April showers? I wish!

There has been such a bursting of leaf and life this week, I can almost hear the crackle and pop of burgeoning growth all around me as I work. Trees are suddenly clothed in fresh new growth, the woods are a soft haze of greens and yellows and the verges are bursting with cowslips, bluebells and orchids. At the front of the house, the double lilac is in full scented bloom and, together with a cascade of bright laburnum flowers above it, makes a gorgeous palette against the blue sky. There are baby birds squeaking in every corner and the whole garden is fragrant with the sweet perfume of apple blossom. It feels more like the middle of May and I’m loving every moment.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week wandering about the patch at all times of day, or simply just sitting and absorbing the bustle of springtime around me; an early morning breakfast on the Love Shack ‘veranda’ catches the sunrise now and is a magical thing to do. We’ve also been talking a lot about our plans for this piece of land and how we would like it to develop in the coming years. In The Garden Awakening, Mary Reynolds states that gardens belong to nature, not the other way round, and it’s a philosophy that resonates very strongly with me; we’re seeking a balance between being able to produce the greater part of our fresh food whilst maintaining and improving the environment and ecosystem(s) for all who share it. It’s not always easy, but something we are both very much committed to and leaving space for nature to do its own thing is key. The hazel hedge that Roger laid over winter is bursting with fresh new growth, whilst beneath it there is a riot of wild flowers – stitchwort, celandines, violets, wild strawberries, ground ivy, pignut, speedwell – which in turn are buzzing with insect attention. These ‘wild’ areas are fundamental to our vision and a precious asset in this space.

Although there are many simple ways in which we can encourage wildlife such as leaving areas of grass unmown or making piles of organic materials in various places, other projects need a bit more work. One of the most important habitats which we are missing is a pond but Roger has been working to rectify that situation. He has dug a hole out by hand at the lowest point of the garden and used the turfs to cover a snaking hügel bed which will help to ‘hide’ the pond within a wilder patch we have planted with young dogwoods and willows and should eventually make a turf seat where we can sit and watch the pondlife. Unfortunately, the pond liner we had ordered went astray and was delivered several weeks late so wasn’t in place for the last bout of decent rainfall; now we’re in a prolonged dry spell so we just have to be patient.

Thankfully, we know from experience that it doesn’t take long for the wildlife to appear once a pond is established, especially one that is surrounded by vegetation; we have yellow flag iris waiting in a bucket and I’ve raised purple loosestrife and marshmallow plants from seed so those should give us a good start. There’s no shortage of potential customers in the area, either . . .

Amphibians are an important and welcome part of our ecosystems; they’re always wonderful to see and a strong reminder of why we don’t use chemicals anywhere. There’s a small toad that seems to live very happily amongst the plant pots under the bench in the tunnel and is possibly the reason we don’t have a slug problem in there. I’ve been watching the golden ground beetles in there, too; they’re incredibly smart creatures decked out in metallic green with red legs that scuttle out from under the plant trays when I move them. The insect highlight of the week, however, was spotting a female long-horned bee – the red-listed species I wrote about last time – among the strawberry flowers.

Having recently read a long and detailed permaculture article, it seems that if there is one topic that divides opinion within the community, it’s mandala beds. Permies either love them or loathe them – there’s a definite ‘Marmite moment’ going on! I like them (and just for the record, I like Marmite, too 😊) and I’m very excited to watch ours evolve this year despite the fact that an expert would be quick to point out that I’ve fallen short of the mark in doing things properly. For starters, I should really have opted for looping keyhole beds rather than straight paths and triangular wedges; instead of a pointless rock in the middle, there ought to be a geodome chicken home and somewhere in the vicinity, a hot composting system. Well, I’m not trying to do it perfectly so I shan’t be losing too much sleep over my shortcomings and after all, the whole project is so much more than ticking a permaculture box . . . so why am I doing it?

