Bouncing back

One of the reasons I love to blog, and keep at it even in those moments when I’m tempted to stop, is that it provides me with a useful diary to look back on. Reflecting on a post I wrote this time last year, I was struck at how very different our two summers here have been: everything so lush and green then where now it is brown and burnt up, a garden full of bright annual flowers which today are little more than seedheads and straw, green leafy produce such as cabbage and New Zealand spinach which are currently looking pinched and miserable and failing to thrive, water butts overflowing where now they stand empty, every last drop wrung out of them weeks ago. Last August, I was writing about building resilience and self-reliance in the face of torrential storms, cloudy skies and below average temperatures; now, as we emerge (I hope) from the third official heatwave of the year and the most prolonged and severe drought for decades, those sentiments remain as pertinent as ever.

It pays to be optimistic. True, a quick glance at world news and it’s easy to feel a crushing sense of pessimism and despair, but if I allow myself to be overwhelmed or fatalistic then I’ve fallen at the first hurdle. If heatwaves and drought, water shortages, high energy prices and dubious food security are going to be the so-called ‘new normal’ then we have to meet them head on and do whatever we can to mitigate and cope in an independent and positive way. I’m not saying it’s a particularly easy task . . . but then, I don’t much like the alternative. So, let’s start with a bit of optimism. Last year, I reported that we had just lost all 30 of our tomato plants to blight which was a crushing blow after we had struggled for so many years against this particular adversary both in Asturias and our previous French garden.

Not a happy sight.

To be quite honest, at the time it felt like the last straw. I was seriously considering not bothering again because it seemed such a waste of time, energy and resources; yes, we had a decent haul of green tomatoes but really, how many times do you put yourself through the same disappointment before calling it a day?

Something of a harvest but not the one we had been hoping for.

When my online seed order arrived in January, I had a wry smile at the irony of the lovely people at EnGraineToi having slipped a free gift of some ‘Black from Tula’ tomato seeds into the envelope. Of all the things to choose; how sad and frustrating that I would not be able to do them proud.

This, however, is where the whole resilience thing kicks in, that ability to recover and bounce back from adversity. Forget Einstein’s definition of insanity, sometimes we just have to keep on trying, not so much in the expectation of a different outcome, but at least in the hope of one. So yes, I planted tomatoes. Again. The only glimmer of hope I had was that last summer, we did manage to harvest a few ripe fruits from a couple of plants in pots by the kitchen door; they succumbed to blight like all the rest, but far more slowly. What lessons could we learn from that tiny success?

Battling blight . . . but ‘Black Sea Man’ hung on long enough to ripen some precious fruits.

For starters, we had to acknowledge the fact that the blight was more likely to have been a result of the weather and so transmitted through airborne spores, rather than being in the soil. The plan of action was to choose varieties that were either resistant or which would perform well if sown later than normal and plant them in several different locations, some in pots of compost and/or garden soil and others in the ground. They’ve all had a comfrey mulch and several feeds and we’ve watered them as much as we’ve been able to under the circumstances; there’s nothing scientific about this experiment, it’s simply been a case of try it (yet again) and see what happens. From the outset, I held out very little hope for the eight plants that started out in the tunnel; I knew their pots were far too small but they were all I had, and anyway I really just wanted to see if the plants could evade blight rather than produce fruit. Roger shifted them outside before he went to the UK to make watering easier for me in my hobbling-about state and they’ve stayed there ever since; if nothing else, I saw them as a useful tool for tracking and comparing the progress of the different varieties we had planted. All credit to them, not only have they hung on but they produced the first fruits of the season. Result!

I placed another eight along the front of the house, in bigger pots this time although (rightly or wrongly) I squeezed two plants into some of them. Tucked up against a south-facing stone wall, they have borne the brunt of the searing heat and we have been keeping them alive with grey water from the house; we are now picking ripe fruits from them daily. The rest of the plants went directly into the ground in three areas of the potager and the mandala bed; despite the extreme weather, they have all thrived and in some cases the plants are now collapsing under the sheer weight of tomatoes, a real problem as the ground is so hard it’s impossible to push their stakes in any further. The fruits are just starting to ripen and if they continue in the same vein, we will have a glut on our hands very shortly. I am still having to pinch myself to believe this is actually happening.

