May moments #2

Developing the vegetable garden has been a top priority ever since we moved here, and I have to admit the flower garden has felt like a relatively slow burn in comparison. Food obviously has to come first and I love the challenge and satisfaction of growing fruit and vegetables, but I am passionate about having a garden full of flowers, too. In Asturias, where our garden was so steep and growing areas were limited, I planted and encouraged flowers in any little space I could find in an approach that was very much the local way. Here, we have completely the opposite situation, a totally flat garden and masses of space, and as we started with what in essence was a blank canvas, the challenge has been how to make the best of it.

For a start, the last thing I wanted was anything that smacked too much of ‘formal’ flower beds or gardens. Giving nature free rein wherever possible is an important part of our approach, partly because wild flowers are so beautiful in themselves but mostly because they are so beneficial to the resident wildlife and an essential part of a healthy, balanced ecosystem. We have left large swathes of wild corridors uncut, several metres deep in places, and allowed the wildflowers to flourish; this in turn encourages biodiversity, including ~ we hope ~ plenty of pollinators and a wide variety of useful predators which will in turn help to control less-than-welcome visitors to our food crops.

These metallic blue day-flying forester moths feed on common sorrel and are a beautiful sight in the garden.

In other places, we just let the wildflowers grow as they want and if they mingle with ‘official’ plants, so much the better; at the moment we have several clumps of ox-eye daisies growing with calendula, such a lovely combination and one which I smiled to see had been used in a municipal planting scheme in a local town.

Perhaps society’s obsession with ridding the environment of ‘weeds’ is finally waning? If so, that’s a wonderful thing. Time for a walk on the wild side . . .

I’ve always had a soft spot for foxgloves and can’t imagine having a garden without them. I’ve known several people who pull them out of the ground on sight, refusing to tolerate them because they are poisonous. Well, yes they are . . . but only if you eat them! (Ironically, the same people happily plant daffodils and rhododendrons in their garden . . . ) Foxgloves are obviously not a safe candidate for home herbalism but their use in mainstream medicine to treat heart conditions is well-established; they are also an excellent companion plant for apple trees and therefore a helpful addition to an orchard. For me, their bright, untamed spires represent one of the great natural beauties of the season and I love to watch the visiting bumble bees disappearing deep inside the speckled flowers. I’m happy to let them seed themselves freely around the garden ~ which they certainly do! ~ and grow where they are happiest, rather than try and create a contrived setting for them. How could I improve on this?

Roger’s log seat with feature foxglove . . . a favourite contemplation spot.

Without question, one of the biggest ‘wild’ stars of the spring has been this campion; it has bloomed for weeks, and I love the way its pretty pink flowers obediently track the sun during the day, then turn back to the east in the evening ready to start again the next morning. Fascinating!

Much of my flower gardening relies on self-setting and one of the benefits of having scattered several varieties of annual seed in our first summer here is that we will have them for evermore. Californian poppies, both in traditional orange and more muted pinks, are certainly at home here and we have sunny banks of them in several places; they are currently marching at speed across the gravelled areas which is just the enthusiastic laissez-faire attitude I love.

Speaking of gravelled areas, our decision earlier this year to try and turn a former car parking area at the front of the house into a gravel garden felt like a slightly risky one; it’s not something we’ve ever tried before and we had no guarantee it would work, especially as beneath the gravel there is packed hardcore and heavy clay. Let’s just say planting starts with a pickaxe! However, it’s a case of so far, so good, and the young plants that have gone in are at last starting to make an impact. Next year, it should all look much fuller and as I’ve deliberately included reliable self-setters like granny’s bonnets, lady’s mantle and verbena bonariensis to join the foxgloves and verbascum that have already arrived of their own accord, it should continue to evolve to its own rhythm in the future.

When we started mapping out a flower garden at the back of the house early last year, the biggest challenge as far as I was concerned was getting the scale right. Basically, we are creating a garden by carving up an acre of what was little more than a field with a few apple trees in it and we’re lucky to have so much space to play with. Scale, however, can be a problem: make planting areas too big and they become unmanageable, too small and they just look ridiculous. I also disliked the fact that everything seemed so open and stark, so another problem was how to create a sense of gentle enclosure, to create a space that felt more contained and intimate without feeling too constrained or shady. Lastly, I wanted everything to curve and flow in an area that encourages wandering and weaving rather than marching in straight lines. Fine. We made a start . . .

March 2021
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Sorting out some boundaries was the first job and here we plumped for an eclectic mix: a curved hedge of rugosa roses, a rustic support covered in clematis and climbing roses (this year I’ve planted a row of sunflowers behind it), another curve of cardoons and an area planted with a range of shrubs which will eventually fill the space. Along the front of the area, Roger built a low drystone wall ~ now home to a very healthy lizard population ~ and beyond that we have put up posts and wire to support a grapevine and thornless blackberry to create a living, edible screen. As the ‘hedges’ fill out and gain in height, the sense of an enclosed space is slowly developing; our plan is to put two small wooden arches covered in climbers to mark the entrances to the area and then all we need is to add a seat to sit and enjoy it.

Probably my biggest indulgence in planning this garden area was the inclusion of a mandala bed and I know I’ve written copiously about it before but please indulge me again because I’m just a tiny bit chuffed with how it’s turning out! This, I must admit, was another gamble and one where I could quite easily have fallen flat on my face, as I really had no idea what I was doing. That said, I’d still rather engage a sense of adventure and curiosity (however foolish) in the garden than simply trot out the same old predictable stuff all the time; if nothing else, it’s a great exercise for my grey matter and a wonderful opportunity to learn new skills and embrace different ideas. So, it all began last summer with a rock and a huge pile of cardboard . . .

June 2021
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The circle has an area of roughly 28m2 although obviously the planting area is less than that when the paths and rock space are taken into account. It’s more or less orientated to the compass points which gives me a handy way of labelling each of the eight sections. This is how they are currently planted:

  • North: climbing borlotti beans, strawberries, calendula, basil, dyer’s chamomile, red sorrel (self-set).
  • North-east: cucumbers, aubergines, chillies, sweet peppers, nasturtium.
  • East: annual flower seeds, strawberries.
  • South-east: courgettes.
  • South: lettuce, rainbow chard, strawberries, dyer’s chamomile.
  • South-west: summer cabbage, purple French beans, flat-leaved parsley, calendula, lemon bergamot.
  • West: annual flower seeds, strawberries, dyer’s chamomile.
  • North-west: melons, heartsease.

In all, there are 131 plants (excluding several phacelia and buckwheat volunteers and any other annual flowers that ~ hopefully! ~ will appear fairly soon), most of which are edible; the dyer’s chamomile is an exception, but it’s a useful plant, and the phacelia and buckwheat will become green manure. These are my thoughts on Project Mandala Bed so far:

  • It’s growing. A bit of a daft one to start with, perhaps, but quite significant all the same. Having spent the greatest part of my gardening life planting conventionally into carefully-prepared soil, I was highly sceptical that anything would grow ~ yet alone flourish ~ planted into what amounts to several layers of pretty rough organic material. No matter how many videos I watched of the wonderful Morag Gamble throwing coffee grounds around her no-dig garden in bare feet, I half expected everything to fail but didn’t want to write it off until I’d tried. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m astounded . . . and converted!
Here come the cucumbers.
  • It’s easy to look after. I don’t like the concept of a ‘low-maintenance’ garden, because I believe passionately that, like raising a family or cooking a beautiful meal, a garden should require a bit of effort and a lot of love. However, that shouldn’t mean it’s all work and no play! There is no point in creating a garden that is one unbroken list of tedious chores: time to relax and enjoy it, to calm the mind or awaken the senses, are just as important. Also, I know I’m very lucky in that I can spend all my time gardening if I so wish but in my previous life spent raising a family, studying and working, a productive garden such as this that is a pleasure to be in but requires minimal attention would certainly have been a blessing. One of the things I love the best is that it’s so easy to check on everything: simply stand by the rock and turn round!
Freshly mulched and watered: the grass clippings won’t stay green for long and the damp earth soon dries . . . but together they bring a new, if fleeting, feel to the space.
  • It’s very clean. There are hardly any weeds and the few that appear are easily lifted. The worst area is around the herb hedge but trimming the grass now and again and keeping the plants heavily mulched helps to solve that problem. The size of the sections means I can reach all parts from the paths so it’s very simple to plant, water and check individual plants without treading on the planting areas. This is pretty important in a lasagne bed because I don’t want to cause any sort of compaction to the developing soil. The grass-mulched planting areas and wood-chip paths mean there is no mud which makes it a pleasure to work in. I could easily work in a ballgown if I felt the need. That’s if if I had such a thing, of course. 🤣
  • It’s full of life. When I open up planting pockets through the layers, they are teeming with earthworms which is good news since they are doing all the hard work of transforming the organic materials into nutrient-rich soil. The herbs that are currently flowering, namely sage, thyme and Welsh onions, are attracting a wide range of insects which then (theoretically) will be encouraged to visit the food crop flowers, too. As there is absolutely no need for digging, hoeing or raking, all the ‘work’ I do is at ground level which means I have the perfect opportunity to observe these essential visitors as they go about their business. I also like to watch from the balcony just before bed as that is when the birds take over. A robin dominates the rock, a redstart sits on the cucumber supports and a spotted flycatcher on the beanpoles, all staking claim to their personal territory and using them as a vantage point for spotting the next snack. Blackbirds rummage through the mulch, scattering it all over the paths (bless them), and a huge song thrush bounces through on kangaroo legs. A pair of pied wagtails runs about picking tiny insects from the surfaces and there are often goldfinches in the mix, too . . . which may well explain where some of my annual flower seeds have gone. I’m not grumbling; last year, this was a patch of sterile grass growing in compacted earth and now it bustles with a diversity of living things. I love that.
  • It’s evolving. When I set out on this great experiment, I had no planting plan in mind whatsoever and knew from the start that I didn’t want to become too precious about it. Geometric shapes don’t have to automatically mean formality. The herbs around the edge were planted totally randomly ~ they had to be, since I needed thirty two plants from five different varieties which didn’t lend itself to any precise maths or patterns. Of those plants, only one (a hyssop) failed to make it through winter, so I’ve replaced it with a spare sage plant and no-one will ever guess. The plants go into the ground as and when they are ready; I’ve grown nothing specially for the bed, everything has simply been leftovers from the main vegetable garden ‘nursery’. I refused to lose the Battle of the Lettuce, especially as I had hundreds of plants, and eventually the wireworm decided to give up but where I’ve lost a few other bits and pieces, I’ve simply popped something else in. A tiny basil crumpled, so I replaced it with lemon bergamot, and a cabbage that withered and died is now flat-leaved parsley. When we harvest the plants ~ and we will be doing that, this is not a purely ornamental activity ~ there will be other stars waiting in the wings for their turn; for instance, when those lettuce and cabbages are finished, they will be making way for tomatoes. I love the fact that phacelia, buckwheat and red sorrel have moved in of their own accord and self-setting is something I shall be encouraging.
  • It’s a place of peace. When I first started out on this adventure, I was toying with the idea of putting some sort of simple bench seat in the middle, but when Roger found that beautiful quartz rock there was no argument as to what should be the central feature. The lack of seat doesn’t matter, because I have discovered that the wood-chip paths stay warm and dry and there is enough room for me to sit in comfort on the ground with my back against the rock and enjoy the space; what’s more, there’s no excuse for being bored, as I have a choice of eight outlooks. At that level, I can either observe the fascinating minutiae of life going on around me ~ the honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, miner bees, solitary wasps, hoverflies, butterflies, beetles, spiders, ants and a whole host of other creatures busy within the circle ~ or I can close my eyes, listen to the chatter of the swallows overhead and the gentle purring of turtle doves in the trees around me, breathing in the scent of the aromatic plants being stirred by their insect visitors. I find myself drawn there more and more. It’s simply beautiful. I really can’t ask for more than that, can I?

Chez nous

There are some things I miss about Asturias but one of them is definitely not the steepness of things that made the simplest of tasks such hard work: the interminable hairpin bends, the fifteen steps up into the house, the soil rolling to the bottom of the garden, the near impossibility of using a wheelbarrow or riding my bike . . . having spent the last couple of weeks going full tilt in our Mayenne garden, I have to concede that life in a flatter environment certainly has its attractions!

The cherry plum blossom is falling like confetti now but is still buzzing with insect activity.

I also realise how challenging it was to stumble through five years in my basic Spanish, a beautiful language which I loved learning but despite a lot of time and effort spent in study and practice, I never really cracked. I’m happy that we managed to get things done but in part that was thanks to the patient understanding and tolerance of the people I was speaking to and there is no doubt that I am far more comfortable and confident in speaking French, happy to chat away in conversation and use the phone in a way I never managed in Spanish. Learning new languages is one of the best workouts for the old grey matter and is never wasted but suspecting our recent return to Asturias for several weeks was likely to frazzle my linguistic brain, I knew I had to find time for a little French every day just to keep my hand in. I bought a French copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca from the charity shop, a novel I read in English many years ago, and set myself the goal of reading two chapters a day while we were away. The translation was excellent, truly evoking the spirit and voice of the original and I found myself so surprisingly engrossed, I could hardly put it down.

One of the few plants I brought back from Asturias, a dainty and deeply-scented narcissus given to me by Vita.

Since moving back to France, I’ve been dipping in and out of various study materials but couldn’t really settle to anything before discovering the excellent InnerFrench website hosted by Hugo, a young French teacher who lives and works in Poland. Passionate and enthusiastic about language learning, Hugo has a brilliant perception of the problems facing intermediate learners when it comes to sourcing interesting and stimulating materials that are more than just a minefield of ever more complex grammatical constructions. His podcasts are excellent, covering a huge range of fascinating subjects and I listen to several each week, especially if I’m doing something boring but necessary (like cleaning the kitchen). They have helped me push my listening and comprehension skills along big time and I have no doubt my enjoyment and almost fluent reading of Rebecca was thanks to the Hugo effect! I’ve now started his ‘Build a Core Strength’ course; thirty lessons might not sound like much but it is going to take me several months to complete them, they are so resource-rich and stimulating. It is quite a challenge – my brain already feels a little fried – but I’m hoping they will continue to prod me in the right direction, stop me from becoming complacent and encourage me to become a more fluent and natural French speaker.

We have planted a forsythia in our eclectic hedge for a splash of sunny spring colour.

The upshot of this is that I won’t be doing much blogging for some time, partly because I can only stand so long on a computer each day (I’m currently doing my French early in the morning so as not to miss out on any garden time!) but also because I really need to focus on using French as much as possible, rather than writing reams of English. So, for the foreseeable future, my posts will probably be mostly photos with captions rather than a lot of waffle . . . which may well come as a relief to some people anyway! 😂

It has been a stunning year for primroses, they are everywhere.

