Fair February

 February, a form pale-vestured, wildly fair. One of the North Wind’s daughters with icicles in her hair.

-Edgar Fawcett

February. A short month and one that is often maligned but so far, ours has most definitely been wildly fair with not too many icicles. True, there have been a few grey days and frosty mornings but mostly it has been fine, bright and sun-blessed, and it has been a pleasure to be outside ~ not just busy in the garden, but enjoying al fresco coffee breaks or a few minutes of evening sunshine before cooking dinner and inevitably, the first official barbecue of the year. It never fails to make my heart sing to see a line of laundry blowing in a soft breeze and coming back into the house smelling of spring. There has definitely been a bit of a bustle in the hedgerows, too, as the birds seek partners and nesting places, or in the case of the bramblings, come and fill their boots at the feeders before heading north once again. A multitude of plump, velvety bumble bees has emerged from winter nests to feed along with carpenter bees flaunting their metallic blue wings and the first red admiral butterflies sipping nectar wherever they can find it. The first daffies have opened their frilly blooms above a carpet of primroses, celandines, daisies and crocus; it has been an exceptional year for the snowdrops which are still flowering merrily and the hazel catkins are truly spectacular, cloaking the hedges in a shower of gold and full of pollen-hungry bees.

Of course, there’s always a flip-side and in this case it is most definitely the sad lack of rain; although we’ve had far more than last winter, recent weeks have been so dry that the soil is light and friable rather than the more usual heavy mud and I am having to water everything in pots and troughs on a regular basis. According to official sources, the 21st January to 20th February marked 31 days of sécheresse ~ a period devoid of rain in France, and an overall precipitation deficit for the month of 50%. After last year’s drought, this is seriously bad news and doesn’t augur well for the new growing season. We have installed two new 210 litre butts in our overflow catchment systems but there’s no chance of them filling at the moment, especially as I am quietly emptying the existing butts through essential watering activities. It is a bit of a worry given what happened last summer and I can only hope that if February won’t fill the dyke, then maybe March or April will. We haven’t quite reached the point of saving grey water yet but I have started to save any water used to wash vegetables; it’s a tip in Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and one so simple and blindingly obvious, I don’t know why I’ve never thought of it before. Veggie washing water is full of nutrients, especially in winter when seasonal produce tends to come to the kitchen covered in soil, and this makes a good feed for plants so it’s a waste to let it go down the drain.

‘Dirty’ parsnip and leeks from the garden this week. My fork is there to give an idea of scale: that parsnip was enormous!

What else can we do about the water situation? I went in optimistic search for an old well only to discover that when the original fermette was parcelled off, the well ended up in the field just the other side of our boundary. Darn it. I have been looking for a bowser which we could pull behind the garden tractor to make watering easier in the summer but the cost of them, even second-hand, is prohibitive so it looks like we’ll be hauling cans once again, although the extra butt on the Love Shack system will help where keeping the tunnel watered is concerned. Increasing moisture retention in the soil is an obvious partial solution and as I’ve been weeding, mucking and mulching the last couple of beds this week, I’ve been pleased at how much more organic matter there is in the soil than when we first arrived here. I’m hoping things are moving in the right direction.

There has at least been enough rain over winter to fill the pond at long last so Roger has been able to adjust the turfs around the edge now we can see the levels and also create a couple of areas of stones to allow wildlife to reach the water. It still looks stark as all new ponds do, and we will have to wait until later in the year for nurseries to have their full stock of aquatic plants; we’ve made a start, though, and the wonderful thing is that there is a lot of busyness in the area with birds drinking and bathing and a large population of great diving beetles and back swimmers already very much at home in the water. If we can get enough vegetation established in and around the pond over summer, then it will be fingers crossed for some amphibian spawn this time next year.

