The wildflower path

I’ve just renewed my WordPress subscription, not for one year but two which signals something of a commitment to my blog. The reason I mention it is that to be honest, it’s been a bit touch and go whether I bothered at all as I’ve been seriously contemplating packing up for good. I’ve struggled with motivation in recent months, not least because I seem to have had an almost constant stream of technical problems; the WordPress ‘Happiness Engineers’ are a wonderfully responsive bunch who pull out all the stops to help (if all customer service was like them, the world would be a happier place, I think) but even so it’s been frustrating to say the least. I’ve also been wondering if the time I spend blogging couldn’t be better spent on other, more useful activities: one of the things I don’t like about social media is how so much time seems to be spent talking about and sharing the minutiae of life’s events rather than just getting on and living them. Ten years in the bag. Call it a day and move on. I teetered on the edge of the precipice for a while, wobbled big time then had a change of heart . . . and so the writing goes on!

I fell into blog writing more by accident than design when I was invited by a vegetable seed company to join their blog community. At the time, I had no interest whatsoever and the reasons for that haven’t changed: I don’t ‘do’ social media, I’m not a whizz on the computer and my photography skills aren’t the best. However, on reflection it did seem to offer me something new, different, exciting and challenging, the perfect platform for keeping a diary of our first French living adventure as well as an attractive exercise in keeping my brain ticking over with new skills. The bottom line is I love writing and given that from the age of four to forty-six the bulk of my written activities focused on study and work, it suddenly felt very liberating to be able to write for pleasure and waffle away to my heart’s content on subjects of my own choice. I have no desire to be a serious author but I enjoy the creativity and craft of writing, taking an idea and forming it into a string of words with all the polishing, editing and proof-reading that entails. My blog has changed and evolved a fair bit over the last ten years but I think that’s a good thing ~ so have I, after all! One of the things I really enjoy about Blog World is being part of a vibrant and fascinating community and I love the interaction I have with other writers, the deeper engagement and discussion that is possible with people across the globe. In fact, thanks to blogging I have a number of lovely ‘penpals’ in various countries with whom I’ve developed valued friendships, like-minded people with whom I can share ideas or chew the fat independently of our blog pages. It’s an enriching and life-affirming aspect I never imagined would happen, something that brings colour to my world and for which I’m very grateful.

We’ve had some beautiful sunsets this week.

Writing isn’t always an easy or straightforward process, in fact at times it can be downright daunting; as a primary school teacher I had huge empathy for children who sat and chewed their pencil when faced with a writing task, adamant that they couldn’t even think about starting until they’d come up with a title. Talk about procrastination! I’m never really sure where my blog posts come from but I tend to think of my writing approach in terms of a peg or a pathway. The latter is pretty simple, an obvious narrative or recount that has clear signposts from start to finish (even if I have a habit of wandering off piste at times) whereas a peg is an idea or theme that requires a bit more thinking about as I try to pull what are often disparate threads into some kind of coherent whole. I can go for days or weeks without any inkling of what my next blog will be about and then suddenly something presents itself from nowhere and off I go again. This post is a case in point, triggered by a visit to the charity shop to stock up on reading material and noticing a novel with the rather lovely title of The Wildflower Path which started me thinking about ~ somewhat surprisingly ~ wild flowers.

Stitchwort and speedwell

I often talk about how one of our major aims here is to support the ecosystems within our patch and to increase the biodiversity within them but in reality, what does that mean? In essence, I think it’s about letting nature find its own balance inside our boundaries and helping as much as we can along the way, even when that actually means leaving well alone. It’s very easy to make value judgements based on personal preferences or prejudice ~ robins are sweeter than crows, peacock butterflies are beautiful whereas the white ones are nothing but a nuisance ~ but it’s so important that we stop ourselves from doing that and instead see the worth (and yes, the beauty) in everything. It’s also crucial to remember that if we invite them in, they will come, but not always necessarily quite in the way we expect. I was ridiculously excited to see activity in our new bat box this week and then hugely amused to discover that far from the occupants we had been expecting, there is a pair of enterprising great tits building themselves a nest in there; how they are managing to squeeze themselves in through the entrance I do not know but they’re doing it alright! I’ve also been having a fascinating time watching the red mason bees who have just started building nests in the solitary bee box we have put up in the outdoor shelter; they work so hard and take such care in carting pollen in and stashing it before laying an egg and sealing the cell with mud, several little nurseries skilfully built into each tube.

It occurred to me that the mud being used is much lighter in colour than our reddish soil and I had my suspicions about where it was coming from. When the stonemason created the doorway between the house and barn, along with a huge pile of stones he removed the yellow clay that had been packed between them in the traditional way of building; we have spread large quantities of it about on various beds but there is still a pile behind the house and having watched the bee in the photo above fly off in that direction, I set off to follow her. Sure enough, there were several mason bees in the area, collecting the yellow mud for their nests. Incredible.

Away from the bees’ nestbox and there are seemingly hundreds of wild bees making their nests in holes in the barn wall if the amount of busyness in the vicinity is anything to go by. We have been talking about pointing the barn to match the house but given what’s going on, it’s probably more important to leave it as a bee hotel; it’s only aesthetics, after all. What did make me smile, though, while checking on the activity was seeing one innovative bee who is building her nests not in nooks and crannies between the stones or in crumbling mortar but in holes in the wooden barn door. Yes, ask them and they will come . . . but sometimes very much on their own terms, it seems!

