Back to basics

It never does to assume anything. There I was in my previous post, cheerily looking forward to our trip to the UK and a long-awaited get together with family; lacking a crystal ball, I didn’t realise that a herniated lumbar disc was waiting in the wings to rain on my parade. No UK trip, no catch ups with family, no cuddles with our new baby grandson: instead, disappointment, frustration and a shed load of pain. There’s never a good time for these things to happen but honestly, this couldn’t have been worse. If nothing else, why not in the depths of winter when the dark and cold season seems far more conducive to enforced rest instead of these gorgeous days, flooded with sunlight and warmth, the garden a riot of colour and activity?

Well, such is life, and the only thing to do was accept the situation and get on with making the best of it. The trip couldn’t be postponed ~ there were imperative reasons for travelling ~so Roger stuck to Plan A and I stayed at home alone. I don’t mind solitude, even when I’m not feeling well, but I hate inactivity and the inability to move and be busy, especially when I’m used to spending my life outdoors. Permaculturists believe that ‘the problem is the solution’ and I realised that this possibly held some truth for me now: instead of resenting and raging against the situation, how could I turn it to my advantage?

Unable to sit comfortably for more than a couple of minutes, I made a ‘nest’ on a sofa where I could half-lie and prop up a book or laptop, then set about stretching my mind with a wealth of interesting stuff. I did another week’s permaculture study, appropriately on the subject of growing and preserving medicinal plants, which in turn had me rummaging through my herbals once again and making notes for future projects. The room was full of the almond scent of meadowsweet drying on the windowsills; containing salicylic acid (like aspirin, which takes its name from the plant’s scientific name, spiraea), it is one of nature’s painkillers and I’ve been enjoying it combined with lavender and lemon balm in a soothing tea. I’m drying piles of lavender, too, its floral perfume wafting through the house like some sort of calming aromatherapy, but no lemon balm this year as we had plenty of fresh stems all through winter. One top medicinal plant I have failed in spectacular fashion to grow for decades is echinacea (purple coneflower) so I’m very excited to have a dozen or so healthy young plants raised from seed and ready to go into the ground once things are cooler and wetter; carrying small cans of water to keep these little treasures alive has been top of the list when it comes to my ‘gentle exercise’ moments.

I’ve also been listening to podcasts and watching a wide variety of online videos about everything from seed saving to syntropic farming. As this is something I rarely do, it’s felt like a bit of a media binge but it has certainly helped to broaden and deepen my understanding of many things as well as give me a long list of new projects and ideas to try; making a JADAM liquid fertiliser from grass clippings should be quick and simple, building a cob oven may take a little longer to achieve! I think it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by the weight of the serious issues facing the planet and the awareness of being a miniscule drop in the ocean when it comes to making a difference so it was uplifting and reassuring to listen to the wise words of so many like-minded people. The knowledge, skills, expertise, technology, wherewithal and enthusiasm to turn things round are out there in abundance. There is hope for healing and I am comforted by that.

Much as I would have preferred none of this to have happened, it has been an interesting exploration of resilience, not only of the garden but of our lifestyle as well. Having left the decision not to travel as late as I possibly could, there was no time to shop for supplies and as I was obviously going to be without a car and unable to ride my bike, I had to manage for six days with whatever we already had at home. Not a problem; as we cook everything from scratch, we keep a good supply of basic ingredients in our store cupboard and fridge and ~ let’s face it ~ my meals were basically going to come out of the garden anyway. Broad beans, peas, French beans, new potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, chard, cabbage, lettuce, New Zealand spinach, courgettes, cucumbers, chillies, peppers and aubergines gave me plenty of choice, along with fruit options of strawberries and melon. I knew that picking and preparing would probably take me several attempts with rests between, but what did that matter? There is such pleasure in harvesting and eating food so fresh and nutritious, especially seasoned with an abundance of homegrown herbs and spices and sprinkled with edible flowers. I ate well: chilled cucumber soup, ratatouille, tabbouleh, veggie tagine, herby omelettes and bowls of colourful salads, all so simple yet utterly delicious.