It seems that finally saying goodbye to Asturias has unleashed a huge surge of energy and enthusiasm in us both and we have practically lived in the garden over the last four weeks. It feels so good to really knuckle down to all the plans and projects we’ve had in mind and see some of our ideas come into fruition. Apart from one wet day, the weather has been dry and bright (if a little cold some days thanks to the easterly wind) and it has been a joy to be outside enjoying the scent of primroses and blossom and the raucous birdsong while we work. The fieldfares and bramblings have gone, the garden is full of chiffchaffs, the sky rings with the trilling of sky larks and wood larks and the swallows must surely be on their way back now the wind has swung into the south!

A day of rainfall filled the water butts and covered everything in a fine layer of orange Saharan dust.

Here, then, in the spirit of micro-blogging, is the news in brief . . .

Roger has been shredding the brush from hedge laying and we used the resultant mulch to make an area of hardstanding in the Love Shack.
I also used the shredded wood to make paths in my mandala bed – hardwearing but soft underfoot, sustainable and biodegradable, it’s the perfect medium and has made a beautiful sunburst pattern. Can’t wait to start planting . . .
I’ve painted the Oak Shed green, sorted out the borders in front of it and planted the passionflower we brought from Asturias on the left. Can’t do much about that ugly tin roof but hopefully it will all look less of an eyesore this year.
Remember the shed demolition on Christmas Day? Roger used spare timber and gravel to make a seating area where before there was broken slate in mud. With the hibernating grass snakes gone, he filled the old privy hole with spoil from the pond digging and has made a border now sown with mixed annuals. The ‘table’ has been fashioned from part of that poor deformed cherry tree we had to remove; it’s the perfect spot to sit in the evening sunshine and should just get better and better as we go through the year.
There are still plenty of parsnips, leeks, kale, chard and a forest of purple sprouting broccoli in the garden but we had to harvest all the Jerusalem artichokes this week as they had started to grow again. We have re-planted 10 tubers for next year (selecting for straight, knobble-less ones); I have sown their bed with phacelia as a quick green manure, then plan to plant violet globe artichokes to complement the row of green ones.
The ones that got away . . . Jerusalem artichokes we missed on the first dig! They are such an underrated (and often maligned) vegetable which is a shame as they are dead easy to grow – practically indestructible, in fact – are packed with nutritional goodies and incredibly versatile in the kitchen. They are delicious raw in a slaw or roasted, used in a mixed root mash or made into a gratin. Our current favourite approach is to grate them and fry them in butter with spices like a rosti; even better finished with a decadent splosh of cream or crème fraîche, it’s a great dish on its own but also makes a fabulous filling for jacket potatoes.
We would never choose to plant peach trees here, especially in the exposed position where this one is located. That said, the blossom is gorgeous and who knows what might happen if we are blessed with a warm spring and hot summer?
In the balmy warmth of the tunnel, the potatoes are bombing up and, despite Mousegate, there’s a good row of peas (and several scattered little mouse gardens, too – I’m picking those as peashoots for salad) and I’ve pricked out the first patch of lettuce seedlings. As predicted, the bench is already heaving and I’ve barely even started yet . . .
. . . so thank goodness for sunny windowsills! Three of them are home to peppers, chillies, courgettes and squash plants with cucumbers and melons still in the propagator. I’m covering them at night with plastic box cloches but they spend their days sunbathing: next stop, the tunnel.
One of our long-term projects is to turn the gravelled area in front of the house into a pretty courtyard – but how to get rid of that previous car park feel? We’ve taken a leaf out of Beth Chatto’s book and decided to plant a gravel garden. It’s a huge experiment which could go horribly wrong, but we’ve made a start; it doesn’t look like much at the moment, but hopefully I’ll be able to post some wonderful follow-up photos later in the year. 😉
I love foraging for salad ingredients and it’s amazing how we can make something from nothing at this time of year: rocket, landcress, chard, beetroot leaves (I purposely left a few in the ground last year to re-grow fresh leaves), red kale, red sorrel, chives, lemon balm and the first pickings of fresh mint, along with primroses, violets, rocket flowers and marigold petals. There’s also plenty of young dandelion, wild sorrel and hawthorn leaves for a touch of the wild.
I don’t know whether it’s down to a milder winter but the spring flowers have been gorgeous this year and the garden and grass verges are alive with drifts of colour. There have been several types of butterfly in the garden this week, not the usual early suspects like orange tips and yellow brimstones, but peacocks, tortoiseshell and painted ladies – emerged from hibernation to stretch their dusty wings, perhaps? I’ve seen the first lizards, too, and – wonderful news – there is a pair of blue tits in the nestbox we made last year. They seem to be very much at home. Well, so are we! 😊

Changing rooms #2

Gardening is a game of patience at the best of times but several weeks of delay in the delivery of a pile of bare-rooted plants has been a bit frustating; I know these things happen – it’s life, after all – but I was eager to get on with the planting. We know from past experience that getting growing structure in place early in a new garden is a good idea and despite looking like rather hopeless little sticks, young bare-rooted trees, shrubs and hedging plants will grow quickly and strongly. Once they’re in the ground, that is! Not that we’ve exactly been short of jobs to be getting on with in the meantime . . .

In many ways, this post follows on from my previous one about the kitchen makeover. The garden has always been the most important ‘room’ for us and much of the work we are currently doing is in its own way a sort of renovation, making structural changes which will lay the foundation for the eventual garden we have planned. (Not that it will ever be finished as such, that never happens.) When we first came to view the property, the so-called Secret Garden was bigged up as quite a horticultural feature. I believe that gardens should have lots of hidden little nooks and crannies and part-glimpsed views that make you want to go forth and explore; it’s possible to achieve even in the tiniest of spaces with a bit of ingenuity, and finding a hidden seat, unexpected feature or surprise planting is surely one of the great joys of wandering around someone else’s garden for the first time. To be honest, the Secret Garden has failed to deliver in the time we’ve been here, partly because there really isn’t anything remarkable to see when you get there – there’s no real obvious point to it – but mostly because it’s such a dark, shady spot that nothing grows well . . . and I do love a garden where things at least stand a chance of thriving and being happy.

Winter is the only time a hint of sunlight reaches the Secret Garden.

I managed to grow a few vegetables in there last year, things like lettuce, oca and New Zealand spinach which didn’t seem to mind the limited sunlight but nothing else was very enthusiastic and the flowers I planted were hopeless. We decided to do an honest assessment and agreed that it was time for a big change, starting with removing the old and seriously abused cherry tree which saddened me every time I looked at it and then taking out the hedge of kerria japonica which had promised much last year but was in fact mostly dead.

Opening up the view to the south-west.

With the ugly shed gone, too, the vista has opened up and the Not-So-Secret-Garden is suddenly filled with far more light and a less oppressive feeling. I’m hoping things will stand a better chance this summer, including the poor fig tree that is planted in completely the wrong place but is far too big to risk moving. The miserable fruits it produced last year really said it all but perhaps with more light, air and warmth around it, this year will be more encouraging. We shall see.

As we’re not given to wanton destruction, we left the growing arch but set about rescuing the wisteria that was climbing through the other plants in a huge tangle; its few flowers were very underwhelming last year which is hardly surprising given its position. Ideally, it should be growing splendidly up the front of the house but like the fig, it’s well beyond moving so we’re trying Plan B. I’ve mentioned before how the internal garden hedges all run the wrong way (east-west) so we’re adding lots of our own on a north-south axis to carve up the spaces across the width of the garden and provide breaks from the prevailing winds. Roger made a post and wire fence and built a pergola to create a gap through, then untangled the wisteria spaghetti from the hedge and dragged it up and over in the hope it will be a happier plant for being in more light.

The pergola and fence look a bit stark now but will be very different when covered in foliage and flowers.

We will plant a climbing rose to meet it over the pergola and another at the end of the fence which between them should create a living, colourful, scented barrier with a view glimpsed through the archway to tempt us beyond. Having taken delivery (at last!) of the replacement rosa rugosa plants, we planted a few to finish the new ‘hedge’ and will continue to add a mass of scented roses in the newly enclosed grassy space which will be the perfect place for a table in summer. We quite fancy a crocus lawn, too.

By the way, when I went out with the camera to take those photos, I was mobbed by great tits once again. This has now become the norm: I step outside and they fly in like a squadron of winged monkeys, then sit as close as possible and watch me or else follow me wherever I go. It’s nothing to have a following of a dozen birds or more accompanying me all the way down to the compost heap (which they immediately fly into and start inspecting as soon as I’ve emptied the bucket) and back again. The instant I even hint at moving towards their feeders, it becomes something like the red kite feeding frenzies I’ve seen so often in mid-Wales – it would be a complete nightmare for anyone with a bird phobia. It’s a good job I love them, although even I will be very pleased when their thoughts and attention turn towards nests and eggs!

I’ve been spotted . . . cue the squadron.

Back to work and Roger seems more than a little bit amused by my infatuation with our new shed. He has even asked me if I’m planning to move in there (possibly wishful thinking on his part 🤣); I’m not, but to be honest, it’s probably in better shape than the hovel house we first moved to in Asturias. He says it looks a bit like a cricket pavillion which is a slight worry as the logical progression from that kind of thinking will be installing a beer cooler and (please, NO!) a radio for the cricket commentary. The reason for his amusement is that, having had good enough weather to finish the exterior painting, I moved inside and started on a bit of interior decorating, too. Now if at this point your thoughts are running along the lines of, “But it’s a shed!” I completely understand so bear with me, there is a certain method in my madness.

When we moved here, we found a large hoard of paint had been left in the barn; every tin had been opened and part-used and many of them had gone off and needed to be taken for safe disposal. There are some, though, that are still perfectly serviceable and although none are the colours we would choose ourselves, it seems silly not to use them if we can. Rummaging through the collection, I found a couple of tins of identical ivory white emulsion which I decided would be ideal for the enclosed bit of the shed; both tins (weirdly) had been opened and used, one was totally shot and the other very separated but I managed to revive it with a lot of aggressive stirring. Why anyone would pay a premium to have five litres of white paint specially blended on one of those customised mixing machine thingummies (and then not use it) I have no idea but it’s done the job and has rendered the shed so bright and light that I think it will be the perfect place for sheltering young, tender plants when we get to that ‘lift them out in the daytime, tuck them up at night’ stage of things. On a roll, I decided the rest of the internal walls in the covered shelter bit also deserved a facelift and for that I chose something described as a ‘vintage look’ bluewash. According to the label it is ideal for garden fences – although why you’d want to go round ‘antique-ing’ your fences in pale duck egg, I’m not sure. That said, why would anyone want to colourwash a shed, either?😆 I have to confess, the effect is totally lost on me, it just looks like someone forgot to apply the top coat but each to their own.

Welcome to my shed . . . cream tea, anyone? 😉

If nothing else, it’s all looking a lot cleaner and fresher now and I’m happy that I’ve added to the weatherproofing which hopefully will increase the longevity of the shed, I’ve banished every last trace of that horrible orange-brown and it’s kept several litres of paint out of the waste stream. I’m now thinking it would be lovely to have something a bit more attractive than basic garden seats at the front, maybe a little bistro set, and I’m trying very hard not to investigate the possibility of waterproofing some pretty fabric bunting to hang along the front. After all, if I start doing frivolous girlie things like that, I won’t be able to hold out against the cricket commentary . . . and there are some things I really don’t need disturbing the peace and beauty of the vegetable garden.

Isn’t it funny how as soon as one part of the house or garden has been tidied up, other bits can start to look a bit daggy? Looking down the garden towards the shed, I’ve been finding the compost system a bit of an eyesore these past few days. Don’t get me wrong: I love this system, it’s the best we’ve ever had and, like the shed, was made from reclaimed materials. The problem is, rusty corrugated iron has its own brand of ugly which doesn’t really bring much to the surroundings. I was mulling over the idea of planting a living screen when the rugosa roses arrived and there, suddenly, was the perfect answer; we planted a row of five in front of the compost bays, leaving plenty of room behind to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow in and out and turn the heaps. Forget the Secret Garden; give the roses a couple of years and we’ll have a Secret Compost Station instead . . . although no doubt the great tits will still be able to find me down there with my bucket.

Honestly, there’s no escape!

Imagining the rose hedge in full bloom in front of the compost bays had me thinking it would be a good idea to create a bit of a border opposite along the side of the shed. We’re planning to put a climbing rose up the trellis, so why not make room for a few other lovelies to keep it company? Eventually, it will stretch the whole length of the shed but initially I’ve gone as far as I can until the water butt moves round the back. Creating lasagne beds has become second nature to us now and we’ve got ourselves pretty organised with various piles of green and brown materials ready to hand; for instance, there’s a space in the Oak Shed dedicated to dry storage of sawdust, bark chips, dead leaves and cardboard to collect in a barrow when needed. To start this new bed, I laid the cardboard that our new plants had been delivered in (no waste here), then topped with layers of hay, dead leaves and twiggy branches, sawdust, greenery from a chopped conifer, yarrow leaves and compost from the trunk of the old apple tree we cut a couple of weeks ago. I’ll keep adding to it, then pop sturdy plants into pockets of compost in spring.

Something that has already started to make an attractive ‘hedge’ are the cardoons I raised from seed last year. Undaunted by the season, they have continued to grow and make a lovely metallic silvery splash with their huge leafy fronds and already have small flower heads nestled deep in their centres. Like their close cousins the globe artichokes, the leaves make a wonderful cleansing tea, perfect for this time of year and particularly refreshing combined with lemon verbena and lemon balm. I’m amazed at how quickly I’m getting through some of the herbs I dried last summer, things like the peppermint are nearly all gone, so I’m making notes of what I need to dry far more of this year. My favourite blend at the moment is hawthorn, lemon balm, lemon verbena, blackcurrant leaf, lavender and rose petal; it’s looks like pot pourri and is the taste of a summer’s day in a cup. The rose petals, however, do a great job of clogging my teapot spout so I’m beginning to think I might need to invest in one with an insert strainer – either that or a packet of pipe cleaners.

Something else I need to organise this year is a far better range of overwintering food crops in the tunnel. Last year it all got away from me thanks to failed germination, soil pests and ten days away in early September during which the longest, hottest, driest spell of the whole summer cooked the seedlings to a crisp. Only the rocket survived, although a few coriander seedlings have popped up in the last couple of weeks which promise a good picking of tasty leaves months ahead of the outdoor stuff (which is the idea of the tunnel, after all). The rocket has been a reliable cropper for months and is now looking to flower which I shall let it do in the hope of never needing to plant it again once the seedheads burst. To go with it, I shall be sowing several kinds of cut-and-come-again lettuce, land cress, lamb’s lettuce, pak choi, mizuna, red mustard, mesclun, radicchio, chicory, winter purslane, flat-leaved parsley, chervil, chard, beetroot and spring onions, all of which should give us plentiful and varied salad dishes through winter. That said, I was really thrilled to pick a lovely lunchtime salad this week: rocket from the tunnel combined with outdoor baby chard and beetroot leaves (their new growth is incredible), land cress, perpetual spinach and very young dandelion leaves which are such a nutrient-rich food at this time of year. Sprinkled with a few pickled nasturtium seeds and calendula petals, it was a deliciously fresh and tangy dish, lighter than a winter slaw but bursting with colour and flavour.