Anyway, back to the matter of wild flowers which are of course every bit as important as the resident fauna. Our philosophy is to encourage what is already here as much as possible rather than trying to introduce too many new species which in themselves may not be an appropriate addition to the ecosystem. It’s always lovely to see those beautiful pictures of wildflower meadows but the truth is they are difficult to establish and manage whilst importing seed or plug plants in an attempt to create a meadow can have serious drawbacks. We would rather work with what is here, encouraging different species to thrive and spread in those areas that suit them; if additional species want to arrive of their own accord, then that’s all well and good. I have raised a few natives from seed such as marshmallow and purple loosestrife to plant by the pond and in autumn I shall be sowing wild garlic in the hope of some future forage in our woodland area. Otherwise, it’s a case of recognising what we already have and what we can do to encourage them to stay and spread. With this in mind, I decided to grab the camera and set off on my very own Wildflower Path around the patch to see what I could find; there’s no missing the bold swathes of daisies, primroses and dandelions but it’s incredible just how many other beauties are here if we care to look. What follows is by no means a complete catalogue but simply a taste of what nature is doing at the moment with very little input from us.

Dandelions flourish both in the long grass and where paths have been mown.
The carpets of daisies bounce back straight after mowing, too.
Primroses and ground ivy
Bird’s eye speedwell
Dog violet
Field wood-rush, also known as Good Friday grass and Sweep’s broom, has responded enthusiastically in no-mow areas.
Common sorrel
Creeping buttercup
Ribwort plantain
Red deadnettle
Fumitory (with goosegrass)
Celandine and wild strawberry
Lady’s smock (also known as cuckoo flower)
Grasses have their own kind of beauty . . .
. . . and willows do, too.

What a lovely little wander. I was particularly thrilled to find that several new lady’s smock plants had appeared in different areas; they are one of my favourite spring flowers, so beautiful when growing en masse, so fingers crossed for some serious spreading. I was also very pleased that a couple of solitary bees (Grey-banded miner bees, possibly?) were kind enough to pose on stitchwort and buttercups long enough for me to catch a photo ~ not forgetting the grasshopper on the dandelion, of course. There is a definite sense of wild flowers blooming in greater quantities and varieties and that is certainly something to encourage in the future. I’ve just sown a large flower bed with a nectar-rich annual seed mix but only between the wild things that have turned up of their own accord and started to colonise the area: yarrow, plantain, knapweed, campion, ox-eye daisies, mullein . . . nature’s garden is managing itself very well. In my last post, I observed how quickly our garden would revert to woodland if left untouched and here is the proof if it were ever needed: on my wild flower wander, the first thing that caught my eye wasn’t a flower at all, but the deep glossy rust of oak seedlings emerging from last year’s fallen acorns.

Coming full circle to where I started, I’m looking for ways in which to move forward with my blog over the next two years, maintaining its essence and integrity whilst also rising to new challenges and embracing different ideas along the way; I’m not into trends and fashions but I think it’s important to give myself a little shake every now and then so that I don’t become a complete dinosaur. I’ve flirted with the idea of shifting to a new layout but I actually quite like this one, especially as my posts tend to be photo-heavy so I’m contenting myself with changing the background of my homepage to something seasonal on a regular basis instead (bluebells and orchids this week). I also looked into the idea of a making a podcast but came to the conclusion pretty swiftly that it really isn’t my thing; I can natter away with the best of them but it’s the writing I love ~ and when I thought about it, the peace, quiet and concentration that accompany the process of arranging words on a page, whether they’re tumbling out of my mind in a torrent or playing hard to get. It’s a little bit like following a path that twists and turns away into the distance; there’s no telling quite where it will lead me over the next couple of years . . . but as long as there are plenty of wild flowers along the way, then I shall be very happy to keep on wandering. 😊

Gardening, naturally.

Les giboulées are very much a feature of our weather forecasts at the moment; in English, I suppose we would call them April showers, short and sharp bursts of heavy rain often accompanied by strong winds and hail, with blue skies and sunshine in between. It’s definitely a case of dodging the downpours to get anything done outside as I don’t find a sudden torrent of hail down the back of my neck very conducive to happy gardening. Thankfully, there’s a lot to be done in the polytunnel so that has been my warm and dry refuge when the heavens open yet again. Fairweather gardener? You bet! 😊

The sound of heavy rain drumming on the tunnel roof reminds me of two things (above and beyond dismal camping holidays 😂 ). First, not a single drop of rain ever falls inside and so it’s essential that we keep the tunnel well-watered throughout the year; as soon as the temperature rises to a point where the door needs to be propped open during the day, evaporation rate increases rapidly and it’s all too easy for the the soil to dry out. Second, I am feeling hugely grateful and relieved that we are finally clawing back the rainfall deficit which has been an issue since September 2022. Despite the drought in February delivering a whopping 94% shortfall, we were back up to 91.8% of normal expected precipitation at the end of March and with plenty of wet weather at the moment, I am feeling cautiously optimistic about a better year ahead. With that in mind, it’s a good time to make the most of overflowing butts and carry copious cans into the tunnel to really soak the ground. Between the storms, obviously.

