Our recent trip to Norway marked the beginning of several very busy and exciting weeks for us, with family coming to stay here through July and a quick flit to the UK to ~ amongst other delights ~ hold our new little grandson for the first time. I’m probably going to be hanging up my blogging boots for a while, so this is a somewhat hastily scribbled garden update; by the end of July, things will have moved on again and my photos will be ancient history!
We left for Norway in 35°C with the temperature set to spiral upwards for most of the time we were away; for a garden (and gardener) already stressed by a prolonged drought, it was the worst scenario possible, but what could we do? We moved pots, troughs and seedling trays into the shade, watered as much as we could, soaked the tunnel and propped both doors open . . . and just hoped perhaps la météo was wrong. It wasn’t. On our return, it was clear the heat had been searing with everything wearing that parched and yellow look, but the good news was that we arrived home in a torrential downpour. Never have I been so happy to end a holiday on a soaking wet note! The water butts were soon full to overflowing and within a couple of days, everything responded. No, actually, everything exploded.
In truth, I had pretty much written off any hope of a colourful show of annual flowers earlier this year when I found myself sowing seeds for the third time; it was too dry, too hot or cold and nothing would germinate. My hoped-for mass of rainbow blooms in the mandala bed certainly hasn’t happened, but the ever-reliable thuggish phacelia is doing its bit and looks pretty in drifts of soft mauve mingling with the sunny yellow of dyer’s chamomile. Once the bees have finished with the flowers, I shall chop it and drop it in situ and try for my rainbow again next year. Such is gardening life.
In the other beds, though, there is a riotous carnival of colour, and I find myself drawn to them as much as the industrious insects who visit to seek food.
Despite the lack of floral variety and the fact that the blackbirds have rummaged in the grass mulch so much that it’s hard to see the woodchip paths any more, the mandala bed is looking pretty good. What interests me is that several things are actually outperforming their counterparts in the potager: the borlotti beans and aubergines (outdoor) were the first to flower, it has produced the first lettuce and French bean harvest, the best chard plants and the most productive cucumbers. I’m not sure why this should be, but something is obviously working well.
Not that we are exactly short of fruit and vegetables elsewhere: our first day back was almost entirely spent getting on top of the harvest. The courgettes and cucumbers had gone mad as they always do, but suddenly there were several rows of peas in need of picking, a crowd of summer cabbage all hearted up and ready to go, lettuces threatening to bolt left, right and centre and the first spring onions and baby carrots ready to pull. Oh, broad beans and French beans, too.
Then there was the tunnel . . . I was very relieved that nothing had collapsed and given up the ghost in the heat; quite the opposite, in fact. Where there had been a smattering of flowers, now there was a picking of aubergines and more peppers than I could shake a stick at. I’ve forgotten how much they love this climate, it will certainly be the best crop we’ve enjoyed since we last lived in Mayenne.
My greatest tunnel joy, though, had to be saved for the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which had gone slightly berserk in our absence. (I’d like to say at this point that if we have a successful crop from these plants, I really can’t take any credit as quite frankly, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I started out with good intentions to follow expert guidance in terms of pinching out after so many leaves and so many young fruit but soon lost the plot with that one. Now they’re just doing their own thing. Sorry, melon pundits.) They were a little thirsty but, nestled beneath their abundant foliage, I have counted at least twenty fruits swelling to a good size at an alarming rate. I can’t wait for the day when their heady perfume greets me at the door to let me know they are ready for eating . . .
In the meantime, we are not short of fruit. Having picked kilos of red cherries for preserving and enjoyed several helpings of yellow ones which are not good keepers and best eaten straight from the tree, we were delighted to find that the two trees which didn’t produce anything last year were not only fruiting heavily but also just happen to be another two completely different varieties. The first, which I think is a Rainier, has pretty pink and yellow marbled fruit which are good as a dessert cherry and for cooking; the other ~ oh happy days! ~ is a black cherry, with fruit so big, sweet and juicy that it’s impossible to resist the temptation of tucking in. Roger is having to fiercely guard (or hide) any he has picked, washed and put aside for a bit of dessert cheffery. 😁 The fact that the harvest has been spread out over several weeks is a real bonus, too, so let there be many more bountiful cherry years, please! We also have redcurrants and blackcurrants coming out of our ears, and at last, a good crop of raspberries, which are a bit small thanks to the drought but so plentiful it doesn’t really matter. Even the tiny ‘Fall Gold’ I planted as a bare-rooted twig in winter has produced some pretty amber fruits, sweet and flavoursome. Theoretically, it should crop twice a year. I hope so.