When the long-awaited plants finally appeared, we spent a happy afternoon adding almost 50 new trees to the patch. Some stand alone in splendid solitude, others nestle shoulder to shoulder in strips of hedging; all will bring something special to our garden and the ecosystems within it. Willow is probably one of the best trees we can plant: it’s fantastic for wildlife, an unfussy and speedy grower, propagates like a dream, provides great winter colour and has a hundred and one uses around the garden. We’ve planted a long, snaking hedge between the end of the veggie patch and the (eventual) pond, mostly basket willow and golden willow but also a smattering of the less common ear willow (the lovely-sounding saule à oreillettes in French). Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry, with its delicate yellow spring blooms and glossy red edible fruits should make quite an impact as will the autumn fire of maples and red oaks. Alder buckthorn is the main food source for brimstone butterflies and offers a crop of fruits for the birds to pick at, as does the crab apple (although I shall be after a few of those, too, for making into jelly). Bladder senna is not something we’ve ever grown but I’m taken with its pretty yellow pea-type flowers and fascinating balloon seed pods and what’s more it’s a nitrogen fixer.

Mixed willow hedge in the making.

With the rest of the rugosa roses planted, too, we can suddenly see a new structure emerging from the blank canvas we started with, and by the time we’ve added the pile of plants waiting in the tunnel – those young tree seedlings from around the patch we potted up in the autumn – then the lines and curves of new spaces should be more clearly defined. I particularly love the meandering hedge we’re planting to separate the vegetable garden from the orchard; we’re doing it piecemeal, dotting different plants along a curving line and gradually filling in between so that eventually there will be a thick, eclectic hedge giving shelter from the north-easterly winds, providing food and habitat for a wealth of wildlife and adding shape, structure and colour where previously there was none. We’re leaving several paths through so we can wander from one garden ‘room’ to another or simply graze the edibles from along the hedge. It’s like sketching charcoal lines on a blank canvas to start giving shape to the finished picture, a glimspe of what (hopefully) the eventual painting will look like. Probably not a masterpiece, but – like the kitchen – somewhere colourful, comfortable and quirky where we can work or relax and share happy moments. Worth the wait, surely?

Red oaks should make mighty trees with fabulous autumn foliage.

I must apologise for squeezing in two posts so close together this week but this one will actually be the last for a while. We have a very hectic few weeks ahead and I need to concentrate on all that must be done; also, most of that time – starting on Monday – will be spent without internet which means an ‘obligatory blogging break beckons’ (try saying that little lot quickly!). I shall miss the writing and reading other bloggers’ posts, too, so there will be much catching up to do come mid-March by which time, the swallows will be on their way back and spring will definitely be in the air. Now there’s a wonderful thought! Until then . . . 😊

Restoration

A new year, and for us in more than way than one: not only the calendar clicking round towards 2022 but also – on the 28th December – the end of our first twelve months back living in Mayenne. It was sad not to be celebrating our first ‘anniversary’ as part of Sam and Adrienne’s planned (and subsequently cancelled) visit but I suppose that just about epitomised the rollercoaster year it had been since moving here. We lit the ice lantern anyway and raised an optimistic glass to a calmer and kinder time of it over the next twelve months. We shall see.

I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions, not because I think there’s anything inherently wrong in trying to make ourselves into better beings but because I simply think it’s the wrong time of year for it. For many people living in northern climes, January is a difficult and depressing enough month as it is without beating ourselves up with an almighty guilt trip following the excesses of the festive season; since according to many studies, improving health and fitness tends to be top of the new habits bill, then I would suggest a slightly lighter, warmer month might be a better time to start. It’s a personal thing, of course (feel free to disagree!) but I believe that the idea of ‘restoration’ – meaning to renew, repair, rebuild and, ultimately, to heal – is a more appropriate one just now. A time for reflection and a promise of change are no bad things but for me, the important point is that it is done with kindness and compassion, a sense of positive growth that mirrors the lengthening days and brings hope and happiness rather than self-sabotaging guilt and fear of failure.

I’ve been pondering this idea a fair bit over the last few days as all of our activity in the garden has been very much along the lines of restoration work. Our local weather forecast is very detailed and pretty accurate but it has been a fairly depressing given that for most of our twelve months here, the daily temperature values have remained stubbornly below the expected norm; what a wonderful Yuletide gift, then, as suddenly we moved from ‘minus two feels like minus eight’ (and yes, it certainly did) to a blissfully kind plus fourteen and double figures overnight. Okay, so it’s been a bit grey and damp at times but a real joy to spend our days outside together, getting stuck in to several tasks which have been waiting a long time.

There was never any chance of us following the classic rule of waiting for twelve months before making any changes to the garden; it was bad enough coping for several months without a garden full of fresh produce, yet alone prolonging the agony for a complete year. The vegetable patch was a huge priority right from the moment we arrived here but now, with everything stripped back to its bare bones, it is the perfect time to assess the overall design of the garden and start working in earnest on its structure. Although I accept that some of what we are doing might look more like destruction than restoration, it’s all part of a big plan which (we hope) will ultimately result in a garden that is full of life and colour, interest and food, an intimate place to wander and wonder that will continue to grow and evolve year on year. So, let’s start with trees. We have already planted several new fruit trees along with a handful of native deciduous varieties and next week’s delivery of bare-rooted plants will mean many more specimens to add colour, interest and structure; we will continue to plant trees during the dormant period for many years to come, and although they might look a bit small and diffident to start with, they should grow into elegant, mature beauties in no time.

On the flip side, there are a number of ancient, half-dead trees which really have to go such as the old apple tree we cut down this week. Like most of the mature fruit trees here, it had suffered terrible abuse in its lifetime, bent over at awkward angles, great boughs having been lopped off in grotesque amputations (we can only think for firewood but why would you do that?) and the crown left broken and rotten. The scanty fruits it produced were tasteless to the point of being unpleasant and not even the birds would touch them. Neither of us likes felling trees but there comes a point where it is the only sensible course of action and trust me, nothing will be wasted: it will make room for new, healthy replacement trees, the trunk and bigger boughs will be used for firewood, the smaller branches for the barbecue and the twiggy sticks for mulch and compost. As soon as the tree was down, we could see it had been the right decision as the trunk was almost completely hollow and yet, in death, there was the promise of life . . . the whole thing was full of a rich, black compost, enough to fill a large dustbin, the best of nature’s nourishment which will sustain many other plants through the coming year. Thank you, tree!

Something we had no qualms about felling was the ugly garden shed, even more of an eyesore now the leaves have gone and the hedge behind it has been laid. It’s been a useful place to keep a few tools but was in entirely the wrong spot; the roof had been leaking for years and consequently was totally rotten and the fibreboard lining was peeling off the walls like wet spongy carpet. The wall panels themselves and and the doors were all pretty sound, though, so our plan was to dismantle the whole thing and reuse what we can in building a new, improved shed whilst clearing the area of the piles of junk we had never got round to shifting and turning it into something more attractive.

We knew from experience that this kind of job always takes longer than expected, especially as we have a habit of buying properties from previous owners with a nail fetish – not in the buffed, polished and manicured sense but more of a “I’ve got a hammer and I’m going to use it – everywhere!” sort of way. I’m sure there’s probably a deep psychological reason for belting in twenty long nails where a single screw would do the job but honestly, I wish they wouldn’t. It took ages to remove the piles of rusted ironwork and every time we thought we were done, we discovered several more lurking in dark corners. We would have liked to lift the roof off but despite being rotten, it was way too heavy so we decided a controlled collapse was the only way to bring it down; unfortunately, I was a fraction of a second too slow in jumping back at the crucial moment and the roof caught my legs on its downwards trajectory, leaving me with thighs and knees so colourfully bruised they would be fascinating if they weren’t so sore! Well, I could have chosen to have a ‘normal’ Christmas Day instead, stuffing a turkey, swigging port and scoffing chocolates, but where’s the fun in that? 😆 Shed down, we set about sorting the materials into piles: rotten roofing felt and fibreboard to go to the déchetterie, timbers to be reused or chopped for firewood, good panels shifted ready for the new shed. Time for a teabreak and fortifying mince pie (or two).

Sheds like this one generally come with a ready made floor, the whole thing being designed to sit up on blocks, but for some reason this one simply had more fibreboard nailed onto a couple of palettes which in turn sat on piles of organic matter, including a dessicated rat, mixed with broken slates. It was a painstaking process raking up the organic stuff for the compost heap and picking out as much slate as we could to top up the polytunnel path. We’d decided the cleared area would be perfect for growing a colourful mass of annual flowers so, wanting to test the depth of soil, I fetched a fork and speared it into the ground, only to send excrutiatingly painful shocks into my wrists and up my arms (I was obviously determined to do myself a serious injury one way or another, maybe port and chocolates would have been a better idea after all?🤣). I’d hit concrete, and from the sound of the echo, it had a big drop beneath it. Scraping off the soil, we were quite excited to think we might have found a well; there would certainly have been one here somewhere before the house was connected to mains water and it would be a useful resource if our rain butts run dry in a hot summer. Roger levered the cover up and I leaned in for a closer look . . .

Ha ha, not a well but the old privvy – my goodness, that must have been a long old dash from the house with plaited legs! I’m always astounded at how nature fills a vacuum and here was no exception: a group of sleepy-headed grass snakes curled up where the ‘throne’ had once been, slumbering their way through the winter months.

Not wanting to disturb the snakes, we replaced the cover quickly and gently, but Roger had at least had time to see that the whole concrete affair will lift out easily once they have vacated their winter quarters. We will then fill it with topsoil from digging the pond and scatter flower seeds for a riot of summer colour. Rather than get rid of the scrappy area of hardstanding that was in front of the shed, we will make a proper edge for it, top it up with more broken slate then put a seat and maybe some glazed pots on it. It will be the perfect spot to catch the evening sun, somewhere we can sit and watch the fruit ripen and listen to the buzz of insects in the flowers. I’ll take that over a grotty shed, any day.

Where the new shed is concerned, I’m pretty chuffed that we’ve managed to tick several permaculture boxes, not only because it will mostly be built from reclaimed materials but also because we are designing it to perform several functions. Last summer, Roger removed a bay from the carport behind the house; it’s not a structure we would choose to have, especially not one long enough to park a bus, and it added nothing to the view from the house. Some of the timbers were used to make the utility cabin and the rest, along with the roof panels, were used to build the beginnings of a new structure in the vegetable garden.

The most important function will be water catchment; our current rainwater butts are about as far from the veggie patch as they can be and although dragging back and forth with heavy cans helps to keep me fit, the novelty of that will certainly wear off in a hot summer. A length of guttering, a couple of downpipes and decent sized butts will make things more efficient and life a lot easier, especially when it comes to keeping the tunnel watered. The rescued shed panels will be used to make shelter sides and a much smaller enclosed shed, just enough to house things like handtools, buckets, pots and trays which we need in that part of the garden; they are currently leaning against the frame, waiting for us to finalise our design, but the actual building shouldn’t take too long once we get started.

We carried the garden bench into the shelter to give it a bit of protection over winter but it’s incredible how much we’ve continued to use it so we are planning to leave space for a couple of chairs to live in there permanently. That will give us somewhere to shelter from heavy showers or grab a bit of shade when we’re working in heat (please note how optimistic I’m being about a good summer to come!); it will also be a great spot to sit and watch the veggies grow. If this sitting about is starting to seem like a bit of a theme, then it is; observation is an important part of gardening and it’s crucial to make places to sit and watch, to listen and read the land. It’s not all about work, work, work . . . restoration begins with rest, after all. 😉

I’ve also started to sort out the long stretch of bank behind the house, a job I’ve been itching to do ever since we moved here but at the same time I’ve been dreading starting as it was always going to be an onerous task. Basically, when the renovations were done here about fourteen years ago, a large gravelled area was dug out on the north side of the house; it was done well and must have cost a pretty penny, the resulting earth bank being shored up with mighty railway sleepers and stone walls . . . but then came the planting. Now I know we all have different tastes and ideas and I celebrate that diversity of choice and character, but personally, I cannot stand what I call supermarket carpark planting schemes – those predictable, banal, ‘low maintenance’ shrubs and groundcover plants which it might be deemed suitable for an urban retail landscape but are so completely wrong in a cottage garden in rural France.

I would never, ever choose to plant those things myself; for me, a south-facing bank like that with house windows looking out over it just cries out for a rumbustuous paradise of herbs, flowers and fruit; why, oh why, plant creeping conifers when you could have roses and raspberries and a riot of rainbows? I am trying very hard to be generously pragmatic where some plants are concerned, knowing that cotoneaster and heather, for example, are great for insects; in fact, the reason I haven’t been able to get stuck in until this late in the year is the busy population of bees and it would be wrong to destroy what is such a good food source for them. I’m not going to pull everything out and start again but rather try and get it all under control first then tip the balance in favour of plants I prefer by introducing more and more new things in the future and encouraging the few wild beauties that appeared last year of their own volition. Far more my cup of tea.

To be fair, I have found a few treasures buried among the chaos: lavender, thyme, a couple of different mints and lots of strawberries, all of which can stay and hopefully will thrive with more light and attention. There is a lot of couch grass in the mix and I can’t do much about that apart from cut it right back and encourage other things to grow more strongly. The shrubs have all grown into one another and most have a lot of dead woody matter that I’m removing in the hope they will be rejuvenated while a few young self-set native trees have been lifted to plant elsewhere. I’m not sure what to make of things like two tiny ornamental conifers (which I don’t like) planted in the shade of a twisted willow (which I do) and I can’t say I was too thrilled to find a hideous resin statue lurking under the bigger of the two, a cat in sunglasses wielding a garden spade: the mind boggles – and yes, it had to leave!

The biggest nightmare by far, however, is the periwinkle. As a native plant, it makes for lovely groundcover in the right spot with its glossy, deep green leaves and pretty blue flowers but this one is monstrous, having run amok and choked everything in sight, including itself; it’s even grown right through the stone wall Roger built in the summer which is downright rude in my opinion. Where it has formed thick mats, I’m chopping it right back in the hope that any new growth will look healthier and darker (that sick yellow colour just isn’t right) but that’s the easy bit; to remove it from the other plants, I’m having to get right into the middle of them and pull it out strand by single strand which is a painstaking job, the wheelbarrow rapidly filling with trails of the stuff yet with little apparent progress made on the ground. I’m beginning to wonder if at this rate, I shall have finished before the bees are back but I shall soldier on in the belief that one day, it will be beautiful. It might just take a long time . . .

