • exchanging natural spring water for treated mains water
  • the need for more heating
  • lack of logs
  • the need to buy new furniture
  • running out of homemade soaps / toiletries
  • no crafting
  • not having time to look at new ideas and changes we could make

However, dwelling on the downside of anything for too long isn’t healthy so I’ve decided it’s time to stand back once again and take stock of exactly where we have got to in our quest for a simple life that encourages us to tread gently on the planet. From time to time, I like to look at our carbon footprint using two very simple calculators, the World Wildlife Fund carbon footprint calculator and the Global Footprint Network ecological footprint calculator. They are pretty basic and there are some issues that frustrate me (not least, where are the questions about water consumption?) but they are free, user-friendly, full of helpful tips and provide a way of checking progress over time. The good news is that, on both measures, we haven’t gone backwards and in some areas we have improved, even if it doesn’t feel like it!

So, in the name of balance and keeping a sense of perspective, here’s the list of positive things to date:

  • Fewer car journeys and greater fuel efficiency as ameneties are closer and we aren’t driving on mountain roads with hairpin bends
  • Using my bike to go shopping / run errands
  • Solar water heating
  • Installation of wood panelled ceilings and insulation upstairs and heavy lined curtains on windows to improve heating efficiency
  • Electricity on a 100% green tariff from Planète OUI
  • Additional water butts to increase rainwater capture system
  • Large polytunnel full of food plants
  • Large vegetable garden now producing most of our meals
  • Composting system set up and continual soil improvement in action
  • Log shed slowly filling
  • Some secondhand furniture bought and / or revamped
  • Local charity shop, especially good for books!
  • Store of preserves fetched from Asturias plus a start made on new ones
  • Plans to have chickens and bees again
Garden ‘green up’ – lettuce, perpetual spinach, rainbow chard, New Zealand spinach, beetroot leaves, chickweed, courgettes, peas, garlic scapes, basil and chives. Cooked together in a little bit of olive oil and their own steam, this makes small amounts of veggies go a long way (and it’s efficient, nutritious and delicious, too).

There are some things we can’t change and will have to learn to live with. It would be lovely to have our own spring water again and certainly, at some point in the property’s history, there would have been a well here somewhere. However, there is at least a separate tap in the kitchen with a filter attached for drinking water so we can’t taste the chlorine; we intend to keep extending the rainwater capture system and also install a grey water tank to keep our consumption down to a minimum. Insulating upstairs made a huge difference to the temperature of the house (it must have been unbearably hot in summer as well as freezing cold in winter) but the kitchen woodstove and heating system need a major overhaul to improve efficiency. We’ve looked at installing solar panels for electricity but it simply doesn’t cost in, especially as we are such low consumers; it would also mean tying ourselves to EDF and on balance, I think supporting an ethical green company like Planète OUI (who encourage us to send a meter reading every month so we can track our consumption and pay just for what we’ve used rather than setting a monthly payment) is a better bet for us. Roger is currently turning part of the outbuilding into a practical utility room which will suit our lifestyle well; there is already a toilet in there but I’m frustrated by the fact that it isn’t a compost toilet, which would make so much sense all round. That’s one to think about for the future.

It’s good to feel like I’m starting to get up to speed with things once again. It seemed very strange running out of handmade soap, my tried and tested recipe that doubles as solid shampoo has served us well and now I have my equipment back from Spain, I can start another batch as well as experimenting with soapwort from the garden. I’m a complete convert to herbal teas (which just goes to show you are never too old to change) and I’m also set on shifting my understanding and use of herbs and plant materials in toiletries, medicines and the like up several gears. I’ve been dodging heavy downpours in the last few days (who said Mayenne has hot, dry summers? 😆) to harvest as many different flowers and plants as possible for drying. I don’t have a dehydrator so I’m hanging big bunches under shelter outdoors and spreading smaller things across the windowsills. It’s starting to feel like a herbal treasure trove and the house smells wonderful.

Lavender, rose petals, calendula and thyme.

One of the things I love about reading other blogs is the wealth of helpful information and ideas they share, so a big thank you to Sarah of WeAreTreadingSofter for flagging up the Count Us In organisation and Plastic Free July. Both these movements and challenges have given me the nudge I need to get back on track with some green stuff; I don’t want to become complacent and there is always something new to learn or try, or perhaps just a different perspective to consider. For Count Us In, I’ve pledged to ride my bike for as many shopping trips as possible over the next two months. I realise this might seem something of a cop out as I’m doing it a bit already but I intend to use the time to get a firmer grasp on what is truly possible and, combined with Plastic Free July, I’m hoping good things will happen as a result.

