Am I the world’s worst student? I started to study the Free Yearlong Permaculture Course by Heather Jo Flores nearly ~ um ~ three years ago and I’ve still only completed 57% of it. 😮 I have to admit I do feel more than a bit ashamed at that and it is truly no reflection on the course itself, which I think is brilliant and jam-packed with resources, information and activities. It’s just that life itself seems to have got in the way somehow with an international house move, new home and garden, other studies and health issues (to mention just a few things) distracting me from the job in hand. If I’m allowed to be slightly fair to myself, I have spent an awful lot of the intervening time putting much of what I’ve learnt into practice and I do console myself that there are many aspects to my life now which reflect at least some of the principles and design approach of permaculture. I decided this week, though, that I really need to apply myself once more so I’ve done the obvious thing and started a new course. Naturally.

Bear with me, it’s not quite the complete lunacy it might seem. This is the Getting Started With Ecological Design Course, a six-week beginners’ course which Heather Jo Flores herself recommends as being useful even to those students already enrolled on other courses. For me, it seems a perfect opportunity to kickstart my studies again, refreshing what I’ve already learnt with the intention of finally getting on and finishing the longer course. As a teacher and student, I’ve always believed that learning is spiral rather than linear, so circling back to re-visit ‘old’ learning isn’t an admission of failure but an enriching activity which serves to broaden and deepen understanding, knowledge and skills. I’ve loved the first week’s classes, especially the hands-on module which has involved choosing a ‘sit spot’ in the garden, observing the life around me and focusing closely on a single non-human species each day with the intention of building connection and empathy. Well, this is right up my street ~ let’s face it, I spend much of my life doing this sort of thing anyway ~ and I’ve chosen to do it without a notebook, simply sitting, watching, thinking, absorbing, reflecting.

With the temperatures climbing here daily so that it’s vests and shorts all the way now, I’ve chosen the relative cool of early morning to carry out my observations. It’s a truly beautiful time of day and as it’s also the best hour to be watering anything that requires a drink, I need to spend time outside then anyway. There is a quality to the light, which doesn’t stay low for long this time of year, that I find totally captivating, illuminating flower and leaf alike in a soft, Monet-esque palette.

When I started the original course, one of my activities was to draw my permaculture ‘paradise’ which was a lot of fun! Then I had to focus on three elements and develop my ideas in detail, bearing in mind that permaculture isn’t about having A, B or C but as an ecological design concept (or science), it’s about connecting all the elements within a system, based on the patterns of nature. I chose to design a composting system, mandala garden and mobile chicken accommodation, two of which I have been able to create and integrate within our property (no chickens, which is a shame). Perhaps one of our best examples, though, is the Love Shack: built from ‘waste’ materials and performing many functions ~ tool store, wheelbarrow park, shelter from heat and rain, rest area, rainwater catchment system, pee bucket modesty hut, plant support structure, plant nursery, animal habitat ~ it is one of the most visited places on the patch, connecting with so many different elements and making our lives altogether easier and more pleasant. At the moment, if I catch the time just right, I can enjoy my breakfast in a patch of warm sunshine, especially lovely now that the rose has decided to bloom for the first time. When it came to choosing my sit spot, I didn’t need to think twice.

What better way to sit and watch the garden go by than tucking into the fresh produce it offers? Like our salads, I love the way my breakfast bowls reflect the seasons and allow me to make the most of the very freshest, tastiest goodies. I’ve granted the hard-working rhubarb a well-earned rest and I’m now enjoying the first of this year’s gooseberries and strawberries. We have an abundant crop of both fruits, the gooseberries are a bit on the small side (dare I say, like many other things, the bushes could do with some rain) but they are packed with flavour and their tartness is perfect when partnered with sweet, sun-warmed strawberries. I’ve already started to freeze stores of both and that in itself proved to be something of an observation and connection moment this week: going down to the barn to find a container for strawberries, I was greeted by several lizards dancing up and down the door and the sight of the incredibly long tail of an incredibly long grass snake disappearing nonchalantly under the chest freezer. Nature. You have to love it.

One of the ‘design’ aspects of our property has been the location of seating and eating areas so that we can enjoy our surroundings to the full at different times of the day and the year; this applies to the house as well as the garden so that not only do we place seats and tables for comfort, warmth, light and practicality but we also work on creating pleasant views through the windows so even in the worst weather, we can still connect with the outdoors.

View from the kitchen rear window looking north.

The outdoor seating thing is very much a work in progress as our time and activities here lead to new observations and ideas. At this time of year, a favourite evening spot is the gravelled area we made where the old shed used to be, overlooking the very young woodland we have planted. It’s drenched with late sunshine but too many weeks of a strong wind in the north-east has led to us discussing some sort of protective structure behind it to provide a bit of shelter on our backs. We’re planning to drive in some stakes, then weave with long hazel whips from the hedges to create what in essence will be a hurdle; some might call it ‘rustic’ but as it will be made completely with natural, renewable materials from our patch and will blend sympathetically with its environment, I’m happy that it’s the right idea.

Our evenings sitting there this week have also brought home the way that nature responds to what we do. The huge swathes of uncut grass are full of the buzz of insects; when the robins have moved off, dragonflies perch on the hazel sticks that are marking the young trees, their gauzy wings backlit by sunlight and ready to dart off in search of prey; the ‘table’ that Roger made from an old cherry tree that bit the dust has become quite a hotspot for courting sawyer beetles, whose antennae are something to behold. These are an interesting visitor to the garden as they are normally associated with coniferous woodland but the dead cherry log seems to be very attractive to them; they are very busy, restless creatures both on the ground and in the air so that the only time they have stayed still long enough for the camera was when they were in the act, so to speak. Given all the mating business with the ladybirds and minstrel bugs last week, I’m wondering if my blog is turning into one of those classic David Attenborough wildlife documentaries of old. Without the off-camera commentary, of course.

My renewed studies, combined with reading Vivre Avec La Terre, have reminded me of the three permaculture ethics: people care, Earth care and fair share (the latter being very open to interpretation and debate). For me, they embody a prevailing sense of empathy, generosity and compassion, characteristics which human beings are admirably capable of but sadly, all too often can be reluctant to display. A couple of weeks ago, we went to a local plant and seed swap; I love the idea of these but having never been to one before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I gathered together a couple of boxes of plants ~ vegetables, flowers, annuals, perennials, the lot ~ and bagged up masses of seeds, mostly of reliable and/or interesting varieties I’d saved from last year. An hour spent labelling everything in two languages was a pretty interesting exercise on its own!