When I stumbled quite by chance on a nursery advertising bare-rooted Bramley ~ or to be completely correct ~ Bramley’s Seedling apple trees, I knew we just had to go and check it out; our sweet cider apples are wonderful for juicing and they make a very presentable compote with the help of a potato masher but there is nothing quite like a good old-fashioned British cooking apple when it comes to pie! True, they’re a sour fruit that, unlike the cider varieties, will need some sweetening but it’s the delightful fluffy pulp they cook down to that makes them perfect for so many things in the kitchen. (As an aside, although Bramleys tend to snatch the headlines, I really rate Howgate Wonder as an excellent cooker, too). To say they are a rare find in France is a bit of an understatement, so this was an opportunity not to be missed even though it was an hour’s drive away. What a complete gem of a nursery, I was in paradise! Run by an Anglo-French husband and wife team, I can honestly say it is the most immaculate nursery I’ve ever visited, the plants are so well-cared for and the choice is dizzying: cue one serious ‘child in a sweet shop’ moment . . . 😁 Needless to say, I came away with a few extra treasures and seeing as we were given a mug of excellent Italian coffee dusted with chocolate and a very generous discount on our purchases, we will definitely be going back. As rather too many of our young trees have been pruned over winter by nocturnal visitors, we invested in a top-notch anti-deer tree guard; this is one tree we really don’t want to lose. I’m already thinking of those pies . . .

Something a little bit different we bought from the nursery was a selection of sempervivum to plant in the low stone wall Roger built some time ago. I remember being fascinated by these ‘hen and chicks’ as a child but we haven’t grown any since our own children were small so it’s interesting to have another go and they already look just right planted in pockets between the stones. I hope the resident lizards will approve of their new succulent garden.

Staying with the theme of drystone walls, last autumn Roger created a circular stone feature which I called ‘The Sheepfold’ because it reminded me of an Andy Goldsworthy creation. We’ve been umming and ahhing about what to put in the centre so I was delighted when the perfect specimen presented itself at the nursery, a red witch hazel (Hamamelis ‘Ruby Glow’) which was simply too exquisite to leave there. In summer, it will provide some fairly innocuous green height above the rainbow of annual flowers I plan to plant beneath it but in winter, oh my goodness ~ what a stunner it will be, especially lit by the low sunshine and seen against a dark backdrop of holly. I went to fetch water while Roger finished planting it and by the time I arrived back with my can, there was already a honey bee in one of the flowers. What a perfect seal of approval.

With our Persephone period well and truly over, the time to get stuck into the first batch of seed sowing has arrived. The light levels are now conducive to encouraging plant growth once again but a balmy warmth takes a little longer to arrive outside! The soil is still cold but we have planted a row of parsnips from our saved seed this week; they are tough little characters and need a long growing season so we always plant them at this time of year, whatever the weather. We didn’t have a huge crop last year but the lack of quantity has certainly been made up for in quality, every parsnip being huge but still sweet and very tender. In fact, we are going to have a surplus as we will never eat what’s left in the ground before they start growing again so Roger is planning to freeze batches of parsnip, squash and preserved lemon tagine which he made this week and is absolutely delicious. The propagator is of course not bothered by cold temperatures and we already have a tray of aubergine seedlings basking in the warmth along with sweet peppers and Cape gooseberries, sown but yet to emerge. The difference the shelter of the polytunnel makes becomes startlingly obvious at this time of year: there is no way we would have potatoes through the ground outside before April.

The salad crops in the tunnel are still going well although the rocket and lamb’s lettuce are starting to flower and I will leave some of them to set and scatter seed; I’ve planted a row of radish between the leaves and they bombed up almost overnight. On the potting bench, there are trays of ‘Greyhound’ cabbage and red Welsh onion seedlings looking grand along with broad beans and ‘microgreen’ peas plus numerous pots and trays of sown flower seeds. I’ve been lifting lettuce volunteers and potting them up to give us the first batch for planting outside when the temperature lifts a bit; I saved masses of lettuce seed last year, but the hundreds that are popping up in the tunnel make me wonder if I’ll actually need to sow any of it this year!

