Autumn arrives

Autumn is most definitely here. It has thrown so many different kinds of weather at us this week that it has been hard to keep up. We had a blissful couple of bright sunny days at 20C (‘feels like’ 24C – and it did), dropping to only 15C at night: shorts and t-shirts all the way and maximum time spent outside. We’ve had days of heavy showers – the first in weeks – with the temperature hovering in the low teens and evenings cool enough to light our new woodburner for the first time; mmm, so cosy! There was a morning chilly enough to put a skim of frost on everything, another so shrouded in cloud the world was all white and muffled; several days have treated us to brilliantly artistic sunrises and equally fiery sunsets. There has been the gentlest of breezes sending a dry whisper through the hedgerows and teasing leaves here and there to drift down in slow and dainty pirouettes from the trees, and a night of gusty storms that rattled round the chimney and dumped a pile of colourful leaves outside the kitchen door as if nature had decided to indulge in a little seasonal window dressing.

Out on my bike, I’ve worn a t-shirt one day but three layers plus gloves on another and have spent days in the garden working up and down through various layers of clothing and switching between old trainers and wellies, sometimes from hour to hour. I planted white garlic in the warmest of soils on a beautiful sun-drenched afternoon and rescued wind-damaged brassica plants on a cold and soggy morning. Well, ’tis the joy of the season and I quite enjoy the whole unpredictability of it all; at least it hasn’t been cold enough to light the kitchen woodstove – yet – and glimpses of sunlit autumn colours against a blue sky have been exquisite.

In the garden, there has been a feeling of season’s end for many plants. We have eaten the last of the aubergines from the tunnel and the final outdoor courgette. The sweetcorn ran out of steam and with the last small cobs consigned to the freezer, I chopped and dropped the spent plants where they stood. I intend to plant climbing beans on their patch next year and have been busy making up for lost time, adding organic material to feed the soil; having planted up the neighbouring Strawberry Circle – and blimey, those new little plants are looking good! – I now need to shift the remaining four from the sweetcorn bed to give myself a clear run at feeding and extending it before spring. However, there is a bit of a problem in that the strawbs are still fruiting merrily after five months of berries and I am still picking them daily to eat on my breakfast oats; yes, I have pointed out it’s October (actually, almost November) but nothing so far has deterred them. They go on and on.

Crazy strawberries apart, it always feels a bit odd to see the lush summer growth of the garden fade and die back but it is all part of the natural way of things and we still have so much good food to come that I don’t find it sad. The ‘Autumn King’ carrots are living up to their name in every way and are without doubt the biggest we have ever grown; whether seasoned with warming spices and roasted with squash or grated with cabbage and topped with rocket, landcress, New Zealand spinach, pickled nasturtium seeds and herbs in a crunchy salad, they are sweet and delicious. We are ploughing our way through an incredible harvest of crisp and enormous pointy (early summer) and drumhead (late summer) cabbage while the Savoy (winter??? Not a hope . . .) are charging on behind. I love their huge crinkly leaves backlit in sunlight or sugared with frost, such beautiful seasonal textures to delight in. I’ve gathered up a few of the smaller summer cabbages to make sauerkraut and also set a jar of beetroot to ferment; things might be feeling a bit end of season but there is so much left to enjoy. Needless to say, the apple pressing goes on and on . . .

The Jerusalem artichoke flowers brought a bold splash of late colour to the vegetable patch but the plants outgrew themselves and toppled over a couple of weeks ago; I didn’t have the heart to do anything about them as they carried on blooming at ground level and were still buzzing with insects. This week saw the end of the flowers, however, so I have finally cut them down, leaving stalks to help us locate the tubers in the depths of winter. I chopped the plants and added them to the sweetcorn bed as a mulch which should rot down nicely over winter and encourage the worms to do their stuff. As well as a fascinating range of fungi (including some very tasty field mushrooms), the cut grass is now teeming with valuable wormcasts; it’s good to see these most precious of gardening companions are busy again and when it comes to mowing, we will leave the final clips on the surface to feed them. It’s probably no great coincidence that the moles are also back to their industrious ways, bless their little velvet socks, so I’m back to shovelling up their hills to spread as topsoil on various lasagne beds. They seem to be in cahoots with the jays, since every tump has a strategically placed acorn on top of it; no question, nature would plant an oak forest here in the blink of an eye if we turned our backs long enough.

Along with the other summery veg and flowers, it’s also been time to bid hasta luego to the climbing beans which have finally reached the end of the road. In Asturias, our neighbours grow the plants up strings instead of poles (although last year, netting had become the new fashion) and harvest the whole lot at once, draping the pulled plants over horreo balconies to dry before threshing out the beans. My approach is a bit different, probably not as efficient but one that suits our lifestyle and organic gardening principles better. For starters, we prefer to freeze the beans rather than dry them; for us, they are a winter staple and it’s much easier to grab a batch last minute out of the freezer than have to remember to soak them overnight, so I’ve been picking and processing them over a number of weeks as they ripen. As they are legumes, I cut the plants off at ground level, leaving the roots to break down naturally underground in their own time. I then unravel the twisted stems up the poles, picking the last beans as I go. This is a bit laborious – especially as there has been a shameful amount of pole-hopping going on this year, so it’s like unravelling tangled balls of wool – but it means I can chop the vegetation as I go along, letting it fall to the ground as a mulch.