The cherry blossom is still beautiful against a grey sky.

First job in the tunnel was to plant a ‘Latino’ courgette; this is something we experimented with last year and it worked a treat, one plant in the tunnel to give us an early crop and the rest outside once all risk of frost has passed. It will need a fairly big space and will be producing fruits for many months so good soil preparation is essential, especially as it will be what I think of as a greedy feeder. There’s a ‘natural gardening’ event happening locally at the moment, with information in various libraries and people welcoming others to their garden to share tips and ideas, so while I prepped the soil I was mulling over exactly what natural gardening means and in what ways the approach plays out in our patch. The space earmarked for the courgette plant grew chillies last summer and once the spent plants were out, I gave the area a good mulch of chopped comfrey leaves, compost and well-rotted donkey dung and in recent weeks I’ve been adding coffee grounds and diluted urine. There were a few weeds easily lifted with my handfork; it will be impossible to reach behind the plant once it gets going so I like to start with a fairly clean slate. I then carried cans of rainwater in to give the whole area a really thorough soaking.

Digging a planting hole, I was chuffed to see how the work we’ve been putting into soil improvement is really starting to pay off now; the soil is ferrous and naturally red but examining a handful closely I could see just how much darker, organic material it now contains, thanks to the regular addition of natural amendments. I put a good dollop of compost into the bottom of the planting hole, spread chopped comfrey leaves over the entire area and then mulched the lot with grass clippings; this does mean the sweet perfume of broad bean and rocket flowers is now overpowered by the pungent aroma of rotting grass but it is worth the short-term pain for the benefits such a mulch brings. Roger had left me a pile of grass clippings after mowing that had built a good deal of heat at its centre which meant a warm blanket going down onto warm soil, just right to nudge the courgette along; the grass will not only retain heat but help to hold moisture in the soil and over the next few months, will break down along with the comfrey leaves and add its own nutritional and structural benefits to the soil.

Although I’ve been mulching the outdoor lettuce in a similar way, I haven’t bothered with the indoor ones as you can see in the photo above. The reasons for this are twofold. First, there is space between and around the lettuce to transplant seedlings of things like coriander and dill which are popping up like mushrooms in other parts of the tunnel and second, I’m interested to see what else appears on its own. There are already plenty of little chilli/pepper seedlings and although I’m not growing any chillies this year (even I had to admit last year’s abundant crop was enough to last us for several years), a big part of me is tempted to let one or two seedlings grow to maturity just to see what they produce. All the varieties I grew last year were open-pollinated so it’s possible we could have tiny sweet chillies or huge fiery peppers in a vast array of colours and the curious cat in me is interested to find out. What I do love is the fact that the seedlings have all come from fruits that dropped right at the end of the season, the seeds surviving the winter inside the rotting husks and now germinating in abundance; it makes me wonder why there can be such a fuss about seed saving at times when nature makes it all look so easy. This little patch alone epitomises some of my ideas about natural gardening: not a single synthetic element involved, just a lot of soil love and a willingness to let nature have plenty of leeway . . . and to observe and learn from what happens. Integrated pest management plays a huge role, too, so that I’m fairly confident that the two slugs I found lurking at the margins will be slurped up by the resident toad or beautifully iridescent golden ground beetles while the decent crop of broad beans and peas rapidly forming at the other end of the tunnel is testament to the busyness of various insects rummaging about in the flowers.

It’s very much a ‘between seasons’ time in the tunnel and it feels a bit like one big obstacle course with an ever-expanding trail of tender plants snaking down the path and overblown growth collapsing in all directions. With temperatures pegged back and those savage hail storms still raging, there has been no question of starting to drag everything outside to harden off during the day so I’ve had to work as best I can around the crowd of pots whilst starting to clear the ground for the indoor peppers, aubergines and melons. The only way to tackle the jungle is piecemeal so I’ve been working in strips, taking vast amounts of spent growth out to the compost heap.

As an aside, it took me days to sort those compost bays out a couple of weeks ago but now at long last they are in a logical order with bay 1 on the right being the current pile, bay 2 in the middle a maturing pile and bay 3 on the left the ‘almost done’ pile; this means in future it will be a simple job of emptying the third bay and tossing the other two one place to the left. As the lidded dustbin I was using to store finished compost has been pressed into water storage service, Roger has rigged up an old dumpy bag on the end for me to use instead; the whole system isn’t the prettiest but it’s highly functional and the rugosa roses in front are finally growing so hopefully it will be screened from view in the not-too-distant future, especially as I’m tempted to stick a few spare raspberry plants between them to plug the gaps for the time being. As the new compost pile is still relatively low, we keep the front off it so it can be trampled regularly ~ Huw Richards is a big advocate of this ~ and also used as a pissoir should we need a garden pee; for every big pile of green stuff that goes in, I add a layer of sawdust, dry dead leaves and other small woody bits to keep a balance and stop the whole lot descending into a smelly anaerobic sludge. Crumbly, rich, dark compost must surely be one of the greatest blessings of a natural garden.

