Boundaries

One of the many things we have always loved about Mayenne is how slowly and gently autumn creeps in; even when the days shorten and the light fades, there is often still a mellow softness that seems far removed from the winter months to follow. This year has been exceptional in that respect and it is only this week that for me, the landscape has become truly ‘autumnal’ with the trees putting on a flamboyant show of colours in contrast to the incredibly lush green of fields planted with grass and winter grain. It was a bit of a shock to the system, then, to have a day of weather so horrible it seemed we were going to have the whole of autumn in one go, a day of glowering light, torrential rain and the strongest winds we have seen in months. Our mature oaks lashed and roiled like a storm-tossed sea and leaves flew past the windows in horizontal blizzards; I had visions of everything being laid completely bare once it was pleasant enough to venture outside again . . . and yet, still those leaves are hanging on for dear life. It’s not all over by a long chalk.

In fact, that day was nothing more than a blip and generally it has been mild, sunny and still, perfect weather for getting things done outside. Roger has made a good start on laying the hedge along the lane, which is quite a major project; it’s not so much the actual hedge laying bit, but all the sorting and tidying of the spoil as he goes along that takes the time. It’s also not the greatest stretch of hedge to be working with on account of the way it has been cut in the past and there are going to be several spaces along its length where we will probably need to plant a few extra native bits and pieces to restore it to its former glory. I’ve written previously about hedge laying (plessage in French ~ anyone who claims there are no hedges in France hasn’t been to the right areas!), an ancient craft which serves to preserve and regenerate hedgerows of native plants which is a long way removed from the more typical modern approach of cutting them with mechanical flailers. Working uphill along a hedgerow, some upright stems are removed while others ~ the ‘pleachers’ ~ are cut almost all the way through at the base of the stem and then laid down at an angle between upright stakes.

Although this might appear rather brutal, it in no way damages or kills the trees but rather rejuvenates them and encourages strong new growth to shoot up from the bottom once the sap begins to rise again in spring. This in turn ensures that a deep and thick base is kept or returned to a hedge, one that will act as a barrier to keep livestock where it should be without the need for any additional stock fencing, as well as improving the hedge as a habitat for a range of wildlife. One of the real beauties of this method is that it only needs to be done once every ten years or so with minimal maintenance in between but for me, there is also something very profound about watching Roger practising a craft known to have existed for at least 2,000 years, using simple hand tools and working slowly and quietly along the hedge in the November sunshine. (For anyone interested to know more, this is a wonderful video of hedge laying in Herefordshire.)

As far as everything coming out of the hedge is concerned, it is being sorted for different uses depending on size and shape: thick straight trunks for posts and stakes and the rest for logs; long thinner poles for climbing beans and twiggy sticks for pea supports; shorter bits and pieces set aside to dry for kindling and the barbecue; bits of brush put through the shredder for mulch. Any twiggy sticks left have been spread across the surface of several lasagne beds (thanks to Sonja for this idea) where the leaves will rot down over winter and the sticks can either be gathered for compost next spring or left in situ if we’re planning to add another layer of green material over the top. I love this no-waste system of working! On which subject, the ‘sheepfold’ made from stone and earth left over from the barn renovation and several layers of spare biomass is now finished and ready for planting with wildflowers next spring. I’m really pleased at how established the young trees behind it are already looking; we’ve marked them with sticks as they are still very small but give it a few years and the sheepfold should mark the entrance to a beautiful patch of woodland.

As the hedgerow moves closer to the house, it deteriorates rapidly. In fact, one stretch of it is nothing more than a dense tangle of brambles and ivy and we’ve agonised over how best to deal with it; in the end, we’ve decided to leave it for the time being, partly because it’s great for wildlife but also because it produces the best blackberries on site! Beyond that, however, the rest is privet which is not a plant either of us particularly likes and which has been allowed to grow so much that it has swamped several (preferable) plants and is just downright ugly ~ especially combined with two monstrous ornamental conifers on either side of the entrance. We removed one of those the first spring we were here and happily repurposed it into an Hügel bed but we have been so busy with other things that it has taken until now to finally get round to sorting out this mess.

First, the second conifer which was so thick at the base, Roger decided not to try and remove the whole thing but cut it off at hedge height instead; it now acts as a popular launchpad for our resident gang of house sparrows heading to the bird table. The whole length of hedge has been dropped to a much lower height (not easy, as there is a deep ditch on the lane side making access ‘interesting’) which means it no longer dominates the outlook from the house but also has given several roses, shrubs and trees a chance to thrive now they have more light and air around them. I can’t believe what a difference it has made, we have so much more light flooding into the house now, which means our passive solar heating should increase and we can also enjoy the view of the pond and woodland beyond the lane. I’ve been watching red squirrels skittering about across there and a huge grey heron that drops in silently to hunt just before dusk each evening. Give me that over a wall of privet any day.

