Bouncing back

One of the reasons I love to blog, and keep at it even in those moments when I’m tempted to stop, is that it provides me with a useful diary to look back on. Reflecting on a post I wrote this time last year, I was struck at how very different our two summers here have been: everything so lush and green then where now it is brown and burnt up, a garden full of bright annual flowers which today are little more than seedheads and straw, green leafy produce such as cabbage and New Zealand spinach which are currently looking pinched and miserable and failing to thrive, water butts overflowing where now they stand empty, every last drop wrung out of them weeks ago. Last August, I was writing about building resilience and self-reliance in the face of torrential storms, cloudy skies and below average temperatures; now, as we emerge (I hope) from the third official heatwave of the year and the most prolonged and severe drought for decades, those sentiments remain as pertinent as ever.

It pays to be optimistic. True, a quick glance at world news and it’s easy to feel a crushing sense of pessimism and despair, but if I allow myself to be overwhelmed or fatalistic then I’ve fallen at the first hurdle. If heatwaves and drought, water shortages, high energy prices and dubious food security are going to be the so-called ‘new normal’ then we have to meet them head on and do whatever we can to mitigate and cope in an independent and positive way. I’m not saying it’s a particularly easy task . . . but then, I don’t much like the alternative. So, let’s start with a bit of optimism. Last year, I reported that we had just lost all 30 of our tomato plants to blight which was a crushing blow after we had struggled for so many years against this particular adversary both in Asturias and our previous French garden.

Not a happy sight.

To be quite honest, at the time it felt like the last straw. I was seriously considering not bothering again because it seemed such a waste of time, energy and resources; yes, we had a decent haul of green tomatoes but really, how many times do you put yourself through the same disappointment before calling it a day?

Something of a harvest but not the one we had been hoping for.

When my online seed order arrived in January, I had a wry smile at the irony of the lovely people at EnGraineToi having slipped a free gift of some ‘Black from Tula’ tomato seeds into the envelope. Of all the things to choose; how sad and frustrating that I would not be able to do them proud.

This, however, is where the whole resilience thing kicks in, that ability to recover and bounce back from adversity. Forget Einstein’s definition of insanity, sometimes we just have to keep on trying, not so much in the expectation of a different outcome, but at least in the hope of one. So yes, I planted tomatoes. Again. The only glimmer of hope I had was that last summer, we did manage to harvest a few ripe fruits from a couple of plants in pots by the kitchen door; they succumbed to blight like all the rest, but far more slowly. What lessons could we learn from that tiny success?

Battling blight . . . but ‘Black Sea Man’ hung on long enough to ripen some precious fruits.

For starters, we had to acknowledge the fact that the blight was more likely to have been a result of the weather and so transmitted through airborne spores, rather than being in the soil. The plan of action was to choose varieties that were either resistant or which would perform well if sown later than normal and plant them in several different locations, some in pots of compost and/or garden soil and others in the ground. They’ve all had a comfrey mulch and several feeds and we’ve watered them as much as we’ve been able to under the circumstances; there’s nothing scientific about this experiment, it’s simply been a case of try it (yet again) and see what happens. From the outset, I held out very little hope for the eight plants that started out in the tunnel; I knew their pots were far too small but they were all I had, and anyway I really just wanted to see if the plants could evade blight rather than produce fruit. Roger shifted them outside before he went to the UK to make watering easier for me in my hobbling-about state and they’ve stayed there ever since; if nothing else, I saw them as a useful tool for tracking and comparing the progress of the different varieties we had planted. All credit to them, not only have they hung on but they produced the first fruits of the season. Result!

I placed another eight along the front of the house, in bigger pots this time although (rightly or wrongly) I squeezed two plants into some of them. Tucked up against a south-facing stone wall, they have borne the brunt of the searing heat and we have been keeping them alive with grey water from the house; we are now picking ripe fruits from them daily. The rest of the plants went directly into the ground in three areas of the potager and the mandala bed; despite the extreme weather, they have all thrived and in some cases the plants are now collapsing under the sheer weight of tomatoes, a real problem as the ground is so hard it’s impossible to push their stakes in any further. The fruits are just starting to ripen and if they continue in the same vein, we will have a glut on our hands very shortly. I am still having to pinch myself to believe this is actually happening.