Anyway, back to the Tunnel World where very slowly, a clear(er) planting patch has been emerging; I can’t truthfully say clear because I’ve been leaving all sorts of random self-set bits and pieces such as lettuce, coriander and parsley plus a few bigger radicchio, all of which will have to go eventually but have a chance to grow to useful size before the summer plants around them get too big. I’ve also been potting up a few things I’ve found in the undergrowth which is really just a bad habit of mine; why we need more rainbow chard plants when I already have enough for several gardens is beyond me but I can’t bear to see little plants go to waste. Perhaps I’ll be able to give them away to a good home, along with all the other waifs and strays I’m bound to gather in the coming weeks. I’m also rescuing as much food from the jungle as I can so that this week’s menus have been based on using as much coriander, spinach, landcress, rocket and beetroot (amongst others) as possible. We shouldn’t really have a hungry gap, just a short time with less variety than usual . . . and if I know courgettes, we will be picking the first ones from the tunnel in no time at all.

We don’t need huge quantities of seasonal vegetables to make a delicious meal: purple sprouting broccoli, fresh peas and asparagus from the garden are many times better than their shop-bought counterparts, a true luxury in themselves.

This week has seen the next wave of indoor seed propagation with ‘Crown Prince’ squash seeds planted in individual pots along with a few butternuts and our mongrel Blues; just the tomatoes, sweetcorn and beans to go now. Everything sown from saved seed has done well so far with the exception of the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which failed totally; whereas the cucumbers I sowed alongside them bombed up and begged to be potted on within days, the melons did absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada. With nothing to lose, I dug them up to find they were all just empty husks, so ~ scratching my head in bemusement ~ I went back to the packet I’d stored them in and had a good look at the rest. Many of those were simply flat shells full of nothing, too, but I did manage to find enough plump seeds to replant and bingo! up they shot. This is definitely a lesson learned: melon seeds are hardly difficult to save but I think I just wasn’t concentrating hard enough on what I was doing (in my defence, last summer wasn’t the easiest of times so the fact I managed to save anything was a small miracle); this year, I need to be very selective and make sure all the saved seed is good and as plump as can be.

Enthusiastic cucumbers

I can’t decide whether I like tulips or not. I realise that might seem a strange statement from someone who loves colour and flowers, and to be fair they are making a bold splash at the moment but even so . . . I don’t think it helps that I usually underplant with wallflowers but never got round to raising any plants last year, so those heavy heads on long straight stems just seem too formal for me, somehow. I’m far more charmed by the chaotic carpets of primroses, now stitched through with pretty blue forget-me-not in the gravel, or the swathes of wild cowslips, bluebells and orchids in our verges. When the tulips are over, I think I’ll shift them off into a corner of the garden somewhere to do their own thing in coming years and not bother with them in pots again; certainly, the large blue glazed pot has been earmarked for a fig tree Roger was given for his birthday and with any luck, as nature has its way more and more in the gravel garden, the need for pots of planted colour will be seriously reduced.

My head tells me they’re a bright splash of colour at the front of the house . . .
. . . but heart says these are what I love.

When I really started to think about it, the idea of a ‘natural’ garden seems something of an oxymoron as once we move from foraging for wild food to cultivating an area specifically for raising crops then we are surely controlling nature? If we left our garden to its own devices then in a relatively short time it would revert to a woodland of mainly oak, birch, hazel, blackthorn and wild cherry with gorse and brambles beneath; much as I admire the concept of forest gardens, the truth is there would be very little food available in comparison to what we can produce from our cultivated plot.

Our garden is a human creation . . . but we work with nature at every step.

Doing a bit of research into natural gardening, it seems to be a difficult definition to pin down, often coming back to being the same as ‘organic’ gardening ~ as in no use of synthetic fertilisers or other chemicals. Personally, I think it is something far more holistic than that, so that definitions I found referring to ‘gardening in tune with nature’ or ‘ecological gardening’ seem closer to the mark, the emphasis being on treating the garden as a complete living organism where each part is intrinsically linked to all the others and the approach to raising food crops is based on how nature goes about things. I’ve recently been given a couple of (English language) gardening magazines, one of which contains an article about ‘nature-friendly’ soil (no-dig, mulch, compost, green manure . . . ); it’s wonderful that this sort of thinking is becoming more mainstream but honestly, how as a species have we managed to get so far away from what soil naturally wants to be? At what point did it become a good idea to try and banish nature from every corner of the garden? I know not everyone would agree but I like to keep words like cherish, nurture, honour, respect, wonder, reverence and gratitude in mind every time I plant a seed, harvest a crop, water or feed plants, thrust my hands into the soil or simply sit and absorb the essence of the elements, life and biodiversity which make our garden the place it is.

The spring-planted rose garlic has been mulched with comfrey and grass clippings this week.