I included packs of several varieties of saved beans in my seed offering.

At the swap itself, the idea was to leave brought items on a table (or give a donation to charity) then take whatever was fancied from other people’s offerings. It was a fascinating study of human behaviour as much as anything else, particularly those people who hovered nervously around their donations like market traders and found it difficult to walk away! I had no such qualms and had a fine time nosing about and chatting to other gardeners, including an elderly French lady with a mischievous twinkle telling me all too graphically how to deal with the slugs that would inevitably attack the morning glory plants I’d picked up. I was drawn to a plant labelled menthe coq, mainly because it didn’t look remotely like any ‘mint’ I knew, although the leaves were wildly aromatic and I was assured that it makes a wonderful tisane. On getting it home, I discovered it is in fact costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), also called alecost, bible leaf and mint geranium; it’s not a mint (or geranium) at all but a herb with an interesting history which is the kind of thing I love. I’ve planted it in the potager between the rhubarb and soapwort, a sunny spot where I hope it will thrive.

I’d imagined that any plants being given needed to be properly potted with good established roots but many people had simply dug clumps of perennials out of the garden that morning and brought them along; in this way we gained a couple of iris of unknown colour and some day lily roots to add to our collection of attractive edibles. The lady organising the event had opened her nearby garden to swappers, leaving a pile of tools, pots and newspaper so people could help themselves to a root of anything they fancied (with a gentle and wholly understandable plea not to lift whole plants); she had also left bottles of sparkling wine and glasses on various tables. Such generosity and trust, I wonder how many gardeners would be prepared to do the same? Her garden was beautiful, overflowing with wisteria and drifts of perennial cornflowers and in every space, masses of a dainty but obviously thuggish white comfrey whose flowers hummed with bee life. We lifted a root so tiny, no-one could tell we’d been there, and it’s looking very happy planted in the ‘wild’ flower border, the perfect complement to the pink variety that grows so well here.

All in all, it was an interesting and enjoyable event and now I know what to expect, I shall get busy potting up more bits and pieces for next time. I think sharing in this way is so important at many levels: it brings together people who can swap not only plants and seeds but ideas and experiences, too; it offers the chance to collect plants suited to a particular bioregion whilst at the same time, dabble in new and different varieties, perhaps with an eye on climate change; it helps to fight the worrying decline in genetic diversity, safeguarding heirloom varieties and encouraging the activities of landrace gardeners; it diverts waste into a useful resource, especially packets of seeds that have not been used or plants heading to become green waste; it supports autonomy and resilience, weakening the reliance on often expensive and environmentally-unfriendly commercial plants and seeds; it teaches us how to give and receive without money changing hands, more difficult for some than others; it brings home the balance between give and take rather than take and take; more than anything else, it reminds us what it is to be human, to join together ~ however briefly ~ in a common cause which is of mutual benefit to all involved. People care, Earth care, fair share . . . it’s very simple, really.

Welsh onion plants and cardoon seeds are two of the things I took to the swap; I hope next year they will be making a similar impact in other people’s gardens as they currently are in ours.

Giving away garden bits and pieces doesn’t have to be part of an event; I have been sharing and swapping with friends and family for years and there is always something wonderful about the giving and receiving of little slips of roots or a few seeds in a paper twist, the anticipation of good things to come from someone else’s thoughtfulness and generosity. The pink comfrey in the photo above is a case in point: we currently have several large clumps around the garden, all of which came from a root given by a friend in Asturias (for which, at a later date, we gave a rhubarb crown in exchange). Sadly, Brexit means I can no longer legally exchange things cross-Channel but I have still been able to give plants and seeds to others and have a number of lovely gifts to grow this year, including some ‘special’ seed potatoes, cuttings of perennial kales and Vietnamese coriander, seeds for Majorcan pea beans, a Greek variety of aubergine and two Finnish heirloom tomato types so rare that it feels like a huge privilege (and weighty responsibility!) to be trialling them in a warmer climate. Please, please let the blight stay away.

Back to my studies and my morning observation sessions have officially come to an end as I move into the second week of lessons, yet they will continue, of course. I can’t help myself, really; there is so much out there to excite my senses, provoke curiosity and wonder and give me food for thought, so much to learn and reflect on, so much to admire and inspire me. I end up with far more questions than answers but that is surely what learning is all about? I’m very happy that the whole ethos of this course is based on getting out there and, quite literally, getting my hands dirty. Fine by me. Who knows, I might even manage to finish this one on time! 😉

Welcome to my classroom.


Life is full of surprises and isn’t it heart-warming when they turn out to be lovely ones? I’ve been delighted to find all sorts of new volunteer seedlings popping up around the patch this week as if the garden is quietly taking responsibility for planting itself; I had to smile when I discovered nature had beaten me to it with everything from basil in the polytunnel to tomatoes in the mandala bed. A self-perpetuating garden and me redundant once again ~ perfect! Roger’s hedge-laying activities have thrown up several surprises, too, with the appearance of new wild flower species in the hedge bottom and the waxy white flowers of a medlar which is a real bonus as we had no idea it was there. One of my greatest sorrows when we moved here was the way in which so many mature trees had been abused in the past; there is a difference between pruning or coppicing carried out with care and skill, and the downright brutal chopping of large branches which in some cases has completely done for the trees in question. In a run of hazel hedge close to the house, there was a hawthorn ~ very old, given the girth of its trunk ~ that had nothing more than a bunch of twigs growing from the top; it was a sad sight and we weren’t sure it had much of a future but when he laid that section of the hedge, Roger left it to see what would happen. Well, nature has a way of healing when given even half a chance: last year, the tree put on healthy new growth but didn’t bloom, this year it is covered in flowers and what a wonderful surprise to find they are pink! For me, hawthorn is the essence of the season; it was late to flower this year but has certainly made up for it since with an incredible show of snowy blossom in our hedgerows. Now we have a pink beauty to add to the mix. It’s been well worth the wait.

