A local friend remarked this week that Mayenne seems to be moving from having four seasons in a year to just two: summer and winter. I understand what he means. Spring can be pitifully slow to arrive, especially if April is dominated by glacial drying winds blasting down from the north-east whilst come October ~ and particularly this year ~ it seems that summer is extremely reluctant to slip away. With a current daytime temperature of 23°C falling only to 16°C over night, we are enjoying a soft, wrap-around warmth that feels anything but autumnal. The ash trees have made some sort of seasonal effort, fading to yellow and dropping their leaves, but apart from the cherries, nothing else is hurrying to join them; in fact, the mature oaks which form the greater part of our boundaries are still sporting a deep summer green. The single chestnut tree has made no move towards its beautiful coppery autumn tones but it is at least dropping a bounty of fat nuts onto the carpet of ash leaves which makes for very lazy foraging. Halved and peeled, drizzled with a little olive oil and seasoning, tucked through with sprigs of rosemary then roasted, they make a simple but fabulous dish ~ truly seasonal, even if the weather is anything but.
The garden is looking so lush and green that it reminds me of Asturias; even the squash and courgette plants that were caught by a frost a couple of weeks ago have put on lots of new growth and the globe artichokes and cardoons have grown so much new silvery foliage that I fear for their survival should the winter be hard. The Not Garden which I partly cleared some weeks ago, scattering rocket and landcress seed as I went, is a carpet of growth, with plants like New Zealand spinach and oca which really should be winding down now looking more enthusiastic and abundant than they have all year. Even the little fig tree is giving a second crop of sweet fruits. It’s complete madness, if I’m honest.
In the main potager, Roger has been planting white garlic and broad beans this week, the main problem being trying to find appropriate spaces for them amongst all the vegetation. There are already several volunteer broad bean plants where the crop was grown this year, plus peas, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, coriander and lettuce (which are literally everywhere) and I’m pretty sure that those tender individuals are in for a very rude awakening as soon as the weather turns. There’s also a mass of self-set buckwheat and I can’t even begin to describe what is going on with phacelia, which really should have had a growth check by now to hold it as a sensible winter cover crop but it’s romping away so quickly that it’s in danger of flowering. I’ve had to chop it with a hoe from around the young Savoy cabbage plants for the second time in a month as it was threatening to completely engulf them: part of me suspects I may have to do it again before we’re finished.
Then there’s the polytunnel. We’ve just spent a week in the UK and on our return, I couldn’t quite believe what had happened in our absence. The winter salad crops have exploded into a mass of colourful peppery leaves, punctuated by enough self-set lettuce to feed an army but more astoundingly, the sweet pepper and aubergine plants have all decided to have another go and are literally dripping with heavy fruits. No chance of clearing the plants out and prepping the soil for next year just yet, then! The tomatoes have finally given up the ghost in the mandala bed but there are peppers and aubergines still for the picking plus a bonus crop of borlotti beans that have appeared on plants I almost pulled out last month. At this time of year, we really should be starting on the starchier winter vegetables along with leeks and kale but it seems there is still much of summer to be had on our plates.
Wonderful though this might be from a culinary point of view, there is a more sobering side to this unseasonal weather. In the UK, which like mainland Europe is experiencing unusually mild weather, environmental experts are expressing concern about the effect on fragile ecosystems such as chalk downs and the future of the rare and seriously endangered dormouse. Certainly, there is still an unusually high level of animal activity on our patch of land. Normally by now I would be setting up bird-feeding stations but there remains an abundance of natural foods for the avian population to tuck into so no need for fat balls just yet; the garden is still full of flowers which in turn are heaving with insect visitors; lizards continue to skitter about the stone walls and I almost tripped over an enormous grass snake winding its way through the grass earlier in the week. Arriving home from our UK trip late at night, we were unable to park the car in its usual place because a very large hedgehog was busy snuffling through the gravel! What a complete treat to see this beautiful nocturnal creature going about its business, and a poignant reminder of why we don’t use slug pellets (or any other toxic substances, for that matter) in the garden. On a sadder note, the next day we found a small juvenile hedgehog dead in the garden, quickly followed by a live one the same size ~ a sibling? ~ bumbling about near the Oak Shed. It looks like, in keeping with many pairs of birds this year, the hedgehogs had a late brood and I can’t imagine that seeing a young hedgepig like this out and about in broad daylight at the end of October is a good thing. That said, I don’t like interfering with the way of nature unless absolutely necessary as it’s possible to end up causing serious problems and distress. A little research told me that this youngster was above the critical size and weight deemed necessary for survival and as it wasn’t apparently ailing, I only hope it has the maturity and fat reserves to make it through the winter. I haven’t seen any trace of it since ~ dead or alive ~ and I have my fingers crossed that’s a good sign.
