Food and flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowlydays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to play Hunt The Cucumber.

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

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

Not a happy sight.

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

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

Weevils 0 Dogged gardening 1: result!

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

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

Fruit salad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval musings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dyer’s chamomile plus admirer

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

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

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

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

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

Solar power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rocket flowers in a salad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poppies and permaculture

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

John Steinbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A place of peace

The rain has driven me in from the garden. I don’t mind working on through showers – I quite enjoy it sometimes, in fact – but these are serious downpours from a bruised sky, heavy and laced with thunder. I’m not grumbling. Steady, warm rainfall is exactly what’s needed and I love the change it has brought: dusty red earth turned a deep, moist brown, the blackbirds’ mellifluous melodies amplified, the invigorating scent of all things fresh and green wafting in through the open window. Delicious.

In truth, it’s the first time in days I’ve been indoors for any length of time. Roger is away for a week so I have been left to my own devices and in complete charge of the patch with just my bike for transport and the wildlife for company. I’ve written before about how I don’t mind a bit of solitude now and then; naturally, I shall be very pleased to have him home 😊, but being alone has never bothered me, especially when I have so much to do. I also think it’s a good thing to be shaken out of my comfort zone once in a while, even if that does mean having to indulge in the dark arts of the Man Shed; I’m happy to report that the lawnmower and I have been getting along just fine – blimey, I even managed to put petrol in it. That said, I’m definitely pleased we have left most of the grassy areas as no-mow meadow with simple paths cut through.

I should mention before I go any further that Roger has taken the camera with him, so the photos I’m using are lagging a bit behind the times. The oak tree and hedge at the top are now dense with deep green summer foliage, the hawthorn blossom has handed over to elder and the meadow grasses reach to my shoulder in places. With maximum light and a gentle balance between warmth and wet, everything is growing at full tilt. What a truly incredible, energising time of year it is.

I’ve been so occupied with outdoor things that my gardening diary has completely fallen by the wayside; it had grown so immense that it would fill several blog posts and then some (which is why I don’t intend to publish) but I know I will be cursing this time next year when my hoped-for reference material yields a great black hole. Oh well, it’s not the end of the world. As always, the vegetable garden has been taking up most of my time and attention, not only in terms of maintenance but also in continued expansion and development. It’s been so frustrating in the five months since we arrived not to be able to harvest any produce apart from herbs and rhubarb but that is set to change. I have managed to pick a modest salad of rocket, land cress, red sorrel, baby chard, radish and herbs, so crisp, fresh and zinging with colour and flavour; it made me realise just how much I’ve been missing my garden foraging habit. The broad beans and peas are dripping with bee-ridden flowers and setting their first precious pods, the French beans at long last have shaken off their miserable hunched look and rocketed skywards and at least one courgette is flirting with the idea of opening its fat yellow flower buds. There is light – and food – at the end of the tunnel.

Although I’m happy pootling about on my own, it was lovely to have visitors one afternoon and to spend a couple of hours sharing a pot of tea and having a good natter, in the relaxed, sociable way that was taken for granted pre-Covid. They were interested to see what we have been up to in the garden and, showing them round, I was struck by how illuminating it is to see our efforts through someone else’s eyes. I realised just how stark it all seems – brutal, almost – as if digging borders and beds, still relatively bare of vegetation and colour, has made indelible scars on the original landscape. We have a vision of how we would like the garden to be eventually, not ‘in the end’ since it will keep on evolving, but at the moment it hardly looks like great progress.

At least we can argue that the vegetable garden is functional; the part-done flower garden, on the other hand, looks – well – downright weird, if I’m honest.

This is where it is so crucial to hold fast to optimism and patience, those most important of garden tools! I’ve been looking at some old photos of what was our biggest garden project, thirteen years of turning four acres of rough hill pasture in mid-Wales into a productive vegetable patch, orchard, woodland and flower garden. It was bloomin’ hard work, especially as we were raising our family and both working full-time, but it was an invaluable experience in terms of developing our gardening knowledge and skills, battling the elements and realising exactly what can be rendered possible with a positive, pragmatic attitude and plenty of energy. Please excuse the quality of the photos, they hark back to the dinosaur days of glossy prints!

I’m not going to spend a lot of time reminiscing but a couple of projects in that garden are good illustrations of how things can change, develop, improve and mature in a relatively short time. Let’s start with the pond. There was a naturally boggy area in the field (soon to be orchard) next to a defunct concrete water trough which suggested itself as the perfect site for a wildlife pond. We talked about hiring a mini-digger to do the job, but I came home from work one day to find that Roger, who must have had a day ‘off’, had done the whole lot by hand.

We lined it with a heavy-duty butyl liner, made a wooden top for the trough to form a bench seat, planted a few bits and pieces around the margins and waited for the pond to fill naturally with rainwater . . . which took a while!

Within weeks, wildlife had started to move in: pond snails, great diving beetles, water boatman, pond skaters . . . isn’t it incredible how they all appear as if from nowhere? After a couple of years, as the pond and surrounding area developed in maturity, frogs, toads and newts (smooth and palmate) appeared along with damsel flies and dragonflies; birds drank and bathed, and pathways through the undergrowth suggested larger nocturnal visitors. The pond and the life it supported became a focal point for us as a family and that basic wooden seat was probably the most used on the whole property!

Unlike our current cottage, that house was not remotely pretty; originally an 18th century half-timbered farmhouse, it had been ‘modernised’ over the years which had stripped it of most of its exterior character. (Roger thought it so ugly that he eventually painted it terracotta; I thought the colour was more akin to tangerine myself, but it certainly cheered things up a bit and gave the neighbours something to talk about.) When we arrived, the view from the back of the house constituted a scrappy area of grass in front of a solid wall of high ornamental conifers, which made everything feel dark, closed-in and thoroughly depressing. We needed light and colour – and fast; I’ll happily admit, Roger went forth with the chainsaw and had those trees felled the morning after moving day, letting light flood in through the windows. The colour took slightly longer, but with the help of my little gardening elf, there was soon a flower border in the making. Note how the bird table was the first thing to be planted.

I realise now how quickly gardens – and children! – grow; a bare stretch of earth with a few puny perennials and scattering of seeds (much as we have here now) can be transformed in the blink of an eye once nature gets to work.

