Grey days

January has rolled itself across the landscape like a thick grey blanket, leaching colour from the countryside and paring everything back to bare bones. It is eerily quiet outside, as if the glowering sky muffles all sound and yet, there is a strange amplification to the noises coming from places unseen: the persistent percussion of a woodpecker, the rigid flap of a rook’s black wing, the spine-tingling call of a lonely vixen. The weather ricochets from bitterly cold when the glacial north wind makes eyes run and toes tingle to mild and damp, the precipitation so fine it leaves a silver haze on my woollen gardening hat. Always grey skies, though; how I crave sunshine and blue skies in this weirdly wrapped world. It’s all part of the natural wheel of the year, of course, this chilly washed-out nothingness, and I can’t be downhearted since there is always colour to be found if I search for it, along with those little treasures that whisper of spring. There are snowdrops in abundance and the first buttery primroses scattered in sheltered places, soft green buds fattening and hazel catkins powdering the air with pollen, while the robin’s sweet song wakes me ever earlier each morning. There is still so much of winter yet to come and I won’t wish the time away but I love the gentle subtle shift that is underway.

I also love the fact that I have been granted official permission to get back outside and busy in the garden once again after seven long months of pain and frustration. The orthopaedic surgeon has confirmed this week that my body is making a grand (if slow) job of healing itself without any need for intervention which is good news and a huge relief all round. Next came those magic words, that it’s time to recommence le jardinage. No need for physiotherapy or a formal exercise regimen because everything I do in my gardening day will help to restore strength and flexibility in my spine. Thank you, you lovely man! Needless to say, I didn’t need telling twice; I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since hearing those words and if I could turn a cartwheel I would, although it’s perhaps still a little early for that sort of behaviour. 😉

To the garden, then, and at last the chance to start putting right what has felt like months of sad neglect. That said, I have been very encouraged at how well everything has held up without me (should I feel insulted? 😆) and is in fact the living proof that our no-dig, organic, permaculture approach is paying dividends. Last year was a tough one in terms of severe weather conditions so I’m relieved that this winter has seen a return to more normal levels of rainfall, the ground welcoming the soaking it so badly needs, the water butts overflowing and ~ after nine long months of waiting ~ the new pond finally full to the brim. Regular rainfall percolating down through the layers of the lasagne beds is a much-needed final ingredient in our soil-building efforts; where last year the brown layers stayed too crisp and dry, now everything is bedding down nicely and I can almost smell the alchemy of compost formation. The areas of mown grass are an ocean of muddy wormcasts, so worryingly absent when we moved here, and as I rummage about in the beds with my hand fork lifting the occasional perennial weed, I am astounded by the thriving worm population in the soil. The garden is still full of fungi, too, with fruiting blooms of all shapes, sizes and colours revealing the secrets of their hidden mycelium trails. Mmm, good things are happening.

Creating a garden like this is a long, slow process and two years in there seems to be as much to do as ever. I’m happy, though, that we are making real progress where soft fruit is concerned. The raspberry bed we inherited has always bothered me, it’s in a daft place so little wonder the plants fail to thrive. We’ve decided to do away with it completely, moving a handful of healthy summer-fruiting canes into a designated area of the large perennial bed where they can keep the rhubarb company, and scattering the rest to fill holes along the hedges. Last autumn, we extended the lasagne bed in front of the polytunnel and what for me were the two greatest treasures in the raspberry patch ~ a single autumn fruiter and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ we planted last year ~ have now been relocated to their new home. We’ve added a couple of small bare-rooted newbies, too, a tayberry and a Japanese wineberry, the latter being something we’ve never grown before. Along with blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry, jostaberry, goji berry and honeyberry, we now have a fine eclectic mix in this patch which should keep us well-supplied with berry fruits.

The blackcurrant bushes I raised from seedlings have made incredibly strong plants and we should enjoy our first harvest from them this summer. When I was mulching around them, I noticed a large branch had broken off one but since it was covered in promising buds, I chopped it into pieces and potted them up as cuttings in the shelter of the tunnel. I’m not sure we need any more bushes but at the very least, they can be used to fill some holes like the spare raspberries; I’ve said before that we haven’t set out to plant a food forest as such but I love the idea of grazing along edible hedges and I’m pretty sure the blackbirds will agree.

Sticking with the fruit theme, one of my priorities this week has been to tidy the Strawberry Circle up a bit. Planting a ring of annual flowers around the edge last year turned it into a pretty patch and certainly ensured plentiful pollinator attention but things did get a bit out of hand at ground level. The strawberry plants didn’t enjoy the hot, dry summer very much and certainly our harvest was down on the previous year; I’d planned to peg down a few runners to generate new plants and then keep on top of any more the plants sent out but my back problem put paid to all that and the strawbs ended up doing their own thing. I’ve lifted a few perennial weeds and spare runners, planted up a few gaps, sprinkled in some donkey dung and given the lot a light mulching of chopped dead leaves and grass. Fingers crossed this summer I can keep a closer eye on things and we’ll enjoy a bumper harvest again.

The mandala bed was one of last year’s big successes; despite looking burnt-up and sad in the worst of the heat and drought it found a second wind in September and much of the foliage has only recently died back. It produced an incredible amount of food and became a much-used vegetable patch in the middle of the flower garden which was exactly what I’d hoped for. Like the Strawberry Circle, it was in desperate need of some attention so I started by chopping and dropping the remaining foliage, leaving it on the surface as a new layer of organic material. I then set about replacing the paths that had completely disappeared under the jungle of growth. In itself that’s not a problem as the whole idea of using shredded woody material for the paths is that it eventually becomes another brown layer to feed the soil and as Roger has been busy shredding the brush from his hedging and tree-pruning activities this week, it seemed as good a time as any to get cracking. Another benefit of this approach is that I can experiment with designs and change the configuration of the paths every year if I want although I’ve decided to stick with the ‘compass points’ wheel this year simply for ease. Perhaps next spring I will be brave enough to be a bit more artistic. With the paths back in place, I’m now concentrating on one planting section at a time ~ lifting the occasional weed (mostly small clumps of grass), spreading some more donkey dung about, sprinkling over molehill soil and wormcasts from the orchard floor and topping with a leaf mulch. Hidden beneath the chaotic tomatoes, a couple of small strawberry plants went berserk and have practically colonised an entire section and red sorrel has popped up in several places along with salad burnet which has come from who-knows-where but is a welcome addition to our edible leaf collection. I love it when the garden starts to evolve on its own in this way, plants turning up to grow where they are happy.

When the weather is spiteful, the polytunnel is the place to be and there is plenty to keep me busy in there. First job was to pull up the spent pepper and chilli plants which had fruited right into December before finally calling it a day when the temperature plummeted. The plants had stayed very healthy and disease-free so I chopped the foliage and spread it as a green layer on the newest Hügel bed outside; as we’d kept the ground under the plants mulched there were no weeds to deal with so it was just a case of spreading some manure and chopped comfrey leaves across the surface. Roger has been carrying in buckets of rainwater to soak the ground on a regular basis; not for the first time, I wish there was a way of peeling back the roof and letting nature do all the hard work but that’s a price we pay for having a warm, sheltered growing space. Extending the seasons and enjoying early (and late) crops is one of the main reasons we have a tunnel and it’s good to see a few rows of peas and broad beans bombing up to give us a first harvest well in advance of the one outside.

The warmer temperatures inside the tunnel can bring their own problems occasionally and it’s frustrating to see many of our winter salad crops being hammered by fat green caterpillars; it’s not a normal state of affairs but I suspect the unusually mild autumn had something to do with it. Luckily, we’re not short of salad leaves, both in the tunnel and outside, and there will be plenty to make up for the losses once the temperature and light levels pick up if the number of self-set lettuce and red sorrel plants are anything to go by.

One salad leaf that stays blissfully problem-free is radicchio and I never fail to be amazed at how something that beautiful can be so tough. Throw any kind of winter weather at the plants but, whether deep glossy red or speckled with green, they just keep on growing and add a vibrant splash of colour to the food garden and plate at this time of year. I love them both cooked and raw, their fresh bitterness bringing a balance to the heavy, starchy foods so typical of winter.

Another reliable leaf for us this month is kale and both the bold leafy ‘Cottager’s’ and daintier frilly ‘Russian Red’ varieties are keeping us well-supplied in the kitchen. It’s not to everyone’s taste but there are plenty of imaginative and interesting ways to cook it and I always think it’s one of those vegetables that oozes health and well-being; it’s also a ‘clean’ vegetable to gather even on the grimmest of winter days when wrestling parsnips and leeks out of frozen ground or a muddy quagmire isn’t so attractive. I’ve just been given some kale cuttings and this is the kind of gift that makes my heart jump for joy because it represents (hopefully) years of good, nutritious food to come . . . plus there’s always something reassuring about growing a plant that has been tried, tested and recommended by someone who knows their onions (thank you, my friend ~ you know who you are! 😊). The reason I’m so excited about these three different varieties ~ Purple Tree collard, Taunton Deane and Daubenton’s ~ is that they are perennial which makes them a great addition to the garden in terms of building resilience which regular readers will know is a big thing for me. There’s also a Vietnamese coriander in the mix, something I’ve never grown before but I’m already intrigued by its unusual scent so can’t wait to introduce that into the kitchen. The cuttings are currently sitting in water on the kitchen windowsill, growing a mass of rootlets and unfurling new foliage; in a few days’ time I shall pot them up and continue to nurture them until they have formed decent rootballs at which point they will take their place in the perennial bed.

Another new gift this week is a ‘pre-loved’ bird feeding station which has allowed me to organise things so much better . . . gone are the days of a mishmash of random feeders dangling from trees! It didn’t take the feathered squadrons long to discover their new breakfast table and I’m delighted by the fact that the big triple feeder means I don’t have to be running around topping up feed so often: even they can’t clear that much food in a day. What has been interesting ~ and of course, it may simply be coincidence ~ is how many more finches are now coming to feed, mainly goldfinches but also the occasional greenfinch (how sad they have become such a rarity). I haven’t changed the foods on offer so perhaps there’s just something about the feeder set-up that suits them better.