I was interested to see that ‘providing habitat for pollinators’ appeared in several lists of requirements for organic/natural gardening which is fine but what about providing food, too . . . and how about all the other creatures that reside in the garden? There’s no point in putting up nestboxes or creating habitats for living things if there’s nothing appropriate on hand for them to eat and likewise, a supply of food is all well and good but they need relevant places for living and breeding, too. I believe that a natural garden is as complex and multi-layered as nature itself, something that goes far beyond any simple formula or list of suggestions, but yet a very attainable and hugely rewarding undertaking if we are willing to learn through observation and practice. Polyculture is a key concept and one that flies in the face of the monoculture apparent in the fields that surround us; the farmers may be hauling in many tonnes of grass, maize and grain from their vast fields but we certainly win the prize for diversity. Obviously, we’re not running a business or feeding sheds full of cattle but we often speculate on just how many people we could feed from our patch if we really needed to.

Cramming it in: the summer garden is a celebration of polyculture.

With all the benefits of polyculture in mind, this week I’ve been sowing a range of hardy crops into a bed that is already home to pointy summer cabbages, garlic, broad beans, parsnip, lettuce and violas as well as an explosion of dill and calendula volunteers which have surfaced this week. First in were the carrots, without doubt one of our most successful crops last year despite the hot, dry weather; the sandy loam suits them so well and this might be tempting fate, but so far there has been no sign of the dreaded root fly. We had a long row of an orange ‘Nantes’ variety which cropped for many months so I’ve planted the same again plus a second row of purple, red and a rainbow mix because two people really, really need that many carrots. 😂 Next came red and golden beetroot, radish, spring onions, swede, turnips (only because I was give free seed but we’ll see how they go), coriander, two lots of cabbage and autumn calabrese; the cauliflowers went into individual pots in the tunnel as they need a bit more nurturing. I also planted a patch of mixed nectar-rich flowers and another of buckwheat to attract our insect allies and then popped in a patch of spare red onion seedlings left over from the main planting. There’s still room for a square of chard once the plants are ready to go in the ground and rows of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines plus basil which I’m planning to spread all over the garden again this year. Oh, and a row of something else where the old parsnips are, possibly some French beans; by my reckoning that’s about 25 edibles in a bed that is roughly thirty square metres in area. True, the autumn brassica plants will be transplanted elsewhere but there will be space for successional planting of other crops when things like the lettuce, summer cabbage and broad beans come out . . . and I haven’t even started on most of the other beds yet.

Young lettuce plants with self-set violas growing between and a row of newly-germinated parsnip seedlings just beyond the edge of the mulch.

The storms have been tearing blossom from the cherry trees in a blizzard of white petal confetti and I am thankful that the trees on our patch flower at slightly different times so we should be assured a harvest from at least some of them. We have a few bags of cherries left in the freezer but having just pulled the first sticks of rhubarb, I am confident now that we can get through an entire year on our own fruit. I for one am very happy to tuck into a bowl of sharp gooseberries or a sweet red berry mix or spiced apple compote rather than peel a Spanish orange or buy southern hemisphere grapes in winter and this year should be even better as our new bushes start to bear fruit ~ literally. The strawberries have their first flowers and the currants have opened tresses of blooms this week, such tiny insignificant flowers but like a delightful deli for epicurean insects if the buzz and fuss between showers is anything to go by. The currant flowers seem to be a particular favourite of the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) which are regular visitors and hopefully doing the pollination business for us; the bumbles manage to keep flying despite the weather, better able to cope than the honeybees who find themselves confined to overcrowded barracks and I suspect our feral colony is busy raising new queens with the intention of swarming very soon.

The wind blew a lot of the honeyberry flowers off but I can see tiny fruits forming and I’m also keeping an eye on the saskatoon which has been a mass of starry white blooms so there might be some berries to follow. My favourite flowers, though, are those on the jostaberry, such a striking combination of red and cream and I can’t wait to sample the fruits that are a complex cross between gooseberries and blackcurrants. Roger, who isn’t fond of either fruit, is still puzzled as to why anyone would want to create such a thing yet alone eat it but I’m curious to try and as far as I’m concerned if it’s another variety to add to our fruit harvest, then it’s welcome . . . and if I end up eating them all myself, well so be it!

At the end of a busy gardening day, during a moment when the rain had finally stopped and sunshine burst through to warm the evening, I sat and contemplated the time I had spent outside. One way or another, it had added up to most of the day and I think for me that is what ‘natural gardening’ is all about: not so much me being in the garden as being part of the garden, just a single and fairly irrelevant element interwoven with a cast of many. The list of jobs I’d ticked off was a long one ~ uncovering/covering tender plants, sowing seeds, pricking out, potting on, planting out, watering, mulching, tying in, carting stuff about in buckets and barrows ~ but my day of gardening had felt so much more than that, and compared to the industry of other life forms around me, my application to tasks wasn’t hugely impressive. I’d watched with delight as swallows swooped through the garden then alighted on rain-soaked beds to gather mud and a red squirrel did circus tricks along a grapevine support wire; my ears had been full of the sound of birdsong, the blackcaps doing their best to out-sing each other and everything else whilst they all go about the business of nest-building and chick rearing; a pair of blackbirds hopped across the cut grass and scratched up havoc in the mulched beds, heads tilted, as they hunted tirelessly for nourishment for the clutch of young I can hear in the depths of the bay tree; a mole, all snout and pink paws, pushed up chains of dark earthy eruptions across the grass. The entire patch was teeming with insects, the soil with earthworms and a myriad creatures I can’t even see and everywhere, there was the silent greening and growth of plants both cultivated and wild. I don’t think of soil as ‘dirt’ or slugs as ‘pests’ or dandelions as ‘weeds’ because whether I’m fond of things or not (and I confess, I’m not a slug hugger by any means) we’re all in it together, doing the best we can on this precious piece of land. For me, it’s not a hobby or pastime, but a way of life . . . and if we manage to produce some decent food along the way, then I’m a very happy gardener. Naturally. 😊


