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. 😉

7 thoughts on “Maytime mulching and meandering

  1. Drool, the first tatties and so much asparagus! It’s all sounding a bit more benign weatherwise than the last two years and of course all the soil TLC is paying off big time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, we barely need anything else ~ add a few peas and broad beans and I’m very happy with my plate! I hardly dare say it but the weather is feeling a lot more ‘normal’ this year and the difference is immense. Fingers crossed it stays that way. 🤞


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