Garden aside, the fact that I can stand and sit more comfortably now has meant an indulgence in pastimes I have missed so desperately since last June. I’ve been busy with language study, daily French in many forms of course, but also having a lot of fun with learning some basic Norwegian. I’m wondering if the fact that I can now order two coffees and two ice creams means I’m ready to visit Sam and Adrienne once again? 😉

I’ve also dug out my recorder and started to rediscover my love of making music. In a moment of uncharacteristic indulgence, along with some new music books I bought myself a treble recorder; I had one as a youngster but was too idle at the time to learn to play it properly, so I’ve set myself the challenge to put that right after all these years. The fingering is totally different to that of a descant recorder so I am having to literally retrain my brain in how to read music: let’s say there’s a lot of laughter and restarts going on as I fluff note after note . . . but I can’t help feeling it’s a great workout for my grey cells, not to mention I’m having a lot of fun. It’s been wonderful to get back to my favourite woolly crafts, too. Christmas presents of money for our grandchildren might not seem too imaginative but it was a case of needs must this time (and in truth, they were all pretty chuffed!). I like to personalise gifts whenever I can so I set out to make some colourful origami envelopes for them all . . . and ended up completely underwhelmed with the results. There was nothing for it but to resort to my comfort zone, dig out some scraps of yarn and explore the possibilities of crocheting some little purses. Yep, that beats folding paper every time.

I’ve also managed to finish the ‘Fireside’ blanket I’ve been working on for a couple of months and I have to say it’s most definitely one of my favourite blanket projects ever ~ the pattern and yarn are both delightful and the finished article is just perfect for snuggling under in these chilly times.

What next? Well, needless to say I have another project waiting in the wings, a gift blanket this time so every stitch will be worked with much mindfulness and love. My wool basket is fully charged and I’m ready to dive in although I’m also happy to simply enjoy those yummy colours, guaranteed to brighten my day no matter how grey the skies might be. 😊

Boundaries

One of the many things we have always loved about Mayenne is how slowly and gently autumn creeps in; even when the days shorten and the light fades, there is often still a mellow softness that seems far removed from the winter months to follow. This year has been exceptional in that respect and it is only this week that for me, the landscape has become truly ‘autumnal’ with the trees putting on a flamboyant show of colours in contrast to the incredibly lush green of fields planted with grass and winter grain. It was a bit of a shock to the system, then, to have a day of weather so horrible it seemed we were going to have the whole of autumn in one go, a day of glowering light, torrential rain and the strongest winds we have seen in months. Our mature oaks lashed and roiled like a storm-tossed sea and leaves flew past the windows in horizontal blizzards; I had visions of everything being laid completely bare once it was pleasant enough to venture outside again . . . and yet, still those leaves are hanging on for dear life. It’s not all over by a long chalk.

In fact, that day was nothing more than a blip and generally it has been mild, sunny and still, perfect weather for getting things done outside. Roger has made a good start on laying the hedge along the lane, which is quite a major project; it’s not so much the actual hedge laying bit, but all the sorting and tidying of the spoil as he goes along that takes the time. It’s also not the greatest stretch of hedge to be working with on account of the way it has been cut in the past and there are going to be several spaces along its length where we will probably need to plant a few extra native bits and pieces to restore it to its former glory. I’ve written previously about hedge laying (plessage in French ~ anyone who claims there are no hedges in France hasn’t been to the right areas!), an ancient craft which serves to preserve and regenerate hedgerows of native plants which is a long way removed from the more typical modern approach of cutting them with mechanical flailers. Working uphill along a hedgerow, some upright stems are removed while others ~ the ‘pleachers’ ~ are cut almost all the way through at the base of the stem and then laid down at an angle between upright stakes.

Although this might appear rather brutal, it in no way damages or kills the trees but rather rejuvenates them and encourages strong new growth to shoot up from the bottom once the sap begins to rise again in spring. This in turn ensures that a deep and thick base is kept or returned to a hedge, one that will act as a barrier to keep livestock where it should be without the need for any additional stock fencing, as well as improving the hedge as a habitat for a range of wildlife. One of the real beauties of this method is that it only needs to be done once every ten years or so with minimal maintenance in between but for me, there is also something very profound about watching Roger practising a craft known to have existed for at least 2,000 years, using simple hand tools and working slowly and quietly along the hedge in the November sunshine. (For anyone interested to know more, this is a wonderful video of hedge laying in Herefordshire.)

As far as everything coming out of the hedge is concerned, it is being sorted for different uses depending on size and shape: thick straight trunks for posts and stakes and the rest for logs; long thinner poles for climbing beans and twiggy sticks for pea supports; shorter bits and pieces set aside to dry for kindling and the barbecue; bits of brush put through the shredder for mulch. Any twiggy sticks left have been spread across the surface of several lasagne beds (thanks to Sonja for this idea) where the leaves will rot down over winter and the sticks can either be gathered for compost next spring or left in situ if we’re planning to add another layer of green material over the top. I love this no-waste system of working! On which subject, the ‘sheepfold’ made from stone and earth left over from the barn renovation and several layers of spare biomass is now finished and ready for planting with wildflowers next spring. I’m really pleased at how established the young trees behind it are already looking; we’ve marked them with sticks as they are still very small but give it a few years and the sheepfold should mark the entrance to a beautiful patch of woodland.

As the hedgerow moves closer to the house, it deteriorates rapidly. In fact, one stretch of it is nothing more than a dense tangle of brambles and ivy and we’ve agonised over how best to deal with it; in the end, we’ve decided to leave it for the time being, partly because it’s great for wildlife but also because it produces the best blackberries on site! Beyond that, however, the rest is privet which is not a plant either of us particularly likes and which has been allowed to grow so much that it has swamped several (preferable) plants and is just downright ugly ~ especially combined with two monstrous ornamental conifers on either side of the entrance. We removed one of those the first spring we were here and happily repurposed it into an Hügel bed but we have been so busy with other things that it has taken until now to finally get round to sorting out this mess.

First, the second conifer which was so thick at the base, Roger decided not to try and remove the whole thing but cut it off at hedge height instead; it now acts as a popular launchpad for our resident gang of house sparrows heading to the bird table. The whole length of hedge has been dropped to a much lower height (not easy, as there is a deep ditch on the lane side making access ‘interesting’) which means it no longer dominates the outlook from the house but also has given several roses, shrubs and trees a chance to thrive now they have more light and air around them. I can’t believe what a difference it has made, we have so much more light flooding into the house now, which means our passive solar heating should increase and we can also enjoy the view of the pond and woodland beyond the lane. I’ve been watching red squirrels skittering about across there and a huge grey heron that drops in silently to hunt just before dusk each evening. Give me that over a wall of privet any day.

Before . . .

. . . and after.

With the hedges sorted, Roger then turned his attention to the two entrances. This gravelled area in front of the house had been used as a drive-through car park but since there is ample parking for several vehicles if needed behind the house, we wanted to do away with any idea of vehicular access across this patch without putting up the sort of formidable fences and electronic gates (complete with flashing lights) that are so popular locally. We opted for very simple post and rail to narrow the openings and we have started to plant them with clematis and honeysuckle to form an attractive scented growing fence; Roger made a couple of simple wicket gates for pedestrian access and that was the job done. Now this area has become more of a gravelled courtyard which we will continue to plant up as garden and a table and chairs will definitely be needed as it’s such a lovely suntrap. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about the ugly solar water heater but I’m hoping once the area is bursting with colour and life it won’t seem quite such an eyesore ~ and it’s a useful one, if nothing else.

From our bedroom window, I’ve had a bird’s eye view of a flock of fieldfares feeding on the orchard floor this week; I’ve counted over 50 birds at times with more swooping in to join the feast, announcing their arrival with their familiar chattering call that is so typical of the season. They are very pretty, these colourful migratory thrushes, but oh my goodness, there is nothing subtle about them. They seem to spend more time and energy fighting than they do eating . . . and we haven’t even got close to the lean, cold times of winter yet when food supplies become scarce. Still, I love to see them and they appear to be everywhere at once, truly living up to their Anglo-Saxon name ‘fledware’ meaning ‘traveller of the fields’. There’s been brisk business at the bird feeders as well so we have stocked up on some bulk feed to keep them supplied; I’m interested to see whether we can attract a wider variety of species this year, and I’m already thrilled that nuthatches, who were occasional visitors last year, are practically living on the bird table already.

Despite the softness of the season, I still find my thoughts turning to comfort food and winter vegetables. I think it’s a Pavlovian reaction to lighting the stove: the sweet smell of wood smoke and the toasty warmth in the kitchen has me feeling the need to go forth and dig parsnips and lift leeks. It seems very incongruous, then, that I can still gather an abundance of fresh salad leaves, herbs and petals from the garden, not to mention bunches of basil and sweet peppers as big as my hand from the tunnel. Red, orange, yellow, green . . . those peppers paint more than half a rainbow on our plates. Sliced and cooked in olive oil with garlic, herbs or spices and a handful of olives when we’re feeling decadent, they make a wonderful side dish bursting with colour and packed with Vitamin C; I can’t believe that they can go on cropping for too much longer (surely not?) but it would be a criminal waste not to make the most of them while they last. Summery dishes aside, we have been dipping into things more seasonal this week. For starters, we’ve blown the dust off the terracotta diable à pommes de terre which has made my heart sing because baked potatoes, preferably with lashings of butter (I have no shame), are one of my favourite foods on earth and this is a super-efficient way of cooking them since it doesn’t involve an oven. We start by heating a little water in the pot which seasons it and means the potatoes will be partly steamed and cook quickly on the stove top, even at a relatively low temperature. We tip out the water, add a little olive oil, garlic and rosemary, lay the washed whole potatoes on top, pop on the lid and leave them to cook. They don’t have the same crispy skins of an oven-baked jacket (we do those on other occasions, maybe when baking bread) but they are completely delicious and a very simple, economical and nutritious base for a meal.

Terracotta potato devil in action.

Crumbles are great comfort food and although they generally tend to be a sweet dish, savoury versions have a lot going for them through the colder months. This week we’ve made one with a squash, leek and kale base topped with an oaty, nutty, buttery (as I said, no shame) crumble mix; it’s very substantial, almost a one-pot meal in itself, although a side dish of those colourful peppers went down a treat. It’s easy enough to reheat any leftovers but also eats well cold and I think is perhaps the kind of dish that might help persuade non-believers that vegetarian dishes can be good. Not that we are vegetarians, but we do eat a lot of meatless meals and many of them are firm favourites; it makes a lot of sense to start our meal planning with what’s good and plentiful in the garden or store and take it from there. Even though there’s always a sense of things slowing down at this time of year after the abundance of summer, we are still not short of possibilities to choose from: carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, black radish, oca, celeriac, kale, cabbage, chard, New Zealand spinach, calabrese, beetroot, leeks, various lettuce varieties, rocket, landcress, mizuna. pak choi, sweet peppers and chillies plus onions, garlic, potatoes, beans, squash and tomatoes in store.

