A time of balance

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

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

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

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

Fruit bowl!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping cosy

I’d forgotten just how lovely autumn can be in Mayenne. There has been no wild and windy headlong rush into it, no violent tearing of leaves from the trees or damp and drippy descent into the dark; rather, there is a sweet softness and gentle meandering through the season as though nature itself is patiently giving us the chance to adapt and adjust to shorter days and cooler nights. The weather is settled and still, with crisp frosty mornings followed by warm sunshine in a sky of flawless blue. Not a breath of wind, not a drop of rain and, most wonderful of all, still real warmth in the afternoon sun. The landscape remains richly upholstered in green yet bright with the fire of autumn colours in hedgerow and woodland. It won’t last – of course it won’t – but for the time being, we are basking in every magical moment.

Spending happy hours raking up barrows of leaves to spread as mulch, I realise how subtle changes have crept in over recent weeks. The garden is alive with birds yet the blackcaps, chiffchaffs and warblers have gone, their sweet summer songs replaced with the more strident sounds of fieldfares and redwings, the babble and chatter of starlings, the evocative ‘peewit’ whistle of lapwings; the lizards no longer scurry about the front step and stone walls and the grass snakes have taken themselves off to their secret places. The squirrels are back, gambolling across the lawn and busy with apples and acorns, roe deer slide like silent shadows through the trees across the lane and the calls of tawny owls haunt the star-sparkled nights. Bright motes of tiny insects dance and shine in the soft sunshine yet most have gone now, save for a few brave souls reluctant to give up just yet like the velvety red admiral butterflies sipping sweetness from the last raggle-taggle verbena flowers. In the hives, honey bees will be clustering at night for sure in a tight ball of huddled warmth, but the afternoons find them in our heathers, a mass of shiny-winged industry amongst the purple bells.

The slow, graceful ballet of leaf fall is giving us ample opportunity to make the most of this generous gift of organic matter: just as they come, chopped or mixed with other materials, I am spreading them all over the garden, wherever a little more nutrition is required. The soil is looking so much better than when we started gardening here in spring, the poor state of it then creating a sort of quiet desperation in my mind which has slowly dissipated like morning mist during the the intervening months. The leaves will add yet another layer of goodness, another ingredient to help build the complex recipe of living soil. I’m conscious of needing to nurture our tender perennials through their first winter so I have been tucking them up snuggly under layers of leaves and hay which should help to protect them from the worst frosts and feed the soil around them, too. The globe artichokes are particularly vulnerable but if they make it through in one piece, I shall be sowing more next spring. The asparagus is tougher but I’m taking no chances with these babies – their layer of mulch is so thick, the whole bed looks like a luxurious plumped-up eiderdown quilt buttoned through with thirty planting spaces.

Young asparagus plant tucked up for winter.

I am fascinated by the research and wealth of knowledge about soil biology that has really come to the forefront in recent times and I am equally taken with the changes it has wrought in me as a gardener. Needless to say, organic is non-negotiable but I am happy to confess – and have written in plenty of blog posts over the years – that I’ve always loved a good dig, a bit of weeding and an almighty load of muck. Now my spade is all but redundant, only ever used for digging planting holes and I’ve dropped any concept of ‘weed’ from my vocabulary and come to embrace them as helpful, and yes, even welcome, plants. I’ve left things such as clover, yarrow, chickweed and plantain wherever they have appeared, recognising their worth as healing pioneers; I’ve learned to love dandelions and docks for their ability to pull beneficial nutrients from deep in the soil with those long taproots; I’ve urged the nettles to grow, conscious of the numerous benefits they bring. Has this lax, untidy behaviour led to a garden wasteland infested with weeds crowding out and choking the plants, a pitiful mess where everything but the imposters struggles to grow? Far from it! These plants are an important part of the garden ecosystem: they bring their own benefits, I don’t waste hours of my life removing them and we have more fresh, wholesome vegetables than we know what to do with. That suits me just fine.

Savoy cabbage is on this week’s menu.