For instance, if I commit to riding to St P on Wednesday morning for the market, I can buy good quality produce including meat and goat dairy products direct from the farm that are sold loose and wrapped in paper. I’m hoping not to be using the fruit and veg stall for a while but nothing is pre-packed and they are always happy for me to take my own bags. I’m building a good relationship with several small outlets in the town and getting to a point where I could take my own rigid containers (say for meat), but I need to sort out the logistics of transportation as space in my bike basket and rucksack is limited. Compared to supermarket prices, meat in particular is expensive but we don’t eat very much these days and I’m happier supporting local family businesses and farmers in this way; the steaks from local pasture-fed cattle I bought to celebrate our wedding anniversary this week were arguably the best we’ve had in years.

Anniversary salad from the garden – only the olives were bought.

I also want to experiment with going further afield and in particular to Pré-en-Pail which is about 8km (5 miles) away. There’s a wider range of shops and amenities there but for me, the biggest draw is the Helianthus charity shop which is a complete Aladdin’s cave. We bought a beautiful tub armchair from there when we moved here (that definitely wasn’t one for the back of my bike!) and I’m planning to make good use of the clothing and household linen section but the number one treat for us is books – shelves and shelves of them. At 20 cents each, we buy piles of them, read them and return them for resale; it’s like a handy borrowing library and we are enjoying it immensely. If we went more often, then we could easily manage to carry a reduced number of books on our bikes and also spend some time exploring what else the town has to offer. If we can reach a point where we are seldom venturing any further than that for shopping, I’ll be very happy.

Soapy soapwort . . . look at all those lovely bubbles! Natural shampoo made from simmering chopped soapwort stem and leaves with rosemary and sage: 100% natural gentle cleansing.

We’ve gone a fair way in reducing single use plastics over the last few years, but it’s always good to stop and take stock once in a while to look for more possibilities. Cloth food bags, reusable shopping bags and bee wraps have become a way of life and we never buy the big offenders like carry-out coffee cups and lids, plastic straws or cotton buds. Pretty much every kind of plastic packaging can be recycled here but recycling is only one notch up from throwing away, and I remind myself often that in fact, ‘away’ doesn’t exist. My favourite permaculture principle is ‘produce no waste’ so it’s imperative that I keep working towards that. In order to do a bit of an evaluation, I hit on two ideas. First, instead of storing the recycling until we go somewhere in the car, I’m going to take it to the nearest recycling point from home which is about 2km away on my bike. That means I will have a much greater awareness of the quantity we’re producing and any reduction in weight and volume will make my life easier! Second, I set myself the challenge of spending a day eating and drinking only foods that had arrived in the kitchen free of plastic. Here’s how I got on . . .

Breakfast – hot honey (glass jar to be re-used) and lemon (no packaging); oats (cardboard and paper) soaked in apple juice (glass bottle to be re-used) with walnuts (orchard) and sunflower and pumpkin seeds (bought from a bulk hopper into paper bags).

Mid-morning – lemon balm, lavender and thyme tea (fresh from the garden).

Lunch – homemade basil bread (flours in paper bags, yeast from sourdough starter in jar in fridge, basil from garden), cheese (Bleu de Bresse in foil and cardboard, Doré de l’Abbaye in paper), salad (garden), homemade chutney (re-used glass jar), homemade elderflower cordial (re-used glass bottle).

Mid-afternoon – yarrow and peppermint tea (fresh from the garden); bowl of stewed gooseberries (garden) sweetened with a little honey (glass jar to be re-used).

Dinner – omelette made from onion (garden), mushrooms (paper), eggs (cardboard) and herbs (garden) with new potatoes (garden) and ‘green-up’ of courgette, chard, perpetual spinach, New Zealand spinach, garlic scapes, peas and broad beans (garden). Local apple juice (glass bottle to be re-used).

White clover, red clover, daisies, honeysuckle flowers, selfheal and plantain.

That certainly didn’t feel too stressful and it was lovely to know that so much of what I ate and drank had come from the garden or hedgerow, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. What couldn’t I have that I would have liked?