In terms of varieties, I wanted to grow enough different types to cover our backs without getting too carried away. ‘St Pierre’ was an obvious first choice, a French heirloom variety which is tolerant of many things, including drought ~ a blessing this year. It’s a heavy and prolonged cropper so as long as we’re spared a spiteful early frost, we should be picking well into the autumn. It’s a beefsteak variety, producing deep red meaty fruits which are juicy and flavoursome and will form the bulk of the tomatoes we preserve for use over winter. ‘Marmande’ is a classic French heirloom beefsteak and probably the most popular choice in local gardens; the fruits are a bright scarlet and I like the way they are heavily ribbed and often contorted into weird shapes. Each one is a meal in itself, and I love them picked sun-warmed from the vine, sliced and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of fresh herbs: with crusty home-baked bread, it’s a perfect summer lunch.

Where the two dwarf varieties ~ ‘Parfait’ and ‘Arctic Rose’ ~ are concerned, the jury is still out. This is in part because we’ve yet to sample a ripe fruit but also because the plants are so tiny, they are literally producing tomatoes at ground level which I feel could be problematic in wetter years. We’ll see what happens. I sowed two cherry varieties but as ‘Cappuccino’ failed to germinate, we only have ‘Glossy Rose Blue’. No problem, it’s doing us proud with prolific sweet and juicy fruits that bring a dab of unusual colour to salads; remove the calyx, and there’s a perfect white star printed into the deep blue skin. Magical.

As for the ‘Black from Tula’ grown from those free seeds, it’s a great shaggy bear of a Russian heirloom tomato: not a beefsteak variety, but the fruits are ridiculously heavy and generous, with their green crinkled tops and oxblood flesh. They are incredibly sweet and literally bursting with flavour and I really, really can’t get enough of them. I don’t know what it says about my wiring that I feel the need to link tomatoes and music, but my first taste of these beauties had me thinking of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, bells, cannons, the whole rip-roaring shebang. In complete contrast, ‘Rozovye Schechky’ is a daintier, more elegant character with narrow shoulders, a slightly elongated shape and the most beautiful rose pink blush to its skin. Mmm, definitely more Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, this one, which has me slightly puzzled as it’s supposed to be a burly beefsteak. 🤔

The upshot of all this (and I apologise to readers who have had enough of my tomato tales) is that for the first time in ten years we have a tomato harvest to celebrate, with a potentially large excess to see us through the cooler months. It would have been much easier to give up and resort to shop-bought varieties but now we have hope and a decent blueprint for future seasons. I’d like to add another cherry variety next year but otherwise we’ll stick with the current successful producers and possibly plant everything in the ground to avoid the need for so much watering. I’ve started saving seed, fermenting them in little jars of water for a few days before rinsing, drying thoroughly and storing ready for the new season. Not just tomatoes . . . our windowsills are covered in plates of various seeds drying, including several types of lettuce, landcress, basil, two types of pea and borlotti beans. It’s another form of resilience and self-reliance: the more we can turn to our own seed rather than rely on buying from commercial companies, the better. It also gives us the opportunity to help save heirloom varieties (I’m not going to rant about the loss of diversity as there are people far better placed than me to do that but the general consensus seems to be that 93% of seed varieties has been lost since 1900. Think about it, people!), to select for plants that suit our conditions and to experiment with developing our own seed varieties.

Seeds maturing on leek flowers.

Saving seed is such a positive and optimistic activity, each one packed with potential for future harvests and human survival. It’s a personal opinion, but I think that complacency and apathy are twin evils of modern society, the ‘what’s the point?’ and ‘can’t be bothered’ attitudes that are so prevalent today . . . and utterly demeaning to a thinking species which is capable of so much more! We need to be flexible, adaptable, innovative and curious if we are going to adjust to change, to allow ourselves to be open to new ideas, to think well outside the box and find the energy and enthusiasm to give things a try. Of course, there is much wisdom in the traditional ways of doing things but it doesn’t mean we have to be stuck in an endless loop of trotting out the same old, same old. For example, the ever-inspirational Huw Richards suggests that the traditional approach to crop rotation may well be considered a bit old school now, the premise being that if we are gardening organically with a commitment to nurturing the soil, using successional sowings and integrated pest management within a thriving polyculture, then we no longer have to worry quite so much about shifting things around. In fact, he argues that it is perfectly possible to grow the same crop in the same place for perhaps three years in a row, provided of course a sensible approach is taken where something like blight is present in the soil. Taking Huw at his word, I planted our biggest hügel bed with squash for the second year running and the plants are showing no signs of disease or failure, with eighteen ‘Crown Prince’ and nine butternuts fattening and ripening every bit as well as they did last year.

