Changing rooms #2

Gardening is a game of patience at the best of times but several weeks of delay in the delivery of a pile of bare-rooted plants has been a bit frustating; I know these things happen – it’s life, after all – but I was eager to get on with the planting. We know from past experience that getting growing structure in place early in a new garden is a good idea and despite looking like rather hopeless little sticks, young bare-rooted trees, shrubs and hedging plants will grow quickly and strongly. Once they’re in the ground, that is! Not that we’ve exactly been short of jobs to be getting on with in the meantime . . .

In many ways, this post follows on from my previous one about the kitchen makeover. The garden has always been the most important ‘room’ for us and much of the work we are currently doing is in its own way a sort of renovation, making structural changes which will lay the foundation for the eventual garden we have planned. (Not that it will ever be finished as such, that never happens.) When we first came to view the property, the so-called Secret Garden was bigged up as quite a horticultural feature. I believe that gardens should have lots of hidden little nooks and crannies and part-glimpsed views that make you want to go forth and explore; it’s possible to achieve even in the tiniest of spaces with a bit of ingenuity, and finding a hidden seat, unexpected feature or surprise planting is surely one of the great joys of wandering around someone else’s garden for the first time. To be honest, the Secret Garden has failed to deliver in the time we’ve been here, partly because there really isn’t anything remarkable to see when you get there – there’s no real obvious point to it – but mostly because it’s such a dark, shady spot that nothing grows well . . . and I do love a garden where things at least stand a chance of thriving and being happy.

Winter is the only time a hint of sunlight reaches the Secret Garden.

I managed to grow a few vegetables in there last year, things like lettuce, oca and New Zealand spinach which didn’t seem to mind the limited sunlight but nothing else was very enthusiastic and the flowers I planted were hopeless. We decided to do an honest assessment and agreed that it was time for a big change, starting with removing the old and seriously abused cherry tree which saddened me every time I looked at it and then taking out the hedge of kerria japonica which had promised much last year but was in fact mostly dead.

Opening up the view to the south-west.

With the ugly shed gone, too, the vista has opened up and the Not-So-Secret-Garden is suddenly filled with far more light and a less oppressive feeling. I’m hoping things will stand a better chance this summer, including the poor fig tree that is planted in completely the wrong place but is far too big to risk moving. The miserable fruits it produced last year really said it all but perhaps with more light, air and warmth around it, this year will be more encouraging. We shall see.

As we’re not given to wanton destruction, we left the growing arch but set about rescuing the wisteria that was climbing through the other plants in a huge tangle; its few flowers were very underwhelming last year which is hardly surprising given its position. Ideally, it should be growing splendidly up the front of the house but like the fig, it’s well beyond moving so we’re trying Plan B. I’ve mentioned before how the internal garden hedges all run the wrong way (east-west) so we’re adding lots of our own on a north-south axis to carve up the spaces across the width of the garden and provide breaks from the prevailing winds. Roger made a post and wire fence and built a pergola to create a gap through, then untangled the wisteria spaghetti from the hedge and dragged it up and over in the hope it will be a happier plant for being in more light.

The pergola and fence look a bit stark now but will be very different when covered in foliage and flowers.

We will plant a climbing rose to meet it over the pergola and another at the end of the fence which between them should create a living, colourful, scented barrier with a view glimpsed through the archway to tempt us beyond. Having taken delivery (at last!) of the replacement rosa rugosa plants, we planted a few to finish the new ‘hedge’ and will continue to add a mass of scented roses in the newly enclosed grassy space which will be the perfect place for a table in summer. We quite fancy a crocus lawn, too.

By the way, when I went out with the camera to take those photos, I was mobbed by great tits once again. This has now become the norm: I step outside and they fly in like a squadron of winged monkeys, then sit as close as possible and watch me or else follow me wherever I go. It’s nothing to have a following of a dozen birds or more accompanying me all the way down to the compost heap (which they immediately fly into and start inspecting as soon as I’ve emptied the bucket) and back again. The instant I even hint at moving towards their feeders, it becomes something like the red kite feeding frenzies I’ve seen so often in mid-Wales – it would be a complete nightmare for anyone with a bird phobia. It’s a good job I love them, although even I will be very pleased when their thoughts and attention turn towards nests and eggs!

I’ve been spotted . . . cue the squadron.

Back to work and Roger seems more than a little bit amused by my infatuation with our new shed. He has even asked me if I’m planning to move in there (possibly wishful thinking on his part 🤣); I’m not, but to be honest, it’s probably in better shape than the hovel house we first moved to in Asturias. He says it looks a bit like a cricket pavillion which is a slight worry as the logical progression from that kind of thinking will be installing a beer cooler and (please, NO!) a radio for the cricket commentary. The reason for his amusement is that, having had good enough weather to finish the exterior painting, I moved inside and started on a bit of interior decorating, too. Now if at this point your thoughts are running along the lines of, “But it’s a shed!” I completely understand so bear with me, there is a certain method in my madness.