Where fruit is concerned, we have come to the end of the fresh apples so everything now comes in dried, frozen, bottled or juiced form but there is still a good selection ~ apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries. I’m hoping that next year we will have far more fruit as existing plants respond to the tender loving care they have been receiving and new ones start to produce. I’m very excited about rhubarb (yes, I probably need to get out more) because I suspect there may well be a bumper crop and it’s such an early producer. Regular readers might remember me rescuing an ancient crown when we arrived here; the poor thing had been trying to grow inside a chimney pot and was completely miserable.

After removing the pot and giving the plant a lot of love over summer, I dug up the woody and almost rotten crown in the autumn and replanted four small root pieces from it in the perennial lasagne bed next to the asparagus. By early spring this year, two new crowns had appeared to be followed a few weeks later by two more . . . and when I found an unexpected bonus little root growing in the compost heap, I stuffed that in the ground, too.

I wasn’t sure how successful the plants would be given the heat and drought of summer and the fact that they were growing in a very young and dry lasagne bed; we didn’t have enough water to squander on them ~ it’s been tough love with all the perennials from the word go, they have to be resilient ~ so I just had to trust that the deep compost pockets beneath them would do the job.

Well, all five plants have flourished and put on an unbelievable amount of healthy growth so that it’s really more of a rhubarb forest than patch now. This week, the plants have finally started to collapse and die back a little, revealing a wealth of young growth at their hearts; I’m not altogether sure whether that’s a good idea at this time of year but it’s all part and parcel of the response to climatic conditions so I will continue to observe . . . and as Roger doesn’t like rhubarb, it looks like I might be in for a serious feast next spring.

Having written in an earlier post about being prepared to walk in all weathers, it came as a bit of a shock needing to pull on full waterproofs and hat on that first seriously autumnal day this week; I didn’t intend to go very far, to be honest, but even two minutes outside would have been enough for a complete soaking. I found myself wishing I had an adult-sized utedress of the kind we had seen nursery children wearing in Norway; skipping along with their carers like little flocks of excited ducklings, they were heading off on outdoor adventures dressed in wonderfully practical all-in-one suits which would keep them warm and dry whatever the day’s weather brought. How sensible to be dressed for every eventuality, nothing was going to drive them indoors and spoil their fun! As a teacher, I spent many winter playground duties being moaned at by children who were cold because their outer clothing was woefully inadequate for the time of year; despite all being dressed in uniform, fashion still dictated far too much where coats and shoes were concerned. So, bring on the utedress and boots, I say. It’s amazing how quickly things have got mucky underfoot here but I can’t really grumble about the grassy areas in the garden because it’s mainly down to wormcasts which are everywhere in vast carpets and such a good and hopeful sign. Needless to say, the moles are being very industrious, too, but are politely pushing up their tumps all around the boundaries rather than through the middle of things. I’m happy to rub along with them but would prefer it if they didn’t go mining under the patches of garlic and broad beans which have both sent up their new growth this week. Neither crop did particularly well this year so I’m hoping for better things next season; the fact that our rainfall is something closer to normal this autumn has to be encouraging on that score.

It takes a lot to drive us indoors but even Roger declared an official Hobbies Day in light of the vile weather and promptly disappeared into the barn to do a bit of renovation work ~ granted, not everyone’s idea of a ‘hobby’ but an activity that could be done in the warm and dry. As I’ve been unable to climb a ladder since June, I haven’t seen any of the renovation work that has been done so I’m very excited about the prospect of the plasterboard being cut away on the house side to reveal a beautiful stone doorway and a bright and shiny new room beyond: our very own The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reveal! The downside of that is that I will be able to access the space again and there is an awful lot of painting to be done . . . so I was secretly quite pleased that the bad weather only lasted a day and Roger was soon back outside to finish the hedging. As the sitting-room woodburner was lit, I decided I would be happy to hunker down and do the hobby stuff for us both but it’s been so long since I’ve done much on that front, I couldn’t really settle on anything. I looked longingly at my spinning wheel but I’m still not fit enough to use it so that was a non-starter. I dug out a pair of woolly socks I had started knitting in June and haven’t looked at since; to be honest, I only looked at them this time before putting them away again, but I suppose it’s a progress of sorts. I spent a happy hour painting a house sign on an old roofing slate, something I did in Asturias where I learned a lot from the experience; as my handwriting and artistic skills are both terrible, I used stencils but soon discovered that despite appearances, slates are a long way from being smooth and the stencils didn’t sit comfortably which made it all a bit awkward. This time I decided to be brave and go for freehand, thinking I could shrug it off as naïve folk art or some such thing if any eyebrows are raised and it actually all went surprisingly well . . . until I tried to apply a coat of sealing varnish which caused big smears across my handiwork. Mmm, you live and learn. I can’t decide now whether to go back to the drawing board (literally) or just say what the heck and hang it anyway as an example of Very Naïve Folk Art; who knows, it might even catch on. 🤣 After a quick tootle on my recorder, I plumped for a bit of crochet once again; this blanket project is already one of my favourites ever, I love the bulkiness of the wool, the texture of the joins, the fun of mixing big and small squares and the combination of all those yummy colours. Although I’d rather be outside any day, I do enjoy a bit of creative woolly business now and again . . . and if nothing else, it proved for the umpteenth time in my life that I am definitely safer with a crochet hook in my hand than an artist’s paintbrush!

Recipe for a garden

Although it’s not the end of the calendar year yet, it feels like an appropriate moment to stop and reflect a little on how things have gone in the garden so far and to start sketching out a few plans and ideas for the new season. Once again, I have totally failed to keep up with any kind of planting diary so thank goodness I can look back through my blog posts to remind me of events throughout the year. I also thought it might be useful to gather everything together under a few headings in the hope of perhaps helping, informing and encouraging others to give it a go. I’m no expert: I’ve been gardening one way or another for many years but my approach has changed over time and I’m always excited about learning from others, implementing new approaches and revising my own practices accordingly. One of the things I enjoy most about blogging is sharing ideas and information with others and it has led to much lively and inspiring discussion and some enduring and valued friendships. Everything I share is built on experience and for me, that’s the best scenario; there is a wealth of helpful advice and tips out there from experts in every field which is wonderful to tap into, but I still believe the best way to learn about gardening is to get out there and do it.

Mid-November and the garden is still a productive patch.

In many ways, this garden project feels like a culmination of everything Roger and I have learned from gardening together over several decades and of all the gardens we have created, it is perhaps the one that allows us the most freedom to play; we’re not trying to feed a growing family while holding down jobs or adjust to an unfamiliar climate or manage challenging slopes. We have a vision of what we would like to achieve but nothing is set in stone and our plans change, grow or fade away as we go along. We haven’t deliberately set out to develop a ‘food forest’ but once the trees, shrubs, hedging and perennials we have planted mature, then that is certainly what it will feel like. Our aim is to create a garden that is productive, beautiful (it’s about feeding the soul as well as the body), interesting, sustainable, regenerative and resilient, a space bursting with ecosystems and biodiversity that provides us with many of our daily needs and enhances and enriches the local environment. Lofty ideals? Maybe, but definitely ones I am happy to stand by. Any good recipe hinges on decent ingredients, so now follows my list of what I consider to be the essentials. Feel free to disagree ~ as I said, I’m no expert. 😉

Soil

To say I’ve become a bit obsessed with soil is probably an understatement but I love the fact that there is so much new and completely fascinating research and information about soil biology to consider. I’ve never had a downer on soil, that whole ‘dirt’ thing that so many people subscribe to, because as a gardener I’ve always recognised how key soil health is to the success of cultivation and the survival of our species; I also love getting my hands dirty! However, the growth in understanding of the extent to which soil is a living, vibrant entity appeals to me greatly and I am very excited to embrace it. For anyone raised in the conventional dig-hoe-weed-clean-control mindset, the idea of ‘leave well alone’ can be a bit scary or maybe even seem a totally ridiculous notion, but if we are willing to accept that nature knows a thing or two about building healthy soil and are prepared to give it a go, then the results can be quite astonishing. I love words, so the relevant language such as mycelium, hyphae, actinomycetes, comminution and mycorrhiza is for me a source of fascination in itself, but suffice to say it’s really all about what I call ‘woodland thinking’. In a wood, organic matter falls to the floor in layers and is continually recycled by a wealth of organisms into a rich, fluffy soil; the ground is never bare and there is minimal waste of any kind. To mimic this in the garden, it’s important to protect the soil structure (and hence the all-important life it contains) by not digging, leaving roots in the ground and keeping the surface covered in organic matter, either growing or as a mulch. It goes without saying that the addition of synthetic fertilisers and soil improvers or toxic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides is a complete no-no. Like a good wine or cheese, it takes time for soil to mature in this way so a little patience and a lot of sitting on hands (step away from the spade, folks!) are needed . . . not always easy, I admit, but well worth it in the end. I know we still have a long way to go here, the garden is very much in its infancy, but the improvement in the soil this year has been tangible and reflected in the health, resilience and yield of the plants growing in it.

An ever-evolving soil, full of organic matter . . .

. . . and the bounty it produces.

When we adopt this woodland thinking (or perhaps it’s also compost thinking?), then any spare biomass that comes to hand offers a golden opportunity to feed the soil but as with so much in life, it’s important to maintain a balance and apply a bit of common sense along with the organic matter. For us, that means spreading or sprinkling a wide range of materials, both green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) in moderation at an appropriate time; I will confess there’s no plan to any of this, we tend to just ‘feel’ our way but again, if we’re happy to be led by nature then it usually works. This year, we have added grass clippings, chopped dead leaves, chopped spent plants, annual weeds, seasoned sawdust, old hay, leaves and liquid feed of comfrey and nettles, coffee grounds and ‘liquid gold’ aka dilute urine, as well as home-produced compost and well-rotted horse manure, the only imported element which actually turned out to be donkey dung, but hey, it’s all good stuff. We’ve used a policy of close planting, no problem as I’m a crammer by nature anyway, and sown green manure and annual flowers as ground cover in uncultivated spaces. Everything has been mulched to within an inch of its life so that bare earth just doesn’t happen. I realise for anyone who likes to see their plants growing in clean, bare earth this is total anathema but I think we seriously need to distance ourselves from the idea of a ‘tidy’ garden because who does that honestly serve? Nature’s messy: let’s roll with that!

