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! ๐Ÿ˜† 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 ‘Doyennรฉ du Comice’ pear, ‘Reine Claude dorรฉ’ plum and ‘hรขtif 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 ๐Ÿ˜†) 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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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. ๐Ÿ˜Š

10 thoughts on “Down to earth

    1. Hola, Yvonne! Baby is due in May, such a lovely time of year for a birthday. I thought cotton would be more appropriate than wool and had a lot of fun making the blanket. Just the bunting to go! Hope all is well with you in Murcia and you are enjoying some balmy Spanish weather and making plans for the huerto. Bises x

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  1. Congratulations on selling your other home! That must be a huge relief. I am not sure how just saying something in French makes it sound so much better – who would have thought a gentlemen’s pissoir could sound appealing?! Your garden is coming along so nicely. I completely understand that sense of wonder and optimism at the beginning of the season – there is so much hope for a good crop (before the slugs move in and make life a misery!). I have been having a real problem of late with harlequin bug infestation – it seems to be sucking the life out of everything. Enjoy that sunshine and your beautiful space – I love the bunting, it adds a special charm!

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    1. Thank you, Paula! Yes, spring is definitely in the air here, it’s such an exciting and busy time in the garden. Given world events and the possibilities of shortages, we’re looking to maximise our food production this year BUT I’ve also started prepping the flower beds and thinking I’ll plant lots of dahlias this year – they’re really popular here and I loved the ones on your previous post. Good luck with the harlequin bugs, there’s always something to rain on the gardening parade, isn’t there?

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