  • I’ve fancied making a garden feature based on a large circle for a long time. For many years, I had a vague notion of a spiral maze floating about in my mind, but never actually got round to making it for many reasons, not least the fact that most of our gardens have either been too small or too steep. Now at last I have plenty of flat space to play with and a mandala bed rather than a maze feels like the better option.
  • I wanted to create something a little bit different in our ‘flower’ garden, a feature that would perhaps become a bit of a talking point and capture people’s attention and interest. It’s not the most elaborate of patterns but I like the sunburst of paths radiating out from the centre and the play of light across it at different times of the day and, although it’s not a maze as such, I’m hoping our little visitors in the summer will have fun running in and out of it along the paths. For me, it’s like a giant compass and a useful anchor point for tracking the sun’s path through the year but I want it to be completely open to interpretation. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk talks about seeing a garden feature as the centre of the universe since space stretches out infinitely in every direction from one point and I like that idea, too. Some might see fractions or pie charts or those of a more religious or spiritual bent might think of a Dharma Wheel or a Wheel of the Year. I have a friend who calls it my ‘yoga garden’ and Sam said it reminded him of playing Trivial Pursuit. Good, it’s already capturing imaginations!
  • On a less whimsical note, I’m trying to make a case for blurring the boundaries between flowers and food in the garden. Obviously, flowers are traditionally grown alongside vegetables in the sort of potager we are making at the other end of the patch but I think there’s an argument for having plenty of food plants in the flower garden, too. It’s not a new idea but so often consists of highly predictable suggestions (ruby chard, anyone?) which are based totally on aesthetics rather than usefulness. My argument is simple: why grow things like ornamental cabbages and gourds when you can grow equally interesting plants in the same space and eat them, too?
  • Finally – and I suppose this is the proper permaculture bit – I’m interested to explore just what is possible when creating a planting area using a no-dig approach and only the materials we have to hand. Apart from some of the cardboard which we scrounged (and which was, after all, other people’s waste), everything else including several layers of organic materials, the standing stone, the wood mulch for paths and the plants have all come from our patch of land and apart from two sections where I have sown annual flower seeds, the beds will be filled with our spare plants. So far, it has definitely been another case of something from nothing.

Like many other things going on in our garden, the mandala bed is a bit of an experiment and as such, I’m prepared for things to go horribly wrong. I’ve covered two sections with soil rescued from molehills plus a bit of compost and sown a mix of nectar-rich annual flowers on them . . . but whether the soil will be deep enough to sustain the growth, especially in hot dry spells, is questionable. I was encouraged to find a couple of phacelia volunteers had appeared there already (what a trooper that plant is!) but even so, I’m a bit doubtful. It hasn’t been all plain sailing with the food plants, either: strawberries, summer cabbages and a ‘Courcourzelle’ courgette are looking fine, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to replant lettuces thanks to the destructive presence of wireworms. I’m a bit frustrated that the little orange pests seem capable of working their way up through all the lasagne layers to munch away at roots but I’ve got hundreds of lettuce plants and I’m nothing if not determined so the battle continues. I’m hopeful that by the time the tender plants like peppers, aubergines, melons and cucumbers go out, the beasties (who apparently don’t like warm soil) will have beaten a retreat. We’ll see.

The state of the other two beds in the flower garden has been an interesting situation to consider. One was created by stripping turf and digging, the other was a sort of flat hügel bed experiment and both were mostly planted with annual flowers last year and deeply mulched with leaves and dead plant material over winter. When I stripped back the mulch ready for planting, there were two very different stories underneath. The dug bed was a carpet of perennial weeds (mostly creeping buttercup), so densely matted that I’ve had to dig it all again, and some of the perennial plants in there had taken a real bashing from various pests. In complete contrast, in the ‘pancake lasagne hügel’ bed there were hardly any weeds and the native plants that have appeared and decided to stay such as knapweed, campion, ox-eye daisy, mallow, yarrow and a lone teasel are looking incredibly healthy.

