It has been the most beautiful week in this little corner of Mayenne, the sort that makes my heart sing with joy. The weather has been stunning and unbelievably warm ~ hot, in fact; I have spent several afternoons stretched out on a lounger in shorts, vest and suncream, indulging unashamedly in some solar therapy, and enjoying the very best of this lovely season. I must confess, this is a benefit of being out of action (well, there has to be something, doesn’t there?) . . . the normally fit and active me wouldn’t dream of lazy sunbathing like that at such a busy time of year. Mmm, but it’s truly idyllic. 😊 The trees are just on the turn, painting warm autumnal colours against the clear blue sky, and there is an abundance of nuts and bright berries woven through the hedgerows. It is perfectly still and calm, the air as soporific as the sleepy butterflies floating through the flowers or the leisurely wingbeats of the grey heron heading sedately to fish in a neighbouring pond. Days like this are such a bonus, a bright memory to be stored and visited in the dark, miserable months of winter.
The warm weather is not the only bonus: many things in the garden are having another crack at summer, too, and it is a riot of lush green and colour. A friend commented in August how sad it was that the garden looked so different compared to the same time last year, so brown and burnt up and lacking the floral rainbows I love. He was absolutely right . . . but my goodness, it’s a different story now.
Many of the perennials are having a second flush ~ the roses in particular are putting on quite a show ~ but a large amount of the colour comes from annuals that have self-set; they might have been over in a flash and run to dry seedheads far too quickly in summer, but the second generation of plants is more than making up for lost time. We have mallow and borage, calendula and cornflowers, poppies and cosmos in broad drifts and bright pops, as well as a few newbies like coreopsis that have suddenly appeared for the first time. It’s a crazy, chaotic jungle buzzing with insects, lizards and bird life and I’m enjoying every minute of it.
We know we live in a bit of a frost pocket but we weren’t quite expecting a frost sharp enough to take some squash and courgette plants just yet ~ one of the prices we’ve paid for such gorgeous afternoons, I suppose. Not that it matters, the courgettes had finished fruiting and the squash are ready for harvesting so there’s no harm done. In more sheltered spots, tender plants are still thriving and producing; in the jumble of growth that is the mandala bed, the bright crimson of sweet peppers makes an eye-catching palette above trailing orange nasturtiums, blue borage and magenta mallow.
We’re still picking oodles of tomatoes out of that bed and the climbing borlotti beans have decided to have a second crop, their speckled red pods adding to the celebration of colour. The rainbow chard, which we almost lost to a plague of aphids in spring, has been a real trooper all summer and goes from strength to strength, so pretty in the autumn light. Here it nestles happily with Welsh onions, flat-leaved parsley and Asturian beans in the kind of exuberant and productive polyculture I love.
I’ve managed to do a few more units of study from my permaculture course, including one about preserving food: well, there’s no problem putting that one into practice at the moment! The biggest issue for us is finding enough space in appropriate places to store everything because despite having plenty of outbuildings, they don’t all tick the frost-free, dry and beastie-proof boxes, so much of this week has been spent getting more organised. As much of our harvest ends up in the freezer, we have been using up what we can to free up space for new things such as eating frozen peas alongside fresh veggies from the garden and turning several bags of cherries into jam. It’s very easy to get sucked into the classic storeman’s mentality and keep preserved food that would be better off being used; sweet summer peas (especially with gravy, I think) are lovely with a winter meal but we will have leeks, cabbages, chard and kale for greens then, so what are we saving the peas for? In the same way, I’ve been making a pile of cabbages into sauerkraut this week but we will eat it sooner rather than later, as we already have a good store of pickles and chutneys . . . and there will be plenty more cabbages to come for future sauerkraut moments.
One of our best storage spaces is the cave that adjoins the kitchen and Roger has been busy this week giving it a much-needed spring clean, evicting things that don’t need to be in there (like my dyeing equipment) and freeing up shelves and floor space for more important things. It’s a great place for jars of preserves and the bottles of apple juice that have been pasteurised, for crates of potatoes, carrots, oca, onions and garlic, strings of dried chillies and of course, the squash. Mmm, they are going to need some room; we haven’t even harvested half of them yet . . .
Our apple harvest just goes on and on, but again we are making sensible decisions about what to do with them as it is a pointless waste to spend time and energy (plus the cost of any additional ingredients) processing, preserving and storing food we will never get round to eating. Where the permaculture principle of ‘produce no waste’ is concerned, I think this is an important consideration; we need to stand back and look at our waste stream in a completely holistic way. We’re making as much apple juice as we can but 50 or so litres will do us for a year; we’re freezing pots of compote but I’m also keeping a large bowl of fresh stuff going in the fridge, perfect for my cold ‘porridge’ breakfasts. If the weather ever cools enough to light the stove ~ and I’m not wishing that on us just yet ~ we will dry several jars of apple rings and I will make a few trays of apple and cinnamon leather. We will store as many of the best hand-picked fruits for as long as they will keep but we have to accept that we simply can’t use them all and the last of the windfalls will feed the birds and the compost heap. I don’t see that as waste, just natural recycling.
