Chez nous

There are some things I miss about Asturias but one of them is definitely not the steepness of things that made the simplest of tasks such hard work: the interminable hairpin bends, the fifteen steps up into the house, the soil rolling to the bottom of the garden, the near impossibility of using a wheelbarrow or riding my bike . . . having spent the last couple of weeks going full tilt in our Mayenne garden, I have to concede that life in a flatter environment certainly has its attractions!

The cherry plum blossom is falling like confetti now but is still buzzing with insect activity.

I also realise how challenging it was to stumble through five years in my basic Spanish, a beautiful language which I loved learning but despite a lot of time and effort spent in study and practice, I never really cracked. I’m happy that we managed to get things done but in part that was thanks to the patient understanding and tolerance of the people I was speaking to and there is no doubt that I am far more comfortable and confident in speaking French, happy to chat away in conversation and use the phone in a way I never managed in Spanish. Learning new languages is one of the best workouts for the old grey matter and is never wasted but suspecting our recent return to Asturias for several weeks was likely to frazzle my linguistic brain, I knew I had to find time for a little French every day just to keep my hand in. I bought a French copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca from the charity shop, a novel I read in English many years ago, and set myself the goal of reading two chapters a day while we were away. The translation was excellent, truly evoking the spirit and voice of the original and I found myself so surprisingly engrossed, I could hardly put it down.

One of the few plants I brought back from Asturias, a dainty and deeply-scented narcissus given to me by Vita.

Since moving back to France, I’ve been dipping in and out of various study materials but couldn’t really settle to anything before discovering the excellent InnerFrench website hosted by Hugo, a young French teacher who lives and works in Poland. Passionate and enthusiastic about language learning, Hugo has a brilliant perception of the problems facing intermediate learners when it comes to sourcing interesting and stimulating materials that are more than just a minefield of ever more complex grammatical constructions. His podcasts are excellent, covering a huge range of fascinating subjects and I listen to several each week, especially if I’m doing something boring but necessary (like cleaning the kitchen). They have helped me push my listening and comprehension skills along big time and I have no doubt my enjoyment and almost fluent reading of Rebecca was thanks to the Hugo effect! I’ve now started his ‘Build a Core Strength’ course; thirty lessons might not sound like much but it is going to take me several months to complete them, they are so resource-rich and stimulating. It is quite a challenge – my brain already feels a little fried – but I’m hoping they will continue to prod me in the right direction, stop me from becoming complacent and encourage me to become a more fluent and natural French speaker.

We have planted a forsythia in our eclectic hedge for a splash of sunny spring colour.

The upshot of this is that I won’t be doing much blogging for some time, partly because I can only stand so long on a computer each day (I’m currently doing my French early in the morning so as not to miss out on any garden time!) but also because I really need to focus on using French as much as possible, rather than writing reams of English. So, for the foreseeable future, my posts will probably be mostly photos with captions rather than a lot of waffle . . . which may well come as a relief to some people anyway! 😂

It has been a stunning year for primroses, they are everywhere.

It seems that finally saying goodbye to Asturias has unleashed a huge surge of energy and enthusiasm in us both and we have practically lived in the garden over the last four weeks. It feels so good to really knuckle down to all the plans and projects we’ve had in mind and see some of our ideas come into fruition. Apart from one wet day, the weather has been dry and bright (if a little cold some days thanks to the easterly wind) and it has been a joy to be outside enjoying the scent of primroses and blossom and the raucous birdsong while we work. The fieldfares and bramblings have gone, the garden is full of chiffchaffs, the sky rings with the trilling of sky larks and wood larks and the swallows must surely be on their way back now the wind has swung into the south!

A day of rainfall filled the water butts and covered everything in a fine layer of orange Saharan dust.

Here, then, in the spirit of micro-blogging, is the news in brief . . .

