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!