I am in awe of those people ~ and I know a few ~ who draw up beautifully detailed planting plans for their vegetable gardens every year, with a clear idea of what and how much they intend to plant where. Somehow, I’ve always lacked the organisation or motivation to do that myself, so instead I rely on a hastily-written planting calendar based on what’s in the seed basket and a retrospective sketch at the end of the season to remind me what grew where. Since there will have been successional cropping in several areas, my drawing ends up with a lot of overlapping scribbles squeezed into tiny places but I usually manage to decipher it and if not, then trying to puzzle out what hieroglyphs like autcal and savcab actually meant is good brain gym. This year is no exception so as always, I am making things up as I go along; I have earmarked a few places for specific plants to go but otherwise, the garden will slowly develop and evolve through the seasons as seeds are sown, plants put in and foods harvested. Some plants will thrive while others struggle, there will be tiny helpings of this and copious gluts of that but in the end, as Roger likes to say, something will happen . . . if nothing else, then hopefully a plentiful supply of fresh goodies from the garden.

I smiled to read again recently a reference to the rebellious nature of growing your own food (thank you, Marita!); how strange that what would have been considered completely normal activities not so many generations ago can now be regarded by some as subversive. It brought to mind a recent video discussion I saw that suggested modern capitalist governments prefer citizens to lead mundane, predictable lives: go to work, earn money, pay taxes, stack up debt and ~ most importantly ~ spend, spend, spend. As long as leisure time is focused on screens and social media, trips and treats, fast food and fashion and people are dependent on others for providing both services and stuff, then we can all focus on the ubiquitous mantra of ‘growing’ the economy. Well, sorry but I’d rather grow food . . . and what about growing friendships and relationships, communities, co-operation, sharing, ideas, creativity and a whole host of other things which are crucially important to the experience of being human? I’m not naïve: there’s no getting away from the need for money in our society and although I am a great fan of bartering, I doubt I could pay the council tax bill with veggie boxes or a few hours’ gardening labour ~ more’s the pity. I’m not going off on a political rant because that’s never been what my blog is about (and there are plenty of others who do it far better than I could) but I simply wish we could shake off this insistent need for ‘more’ and think about ‘enough’ instead and in so doing, develop a little more independence, resilience and yes, imagination, particularly when it comes to what we eat.

One definition of rebellion is ‘the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention’ so how can that possibly apply to this particular unapologetic crazy woman pottering about with a few vegetable seeds? (As an aside, I’ve always planned to grow old disgracefully, so if this is rebellion then vive la révolution, I say.😂 ) It’s all very simple: I wander down to the garden and gather a basket of ingredients for a meal, grown in healthy soil enriched with our own compost, watered by rain and warmed naturally by the sun in an environment that is teeming with biodiversity; there are no pesticide residues here, no artificial fertilisers, no need to douse with chlorine washes; it’s a short walk requiring no need for transport, food miles, burning of fossil fuels, packaging, labelling, advertising, marketing, refrigeration or ‘best before’ dates. It hasn’t been handled by anyone else, can be harvested minutes before use and is fresher and more densely packed with flavour and nutrition than anything I could buy. In short, it is a total antithesis of accepted practice, an act far removed from the world of conventional consumerism. Even better, it’s food for free: saving seed, making compost, collecting rainwater, creating natural fertilisers from materials on site and using integrated pest management cost us nothing at all in monetary terms. Yes, there’s a lot of work involved but we don’t charge ourselves too much per hour of labour. 😉 Anyway, it’s worth every minute of effort to enjoy such an incredible and diverse abundance without being beholden to anyone else.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that it isn’t set in stone that we have to be sheep and toe the line simply because that’s what’s expected of us; even the tiniest change in lifestyles can bring about huge rewards to health and well-being without rocking the boat too much and I think it’s high time that society acknowledged that fact and gave people permission to dabble in simpler, more meaningful lives or be different without being labelled as alternative. Personally, I don’t give a stuff if people think I’m weird because I’d rather have soil in my hands than a smartphone and enjoy talking to seedlings and bees, or because I don’t go to the hairdresser or wear ‘fashionable’ clothes, can’t name any celebs or tell you what’s ‘on trend’ but I know that’s not for everyone. Each to their own . . . but I’ll happily stick with eccentric for now, especially if it means I get to watch a wren building her nest or blue butterflies on the holly or eat homegrown asparagus. 😊

I broke every rule in the book with that asparagus and just look at it now! Perceived wisdom says we shouldn’t even think of harvesting it until next year. Yeah, right: with 30 plants all pushing up multiple spears, I think we can afford to enjoy a few feasts this spring without causing them any harm. I also somehow doubt the asparagus police will come calling. If growing our own food is indeed subversive (especially refusing to follow the rulebook) then perhaps the polytunnel should be named our Den of Vice: so much ready-to-pick food, so many crops to come . . . how disgraceful!