Roger has been shredding the brush from hedge laying and we used the resultant mulch to make an area of hardstanding in the Love Shack.
I also used the shredded wood to make paths in my mandala bed – hardwearing but soft underfoot, sustainable and biodegradable, it’s the perfect medium and has made a beautiful sunburst pattern. Can’t wait to start planting . . .
I’ve painted the Oak Shed green, sorted out the borders in front of it and planted the passionflower we brought from Asturias on the left. Can’t do much about that ugly tin roof but hopefully it will all look less of an eyesore this year.
Remember the shed demolition on Christmas Day? Roger used spare timber and gravel to make a seating area where before there was broken slate in mud. With the hibernating grass snakes gone, he filled the old privy hole with spoil from the pond digging and has made a border now sown with mixed annuals. The ‘table’ has been fashioned from part of that poor deformed cherry tree we had to remove; it’s the perfect spot to sit in the evening sunshine and should just get better and better as we go through the year.
There are still plenty of parsnips, leeks, kale, chard and a forest of purple sprouting broccoli in the garden but we had to harvest all the Jerusalem artichokes this week as they had started to grow again. We have re-planted 10 tubers for next year (selecting for straight, knobble-less ones); I have sown their bed with phacelia as a quick green manure, then plan to plant violet globe artichokes to complement the row of green ones.
The ones that got away . . . Jerusalem artichokes we missed on the first dig! They are such an underrated (and often maligned) vegetable which is a shame as they are dead easy to grow – practically indestructible, in fact – are packed with nutritional goodies and incredibly versatile in the kitchen. They are delicious raw in a slaw or roasted, used in a mixed root mash or made into a gratin. Our current favourite approach is to grate them and fry them in butter with spices like a rosti; even better finished with a decadent splosh of cream or crème fraîche, it’s a great dish on its own but also makes a fabulous filling for jacket potatoes.
We would never choose to plant peach trees here, especially in the exposed position where this one is located. That said, the blossom is gorgeous and who knows what might happen if we are blessed with a warm spring and hot summer?
In the balmy warmth of the tunnel, the potatoes are bombing up and, despite Mousegate, there’s a good row of peas (and several scattered little mouse gardens, too – I’m picking those as peashoots for salad) and I’ve pricked out the first patch of lettuce seedlings. As predicted, the bench is already heaving and I’ve barely even started yet . . .
. . . so thank goodness for sunny windowsills! Three of them are home to peppers, chillies, courgettes and squash plants with cucumbers and melons still in the propagator. I’m covering them at night with plastic box cloches but they spend their days sunbathing: next stop, the tunnel.
One of our long-term projects is to turn the gravelled area in front of the house into a pretty courtyard – but how to get rid of that previous car park feel? We’ve taken a leaf out of Beth Chatto’s book and decided to plant a gravel garden. It’s a huge experiment which could go horribly wrong, but we’ve made a start; it doesn’t look like much at the moment, but hopefully I’ll be able to post some wonderful follow-up photos later in the year. 😉
I love foraging for salad ingredients and it’s amazing how we can make something from nothing at this time of year: rocket, landcress, chard, beetroot leaves (I purposely left a few in the ground last year to re-grow fresh leaves), red kale, red sorrel, chives, lemon balm and the first pickings of fresh mint, along with primroses, violets, rocket flowers and marigold petals. There’s also plenty of young dandelion, wild sorrel and hawthorn leaves for a touch of the wild.
I don’t know whether it’s down to a milder winter but the spring flowers have been gorgeous this year and the garden and grass verges are alive with drifts of colour. There have been several types of butterfly in the garden this week, not the usual early suspects like orange tips and yellow brimstones, but peacocks, tortoiseshell and painted ladies – emerged from hibernation to stretch their dusty wings, perhaps? I’ve seen the first lizards, too, and – wonderful news – there is a pair of blue tits in the nestbox we made last year. They seem to be very much at home. Well, so are we! 😊