I have to admit, I have been feeling a profound sense of gratitude for the fact that I am generally fit, healthy and flexible; under normal circumstances, I don’t tend to register just how much bending and stretching is required for harvesting produce, yet alone the more energetic tasks round the garden. In more comfortable moments, I did manage to carry out some essential chores such as feeding the tomato plants, lifting the garlic to dry and planting out a tray of French beans that really couldn’t wait any longer to go into the ground. The most frustrating moment, though, was hobbling down to the potager and catching the unmistakable whiff of a ripe melon wafting out of the tunnel . . . and being unable to bend down and rummage through the foliage to check which one of the little beauties was the first to be ready. It’s not a difficult test, feeling for a slight softness at the blossom end and checking for that pungent fruity aroma, but it took several attempts through gritted teeth and some slightly fruity Anglo-Saxon. Thank goodness no-one could see (or hear) me! Ah, but it was worth the pain; these ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons have been an experiment this year and my goodness, they are wonderfully sweet and juicy with a deep orange flesh; I’ve seen them described as the champagne of melons and can safely say they are heaven on a plate. Our little grandson Matthew is a great lover of all things melon, so when he comes to stay with us next week, I’m going to appoint him official Melon Hound and encourage him to go forth and sniff out the treasure on my behalf. Something tells me he won’t need asking twice.

With the continued drought and temperatures soaring well into the 30s, our absence as hands-on gardeners has been quite a test for the garden. Roger soaked the tunnel before he left but within a couple of days, more water was desperately needed as the temperature in there was Sahara-esque. Although we’ve gone a long way to organising a more practical rainwater supply in the potager this year, we can see that more collection systems are needed, even if it’s just extra butts that we fill from the overflowing ones elsewhere during winter; it might also be worthwhile looking at a guttering system on the tunnel itself. Elsewhere, apart from the newly planted French beans and very young brassicas, I only watered things in pots and everything else just had to cope. Roger stood the potted tomatoes in buckets and moved them out of the tunnel to give them a greater chance of survival and to make the watering easier for me; the good news is that they are covered in fruits and so far (shhhhh!), no sign of blight.

It’s always better to encourage plants to send their roots deep into the soil in search of water, making them more resilient in times of drought and in fact, too much watering can cause problems by provoking the development of shallow root systems. However, there are times when some intervention becomes necessary simply to nurse vulnerable things through to the next rainfall and it has been interesting to observe what and where in the garden has been struggling the most or, alternatively, thriving through the crisis. We made a lot of lasagne beds last year which I certainly don’t regret, but the significant lack of rainfall since last September has meant they have stayed very light and airy and haven’t started to break down anywhere near fast enough. Smaller plants in some of these beds have really struggled, particularly a few butternut squashes that have needed far too much attention, and one or two spare pepper and aubergine plants that have practically given up the ghost. In other places though, things are doing well and growing strongly without any watering. I’m particularly pleased with the huge perennial bed where asparagus, rhubarb and comfrey are looking good and the new violet globe artichokes haven’t missed a beat. There’s soapwort in there, too, all pretty in pink, and I’m thinking it might be just the place to plant some of those purple coneflowers for next year.

The sweetcorn went into a lasagne bed, but one which had lots of extra amendments in the spring in preparation for the plants’ greedy feeding habits. They are looking very healthy in deep glossy green, and the promise of some tasty cobs later in the year is already in the air.

I’ve never deliberately planted a traditional Three Sisters bed but it’s fun to see a bit of that vibe going on anyway. I admit to stuffing a few spare climbing beans amongst the corn just out of interest to see if they would climb (yes, they are) but the squashes are nothing to do with me, they are volunteers that must have popped up out of the garden compost I added to the bed. Well, let them have their way and let’s see what happens; in fact, I decided I might as well go the whole hog and I added a few sunflowers for good measure.