Before . . .

. . . and after.

With the hedges sorted, Roger then turned his attention to the two entrances. This gravelled area in front of the house had been used as a drive-through car park but since there is ample parking for several vehicles if needed behind the house, we wanted to do away with any idea of vehicular access across this patch without putting up the sort of formidable fences and electronic gates (complete with flashing lights) that are so popular locally. We opted for very simple post and rail to narrow the openings and we have started to plant them with clematis and honeysuckle to form an attractive scented growing fence; Roger made a couple of simple wicket gates for pedestrian access and that was the job done. Now this area has become more of a gravelled courtyard which we will continue to plant up as garden and a table and chairs will definitely be needed as it’s such a lovely suntrap. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about the ugly solar water heater but I’m hoping once the area is bursting with colour and life it won’t seem quite such an eyesore ~ and it’s a useful one, if nothing else.

From our bedroom window, I’ve had a bird’s eye view of a flock of fieldfares feeding on the orchard floor this week; I’ve counted over 50 birds at times with more swooping in to join the feast, announcing their arrival with their familiar chattering call that is so typical of the season. They are very pretty, these colourful migratory thrushes, but oh my goodness, there is nothing subtle about them. They seem to spend more time and energy fighting than they do eating . . . and we haven’t even got close to the lean, cold times of winter yet when food supplies become scarce. Still, I love to see them and they appear to be everywhere at once, truly living up to their Anglo-Saxon name ‘fledware’ meaning ‘traveller of the fields’. There’s been brisk business at the bird feeders as well so we have stocked up on some bulk feed to keep them supplied; I’m interested to see whether we can attract a wider variety of species this year, and I’m already thrilled that nuthatches, who were occasional visitors last year, are practically living on the bird table already.

Despite the softness of the season, I still find my thoughts turning to comfort food and winter vegetables. I think it’s a Pavlovian reaction to lighting the stove: the sweet smell of wood smoke and the toasty warmth in the kitchen has me feeling the need to go forth and dig parsnips and lift leeks. It seems very incongruous, then, that I can still gather an abundance of fresh salad leaves, herbs and petals from the garden, not to mention bunches of basil and sweet peppers as big as my hand from the tunnel. Red, orange, yellow, green . . . those peppers paint more than half a rainbow on our plates. Sliced and cooked in olive oil with garlic, herbs or spices and a handful of olives when we’re feeling decadent, they make a wonderful side dish bursting with colour and packed with Vitamin C; I can’t believe that they can go on cropping for too much longer (surely not?) but it would be a criminal waste not to make the most of them while they last. Summery dishes aside, we have been dipping into things more seasonal this week. For starters, we’ve blown the dust off the terracotta diable à pommes de terre which has made my heart sing because baked potatoes, preferably with lashings of butter (I have no shame), are one of my favourite foods on earth and this is a super-efficient way of cooking them since it doesn’t involve an oven. We start by heating a little water in the pot which seasons it and means the potatoes will be partly steamed and cook quickly on the stove top, even at a relatively low temperature. We tip out the water, add a little olive oil, garlic and rosemary, lay the washed whole potatoes on top, pop on the lid and leave them to cook. They don’t have the same crispy skins of an oven-baked jacket (we do those on other occasions, maybe when baking bread) but they are completely delicious and a very simple, economical and nutritious base for a meal.

Terracotta potato devil in action.

Crumbles are great comfort food and although they generally tend to be a sweet dish, savoury versions have a lot going for them through the colder months. This week we’ve made one with a squash, leek and kale base topped with an oaty, nutty, buttery (as I said, no shame) crumble mix; it’s very substantial, almost a one-pot meal in itself, although a side dish of those colourful peppers went down a treat. It’s easy enough to reheat any leftovers but also eats well cold and I think is perhaps the kind of dish that might help persuade non-believers that vegetarian dishes can be good. Not that we are vegetarians, but we do eat a lot of meatless meals and many of them are firm favourites; it makes a lot of sense to start our meal planning with what’s good and plentiful in the garden or store and take it from there. Even though there’s always a sense of things slowing down at this time of year after the abundance of summer, we are still not short of possibilities to choose from: carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, black radish, oca, celeriac, kale, cabbage, chard, New Zealand spinach, calabrese, beetroot, leeks, various lettuce varieties, rocket, landcress, mizuna. pak choi, sweet peppers and chillies plus onions, garlic, potatoes, beans, squash and tomatoes in store.