In terms of varieties, I wanted to grow enough different types to cover our backs without getting too carried away. ‘St Pierre’ was an obvious first choice, a French heirloom variety which is tolerant of many things, including drought ~ a blessing this year. It’s a heavy and prolonged cropper so as long as we’re spared a spiteful early frost, we should be picking well into the autumn. It’s a beefsteak variety, producing deep red meaty fruits which are juicy and flavoursome and will form the bulk of the tomatoes we preserve for use over winter. ‘Marmande’ is a classic French heirloom beefsteak and probably the most popular choice in local gardens; the fruits are a bright scarlet and I like the way they are heavily ribbed and often contorted into weird shapes. Each one is a meal in itself, and I love them picked sun-warmed from the vine, sliced and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of fresh herbs: with crusty home-baked bread, it’s a perfect summer lunch.

Where the two dwarf varieties ~ ‘Parfait’ and ‘Arctic Rose’ ~ are concerned, the jury is still out. This is in part because we’ve yet to sample a ripe fruit but also because the plants are so tiny, they are literally producing tomatoes at ground level which I feel could be problematic in wetter years. We’ll see what happens. I sowed two cherry varieties but as ‘Cappuccino’ failed to germinate, we only have ‘Glossy Rose Blue’. No problem, it’s doing us proud with prolific sweet and juicy fruits that bring a dab of unusual colour to salads; remove the calyx, and there’s a perfect white star printed into the deep blue skin. Magical.

As for the ‘Black from Tula’ grown from those free seeds, it’s a great shaggy bear of a Russian heirloom tomato: not a beefsteak variety, but the fruits are ridiculously heavy and generous, with their green crinkled tops and oxblood flesh. They are incredibly sweet and literally bursting with flavour and I really, really can’t get enough of them. I don’t know what it says about my wiring that I feel the need to link tomatoes and music, but my first taste of these beauties had me thinking of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, bells, cannons, the whole rip-roaring shebang. In complete contrast, ‘Rozovye Schechky’ is a daintier, more elegant character with narrow shoulders, a slightly elongated shape and the most beautiful rose pink blush to its skin. Mmm, definitely more Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, this one, which has me slightly puzzled as it’s supposed to be a burly beefsteak. 🤔

The upshot of all this (and I apologise to readers who have had enough of my tomato tales) is that for the first time in ten years we have a tomato harvest to celebrate, with a potentially large excess to see us through the cooler months. It would have been much easier to give up and resort to shop-bought varieties but now we have hope and a decent blueprint for future seasons. I’d like to add another cherry variety next year but otherwise we’ll stick with the current successful producers and possibly plant everything in the ground to avoid the need for so much watering. I’ve started saving seed, fermenting them in little jars of water for a few days before rinsing, drying thoroughly and storing ready for the new season. Not just tomatoes . . . our windowsills are covered in plates of various seeds drying, including several types of lettuce, landcress, basil, two types of pea and borlotti beans. It’s another form of resilience and self-reliance: the more we can turn to our own seed rather than rely on buying from commercial companies, the better. It also gives us the opportunity to help save heirloom varieties (I’m not going to rant about the loss of diversity as there are people far better placed than me to do that but the general consensus seems to be that 93% of seed varieties has been lost since 1900. Think about it, people!), to select for plants that suit our conditions and to experiment with developing our own seed varieties.

Seeds maturing on leek flowers.