When we moved here, we found a large hoard of paint had been left in the barn; every tin had been opened and part-used and many of them had gone off and needed to be taken for safe disposal. There are some, though, that are still perfectly serviceable and although none are the colours we would choose ourselves, it seems silly not to use them if we can. Rummaging through the collection, I found a couple of tins of identical ivory white emulsion which I decided would be ideal for the enclosed bit of the shed; both tins (weirdly) had been opened and used, one was totally shot and the other very separated but I managed to revive it with a lot of aggressive stirring. Why anyone would pay a premium to have five litres of white paint specially blended on one of those customised mixing machine thingummies (and then not use it) I have no idea but it’s done the job and has rendered the shed so bright and light that I think it will be the perfect place for sheltering young, tender plants when we get to that ‘lift them out in the daytime, tuck them up at night’ stage of things. On a roll, I decided the rest of the internal walls in the covered shelter bit also deserved a facelift and for that I chose something described as a ‘vintage look’ bluewash. According to the label it is ideal for garden fences – although why you’d want to go round ‘antique-ing’ your fences in pale duck egg, I’m not sure. That said, why would anyone want to colourwash a shed, either?😆 I have to confess, the effect is totally lost on me, it just looks like someone forgot to apply the top coat but each to their own.

Welcome to my shed . . . cream tea, anyone? 😉

If nothing else, it’s all looking a lot cleaner and fresher now and I’m happy that I’ve added to the weatherproofing which hopefully will increase the longevity of the shed, I’ve banished every last trace of that horrible orange-brown and it’s kept several litres of paint out of the waste stream. I’m now thinking it would be lovely to have something a bit more attractive than basic garden seats at the front, maybe a little bistro set, and I’m trying very hard not to investigate the possibility of waterproofing some pretty fabric bunting to hang along the front. After all, if I start doing frivolous girlie things like that, I won’t be able to hold out against the cricket commentary . . . and there are some things I really don’t need disturbing the peace and beauty of the vegetable garden.

Isn’t it funny how as soon as one part of the house or garden has been tidied up, other bits can start to look a bit daggy? Looking down the garden towards the shed, I’ve been finding the compost system a bit of an eyesore these past few days. Don’t get me wrong: I love this system, it’s the best we’ve ever had and, like the shed, was made from reclaimed materials. The problem is, rusty corrugated iron has its own brand of ugly which doesn’t really bring much to the surroundings. I was mulling over the idea of planting a living screen when the rugosa roses arrived and there, suddenly, was the perfect answer; we planted a row of five in front of the compost bays, leaving plenty of room behind to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow in and out and turn the heaps. Forget the Secret Garden; give the roses a couple of years and we’ll have a Secret Compost Station instead . . . although no doubt the great tits will still be able to find me down there with my bucket.

Honestly, there’s no escape!

Imagining the rose hedge in full bloom in front of the compost bays had me thinking it would be a good idea to create a bit of a border opposite along the side of the shed. We’re planning to put a climbing rose up the trellis, so why not make room for a few other lovelies to keep it company? Eventually, it will stretch the whole length of the shed but initially I’ve gone as far as I can until the water butt moves round the back. Creating lasagne beds has become second nature to us now and we’ve got ourselves pretty organised with various piles of green and brown materials ready to hand; for instance, there’s a space in the Oak Shed dedicated to dry storage of sawdust, bark chips, dead leaves and cardboard to collect in a barrow when needed. To start this new bed, I laid the cardboard that our new plants had been delivered in (no waste here), then topped with layers of hay, dead leaves and twiggy branches, sawdust, greenery from a chopped conifer, yarrow leaves and compost from the trunk of the old apple tree we cut a couple of weeks ago. I’ll keep adding to it, then pop sturdy plants into pockets of compost in spring.

Something that has already started to make an attractive ‘hedge’ are the cardoons I raised from seed last year. Undaunted by the season, they have continued to grow and make a lovely metallic silvery splash with their huge leafy fronds and already have small flower heads nestled deep in their centres. Like their close cousins the globe artichokes, the leaves make a wonderful cleansing tea, perfect for this time of year and particularly refreshing combined with lemon verbena and lemon balm. I’m amazed at how quickly I’m getting through some of the herbs I dried last summer, things like the peppermint are nearly all gone, so I’m making notes of what I need to dry far more of this year. My favourite blend at the moment is hawthorn, lemon balm, lemon verbena, blackcurrant leaf, lavender and rose petal; it’s looks like pot pourri and is the taste of a summer’s day in a cup. The rose petals, however, do a great job of clogging my teapot spout so I’m beginning to think I might need to invest in one with an insert strainer – either that or a packet of pipe cleaners.