Extending a soft fruit bed the lasagne way.

No-dig

I will happily admit that in a former life, the intention of creating a new garden bed would have seen me stripping turf, banishing weeds, digging deeply, forking over, raking down . . . all set for a great first season as the newly-oxygenated soil kickstarted an abundance of activity from those precious soil microbes. It was a short-lived celebration, though, and a short-sighted approach to boot. These days, I sheet mulch without question: down goes a layer of cardboard straight onto grass, followed by alternate layers of green and brown materials, lovingly layered like a beautiful lasagne. Plants go straight into that ~ a generous pocket of compost beneath them ~ and the building of layers continues. I must be honest, I harboured severe doubts about how successful this would be, especially as the extreme heat and drought this year left some of our lasagne beds horrendously dry. The brown layers of twiggy sticks, dead leaves, sawdust and shredded cardboard, added to keep things light and airy and prevent undue slime from wet green materials, just sat there being (weirdly!) light and airy and stopped the whole lot breaking down into something close to soil. No worries though, everything planted in them seemed to thrive regardless but certainly the autumn rains have now helped it all move in a more expected direction. The mandala bed ~ my pet project ~ produced an abundance of growth and food that far outweighed any expectations but if I needed any proof that sheet mulching really works, I only need to look at the asparagus bed. I broke every rule in the book with that one (no clearing of weeds, no digging of trenches, no piling in copious quantities of compost and manure, no buying of male-only crowns . . . ) and yet the plants have romped away like there’s no tomorrow, still sending up spears this late in the year and refusing to die back so I can chop and drop the ferns.

Happy asparagus.

Hügelkultur was a whole new idea for us, too, and again I was a tad dubious about just how successful growing things on a hill basically constructed from bits of tree could ever be. Let me tell you, I am in awe and a complete convert in every way. Our first mound, created from an ornamental conifer that just had to go, has seen a second season of growing the most incredible harvest of squash imaginable. Seemingly impervious to the severe drought, the plants tumbled down the slopes producing a ridiculous amount of fruits as they went; meanwhile, a bonus crop of enormous field mushrooms bloomed beneath the foliage. We made another Hügel bed this year which was also planted with squash and which we’re now in the process of extending for next year. The idea is a simple one: build a hill, starting with bigger bits of trunk or logs at the base, then add branches, twiggy bits and greenery, pack with any other organic matter to hand (we piled on grass clippings and the like) and if you want to plant straight away, cover in upturned turfs or topsoil. I spent last winter collecting the spoil from molehills and throwing it on top which seemed to do the job. Like the lasagne beds, I planted into deep pockets of compost but once they were established, the plants needed very little in the way of watering and no fertiliser whatsoever . . . which is the idea, after all, and it should stay that way for many years to come.

Compost

From January 2024, all French households must be able to recycle food waste at home by law and local authorities are responsible for providing composting bins to that end. This won’t bother us at all since composting is already a way of life for us and a hugely important element in our garden system. I would say, though, that in terms of consumable food, we never have any ‘waste’ as we use everything that we have and any leftovers are turned into another meal. What we do compost from the kitchen are fruit and vegetable peelings, crushed egg shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, spent herbs from infusions along with shredded cardboard and paper, floor sweepings and anything else biodegradable. These are collected in a bucket under the sink and delivered to the compost heap at least once a day ~ one of my favourite jobs. The ‘heap’ is actually a square stack which we layer with green and brown materials as we go along, plus a few comfrey, borage and yarrow leaves and more of that liquid gold to accelerate the process. We have a three-bay system and turn the heaps regularly to keep the composting process going; once a bay is done, we store it in large bins until needed. Turning piles of organic matter into a dark, rich, friable compost perfect for planting in, mulching and enriching the soil is a magical process; it has taken nearly two years to get there but our system is now in full swing and the stuff it is producing is wonderful.

From death to life: beans germinating in our compost.

Fertiliser

The theory behind our approach to soil building is that eventually we should reach a point where there is no need for additional fertiliser to maintain plant health as a continually improved soil should offer balanced and sufficient nutrition. That said, I think there will probably still be occasions when a boost is needed and certainly while we are in the relatively early stages, then a little extra help is a good plan. As well as applying mulches of comfrey and nettle leaves around the base of plant stems, I’ve been brewing them up into a useful liquid feed by cramming plastic containers with chopped leaves, covering with rain water and leaving to stew for a couple of weeks; a lid on the container is essential as the potions stink to high heaven and act like a fly magnet! I then strain off the liquid and store it in plastic screw-top bottles to dilute and use when necessary; the sludge goes onto the compost heap or soil and I start the process once again. Dilute urine is another excellent fertiliser, being high in nitrogen, and keeping a ‘pee bucket’ in the Love Shack makes collection straightforward. A trip to the coppice lets me collect some woodland soil which is a hugely beneficial organic material: just a single trowelful stirred into rainwater and sprinkled round plants makes both a wonderful fertiliser and soil improver. Next year, I’m going to experiment with making JADAM fertilisers, too.

The sweetcorn benefited from abundant natural fertilisers this year.

Polyculture

It’s very easy to be drawn into a ‘monoculture = bad, polyculture = good’ view of the world, but it isn’t quite as clear cut as that; despite many claims to the contrary, monocultures can occur in nature and aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. Also, polyculture doesn’t automatically mean plants have to be dotted about individually, there are still good reasons for planting in rows or blocks, just perhaps in ways that differ from the conventional garden pattern. For instance, I still sow carrots in rows, but several short ones in different places alongside other kinds of plants instead of one long row or area of the same. One of the biggest drawbacks of monoculture, apart from the obvious lack of diversity, is that it offers any predators the chance to home in, fill their boots and destroy an entire crop in one fell swoop. We currently have brassicas growing amongst a range of other plants in six different locations, the theory being that even if some of them are rumbled and scoffed, the others will escape and make it to our plates. For me, polyculture is all about diversity, both in the kinds of food on offer and the life the garden can support: why settle for one kind of salad leaf or tomato or butterfly when we can enjoy something so much more exciting? It’s also about hedging our bets so that if one species or cultivar fails, we have plenty of others to fall back on. I don’t set out to arrange things deliberately in plant ‘guilds’ but tend to stick things together that seem to make sense. Carrots with onions and garlic to confuse the dreaded root fly, lettuce under tall plants to provide a living mulch and enjoy some shade, peas and beans where other plants can benefit from their nitrogen-fixing habit. Perhaps there’s an element of laziness, too; I love to wade into a mass of diverse, abundant growth and pick an entire meal virtually from one spot. Also, I think that it just looks so much better, all that variety of plant life jostling for elbow room; life is too short for bland and boring!

Successional planting

In many ways, this follows on from the discussion about polyculture because it’s based on the idea of maximising yields from a given space through planned diversity. I might be rubbish at keeping a diary, but I do make a sketch of all our growing areas each year to help me remember what was planted where, mainly to avoid putting the same types of crops in the same place too often which could lead to a build-up of pests and diseases. Ha! By the end of the year my sketch is usually totally illegible, even to me, as so many spots have been planted twice or even three times with different crops in the name of keeping the ground covered and squeezing every last food-production opportunity out of the season. For instance, where garlic was harvested in early summer there are now carrots, black radish and radicchio to enjoy, and the leeks and chard which cropped right into late spring were replaced with purple sprouting broccoli and red kale. Enthusiastic self-setters like lettuce, rocket, landcress, coriander and dill have popped up under and between other things and I’m happy to let them fill in the gaps in this way. I wrote in an earlier post about how this approach actually does away with some of the conventional worries about crop rotation as long as we are looking after the soil and to me, it makes a lot of sense. I do need to find a way of making less messy sketches, though!

Rocket seedlings appearing where pea plants were cleared.

Perennial planting

In permaculture and other sustainable / regenerative approaches to producing food, perennial planting gets a big thumbs-up and I understand all the reasons for that; it makes sense to plant a wide range of things that can stay put for many years, producing crop after crop without any need to disturb the soil or ecosystem in which they’re growing. However, at the risk of sticking my head above the parapet, I would argue that it’s a much easier approach to apply successfully in some latitudes rather than others. Let’s be honest, if we were relying wholly on perennial crops in our cool temperate climate here then we would have a very restricted diet! I love artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb and they play an important part in our garden system but even coupled with as many berries, nuts, stems, leaves and tubers as we can muster, they quite simply aren’t enough. It’s all about balance and there is still a need for us to grow annual crops if we are to enjoy a varied and interesting diet; I don’t consider this to be a problem or failing, especially if it’s done within the sort of holistic model I’m describing. That said, I’m trying to increase the number and variety of perennial food-bearing plants in our system ~ this year it’s been mostly new fruit varieties ~ because they tick a lot of useful boxes.

Integrated pest management

One of the biggest changes in my attitude to gardening is that I no longer tend to think in terms of ‘weeds’ or ‘pests’ so the heading for this section is a borrowed one. For years, I’ve always thought of us as ‘custodians’ in our gardens, a small part of the land’s history, sharing the space with other life, leaving our mark and passing on. I feel that’s a bit arrogant now and that the reality is that we are most definitely not in charge or perched at the top of the pyramid; we are a simply a tiny part of a beautifully intricate and complex web of life on which we are totally dependent. Just considering population figures for the soil life is mind-blowing! I won’t deny that slugs and aphids struggle to ooze the same cute factor as red squirrels and hedgehogs but they play a vital role in our ecosystem and it would be wrong of me to vilify these creatures, yet alone try to annihilate them. However, I’m not naïve and since food production is a lot of what we’re about, it’s important to find ways of working with the other ‘hungry ones’ to ensure a good harvest . . . and this is where IPM comes in. Basically, we draw on a range of strategies to minimise the damage to crops caused by beasties without resorting to anything toxic or upsetting the ecological balance; it can involve a little more effort (and wiliness) than throwing or spraying poisons around but that’s a small price to pay and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not exactly hard labour. When a hare decided to prune the young sweetcorn plants earlier this year, we built a temporary netting fence around them and later enjoyed a fantastic crop. Likewise, when flea beetles tried to wipe out my purple sprouting broccoli nursery bed, I tucked a protective blanket of horticultural fleece around them: those plants now stand over a metre high.

Anti-hare fencing.