Saving seed is such a positive and optimistic activity, each one packed with potential for future harvests and human survival. It’s a personal opinion, but I think that complacency and apathy are twin evils of modern society, the ‘what’s the point?’ and ‘can’t be bothered’ attitudes that are so prevalent today . . . and utterly demeaning to a thinking species which is capable of so much more! We need to be flexible, adaptable, innovative and curious if we are going to adjust to change, to allow ourselves to be open to new ideas, to think well outside the box and find the energy and enthusiasm to give things a try. Of course, there is much wisdom in the traditional ways of doing things but it doesn’t mean we have to be stuck in an endless loop of trotting out the same old, same old. For example, the ever-inspirational Huw Richards suggests that the traditional approach to crop rotation may well be considered a bit old school now, the premise being that if we are gardening organically with a commitment to nurturing the soil, using successional sowings and integrated pest management within a thriving polyculture, then we no longer have to worry quite so much about shifting things around. In fact, he argues that it is perfectly possible to grow the same crop in the same place for perhaps three years in a row, provided of course a sensible approach is taken where something like blight is present in the soil. Taking Huw at his word, I planted our biggest hügel bed with squash for the second year running and the plants are showing no signs of disease or failure, with eighteen ‘Crown Prince’ and nine butternuts fattening and ripening every bit as well as they did last year.

Staying with squash, and Roger is doing his annual raised eyebrow thing about the number of beauties I have spread around the patch, both deliberately planted and the volunteers I didn’t have the heart to remove. Well, I’m making no apology for the abundance, especially as the potato harvest is set to be a disappointing one (we’ll have a better idea once we can actually get them out of the ground) and squash make an excellent substitute, especially the varieties with firm, dense flesh that we favour. If we have to change our eating habits, then so be it . . . and I have to say, when comfort food is craved in the depths of winter, a tray of spicy squash chips cooked in the woodstove then dipped in homemade mayonnaise is a treat to die for!

Is last year’s squash harvest set to be trumped? I think so.

When it comes to responding positively to change, this year’s weather has asked much of us. Look at the difference in the potager between the middle of August last year . . .

. . . and today.

That strip of bare baked earth is where the garlic was lifted some weeks ago, the plan being to sow with autumn carrots, black winter radish, celtuce, radicchio and a nursery patch of Savoy cabbage. Ha, not a hope of germination with the ground so parched and temperatures consistently above 30°C so time for Plan B. I decided it wouldn’t hurt the radish, radicchio and celtuce to wait: as autumn is usually mild here and we don’t fall below the hallowed ten hours of daylight until 30th October, I think there is still time to get them established. I’ve planted cabbage seeds in individual pots on the relatively cool north-facing kitchen windowsill and the first seedlings have appeared, hopefully with enough time to give us a winter crop. I’ll be winging it sowing carrots, but my plan is to put some in the tunnel, too, and see what happens. This belt-and-braces approach is becoming something of an important norm, one which not only helps to hedge our bets but provides an interesting observational and learning opportunity. For example, the fact that we now have good crops of aubergines, peppers, chillies and melons outdoors means we can rethink our plans for the tunnel next summer. We have a mighty crop of chillies and if we freeze some and dry others, there will be no need to grow any at all next year, freeing up space for other things. I’m beginning to think the more ways we can do something, the better, so that whatever happens, hopefully something will always work in our favour.

Peppers and chillies ready for preserving.

These approaches aren’t restricted to food production, either; we’ve spent recent weeks discussing what else we can do to create a more resilient lifestyle for ourselves and developing an outdoor cooking area is certainly a top priority. We like the idea of an organised space and system that goes far beyond a barbecue where we can cook on wood all year round and, after an interesting chat with a friend this week, we’re also now looking into the possibility of building some sort of solar oven and hob, too. Either way, it will reduce our reliance on electricity even further and that has to be a good thing. I’m also determined to find a well, since there must have been one on the property originally, and if we could put it back into use, it would offer us some degree of self-sufficiency where water is concerned, if only to have a back-up system for the garden in times of drought. So, dabbling in dowsing is on my to-do list, too.

Parched garden . . . is there a well under there somewhere?