Something else I need to organise this year is a far better range of overwintering food crops in the tunnel. Last year it all got away from me thanks to failed germination, soil pests and ten days away in early September during which the longest, hottest, driest spell of the whole summer cooked the seedlings to a crisp. Only the rocket survived, although a few coriander seedlings have popped up in the last couple of weeks which promise a good picking of tasty leaves months ahead of the outdoor stuff (which is the idea of the tunnel, after all). The rocket has been a reliable cropper for months and is now looking to flower which I shall let it do in the hope of never needing to plant it again once the seedheads burst. To go with it, I shall be sowing several kinds of cut-and-come-again lettuce, land cress, lamb’s lettuce, pak choi, mizuna, red mustard, mesclun, radicchio, chicory, winter purslane, flat-leaved parsley, chervil, chard, beetroot and spring onions, all of which should give us plentiful and varied salad dishes through winter. That said, I was really thrilled to pick a lovely lunchtime salad this week: rocket from the tunnel combined with outdoor baby chard and beetroot leaves (their new growth is incredible), land cress, perpetual spinach and very young dandelion leaves which are such a nutrient-rich food at this time of year. Sprinkled with a few pickled nasturtium seeds and calendula petals, it was a deliciously fresh and tangy dish, lighter than a winter slaw but bursting with colour and flavour.

When the long-awaited plants finally appeared, we spent a happy afternoon adding almost 50 new trees to the patch. Some stand alone in splendid solitude, others nestle shoulder to shoulder in strips of hedging; all will bring something special to our garden and the ecosystems within it. Willow is probably one of the best trees we can plant: it’s fantastic for wildlife, an unfussy and speedy grower, propagates like a dream, provides great winter colour and has a hundred and one uses around the garden. We’ve planted a long, snaking hedge between the end of the veggie patch and the (eventual) pond, mostly basket willow and golden willow but also a smattering of the less common ear willow (the lovely-sounding saule à oreillettes in French). Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry, with its delicate yellow spring blooms and glossy red edible fruits should make quite an impact as will the autumn fire of maples and red oaks. Alder buckthorn is the main food source for brimstone butterflies and offers a crop of fruits for the birds to pick at, as does the crab apple (although I shall be after a few of those, too, for making into jelly). Bladder senna is not something we’ve ever grown but I’m taken with its pretty yellow pea-type flowers and fascinating balloon seed pods and what’s more it’s a nitrogen fixer.

Mixed willow hedge in the making.

With the rest of the rugosa roses planted, too, we can suddenly see a new structure emerging from the blank canvas we started with, and by the time we’ve added the pile of plants waiting in the tunnel – those young tree seedlings from around the patch we potted up in the autumn – then the lines and curves of new spaces should be more clearly defined. I particularly love the meandering hedge we’re planting to separate the vegetable garden from the orchard; we’re doing it piecemeal, dotting different plants along a curving line and gradually filling in between so that eventually there will be a thick, eclectic hedge giving shelter from the north-easterly winds, providing food and habitat for a wealth of wildlife and adding shape, structure and colour where previously there was none. We’re leaving several paths through so we can wander from one garden ‘room’ to another or simply graze the edibles from along the hedge. It’s like sketching charcoal lines on a blank canvas to start giving shape to the finished picture, a glimspe of what (hopefully) the eventual painting will look like. Probably not a masterpiece, but – like the kitchen – somewhere colourful, comfortable and quirky where we can work or relax and share happy moments. Worth the wait, surely?

Red oaks should make mighty trees with fabulous autumn foliage.

I must apologise for squeezing in two posts so close together this week but this one will actually be the last for a while. We have a very hectic few weeks ahead and I need to concentrate on all that must be done; also, most of that time – starting on Monday – will be spent without internet which means an ‘obligatory blogging break beckons’ (try saying that little lot quickly!). I shall miss the writing and reading other bloggers’ posts, too, so there will be much catching up to do come mid-March by which time, the swallows will be on their way back and spring will definitely be in the air. Now there’s a wonderful thought! Until then . . . 😊

Changing rooms #1

I’ve finally managed to drag myself out of the garden and sort out a few ‘before and after’ photos of the kitchen renovation. 😀

I’ve been promising to share them for ages but it’s taken me this long because I couldn’t finish the decorating until the porch had been built and the coat hooks and wellies shifted out there plus I wanted to wait until we had replaced our temporary table and chairs with something a bit heftier and more suited to the room. A trip to the depot vente this week saw us buying a solid wooden table with snazzy tiled surface and four wooden chairs with basket weave seats for a fraction of the price they would have been new; I love the idea of giving old furniture a new lease of life and as the chairs have been newly ‘upholstered’, they should last us for years. The temporary set has gone upstairs where it now gives us a useful computer desk and a space for studying, crafting, sewing and the like: at last, somewhere to set up my sewing machine! Anyway, back to the story of the kitchen . . . and the realisation that I didn’t even bother taking any photos of it until we started the main renovation in the summer (six months after arriving here) so by the time the first of each pair of photos below was taken, we had already made a few changes.