If the second photo gives the impression of everything being tidy and organised, it’s only because the rows of radish seedlings and lettuce transplants are relatively new in the ground and the space this side of the lettuce is being prepped for a courgette plant ~ which basically means I’m keeping it well-watered and throwing coffee grounds and chopped comfrey leaves on top of the soil to join the mulch of compost and donkey dung that went on earlier. The reality in the tunnel is that nature tends to be given a free hand, especially as most of what appears unbidden is often edible or useful; those ten lettuce plants are a case in point being tiny volunteer seedlings I lifted from another area. Give it a few more days and there will be other little bits and pieces popping up amongst them. The peas are just about ready to start harvesting but underneath the plants there is a wealth of self-set edible ground cover including ruby sorrel, parsley and calendula (I can see there’s a thistle, too, but I’m really not too worried about that).

Much of the tunnel space is nothing short of a jungle as the increased warmth produces a huge surge of growth in the overwintered crops before they all go rapidly to seed. This space needs clearing before the indoor peppers, aubergines and melons can go into the ground but there is still much good food in there to be enjoyed plus I want some of the plants to set seed to collect for next winter’s crops. It’s all a bit of a juggling game at this time of year, especially as the tender plants ~ which are spending all their time in the tunnel now night-time temperatures are in double figures ~ have outgrown their bucket cloches and would love a bit more space. Well, they will just have to be patient, especially those destined for planting outdoors which will spend the next couple of weeks being carted outside during the day to harden off.

There’s beetroot, mizuna, landcress, chervil, lamb’s lettuce, radish and spinach in there somewhere.

One of the wonderful things about having a garden full of food is that our meal plans start with what’s out there and ready to eat, rather than any set ideas or recipes. We have a shelf of cookbooks, many of them much-loved and well-thumbed, but ours is a different way of working: instead of choosing a recipe then going out to source ingredients, we start from the point of, “What can we do with such-and-such?” This leads to a fair deal of creativity and innovation in the kitchen, most of it successful ~ Roger currently has a purple sprouting broccoli flan in the oven which smells delightful ~ and I like the way that many people who share recipes these days suggest lists of ‘swaps’ for some ingredients so that recipes can be tailored to personal dietary requirements or preferences and to what is on hand. We’re not self-sufficient so obviously we have to rely on shop-bought foods to a certain extent but when the bulk of what we eat is home-produced, then small amounts of store cupboard goods go a long, long way. Storing and preserving our harvests in a range of different ways also reduces our dependence on commercial products so for example, we preserved enough tomatoes last year (either cooked down into rich sauces and bottled or simply chopped into pots and frozen) to last us until now in the kitchen, and this year I’m hoping to do even more. I wouldn’t buy fresh tomatoes at this time of year anyway, but the tinned ones are something we usually find useful so it’s good to not have needed a single tin since last July.

Supermarkets wouldn’t have touched our wonky, blemished, mismatched tomatoes with a barge pole ~ but their flavour was out of this world.

It’s fun to push the boundaries a bit with fresh ingredients and experiment with different ideas, perhaps trying ingredients in unusual combinations or applying alternative cooking or preparation methods; if we have decent crops or gluts, then we can afford to be inventive as there is plenty to play with. I love Jerusalem artichokes roasted in olive oil with garlic or a few herbs and spices so that they caramelise to a sweet, sticky pile of gorgeousness or else made into a creamy soup; however, Roger’s take on a rosti ~ grated chokes mixed with crème fraîche and fried in olive oil or butter ~ is heaven on a plate. They were a complete revelation, as were raw artichokes grated into a winter slaw and stirred through with a piquant mustard and yogurt dressing. Cooking doesn’t need to be dull! It doesn’t need to be difficult, either, and while I have nothing but admiration for the incredible dishes served up by chefs (and as a quick aside, anyone who makes sponge cakes like skyscrapers as mine have always had a bit of a pancake thing going on; thankfully, it isn’t too much of a problem as I’m not a huge fan), a few simple skills in the kitchen can lead to the creation of some wonderful meals. We don’t have to rely on commercially-produced dishes: let’s take pizza by way of an example.

If you like pizza and you’ve never made your own, then I urge you to give it a go. In fact, if you don’t like pizza then the same applies because I would argue that a homemade version could change your opinion altogether. Pizza appears on our menu on a fairly regular basis for a number of reasons:

  • It’s simple to make ~ don’t be scared of bread dough, it’s as easy as mixing four basic ingredients (flour, yeast, water, salt) together.
  • It can be tailored to personal tastes ~ you are in control of the ingredients so there’s no need to put up with foods or flavours you don’t enjoy. We often make a ‘half and half’ version if, for example, Roger fancies some spicy chorizo and I don’t. You can make individual smaller pizzas, too, so everyone gets to choose their own topping.
  • It can be seasonal ~ in summer, we love grilled aubergine slices on top, this week it was a celebration of the first spears of asparagus. Fresh basil is a classic choice of herb in summer but why not turn to thyme and rosemary in the colder months?
  • It can make small amounts of ingredients go a long way ~ it’s amazing what you can achieve with a couple of tomatoes, a few herbs, a small onion, a handful of olives, a scrap of cheese . . .
  • It’s economical ~ yes, you need to use an oven but we tend to make two pizzas at a time to fill the oven, then freeze one for future use (you can freeze an untopped base in the same way). It’s surprising how ‘less is more’, too: if you’re creating your own delicious base and using good quality ingredients, then there’s no need to pile in with a dozen different topping ingredients, just let one or two things be the stars.
  • It’s a crowd-pleaser and ideal for sociable cooking ~ all hands on deck then tuck in!
Fresh basil, garlic scapes and baby courgettes make a delicious pizza topping; the other greens are perfect for a salad to accompany it.