I’ve written several times about how I try not to present a picture of a falsely ‘perfect’ garden and of course, there were one or two things ~ namely some of the smaller squash plants ~ that suffered because we weren’t here to water when they most needed it. On the whole, though, I have to admit I’m quietly chuffed at how it all held up. Building resilience into the garden is something we have been working on and certainly the week away in such extreme weather conditions was a great test. Having learned from the potato mistake that mulch needs to go on damp earth, I’m really pleased with how moist the soil had stayed under its protective layer and also at how few weeds had appeared. Clearing a patch of ground cover green manure (phacelia, crimson clover and linseed) to make space for purple sprouting broccoli and red kale, it was clear what a fantastic job it had done in terms of moisture retention, weed suppression and soil improvement; the young brassicas have gone happily into the ground and not looked back. The ‘cleared’ crimson clover has already popped back up, the irrepressible little darlin’ that it is.
I was concerned about not being here to keep an eye on pests, especially as my old adversaries, the cabbage stem weevils, were back in numbers before we left; the idea of returning to find cauliflowers, cabbage and calabrese plants wiped out filled me with a certain dread, but I needn’t have fretted. Yes, the outer leaves look fairly ropey but the young growth in the centre is fine and, although it pains me to admit it, they were probably a lot better off for not having me faff about with them every day. I think this is part of the resilience thing once again: encourage a wider biodiversity and the beneficial creatures move in. Certainly, we have very healthy populations of garden spiders and ground beetles, two of the biggest weevil predators, so perhaps it’s best just to let them get on with the job. Everywhere I look, in fact, there are droves of helpful little things doing great work on our behalf and it is definitely worthwhile doing all we can to encourage them to stay. I think introducing far more flowers into the potager this year has made a big difference . . . but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 😉
Actually, on that subject, we’ve been enjoying a few evenings sitting in the sunshine where the old shed used to be. Regular readers might remember that we spent Christmas Day demolishing the dilapidated thing before rebuilding it in the potager and turning the area into somewhere pleasant to sit. The laid hedge has grown back strongly and the ‘bulge’ in that poor old cherry tree on the right that had to be felled has been re-purposed into a handy table. The annual flowers have been a bit slow but they’re starting to make an impact, with lots more colour to come. We still have ideas for more changes and developments to this space but it already feels like something of an improvement.
The twirly-whirly metal poles behind the furthest chair aren’t some modern art installation, but a couple of tomato supports that are very common here. they are a brilliant design: simply encourage the new growth upwards through the spirals, no need for any tying-in. They might seem an odd addition to a patch of annual flowers but this is all part of our ‘Hide the Tomato’ game aka trying to beat blight. There are tomatoes dotted about everywhere, some in the ground and others in pots, and I am only going to whisper this in the quietest tones possible but so far, they are all growing very strongly and some have set fruit. Sssssh, I really don’t want to tempt fate: the garden thrived in our absence, can the tomatoes pull through this time, too? I’ll have to get back to you on that one! 😊
On our final approach to Stavanger airport, I was trying to remember the last time I had travelled to a new country. Answer? Iceland, sixteen years ago: obviously, there’s a reason why I’m not a travel blogger! 😁 This was ~ finally ~ the trip to visit Sam and Adrienne that we had to cancel two years ago because of the pandemic. They have lived in Norway for almost three years now, but it was our first trip there and we were their first visitors, so it was definitely a cause for celebration! How exciting, too, to be spending the week of the summer solstice at a latitude of roughly 59° north, the days flooded with light, darkness almost non-existent and everything in full bloom.
In my mind’s eye, I had imagined the landscape to be similar to that of Iceland but this south-western corner of Norway is green and lush and full of trees, leafed up and lovely in their fresh green foliage; there are farms with patchwork fields of grass and potatoes, and gardens brimming with blooms, so many of my favourites in a chaotic, cottagey tumble of colour and scent. Totally charming.
Sam and Adrienne were fantastic tour guides; they had planned thoughtful trips out in every direction from Stavanger to give us a real taste of the local area and some of the places they love to walk. Obviously, we didn’t go there for the weather but we were blessed with some beautiful warm and sunny days between the damper, cooler ones, and although we had to alter our plans here and there to avoid getting very wet, it really didn’t matter because it felt like we did it all anyway.
Island hopping . . .
Hill walking . . .
Fjord bagging . . .
Sightseeing . . .
Beachcombing . . .
Ah, such beautiful landscapes . . . Now for the city. As a dyed-in-the-wool bumpkin, I don’t tend to feel very comfortable in urban settings but Stavanger was full of surprises. Blessed with many open spaces and green places, it didn’t feel like a city somehow; the streets were quiet and the centre was vibrant and lively in an accommodating, self-contained sort of way. That wild landscape beyond was never far away.
The only fly in the ointment were the cruise ships; on our first foray to the harbour, two had just docked and were in the process of disgorging literally thousands of passengers onto the quayside. I can’t find the words to describe the size of those things, they were grotesquely monstrous, dwarfing everything around them and totally dominating the landscape.