On both hügel beds, the squash are doing what they do and proving that this is such an effective cultivation strategy, I really think we should build more. I’ve counted 20 ‘Crown Prince’ fruits alone already and they don’t need a minute’s attention: lazy gardening at its very best, although they do cause the mower a few headaches!

Towards the end of last summer, I threw together the roughest of lasagne beds on the way to, rather than in, the potager; I love the idea of being able to wander all over the garden and find food in unexpected places, so this was the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing campaign. I wanted this border in the first instance as somewhere to plant a few young blackcurrant bushes and clumps of chives but through the spring I’ve stuffed all sorts of other bits and pieces in there with them, including sweet peas, cosmos, rudbeckia, gaillardia, zinnias, sage, chard, cucumbers and basil. It took a bit of a bashing from strong winds and a few things struggled initially in the dry conditions, but I’m really rather pleased with how it’s looking (and producing) now. I’ve been reading this week about ‘plant guilds’ and ‘stacking functions’ but quite honestly, these are things I do intuitively: to me, it has always made sense to cram plants together so they can benefit from each other’s company and make use of both the horizontal and vertical space. No need for fancy ideas really, I reckon it’s nothing more complicated than good old-fashioned common sense.

Seed saving is also common sense and ~ thankfully ~ an old tradition that is becoming more and more popular and, without question, increasingly necessary in the face of drastically reduced genetic diversity. Goodbye F1, hello heirloom varieties! We have always saved some seed each year but I set out some time ago to increase the range and variety with each season. Some seeds are easier than others, but generally it involves little more than letting a plant flower or fruit, then collecting and drying the ripened seeds. The garden is littered with random plants that have been left just for that purpose ~ parsnip and leek here, fennel and rocket there ~ and the beauty of many of them is that their flowers are attractive to beneficial insects, bringing an extra dimension of ‘help’ to the garden.

Most definitely on this year’s list are some of those melons and also tomatoes if we stay blight-free. I’d love to save some pepper seeds, too, but they readily cross-pollinate and really I should grow varieties in isolation; there’s terrific heat in the cayenne chillies and the idea of that being transferred into a sweet pepper doesn’t bear thinking about! I’ve never had much luck saving lettuce seed because their fluffy heads have a tendency to go soggy or else disperse on the breeze when my back is turned. This year I’ve left some to set seed in the tunnel where the air is hot and dry and there is neither wind or rain to interfere; this week I have been gathering the first seeds from plants as tall as me, a gentle little job just right for me at the minute. An added bonus is that the sunny flowers have an unexpectedly sweet perfume and I’m wondering why I’ve never noticed this before.

There will be no shortage of annual flower seeds to collect either, the hot dry weather causing the plants to run to seed all too soon. There is such a carnival of colour but it is parched and panting, long bleached stems toppling into their neighbours and shedding petals like so much sad confetti; they will fade away all too quickly unless rain comes soon so we must enjoy them while we can.

Improving the structure and content of our soil, and in particular, incorporating as much organic matter as we can, is a top priority in terms of promoting long-term health and strength in the plants we grow, but also in the soil’s ability to retain water. Eventually, I’d like all our amendments to come from on site but in these initial seasons ~ and certainly seeing the garden under stress this year ~ I have to admit we need a big organic input. In a moment of back-resting boredom, I happened to strike gold on the internet . . . a local supply of well-rotted horse manure, as much as we want and totally free of charge. It needs to be collected in the trailer, which wouldn’t normally be an issue except of course I’m not really in a fit state to do anything other than supervise. My poor shovel-wielding beloved! I suspect he will be rather pleased to see me up and about properly again, nose out of the laptop and firmly back in the flowers. Me too, actually . . . even if it does mean barrowing several tonnes of muck around the patch! 😁