Beans and berries

I’ve written a good deal about the importance (for me, at least) of building resilience into the garden in order to create a space that continues to produce food, flowers and a haven for wildlife come what may. The best test of this must surely be seeing how everything holds up in a period of neglect so our recent 10-day trip away provided just such an opportunity for observation. Typically, the weather forecast promised the hottest spell to date which didn’t fill me with a lot of hope, so we emptied the rainwater butts in order to soak the tunnel and the window boxes and plant nursery, which we also moved into the shade. (As a brief aside, moving them back I felt very guilty at disturbing a couple of huge toads hiding under the foliage – isn’t it amazing how quickly wildlife moves in and takes advantage?) I had my fingers crossed that, left to their own devices, most things would hold up without too much trouble but then, who can ever be sure? The garden is still so much in its infancy, the soil in particular nowhere near as rich in moisture-retentive organic matter as I would like; I have to confess I felt a tad nervous about it all.

In the event, I needn’t have worried; yes, it most certainly had been hot but thankfully it had rained, too, so everything apart from a couple of trays of seedlings had survived and continued to flourish in our absence. Although the presence of deer and wild boar in the locality has been more noticeable of late, thankfully neither had found their way into the garden; our food crops were safe.

I loved the fact that save for a bit of cheese, some natural yogurts and eggs picked up in St P, we didn’t need to shop for anything on our return. We keep a decent stock of milk and meat from the local market in the freezer, a store cupboard of staples like grains and pulses, several shelves of preserves and herbal teas and make all our own bread; the rest all comes straight from the garden and there is something about that self-reliance that I love. I never tire of eating piles of homegrown vegetables and a small bowl of strawberries and autumn raspberries provides the perfect addition to my breakfast oats.

Of course, it’s not all rosy and as always there have been a few issues to deal with. The first job was definitely getting some water into the tunnel which must have experienced searing daytime temperatures during the mini heatwave. The aubergines and butternut squash had held up well but the winter salads and herbs I planted before leaving had suffered without daily watering, rocket and coriander the only survivors. I shall sow again and hope there are still enough hours of daylight to get some young plants going. One very unexpected bonus is that a tiny pepper plant – the only one of two that survived rubbish germination and growing on, poor soil and wireworm damage – is fruiting! I’d totally given up on it weeks ago but couldn’t quite bring myself to pull it out of the ground, so what a lovely surprise that is. Next year we should be far more organised with raising young plants but in the meantime, the aubergines take top prize for tunnel produce.

Caterpillars and slugs have wasted no time steaming into the brassicas and I’m reminded of how valuable those few minutes a day spent checking and de-bugging plants can be. A couple of hours’ concerted effort had things back on an even keel and I must say, after such a difficult start, I’m really delighted with how healthy and lush the brassicas are looking despite those pesky nibblers.

The temporary strawberry bed had all but disappeared under a jungle of ‘weeds’, mostly clover but also a fair few docks and creeping buttercups. I lifted the greenstuff from around the plants and piled it to rot down so it can be returned as a green layer mulch once I’ve shifted the plants to the Strawberry Circle in autumn; of all the potager beds, this one has enjoyed the least improvement this year so I need to rectify that in the coming months. The plants have been fruiting for several months now and are still going strong so I gave them a good liquid comfrey feed and tucked clean hay around them to lift the ripening fruit. There are a dozen established plants to move plus the same in runners I found in the undergrowth; I’ve potted those up to grow on and I’m thinking perhaps a few plants for grazing along the mandala bed paths will be just the thing next year. If they grow half as well as the young herb hedge I planted around the mandala edge a few weeks ago, I shall be mightly chuffed.

Despite having cut and eaten every single tiny courgette before we left, we were greeted by a regiment of giant marrows on our return. Does anything else grow so fast? I see them as inevitable collateral damage and don’t feel too guilty recycling them via the compost heap; there are still plenty of young courgettes coming and the flowers make a bright starburst of beauty in the low light of early morning.

What a change in the squash patch! Having spent the summer spreading across the garden like some monstrous tentacled beast, the plants have started to die back and reveal their hidden treasures; it’s too early to harvest them yet but my heart skips with joy at the thought of all that wonderful winter comfort food to come.

