A new year, and for us in more than way than one: not only the calendar clicking round towards 2022 but also – on the 28th December – the end of our first twelve months back living in Mayenne. It was sad not to be celebrating our first ‘anniversary’ as part of Sam and Adrienne’s planned (and subsequently cancelled) visit but I suppose that just about epitomised the rollercoaster year it had been since moving here. We lit the ice lantern anyway and raised an optimistic glass to a calmer and kinder time of it over the next twelve months. We shall see.
I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions, not because I think there’s anything inherently wrong in trying to make ourselves into better beings but because I simply think it’s the wrong time of year for it. For many people living in northern climes, January is a difficult and depressing enough month as it is without beating ourselves up with an almighty guilt trip following the excesses of the festive season; since according to many studies, improving health and fitness tends to be top of the new habits bill, then I would suggest a slightly lighter, warmer month might be a better time to start. It’s a personal thing, of course (feel free to disagree!) but I believe that the idea of ‘restoration’ – meaning to renew, repair, rebuild and, ultimately, to heal – is a more appropriate one just now. A time for reflection and a promise of change are no bad things but for me, the important point is that it is done with kindness and compassion, a sense of positive growth that mirrors the lengthening days and brings hope and happiness rather than self-sabotaging guilt and fear of failure.
I’ve been pondering this idea a fair bit over the last few days as all of our activity in the garden has been very much along the lines of restoration work. Our local weather forecast is very detailed and pretty accurate but it has been a fairly depressing given that for most of our twelve months here, the daily temperature values have remained stubbornly below the expected norm; what a wonderful Yuletide gift, then, as suddenly we moved from ‘minus two feels like minus eight’ (and yes, it certainly did) to a blissfully kind plus fourteen and double figures overnight. Okay, so it’s been a bit grey and damp at times but a real joy to spend our days outside together, getting stuck in to several tasks which have been waiting a long time.
There was never any chance of us following the classic rule of waiting for twelve months before making any changes to the garden; it was bad enough coping for several months without a garden full of fresh produce, yet alone prolonging the agony for a complete year. The vegetable patch was a huge priority right from the moment we arrived here but now, with everything stripped back to its bare bones, it is the perfect time to assess the overall design of the garden and start working in earnest on its structure. Although I accept that some of what we are doing might look more like destruction than restoration, it’s all part of a big plan which (we hope) will ultimately result in a garden that is full of life and colour, interest and food, an intimate place to wander and wonder that will continue to grow and evolve year on year. So, let’s start with trees. We have already planted several new fruit trees along with a handful of native deciduous varieties and next week’s delivery of bare-rooted plants will mean many more specimens to add colour, interest and structure; we will continue to plant trees during the dormant period for many years to come, and although they might look a bit small and diffident to start with, they should grow into elegant, mature beauties in no time.
On the flip side, there are a number of ancient, half-dead trees which really have to go such as the old apple tree we cut down this week. Like most of the mature fruit trees here, it had suffered terrible abuse in its lifetime, bent over at awkward angles, great boughs having been lopped off in grotesque amputations (we can only think for firewood but why would you do that?) and the crown left broken and rotten. The scanty fruits it produced were tasteless to the point of being unpleasant and not even the birds would touch them. Neither of us likes felling trees but there comes a point where it is the only sensible course of action and trust me, nothing will be wasted: it will make room for new, healthy replacement trees, the trunk and bigger boughs will be used for firewood, the smaller branches for the barbecue and the twiggy sticks for mulch and compost. As soon as the tree was down, we could see it had been the right decision as the trunk was almost completely hollow and yet, in death, there was the promise of life . . . the whole thing was full of a rich, black compost, enough to fill a large dustbin, the best of nature’s nourishment which will sustain many other plants through the coming year. Thank you, tree!
Something we had no qualms about felling was the ugly garden shed, even more of an eyesore now the leaves have gone and the hedge behind it has been laid. It’s been a useful place to keep a few tools but was in entirely the wrong spot; the roof had been leaking for years and consequently was totally rotten and the fibreboard lining was peeling off the walls like wet spongy carpet. The wall panels themselves and and the doors were all pretty sound, though, so our plan was to dismantle the whole thing and reuse what we can in building a new, improved shed whilst clearing the area of the piles of junk we had never got round to shifting and turning it into something more attractive.