Where fruit is concerned, we have come to the end of the fresh apples so everything now comes in dried, frozen, bottled or juiced form but there is still a good selection ~ apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries. I’m hoping that next year we will have far more fruit as existing plants respond to the tender loving care they have been receiving and new ones start to produce. I’m very excited about rhubarb (yes, I probably need to get out more) because I suspect there may well be a bumper crop and it’s such an early producer. Regular readers might remember me rescuing an ancient crown when we arrived here; the poor thing had been trying to grow inside a chimney pot and was completely miserable.

After removing the pot and giving the plant a lot of love over summer, I dug up the woody and almost rotten crown in the autumn and replanted four small root pieces from it in the perennial lasagne bed next to the asparagus. By early spring this year, two new crowns had appeared to be followed a few weeks later by two more . . . and when I found an unexpected bonus little root growing in the compost heap, I stuffed that in the ground, too.

I wasn’t sure how successful the plants would be given the heat and drought of summer and the fact that they were growing in a very young and dry lasagne bed; we didn’t have enough water to squander on them ~ it’s been tough love with all the perennials from the word go, they have to be resilient ~ so I just had to trust that the deep compost pockets beneath them would do the job.

Well, all five plants have flourished and put on an unbelievable amount of healthy growth so that it’s really more of a rhubarb forest than patch now. This week, the plants have finally started to collapse and die back a little, revealing a wealth of young growth at their hearts; I’m not altogether sure whether that’s a good idea at this time of year but it’s all part and parcel of the response to climatic conditions so I will continue to observe . . . and as Roger doesn’t like rhubarb, it looks like I might be in for a serious feast next spring.

Having written in an earlier post about being prepared to walk in all weathers, it came as a bit of a shock needing to pull on full waterproofs and hat on that first seriously autumnal day this week; I didn’t intend to go very far, to be honest, but even two minutes outside would have been enough for a complete soaking. I found myself wishing I had an adult-sized utedress of the kind we had seen nursery children wearing in Norway; skipping along with their carers like little flocks of excited ducklings, they were heading off on outdoor adventures dressed in wonderfully practical all-in-one suits which would keep them warm and dry whatever the day’s weather brought. How sensible to be dressed for every eventuality, nothing was going to drive them indoors and spoil their fun! As a teacher, I spent many winter playground duties being moaned at by children who were cold because their outer clothing was woefully inadequate for the time of year; despite all being dressed in uniform, fashion still dictated far too much where coats and shoes were concerned. So, bring on the utedress and boots, I say. It’s amazing how quickly things have got mucky underfoot here but I can’t really grumble about the grassy areas in the garden because it’s mainly down to wormcasts which are everywhere in vast carpets and such a good and hopeful sign. Needless to say, the moles are being very industrious, too, but are politely pushing up their tumps all around the boundaries rather than through the middle of things. I’m happy to rub along with them but would prefer it if they didn’t go mining under the patches of garlic and broad beans which have both sent up their new growth this week. Neither crop did particularly well this year so I’m hoping for better things next season; the fact that our rainfall is something closer to normal this autumn has to be encouraging on that score.

It takes a lot to drive us indoors but even Roger declared an official Hobbies Day in light of the vile weather and promptly disappeared into the barn to do a bit of renovation work ~ granted, not everyone’s idea of a ‘hobby’ but an activity that could be done in the warm and dry. As I’ve been unable to climb a ladder since June, I haven’t seen any of the renovation work that has been done so I’m very excited about the prospect of the plasterboard being cut away on the house side to reveal a beautiful stone doorway and a bright and shiny new room beyond: our very own The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reveal! The downside of that is that I will be able to access the space again and there is an awful lot of painting to be done . . . so I was secretly quite pleased that the bad weather only lasted a day and Roger was soon back outside to finish the hedging. As the sitting-room woodburner was lit, I decided I would be happy to hunker down and do the hobby stuff for us both but it’s been so long since I’ve done much on that front, I couldn’t really settle on anything. I looked longingly at my spinning wheel but I’m still not fit enough to use it so that was a non-starter. I dug out a pair of woolly socks I had started knitting in June and haven’t looked at since; to be honest, I only looked at them this time before putting them away again, but I suppose it’s a progress of sorts. I spent a happy hour painting a house sign on an old roofing slate, something I did in Asturias where I learned a lot from the experience; as my handwriting and artistic skills are both terrible, I used stencils but soon discovered that despite appearances, slates are a long way from being smooth and the stencils didn’t sit comfortably which made it all a bit awkward. This time I decided to be brave and go for freehand, thinking I could shrug it off as naïve folk art or some such thing if any eyebrows are raised and it actually all went surprisingly well . . . until I tried to apply a coat of sealing varnish which caused big smears across my handiwork. Mmm, you live and learn. I can’t decide now whether to go back to the drawing board (literally) or just say what the heck and hang it anyway as an example of Very Naïve Folk Art; who knows, it might even catch on. 🤣 After a quick tootle on my recorder, I plumped for a bit of crochet once again; this blanket project is already one of my favourites ever, I love the bulkiness of the wool, the texture of the joins, the fun of mixing big and small squares and the combination of all those yummy colours. Although I’d rather be outside any day, I do enjoy a bit of creative woolly business now and again . . . and if nothing else, it proved for the umpteenth time in my life that I am definitely safer with a crochet hook in my hand than an artist’s paintbrush!

