The rose season has begun and the garden is heavy with their gorgeous perfume and showy blooms; we have planted several new ones since moving here and it’s good to see them becoming established and making splashes of colour in different corners of the garden. There are more wild roses here this year, too, and I love the simple, delicate beauty of their soft pink and white flowers, such a poignant symbol of the season. Rose petals turned out to be a surprise favourite ingredient in herbal teas through the winter so I have them drying all over the windowsills and the house currently smells every bit as delicious as the garden!
Let’s not get too carried away, though. I’ve written before about my thoughts on the ‘rosy-coloured spectacles’ of social media and whilst I appreciate that in a world that seems dominated by doom and gloom, it’s uplifting to see joyful and beautiful things, the stark reality is that life is not all smiley faces and happy pictures. I love to blog about pleasant things and upload (you may have noticed) far too many pretty photographs but I would hate anyone to imagine that we float about here in some fairy-dusted, unicorn-infested, perfect paradise: we don’t! So, in pursuit of balance, here is the warts ‘n’ all news from the garden this week.
First of all, I found a Colorado beetle on a rogue potato plant that had appeared where we grew them last year. The beetles have been present in France since 1945 are are not a notifiable species here but that doesn’t make them any less potentially devastating to our crop, and the fact that we have purposely planted far more potatoes this year makes it doubly frustrating. We checked every leaf of every plant ~ all 124 of them ~ straight away, and didn’t find a single beetle or any signs of eggs or larvae. Thankfully, that situation hasn’t changed, although we continue to be vigilant; I planted linseed alongside the spuds as a beetle deterrent and we have a very healthy population of ladybirds and shield bugs (both voracious predators) so who knows, maybe that’s all playing a part? The potatoes themselves suffered in the drought but many are now flowering and bringing their own kind of beauty to the patch; even so, I find I can’t quite relax and enjoy them whilst constantly scanning for the merest hint of those humbug-striped invaders.
I made a note to self not to sound too complacent in future blog posts since just after writing last time that our young trees were looking fine, Roger discovered that two of them had been stripped of their bark during the night: an alder buckthorn, which suffered the worst damage, but also ~ and more frustrating ~ a pear tree we planted last year and which was looking wonderful. Our first thought was roe deer, as they are very common in the area and the damage seems typical of deer nibbling; that said, we’ve never had them in the garden before and I’d have expected to see further damage to more trees and the garden in general. Perhaps it was a one-off thing?
However, the next evening a huge hare came lolloping through the garden and had us wondering if it was the culprit. I know hares will eat bark, although I thought that was more of a winter trick when grasses weren’t so available, and we’re not sure even standing on those long hind legs that a hare could have reached so high. There is no way we can fence the garden against these visitors so the only thing to do in this situation is protect what we can; Roger wrapped the damage trees in twine in the hope they will heal (the bark wasn’t completely stripped so there is a slim chance of recovery) and built wire guards for several other trees which we thought might be potential targets. So far ~ touch wood ~ there has been no further damage.
Could things get worse? Yes, they could, in the shape of a visiting rabbit that took it upon itself to prune the sweetcorn plants. Now, in complete contrast to the UK, rabbits are a very rare occurrence here; we are in fact far more likely to see hares, and this one is the first we have seen anywhere near ~ yet alone in ~ the garden. It seems to be living in one of the uncut meadow areas and, in a way, I suppose it’s one of the drawbacks of ‘wilding’ our patch: if we create something of an animal ark, we can’t really grumble when the wildlife moves in! The really frustrating part is that one of our huge neighbouring fields is planted with maize; the young plants are at the same stage as our sweetcorn and there are hundreds of thousands of them . . . so why pick on our few measly plants? Maybe it’s a fan of ‘Rustler’ corn or perhaps it just feels happier surrounded by chaotic polyculture but whatever the reason, it’s not to be encouraged, because the sweetcorn will likely be just the start of bunny’s menu du jour. Roger has rigged up a temporary netting around the corn patch and so far there has been no damage to anything else, so perhaps the rabbit has got the message. I hope so.
With the rocket having formed copious seed pods and the mesclun leaves all eaten, I decided it was time to clear the tunnel bed and add soil improvers and mulch ready for planting overwintering crops in the autumn. That meant lifting those poor sickly potatoes and in doing so, had a couple of surprises. The first was that there were far more potatoes than expected and we have enjoyed them in several meals; the first new potatoes of the year must be one of the biggest garden treats! The second is that although I had been maligning wireworm, it turned out that the problem was actually ants ~ there was a huge ants’ nest under every single root! I have read several gardening experts claiming that ants don’t really cause any problems in the garden and I’m afraid I have to disagree; not only do they farm aphids ~and boy, are they having a great time with that particular hobby this year ~ but their mining exploits can create havoc for young plants. Noticing that one of the butternut squashes on the hügel bed had gone into a state of collapse, I lifted it to find a horrendous amount of ant business going on underneath; last year, we lost aubergine plants in this way and I’m not holding out too much hope for the rescued squash.
