One of the many things we have always loved about Mayenne is how slowly and gently autumn creeps in; even when the days shorten and the light fades, there is often still a mellow softness that seems far removed from the winter months to follow. This year has been exceptional in that respect and it is only this week that for me, the landscape has become truly ‘autumnal’ with the trees putting on a flamboyant show of colours in contrast to the incredibly lush green of fields planted with grass and winter grain. It was a bit of a shock to the system, then, to have a day of weather so horrible it seemed we were going to have the whole of autumn in one go, a day of glowering light, torrential rain and the strongest winds we have seen in months. Our mature oaks lashed and roiled like a storm-tossed sea and leaves flew past the windows in horizontal blizzards; I had visions of everything being laid completely bare once it was pleasant enough to venture outside again . . . and yet, still those leaves are hanging on for dear life. It’s not all over by a long chalk.
In fact, that day was nothing more than a blip and generally it has been mild, sunny and still, perfect weather for getting things done outside. Roger has made a good start on laying the hedge along the lane, which is quite a major project; it’s not so much the actual hedge laying bit, but all the sorting and tidying of the spoil as he goes along that takes the time. It’s also not the greatest stretch of hedge to be working with on account of the way it has been cut in the past and there are going to be several spaces along its length where we will probably need to plant a few extra native bits and pieces to restore it to its former glory. I’ve written previously about hedge laying (plessage in French ~ anyone who claims there are no hedges in France hasn’t been to the right areas!), an ancient craft which serves to preserve and regenerate hedgerows of native plants which is a long way removed from the more typical modern approach of cutting them with mechanical flailers. Working uphill along a hedgerow, some upright stems are removed while others ~ the ‘pleachers’ ~ are cut almost all the way through at the base of the stem and then laid down at an angle between upright stakes.
Although this might appear rather brutal, it in no way damages or kills the trees but rather rejuvenates them and encourages strong new growth to shoot up from the bottom once the sap begins to rise again in spring. This in turn ensures that a deep and thick base is kept or returned to a hedge, one that will act as a barrier to keep livestock where it should be without the need for any additional stock fencing, as well as improving the hedge as a habitat for a range of wildlife. One of the real beauties of this method is that it only needs to be done once every ten years or so with minimal maintenance in between but for me, there is also something very profound about watching Roger practising a craft known to have existed for at least 2,000 years, using simple hand tools and working slowly and quietly along the hedge in the November sunshine. (For anyone interested to know more, this is a wonderful video of hedge laying in Herefordshire.)
As far as everything coming out of the hedge is concerned, it is being sorted for different uses depending on size and shape: thick straight trunks for posts and stakes and the rest for logs; long thinner poles for climbing beans and twiggy sticks for pea supports; shorter bits and pieces set aside to dry for kindling and the barbecue; bits of brush put through the shredder for mulch. Any twiggy sticks left have been spread across the surface of several lasagne beds (thanks to Sonja for this idea) where the leaves will rot down over winter and the sticks can either be gathered for compost next spring or left in situ if we’re planning to add another layer of green material over the top. I love this no-waste system of working! On which subject, the ‘sheepfold’ made from stone and earth left over from the barn renovation and several layers of spare biomass is now finished and ready for planting with wildflowers next spring. I’m really pleased at how established the young trees behind it are already looking; we’ve marked them with sticks as they are still very small but give it a few years and the sheepfold should mark the entrance to a beautiful patch of woodland.
As the hedgerow moves closer to the house, it deteriorates rapidly. In fact, one stretch of it is nothing more than a dense tangle of brambles and ivy and we’ve agonised over how best to deal with it; in the end, we’ve decided to leave it for the time being, partly because it’s great for wildlife but also because it produces the best blackberries on site! Beyond that, however, the rest is privet which is not a plant either of us particularly likes and which has been allowed to grow so much that it has swamped several (preferable) plants and is just downright ugly ~ especially combined with two monstrous ornamental conifers on either side of the entrance. We removed one of those the first spring we were here and happily repurposed it into an Hügel bed but we have been so busy with other things that it has taken until now to finally get round to sorting out this mess.
First, the second conifer which was so thick at the base, Roger decided not to try and remove the whole thing but cut it off at hedge height instead; it now acts as a popular launchpad for our resident gang of house sparrows heading to the bird table. The whole length of hedge has been dropped to a much lower height (not easy, as there is a deep ditch on the lane side making access ‘interesting’) which means it no longer dominates the outlook from the house but also has given several roses, shrubs and trees a chance to thrive now they have more light and air around them. I can’t believe what a difference it has made, we have so much more light flooding into the house now, which means our passive solar heating should increase and we can also enjoy the view of the pond and woodland beyond the lane. I’ve been watching red squirrels skittering about across there and a huge grey heron that drops in silently to hunt just before dusk each evening. Give me that over a wall of privet any day.