When we were selling the house, one lady who came to look round was so enthralled that she said she thought we had created a ‘magical pagan paradise.’ She didn’t buy it, but that really didn’t matter because unwittingly, she had paid us the greatest compliment possible in finding such delight in that chaotic, crammed tumble and jumble of colour, scent, form and life. Our garden wasn’t to everyone’s taste, of course, but it was very much an expression of ourselves and that’s something we want to replicate here. Everyone is entitled to their own preferences and opinions but I will always wonder why anyone would choose to hide behind a black conifer hedge when in front of it was the possibility of a living rainbow singing with life . . . and beyond it, the most stunning of views.

So, back to our emerging flower garden here. What is the plan? Towards the end of my time as a primary school teacher, the concept of creating a ‘Sacred Space’ in the school grounds was very much in vogue. Break times are essential for children to enjoy some freedom, fresh air, exercise, to burn up some of their boundless energy and generally let off steam. They need those opportunities to express themselves through play. (I’ll spare you the soapbox, but I wish we could cut this current popular jargon. Children play. Enough said.) However, not every child wants to spend their playtime wellying a football or haring about capturing flags, so the idea of a Sacred Space is to provide a designated footy-free area of the playground or school field where they can go to enjoy a quiet time – a safe sanctuary, if you like. This is exactly the sort of idea I have for our flower garden, although I prefer to think of it as a Place of Peace, with all the same benefits but no religious connotations. I want it to be somewhere that draws me in, a safe and nurturing space where I can rest, contemplate or simply just be. I’ve mentioned before that I’m hopeless at meditation but to sit in quiet stillness free of intellectual thought and open my senses to the sights, sounds and scents around me must surely be halfway there, and just as restorative. I’m hoping so . . . but there is much work to be done in the meantime. Back to that photo and I’ll expain the story so far.

We’ve chosen to create the flower garden where it can be seen from the house which is to the south, with a ‘wild’ area to the east, orchard and the rest of the garden to the west and shed and hedge to the north with fields beyond. The building in the picture is a tumbledown cottage which suggests this was once a hamlet; ours is the only house here now, a poignant reminder of decades of rural depopulation in the area (although interestingly, the tide has now turned). We really don’t like those conifers but we’ve planted between them with native hedging – hawthorn, beech and hornbeam – in the hope of incorporating them into a proper hedge and softening their impact. We’re trying to create a sense of enclosure for the garden, not in the strict way of a medieval hortus conclusus but somewhere that gives the feeling of a contained and more intimate space. The front edge of the garden is straight as it is the top of a bank created when a gravelled area was dug out behind the house; the rest of the garden, however, is most definitely all about softer sweeping lines and curves, far more my cup of tea. Eventually, there will be an archway covered in scented climbers at the entrance between the stone wall and rose hedge – all in good time. A few months ago, we planted a curved hedge of bare-rooted rugosa roses, one of my favourite plants; I smiled to read a warning on the nursery website that they can be ‘wild and untameable’ which is exactly the point! They will form a sumptuous hedge of great beauty and perfume which will drive the bees mad and send up suckers which we can lift and plant elsewhere. They’ve all taken well but there is just one tiny fly in the ointment: I ordered red ones, or at least rose foncé as they were advertised.

Five out of twenty five are flowering and dark pink they ain’t! What’s a person supposed to do? I have no intention of removing them or painting them (never could stand Alice in Wonderland) and ranting and raging at the suppliers will solve nothing. There’s a chance they could be mixed and the white ones are flowering first but only time will tell. It’s not quite what I’d envisaged but already it seems the flower garden is off on its own trajectory. Mmm. I could think of it as a Yorkshire hedge, but we both have ancestry that lies in red rose country on t’other side of the Pennines so that doesn’t quite work! Better to remember that white roses are traditionally symbols of peace which, after all, is very fitting to the sort of space I’m hoping it will become.

A path inside the rose hedge curves around our experimental hügel bed; the topsoil layer is fairly thin this year so I’ve scattered lots of annual flower seeds and large patches of flowering green manure like buckwheat and crimson clover which will bring beauty and benefit insects but can then be chopped and dropped to help build and nourish the soil. I was really thrilled when Roger surprised me with a standing stone as this is something I love to have in the garden. Standing stones are a fascinating and evocative element of our British heritage but they were common in ancient Gaul, too; it’s easy to think Asterix and Obelix at this point, but in all seriousness, the Carnac (Brittany) menhir alignment sites are some of the most mind-blowing and mysterious places I’ve ever visited. Heritage and history aside, I simply love stone and think it’s something that is so easy to take for granted; how incredible to have a focal point in the garden that has come from deep within the earth and is hundreds of millions of years old.

Staying with natural materials and at the back of the second border, we have built a rustic support for climbing plants using hazel poles out of our hedges. It looks very strange and stark at the moment but given time it should look more integrated and hopefully it will help to bring height and structure to the garden as well as screen the shed. We found two clematis here that had been planted in plastic bags inside wooden containers so we have released both from captivity and one of them is currently scrambling up the structure. It has the most exquisite velvety purple flowers which I can’t photograph until my beloved returns from his travels; watch out for them in my next post! We’ve also planted a couple of climbing roses for company, and I’ve put up three wigwams of sweet peas and climbing nasturtiums to add temporary height this year. I’m quietly adding perennials to the border, including a hedge of cardoons, but again it will mostly be annual colour this summer in shamelessly bright colours – think Mondrian rather than Monet for the time being.

Over the summer, I’m planning to dig at least one more large crazy-shaped border within the space, leaving room for a seat in the centre as a reminder that this is a place to linger and be savoured. I quite fancy one of those Jack and Jill seats as I imagine this as the perfect spot to settle down with a mug of coffee (or whatever) so some sort of table would be handy. We’re also thinking about an area of shrubs to create height at the edge of the garden and I’d like another curving hedge to compliment the rose one, maybe of shrubby flowering herbs like sage, lavender, thyme and hyssop. Beyond that, we are enouraging a ‘wild area’ to flourish with long grass under trees; there is already a twisted willow and I fancy adding other light and airy specimens like silver birch. At some point in the property’s history, there has been a garden area here as amongst the grasses there are poppies, cornflowers, mallow and Californian poppies creating a splash of colour in that wild ‘nature does its own thing’ way I love. They are welcome to stay and spread and I shall certainly be collecting and scattering seed to help them along the way. (This photo is a couple of weeks old, it’s all gone a bit colour crazy out there since.)