There was also a good crop of young oak trees from the acorns that went in with a brown layer, so we’ve lifted several to add to the tree nursery. I want to keep this border on the wild side so I’ve sown it with all sorts of annual seed for an unapologetic splash of summer colour and wealth of wildlife busyness. The dug border will make the transition to a mostly perennial one this year which, apart from anything else, will allow me to keep it mulched to help improve the soil; I’ve sown a narrow strip along the front with annuals and added a few dahlias but otherwise my plan is to fill it with perennial plants as I go along. I’m raising lots in the tunnel, favourites like scabious, aquilegia, globe thistle, gaillardia and echinacea, but they won’t be big enough to plant until later in the year. On the bright side, the soapwort, Michaelmas daisies, madder and cardoons are all going great guns so I’m wondering if maybe this needs to be a bed for thugs? When we visited the medieval garden in Lassay-les-Châteaux last summer, I liked the way the cardoons there had been underplanted with wild strawberries so I’ve done the same with ours and hope it will look as effective once the little plants are established. Whatever happens, we should at least be guaranteed a bit of summer colour once again.

Shifting to the vegetable garden and, given the wireworm issue in the mandala bed, I’ve been fretting a bit about the asparagus. I must admit to having had severe reservations about sheet mulching an asparagus bed, knowing how perennial weeds (and grass in particular) can be a major problem but several leading authorities on the matter convinced me it was possible so the lasagne bed was built, the plants raised from seed and 30 of them planted in deep pockets of rich compost. The apparent lack of life this spring has been bothering me, and I’ve been wondering if maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all; it takes three years to establish plants big enough to harvest, so a year’s setback is the last thing we need. Well, I should know by now to be a little more patient and have more faith: this week, tiny purplish spears of asparagus have shot up from all but one planting hole (and I have spare plants in reserve) and I am so happy. I’ve lifted the few weeds – mostly sorrel – from around them, mulched them heavily with grass clippings and told them what beautiful plants they are: a little encouragement and flattery goes a long way.

Where the weather is concerned, it’s a tricky time of year as the wind has a habit of going into the cold east and a frost is still possible; it’s still too early to plant out tender things but this is where the tunnel comes into its own. Having nurtured far too many young plants on windowsills and then in the tunnel, the time came to get them in the ground so I spent a very happy (and incredibly hot!) afternoon planting the whole of one side with peppers, chillies, aubergines and melons. I’ve got plenty of spares in case they’re needed, and if not, they can go outside next month. I shift all the plants-in-waiting and trays of seedlings out every day as the tunnel is hot and they need to harden off, then tuck them up safely back inside at night. Some of the courgettes had grown so big that they really had to go into the ground this week so I’ve made some windbreaks from slates again and if there’s a hint of frost, I’m covering them overnight with buckets; it’s a bit of a gamble but I think they’ll be OK. The squash are desperate, too, but they really do have to wait a bit longer. No such problems with onions, the seedlings seemed big enough to go out so I’ve planted three rows (about 75) so far with more to come. Now what we really, really need is some rain.

The protective climate of the tunnel is a good reminder now of how the whole garden should look later in the year. I love the way that baby mesclun leaves are nestled next to radish under peas, all one big jostling jungle. I’ve just watched our neighbours making an incredibly impressive and precise job of their potato patch, digging in muck, rotovating twice, raking down to a very fine tilth and then using a tape measure to ensure the exact distance between each plant. I wonder what on earth they must think of my wayward, messy ways? 😬

I was just about to publish this post when we had a freak storm. It was nothing really, a few rumbles of thunder, barely enough rain to dampen the seed beds yet alone start filling the pond and a single ferocious crack of lightning which tripped the power and fried the phoneline. End of internet, end of blogging! It’s taken several very frustrating days trying to report the fault and get it fixed but we’re there at last, back on air and I can hit the ‘Publish’ button bearing in mind my photos are all well out of date now. I wouldn’t have minded if the storm had at least delivered the rain we so desperately need. I’m just off to bail out the bath water in the hope of keeping some seedlings alive. Time for a rain dance, perhaps? 😉

Something from nothing

For those of us growing food in temperate northern climes, the next few weeks tend to be the trickiest in terms of having enough fresh produce from the garden: the winter vegetables are over, our stores running low and new crops still in their infancy. As this is our first proper year of cultivation here, I’m interested to see just how far we can go in trying to close – or even eradicate? – the so-called ‘hungry gap’.