Well worth the effort of laying those long runs of hedges, too. They are leafing up quickly and forming thick, dense bottoms which are precisely what all good hedges need. With the hazel no longer dominating the scene, the wider range of species is far more visible and I’m pleased to see dog roses and honeysuckles weaving themselves through the greenery. With wide margins of uncut grass left on either side, they form lush, green corridors that are full of life and offer the perfect travel routes for our resident wildlife; several times this week, we have both had to stop at a hedge gap while a huge grass snake made the crossing and continued along the hedge bottom, very likely en route to checking out the compost heap for voles and other goodies.

It’s amazing just how many flowers and grasses are flourishing beneath the hedges, the more closely I look, the more blooms there are to see . . . and some very interesting visitors, too.

Minstrel bugs are particularly fond of pignut flowers.

It’s our aim that eventually, all the boundary hedges will be as thick and abundant as these and after all the problems of last year, it’s a relief to see the young hedging plants we put in to plug gaps finally putting in some strong and healthy growth. Even in the spaces between the awful conifers on our eastern boundary, the hawthorn, hornbeam and beech are starting to make an impact, for which I am very grateful. I shouldn’t malign the conifers too much, I know they are good places for ladybirds to overwinter and there has been a goldfinches’ nest in one of them this spring, I shall just like them more when they are diluted with deciduous natives and (hopefully) blend in as part of a mixed hedge rather than a ridiculous row of dark pillars.

Unfortunately, the internal hedges we planted to add structure, break up the spaces, protect the potager and screen the polytunnel (essential but ugly!) haven’t fared so well. They are a curving eclectic mix of native trees, flowering shrubs and ‘edibles’ which really should be making a positive impact by now but they have been struggling badly on two counts. First, last year’s heat and drought created more stress than such young plants could cope with and despite Roger’s valiant efforts with seemingly endless buckets of grey water, all struggled to grow and some died. How can it be such a battle to establish willow, it’s normally impossible to stop the stuff from growing? Added to the weather issues, the far too regular attention of visiting hares and roe deer and their frustrating habit of eating the tops out of everything ensured that even the plants that had managed to grow were pruned right back to where they started so that we’ve had to make guards for pretty much everything in the hope it will give them a fair chance. We’re also continually lifting tree seedlings that we find around the patch, putting them in as replacements when necessary and also spreading them around in the hope of creating small woodland areas. Like our former Welsh smallholding I wrote about a few posts back, my vision for this property is that eventually there will be living and growing spaces in the middle of a beautiful woodland. We just need the weather and wildlife onside!

Young birch tree grown from a found seedling.

One hedge that is certainly doing the business this spring is the white-should-be-red rosa rugosa curve around one end of the flower garden; there’s still some way to go but with the cardoons looking very enthusiastic on the other side and the little shrubbery starting to fill out, I can almost believe this will mature into the enclosed, more intimate space I had planned. From the western end, it’s impossible to see over the roses now apart from little glimpses of colour here and there and once the honeysuckle and rose have scrambled up the trellis Roger has built at the entrance, there should be an ever-growing feeling of going into a special space. All I need now is to organise a seat for quiet contemplation amongst the wild blooms and insects.

Establishing any kind of living structure in a garden is a game of patience, we just have to sit back and wait for nature to work its magic. The fruit trees we have planted are growing well and some of them even have tiny fruits on this year and several clematis and climbing roses are at last beginning to make colourful screens. Roses round the door might be a bit of a cliché but they’re a very beautiful one and look just right against the soft stone walls of the house. Roger spent hours last autumn unravelling an ancient wisteria growing in a tangle of hedge and pulling the branches out and over a trellis and a post and wire fence; it has only ever had a small handful of flowers on each spring so we weren’t sure what to expect but it has been absolutely gorgeous for several weeks and full of bees, particularly the blue-winged black carpenter bees who seem especially attracted to it. Hopefully, the wisteria will go from strength to strength now and enjoy mingling with a couple of climbing roses we’ve added for good measure.

Of course, structure isn’t just about height and hedges. Creating a pond has been one of our slowest projects ever thanks to various factors but at long last, we have just about done everything we can as finally, new season’s aquatic plants became available from a specialist nursery last week. We have planted a mix of floating, oxygenating and marginal plants, all native species including frogbit, brooklime and bogbean; they look a bit stark in their planting baskets but they should grow pretty quickly through the summer and provide an enriched habitat for a wider diversity of species. I was very excited to see what at first I thought was the silvery flash of a newt’s tail in the oxygenating weed but it turned out to be a great diving beetle larva, a voracious predator with a fierce pair of jaws which looks like something straight out of science fiction. I’d forgotten just how fascinating pondlife can be! The idea behind the location of the pond is that it sits at the far reaches of a wild patch, hidden from view by high vegetation (including a mixed willow hedge if it ever happens) and the hump of a hügel bed which creates a rise in the land. It’s something unexpected, a little gem to be discovered . . . I believe gardens should be full of surprises!

Floating frogbit

Libraries, too. I was a bit crestfallen to see the ‘natural gardening’ display in the local library had been taken down last week as there was one particular book I’d seen on my first visit but hadn’t been brave enough to borrow (is it a British thing, feeling nervous about removing items from a display, I wonder?). Accepting that I’d missed my chance ~ I think the books had all come from elsewhere ~ I started to look around and lo and behold, there was the very book sitting all alone on a table, still available for borrowing. In actual fact, it’s a very weighty three manual tome of which I am probably only likely to make it through the first book as my reading in French is a bit slower than in English. It’s ‘Vivre avec la Terre’ by Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer of the Ferme du Bec Hellouin, whose book ‘Miraculous Abundance’ is one of the most inspiring I have ever read.

One of the things I love most about these authors is their unfailing sense of optimism; they have such a positive, can-do attitude towards a future of regenerative farming and food production, sylviculture, strong local communities and abundant biodiversity in a world no longer reliant on fossil fuels. It’s the sort of uplifting read I’ve been in need of this week. Despite strong winds, the fields of wheat and maize around our property have been sprayed several times in the last couple of weeks, filling the air with the stench of noxious chemicals. Worse, when we were planting the pond plants, the farmer came round on his quad bike spraying the vegetation in the hedge bottom on his side of the shared hedge; the smell was so strong, we had to abandon planting and move away until the air had cleared. He repeated it the next day, so that every blade of grass and wildflower on his side are now dead. On Monday, I walked a short way along the lane to take pictures of the verges which were a stunning show of wild flowers, especially the carpets of various species of orchid; the next day, a tractor came through and mowed the lot off. Mmm, that was a surprise of the less welcome kind.

