I’ve always been pretty hopeless when it comes to choosing ‘memorable data’ for website security purposes because I think life is too rich with possibilities to reduce everything to favourites. My favourite colour? I love blue, but then there’s green and purple, all in so many delicious shades, not to mention an entire rainbow of other choices depending on my mood. Memorable place? Favourite food? Forget it. However, I think if anyone asked me at the moment about a favourite month, I might just be tempted to say May, for it surely must be one of the most beautiful times of the year. I love the sheer energy of it, the bursting, burgeoning, buzzing life, the growth, the warmth, the light, the lushness, the softness of the air, the scent of flowers and the downright dazzling green of it all. It’s not just the beauty of the landscape, either; the hungry gap is behind us, the garden gathering strength and delivering on its promise of new seasonal goodies, fresh and inspiring. How can I feel anything other than sheer delight when gathering trugs of such green gorgeousness?
It’s not all rosy in the garden, though. The dry weather has taken its toll on a few things, even large established trees like one of our hollies which is dropping its leaves. Roger has been painstakingly watering all the small trees and hedging plants we have put in, a labour of love considering how many there are. The timing of this extraordinary and extended dry spell is just bad luck but we really don’t want to lose these plants which will bring so much to the patch in years to come. Most of them are hanging on and looking fine; it’s wonderful to have red rugosa roses at last and it’s interesting to see several new (for us) varieties bursting into life.
Sticking with my commitment to not buying bedding plants, I decided to sow a couple of baskets for the Love Shack with a mix of edible annual flowers; they are hanging on the north side, so get plenty of sun this time of year but miss the worst of the heat and they’re looking very promising so far. I’m hoping they should make a colourful splash that’s completely in keeping with the nature of a potager in a few weeks’ time.
The newly-planted window boxes are looking a bit stark, but they will get there given time and the first tiny violas (or heartsease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fantasy, Jack-Jump-up-and-kiss-me . . . so much more fun!) have just opened their perfectly exquisite flowers. Meanwhile, in the other troughs, the lettuces are not holding back. Mmm, pelargoniums have definitely had their day.
This week’s culinary delights haven’t all been green: here is a sight to gladden the heart . . . and my breakfast bowl. 🥰
In fact, it looks like being a bumper year for fruit ~ one of the benefits of several weeks of settled, warm weather at blossom time. We are close to the first picking of gooseberries and the currant bushes are covered with trusses of green fruit. The cherry trees are loaded, including a couple that produced nothing last year, and the apple trees are looking equally as good; what they all need now is a good dollop of rain.
I’m very excited about the prospect of raspberries this year. Last season, we had a tiny handful, just enough to help identify all but one plant as summer-fruiting varieties. If the previous owners cut the canes to ground level every winter as they had done just before we moved in, they must never have had any fruit! Last year’s growth is covered in dainty white flowers which in turn are literally buzzing with honey bees; someone will be enjoying a good floral honey and we should reap the benefits of all that industrious pollination. Note the lack of poles, wires or fruit cage: I’m with Bob Flowerdew on that one, horizontal canes are far easier to pick and I’m happy to wade into the jungle when the time comes. If the birds want to tuck in a bit, I’m happy to share, too; we’ve never lost an entire soft fruit crop to them, the secret is to have plenty to go round.
Temperatures in the tunnel have been sweltering, meaning both doors are propped open all day and it dries out quickly . . . but rather that than losing plants to the heat. I’m pleased with how much better the soil is retaining moisture this year which means we don’t have to worry about watering so often. I’ve put a mix of chopped nettle and comfrey leaves around the base of each plant as a slow-release fertiliser and then mulched the lot with grass clippings. The first flowers have appeared on the chillies, peppers and melons and there are plenty of busy insects in there so I’m hoping this will be a far more productive space than last year.