Wandering around the winding streets of Gamle Stavanger (Old Stavanger), I wondered how the original inhabitants ~ local fisherman and artisans ~ would have felt to see such an intrusive backdrop to their pretty white wooden houses and gorgeous cottage gardens.
We went back a few days later when the ships had gone and the entire atmosphere of the place had completely changed. (As a brief aside, the cruise ships are a very controversial issue at many levels and there is a push to have them banned from the port within the next two years.) People were sitting outside restaurants and bars, enjoying the sunshine in a relaxed and uncluttered environment, and the true character of the place seemed to be shining through.
I loved Fargegate (Colour Street) with its joyfully unapologetic celebration of life . . .
. . and the old town, now free of cruise ships, was delightful.
When trying to find a sense of place, I like to anchor myself in the natural world and, with us being northern Europeans ourselves, there was much about the flora and fauna that was familiar. There were wild flowers everywhere that I recognised ~ elder, honeysuckle, roses, clover, valerian, buttercups, vetch, trefoil, flag iris and lupins to name just a few ~ and the swathes of fluffy white gossamer of bog cotton on our hillier hikes reminded me of Wales. There were plenty of new plants to see, too, like dwarf cornel, cloudberry and oysterplant which were not things I remember coming across before; I took many photos of unknown flowers and now need to get busy identifying them!
Most of the resident birds were also familiar and there was a good range of migrant visitors, too, with cuckoos, chiffchaffs, warblers, swallows, swifts and martins all enjoying a Nordic summer. It’s some years since I’ve seen hooded crows in their smart grey waistcoats or heard the evocative call of curlews, and it’s most definitely the first time I’ve ever experienced a dawn chorus delivered by city-dwelling oystercatchers! They were literally everywhere, those little black and white clowns with bright red beaks . . . yet suddenly and frustratingly elusive when it came to posing for a close-up photo.
Along with wild places and walking, good food and cooking are a love we share with Sam and Adrienne and they thoroughly spoilt us with their delicious home cooking. Norwegians have a penchant for hot dogs and pick-and-mix sweets but thankfully we managed to sidestep both those culinary delights and enjoyed some of the best food Norway has to offer instead. Staying in what was very obviously a productive agricultural region, there was a wealth of local seasonal produce to enjoy and the generous (and hugely appreciated!) treat of a meal in the Söl restaurant in Stavanger proved to be a delight to the senses. I came away completely inspired, not just by the innovative and inspired use of local ingredients but also by some fascinating flavour combinations such as rhubarb with chervil which I will definitely be trying at home. Another treat were kanelsnurrer, mouth-watering twisted cinnamon pastries that we ate for breakfast in a local coffee shop and I have to confess I fell head over heels in love with brunost at first taste. This is a brown cheese made from caramelised whey which looks like a block of fudge and is traditionally cut with a special cheese slicer (ostehøvel); it’s something of an acquired taste but I liked it so much that I’ve brought a block of it home to France with me ~ better than a piece of souvenir shop tat any day.
The sharing of good food with loved ones must be one of the most fundamental and life-affirming human activities there is and after all the separation and disappointments that the pandemic has thrown at us over the last couple of years, it felt truly wonderful to be breaking bread (and let me tell you, that seeded rye bread is the cat’s pyjamas!) with Sam and Adrienne once again. At last I am able to picture clearly the life they have made for themselves in Norway and I can understand why they are so happy in the beautiful country they now call home. What a privilege to have spent such a precious week with them. Tusen hjertelig takk, you two! 😊
I’ve just come to the end of my French course; the fact that 30 days morphed into almost three months shows just how challenging and resource-rich it was and I’ve enjoyed every minute (well, okay ~ maybe not grappling with the subjunctive). Now I’m going to give myself time to absorb everything, read back through my copious notes and then start again right from the beginning, this time spending more time dipping in and out of the incredible range of linked resources; that should keep me busy for another year, at least!
Having re-established a fairly disciplined study habit, it’s time to get stuck once more into the 52-week permaculture course I started almost two years ago. I must be the slowest student on earth, but in my defence I have been a bit busy moving home and countries and at least I’ve spent a good deal of the last 18 months actually putting what I’ve been learning into practice. One of the many things I like about Heather Jo Flores’s teaching is her reminder that permaculture isn’t it; there are many different approaches to living an ecologically-sound, regenerative, abundant lifestyle and it’s important and enriching to consider a broad mix. However, I do feel that the principles of permaculture provide a pretty good framework for life so, as I pick up the course once again, it seems a good point to do a quick assessment of how we’re doing in our new home so far. I did this when we had been living in Asturias for several years using David Holmgren’s 12 permaculture principles, so I’m going to use the same idea but keep it fairly brief and choose just one current example to illustrate each point. If nothing else, this should give me something to refer back to and build on in the future.