We knew from experience that this kind of job always takes longer than expected, especially as we have a habit of buying properties from previous owners with a nail fetish – not in the buffed, polished and manicured sense but more of a “I’ve got a hammer and I’m going to use it – everywhere!” sort of way. I’m sure there’s probably a deep psychological reason for belting in twenty long nails where a single screw would do the job but honestly, I wish they wouldn’t. It took ages to remove the piles of rusted ironwork and every time we thought we were done, we discovered several more lurking in dark corners. We would have liked to lift the roof off but despite being rotten, it was way too heavy so we decided a controlled collapse was the only way to bring it down; unfortunately, I was a fraction of a second too slow in jumping back at the crucial moment and the roof caught my legs on its downwards trajectory, leaving me with thighs and knees so colourfully bruised they would be fascinating if they weren’t so sore! Well, I could have chosen to have a ‘normal’ Christmas Day instead, stuffing a turkey, swigging port and scoffing chocolates, but where’s the fun in that? 😆 Shed down, we set about sorting the materials into piles: rotten roofing felt and fibreboard to go to the déchetterie, timbers to be reused or chopped for firewood, good panels shifted ready for the new shed. Time for a teabreak and fortifying mince pie (or two).
Sheds like this one generally come with a ready made floor, the whole thing being designed to sit up on blocks, but for some reason this one simply had more fibreboard nailed onto a couple of palettes which in turn sat on piles of organic matter, including a dessicated rat, mixed with broken slates. It was a painstaking process raking up the organic stuff for the compost heap and picking out as much slate as we could to top up the polytunnel path. We’d decided the cleared area would be perfect for growing a colourful mass of annual flowers so, wanting to test the depth of soil, I fetched a fork and speared it into the ground, only to send excrutiatingly painful shocks into my wrists and up my arms (I was obviously determined to do myself a serious injury one way or another, maybe port and chocolates would have been a better idea after all?🤣). I’d hit concrete, and from the sound of the echo, it had a big drop beneath it. Scraping off the soil, we were quite excited to think we might have found a well; there would certainly have been one here somewhere before the house was connected to mains water and it would be a useful resource if our rain butts run dry in a hot summer. Roger levered the cover up and I leaned in for a closer look . . .
Ha ha, not a well but the old privvy – my goodness, that must have been a long old dash from the house with plaited legs! I’m always astounded at how nature fills a vacuum and here was no exception: a group of sleepy-headed grass snakes curled up where the ‘throne’ had once been, slumbering their way through the winter months.
Not wanting to disturb the snakes, we replaced the cover quickly and gently, but Roger had at least had time to see that the whole concrete affair will lift out easily once they have vacated their winter quarters. We will then fill it with topsoil from digging the pond and scatter flower seeds for a riot of summer colour. Rather than get rid of the scrappy area of hardstanding that was in front of the shed, we will make a proper edge for it, top it up with more broken slate then put a seat and maybe some glazed pots on it. It will be the perfect spot to catch the evening sun, somewhere we can sit and watch the fruit ripen and listen to the buzz of insects in the flowers. I’ll take that over a grotty shed, any day.
Where the new shed is concerned, I’m pretty chuffed that we’ve managed to tick several permaculture boxes, not only because it will mostly be built from reclaimed materials but also because we are designing it to perform several functions. Last summer, Roger removed a bay from the carport behind the house; it’s not a structure we would choose to have, especially not one long enough to park a bus, and it added nothing to the view from the house. Some of the timbers were used to make the utility cabin and the rest, along with the roof panels, were used to build the beginnings of a new structure in the vegetable garden.
The most important function will be water catchment; our current rainwater butts are about as far from the veggie patch as they can be and although dragging back and forth with heavy cans helps to keep me fit, the novelty of that will certainly wear off in a hot summer. A length of guttering, a couple of downpipes and decent sized butts will make things more efficient and life a lot easier, especially when it comes to keeping the tunnel watered. The rescued shed panels will be used to make shelter sides and a much smaller enclosed shed, just enough to house things like handtools, buckets, pots and trays which we need in that part of the garden; they are currently leaning against the frame, waiting for us to finalise our design, but the actual building shouldn’t take too long once we get started.