Down to earth

As human beings, we can sometimes find it hard to say goodbye, often clinging to people, places, things and ideals when the time has really come to let go. I’m not sure whether this hanging on and hoarding is some kind of atavistic survival mechanism, a symptom of modern society or something else altogether but I have to admit that when it comes to houses, I’ve never had a problem literally or metaphorically in moving on. For me, ‘home’ has never been about bricks and mortar but rather wherever we happen to have made our lives together as a couple or family; we have only ever been a tiny part of the history of all the houses we have lived in (and crikey, we’ve lived in a lot) and, once the decision has been made to leave, I have never looked back no matter how many happy memories have been made there. So, it was something of a relief to hear that at last we had sold our former home in Asturias; it is a house that needs constant love and care so we were delighted to be finally handing the reins over to someone else. There was much to be done before completion, however – especially when it was brought forward out of the blue – so we have just spent several weeks there packing, cleaning and dealing with the administrative stuff as well as building in time to enjoy a little holiday while we were at it. What a wonderful way to say goodbye: enjoying some of our favourite walks in beautiful places, treating ourselves to a couple of meals out, luxuriating in the the bliss of winter sunshine, laughing and chatting with friends, sitting on the terrace and drinking in the view and those stunning sunsets. Arriving home exhausted but happy to have it all behind us at last, it was good to see a little bit of spring had sprung in our absence.

We’ve done a fair bit since we arrived here at the end of December 2020 but finally it feels like we have permission to really knuckle down and concentrate on being here properly, to completely immerse ourselves in all the projects we have planned and put some strong roots down in this rich Mayenne soil. It’s not just about what happens on the homestead: I’ve started walking regularly as a way to explore our neighbourhood and connect with neighbours in this scattered, rural community and Roger has entered several races and is planning to join the local running club; we are both committed to French courses to keep pushing our language skills forward and (hopefully) become increasingly confident and fluent speakers. That said, since our return home, it’s the garden that has exerted the strongest pull on me and I haven’t been able to resist. Forget unpacking: the sun is shining, the sap rising and I need – yes, need – to thrust my hands into the earth.

Creating a no-dig garden from a field is a long term project and perhaps initially ‘low-dig’ is a better description while we get to grips with the two biggest problems: perennial weeds and grassland soil dwellers such as chafer bugs, wireworm and leather jackets, which between them can devastate a vegetable garden. Last year, we made some planting beds by either inverting or stripping turf and forking the soil over so we had a few areas to plant straight away and then subsequent beds were created (or at least started) by sheet mulching. The soil was in a pretty poor state; thirteen years of mowing by a too-heavy tractor had left it seriously compacted, short of nutrition, full of beasties and worryingly devoid of worms. Applying mulches of organic matter and natural fertilisers such as comfrey, nettle and yarrow was a constant activity throughout the year so, heading out to start preparing for spring planting, I was eager to assess what (if any) impact our approach has had so far.

No patch of cultivated earth was left bare over winter; everything was heavily mulched and in a couple of places I experimented with a late-sown cover crop of phacelia which absolutely thrived through autumn and winter – there will be more of that this year, for sure. Where we’d mulched with hay, I’ve stripped it back to allow the soil to warm up in direct sunshine and set it to rot down in an empty compost bay which I’ve nicknamed our Gentleman’s Pissoir in the hope that resident and visiting chaps will give it the occasional ‘watering’ to help things along! 😆 To prepare the soil beneath, I haven’t had a spade or fork near it or turned the surface over at all, just used a small hand fork to gently lift perennial weeds (mostly buttercup) and tickle the soil to aerate it. It’s all very low level work which I love because it gives me the chance to literally be down at soil level and really connect with what’s going on . . . and I’m pleased to report, there’s a lot that’s good on that score. For starters, the compaction has gone, the soil structure feels so much lighter and airier and, despite there obviously having been some heavy rain in our absence, it is very friable. The colour is darker than last year, not the deep shade we would eventually like to see, but it feels like we’re on the right track. I found far fewer pests than this time last year, which isn’t to say they aren’t lurking deeper down waiting for the soil to warm up but I do feel encouraged by the reduced numbers. What I did find, though, is earthworms – hundreds and hundreds of them. Their precious casts are everywhere and the soil is heaving with their pink bodies; if ever proof were needed that surface mulching with organic matter activates the worm population, then we have it in bucket loads. They are our greatest allies and what a job they are doing, that poor soil is being transformed into something wonderful . . . and that alone is a good enough reason to banish the spade for evermore.