View from the back (north-west) to the front (south-east).
Looking from the front (south-east) to the back (north-west). We bought that tub armchair from the local charity shop for 25 euros and it was our only comfy seat here for the first six months!

When we first viewed the house, the kitchen struck us as a pleasant room. It’s a good size and very light and airy thanks to large windows at each end, two glazed doors and an open archway through to the (equally light) sitting room. The renovation work had been done to a high standard, leaving some exposed stone, lined and insulated walls, hardwood window and door frames and a lovely tiled floor as well as a woodstove which is exactly what we had hoped for. On closer inspection, though, and having lived with it all for a while, it became clear that a serious overhaul was needed in order to mould the room more to our lifestyle: the kitchen has always been the heart of our home and cooking meals together every day is a big part of our life so some things needed to change. The biggest issues for us were as follows:

  • The stove had no thermostat control and the pump switch was outside in the cave. This meant having to go outside to switch the pump on and off or leave it permanently on, pumping cold water around the radiators and wasting electricity in the process. In the event of a power cut, we would be faced with the possibility of water boiling in the tank if we couldn’t put the fire out quickly.
  • The previous owners had never used the stove for cooking; being raised on a high plinth with a decorative brick feature above it, there was barely room for pans or a kettle – our stock pot was too tall to use.
  • The wooden fire surround had been the subject of a paint ‘stressing’ technique which really didn’t do it for us!
The woodstove: we had already removed the original low line of bricks above it by the time this photo was taken. Kitchen Ted was looking forward to a makeover!
We have used the stove for cooking every day during the cooler months. The terracotta potato baker was one of the more useful things that was left here.
  • The light fittings had been removed (as they had throughout the house), leaving just bare wires in some cases. That should never have happened, and replacing them with a pendant light over the table and a set of spots at the business end of things was the first thing we did for safety’s sake as much as anything else.
Who does this when they move house?
  • The cupboards were all old and many doors were hanging off broken hinges. One missing door had been replaced with a totally different colour and design; when it fell off for the umpteenth time, we decided to live without it.
  • The wall cupboards were all so low that it was impossible to use the work surfaces below them without banging our heads. The extractor fan above the cooker was a nightmare and we both suffered several painful cracks to the head from its sharp corners.
  • The sink was turned at 90 degrees from the window and faced into the sitting room, making a narrow entrance to the kitchen from the front door. We were puzzled by this set-up but thought it was possibly because the previous owners had wanted a dishwasher which was free-standing at the end of the sink, with a wobbly work surface sitting on top of it. The sink was unnaturally low and very uncomfortable to work at.
View from the sitting room into the kitchen. The extractor fan above the cooker had already been removed.
  • The work surfaces were solid wood which is a good thing but many of them were unfixed and slid around on top of the base units. Only the one on top of the dishwasher was any good for food preparation – a bit limiting, to say the least. They had been treated with some kind of varnish which was peeling badly.
  • The wall tiles were good quality but not well done; there were some very dubious attempts at ‘level,’ a complete mess around the sockets and random holes that had been filled with strips of mosaic tiles.
  • The ceiling and walls were in desperate need of paint. The walls were mostly an off white / grey colour, apart from one which was yellow with more of that ‘stressing’ in dark grey and another which was partly red. Some of them had holes where fittings had been removed.

When it came to deciding what changes to make, we gave a lot of thought to the principles of permaculture since they offer a design for all areas of life, not just the garden. We wanted to create a kitchen that suited our practical needs, was more organised, efficient and aesthetically pleasing and better designed for ‘sociable’ cooking whilst reusing as many resources as possible. We also wanted to avoid the uniformity and predictability of a completely fitted kitchen by including open shelving and free-standing furniture in an eclectic mix of styles. We don’t have (or want) a dining room so this more relaxed approach adds some character and a feel of homeliness where we can sit and enjoy meals as well as prepare them. The depot vente in Alençon is a wonderful emporium of secondhand furniture and household effects, the perfect place to pick up the sort of bits and pieces we were looking for. I really don’t care if things are a bit scarred and worn in places – after all, so am I! 😆 As far as I’m concerned, it’s evidence of an interesting life lived and far more appealing than this season’s fashion kitchen any day.