I’m planning to plant courgettes in this space next year; as greedy feeders, I think they’ll appreciate following the nitrogen-fixing beans and this additional layer of green fertiliser should encourage the worms to do their stuff and enrich the soil. It’s well worth the effort and not a bad job on a warm October afternoon. The twine I used to tie the poles is biodegradable so that joined the mulch mix, the hazel poles have gone into dry storage for next year and we have a freezer drawer full of fat creamy beans to enjoy in the months to come. We’ve had a great crop of seed from the dill and coriander that grew with the beans, all dried and stored for use in the kitchen. I’m leaving the dead plants untouched as their hollow stalks provide excellent overwintering homes for a wealth of beneficial insects – and I’d far rather we can count on their presence next year than worry about having a tidy garden. One of the things that has really struck me this week is the sheer number and variety of ladybirds we have and that is definitely something worth celebrating.

In the local neighbourhood, the maize harvest is in full swing; the field behind our garden is being munched by headlight as I write (it’s 9pm!), but one further along the lane was cut earlier in the week and the subsequent hauling of manure left an opportunity too good to be missed: as I set off to St P on my bike one morning, I met Roger running home pulling a wheelbarrow loaded with well-rotted muck behind him! Well, I’ve heard of people training by pulling tyres behind them but this did look a bit extreme . . . such is the life we lead. The farmer did scrape the lane clean once he’d finished, but why let nutritious stuff like that be flattened by cars when it can do so much good in the garden? This was my cue to take a deep breath and move the crown of rhubarb we inherited here and which I have been nurturing for many months. It really was long in the tooth, the central root thick and pappy but very deep so it took a lot of lifting. I split it into four crowns, each with a couple of fresh young buds and planted three of them in the Perennial Thug bed along with plenty of that manure: I’m hoping that at least two will flourish so I can alternate between them in forcing a crown each spring. The fourth root was potted up as a long overdue plant swap with a friend, so fingers crossed it will do the business. It’s good to see that bed filling up and I’m beginning to think it will be the best spot for planting some purple globe artichokes next year (once I’ve raised the plants from seed). This year’s green ones haven’t looked back, although we really shouldn’t be eating them at this time of year; in fact, I ought to be thinking about covering the crowns to protect them from cold weather over winter . . . once the spiders have finished with them, of course.

Foraging for wild food has become very popular – some might even say trendy – in recent times and the bigger part of me welcomes this. I believe that anything that encourages people to spend time outdoors, exploring their local environment in depth, connecting with nature and the seasonal cycles and broadening an appreciation of foods that haven’t been processed or bought from a supermarket is a good thing. The flip side, though, is that in some places, too many people have piled in and allowed over-enthusiasm (and yes, let’s be honest, greed) to rule, stripping hedges, woodlands, moorlands or wherever bare of the bounty on offer. The consequences of this don’t need spelling out: surely it’s simple common sense, for example, that elder and hawthorn stripped of summer blossom won’t bring forth autumn berries? Also, once the novelty of seeking and gathering is over, for some the idea of actually eating these wild foods doesn’t seem quite so attractive and consequently they are wasted . . . and that sort of behaviour I really can’t condone. I feel very grateful that we are privileged to be able to forage on our own patch and that alone serves as a useful check against over-indulgence. The red squirrel watching me with unwavering attention as I gather chestnuts or the flap and clack of departing blackbirds as I approach the hawthorn bushes serve as timely reminders that these goodies are there to be shared; it would be pure hypocrisy to wax lyrical about working to preserve and enhance our ecosystem if we then strip it bare of what are essential foodstuffs for others who share this space. We are lucky: we don’t need to live on wild foods, but we can forage small amounts to enjoy as celebrations of the season, or even enough to preserve for the leaner months, but we can leave most for those whose need is greater than ours.

There is a current school of thought that, in the face of the climate crisis and general uncertainty over the future, we must look back towards the wild foods that sustained our ancestors in order to move forward. That is for greater brains than mine to analyse but in the meantime, I think it is interesting and informative to experiment with the possibilities of the wild foods we can gather here. Turning to foraging in times of crisis is nothing new; the log books of a Welsh village school where I once taught described how during World War II, children were released from lessons to gather rosehips for syrup . . . and were even given government issue wellies to help them on their way. I have been collecting rosehips for some weeks now and freezing them ready to make into a cordial once we are back to kitchen stove days; my plan is to use it as a hot vitamin-rich drink in the dark depths of winter. Hawthorn berries are also in the freezer, waiting for my first experiment with making fruit leather – thanks to Jonathan for the recipe idea. I’m going to combine them with apple and (hopefully!) dry them into a decent leather overnight in the stove, something that should then keep for a year or more and serve as a healthy and nutritious snack.