Even better is the idea of letting others do the work for us. Habitat and wildlife corridor creation is a key part of our garden project, encouraging predators like hedgehogs, frogs and toads, grass snakes, bats and a whole host of birds to take up residence and tuck in; others such as foxes, weasels, owls and birds of prey pass through on a regular basis and help out, particularly with the Vole Patrol. Wherever there are vegetables, we plant flowers, too, not only to attract useful pollinators but also helpful predators and the more seasons we have here, the more I can base the choices of species on observation. For example, I’ve noticed that yarrow is hugely popular with ladybirds so I’m happy to spread it around the garden, especially under plants like globe artichokes which are prone to blackfly. Dill is a favourite of mine and I’m thrilled that along with borage, calendula and phacelia, it has already reached a level of self-setting which means I’ll never have to plant it again. Apart from being a great culinary and medicinal herb, the flowers attract allies like hoverflies and parasitic wasps whilst at the same time their smell repels white butterflies, so it’s a good one to have growing near brassicas. Nasturtiums left to trail through the cabbage patch provide a good sacrificial crop for caterpillars should the dill not have seen off enough butterflies, as well as acting like a living mulch under the plants and attracting pollinators with their sunny flowers. I know some gardeners are wary of mulches creating hiding places for slugs and snails but we haven’t found it to be that way (perhaps it’s more of an issue in raised beds?); in fact, it provides cover for top predators such as spiders and ground beetles.

We’re always going to lose some plants to the wildlife but I think it’s important to keep a sense of perspective about what is really happening in any one season. I don’t think I have ever seen such an invasion of aphids as we had last spring, they were all over everything and many plants ~ especially the young ones ~ suffered very badly. At one point, I thought we would lose all the brassicas and rainbow chard (which were more aphid than leaf!) but in fact, the damage was negligible. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated when wireworms kept destroying small lettuce plants in the mandala bed and it felt like I was constantly having to replace them but then it occurred to me that it would make more sense to pot the seedlings on and plant them out as bigger and more robust plants. Ta dah! No more wireworm issues and more lettuce than we could shake a stick at. Some of the black radish we have started pulling in the last couple of weeks have seen a bit of wireworm action but they are so huge that the impact is small, whilst in the tunnel, slugs are bashing the mizuna but there are so many alternative salad leaves, both planted and self-set, that we have more than enough for our needs. It’s also important to remember that the most disappointing crops of the year (things like potatoes and swedes) were actually casualties of the weather, so perhaps we need to look at an Integrated Climate Management system, too.

One the wireworm didn’t get . . .

Seed saving

Seeds are incredible things, so small and unassuming yet without them, our species would be doomed, and the miracle of germination is one that continues to captivate me, no matter how many times I witness it. We’ve always saved seeds from the garden but living in an increasingly uncertain world and climate, I think it’s a more important activity than ever these days. It’s an interesting pastime and gives us the opportunity to select for strong plants that are well-suited to our growing conditions. We can have fun with open-pollinated varieties and develop our very own types of some plants, whilst championing heirloom varieties and helping to maintain and increase seed diversity which has seen such a lamentable decline over the last century. Seeds are a valuable currency for gardeners, and swapping or giving them away is a satisfying gesture in spreading the love! The gift of a single precious ‘Hungarian Blue’ squash seed some years ago has blessed us with several generations of offspring which have crossed with other varieties yet maintained the strong genetic imprint of blue skin, firm orange flesh and wonderful flavour. More than anything, I see saving seeds as a kind of insurance policy and a basket brimming with little packets of carefully-selected and dried treasures brings the same joy and reassurance as a well-stocked freezer or cupboards full of preserves. I still buy some seeds from commercial producers because I like to increase our pool of varieties but we are not dependent on them and that helps build the sort of resilience that I believe is essential for the future.

Leek flowers destined to be next year’s seed.

Experiments

By this I’m not suggesting that you don a white lab coat and zip about the garden brandishing test tubes and a Bunsen burner ~ although if that’s what floats your boat, then why not? It’s more a plea to try different things and push the boundaries a bit; it’s all too easy to get hung up on doing things properly, striving for perfection or worrying about what others think but those sort of anxieties only serve to hamper discovery and shackle innovation. I think we need to be brave enough to pursue the ‘what ifs?’ not only because it makes life interesting but because I believe that, as with seed saving, it might lead to new ideas and skills that we can exploit in the face of change and adversity. Even if it’s as simple as planting seeds of something different or needy, then it’s worth a punt because who knows what might happen? Of my three ‘wild cards’ this year, the melons sprinted home to take gold, the cauliflowers deserved a pat on the back for trying and the swedes, which barely got over the start line, sloped off with the wooden spoon; all good learning experiences that I can build on next year. When I stopped to think about it, much of what we are doing here is experimental and I think that helps to keep us focused and challenged. When I decided to make the mandala bed last year, something completely different to anything I’d done before, I was well aware that I could easily fall flat on my face. Was it really possible to create a circular no-dig bed of some 28 square metres in area from materials already on site (extra cardboard was the only import) and using only spare plants or seed I already had, to investigate the yield from such a system while also setting out to prove that a vegetable patch can look beautiful in a flower garden? The answer is a resounding yes! Despite many ‘wobbly’ moments like those lettuce-munching wireworms, I think I can safely say the project so far has been a huge success and one that has far exceeded my hopes and expectations; okay, my carefully laid paths disappeared under the jungle of growth and the whole thing looked a bit sad and burned up in the heat of August, but it has produced oodles of food and flowers, supported a huge diversity of wildlife and looked very lush and attractive for most of the growing season ~ it still does, in fact. I have several new ideas up my sleeve for next year, one of which is to grow a patch of no-dig potatoes on cardboard covered in a deep layer of hay; it will go one of two ways, I’m sure, but if I don’t try it, I’ll never know.

Mandala bed in early summer before the paths disappeared.

Seating

There are, of course, plenty of other ‘ingredients’ that help to make a good garden; apart from the obvious necessities of sunlight, warmth and water, I think time, space, money, energy, enthusiasm, patience, optimism, a good sense of humour and a strong back (ha ha!😂 ) are all useful additions. Not all essential, though. It’s just as possible to apply the ideas and approaches I’ve discussed to a windowbox as to a large garden, it’s simply a matter of scale. I think that when nature is given more freedom it actually leaves us with far fewer garden tasks to do so the time element is greatly reduced. It’s also possible to grow in abundance on a tiny budget; the mandala bed cost nothing more than the price of a few seeds and yet we have harvested kilo after kilo of food from it for many months. Joking about my hobbled state aside, one of the redeeming factors has been seeing just how well the garden has coped without me for the best part of five months now; Roger has kept on top of the essential jobs such as watering during the worst of the drought and planting out winter cabbages, but otherwise it has all ticked over brilliantly without any input from me. Perhaps I should be upset about that, but when soil is building itself, ‘weeds’ are smothered in mulch or more tolerated as part of the ecosystem, the wildlife is maintaining its own balance and minimising crop damage, self-set volunteers are welcomed and left to thrive where they choose to grow . . . well, what more do I need to do, anyway? Which is why my heading for this final paragraph might seem an indulgent or arbitrary choice but I believe it is so important to have seats in favourite spots, and what’s more, to use them. Often! As gardeners, we are part of a wonderful, thriving ecosystem and it’s crucial that our needs are met as well as those of all the life we share the space with. If we can see our time outdoors as being an integral part of our life rather than a set of chores, then I think we’ve cracked it . . . so, place a seat (or hammock or whatever) somewhere appropriate and plant yourself there; breathe in the air, acknowledge the life around you, watch your carrots grow. Above all, relax and smile: the garden is taking care of itself! 😊

A time of balance

I love this time of year, the balance of light around the equinox suiting me so much better than the extremes of the solstices. I know many people find it a slightly depressing time here in the northern hemisphere as we swing into the dark half of the year, but why be miserable? There is still so much to look forward to in the coming weeks even if it is darker and cooler, and it is a shame not to enjoy every moment of what can be a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring season. I’ve noticed several people this week already focused on discussions about Christmas. Pleeeeeeeease, no!

As much as anything, for me this is a time of gratitude and as our abundant harvest continues to roll in, I feel an immense sense of thankfulness that we have such a wealth of delicious and nutritious food to sustain us over the coming months. It’s something I never take for granted but in a way, the extreme heat and drought this year have felt like grave warning shots across our bows that it would be foolish to ignore. In the face of an increasingly unstable climate, however that might manifest itself in the future, we simply can’t assume that bountiful harvests will be a given each year. So yes, gratitude by the bucket load . . . but also an openness to new ideas and ways of thinking and doing things, the changes that we might need to make in order to guarantee not only our own food security, but the future of a thriving biodiversity on our precious patch.

In the cold, dark months of December and January, when hibernation strikes me as the most sensible of ideas, I love to dig out the seed basket and start hatching plans for a new season’s planting. However, with our garden still in its infancy and much to think about this year, I’ve decided that a period of reflection now is beneficial, sketching out some plans and jotting down a few ideas while everything is still fresh in my mind. Some decisions have already been made, not least the fact that the number of aubergine, pepper and tomato plants can be significantly reduced now we have seen what a ‘proper’ harvest can deliver. The disappointing ‘Delinel’ dwarf beans will be replaced by a yellow wax pod variety and we will shift the balance of climbing beans towards more borlotti and fewer Asturian; the latter really didn’t enjoy the lack of moisture and humidity this summer and although they still have a few growing and ripening weeks left, most of the pods are unnaturally tiny with only a single bean in each ~ not an efficient use of the ground they are growing in or the time they will take to harvest.

In complete contrast, carrots grow very happily here and a single thickly-sown row of a Nantes variety has kept us well-provisioned for several months. They’re still going strong ~ Roger dug one this week which was the best part of thirty centimetres long! ~ and the truly excellent news is that even in our second season, there is no hint of the dreaded carrot root fly. I’m going to indulge in a bit of whimsy next year and sow some yellow, red, white and purple varieties alongside the orange ones for a carrot rainbow on a plate. Well, sometimes you have to have a bit of fun in this serious business of growing food. 😊 Regular readers will know that tomatoes have been a big story for us this year and mulling over cherry varieties, I suddenly remembered the tiny (but relatively speaking, huge) success we had in Asturias with ‘Rosella’, the beautiful deep pink tomato which I reckoned was every bit as good as the ever-popular ‘Sungold’ in terms of flavour and sweetness. They’re both on the list for next year so that I can carry out a true comparison, along with some red and yellow ‘Tumbling Toms’ which I’m planning to grow in hanging baskets and window boxes.

Fruit bowl!

