It’s not all a bed of roses . . .

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.

The garden is full of rose chafer beetles, their iridescent green and gold bodies shining in the sun. They’re feasting on anything but the roses, though!

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.

‘Acoustic’ potato flowers
‘Blue Danube’ potato flower
Lurking in the potato patch . . . but this is a red and black leafhopper, not a Colorado beetle.

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.

Healthy, happy butternut squash plant . . .
. . . and the one the ants have probably done for.

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.

Climbing borlotti beans and Asturian beans (with the darker foliage) behind.
I planted 16 spare Asturian bean plants in the mandala garden, too . . . just in case.

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 . . .

Slink’s seat (minus Slink 😥)

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 cherry tree is full of young birds learning the art of PYO.

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.

Elderflowers and mints ready for drying.

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! 😊

14 thoughts on “It’s not all a bed of roses . . .

  1. I love reading your blog. We are about to move to Mayenne and I get loads of inspiration from you
    On the item about rose petals. We once had a rabbit that had free use of the garden. He had to be treated for fly strike one time and during all his treatment he ate rose petals – apparently rose petals are a natural antibacterial product.

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    1. Thank you for visiting and commenting. That’s really interesting about your rabbit and the rose petals, also I love the way that animals know exactly what they need for healing. 😊 I had intended to use the dried petals in the bath last year but found I enjoyed them too much in tea so drank them instead! Good luck with your move to Mayenne, do you mind me asking which area you’re coming to? (We’re in the north-east, right on the border with Orne and Sarthe). It’s certainly a lovely place to live.

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  2. Poor Slink. She would have kept that rabbit away for sure. You might have to get a chaton! And nooooooo to the Colorado beetle. Fingers crossed the linseed trick works. I have discovered a good slug gathering trick this week. Put some cardboard on the beds where beans or squash are to go and leave for a few weeks, wet it if necessary, then peel back and collect a hundred slugs before planting out the beans. Happened here this week on the marrow bed 😂. Are you getting steady rain now?

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    1. I know, Slink did a great job for us. We haven’t seen her kitten for weeks but I’m hoping it might come back and take her place. Love the slug collection system, beats going out by torchlight, that’s for sure! No such luck with the rain here, we had to water everything again yesterday so we’re working our way down the butts once more (despite having added another couple to the system). The rain we had was enough to keep things alive but the ground is so dry that it didn’t last. There are storms forecast for the weekend so hopefully we’ll get some more rain then . . . and not too much damage to go with it. 🤞

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  3. I was almost in despair on your behalf, reading the first half of your post and then, a flood of sunshine and cheer in the second half! What a lot of pests you have. I don’t recognise many of them.
    I’m interested in your use of pumpkin/squash. Of the two accidental ones we harvested, one quickly began to rot in the centre, despite our picking it carefully. So we cut out the bad bits and cooked it. It was quite a ‘wet’ pumpkin. We never seem to get those drier ones with the potato-like consistency which I enjoy much more.
    What a sad thing about Slink. It seems she was no trouble really, unlike the neighbourhood ones here that come and catch our lovely birds.
    I’m glad that you received rain. Is the drought over. We have had more rain than we know what to do with here and the garden is constantly boggy.

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    1. Hello, Jane! You can send us some of that rain if you like, we are still very short of water here. The drought has left the ground so dry that we need some regular falls to wet everything properly and we’re certainly not getting those at present. Squash varieties are so variable, it took us a few years to find the ones we really like. In the UK we grew butternuts but only in the polytunnel, the most successful outdoor ones there tend to be the spaghetti types which are ‘wet’ like you say, a bit like marrows, and not good keepers. With a longer, warmer growing season here we’re able to grow some real beauties with very dense, orange flesh that keep for many months ~ butternuts (which are the fussiest), ‘Crown Prince’ and our Asturian ‘specials’ which are all descended from ‘Hungarian Blue’. This year we’ve also been given some ‘Tetsukabuto’ seed to try and I have to say they are by far the strongest plants so far. Now they all just need some rain . . .

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      1. I think I’ll look out for some seeds for next summer instead of just relying on whatever shows up in the garden.

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  4. I love your roses . Our little patio garden is too small for roses and too hot in summer for pot grown ones. Some of our neighbours with bigger gardens have theirs peeking over walls and they bring me a wee bit of rose joy! I can’t believe your water situation is still so bad, I hope you get rain soon. We are resigned now to our long , hot summer . It has started too soon with 30 degrees plus already. Not normal even here! Everything seems crazy with the weather. At the huerto we are between winter crops and waiting impatiently for the tomatoes, chilli and peppers but still have a steady flow of onions, chard and herbs….our foes have changed from rainy weather snails to the dreaded Black fly and enormous grass hoppers that munch through everything! Es la vida! Enjoy your tea at the love shack…it looks gorgeous. Xx

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    1. Yes, it looks like you have jumped well and truly into summer! The rain situation here is so frustrating and it’s really not ‘normal’ although like you say, the weather is all over the place, isn’t it? We’re forecast thunderstorms at the weekend so fingers crossed they will bring some useful rain. Great that things are going well in the huerto, I don’t suppose the summer goodies will be long in that heat? Roger is picking cherries again, they are coming off the tree in kilos – I miss the Asturian peaches and kiwis, but we are more than making up for them in cherries and strawberries (plus gooseberries, which I love and R doesn’t, so they’re all my treat!). Stay cool (time for the pool?)! xx

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  5. That is terrible news about Slink – we have 3 cats and I can’t imagine how many rabbits, rats and mice we would have taking over garden and home if it weren’t for them. Plus I would dearly miss them for the characters they are. I have noticed that you mostly use lawn clippings as mulch in the vegetable gardens – is that so? I have not used grass clippings for fear of introducing even more weeds than we currently have, but if you have not found that to be a problem, then I am keen to do the same. I missed getting broccoli and cauliflowers into the garden for our winter crop – such a mistake – I rely on them as one of our staple veggies during winter and they are so dear in the shops ($10/kg). But it looks like you are spoilt for choice and how easy are summer dinners!

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    1. Yes, grass clippings are our main mulch simply because we have lots of them! As there are a lot of mature trees on the property, the grass tends to come with plenty of chopped leaves which creates a good nitrogen / carbon balance. I’m definitely having to experiment with the thickness of the mulch layer, though, especially given the ongoing drought – it’s still very much a learning curve. I’m not holding out much hope for our cauliflowers given the weather conditions but I’m doing everything possible to nurture the broccoli through, so fingers crossed!

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