Recipe for a garden

Although it’s not the end of the calendar year yet, it feels like an appropriate moment to stop and reflect a little on how things have gone in the garden so far and to start sketching out a few plans and ideas for the new season. Once again, I have totally failed to keep up with any kind of planting diary so thank goodness I can look back through my blog posts to remind me of events throughout the year. I also thought it might be useful to gather everything together under a few headings in the hope of perhaps helping, informing and encouraging others to give it a go. I’m no expert: I’ve been gardening one way or another for many years but my approach has changed over time and I’m always excited about learning from others, implementing new approaches and revising my own practices accordingly. One of the things I enjoy most about blogging is sharing ideas and information with others and it has led to much lively and inspiring discussion and some enduring and valued friendships. Everything I share is built on experience and for me, that’s the best scenario; there is a wealth of helpful advice and tips out there from experts in every field which is wonderful to tap into, but I still believe the best way to learn about gardening is to get out there and do it.

Mid-November and the garden is still a productive patch.

In many ways, this garden project feels like a culmination of everything Roger and I have learned from gardening together over several decades and of all the gardens we have created, it is perhaps the one that allows us the most freedom to play; we’re not trying to feed a growing family while holding down jobs or adjust to an unfamiliar climate or manage challenging slopes. We have a vision of what we would like to achieve but nothing is set in stone and our plans change, grow or fade away as we go along. We haven’t deliberately set out to develop a ‘food forest’ but once the trees, shrubs, hedging and perennials we have planted mature, then that is certainly what it will feel like. Our aim is to create a garden that is productive, beautiful (it’s about feeding the soul as well as the body), interesting, sustainable, regenerative and resilient, a space bursting with ecosystems and biodiversity that provides us with many of our daily needs and enhances and enriches the local environment. Lofty ideals? Maybe, but definitely ones I am happy to stand by. Any good recipe hinges on decent ingredients, so now follows my list of what I consider to be the essentials. Feel free to disagree ~ as I said, I’m no expert. 😉

Soil

To say I’ve become a bit obsessed with soil is probably an understatement but I love the fact that there is so much new and completely fascinating research and information about soil biology to consider. I’ve never had a downer on soil, that whole ‘dirt’ thing that so many people subscribe to, because as a gardener I’ve always recognised how key soil health is to the success of cultivation and the survival of our species; I also love getting my hands dirty! However, the growth in understanding of the extent to which soil is a living, vibrant entity appeals to me greatly and I am very excited to embrace it. For anyone raised in the conventional dig-hoe-weed-clean-control mindset, the idea of ‘leave well alone’ can be a bit scary or maybe even seem a totally ridiculous notion, but if we are willing to accept that nature knows a thing or two about building healthy soil and are prepared to give it a go, then the results can be quite astonishing. I love words, so the relevant language such as mycelium, hyphae, actinomycetes, comminution and mycorrhiza is for me a source of fascination in itself, but suffice to say it’s really all about what I call ‘woodland thinking’. In a wood, organic matter falls to the floor in layers and is continually recycled by a wealth of organisms into a rich, fluffy soil; the ground is never bare and there is minimal waste of any kind. To mimic this in the garden, it’s important to protect the soil structure (and hence the all-important life it contains) by not digging, leaving roots in the ground and keeping the surface covered in organic matter, either growing or as a mulch. It goes without saying that the addition of synthetic fertilisers and soil improvers or toxic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides is a complete no-no. Like a good wine or cheese, it takes time for soil to mature in this way so a little patience and a lot of sitting on hands (step away from the spade, folks!) are needed . . . not always easy, I admit, but well worth it in the end. I know we still have a long way to go here, the garden is very much in its infancy, but the improvement in the soil this year has been tangible and reflected in the health, resilience and yield of the plants growing in it.