I’ve also put Operation Pea-Off Rodents into action and sown the first batch of ‘Téléphone’ and ‘Merveille de Kelvedon’ in cardboard tubes of compost; I’ve stood them in sturdy plastic crates with wide mesh bottoms sitting in a solid tray which I hope will make watering easier and prevent the tubes from becoming soggy and collapsing. I’ve sown thirty tubes with three peas each which should give us a decent row in the garden and my plan is to simply dig a hole and pop each tube in to avoid any root disturbance once the plants have reached critical mass. Read it and weep, voles. 😆

With outdoor living mode firmly re-established, I’ve been sprucing up the Love Shack table and chairs with a fresh lick of paint in readiness for much use in the coming months. I’m also pleased at how our idea of turning the south-facing former car parking space at the front of the house into a gravelled courtyard garden is starting to take shape, as fresh new growth from the perennials we planted last year starts to make an impact. The fences and gates Roger made have certainly created a more intimate and enclosed feel and with a freshly-oiled picnic table and couple of wooden ‘coffee break’ chairs out there in the sunshine, it is becoming an ever more inviting spot. With gravel, pots and window boxes all planted up we shouldn’t lack for colour this summer but having found the dregs of some bright turquoise paint I’d used in Asturias, I finally got round to painting an old milk churn that had been left here just to brighten things up a bit and provide a colourful welcome at the front gate.

When I was reading up about microgreens a couple of weeks ago, I came across the idea of Buddha bowls for the first time. I realise I’m probably light years behind everyone else in this so maybe I should pay more attention to what’s ‘trending’ (or is it ‘on trend’?) but that really isn’t my way ~ plus I’m always a bit sceptical of anything that can seem to be there just to look pretty on social media. The first article I found left me with the impression that the food involved had to be vegan and eaten with chopsticks but wider reading soon suggested that a whole spectrum of ingredients was possible ranging from strict vegan to unapologetic omnivore and that really (and unsurprisingly) you can eat them however you want. My interest piqued, I decided that the forthcoming few days of being left to my own devices would be a perfect opportunity for a bit of culinary experimentation; I’m happy with my own company and have no problem filling long days with busyness but the evenings without Roger always feel a bit strange as that is when we spend time preparing a meal together. Cooking for one can seem a bit of a faff and it’s all too tempting to resort to something simple on toast ~ or else I usually end up with a vat of soup that’s enough to feed me for several days. I thought that perhaps setting out to make a Buddha bowl might fill the being-busy-in-the-kitchen gap and allow me to focus on creating an interesting meal for one without piles of leftovers. I don’t have an official Buddha bowl so decided to use a big pasta bowl instead with a small Japanese tea bowl in the centre to hold the dressing. Here we go . . .

Self-set lettuce, rocket and coriander . . . perfect Buddha bowl ingredients.

The concept of a Buddha bowl is very simple as each one is based on just five elements ~ whole grains, vegetables, a protein source, a dressing and ‘sprinkles’ to finish ~ within which the range of possibilities is seemingly endless. I set out to see just what I could create using as much of our own produce as possible so the bought ingredients are marked with an asterisk. (There are a couple of ingredients which don’t really fall into either camp: the honey was a gift from a beekeeper and the preserved lemons are homemade, even though obviously the lemons and salt were bought originally.)

Buddha bowl #1

  • Whole grain: brown rice*
  • Vegetables: squash and red and golden beetroot roasted in olive oil* with chilli and coriander seed; sliced black radish; sliced oca; shredded red kale; rocket leaves; radicchio heart; grated carrot.*
  • Source of protein: borlotti beans
  • Dressing: tahini paste* whisked with chopped garlic*, orange zest and juice*, honey and olive oil*.
  • Sprinkles: pumpkin seeds*, chopped preserved lemon, chopped flat-leaved parsley and fresh coriander leaves.

Buddha bowl #2

  • Whole grain: bulgar wheat*
  • Vegetables: red kale, mixed sweet peppers and baby leeks, lightly fried in olive oil*; grated beetroot; Welsh onion;, sliced black radish; radicchio, mizuna, baby beet leaves, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and ruby sorrel.
  • Source of protein: hard-boiled egg*
  • Dressing: herby vinaigrette made from olive oil*, Dijon mustard*, scrap apple cider vinegar, finely chopped flat-leaved parsley, fennel and mint.
  • Sprinkles: sunflower seeds*, primroses, rosemary flowers, chervil and chopped chives.