Roger took the ladder down into the hedgerows a few weeks ago and picked a large bag of fat blue-black sloes. We haven’t made sloe gin for many years but with Sam and Adrienne due to visit from Norway for a few days before New Year, I thought it would be a lovely seasonal treat to share with them (we won’t have seen them for almost exactly two years, to say it will be a full-on foodie fest is something of an understatement). As gin is never on our shopping list and we rarely go near a supermarket, it has taken me a while to remember to buy the necessary bottle so in the meantime, the sloes have been enjoying a deep frost in the freezer. This is a brilliant hack for sloe gin, as they burst on defrosting, releasing all those precious juices without the tiresome need to prick each one several times. They are now macerating happily in a jar with the gin and some sugar, I’m giving it all a good shake every day and then next week, I’ll strain the liquid back into the gin bottle and forget about it until Christmas.

Since foraging is not a precise science (especially practised at the top of a ladder), we ended up with more sloes than were needed, so what to do with the spares? While I messed about with gin, Roger did a quick internet search for ideas and came across Rachel Lambert’s inspiring foraging and wild food website at In no time at all, he had made a jar of her sloe syrup, rich, dark and fruity with just the right hint of astringency; Rachel suggests drizzling it over porridge but we also think it will make an ideal substitute where recipes call for pomegranate molasses. Why stop there? Before I could turn round, our walnut store had been raided and, using the fruits left over from syrup making, Le Chef had turned out a batch of sticky sloe and nut clusters. We are not great lovers of sweet things but sometimes there’s a need for a little boost after a long run, walk or bike ride and these gooey, chewy, fruity, nutty little numbers just hit the spot perfectly and taste like nothing else. Even better, with the stones consigned to the compost heap, there wasn’t a scrap of waste from our sloe harvest (and still plenty left on the blackthorns in the garden). Just as foraging should be, surely?

As the season shifts, so does our focus on the list of jobs to tackle. It’s a good time to reflect a bit on what we’ve achieved so far and to get stuck in to priority projects outside while the weather still holds. Some kind of shed and rainwater collection system in the veg patch is top of the list as hauling water from elsewhere isn’t very efficient (and also a lot of hard work), so Roger has sketched out a design and made an impressive start, re-purposing timber and roof panels from the carport bay he removed earlier in the year. We need to tackle the hazel hedge which has been allowed to grow into tall trees and casts a lot of shade across the growing areas for too much of the year; we are planning to reduce the height considerably, thin it out and then lay it properly – that will be quite a task. We’ve made good progress in creating habitats for wildlife but a pond is the one key thing we are really missing so there will be that to dig out, too. There’s also some work to be done in the coppice and logging is an ongoing task as always. Of course, there’s still the kitchen to finish (!), curtains to line, a bedroom to decorate and a pile of other indoor bits and pieces to be done . . . but while the sun is shining, we will be outside enjoying the very best of autumn while it lasts.

An apple a day . . .

We have been blessed with a spell of weather so gorgeous it feels like a blast of summer, mild nights and days so warm and sunny we are back in t-shirts and shorts: this is the Mayenne I remember! The sunshine is golden, the garden full of spider silk and butterflies and heady with the fragrance of apples; the air trills with the songs of woodlarks and is so soft and soapy, you could bathe it in. It is pure bliss and I don’t want to miss a minute. I’ve been spending my days zipping about the garden getting lots done, then picking a trugload or more of beans (Asturian and French) and sitting on the seat in the vegetable patch, shelling them in the late afternoon sunshine and enjoying the moment. I’m not the only one.

The weather is perfect for harvesting apples and we have been filling at least one large crate every day. It’s definitely a two-person job but I’m not sure which role is the more dangerous: wobbling about on top of the ladder and reaching high into the branches to pick the fruit (why are the best ones all at the top?) or standing underneath to catch the dropped apples and transfer them to the barrow, whilst avoiding the inevitable free-fallers. Well, Roger is much braver than me when it comes to heights so just call me Isaac Newton! 😆

It’s certainly worth the work, we have already picked many kilos and there are plenty more to come; from what seemed like a disappointing start flavourwise, we are actually blessed with several trees that produce delicious apples . . . what to do with them all now?

Obviously, we are eating them daily as raw fruit and we will be putting plenty into store and observing how well they keep. They are fine for tarts and the like but don’t cook down into a fluffy pulp like cooking varieties so there’s no point in making compote to freeze. I’m planning to dry as many as I can once the weather turns and drives me indoors but for now, the big story is juice. Our wooden press arrived last week and after a happy hour constructing it, we were keen to try it out. Before pressing, the apples need washing then chopping and mashing into small bits in order to release maximum juice; sane people buy a scratter to sit on top of the press so the apples can be chopped and fed in directly but we didn’t want to rush to buy a whole lot of new equipment before we’d explored just how viable the apple juice project is. So, how to mash? We’re quartering the apples, coring them (not essential but we’ve found it helps), cutting them crossways as chunks seem to mash better than slices then putting them in a food-grade bucket and pounding them with a (new) pickaxe handle. It takes a while but I like this hands-on connection with the whole process and it’s very therapeutic in a vandalistic sort of way.

