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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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! 😊