The verdict

Starting with the drawbacks, the preparation of so many different elements meant I needed to be very organised; for instance, I had to cook rice, bulgar wheat, borlotti beans, egg, roast and fried vegetables and allow them plenty of time to cool so it felt like the meal preparation was stretched out over a long time. It’s not something you can do in a hurry unless using bought pre-cooked pulses or grains but that said, things can be cooked ahead and stored in the fridge. I tried to be as energy-efficient as I could, too, so the roast vegetables for the first bowl were actually cooked the previous evening when the oven was on to cook our meal and I cooked the beans, rice, bulgar wheat and egg in a pan on top of the woodburner; I couldn’t help feeling that my usual ‘lone meal’ choices like a mushroom and herb omelette with salad or a vegetable risotto were far more fuel-efficient . . . not to mention a lot lighter on the washing up! That aside, I certainly had the enjoyable and engaging meal preparation activity I wanted and ended up with two nutritious bowls that looked and smelt wonderful, were completely delicious, very sustaining and which somehow oozed good health. There was also something about them that encouraged slow, mindful and appreciative eating; I even felt inspired to put on some soft music and light candles. Eating alone doesn’t have to be miserable.

I was really pleased that I managed to make two quite different bowls, especially given that we are in a relatively lean season when it comes to what’s available in the garden. The beans, squash and peppers all came out of our stores and everything else was fresh from the garden or tunnel; the only bought vegetable was the local French carrot. It’s also a great way of stretching tiny amounts of anything and using up scrappy bits and pieces in a meaningful way. For instance, we’re very much at the tail end of the black radish with only small ones left and the ‘baby leeks’ were a few straggly specimens that have never filled out into grown-ups but the scale of both was just perfect for the job.

It’s been interesting this week to see press reports of shortages of fresh foods such as broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers in UK supermarkets, especially as the supermarket shelves and market stalls here in northern France are currently heaving with produce from Morocco and Spain, so I’m not convinced about the cold Mediterranean winter being totally to blame. Whatever the reasons, it’s a good opportunity to bang the drum for eating seasonal produce once again, something I feel will become increasingly important in the years ahead. Yes, we have a polytunnel but it’s not heated and we’re not trying to grow hothouse vegetables through the cold months; if I can rustle up a couple of Buddha bowls from the garden in late February, packed with colour, flavour, texture and good nutrition whilst notching up zero packaging and air miles, then who needs ‘summer’ veggies at this time of year? Sadly, there wasn’t quite enough purple sprouting broccoli ready to use and my ‘microgreen’ pea shoots are still a couple of days away from being pickable, but even so there is still no need to resort to imported vegetables . . . I just wish the purple sprouting broccoli would hurry up because I love it!😊

Lazy gardening

For the first time in over seven months, I have just spent an entire week being busy in the garden and I can’t even begin to say how happy I feel. It’s still a case of ‘modified movement’ so I can’t zip about at my usual preferred pace and I have to be sensible when it comes to lifting and carrying but I can live with that for the simple pleasure of being back to doing what I love. The weather has been kind ~ dry, still and mostly not too cold ~ and I have enjoyed being out there and getting stuck in to all the things I should have been doing weeks ago. The joy at having to pull stray bits of leaf from my hair and scrub soil from under my fingernails once again has been exquisite!

With my hands literally back in the earth, I realise it’s what I think of as connection that I have missed the most; there’s a huge difference between wandering about the garden looking at this and that, and actually being fully and physically engaged with what is going on. I’ve never warmed to the term ‘low-maintenance garden’ for two main reasons. First, it suggests that everything in the garden is a chore, requiring us to spend time and energy on boring tasks that eat into time we could spend doing other things, so the quicker the jobs can be over and done with, the better. Also for me, there is a strong sense of disconnection, of the garden being something ‘out there’ that holds us responsible for management and maintenance, rather than an integral part of our lives and living spaces.