The first rows of dwarf beans left to fatten have started rattling in their pods so that means it’s time to begin the harvest. This is one of those slow old jobs that takes a good deal of time, but what’s the hurry? I love to sit and tackle the pod mountain outside in the fresh air, enjoying the September warmth and making the most of the chattering swallows who surely will be leaving us very soon. There’s a simple, therapeutic rhythm to the task, splitting the pods and putting the drier beans aside for next year’s seed and the rest for the freezer; these are such good food, eaten fresh for four or five months of the summer and providing a nutritious staple through the winter months. We’ve grown three varieties this year and all have cropped heavily: ‘Purple Teepee’ with deep purple pods and beige seeds, ‘Stanley’ with green pods and pearly white seeds and ‘Delinel’ with its incredibly long fine green pods and seeds so darkly purple they seem black.

Watching the separate piles grow, I reflected on how it is little wonder people talk of seed ‘banks’ – this is our currency, our investment in the future and a very precious one at that. Seed saving is an ancient art and one that is absolutely vital to the survival of the human species; it’s a sobering thought that such a huge percentage of seed varieties have been lost since the advent of seed companies and catalogues, a fact that has me determined to hugely increase the amount of seed saving I currently do. Genetic biodiversity is crucial for survival: it’s that resilience thing all over again.

I love the way our food production activities reflect the gentle ticking of the seasons; barely were the windowsills cleared of drying flowers and leaves that I started covering them with plates and trays of seeds, some for culinary purposes, most for sowing next year. The house that smelt of summery floral things like lavender, lemon verbena and peppermint is now scented with the more robust, spicier notes of coriander and dill and the warm fruity fragrance of apples straight from the tree. What a wonderful celebration of September!

Looking at the abundance of produce we have, I know it is only a matter of time before the house will be smelling of chutney, too. We aren’t great jam eaters but a tree of tiny sharp apples (a cider variety, I think, but not far off being crabs) has me hankering to make some autumnal jellies just for a change and I’m picking and freezing the huge tomato red hips from the rogosa roses with a view to making a cordial. We don’t have quite the thuggery of Asturian nasturtiums here but I see enough seeds now to set about pickling them to use in place of capers. Our kitchen renovation might not be finished but I’m going to have to spend some time being busy in it, all the same.

This is also a wonderful time of year for some wild food foraging and I’m delighted that we don’t even have to leave the patch to enjoy some decent pickings. It’s a tremendous year for berries and the hedgerows are alight with vibrant shades of red as rowan, guelder rose, rosehips and hawthorn berries all jostle for attention. I’ve been picking and drying the latter for tea, acknowledging the health benefits they bring (they are a good heart tonic); I love hawthorn leaves and berries combined with lemon verbena, lavender and lemon balm and have decided to call the mix ‘Best Brew’.

In contrast to the riot of red, our blackthorn trees are hung with dusky blue sloes, strung along the thorny branches like pearls on a necklace. We haven’t made sloe gin for many years – it’s not something we normally drink – but this year is going to be an exception as Sam and Adrienne have booked to visit us from Norway for a few days in late December. I’m not shouting too loudly about it as I know there’s every chance the Covid situation could scupper their plans but it will be two years since we last saw them and to say I’m excited is an understatement; it will most certainly be a time of much laughter and good comfort food and what better way to toast some Yuletide happiness than with a nip or two of warming sloe gin?

Looking from our bedroom window earlier in the summer, I was puzzled to see what appeared to be a cascade of pink blossom in a large holly tree. Closer inspection proved it was exactly that: not holly, obviously, but a mass of bramble flowers tumbling from the top of the tree and literally shimmering with bee activity. Fast forward a couple of months and the cascade is now one of blackberries at the perfect stage for harvesting – well, those I can reach, at least! Is there a more iconic seasonal fruit? Their fruity scent wafts across the garden in the afternoon sunshine and for me, there is something quintessentially autumnal about their flavour and glossy fruits that brings to mind woodsmoke, mushrooms and leaves on the turn.

The flower garden is still full of colour but in a way that speaks of the changing season, too; the patches of annuals are thinning and fading, taller plants have started to bend and collapse, seed heads are fattening and popping while the likes of perennial rudbeckia, Michaelmas daisies and sedum send the butterflies into delirium. It’s a week of starry, owl-haunted nights followed by soft, misty mornings, full of the robin’s song and laced with dewy cobwebs. Summer is bowing out, autumn is tiptoeing onto stage and the garden has survived without me. Happy days, indeed. 😊

Food and flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruit salad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Six on Saturday 29th May 2021

