October already?

I can’t believe it’s October already, the months seem to be slipping away far too quickly. Still, it is a gorgeous time of year as we begin to tiptoe softly through autumn; the landscape and garden are still green and full but there is a definite change in the air and subtle hints of what’s to come. The dry, sun-drenched summer could possibly herald a season of spectacular autumn colours, but not just yet. Let’s not rush. Please.

The dark mornings have hurried in far too quickly and caught us unawares, the sun not rising until 8am now although the robins start their silky serenades well before then. There is a cool freshness to the mornings, too, with everything cobwebby and drenched in dew; in the low light, the silvered garden is transformed into something quite magical.

We’ve even had the tiniest touch of frost but nothing that could do any damage, and as daytime temperatures climb quickly in the sunshine to the high teens or low twenties, the garden is still thriving. It’s all looking a bit jumbled and tumbled but I love that sense of chaotic fullness, the mad mix of food and flowers which continues to produce so much for the wildlife and the kitchen. There’s no question of an autumn ‘tidy up’ here, I’m just happy to let everything do its own thing in a way that epitomises my whole approach to gardening these days, especially in my current hobbled state. For instance, in the circular bed that had been used as a bonfire patch before we moved here, there is a lot going on. The tardy brassicas, which hated the heat and drought, are going at it full tilt, giving us plentiful helpings of calabrese and kale. Behind them, Jerusalem artichokes are a show of sunny flowers, their long stems waving at crazy angles or lying on the ground ~ but even down there, the bumble bees love them, and they are welcome to tuck in as we won’t be lifting the tubers for a long time yet. There are a few annual flowers left in the mix along with dill and coriander seedheads which will guarantee volunteer crops next year, and the whole lot is being perfectly mulched by a carpet of self-set phacelia. Some people might call it a mess but to me, it’s just perfect . . . and a million miles from the plastic-infested mound of scorched earth we inherited.

In the Strawberry Circle, it’s much the same story. The strawberry plants, which are still fruiting, have got totally away from me over the summer; my plans to peg down a few healthy runners for new plants went completely awry but needless to say, they’ve done it themselves rather too enthusiastically and I am going to have to get in there and sort things out at a later date. The annual flowers I sowed around the edge look a bit past it from a distance but seen up close, they are still quite stunning, a rainbow of mallow, cosmos, borage, calendula, French marigold, echium, cornflower, zinnia, annual chrysanthemum and dill, all a-buzz with insect life. It would be utter sacrilege to pull them out in the name of being tidy when they still have so much to offer.

It seems strange to still be eating strawberries and the last few melons when apples are so obviously the fruit of the moment. As I wander through the trees, their perfume is intoxicating and every bit as sweet and delightful as the blossom was earlier in the year. I suppose we are at a bit of a crossover point where food crops are concerned; we can still pick lettuce, baby leaves, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, spring onions, young courgettes and a wealth of fresh herbs and petals for salads . . . but this week, the call of ingredients with a more robust crunch like cabbage, carrot, onion, beetroot and black radish has seen us enjoying the first colourful slaw of the season. We are probably moving towards the last of the aubergines, courgettes and red tomatoes which have been reliable troopers for many months but that’s no problem: the indomitable squash are waiting in the wings . . .

We’ve been bagging and labelling the last of our saved seeds this week and I’m really thrilled with just how well-provisioned we are for next year. As well as drying and storing in the conventional way, I’m experimenting with a few other ideas, too, such as burying a whole leek flower head in a pot of compost to see what happens. There’s also a tremendous amount of self-set germination going on all around the patch; as well as rocket and landcress, the Not Garden now boasts a carpet of young chive plants and a drift of young lettuces. The latter, in fact, are popping up everywhere which has me smiling given how I’ve struggled for years to save lettuce seed properly; this year has suited them so well, and given that many of the volunteers are ‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’, I’m interested to see if they live up to their name and survive the colder months. One of the most abundant patch of seedlings has appeared in the gravel just outside the front door: well, that could well be a talking point for visitors!

I’ve always liked it when visitors turn up on the doorstep unannounced. I know it’s lovely to welcome expected guests, making an effort to clean the house a bit, bake biscuits and bring in fresh flowers, but there is always something sweetly informal about surprise visits that I also enjoy. Anyone who pops in like that is always happy to take us as they find us and if the house is a tip bit messy and the biccy jar is empty, no-one’s bothered ~ in fact, I would say it’s a sign of a comfortable and genuine relationship. So it was that I was delighted a few days ago when my friend Rolande turned up out of the blue; a sprightly 77 year-old who lives several kilometres away, she had fancied doing a ‘petit tour‘ on her bike and called in to say hello and check on progress in our jardin anglais. I love chatting to Rolande, she has a wicked sense of humour and talks nineteen to the dozen, something which is a bit of an issue for her English neighbours who tell her she talks too fast. Did I agree? Well, I replied diplomatically, I think we all tend to rattle away in our mother tongue, and anyway keeping up with her tsunami of words is an excellent workout for my conversational French. To be fair to the Brits, there is also a marked local accent and a patois spoken by some elderly people which can take some tuning in to. When we first lived here ten years ago, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why our neighbour Daniel spent so much time talking about le bouton, pronounced ‘boot – on’ (the button) until finally the penny dropped: what he was actually saying was le beau temps (good weather) in the local accent which was totally lost on my (then) untrained ear!