Increasing the number and range of perennial food plants is a high priority in terms of building resilience and a regenerative food garden and, like wildlife homes and habitats, we are trying to add a few new things each year. The large lasagne bed we made adjoining the asparagus bed last year still has masses of room in it, despite the emergence of a rhubarb forest from the five puny little roots I planted; I’ve grown courgettes in it this year, but my plan is to eventually fill it with perennial plants. Some of the new things on the list are Turkish rocket (which is actually a brassica, a bit like broccoli raab), holy basil or tulsi, red Welsh onions to complement the white ones we already have, wild garlic and Cape gooseberry. Roger has been very busy this week spreading manure, compost and other organic matter and I’m pleased at how these beds are starting to shape up; fingers crossed, we should end up with a good stock of productive perennial food plants growing in a wonderfully rich, healthy soil. Well, that’s the plan, anyway!

Obviously, the quickest way to source and establish perennials is to buy plants but I’m actually a huge fan of growing them from seed for several reasons. For a start, in the horticultural industry seed production (especially by the small and responsible businesses I prefer to support) tends to be far kinder to the planet than plant production which requires huge amounts of heat, water, compost, plastic, chemicals and transport. Second, a packet of seeds usually costs less than a single plant but offers the chance of growing many, the strongest of which can be selected as keepers; any spare seeds can be given away or swapped and I am a great advocate of spreading the gardening love in this way. Third, by raising my own plants from seed, I can be 100% sure that they have not received chemical treatments of any kind. Fourth, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take that long to grow decent perennial plants from seed, a fact borne out by the already apparent maturity of the perennial herbs, cardoons, asparagus and globe artichokes I raised from seed last year. Lastly . . . well, it’s always fun to sow seeds, watch the magic of germination, prick out seedlings and nurture them into something big and beautiful. 🥰 On which subject, I have been wondering whether planting so many ‘Violet de Provence’ globe artichokes this year was actually my best idea; honestly, they are so ridiculously spiny that preparing them is like grappling with purple porcupines. Their flavour, though, is incredible and so I am hoping for a good crop next year. Might have to invest in some stout leather handling gloves, mind you . . .

I don’t want to harp on about my herniated disc as I’m not by nature a ‘poor me’ hypochondriac wallowing in self-pity or trying to elicit sympathy and I am doing everything within my power to help the healing process along, but I am finding the situation ever more frustrating. I have to maintain a balance of rest and movement which is fine but the ‘resting’ bit is tricky: the only way I can be totally comfortable is by lying down but too much bedrest is a big no-no, and as it’s impossible for me to sit, I have to recline on a sofa supported by a nest of quilts and pillows. The inactivity drives me nuts! I know I should be grateful for the opportunity to rest, but there’s only so much reading I can do; I can balance a laptop on my knee for a short time but I’m not an enthusiastic internet surfer and once I’ve caught up with messages from friends and family and maybe read a few blog posts, I’ve had more than enough screen time. Writing an email, yet alone a blog post, seems to take me forever these days. So, it was a moment of utter joy this week discovering that, with a lot of organisation and patience, I am actually able to manage some crochet in my reclined position. Even better, if I set everything up on an old sun-lounger that tilts backwards into the perfect position, I can do it outside, too. Happy, happy me! 😊

Creative projects are usually a big part of my life but it seems like ages since I found the time to do anything apart from knit some gift socks to take to Norway in June. I started this ‘Harmony’ blanket months years ago in Asturias and with all the busyness of our move to France and creating a new garden, it’s been very much neglected so it’s lovely to be reunited once again. My progress is slower than if I were sitting upright but I find myself working with greater focus and attention, each colourful stitch a sort of gentle woolly meditation. I’m also much distracted by what is going on around me in these soft, golden afternoons full of dancing butterflies and spider silk, and spending time in the sunshine and fresh air, immersed in all the activity and beauty of nature around me feels like good medicine indeed. I’m not short of company, either: two young willow tits, totally unfazed by my presence, hang upside down from the nearby sunflower heads, taking the seeds one at a time and tapping out the kernels in the apple tree behind me. It’s a truly lovely thing to watch, although I am astounded that these very small birds seem to have such mighty appetites!

From the relative comfort of my garden nest, I look down to the western edge of our plot where Roger has started to plant a new area of native woodland. Like perennials grown from seed, we know that young trees like this raised from found seedlings will bomb up in no time and will soon be taller than the peach tree in the centre, a rather scabby thing that produces a mass of pretty pink blossom in early spring but not a lot else. In the foreground, you can see part of the patch where we grew potatoes this year – mmm, just look at those clods of soil.

Roger has been digging the spuds this week and to say the harvest is disappointing would be an understatement; well, let’s be frank here ~ 124 plants, barely worth the bother. Shortly after planting, the soil turned to something close to concrete, which is curious given that it is a sandy loam and it is a patch that was under cultivation when we moved here, but that was the end of any decent crop. We worked in some organic matter and added several layers of mulch last year but something was obviously very wrong and so we have set about rectifying matters (well, I say we but you know exactly who’s doing all the hard work and who is yapping away in a supervisory role from her reclining chair 😂). We’ve had some rain since the photo was taken so the earth is damp and more workable now, those lumps can be broken down, manure raked in followed by a mix of grass clippings and chopped dead leaves and then a sowing of vetch seed to act as a nitrogen-fixing green manure over winter. Since creating the sitting area where the old shed used to be, we’ve used it a lot as it enjoys unbroken afternoon and evening sunshine so the plan for next year is to keep the patch under cultivation but to create something less utilitarian and more aesthetically-pleasing, with a mix of food and flowers along the lines of the mandala bed.

To the south of the potato bed is the raspberry patch which I’ve decided just has to go; we’ve given it every chance but really, it’s in a daft place and the plants have failed to thrive or produce much fruit. Despite my best efforts with feeding, mulching and careful pruning, I think the poor things are up against serious overcrowding in tired soil and far too much shade, so it’s time for a complete change. My plan is to extend the soft fruit bed we made in front of the polytunnel (we have plenty of organic matter to hand, just need to find some sheets of cardboard) and then later in autumn, transplant some strong summer-fruiting canes, the single autumn-fruiting plant which I’m hoping will split and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ that I planted as a tiny bare-rooted twig in the spring and which has bravely hung on through summer, despite trying to die several times. The other bare-rooted fruiting newbies ~ a jostaberry, three honeyberries and a goji berry ~ have also come through relatively unscathed and have all put on some promising growth. In fact, the latter is covered in pretty mauve flowers at the moment, I’m not sure if that’s right at this time of year but I’m happy for it to do what it wants as long as it continues to grow.

As medical advice is not to stay in the same position for too long, I’ve agreed with myself that for every two blanket squares completed, I have a walk round the garden. Moving oh-so-slowly, I can at least take the time to truly enjoy the moment and all the sights, sounds, scents, textures and tastes of the season. Having felt a few weeks ago that we were being catapulted into an early autumn, the rain and cooler weather seem to have put a brake on everything; the landscape is lush again, the trees no longer shedding their leaves but looking fuller and greener than they have for some time, while the flowering plants, previously so dry and dusty, are giving a second colourful flush their all. I love the lower, softer light, the air spiced with the scent of leaves and apples, and the prevailing sense of peace and contentment the gentle weather brings.

The sky is still full of swallows, eerily silent now after a summer of chatter and babble; they are focused completely on their long journey south and in six months’ time, as the spring equinox rolls round, I shall be watching the skies with expectant eyes for the return of their welcome silhouettes. The squirrels are back from their summer business, little streaks of rusty fur looping speedily across the grass, their mouths stuffed with acorns; they are being cursed loudly by the ever-garrulous jays, who have also homed in after the acorn crop ~ as if there’s any shortage in such a heavy mast year! The garden is full of dragonflies, swooping and weaving on rigid, shimmering wings whilst below them, fungi in every shape and hue dance and spiral through the grass, including a decent crop of field mushrooms which we have been enjoying in seasonal breakfasts. Yes, I accept the days are getting shorter and cooler weather is on its way . . . but there is still so much to celebrate, so many things to enjoy. It’s all a question of balance, really.

Observations

There’s an old adage among beekeepers that says if you ask five of them for apiary-related advice, you’ll end up with six different opinions. I’m beginning to think that it’s much the same state of affairs with permaculture: the more I study, the more I find myself spiralling off in different directions or wading through a wealth of diverse ideas on a single subject. In a way, I suppose this is a good thing. After all, it must surely be proof that permaculture is a vibrant and evolving movement and that so many people involved aren’t simply following like sheep but thinking laterally and bringing their own energy and innovation to the field. It certainly makes it an endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking area for contemplation! I have to admit, though, that I keep coming back to David Holmgren’s twelve key principles as the basis for my own practice, partly because he is one of the founding fathers and I like what he says, but also because I think they provide a useful set of tools which suits my way of thinking. As we finally emerge from what has been a year of extraordinary weather coupled with two months where I have been largely out of action, Principle 1 ‘Observe and interact’ has been very much at the forefront of my mind this week . . . as well as what to do with the wonderful daily harvest we are still enjoying. 😊

For me, observation is as much about having an open mind as open eyes; it’s all very well wandering about assessing how well things have or haven’t stood up to the difficult conditions but making decisions about how to move forward or what to change (the ‘interact’ bit) may need several different lines of thought. This is partly because to some extent, we are dealing in unknowns: last year was abnormally cool and wet, this year abnormally hot and dry . . . who’s to say what next year will bring? In the absence of a crystal ball, we need to prepare for all eventualities and be ready to adapt our plans as we go along. Something that has been apparent is how well the lasagne beds and Hügel beds have held up, despite being newly-established and seriously short of rain since last September. They will definitely be the model for any future planting areas we create: I think I can safely say our digging days are over.

Squash ripening happily on their hill.

One of the things that has struck me this week is how much better the hedges that Roger laid last winter are looking in comparison to the others. Although it might seem like a drastic thing to do at the time, this traditional approach to hedge maintenance reaps dividends in the long run, encouraging rejuvenation from the base and the renewal of the hedge’s life cycle in a way that the common practice of over- management, mechanical flailing and hard trimming to the same height every year cannot do. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the laid hedges are currently abundant in growth and green leaves and so thick that it’s impossible to see daylight through them whereas the others have been yellowing and shedding leaves at a rate of knots for some time now. We are on red alert to stop the council contractors from siding and topping the boundary hedge along the lane when they inevitably pass through on their tractors as that is the next one to be laid once the dormant period arrives. It’s a slow job but an ancient country craft well worth preserving and if it makes our hedges of native plants more robust and resilient, then it’s definitely worth the effort.