This I suspect is on account of the Tour de Mayenne cycle race which is passing along the lane on Friday as the same tractor has been back sweeping every inch of the road several times since. I suppose I should feel a sense of honour or excitement about the event and I have no doubt it’s all being done in the name of safety but a huge part of me is grappling with a mix of frustration and sadness at what is going on. How many more reports do we need to see about habitat loss, decline in biodiversity, endangered and extinct species, the serious and alarming fall in insect numbers, the dangers of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilisers and the destruction of topsoil before we apply some proper joined-up thinking and start doing the right thing for everything, not just the human species? It’s so easy to think our own efforts are futile but then, what’s the alternative? I refuse to stop trying to make at least a small difference and I know we are not alone; traditional hay meadows like the one in the picture above are disappearing locally, but where they still exist, they are full of an abundance of biodiversity and life.

Our ‘wild’ garden.

My favourite cheese comes from an organic farm a few kilometres away where Montbéliarde et Normande cattle graze in fields like these and we buy pork from a similar enterprise where high animal welfare and respect for the environment are key principles. This holiday weekend will see many outdoor markets where small producers will be selling sustainably-produced local foods of the highest quality. Like Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer, I don’t blame farmers per se for what they do, they are cogs in the vast machine of industrial agriculture driven by the growth mantra I’ve talked about before; they’re trying to make a living and feed the nation, after all, and it’s all too easy to paint them as the baddies when the picture is far more complex than that. The authors point out that numerous farming practices and attitudes remain based on the ideas of fifty years ago arising from the post-war Green Revolution, and that many French farmers simply don’t have the opportunity to learn about different approaches and how food could be produced in ways that are kinder to the environment (and the farmers themselves!). I’m in no way qualified to offer solutions but it is my greatest hope that things will change and that there will be the education, support, encouragement and positive attitude needed to bring that about, not just in the agricultural sector but society as a whole. Great to have cycle races, but all the fossil fuel being burned in its honour ~ we are braced for hundreds of support vehicles and several helicopters! ~ seems a bit ironic, somehow. In the meantime, we will carry on doing our bit and appreciating all the joy that our precious patch of land brings. This morning’s headline: the first courgettes are ready for eating. Now there’s the kind of surprise I like. 😊

Waste not, weed not

Some of our apple trees hit peak blossom last week and gazing up into the sweet-scented branches, I’ve been wondering how it’s possible for a single tree to produce so many flowers at once! I’ve also been reflecting on the valuable lesson it teaches. As well as providing the perfect niche for nests (great tits again, who else?), each tree is currently feeding thousands of varied insects who in turn are carrying out the essential task of pollination. All being well, the autumn will see a bumper crop of fruit which fresh or stored, raw, cooked, dried, juiced and made into vinegar will offer us many months of healthy nutrition; other creatures will benefit from the windfalls, too, and those fruits that aren’t eaten will decay over winter along with the fallen leaves and help to create a nutrient-rich mulch to feed the tree itself, whilst supporting an unimaginably immense network of life within the soil. It’s nature’s perfect circular economy . . . and there isn’t a scrap of waste.

‘Produce no waste’ is a key permaculture principle and one I return to often in an attempt to reduce my impact on the Earth. There are so many things that we can waste: food, water, fuel, clothes, ‘stuff’, paper, money, time, energy, space, opportunity . . . in fact, every time we consume or use something, the potential for waste is there. Let’s face it, waste is very hard to avoid but the trick is to see it as a resource rather than a problem and what better place than a garden to really focus on trying to produce no waste when nature is very obviously there as a great and wise teacher? I know when I start talking (yet again) about working and connecting with or learning from nature, for some people there is an element of woo-woo or being away with the fairies so it always cheers me to see others far more qualified and talented than myself saying much the same thing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading an article this week about laid-back gardening by Alys Fowler; if this is your thing (or even if it isn’t), then it really is worth taking a few minutes to read it. There was so much in there that appealed to me that I’ve borrowed Alys’s subheadings as a framework to reflect on how things are going in our patch.

Throw out your spade

My spade has been redundant for quite some time now; in fact, the only time I ever use it is in place of a shovel for loading mulch materials into buckets and barrows. We’ve come to a no-dig system relatively recently but I am a complete convert and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else now. When we moved here at the end of December 2020 there were two small patches that had been under cultivation but weren’t nearly big enough for us to grow everything we wanted to so we hastily created two more ~ one by turning turfs and planting potatoes on top, the other by stripping turfs and forking over the soil beneath in order that we could sow seeds. It didn’t take us long to realise the ground was badly compacted, seriously deficient in organic matter and riddled with grassland beasties like wireworms and chafer grubs so when it came to preparing the soil in the polytunnel, we decided that double digging was the only strategy.

Extending an existing bed . . . even before we went ‘no-dig’ I always preferred to use a fork. (Quick aside: those horrible conifers are now at the bottom of some very productive Hügel beds! 😆)
Planting potatoes in upturned turf.

In retrospect, we could have sheet mulched everything and put a deep layer of topsoil on the seedbed but at the time there was a sad lack of available organic matter to use and serious time pressures, especially as we were still travelling back and forth to Asturias to collect our bits and pieces. Needs must and all that . . . and we did have a decent harvest.

Since then, every bed we’ve created has either been a lasagne bed or Hügel bed and the previously dug beds have been treated to a new no-dig regimen with piles of green and brown organic matter spread over the surface as a mulch, regular sowings of green manure and the lightest of touches when it comes to removing persistent perennial weeds pioneers. I no longer waste time and energy or the lives of worms by digging anywhere in the garden and although I wouldn’t dream of literally throwing away my spade (which would be the waste of a perfectly good tool), these days all I need is a trowel and bucket for mulch-moving and a small weeding fork. With the soil structure left undisturbed, the microbes and other heroes can go about their business of creating a rich, balanced soil which in turn leads to happy plants and abundant harvests. It’s a win-win situation and one I’m very happy to champion.

Savoy cabbages and self-set chard thriving in a phacelia jungle this week: this once-dug bed hasn’t been touched for two years now.