This old vitrine makes a perfect storage space for our crocks and jars of dried herbs.

Using the stove for cooking was a key priority for us so Roger removed the chunky brick decoration above it and replaced it using small tiles found in the barn; we had to keep something there to cover the metal beam, but by raising the level at least the hob became fully useable. He also ran a cable through to the cave and fitted a flue thermostat which works like a dream, and installed an uninterrupted power supply so that in the event of a power failure, the pump will continue to work for 24 hours. Once that was all done, I stripped the layers of paint from the wooden surround which was quite a job even with a blowtorch, and repainted it in a soft sage green.

The paint job before I started stripping it.

The key to redesigning the cupboards lay in shifting the washing machine into the utility cabin once we had built that and the appropriate drainage and power had been organised. We were then able to swing the sink back round under the window; Roger built a new (higher) base from pine boards and we opted for curtains rather than cupboard doors to cover what has become our recycling and compost collection system underneath. I had bought a piece of waxed cotton for a couple of euros from the charity shop, thinking it would make a good tablecloth but it turned out to be the perfect size for making into curtains instead. We didn’t want the dishwasher so I advertised it locally and sold it in under 24 hours, whilst that savage extractor fan was taken to the electrical goods recycling depot. Ha, good riddance!

Shifting the cupboards was a big job that needed careful thought. We took down the horrid glass-fronted corner cupboard and adjoining shelf display unit which were crowding the window and moved base units around to leave a space to integrate the fridge which had been stuck out on its own for want of an under counter home. We only moved one double base unit out altogether (it’s now being used for handy storage in the barn) but used the spaces we had made to build open pine shelving. While Roger grappled with the cupboard carcasses, I set up a painting workshop outside to deal with the doors; they had previously been painted yellow with red strips, very dated but perfectly functional. When it came to colours, we wanted something that blended well with the existing tiles and woodwork and looked light and fresh whilst still feeling warm; I was also desperate to banish that red for ever. I opted for a soft cream on the walls and light pistachio for the cupboards . . . thirteen doors, three drawers and five coats later, they were done. We lifted the wall cupboards to a more sensible height so our head banging days were over and refitted the original door knobs at the bottom of the wall cupboard doors and top of the base unit doors which seems more logical and practical (to us, at least) than having them all in the middle of every door as they were before.

We stripped the varnish off the work surfaces and fitted them properly; Roger has a woodworking router tool that makes a professional-looking job of joining work surfaces together and shaping the edges – at last, everything had stopped sliding and wobbling! To create a bigger food preparation space, we added a shaped oak surface on a metal leg, a bit like a breakfast bar; this has given us ample room to prepare food together and an additional sitting spot for sociable cooking thanks to a couple of high bar chairs we’ve had for years.

Having found a box of spare matching wall tiles in the barn, we were able to sort out the messes round the sockets, get rid of the strange mosaic bits and straighten up the line under the wall cupboards. It had frustrated Roger like crazy that the tiling on either side of the front window had ended at completely different heights and luckily, there were just enough spares to allow us to put that right, too.

Phew! Quite a job in many ways and one which felt like it took a long time to complete because so many other things needed doing along the way. In the end, though, I think we’ve achieved what we set out to do: create a practical and attractive room without ripping out the old kitchen and installing a brand new bright and shiny one which would have been the preferred option for many people. We reused everything we could, saving many resources from the waste stream, and managed to do it on a very modest budget. The biggest single expense was the oak block work surface, but even counting in all the ‘new’ furniture we bought, we did the lot for a few hundred euros rather than the several thousand a new kitchen would have cost. More importantly, we’ve ended up with a space that suits us down to the ground rather than what a designer might have thought we needed and that’s part of the fun of doing jobs like this for ourselves. I’m sure what we’ve created isn’t to everyone’s taste but it’s a bit different and quirky and has a lovely feel to it. It’s a great place to cook and share food and spend happy times together and with friends; this year – all fingers crossed – it will be with family, too. Now that will be the perfect finishing touch!😊

January jottings

January can be a dismal month at the best of times: spring is still a long way off, but every hopeful little sign is a reason to be cheerful. The days are slowly drawing out, the evenings noticeably longer with some cracking sunsets when the skies are clear; each day brings more snippets of birdsong and the squirrels are back in the garden, bushy-tailed and bursting with busyness. In the hedgerows, pollen-dusted hazel catkins dance in the breeze, fresh green spears of bulbs are hurtling up everywhere and we are just days away from having drifts of snowdrops in bloom. In sheltered spots I’ve found primroses flowering, their delicate blooms a welcome contrast to the surrounding mud and muck. Yes, it’s still only the middle of January but there’s a faint whiff of optimism in the air all the same.