An ever-evolving soil, full of organic matter . . .

. . . and the bounty it produces.

When we adopt this woodland thinking (or perhaps it’s also compost thinking?), then any spare biomass that comes to hand offers a golden opportunity to feed the soil but as with so much in life, it’s important to maintain a balance and apply a bit of common sense along with the organic matter. For us, that means spreading or sprinkling a wide range of materials, both green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) in moderation at an appropriate time; I will confess there’s no plan to any of this, we tend to just ‘feel’ our way but again, if we’re happy to be led by nature then it usually works. This year, we have added grass clippings, chopped dead leaves, chopped spent plants, annual weeds, seasoned sawdust, old hay, leaves and liquid feed of comfrey and nettles, coffee grounds and ‘liquid gold’ aka dilute urine, as well as home-produced compost and well-rotted horse manure, the only imported element which actually turned out to be donkey dung, but hey, it’s all good stuff. We’ve used a policy of close planting, no problem as I’m a crammer by nature anyway, and sown green manure and annual flowers as ground cover in uncultivated spaces. Everything has been mulched to within an inch of its life so that bare earth just doesn’t happen. I realise for anyone who likes to see their plants growing in clean, bare earth this is total anathema but I think we seriously need to distance ourselves from the idea of a ‘tidy’ garden because who does that honestly serve? Nature’s messy: let’s roll with that!

Extending a soft fruit bed the lasagne way.

No-dig

I will happily admit that in a former life, the intention of creating a new garden bed would have seen me stripping turf, banishing weeds, digging deeply, forking over, raking down . . . all set for a great first season as the newly-oxygenated soil kickstarted an abundance of activity from those precious soil microbes. It was a short-lived celebration, though, and a short-sighted approach to boot. These days, I sheet mulch without question: down goes a layer of cardboard straight onto grass, followed by alternate layers of green and brown materials, lovingly layered like a beautiful lasagne. Plants go straight into that ~ a generous pocket of compost beneath them ~ and the building of layers continues. I must be honest, I harboured severe doubts about how successful this would be, especially as the extreme heat and drought this year left some of our lasagne beds horrendously dry. The brown layers of twiggy sticks, dead leaves, sawdust and shredded cardboard, added to keep things light and airy and prevent undue slime from wet green materials, just sat there being (weirdly!) light and airy and stopped the whole lot breaking down into something close to soil. No worries though, everything planted in them seemed to thrive regardless but certainly the autumn rains have now helped it all move in a more expected direction. The mandala bed ~ my pet project ~ produced an abundance of growth and food that far outweighed any expectations but if I needed any proof that sheet mulching really works, I only need to look at the asparagus bed. I broke every rule in the book with that one (no clearing of weeds, no digging of trenches, no piling in copious quantities of compost and manure, no buying of male-only crowns . . . ) and yet the plants have romped away like there’s no tomorrow, still sending up spears this late in the year and refusing to die back so I can chop and drop the ferns.

Happy asparagus.

Hügelkultur was a whole new idea for us, too, and again I was a tad dubious about just how successful growing things on a hill basically constructed from bits of tree could ever be. Let me tell you, I am in awe and a complete convert in every way. Our first mound, created from an ornamental conifer that just had to go, has seen a second season of growing the most incredible harvest of squash imaginable. Seemingly impervious to the severe drought, the plants tumbled down the slopes producing a ridiculous amount of fruits as they went; meanwhile, a bonus crop of enormous field mushrooms bloomed beneath the foliage. We made another Hügel bed this year which was also planted with squash and which we’re now in the process of extending for next year. The idea is a simple one: build a hill, starting with bigger bits of trunk or logs at the base, then add branches, twiggy bits and greenery, pack with any other organic matter to hand (we piled on grass clippings and the like) and if you want to plant straight away, cover in upturned turfs or topsoil. I spent last winter collecting the spoil from molehills and throwing it on top which seemed to do the job. Like the lasagne beds, I planted into deep pockets of compost but once they were established, the plants needed very little in the way of watering and no fertiliser whatsoever . . . which is the idea, after all, and it should stay that way for many years to come.