Of course, I understand that gardening isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and busy lives or physical impairments can make the idea of low-maintenance an attractive one; if I’m completely honest, I quite like the idea of a ‘low-maintenance’ house when it comes to cleaning! 😂 However, I just wish we could change the language a bit so that instead of focusing on the idea of work, tasks, chores and jobs we think about caring, nurturing, helping, supporting ~ in a word, love. I don’t mean it in any touchy-feely, woo-woo way either (although I have no problem with that attitude), I simply believe the world would be happier if gardens were seen as places of peace and pleasure where working with nature rather than beating it into submission or resenting its intrusion is the main thrust. After all, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the best thing to be doing in a garden is absolutely nothing!

Time to watch the grass grow . . .

I also believe passionately that growing and nurturing plants is an incredibly therapeutic activity, one that can help to bring a sense of balance and calm in a hectic world of push and shove. I am grateful to live in such a beautiful spot with plenty of space for creating a garden but raising and tending a few plants on a windowsill can bring just as much pleasure; our first ‘garden’ constituted a few pots on the balcony of a first-floor flat, tiny and limited . . . but a garden, nonetheless. There are, of course, many additional benefits to spending time out of doors, especially in these months of low light levels in northern Europe; what better way to boost Vitamin D, serotonin and endorphin levels than getting outside and connecting with the winter garden? At first glance, there might not be a lot to see or do but it’s amazing just how much is going on if we take the time to stop and stare. I love the fact that I can once again get down comfortably to ground level and observe all the silent busyness that is happening without any input from me whatsoever: layers of organic material being slowly but surely transformed into rich, friable soil; fresh green spears of bulbs piercing the earth and pushing skywards; brave little seedlings popping up in sheltered places; fungi trailing through the grass in snaking pathways and the muddy squiggles of thousands of wormcasts, evidence of such intensive and essential labour going on underground.

I’ve always been a bit of a laissez-faire (or do I mean lazy?) sort of gardener, preferring a chaotic abundance over manicured perfection every time so the system of no-dig gardening suits me down to the ground ~ no pun intended. We build and improve our soil from the top downwards, adding layers of organic material and natural amendments throughout the year and trusting the mind-blowing numbers and diversity of life-forms in the soil to do all the hard work for us. Beats wielding a spade any day. Mulching is a way of life and brings many well-documented benefits: it protects against soil erosion, acts as an insulator, helps to trap moisture, suppresses weed growth and itself becomes another ingredient in the soil recipe. Most importantly (in my opinion), the worms love it and happy worms are to be encouraged, dragging the top layer down into their burrows and turning them into something beautiful. Much of my week, then, has been spent lifting perennial weeds where they have appeared, distributing piles of dumped donkey dung more evenly then adding or topping up mulch wherever needed. For instance, I’d let white clover run between the red kale plants as a green manure, fixing nitrogen at the roots of the kale which has been in the ground for many months; now, after spreading a good dollop of manure around, I topped the whole bed with a mulch of grass clippings and dead leaves.

I know there is an argument against mulching with dead leaves based on the fact that they can create an environment that is temporarily deficient in nitrogen but I’m not too bothered on that score. This is because they will in effect form the filling of a nitrogen-rich sandwich: below them is a layer of green manure, chopped plant foliage, manure and compost and the next layer to go on top will undoubtedly be grass clippings. They are the carbon-rich balance and have already done much to improve the structure and friability of our soil; admittedly, I prefer to use them chopped but it’s a case of needs must at the moment. A more general drawback of any mulch is that insulating properties can work both ways so that they can actually prevent the soil from warming up quickly in spring; to this end, I’ve ensured that the beds we’ve identified for early and direct sowing have had the ‘light touch’ treatment with a thin layer of finely chopped matter scattered across the surface. Elsewhere, although the mulch is deeper, I know that very soon an army of blackbirds will be busy from dawn to dusk scratching it up in search of those precious worms so there is no chance of anything becoming too cold and compacted.

How long before the blackbirds start rearranging the mandala bed, I wonder?