Our post lady in her cheerful yellow van has been delivering goodies all week: packets of seeds (of which more later), balls of yarn and letters from our grandchildren to say thank you for their Christmas gifts, complete with some wonderful ornithological artwork that made me smile. Feeding the birds in winter is something I’ve always loved doing and I really missed it in Asturias, where the mild winters rendered it completely unnecessary. However, I have to say I have never experienced anything like the current situation we have here, not just in terms of the sheer number of birds feeding but their incredible audacity, too. If I head out to the bird table with sunflower seeds, a squadron of great tits and blue tits swoops straight in and starts taking them before I’ve even had time to empty the pot; they are so tame, I can stand right next to the table as they feed and if I had the patience to try, I’m sure I could have them literally eating out of my hand.

By William, age 6

Worse, if the feeders are empty and (heaven forbid!) I haven’t noticed and refilled them instantly, I find myself literally hassled by birds coming to find me in the garden. Seriously, I’m not imagining this: they follow me around, alighting as close as they can and eyeballing me until I deliver the goodies. Meanwhile, the less energetic types simply sit in the window boxes looking expectantly into the kitchen or tap shamelessly at the windows and glazed door panes; I know some people believe this to be bad luck but personally, I think it’s a case of uncannily intelligent birds knowing where their meals are coming from, a sort of fast food fly-through. They are eating us out of house and home and I am expecting some serious payback on the caterpillar and aphid front come summer! Still, they’re lovely to watch, all the same.

Great tit waiting for the next free lunch.

That snowy picture is from several weeks ago and so far (am I tempting fate by saying this?) it’s the only fall of white stuff we’ve had this winter. The weather has stayed conducive to being outdoors which always feels like such a bonus at this time of year: anything that allows us to enjoy some fresh air and daylight, boosting our Vitamin D and seretonin levels has got to be good. Outdoor living is a hugely important part of our life and many of our plans for the property are based around making it possible in any weather and at all times of year. For instance, the covered area adjoining what has become the utility cabin is slowly being transformed into a space where we can cook, eat and do practical tasks that need a table to work at.

At the moment, it’s fairly basic – a picnic table and a tripod barbecue – but we’ve cleared the junk out of it, lined that white area of wall with wood panels to match the rest and have lots of ideas to develop the space in the future. In the meantime, we’ve used it a good deal, including for several winter barbecues which is something we love to do; barbecues really shouldn’t just be left for hot days, there is something very special about wrapping up and cooking over wood in cold air so that is just what we decided to do on New Year’s Eve. It was a beautifully still and mild night so we lit an ice lantern and candles, stoked the barbecue with fragrant fruit tree prunings and cooked our dinner to the sound of tawny owls calling in the garden. Magical.

Head torch . . . essential chef equipment.

Back to work, and Roger has been busy constructing the new shed in the vegetable patch from the old one we dismantled a couple of weeks ago. This has got to be one of our most successful ‘reusing’ projects ever – even most of the nails and screws were out of the original shed. (Roger has asked me to mention that the main expense was 35 euros of paint which apparently is mine. Mmm, not sure how that works!) Anyway, what we’ve ended up with is an enclosed area for storing tools which is very light thanks to the transluscent roof panel and old shed windows, a covered area perfect for parking wheelbarrows and watering cans and ample space at the front for a seat. Initially, of course, it looked like a less-than-beautiful structure built from a daggy old shed . . .

Almost finished but in need of a serious facelift.

. . . which meant it was time to call in the painter and decorator (that’s me and my paint, obviously). Now, I love a bit of colour so it was no surprise that, faced with the available shed paint range, I was immediately drawn to the bright Bleu Méditerranéen and the soft Vert Provence I used to perk up a couple of wooden planters last year.

Vert Provence

However, this isn’t a beach hut or summer house and the whole point of making it was to change an ugly eyesore into a structure that is both more useful and more sympathetic to its surroundings. It was time to be sensible (!) so in the end, we agreed on Vert Basque, which I would describe as a deep holly green according to the colour on the tin lid and label. I have to confess, I was just a tad delighted when the paint itself turned out to be slightly more blue than suggested, more of a ‘Vert Océan‘ in my book and definitely prettier than expected. It’s not the best time of year for outdoor painting; trying to get a run of days that are warm enough and dry enough is a problem, and needless to say, the moment I’d lifted the lid, several very wet days ensued. Talk about frustrated! Still, I’ve managed to make a start and a quiet transformation is under way. Just the rainwater capture system to connect now.