A good test of our current situation came when we were writing a short shopping list before cycling into St P to collect a few supplies; as there is a limit to how much we can carry on our bikes, we have to be very precise about what we do or don’t require. So, did we need to buy any vegetables to supplement what we already had at home? We finished our own potatoes and onions some time ago but now buy those in bulk so we have plenty to hand; we still have garlic, squash, chillies and beans in store along with the last few parsnips; in the garden, there are leeks, kale, chard, perpetual spinach, beetroot, rocket, Florence fennel, landcress and red sorrel, a variety of fresh herbs and various young ‘wild’ leaves, too. We don’t have huge quantities of anything, but when it comes to making meals, it’s amazing how we can still rustle up something from nothing. No need to buy veg, then: oh good, that leaves room in the rucksack for a bottle of wine! 😉

The ‘something from nothing’ idea has been a bit of a theme in the garden this week. Roger has been lifting and potting up birch seedlings that have appeared in the gravel to make a start on our next little tree nursery and we have planted five flowering currants and five red dogwoods grown from hardwood cuttings I took in the winter. On the strength of that success, I’ve taken softwood cuttings of viburnum tinus which has been flowering for weeks and also lilac which is just coming into bloom; this is such a great way of increasing our stock of shrubs for nothing. Last summer I sowed the last few wallflower seeds from a packet so ancient I doubted there was any chance of them germinating, yet alone making decent plants; really, I should have more faith! I stuffed the tiny plants in pots with some daffodil bulbs at the front of the house and they are making a gorgeous splash of colour at the moment. I’m particularly chuffed that every plant has different coloured flowers so I’m planning to collect a bit of seed from each of them and then let the rest scatter themselves in the hope of adding to our gravel garden.

This self-setting strategy is one that I love and it’s incredible how many little treasures are appearing and spreading themselves through the gravel – and all in such appropriate places, as if they’ve read their own planting instructions! Under the oak tree there are primroses, foxgloves, forget-me-nots and verbascum and in front of the house, Californian poppies, rosemary, pansies and wild strawberries. It’s lazy gardening but definitely to be encouraged.

We have made a commitment to only use the car when completely necessary and it’s an interesting exercise in seeing just how much we can accomplish on our bikes or on foot. Roger is currently spending a lot of time in the coppice cutting fallen wood for logs but instead of going in the car and taking the chainsaw, he is cycling there with a bow saw and cutting the wood by hand. Yes, it’s slower and more laborious in some ways but he’s enjoying himself, finding it far more pleasant to work quietly and gently without disturbing the peace of the place. Obviously, at some point we will need to take the car and trailer to collect the logs – perhaps we should look at bike trailers? – but in the meantime, the two-wheeled approach is working well.

The coppice is somewhere we plan to spend far more time this year and to that end, Roger has been cutting back brambles to make paths and has cleared a space for us to eventually site a picnic table so we have a permanent seat and somewhere to eat. At the heart of the wood there is an old quarry whose high rock walls create a natural sheltered bowl full of trees, undergrowth and moss-covered rocks; Sam and Adrienne are keen boulderers (is that the right term?) and were sizing up the possibility of scaling the quarry wall on their recent visit.

Well, I’m certainly not brave enough for that one, but I’m definitely happy to spend more time in such a pleasant spot. One morning this week saw us leaving the house before dawn, with our super lightweight portable camping chairs slung over our shoulders and a flask of coffee to hand, heading off up the lane on foot. There was no need for a torch as the moon was full and there was something rather lovely about walking the half mile or so by moonlight with the first rustlings of bird activity all around us. Once in the coppice, we settled down with our coffee and listened to the magical dawn chorus in ‘surround sound’ as light slowly seeped into the day. I know there are people who think we’re a bit crazy for doing such things but for me the alternative – not to have these simple yet wonderful experiences – would be even crazier, a life not lived to the full. Cost: nothing (we’d have made morning coffee anyway). Value: priceless.

