The weather is breaking all sorts of records here. Last month was the driest July and the second driest month ever recorded in France; this time last year, precipitation was up by 50%, now it’s down by 85%. To say we are desperate for rain would be something of an understatement . . . but at least the sunflowers are loving it.
The drought is now undeniably severe and prolonged: Mayenne is in a state of red alert and officially in a ‘crisis’ situation, the prefecture having imposed understandably strict rules where water use is concerned. Our rain butts ran dry some time ago but thankfully, we are allowed to carry out essential watering with mains water in the potager to keep our food crops alive ~ but only between 8pm and 8am when evaporation is at its lowest. It goes without saying that every salvageable drop of grey water is being used, mainly to try and save our young trees; sadly, it’s too late for some but it would be tragic to lose the lot having planted so many over winter. The most frustrating part is that we are not without stormy skies, even the occasional splash of raindrops, but nothing that materialises into anything useful. The garden is parched and crispy, the air dry and crackling, certain trees are having an early autumn and the earth is as hard and unforgiving as concrete . . . and still, no rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future.
We are, of course, discussing options and solutions. We’ve already increased the rain capture capacity to over 2000 litres but there are still available downspouts from a large roof area, so installing more butts is an easy enough project in the short term. Following my success in finding a supply of manure, I’m now trying to hunt down a second hand bowser which would allow us to shift collected rainwater efficiently to where it’s most needed. We’re looking at the possibility of creating a switchable system which would allow us to send the grey water from the bathroom into a tank, rather than having to bail out and carry buckets down the stairs. Adding organic matter to the soil, using mulches, sowing green manures and selecting drought-tolerant plants are all ongoing activities in the garden which should help to retain moisture in the soil. In the tunnel, which is obviously the hottest and driest of all our growing areas, we are also going to experiment with sinking bottles around plants to help carry water directly down to the root systems.
My continued back problem isn’t helping my mood very much and it pains me to see Roger having to do so much on his own, especially with guests to feed, the garden to water and crops to harvest and process. I’m managing to potter at this and that in more comfortable moments, but my contribution to the cause remains largely superficial. As for the state of the garden, I am trying not to dwell too much on the consequences of my forced neglect and just hope everything can hang on and muddle through until I’m fighting fit again. I hate to see caterpillars beating up the brassicas but there is no way I can bend and twist to pick them off so the plants will have to take their chance and I have to keep my fingers crossed that things go the right way. I’m certainly not holding out too much hope for the cauliflowers which are tricky enough at the best of times, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. We’ll see.
It’s not just about plants, either. The local wildlife is struggling with the drought and larger species such as deer and boar are more in evidence as they move between watering holes. Our poor pond is still waiting to be filled and what water hasn’t already evaporated is a rather unsavoury green colour . . . and yet it is teeming with great diving beetles and pond skaters and constantly busy with birds who visit to drink and bathe. We had a temporary and very basic bird bath by the house made from a couple of plastic trays normally used under plant pots, so I was thrilled when Roger collected a large blue glazed pot of ours on his recent UK trip. It has no drainage holes in the bottom and for many years we had it as a mini-pond ~ complete with several aquatic plants ~ to add interest to an outdoor seating area. I’ve filled it with a few large stones and the last of our saved rainwater to make a permanent and more attractive birdbath; the feathered ones wasted no time in finding it, especially a group of sociable young sparrows who love to wallow about in it like Romans in a bath! There are other visitors, too, including a constant stream of honey bees sipping daintily round the margins and several lizards who zip in and out to drink in darting flashes of silvery green. Elsewhere, the garden is alive with dragonflies, damselflies and clouds of butterflies who don’t seem too fazed by the heat.
It would be easy to wallow in despondency as the garden suffers but we have to use the current situation as a learning opportunity; after all, this could well be the future and if we want to build resilience into the patch and improve our food security, we have to take on board the lessons, no matter how difficult. It’s important to look at the positives and see how we can expand upon them whilst finding solutions to the problems. For instance, I’ve been very impressed at how well the hügel beds are standing up (literally and metaphorically) to the drought; the idea is that in the long-term they shouldn’t need watering at all but even in their first and second season, they require minimal attention. Yes, the squash plants flatten their leaves in the heat of the day to preserve water, but they are romping away and it looks like we’re set for another bumper harvest. With an autumn project of hedging planned, there will be a good supply of hügel-building material available so I think more will definitely be on the cards.
The allium family, apart from leeks, has struggled right from the start. Our garlic harvest was disappointing, particularly the spring-planted rose garlic which failed to thrive while the spring onions have taken forever to grow. The maincrop onions, both yellow and white varieties, have hardly set the world alight with their enthusiasm and I’m wishing I’d planted a few sets as well as seeds this year; perhaps they’d have got off to a better start. That said, they’ve suddenly found a bit of oomph this week so we will have a harvest, albeit a smaller one than hoped for.
The climbing beans have grown well and reached the top of their poles but they are desperate for water and it’s impossible to give them enough. The Asturian beans are struggling the most which I suppose makes sense, given they thrive in a climate which is warm and wet rather than hot and dry; they are only just coming into flower but I’m hoping that since our warm weather should stretch well into October and surely there will be rain at some point, there is still time for a crop to set. In contrast, the borlotti beans are dripping with vibrant red pods and we have already started harvesting the delicious speckled beans; given that the crop is the result of saving a tiny handful of beans from our Asturian garden, I’m really thrilled and next year I think I shall be planting even more.