Pausing in my busyness, I take a few moments to luxuriate in the unbelievably mild temperature, the softness of the air and the pared-back beauty of the season. In ancient times, wrens were of particular significance at this time of year but here it is the sweet fluttering melody of dunnocks that rings from the hedgerows. There is magic, too, in the haunting daylight calls of tawny owls from the woods, the trilling woodlarks and the strident whistle of the mistle thrush, that most optimistic of winter songs. There is so much still to be done on this precious patch of land but I am happy that we have started to make our mark. When we arrived here, the summer raspberry canes had been sheared off at ground level, only a few missed survivors being left to bear fruit last summer; this year, they have grown tall and strong, now making a bold splash of winter colour that promises a wonderful harvest to come. Perhaps they are an apt symbol of what time, love and healing can do, real restoration in every sense of the word. Yes, I like that. Happy New Year, one and all! 😊

Food and flowers

The kitchen makeover is in full swing. Gone are the red walls and cupboards, the wobbly worktops, the unwanted dishwasher, the low sink sticking out at a crazy angle into the room with its taps plumbed in the wrong way round. Instead a light, airy space in cream and soft pistachio is emerging with doors repainted, homemade wooden shelves and units installed, dishwasher sold and the sink – now under the window – raised to a level that doesn’t challenge my back and boasting hot and cold in the right places. Slowly, slowly, it is becoming the room we’d envisaged, an organised space to cook in together, pleasantly eclectic, comfy and flooded with light. Despite being a long way from finished, we sat round the table with friends last week sharing coffee, cake and laughter. I dug out a tablecloth and picked a vase of sunny rudbeckia from the garden; it felt very civilised, wonderfully human. We’re getting there, bit by bit.

I have to confess that it’s Roger who is doing the bulk of the work; I’ve been painting walls and cupboard doors, stripping the horrible ‘distressed’ paint job from the wooden fire surround and doing my bit as builder’s / carpenter’s / plumber’s mate as required but he has been the one cutting and drilling and soldering, measuring and levelling, hefting heavy materials, taking things apart and rebuilding them elsewhere. There’s been a steady stream of tools in and out of his Man Cave, of shopping lists for things I didn’t even know existed, of mutterings and cursings from the depths of cupboard carcasses and the top of ladders. He said he didn’t want to do another house renovation but here he is, creating yet another beautiful kitchen. I’m very proud! 🥰 (Oh, and this one really will be the last. Honest.)

Happy as I am to help, there is still a garden to care for and despite the indifferent weather (are we going to have a summer at all this year?), it’s been a delight to be busy in the fresh air. We’ve been here eight months now and, like the kitchen, there’s a feeling of the garden we’d first imagined slowly evolving from the blank canvas. Having initially struggled with the fact we had no food coming from the garden, we are so snowed under with vegetables now it is unbelievable. Every meal begins with what is good and ready . . . which means piles and piles of fresh deliciousness in a rainbow of colours on our plates. It’s been hard work up against poor soil, unpredictable weather and a host of pesky pests but this is what it’s all about, the joy of picking dinner. Today’s choices: potatoes, carrots, beetroot, onions, garlic, courgettes (compulsory – who thought six plants were a good idea?🤣 ), aubergines, tomatoes, cabbage, kale, calabrese, French beans (green and purple), cucumbers, chard, perpetual spinach, New Zealand spinach, lettuce, strawberries and an array of herbs. Still to come: sweetcorn, climbing borlotti and Asturian beans, leeks, parsnips, oca, squash, celery, more carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, winter cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, Florence fennel, radicchio, winter salads in the tunnel and apples.

In the midst of such a bountiful harvest, I find it’s a good time to stop and assess how things have gone so far in our first year here and to start making plans for next year. What has been a success or a failure, what we need to change, add or scrap, different crops, different approaches . . . there’s much to consider. I’m kicking myself for having abandoned my gardening diary weeks ago – too busy gardening, what can I say? – as it’s so useful to have something to refer back to. I can see, for instance, that there would have been time to squeeze in yet another sowing of French beans to crop well into autumn, but I can’t remember when I planted this year’s final one (which we’ve just started picking this week) so I’m missing a handy benchmark. More diary discipline required next season! On that score, apologies to those readers who find this kind of thing a bit dull but I’m going to share my thoughts and observations in the knowledge that in the absence of a well-kept gardening log, I can at least rely on the occasional blog post to fill the gaps.

Where failure and disappointment are concerned, tomatoes are top of the list. For 25 years or so in the UK we grew tomatoes without ever having a problem with blight; in fact, I used to spend several weeks of the summer school holidays processing huge gluts to keep through winter. Since then, our tomato-growing escapades have been literally well and truly blighted; after a five-year battle in Asturias which resulted in a modest harvest, I’d really hoped we’d be blight-free here where I know the most fantastic tomatoes can be grown outdoors. Well, it wasn’t to be and I was very sad to see my hoped-for tomato rainbow collapse overnight, the promise of sweet cherries, soft plums and hearty beefsteaks wiped out in a flash. We need to think long and hard about next year (yes, of course I’ll try again, I don’t give up that easily!), looking at varieties, timing and location above all else. The good news is that two pot-grown plants by the kitchen door have managed to prevail and we are picking tomatoes daily; in fact, they are starting to mount up into quite a pile which has me (reluctantly) admitting that perhaps the 30 plants I had going originally were 28 too many.

Brassicas, too, have been difficult, although to see them now you’d never believe the battle I’ve had with the Evil Weevil brigade. There’s a bit of a caterpillar issue at the moment but they are much easier to deal with and on the whole, everything is looking incredibly healthy – I can’t remember the last time we grew such enormous cabbages. They’ve definitely benefited from a cooler, wetter summer than usual so I can’t get too complacent about that one next year. I was far too late sowing spring cabbage (in my defence, all the gardening kit including seeds was still in Asturias), there’s no sign of any romanesco broccoli even though I swear some plants went in and the Brussels sprouts thing just didn’t happen. On the whole, though, it could have been far worse; just the potential weevil threat to address next year.

The first sowings of beans were a complete disaster thanks to a combination of unseasonably cold wet weather and attacks by bean seed fly; next year, I shall sit on my hands a bit longer and pre-sow everything into trays. Once French beans get going there is no stopping them and we have such a huge crop now that I have left the first sowings to form fat pods; we will pod them and freeze the beans for winter dishes, drying others for sowing next spring (we have grown them successfully from saved seed for many years). In Asturias last summer, we ended up with a disappointing single climbing borlotti plant so saved all the seed from it to bring here; this year, the story is a much happier one and I love the splash of unashamed colour the pods bring to the garden, although they’d be even more stunning in a bit of sunshine. Ha ha! The Asturian beans are a bit tardy but gathering strength at last, I’m not sure whether again it’s down to soil and weather or maybe they’re simply missing the Costa Verde?

Our sandy loam is ideal for root crops and despite the quality of the soil being decidedly poor this year, we have managed a good crop of potatoes and carrots. Having found the beginnings of some pest infestation this week, we’ve lifted both and put them into storage in the cave: two crates of ‘Charlotte’ potatoes, one of ‘Blue Danube’ and another of summer carrots. I’ve left the beetroot to tough it out in the ground as nothing much bothers them (Roger would probably say there’s a good reason for that 😆) and I’m hoping the harvest so far bodes well for autumn carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and oca later in the year.

I’ve also been lifting onions and garlic as the tops had all died back and I want to dry them while there’s still enough hours of sunlight and warmth in the day to do the job properly. It’s a long way from the best crop we’ve ever had which is not surprising given they were planted in a ‘needs must’ way in rubbish soil and a less than ideal location, but their flavour is good and they will keep us going in the kitchen for several weeks. Next year, I will be more organised and start the onions from seed in trays, I far prefer that to buying sets as they seem to grow into bigger and more robust onions. We need to find some autumn-planted garlic, too, and I fancy some overwintering yellow onions to go in at the same time. I’ve lost count of the number of times I re-sowed spring onions this season, they just wouldn’t grow (despite being new seed) and we ended up with a sum total of two! Definitely need to think about that one for next year.

Having lightly forked in a good layer of rich loam from the coppice, I’ve sown several short rows of winter leaves in the tunnel: mixed lettuce varieties, rocket, lamb’s lettuce, mizuna, land cress, rainbow chard, coriander and flat-leaved parsley should provide us with regular pickings of fresh and flavoursome salad leaves in the colder months of the year. I’ve had great success in chopping outdoor lettuce and leaving the roots and stem in situ to regrow this year, so much so that next year I shan’t bother with sowing too many successional crops. We’ve enjoyed a wide assortment of baby leaves and herbs, flat-leaved parsley being the only disappointing crop so I need to find a better spot for that one. At this time of year, our salads tend to be built from chunkier things and there’s no shortage of possibilities to choose from. The gherkin cucumbers have finally got away from me but I have to say I do prefer them to the longer types; the courgettes are also doing their own thing and I’m on marrow hunting duty daily. ‘Black Beauty’ is such a reliable cropper and it was the only seed I had to hand this year but next season it would be good to grow another type, too, just to ring the changes. Talking of black beauties, the five tunnel aubergines have suddenly found top gear and gone berserk – 25 ready for picking at the last count!

They’re sharing the space with a couple of butternut squashes currently boasting 12 ripe fruits; we might have lost the tomatoes in there and never got any peppers going this year, but there is plenty of food to come and the winter crops are always a bonus. The outdoor squash have yet to run out of steam – in fact, I’ve had to curb their thuggery a little bit this week to stop them climbing the bean poles. There are 26 visible mature squash with some inevitably lurking unseen in the long grass so we will not be short of one of our favourite winter staples. The range of different specimens thrown up by last year’s mongrel seed is as fascinating as ever: there’s one with green and white reptilian skin a bit like a watermelon, a lemon yellow rugby ball, a pale green beauty with almost luminescent white patches, several blue/grey deeply-ridged giants, a couple with definite turban genes and a bright pinky-orange pumpkin affair that would have Cinderella in rhapsodies (I’m sure there’s a touch of the Russian Pink Fairy in that one). I’ve been studying genetic biodiversity this week and the crucial role to be played by gardeners in helping to reverse the loss of so many seed varieties; this is certainly an area I intend to pursue more and more in the future and just looking at these happy, quirky, diverse squash – every last one the progeny of a single fruit – is all the encouragement I need.

Fruit is another area where we need a bit of a plan for the future. The rescued rhubarb plant has made an excellent recovery and I’m planning to split it into several crowns in the autumn and plant them in a designated Perennial Thugs bed, probably the last lasagne bed to be made this year. The soft fruit bushes have also responded to a lot of loving care; we had a very small harvest of gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants which should be massively increased next year, especially as I have planted out six healthy new plants from found seedlings. It was impossible to know what kind of raspberries we had since they had all been chopped to ground level before we moved here, but I am confident now that all but one are summer varieties and the vigorous growth of new canes promises a bounty of fruit next season. As autumn raspberries are my favourite, though, I need to do something about correcting the imbalance. The Spanish strawberry plants we brought with us have been fantastic, we are still picking the fruit every day – even several of the new plants I raised from pegged runners and planted around the edge of the Strawberry Circle are fruiting big time. Experts would probably tell me I really shouldn’t be letting them do that, but honestly, try stopping them.

On the down side, with the exception of cherries, the orchard fruits have been disappointing. The myrobalan plums were inedible so we left them to the birds and the bullaces in the hedge which I’d hoped might have a hint of damson about them are totally tasteless. We need to plant plums! We have planted a pear which is a good thing as the one already here has struggled to produce a miserly two fruit. The abundant peach trees have done nothing which is hardly surprising given this really isn’t peach country; apple country it most definitely is, though, and the next few weeks should give us a better idea of exactly what we have here. There’s certainly no shortage, and with our hedges dripping with ripening blackberries, there is the promise of autumn pies and crumbles in the air.

I’ve written before about the importance of building resilience in the garden and planting perennial foods is certainly one step in the right direction. Our first experimental lasagne bed was made to accommodate six small green globe artichoke plants raised from seed; they were targeted a bit by blackfly earlier in the summer but are romping away now and next year I shall grow some purple ones to complement them. The cardoons, too, are growing strongly and the asparagus plants have more than doubled in size since going into the ground.

The same is true of the perennial herbs planted around the edge of the emerging mandala bed and I love the way they are already making an impact in defining the circle’s circumference (not to mention the hyssop is flowering and driving the bees to distraction). Now here is a story, the kind of which makes me smile. The herbs I grew were lavender, hyssop, Welsh onion, sage and thyme but try as I might, I couldn’t persuade rosemary to join the germination party, even with fresh seed. To that end, I took lots of cuttings from an existing plant, left them to develop roots in a bottle of water then potted up half a dozen small plants this week, willing them to grow. When we moved here, I found a miserable rosemary plant barely growing in cold, waterlogged mud inside a rotting basket; I moved it into a big pot of rich compost and it has graced a space outside the front door ever since, luxuriating in the warmth and looking a hundred times happier. Getting down on my hands and knees a couple of days ago to look at the pansies that have self-set in gravel from the spring window boxes (that’s exactly what I’d hoped they would do – lazy gardening once again) I noticed there was a forest of rosemary seedlings, too. They all look strong and robust, far healthier than my rather sappy cuttings: nature, once again, has done the job properly!

There isn’t room to squeeze rosemary plants around the edge of the mandala now but I shall give them pride of place in the centre, making a circle around the centre where the paths meet the standing stone. Having changed my mind several times about the design, in the end I’ve decided to keep it very simple with paths to mark the cross quarters and diagonals, creating eight large segments for planting. I’ve roughly orientated it to the compass so the standing stone should act as a very basic sundial which I thought would be fun. I’m already using it to help track the sun’s path, the eastern flank now bathed in honey-coloured morning light; not quite Stonehenge, but I love it all the same.

Of course, the garden isn’t just about food; I love flowers and I’ve been really chuffed at how much colour there has been this year considering it is all pretty much thanks to scattered annuals. I’ve never been a huge fan of those floral seed mixes, they tend to be relatively expensive and the promised 25 different varieties often turn out to deliver only poppies, marigolds and cornflowers – all of which I love, but you know what I’m saying. Anyway, I’ve had to change my opinion this year as a couple of packets of different mixes have produced a wealth of interesting varieties and a stunning show of colour and scent which seems to go on and on. The main flower border is a riot of frenetic insect activity and I find myself totally engrossed in all the busyness and buzz. The butterflies and bumble bees aren’t fussy but the latter mostly float between the sunflowers and a pink dahlia (bonus plant, I rescued the tuber from the compost heap when we moved here).

Carpenter bees, decked out in shiny metallic black and blue, are drawn like a magnet to the clump of peacock lilies where they do a fascinating thing: instead of feeding inside the flowers, they climb like a tightrope walker up the long delicate flower stems, flip themselves underneath, pierce the tiny tube and feed from there. I’m wondering if that’s why the flowers are so unusually short-lived?

I’ve never grown zinnias so it’s interesting to see how well they do here, standing tall on strong stems in pale pastel pinks, bright coral and deepest red; they are a fascinating plant to study closely with their architectural buds, starburst of yellow stamens and silky petals expanding and curling a little more each day . . . and yet, the insects really aren’t bothered with them at all.

Queen Anne’s thimbles are a different matter and I was delighted to see them in the mix. The honey bees love them and collect pollen of the most beautiful cobalt blue from their depths. In fact, although I’ve missed out on my tomato rainbow, I’m enjoying the incredible range of pollen colours to be spied on the bees’ hindlegs, a complete spectrum from the palest ivory of cornflowers to the deep cinnamon of mignonette ( well, I think that’s what it is – another flower to emerge from the mix and one I’ve never grown, it really is a ‘little darling’).