Observe and interact Last year was a nightmare where growing beans was concerned; having initially planted directly into the ground, I ended up replanting several times and then finally resorting to planting in trays as each successive crop failed. Close observation of the beans’ attempts to germinate and (in very rare cases) grow beyond their cotyledons suggested that there were undesirable creatures tucking in ~ bean seed fly and wireworm being the worst culprits ~ and given the less-than-great condition of the soil, they were really up against it. This year I have pre-sown everything in trays of good compost, starting them off in the warmth of the tunnel; this has meant nearly 100% germination, no pests and trays of plants that are strong and healthy when they go into the ground. I’ve been working hard on soil improvement and every planting hole has been carefully prepared; that’s been quite a task in itself as so far I’ve planted 40 climbing borlotti beans, 84 Asturian climbing fabas, and between 40 and 50 each of Dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’, ‘Stanley’ and ‘Delinel’ with more to come as we go through the summer. To date, I’ve lost just one plant, which suggests this is a principle well worth spending time on.
Capture and store energy When he hasn’t been picking cherries, Roger has been busy fetching logs from the coppice this week. This is all dead, fallen wood; we haven’t cut any live trees, and in fact there is so much wood already down that I doubt we ever will (we prefer to plant trees where we can!). For us, the coppice is a precious environment to be cherished and preserved so we take the minimum from it and leave plenty of dead wood in place for the wildlife. Logs need to be properly seasoned before they are burnt, so we are always working on a supply for a couple of years’ time, splitting the logs and stacking them outside to air dry before eventually moving them into the barn. This store of captured ‘solar’ energy will heat the whole house through the colder months as well as provide us with heat for cooking and water.
Obtain a yield Permaculture isn’t just about gardening so a ‘yield’ can mean many things, but since being as self-sufficient as we can be in fruit and vegetables is a top priority for us, then obviously garden produce is high up the list. This week has seen us eating globe artichokes, broad beans, peas, courgettes, cucumbers, peppers and chillies (from the tunnel), lettuce, chard, radish, a wide range of fresh herbs and edible flowers, strawberries, cherries, gooseberries and raspberries all fresh from the garden.
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback When I was teaching, I used to encourage my pupils to be brave about making mistakes as that is the best way to learn and, as a learner myself, I’ve been relieved to hear the same advice being shared in both the French and permaculture courses. I love the challenge of learning new skills or exploring different ways of doing things but life isn’t perfect, and inevitably some things will go wrong along the way. Using mulches of organic materials in the garden is a practice we have embraced more and more and there are many benefits: weed suppression, moisture retention, topsoil protection, improvement of soil structure, creation of worm heaven . . . however, this week has seen me removing all the mulch from around the potato plants in what has been something of a cautionary lesson. Common sense should have told me that the ground needs to be full of moisture before applying a generous layer of mulch; with the significant reduction in winter and spring rainfall plus a period of prolonged drought through April and May, the ground remains very dry despite some recent rain, and scratching our heads as to why the potatoes aren’t exactly flourishing, our thoughts turned to the mulch. Scraping back revealed earth that was damp in some places but dry as toast in others ~ where rain had fallen, the mulch had absorbed the moisture but prevented it from passing through. Feedback accepted: I need to be more mindful of mulch and moisture in the future.
Use and value renewable resources and services Hanging washing out on the line beneath a beautiful blue sky this week, I have been thinking what a blessing sunshine and warm breezes are, free and natural renewable resources that have the laundry dry and smelling sweet in no time. That said, it’s flowers I want to talk about under this heading. I have always loved flowers, preferring those of a wilder nature than what I tend to think of as more formal ‘florists’ flowers’, and our garden has always burst with colour and scent in a fairly chaotic scramble of blooms. I’ve grown them for aesthetic reasons and for the benefit of wildlife but increasingly now, I also see flowers as an essential and precious resource in other ways. Herbalism has long been an interest of mine and the strengthening, healing and balancing nature of using flowers as gentle home medicine has become something of a priority in recent years. This week I’ve been drying elderflowers, yarrow, rose petals, clover, daisies, thyme, calendula and honeysuckle to use in infusions to take as tea, to steep in oil and use in salves and soaps or simply to float in a soothing bath.
Next will be lavender which has so many applications, then meadowsweet and soapwort to follow. Flowers have much to give in the kitchen, too, and a salad without a sprinkling of delectable floral edibles just isn’t a salad in my book! I haven’t had any time for spinning or dyeing lately but I will get back to it, and flowers will play an important part in making natural dyestuffs then. What a wonderful resource ~ and the real beauty lies in the fact that they will be there again for more of the same next year.