The indoor courgette is enormous, and with the first outdoor ones now also cropping, they are compulsory daily eating. We’ve had a better harvest from the very short row of peas than any we ever planted in Asturias (we never understood why they wouldn’t grow well there), lots of meals and a couple of bags in the freezer; even the little Mouse Gardens have been producing. On the downside, the potatoes are not looking great and we suspect they are full of wireworm, but if they have to be a sacrificial crop to clear the pests out, so be it. The lettuce are still going strong, however; in the photo below, the middle one was cut last week and has already re-grown from the stem I left in the ground.
Lazy Regenerative gardening at its best. 😆
We’re not given to doing the tourist thing very often, a local walk or bike ride from home with a picnic is as far as we ever really feel inclined to go. However, when an appointment in Falaise (about an hour’s drive away) became inevitable last week, we decided to make a day of it, treat ourselves to lunch en terrasse and have a wander round this attractive Norman town that we haven’t visited for many years.
Falaise was the birthplace of one of Normandy’s most famous figures, Guillame le Bâtard – better know to anglophones as William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and, following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, King of England. William had many obstacles to overcome in his life, not least the stain of illegitimacy and inheriting the duchy from his father as a very young child, but the imposing statue of him close to Falaise castle, dressed in full battle gear and sitting astride a monstrous horse, leaves the visitor in no doubt of the burly, powerful and often-feared leader he was to become.
Britain is littered with Norman castles and, whether they are crumbling ruins or spectacularly preserved monuments, at times it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of romanticising about them. Falaise castle, for me, has always seemed like the epitome of what these buildings actually represented: power, control and military might. It’s grim and forbidding, perched high on a rocky outcrop (la falaise means ‘cliff’) and dominated the surrounding landscape in a way that left no-one in doubt as to who was in charge; forget knights in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress, this was the real formidable and authoritarian deal.
The castle keep had an inspired interior makeover some years ago and for a modest entrance fee, it’s possible to walk on glass floors and follow an illuminating audio tour; we did it a couple of times on holiday with our children some years ago, so decided instead just to enjoy the rest of the castle grounds within the walls which are freely open to all. There’s much to see and learn, helped by plenty of information boards in French and English and viewing posts where you look through ‘binoculars’ to see an artist’s impression of what different parts of the castle looked like in its heyday. It’s worth wandering about simply to enjoy the elevated views over the old town and the surrounding countryside, rolling and richly wooded ~ such a stark contrast to the wide open Norman plains just a stone’s throw to the north.
A feature that wasn’t there last time we visited is a medieval garden, small but perfectly formed, and which (of course) drew me like a magnet. It was crammed with plants and thoughtfully organised into different sections including food plants, complete with medieval recipes, and a jardin des simples for medicines, with descriptions of the ailments each was used to treat.
Given my natural fibre addiction, I loved the section containing plants like flax for linen, woad (the indigo of the north) for dyeing, teasels for carding wool and soapwort for washing textiles. It was fascinating to see just how many of the same plants we grow in our own garden today, and of the missing few, we’ve grown several in the past but don’t bother with now ~ things like tansy, which I don’t grow any more because I can’t stand the smell of it. Pathetic, I know, but it struck me how lucky I am to have that choice; no matter where people stood in the medieval feudal hierarchy, they all needed food, medicines and clothes and the ability to grow and process these plants was an essential skill for the survival of all.