I’m beginning to wonder if I will need to plant flowers at all next year; perhaps I should simply leave things to take their course and see what comes back naturally. After all, these flowers have needed no attention whatsoever and I couldn’t have improved on the (admittedly chaotic) beauty of the borders if I’d tried. I struggled for weeks to persuade sweet peas to (a) germinate (b) grow (c) climb – even a bit – up their poles and yet the spare seed I threw in randomly produced by far the best plants and flowers, scrambling up other things for support. Yes, maybe I’ll focus on my plans for the food garden next year and let nature take care of the rest. 😉

Slowlydays

There’s a definite hint of change in the air. The sun’s path is shorter, the shadows morning and evening creeping ever lower and longer. The birdsong has faded, the cuckoo and hoopoe now silent, although the soft turr-turr of turtle doves still sweetens the air. The swallows are looping high and fast, feeding and fattening before their compasses swing south, and flocks of chattering goldfinches are picking fluffy seeds from the meadow. The dense hazel hedges are dripping with nuts, and dripping with red squirrels, too, feasting on the milky kernels; I doubt there will be much of a harvest left for us! The trees and hedges are heavy with dark summer growth, the rowans bright with scarlet berries, the verges sprawling with chaotic vegetation and explosions of loosestrife, valerian, mint and mallow. The days are full of butterflies and crickets, the evenings peppered with glow-worms and moths. This is, without question, summer in all its maturity.

. . . and yet, it’s not quite right somehow. We have had several weeks of unusual weather, temperatures well below average, glowering leaden skies and days and days of torrential rain which have left the landscape abnormally green and lush for the time of year. The neighbouring field of grain was cut early in a tiny window of opportunity but other farmers have not been so lucky; the combines have been standing silent, the crops blackening in the fields and the frustration locally has been palpable.

Harvest home: our neighbour was one of the lucky ones.

In the garden, the grass is growing as fast as it does in May, the dew so heavy now that I soak my feet on my morning wanders. The vegetables are loving it, there is so much growth and abundance and I have to admit, it’s a treat not having to haul cans of water in an attempt to keep things alive. In fact, with the water butts full to the brim, we’re wondering why we rushed to install another one at all. (Its time will come, of that we’re sure!)

Butthead???? 🤣
In situ and full to the brim.

There is change and movement in our life here, too. We’ve finally drawn a line under what I’ve come to think of over the last few months as the ‘Big Three’: we have our residency cards, our healthcare cards and the car is sporting shiny new French plates. Now we can turn our attention to the next tasks on the list, mainly getting the house knocked into shape and at the very least, the heating sorted out and kitchen revamped before winter. There’s much to be done. We’ve made great strides outside since moving here and the garden is slowly evolving into an organised and productive patch; I am happy to go off foraging with my trusty trug in hand each day, hauling back piles of fresh vegetables for the table. I’ve had a busy time drying jars and jars of herbs and other plant material, and now the food preserving season has begun in earnest. I’m enjoying my commitment to using my bike as much as possible, doing all the recycling and much of our shopping on two wheels now, but – like all good things in a simple life – it takes up a lot of time. The Mayenne tourist board attracts visitors through a scheme called ‘Slowlydays’ which I think applies perfectly to our own approach to life . . . although I can honestly report, that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t work hard!

Slow food

I was given an unexpected but welcome prod recently to pick up where I left off last December on the free year-long online permaculture course I started last September. I haven’t had a spare minute to think about it since but having started again, I realise just how much I’ve been missing it and also how resource rich it is – it took me several days just to read through all the notes I had taken. There are so many ideas I’d like to put into practice, but I realise there is much we are already applying here and our approach to tackling new projects has certainly taking a distinctive permaculture twist. Take, for example, the recently finished ‘utility cabin’ we have created in one end of the stone outbuilding adjacent to the house. When we first looked around the property, it was an open area with a toilet and basin at the back and a storage area for logs and various piles of garden equipment at the front.

Having moved in and lived here for a while, we felt the space could be made into something far more useful by closing the front, especially as the wind swirled round and blew rain in – we didn’t store our logs in there for that very reason – and played havoc with the modesty curtain hung to screen the toilet from view. Adding insulation would mean we could move the washing machine and freezer in there, freeing up space for better things in the kitchen and cave, and shifting some cupboards and work surfaces as part of the kitchen makeover would create a handy place for storage and various practical activities . . . I’m already planning to install my dyeing and soap making materials in there. Re-routing the water supply allowed us to add an outside tap, a useful resource missing from the property. We did the work using as many found and recycled materials as possible, such as timber posts liberated after removing a section of the huge car port, lengths of white plastic cladding (we think?) which had been draped high over the outhouse rafters and various scraps of woodstain, which is why the finished cabin is a mix of shades. Connecting the basin to a drain (novel idea!), adding a window, fresh coat of paint, homemade towel rail and a found tie-back for that crazy curtain has made the bathroom area a really useful facility, perfect for our outdoor lifestyle. Ideally, I’d like a compost toilet but for the time being, I’ve initiated a flush bucket system using grey water from the kitchen or rainwater from the butts which will save wasting mains water and keep water in our ‘system’ a little bit longer – perfect permaculture thinking.

I’ve been asked several times why I never post photos of the house; it’s partly because our focus has been very much on outdoors activities since we moved here and also, the garden has always been my favourite ‘room’ so that’s where my enthusiasm tends to lie. However, we have been tackling a few indoor projects of late and there are plenty more to come so I promise to those who are interested that I will devote a future post to the great indoors! We have made a start on sorting the kitchen out this week, so as I write it’s something of a bomb site from which (hopefully) an area far more suited to our lifestyle will emerge. Like the utility cabin, we are determined to use as many resources as are already here which will not only save waste and money but also challenge us to be innovative and inventive in our design plan. Although I am currently revamping cupboard doors with a new paint colour (yes, that red really has to go), we want to move away from a completely fitted kitchen feel so we were thrilled to find the perfect piece of freestanding furniture in a local dépôt vente, an Aladdin’s cave of secondhand furniture and household accessories. I’m not sure what exactly this piece was originally used for (it was in the bedroom furniture section), but it is already very much at home at one end of the kitchen and the amount of storage space is incredible.

So, back to the garden and the bulk of my time in recent weeks seems to have been spent barrowing piles and piles of biomass in a frenzy of lasagne bed creation. Well, it certainly beats weeding or digging, and the garden is so full of colour and life that it is a joy to be busy out there, even if I am walking miles with various loads of green and brown materials.

In truth, I have become something of a woman possessed, gathering up every scrap of organic matter and putting it to use in lasagne building, mulching or on various compost heaps. I’ve even started homing in on other people’s stuff as I cycle around the lanes – it’s very much garden hedge cutting season, so there’s plenty about – but so far I’ve resisted the temptation to accost anyone and beg a pile! To be honest, there is actually something incredibly satisfying to be tapping into our own waste stream and using what we have on the property and in the coppice; it would be much easier to buy in some bulk manure or municipal compost but there’s a growing awareness that doing so can import unwanted problems from outside. There’s little point in trying to build rich living soil if it’s full of animal antibiotics or bits of plastic and the more I do, the more convinced I am that the materials we have already will suffice. The only thing we are sourcing from outside is cardboard from the déchetterie where we are building an amusing reputation as the only people who turn up with an empty trailer to haul away other people’s waste!

From cardboard to compost to carrots and cabbages . . . satisfying recycling!

As a demonstration of what I’m doing, this is how I have built the Strawberry Circle:

  • Layer 1: cardboard laid directly on top of mown grass. I’ll admit the air (unlike the sky) was somewhat blue when the wind picked up from nowhere and blew the sheets halfway to Normandy. Once retrieved, I weighed them down with heavy stones and left the rain to soak them overnight; I’ve read this week that permaculture can be described as ‘Lazy Technology’ and I’m happy to be the living proof of that. Why haul water when so much of it is falling readily from the sky?
  • Layer 2: grass clippings from mowing the Potager paths.
  • Layer 3: huge pile of twiggy hazel sticks from two rows of finished peas plus the spent plants.
  • Layer 4: weeds that had come up through the peas.
  • Layer 5: a mix of woody stuff collected when we felled a dead tree for logs in the coppice – pieces of rotten bark, sawdust, twiggy sticks, dead leaves, etc.
  • Layer 6: hay cut from the meadow.
  • Layer 7: composty loam from a stack of turfs mixed with grass clippings and dead leaves that we put to rot down months ago.

I’m ready to start planting the young strawberry plants raised from runners, but as the mature plants (still fruiting like billy-o, are they a perpetual variety, I wonder?) can’t be lifted until autumn, I’ve sprinkled a green manure mix of phacelia, crimson clover and buckwheat in the centre of the circle for an extra chop-and-drop nutrition addition. Fingers crossed, we will be guaranteed an even better crop next year.

Not just a green manure: phacelia flowers are currently shimmering with bees throughout the garden.

We have never tried to be self-sufficient but I’ve believed for a long time that it is important to be self-reliant; more and more so, in fact, as the planet and all life on it faces so much unpredictability and uncertainty. We need to build resilience and I’m keen to explore the many ways in which we can do that, the extent to which it’s possible to shift for ourselves and weaken the hold of consumerist society on our lives. Making our own compost and plant fertilisers, growing and preserving food, saving seed, using rainwater, solar heating and logs, cycling everywhere and making and mending things are just a few ways in which we can stand on our own two feet as well as do our bit for the planet. In fact, I’ve heard such lifestyles described as ‘subversive’ and I love the idea of being a rebel! Our to-do list is fairly long, planting more trees over winter being a high priority and extending the range of perennial foods in the garden being another. To that end, I’ve been building a large lasagne bed for asparagus plants which, once established, should crop for a good twenty years. Asparagus is ridiculously easy and cheap to grow from seed, although it does mean waiting a bit longer for the first harvest than if we’d planted crowns; there are likely to be a few female plants in the mix, too, but given I’ve planted 30 of them I don’t think we’ll be short of spears. It’s a good – and delicious – investment for the future.

As well as propogating new strawberry plants from runners, I’ve been increasing the number of soft fruit bushes we have by lifting and potting up self-set seedlings which have quickly grown into healthy young plants. I’ve also raised trays of perennial herbs from seeds, 32 of which (sage, thyme, hyssop, lavender and Welsh onion) I’ve recently planted around the edge of the mandala bed as they were literally bursting out of their pots. I’m still working on building the bed but a pile of compost round the edge made for easy planting and with any luck, we should have a thriving aromatic and edible hedge for years to come.

Young herbs planted around the edge of the mandala bed (the white stones mark the positon of a path to the centre)

Preserving food is another investment for the future and something I love to do, so it’s been a slighlty chaotic week trying to get a few things processed in the chaos of Kitchen Makeover World. We have more French beans than we know what to do with, even after leaving the first row to fatten their pods for dried winter beans and seed saving. We’re eating them every day cooked in a variety of ways but last week I decided to experiment with lacto-fermentation. I had mixed results with this last year – sauerkraut was fabulous, courgettes were horrible – but that’s no reason not to try again, so I set a jar of mixed purple and green beans to ferment. The result? A crunchy, slightly salty pickle delicious with bread and cheese; they’re scrummy – we’re on our second jar already! I’ve been a bit remiss where harvesting cucumbers is concerned, my habit of crammed polyculture planting not always making it easy to pick things. The cosmos through which the cukes are trailing are so full of bees I can’t go wading into the jungly depths in search of bounty, so I have to remember to do it very early in the morning before the insects are out and about. The result is dew-soaked feet, hair full of dill and cosmos pollen and a very large haul of food.

Time to play Hunt The Cucumber.

These are a gherkin variety, perfect for making the easiest pickles in the world. I can’t be bothered with any of that ‘spices in a muslin bag’ faff, it makes far more sense to me to leave them in the jar for flavour. So, I simply wash the cucumbers, sprinkle with salt and leave overnight, then pack them into sterilised jars (chopping the bigger ones into chunks) with garlic, peppercorns, coriander seed, whole chillies, heads of dill and anything else that comes to hand before covering with hot white vinegar and sealing. Job done in a trice, even working round a muttering husband balanciing on a ladder whilst trying to move wall cupboards that have been very badly put together by previous DIYers. Where the dill pickles are concerned, the difficult bit now is trying not to open the jars for three months . . .

An important aspect of building resilience is learning to cope with (and learn from) failure and disappointment. It’s not always easy to see things going badly wrong, but the permaculture adage ‘the problem is the solution’ gives a pragmatic and optimistic reminder that these things can be overcome with the right attitude and approach. I’m not even going to describe how it felt some weeks ago to watch our potentially fantastic tomato harvest disappear before our eyes as 30 plants in the tunnel and garden went into total collapse thanks to our old enemy, blight. Within two days, we’d lost the lot, very frustrating after battling the same problem for so many years in Asturias.

Not a happy sight.

We are as sure as we can be that this was a result of the atrocious weather and airborne spores rather than infected soil so we will try again next year, adjusting our ideas based on what has happened. Perhaps we need to consider early varieties or later ones to miss the main blight period; certainly, a few spare plants that I planted in desperation after the others had died haven’t been anywhere near as vigorous but are now producing ripe fruits. Also interesting is that of the three plants growing in pots at the front of the house, ‘Orion’s Belt’ collapsed very quickly but ‘Alaska’ and ‘Black Sea Man’ have clung on and we are picking ripe and flavoursome tomatoes daily. The solution is definitely to be found here somewhere! On the bright side (and yes, we needed one of those) we were left with several kilos of green tomatoes and I’d like to sing in praise of these as a great food. Contrary to some popular belief, they are not inedible or poisonous and shouldn’t be consigned only to the chutney pan or compost heap. Blitzed with onion, garlic, fresh coriander and lime juice they make a zingy salsa that rivals any tomatillo; we love them fried in olive oil with onion, garlic, whole spices and balsamic vinegar and they also make an awesome curry. They freeze like a dream and I’ve stashed several bags ready-chopped to fling into hearty winter dishes. Nothing is wasted.

Sticking with threatened crops for a moment, and I’m delighted to announce that I think we are finally over the nightmare of the Evil Weevil. I’m still seeing the little bugrats in my sleep but the first cabbage harvested and eaten this week was sublime and felt like a huge achievement: half was simply steamed and eaten with copious amounts of rich Normandy butter, the rest shredded with carrot and onion and dressed in yogurt to make a light, summery slaw. We have to celebrate other successes, too, the crops that have just got on and grown despite everything thrown at them in this strange first year: potatoes, courgettes, carrots (the best ever, they love this sandy loam), beetroot, beans, onions, garlic, chard, spinach. salad leaves, herbs . . . we are spoilt for choice. We might be short of tomatoes, but in the tunnel is the best harvest of aubergines we have enjoyed in seven years. I’m certainly not grumbling about that.

Weevils 0 Dogged gardening 1: result!