Where the lasagne beds we started building last year are concerned, the Strawberry Circle is probably the best example of what I’m hoping for from them all. It had nine layers of alternate green and brown materials plus a light sprinkling of phacelia as a cover crop which I have just chopped and dropped. There are hardly any weeds, just a few small roots of sorrel which is edible and easily lifted; otherwise, rummaging down through the layers and worms, there is a lot of good stuff going on – wonderful rich soil in the making. The strawberry plants have kept leaves over winter and the new growth has started so I’m hopeful for a decent crop this year; I shall sprinkle borage seed as a companion between the plants and that will almost certainly self-set around the patch for years to come. The other lasagne beds are lagging behind in terms of how many layers they have been given so far, but there is still plenty of time to keep adding to them over the next few months. Everything going into them will be pre-sown in pots so should make good, strong plants with decent rootballs that can be popped into pockets of compost; it’s a strategy that worked well last year for perennial plants so I’m extending it to some annuals (beans, sweetcorn, peppers, aubergines and the like) this season. In the official perennial lasagne bed, the comfrey has started throwing up new green spears of growth and – hooray, hooray! – the roots I took from an ancient rhubarb crown last year are suggesting they’re pretty happy with the whole sheet mulching thing.

The existing soft fruit bushes were given a lot of love last year which with any luck should pay dividends this summer and if the bright new leafburst on the raspberries and young blackcurrants I lifted as found seedlings are anything to go by, we could be in for a bounty. It’s getting towards the end of the bare-rooted planting season but we’ve managed to put in three more trees, a ‘Doyenné du Comice’ pear, ‘Reine Claude doré’ plum and ‘hâtif Burlat’ cherry and it’s good to see our young orchard slowly taking shape. The little bare-rooted josta berry is covered in promising fat buds whilst in the balmy warmth of the tunnel, the honeyberries and goji berry that arrived as doubtful tiny twigs are covered in fresh new foliage. Our fruit options for the future are increasing all the time.

Back to the tunnel, and it’s good to see the beginnings of a new year’s harvest. The soil outside is too cold for sowing anything but parsnips and broad beans (both of which have gone in, along with a several bulbs of hardneck rose garlic) but the tunnel is a different matter altogether. The dozen ‘Charlotte’ potatoes are through the ground and there’s a decent row of radish, too; I’d like to say the same about the ‘Douce Provence’ peas but unfortunately the mice have been feasting on the seed and left us with – so far – the sum total of six plants. Mmm. I’ve replanted after much muttering but had to smile when, whilst tickling and watering the soil throughout the tunnel, I found several little caches of germinating peas hidden under the mulch; the mice are doing their own bit of gardening, it seems! Our local country store advises sowing linseed between rows of potatoes to help repel troublesome beetles so I’m trialling that in the tunnel; if nothing else, the flowers will make a pretty splash of blue and an early draw for pollinators. There has already been an explosion of ladybirds in there, the whole place is teeming with them which is great news indeed, hopefully that means any potential aphid situation is covered. It’s so good to have somewhere to start our plants off this year, to date some pointy summer cabbage, lettuce, onions, spare broad beans and sweet peas . . . but give it a few weeks and the bench will be heaving.

Adding structure to the garden is an ongoing activity, so as well as the new fruit trees, we have been planting out the seedling trees we potted up in autumn to finish creating a curving hedge between the orchard and veggie patch. They are mostly native species we found on site but we’ve also added a few rugosa roses and buddleia grown from cuttings and there will be flowering currant, too, once my hardwood cuttings have rooted properly (they’re currently blooming away madly in the tunnel, not sure if that is a good thing or not!). We’ve also planted a drift of trees along the edge which we’re planning to keep wild and Roger has made great progress in digging (by hand) a wildlife pond in the wettest corner – I just knew the mini-digger hire thing would never happen! It will be a couple of years before the real impact of these projects will start to be felt but it’s good to see the big flat spaces being broken up and the landscape becoming more interesting and developing the promise of new ecosystems. If everything grows at the same rate as the willows we planted a few weeks ago, then we won’t be waiting too long for our new hedge.