Produce no waste Moving towards zero waste is an ongoing activity both in terms of applying the ‘refuse, reduce, re-use’ mantra and at the same time tapping into our waste streams to (in permaculture terms) turn pollutants into resources. Making compost has long been hailed as a positive and beneficial activity yet I am puzzled by the amount of local people ~ especially in such a rural area ~ who trail off to the local recycling centre every week with piles of green waste; it’s no exaggeration to say that last time we were there, the green waste bay was like a huge towering cliff face. I contacted the council out of interest to ask what they do with it all, as I know some councils in Mayenne turn it into compost and offer it back to local people; apparently in our council, it’s all chopped periodically and given to farmers. When I started the permaculture course, I had to sketch designs for three systems I wanted to put into place and, knowing we were soon to be moving here to a flat garden with plenty of space, a decent three-bay compost system was top of my list. We made it from found materials (other people’s waste) and it’s now in full swing, packed with compost at various stages of production.
Every scrap of biodegradable waste goes in to the current pile; I ‘feed’ it daily with a compost bucket we keep in the kitchen and when each nitrogen-rich green layer is sufficient, I cover it with a carbon-rich brown layer of sawdust, dead leaves, shredded cardboard and the like. I also throw in small amounts of comfrey and yarrow leaves from time to time, natural activators growing in the garden that help to speed the decomposition process along. It’s a closed loop which is exactly what this principle aims for. Last autumn, I spread a thick layer of compost in the tunnel and let the worms work it down before spring planting; this week, we have harvested the first peppers grown in that compost and the trimmings from them have gone back into the compost heap. No waste. Not a scrap!
Design from pattern to detail This is a principle I wasn’t very sure about at first but now I see it as meaning to start with the big picture, an overall (vague?) plan for a project and then work it down to the finer details, using patterns found in nature wherever possible. I’ve written a lot about my mandala bed (sorry about that, I’m just a teeny bit pleased with it) which, following on from the composting system above, was the second design project I sketched out so I’m going to use it here, although I would argue we worked along the same lines when designing the Utility Cabin and Love Shack and also renovating the kitchen. I started with a plain circle and having fiddled around with several pattern ideas for paths and beds, decided to keep it simple with a radiating pattern, the kind that can be seen in snowflakes, starfish and many types of flower.
I’ve added each element one at a time and the planting has evolved slowly, working with intuition as much as anything. It wouldn’t win a Chelsea gold, but it’s brimming with food and life (although I’m not sure the blackbirds scratching the mulch onto the paths every morning is much of a bonus) and the beauty of it is that, if in the final analysis I feel things could be improved, it’s simple enough to go back to the starter circle and find inspiration in a different pattern for next year.
Use slow, small solutions If we had to name just one priority for the garden, then soil improvement would probably be it. Making a productive garden from grassland was always going to take time: on the one hand, the soil here is a very deep and stone-free sandy loam; on the other, it is sadly lacking in nutrients and organic matter and also riddled with pests. We have been working at it from day one but there is no rushing this process; good soil takes time and we have to go patiently, step by step. I’ve been looking at the work of Ian ‘Tolly’ Tolhurst who, for several decades, has run a vibrant and productive organic market garden without any animal inputs. This interests me greatly as we currently have no livestock in our system here and, as I have written before, there can be serious drawbacks in importing manure from other sources. If we can manage to improve the soil using only inputs from our land then that would not only be desirable, but another no-waste, closed loop. So, how can we do it? Obviously, the aforementioned compost is an important element but since we can’t produce enough for the whole garden quickly, then when a finished bay is ready for emptying, we have to prioritise where it goes. Another very beneficial addition is soil from the coppice which we collect in modest amounts from time to time; this is such a valuable and nutrient-rich material that it can be used in tiny amounts ~ it is said that even a single trowel of woodland soil stirred into a bucket of water and then watered onto the soil brings huge benefits.
Mulches are helpful, too (putting aside the potato experience). As we have a large amount of mature trees, grass clippings tend to come mixed through with chopped leaves which is an excellent mulch mixture. Having established seven large comfrey plants, I am regularly chopping the leaves and laying them on the soil surface (I did the same with nettles before they flowered) as a natural fertiliser, and I also make comfrey and nettle tea to water on for the same purpose. Where we’ve needed to really boost planting areas, such as the lasagne beds for courgettes and sweetcorn, I kept coffee grounds separate from the compost bucket and sprinkled them over the surface. Dilute urine went on, too; I know this can evoke a ‘yuk!’ response even from many hardened gardeners but honestly, it’s one of nature’s finest fertilisers, it’s plentiful and free so why waste it? The Love Shack has lent itself to yet another function ~ the perfect place for a ‘wild wee’! 😂 Tolly is a huge advocate of green manure and that’s another area I’ve been exploring and expanding over several years now.