In the last couple of days, summer has returned bringing us flawless blue skies and high heat. It’s not forecast to last very long, but there’s time enough at least to turn a few more swathes of meadow grass into hay for future chicken bedding. The combines are rolling, too, starting late in the afternoon because of the heavy dew then rumbling through the night to the wee small hours, giant nocturnal monsters bringing the harvest in at last. In the garden, it’s amazing how quickly everything has responded to the dry, sunny weather. The sunflowers, towering several feet above my head, have at last opened their shaggy blooms to the delight of the neighbourhood bumblebees; the Asturian beans and climbing borlottis have started to set pods, while the other two ‘sisters’ – squash and sweetcorn – are plumping up before our eyes. Slow, slow food, the best in the world. We are so very blessed. 🥰

One of our ‘mongrel’ squash grown from saved seed – it promises to be a good ‘un.

Fruit salad

It’s been a strange couple of weeks with far too many necessary chores distracting us from projects in the garden and a rollercoaster of good news, bad news, sad news . . . I’ve spent several days in a flat spin, chasing my tail, juggling too many balls and running the whole gamut of emotions. That said, I’m not given to wearing my heart on my sleeve too much or making dramas out of situations – it’s simply life, after all. They say life’s a peach, but personally I’ve always considered it to be more of a fruit salad: sometimes you get the sweet strawberry and other times, the slimy banana. Ups and downs, smiles and tears, worry and relief: what I need in moments like these is a sense of balance, of perspective and calm. Where better to find those than in the garden?

Although I’ve not spent anywhere near as much time outside as I would have liked recently, I’m pleased at how suddenly it is starting to feel like the space we imagined when we moved here. Everything is going full tilt, the trees heavy with their fullest, deepest summer foliage and other plants stretching, blooming, jostling for elbow room; it’s a time of exuberant fullness and plump plenty. The stark canvas we started with now flaunts shameless curves and hidden places in a cheerful kaleidoscope of colour and an energetic buzz of life. Slowly, slowly, a garden is emerging . . .

I’ve been piling layers onto the mandala bed, the latest being a thick blanket of hay cut from one of the meadow areas. It’s a big job, but there’s no rush and I can potter away at it in snatched moments. With any luck, this time next year it will be a joyful expression of all that is good in the summer garden.

Adding height to the garden is a long term project – trees take time to grow, pergolas to build and cover – but desperate for at least some vertical interest (and to screen that ugly shed), earlier this year we made a basic and very rustic ‘thing’ from hazel poles. It has looked a bit odd, although a rescued clematis has done a decent job of prettying it up with deep purple velvety blooms, and sweet peas (sooooo slow this year) and climbing nasturtiums have now joined the scramble. Suddenly, there seems to have been a huge surge in growth upwards, not least from the sunflowers. Just over a week ago, I was soaked to the skin trying to tether them as they flailed about in a brutal storm; several were snapped off, a couple blown out of the ground – little surprise, the soil was saturated – but the survivors are well above my head now and really going for it. Well, it is sunflower country after all, despite the rough weather of late.

One of the saddest things about this week is that Sarah and her family should be here with us, enjoying a long-awaited summer holiday, but that was cancelled in light of the ongoing Covid situation. It’s eighteen months since we last saw them – saw any of our family, in fact – and that is starting to feel like an unhealthily long time, especially with our little grandchildren growing up so quickly. It’s so easy to dwell on what we should be doing: planning picnics, barbecues and camping nights in the garden, playing tag and hide-and-seek, building dens and houses for unicorns, splashing in the paddling pool, building stone domes and bug hotels, doing art and craftwork on the picnic table or a quilt thrown on the grass, telling stories, singing silly songs, making muffins and ice cream . . . I should be feeling the impatient tug of little hands eager to explore the garden, to wander and sniff and poke and pick and nibble, to hunt for squirrels and ladybirds, to collect pebbles and feathers, stroke petals, pick posies, steal strawberries. There is no substitute for this, no consolation to be had: this is most definitely a horrible slimy banana moment. Yet in spending time with the flowers, bright and cheery as a child’s paintbox and buzzing with as much noise and boundless energy as those little monkeys I’m missing, there is a certain peace and solace to be found. We are all safe and well, and for that I am truly grateful. We will see our loved ones again, we just need to be patient. Hush now and wait. Smell the flowers. Watch the bees and butterflies. Breathe.

There are flowers in the vegetable garden, too, which is just how I like it to be. After a slow and seriously unpromising start, the Bean Circle is now thickly abundant, the Asturian fabas spiralling to the tops of their poles, cucumbers clambering up their tripods and trailing chaotically through everything else, thick clumps of coriander and dill scenting the air and bright flashes of calendula and cosmos pulling in the pollinators, with the fire of sunny rudbeckia to follow.

Then there’s the squash. If ever I needed any proof that hügelkultur works, then I need look no further than the squash plants that have tumbled down the sides of their hill and are now zipping enthusiastically across the grass in every direction. They are covered in yellow flower trumpets, full of pollen-dusted bees, and are setting a grand amount of fruit. Our Spanish specials – five seeds saved from the same squash last year – have done their usual trick of forming totally different fruits to each other, a process that never fails to fascinate me. Good old ‘Crown Prince’ and butternut ‘Hunter’ are hard on their heels and it looks like we’re in for a decent harvest. We have to move that seat on a regular basis for fear of being ‘squashed,’ as it were!

As the squash looked far from pleased when they first went out, I put a couple of butternuts – always the most diffident of the lot – in the tunnel as a sort of insurance policy. I think it’s fair to say they’re very happy in all that heat and they are certainly doing what’s expected of them.

Creating a productive vegetable garden from what was in essence a barren field has been – and continues to be – a big task, what the locals would call a boulot. The Potager certainly lacks any sense of maturity and there is still so much work to be done, but it’s wonderful to be at the point once again that all our vegetables are home grown; wandering around in the sunshine one evening, filling my trug with goodies for the table, I recalled the day we planted potatoes in a forlornly empty patch of earth, wrapped up against a bitter northerly wind.

Well, we’re tucking into those (delicious!) new potatoes now and the rest of the patch looks a little different to say the least; I’m glad to report it feels a lot warmer, too.

It’s hard to believe those thuggish courgette plants needed so much pampering in the early days; we’re keeping on top of the harvest for now . . . but only just.

We’ve had a good crop of broad beans and peas with surplus left for the freezer but in the last couple of weeks, the French beans have shimmied into the limelight. We’re eating the beautiful waxy purple ones daily and the next crop (a green variety) is following on closely behind.

I’ve just planted a third row of mixed plants grown in a tray of compost; this method of pre-sowing seems to have worked a treat in beating the bean seed fly problem we’ve had and the plants never look back. If we have a ‘normal’ run of weather now (do I even dare think that after the year so far?) then we could easily be cropping beans well into the autumn. They’re not alone; in what has become a bit of a nursery bed are rows of chard, carrots and leeks, a block of celery, winter cabbages to transplant, a selection of young brassicas and a newly sown row of Florence fennel. I’ve had to hazard a bit of a guess with the right planting time for the fennel, it hates the heat but needs enough time to grow and develop. It’s all a bit of a learning curve this year, but fingers crossed at least some of these young crops will be successful.

On which subject, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the permaculture principle of ‘observe and interact.’ I believe gardening should always be about observation but this first year in particular is crucial; we’ve gardened together for well over 30 years so yes, we have a lot of experience but that doesn’t automatically mean that what we know or do are the best things for this particular patch of land. There are many adjustments to make, much trial and error going on and a lot of considerations to take on board. We’ve been up against terrible weather, terrible soil and a rush to put enough land into cultivation to suit our needs this year but it’s vitally important that we watch and learn, accept feedback from what’s happening and adapt our approach and plans accordingly. So, for example, I’ve come up with a new plan for strawberries this week.

Early last spring, we bought the most unpromising bundle of bare-rooted strawberry plants from the farmers’ co-op; they were tiny, pathetic little things and quite honestly, I thought if any of them grew it would be a bonus. Grow they did, flowered and fruited too (photo above); I know I probably wasn’t supposed to let that happen but I have no patience with all that plant control stuff. We planted some in pots and left them in Asturias when we moved, collecting them on a trip back there in February. Poor things! They’d had a mild winter and were happily flowering and setting fruit, only to be plunged into the shock of icy northern weather. They suffered a fair bit of neglect, too, drying out in their pots several times – my fault completely, but things were a bit hectic at the time. With nowhere ideal to plant them, I stuffed them into a hastily cleared bed of rubbish soil, little expecting them to do much apart from maybe die. Well, how wrong was I? They have romped away and we have been eating the fruit for weeks, such sweet and flavoursome berries, some of which are enormous.

Even better, they have sent out runners in all directions (I think they’ve been watching those squash) and as I love a bit of easy propogation, I’ve been pegging them down into pots of compost and wow! Not only have the new plants already formed healthy rootballs, but they’ve started flowering too. I’ve decided that such enthusiastic troopers really need a bit of proper love and recognition, so enter the idea of a designated Strawberry Circle; Roger has cut another swathe of hay to make room and once I’ve fetched my next load of cardboard from the déchetterie (the lovely, lovely, lovely Monsieur in charge there says I can go back as often as I need and take away as much as I want every time 😊 ), I shall start sheet mulching in preparation for a gorgeous circle of strawberries next year. I know curves cause a bit of chaos when the grass needs cutting around them but I don’t like straight lines much and this is going to look so pretty – especially when I’ve added that best of all companions, beautiful blue borage – and the plants can send their runners out without bothering anything else and we will have strawberries for ever and ever.

I’ve always thought gardening to be a great metaphor for life so it’s only to be expected that not all is rosy all of the time. We have had many frustrations and several failed crops but without doubt, the most ongoing and maddening of those is what I’ve come to think of as the Battle of the Evil Weevil. I knew from living in the area before that brassicas were going to be high maintenance – well worth the effort, but up against it all the same. I was totally prepared for flea beetle, whitefly, caterpillars, pigeons and heat to be an issue but nothing had prepared me for the horror that is the cabbage stem weevil. We’ve never had them in the garden before and given that most of the available information about them refers to infestations in oilseed rape and other cruciferous crops, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a price we’re paying for gardening in an arable landscape. Whilst there are no OSR crops close by, it is definitely part of the local crop rotation system and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has been grown in the neighbouring fields in recent years. The weevils are like a rash; I can pick them off every brassica plant (there’s 110 of those so you can imagine that’s a boulot all on its own) only for them to be back the next day. It’s a bit like the Sorceror’s Apprentice with ugly brown snouty-faced insects in place of brooms and, much as I love wildlife and understand they are part of a natural system, I have to confess I’m getting very tired of them now. They are devastating our crop and it’s no exaggeration to say I’m not hopeful about harvesting a single plant. I’m desperately scrabbling to keep them going in the assumption that surely we must soon reach ‘peak weevil’ but whereas neighbouring vegetables are thriving, the poor little things are really, really struggling.

Back to permaculture once again, not just ‘observe and interact’ this time but also ‘the problem is the solution.’ What do we do about weevils? For starters, we’d already been discussing the possibility of some large moveable net tunnels for brassicas even before Weevilgate began; I can’t find any information about whether they would be effective against weevils, but they would at least help keep the butterflies away – the plants are weakened so of course, everything else is now piling in. Learning from our experience with French beans and sweetcorn this year, I’m planning to pre-sow lots of things into modules next year, brassicas now included; if they can go into the ground as strong established plants, they might withstand attack more easily. An holistic approach is definitely called for and soil improvement is top of that list; all our plants have been up against it this year but a richer, more nourishing soil should help them build resilience and resistance. I probably spend about 70% of my gardening time spreading mulch around all our fruit and vegetable plants and it’s a job I love; there’s something very nurturing about it, it’s a good excuse to get down and personal with every plant and check their health and progress and of course, it’s helping to build good soil all the time. I’ve done what I can to support the brassicas this year: filled their planting holes with compost, planted them between rows of beans, carrots and beetroot to afford them a bit of shade from the most intense heat, let naturally-occurring white clover run between them as a green manure and fed them regularly with comfrey and nettle tea. Given the general poor state of the soil and the scale of the weevil population it might not be enough this year. I can but try.

Something else to try and find out is what eats weevils: is there a natural predator I can encourage to come and fill their boots? Blackfly are another scourge of the garden at present, but my goodness, do we have some ladybirds tucking in! Breeding, too; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many larvae. Such welcome allies, but sadly I don’t think weevils are on their menu.

Sitting in a shady spot and enjoying the beauty and warmth of the evening several times this week, we have been captivated by the antics of a young red squirrel, one of the brood born in the eaves of the stone outhouse. It is so small and fragile, nothing more than a streak of fiery fur with a white bib and oversized bottlebrush tail but what it lacks in staure, it certainly makes up for in attitude. It has no fear of us, gambolling about the grass, rummaging in piles of mulch and shooting up the myrobalan to check for plums (mmm, cheeky), casually passing so close we could reach out and touch it. I find myself almost holding my breath and smiling from ear to ear; we might be missing Annie and Matthew this week but we can still enjoy the unrestrained energy and high jinks of other youngsters. Ups and downs, smiles and tears, worry and relief: it’s the great fruit salad of life . . . and everybody deserves the sweet strawberry sometimes!

Medieval musings

We’ve had happy associations with Lassay-les-Châteaux for more than twenty years so perhaps I am a bit biased when I suggest it must surely be one of the prettiest towns in Mayenne. Small, friendly and charming, there are many attractions including the imposing medieval castle set above a small lake, a pleasant walk in the surrounding countryside to discover the other two (ruined) castles, a beautiful medieval garden, cafe terraces where you can sit and watch the world go by, and a bustling Wednesday morning market where at least one of our offspring loved to go for the treat of a galette saucisse. At this time of year, though, there is no doubt that the rosaraie is the jewel in the town. A public rose garden just a few steps from the town centre, it is a peaceful place bursting with colour and scent, somewhere for all to enjoy; there are picnic tables, a children’s playground, and many benches and paths in a space that is small enough to feel intimate, large enough to spend time wandering and discovering. Surrounded by old buildings of honey-coloured stone, their productive vegetable gardens running down to a stream and swifts looping and calling overhead, it is a pleasant spot to linger and I am never surprised to see people sitting and enjoying the tranquility – some reading, others just quietly soaking up the beauty of the place.

The roses are gorgeous, so many different varieties all at their very best in a rainbow of colours: climbers, ramblers, bush, miniature, groundcover, tea, floribunda, grandiflora, polyantha, English, Gallica, China, Damask, Bourbon, moss, noisette, rugosa . . . whatever takes your fancy, they are here. I’ve never been a fan of formal planting schemes, always preferring something wilder and unconstrained, but even I find these colours and scents irresistible!