I learnt the French word for badger – un blaireau – the last time we lived here and remembered it because at the time, Tony Blair(eau) was prime minister of the UK; as far as I can recall, the former PM bears no resemblance whatsoever to a badger, but my wiring obviously works in weird ways and the word was committed to my long-term memory. I came across it again this week, during a lesson which involved watching a French TEDx talk and learned from the speaker that to refer to someone in France as un blaireau is basically to call them a moron. Two things struck me: first, I think it’s a bit harsh on badgers, an animal I’ve always had a soft spot for, and second, as I try to be polite and well-mannered (in public, at least 😆), I doubted there would ever be an occasion for me to apply my newly-acquired knowledge. Ha, how the language gods were laughing! That same afternoon, Roger returned from the wood to find that someone had run over and killed a large grass snake on the lane outside our house. I suspect it was one of the several that live peacefully in our attached barn and which, particularly in warm weather, cross the lane to drink and hunt in Gilles’s pond. Grass snakes are totally harmless creatures: they are not poisonous and offer no danger whatsoever to human beings. They are also a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem, so we are blessed to have them on our patch; sadly, there is a fair bit of grass snake hate about but we certainly wouldn’t dream of doing anything to hurt or disturb them. It is not an animal to hurl itself from nowhere under car tyres and this was a big and very visible one so I suspect it met its end because the driver was either going too fast round the corner on the narrow lane, wasn’t concentrating or deliberately went for the kill. I’m not rude enough to put it in print, but yes, I was definitely thinking it. 🤬🦡

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not a deluded bunny hugger and I accept that nature is red in tooth and claw and death is part of the natural cycle. I know that our patch might be a haven for wildlife but that doesn’t necessarily make it a sanctuary; ecosystems are built on food webs and that means living things eating others. It’s life. What saddens me is when that life is destroyed unnecessarily, but all we can do is carry on trying to improve and create a wide diversity of habitats here and enjoy the good moments . . . of which there have been many this week. The blue tits in our nestbox have decided the entrance hole is not up to their exacting standards (despite it having been made to a very precise 25mm) so between bustling in and out with beaks full of nesting materials, they are bashing away at the hole, from inside and out, like a couple of demented mini woodpeckers. A pair of chaffinches has taken to camping on the doorstep waiting for us to sweep the breadboard crumbs through the door for them and the duelling blackcaps are back, trying to out-sing one another in ever more ear-splitting crescendos. I found a couple of delicate empty shells in the garden, the sweet blue of a robin’s egg; I don’t know where they are nesting but there are certainly blackbirds feeding young in a small hedgerow holly, cursing us soundly if we try to use the sun loungers by the Oak Shed. We had an incredible view of a male cuckoo that alighted on top of the oak tree, shouting his wares – such a rare thing to see. I literally came eyeball to eyeball with a swallow when I was sowing flower seeds in the mandala bed; it landed and started picking something from the soil which had me a bit puzzled as I thought they were insectivores, not seed eaters. On closer inspection, it wasn’t feeding but collecting small pieces of the vermiculite that were in the seed mix. Grit for shell formation? An insulating building material to add to mud? I’m not sure, but to be so close to what is one of my favourite birds was a very special moment. I’ve lost count of the number of shield bugs and butterflies that have landed on me this week; the weather has been incredibly warm so I’m wondering if my it’s my tatty, bright pink summer gardening t-shirt that’s attracting them? 😊

One insect I wasn’t expecting to see when I was checking the young plants in the tunnel was a male long-horned bee, sporting a pair of antennae to be proud of. This is eucara longicornis, a species which is in decline; it has been identified as a UK priority species and is on the European Red List, so it’s in need of all the help it can get. It has a symbiotic relationship with bee orchids, which we don’t have, but apparently prefers flowers from the pea/ vetch /clover family which is definitely something we can provide. I’m wondering if it was the pea flowers that had attracted it to the tunnel in the first place? Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera to hand but I was at least more organised when it came to the other candidate for Insect of the Week award . . .