It feels like a long, long time since I took part in The Propagator’s Six on Saturday as in -ahem- July 2019 😮 and so much has happened in the interim, including us moving to a new home in a different country (not an easy one to pull off given the Covid-19 situation – talk about stress). Anyway, we have left our vertiginous mountainside in northern Spain to return to Mayenne in northern France where we are trying to carve a new and interesting garden out of a flat field. After five winters in the blissfully mild Asturian climate, we have been battling through one of the coldest, driest, wettest (not at the same time, obviously), stormiest springs on record . . . but then I do enjoy a good challenge and on the bright side, I no longer need wellies fitted with crampons, we can use wheelbarrows once more, the soil stays put and the squash won’t go rolling off down the mountainside. Thanks for having me back, here are my six offerings of the week:

I love a wild garden which is probably a good thing as there’s very little other than wild flowers in bloom here at the moment, mostly because that’s pretty much all there is in the garden full stop. There’s much planting to be done and I’d like to say, I’ve made a more than enthusiastic start in supporting local nurseries! The exquisite yellow flag iris have unfurled their radiant silky petals this week just in time to welcome the sun back. Spot the red and black froghopper lurking under a petal, they seem to be everywhere at present.

One ‘formal’ plant we have inherited is this glorious peony, it’s loaded with blooms and the scent is mind-blowing. I have no idea which variety, but it’s a beauty for sure.

I won’t bore you with the saga of our polytunnel but suffice to say, we ordered it at the beginning of March and several replacement parts and weeks of far-too-windy weather later, we only managed to finish installing it this week. What a happy bunny I was to finally have 32 square metres of warm, covered ground after months of carting tender plants in and out of the house twice a day to protect them from frost; in a normal Mayenne spring they could have gone into the ground outside some time ago, but that’s another story. After five years of fighting and cursing blight, I may have gone a little OTT with the tomatoes: 27 in the tunnel and 9 outside for insurance purposes. Oh, and another 3 in pots by the kitchen door. Think I’ve got it covered. 😉

Unlike the pampered toms, the courgettes got to the point of no return and really had to go into the ground last week, do or die. We’re sticking with tried and tested varieties of everything this year while we get the veg patch established so these are ‘Black Beauty’ which are usually pretty reliable if not very exciting. Given that the strong gusts of wind had morphed into gales threatening to rip them out of the ground, I decided to repurpose a pile of abandoned slates into protective sheepfolds for them – think Andy Goldsworthy, but a thousand times less talented. As for the grass clippings and chopped leaves, mulch mulch mulch is definitely mantra of the month.

We’ve done a fair bit of fruit tree planting since we arrived in December but there were already a few mature specimens here including this whopper. I shall miss the abundance of peaches we enjoyed in Asturias but this is cherry country and despite the shocking spring, they’re promising good things to come. Will they be red, yellow or black, sour or sweet? Half the excitement of a new garden is seeing what happens in the first year, which at least makes up for the war on weeds and lack of flowers.

Gardening for wildlife is a top priority and we are sharing this space with a wide range of characters including red squirrels that sit under our picnic table scoffing acorns, a huge hare that visits daily to ‘fertilise’ my sweet peas (why them, I wonder?) and more species of bird than we’ve ever had in a garden. We’re planning to create or enhance as many different environments and habitats within the patch as we can to support the wildlife already here and encourage a wider range to visit. Didn’t quite expect to find this on the postbox a couple of days ago but it beats a letter from the tax office, I suppose.

Time to stroll over to The Propagator’s site and be inspired by what other blogging gardeners (or is it gardening bloggers?) have been up to this week – why not come too? Happy gardening, all! 😊

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. 😊

Blue skies and bike rides

I love a good sky.

This week it has been mainly unflawed blue from dawn to dusk but one evening, cloud bubbled up as if from nowhere and treated us to a captivating light show.

Sadly, it didn’t bring us any rain, something we are completely desperate for now. Our rainwater capture system is brilliant, the three butts together holding 1100 litres which seemed like a huge amount until several weeks of dry weather came along; we are watering just to keep things going, especially the tiny vegetable seedlings which are doing their best to survive. In the end, nothing works like real rain. Please let it come soon.

I don’t want to whinge about the weather but it certainly continues to be frustrating beyond the lack of rain; we are experiencing startlingly sunny days with temperatures in the low twenties but a bitter wind to take the edge off things and we’re still seeing a touch of frost overnight. The plant nursery grows by the day, everything now sorted into three groups: the roughty-toughties that can spend the night outside, the in-betweenies that shelter in the (open-fronted) outhouse and the tender babes that huddle together inside on windowsills.