Phacelia is a great favourite and certainly the most enthusiastic, freely setting itself over and over if left to seed. I grow swathes of it in places to cut very young when the nutrients are at their highest ~ I’m about to cut a mix of phacelia and crimson clover in a patch for planting winter brassicas ~ and in other spaces, I let it bloom as it is one of the top flowers for bees. I’m hoping that by introducing it to all areas of the garden, I shall never have to buy seed again! Buckwheat and crimson clover are also successful and I’m planning to sow vetch along with phacelia as an overwintering cover crop this year. I let nitrogen-fixing white clover run wherever I can and where we grow peas and beans, the roots are left to rot away underground after the plants have finished. I haven’t been able to source trefoil seeds to undersow the summer brassicas so I’ve pushed a few nasturtium seeds in between them to do the job instead. It’s a slow and steady process, but we will get there.
Integrate, don’t segregate Our property is surrounded by monoculture: to the west, a huge field of maize, to the north and east what seems like a prairie of wheat. The view to the south is green and leafy, a pretty pond surrounded by grass and trees . . . but look beyond the few oaks and silver birches and in fact, it’s really a conifer plantation. Inside our boundaries (please let those hedges grow quickly!) it is polyculture all the way: the greater diversity of plant species and varieties we grow, the greater our potential yield and the most diverse ecosystem possible. When it comes to planting, I’m a bit of a crammer and I love a fairly chaotic jumble so this principle suits me just fine. I haven’t tried planting an ‘official’ plant guild yet but that’s something I might dabble in a bit next year.
Value diversity This follows on from the last principle and diversity is certainly something we embrace and encourage. When it comes to planting, several different varieties of things makes more sense than one and in fact, doing a quick mental assessment, there are very few vegetables of a single variety that we are growing this year (and those are mostly the ‘wild cards’ like swedes, cauliflowers and melons: if they’re successful in this first season, I’ll extend the range next year.) What has truly thrilled us this year is the noticeable increase in the diversity of wildlife and wild flowers on our patch; I’m hoping at some point in the future to have time to catalogue everything I see here but for the time being, it’s a pleasure to wander round and observe ~ then very often, head to some reference materials to identify the latest ‘new’ arrival, especially where insects are concerned. It’s very exciting and we have plenty of ideas for increasing the range of habitats in the future; the pond is filling at snail’s pace (it would help if it rained occasionally, ha ha!) but there are other things we can be doing in the meantime. For example, Roger has been using some scrap materials to make a base for a bug hotel which we’re hoping Annie and Matthew will help us fill when they visit next month.
Use edges and margins Permaculture is very big on using edges and margins as places that are often extremely fertile; in abstract terms, that also means stretching ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone and thought processes to encourage innovation. In the garden, we see the boundaries both as sources of food and natural materials for ourselves and also as important habitats for wildlife. Tackling that enormous hazel hedge last year was a huge job but it was definitely the right decision; it has let in more light which in turn has encouraged a wider diversity of wildflowers to grow below it, and as it thickens out it is creating a perfect habitat for birds. We leave the grass uncut inside every boundary, several metres deep in some places, and these margins create their own little ecosystems bursting with life and all-important wildlife corridors for useful predators which theoretically then feast on the beasties that love to tuck into the veggie plants. It’s fascinating to see how each ‘edge’ is currently frequented by a different array of wildlife: butterflies and burnet moths here, damsel flies and ground beetles there, grass snakes in one corner, toads in another.
Respond positively to change Unexpected changes aren’t always welcome or easy to deal with, but since change is a constant in life, I appreciate that developing a positive attitude towards it makes for a more balanced and sustainable approach. A couple of weeks ago, I finally had to admit that my Purple Peril, the bike I’ve had for almost 20 years, had reached the end of the road (actually, it was no longer capable of getting to the end of the road which is the very point). It is a rust bucket, bent and buckled with gears that are totally shot; Roger has fixed it and patched it more times than I can remember but there are limits, even with his super engineering abilities. Please don’t get me wrong and think me a spoilt thing, I appreciate how blessed I am to be able to go out and buy a shiny new bike. My reluctance in replacing it stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t convinced I would be able to find a worthy replacement: everything on offer seemed to be either a roughty-toughty mountain bike or a genteel Dutch (town) bike and I need something in between. Ta-dah . . . enter New Blue (I haven’t come up with a proper name yet so that will have to do for now)! This is just perfect, designed for riding on our rural lanes, zipping about town and going off down forest trails and the like when I fancy a bit of off-roading. There’s a fair bit to adjust to: the gear controls are all on one side and involve flicking levers to and fro; the handlebars have a sort of flat paddle shape to them which seems a bit strange; the seat isn’t as comfy as my old bike but the riding position is much better; the pedals are ~ well ~ a bit weird, if I’m honest. On the plus side, the gears are incredibly smooth and the chain doesn’t jump off and jam every time I change up, there are good lights, my basket fits and, joy of joys, without rear suspension there’s room for a luggage rack and panniers. Hopefully, this is the start of a beautiful relationship that sees us notching up many a happy mile together and cutting car use to the very barest of minimums. Before we moved here, I promised I would ride my bike whenever I could, not using bad weather or mechanical unreliability as an excuse. Well, there shouldn’t be any of the latter now. Time to stick to my principles. 😊
Roger has spent days harvesting cherries and the amount of fruit coming from one single tree is astounding.
