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.

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. 😊

New horizons

They say that moving house is one of the most stressful life events, which is not surprising really considering how much there is to think about, organise and do; it can be completely exhausting, both physically and mentally. Thankfully, the house buying and selling system in France (and Spain) is more straightforward than the UK in as much as the commitment from both parties comes very early on in the process; this means the worries about being ‘gazumped’ or ‘gazundered’, losing a purchase or sale or chains collapsing are removed which helps to relieve much of the usual uncertainty and anxiety. Nevertheless, it’s always a relief to get through to the other side and into the next phase; for us, that’s a case of adjusting to the change from a home that was comfortable, organised, warm and familiar to one that is currently not really any of the above!

Part of the problem for us is the piecemeal way in which we are moving. We don’t have a lot of stuff, but much of it is still in Spain and we’re already at a point where we’re missing some key items such as the long ladder, the tractor, the basket of seeds (how did I ever not think to squeeze that into the last load?), various essential tools for house and garden and our favourite recipe books. It was certainly an interesting activity prioritising what could come when packing a very limited space: stepladder or wheelbarrow? propagator or sewing machine? food processor or stockpot . . ? One of the biggies was whose bike to bring – there was only room for one on the trailer – and here I have to say Roger was a perfect gentleman and loaded my Trusty Rusty Purple Peril without a second thought. Well, that makes me very happy and I definitely need to make sure I bring him some special thank you patisserie back from my forays into town!

Although we are in need of a few things we haven’t brought, it’s also shown that even with our simple lifestyle, there’s a lot of things we can manage without or which, long term, it makes sense to change or replace. It will be a while until we’re all sorted out but in the meantime I’ve always felt that if there is a fire in the hearth, bread in the oven, a kettle singing on the hob and washing blowing on the line, then we are a long way towards being home.

The biggest issue for us so far has been warmth. It goes without saying that after so many blissfully mild, sun-drenched Asturian winters, returning to northern Europe at the coldest time of year has been a bit of a shock to the system. Of course, we’ve spent most of our lives in this sort of climate so it’s not as if we’re not familiar with the need for coats, hats, gloves and warm boots – we’re just seriously out of the habit! The woodstove is great but it’s struggling to do anything well and is incredibly inefficient given the amount of logs it’s devouring. We’ve discovered several issues with it and need to give some serious thought as to how to revamp the heating system before next winter; luckily, we already have several options in mind.

We have photos of the house pre-renovation, complete with a tin roof! Certainly, whoever did the work here made a fabulous job; the quality of crafstmanship and materials is superb, and everything has been beautifully finished – which begs the question, why oh why wasn’t any insulation put in under the smart new slate roof? It’s no secret that good insulation is key to warmth and energy efficiency so it seems completely nonsensical not to have bothered. The answer, I suspect, may well lie in those glossy country lifestyle magazines whose staged photos tend to suggest that for rural dwellers, true happiness comes from having exposed beams rather than reduced energy bills or even (perish the thought) being warm. Well, that’s most definitely not true: we’re not hothouse flowers, but with the upstairs ceilings reaching right up to the ridge, it feels like we’re living in – and trying to heat – a cathedral.

The irony is these aren’t even beautiful oak beams seasoned over centuries and notched with rune-like carpenters’ marks but modern pine purlins and rafters that have been stained black for effect. It’s bloomin’ freezing upstairs (apart from the toasty bathroom which has been – wait for it – insulated) and conversely, must be stifling in summer when the Mayenne sunshine strikes the dark slates. Sorry, but they have to go in the name of warmth, economy, efficiency and generally saving the planet. So, having said we really, really, really didn’t want to be doing any serious renovation work this time, here we are spending our week putting a ceiling in our bedroom. I’ve been painting wooden panels of sustainably-grown Gascon maritime pine; the house is full of their sweet resinious scent, so reminiscent of the miles of plantations we have driven through many times between Bordeaux and Bayonne. Meanwhile, Roger has been doing the fiddly carpentry stuff and investigating the band saw which he found in the barn; it needed sharpening and the switch is broken, but he managed to fix it enough to help cut timber for the joists.

It’s a slow process but with half the ceiling done, there is already a definite feeling of change; with a lower ceiling, the room has taken on a cosier air and the white panelling has lifted the light level. We are packing 200 millimetres of insulation into every nook and cranny behind the boards and it’s incredible how quickly the ambient temperature is rising and the noise of rain and wind is being reduced. We’d both far rather be outside, but hopefully before too long the promise of a frosty night to follow those colourful sunsets won’t be quite so daunting!

As paint needs time to dry between coats (well, that’s my excuse, anyway), I have been able to spend some time outside making a start on a vegetable garden; the temperature has been occasionally bracing but it’s been lovely to boost my vitamin D levels and burn off some winter calories in the sunshine. The main veg patch that we have planned is going to take a lot of work and preparation so we decided it was worth investigating a couple of patches which have been previously cultivated, even if only to use them as temporary stop-gaps this year. Neither is in an ideal position, as when the trees are in leaf, they will be quite shady but since it’s toughies like parsnips and broad beans that will be planted in them initially, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. One of them had been fenced with a makeshift arrangement of chicken wire and rotten poles so first job was to have all that out.