. . . meet meloe violaceus, the violet oil beetle (or should I say beetles) which I saw totally by chance while I was mulching our young hedging plants; I have to say it didn’t look like the most comfortable of couplings! Like the long-horned bee, this was a new species for me so thank goodness for the internet. The ‘oil’ is actually a poisonous substance which can cause painful skin blisters, hardly a problem as I’m not given to bug snuggling, but its presence here is great news indeed. Apparently, it is a good indicator species for the health of the environment; it has a symbiotic (parasitic) relationship with solitary mining bees, the larvae or ‘triungulins’ (what a great word!) hitching a ride to the bee’s nest and raiding the pollen stores until they emerge as adults. The beetles have suffered a drastic decline in the UK due to changes in countryside management and are a Biodiversity Action Plan priority species; however, in France its status as a non-protected species suggests that the picture here is a little brighter, for the time being, at least. Even so, for them to be present on our patch, there needs to be a healthy mining bee population and wildflower-rich grassland so it looks like we are doing something right.

We’ve just eaten the last cherries from the freezer and I’m hoping for a bumper crop to replace them this year. Everything certainly bodes well for that at the moment: the blossom is stunning and staggered, and the prolonged spell of warm, dry, still weather is giving the pollinators every chance to do their business. With the hedge beneath it laid, even the poor abused old tree looks better this year and with any luck will be dripping with sweet red fruits by July.

If we can preserve enough cherries this year along with soft fruit and apples, as well as have a decent early harvest from the new rhubarb patch next spring, then this time next year with any luck we won’t need to be carrying bought fruit on our bikes, either. Even more room in the rucksack for naughty things, then! 😊

Spring clean

Last week, I did a bit of spring cleaning on two counts. First, with Sam and Adrienne’s long-awaited visit finally looking like it would go ahead, I decided it was time to spruce the house up a bit in their honour. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of cleaning – it generally seems like a waste of good gardening time to me 😆 – but there is something lovely about making our home clean, comfortable and welcoming for guests, especially ones we’ve waited for 27 months to see. There’s a simple pleasure to be found in the small things: old wooden furniture polished to a shine with essential oils, crisp cotton sheets line-dried and smelling of fresh air, a pile of soft fluffy bath towels and a vase of sweet-scented narcissi for the bedroom (even if I did have to pick them in a blizzard). This sort of cleaning feels more like a gift than a grind and I quite enjoyed myself, especially since the house felt so warm and cosy whilst outside the snow swirled past the windows in huge, downy goose feathers. Spring? Ha!

We have a long-standing joke with Sam and Adrienne that they always bring terrible weather with them when they visit; actually, it’s not really a joke, more of a foregone conclusion to be honest. I think they truly excelled themselves this time: after enjoying two weeks of what was really summer weather here, living and eating outside and looking as brown as berries, the day before they arrived we were suddenly hurled into weather worse than any we had over winter. The temperature plunged to below freezing and snow blew in on the back of a bitter north wind as if Norwegian weather had been sent on ahead to make them feel at home! The change was almost surreal and everything that had been luxuriating in the warm sunshine – the blossom, the birds, the bees – suddenly looked as surprised and shivery as us.

Thankfully, the weather did pick up a bit, at least enough for us to wrap up and enjoy some good local walks; the wind remained desperately cold but there is heat in the sun at this time of year and in sheltered spots, it was pleasant enough to shed a few layers. Walking is something we’ve always enjoyed doing together and it felt like far too long since our last hikes, so much lost time to catch up on, so much nattering to be done; despite the unseasonal weather, it was a complete joy . . . and we are very excited about the return match in Norway in June (fingers firmly crossed for that one, of course).