The more seedlings I prick out and pot on, the more carrying in and out there is to do at each end of the day. I’ve been filling the newspaper pots as quickly as I can make them – which I swear I can do with my eyes closed now! Tomato plants have all gone into the bigger pots: four Rosella (cherry) and eight each of San Marzano (plum) and Super Marmande (beefsteak). Twenty plants, if they all survive, really should be ample for the two of us even with plans to freeze as many as we can, but of course, there’s also the excitement of those colourful gift seeds from Finland, many of them heirloom varieties and none of which we’ve grown before. The names alone are enough to make me smile: Lava Flow, Bosque Blue Bumble Bee, Glossy Rose Blue, Malakhitovaya Shkatulka, Karkiano, Alaska, Black Sea Man and Orion’s Belt. Who could fail to be charmed? One plant each to make my ‘rainbow’ plus spares (of course) just in case. I’ve cosied them up with little pots of basil, great companions in the garden and on the plate so why not start as we mean to go on?

While I’ve been messing about with pots and seedlings, Roger has – amongst a hundred and one other things – been busy sorting out the barn to make space for a log store. This resulted in the need for yet another trip to the local household recycling centre with the trailer loaded with unusable junk that was left here; it would be good to think we won’t need too many more trips like that but I doubt it will be the last. Needless to say, we are saving anything we can since throwing useful things away goes against the grain; one of my favourite finds has been this section basket which is perfect for toting essential bits and pieces as I go from place to place in the garden. I reckon I could even squeeze a flask in there if I tried.

It’s been another busy week in the garden so here’s my usual quick round-up:

Sunday 25th April: Transplanted tomato seedlings – 8 each of San Marzano and Super Marmande, Rosella x 4. One large pot each of Anja’s 8 plus 6 extras. Pricked out basil. Seeds: replanted lupins. Courgettes, cukes (gherkin), squash Crown Prince, Hunter and Casa Victorio Special have all germinated. Sowed climbing nasturtiums, mixed ‘Autumn Colours’ sunflowers and mixed Californian poppies in shed border. Planted climbing beans: three quadpods of borlotti and eight of Asturian beans.

Monday 26th April: sowed drill of cabbage Golden Acre to follow Greyhound; lettuce Little Gem in pot; New Zealand spinach in Secret Garden. Pricked out globe artichokes, sage and some hyssop. Added third quadpod to flower border and planted black-eyed Susan and morning glory. Good progress on stone wall, put standing stone in hügelkultur flower bed.

Tuesday 27th April: transplanted 12 strawberry plants into The Potager. Roger finished digging channels for burying tunnel polythene.

Wednesday 28th April: placed seed order with EnGraineToi (purple sprouting and romanesco broccoli, winter cabbages, carrots, mizuna, lamb’s lettuce, beetroot, Russian purple kale, parsley). Potted on Crown Prince squash. Pricked out thyme, hyssop, basil, rudbeckia and marshmallow.

The Potager is still growing as we dig and is filling up bit by bit although it still looks so empty; it will be fascinating to compare how it looks now to the full months of summer. The potatoes in the big front patch are through the ground so we have earthed them up to protect them from the frost. There are carrots, radish and spring onions in there, too, and we’ll plant courgettes in the middle mulched section once the time is right. In the next patch are two rows of peas and the first of dwarf beans, the ‘Purple Teepee’ that are such good doers planted with our own saved seed. Plenty more to go in there yet! Beyond that, the hügelkultur bed is almost ready for a covering of topsoil before the squash go in and a new smaller bed has become home to a dozen strawberry plants. The bean circle is all planted up, eleven quadpods of stout hazel poles, three with fiery red borlotti and the rest with those lovely fat white Asturian beans. There’s space for something else, probably cucumbers, and I’m thinking – quietly to myself – perhaps a few small patches of frivolous flowers something colourful would be lovely.

On the subject of colour, we have a pair of green woodpeckers who seem to be trying to nest in the garden. Unlike the other birds who practically meet us at the door, they are very nervous so the male is carrying out his excavations of a cherry tree furtively when he thinks we’re not about before flying off in a loud flash of green and red when he senses we are. Given how many heavily wooded, uninhabited spots there are locally, it seems strange to have chosen this one but that old cherry is obviously perfect for their nest and we’re certainly not short of ants. I’ll be following their nesting progress with great interest.

The woodpeckers aren’t the only ones who have been busy in the trees. Pollarding is an ancient tradition and one that is still very much practised in this area; in recent weeks, a number of large oak trees, including several opposite the house, have literally been reduced to branchless trunks. It seems a cruel thing to do to a magnificent tree but I suppose it is better than felling the whole thing and in fact, research tells me it actually extends the life of the tree. A number of the oaks in our garden have obviously been treated this way in the past and they create interesting silhouettes against a clear sky; this is one we can see from the back kitchen window, the fresh new leaf growth tipped in colour by the rising sun.