I also love the fact that the garden is being managed organically: the beds are deeply mulched with chopped straw to suppress weeds and there are a number of lacewing boxes and a bug hotel to encourage natural aphid predators. There is a beehive set on a wall and the relatively new addition of possibly the most impressive chicken palace run I have ever seen. Chickens in a public garden? Reading the information board, I was impressed with what an inspired idea this is, a community solution to the problem of rubbish. Several years ago, in an attempt to reduce the amount of household waste going into landfill and to encourage more recycling, the local council introduced a charge-by-weight scheme for bags deposited in household rubbish containers. However, this posed a problem for people living in town who have no facilities or space for making compost; the solution was to install the chicken run fitted with wooden bins where locals can deposit their kitchen waste for the chickens to eat and scratch down into compost. It’s been a huge success, not just from a waste disposal angle but also as something of an attraction; I’ve always found chickens to be good company and it seems plenty of others do, too, spending a few moments just watching the birds go about their business. Perhaps this is something that could catch on in similar situations?

A short walk from the rosaraie is a charming garden opened in 2001, based on a medieval design – very fitting, with the round towers and turrets of the castle as a dramatic backdrop.

It’s a while since we’ve visited and it was amazing just how mature it has become, a reminder of how quickly trees and plants will grow and fill spaces given the right conditions. I love the fact that the plants chosen are those known to have existed at least from medieval times, and I feel a certain comfort in that essence of history and continuity. I particularly like the jardin des simples, crammed as it is with aromatic and medicinal plants: there is so much inspiration there!

The previous owners of our house left an everlasting sweet pea in a large pot which I feel it is far more suited to being in the ground. I’ve been wondering exactly what to do with it and here was the answer: let it scramble unfettered among golden yarrow, what a fabulous colour combination they make.

The potager also draws me with its espaliered fruit trees, soft fruit bushes and ‘medieval’ vegetables. Like parts of the rose garden, it’s a little too formal for my liking but fascinating, none the same.

I have just planted a hedge of cardoons and I’m hoping it won’t be too long until they are also taller than Roger! I loved the underplanting with alpine strawberries, left to scramble freely and covered in tiny fruits – that’s definitely one to try at home.

The mix of planting appeals to me and there is definitely something of permaculture here with single vegetables side by side in heavily mulched beds. It’s the sort of thing I’m planning for the mandala bed we’ve started making, a colourful and joyful explosion of food plants in the middle of a flower garden.

Below the medieval garden is a lavoir, an old wash house which is one of many in Lassay, the evocative wooden carving serving as a reminder of a life in tougher times.

From there, it is just a few steps to the lake and a fine view of the castle reflected in the still water.

Looping back through the town to the rose garden, we passed several municipal planting schemes and patches of garden, full of colour and life and making Lassay very much a ville fleurie to be savoured. No matter how many times I have been there and in whatever season, it is a place that never fails to delight.

I certainly came home inspired, too. I’m not one to romanticise history – let’s be honest, life in the Middle Ages was short and harsh for many people – but there was much in the medieval garden to set me thinking. I’m all for a simple life but I have to admit I’m grateful not to have to do our laundry in a lavoir; however, the wooden washerwoman and huge bed of soapwort in the jardin des simples reminded me once more that it is time to get back on track with all things herbal. I started my exploration of soapwort last year in Asturias, growing a good sized plant from the gift of a root which I was able to lift and move here with us in December. I split the plant and settled it into two places; the bigger of the two has already made a decent show of things and I think there would be no harm in harvesting some stems and leaves now for my first soapy trial. Eventually, I’m planning to let it run amok in as big a space as it wants so that we have enough to use for laundry, dishwashing and in the bathroom but to start things off, I’ve decided to combine it with sage and rosemary to make a herbal shampoo. I’m hoping this will be the start of something great.

Soapwort growing well between Californian poppies and calendula. Note the baby cardoons behind!
Soapwort flowering in our Asturian garden last summer.

Looking to expand my knowledge and use of plants domestically and therapeutically, I’ve treated myself to a copy of A Modern Herbal by Alys Fowler which I’ve bought from World of Books, an ethical secondhand book company. (As an aside, I’ve always been very pleased with the books I’ve bought from them and I’m happy to continue supporting them – especially at only £2 for international shipping). I already have a herbal, but it is very dated and a peep at the preview of this new one suggests the far wider scope and coverage I’m looking for; for example, there is a section about using globe artichokes and cardoons, both of which I’ve recently planted and would like to make full use of once established. Once the book arrives, Roger will have a quiet life while I devour every page . . . while most probably making a very long wishlist for the garden.

I don’t have a medieval stillroom but rose petals dry well on a sunny windowsill.

I also know that there is a copy of The Hedgrow Handbook by Adele Nozedar of Breacon Beacons Foraging waiting for me at Vicky’s house for collection when we are finally allowed to travel and visit once again (please let it be soon). I bought a gift voucher for Adele’s foraging workshop for Vicky’s 30th birthday which we had planned to celebrate with her last year; unfortunately, Covid put paid to that, but realising how frustrated and sad I was, Adele swung into action. Living near Vicky, she offered to deliver the voucher by hand (in a Covid secure way, of course), taking a posy of June flowers from her garden and singing a hearty rendition of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ on the doorstep! I’ve never met Adele and I’m not being paid to advertise her business or books but she is most definitely one of life’s lovely people and I think it’s important to give credit where it is due. Having found so much enjoyment in foraging for elderflowers and nettles in recent weeks, I can’t wait to get my hands on her book!

Having put woolly things on hold for several months, I’ve started to think about natural dyes again, spurred on by the fact that Roger was kind (or daft?) enough to find room for my box of Dark Art materials on his last trip to Asturias (there’s even a faint whisper about my spinning wheel coming next time, oh happy day). Like soapwort, I started to grow some plants for dyes last year; woad and weld being biennial, I had to leave them in the ground but dyer’s chamomile and madder both came with us. To be honest, I thought I’d lost the madder, it struggled so badly with the cold spring and died right back to ground level; however, it’s back and growing like stink – another thug in the making. It’s related to coffee and I can’t believe how abrasive the leaves are, apparently they can be used as pan scourers which is another thing to try once the plants are big enough to pick at. The dyer’s chamomile loves it here and is ten times bigger than the little slip I planted; the flowers, a magnet to insects, are like vivid sunshine and it’s easy to see they will yield a bright yellow dye. I’ve raised more woad from seed and planted it in the same bed, so with any luck I should be able to overdye the yellow with blue to obtain a beautiful green, ironically not an easy colour to achieve from natural materials.

Dyer’s chamomile plus admirer

My wander round Lassay also has me picking up the permaculture reins once again and wishing I hadn’t left all my study notes in Spain! I’m very excited that we’ve started talking about having chickens again, I have missed them so much. We only need a couple of laying hens but their contribution will be immense: providing beautiful fresh eggs for us, manure for the garden / compost heap, eating kitchen scraps and scratching others down into compost, turning the soil over, eating pests and generally being good company. We plan to design and make moveable housing so they can range freely in the orchard or be contained in an area for a bit of chicken tractoring so I need to be patient while we get that organised. In the meantime, we’ve started making the mandala bed using the lasagne (sheet mulching) technique which means no digging, the idea being – in keeping with permaculture principles – that we create a bed of rich soil using only materials we already have. It’s a large circle and I’ve fallen at the first hurdle, having run out of cardboard for the base layer, so I’m going to have to cadge some from the local supermarket or recycling depot! Ah well, my intentions were sound.

Humble beginnings: a few sheets of soaked cardboard and a pile of grass clippings.
Growing steadily outwards . . .

After that, the layers of green and brown materials shouldn’t be too hard; we’ve started with grass clippings and there’s a pile of woodchips, sawdust, dead leaves and twiggy material waiting to go on next. For the (eventual) final layer of topsoil, I’m collecting molehills on a large tarpaulin in the Oak Tree Shed and there will be more when we dig the pond. As we have a long run of hazel hedge in need of laying, we’re planning to use the young whips to weave a low edging around the mandala, another idea borrowed from the medieval garden. It’s a long term project and, within the circle, still very much a blank canvas – but one I’m very excited about filling.

I’ve marked the outer edge with white stones, now we need to find enough cardboard to fill the space and get building some layers.

A couple of posts back, I wrote about us putting up a red squirrel nesting box in the hope of our resident pair having kittens in it next year. The box itself has a special story. For many years now, Roger and I have refused to ‘buy in’ to Christmas (aaargh, it feels horrible even writing the word at the beginning of July!) so when we last lived in this area, we set ourselves the challenge of making a gift for each other using only what we already had around the place, absolutely nothing new could be bought. We were obviously permaculturists then, just didn’t know it. 😉 Anyway, Roger made the box for me from scraps of timber and drew a very artistic squirrel on the side of it but because we have since moved several times, the box never actually went up anywhere. It seems fitting that it has finally come home and I have my fingers crossed that it will be used in the years to come. In the meantime, the squirrels are obviously coping without our help if the little kit scrambling about in the herb pots by the kitchen door this week is anything to go by. Visits to places like Lassay are an inspiring treat but in truth, I love the fact that the most wonderful things in life are literally right outside our back door!

Solar power

A couple of weeks ago, finding myself wide awake at 4.45am, I pulled on my dressing gown and wellies (how chic am I?), grabbed a blanket and headed out into the garden. The moon and Venus were still bright in the southern sky as I settled myself into a chair to watch the sun rise and the world around me waken. I’m often dozily aware of the growing light and dawn chorus drifting in through the bedroom window but to be outside in the thick of it was truly magical. It’s not just the birdsong, the different species flowing in and out of the chorus like a well-directed choir, but all the movement that goes with it – the rustle and bustle, the flitting and flying and feeding – that is quite astonishing. The sun rose in a bright fire, blushing a few wispy clouds and sending long fingers of shadow whispering across the garden; the grey shapes of tree and flower came into sharp focus as colour seeped into everything around me. It was beautiful, an hour of stillness and peace that left me feeling alive and invigorated for the rest of the day.

I had planned to repeat the experience on the summer solstice, excited by the fact that for the first time ever, we are living somewhere where the lie of the land means we can see both sunrise and sunset on that pivotal day; I’d wanted to take photos, to be able to pinpoint the sun’s journey precisely at the high point of its year. Ha ha, how the weather gods laughed. Cloud and thunderstorms were the order of the day; all was green and fresh and sparkling but there wasn’t a hope of seeing the sun do its stuff above the bank of glowering grey. The best I could manage was an indifferent, moody cloudscape in the evening. Ah well, there’s always next year . . .

. . . and that’s the point, really. I can’t feel downhearted. I love midsummer and think it is worthy of celebration, it is such a joyful time of year with so much light and warmth and growth. I know it’s not the same for everyone and there are those who feel wistful – mournful, even – at the thought of shorter days and everything being ‘downhill’ from here. Well, I’ve never been one to race ahead of the season and it frustrates me the way in which modern society encourages that. In a blink of an eye, it will be the summer sales bonanza; as children prepare to break up for their summer holiday, the shops will be full of ‘Back to School’ stuff; far too soon after their return to the classroom, the shelves will be cleared in preparation for that gross consumerfest in December. Why be miserable about dark nights and cold weather when it’s still warm and light and there is so much yet to come, not least most of our harvest? We’re only halfway through the year . . . let’s enjoy ourselves and celebrate the moment!

I think this moment as the sun briefly stands still is the perfect point for a pause; it’s a time to look back over the waxing half of the year and reflect on what I have – or haven’t – accomplished and look forward to the next six months with optimism and a fresh sense of purpose. For us this year it is particularly pertinent since this week marks six months since we moved to our new home here . . . wow, that time seems to have flown by! There have been ups and downs, steps forward and back, much hard work and a fair amount of play, too; at times, our progress has seemed painfully slow but we have achieved much and some time spent in reflection also helps us to see more clearly what our next steps need to be.

The garden, as ever, has been our main priority, and at last there is a feeling that we are actually getting somewhere. The summer harvest has started in earnest and it’s a wonderful feeling to be shelling peas and broad beans and picking cherries daily; we eat vast quantities of fruit and vegetables and it has been a strange experience for us having to buy them since December. No more! I love the way that a sense of abundance is creeping into various patches; I am happy to admit that I am a terrible crammer when it comes to sowing and planting but I love that sense of everything hugged together, jostling for elbow room. Out of necessity this year, the larger veg patches look more formal than I like with most things in tidy rows but in the Secret Garden, I have managed to indulge my own brand of chaos with bits and bobs stuffed in here and there, a crazy patchwork quilt of food and flowers.

The other patches look starker, lacking any real sense of height or structure as yet, but after several days of warm rain everything seems to have shifted up a gear. The climbing beans are at last spiralling upwards and the squash have tumbled down their hügel bed and set off across the grass. The ‘Purple Teepee’ dwarf beans (my absolute favourite variety) are flaunting their gorgeous flowers, and the ‘Charlotte’ potatoes have added their mauve and white blooms to the purple of ‘Blue Danube.’ Throw in the sunny yellow starbursts of courgette and squash and it’s all looking rather pretty.

Saving seeds, roots and tubers for replanting is something we’ve practised for a long time and an area that I’m committed to developing more each year. Growing heirloom varieties is an obvious way to help this along and offers the added possibility of creating our own varieties; we’ve had a lot of fun with saving squash seed in the last few years and it has come as no great surprise that the Casa Victorio Specials are leading the chase across our French garden! As well as actively saving seed, I like to let plants do their own thing and regenerate as they like; self-set seedlings often thrive, even if they do pop up in the craziest of places. Rocket is very much a spring crop here and has been flowering in the Secret Garden for a couple of weeks now, the creamy white blooms being a dainty but peppery addition to salads. In no time at all, it will be setting seed and then hopefully spreading itself about along with the neighbouring land cress, coriander, parsley, calendula and borage. There are already little red sorrel seedlings appearing of their own accord and chard and New Zealand spinach are likely to join in . . . a self-perpetuating salad bowl in the making!

Rocket flowers in a salad

It’s not just about seeds, either. I’ve been transplanting small lettuce plants into any available spaces for several weeks now and we have a good crop to choose from. Trying to persuade more to germinate at this time of year can be tricky as they don’t like the heat very much and to be honest, it makes more sense to save the seed and plant it in the tunnel later in the year as an overwintering crop. In the meantime, I’m cutting them as we need them and leaving the root in the ground: it’s amazing how quickly they regrow into perfectly pickable leaves. Two lettuce for the price of one – can’t be bad.

Blond romaine lettuce: the two in the foreground have been cut and eaten once!

Herbalism is something that has interested me for as long as I can remember and I think the study of the therapeutic applications of plants is a fascinating and joyful lifetime’s work. Each year, I try to focus on different plants and add new knowledge, awareness and application in our daily lives, both of cultivated and garden species. Midsummer feels like the perfect time to begin harvesting and processing aromatic herbs, now in the full flush of growth before flowering, their leaves bursting with heady scent. I’ve been thrilled to discover a reasonable selection of established plants already here – including several varieties of mint – and I’ve been raising more from seed to add to the mix. I must confess, I’ve let things slide a bit since we’ve moved, too busy with many, many things to be exploring new possibilites of herbal teas, medicines, toiletries and the like; however, I sense a shift in the wind and the strong draw of the plant kingdom once again. Even the simplest activity can be hugely enjoyable and beneficial. After a day of planting out hundreds of brassicas and leeks, a soak in a warm bath (such a luxury after five years of shower only) was a temptation I couldn’t resist; I picked lemon balm, lavender and rose petals, tied them in a linen square and tossed them into the water. Bliss, pure and simple.