This wild element is something I desperately want to hold within the garden space; yes, there is structure and deliberate planting but I don’t want it to feel manicured or formal in any way. It’s going to be a fine balance between a certain amount of control and a lot of letting nature get on with it. After all, I could spend vast amounts of time and money arranging fancy plants in clever colour schemes but to my mind, nothing can match the simple but vibrant allure of beauties like this one.

Coming back full circle to the only straight edge in the story where Roger has built a drystone wall to create a boundary and separate the top of the bank from the garden. That bank is a nighmare; it has been planted with what I think of as supermarket car park shrubs and whereas I accept that cotoneaster and heathers are great nectar plants, the banality and downright sterile ugliness of things like prostrate conifers leave me completely cold. There are a few herbs buried in there but the entire bank has been overrun with weeds, particularly couch grass, and is going to be a mammoth task to sort out. In the meantime, though, the daisies I included in an earlier post have been joined by pink spires of foxgloves (photo to follow, please just imagine them for now) and further along the bank, a dainty clump of ragged robin has appeared. This gives me that first tool – optimism – to believe that one day, this bare, strange-looking patch really will be the wildly beautiful Place of Peace I hope for; all I need now is the patience to go with it.

The Merry Month of May

I think that May must surely be one of the loveliest months of the year. Despite so many frustrations as gardeners in recent weeks – overnight frosts right up until a couple of days ago, no rain for almost a month, a bitterly cold wind – there is at last a feeling of heading full tilt towards summer, even if the weather remains changeable and decidely cooler than normal. We have moved through plum, peach, pear and cherry blossom to the very last of the apple; viburnum has given way to lilac, blackthorn handed over to hawthorn; the trees, including the tardy ash, are singing out in a chorus of a hundred different greens. Farmers have cut the first grass, the sharp green blades of maize stand in regimented rows against the red soil and in the field next to our garden, the breeze ripples through the grain like a sea of silver.

The verges are still a riot of colour with carpets of pale pink spotted orchids and the lacy froth of cow parsley piling into the mix, while the garden literally smiles with flowers, both cultivated and wild. Yes, it is all really rather lovely.

We have been crazily busy in the garden once again. The weather hasn’t helped, trays and trays of tender plants still having to be moved under cover every evening and far too many seeds planted a second time because of failed germination. Too cold, too dry – who can blame them?

  • Thursday 29th April: sowed sunflowers, mixed and pink Californian poppies, double red poppies and two French seed mixes in big border. Calendula, French marigold, coriander and dill in bean circle. Potted on squash (Casa V specials) and courgettes.
  • Friday April 30th: bought perennials – purple and red iris germanica (bearded iris), salvia superba rosa (flowering sage, drought resistant), echinacea (coneflower), centaurea montana (mountain cornflower), veronica gentianoides (gentian speedwell, good nectar plant). Two dried roots of alchemilla mollis.
  • Saturday May 1st: planted all six new perennials plus two verbena bonariensis from Asturias; sprinkled some mixed Californian poppies and calendula in borders; lifted daffies; potted up herbs for back door sitting area – mint, chives, lemon balm, red sorrel and coriander (seed). Potted on aubergines. Pricked out remaining squash. Just the cukes to go!
  • Monday 3rd May: seed parcel arrived! Sowed purple sprouting broccoli, romanesco broccoli, Brunswick cabbage and Russian red kale. Water butts are empty.
  • Tuesday 4th May: IT’S RAINING!!!!!!!! 🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️
  • Wednesday 5th May: put up hazel quadpod in front flower border, sowed climbing nasturtiums, red double poppies, shade-loving annual flower seed mix. Two water butts are full again.
  • Friday 7th May: planted Spanish dwarf beans (own collected seed, variety unknown) and Stanley; sweet corn (own seed); curly-leafed parsley from new seed in pot; pricked out 11 cucumbers (possibly 8 too many!); re-sowed celery, beetroot Chioggia in Secret Garden and Potager and flat-leaved parsley; planted out first lettuce.
  • Sunday 9th May: planted hanging basket with ivy-leaved geraniums and trailing lobelia; planted three large pots at front of house with determinate tomatoes – Orion’s Belt (green/purple), Alaska (semi-det, red cherry) and Black Sea Man (purple / black) – and basil; planted out cardoons, cosmos and annual rudbeckia in big border; resowed nasturtiums and black-eyed Susan; sowed Spanish onion seed; finished mulching both soft fruit beds with grass clippings. Did lots of weeding – really essential this year, next year hopefully I can do lots of mulching and get back to my laissez-faire approach.
  • Tuesday 11th May: added more small perennial plants to Oak Tree Border – astilbe Pumila, achillea Coronation Gold, catmint Six Hills Giant and sedum Brilliant plus several cosmos; planted up 3 window troughs of pink and white ivy-leaved geraniums to replace the pansies (if they ever finish flowering, they’ve loved the cool weather); mulched the onions and garlic with grass clippings.

Although growing food is always our top priority, flowers are important, too, and it’s been good to reach a point where I can spend some time starting the restoration work on the existing flower borders. I use the term ‘border’ loosely as in many cases, they are just vague areas roughly demarcated with a line of stones, many of them facing north or tight up against a hedge and all of them in need of serious attention. The memory of what was certainly once a pretty garden lingers in the shape of some truly lovely plants but years of neglect have rendered it a complete mess project-in-waiting. Time to get stuck in! I’ve started with the areas at the front of the house; one is north-facing against a hedge, the other dominated by a large oak tree, so neither makes for easy gardening. A few perennial thugs like lemon balm, rudbeckia, arabis, hardy geranium and Michaelmas daisies have run riot, their unstoppable roots creating a spaghetti of complicated tangles intermingled with brambles, nettles, ivy, couch grass, dandelions and a thick invasive mat of celandines, the like of which I’ve never seen. Progress in sorting that little lot out has been slow to say the least.