We are just a few days away from the end of lockdown (3rd May) which has had so little effect on us that we forget it’s happening at all. The only mild frustration has been the local charity shop closing for a month so we haven’t been able to collect new books to read but otherwise it has been life as normal here. The French government has been heavily criticised for its handling of the pandemic; I have no intention of launching into a political discourse but what I will say is that I have been personally impressed at how an holistic approach to people’s well-being has been a major priority. Despite an ongoing curfew and current travel restrictions, there has been encouragement for us to exercise and spend time outdoors in order to benefit both physical and mental health; it is lovely to see the youngsters having fun on the outdoor tennis court and five-a-side pitch in St P, a bit of normality restored in such strange times. The 10 kilometre travel radius from home has left us with plenty of options for walking, running and cycling so a few days ago we decided to head off to the canyon des Toyères on our bikes. We started by taking the scenic route to St P as Roger wanted to show me a rare white orchid he’d seen on a run, then we stopped briefly at the boulangerie to treat ourselves to some patisserie – Paris-Brest for Roger, tartelette aux fraises for me.

It was a truly beautiful morning and cycling along the quiet lanes, I was struck at how vibrant the countryside has become. Such colours!

The canyon des Toyères is one of those places which you could easily miss if you didn’t know it was there, a simple sign at the end of a lane which turns into a gravelled track being the only clue there is anything worth visiting. It is one of my favourite places on earth and I am so thrilled to be living close to it once again. There is a viewing tower there but that is not what we are interested in at all: parking our bikes, we set off in the opposite direction down a narrow path through the woods . . .

It’s a bit of a scramble but worth doing at this time of year just to enjoy the carpets of fragrant bluebells under the trees.

Down a little further and a glimpse of sunlight on water hints at where we are: a rocky outcrop perched on granite cliffs high above a loop of the beautiful Sarthe river.

The view in both directions is stunning, the busy river far below us and the vast sweep of woodlands on the sides of the gorge. With no sight or sound of another human being, it is complete, shameless immersion in nature; the music of birdsong is somehow funnelled and amplified to an intensity that almost hurts. I love the way this landscape changes colour and character through the seasons; it’s a view I can never tire of, a place of exquisite peace and beauty.

It’s also the perfect spot for coffee and cake. Cheers!

Morning glory

For more than twenty years I have recognised that there is something very wonderful about the way Mayenne does mornings but I can’t quite put my finger on why it is. A special quality to the light, perhaps or the surround sound of birdsong? Maybe it’s the curls of mist shimmering above the surface of the ponds or a freshness to the air that amplifies the scent of blossom, apple now gently nudging cherry aside? I’m really not sure but I do know that it is worth being up and about early to enjoy every moment.

The sun currently rises here at 6:54 am and a few minutes afterwards, it is officially squirrel o’clock; open the front door, look to the right and bang on cue, here comes the first bundle of mischief barrelling out of the stone shed. It’s always the foxy little red, I suspect the same one that was sitting on the windowsill on our very first morning here in December. It heads straight for the oak tree, scurries up it and performs several acrobatic tricks of astonishing aerial grace and daring.

A few moments later, in comes the new squirrel on the block, this one a deep chocolate brown very reminiscent of the squirrels in Asturias. After a bit of happy conferring, it’s time for the double act: up and down the trunk at breakneck speed, zipping along the branches in a heady game of chase and for the grand finale, whizzing round and round the girth of the trunk in a furry blur that leaves me feeling quite dizzy. Performance over, they sprint off across the grass to start weaving their mischief through the trees along the laneside hedge. Such entertainment – and all this before breakfast!

Talking of which, I’m very thrilled to be eating rhubarb again. It’s been several years since we had a plant in the garden and given the sorry state of the one here, I was beginning to wonder whether there would be anything worth picking this year. It’s our first real harvest from the new garden and I’m enjoying it for my breakfast; I keep a bowl of plain stewed rhubarb in the fridge and add oats, Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey to take the edge off the tartness. Delicious.

Morning spotlight on the rhubarb

It’s a perfect walker’s breakfast and I have to admit I’ve been enjoying a few early leg stretches this week, too. We are spoilt with a wealth of choices when it comes to wandering routes from home but it’s no surprise that I’m currently drawn to the woodland tracks where everything seems to be greening up rapidly now and the bird noise is raucous.