  • Coffee: we have a big stock of bulk Spanish coffee beans which come in those plasticky ‘foil’ bags (recyclable).
  • Black tea: I’m currently drinking a spiced Pakistani tea which came in a cardboard box but with a plastic window (recyclable).
  • Salt: cardboard tube with plastic lid (recyclable)
  • Black pepper(corns): plastic bag (recyclable)
  • Milk: plastic bottle (recyclable).
  • Coulommiers cheese: plastic wrap (non-recyclable).
  • Greek yogurt: plastic pot (recyclable) and lid (non-recyclable) .
  • Butter: plastic wrap (non-recyclable), although we usually buy one in paper.
  • Dried apricots: plastic bag (recyclable).

Did I fall off the wagon? Um, yes – with olive oil (recyclable plastic bottle)! I needed a small amount for cooking my omelette and couldn’t think of a way round that one. There was salt in the bread, too, as it had been made prior to my Plastic Free Day. Looking through our food cupboard, I realised that rice, pasta, grains and pulses would all have been off-limits, couscous being the only one in a cardboard box. Other things seemed to be a mix such as one crunchy granola in plastic, another in cardboard. I used to make granola and yogurt so perhaps it’s time to get back to that, as well as hunting down alternative brands or sources, especially for dairy produce. I know there is an argument that as individuals we are better addressing the big changes we can make in our lives (travel, energy use, diet, consumerist behaviour and the like) rather than worrying about every single yogurt pot but I think it’s important to look at the small things, too.

That said, it’s also important to keep things in perspective. We buy olive oil in bulk, in five-litre containers that we then decant into a smaller (re-used) bottle; yes, it’s (recyclable) plastic, but is one bottle like that better or worse than five glass ones? It’s very easy to end up going round and round in moral circles, ending up far more dizzy than enlightened! Still, I really enjoyed that particular challenge and it’s given me a lot to think about. It’s all too easy at times to be frustrated, despondent and sad about the state of the planet and modern society and to feel a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, but I’m an optimist and a fidget who’d rather be doing something about a problem than sitting around dwelling on it or waiting for other people to sort it out. I know I am an infinitesimal drop in the ocean but as I’ve said many times, tiny drops together make vast oceans. In the same way, small footsteps lead to big journeys: sometimes there are pauses – even steps backwards – and huge obstacles to overcome but for me, it’s important to keep going, no matter how slowly or imperfectly. It isn’t always easy being green but it’s a challenge and an adventure that makes life interesting and rich in all the right ways. I like that very much. Time for the next step forward . . . 😊

Medieval musings

We’ve had happy associations with Lassay-les-Châteaux for more than twenty years so perhaps I am a bit biased when I suggest it must surely be one of the prettiest towns in Mayenne. Small, friendly and charming, there are many attractions including the imposing medieval castle set above a small lake, a pleasant walk in the surrounding countryside to discover the other two (ruined) castles, a beautiful medieval garden, cafe terraces where you can sit and watch the world go by, and a bustling Wednesday morning market where at least one of our offspring loved to go for the treat of a galette saucisse. At this time of year, though, there is no doubt that the rosaraie is the jewel in the town. A public rose garden just a few steps from the town centre, it is a peaceful place bursting with colour and scent, somewhere for all to enjoy; there are picnic tables, a children’s playground, and many benches and paths in a space that is small enough to feel intimate, large enough to spend time wandering and discovering. Surrounded by old buildings of honey-coloured stone, their productive vegetable gardens running down to a stream and swifts looping and calling overhead, it is a pleasant spot to linger and I am never surprised to see people sitting and enjoying the tranquility – some reading, others just quietly soaking up the beauty of the place.

The roses are gorgeous, so many different varieties all at their very best in a rainbow of colours: climbers, ramblers, bush, miniature, groundcover, tea, floribunda, grandiflora, polyantha, English, Gallica, China, Damask, Bourbon, moss, noisette, rugosa . . . whatever takes your fancy, they are here. I’ve never been a fan of formal planting schemes, always preferring something wilder and unconstrained, but even I find these colours and scents irresistible!