With the hedges sorted, Roger then turned his attention to the two entrances. This gravelled area in front of the house had been used as a drive-through car park but since there is ample parking for several vehicles if needed behind the house, we wanted to do away with any idea of vehicular access across this patch without putting up the sort of formidable fences and electronic gates (complete with flashing lights) that are so popular locally. We opted for very simple post and rail to narrow the openings and we have started to plant them with clematis and honeysuckle to form an attractive scented growing fence; Roger made a couple of simple wicket gates for pedestrian access and that was the job done. Now this area has become more of a gravelled courtyard which we will continue to plant up as garden and a table and chairs will definitely be needed as it’s such a lovely suntrap. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about the ugly solar water heater but I’m hoping once the area is bursting with colour and life it won’t seem quite such an eyesore ~ and it’s a useful one, if nothing else.
From our bedroom window, I’ve had a bird’s eye view of a flock of fieldfares feeding on the orchard floor this week; I’ve counted over 50 birds at times with more swooping in to join the feast, announcing their arrival with their familiar chattering call that is so typical of the season. They are very pretty, these colourful migratory thrushes, but oh my goodness, there is nothing subtle about them. They seem to spend more time and energy fighting than they do eating . . . and we haven’t even got close to the lean, cold times of winter yet when food supplies become scarce. Still, I love to see them and they appear to be everywhere at once, truly living up to their Anglo-Saxon name ‘fledware’ meaning ‘traveller of the fields’. There’s been brisk business at the bird feeders as well so we have stocked up on some bulk feed to keep them supplied; I’m interested to see whether we can attract a wider variety of species this year, and I’m already thrilled that nuthatches, who were occasional visitors last year, are practically living on the bird table already.
Despite the softness of the season, I still find my thoughts turning to comfort food and winter vegetables. I think it’s a Pavlovian reaction to lighting the stove: the sweet smell of wood smoke and the toasty warmth in the kitchen has me feeling the need to go forth and dig parsnips and lift leeks. It seems very incongruous, then, that I can still gather an abundance of fresh salad leaves, herbs and petals from the garden, not to mention bunches of basil and sweet peppers as big as my hand from the tunnel. Red, orange, yellow, green . . . those peppers paint more than half a rainbow on our plates. Sliced and cooked in olive oil with garlic, herbs or spices and a handful of olives when we’re feeling decadent, they make a wonderful side dish bursting with colour and packed with Vitamin C; I can’t believe that they can go on cropping for too much longer (surely not?) but it would be a criminal waste not to make the most of them while they last. Summery dishes aside, we have been dipping into things more seasonal this week. For starters, we’ve blown the dust off the terracotta diable à pommes de terre which has made my heart sing because baked potatoes, preferably with lashings of butter (I have no shame), are one of my favourite foods on earth and this is a super-efficient way of cooking them since it doesn’t involve an oven. We start by heating a little water in the pot which seasons it and means the potatoes will be partly steamed and cook quickly on the stove top, even at a relatively low temperature. We tip out the water, add a little olive oil, garlic and rosemary, lay the washed whole potatoes on top, pop on the lid and leave them to cook. They don’t have the same crispy skins of an oven-baked jacket (we do those on other occasions, maybe when baking bread) but they are completely delicious and a very simple, economical and nutritious base for a meal.
Crumbles are great comfort food and although they generally tend to be a sweet dish, savoury versions have a lot going for them through the colder months. This week we’ve made one with a squash, leek and kale base topped with an oaty, nutty, buttery (as I said, no shame) crumble mix; it’s very substantial, almost a one-pot meal in itself, although a side dish of those colourful peppers went down a treat. It’s easy enough to reheat any leftovers but also eats well cold and I think is perhaps the kind of dish that might help persuade non-believers that vegetarian dishes can be good. Not that we are vegetarians, but we do eat a lot of meatless meals and many of them are firm favourites; it makes a lot of sense to start our meal planning with what’s good and plentiful in the garden or store and take it from there. Even though there’s always a sense of things slowing down at this time of year after the abundance of summer, we are still not short of possibilities to choose from: carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, black radish, oca, celeriac, kale, cabbage, chard, New Zealand spinach, calabrese, beetroot, leeks, various lettuce varieties, rocket, landcress, mizuna. pak choi, sweet peppers and chillies plus onions, garlic, potatoes, beans, squash and tomatoes in store.
Where fruit is concerned, we have come to the end of the fresh apples so everything now comes in dried, frozen, bottled or juiced form but there is still a good selection ~ apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries. I’m hoping that next year we will have far more fruit as existing plants respond to the tender loving care they have been receiving and new ones start to produce. I’m very excited about rhubarb (yes, I probably need to get out more) because I suspect there may well be a bumper crop and it’s such an early producer. Regular readers might remember me rescuing an ancient crown when we arrived here; the poor thing had been trying to grow inside a chimney pot and was completely miserable.