Ease off weeding

I wrote last time about how pleased I was that weeds were being rebranded to super heroes at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. I erased the word from my vocabulary some time ago ~ the strikethrough above was completely intentional ~ and agree totally with Alys Fowler that instead of treating them with disdain, we need to learn from what they can tell us. I like her idea of them being thought of as ‘elders’ or ‘common folk’ who arrive to help the soil out and whose wisdom we would be well-advised to tap into. From an observational point of view, it’s interesting how for us it’s the once-dug beds that have the biggest populations which suggests to me those are the areas most in need of healing; there are very few ‘common folk’ in the lasagne beds but a lot more fungi which suggests things are more in balance there. I’ve taken on board the fact that annual ‘weeds’ are a sign of bacterially-dominated soil which requires more carbon, so although I try to use alternate mulches and everywhere had a good dollop of dead leaves over winter, I’ve been sprinkling sawdust this week where chickweed and speedwell are sprawling (including in the tunnel).

I happen to think there is a lot of beauty in these ‘common folk’ which is so often shrugged off or ignored in favour of ‘garden’ flowers; if red deadnettle or scarlet pimpernel want to sit pretty amongst the lettuce, who am I to complain? The benefit they bring to wildlife also goes without saying and that alone must make them worthy of a chance to shine.

Embrace rot and death

In short, don’t bother tidying up! It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking the garden must look manicured and perfect, any quick glance at a lifestyle magazine or advertisements for all that garden stuff you simply must have is enough to prove that. How much time can be wasted on clearing dead growth, pruning this, trimming that and keeping everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion in the name of . . . what, exactly? Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for one moment that gardens need to become tangled, overgrown jungles (although such can be very beautiful places!) and it’s good to have places to walk, sit, cook, relax, sleep or whatever and to enjoy and take a pride in our precious patch. The point that Alys makes is that rotting, along with disease and pests, is part of the Earth’s natural recycling system and if we leave well alone, a balance will eventually ensue. Dead vegetation will rot and nourish the soil where it lies, mulches that harbour slugs also hide their predators, where pests proliferate something will come in to feed on them. I have a very laissez-faire attitude to dead stuff and have never been bothered with the notion of creating a ‘tidy’ garden so I’m happy for it to lie and let nature do all the work. I’m also reasonably pragmatic when it comes to pests and diseases, for example, the currant bushes that have a bit of a a red curled leaf thing going on at the moment. It’s surely down to aphids but I’m doing nothing about it because the bushes are covered in those top aphid-chomping allies, ladybirds. I can honestly say I have never seen such a huge population in one place, all different sizes, colours and spotted symmetries, and there are plenty more on the way if my observations are anything to go by (I did apologise for intruding on such intimate moments!).

All that said and done, I know just how frustrating ~ heartbreaking, even ~ it can be to watch nurtured plants collapse as a result of pests or disease (or I, might add, terrible weather) so perhaps it takes a little more courage to embrace this approach, giving it time and trusting the natural process. I’m happy to shrug off losses as part and parcel of the gardening game but just occasionally some simple mitigation is required, like this temporary netting fence to stop hares scoffing the newly-planted sweetcorn ~ certainly the right call given that two days later, we found two leverets in the garden.

Stop chasing fast growth

When we go to supermarkets, I’m always amazed at how many aisles we don’t go down because we simply never buy what they offer and country stores or garden centres are the same. Just as I avoid the domestic cleaning products aisle like the plague (and don’t even get me started on air fresheners and scented candles), I can totally ignore the shelves of noxious and equally smelly garden chemicals. Synthetic fertilisers, rich in nitrogen and high on fossil fuel use during their production, are completely unnecessary in a garden. Honestly. They contribute practically nothing to soil structure and ecosystems and in fact, may actually reduce soil fertility by overstimulating microbial activity. My plants are looking a bit under the weather, not as green or flourishing as they could be and lagging behind, so what do I do? Scenario 1: jump in the car, drive to the nearest outlet (many kilometres in our case), buy a synthetic fertiliser in granular or liquid form with all its associated production and packaging issues and add it to the soil. Repeat. Scenario 2: wander into the garden, pull a few comfrey leaves to use as a mulch OR water plants I’m worried about with homemade comfrey tea OR pee in a bucket, dilute with rain water and apply to struggling plants. On balance, there’s no choice. Our society is imbued with the mantra of growth ~growing the economy, careers, bank accounts and so forth ~ and I wonder why more people don’t question the sense of it. Pretty much everything in nature has a finite limit of growth with checks and balances to keep them in place so why must we be under pressure to do more, make more, have more and spend more? When is ‘enough’ enough? I don’t want to push my plants to grow bigger or faster than they will do naturally; I love seasonality so everything in its own time is just perfect. Ease off and give them time, space and peace to grow. Put the kettle on. Pull a cork. Relax.

Our comfrey is in full bloom.

Compost in situ

Compost heaps are great things and I like the way Alys states that even badly-made compost is wonderful stuff for the soil; there can be so much arrogance and angst around compost making if you start to research it and while a decent balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials is preferable, it really isn’t rocket science. Organic matter will rot into something valuable sooner or later and I think it’s far better that we have a go rather than be put off because we’re not experts. Making compost in situ takes everything one step forward where ease is concerned and it’s definitely something I like to do because lazy gardening is my thing. Quite simply, why waste time and energy carting spent plants or whatever to the compost heap when they can be chopped and dropped where they grew and scattered over the surface of the soil for the worms to take care of? Brassica stalks are something I do remove because they are so chunky and obviously anything seriously diseased like blighted tomatoes, but everything else stays put, perhaps with a bit of hand-shredding first to reduce the size and speed up the rotting process. If I want to plant something in the same space, the old foliage just acts as a mulch around it. We currently have climbing beans and sweetcorn growing in last year’s squash and courgette remains, courgettes and cucumbers where beans were grown, broad beans in the old cabbage patch . . . it’s a wonderful recycling of precious organic matter for the very least effort. Granted, it doesn’t always look very pretty: take, for example, the patch which I’ve strewn with bolted radicchio plants this week (you can see the remains of last year’s climbing bean stems in the mix, too) which some would consider a ‘mess’ but once it’s full of winter brassicas, no-one will ever know!