With the weeds gone, I can see just what plants are here and worth saving and that has led to a few surprises. What I had thought to be a small clump of winter aconites smothered by the celandine carpet a couple of months ago has turned out to be a rather beautiful deep blue monkshood; pulling out brambles and huge swathes of wood avens (which I’m happy to have as a woodland herb but not acres at a time!), I’ve discovered several clumps of lilies. I’ve been wondering why the butterfly bush looks so unhappy; growing in the shade of the oak tree probably doesn’t help but if there is one plant that should have responded well to the ‘prune everything in sight’ habit that prevailed here, surely it’s that one? On peeling back the mass of weeds at its base, I solved the mystery: the poor thing had been planted in its pot! It’s quite a mature shrub and has obviously managed to push a main root out through the bottom, but with the pot lying almost on its side and still very much intact, the rootball was almost non-existent and dry as dust. I cut away as much of the pot as I could, gave the exposed roots a good watering and then covered them in a deep mulch of homemade compost. Fingers crossed for a swift recovery.

Buying plants can be an expensive hobby, especially with a large garden to fill. I’ve brought a few bits and pieces grown from small roots or lifted as seedlings in our Asturian garden, things like granny’s bonnets, verbena bonariensis, pulmonaria and Jacob’s ladder, which all seem to have settled well into their new home. I’ve also started raising some perennials from seed but it’s a slow process and occasionally there’s no harm in having a little spend around a nursery to help matters along – even if I do go into child-in-a-sweetshop mode! The great thing about perennial plants is that small ones grow very quickly into big ones so I’m happy to opt for the smallest (cheapest) plants and fill the gaps with annual seed while they grow.

Removing several ornamental conifers and recycling them into a hügel bed opened up the back of the Oak Tree Border, letting in light and some new planting opportunities. I decided that the clump of peonies, just on the cusp of opening their showy wine-red blooms, was crying out to be paired with the bearded iris that grow so well locally – they are one of the contenders for the original fleur de lys, after all. I chose a deep violet but then fell in love with a second one that starts with buds of deepest purple satin, unfurling into flowers of startling red with a splash of yellow in the centre. It was impossible to choose, so I bought both; maybe child in a sweetshop doesn’t come close? Anyway, I relish the business of building colour and shape in the borders and I’m hopeful of creating something beautiful that draws the eye through that gap left by the ex-conifers to the garden beyond; hidden corners, glimsped vistas, the urge to wander and discover . . . all essential ingredients in the kind of garden I love.

With the trees and hedges leafing up and creating more intimate spaces around the garden, I find myself weaving a sinuous route several times a day to check on progress in the Secret Garden and Shed Patch; those vegetables are so important to us, after all.

The Potager still remains relatively open and exposed but we hope to create more of a feel of an enclosed space there over time; at the moment, we’re still extending it with yet more digging . . . and the big job of the week will be finishing the polytunnel if the weather is kind enough to grant us a still day – large sheets of polythene and high winds really don’t mix! Although it all still looks a bit bare, the potatoes are well through the ground and too big to cover (no more frosts, pleeeeeease), the first of the dwarf beans and climbing beans have germinated, two rows of peas are romping away and a few brave carrots and spring onons have finally emerged. It’s interesting that everything planted from our own saved seed has germinated well and in some cases, faster and better than bought seeds; it’s also encouraging that at long last, there is the promise of food in the garden once again.

It’s been quite a week for wildlife in the garden. The red squirrels continue to entertain us with their antics and a hare has taken to lolloping in and doing its toilet business under the sweet pea wigwams (not quite sure what the attraction is). We watched a pair of mice moving their babies from one end of a stone wall to another while we ate our lunch on the picnic bench, and a pair of black kites wheeling over the garden one afternoon as they pulled grass snakes out of the neighbouring (cut) field. A shrew literally ran across my foot as I sat outside with a mug of tea and, shifting trays of plants out of the outhouse one morning, I found they were being guarded by a rather splendid toad. On mornings when I’m not running or don’t fancy a long walk from home, I’ve taken to walking circuits of the garden instead . . . and why not? It’s a beautiful spot to wander in and about 400 metres all round the perimeter, so four passes make a mile and it’s amazing how quickly the distance mounts up with so much to see and enjoy. Crunching through frosty grass early one morning last week, I heard what sounded like a soft and rather strange frog croaking until I realised it couldn’t possibly be, seeing as it was most definitely coming from high up in an oak tree! On closer inspection, I discovered that it was a turtle dove and stood enchanted by the sweet lullaby of its gentle purring song, the turr-turr-turr that gives it its name. Turtle doves are summer visitors whose populations are declining rapidly; little surprise, then, that they are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In Wilding, Isabella Tree describes her overwhelming joy when turtle doves returned to Knepp Estate in West Sussex and I certainly share a sense of that wonder and gratitude to find there are several of these dainty, precious birds in our corner of Mayenne.

From wildlife to wild flowers, and one of our long-term goals here is to increase the number and amount of species of native wild flowers all over the garden. It’s a bit frustrating that unlike so many local verges, gardens and orchards, we are missing the Big Three – cowslips, bluebells and orchids – that are causing such a colourful splash elsewhere. Imagine how excited I was, then, to uncover two clumps of bluebells from the weedy depths of a flower border. Well, there was good news and bad news: one clump is the native ‘English’ bluebell we are after, with its dainty flowers on arching stems, white pollen and evocative scent, the other is the Spanish variety, much chunkier on straight stems with blue pollen and no perfume. It has none of the charm of the native species and is a thuggish, invasive pest – the grey squirrel of the botanical world, perhaps? So, the first clump will be moved to the Woodland Edge to make a start on what eventually we hope will become a blue haze of Maytime beauty, the other clump will, er, just disappear. The good news is that we do at least have a decent range of other species and of course, more are appearing as we move through the seasons; it was a lovely surprise to find a large clump of Solomon’s seal buried in a hedge bottom this week. Now it’s a case of encouraging them to set seed and spread whilst raising new species to add to the mix.