A flask of coffee and some amazing patisserie have always been an important feature of our walks!

Despite the fickle weather, this is a gorgeous time of year and it was lovely to have an excuse to be out and about in our walking boots enjoying the best of it. For me, cherry is the defining tree of the region and it is at its best now, a drift of billowy white across the landscape, those petals far more welcome than the snow.

Beneath the trees there are carpets of hazy bluebells, their heady and evocative perfume mingling with the coconut scent of gorse; with the call of the cuckoo and arrival of the first swallows this week, it all just shouts, “Spring is here!” to me in the most joyful of ways.

I took a break from my French studies, not wanting to miss a minute with our visitors, and in a way some time off to assimilate what I’ve learned so far was exactly what I needed. There’s so much to take on board and it’s certainly keeping my brain busy but it definitely sounds a lot easier than learning Norwegian, that’s for sure! In the middle of St P, there’s a quirky little structure that looks a bit like an overgrown bird table but which is actually a community book borrow scheme; in the past few months, it’s gone from holding a handful of forlorn looking titles to being full to bursting with a wide range of reading material. I’ve borrowed La Colline d’en Face by Catherine Paysan, a novel set in rural Sarthe and one which is incredibly rich in language describing the natural world. Sarthe is our neighbouring department, just a stone’s throw from home and it’s where we did the ‘bluebell’ walk so the book seemed like the perfect choice. It will be quite a challenge but more than anything, I’m hoping to learn plenty of new vocabulary to describe the natural features and life within our locality in detail. Having just read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines for the umpteenth time, I was reminded of the beautiful concept of naming or ‘singing’ a landscape as we walk through it, recognising the importance and connection between each plant, animal, tree, stone . . . how wonderful to be able to do that in two languages.

Back to spring cleaning, and the second focus for a good tidy up has been my blog. With my subscription due for renewal and free space rapidly running out (my own fault, I post far too many photos) I decided it was time for some drastic action and deleted all the posts I wrote in Asturias plus the hundreds if not thousands of accompanying photos. There was nothing hard or sad about this; in the nine years I’ve been blogging, I’ve recognised that my blog needs to change and evolve just as my life does and it’s important to reflect, enjoy and then move on. It’s a refreshing life laundry of sorts, a decluttering and tidying up which has freed up lots of lovely space to share our continued adventure in France. Not to mention plenty more photos, too . . .

Our days with Sam and Adrienne were over all too soon, but with them (and their atrocious weather) safely returned to Norway, it was time for us to get busy in the garden once again. The mild temperatures, soft air and hectic bird and insect activity in the garden have made it a pleasure to be outside and at last, the time for outdoor planting has begun. In the potager, I’ve planted spare broad bean plants to plug a few inevitable gaps, another row of peas, a patch of pointy summer cabbage under a tripod of sweet peas, and rows of carrots, Florence fennel, spring onions plus seven different brassicas in ‘nursery’ beds; dill, coriander and marigolds are next on the list. The parsnip seedlings are emerging in their usual slow time but are still too small to mulch, unlike the garlic and broad beans which have been tucked round with a good layer of grass clippings. Conscious of possible food shortages, we have opted to seriously increase the number of potatoes we grow this year, 124 in all of which most are ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ from saved seed, but also 13 ‘Acoustic’ which I was given as freebies from our local country store; they were planted a couple of weeks ago and I’m currently ‘feeding’ the bed with coffee grounds and tea leaves before applying a heavy mulch as soon as the first leaves appear.

Roger has never been a fan of what was sold to us as the Secret Garden, which we have renamed the Not Garden (not to be confused with an Elizabethan knot garden) – as in, now he has laid the hedges and we have removed the shed and let in a lot more light, it’s not very secret anymore. 😁 It’s still a useful growing area, though, and one where I can indulge my love of chaotic planting in small rows or patches with everything jostling for elbow room. I’ve planted rainbow chard along with red, golden and stripy beetroot, and also a patch of swedes which is a bit of an experiment as we’re not sure how they will fare here, especially if we have a hot summer. I’ve also sown a shady patch with wild garlic seed in the hope of having plants to move to our woodland edge for future ‘wild’ forage. We’re still harvesting kale, perpetual spinach, beetroot (roots and leaves) and chard from this patch and there is also rocket and landcress which have overwintered well and I’m now letting flower in the hope they will fling their seeds far and wide.