Cold nights with the possibility of frosts are the last thing we need this time of year with all the tender plants bar tomatoes planted in the ground outside so we have to give them what protection we can to nurse them through the cold snap. We cover whatever we can with buckets and pots but everything else is being tucked under a deep blanket of hay, grass cut and dried from our meadow areas last summer. The covering-in-the-evening-uncovering-in-the-morning is a bit of a pain but the beauty of our system is that once the temperatures lift to something nearer normal again, I can just leave much of the hay on the soil both as a mulch layer and another composting in situ material. Perfect.

The no-dig potatoes in the mandala bed are already tucked round with a deep layer of hay . . . now they have a night-time blanket to cover the foliage, too.

Encourage plant promiscuity

If everyone grew just a little of their own food, I think there would be a much wider awareness and acceptance of just how diverse fruits and vegetables can and should be. What an indictment on modern society that anything can be labelled as ‘wonky’ vegetables! It really is time to drop these notions of perfection, of exactly what size, shape and colour a carrot or apple should be and start focusing instead on the things that truly matter such as flavour and nutrition; who cares if a parsnip has a smirk-inducing shape or a lettuce is a bit slug-nibbled when their flavour and freshness are second to none? We have just shared (!) the first strawberry of the season whilst wandering round the garden and nothing shop-bought could ever hope to match that moment of epicurean joy!

Diversity is such a key issue and resilience, too, if we are going to face a future of secure and wholesome food production so the more that gardeners can leave plants to flower and set seed, the better. We have saved seeds for ever but in recent years, I have become aware that now it is as much about helping to maintain or increase the genetic diversity in plants which is so seriously threatened as making sure we have seeds to plant next year. It’s true that some seeds are easier to save successfully than others but that’s no reason not to give it a go and to keep pushing the boundaries each season to see exactly what is possible. There’s a lot of fuss about growing parsnips which have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to germinate, something we only ever experienced in Asturias where I came to the conclusion they simply didn’t want to grow there (listen to nature, it’s telling us something). Every year, we leave a single parsnip in the ground and let it do its own thing; it produces a mass of tiny yellow flowers ~ which, like so many vegetable flowers, are a magnet for pollinators ~ then sets hundreds if not thousands of papery seeds which are easily collected. This is a huge part of the strategy: use fresh seed! We have never faffed about with germinating first on damp kitchen roll, just throw masses of seed into the ground during the coldest, wettest days of February. Job done, winter staple to look forward to. In every nook and cranny of the garden and polytunnel there are random plants left to set seed: a carrot here, an onion there and lettuce, lettuce everywhere!

Self-set lettuce with volunteer coriander and rocket friends.

Like taking a back seat with pests and diseases, allowing plants to freely cross-pollinate can take a little more nerve, especially as there tends to be warnings against certain crosses, but again I believe a healthy dose of pragmatism and common sense are needed if we are to become true landrace gardeners ~ and apart from anything else, it’s a totally fascinating activity and a lot of fun, too. Alys Fowler’s encouragement came as a breath of fresh air as I have recently read an article about the dire consequences of saving squash seed because there is a danger of curcubit poisoning or ‘toxic squash syndrome’ as curcubits freely cross-pollinate, particularly where wild ones are present. Let’s keep things in perspective: curcubit poisoning is a very unpleasant condition which can be quite serious but is also very rare. Furthermore, any curcubit likely to cause problems has a very bitter taste and as human beings who have evolved to instinctively recognise when something we’re tasting isn’t good for us, we ought to be able to recognise the fact before tucking in. We’ve been saving our own squash seed for many years now and have never had a problem, despite growing other curcubits in close proximity; quite the opposite, in fact. We have used the benefits of cross-pollination between squash varieties to develop ‘new’ strains that suit our tastebuds, culinary requirements, storage needs and grow well in our soil and weather conditions. It’s not unthinkable that in the very near future we will be able to make the leap from still growing a few plants from commercial seed ‘just in case’ to relying on our own seed one hundred percent.

One of our ‘mongrel’ squash growing last summer; note the abundance of self-set phacelia around it.

Certainly, I am always very happy for plants to seed and self-set all around the patch and they are often the ones to keep, being ‘happy’ plants that are growing where they choose to their own calendar and natural rhythms and coping well with the local environmental conditions. We currently have little volunteers popping up all over the place, some of which are quite likely to be the result of cross-pollination (squash, tomatoes, peppers . . . ) and I’m curious to see what they produce. Wild flowers, too, are appearing in an ever-growing range of species; the less we do, the more they come and that suits us just fine.

Laid-back gardening has so much going for it, an invitation to ease off gently and let nature take us by the hand. At heart, I think it’s about mutual trust, compassion and generosity and when you stop and think about it, how wonderful to be excused from the stress that comes with control, hard work and the struggle for perfection. This week, I’ve had to concede that the courgette in the tunnel had truly succumbed to ant business and it looks like an aubergine has gone the same way; that slugs have done for a couple of cucumbers and dwarf beans and are doing their best to annihilate one of the squashes, too; that the germination rate of a few things I’ve planted is disappointingly poor; that nothing will stop blackbirds from scratching my carefully-laid mulch out from around plants and scattering it to the four winds; that frosts in mid-May are a nightmare. The flipside is that I’ve watched as the squirrel kittens left home and the feral honeybees swarmed; I’ve seen numerous fledglings, all spotty feathers and big beaks, taking their first tentative steps and flights in the company of anxious parents; I’ve marvelled at the exquisitely-marked soft pelt of tiny leverets and counted more species of wild bees on the comfrey than I can remember; I’ve been mesmerised by the myriad life forms already populating the pond and the dark magnificence of huge dragonflies darting about its surface. I’ve opened planting holes that are deep and rich and teeming with worms where no spade has ever been wielded, I’ve acknowledged the benefit of letting annual weeds sprawl as living mulch, I’ve loved every instance of discovering that nature has sown seeds in crazy places. More than anything, I’ve gathered an abundance of wonderful food for our meals during what is classically a ‘hungry’ time, proof if ever it was needed that lazy, laid-back, do-nothing gardening works brilliantly. All I need now is a hammock. 😉

Maytime mulching and meandering

Looking back over my blog posts, I realise just how home-centric (or perhaps garden-centric is more accurate) it has become since our trip to Norway last June. I don’t have a problem staying at home, in fact I am the sort of homebird who can take a lot of persuading at times to go elsewhere, but I have missed the opportunities to share our local ramblings on two feet or two wheels over the last few months. At the beginning of last December, I decided to have a crack at the Walk 1000 Miles challenge in the hope it would help to accelerate the natural healing of my herniated disc . . . but it only took me the first week to realise it was far too soon and that particular target would have to be put on the back burner (ah, no painful pun intended 😉) for quite some time. Five months on and at last I am able to move more comfortably; I’ve started to walk again, not too far or too fast, but at least it feels like positive progress in the right direction, and even if I still can’t ride my bike, I can at least enjoy the unparalleled beauty of May mornings and the hedonistic dance of colour along the laneside verges.