It’s really not a bad way to spend an hour or so, especially taking it in turns to chop and mash. Our press takes 12 litres of apple pulp so we keep going until it’s full to the top.

The press is a pretty nifty and solid piece of kit engineered from metal and beech wood. Roger was very quick to see that it would need to be bolted down to a board and firmly clamped to the table to stop it dancing about under pressure; he also added several extra wooden blocks on top to raise the height of the handle which gives us more pressing power. So, fully charged, turn the crank and . . .

. . . wow! Juice comes flowing out at great speed into the receptacles below. A full press gives us three to four litres each time which we filter through doubled muslin and then bottle. We’re experimenting with two methods: sterilised plastic bottles to go into the freezer and glass bottles pasteurised in a pan of water to keep in dry storage. We think this year we should yield enough to last us six months which makes us self-sufficient in yet another food for half a year; now we know what we’re doing, we’ll aim for a whole year’s worth next autumn. It might not be the prettiest looking juice in the world, but the flavour is truly amazing. Cheers!

I’m not sure why, but our to-do list just seems to keep on growing – needless to say the poor old kitchen has been abandoned once again, we really will finish the revamp one day. That said, weather like this is such a joy that it would be rude not to make the most of it; after all, cold, wet, dark days will come soon enough so it’s good to grab the chance to get out and about a bit on two wheels or two feet and make the most of this gift. Staying with the theme of apples, it seemed like the perfect chance this week to revisit the apple arboretum at Sainte-Anne, not only to enjoy the trees at their bountiful best, but in the hope of perhaps identifying some of the apple varieties we have in our orchard.

I am always struck by what a beautiful and peaceful place this is, we are so lucky to have it on our doorstep. It is very typical of the shared, respected community spaces that are so abundant in Mayenne and France in general, a welcoming place that can be enjoyed by everyone. The lake is open to fisherfolk in the summer months and there are wooden shelters, benches and plenty of picnic tables; it’s a great spot for families and definitely one on the list for when our little grandmunchkins come to visit. It’s also a popular venue for school fieldtrips, giving children the chance to broaden understanding and experience of their environment and nature at large, as well as local history and culture. I love the fact that several new information boards scattered throughout the arboretum have been based on what the children have written; what a wonderful way to acknowledge, celebrate and encourage them as the future guardians of their locality and the natural world.

Roger sometimes runs this way on his morning outings and I was keen to see the small apiary which he told me had been added since my last visit; as former – and hopefully, future – beekeepers this sort of thing is always interesting and for me, the three hives sited in a fenced area, complete with wooden observation shelter, have made a perfect addition to the arboretum. The bees were boiling out of their hives in the morning sunshine, not to visit fruit blossom, obviously, but it didn’t take too long to see that their flight paths were leading to banks of ivy flowers which make such valuable forage at this time of year.

The arboretum was created in 1992 by grafting donated scions, in an effort to preserve as many local apple varieties as possible; there are currently over 250 mature trees, mostly apples but with the more recent addition of 30 or so pear trees. Seeing the apples in ‘full fruit’ brings home just what an incredible variety there is, the branches dripping with fruits in many shades of green, yellow, orange and red: truly beautiful.

At the entrance to the orchard there is a board and numbered map showing the position of each variety, their musical names creating a rich, linguistic tapestry. I could have spent the whole day simply wandering from tree to tree, appreciating their autumnal beauty but the apple press was calling from home so I had to make do with a quick whizz up and down the rows in search of something that matched the two main varieties we are juicing. I’m not entirely sure I struck gold – needles and haystacks spring to mind – but I think what we have are ‘Binet Rouge’ which is a classic sweet cider apple and ‘De Fer’ which is all good news: late flowering (so unlikely to be frosted), reliable cropper, multi-use fruit with excellent keeping qualities. Can’t say fairer than that.

For our second little wander this week we went back to Saint-Léonard-des-Bois, a pretty town in the nearby Alpes Mancelles which I wrote about earlier in the year. We planned to do a marked 10k / 6 mile walk in two loops, following the fascinating ‘Histoires Géologiques’ route which climbs 275 metres and spans a mere 600 million years! We started at the Domaine du Gasseau picnic site with a flask of coffee and patisserie (a treat we haven’t had for some time) then headed down into Saint-Léonard; the town is built in a loop of the Sarthe river and crossing the first of two bridges, we stopped to enjoy the view.

The town itself is pretty and welcoming, a popular attraction for campers and canoeists in summer and the sort of quiet place where you can just sit outside a cafe and watch the world go by. Passing the mairie and church square, we wandered through narrow streets of ancient houses still boasting colourful floral displays, then climbed steeply out of the town and into leafy woodland.