Anyway, back to Rolande who usually has a little something to tut about whenever we meet and this time it was the fact that she has had an official house number imposed on her. French addresses are blissfully simple: house number and street name, postcode, then village, town or city. We country dwellers live in what is referred to as a lieu-dit (literally a ‘place’) so instead of a number and street name, the place name is the first line of our address and I love how so many of them reflect the historic busyness of these rural areas (the haberdashery, the basket weavers, the log store, the butcher’s shop), as well as the natural world (the foxes’ den, the rocky place, the hill of periwinkles). The problem with the system is that without numbers, all properties in the same lieu-dit have the same address ~ not so much an issue for the post people who are local and know where everyone lives but a bit tricky for anyone else making deliveries, something which is (sadly) becoming more frequent with the rise in online shopping. Most people have an external postbox but the name labels tend to fade which isn’t much help to delivery drivers who start their day in depots as far away as Le Mans. The upshot is that we have all recently been given a number, a state of affairs Rolande is finding totally absurd given she has lived in her house for decades and no-one has ever struggled to find her. It’s a small thing, really, and makes no odds to us whatsoever, but there is something that has left us a bit baffled: we live in splendid isolation, we are literally the only house in the lieu-dit . . . so how come we are now officially number two? 😕

One visitor we are definitely expecting is Joël, a local stonemason who we have known for years and who is going to start some work for us any day now. Like Rolande, he has a wonderful sense of humour and is always on a (hopeless?) mission to have me speaking flawless French, so that our conversations tend to be part chat and banter, part grammar lesson ~ it’s certainly a great way to learn. Joël is a true artisan, a master of his craft who takes an immense pride in his projects; we have been waiting more than a year for his arrival as he is snowed under with work . . . great for business, but the reason isn’t a happy one. He has always had at least one apprentice under his wing but now he says that young people just don’t seem interested in training anymore; the work is physically hard and doesn’t hold much attraction when there are easier alternatives on offer. As the old masters retire ~ as Joël intends to do in the next couple of years ~ stonemasons are becoming scarcer all the time with no younger generation following on behind, hence the inundation of work requests. I think this is a very sad situation particularly as, along with many other people, my preferred vision for the future is of a move back towards these practical, worthy and sustainable crafts within local communities, the often ancient knowledge and skills being passed on to the next generation. I’m now wondering what the future will bring and who will care for the beautiful stone buildings that are such a part of the local heritage and landscape?

I have a friend running in the London Marathon and I shall be cheering her on in spirit as she tackles the iconic 26 miles / 42 kilometres for the very first time at the age of 61 ~ what an inspiration! It wouldn’t do for me, however: I don’t like London, I have no intention of ever running a marathon (a half-marathon five years ago was more than enough) and I hate crowds, but I know for many people it’s a huge celebration of running and humanity. Before we travelled to Norway in June, I was training to run 5k ~ far more my sort of distance ~ as Stavanger has a weekly Parkrun and Roger and I thought it would be a great thing to do while we were there. Parkrun is a brilliant concept and something we like to support when we can, and the route looked truly beautiful, going all round the lake at Mosvatnet and climbing to the viewing point at Vålandstårnet. Having not run for some time, I stuck religiously to my training plan only to find out shortly before we travelled that the Parkrun was cancelled because a weekend music festival would mean some of the paths were closed. Who’d believe such bad timing?

Ah, well . . . we walked up to enjoy the view from Vålandstårnet anyway.

The situation with my back has meant I haven’t been able to even think about running since our return from Norway, and as in all honesty it’s never exactly been my best thing, I haven’t felt too sad about that. 😆 Walking, though, is another matter and I am so frustrated that for three months now, I’ve been unable to stride out and enjoy a few decent local hikes. It seems like such a waste of the season, especially as we are enjoying some beautifully warm, sunny days now and the countryside looks so very lovely. Roger came home from a run this week with a handful of meaty chestnuts, huge glossy treasures that grow in such abundance here; we reach for them often as a winter comfort food, so good roasted with vegetables and chopped into crumbles or stuffings. Last year, we had some wonderful wanders through the local woods, foraging as we went, in a way which always feels to me like a true celebration of the season. This year, I have to be content with following the fairy trails of fungi round the garden and leaving Roger to go further afield on his own ~ there will be chestnuts to store, but no thanks to me. Sigh. Things are improving, but only very slowly. I just have to be patient . . .

Unlike me, Roger has been running like a demon and, with his fitness back, he has started taking part in races again. He’s still not as fast as he’d like to be, but he’s already qualified for the French 10k championship next year on the back of his results so I’m impressed, even if he is calling himself Captain Slow. He’s joined the local running club so now has a French athletics licence, a new green club vest and, although he’s always preferred to run alone, he’s really enjoying the club training nights. They are a friendly and welcoming bunch who are meeting him halfway with language ~ it’s a great incentive to learn and improve ~ and he has entered plenty of upcoming events as part of the team. A recent evening race in Alençon followed a route through the historic centre of the town and involved running through several buildings: definitely a first for Roger, that one!

As well as running this week, Roger has been cutting the wide swathes of long grass that we purposely leave around the margins of our patch. It’s a hefty once-a-year job but as much as anything, it means we can find and check all the young trees that we planted in these wilder areas at the beginning of the year. Keeping them watered through the drought was a labour of love and, inevitably, they haven’t all survived, but we’re hoping a few of the ‘doubtfuls’ will grow back from their roots. There’s plenty to celebrate, though, and I’m particularly chuffed with the red dogwoods grown from cuttings which should make a splash of winter colour mixed through with various willows.

Elsewhere, other young trees that went in as nothing more than bare-rooted twigs are looking healthy and happy as they start to make an impact with their autumn colours.

In contrast to the wild margins, where the grass has been mown this year we have seen an explosion of fungi over the last few days; so many different species in mushroomy blooms and trails, they are completely magical. Their presence makes me want to jump for joy since all that wonderful mycelium threading and weaving its way underground is evidence of a healthy soil and ecosystem; far from being feared or maligned, they are to be welcomed with open arms and their transient beauty enjoyed every day. Well worth a morning wander ~ even if it does feel a bit late these days!