American landcress

Seed saving becomes more and more important to us every year, so there are plenty of other plants being deliberately left to flower and set seed including leeks, Savoy cabbage, red kale, thousandhead kale, parsnips, coriander and lamb’s lettuce. I love the colour and form they bring to the garden and the insects go crazy for them . . . which bodes well for the seed harvest, of course.

Lamb’s lettuce
Red kale

In the tunnel, I’ve planted a tray of celeriac and pots of cauliflowers, a couple of things we’ve grown before but like those swedes, are a bit of an experiment here this year. I’m hoping a bit of initial cossetting will set them on their way but only time will tell. To be honest, I’m beginning to wonder how on earth we managed without the tunnel last year, it is bursting at the seams with plants and I haven’t even moved the capsicums and aubergines in there yet (although their days of luxuriating on windowsills are most definitely numbered now the overnight temperatures have risen to double figures).

Pampered aubergines . . . the time is coming to toughen up.

Having promised to curb my planting enthusiasm this year, I have predictably gone way over the top with numbers and, in my defence (a phrase Roger hears far too often 😉), I think it’s just the sheer delight of being able to grow so much after the struggle we had last year. I’m the first to admit that 25 squash, 36 capsicums, 7 courgettes, 13 cucumbers and 10 melons add up to far too many plants for two people but we have the planting space and I can always give surplus away to anyone who wants it. Only the chillies, peppers, aubergines and some melons will be planted in the tunnel, everything else will go outside; I’ve planted one ‘Latino’ courgette in the tunnel which, like the potatoes and peas, will give us an early crop and by the time it starts to do the triffid thing and needs curbing (and probably evicting), there should be plenty coming outside.

The first flowers are opening on the indoor peas.

Where tomatoes are concerned, we’re holding our nerve; we don’t want the plants going out until well into June in the hope of beating blight, and given how quickly they grow, we can’t sow them too early. The exception are the few we want to grow in pots at the front of the house so I’ve sown just nine seeds this week – three each of ‘Marmande’, ‘Saint-Pierre’ and ‘Black from Tulsa’ – to give them a head start. The rest, including some very interesting and new varieties for us (thank you again, Anja!) will follow in due course. Something that is certainly not struggling with disease or anything else are the ‘Pernot’ radishes in the tunnel, probably one of the best crops we’ve ever had; I’m sowing small rows every couple of weeks and they are bringing a peppery crunch and splash of colour to our leafy salads.

Outside, the purple sprouting broccoli goes from strength to strength and is compulsory eating every day. I am happy to eat piles of it hot or cold, and I also love it raw, especially the smaller florets tossed into a salad; there will be a bit of seed saving to be done there, too, once the plants run to flowers. I love the fresh green of new hawthorn leaves at this time of year – the country children’s ‘bread and cheese’ – and they are another nutritious addition to our salads, great for heart health in particular.

One of the aspects we are enjoying so much about our new garden is that it is perfect for wandering around at any time, but particularly in the evenings, and especially now with the days lengthening rapidly. We often spend our days busy with different activities so it’s lovely to catch up once we’ve finished for the day and see what each other has been up to around the patch (or in my case, to try and pretend I haven’t planted quite so many things 😆). It’s times like this that I really notice and appreciate the small things as the season unfolds around us: how can I not be charmed by the fascinating forms of ear willow and ash flowers, the delicate beauty of peach blossom and tiny, self-set forget-me-nots, the sweet fragrance of the first apple blossom?

So, the season turns, the garden evolves, my blog writing goes on and my incurable photo obsession continues. Thank goodness for spring cleaning! 😊