The woodland was a tranquil place to wander, still green and full of dappled sunlight but in times gone by it was a very different story. This was the site of a flourishing nineteenth-century slate quarry and although it was difficult to imagine the bustle and noise in what is such a peaceful spot today, there were plenty of deep water-filled holes and slate cliffs hinting at the industrial heritage.

Here we found the first of many information boards (in French and English) which were to take us on a fascinating tour through geology and time during our walk, accompanied by samples of various rocks which we could observe and handle. The slates from these quarries were traditionally used for roofs but apparently being high in iron levels as seen in the colour of the rocks – and, I would add, the rich red of the local soil – they had a shorter lifespan than other slates.

The path led us along a ridge above the Vallée de Misère, where in times gone by the trees had been felled for timber and the land heavily grazed; today, it is restored to a wide expanse of mixed woodland full of deciduous trees just on the turn, suggesting that in a couple of weeks’ time the autumn colours will be gorgeous. A little further on at the Butte de Narbonne Sud, the information board told us we were standing on the edge of an ancient volcanic crater an incredible 20 kilometres wide; no volcanic activity today, but the views are beautiful.

We walked along the top of the gorge, the drop below us so precipitous that the local sapeurs-pompiers were using it as a rescue training area, clambering up and down on ropes; we declined their tongue in cheek suggestion of trying the little path they were using down to the river! The views beyond were so typical of Mayenne and Sarthe, a rolling landscape of farmland and woodland dotted with stone houses and barns. We read that the manoir below us was roofed in local slate . . .

. . . and further on, that the ancient cross had been hewn from local stone.

Walking back down into the town to close our first loop, Roger pointed out that the second one would take us to the top of that wooded ridge opposite. Oh good, not done with climbing yet, then!

This time we headed out of town in the opposite direction, crossing the second river bridge; those flowers were a real show.

After a steep climb through woodland on what felt like an ancient trackway, the path opened out into farmland for a while and gave us some more lovely views. The hedgerows were beautiful, still very full and tinged with soft autumn shades, bright with scarlet splashes of hips and haws; bryony and honeysuckle berries were threaded through like brilliant necklaces while spindle berries hung in pink spatters, not yet ready to reveal the vibrant shock of orange seeds hidden inside. This was the oldest part of our geological tour, walking on rocks formed aeons ago in the depths of a southern hemisphere ocean; I always find such information completely mind-blowing. What an incredible planet we live on.

Having reached the summit, we traversed the ridge on a path that felt like a wide woodland ride with bright sunlit clearings along its length. The trees were tall but not dense, giving us tantalising glimpses of the landscape until suddenly everything opened out and there was Saint-Léonard-des-Bois nestling in the valley below us, pretty as a picture.

Following a trail down, we arrived back at our starting point with time for a diversion to the Domaine du Gasseau potager and a quick peep to see how it is faring at this end of the year. There was still plenty of interest and colour thanks to the likes of nasturtiums, borage, Chinese lanterns, amaranth and an abundance of cherry tomatoes still fruiting this late in the season. The kiwi vines were flaunting small fruits and the whole garden was fragrant with the soporific scent of hops trailing over the pergolas. It was as charming as ever, but noticing how the beds were in the process of being mulched with compost and fallen leaves, I realised it was time to stop galavanting and get home to do the same . . . oh, and press another crate of apples in the sunshine, of course. 😊

A life of luxury

I love this time of year, when the weather is kind; there is such a wonderful, gentle, subtle sense of the seasons changing, of sliding softly into autumn without any great jolt or shock to the system. I love the cooler, misty, cobwebby mornings leading to balmy, sun-drenched afternoons. I love how the still-green landscape starts to fade at the edges, leaves mellowing into artistic tinges of yellow and orange that hint at the bright fire to come. I feel wistful to see the last of the swallows leave but amused by the chattering of goldfinch flocks feasting on the sunflower seeds (I’d planned to harvest those heavy heads for the bird table but it seems I’ve been beaten to it). I love the straggly mingling of rudbeckia and Michaelmas daisies and the shameless colour of the red admiral and peacock butterflies who sip nectar from their depths. I love the scent of apples and mushrooms and wet leaves and wood smoke.

What I don’t love is an overnight forecast of 5°C, which at 7°C below normal on 30th September seemed very unnecessary. I don’t need to be waking to frost-encrusted grass yet, no matter how pretty it might look in the morning sunshine: there’s all winter to enjoy that kind of parky malarkey. Thankfully, it was just a blip; the temperature recovered rapidly and nothing seemed to have suffered, except for the squash plants. To be fair, they had been dying back naturally for some time anyway but that chilly night left the leaves limp and blackened – just the prod I needed to get on and harvest them. Now, those of you who have followed my blog for some time will know what a chaotic event the squash harvest always was in our Asturian garden: it was definitely a two-person job, one sliding up and down the slopes rescuing heavy squash before they barrelled off down the mountainside, the other ferrying them about in a wheelbarrow under a very worrying pull of gravity. Once cleaned, they then all needed hauling up many steps to the horreo for seasoning and storage: all in all, quite a workout. What a difference it was this week on the flat, managing the whole thing on my own without a single escapee. Here’s the result . . . from outside, 14 ‘Crown Prince’, 6 butternut ‘Hunter’ and 15 Casa Victorio Specials and from the tunnel,15 butternut ‘Hunter.’

