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. 😊

20 thoughts on “Lazy gardening

  1. Hooray for the return of the pee bucket! We have as much moss here as you have chickweed. Chickweed is my favourite weed, one pull and a huge swathe is gone. I actually grow it as green manure. Just about to start removing the stone chips from the paths around the raised beds and then remove the rotten wooden surrounds, for a lower maintenance garden 😂.

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    1. Yep, the perfect weed in my book. I’m not quite so fond of the creeping buttercups which are making their presence felt in some of the outdoor beds, mind. Hooray for a lower maintenance garden! 😁 I understand all the thinking behind raised beds but they always strike me as as a lot of work in the long run, plus maybe a bit of beastie haven?


      1. Creeping buttercup is a scourge, it’s everywhere here. The beds will still be a little raised but wider, just heaped soil for better drainage and we’ll mulch the paths with whatever we can get our hands on.

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  2. I will write to you privately later but I have a suggestion. Don’t wonder about your Black from Tula seeds. Instead, my unsolicited suggestion is to proof some of them now. Yesterday I began putting a few (10?) of each of my saved seeds between pieces of wet paper towel and seeing the percent germination. It takes 24-48 hours to see the little radicle and know if they are fertile. All my seeds are now saved or self-seeding so it is important for me to know what % is viable before I count on them for next season’s food. Those peas you asked about–they lasted until December but only about a third of them are viable (of the bunch that I hatched out). However, as they were adapted to later, colder temps I will plant them out, save a larger percentage this year–thus having a smaller crop–and hope to do better the following year.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello and thanks for the suggestion, that’s a good idea. I’ve never bothered saving tomato seeds before as there are usually so many in a packet and they last us for years but I only had a pinch of the ‘Black from Tula’ and planted them all last year ~ typical they should not only be the first crop in years not to succumb to blight but also the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. I’m just hoping I managed to get the whole fermentation process right but a test would certainly confirm that one way or another. I’ll report back! Interesting process with your peas, I think seed selection is a fascinating activity and one that is becoming ever more important.


    2. Thanks for your email, Suzanna, I’ll reply properly of course . . . just wanted to let you know I have a lovely show of little radicles on my ‘Black from Tula’ seeds today so I’m notching that one up as a result! 😊 Now at least I can feel confident about saving more tomato seeds this year.


  3. A lovely read Lis, thank you for sharing your insights. I to enjoy connecting with the earth, it’s a wonderful meditation, gardening and growing food. It is very kind of you to link to our website, and much appreciated. Funny to read you started reading the french version. Good luck with your microgreens. I look forward to hearing your progress 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Tracey. It’s a pleasure to share your website, one of the things I like about Blog World is being able to share ideas and activities ~ there’s so much inspiration out there. I actually read the whole website in French which was great practice for me . . . and ‘micro-pousse’ is my new favourite word! 😊


    1. Thank you, Dorothy. I’m finding that snow hard to imagine as we’ve had none to speak of yet this winter . . . although last year it came on 1st April so we’re not out of the woods yet. Dreaming is good, at least you will have your planting all planned and in the meantime there are always your lovely recipes to share! 😊

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  4. Isn’t it fascinating the difference geography makes to a garden? Stating the obvious, I know but even with our cold January and February ( two months of winter, we are so spoiled), we now have a great crop of habas, chard, baby spinach and parsley. The onions, broccoli and cabbage or on a winter slow mo ! I love your idea re peas and loo roll holders. We experimented this winter as the summer seems too hot for peas and now have four healthy, flowering plants on the go…we don’t want to share them with any other creature! On the patio, lemon tree is in blossom coriander and rocket all a bit sleepy buy I am sure the sun is not far away. I do miss snowdrops. Yours are beautiful. Keep enjoying being back in your wonderful garden.

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    1. Yes, it’s definitely all about light and warmth! We’re only six days away from the end of our Persephone period so at least that sorts the light levels out, but as for the warmth . . . mmm. We’re having very hard frosts at night but 12C and full sun during the day, it’s lovely to have our coffee break chairs outside again and soak up some Vitamin D. I’m not rushing to sow too much yet though, there could still be plenty of winter to come. The pea idea is a bit of a permaculture ‘the problem is the solution’ thing ~ I’m working on the theory that if I can get the plants to critical mass before they go in the ground, there will be nothing for the mice to eat! I’m going to sow three peas per roll then plant the whole thing when they’re big enough, the cardboard should rot away. Watch this space! Winter peas sound like a good solution for you, we can’t grow them here much after June because of mildew. How lovely to be enjoying all those goodies from the huerto, there is nothing quite like the smell of lemon blossom. The snowdrops are having an exceptional year, they are truly gorgeous and I’d take them over red roses today without question! 😍 Bises x


  5. How lovely it is to be at ground level. It really changes the perspective, isn’t it?

    I had never read about the down sides of using autumn leaves as a mulch, so it made me doubt about my mulch plans for my garden. But, taking into account how well the forests grows it can’t be that bad 😇

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    1. Exactly! Given that woodland soil is the best in the world and we’re trying to mimic what nature does there, I’m not too worried about using the leaves. The problem for us is the length of time it takes for the soil to warm up in spring, we’ve just had some lovely mild weather but the wind has swung back into the north-east and could stay there right though March and April, so I try to keep one bed less heavily mulched in the hope it will warm up more quickly. That’s only for direct sowing though, as pretty much everything is pre-sown it doesn’t matter so much. I’m looking forward to seeing how your garden develops through the year! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very cold again over here in Galicia. We had some nice springlike weather, but temperatures a dropping below zero again at night.

        I’ve created a couple of extra beds in the garden, as I just couldn’t help myself. I’m also planting out random things in the neighbouring hills, just to see what happens 🙂

        I’m struggling to find the time to write, and even to read, as we took advantage of the springlike weather to renovate the facade of the house and are still working on the shutters. Maybe I can make a short video soon.

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