We were very relieved when the rain finally arrived and gave everything a good soaking but of course, that meant the slugs and snails were in their element, too, and needless to say, they haven’t been holding back where the vegetables are concerned. I’m presowing all our beans this year in an attempt to outwit the bean seed fly and wireworm that caused such problems last year; so far, dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’ and ‘Stanley’ have been planted out, along with the climbing borlotti ‘Lingua di Fuoco’ and Asturian fabas. The slimy ones appear to have a preference for Italian cuisine this year as it’s the borlotti beans that are taking the worst hammering.
What can I do? Well, one of the beauties of starting these plants off in trays is that I can sow plenty of extras so there are always spares should I need to replace any. The real blessing with beans, though, is that we have an abundance of plants: 96 climbing beans in the potager, plus another 24 in the mandala bed. If we lose one or two, we probably aren’t going to suffer too much.
Brassicas are probably one of the most difficult family of plants to grow well here; just the mere hint of a young cabbage plant going into the ground, and you can almost see the problems lining up in wait: flea beetle, whitefly, caterpillars, weevils, pigeons, heat . . . I’ve planted a few cauliflowers this year as a bit of a wild card (Brussels sprouts and swedes are the others) and quite frankly, given how tricky they are to grow at the best of times, I must need my bumps reading. Aphids ~ not usually a problem ~ have been a nightmare in the summer cabbages already and as for flea beetle, what can I say? I planted a sacrificial row of radishes next to a nursery row of brassicas in the hope of tempting the flea beetles away. Oh yes, they were tempted alright.
Unfortunately, not enough to keep them away from the brassicas, though. The purple sprouting broccoli seedlings are a miserable sight; I’ve covered them in the hope they will recover and have some extras sown in pots in the tunnel as back-up: PSB is one spring vegetable we can’t manage without!
Ever since we moved here, we’ve been sharing the garden with a feral cat. Black as night and sporting only half a tail, we nicknamed her ‘Slink’ after the way she moved, low-bellied and furtively, like a jaguar. She just about tolerated us ~ she was here first, after all! ~ and we respected her presence, never trying to befriend or feed her but happy to let her patrol the space. She never bothered the birds, voles were her speciality, and she particularly loved the log seat, sitting as still as a statue for hours on end and listening for the rustle of her next meal in the long grass. A few days ago, she was run over and killed along the lane and, despite the fact that she wasn’t ‘our’ cat, I feel a deep sadness at her loss. I miss her shadowy presence in the garden, her daily checking of the compost heap and her strident, undemanding independence. I also think it’s no coincidence that we suddenly have a rabbit in the garden . . .
Well, enough of the bad news: I mentioned balance earlier on and for every niggle there’s usually more than enough smiles to compensate. This must officially be the Week of the Baby Bird as the garden is full of them: blackbirds, song thrushes, mistle thrushes, robins, redstarts, blue tits, chaffinches and goldfinches have all hatched, and the fluffy fledglings are all over the place, trying to find their feet and wings. There are plenty more to follow, too, including cirl buntings in the hedge (a new one for us), spotted flycatchers in a stone wall niche and swallows in the Oak Shed. I’m particularly thrilled about the latter as they didn’t nest on our property at all last year; it does mean I’ll have to forego my wet weather washing line for a bit, but I’m happy to forgive them, they are so beautiful.
The garden is literally smiling in flowers and not just roses; there are drifts of colour in many places and the first cosmos and sweet peas are bringing a touch of soft pinks and purples to the vegetable garden. The passionflower that I brought here from Asturias as a less-than-promising twig has decided that it’s very happy in its new home. Those flowers are exquisite.
In keeping with the trend of incredible blossom this spring, the elderflowers are making a fantastic show and, unlike last year, I haven’t needed to go any further than our own hedgerows to forage for their foamy flowers. I’ve been making cordial and freezing it in batches to share with our summer visitors and also setting plenty of flowers to dry for winter teas ~ they are an excellent medicinal herb, especially if winter colds come calling. Naturally, I’ve left plenty to become autumn berries when there will be more foraging to be done and I suspect, a lot of birds tucking in, too.
On the food front, the harvest has started to come thick and fast: it’s amazing how quickly things take off once we reach a certain point in spring. Courgettes, artichokes, peas, broad beans, lettuce, chard, sorrel, gooseberries, strawberries, cherries . . . the season of plenty has begun.
As we start to set down stores of this year’s crops, it’s the perfect time to be using up anything left from last year. I’ve finished nearly all the dried herbs and flowers for tea and we have just eaten the last bag of beans from the freezer. We’ve also started working our way through the last (enormous) squash, one of our Asturian ‘specials’ which was harvested in October and has kept brilliantly, its dense orange flesh still firm and sweet. As we don’t tend to use the oven much this time of year, we’re making more summery dishes than roast tray bakes ~ squash soup, seed-encrusted squash patties, a squash dip with tahini and squash foldovers (a spicy squash and new potato filling stuffed inside garlic wraps) are some firm favourites. We love to try new things, though, and I have to say that squash tarte tatin has been a complete revelation with its buttery rough-puff pastry, soft, mallowy squash and bitter caramel; a small slice with our afternoon break (coffee for Roger, lemon verbena and lavender tea for me) is the perfect gardener’s treat . . . and on hot days, I’m beginning to wonder how we ever managed without the shade of the Love Shack! 😊