Now, I’m not Italian or a trained chef so I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else how to make pizza: if you want to create the most authentic, perfect versions then there is no shortage of expert advice available. All I will say is that we have broken many rules such as using the ‘wrong’ type of flour, not leaving enough proving time, using a rolling pin, making rectangular versions (more efficient use of baking tray space) . . . hell, we’ve even been known to slice rather than tear mozzarella. We don’t have a wood-fired oven or a pizza paddle or a pizza stone, neither do we subscribe to a particular style (New York? Neopolitan?) but somehow we manage to produce something totally delicious (and different) every time. If you’re up for a bit of culinary fun then you can have a great time creating what is basically fresh bread with a tasty topping and if some of those ingredients have come out of your garden or pots on a windowsill, how wonderful is that? I once heard a pizza ‘aficianado’ expressing their disgust at the idea of a goat’s cheese, pear and walnut pizza but personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that if it makes someone happy; let’s face it, it can’t be any worse than ham and pineapple, can it?

Well, that looks like a summer pizza topping in the making . . .

Of course, rebellions generally require some degree of struggle and the food-growing revolution is no exception: it’s all very well looking at those summery pictures but at this time of year, it’s the weather that causes us the most problems. It’s lovely to have bright, sunny days but hard frosts overnight are not very helpful where new growth or tender plants are concerned. As I work my way through the planting list, more and more pots appear that need protection, either in the tunnel, in the house, in bucket cloches or under fleece; it’s a bit of a pain trekking backwards and forwards with buckets of plants or covering in the evening and uncovering again in the morning but losing our future harvest to a cold night would be so much worse.

Frosty mornings have their own beauty but they’re bad news for tender plants . . .
. . . and not always good news for the tougher things, either.

As we move through the year, there will be other hazards, too: we’re not doing too badly for rain so far, but a drought is always possible, as is severe summer heat; there could be die-off from diseases, blight being the most likely offender, and then of course there are the beasties. Everything we do in the garden is designed to help mitigate against these problems: saving rainwater, adding organic matter to the soil and applying mulches to aid moisture retention, nurturing our plants so they are as robust and healthy as they possibly can be and selecting seed for resilient qualities are just a few tools in our rebellion kit. Using integrated pest management (or as I like to think of it, asking nature to help us with nature) is another biggy, to which end I’ve been sowing nectar-rich flowers amongst the vegetables this week as well as plants like buckwheat which are so attractive to beneficial visitors like hoverflies. Increasing biodiversity is such a key aim for us and I’ve been delighted this week to add Red Mason bees and Common Carder bumblebees to my list of identified species along with a host of tiny solitary bees, several different ground beetles, a rash of ladybirds and butterflies and the first hoverflies. We also have a wider range of birds and more pairs of several species building their nests with us this year and the red squirrels are definitely back in town. I’ve yet to see the first grass snake of the year but I don’t suppose it will be too much longer and as the pond starts to take on a more established feel, we should see a rise in our amphibian population, too.

During our recent UK trip, our daughter Vicky showed us an aerial photo of the Welsh smallholding where we lived for twelve years before leaving in 2012. While we lived there, we planted around 3,000 trees including an orchard, woodland and several native hedgerows; every November would see us outside at weekends in all weathers, planting slips of bare-rooted native trees on a steep hillside or finding new homes for a wide range of fruit and nut trees. We’ve planted trees like this wherever we’ve lived and I think it’s surely the best legacy possible but sadly, they’re not always appreciated; we know for a fact that in some of our former homes, young woodlands have been pulled out and turned into paddocks, gardens removed and ponds filled in. Of course, people are free to do what they want on their own property and I’ve never been one to look back once we’ve moved but I have to admit I felt myself welling up with sheer joy to see that the house where Vicky and her siblings grew up seems to be disappearing into a woodland. What’s more, it stands out as a green oasis in a patchwork of over-grazed fields and ~ zooming out ~ an ever-increasing number of industrial chicken units that make me happy not to live there any more. I’m happy about those trees, though. Over the moon, in fact. 🤸‍♀️

It’s cherry blossom season here again and the local landscape is drifted with their delicate snowy blossoms. I could add photos of blossom in abundance, including some of the trees in our coppice and garden, but instead I’ve chosen something small but hugely significant: this is the first blossom on a cherry tree we planted two years ago, then not much more than a bare twig. Despite everything the weather has thrown at it in the intervening period, it has survived and is fast becoming a beautiful tree, almost as tall as me now. Here is a harvest for the future, for us and the life we share this patch with. This is what we are about. Rebellion? I don’t think so, this just feels like the right way to live. 😊