I’ve recently treated myself to a copy of Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, an esteemed permaculture bible, and I love the way he talks about an ‘ecological garden’ because I think it sums up exactly the approach we practise. There is no shortage of places for creatures great and small to overwinter here as we make a conscious effort to leave plentiful piles of natural materials such as logs, brushwood, stone, hay, leaves and grass clippings in every corner of the patch and no official autumn ‘tidy up’ means there is a jungle of dried stems favoured by so many insects. Roger has been catching up with some mowing this week ~ the grass is growing at a phenomenal rate! ~ and the clippings are truly lush, full of clover and wormcasts and mixed with chopped dead leaves which makes for an excellent soil improver, mulch and compost ingredient. Under normal circumstances, I would be cutting things like the French beans off at ground level now, chopping the spent plant material over the soil surface and then mulching the lot but as I can’t get down down to the soil thanks to my dratted back problem, I’m gently trampling the plants under my wellies instead and then raking a thick pile of mulch over the top. We’re also piling the mulch straight on top of the courgette and squash plants in the lasagne and Hügel beds; it’s a bit rough and ready but will have to do for this year and as long as winter and the worms do their job, it should all help with building good soil for next season.
I smile to see how the master mower leaves large swathes of uncut grass where fungi are blooming; it’s quite a job avoiding them and I tread carefully on the grass paths so as not to crush any. It has certainly been an incredible year for them and their varied colours and often strange forms continue to fascinate me.
One light gardening job that I managed (and thoroughly enjoyed) this week was planting a few pots of spring bulbs and revamping the window boxes to bring some colour and interest to the front of the house. Roger emptied and shifted the large plastic pots of spent tomato plants, leaving a few glazed ones that I’ve planted with mixed tulips and a double narcissus called ‘Cheerfulness’ which we’ve placed right by the front door ~ beats a ‘welcome’ mat in my book any day. I’m not a fan of bought bedding plants but with circumstances having prevented me raising my own winter-flowering pansies this summer, we bought a few trays from the tiny nursery in St P; Monsieur Verraquin, who is very friendly and chatty, sells a good selection of quality plants quite literally from his front yard and I’m happy to support a local business like this that serves the community so well. The pansies look lovely and should flourish, no doubt seeding themselves all around the gravel and still going strong next May when I’m champing at the bit to put some summer colour in the boxes. This year, I decided to experiment with some different ideas in an attempt to get away from the ubiquitous and somewhat sterile pelargoniums, and planted the boxes with zinnias and violas raised from seed with a few nasturtiums poked in amongst them. The result was a bit underwhelming, in all truth. The violas made a lovely early show but faded away rapidly as soon as the hot weather arrived; the nasturtiums hated the heat and never really got going, producing a few pathetic leaves at best before promptly dying. The zinnias were the definite stars, they have flowered for many months and have been a-buzz with insect attention, but they grew way too tall and so looked more than a little odd without the underplanting I had hoped would balance their height. Well, nothing ventured and all that. There are still many zinnias flowering in the garden and I have collected and dried plenty of seed for next year; they might not be perfect candidates for window displays but they are worth their weight in gold when it comes to colour, resilience and sheer cheerfulness ~ the narcissi definitely don’t hold a monopoly on that one.
No sooner were we back from our travels this week but Joël the stonemason arrived to start his bit of the upper barn renovation. It’s an exciting time, since once he has worked his magic, we will have the shell of a large family guestroom at last; there will be much for us to do, all the fiddly finishing bits that take so much time plus laying a floor and applying numerous coats of paint, not to mention sourcing some furniture (Depot Vente, here we come again . . . ). That’s fine, we have all winter and I’ll share more about this project in a later post when the days are dark, cold and miserable. I’m assuming we’ll have a winter, of course, but in the meantime it’s far too warm and pleasant to be indoors. We’re squeezing every last minute out of this incredible weather while it lasts and it’s a joy to be busy in the garden ~ even if it does feel ridiculously unseasonal. 😊