Principle 9: ‘Use small and slow solutions’ ~ like laying hedges, for example.

An undisputable benefit of good hedges is the habitat they provide for wildlife and it’s been noticeable this week just how many late fledges of young birds have been flitting around the garden, including blue tits, greenfinches and goldfinches. The latter are particularly active, little washed-out versions of their brightly-coloured parents feasting on an abundance of seeds around the garden with a special liking for the cosmos in the potager. Watching them swaying on the delicate stems and tucking in to the copious seedheads with their perfectly adapted tweezer beaks, I was reminded once more how important it is to always include such beneficial flowers in our planting plans.

The young goldfinches’ favourite feeding ground . . .
. . . but they’re not the only ones filling their boots.

I’m saving more seed than ever this year, both food and flowers, and one benefit of the weather is that they are all beautifully dry ~ which is a good thing, as I’m running out of space indoors for processing them all. Where flowers are concerned, we’ve already reached a point where certain characters are readily self-setting all over the place: we will certainly never have to buy calendula, borage, phacelia, buckwheat, Californian poppy or pansy seed ever again and there has been an encouraging number of cosmos, verbena and rudbeckia volunteers this year, too. Whether I will be able to salvage any viable sunflower seed for planting and the winter bird table is anybody’s guess at the moment as every ripe head becomes a feeding frenzy of birds, not just the predictable finches but also a good number of great tits and coal tits. Well, they can only eat them once!

Taking the time to look properly around the somewhat neglected garden, I was delighted to find a few pleasant surprises. I like to indulge in a bit of companion planting, albeit often in a very informal way, so for that reason I’m happy to let dill spread itself far and wide (there’s another seed we’ll never need to buy again). It’s a great culinary and medicinal herb, the flowers are attractive to helpful predators like hoverflies and parasitic wasps and at the same time, the smell is said to deter white butterflies so it’s particularly useful around brassicas. Nasturtiums are another helpful plant when it comes to an integrated pest management system and so I poked a few seeds in among the summer brassicas as a sacrificial plant for when those dratted butterflies appeared on the scene. Where the dill has revelled in a wonderful summer, the poor nasturtiums have hated it; in fact, the only ones that have grown are self-set volunteers from last year (and I think there’s a lesson there, somewhere). So, I was very pleased to find a couple of courageous little souls flowering beneath the cabbages, brave splashes of orange sunshine amongst the tired foliage, and with any luck they’ll be back next year. It’s been a tough season for the brassicas, too, not helped by the fact that there has been no let-up in flea beetle activity, but I did find a couple of gems. First, some crisp stems of green calabrese . . .

. . . and then ~ drum roll, please ~ a cauliflower! Well, okay, it’s not much of a cauliflower and I admit one out of twelve is hardly anything to crow about, but these were very definitely an experiment this summer and under the circumstances, I’m amazed even this one survived.

The caulis were a wild card this year and I believe very strongly that we musn’t be afraid to experiment, to push against the boundaries of perceived wisdom, taking ourselves beyond our comfort zone and into those marginal areas of thinking and doing that permaculture sees as such rich and fertile places (Principle 11 ‘Use edges and value the marginal’). Orthodoxy and tradition are good starting points for most things but when we are dealing with uncertainty and change, then we need to be flexible and open to new ideas . . . not to mention that being a bit of a rebel now and then can be fun, especially when it brings success! A good case in point is the asparagus bed that I created last year, first doing lots of research and reading into the dos and don’ts and then completely ignoring all advice and going full pelt down the maverick route.

Young asparagus plant last year.
Conventional adviceWhat I did
Clear ground of all weeds, especially perennials.Spread cardboard over grass and weeds and soaked with rainwater.
Dig a deep trench and fill with rotted manure and/or compost.Piled on several layers of organic matter, all to hand on our patch, to make a lasagne bed.
Create a ridge, plant crowns of F1 male plants and cover with more compost.Raised non-F1 plants from seed, planted each into a deep pocket of homemade compost and mulched the lot with hay.
Under no circumstances allow the plants to dry out, especially in prolonged spells of hot weather.Watered the plants initially last year until established; this year, they have barely been watered despite the drought.
Do not harvest spears until the third year (crowns) or fourth year (seeds).Mmm, we’ll see about that one . . . 😉

If I’m honest, my approach was based as much on laziness and impatience as anything else. The idea of clearing and digging such a huge patch of grassland and hauling all that compost didn’t appeal any more than having to wait until autumn to buy crowns (and the price of those compared to a packet of seeds soon had me sowing rather than ordering). I didn’t want the work or the wait, Charles Dowding assured me a no-dig bed was possible so I just went for it; to quote the mantra Roger and I have used a great deal over the years, what’s the worst that could happen?

Asparagus bed this week.

As you can see, the asparagus bed is currently full of vibrant green ferny foliage, some of the plants being almost as tall as I am; they haven’t suffered at all through the heat and drought and are, in fact, still sending up thick spears. Inevitably, there are some female plants among them but I’m really not bothered as they will still produce spears (with 30 plants, we will have more than enough asparagus anyway) and I can’t imagine that whipping out any seedlings that might appear is as onerous a task as some horticulturists make out. The only weeds to have appeared in the bed are a few clumps of sorrel which are easily pulled and scattered on the surface; I shall soon be giving the plants a feed of compost and manure then I’ll chop and drop the ferns around them once they have died back to add another layer of organic material to the bed. No dig? No problem, I say. 😃

On which subject, it has been interesting to look closely this week at what has been going on in my ‘absence’ and a huge relief (1) to have had a night of proper heavy rainfall at long last and (2) to have regained enough mobility to get back to a few garden tasks. The really good news is that all the beds have remained virtually free of weeds which just goes to show how effective mulch is as a suppressant. Weeding for me these days means working at ground level with a hand fork; I can’t remember the last time I used a hoe, and I much prefer this close contact with the plants and soil plus the opportunity to leave any volunteer seedlings which might be useful. The Not Garden seemed like a good place to start and is a good example of how our holistic approach to gardening works. I started by carefully weeding between the leeks, the most common intruder being various euphorbias including the ubiquitous mole weed. I then used a trowel to spread manure around the plants; it is so well-rotted and dry that it goes on as a top dressing almost in powder form, ideal for feeding soil still in cultivation. I then chopped a pile of comfrey leaves and used them as a mulch on top of the manure; leeks are one of our staple winter and spring foods so it’s important to keep the plants well-fed over many months.

Before the makeover . . . looking at the state of those bent tines, I’m wondering if it’s time to invest in a new little fork?

Next to the leeks were a couple of rows of peas, long since harvested. Roger had started removing the plants to make room for the manure pile, so I finished the job, separating the spent plants from the twiggy hazel sticks they had grown up as I went along. The hazel was a by-product of the hedge laying mentioned earlier; the sticks have supported pea plants through the summer and now, dry as a bone, have been piled up to be used as barbecue kindling. I think that ticks two boxes ~ Principle 5 ‘Use and value renewable resources’ and Principle 6 ‘Produce no waste’ ~ quite nicely. The only ‘weeds’ in the peas were self-set calendula which had already dropped their seeds so I removed them, spread some more manure and then put the chopped pea straw on top (there’s no art to that, I just hack things roughly with a pair of garden scissors). On top of that, I laid a few dead rocket and landcress plants that I had left to form seedpods at the other end of the bed; the theory is that winter and the worms will work all that organic matter into the soil and the seeds will germinate to give us some winter salad leaves without any need for raking or sowing. (Yep, lazy gardening once again.) Beyond the peas is a strip of oca, New Zealand spinach and swedes which needed no attention at all. The swedes are another experiment and I’m not holding out for a crop given the tough time they’ve had; the New Zealand spinach has also struggled but looks better for cooler temperatures and a bit of rain and should now give us a decent crop through to the first frosts. The oca has resented the heat but has bounced back this week and hopefully there will be a good harvest of crunchy tubers to come in late autumn.

Oca looking more enthusiastic after rain.

This patch of garden is one of only two that were in cultivation when we moved here and inheriting it was something of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it gave us a planting area straight away, a mature rosemary bush and a crown of rhubarb I’ve since relocated but it wasn’t without its problems, some of which still persist . . . the euphorbia already mentioned, horseradish which is almost impossible to eradicate with those long persistent tap roots, wild strawberry plants which run amok but never flower or fruit, and the nightmare that is bindweed, to name but a few. Quite a bit of tidying to be done here, then, but in the process I discovered rows of golden and red beetroot I’d forgotten about (I’ve left them in the ground to provide winter salad leaves) and a carpet of young red sorrel plants. The red kale and rainbow chard have struggled but should go well now the weather is kinder; a sprinkle of manure and mulch of grass clippings and chopped dead leaves will keep everything snug and nourished over winter.

Manured and mulched: the rest of the muck will be spread when the oca and New Zealand spinach have been harvested.
It’s not a very big or impressive patch, but there’s plenty of future food in there (Principle 2 ‘Catch and store energy’ and Principle 3 ‘Obtain a yield’).

It has occurred to me that this piecemeal approach to garden maintenance is a bit like medieval strip farming but I think that in a system based on abundant polyculture and successional planting, it works a treat. There’s something very satisfying about giving small strips and patches focused attention and responding to their specific needs, rather than giving bulk treatment to the entire cultivated area and it means I can really get to grips with what’s going on in terms of sun and shade, moisture, soil structure, plant health, biodiversity and so on in a meaningful rather than superficial way. The second patch of leeks in the potager also received the muck and mulch treatment but here the weed of the week was white clover, not euphorbia. Now, don’t get me wrong: white clover is a fabulous plant and one that plays a crucial role in our ecosystem, especially as it stayed lush and green and continued to flower whilst everything around it was fried to a crisp. It makes a useful groundcover green manure, fixing nitrogen in the soil, helping to retain moisture, providing cover for beneficial predators like ground beetles and of course, is a fantastic source of nectar. On the downside, its spreading habit can make it invasive and if it grows for too long in the same space, it can cause clover sickness in the soil. I tend to give it the ‘enthusiastic toddler’ treatment, letting it bound about madly wherever it pops up in the patch, then reining it in when it becomes over-excited. So, I cleared it from around the leeks which had become rather engulfed, but I’ve left it to run to its heart’s content in other places, particularly beneath the winter brassicas. (Principle 8 ‘Integrate rather than segregate’ and Principle 10 ‘Use and value diversity’.)