Back home, and we had a ‘medieval moment’ of our own when we decided to cook dinner using our Dutch cauldron, something we haven’t done in ages. It’s a brilliantly simple way of cooking and perfect for creating a long, slow-cooked meal at this time of year when the stove isn’t lit and we don’t want the electric oven on for hours. We remove the hanging grill from the tripod barbecue and hang the pot from the chains over a fire of waste wood which is kept ticking over as embers rather than flames; we always save wood from pruning or logging to use for barbecues but as in this instance the food is inside the cauldron, any old scraps of wood will do. Into the pot went a piece of high welfare pork from a local farm along with garlic, onions, herbs and spices and an old bottle of Asturian cider which Roger was given at a race eons ago and we never fancied drinking. The cauldron was left to simmer away for a good three hours and the smell of cooking that drifted around the garden as we worked was completely tantalising! It’s perfectly possible to create an entire meal by adding potatoes and other vegetables to the mix or else tucking some baking potatoes into the embers along with foil packages of veggies ~ Swiss chard works very well cooked that way. We seem to be a source of endless fascination to certain local people who drive slowly along the lane with (as Roger puts it) their ‘heads on sideways’, having a good look at what The Crazies are up to now; I’m not sure whether it’s curiosity, amusement, admiration or horror but I think our bubbling cauldron scored a few extra points on the raised eyebrow front. Ah well, it’s better than being boring, I say. 😉
Our bedroom window is, in fact, a full length glass door and I’m happy that we’ve reached the time of year when it can stay wide open all night; there’s a screen door beyond it to ensure we don’t get eaten by beasties and having added the balcony last year, there’s no danger of falling if we decide to take up sleepwalking. The nights here are blissfully quiet, the silence only punctuated by the occasional bark of a fox, the call of owls and, in the warmer months, the pulsating chirrup of crickets, so I was a bit puzzled to wake one night hours ahead of the rowdy dawn chorus to hear woodlarks singing. Woodlarks? At 2am? Really? Knowing it probably wouldn’t be appreciated if I woke Roger to ask if he could hear them, I tiptoed downstairs and went outside to listen . . . and yes, there really were woodlarks singing somewhere close to the garden. It was quite magical, even though I was still wondering if it wasn’t my ears or imagination playing tricks (or me just simply losing the plot). A quick scout on the internet reassured me that I wasn’t: apparently, it’s a fairly common phenomenon but since woodlarks tend to live in areas of wild heathland, their night song isn’t often heard by humans. Not going mad then, just very blessed. A few nights later, a cuckoo spent several hours in the trees around the garden, calling madly in the moonlight, and this time Roger heard it, too. Is there something in the May air that means the birds are too busy to sleep?
One thing I had really been hoping to hear at night was the sound of rain falling on the roof and gurgling down the gutters into the water butts below but, despite the promise of showers in the forecast, nothing transpired. We have been hauling water to keep plants alive but everything has looked so pinched and miserable and many things have failed to thrive, plus the weather conditions seem to have sparked a massive boom in the aphid population; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. The French meteorological report makes for interesting ~ if sobering ~ reading: since September 2021, France has had 20% less precipitation than normal, December being the only month in that period that delivered anything close to average rainfall and with the problem exacerbated by higher than normal temperatures, many areas including ours have been officially deemed ‘very dry’ to a degree that is more usual in August than May. Local farmers have held off planting maize and sunflowers and when they can wait no longer, they have been drilling into a dust bowl. I’ve been playing the same waiting game with the last of our pre-sown plants to go in, the sweetcorn, beans, leeks and artichokes, all bursting out of pots and trays but in desperate need of moister, softer ground.
It’s been frustrating but finally – finally! – the rain arrived in the form of an almighty thunderstorm and pelted down for twenty minutes or so; I stood on the doorstep watching it and listening to the blackbirds warbling loudly through it, as thrilled as me to be getting wet at last. The strangest thing was the smell, though: it wasn’t that lovely, fresh, earthy, herbal scent that so often comes with the first rain after a dry spell but something slightly unpleasant like a stagnant muddy pond, I think because of the sheer amount of dust everywhere. It was nowhere near enough rain, just sufficient to damp things down and put a bit back in the butts, but it was incredible how much perkier everything looked the next morning: we can water as much as we like, but there is nothing like rain! We’ve had other storms since, this time leaving everything fresh and sparkling; there’s a good chance things will survive now and I shall be very relieved not to be carrying heavy cans for a while. I even have time to enjoy the flowers . . . but that’s for another post!😊