As I write this in the cool of the house, the heat outside has climbed to the highest we’ve ever experienced in Mayenne but there is hope on the horizon as wisps of cloud stream in from the west , harbingers of the storms forecast from tomorrow morning. I can’t say I’m too thrilled at the idea of strong winds which could well do for the sunflowers and ~ far worse ~ flatten the climbing beans, but I’m more than ready for rain. Lots and lots of it, I hope and I really will be dancing in it as promised. One of the definitions I found for resilience this week was ‘the ability to be happy again after something difficult or bad has happened’ and I like that reference to mood as well as recovery because it speaks of optimism and hope and I think we need those two in bucket loads. Yes, bring on the rain and I will most definitely be smiling! 😊


The weather is breaking all sorts of records here. Last month was the driest July and the second driest month ever recorded in France; this time last year, precipitation was up by 50%, now it’s down by 85%. To say we are desperate for rain would be something of an understatement . . . but at least the sunflowers are loving it.

The drought is now undeniably severe and prolonged: Mayenne is in a state of red alert and officially in a ‘crisis’ situation, the prefecture having imposed understandably strict rules where water use is concerned. Our rain butts ran dry some time ago but thankfully, we are allowed to carry out essential watering with mains water in the potager to keep our food crops alive ~ but only between 8pm and 8am when evaporation is at its lowest. It goes without saying that every salvageable drop of grey water is being used, mainly to try and save our young trees; sadly, it’s too late for some but it would be tragic to lose the lot having planted so many over winter. The most frustrating part is that we are not without stormy skies, even the occasional splash of raindrops, but nothing that materialises into anything useful. The garden is parched and crispy, the air dry and crackling, certain trees are having an early autumn and the earth is as hard and unforgiving as concrete . . . and still, no rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

Stormy skies but not a drop of rain.

We are, of course, discussing options and solutions. We’ve already increased the rain capture capacity to over 2000 litres but there are still available downspouts from a large roof area, so installing more butts is an easy enough project in the short term. Following my success in finding a supply of manure, I’m now trying to hunt down a second hand bowser which would allow us to shift collected rainwater efficiently to where it’s most needed. We’re looking at the possibility of creating a switchable system which would allow us to send the grey water from the bathroom into a tank, rather than having to bail out and carry buckets down the stairs. Adding organic matter to the soil, using mulches, sowing green manures and selecting drought-tolerant plants are all ongoing activities in the garden which should help to retain moisture in the soil. In the tunnel, which is obviously the hottest and driest of all our growing areas, we are also going to experiment with sinking bottles around plants to help carry water directly down to the root systems.

The tunnel is producing a prolific harvest but watering it is a full-time job.

My continued back problem isn’t helping my mood very much and it pains me to see Roger having to do so much on his own, especially with guests to feed, the garden to water and crops to harvest and process. I’m managing to potter at this and that in more comfortable moments, but my contribution to the cause remains largely superficial. As for the state of the garden, I am trying not to dwell too much on the consequences of my forced neglect and just hope everything can hang on and muddle through until I’m fighting fit again. I hate to see caterpillars beating up the brassicas but there is no way I can bend and twist to pick them off so the plants will have to take their chance and I have to keep my fingers crossed that things go the right way. I’m certainly not holding out too much hope for the cauliflowers which are tricky enough at the best of times, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. We’ll see.

Hot and bothered: it’s not the best of weathers for these sad cauliflowers.

It’s not just about plants, either. The local wildlife is struggling with the drought and larger species such as deer and boar are more in evidence as they move between watering holes. Our poor pond is still waiting to be filled and what water hasn’t already evaporated is a rather unsavoury green colour . . . and yet it is teeming with great diving beetles and pond skaters and constantly busy with birds who visit to drink and bathe. We had a temporary and very basic bird bath by the house made from a couple of plastic trays normally used under plant pots, so I was thrilled when Roger collected a large blue glazed pot of ours on his recent UK trip. It has no drainage holes in the bottom and for many years we had it as a mini-pond ~ complete with several aquatic plants ~ to add interest to an outdoor seating area. I’ve filled it with a few large stones and the last of our saved rainwater to make a permanent and more attractive birdbath; the feathered ones wasted no time in finding it, especially a group of sociable young sparrows who love to wallow about in it like Romans in a bath! There are other visitors, too, including a constant stream of honey bees sipping daintily round the margins and several lizards who zip in and out to drink in darting flashes of silvery green. Elsewhere, the garden is alive with dragonflies, damselflies and clouds of butterflies who don’t seem too fazed by the heat.