The cherry blossom is still lighting up the landscape in billowy clouds of white and I feel that A.E Housman was on to something when he described them as the ‘loveliest of trees.’

There are smaller beauties, too, not quite the colourful floral carpets along the verges but very lovely in the morning light all the same.

Emerging from the woods, I follow quiet lanes through rolling countryside with only the cows and cuckoos for company . . .

. . . before coming full circle back to the wood, and into our patch of coppice where I sit on a rock for a few minutes and enjoy the beauty of spring all around me before wandering home. Three miles of bliss . . . and it’s not even 9am yet.

Morning exercise over and we’ve been spending our days being busy in the garden again. The weather is a tad frustrating: gorgeous sunny days with temperatures in the twenties but cold nights (although above freezing at last) and a stubborn cold easterly wind that just will not swing into the south or west. One of the first jobs each morning is to carry out the trays of seedlings that have been growing on windowsills; they still need to spend the nights indoors but it’s much warmer outside in the sunshine during the day, despite that tricky wind.

I do seem to have rather a lot of seedlings (does anyone need 70 tomato plants?) and so there is going to be a pretty mammoth pricking out session to be had very soon. We have piles of section trays and small pots but – needless to say – they are still in Asturias so I’ve been making some out of an old newspaper I found in the barn. I know you can make round ones using a glass for a mould but I like these natty little folded numbers and squares seem a lot more practical when it comes to putting them in trays. I’m using this method and once in the swing of things, I’ve been turning out each pot in well under two minutes.

It’s a lovely activity for several reasons. First, it’s an excuse to sit outside and be busy in a gentle way for a change, a welcome break from all that digging – it’s a very therapeutic activity! Second, I’m enjoying reading snippets of the local paper as I go; it’s from June 2019 and I was particularly struck by the weather forecast for our corner of Mayenne, with temperatures climbing to the mid-thirties and local authorities on standby for un canicule (heatwave). It’s a reminder of just how different summers are here to Asturias where temperatures that high are unusual; many of these seedlings should love it but we are certainly going to need those huge rainwater tanks. Third, it’s good to be doing something slightly crafty, a simple gesture that is both thrifty and beneficial to the planet.

With so many plants in the pipeline it was good to see our polytunnel arrive this week. It’s a really sturdy one so there’s little danger of it taking off down the valley in a gust of wind as its Asturian counterpart famously did. Roger has started putting the bits and pieces together but we can’t construct it just yet. As it is a new structure covering more than twenty square metres (it’s thirty two, in fact), higher than two metres and visible from the public lane we needed to submit a planning notification or declaration préalable to the local mairie. People moan about French bureaucracy but in truth it’s no worse than anywhere else and given all we’ve had to do is fill out a couple of forms and add a location plan and photos, it’s hardly difficult. There is no fee, the staff in our mairie and the local community council are incredibly accommodating and helpful and if we hear nothing after a month we can take it as read our application has been approved and Operation Polytunnel can commence. This is the fifth one we’ve put up together so once we get stuck in it should go smoothly and then I might just have a few things to plant in there. Just look at how dry that soil is, though; we are desperate for rain and could do with a really good soaking before the polythene goes up.

I’m very excited at the prospect of all that good food to come through the summer, I honestly can’t wait to be wandering about and harvesting more than a few sticks of rhubarb and bunches of herbs. The patches we’ve planted are starting to look like a proper vegetable garden at last but I find myself almost obsessively checking on progress and fretting that things aren’t growing fast enough. Mmm, all in good time; I just need to be patient.

Come on, hurry up!

There’s certainly the promise of more fruit to come: the myrobalan blossom has come and gone, the cherry blossom has been staggered which we hope indicates a mix of red and black varieties, the pear blossom is beautiful (and the perfume is gorgeous), there are flowers on the gooseberry and as yet unidentified currants and the apples are building up to a stunning performance.