Staying with squash, and Roger is doing his annual raised eyebrow thing about the number of beauties I have spread around the patch, both deliberately planted and the volunteers I didn’t have the heart to remove. Well, I’m making no apology for the abundance, especially as the potato harvest is set to be a disappointing one (we’ll have a better idea once we can actually get them out of the ground) and squash make an excellent substitute, especially the varieties with firm, dense flesh that we favour. If we have to change our eating habits, then so be it . . . and I have to say, when comfort food is craved in the depths of winter, a tray of spicy squash chips cooked in the woodstove then dipped in homemade mayonnaise is a treat to die for!

Is last year’s squash harvest set to be trumped? I think so.

When it comes to responding positively to change, this year’s weather has asked much of us. Look at the difference in the potager between the middle of August last year . . .

. . . and today.

That strip of bare baked earth is where the garlic was lifted some weeks ago, the plan being to sow with autumn carrots, black winter radish, celtuce, radicchio and a nursery patch of Savoy cabbage. Ha, not a hope of germination with the ground so parched and temperatures consistently above 30°C so time for Plan B. I decided it wouldn’t hurt the radish, radicchio and celtuce to wait: as autumn is usually mild here and we don’t fall below the hallowed ten hours of daylight until 30th October, I think there is still time to get them established. I’ve planted cabbage seeds in individual pots on the relatively cool north-facing kitchen windowsill and the first seedlings have appeared, hopefully with enough time to give us a winter crop. I’ll be winging it sowing carrots, but my plan is to put some in the tunnel, too, and see what happens. This belt-and-braces approach is becoming something of an important norm, one which not only helps to hedge our bets but provides an interesting observational and learning opportunity. For example, the fact that we now have good crops of aubergines, peppers, chillies and melons outdoors means we can rethink our plans for the tunnel next summer. We have a mighty crop of chillies and if we freeze some and dry others, there will be no need to grow any at all next year, freeing up space for other things. I’m beginning to think the more ways we can do something, the better, so that whatever happens, hopefully something will always work in our favour.

Peppers and chillies ready for preserving.

These approaches aren’t restricted to food production, either; we’ve spent recent weeks discussing what else we can do to create a more resilient lifestyle for ourselves and developing an outdoor cooking area is certainly a top priority. We like the idea of an organised space and system that goes far beyond a barbecue where we can cook on wood all year round and, after an interesting chat with a friend this week, we’re also now looking into the possibility of building some sort of solar oven and hob, too. Either way, it will reduce our reliance on electricity even further and that has to be a good thing. I’m also determined to find a well, since there must have been one on the property originally, and if we could put it back into use, it would offer us some degree of self-sufficiency where water is concerned, if only to have a back-up system for the garden in times of drought. So, dabbling in dowsing is on my to-do list, too.

Parched garden . . . is there a well under there somewhere?

As I write this in the cool of the house, the heat outside has climbed to the highest we’ve ever experienced in Mayenne but there is hope on the horizon as wisps of cloud stream in from the west , harbingers of the storms forecast from tomorrow morning. I can’t say I’m too thrilled at the idea of strong winds which could well do for the sunflowers and ~ far worse ~ flatten the climbing beans, but I’m more than ready for rain. Lots and lots of it, I hope and I really will be dancing in it as promised. One of the definitions I found for resilience this week was ‘the ability to be happy again after something difficult or bad has happened’ and I like that reference to mood as well as recovery because it speaks of optimism and hope and I think we need those two in bucket loads. Yes, bring on the rain and I will most definitely be smiling! 😊

4 thoughts on “Bouncing back

  1. I had seen the same video from Huw about crop rotation and felt so relieved to know I was doing the right thing and my plants told me the same. In the previous garden, there was only one optimal place for each of my plants and didn’t change it in four seasons only for the sake of rotation.

    Have you tried drying your chillies and soak them in oil, sesame oil is our favourite for this. The longer you’ll leave them (like a year for example) the better!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it all comes down to working with nature, listening to the plants, giving the soil a lot of love and using a bit of common sense ~ suits me far better than any strict set of rules! Thanks for the tip, I dry masses of chillies on strings but haven’t tried the oil idea, I’ll give it go.

      Liked by 1 person

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