In my last post I mentioned the tremendous amount of self-setting that is going on around the patch and this week has seen the trend continuing, with peas being the seed of the moment; there’s even a very healthy plant that’s popped up between the paving setts outside the kitchen door and I have no idea quite how it got there. The first row of outdoor peas I sowed in spring were a disaster and needed replanting several times due to patchy germination and the fact that something (small and furry, I suspect) dug them up and scoffed them. It seems nothing short of ironic that we now seem to have a far more enthusiastic row that have self-set in their place! More and more, I find myself thinking that it makes increasing sense to let nature get on with these things and we’ll just harvest bits and pieces whenever and wherever they decide to grow. I do have a cunning plan where next year’s early outdoor peas are concerned, though, and I’m collecting the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls to do a bit of pre-sowing; given that we buy eco-rolls, recycled and compacted so that one goes a long, long way, I doubt I’ll have enough even by spring but it’s a start. I’ll be planting some early peas in the tunnel again as they were highly successful (despite the mice transplanting them), and I’m also going to put in a few broad beans this time which will crop ahead of the outdoor ones, which by all accounts were pretty disappointing this year. Belt and braces all the way . . .
Another plan we have for next year is to extend the existing Hügel beds as well as create at least one new one. It’s been interesting so see just how successfully they retain moisture and support growth even in their first season and next year I intend to branch out from planting squash on them and experiment with other food plants as well. As the ‘Crown Prince’ foliage dies back to reveal a bumper crop of blue-skinned squash, an unexpected and very welcome bonus has appeared in the shape of some huge and very beautiful field mushrooms growing beneath them.
It is a tremendous year for fungi and every morning sees more and more blooms around the garden and in the verges along the lanes; the local woodlands are always brimming at this time of year and Roger tells me that amongst other things, there are parasol mushrooms in our coppice ~ interesting, as I have only ever seen them growing in pasture land before. They are every bit as edible as field mushrooms, although slightly different in texture, and along with the current abundance of chestnuts they offer an opportunity for some satisfying seasonal foraging. Mushroom hunting is a very popular pastime here and one day in the future, I’d like to head into the woods on an organised foraging session with an expert and learn to identify more of the kinds that grow locally. Anyone feeling unsure about fungi they have collected can take them to the pharmacy for accurate identification but personally I prefer to leave them well alone unless I know for sure they are safe to eat (and touch). It’s an interesting exercise trying to put names to the fungi around the garden, but even using comprehensive and detailed guides, I end up with many labelled ‘No Idea’ ~ and they are definitely best left to do their thing undisturbed.
A huge blessing of the current weather is that we have not wanted or needed to light a fire in the house yet. There has been no question of lighting the kitchen stove since because of the way the system was installed, it means having the radiators on upstairs and the house is so warm, we would cook in bed! With sunshine streaming in through the windows for several hours each day, we are still enjoying passive solar heating so that even when it goes dark, we haven’t felt the need to light the sitting room woodburner either. All this will change soon enough but in the meantime, every day where we are not burning logs is a bonus and helps to keep our log store looking healthy. Roger has spent some time in the coppice this week, cutting fallen deadwood to season for future winters; it’s an ongoing task, but there are enough fallen trees to last us several years and although burning wood is currently being much maligned by certain governments, we like the independence it gives us, especially in the light of the current energy crisis.
We have just changed electricity providers and had quite a time of it trying to persuade them that our consumption is next to nothing; despite the proof being there loud and clear in nearly two years of bills, no-one seems to want to accept that we can survive on so little! In some ways, we are a bit of an anomaly as our electricity consumption falls over the winter months when we use the stove for cooking and heating water as well as a space heater. The French government has capped electricity price rises to 4% and strategies are being put in place to safeguard supplies but to be honest, if there are power cuts over winter they won’t bother us too much. Keeping the freezer functioning is our biggest priority and we have a generator to hand for that should it become necessary, otherwise we are well-provisioned with logs, candles and matches and dab hands at rustling up hot meals over wood. It pays to be prepared for all eventualities but at the moment, it’s hard to imagine those long, dark days of howling wind and lashing rain or snow and ice and winter storms . . . for now, I am more than happy basking in this rather beautiful last blast of summer living.