Projects like these tend to change and evolve as we go along; it’s always good to have a plan, but there’s room for flexibility, too, as sometimes ideas and possibilities we hadn’t even considered suddenly emerge as part of the process. Contemplating the gap along one side of the finished shelter, Roger suggested it would be a great place to make a trellis to grow something beautiful up and he must have known there was suitable timber lurking in the Man Cave because the next time I trundled down there with my paint, it had magically appeared. Having finally got round to sorting out a pile of junk that had been left by the previous owners behind the water butts by the house, I found a couple of serviceable metal hanging baskets which will be perfect to hang from the front beams later in the year. So, we’ve added yet another function – support for growing plants – and I’m beginning to think that, come the summer, this shelter is going to be an even more attractive addition to the garden than I ever imagined.

Looping back to that painted planter, the rescued grapevine that I nurtured in there all last year has gone into its final planting place in the garden, next to the mandala bed where hopefully it will enjoy the space, air and sunshine it needs to flourish. In the matching planter, there is a passionflower grown from a cutting we brought with us from Asturias and that’s heading out to grow up the front of the Oak Shed this year. That leaves two empty planters just crying out for a climbing rose each which we can train up the front of the house. I do love it when a plan comes together . . . and a visit to a nursery beckons! Not quite the same, but I’ve been having a very happy time buying seeds this week, both from the local country store and online. It’s such an optimistic thing to do at this time of year, especially in the face of all that is currently going on in the world. I bought a few seeds from the French online company EnGraineToi last year and everything grew brilliantly so I’m more than happy to buy from them again. I love the modest greaseproof paper bags, so small yet stuffed with seeds and packed with growing information and, coupled with free postage and a gift packet, too, what’s not to like?

I’ve written before about my sadness at no longer being able to buy from several wonderful small family seed firms in the UK who I have supported for many years and, having used up my saved stocks, it would be easy to slide into a sort of post-Brexit blues, especially when it’s proving difficult to source specific varieties I like to grow. I feel desperately sorry for those businesses who are suffering and struggling (especially if they didn’t want Brexit in the first place) but personally, I now have to turn it into a positive situation, an opportunity for change and exploration – after all, I still enjoy the freedom of being able to buy seeds from all the countries in the EU without any worries about phytosanitary rules, plant passports and customs duty. So, instead of ‘Crown Prince’ squash we will be growing ‘Musquée de Provence’ and ‘Latino’ courgette will be replaced by ‘Coucourzelle.’ I’m mourning the loss of ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce, especially as the fluffy seeds I’d been trying to save all disappeared while we were away last September, but I think ‘Rouge d’hiver’ will do the job, along with ‘Buttercrunch’ instead of ‘Little Gem’ and the pretty speckled ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ which is so popular here. I’m also trying laitue asperge (celtuce) for the first time which hopefully will give us a handy dual-purpose crop.

We had a tremendous harvest of squash last year but they are not keeping as well as they did in Asturias, despite our best efforts to use them daily in the kitchen. The plan for this year is to ease back on the squash numbers (yes, honestly!) and expand the variety of other winter vegetables available. We’ve grown swede, Brussels sprouts, celeriac, black radish and cauliflower successfully in previous gardens but here it will be a case of careful timings, especially if we have a hot summer, so this year will be a bit of an experiment. We’ve also grown ‘Bleu de Solaise’ leeks before but ‘Monstreux de Carentan’ is a new one to try alongside them and I’m planning to let a couple of the ‘Musselburgh’ plants currently in the garden go to seed so we can add them back into the mix next year. On the subject of alliums, I’m raising all our onions from seed this time as I always find them more successful than sets, and I’ve included wild garlic (ail de ours in French, literally ‘bear garlic’) to plant as forage in our woodland area. The white softneck garlic planted in autumn is bombing up and in spring I’ll add some ‘Rose de Lautrec,’ a pink variety we grew last year which has proved to be an unexpectedly good keeper considering it’s a hardneck variety. With luck, we should be able to grow enough to last us all year.

Happy garlic

We didn’t manage to get the polytunnel up in time to make the most of it last year but this year we should really start to reap the benefits, particularly in terms of having somewhere sheltered to give seedlings and young plants a good start and also a planting space to extend the growing season and harvest. I’d forgotten what a great place it is to ‘garden’ in less than pleasant winter weather, too, so I enjoyed a very happy afternoon this week pottering about in preparation for the sowing season. First, having spread more broken slates to make a hardstanding area, we carried a couple of decorating trestles and an old door down to make some staging; I then sorted and stacked trays and pots underneath and carried in a bag of compost (we will have to rely on bought stuff this year, at least for sowing seeds). The rain butts on the new shed will eventually give us 500 litres of water close by but I carried cans to fill a large dustbin in the tunnel anyway; it makes it easy to dip a small can of slightly warmed water for watering seed trays and the whole thing also acts as a heat sink. I then prepped a patch ready for planting some potatoes, a dozen ‘Charlotte’ from last year’s crop that have been chitting for a while in the cave. They will give us a super early crop in May which, seeing as we don’t eat potatoes every day, will carry us through to the first early harvest outside. As we’re using a no-dig policy, I simply lifted a few perennial weeds with a small hand fork and was really pleased at how much better the soil is looking in there compared to a year ago and also how many worms there are . . . I exaggerate not, there was one big enough to give those small grass snakes a run for their money. Great stuff.