Six butternuts from two outdoor plants, fifteen (plus two more to come) from two indoor plants. Note the size difference, too. That’s the benefit of a polytunnel!

There are a couple of butternuts still ripening in the tunnel but the total so far is 50 squash. Should be enough! 🤣 Okay, probably far too many, but they represent an important staple food for us and will keep until next May: eight months of delicious, nutritious sustenance – who can argue with that? I love the fact that they have grown so prolifically on their hügel bed: for me it’s the perfect recycling of an ugly ornamental conifer that had outlived its usefulness. I also love what happens with our Specials, that crazy mix of different fruits grown from the seed of a single squash. ‘Crown Prince’ and ‘Hunter’ are commercial F1 varieties; we grow them because they make good eating and they do exactly what it says on the packet. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing. The open-pollinated varieties are far more fun, though, and have the benefit of a wider genetic biodiversity which it is so important to sustain. In the middle row below, you can see five distinct types of squash all from the same ‘parent’ (which is usually the final squash to be eaten last season so I suppose, if nothing else, we are selecting for good keeping qualities); if we continued to grow selectively over a number of years by closing the flowers to pollinators and doing the job ourselves, we could eventually create our own variety – something I’d like a crack at in the future.

In the meantime, having been wiped clean and dry, the beauties are now seasoning in the shelter of the outhouse before going into the barn for winter storage. Mmm, the comforting luxury of lunchtime squash, bean and chilli soup beckons . . .

Talking of luxuries, we are enjoying what can only be described as a glut of aubergines from the tunnel; no matter how many we harvest, there always seems to be at least another twenty to pick, so much so that I’m even looking into spicy aubergine chutney and pickle recipes in an attempt to make the most of such bounty. We’re having a lot of fun using them and I can happily report that grilled slices over crème fraîche and mozzarella make a great homemade pizza topping; in fact, drizzled with pesto made from the last of the outdoor basil and stored garlic and walnuts, scattered with a handful of peppery rocket from the tunnel and served with a chunky slaw of autumn cabbage and carrots, aubergine pizzas are a wonderful celebration of the changing of the seasons. Then there’s the sweetcorn, something we haven’t managed to grow in any great quantity for many years; boy, are we making up for it now! The cobs are huge and covered in sweet, succulent kernels, to be honest a meal in themselves.

Like other seasonal luxuries such as asparagus, globe artichokes and strawberries, I think sweetcorn is best cooked and eaten as simply as possible and for us, the absolute favourite treatment is to cook whole cobs on the barbecue. If you’ve never tried it then trust me, it’s the food of kings, a true culinary delight we learned about in our years spent living in Cyprus. The merest whiff takes me straight back to Limassol seafront where, under bright moth-circled lanterns, the corn sellers wafted air across their charcoal braziers sending the appetising scent of caramelising corn to mingle with those of jasmine and sea breezes. Delicious, definitely my kind of takeaway food – and isn’t it incredible how evocative simple scents can be?

Not quite seasonal: one of the globe artichoke plants raised from seed this year has decided to have a bit of an October moment.

Having enjoyed plentiful harvests of peaches, figs and kiwis in recent years it might seem a bit mundane to be excited about an abundant apple harvest but I am, I really am. Apples are, after all, a fundamental part of my heritage and culture as well as being an incredibly versatile and reliable food source. Picking a sun-kissed apple straight from the tree, running a fingernail across its smooth skin, inhaling the unique scent and then taking a bite is a world away from any experience on offer from a supermarket. I love all the folklore and mythology that surrounds this humble fruit but more than anything, the wonderful variety and charming names: Keswick Codlin, Pitmaston Pineapple, Cornish Gilliflower, Peasgood’s Nonsuch and King of the Pippins trip off the English tongue like a spellbinding fairy tale whilst the French Orleans Reinette, Calville Blanc d’Hiver, Bonne Hotture, Binet Rouge and Franc Rambour sound completely delightful.

For us, this year is a voyage of Discovery (aargh, I’ve just realised what I did there – no pun intended) as we sample the fruit from the nine exceedingly mature trees that came with the property; I am spending many happy moments picking and wandering and munching. One is most definitely a cider apple, another has large yellow fruits that are almost completely tasteless; there are three varieties grafted onto a single tree, of which one is an acceptable russet type and the others fair to middling. The rest are a pretty mixed bunch but in general, the further up the tree we go, the bigger the fruit and better the flavour. By far the best is the old tree in the Secret Garden; it was the first to bloom in spring and the apples are small but delicious, very juicy and without question up there with a Cox’s Orange Pippin for flavour.