We love to use natural materials in the garden, so Roger has been turning a pile of stone dumped under a hedge into a drystone wall ‘folly’ which marks part of the Flower Garden boundary and offers a new habitat for wildlife. A sunburst of oxeye daisies and buttercups has appeared in front of it this week . . . nature artfully creating exactly the wild look we are aiming for. There’s still so much to do here but it feels good to be making some progress hand in hand with nature and leaving ourselves time to enjoy the beauty of this lovely month, too. 😊

Whether the weather be fine

Oh, the lovely fickleness of an April day!

W.H. Gibson

Is it possible to have four seasons in one day? That’s certainly what it has felt like at times this past week. I’m not sure about April being the cruellest month but it’s most definitely been an interesting and restless one so far and our days in the garden have been unpredictable, to say the least. One moment we’ve been wrapped up in hats and gloves, eyes streaming in a bitterly cold wind carrying the iron scent of winter, the type that goes straight through you because it’s too lazy to go round; the next, we’ve been stripped to t-shirts and shorts, searching for the suncream and organising a barbecue for our evening meal. We’ve enjoyed skies of pure unbroken blue and those studded with soft billowy clouds like little children draw; we’ve worked under sheets of sullen steely grey and watched curtains of snow drift from clouds of deeply bruised purple; we’ve woken to heavy frosts that have set the world sparkling and the softest, gentlest of mornings showered with warm sunshine and birdsong. We’ve had the first rainfall in weeks. Capricious nature has been at its fickle best, that’s for sure.

Weather or not, ’tis the season to be planting and I have to admit, we haven’t been holding back on that score. This year we are taking a pragmatic – boring? – approach and sticking very much to tried and tested varieties, the reliable good doers which promise us a decent harvest in our first year here while there is so much to do. The time for experiment, indulgence and frivolity will come in due course, although I do have one little exception that I’m very excited about: a pack of nine new tomato varieties (of which more in a later post) that has winged its way to Mayenne from my lovely gardening friend in Finland: thank you, Anja! They are a colourful bunch, the idea being I should be able to create a tomato rainbow which, of course, is something that appeals greatly to my imagination and sense of fun; this is serious tomato country, so fingers crossed we will be blight-free and I can really do them justice. They’ve travelled a long way, after all!

We’re picking flowers and fresh herbs from the garden for salads but it will be so much better when all the ingredients are home grown.

So, in an attempt to keep things simple and also create a bit of a reference for next year, here is our planting diary:

  • 26th March Outdoors: Jerusalem artichoke tubers (8).
  • 27th March Outdoors: Potatoes – Charlotte 43, Blue Danube 11, Mystery Spud 3. Onions Stuttgarter Riesin 139 (sets). Peas Kelvedon Wonder (or Merveille de Kelvedon as they are here!). Comfrey (plant). Outdoors in trays: Summer cabbage Greyhound. Lettuce – White Romaine, Little Gem & Red Salad Bowl. Indoors: Tomatoes – Super Marmande, Rosella, Gardener’s Delight & San Marzano. Anja’s 9 tomatoes. Peppers – Long Red Marconi, Mini Red and Del Piquello. Chillies – Scotch Bonnet, Early Jalapeño, Long Slim Cayenne and Hotscotch (mix).
  • 28th March Indoors: sage, thyme, lavender, hyssop, Good King Henry, rudbeckia, cosmos mixed and pink, marshmallow, basil, Black-Eyed Susan.
  • 29th March Indoors: Aubergines- Black Beauty and Long Purple. Asparagus, globe artichoke, cardoon, French marigold, moss-leaved parsley. Outdoors: Carrots – Nantes, Chantenay Red Cored and Autumn King. Spring onions – White Lisbon. Spanish cebollitas – Barletta. Radish – French Breakfast. Freesias (corms), sweet peas, lupins and sweet rocket.
  • 7th April Indoors: Cucumbers – Marketmore and Conil (gherkin). Courgette – Black Beauty. Squash- Hunter, Crown Prince and seed saved from one of our mongrels. Outdoors: Calendula and yellow trefoil between rows in Shed Patch.
  • 8th April Outdoors: Peas – Kelvedon Wonder (2nd sowing, first crop in The Potager Patch). Secret Garden: Beetroot -Bona, Solist and Multicoloured Mix. Leaf beet – Bright Lights, Ruby Red and perpetual spinach. Celery – Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin. Leeks- Musselburgh (160). Kale – Scarlet Curled and Thousandhead. Dill, coriander, flat-leaf parsley, rocket, American landcress, fennel, borage and calendula. Broccoli in trays – Green Autumn Calabrese, Romanesco, Apollo, Purple Summer, Early Purple Sprouting and Late Purple Sprouting. Long strip of annual flower mix (26 varieties).
Our new picnic table is the perfect place for sorting through the seed basket!

Of course, it’s all about food first and we’re fast approaching that point of the year where we know we will be scrabbling for planting space if we don’t keep digging; it’s so easy to see a large patch and think it’s enough but by the time several rows of peas and beans alone have gone in, the space will diminish rapidly. We don’t want to be left scratching our heads and wondering where exactly the leeks and winter greens can go . . . so we haven’t finished with the spade yet. Roger has been cutting a wealth of paths which will become ever more tempting as the grass grows longer and the meadow appears and I love the way that we are now curving the vegetable beds to fit snugly into their bends; life is simply too short for straight lines!

I like the way our ideas and plans are already shifting and changing like the April weather: we’ve relocated a garden shed and planned another planting patch in The Potager in our mind’s eye, as well as talked about creating an area between The Orchard and Flower Garden with some hard surfacing (slate?) as an outdoor eating space. We love to use the materials that are already to hand so several large piles of stones are slowly morphing into a drystone wall and stout hazel poles have become a rustic trellis and sweet pea / climbing bean supports. We’ve moved two clematis that were pot-bound in wooden planters and growing in an unsuitable place; I’ve given the planters a makeover in ‘Vert de Provence’ paint and moved a rescued grapevine into one so it can scramble up the front of the house. A Christmas rose and three lavenders have also been moved to happier spots and I’ve introduced verbena bonariensis, granny’s bonnets, madder, dyer’s chamomile, mint, chives, parsley and soapwort from my Asturian collection. Things are happening . . . and it has been a joy to be outside.

Wrapped up against the icy wind . . . but it was good to be planting potatoes.