Compost

From January 2024, all French households must be able to recycle food waste at home by law and local authorities are responsible for providing composting bins to that end. This won’t bother us at all since composting is already a way of life for us and a hugely important element in our garden system. I would say, though, that in terms of consumable food, we never have any ‘waste’ as we use everything that we have and any leftovers are turned into another meal. What we do compost from the kitchen are fruit and vegetable peelings, crushed egg shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, spent herbs from infusions along with shredded cardboard and paper, floor sweepings and anything else biodegradable. These are collected in a bucket under the sink and delivered to the compost heap at least once a day ~ one of my favourite jobs. The ‘heap’ is actually a square stack which we layer with green and brown materials as we go along, plus a few comfrey, borage and yarrow leaves and more of that liquid gold to accelerate the process. We have a three-bay system and turn the heaps regularly to keep the composting process going; once a bay is done, we store it in large bins until needed. Turning piles of organic matter into a dark, rich, friable compost perfect for planting in, mulching and enriching the soil is a magical process; it has taken nearly two years to get there but our system is now in full swing and the stuff it is producing is wonderful.

From death to life: beans germinating in our compost.

Fertiliser

The theory behind our approach to soil building is that eventually we should reach a point where there is no need for additional fertiliser to maintain plant health as a continually improved soil should offer balanced and sufficient nutrition. That said, I think there will probably still be occasions when a boost is needed and certainly while we are in the relatively early stages, then a little extra help is a good plan. As well as applying mulches of comfrey and nettle leaves around the base of plant stems, I’ve been brewing them up into a useful liquid feed by cramming plastic containers with chopped leaves, covering with rain water and leaving to stew for a couple of weeks; a lid on the container is essential as the potions stink to high heaven and act like a fly magnet! I then strain off the liquid and store it in plastic screw-top bottles to dilute and use when necessary; the sludge goes onto the compost heap or soil and I start the process once again. Dilute urine is another excellent fertiliser, being high in nitrogen, and keeping a ‘pee bucket’ in the Love Shack makes collection straightforward. A trip to the coppice lets me collect some woodland soil which is a hugely beneficial organic material: just a single trowelful stirred into rainwater and sprinkled round plants makes both a wonderful fertiliser and soil improver. Next year, I’m going to experiment with making JADAM fertilisers, too.

The sweetcorn benefited from abundant natural fertilisers this year.

Polyculture

It’s very easy to be drawn into a ‘monoculture = bad, polyculture = good’ view of the world, but it isn’t quite as clear cut as that; despite many claims to the contrary, monocultures can occur in nature and aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. Also, polyculture doesn’t automatically mean plants have to be dotted about individually, there are still good reasons for planting in rows or blocks, just perhaps in ways that differ from the conventional garden pattern. For instance, I still sow carrots in rows, but several short ones in different places alongside other kinds of plants instead of one long row or area of the same. One of the biggest drawbacks of monoculture, apart from the obvious lack of diversity, is that it offers any predators the chance to home in, fill their boots and destroy an entire crop in one fell swoop. We currently have brassicas growing amongst a range of other plants in six different locations, the theory being that even if some of them are rumbled and scoffed, the others will escape and make it to our plates. For me, polyculture is all about diversity, both in the kinds of food on offer and the life the garden can support: why settle for one kind of salad leaf or tomato or butterfly when we can enjoy something so much more exciting? It’s also about hedging our bets so that if one species or cultivar fails, we have plenty of others to fall back on. I don’t set out to arrange things deliberately in plant ‘guilds’ but tend to stick things together that seem to make sense. Carrots with onions and garlic to confuse the dreaded root fly, lettuce under tall plants to provide a living mulch and enjoy some shade, peas and beans where other plants can benefit from their nitrogen-fixing habit. Perhaps there’s an element of laziness, too; I love to wade into a mass of diverse, abundant growth and pick an entire meal virtually from one spot. Also, I think that it just looks so much better, all that variety of plant life jostling for elbow room; life is too short for bland and boring!

Successional planting

In many ways, this follows on from the discussion about polyculture because it’s based on the idea of maximising yields from a given space through planned diversity. I might be rubbish at keeping a diary, but I do make a sketch of all our growing areas each year to help me remember what was planted where, mainly to avoid putting the same types of crops in the same place too often which could lead to a build-up of pests and diseases. Ha! By the end of the year my sketch is usually totally illegible, even to me, as so many spots have been planted twice or even three times with different crops in the name of keeping the ground covered and squeezing every last food-production opportunity out of the season. For instance, where garlic was harvested in early summer there are now carrots, black radish and radicchio to enjoy, and the leeks and chard which cropped right into late spring were replaced with purple sprouting broccoli and red kale. Enthusiastic self-setters like lettuce, rocket, landcress, coriander and dill have popped up under and between other things and I’m happy to let them fill in the gaps in this way. I wrote in an earlier post about how this approach actually does away with some of the conventional worries about crop rotation as long as we are looking after the soil and to me, it makes a lot of sense. I do need to find a way of making less messy sketches, though!