A bowl of delights, fresh from the tree.

Now we need to decide where to go from here: we will pick and store the better fruit as dessert apples but there are no cookers (which comes as no surprise) so one or two of those are on the top of our late autumn tree planting list. This is apple territory and much of the local orchard harvest goes to making three big regional products: cider, pommeau and calvados. We would prefer to use ours for fresh juice – another local speciality – but that comes with problems, not least the lack of a press. The local country store offers days where we could take our bulk harvest along to be pressed, but then how could we keep the juice? Without being pasteurised it would go off or ferment and freezing would require a lot of space. Perhaps the better bet would be to store the apples as long as possible and juice them as we go along – but how? We had an electric juicer once but it was hopeless for apples, we spent more time cleaning it and removing the pulp than drinking the juice. Decisions, decisions . . . in the end, I’ve ordered a traditional wooden 12 litre press to be delivered this week and we’ve decided the time has come to put the chest freezer (left here by the previous owners) to use, no bad thing really since the upright freezer is rapidly filling with produce anyway. Time to pick apples, then!

Harvesting and preserving food aside, there are other things we have turned our attention to this week in preparation for the colder months to come. Where laundry is concerned, I’ve always preferred to line-dry outdoors but a run of short, cold, wet days makes that impossible. We don’t have (or want) a dryer and I’m sad to have waved goodbye to my trusty wooden airer as there simply isn’t any practical way of mounting it over the kitchen woodstove, so a Plan C has been called for. We rigged a temporary zigzag of a line in the outhouse earlier in the year but it’s far from ideal for several reasons; first, it’s too small to take a full load of washing and no good for things like bed sheets; second, until we get the barn sorted – another winter project – this space is being used as a sheltered workshop and washing just gets in the way; third, it’s the only place we have to season the squash haul and they make access to the line very tricky. In any case, we don’t really want a washing line there as our eventual plan is to use the space as a practical outdoor area for activities such as soapmaking and, most definitely, a sheltered dining area so we can eat out and barbecue in all weathers.

The solution we hit on in the end was to relocate to the Oak Shed where there is ample room for a long stretch of line and two wide, open doorways allow a good breeze to blow through without letting the rain in. It’s much further from the house but that really doesn’t bother me; at least the laundry can start its drying process if nothing else and will come in smelling of fresh air to finish drying on a stand-up airer in a warm room. Job done . . . well, not quite that quickly: as with so many other tasks here, there was a bit of a knock-on effect and the line couldn’t go up until a pile of huge seasoned tree sections had been split and stacked out of the way. Which brings me on to the next autumnal preparation . . .

. . . logs! Our house is heated with wood and hauling, chopping and stacking enough logs to see us through a winter is hard, ongoing work; ideally, they need to be seasoned for two years before burning so we are always working well ahead of ourselves. We have stacks at various stages scattered about the property; those below are the latest to be collected from the coppice, birch logs split and stacked to dry in the fresh air.

Their final resting place is a store in the barn, along with several bags of chopped dry morning sticks. There’s every chance we don’t have enough to see us through our first complete winter here, in which case we will buy in a ready-seasoned load if stocks start to run low. It might be work, but the beauty is it boosts our self-reliance; we aren’t depending on energy companies to keep us warm (and isn’t that a topic of conversation at the moment?) and with careful management of the coppice, we should have the best, renewable ‘solar’ power for years to come.

In terms of stoves, there has been a bit of work to be done there, too. The kitchen stove works well as a space heater and runs two radiators comfortably but struggles with all four; to that end, we’ve installed a woodburner in the sitting room which will tick over nicely on minimum logs, heating that room and the open upstairs room which means we can turn two radiators off. With reduced pressure on the kitchen stove, it should be a lot better to cook on, too; the hob is brilliant but the oven temperature was disappointing last year – giving the internal workings a good clean has helped matters, so fingers crossed for roast dinners as well as casseroles this winter! One of the problems with the system is that there was no thermostat and the pump switch is outside in the cave, meaning we either had to get up in the night and go outside to switch it off or waste electricity letting it pump cold water round the system for several hours. We’ve just fitted a flue thermostat, it’s not the prettiest of things but it does mean we can control the pump from inside now. The other major concern was that the way the system is set up, if there is a power cut then the water could boil and the tank explode unless we put the fire out quickly (not easy!); to that end, we’ve set the pump on an uninterrupted power supply which will keep going for 24 hours in the event of a power cut, giving us time to get things under control and the option of continuing to be able to cook hot meals without electricity. Phew! With power cuts in mind, I’ve also been putting candles and lamps in strategic positions ‘just in case’ as it’s a bit frustrating trying to find the things once the lights have all gone out. I think we’re ready; cue the mildest, power cut-free winter on record . . .