I never fail to feel a sense of wonder and optimism when the time for planting seeds arrives. It’s seems incredible that the tender little seedlings tucked up in the tropical atmosphere of the propagator will (we hope) be tall, strong plants producing a bumper harvest of aubergines, peppers and chillies in the summer months. It’s always a tricky time booting them out to make space for the next crowd – tomatoes, courgettes, squash and melons – but this year I have a plan which I hope will keep them happy and, most importantly, warm. I don’t like single-use plastic and avoid it as much as possible but this winter, the only way I’ve been able to bulk buy eco-friendly fat balls with no plastic netting, no palm oil and made from sustainable ingredients is in big rigid lidded containers. (If anyone is wondering why I don’t make them myself, it’s because solid fats such as lard are very high quality here and consequently expensive; I also read on a French wildlife site that we shouldn’t actually feed animal fats to wild birds anyway.) It strikes me that the empty containers could be very useful and for starters I’m going to invert them over tender plants as mini unheated propagators which on our sunny south-facing windowsills might even stop the aubergines sulking.

Winter veg are of course made of far tougher stuff and, although the hungry gap beckons, we are still enjoying a good crop from the garden. After months of harvesting, the leeks, Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips are winding down slowly but we are enjoying regular pickings of greens which have found a second wind – cottager’s kale and frilly purple kale, rainbow chard, perpetual spinach and young beetroot leaves – and purple sprouting broccoli, the star of the season, has just begun. We had none last year because of our move so this year calls for total overindulgence. I’m definitely not complaining.

The weather over the last week has been lovely so we carried the garden bench out from in front of the shed (which incidentally, Roger has started calling the ‘Love Shack’ for no other reason than I am so thrilled with it – he has pointed out yet again that it is supposed to be a shed, not an art installation 😆) and put it where we can take a tea break in the sunshine and enjoy the sights and sounds of spring. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the idea of putting a little bistro set in front of the shed for when we are seeking shade or shelter from the rain and, having dragged a couple of folding chairs back from Spain, I decided the time had come to leave the soil alone for a bit and get on the case. It feels like we have had those chairs forever, they were originally plain wood which I painted years ago and they were looking very bashed and shabby again. The previous owners had left a small folding table here which had been painted white and then decorated with a couple of butterfly stickers, it’s nothing we would ever use in the house but seemed to fit the bill for outside. Pieces of junk? Definitely, but it’s incredible what can be achieved with a bit of effort and a tin of paint. I fancied a shade of blue that would sit prettily with the green of the shed and opted for one called Bleu Orage (storm blue), set up a little painting workshop outside and got busy.

We’re planning to put gravel down as permanent hardstanding in front of the shed to stop everything becoming a mudbath in winter but for now the furniture can sit on the grass; as it’s all folding, it’s easy to pop it away in the shed and although it’s not exactly designed for comfort, I have a feeling it will be getting a lot of use through the year. I’m really pleased with the makeover, it’s very in keeping with the whole shed-building project and permaculture principles of creating no waste and making use of what we have to hand . . . and yes, that is bunting you can see. Just couldn’t help myself. 😉

That bunting was crocheted from yarn scraps and has been hanging in our spare bedroom in Asturias so it seemed fitting somehow to be finishing another crochet project in between the madness of moving preparations. I started a rainbow colourwash baby blanket months ago but progress had been pitifully slow so it felt like a good opportunity to get on and finish it before the baby arrives, even managing to sit on the terrace and work a few squares in blissful sunshine just like old times. The cotton yarn has been a delight to work with and the finished blanket it soft and light enough to tuck round a tiny body yet weighty enough to spread on the floor as a playmat. It was a lovely project and I have enough yarn left to make a string of rainbow bunting to match. After all the disappointment of the last two years, we haven’t dared book a trip to greet our new grandchild yet but it will most certainly happen; I might not have a problem with goodbyes, but that is most definitely one very important ‘hello’ to look forward to. 😊