All ready to go.

When it came to raising tender summer plants for the tunnel last year, we were literally all over the place with our slow-time house move still going on so this spring I’m determined to have the propagator bursting at the seams. We already had plenty of aubergine seeds but I’ve gone to town on a whole set of new capsicums; we’re still eating our way through the mass of chillies we dried two years ago but I think it’s time to grow some more and this year, I’d also like to raise enough sweet peppers to put a pile in the freezer. So, I’ve bought ‘Long Red Marconi,’ ‘Sweet Banana’ (yellow) and ‘Petit Marseillais’ (French heirloom orange) to go with the ‘Mini Red Bell’ and ‘Largo de Reus’ seed we had left over. On the hotter side of things, there’s an ever-reliable ‘Cayenne Long Slim,’ the classic Spanish ‘Padrón’ for one of my favourite tapas dishes and something called ‘Piment Poisson’ (Fish Pepper) which I’m trying not only because it’s apparently a good hot one, but also because I just love the mix of colours and stripy patterns. Well, I have to be allowed a bit of whimsical nonsense occasionally . . . for the same reason, I’ve bought seeds for golden beetroot and violet globe artichokes, too. Nothing like planting a rainbow for the kitchen.

Aubergines will have to share the tunnel with peppers and chillies this summer.

Given that arguably the best peppers and aubergines we’ve ever grown were outdoors in our last garden here, I don’t think we can have too many plants this year; once the tunnel is filled, I’m planning to spread them everywhere around the garden. For instance, I’d like at least half the mandala bed to be planted with food crops and those colourful summer fruiters will be just the job. Talking of summer fruit, I’m also having another go at growing melons in the tunnel so I’ve opted for ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ which, as its name suggests, is an ideal variety for cropping north of the Loire. I’m very excited about that one!

One set of seeds I haven’t sourced yet is tomatoes as I’m still researching blight resistance and waiting to pick the brains of an Asturian friend who grew a variety last year which succumbed to the inevitable blight but then recovered and produced an astonishing late crop of enormous beefsteak toms – perhaps that’s the strain for us to try here this year? It seemed a bit sad that the free packet of seeds in my EnGraineToi envelope was the interesting looking ‘Black From Tula’ tomato (sigh) until Roger pointed out that we had at least managed a modest crop of ripened tomatoes from the ‘Alaska’ and ‘Black Sea Man’ plants grown in pots at the front of the house despite the blight last year. Well, it’s worth a go so ‘Black From Tula’ will be getting star treatment outside the kitchen door in the hope of us enjoying some of those tasty fruits.

Black Sea Man last summer . . . blighted but beautiful!

Of course, I have lots of plans for flowers this year, too. I’m going to raise several perennials from seed and start to increase the range and quantity of bulbs; I love annuals, but there is a definite need to improve the permanent planting here so we have a reliable framework of form and colour throughout the seasons. I’ve still got plenty of hardy annual seed but I’m interested to see what volunteers from last year’s plantings will pop up in spring; it’s no surprise to find foxglove and calendula seedlings everywhere but I’m amazed at how carpets of self-set Californian poppies are thriving through winter; we even had one flowering in the gravel by the kitchen door until very recently along with self-set lobelia which continues to bloom even now. A prolonged cold snap will surely do for them but I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one.

Winter sunshine

I’m not a huge fan of half-hardy annuals simply because they’re a faff with all that starting off in warmth, pricking out and potting on. If the seed can be thrown straight into the garden in May, fine; otherwise, I don’t tend to bother with them much. I’ve left several French marigold plants in the tunnel where they were planted along the edge of the path and I’m hoping some of the tremendous seed heads they’ve formed will lead to a ready-made supply of young plants to scatter around the veg patch (why work if nature will do it for you?). The only two lots of half-hardy seeds I shall sow are cosmos and rudbeckia, both of which were truly beautiful last year, filling huge spaces and flowering for months. In fact, the last of the rudbeckia with its deep brown pincushion centre and velvety russet petals only finished flowering just before Christmas. A garden full of flowers . . . now there’s a bright and lovely thought to lift the January gloom. 😊