Although they’re producing well, it struck me how much smaller the kale plants are this year compared to last and I’m convinced it has everything to do with the heat and drought of last summer. Next to them, a patch of Savoy cabbages tells the same story: a complete lack of enthusiasm in germinating and growing, they went into the ground far too late and far too small with no chance of us ever eating them as the winter cabbages they are supposed to be. However, the plants have hung on and as as spring tends to be a slow-burn affair here (let’s face it, we could still be having the same bitterly cold weather well into April) then I think there’s every chance we will enjoy a decent if late harvest from them yet.

Something that hasn’t struggled in the last couple of years whatever the weather has thrown at it is comfrey, such an essential and useful plant in any organic garden. As Roger had lifted all the remaining canes from the old raspberry bed I felt it was time to have the comfrey out of there, too, and relocate it to several new homes scattered around the patch. How the two modest roots that came with us from Asturias had grown and spread! I’ve stuffed plants into a few places where nothing else has thrived and if they all continue to grow in the same vein we should have more than enough for our needs, even chopping four or more times a year. The first fresh foliage is already on its way . . . why toddle off and buy commercial NPK fertilisers with their associated synthetic ingredients, manufacturing production, packaging and air miles when it’s as simple as chopping and spreading comfrey leaves or leaving them to steep into a wonderfully rich (if smelly) liquid feed? In a similar vein, I’ve written before about that greatest of fertilisers ~ urine ~ and without going into too much detail, I’m very glad to have reinstated my P-Bucket in the Love Shack this week. If you’re having a yuk moment, bear with me because dilute urine is liquid gold when it comes to feeding plants and soil or making compost . . . and it’s readily available . . . and free. Don’t fret about digging, raking, hoeing, forking, pruning, weeding and all the rest of it: the best thing you can do for your garden and compost heap is pee on them. I mean, it’s hardly work, is it? 😉

New growth on comfrey plants.

On very cold sunny days, the tunnel is the place to be and the difference in temperature never fails to astound me. Outside, I needed several layers of clothing, a thick padded coat and woolly hat yet once in the tunnel, I stripped down to a vest under my overalls with sleeves rolled up and hat discarded. No wonder the plants are so happy in there, the soil is already warm so I decided it was time to plant a dozen potatoes; these are ‘Charlottes’ saved from last year’s crop which had made an excellent job of the chitting process all on their own in the cave and hopefully will give us an early harvest well ahead of the outdoor spuds. Basking in all that wonderful warmth, it seemed like the right time to sort the tunnel out ready for the new planting season. First, I tidied up the potting bench and stacked pots and trays underneath, then carried in water to fill the butt and two large cans. Next, I turned my attention to what at some point had been a salad patch but had since become a chickweed jungle. Chickweed (mouron des oiseaux in French) is a great early spring green that is full of beneficial nutrients and I’ve been tossing a few succulent shoots into our salads for several weeks now. I generally tolerate it in the garden but it had got totally out of hand in the tunnel so the time had come for a bit of a tidy.

Are there any salad leaves under there?

I love gentle jobs like this, down at ground level using my hands or small fork; it gives me the chance to engage with what is going on, checking the health of plants, looking for any signs of disease or pest issues and gauging the state of the soil. As the chickweed carpet was rolled back, several buried treasures emerged including a wealth of coriander, rocket and lettuce seedlings, a row of rainbow chard plants that had been missing in action for some time and some rosettes of lamb’s lettuce which must be volunteers from last winter’s crop as we’ve grown a longer-leafed variety this time. Given the time of year, it’s amazing what an abundant salad we can pick: red and gold beetroot leaves, mizuna, radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, ruby sorrel, rocket, baby chard leaves, landcress, flat-leaved parsley, chervil and chives along with chickweed, sorrel and young dandelion leaves as foraged foods.

Lamb’s lettuce (or corn salad if you prefer): la mâche is a hugely popular winter salad leaf in France.