Although we’ve been blessed to have always lived in beautiful rural areas, I don’t think we’ve ever had a garden where we are so surrounded by wildlife. It’s as if everything that was already here has shrugged off our arrival, accepted us unconditionally and carried on as normal without being at all fazed by us sharing their space. We are completely immersed and I love it, this chance to be up close and personal, to be able to look at creatures so closely I can discover fresh new things about them. Bumble bees, honey bees, mortar bees, solitary wasps, ladybirds, shield bugs, butterflies and a whole host of other insects I don’t recognise have all landed on me at some point during the week; I’ve watched with fascination as a lizard scurried in and out of the kitchen without a care in the world, a treecreeper shimmied up the wall outside the kitchen door, a blue tit sat nonchalently in a windowbox of pansies and a red squirrel nosed about under the solar panels as if it belonged there. Unlike their Asturian cousins which are richly sabled in dark chocolate coats, these squirrels are firebright streaks of foxy fur, all tufted ears, white bib and important tails. They are so busy now, zipping up and down tree trunks, dancing along branches like acrobatic tightrope walkers and leapfrogging across the grass in a vivid flash of russet.

It’s the birdlife, however, that is centre stage. Two male blackcaps have taken up residence on opposite sides of the front gateway, one in the coppery foliage of the cherry plum, the other in the dainty white blooms of the cherry. They spend their days trying to outsing each other, their mellifluous melodies rising in a tumultuous crescendo to a point where it’s hard to hear yourself think. Once they’ve exhausted their repertoire (and possibly their vocal chords, too), they move to hurling loud clacking curses at each other, like harsh pebbles shaken in a sack. Finally, they resort to gladatorial violence, rolling and wrestling one another in the gravelled arena before retreating to their personal castles and starting the whole process all over again. They are not the only songsters, of course; robins, blackbirds, wrens, song thrushes, dunnocks and a variety of warblers are all flaunting their considerable musical ranges against the more percussive performances of cuckoo and chaffinch, house sparrow and great tit, chiffchaff and wagtail; redstarts gargle, green woodpeckers chortle and swallows stitch the air with their babbling chatter. It would be easy to romanticise it all but let’s face it, this is a war zone, a battle that has raged every spring down the millenia; it’s about territory, dominance, superiority, survival and the impelling urge to procreate and it is only me with my non-avian ears that imagines it’s set to a beautiful, musical theme tune.

The Secret Garden is full of birdsong; it’s time to eat that rhubarb, too!

Working in the Secret Garden, I have been keeping company with a pair of blue tits who are nesting in a hole in the wall of our stone outbuilding; it’s a canny choice, as few predators are likely to threaten their young tucked away in such a safe house. Apart from the occasional mild chivvying, they seem quite tolerant of my presence and entertain me greatly with their acrobatic antics as they search for insect delicacies among the blossomed boughs. I’m hoping it’s a habit they will shift to the vegetables later in the season, knocking back the aphid and caterpillar populations to feed their demanding family. In the poplar trees across the lane, the wood pigeons take a break from building their untidy nest, cooing at me softly and entreating me to, ‘Sow peeeeas pleeeese, Lizzie!’ Ah yes, my little friends; brassicas, too, no doubt, given your thieving, gluttonous ways. I suspect we will need to invest in some netting before the spring is out.

Blue tit in the blossom.

At the back of the house, the new flower borders have become the happy haunt of pied wagtails and redstarts who are plucking a wealth of good food from the bare earth. They seem to tolerate each other quite amicably, strutting and circling in solemn fashion, stepping out in a strange bobbing dance like guests at a masked ball; one decked out in simple, sober monochrome, the other in glorious technicolour, they make a perfectly balanced pair. Beyond them, a bevvy of ground feeders is enjoying the mown grass and this, I think, is excellent evidence in the the argument for balance. Meadows are quite rightly esteemed as wonderful environments for hundreds of species but I think it’s important not to dismiss cut grass, either. Please don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely no time for those perfectly manicured bowling green lawns, where everything that is not grass has been eliminated – physically, chemically, brutally – to leave an expanse of sterile and supremely boring space. Areas of short sward where mixed species have been allowed to grow are, however, a different matter, allowing an even wider range of flora and fauna to thrive. I think there’s room for both; after all, in my opinion, you cannot have too many ecosystems or too much biodiversity in one garden. Roger thinks you can have too many dandelions in the grass, mind you, but of course I can’t bring myself to agree.

A lawn full of sunshine!

I love their cheery, sunny faces and I’m not alone in that: they are full of honey bees wiggling around their centres, sultry belly dancers, their pollen baskets like silken harem pants laden with an astonishingly orange pollen. ‘Dandelion’, from the French dents de lion describing their ragged lion’s teeth leaves; the French, however, call them pissenlit – literally ‘wet-the-bed’ – in recognition of their diuretic properties. Doctors here recommend eating their fresh young leaves as a spring tonic, the perfect antidote to winter’s sluggishness, straight from nature’s medicine chest.

One of the most inspiring gardens I’ve ever visited was created by Gertrude Jekyll on Holy Island in 1911, from a former vegetable garden tucked behind a stone wall below the castle at Lindisfarne. It’s a wild, windswept landscape, beautiful in a somewhat bleak and forlorn way; it struck me as being a place on the edge of things, somehow, with its mist-shrouded, seaweed-strewn margins haunted by the plaintive whistle of oystercatchers and the mournful songs of seals.

I’ve been thinking about it again this week on the days when that wintry wind has been blowing down from the north-east. We visited one bitterly cold April when the sea was troubled and hostile, the landscape grey, scoured, foreboding. Spring seemed a long way off and the little garden with its geometrical patterns, wooden obelisks and quirky shed was stripped back to the barest bones yet still bright with spots and splashes of colour. What an unlikely backdrop for a quintessential English country garden it is, yet by the time Miss Jekyll had worked her magic, that is precisely what it became: a riot of summer colour and scent, of hollyhocks and marigolds and sweet peas, like a bright patchwork quilt spread incongruously in the middle of a barren moorland. The owner, Edward Hudson, had fancied a water garden and tennis court: the lady had other ideas!