I don’t have the technology to measure my steps but I suspect they add up to several miles a day just around the garden at the moment. With the weather having taken a turn for the better and no hint of frosts in the forecast, it has been all systems go outside; this is one of the busiest times of year with much planting and the mother lode of mulch to be distributed ~ not that I’m complaining. If I could only have one month, it would be May. I love these sunlit days of eye-wateringly bright green leaves against skies the flawless blue of a robin’s eggshell (of which there are plenty scattered around the garden at present); there is such a rush of energy, of vigour and vitality, an overwhelming fizz of vibrancy and joy. The air resounds with the jubilant chorus of birdsong and is redolent with the sweet perfumes of lilac and laburnum, bluebells, clematis and apple blossom so that far from feeling like work, my time spent being busy in the garden is nothing but an unbridled pleasure.

Roger has been busy tidying the barn and outdoor shelter as that now we no longer need to light the stove, the big log merry-go-round has begun once more and he is barrowing stacks of logs at various stages of the seasoning process here, there and everywhere. He’s also been using up scraps of wood to make more bird boxes, working on several different designs to cater for a wider variety of species; however, it seems no matter what goes up, it’s great tits that move in immediately. They spend a lot of time pecking at the entrance hole of blue tit boxes to try and squeeze in and, not content with occupying the bat box, they’ve also decided that treecreeper boxes will suit them just fine . . .

Taking the hint, Roger relented and made a great tit box . . . and they were in residence in under thirty minutes of it appearing in a tree! They are one of the most numerous species on the winter feeders but last year, they all went up to the woods to nest; this year, they are obviously happy to raise their broods with us so I think a few more boxes tailored to their needs will be appearing before next spring ~ then perhaps the other birds will get a look-in, too. The greatest excitement in the last couple of weeks was seeing an adult red squirrel disappearing into the nestbox that Roger put up a couple of years ago and which has remained empty ever since; we’ve been waiting with baited breath to see if it was a sign she was raising a family in there and sure enough this week, a little gang of kittens has emerged. What a magical moment! I am wasting far too much time watching them: the first sign of scuffling and scratching noises coming from the box and I down tools and tiptoe as close as I dare. They are such little characters, taking their first brave steps in a strange arboreal world and being able to witness such an event feels like a real privilege. There is no hope of catching a decent shot without a zoom lens but at least I hope you can make out the squirrel kitten profile and its white bib in the V of the oak tree below. The tree is leafing up rapidly and the babies are growing bolder with every day so it won’t be long before we are struggling to see them . . . but there’s a good chance their mother will have a second litter in August so watch this space!

What with the distraction of baby squirrels, my continued observations of wild bees (Long-horned and Hairy-footed Flower females have joined the parade this week) and the spectacle of busy bird activity all around the patch, things have quite possibly been proceeding rather more slowly than they should where my to-do list is concerned. Thankfully, we’ve had a run of gorgeous days which means each morning I’ve been able to pick up where I left off and I can report that most of the planting has now been done: just sweetcorn and tomatoes to go outside when they are ready and the melons and a couple of butternut squash in the tunnel when there is room. It’s such a juggling act in there but I’m not grumbling; we are enjoying a tremendous harvest of peas, broad beans and lettuce and the first roots of early potatoes this week have been a real treat, especially as there were more on a single root than the whole lot put together last year. What a difference a year and a lot of soil love make.

I’m desperately trying to use the tunnel lettuce now, partly to free up space for melons but also because the outdoor ones are catching up fast. I love the way that our salads are always such a reflection of the season, changing almost weekly as old things fade and new stars step up to the mark ~ this week has seen the last small florets of purple sprouting broccoli and the first starry chive flowers.

I’d like to say the next much-anticipated treat will be the first courgettes but there has been something of a disaster on that front this week and as I believe in blogging warts and all, I’m happy to share this frustrating moment (some little bugrat has also been pruning my tomato seedlings in the tunnel each night but that’s another story . . . and at least with 40 plants, I can probably afford a few losses 😬). The ‘Latino’ courgette I planted in the tunnel was looking amazing, growing very strongly and forming the first flower buds; hooray, I thought, here we go. Mmm, cue a serious case of wilt which was obviously something more serious than heat; we lifted the plant to check the roots ~ wireworm being the prime suspect ~ only to discover that a huge ants’ nest had been built beneath it. Honestly, with 0.6 hectares (1½ acres) to choose from, why on earth did they have to decide on that exact spot? The poor plant has been replanted in an ant-free space and I’m giving it a lot of TLC in the hope it will pull through but I’m really not holding my breath. I think we’re just going to have to wait for the outdoor courgettes to deliver. It’s all part of the game.

No such worries where rhubarb is concerned, the plants struggled with the severe frosts we had earlier in spring but have certainly made up for lost time and I am pulling sticks to cook for my breakfast every couple of days. This is the first rhubarb we have had since leaving our Welsh garden in 2012 so I have been waiting a long time for this moment of joy and as Roger doesn’t like it, the delight is all mine. Not a problem!