It’s not the easiest of jobs, balancing at the top of a high ladder and being scolded soundly by a pair of redstarts who have built a nest in an old woodpecker hole in one of the bigger boughs; they really aren’t too happy to be sharing ‘their’ tree with the cherry picker and the angry flick of their scarlet underskirts matches the colour of the fruit perfectly. Nothing daunted, the cherries are coming down in kilos, with plenty of breaks to give the birds time to feed their babies, and the kitchen has become Cherry Processing Central.
We’re eating plenty of them raw and I’m wondering if there is another fresh fruit quite so moreish ~ mmm, just one (two, three, four . . . ) more, then I’ll stop! With so much fruit to deal with, the simplest thing would be to wash it and stick it straight into the freezer, but we think it’s worth the effort of de-stoning first; not only does it mean more freezer space, but it makes things easier when we come to use the cherries in the future. We’re not too precious about the preparation, though, we simply squeeze the fruit and the stone pops out. We’re freezing most of them raw but stewing some, too, and these will be perfect for my breakfast bowl when we run out of seasonal fruit options. We’re making clafoutis, the traditional French batter pudding which has replaced squash tarte tatin as our gardener’s treat, and we’ve also made a few jars of spiced cherry jam. Roger is experimenting with bottling some fruit, too, packing them into jars with a hot, deeply-spiced red wine syrup, the fragrant aroma of which has me thinking that the darkest, bitterest chocolate could be a perfect partner in future dishes.
While Roger shimmies up and down the ladder, I’ve been tackling the gooseberry harvest; it’s by far the easier shout, but not all plain sailing as I think we must have the thorniest bushes on the planet and I rip my fingers to shreds every time I pick. It’s worth it, though. I know gooseberries (like rhubarb) can be an acquired taste and many people aren’t fans but I love them, they have such a unique flavour. I like the way they combine so well with other seasonal foods: they make a sharp sauce that cuts perfectly through the oiliness of fresh mackerel (their French name is groseille à maquereau) and a head of elderflowers tossed into the simmering water raises their flavour to a whole new level. I keep a bowl of stewed goosegogs in the fridge for a seasonal breakfast treat; stirred through with oats, a drizzle of honey, a dollop of Greek yogurt and some sliced strawberries ~ our other current heavy fruit harvest ~ it’s a wonderful way to start the day. We also love cooked gooseberries blended with a thick, creamy homemade custard to make gooseberry fool which, when frozen, also makes a fabulous summery ice cream.
Like the cherries, I am packing as many gooseberries into the freezer as possible; the bushes are dripping with fruit and it’s a pleasant task to sit and prepare them outside at the picnic table, nipping off the tops and tails with my fingers. In the same way as people talk of developing ‘muscle memory’ through repeated physical movements, I like to cultivate a ‘senses memory’ by doing simple tasks like these outdoors. Visually, I can appreciate the pearly green translucence and pale filigree of veins in each berry, or lift my eyes to the lushness of the landscape around me. I can listen to the contented afternoon warbling of a blackbird, the incessant squeaking of the latest brood of blue tit fledglings, the deep hum of insects in the oak tree canopy above me. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, the soft breeze on my face and breathe in the sweet scent of honeysuckle that it carries. Then, come a dark and dreary day in November, when I set a pot of frozen gooseberries on the stove to cook, all those memories will come flooding back and infuse the kitchen with a little blast of early June. I always prefer to eat foods in season but there is something quite special about these memory moments ~ opening a bottle of sweet apple juice or a jar of spiced chutney, enjoying the crunch of a dill-pickled cucumber or the buttery softness of a dried apple ring, spooning a floral, herbal mix into a warm teapot, tossing a basil ice cube into a sauce ~ no, not seasonal . . . but a world away from Spanish strawberries in December, that’s for sure.
I love reading, and although I’m happy to lose myself in a good novel, I have to admit I’d rather read non-fiction most of the time. When it comes to inspiration, I am spoilt for choice whether looking for books or internet resources to devour, and find myself returning time and again to writers whose work has struck a chord with me: Mary Reynolds, Patrick Whitefield, Donald Norfolk, Masanobu Fukuoka, David Holmgren, Heather Jo Flores, Alys Fowler, Sepp Holzer, Dana O’Driscoll, John Seymour, Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer, Robin Harford . . . the list is almost endless, to be honest, and that’s before I start on the wealth of interesting blogs I follow. Although I accept that the somewhat esoteric approach of some of these authors wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, for me there is a salient theme that runs through their work, that of connection or relationship with the land and the life it supports. Now, this doesn’t need to mean it involves magic, religion or spirituality (although for those who want it that way, why not?) and for me, it can be summed up by what I think of as the ‘3Cs’ ~ concentration, curiosity and care. (A less alliterative interpretation might be focus / mindfulness, learning / wonder and nurture / responsibility.) In practical terms, it means I don’t just swan about the garden planting, controlling, harvesting or whatever, wrapped up in my own little world, tunnel vision to the fore. Neither do I imagine myself to be the greatest or most important life form out there; there are many trees bigger, older and unquestionably wiser than me, a countless number of microscopic creatures whose role is essential for life and an abundance of incredible living things of every shape, size and hue which form an intricate and many-faceted web of life.