White and crimson clover under kale.

Another candidate for the strip treatment was the row of climbing borlotti beans which have finished cropping well ahead of their Asturian neighbours. I cut the plants off at ground level and left the roots where they will continue to benefit the soil (and much life within it) by decomposing slowly over the coming months. I then unwound the spent plants from their poles which is less of a faff than it sounds, chopped them into smaller bits and scattered them on the ground along with a good dollop of manure. Finally, I gathered some dead phacelia plants from the mandala bed and laid them on top in the hope the seeds will germinate to give a green manure cover over winter. I shall do the same with the Asturian beans when they have finished, probably in a month’s time. The Three Sisters bed was unintentional but has proved an interesting exercise in observation, nonetheless. The beans have been incredibly slow to climb up the corn stalks and are lagging several weeks behind those grown up hazel poles while the volunteer squash trailing beneath are probably the least enthusiastic and productive on the whole patch. I acknowledge this epitome of companion planting as an ancient and wise tradition but on reflection, I’m not convinced it’s appropriate to our situation (Principle 4 ‘Apply self-regulation and accept feedback’).

The beans climbing the sweetcorn plants have only just started to flower.

It’s exactly two years since we decided to buy this property and we have been talking this week about how we now need to flesh out our plans for the next phase of projects here, retaining the flexibility to make changes as we go along but at least moving from some vague ideas to concrete intentions (Principle 7 ‘Design from patterns to details’). We want to keep adding structure and breaking up the space to create more interest and intimacy in the garden while at the same time increasing and enriching the ecosystems and food production within it. It’s not all about the garden, either; an organised outdoor cooking area under the shelter of the outhouse has been on the cards ever since we moved here and it’s definitely time to pin down our ideas and put that particular plan into action. When I set out to draft this blog post, my intention was to hang it loosely on the peg of ‘Observe and interact’ but what I didn’t bargain for was how the other principles of permaculture would muscle in on the act unannounced as the writing took shape. Looking back, there’s only one unaccounted for, Principle 12 ‘Creatively use and respond to change’ ~ but then, in many ways, it’s also precisely what this post has been about. The garden (and house, for that matter) has survived a hot, dry summer and weeks of casual neglect; it’s not looking very tidy or particularly attractive but it is bursting with an abundance of life and food, all managing very nicely on minimum attention. I’m happy that we’re getting there, building the resilience and regeneration that was always part of our plan: the task now is to keep on observing, reflecting, connecting, adapting and ~ most importantly ~ learning and enjoying, as we move forward into the next stage. We’ll keep experimenting, too; after all, what’s the worst that can happen? 😁

Principle 12 ‘Creatively use and respond to change’ ~ grapes could well become a staple fruit crop if our summers are going to be hotter!

Thriving on neglect

Our recent trip to Norway marked the beginning of several very busy and exciting weeks for us, with family coming to stay here through July and a quick flit to the UK to ~ amongst other delights ~ hold our new little grandson for the first time. I’m probably going to be hanging up my blogging boots for a while, so this is a somewhat hastily scribbled garden update; by the end of July, things will have moved on again and my photos will be ancient history!

We left for Norway in 35°C with the temperature set to spiral upwards for most of the time we were away; for a garden (and gardener) already stressed by a prolonged drought, it was the worst scenario possible, but what could we do? We moved pots, troughs and seedling trays into the shade, watered as much as we could, soaked the tunnel and propped both doors open . . . and just hoped perhaps la météo was wrong. It wasn’t. On our return, it was clear the heat had been searing with everything wearing that parched and yellow look, but the good news was that we arrived home in a torrential downpour. Never have I been so happy to end a holiday on a soaking wet note! The water butts were soon full to overflowing and within a couple of days, everything responded. No, actually, everything exploded.

In truth, I had pretty much written off any hope of a colourful show of annual flowers earlier this year when I found myself sowing seeds for the third time; it was too dry, too hot or cold and nothing would germinate. My hoped-for mass of rainbow blooms in the mandala bed certainly hasn’t happened, but the ever-reliable thuggish phacelia is doing its bit and looks pretty in drifts of soft mauve mingling with the sunny yellow of dyer’s chamomile. Once the bees have finished with the flowers, I shall chop it and drop it in situ and try for my rainbow again next year. Such is gardening life.

In the other beds, though, there is a riotous carnival of colour, and I find myself drawn to them as much as the industrious insects who visit to seek food.

Despite the lack of floral variety and the fact that the blackbirds have rummaged in the grass mulch so much that it’s hard to see the woodchip paths any more, the mandala bed is looking pretty good. What interests me is that several things are actually outperforming their counterparts in the potager: the borlotti beans and aubergines (outdoor) were the first to flower, it has produced the first lettuce and French bean harvest, the best chard plants and the most productive cucumbers. I’m not sure why this should be, but something is obviously working well.

Not that we are exactly short of fruit and vegetables elsewhere: our first day back was almost entirely spent getting on top of the harvest. The courgettes and cucumbers had gone mad as they always do, but suddenly there were several rows of peas in need of picking, a crowd of summer cabbage all hearted up and ready to go, lettuces threatening to bolt left, right and centre and the first spring onions and baby carrots ready to pull. Oh, broad beans and French beans, too.

Then there was the tunnel . . . I was very relieved that nothing had collapsed and given up the ghost in the heat; quite the opposite, in fact. Where there had been a smattering of flowers, now there was a picking of aubergines and more peppers than I could shake a stick at. I’ve forgotten how much they love this climate, it will certainly be the best crop we’ve enjoyed since we last lived in Mayenne.

My greatest tunnel joy, though, had to be saved for the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which had gone slightly berserk in our absence. (I’d like to say at this point that if we have a successful crop from these plants, I really can’t take any credit as quite frankly, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I started out with good intentions to follow expert guidance in terms of pinching out after so many leaves and so many young fruit but soon lost the plot with that one. Now they’re just doing their own thing. Sorry, melon pundits.) They were a little thirsty but, nestled beneath their abundant foliage, I have counted at least twenty fruits swelling to a good size at an alarming rate. I can’t wait for the day when their heady perfume greets me at the door to let me know they are ready for eating . . .

In the meantime, we are not short of fruit. Having picked kilos of red cherries for preserving and enjoyed several helpings of yellow ones which are not good keepers and best eaten straight from the tree, we were delighted to find that the two trees which didn’t produce anything last year were not only fruiting heavily but also just happen to be another two completely different varieties. The first, which I think is a Rainier, has pretty pink and yellow marbled fruit which are good as a dessert cherry and for cooking; the other ~ oh happy days! ~ is a black cherry, with fruit so big, sweet and juicy that it’s impossible to resist the temptation of tucking in. Roger is having to fiercely guard (or hide) any he has picked, washed and put aside for a bit of dessert cheffery. 😁 The fact that the harvest has been spread out over several weeks is a real bonus, too, so let there be many more bountiful cherry years, please! We also have redcurrants and blackcurrants coming out of our ears, and at last, a good crop of raspberries, which are a bit small thanks to the drought but so plentiful it doesn’t really matter. Even the tiny ‘Fall Gold’ I planted as a bare-rooted twig in winter has produced some pretty amber fruits, sweet and flavoursome. Theoretically, it should crop twice a year. I hope so.

‘Fall Gold’ raspberry

I’ve written several times about how I try not to present a picture of a falsely ‘perfect’ garden and of course, there were one or two things ~ namely some of the smaller squash plants ~ that suffered because we weren’t here to water when they most needed it. On the whole, though, I have to admit I’m quietly chuffed at how it all held up. Building resilience into the garden is something we have been working on and certainly the week away in such extreme weather conditions was a great test. Having learned from the potato mistake that mulch needs to go on damp earth, I’m really pleased with how moist the soil had stayed under its protective layer and also at how few weeds had appeared. Clearing a patch of ground cover green manure (phacelia, crimson clover and linseed) to make space for purple sprouting broccoli and red kale, it was clear what a fantastic job it had done in terms of moisture retention, weed suppression and soil improvement; the young brassicas have gone happily into the ground and not looked back. The ‘cleared’ crimson clover has already popped back up, the irrepressible little darlin’ that it is.

I was concerned about not being here to keep an eye on pests, especially as my old adversaries, the cabbage stem weevils, were back in numbers before we left; the idea of returning to find cauliflowers, cabbage and calabrese plants wiped out filled me with a certain dread, but I needn’t have fretted. Yes, the outer leaves look fairly ropey but the young growth in the centre is fine and, although it pains me to admit it, they were probably a lot better off for not having me faff about with them every day. I think this is part of the resilience thing once again: encourage a wider biodiversity and the beneficial creatures move in. Certainly, we have very healthy populations of garden spiders and ground beetles, two of the biggest weevil predators, so perhaps it’s best just to let them get on with the job. Everywhere I look, in fact, there are droves of helpful little things doing great work on our behalf and it is definitely worthwhile doing all we can to encourage them to stay. I think introducing far more flowers into the potager this year has made a big difference . . . but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 😉

Actually, on that subject, we’ve been enjoying a few evenings sitting in the sunshine where the old shed used to be. Regular readers might remember that we spent Christmas Day demolishing the dilapidated thing before rebuilding it in the potager and turning the area into somewhere pleasant to sit. The laid hedge has grown back strongly and the ‘bulge’ in that poor old cherry tree on the right that had to be felled has been re-purposed into a handy table. The annual flowers have been a bit slow but they’re starting to make an impact, with lots more colour to come. We still have ideas for more changes and developments to this space but it already feels like something of an improvement.

The twirly-whirly metal poles behind the furthest chair aren’t some modern art installation, but a couple of tomato supports that are very common here. they are a brilliant design: simply encourage the new growth upwards through the spirals, no need for any tying-in. They might seem an odd addition to a patch of annual flowers but this is all part of our ‘Hide the Tomato’ game aka trying to beat blight. There are tomatoes dotted about everywhere, some in the ground and others in pots, and I am only going to whisper this in the quietest tones possible but so far, they are all growing very strongly and some have set fruit. Sssssh, I really don’t want to tempt fate: the garden thrived in our absence, can the tomatoes pull through this time, too? I’ll have to get back to you on that one! 😊

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
May 2021
May 2022

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
August 2021
March 2022
May 2022

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; not that I mind getting my hands dirty, in fact I love the tactile experiences that come with gardening, including burying my hands in the earth, and rarely wear gloves for that reason. This patch is so clean, however, 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! 😊