I loved the cheery optimism of it all, the spirited can-do attitude; as gardeners, we are fools not to work with the seasons and weather, the stones and the soil, the ebb and flow of nature as it shifts to the pull its own tide, but that doesn’t mean we musn’t experiment or can’t dream. April days may be fickle, but if that sense of fidgety change and restlessness encourages me to be more imaginative, courageous and creative in the garden we are making here, then so be it . . . although I’d be very happy if we could skip the snow from now on. 😉

Heaven scent: the garden is full of these beauties at the moment.

The mole whisperer

Having spent much of another week on hard, physical work outside, I’ve found myself recalling Einstein’s famous take on insanity. How many times in our lives together have Roger and I left a beautiful and highly productive garden to start all over again from scratch, carving a new one out of a field . . . and why am I surprised that it doesn’t get any easier? Well, Albert knew a thing or two and perhaps we really are mad but I have to admit that, despite the aching muscles, the sore hands and the need to be tucked up asleep by nine o’clock every night, I still get a huge buzz from this kind of thing. It’s hard-going and progress can seem very slow: our ideas and plans twist and change and there’s a certain impatience in wanting to do everything at once, but gradually some sort of framework – a garden skeleton, if you like – is beginning to emerge. It’s fresh and new and exciting, like the spring growth unfurling so rapidly around us.

Without doubt, one of the hardest parts of our move is that we have gone from being almost self sufficient in fresh fruit and vegetables to having nothing to harvest except a few herbs. It feels strange having to buy them all but in a way, it’s an interesting experience which has given me the opportunity to reflect on how central the kitchen garden is to our lives and what an enormous proportion of our shopping the fruit and veg haul now is! It’s pretty expensive here (not that I mind that, I don’t believe food should be cheap) but there is a great range to choose from, the quality is excellent and I’m impressed by how much things have swung towards organic in recent years in France. Still, it’s just not the same as wandering around our own patch, foraging bits and pieces for dinner, so the race is on to get prepared and start planting . . . and if I seem a bit over-excited about the prospect of that first crop of fresh rhubarb (all mine, Roger doesn’t like it) then that’s because I truly am!

Although digging beds is still the predominant activity, there have been several other key jobs to be done this week and I’ve finally got round to tackling a couple of monstrous things that have been bugging me ever since we moved here. First, the compost heap, a bit of a Heath Robinson affair which looked to be a mess in need of sorting out. We have plans for a bigger and more organised system of (hopefully) three bays; anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know I’m a bit of a compost monster and I do love a good heap so I’m very excited at the prospect of eventually having an all singing, all dancing set-up on the flat. Like everything else that will take time, so for now we will carry on with what was already here, albeit after a bit of a makeover. The left bay was full of oak leaves so I shifted them onto a hügel bed, then set about moving the compost pile across from the other side. Now I don’t mind jobs like this; partly-rotted vegetation really doesn’t bother me, it’s all part of a wonderful natural cycle, but I do have an issue when it’s all wrapped up in plastic, piles and piles of cellophane-type stuff plus various bits of metal and other non-biodegradable rubbish. Cue a lot of Muttleyesque muttering and cursing: this is not what composting is about! As with so many other things, what had seemed a fairly straightforward job took much longer than expected but the good news is I did find some decent compost at the bottom – enough to almost fill a dustbin, in fact – so it was well worth the effort. I’ve covered the heap in thick cardboard to allow nature to work its magic and started a new plastic-free pile on the right.

The second big task to be tackled was the bonfire site at the north end of the Potager area. Given it was a large circle of bare earth, this promised to be an almost ready-made planting bed once the pile of unburnt leaves and bits of wood had been removed but I hadn’t reckoned on the mess I’d find on closer inspection. The area had obviously been used to burn household rubbish and bits of furniture (illegal in France, and totally unnecessary given the highly efficient and accessible local rubbish and recycling facilities) and was full of plastic and metal detritus. Even worse, an old unburnt tarpaulin had been dumped on top and had shattered into thousands of tiny blue plastic strands which were everywhere; to say picking them all out of the soil was painstaking would be an understatement but it had to be done. Still, with the warm sun on my back and the air full of joyful bird noise and the sweet smell of spring, I did at least have lovelier things to focus on.

Back to the digging, and although it feels like we’re making progress in creating planting spaces, when we stop to consider everything we’re intending to grow, it still seems woefully inadequate. The original Shed Bed already has garlic, broad beans and parsnips in it and once we’ve added onions it will be full. The Secret Garden will be the shadiest patch through summer so perfect for lettuce and other salad leaves, beetroot, chard, celery, parsley, radicchio and overwintering brassicas like kale and broccoli which we know will flag in the full heat of summer.

The Bonfire Circle will be just the place for climbing beans with perhaps some cucumbers for company, underplanted with salad crops and (of course) some floral beauties to tempt the pollinators in. The potatoes get their own super-mulched patch and the squash will go on the hügelkultur hump from where they can scramble to their hearts’ content all over the grass; oh my, what a treat it’s going to be this year not having to chase them off down a mountainside! It doesn’t sound too bad until we think about all the crops that still need somewhere to grow and then it’s obvious the remaining bed isn’t going to cut the mustard, despite the fact we are extending it daily. I think the Flower Garden hügel (of which more in a moment) will have to house courgettes this year, the potatoes will have to accept some close neighbours in an extension to their bed and we will need to tackle the space currently covered for the eventual polytunnel sooner than expected if there is going to be anywhere for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. Phew! Maybe it would be easier to carry on buying veggies after all . . .

Given the pressure to organise the Potager, it might seem an indulgence to be busy creating the Flower Garden, too, but knowing from experience how long it can take for things to become established, it’s important to at least make a start. I have to say that ‘flower garden’ is a bit misleading in some ways; the ‘flower’ bit simply implies they will be the predominant feature but there will be no shortage of vegetables and herbs in there, too. Although I’m capitalising the various areas for ease of description we don’t see the patch as separate gardens but something more holistic, so the Flower Garden is somewhere that should sit comfortably behind the house, morphing into a Wild Patch on one side and Orchard on the other. The fly in the ointment is the shed on the north side which is something of an eyesore; we know from old photos that originally it was much smaller – just the part on the right with the guttering – but it has been extended greatly in recent years and yes, that poor oak tree really is now ‘growing’ from inside it! In the long term we’d like to shrink it again and at the very least I’m planning to paint it a gentle green and grow plants up it to soften the impact.