Actually, the perennial bed is doing us proud at the moment as the asparagus (which according to the rule book we shouldn’t be eating until next spring) is producing a fantastic crop. What a luxury to be able to pick generous bundles of spears every few days, all different lengths and thicknesses in complete contrast to the scarily uniform bundles currently on sale in the shops, but with a texture and flavour so superb they need nothing more than gentle steaming and a decent knob of creamy butter. Who needs rules? 😂

On the subject of rules, I was pleased to see that ‘weeds’ ~ now rebranded as ‘resilient plants’ or ‘weed heroes’~ are set to play something of a starring role in a third of the show gardens at Chelsea this year. That said, the cynical part of me wondered why it is that things need a nod of approval from designers before they become acceptable in society but I hope that Mary Reynolds will be pleased that 21 years after she took Chelsea by storm with her wild garden (noted for its ‘subversive use of weeds’), at long last there is recognition that our wild flowers are so important. My focus this week has been on daisies; a good source of Vitamin C, I like to sprinkle leaves and flowers into salads, but I’m also drying a jar of them for winter teas as they are good for fighting catarrh and chesty coughs and I believe they are currently even being investigated for anti-tumour properties. Not bad for such a humble little flower! Looking through my botany loupe, I’ve been fascinated by their complexity, the bright yellow pincushion centres and gorgeous brushstrokes of pink on the petal backs. Little beauties . . . I hope someone plants an entire wonderfully subversive lawn of them at Chelsea. Several, in fact.

Back to the business of food and it’s been good to see our future harvest crops responding well to the warmth and regular rainfall, both of which were so lacking last spring. The outdoor broad beans are a mass of flowers, the garlic is possibly some of the best we’ve ever grown, there are three rows of staggered peas racing to catch each other up and everywhere seedlings are popping up and hurtling skywards. I pre-sow all our beans and there has been no stopping the first few trays of climbing borlotti, Asturian fabas and dwarf ‘Purple Teepee’: this is them just six days after sowing.

They are all in the ground now along with squash, cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, cauliflowers, onions and red Welsh onions with (of course) some frivolous flowers in the shape of cosmos and nicotiana. I’ve planted basil in the tunnel with plenty more to go outside along with flat-leaved parsley and holy basil or tulsi which I’ve never grown before. Once planted, everything has been mulched with a good layer of grass clippings and as the ground is nicely wetted this year, it should do a grand job in helping to retain moisture. What has pleased me more than anything else on my planting travels is the number of volunteer seedlings that have appeared everywhere through the previous mulch layer: squash, cosmos, sunflowers, violas, landcress, rocket and literally hundreds of lettuce, all growing in spots they weren’t in last year. I love it that we are moving towards the sort of garden I’m after, one that keeps on planting itself and yes, it does encourage me to be lazy ~ there are so many sunflower seedlings in the potager that I shan’t bother to plant any seeds this year. In my experience, when seeds sow themselves they tend to grow strongly because they are happy and I am equally content to let them get on with it; the lettuce and sunflower below are sharing their space with climbing beans and violas so I’ll leave them to jostle for elbow room and do their own thing.

There’s plenty of self-setting going on in the potato patch, too, mostly rocket, calendula and landcress which is already flowering and close to starting the whole cycle all over again. Now that the potatoes are up and visible (they have actually doubled in size since I took the photo) I decided to have a bit of a Ruth Stout moment, broadcasting linseed between the rows and covering with mulch. Linseed is sold here as a green manure which also helps to deter potato beetles so it’s worth a try, especially as I happen to love the blue flowers anyway. In a similar vein, I’ve scattered a mix of nectar-rich annual flower seeds in the rows between the asparagus, just throwing it on top of the mulch and watering in. We’ll see what happens.

Staying with potatoes and I was very excited to see the first shoot emerging from the hay mulch in the mandala garden; this is my first foray into the world of no-dig spuds and I must admit I have been a bit concerned that they had been nobbled by frost. Clearly not, so all that remains to be seen now is just how well they grow and crop compared to the conventionally-planted ones.

I’m very pleased at how well the mandala bed is looking this year, it is starting to take on an air of maturity thanks to the herbs creating a dense and aromatic ‘hedge’ around the boundary. The self-created strawberry bed is full of flowers and the first fruits have started to set so I’ve tucked hay round all the plants this week to lift the fruit off the ground. Although it’s early days as far as growth is concerned, the bed is already looking pretty full and once again, I’m just using spare bits and bobs to plant up each section. So far that means potatoes, onions, cabbages, Cape gooseberry, lettuce, chard, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers, climbing borlotti beans, dwarf purple beans, nicotiana and larkspur with a space left for tomatoes. There’s a salad burnet that appeared from nowhere last year and is going strong, flat-leaved parsley that made it through winter and a whole host of volunteers including tomatoes, violas, calendula, something that looks like a cardoon . . . oh, and lettuce, of course. Why on earth I thought I needed to plant a tray of lettuce this year, I will never know, there isn’t a corner of the garden where they haven’t appeared; in fact, it’s no exaggeration to say in places they are like a living mulch. Who needs green manure? Incredible.

I finally got round to joining the local library last week and on the strength of the current natural gardening exhibition, I was able to borrow some books which really appealed to me. In fact, I’ve been reading about permaculture in French and English over the last few days and it’s been interesting to compare notes in both languages. The French book draws on the experiences of a lot of practitioners and I’m pleased to have found a few like-minded people in the group of what I think of as ‘pragmatic permies’, those who like me value the principles of permaculture but are happy to admit that instead of swallowing them hook, line and sinker, it’s important to add a good dose of common sense to any situation. It stands to reason that works brilliantly in the rainforests of Costa Rica isn’t necessarily going to transfer smoothly to northern Europe! The underlining message, however, is the undisputed benefit of growing our own food in a way that treads lightly on the Earth, works with and mimics nature, encourages (bio)diversity, produces no waste, drastically reduces carbon footprints and feeds both the body and soul.

In many ways, the business of growing food is a weighty one, especially if self-sufficiency is a goal, so I believe it’s vital to take a light-hearted step backwards from the soil face now and again, to seek joy, laughter, quirkiness and whimsy amongst the muck and mulch. To that end, Roger has used some scraps of wood left over from his gate-making activities to create me a ‘gate to nowhere’ at the end of a big lasagne bed; it looks a little stark at the moment but I’ve planted cucumbers behind to climb up over it, have zinnias waiting in the wings for a splash of colour in front and when the backdrop of sweetcorn and climbing beans clambers upwards and fills out in a wall of green, I’m hoping it will evolve into an eye-catching (or head-scratching?) point of interest. Just in case anyone is lost, I’ve painted a sign in my uber-naïve style to help them find their way . . . although between you and me, I’m secretly hoping the snails shuffle off in the opposite direction. 😉