I rarely use long-handled garden tools these days, preferring to work at ground level with perhaps a small hand fork but more often than not, just my bare hands. It’s a slow and gentle approach that allows me to check on the health of every plant and make any adjustments or corrections as necessary, as well as observe the state of the soil. I apply the same philosophy to harvesting, so that gathering herbs and flowers for drying this week has been as much about watching and learning as picking and collecting. For instance, in the mandala bed I noticed that the thyme is full of honey bees . . .
. . . whilst the bumbles and black carpenter bees are favouring sage and phacelia.
The yarrow is covered in ladybirds ~ so many different kinds! ~ and also large brown shield bugs.
Meanwhile, in the shadier spots, the mint leaves are full of the metallic shine of the rather predictably-named mint leaf beetle. Honestly, it’s like being on safari out there.
You can imagine, I’m sure, that with this sort of attitude, even simple garden tasks can take me a while to complete, and I often get lost in other things along the way. Roger has appeared at my side many times without me even noticing (he swears blind anyone could wander into the garden and I wouldn’t have a clue ~ he’s right) or else comes in search of me to find out what has happened to the ingredients I went to fetch for him to use in his role of Head Chef. I think it was J.R.R Tolkien who wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost” and I reckon the man knew what he was talking about (although he possibly wasn’t trying to prepare a meal from absent vegetables at the time 😆 ).
Roger has floated the idea this week that perhaps there’s a little bit too much plant love going on in my life at times and that it might be a good idea to let things just get on with growing, maybe even thrive on a little abuse. I know he’s right on this one, too . . . although I hate to admit it! Take the squash, for instance. I’ve planted more than 20 of them in the garden and if they all produce just two fruits each, that will be more than enough for us. The problem is, some of the butternuts aren’t looking too enthusiastic: one has already succumbed to ant undermining and another couple seem determined to fade away. I’ve come to the conclusion that they are the aubergines of the squash world, poor fragile little things that need a lot of mollycoddling, but is it really a sensible use of my time? Let’s face it, the more robust varieties we grow produce orange flesh that is every bit as dense and full of flavour and what’s more, they keep a darn sight longer. We built a new hügel bed a couple of months ago and although I hadn’t been planning to use it this year, it seemed silly not to when faced with so many squashes to plant. Good call ~ it’s looking great, and I’m already impressed with ‘Musquée de Provence’, the French heirloom variety we’re growing for the first time, which is bombing down the hügel slopes, covered in promising female flowers.
Even more impressive is the Japanese hubbard squash ‘Tetsukabuto’ which is another first for us, grown from seeds given by my Finnish gardening friend, Anja, who said it went straight to the top of her favourites list last year. Well, Anja knows a thing or three about squash so I trust her judgement on this one completely, especially as the plants are not only thriving but setting fruit already.
The polytunnel is another source of constant angst and again, I’m probably definitely guilty of spending far too much time faffing about in there. The merest hint of a curled leaf or drooping stem has me fussing and fretting: too wet? too dry? too hot? too cold? over-fed? under-fed? I think I’m overcompensating for the fact that last year wasn’t the best ~ the tunnel went up late, the soil was rubbish, germination was poor, pests were voracious ~ so I just want everything to thrive. Well, it is; with the exception of a single cayenne chilli which looks a bit feeble (but hasn’t actually died yet), everything is doing pretty well. Last year, only one pepper and chilli plant survived; the former produced a few small fruits, the latter zilch. This year, in terms of plants we have 12 chillies, 12 sweet peppers, 9 aubergines and 9 melons which are filling one side of the tunnel, along with basil, flat-leaved parsley and French marigolds; on the other side (which will be planted in late summer for winter crops) a giant ‘Latino’ courgette, coriander and lettuce left for a seed harvest and a smattering of self-set peas, calendula, red sorrel, squash and sunflowers. Down the middle, 8 tomatoes in pots as part of this year’s experiment to scatter them around in the hope of beating blight (I’ve planted 35 altogether, another ridiculous overreaction, surely?😬 ).
Mmm. On reflection, perhaps I need to stop fretting quite so much and start thinking in terms of 4Cs rather than three: concentration, curiosity, care and CALM. Relax. Let nature get on with the job. Sit back and watch the flowers grow ~ with a bowl of cherries to hand, of course. 😊