We carried the garden bench into the shelter to give it a bit of protection over winter but it’s incredible how much we’ve continued to use it so we are planning to leave space for a couple of chairs to live in there permanently. That will give us somewhere to shelter from heavy showers or grab a bit of shade when we’re working in heat (please note how optimistic I’m being about a good summer to come!); it will also be a great spot to sit and watch the veggies grow. If this sitting about is starting to seem like a bit of a theme, then it is; observation is an important part of gardening and it’s crucial to make places to sit and watch, to listen and read the land. It’s not all about work, work, work . . . restoration begins with rest, after all. 😉
I’ve also started to sort out the long stretch of bank behind the house, a job I’ve been itching to do ever since we moved here but at the same time I’ve been dreading starting as it was always going to be an onerous task. Basically, when the renovations were done here about fourteen years ago, a large gravelled area was dug out on the north side of the house; it was done well and must have cost a pretty penny, the resulting earth bank being shored up with mighty railway sleepers and stone walls . . . but then came the planting. Now I know we all have different tastes and ideas and I celebrate that diversity of choice and character, but personally, I cannot stand what I call supermarket carpark planting schemes – those predictable, banal, ‘low maintenance’ shrubs and groundcover plants which it might be deemed suitable for an urban retail landscape but are so completely wrong in a cottage garden in rural France.
I would never, ever choose to plant those things myself; for me, a south-facing bank like that with house windows looking out over it just cries out for a rumbustuous paradise of herbs, flowers and fruit; why, oh why, plant creeping conifers when you could have roses and raspberries and a riot of rainbows? I am trying very hard to be generously pragmatic where some plants are concerned, knowing that cotoneaster and heather, for example, are great for insects; in fact, the reason I haven’t been able to get stuck in until this late in the year is the busy population of bees and it would be wrong to destroy what is such a good food source for them. I’m not going to pull everything out and start again but rather try and get it all under control first then tip the balance in favour of plants I prefer by introducing more and more new things in the future and encouraging the few wild beauties that appeared last year of their own volition. Far more my cup of tea.
To be fair, I have found a few treasures buried among the chaos: lavender, thyme, a couple of different mints and lots of strawberries, all of which can stay and hopefully will thrive with more light and attention. There is a lot of couch grass in the mix and I can’t do much about that apart from cut it right back and encourage other things to grow more strongly. The shrubs have all grown into one another and most have a lot of dead woody matter that I’m removing in the hope they will be rejuvenated while a few young self-set native trees have been lifted to plant elsewhere. I’m not sure what to make of things like two tiny ornamental conifers (which I don’t like) planted in the shade of a twisted willow (which I do) and I can’t say I was too thrilled to find a hideous resin statue lurking under the bigger of the two, a cat in sunglasses wielding a garden spade: the mind boggles – and yes, it had to leave!
The biggest nightmare by far, however, is the periwinkle. As a native plant, it makes for lovely groundcover in the right spot with its glossy, deep green leaves and pretty blue flowers but this one is monstrous, having run amok and choked everything in sight, including itself; it’s even grown right through the stone wall Roger built in the summer which is downright rude in my opinion. Where it has formed thick mats, I’m chopping it right back in the hope that any new growth will look healthier and darker (that sick yellow colour just isn’t right) but that’s the easy bit; to remove it from the other plants, I’m having to get right into the middle of them and pull it out strand by single strand which is a painstaking job, the wheelbarrow rapidly filling with trails of the stuff yet with little apparent progress made on the ground. I’m beginning to wonder if at this rate, I shall have finished before the bees are back but I shall soldier on in the belief that one day, it will be beautiful. It might just take a long time . . .
Pausing in my busyness, I take a few moments to luxuriate in the unbelievably mild temperature, the softness of the air and the pared-back beauty of the season. In ancient times, wrens were of particular significance at this time of year but here it is the sweet fluttering melody of dunnocks that rings from the hedgerows. There is magic, too, in the haunting daylight calls of tawny owls from the woods, the trilling woodlarks and the strident whistle of the mistle thrush, that most optimistic of winter songs. There is so much still to be done on this precious patch of land but I am happy that we have started to make our mark. When we arrived here, the summer raspberry canes had been sheared off at ground level, only a few missed survivors being left to bear fruit last summer; this year, they have grown tall and strong, now making a bold splash of winter colour that promises a wonderful harvest to come. Perhaps they are an apt symbol of what time, love and healing can do, real restoration in every sense of the word. Yes, I like that. Happy New Year, one and all! 😊