I also love the fact that the garden is being managed organically: the beds are deeply mulched with chopped straw to suppress weeds and there are a number of lacewing boxes and a bug hotel to encourage natural aphid predators. There is a beehive set on a wall and the relatively new addition of possibly the most impressive chicken palace run I have ever seen. Chickens in a public garden? Reading the information board, I was impressed with what an inspired idea this is, a community solution to the problem of rubbish. Several years ago, in an attempt to reduce the amount of household waste going into landfill and to encourage more recycling, the local council introduced a charge-by-weight scheme for bags deposited in household rubbish containers. However, this posed a problem for people living in town who have no facilities or space for making compost; the solution was to install the chicken run fitted with wooden bins where locals can deposit their kitchen waste for the chickens to eat and scratch down into compost. It’s been a huge success, not just from a waste disposal angle but also as something of an attraction; I’ve always found chickens to be good company and it seems plenty of others do, too, spending a few moments just watching the birds go about their business. Perhaps this is something that could catch on in similar situations?

A short walk from the rosaraie is a charming garden opened in 2001, based on a medieval design – very fitting, with the round towers and turrets of the castle as a dramatic backdrop.

It’s a while since we’ve visited and it was amazing just how mature it has become, a reminder of how quickly trees and plants will grow and fill spaces given the right conditions. I love the fact that the plants chosen are those known to have existed at least from medieval times, and I feel a certain comfort in that essence of history and continuity. I particularly like the jardin des simples, crammed as it is with aromatic and medicinal plants: there is so much inspiration there!

The previous owners of our house left an everlasting sweet pea in a large pot which I feel it is far more suited to being in the ground. I’ve been wondering exactly what to do with it and here was the answer: let it scramble unfettered among golden yarrow, what a fabulous colour combination they make.

The potager also draws me with its espaliered fruit trees, soft fruit bushes and ‘medieval’ vegetables. Like parts of the rose garden, it’s a little too formal for my liking but fascinating, none the same.

I have just planted a hedge of cardoons and I’m hoping it won’t be too long until they are also taller than Roger! I loved the underplanting with alpine strawberries, left to scramble freely and covered in tiny fruits – that’s definitely one to try at home.

The mix of planting appeals to me and there is definitely something of permaculture here with single vegetables side by side in heavily mulched beds. It’s the sort of thing I’m planning for the mandala bed we’ve started making, a colourful and joyful explosion of food plants in the middle of a flower garden.

Below the medieval garden is a lavoir, an old wash house which is one of many in Lassay, the evocative wooden carving serving as a reminder of a life in tougher times.

From there, it is just a few steps to the lake and a fine view of the castle reflected in the still water.

Looping back through the town to the rose garden, we passed several municipal planting schemes and patches of garden, full of colour and life and making Lassay very much a ville fleurie to be savoured. No matter how many times I have been there and in whatever season, it is a place that never fails to delight.

I certainly came home inspired, too. I’m not one to romanticise history – let’s be honest, life in the Middle Ages was short and harsh for many people – but there was much in the medieval garden to set me thinking. I’m all for a simple life but I have to admit I’m grateful not to have to do our laundry in a lavoir; however, the wooden washerwoman and huge bed of soapwort in the jardin des simples reminded me once more that it is time to get back on track with all things herbal. I started my exploration of soapwort last year in Asturias, growing a good sized plant from the gift of a root which I was able to lift and move here with us in December. I split the plant and settled it into two places; the bigger of the two has already made a decent show of things and I think there would be no harm in harvesting some stems and leaves now for my first soapy trial. Eventually, I’m planning to let it run amok in as big a space as it wants so that we have enough to use for laundry, dishwashing and in the bathroom but to start things off, I’ve decided to combine it with sage and rosemary to make a herbal shampoo. I’m hoping this will be the start of something great.

Soapwort growing well between Californian poppies and calendula. Note the baby cardoons behind!
Soapwort flowering in our Asturian garden last summer.

Looking to expand my knowledge and use of plants domestically and therapeutically, I’ve treated myself to a copy of A Modern Herbal by Alys Fowler which I’ve bought from World of Books, an ethical secondhand book company. (As an aside, I’ve always been very pleased with the books I’ve bought from them and I’m happy to continue supporting them – especially at only £2 for international shipping). I already have a herbal, but it is very dated and a peep at the preview of this new one suggests the far wider scope and coverage I’m looking for; for example, there is a section about using globe artichokes and cardoons, both of which I’ve recently planted and would like to make full use of once established. Once the book arrives, Roger will have a quiet life while I devour every page . . . while most probably making a very long wishlist for the garden.

I don’t have a medieval stillroom but rose petals dry well on a sunny windowsill.