I wrote last time about starting to dig the first bed (where that tarpaulin was) and this week Roger has been cutting stout hazel poles from the hedge to create a rustic trellis-type structure along the back of it; covered in climbers, it should help to screen the shed even more and give a sense of height and a colourful backdrop. I’ve made a bit of progress in digging the bed and plan to use some finer hazel poles to make support structures for sweet peas and the like; the rest will almost certainly be scattered with annual flower seeds for a cheap and cheerful whack of colour and insect heaven in this first season.

I’m very aware that in a perfect world, we would be creating all the planting spaces without digging but there are a couple of problems with that one. For starters, we would need vast amounts of cardboard, manure and compost which we just don’t have; also, the ground here has been mown for the last thirteen years with a heavy tractor like the kind used in town parks and has become horrendously compacted. I understand the whole no-dig thing, and after the initial preparation we will be using a minimal disturbance approach but I think there has to be an acceptance that just occasionally, digging is the right thing to do. In order to maintain a semblance of balance, though, (and not totally shred my permaculture credentials) we decided to start a second bed in the Flower Garden using the hügel principle; after all, there’s not so much of a rush to create immediate planting space there. Rather than the classic arched profile, this is much flatter – less German hügel, more Welsh twmp. I’m not quite sure what we’ve created, maybe an Anglo-French-hügel-lasagne-pancake bed, which sounds either like a delightful cultural co-operation or diabolical confusion, depending on your outlook! We started by breaking up a stack of rotten hazel poles that had been left leaning against a tree and used them to make the base.

Next, we added the chopped remains of a couple of sacrificial ornamental conifers; please don’t mourn for them, they were nasty things and we’ve already more than replaced everything we’ve removed with native species better suited to the ecosystem. A thick blanket of grass clippings and dead leaves went on next, and finally a covering of inverted turf. I’ve read a couple of interesting articles suggesting that if the final layers of compost and topsoil are in short supply, then it’s possible to just keep adding organic matter – like a slow-burn compost heap – and simply plant into deep pockets of compost in the first season. I’d decided this would be the best approach; we could find enough topsoil but as that would mean digging a very big hole, it would sort of defeat the object, and perhaps courgettes planted in plenty of that retrieved compost is a good plan for this summer. However . . . I would, of course, love to have a few flowers in there too, and it occurred to me that I might be able to sow at least part of the bed this summer thanks to our very active population of moles. I must confess, I have a bit of a soft spot for moles with their velvety coats and outrageous paws but I know I’m the only member of the household who feels that way, especially when the evidence of their activity sweeps across the entire garden like chains of volcanic islands. The soil they throw up is amazing stuff, however, and I reckoned that a few minutes spent with spade and barrow scraping off the hills (or ‘oonty tumps’ as they’re charmingly called in Shropshire dialect) might render a bit of topsoil for a corner of the bed. A few minutes? Try well over an hour! In the end, there was enough soil to cover a good quarter of the bed to a depth that will readily allow me to scatter annual seed. Scraping each hill, I whispered my thanks down into the darkness of those secret tunnels and encouraged the little diggories to keep up their good work; well, for the time being at least – I probably won’t be feeling the love quite so much when they’re ploughing up the onions.

To an outsider, what is going on in the garden at the moment might well seem a chaotic puzzle but eventually some sort of shape will emerge and I’m hoping that by summer, it will all look very different – even if it’s currently hard to imagine. Looking at the stark layout of the Potager with its different shaped beds, hügel mound and mown avenues, I’m reminded of one of those computer- simulated models of Avebury Ring or Stonehenge and wonder if we should be incorporating some standing stones somewhere?

From front right: potato patch, general patch, hügel bed, bonfire circle. From front left: soft fruit patch, polytunnel patch (covered).

On a slightly smaller geological scale, and certainly more Hansel and Gretel than Neolithic Man, Roger has used a bag of white mulching pebbles left by the previous occupants to mark paths through what we’re planning as a Woodland Edge. The hedge against the lane is in a poor state but the row of mature trees is lovely and adding native planting to create a mini woodland below them seems just the right thing to do. Like our other projects, it will take time, especially as we’re planning to raise a lot of plants from seed, but in the meantime I’m enjoying following those moonlit pebbles on night rambles around the garden, whilst surrounded by the urgently romantic calls of barn owls and tawnies; ah, spring is definitely in the night air!

So, back to digging and although it’s hard, repetitive work, the one blessing for us is that this is the first of seven gardens spanning 24 years where we haven’t been digging up piles of other people’s rubbish. Yes, the compost heap and bonfire patch were pretty disgusting, but elsewhere the soil is blissfully deep, rich and remarkably free of stones. It is also full of the biggest worms you can imagine; no exaggeration, I’ve seen smaller grass snakes – no wonder the moles are so happy. I’m working as gently as possible so as not to disturb them too much and remembering the last French garden we created just a stone’s throw from here; there, instead of beautiful worms, every forkful turned up rubbish, mostly huge pieces of black plastic silage wrap and baler twine that wrapped itself around our tools and was a complete nightmare to deal with. It seemed to take forever to clear and yet we ended up with a very productive patch buzzing with life and colour, and crammed with food and flowers, in a relatively short time.

Mayenne potager #1: fingers crossed the second will be as good.

I know we will manage the same here, I just need to be patient and keep on digging. When my aching back suggests it’s time for a break, it’s lovely simply to wander about and see how things are changing with the season, the fattening leaf buds and first fresh green burst of willow and hawthorn, the delicate haze of plum blossom, the busyness of bees and butterflies and territorial posturing of birds. I can stand in the garden and watch roe deer grazing in a neighbouring field, red squirrels scuttling about in the oak trees and skylarks singing high above me. It’s all truly wonderful but – simple soul that I am – I find myself drawn time and time again to the Shed Bed where the glossy green spears of garlic push a little higher each day. Here is the wonder of nature, the miracle of springtime, the joy of growing vegetables. Here is our food of the future . . . and that makes me very happy. 😊