Rocket seedlings appearing where pea plants were cleared.

Perennial planting

In permaculture and other sustainable / regenerative approaches to producing food, perennial planting gets a big thumbs-up and I understand all the reasons for that; it makes sense to plant a wide range of things that can stay put for many years, producing crop after crop without any need to disturb the soil or ecosystem in which they’re growing. However, at the risk of sticking my head above the parapet, I would argue that it’s a much easier approach to apply successfully in some latitudes rather than others. Let’s be honest, if we were relying wholly on perennial crops in our cool temperate climate here then we would have a very restricted diet! I love artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb and they play an important part in our garden system but even coupled with as many berries, nuts, stems, leaves and tubers as we can muster, they quite simply aren’t enough. It’s all about balance and there is still a need for us to grow annual crops if we are to enjoy a varied and interesting diet; I don’t consider this to be a problem or failing, especially if it’s done within the sort of holistic model I’m describing. That said, I’m trying to increase the number and variety of perennial food-bearing plants in our system ~ this year it’s been mostly new fruit varieties ~ because they tick a lot of useful boxes.

Integrated pest management

One of the biggest changes in my attitude to gardening is that I no longer tend to think in terms of ‘weeds’ or ‘pests’ so the heading for this section is a borrowed one. For years, I’ve always thought of us as ‘custodians’ in our gardens, a small part of the land’s history, sharing the space with other life, leaving our mark and passing on. I feel that’s a bit arrogant now and that the reality is that we are most definitely not in charge or perched at the top of the pyramid; we are a simply a tiny part of a beautifully intricate and complex web of life on which we are totally dependent. Just considering population figures for the soil life is mind-blowing! I won’t deny that slugs and aphids struggle to ooze the same cute factor as red squirrels and hedgehogs but they play a vital role in our ecosystem and it would be wrong of me to vilify these creatures, yet alone try to annihilate them. However, I’m not naïve and since food production is a lot of what we’re about, it’s important to find ways of working with the other ‘hungry ones’ to ensure a good harvest . . . and this is where IPM comes in. Basically, we draw on a range of strategies to minimise the damage to crops caused by beasties without resorting to anything toxic or upsetting the ecological balance; it can involve a little more effort (and wiliness) than throwing or spraying poisons around but that’s a small price to pay and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not exactly hard labour. When a hare decided to prune the young sweetcorn plants earlier this year, we built a temporary netting fence around them and later enjoyed a fantastic crop. Likewise, when flea beetles tried to wipe out my purple sprouting broccoli nursery bed, I tucked a protective blanket of horticultural fleece around them: those plants now stand over a metre high.

Anti-hare fencing.

Even better is the idea of letting others do the work for us. Habitat and wildlife corridor creation is a key part of our garden project, encouraging predators like hedgehogs, frogs and toads, grass snakes, bats and a whole host of birds to take up residence and tuck in; others such as foxes, weasels, owls and birds of prey pass through on a regular basis and help out, particularly with the Vole Patrol. Wherever there are vegetables, we plant flowers, too, not only to attract useful pollinators but also helpful predators and the more seasons we have here, the more I can base the choices of species on observation. For example, I’ve noticed that yarrow is hugely popular with ladybirds so I’m happy to spread it around the garden, especially under plants like globe artichokes which are prone to blackfly. Dill is a favourite of mine and I’m thrilled that along with borage, calendula and phacelia, it has already reached a level of self-setting which means I’ll never have to plant it again. Apart from being a great culinary and medicinal herb, the flowers attract allies like hoverflies and parasitic wasps whilst at the same time their smell repels white butterflies, so it’s a good one to have growing near brassicas. Nasturtiums left to trail through the cabbage patch provide a good sacrificial crop for caterpillars should the dill not have seen off enough butterflies, as well as acting like a living mulch under the plants and attracting pollinators with their sunny flowers. I know some gardeners are wary of mulches creating hiding places for slugs and snails but we haven’t found it to be that way (perhaps it’s more of an issue in raised beds?); in fact, it provides cover for top predators such as spiders and ground beetles.