With concerns about food shortages in mind, we planted masses of potatoes this year and I’m glad we did as the yield really isn’t great. What’s worse, we’ve pretty much given up trying to dig them at the moment as it’s more of a job for a pickaxe than a garden fork. We’ve eaten the last of the summer cabbage and I’m not holding my breath where the next wave plus summer calabrese and kale is concerned although I am pleased that the red kale and purple sprouting broccoli ~ both such important spring crops for us ~ are holding their own. So, too, are leeks and Swiss chard but the beetroot are rubbish, the Florence fennel has bolted, oca and New Zealand spinach have both collapsed completely and whether the swedes will pull through is anyone’s guess. It’s all a game of trial and error.
So where’s the silver lining? Well, for a start we had the most incredible melon harvest, 25 from the tunnel so far with a couple more to come and a few setting outside, too. The only problem was when twelve ripened all at once and there was no way we could eat that little lot on our own! Luckily, we had visitors on the horizon so stored as many as we could in the fridge and gave a few away; Roger made a melon and mint sorbet which was delicious and I froze chunks to eat straight from the freezer as a snack in hot weather (or you can toss them into a smoothie if that’s your thing). Next year, I’ll experiment with staggering the planting in the hope that we can spread the harvest out a little bit. We still have an abundance of courgettes, aubergines and peppers, all of which feature in our daily meals in a variety of ways. Roger has been making a spiced aubergine pickle and I’ve been messing about with sweet pepper relish recipes, both designed as condiments to eat quickly rather than keep as long-term preserves; they’re totally delicious for lunch with fresh bread and cheeses. I’ve been threading red cayenne peppers to air-dry in the cave and soon we will start putting sliced peppers in the freezer to use in winter dishes.
The French beans have also been cropping well but my carefully calculated successional sowings have all gone to pot thanks to the weather as the third row went over too quickly and the fourth row is yet to flower. Still, there are plenty of pods left to fatten for the beans inside and as the ‘Delinel’ variety has gone unusually tough and stringy, next year I will stick with ‘Stanley’ for green beans and look for a yellow wax pod variety instead. Now for the really good news ~ and I think I’m safe with this one at last~ we have tomatoes! Lots of them, in fact, and yes, they are ripening . . . if the plants in the ground do as well as those in pots, we’re even in danger of having a glut for the first time since we left our Welsh garden ten years ago. I can’t even begin to describe how much joy that brings me and I’m already planning some seed saving for next year’s crop . . .
Word is that this year’s local maize harvest is set to be a poor one which comes as no surprise given the seed was planted in dust, there has been hardly any rain since and irrigation is prohibited. Certainly, the huge neighbouring fields are looking pretty sick and it’s a reminder that small-scale production is so much easier. We may only have twenty or so sweetcorn plants but the ground they are in was given a lot of love (a lasagne bed with masses of organic material added along with comfrey tea, coffee grounds, diluted urine and soaked with saved rainwater) and I pre-sowed in the tunnel so that we started with strong, healthy plants. Having survived a bit of early rabbit / hare nibbling, the plants never looked back and have needed minimal watering ever since; now they stand tall and glossy green, woven through with beans and volunteer squash, and promising a delicious harvest very soon.
I’ve been watching the progress of the mandala bed with interest, particularly as it’s been left very much to its own devices in recent weeks, and like the hügel beds, I’m pleased at how well it’s held up. It has needed some water of course, but hasn’t been anywhere near as thirsty as the dug beds and everything growing in it has thrived. In fact, it’s become a bit of a jungle if I’m honest and trying to find the paths is something of a challenge.
On the downside, I wish I hadn’t bothered trying to plant two sections with annual flowers as although a few bits and pieces eventually germinated, the phacelia volunteers have dominated and been nothing but a nuisance, collapsing on top of everything around them and now looking very dead and brown. There has been plenty of colour from the herbs, edible flowers, vegetable flowers and now the veggies themselves so next year I shan’t bother sowing annual flowers in there at all. On the upside, it’s proving to be a very productive patch with lettuce, summer cabbage and French beans over, current crops of peppers, cucumbers, courgettes, borlotti beans and probably the best Swiss chard and flat-leaved parsley I’ve ever grown, with aubergines, Asturian beans, tomatoes and melons not far behind. It’s also become our first port of call for fresh herbs so I want to look at increasing the varieties next year.
The flower garden has suffered hugely in the heat but can’t be a priority for water so things just have to take their chance. The sunflowers are certainly better growing at the back of the border (although there are a few escapees elsewhere that came out of seed mixes) and are putting on a good show. The bulk of the colourful annuals are long over but there is still plenty of interest and I think that seedheads add their own brand of beauty to the mix, too.
On the subject of beauty, I have been trying to track down and identify a bird which has been frequenting the garden and surrounding area for some weeks, announcing its presence with its persistent and unfamiliar calls. It’s restless, always on the move and as frustratingly elusive as the turtle doves when it comes to actually spotting one. With Roger and I sleeping in the tent while Sarah and her family were here, I became even more aware of it calling around us from daybreak until, wandering round the garden early one morning, I finally saw it in the flesh ~ a golden oriole! There is a pair, in fact, the female a muted greeny-yellow, the male very showy in bright yellow and black; later that same day, Roger saw them both drinking from the pond across the lane. We’ve never seen them before but hope they will appear every summer now, they are such a special visitor and encouraging the widest diversity of life possible into our patch is a top priority. To that end, Roger finished making our ‘bug hotel’ with a couple of little helpers last week and sited it under a hedge where we hope it will attract plenty of residents. Walking past it the next morning, I saw a young robin perched on top of it, all pale breast and bright eyes, as happy as you like. I’m not sure whether it was looking for its breakfast or simply enjoying the view but either way, it was lovely to see what in essence is a pile of scrap wood stuffed with organic matter already attracting life . . . even if not the kind it was designed for! 😊