Here, then, is a quick summary of this week’s activities:

  • 17th April: hugel flower bed – sowed Moreveg bee and butterfly mix (mostly native perennials), French bright annual mix, field green manure mix with extra phacelia, buckwheat, borage calendula and double poppies, white clover and yellow trefoil round edge.
  • 18th April: pricked out cardoon seedlings; dug new border along front of shed for climbing nasturtiums; carried on clearing front borders of weeds and identifying perennial plants already in there. Roger started digging a new bed in potager and constructing the polytunnel.
  • 19th April: sowed wild flower seeds collected in Asturias; planted oca x 18; salsify; sowed granny’s bonnets, burning bush and hollyhocks in trays; pot of Red Rosie lettuce; Welsh poppies in front border – yellow and orange mix.
  • 21st April: forked over circular climbing bean bed and raked in general-purpose organic fertiliser; planted wild flower seeds / shade-loving annuals in various patches. Jerusalem artichokes, rocket and second row of peas are all through the ground. Transplanted passionflower root from Asturias into painted planter and sowed beneath it (and grapevine in other planter) with mixed Californian poppies. Watered everything . . . again!
  • 22nd April: planted third row of ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ peas, first row of dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’ x 56, second row of carrots ‘Red-cored Chantenay’ and ‘Autumn King’ and a small patch of ‘French Breakfast’ radish. Roger cut points on hazel beanpoles ready to make tripods (or quadpods or quinpods!).
  • 23rd April: first potatoes through ground. Autumn calabrese up but no other broccoli yet – old seed, will it germinate? Made list of new seeds needed. Made biodegradable pots from old newspaper, enjoying the sunshine and birdsong.

On the subject of birdsong, the most exotic summer visitors – hoopoes – are back. We haven’t seen one yet but their unmistakable ‘hoop – hoop – hoop’ call is very much in the neighbourhood and it is only a matter of time – I hope – before they appear in the garden and start feeding on the ants, of which there are plenty. We’ve also had the first fledge of baby birds this week and the garden is full of their squeakings and clumsy flappings as they explore the outside world for the first time, sheperded by anxious parents. The swallows arrived on 30th March and are here in huge numbers now; afternoon and evening is their time in the garden, swooping low across the grass and weaving artfully between the apple trees.

The sun is tracking round so rapidly now that by the summer solstice, we should be able to see both sunrise and sunset from our bedroom window. The evenings are long and beautiful and – in a sheltered spot tucked out of the wind – blissfully warm. To the west, the sky is bright, paling to muted colours and a rim of fire as the sun sinks; in the east, the intense blue remains, the perfect foil for boughs of cherry blossom and a waxing moon. Yes, Mayenne does beautiful mornings . . . but the other end of the day isn’t bad, either.

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.

Treasures

Daisies are our silver, buttercups our gold: this is all the treasure we can have or hold.

Jan Struther

I started school when I was four and, given that was half a century ago now, it’s not surprising that I can’t recall too much about those earliest years. Two things, however, stand out clearly in my memory: a Nature Table stuffed with seasonal treasures brought in by proud and eager little hands to share (pussy willow, snowdrops, sticky buds, frogspawn, seashells . . . ) and singing the children’s hymn about buttercups and daises, speedwell and roses, raindrops and dew. I’m not particulary prone to reminisence but these hazy memories have drifted back this week as the simple yet exquisite beauty of spring has unfolded around us, urged on by the flood of sunshine and unusual warmth. It is blossom time, the trees bursting into an ordered floral beauty as if in a time lapse film. First, the myrobalan or cherry plum, deep pink buds opening to palest shell, their starry copper centres echoing the rich burnished hues of the new leaves. They are perfect. I am captivated.

In the orchard, several tiny over-pruned trees that we suspected were peaches have proved to be just that, their fragile branches dotted with those candy pink flowers so familiar from our garden in Asturias; I’m not convinced they will ever be persuaded to fruit here but the blossom is a joy nonetheless.

The surrounding landscape is a flurry of white, with drifts of blackthorn and wild plum blossom in the hedges making a dainty froth against the billowing pistachio foam of pussy willow, and the cherries – so typical of the area, so very beautiful – stamping their elegant authority on the landscape. As the cherries unfurl their beguiling blossoms, the myrobalan sheds its petals in a blizzard of confetti; it is so transient, this spring enchantment, so fleeting. I don’t want to miss a moment.

It’s not just about the trees, either. The verges have erupted in a blaze of colour and are carpeted with a rich tapestry of jewelled delights: primroses and pulmonaria, cowslips and celandines, bluebells and violets, wild daffodils and windflowers, dandelions and daisies, wild strawberries and orchids. Such treasures. Their scent is sweet, heady, seductive and the bees are bewitched. Well, who could blame them?

