Blue skies and bike rides

I love a good sky.

This week it has been mainly unflawed blue from dawn to dusk but one evening, cloud bubbled up as if from nowhere and treated us to a captivating light show.

Sadly, it didn’t bring us any rain, something we are completely desperate for now. Our rainwater capture system is brilliant, the three butts together holding 1100 litres which seemed like a huge amount until several weeks of dry weather came along; we are watering just to keep things going, especially the tiny vegetable seedlings which are doing their best to survive. In the end, nothing works like real rain. Please let it come soon.

I don’t want to whinge about the weather but it certainly continues to be frustrating beyond the lack of rain; we are experiencing startlingly sunny days with temperatures in the low twenties but a bitter wind to take the edge off things and we’re still seeing a touch of frost overnight. The plant nursery grows by the day, everything now sorted into three groups: the roughty-toughties that can spend the night outside, the in-betweenies that shelter in the (open-fronted) outhouse and the tender babes that huddle together inside on windowsills.

The more seedlings I prick out and pot on, the more carrying in and out there is to do at each end of the day. I’ve been filling the newspaper pots as quickly as I can make them – which I swear I can do with my eyes closed now! Tomato plants have all gone into the bigger pots: four Rosella (cherry) and eight each of San Marzano (plum) and Super Marmande (beefsteak). Twenty plants, if they all survive, really should be ample for the two of us even with plans to freeze as many as we can, but of course, there’s also the excitement of those colourful gift seeds from Finland, many of them heirloom varieties and none of which we’ve grown before. The names alone are enough to make me smile: Lava Flow, Bosque Blue Bumble Bee, Glossy Rose Blue, Malakhitovaya Shkatulka, Karkiano, Alaska, Black Sea Man and Orion’s Belt. Who could fail to be charmed? One plant each to make my ‘rainbow’ plus spares (of course) just in case. I’ve cosied them up with little pots of basil, great companions in the garden and on the plate so why not start as we mean to go on?

While I’ve been messing about with pots and seedlings, Roger has – amongst a hundred and one other things – been busy sorting out the barn to make space for a log store. This resulted in the need for yet another trip to the local household recycling centre with the trailer loaded with unusable junk that was left here; it would be good to think we won’t need too many more trips like that but I doubt it will be the last. Needless to say, we are saving anything we can since throwing useful things away goes against the grain; one of my favourite finds has been this section basket which is perfect for toting essential bits and pieces as I go from place to place in the garden. I reckon I could even squeeze a flask in there if I tried.

It’s been another busy week in the garden so here’s my usual quick round-up:

Sunday 25th April: Transplanted tomato seedlings – 8 each of San Marzano and Super Marmande, Rosella x 4. One large pot each of Anja’s 8 plus 6 extras. Pricked out basil. Seeds: replanted lupins. Courgettes, cukes (gherkin), squash Crown Prince, Hunter and Casa Victorio Special have all germinated. Sowed climbing nasturtiums, mixed ‘Autumn Colours’ sunflowers and mixed Californian poppies in shed border. Planted climbing beans: three quadpods of borlotti and eight of Asturian beans.

Monday 26th April: sowed drill of cabbage Golden Acre to follow Greyhound; lettuce Little Gem in pot; New Zealand spinach in Secret Garden. Pricked out globe artichokes, sage and some hyssop. Added third quadpod to flower border and planted black-eyed Susan and morning glory. Good progress on stone wall, put standing stone in hügelkultur flower bed.

Tuesday 27th April: transplanted 12 strawberry plants into The Potager. Roger finished digging channels for burying tunnel polythene.

Wednesday 28th April: placed seed order with EnGraineToi (purple sprouting and romanesco broccoli, winter cabbages, carrots, mizuna, lamb’s lettuce, beetroot, Russian purple kale, parsley). Potted on Crown Prince squash. Pricked out thyme, hyssop, basil, rudbeckia and marshmallow.

