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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
. . . 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😊