Eventually, I’d like the garden to be managed on a low/no dig basis, feeding the soil from top down with minimal disturbance and using annual weeds as a mulch. However, despite having been planted last year, the soil was netted with couch grass roots, buttercups and celandines, so a proper dig to clear those was definitely called for. It feels like ages since I spent time preparing beds like this; I love the physical activity but I must admit I’m missing the little border fork I prefer to use!

The good news is that, despite the season, the soil – a rich sandy loam typical of the area – is beautifully friable. It will benefit in the future from good feeds of manure, compost, comfrey mulches and green manure cover but for now I’ve bought an organic all-purpose fertiliser to rake in (aarrgh, where’s the rake????) and give it a boost. I’ve been very thrilled to find a healthy worm population and I’m not the only one, it seems; a fat little robin has been my constant companion, watching proceedings with bright beady eyes and willing me to go in for a tea break so it can inspect my handiwork more closely. Go and find the fat balls, you rascal – we need all the worms we can get!

The second patch is in what was described to us as being a ‘secret garden’ since it has hedges on three sides. It’s a bit of a strange one, to be honest, but I don’t have time to be picky. There’s a huge rosemary growing in it and also some rhubarb which I was very delighted to find (Roger wasn’t!); despite being a large crown, it was a very miserable looking specimen as its growth was being constrained by a low square chimney pot that had been crammed over it and something had been munching away at its leaves.

It has perked up considerably since being liberated and with a good feed of muck and a lot of love, I’m hopeful for some delicious pickings in the future . . . and yes, I am happy to eat it all myself!

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do – ever since our children were small, in fact – is to create a garden space based on the idea of a maze; not the hiding kind with high hedges, but areas of planting chosen to appeal to all the senses between a spiral or labrynthine path that can be used for games of chase or simply to wind round into the centre. Some kind of seat for quiet contemplation or a gardener’s coffee break in the middle would be essential. These days, they tend to be called mandala gardens and I have actually already designed one as part of my permaculture course (which has currently been put on hold for obvious reasons) so I’m beginning to think that, as soon as it’s no longer needed for vegetables, this might be the perfect location to finally get on and do it. Mmm, I’m already seeing all those bright bursts of floral gorgeousness in my mind’s eye. . .

In the meantime, though, it’s all about food. It seems very strange for us not to be able to wander out and pick our dinner, growing our own food is so central to our lifestyle. That said, I’m quite enjoying the novelty of tucking into bought seasonal veg we haven’t eaten for a while: plump bitter chicons of endive, nutty cauliflowers, earthy red cabbage and the long, flavoursome carrots that come coated in sandy Breton soil. The local weekly market has a fantastic fruit and veg stall which will keep us supplied until our own harvests start; I can take reusable bags to fill which I’m very happy about although the ride home with several kilos of food on my back makes for a pretty good workout – don’t think I’ll be buying any big sacks of spuds! If nothing else, there are a few herbs scattered about the property which we are using in the kitchen, including a beautiful bay tree with the most fragrant leaves we’ve ever come across and of course, it goes without saying, we managed to squeeze some Asturian squash into our moving loads to keep us ticking over.

I’m truly enjoying the chance to be outside, to plunge my hands into the earth and start that all important process of bonding with this place, of learning who and what was here before us and finding my own niche in such a beautiful space. The wildlife is atonishing: red squirrels in abundance, hares a-plenty, a nonchalent fox which mooches through the garden without a care in the world and roe deer everywhere we turn. Roger opened the door to go out for a run shortly after sunrise a few days ago and surprised a posse of seven wild boar who were just across the lane; I’d forgotten how hefty they are here, their Asturian cousins being dainty fairies in comparison. Wonderful though this is, I’m not sure it bodes well for happy gardening so we are already planning a good fence and hedges around the main vegetable patch. My temporary feeding station is alive with constant bird traffic; it’s lovely to watch, especially as more and more species move in each day – the arrival of a female reed bunting was very exciting. The rest of the garden is teeming with birds, too, and straightening up for a mid-dig stretch I stood captivated by a firecrest busy in the hedge, nothing more than a tiny puff of feathers and so close I could have touched it, swiftly followed by a plump treecreeper shimmying up a cherry tree and meeting me at eye level.

Temporary feeding station in the old cherry plum tree . . . not the most refined, but the birds are happy (and very full!).

I love these priceless moments completely immersed in the natural world, they are treasure indeed. There are flowers, too, sweet harbingers of spring; the hedge bottoms are filled with drifts of snowdrops and the glossy leaves of a scrambling periwinkle flaunting dainty mauve flowers. There are masses of daffies to follow, their spears of buds fattening with each day that passes. This is the magic of a new garden, watching to see the secrets unfold as we travel through the first year together.

If I had to choose one plant that defines this area (apart from cherry trees at certain times of the year) then it would be mistletoe, that weird and wonderful hemiparasite so traditionally linked with the Christmas season yet in reality something of a pest if it weakens the host trees. It grows in abundance in local apple orchards but I think it is most significant in the tall poplars, where the huge lime green globes, seemingly skewered by skeletal branches, form a winter silhouette of striking contrasts.

There is only one plant in our garden; it’s a relatively small affair and yet the berries suggest it has been there for five or six years. Magical, mythical or a menace? I suppose it depends on your point of view, but since for me it captures so well the essence of this rolling landscape with its wide tracts of woodlands and myriad ponds, then I’m glad it’s here. I’m glad we’re here, too. New home, new horizons – our journey has well and truly begun. 🥰