The Potager is still growing as we dig and is filling up bit by bit although it still looks so empty; it will be fascinating to compare how it looks now to the full months of summer. The potatoes in the big front patch are through the ground so we have earthed them up to protect them from the frost. There are carrots, radish and spring onions in there, too, and we’ll plant courgettes in the middle mulched section once the time is right. In the next patch are two rows of peas and the first of dwarf beans, the ‘Purple Teepee’ that are such good doers planted with our own saved seed. Plenty more to go in there yet! Beyond that, the hügelkultur bed is almost ready for a covering of topsoil before the squash go in and a new smaller bed has become home to a dozen strawberry plants. The bean circle is all planted up, eleven quadpods of stout hazel poles, three with fiery red borlotti and the rest with those lovely fat white Asturian beans. There’s space for something else, probably cucumbers, and I’m thinking – quietly to myself – perhaps a few small patches of frivolous flowers something colourful would be lovely.

On the subject of colour, we have a pair of green woodpeckers who seem to be trying to nest in the garden. Unlike the other birds who practically meet us at the door, they are very nervous so the male is carrying out his excavations of a cherry tree furtively when he thinks we’re not about before flying off in a loud flash of green and red when he senses we are. Given how many heavily wooded, uninhabited spots there are locally, it seems strange to have chosen this one but that old cherry is obviously perfect for their nest and we’re certainly not short of ants. I’ll be following their nesting progress with great interest.

The woodpeckers aren’t the only ones who have been busy in the trees. Pollarding is an ancient tradition and one that is still very much practised in this area; in recent weeks, a number of large oak trees, including several opposite the house, have literally been reduced to branchless trunks. It seems a cruel thing to do to a magnificent tree but I suppose it is better than felling the whole thing and in fact, research tells me it actually extends the life of the tree. A number of the oaks in our garden have obviously been treated this way in the past and they create interesting silhouettes against a clear sky; this is one we can see from the back kitchen window, the fresh new leaf growth tipped in colour by the rising sun.

We are just a few days away from the end of lockdown (3rd May) which has had so little effect on us that we forget it’s happening at all. The only mild frustration has been the local charity shop closing for a month so we haven’t been able to collect new books to read but otherwise it has been life as normal here. The French government has been heavily criticised for its handling of the pandemic; I have no intention of launching into a political discourse but what I will say is that I have been personally impressed at how an holistic approach to people’s well-being has been a major priority. Despite an ongoing curfew and current travel restrictions, there has been encouragement for us to exercise and spend time outdoors in order to benefit both physical and mental health; it is lovely to see the youngsters having fun on the outdoor tennis court and five-a-side pitch in St P, a bit of normality restored in such strange times. The 10 kilometre travel radius from home has left us with plenty of options for walking, running and cycling so a few days ago we decided to head off to the canyon des Toyères on our bikes. We started by taking the scenic route to St P as Roger wanted to show me a rare white orchid he’d seen on a run, then we stopped briefly at the boulangerie to treat ourselves to some patisserie – Paris-Brest for Roger, tartelette aux fraises for me.

It was a truly beautiful morning and cycling along the quiet lanes, I was struck at how vibrant the countryside has become. Such colours!

The canyon des Toyères is one of those places which you could easily miss if you didn’t know it was there, a simple sign at the end of a lane which turns into a gravelled track being the only clue there is anything worth visiting. It is one of my favourite places on earth and I am so thrilled to be living close to it once again. There is a viewing tower there but that is not what we are interested in at all: parking our bikes, we set off in the opposite direction down a narrow path through the woods . . .

It’s a bit of a scramble but worth doing at this time of year just to enjoy the carpets of fragrant bluebells under the trees.

Down a little further and a glimpse of sunlight on water hints at where we are: a rocky outcrop perched on granite cliffs high above a loop of the beautiful Sarthe river.

The view in both directions is stunning, the busy river far below us and the vast sweep of woodlands on the sides of the gorge. With no sight or sound of another human being, it is complete, shameless immersion in nature; the music of birdsong is somehow funnelled and amplified to an intensity that almost hurts. I love the way this landscape changes colour and character through the seasons; it’s a view I can never tire of, a place of exquisite peace and beauty.

It’s also the perfect spot for coffee and cake. Cheers!