Overhauled and ready to go: the woodstove with candles and lamp on the mantel (plus a tiny sneak preview of the new-look kitchen for those readers who are impatient to see it: more pics soon, I promise!)

Lack of insulation was a problem when we moved in last December so putting up new wood panel ceilings and packing a deep layer of insulation behind was a priority and one that made a noticeable difference to the temperature of the house. The windows are large and the south-facing aspect means we can benefit from passive solar heating all year round but unlike many local properties, we don’t have wooden shutters to help with night-time insulation. Instead, I’ve hung heavy lined curtains wherever possible which should help to keep things cosy. In the two upstairs rooms, the windows on the back of the house are in fact full-length glass doors; they let in plenty of light and as they face north, overheating in summer isn’t an issue. The previous owners left single full-length curtains in colourful Indian batik patterns which I’m happy to keep but they are so very thin that I definitely need to make some linings for them (luckily, I’ve just discovered a very handy local fabric and wool shop – oh happy, happy days!). The other problem with the door-windows is that they opened onto a long drop into thin air . . . aaargh, who ever thought that was a good idea? We decided the best way of making things safer was to add a balcony and the result is beautifully crafted, the kind of skilled workmanship in natural materials I love. The carpenter suggested Douglas fir as it has so much natural resin that it only requires a couple of coats of linseed oil a year; it feels like something of a luxury, the perfect spot to greet the morning or sit in the evening, but at least I’m no longer worrying about either of us taking up sleepwalking. It also happens to be the perfect size for my yoga mat . . . 😊

I’m not a great fan of seasonal bedding plants as they are an environmental nightmare, but craving some colour in early spring I succumbed to buying a few trays of pansies and planted up three window boxes. I have to admit they were worth every centime; they flowered for months and months in a cheery mix of bright colours and scattered plenty of seeds which have spent all summer popping up as new plants in the gravel below. I’ve refreshed the troughs this week, scraping back the top layer of soil and compost, filling the trench with shredded comfrey leaves for a slow-release fertiliser and replacing the top layer with added homemade compost, then planting little self-set pansies lifted from the gravel. Hopefully, they will give us months of floral colour which haven’t cost a thing – or the planet.

For the summer months, I replaced the pansy troughs with ivy-leaved geraniums (or pelargoniums, if you prefer), another bought indulgence which proved unexpectedly popular with hummingbird hawkmoths. In fairness, they have been amazing, tumbling enthusiastically down the front of the house and coping admirably with whatever the weather has thrown at them. They are still going strong but my plan is to cut them back soon, give them a good feed and move them to the polytunnel where I can coddle them all through winter in the hope of a repeat performance next year. Flowers aside, looking at the photo below I had two thoughts. One, those beautifully colour co-ordinated trainers were not a result of deliberate set-dressing, they were simply drying in the sunshine after a dismally wet morning run. Two, that inherited ‘welcome’ sign really has to go; I’m not keen on such things at the best of times but at the very least it should be written in French!

On our recent trip to Asturias, I remembered to collect our copy of John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency which I’m now enjoying reading for the umpteenth time. The regular references to the ‘Law of Returns’ are very apt for what I’ve been up to in the garden this week, returning every scrap of organic matter to the land being a key part of our organic husbandry. Having harvested the squash, I pulled up what felt like miles of spent vines and deposited them on top of the hügel bed along with the impossibly long grass that had grown between them; this should all rot down over winter, along with any extra organic matter I might add, and feed the soil for next year’s crop. I’ve chopped and dropped the crimson clover sown between the soft fruit bushes, leaving the nitrogen-fixing roots in place and scattering the ‘straw’ as a fertilising mulch. I’ve gathered up barrows of bruised windfall apples and sawdust from the logging sessions to add alternate green and brown layers to the current compost heap. I’ve turned the resting compost heap, adding water as it seemed rather dry despite the plentiful rainfall of late plus a scattering of yarrow leaves to act as a natural accelerator; I know ‘cold’ heaps are usually left to rest but giving them a tickle like this helps to kickstart the heating process again and anyway, I have my own approach to these things – I’m impatient and I have to check what’s going on (lots of worms, hoorah!). I’ve started planting the Perennial Thugs bed with a couple of slips of soapwort and a few roots of comfrey brought back from Asturias; the latter are already sending up new shoots, is there any stopping that amazing, beneficial plant?

Yarrow, a great compost accelerator.

To finish where I started, the gentle journey through early autumn. I feel my body clock responding naturally to the changing light, sleeping in a little longer in the mornings (and what a luxury that is!) and needing to be out and busy in the brighter hours of daylight. Taking the compost bucket down to the veggie patch to empty each evening, I can mark the passage of the sun ever southwards, breathe in the deep, earthy autumnal scents and watch dark crows flapping languorously across the sunset, homewards to roost. Time for me to turn ‘homewards’ with my empty bucket, too. . . but I might linger just a few minutes more and enjoy the beauty of this October moment.