The biggest leap of faith has without doubt been the challenge of creating good soil and a productive food patch without muck. Many experts cite a good dollop of farmyard manure applied annually as essential for soil nutrition but there are other voices with different approaches (many from the world of permaculture) and this year, I’ve put my faith in their ideas. The theory is that soil can be built and nourished using whatever is to hand, that we have all that we need right here without any need to bring in manure (and the possible problems and nasties it could contain) from outside. The trick is simply to see every scrap of organic matter not as garden ‘waste’ but as a precious resource to be recycled into a beautiful, rich, living soil. This is achieved by mimicking nature, adding layers from the top down in the same way a mix of organic materials is naturally stacked on the soil’s surface; it’s a bit like making a compost heap in situ, a balance of green nitrogen-rich and brown carbon-rich materials left for the astonishing life forms that inhabit the soil to break down. I’ve spent much of my gardening year collecting and spreading piles of matter like grass clippings, hay, cut nettles, dead vegetation and spent plants, leaves, twigs, bark . . . anything that was once living, in fact; I’ve watered with comfrey tea, chopped and sprinkled yarrow leaves and borage, shredded incoming cardboard and paper, swept sawdust from the log shed. I’ve left the roots of spent plants in the ground, knowing now that they continue to do good long after the plant has died, and simply dropped the rest of the plant where it grew. The soil is already deeper, darker, richer – of that there is no doubt – and our crops are thriving, cosy in their layered beds. Yes, it seems we don’t need muck at all.

I harvested the oca this week after hard frosts killed the foliage.

I’m a great fan of green manure and it’s been interesting this year experimenting with different varieties and planting times in a new setting. Buckwheat, crimson clover and phacelia have all been very successful, either chopped and dropped early for the highest nutrition or left to flower since all three are hugely beneficial to insects. Phacelia has been the real star; we still have plants flowering, there are silvery-blue seedlings popping up all over the place and I have a good swathe of late-sown plants in the veggie patch which I shall be watching with interest to see how they fare through winter. Growing green manures and cover crops is something that has also become popular with local farmers since we last lived here seven years ago and there are several fields of phacelia in full feathery blue-mauve flower in the neighbourhood. Mustard, also; the field next to our garden seems a bit incongruous with its bright yellow flowers and spring pollen perfume amid the autumn colours but it’s most definitely better than bare earth.

I love this approach to gardening, it feels like such a nurturing way to work; not ripping out, destroying, banishing or burning but working alongside nature with honour and respect – yes, even when some wretched pest or other is tucking in to our crops. Dipping in and out of the proceedings at COP 26, I have been far more engaged by the voices of indigenous peoples around the world than anyone else. Accounting for just 6% of global population, they care for some 80% of the world’s environments; much within permaculture and forest gardening is based on indigenous knowledge and skills, reaching back to ancient times and reverently preserved and practised in this modern world. I am not remotely religious but the idea of land as ‘sacred’ meaning something considered worthy of respect or devotion or which inspires awe or reverence resonates very strongly with me. (As an aside, nothing to do with COP 26 but maybe everything to do with COP 26, I love this powerful and eloquent TED talk entitled ‘Seeds of our ancestors, seeds of life’ by Winona LaDuke, the renowned and respected Ojibwe activist). At one side of the orchard, there is a huge lump of oak tree trunk that was here when we arrived; we don’t know its history but it was certainly a mighty tree when it was alive. The bark is soft and pappy, the heartwood wet but as hard as rock and instead of cutting it for logs, Roger has carved a slice off it this week to make a seat. It is currently the most perfect sunny spot to enjoy our afternoon cuppa and I love the fact that it gives us a different view – a new perspective – of the garden. There is still so much life in this dead wood, not least the incredible fungi growing on it, and seated on something so old and vital with my face turned to the sun as autumn dances gracefully around me, I understand the need to care for and honour this beautiful place.

The excellent weather means we are benefitting hugely from passive solar heating as the sunlight streams in through our south-facing windows and spending our days outside, there is no need to light the stove until late afternoon or evening; every log saved now helps to shorten the winter! The stove oven ticking over at a relatively low heat is perfect for slow-cooked, one pot meals stuffed with a variety of home grown goodies (light on the washing up, too!) and tagines are one of our favourites. This week, Roger cooked up a beauty based on butternut squash, potatoes, onions, garlic, beans and tomatoes; highly spiced, richly orange and aromatic, served with a nutty mix of bulgar wheat, quinoa and buckwheat, it seemed like a perfect seasonal dish. I decided to go forth and find ingredients for a one pan ‘green-up’ to go with it as we still have a good selection in the garden: perpetual spinach, rainbow chard, red Russian kale, New Zealand spinach with fennel and the last couple of (very late) globe artichokes made a dish of green gorgeousness.