After removing the pot and giving the plant a lot of love over summer, I dug up the woody and almost rotten crown in the autumn and replanted four small root pieces from it in the perennial lasagne bed next to the asparagus. By early spring this year, two new crowns had appeared to be followed a few weeks later by two more . . . and when I found an unexpected bonus little root growing in the compost heap, I stuffed that in the ground, too.
I wasn’t sure how successful the plants would be given the heat and drought of summer and the fact that they were growing in a very young and dry lasagne bed; we didn’t have enough water to squander on them ~ it’s been tough love with all the perennials from the word go, they have to be resilient ~ so I just had to trust that the deep compost pockets beneath them would do the job.
Well, all five plants have flourished and put on an unbelievable amount of healthy growth so that it’s really more of a rhubarb forest than patch now. This week, the plants have finally started to collapse and die back a little, revealing a wealth of young growth at their hearts; I’m not altogether sure whether that’s a good idea at this time of year but it’s all part and parcel of the response to climatic conditions so I will continue to observe . . . and as Roger doesn’t like rhubarb, it looks like I might be in for a serious feast next spring.
Having written in an earlier post about being prepared to walk in all weathers, it came as a bit of a shock needing to pull on full waterproofs and hat on that first seriously autumnal day this week; I didn’t intend to go very far, to be honest, but even two minutes outside would have been enough for a complete soaking. I found myself wishing I had an adult-sized utedress of the kind we had seen nursery children wearing in Norway; skipping along with their carers like little flocks of excited ducklings, they were heading off on outdoor adventures dressed in wonderfully practical all-in-one suits which would keep them warm and dry whatever the day’s weather brought. How sensible to be dressed for every eventuality, nothing was going to drive them indoors and spoil their fun! As a teacher, I spent many winter playground duties being moaned at by children who were cold because their outer clothing was woefully inadequate for the time of year; despite all being dressed in uniform, fashion still dictated far too much where coats and shoes were concerned. So, bring on the utedress and boots, I say. It’s amazing how quickly things have got mucky underfoot here but I can’t really grumble about the grassy areas in the garden because it’s mainly down to wormcasts which are everywhere in vast carpets and such a good and hopeful sign. Needless to say, the moles are being very industrious, too, but are politely pushing up their tumps all around the boundaries rather than through the middle of things. I’m happy to rub along with them but would prefer it if they didn’t go mining under the patches of garlic and broad beans which have both sent up their new growth this week. Neither crop did particularly well this year so I’m hoping for better things next season; the fact that our rainfall is something closer to normal this autumn has to be encouraging on that score.
It takes a lot to drive us indoors but even Roger declared an official Hobbies Day in light of the vile weather and promptly disappeared into the barn to do a bit of renovation work ~ granted, not everyone’s idea of a ‘hobby’ but an activity that could be done in the warm and dry. As I’ve been unable to climb a ladder since June, I haven’t seen any of the renovation work that has been done so I’m very excited about the prospect of the plasterboard being cut away on the house side to reveal a beautiful stone doorway and a bright and shiny new room beyond: our very own The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reveal! The downside of that is that I will be able to access the space again and there is an awful lot of painting to be done . . . so I was secretly quite pleased that the bad weather only lasted a day and Roger was soon back outside to finish the hedging. As the sitting-room woodburner was lit, I decided I would be happy to hunker down and do the hobby stuff for us both but it’s been so long since I’ve done much on that front, I couldn’t really settle on anything. I looked longingly at my spinning wheel but I’m still not fit enough to use it so that was a non-starter. I dug out a pair of woolly socks I had started knitting in June and haven’t looked at since; to be honest, I only looked at them this time before putting them away again, but I suppose it’s a progress of sorts. I spent a happy hour painting a house sign on an old roofing slate, something I did in Asturias where I learned a lot from the experience; as my handwriting and artistic skills are both terrible, I used stencils but soon discovered that despite appearances, slates are a long way from being smooth and the stencils didn’t sit comfortably which made it all a bit awkward. This time I decided to be brave and go for freehand, thinking I could shrug it off as naïve folk art or some such thing if any eyebrows are raised and it actually all went surprisingly well . . . until I tried to apply a coat of sealing varnish which caused big smears across my handiwork. Mmm, you live and learn. I can’t decide now whether to go back to the drawing board (literally) or just say what the heck and hang it anyway as an example of Very Naïve Folk Art; who knows, it might even catch on. 🤣 After a quick tootle on my recorder, I plumped for a bit of crochet once again; this blanket project is already one of my favourites ever, I love the bulkiness of the wool, the texture of the joins, the fun of mixing big and small squares and the combination of all those yummy colours. Although I’d rather be outside any day, I do enjoy a bit of creative woolly business now and again . . . and if nothing else, it proved for the umpteenth time in my life that I am definitely safer with a crochet hook in my hand than an artist’s paintbrush!