I also know that there is a copy of The Hedgrow Handbook by Adele Nozedar of Breacon Beacons Foraging waiting for me at Vicky’s house for collection when we are finally allowed to travel and visit once again (please let it be soon). I bought a gift voucher for Adele’s foraging workshop for Vicky’s 30th birthday which we had planned to celebrate with her last year; unfortunately, Covid put paid to that, but realising how frustrated and sad I was, Adele swung into action. Living near Vicky, she offered to deliver the voucher by hand (in a Covid secure way, of course), taking a posy of June flowers from her garden and singing a hearty rendition of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ on the doorstep! I’ve never met Adele and I’m not being paid to advertise her business or books but she is most definitely one of life’s lovely people and I think it’s important to give credit where it is due. Having found so much enjoyment in foraging for elderflowers and nettles in recent weeks, I can’t wait to get my hands on her book!

Having put woolly things on hold for several months, I’ve started to think about natural dyes again, spurred on by the fact that Roger was kind (or daft?) enough to find room for my box of Dark Art materials on his last trip to Asturias (there’s even a faint whisper about my spinning wheel coming next time, oh happy day). Like soapwort, I started to grow some plants for dyes last year; woad and weld being biennial, I had to leave them in the ground but dyer’s chamomile and madder both came with us. To be honest, I thought I’d lost the madder, it struggled so badly with the cold spring and died right back to ground level; however, it’s back and growing like stink – another thug in the making. It’s related to coffee and I can’t believe how abrasive the leaves are, apparently they can be used as pan scourers which is another thing to try once the plants are big enough to pick at. The dyer’s chamomile loves it here and is ten times bigger than the little slip I planted; the flowers, a magnet to insects, are like vivid sunshine and it’s easy to see they will yield a bright yellow dye. I’ve raised more woad from seed and planted it in the same bed, so with any luck I should be able to overdye the yellow with blue to obtain a beautiful green, ironically not an easy colour to achieve from natural materials.

Dyer’s chamomile plus admirer

My wander round Lassay also has me picking up the permaculture reins once again and wishing I hadn’t left all my study notes in Spain! I’m very excited that we’ve started talking about having chickens again, I have missed them so much. We only need a couple of laying hens but their contribution will be immense: providing beautiful fresh eggs for us, manure for the garden / compost heap, eating kitchen scraps and scratching others down into compost, turning the soil over, eating pests and generally being good company. We plan to design and make moveable housing so they can range freely in the orchard or be contained in an area for a bit of chicken tractoring so I need to be patient while we get that organised. In the meantime, we’ve started making the mandala bed using the lasagne (sheet mulching) technique which means no digging, the idea being – in keeping with permaculture principles – that we create a bed of rich soil using only materials we already have. It’s a large circle and I’ve fallen at the first hurdle, having run out of cardboard for the base layer, so I’m going to have to cadge some from the local supermarket or recycling depot! Ah well, my intentions were sound.

Humble beginnings: a few sheets of soaked cardboard and a pile of grass clippings.
Growing steadily outwards . . .

After that, the layers of green and brown materials shouldn’t be too hard; we’ve started with grass clippings and there’s a pile of woodchips, sawdust, dead leaves and twiggy material waiting to go on next. For the (eventual) final layer of topsoil, I’m collecting molehills on a large tarpaulin in the Oak Tree Shed and there will be more when we dig the pond. As we have a long run of hazel hedge in need of laying, we’re planning to use the young whips to weave a low edging around the mandala, another idea borrowed from the medieval garden. It’s a long term project and, within the circle, still very much a blank canvas – but one I’m very excited about filling.

I’ve marked the outer edge with white stones, now we need to find enough cardboard to fill the space and get building some layers.

A couple of posts back, I wrote about us putting up a red squirrel nesting box in the hope of our resident pair having kittens in it next year. The box itself has a special story. For many years now, Roger and I have refused to ‘buy in’ to Christmas (aaargh, it feels horrible even writing the word at the beginning of July!) so when we last lived in this area, we set ourselves the challenge of making a gift for each other using only what we already had around the place, absolutely nothing new could be bought. We were obviously permaculturists then, just didn’t know it. 😉 Anyway, Roger made the box for me from scraps of timber and drew a very artistic squirrel on the side of it but because we have since moved several times, the box never actually went up anywhere. It seems fitting that it has finally come home and I have my fingers crossed that it will be used in the years to come. In the meantime, the squirrels are obviously coping without our help if the little kit scrambling about in the herb pots by the kitchen door this week is anything to go by. Visits to places like Lassay are an inspiring treat but in truth, I love the fact that the most wonderful things in life are literally right outside our back door!