As a Briton, it’s hard to think of the summer solstice without summoning the evocative image of Stonehenge so it seems apt that we have been having another standing stone moment here ourselves this week. Having planted an arc of cardoons to mark the last boundary of the flower garden, I could at last see exactly how much space was left for the third planting area and was thrilled to find there is room for my longed-for mandala bed. I don’t want anything too complicated – simple concentric rings will do – but when Roger found a huge lump of quartz lurking in a corner, we both agreed it would make a perfect focal point at the centre. It would have been interesting to move it over rolling logs but in the end a sack trolley did the job; well, times change, after all! On sunny days, it has acted as a perfect sundial, its shadow shrinking and growing across the grass through the day; now comes the job of creating what I hope will be a beautiful, thriving mandala bed by this time next year, something which will keep me busy in the coming months.

The smaller stone we placed in the hügel bed has disappeared into the undergrowth and I’m very delighted about that; not because I want the stone hidden, but I’ve been doubting whether anything would grow there successfully this year. Making hügel beds is a new experience for us, a game of patience which should pay dividends long term; certainly the squash seem happy enough on their high mound, but this flatter bed has bothered me a bit, especially as the topsoil is very thin. I’ve been adding to it from molehills but those little tunnellers seem to have shaken spring out of their system now and aren’t quite as busy about the place as they were. I knew that only annual seeds stood any chance this year, so I scattered a couple of flower mixes and put the rest down to green manure, mostly phacelia and buckwheat, with a late sowing of crimson clover to fill the gaps. In the hot, dry weather this bed really suffered and, with the water butts rapidly emptying, I saved every scrap of grey water from the house to try and keep things alive. After rain, though, it is literally blooming and fills me with optimism that the bed will work and we will have something resembling a flower garden in time.

We are still in the early days of learning and listening to this land and one of the best ways of doing that is to look at the pioneer plants. In a stubbornly empty patch of the hügel flower bed, a swathe of yarrow has established itself which pleases me very much. Like the elder I wrote about last time, yarrow is a crucially important healing plant; together, their dried flowers make effective remedies for winter colds and fevers, especially when combined with peppermint whilst yarrow alone has a wide range of applications. I’m happy that it’s here and it’s welcome to stay where it’s growing; far from wanting a formal flower garden, I see this space being a mix of cultivated and wild, of flowers and food, of things deliberately planted and others wandering in of their own accord. Close by, it has appeared in deep pink, too, making a pretty palette amongst the other ‘weeds’. . . how I love this wild gardening!

Permaculture places an emphasis on margins and edges, seeing them as fertile places offering much in the way of growth and possibility. I love the way that where we have left nature to its own devices, more and more species are creeping in from the edges, including the St John’s wort in my third photo – a midsummer flower if ever there was one. The verges are currently full of pale mauve campanula, indigo vetch and the rich magenta of knapweed, all flowers that I’m happy to have found in the garden, too. Looking back over the last six months, we have made changes here in order to create a garden but there is a distinct feeling that we are doing it within and alongside the wilder nature of the space and I’m happy with that. I like the blurring of boundaries and the sense of an holistic, inclusive approach; of course, the cultivated areas are contrived and not what nature would do on its own but they are not being made in a ‘beat back nature at all costs’ sort of way.

There’s a lot to be said for (re)wilding and it’s another area that interests me greatly, but things don’t have to be black and white on either side of a deep divide; the shades of grey, that mingling and mixing and merging, can be so very rich and mutually beneficial if done properly. The flower garden, now gaining in leaf, colour and height is at last starting to look more like a garden and less like a carved up field; this morning, I watched with delight as a family of young thrushes bounced their way across the mown grass and picked juicy bits out of a solitary molehill; a robin sat on top of the new standing stone and sang; a redstart perched on the edge of the new (and very full) water butt, dipping in and out to drink while a spotted flycatcher used the sweet pea wigwams as a launch pad for its aerial acrobatics. There is infinite room and opportunity for us all to share this precious place and our plans for the garden in the second half of the year are firmly rooted in that premise. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

It all comes down to a question of vision and focus, something that was brought home to me in a lovely way this week as I was trying to capture some new blooms with the camera. It was set to autofocus so all I had to do was press the shutter button; there was me, totally absorbed by the beauty of the flowers, but the camera chose to capture other life I hadn’t even noticed. Another lesson from the Small Things. I had to smile.

This made me smile, too. Checking some newly transplanted purple sprouting broccoli plants, I glanced at the neighbouring row of carrots and saw a fabulous swallowtail caterpillar, so vivid and vibrant in its smart colours which indicate that it’s close to pupation. Living life cycles, right under my nose. Incredible.

We have so much more to do here but I’m looking at our plans with a sense of optimism and excitement; we’re not afraid of the work, we know there will be downs as well as ups and our ideas may well have to be changed or even binned as we move forwards and come to know this beautiful space better. In the meantime, the sunshine has returned after a week of cloud and rain and I am feeling the pull of the warmth and light, the power of the sun at its height. It’s time to be outside again, basking in the comfort and joy of the season. Summer. Yes, I’m celebrating. 😊

Poppies and permaculture

In early June the world of leaf and blade and flowers explodes, and every sunset is different.

John Steinbeck

As we move through the seasons, we are gathering many ideas for our garden and, given that we plan to leave a good deal of the space to nature, there is much inspiration to be found in the wilder places around us. It’s incredible how quickly everything has changed in the last couple of weeks: the air is scented with elderflower, honeysuckle and hay, the verges are bright with oxeye daisies, buttercups and poppies and the hedges above them are embroidered with trails of pink and white wild roses. What a garden that would all make!

The weather here has shifted from the sublime to the ridiculous: following a colder than normal April and May, the temperatures now are much higher than expected and still climbing – it’s ‘flaming’ June, for sure. As we’re not given to too much exertion once the thermometer climbs above 30 degrees, we decided to grab a bike ride before the high heat arrives and set off with a picnic on a 20-mile loop to St-Léonard-des-Bois. Our route from home took us along lanes through farmland and woodland and gave us some spectacular views of the Mayenne countryside; now that the maize fields have lost the brown of their bare earth, it is all wonderfully, deeply, sumptuously, summery green.

I love the way the mix of flowers in the verges has changed through spring and even now, when the grasses are tall and the carpets of bluebells and orchids have faded, there is still much to enjoy. The deep indigo of granny’s bonnets, white stars of campion, pink bursts of ragged robin and delicate mauve bells of campanula would all be welcome treasures in the garden.

There is no question, though, that poppies are the absolute star of the moment; whether drifting along field edges or in bolder swathes across entire meadows, they are utterly stunning.

As we stopped to admire and photograph one particular field, a friendly chap delivering bread around the hamlets stopped to ask if we were enjoying les coquelicots; we were in complete agreement that the beauty of the sunlit flowers under an intensely blue sky was certainly worth savouring – how could we not stop and stare? I was particularly taken with a planting mix of poppies and white and crimson clover, so pretty together, a good green manure and great for insects; that is definitely one that has been noted for next summer’s garden.

Then, of course, there is that classic cornfield mix of poppies with cornflowers. So gorgeous. Who could resist?

With distractions like these, it’s a wonder I ever arrive anywhere on my bike, but happily we did eventually make it to our destination. St-Léonard-des-Bois is a small town in the Alpes Mancelles, close to St-Céneri-le-Gérei which I wrote about in an earlier post. It’s a pretty place, a classic French ville fleurie on the Sarthe river and an understandably popular spot for holiday makers, but it wasn’t the town we had come for. About a kilometre away, and a steep climb out of the town, is the Domaine du Gasseau. Our first stop was at the pretty orchard picnic site where we sat in the shade of an apple tree and enjoyed our lunch: homemade pasties stuffed with goat’s cheese, walnuts, red sorrel and thyme and a salad of young perpetual spinach, rainbow chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, land cress, radish, mint, marjoram, chives and chive flowers – our first official garden harvest! (We could have taken a pot of strawberries, too, but they don’t tend to travel very happily in a rucksack.) There are several attractions at Gasseau: an attractive stone hotel with pale green shutters and a courtyard cafe, a small art gallery, a riding school and an adventure park where braver souls than me can connect with their inner ape by swinging about in the treetops. For me, though, the main attraction is the potager, open free of charge to the public all year round.

We have been going there for years and it has been fascinating to watch it develop and mature over time. It has always been organic but has now moved very much into the sphere of permaculture so there were plenty of new things to see, including a couple of mandala beds. I have to admit I did feel slightly ashamed at the state of our garden in comparison to this beauty, but then it is a walled garden in a sheltered spot so probably hasn’t had to cope with the same winds and heavy frosts and certainly, that lush soil has been built over decades. No wonder it is already so full of food, colour and life. I could easily spend a whole day there, wandering about, looking and musing; there are so many ideas, so much inspiration – where do I start? Perhaps with more poppies . . .

One of the main issues our visit to the potager really brought home to us was the need to feed our soil. We are trying to create a garden from possibly the worst starting point, grassland – formerly a field – that has been mowed with a heavy tractor for the last thirteen years; the soil is compacted, full of wireworm and chafer grubs and very, very tired. The lack of goodness in the soil is reflected in the unenthusiastic growth of much of what we have planted and who can blame the plants? No-one thrives on a poor diet, after all. It would be easy to feel frustrated and pessimistic but it’s not all bad news; the soil is deep and stone free, there is a lot we can do to improve it and some things are trying their best, despite everything.

So, although we are still creating and extending planting spaces, the focus this week has been very much on building and improving soil. First, Roger repurposed pallets and sheets of corrugated iron to build a three-bay compost system. The third bay is currently taken up with a turf walled enclosure filled with a mix of green and brown materials; once it has broken down into compost, we will move it and finish building the last bay. In the other two bays, we turned a broken blackthorn bough into a chopped base layer and then covered it in grass clippings. The first bay has become our new compost heap with materials added daily from the kitchen, the second one kept me busy for a while . . .

. . . time to shift the old compost heap out of the Secret Garden at last! I can’t say how happy I am to see the back of those ugly concrete slabs and rusted metal poles but to fair, the system has yielded a decent amount of black stuff; I love that whole cross-section thing, the layers becoming darker, crumblier and more and more deliciously composty from top to bottom. I’ve inverted most of the heap into the second bay and that will be left untouched now to complete the wonderful alchemy (sorry, I do get a bit excited around the whole compost thing); the very bottom layer was used to fill the black bin where the worms will carry on with their good work until we put that beautiful stuff to use.

Once cleared, I realised what I had left was probably the most fertile patch of land in the entire garden . . . mmm, now there was an opportunity not to be missed. Yes, it’s also very shady but there are plants that will go a long way to tolerating that so I transplanted a few rainbow chard and lettuce into the space; at least they won’t be short of nutrition.

When it comes to nourishing the soil, I know what it really needs is a good deep layer of well-rotted manure but we don’t have a ready supply of that at the moment and anyway, autumn is the best time to apply it so that the weather and worms can work it down over winter. Remembering Mary Reynold’s advice that anything organic coming from a patch of land should be returned to it and the goal within permaculture to strive for as many closed loops as possible, the leading question must be what have we already got that we can use? I was really thrilled that my bottles of comfrey tea and two more good roots to plant were on the load Roger brought back from Asturias last week; for me, it’s the most important plant in the garden and although the single root I brought here in December is romping away, it isn’t enough for this year. We do have an abundance of nettles, though, and so I’ve set a bucket of them to brew into a nutrient-rich tea that when diluted, will make an excellent plant food. Meanwhile – in a bit of a lightbulb moment – it occurred to us that we have a ready supply of wonderful rich soil packed with organic matter in the coppice.

An hour with a spade and couple of buckets yielded a decent trailer load lifted carefully from deep pockets of woodland floor soil with the minimal disturbance – we have pledged to care for and protect the coppice, after all! Not only is it fantastically rich but also abundant in the microscopic life we can’t see, the mycelium and bacteria that should be hugely beneficial to the garden. One day, I hope all our soil looks that dark.

The terrible spring weather wreaked some havoc in the garden, particularly where the beans were concerned; it was simply too cold and too wet, perfect conditions for bean seed flies to do their worst (and they did) and dismal for plants already struggling in poor soil. The climbing beans (borlotti and Asturian) were so badly hammered that as soon as the tunnel was up, I planted replacements in a very crammed tray and what a difference – within three days they were up, as green and healthy as you like! I fed the bean circle soil with an organic fertiliser, replanted with a dollop of our compost in the bottom of each hole, watered well and mulched. The weather is now perfect for them, the soil beneath their roots much healthier, their companion plants (calendula, coriander dill and cucumbers) filling out and they are off up their poles at long last. Phew, that’s better.

The dwarf beans have been a similar nightmare, with a row of ‘Purple Teepee’ and handful of ‘Stanley’ desperately struggling to survive, although they have pulled through better than the climbers. What has really frustrated us is the row we have sown twice now with no sign of a single bean . . . literally, digging down it seems they all completely disappeared. I’ve come to the conclusion that trench warfare is the only way forward with planting for the rest of this summer and starting beans in trays is the best practice to adopt. I dug out the bean trench and lined the bottom with shredded comfrey leaves and a dollop of compost; that will be topped with grass clippings and soil so that when I transplant the plants currently racing up in their trays, they will have plenty underneath them and – fingers crossed – with regular doses of comfrey and nettle tea, this time they might even grow!

We’ve taken this idea a step forward in creating a lasagne bed for the ‘Green Globe’artichokes I’ve raised from seed, half a dozen plants which are perennial and therefore will be in the ground for many years. The concept of lasagne beds is one that was illustrated in theory and practice at the Gasseau potager so, fully inspired, we decided to have a go.

First down was a layer of cardboard. The plants have had enough of their pots and I’d like to get them planted soon rather than first build the bed over several months, so Roger marked spaces with them using inverted plant pots.

Next, a layer of the long meadow grass cut from the strip behind the bed to allow the artichokes some growing room.

Then came a woody layer from the compost heap, one that had been created by the oak leaves I collected and added to the pile some months ago.

This is just the beginning; I shall plant the artichokes, then continue to build green and brown layers around them. Not quite the orthodox approach, but with luck it will result in a bed of rich soil and perhaps a first harvest this time next year. I hope our little garden companion approves!

Back to that bike ride, and the last hill took us past our coppice, now in full leaf, ringing with birdsong and lit with the creamy lace of elder flowers. We returned the next day to pick enough heads to make a cordial; it’s a simple process (I use this recipe from River Cottage) and makes a light, refreshing drink that surely must be the very taste of the season.

We are working hard to build soil and heal the land, to create a patch that is healthy, vital and productive but I realise that will take time; however, it’s good to know that even if we lack produce from the garden, we can still forage for wild food and enjoy with gratitude the bounty that nature has to offer. This surely must be one of the very best ways of connecting with the earth and celebrating this most beautiful of seasons. Flaming June is blessing us with flowers. How lovely is that? 😊