Do you ever have moments when a seemingly simple task that should be done in a few minutes spirals out of control? Such is the ‘fun’ I had when I finally got round to sewing the linings into the the upstairs curtains. I’ve mentioned these before, two door-length curtains made from bright batik cotton fabric that were left by the previous owners; they are colourful and cheerful and far too good to needlessly replace except for the fact that they are made from a light dress-weight material. Now I realise I might sound a bit of a dinosaur in these days of excessive house dressing but I firmly believe curtains need to offer something in the way of insulation as well as beauty – hence Operation Lining to keep us cosier this winter. Mmm, let’s get this clear from the start: I detest making and altering curtains, it is the dullest sewing job on earth, so my plan was to make the simplest of linings and attach them to the top of the fabric along the casing stitiching – an hour’s job, tops. Ah, how the curtain gods were laughing! Measuring the curtains, I discovered both were several centimetres shorter on one side than the other because the turn at the top had been folded at a random angle instead of straight. I am not an obsessive perfectionist but this kind of thing frustrates the life out of me . . . what is so hard about using a tape measure? Also, far too much fabric had been turned at the top while the curtains were way too short. What to do? Of course, I could have made a wonky too-short lining to match but in my heart of hearts I knew the only thing for it was to unpick the lot, sling the fabric through the next laundry load to freshen it up and start again from scratch.

Time to unpick!

Some days later, we had two good as new curtains, hanging better, looking bolder and sweeping the floor to help keep out the draughts – the kind of cosy I love. The reason I’m sharing this rather dull and uninspiring tale is that, just like the garden, it shows how much I have changed. In a previous life, this situation would have maddened me and I would have ranted and railed in frustration about the waste of my precious time. Now, I am time-rich and these things just flow over me. Who cares if it takes five days instead of five minutes? What does it matter if projects are completed piecemeal, gently and slowly? It’s a measure of how busy we have been outside since moving here that my woolly stuff has remained virtually untouched. I started knitting a pair of socks when we arrived at the end of December and I’ve still not finished them, when normally I’d have them done in a few days. Looking back through old blog posts, I discovered that it’s two years – two??? – since I started crocheting the ‘Harmony’ blanket and it’s not even half done. Well, all in good time; with the darker evenings here, there’s a good chance I’ll get on with both and nothing has been hurting in the meantime. I’m also itching to prep some fibre for my spinning wheel which has been out of action for far too long; perhaps my favourite lustrous Blue-Faced Leicester or super soft Shetland or even a first exploration of Shropshire fleece (my native county, it has to be done)? Or maybe, craving some colour, a blend of the Merino and tussah silk I dyed with madder eons ago, to knit into a new winter hat?

Well . . . not just yet, because the joyful news that we are to become grandparents again next year has my head in a crafty spin – no question, this precious little bundle now takes first priority when it comes to all things creative. My initial thought was to make a cotton quilt as I have in the past, something bright and softly padded that can be tucked round to keep Babi Bach cosy or thrown on the floor or lawn as a playmat. (On our recent UK trip, I was very touched to see William – now six years old – had his baby jungle quilt on the bedroom floor for just that reason). I haven’t done any patchwork in ages and it’s always an enjoyable project but what puts me off at the moment is the logistics of things. Until we sort the upstairs spare room into a more organised and useable space (which could take a while), the only place I have to sew is on the kitchen table; not a problem, but it does mean having to set everything up then put it all away each time. As it’s during the dark evenings that I do most crafting, the idea of hauling my sewing machine, other tools and materials up and down the stairs doesn’t fill me with much enthusiasm; also, I’d far rather be snuggled up by the woodburner with Roger for company, working at something I can pick up and put down in quiet moments. So, I decided on a compromise: a cotton patchwork blanket made from crochet squares. In terms of colours, I was thinking in rainbows so I was very delighted to discover the Danish yarn company Hobbii, which sells packs of rainbow cotton yarn – just what I was looking for!

When it comes to crochet squares, I love the challenge of complicated stitch patterns and colour changes, but for this blanket I wanted something pared down which will allow the individual colours to pop and sing out. I fell in love with the sweet simplicity of this pattern by Becky Skuse – not least because the border is worked using a join-as-you-go technique which means I can build the blanket a square at a time without any need for sewing.

I am already enjoying this project so much, the cotton yarn is soft and works up beautifully and, tucked up cosily by the evening fire, with each stitch I make I dream about the warmth and colour this new baby will bring to our lives. Autumn is truly beautiful . . . but next summer is already filled with the promise of wonderful things! 🥰