At the end of a particularly gruelling fifteen-hour journey back from Asturias last week, the task list before collapsing into bed was blissfully short: light the stove, have a bite to eat and grab only the bare essentials from the car. Everything else could wait until morning – and yet, and yet . . . The pull of the garden was too strong, I had an urgent need to explore, to see what had changed in our absence. Egged on by the mischievous moon, almost full, and accompanied by the nocturnal calls (lazy drawling croak of barn owls, muffled hoot-and-echo of tawnies, raucous frog chorus) and rustlings of secretive night creatures, we wandered. I love the magic of a moonlit garden, the way everything is dusky, shadowed and silvered, punctuated by pointillist bursts of light: here narcissi, there arabis, the stars of the midnight garden where more deeply-coloured blooms are hidden. We must plant more light flowers, silver foliage, too. I want a garden that beckons at night, a planting of constellations to mirror those wheeling overhead: Orion striding purposefully across the eastern sky, Sirius snapping brightly at his heel; the bent handle of the Plough pointing to brittle Polaris in the north; the smudged cluster of the Pleiades like a soft swarm of bees, seen more clearly when you look away. Yes, we need to plan . . . and then plant.

We’ve started, of course. New fruit trees for new blossom: a sweet Moreau cherry, a sour Morello, a buttery Conference pear. A single redcurrant and lone raspberry, three climbing roses and a hundred hedging slips. I’ve started to find new homes for the wanderers brought from Asturias, tiny roots lifted into pots that have been growing strongly and waiting patiently – mint and chives in shady places, soapwort and comfrey in sunny ones; pulmonaria and Jacob’s ladder to fill a hedge bottom with blue, verbena bonariensis for starbursts of purple, madder for roots of red. There are new surprises here, too, plants that have emerged from their winter slumbers to delight me with their promise of colour and scent: a single hyacinth, a scattering of tulips, the new burgeoning growth of Michaelmas daisies, monkshoods and peonies, fat silvery buds of clematis and grape, glossy new leaves of hidden roses. It’s already a garden of delights.

Short of something to read on our Spanish trip, I pulled The Morville Hours from our bookshelf and read it for the umpteenth time. It’s a gem of a book, one of my all-time favourites which never fails to inspire me. It’s the story of how the author, Katherine Swift, created a garden for the National Trust in my native Shropshire; her rich and mesmerising prose is quite beautiful, her eye for detail completely astonishing. I recognise her restlessness in myself, the fidgety need to be outside and busy at something, even if (in my case) it’s often a rather aimless wandering about. I, too, have a wonderfully patient husband, happy to finish for the day and start cooking dinner while I indulge my stubborn reluctance to stop: is it really that time already? Wait . . . there’s one more bucket of weeds, an extra sprinkle of seeds, a last thing to plant, another one to water. Can I beg just five minutes more? Please?

Katherine Swift was not a gardener, but over twenty years she carved a gloriously abundant creation from a field. She learned as she went, following her instincts and her nose, indulging her senses to the full; absorbing, dreaming, playing.The older I get, the more I understand that it is the child in me that gardens – the little girl at the Nature Table with her nose pressed up against a jar of tadpoles, or a silky buttercup under her chin or a fragile dandelion clock in her hand. I am in constant awe of those horticulturists who can quote Latin names verbatim, who can tell an angustifolia from a tomentosum without batting an eyelid or recognise a rose as ‘Madame Alice Garnier’ or ‘Mr Lincoln’ in one glance. It’s all very clever and grown up, but where’s the wonder? Where is the dazzle of colour, the blast of perfume, the jolt of texture, the burst of flavour? Where, oh where, is the birdsong? After all, what is the tracery of cherry blossom against a blue sky without the diving and swooping of swallows, the cobalt drift of hazy bluebells without the evocative call of the cuckoo?

The National Trust asked Katharine to submit detailed drawn plans for the garden she intended to create. She couldn’t do it, so instead she wrote a vivid description, a magical guided tour of a garden that existed only in her imagination. I love that and feel echoes of the same thing here, where we are creating a new garden in an old space. Yes, we have ideas – vegetable patches, flower borders, herb gardens, orchards, woodland edges, spinneys, climbers and scramblers, hidden nooks and crannies, interesting hints and glimpses that make you want to wander, weaving paths that help you on the way – but as yet they are somewhat vague, soft and shimmering at the periphery of our vision, blurred and shadowy, elusive yet exhilarating. It’s like an outline faintly sketched in soft charcoal, waiting for the bold sweeps of colour and fine detail to bring it to life. Who knows what we will end up with? It feels like a journey that could see us veering off in so many different directions, but whatever happens, of one thing I am certain: as long as I have time to stop and stare, to immerse myself in the wonders of nature around me, to appreciate the minutiae and vastness of the living, breathing world then I will be very, very happy. That’s treasure, indeed.