Growing microgreens isn’t something I’ve done much of apart from the inevitable mustard and cress mixes when our children were little; perhaps it’s my frugal side, but I’ve always thought that if I’m planting seeds, I might as well let them grow into full-size plants and enjoy them at a macro level, albeit often nipping off young shoots and leaves to eat along the way. Of course, I’m lucky enough to have the space to do that but I think for anyone who fancies growing some fresh, nutritious food in a lowest-of-low-maintenance way, then microgreens could be a great starting point. My interest has been piqued recently when we were introduced to the activities of David and Tracey Fenner who run a market garden and permaculture teaching site at La Ferme du Moulin des Monts in the Limousin region of France. I’ve been engrossed in their beautiful website (techno-numpty that I am, I didn’t realise there was an English version so it’s been a great workout for my French, too 🤣 ) and it seems they have taken growing microgreens to enthusiastic and inspirational new heights. There’s much that I’m finding interesting and thought-provoking; for instance, I’ve been growing crimson clover as a green manure for years without ever realising it was edible. Pottering about in the tunnel and watching the pea plants responding to the blissful warmth, I decided I’d give microgreens a little go. As I don’t have any coir matting or sterile compost, I didn’t want to plant anything which would have tiny seedlings as there will undoubtedly be other things emerging from our own compost so I’ve plumped for peas, which I’ll be able to pick several times as cut-and-come-again shoots.

I’ve also sown some giant red mustard, a packet of seeds which has been in the seed basket for donkeys’ years and I haven’t dared plant for some time as it’s such a mega-thug. Perhaps it will be more manageable at a micro level but that will depend on whether the seeds germinate at all . . . when I checked the packet, the date was 2002, although a few seed pod husks suggests they are our own saved seed from a later date. Even so, it’s probably a big ask but we’ll see; I shall be checking daily for signs of germination and with any luck, within a couple of weeks I’ll be snipping the little nutrient-packed sprouts to add yet more interest and flavour to those winter salad bowls.

I’m also keeping a close eye on the 30 broad beans I planted in pots a few days ago, eager to see those first wonderful shoots unfurling with the promise of so much good food to come. I’ve decided that for the most part, pre-sowing our vegetable seeds is the best way to go here and although it might entail a bit more work initially than throwing them directly into the ground, the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. Obviously, root crops like carrot, parsnip, beetroot and radish need to be sown straight into the soil but pretty much everything else can be started off in pots, modules or trays and planted out at a later date. To be honest, I’ve learned the hard way with this one: French beans wiped out by bean fly, lettuce roots destroyed by wireworm, peas decimated by mice and now the autumn-sown broad beans which germinated then disappeared (reason unknown), the tiny handful left being blackened by severe frost and struggling to survive. Forget autumn sowings in future, I shall raise broad bean plants in the tunnel as I’m doing now and they can go into the ground in spring where they will undoubtedly catch up anyway.

I’ve been collecting toilet roll tubes to use as root-training planters for peas in the hope of beating the rodents at their own game and now have ample for the first early row; all subsequent sowings were fine last year so I’m hoping we will be able to direct sow the successional crops. There’s a lot to be said for this approach, not least that it makes assessment of seed viability so much easier: if the seeds are initially raised in an environment where factors like growing medium, temperature, moisture and light are controlled and pests can be easily spotted, then sporadic germination is probably down to the quality or age of the seed. Also, young robust plants that have been given a good start and planted out in optimum conditions have a good chance of coping with extremes; we have had two completely different growing seasons here in two years so who knows what to expect this time? Our garden has to be ready for anything!

Sowing lettuce seeds in trays then potting them on before planting out produced a bumper crop last year.