It would be easy to wallow in despondency as the garden suffers but we have to use the current situation as a learning opportunity; after all, this could well be the future and if we want to build resilience into the patch and improve our food security, we have to take on board the lessons, no matter how difficult. It’s important to look at the positives and see how we can expand upon them whilst finding solutions to the problems. For instance, I’ve been very impressed at how well the hügel beds are standing up (literally and metaphorically) to the drought; the idea is that in the long-term they shouldn’t need watering at all but even in their first and second season, they require minimal attention. Yes, the squash plants flatten their leaves in the heat of the day to preserve water, but they are romping away and it looks like we’re set for another bumper harvest. With an autumn project of hedging planned, there will be a good supply of hügel-building material available so I think more will definitely be on the cards.

The squash plants wilt in the heat of the day but perk up again overnight.
Musquée de Provence squash ripening from green to orange.

The allium family, apart from leeks, has struggled right from the start. Our garlic harvest was disappointing, particularly the spring-planted rose garlic which failed to thrive while the spring onions have taken forever to grow. The maincrop onions, both yellow and white varieties, have hardly set the world alight with their enthusiasm and I’m wishing I’d planted a few sets as well as seeds this year; perhaps they’d have got off to a better start. That said, they’ve suddenly found a bit of oomph this week so we will have a harvest, albeit a smaller one than hoped for.

The climbing beans have grown well and reached the top of their poles but they are desperate for water and it’s impossible to give them enough. The Asturian beans are struggling the most which I suppose makes sense, given they thrive in a climate which is warm and wet rather than hot and dry; they are only just coming into flower but I’m hoping that since our warm weather should stretch well into October and surely there will be rain at some point, there is still time for a crop to set. In contrast, the borlotti beans are dripping with vibrant red pods and we have already started harvesting the delicious speckled beans; given that the crop is the result of saving a tiny handful of beans from our Asturian garden, I’m really thrilled and next year I think I shall be planting even more.

With concerns about food shortages in mind, we planted masses of potatoes this year and I’m glad we did as the yield really isn’t great. What’s worse, we’ve pretty much given up trying to dig them at the moment as it’s more of a job for a pickaxe than a garden fork. We’ve eaten the last of the summer cabbage and I’m not holding my breath where the next wave plus summer calabrese and kale is concerned although I am pleased that the red kale and purple sprouting broccoli ~ both such important spring crops for us ~ are holding their own. So, too, are leeks and Swiss chard but the beetroot are rubbish, the Florence fennel has bolted, oca and New Zealand spinach have both collapsed completely and whether the swedes will pull through is anyone’s guess. It’s all a game of trial and error.

Young purple sprouting broccoli with lemon bergamot, coriander and some very dead phacelia I should have chopped and dropped weeks ago!

So where’s the silver lining? Well, for a start we had the most incredible melon harvest, 25 from the tunnel so far with a couple more to come and a few setting outside, too. The only problem was when twelve ripened all at once and there was no way we could eat that little lot on our own! Luckily, we had visitors on the horizon so stored as many as we could in the fridge and gave a few away; Roger made a melon and mint sorbet which was delicious and I froze chunks to eat straight from the freezer as a snack in hot weather (or you can toss them into a smoothie if that’s your thing). Next year, I’ll experiment with staggering the planting in the hope that we can spread the harvest out a little bit. We still have an abundance of courgettes, aubergines and peppers, all of which feature in our daily meals in a variety of ways. Roger has been making a spiced aubergine pickle and I’ve been messing about with sweet pepper relish recipes, both designed as condiments to eat quickly rather than keep as long-term preserves; they’re totally delicious for lunch with fresh bread and cheeses. I’ve been threading red cayenne peppers to air-dry in the cave and soon we will start putting sliced peppers in the freezer to use in winter dishes.

