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! 😊