With all this in mind, I’ve been sorting through the seed basket this week and drawing up a planting calendar to try and keep on top of what needs doing in the busy coming months. I can’t believe it’s almost time to dig out the heated propagator again and start this year’s aubergine adventure. It’s wonderful to see so many of our own saved seeds in there although I must confess I still feel a bit nervous around them, fretting about what happens if they fail to germinate. All I can do is plant them and see, although I’m so worried about the amazing ‘Black from Tula’ tomatoes failing that I have bought a packet of organic ‘Noir Russe’ seeds as back-up. Just in case. (As a tongue-in-cheek aside, I’m quite relieved to be using the French name because although it translates as ‘Russian Black’ rather than ‘Black Russian’ it still brings to mind Edmund Blackadders’s infamous codpiece which is far too much of an unnecessary distraction in my peaceful gardening world. 🤣) We’ve been making a few decisions based on observation, too; for instance, the ‘Musquée de Provence’ squash which grew strongly and looked so beautiful ripening from green to orange last year have turned out to be poor keepers which is disappointing; they have an incredible deep orange-coloured flesh but a fairly average flavour and a texture which is too far on the watery side for our liking. This year, apart from a couple of butternuts (which are always high maintenance so I’m not sure why I bother) I shall be sticking with the tried and tested blue varieties ~ ‘Crown Prince’ plus our home-bred mongrels ~ which have served our purposes so well for many years.

Allez les bleus !

Last summer, a swarm of honey bees decided to make a nest in the end of the house, the ‘scouts’ having found a way in through a tiny hole under the eaves and obviously what they decided was a perfect nesting space deep within the stone wall. It wasn’t an ideal situation, especially given that several bees each day all through summer found their way into the bathroom (there must be a hole along one of the roof beams which we can’t see) where they either got themselves embroiled in the roof window blinds making it a performance trying to let them out or crawled about stunned on the floor as a sting hazard for unwary bare feet. I love bees but in the nicest possible way I found myself hoping their new home would prove unsatisfactory and they would leave to find another; if they’d chosen a hole in the barn, there would be no problem! Anyway, far from slinging their hook, they set about building a strong colony which has so far survived the winter if the number of them boiling out of the sun-warmed wall this week is anything to go by.

We have kept bees in the past and it’s something we’d like to do again, especially using the French Warré hives which are kinder and a far more ‘natural’ home to bees than many other designs. It’s tempting to put a bait hive out this year and see if we can attract some occupants but a big part of me has serious reservations given the presence of Asian hornets here. They’re nowhere near as prevalent as they were in Asturias, where our friend Jairo saw ten out of his twelve colonies wiped out in one season, but I’m wondering whether morally it would be right to set up a hive of honey bees which could well become a handy feeding station for hornets at the end of the summer ~ first picking off the bees from the hive entrance, then stealing their honey stores. Perhaps it’s better to enjoy the colony that has chosen to live with us, safe within the house wall, and leading lives that are totally natural without any interference or attempt at control on our part. After all, honey bees need all the help they can get and if that means I just have to remember to wear slippers in the bathroom, so be it. It has been lovely to watch them out and about on milder days this week, foraging wherever they can find flowers. The drifts of snowdrops have been literally buzzing with their activity as they collect the bright orange pollen on offer. I couldn’t persuade one of the busy ladies to pose for a close-up but if you look carefully, you should be able to spot an orange pollen basket lurking in a snowdrop.

Who needs Where’s Wally? 😊

It has always fascinated me the way honey bees respond to temperature, forming a tight two-layered cluster in the nest to preserve heat during winter but venturing out to forage (and void their bowels) on those days when the weather is mild enough to do so. The fact that they are gathering pollen suggests the queen is laying; if I put my ear against the bathroom wall on these warmer days, I can hear the sound of their industry, hidden from view like the busy worms beneath the soil. So much work going on round the garden, so much of it not being done by me! A run of frosty mornings has been a reminder that winter is far from over; it will be some time yet before the bees can fly daily or the birds, now embarking on the beginnings of a dawn chorus, can turn their thoughts to serious nest-building.

These frosty mornings give way to days of flawless blue skies and bright sunshine, very welcome as it streams in through the windows but only giving warmth outside in sheltered spots as the wind, brittle and iron-tanged, bites savagely from the north-east. It’s fresh, cleansing sort of weather but not conducive to spending too much time outside unless we are well wrapped up and on the move. The warmth of the stove definitely beckons come evening but it has been worth venturing back outside to enjoy nature’s late show. Another moment of garden loveliness . . . and I didn’t need to lift a finger. 😊