The French beans have also been cropping well but my carefully calculated successional sowings have all gone to pot thanks to the weather as the third row went over too quickly and the fourth row is yet to flower. Still, there are plenty of pods left to fatten for the beans inside and as the ‘Delinel’ variety has gone unusually tough and stringy, next year I will stick with ‘Stanley’ for green beans and look for a yellow wax pod variety instead. Now for the really good news ~ and I think I’m safe with this one at last~ we have tomatoes! Lots of them, in fact, and yes, they are ripening . . . if the plants in the ground do as well as those in pots, we’re even in danger of having a glut for the first time since we left our Welsh garden ten years ago. I can’t even begin to describe how much joy that brings me and I’m already planning some seed saving for next year’s crop . . .

Word is that this year’s local maize harvest is set to be a poor one which comes as no surprise given the seed was planted in dust, there has been hardly any rain since and irrigation is prohibited. Certainly, the huge neighbouring fields are looking pretty sick and it’s a reminder that small-scale production is so much easier. We may only have twenty or so sweetcorn plants but the ground they are in was given a lot of love (a lasagne bed with masses of organic material added along with comfrey tea, coffee grounds, diluted urine and soaked with saved rainwater) and I pre-sowed in the tunnel so that we started with strong, healthy plants. Having survived a bit of early rabbit / hare nibbling, the plants never looked back and have needed minimal watering ever since; now they stand tall and glossy green, woven through with beans and volunteer squash, and promising a delicious harvest very soon.

I’ve been watching the progress of the mandala bed with interest, particularly as it’s been left very much to its own devices in recent weeks, and like the hügel beds, I’m pleased at how well it’s held up. It has needed some water of course, but hasn’t been anywhere near as thirsty as the dug beds and everything growing in it has thrived. In fact, it’s become a bit of a jungle if I’m honest and trying to find the paths is something of a challenge.

On the downside, I wish I hadn’t bothered trying to plant two sections with annual flowers as although a few bits and pieces eventually germinated, the phacelia volunteers have dominated and been nothing but a nuisance, collapsing on top of everything around them and now looking very dead and brown. There has been plenty of colour from the herbs, edible flowers, vegetable flowers and now the veggies themselves so next year I shan’t bother sowing annual flowers in there at all. On the upside, it’s proving to be a very productive patch with lettuce, summer cabbage and French beans over, current crops of peppers, cucumbers, courgettes, borlotti beans and probably the best Swiss chard and flat-leaved parsley I’ve ever grown, with aubergines, Asturian beans, tomatoes and melons not far behind. It’s also become our first port of call for fresh herbs so I want to look at increasing the varieties next year.

It’s a chaotic jungle but there’s plenty of food and insect life in there.

The flower garden has suffered hugely in the heat but can’t be a priority for water so things just have to take their chance. The sunflowers are certainly better growing at the back of the border (although there are a few escapees elsewhere that came out of seed mixes) and are putting on a good show. The bulk of the colourful annuals are long over but there is still plenty of interest and I think that seedheads add their own brand of beauty to the mix, too.

On the subject of beauty, I have been trying to track down and identify a bird which has been frequenting the garden and surrounding area for some weeks, announcing its presence with its persistent and unfamiliar calls. It’s restless, always on the move and as frustratingly elusive as the turtle doves when it comes to actually spotting one. With Roger and I sleeping in the tent while Sarah and her family were here, I became even more aware of it calling around us from daybreak until, wandering round the garden early one morning, I finally saw it in the flesh ~ a golden oriole! There is a pair, in fact, the female a muted greeny-yellow, the male very showy in bright yellow and black; later that same day, Roger saw them both drinking from the pond across the lane. We’ve never seen them before but hope they will appear every summer now, they are such a special visitor and encouraging the widest diversity of life possible into our patch is a top priority. To that end, Roger finished making our ‘bug hotel’ with a couple of little helpers last week and sited it under a hedge where we hope it will attract plenty of residents. Walking past it the next morning, I saw a young robin perched on top of it, all pale breast and bright eyes, as happy as you like. I’m not sure whether it was looking for its breakfast or simply enjoying the view but either way, it was lovely to see what in essence is a pile of scrap wood stuffed with organic matter already attracting life . . . even if not the kind it was designed for! 😊