We’re always going to lose some plants to the wildlife but I think it’s important to keep a sense of perspective about what is really happening in any one season. I don’t think I have ever seen such an invasion of aphids as we had last spring, they were all over everything and many plants ~ especially the young ones ~ suffered very badly. At one point, I thought we would lose all the brassicas and rainbow chard (which were more aphid than leaf!) but in fact, the damage was negligible. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated when wireworms kept destroying small lettuce plants in the mandala bed and it felt like I was constantly having to replace them but then it occurred to me that it would make more sense to pot the seedlings on and plant them out as bigger and more robust plants. Ta dah! No more wireworm issues and more lettuce than we could shake a stick at. Some of the black radish we have started pulling in the last couple of weeks have seen a bit of wireworm action but they are so huge that the impact is small, whilst in the tunnel, slugs are bashing the mizuna but there are so many alternative salad leaves, both planted and self-set, that we have more than enough for our needs. It’s also important to remember that the most disappointing crops of the year (things like potatoes and swedes) were actually casualties of the weather, so perhaps we need to look at an Integrated Climate Management system, too.

One the wireworm didn’t get . . .

Seed saving

Seeds are incredible things, so small and unassuming yet without them, our species would be doomed, and the miracle of germination is one that continues to captivate me, no matter how many times I witness it. We’ve always saved seeds from the garden but living in an increasingly uncertain world and climate, I think it’s a more important activity than ever these days. It’s an interesting pastime and gives us the opportunity to select for strong plants that are well-suited to our growing conditions. We can have fun with open-pollinated varieties and develop our very own types of some plants, whilst championing heirloom varieties and helping to maintain and increase seed diversity which has seen such a lamentable decline over the last century. Seeds are a valuable currency for gardeners, and swapping or giving them away is a satisfying gesture in spreading the love! The gift of a single precious ‘Hungarian Blue’ squash seed some years ago has blessed us with several generations of offspring which have crossed with other varieties yet maintained the strong genetic imprint of blue skin, firm orange flesh and wonderful flavour. More than anything, I see saving seeds as a kind of insurance policy and a basket brimming with little packets of carefully-selected and dried treasures brings the same joy and reassurance as a well-stocked freezer or cupboards full of preserves. I still buy some seeds from commercial producers because I like to increase our pool of varieties but we are not dependent on them and that helps build the sort of resilience that I believe is essential for the future.

Leek flowers destined to be next year’s seed.

Experiments

By this I’m not suggesting that you don a white lab coat and zip about the garden brandishing test tubes and a Bunsen burner ~ although if that’s what floats your boat, then why not? It’s more a plea to try different things and push the boundaries a bit; it’s all too easy to get hung up on doing things properly, striving for perfection or worrying about what others think but those sort of anxieties only serve to hamper discovery and shackle innovation. I think we need to be brave enough to pursue the ‘what ifs?’ not only because it makes life interesting but because I believe that, as with seed saving, it might lead to new ideas and skills that we can exploit in the face of change and adversity. Even if it’s as simple as planting seeds of something different or needy, then it’s worth a punt because who knows what might happen? Of my three ‘wild cards’ this year, the melons sprinted home to take gold, the cauliflowers deserved a pat on the back for trying and the swedes, which barely got over the start line, sloped off with the wooden spoon; all good learning experiences that I can build on next year. When I stopped to think about it, much of what we are doing here is experimental and I think that helps to keep us focused and challenged. When I decided to make the mandala bed last year, something completely different to anything I’d done before, I was well aware that I could easily fall flat on my face. Was it really possible to create a circular no-dig bed of some 28 square metres in area from materials already on site (extra cardboard was the only import) and using only spare plants or seed I already had, to investigate the yield from such a system while also setting out to prove that a vegetable patch can look beautiful in a flower garden? The answer is a resounding yes! Despite many ‘wobbly’ moments like those lettuce-munching wireworms, I think I can safely say the project so far has been a huge success and one that has far exceeded my hopes and expectations; okay, my carefully laid paths disappeared under the jungle of growth and the whole thing looked a bit sad and burned up in the heat of August, but it has produced oodles of food and flowers, supported a huge diversity of wildlife and looked very lush and attractive for most of the growing season ~ it still does, in fact. I have several new ideas up my sleeve for next year, one of which is to grow a patch of no-dig potatoes on cardboard covered in a deep layer of hay; it will go one of two ways, I’m sure, but if I don’t try it, I’ll never know.

Mandala bed in early summer before the paths disappeared.

Seating

There are, of course, plenty of other ‘ingredients’ that help to make a good garden; apart from the obvious necessities of sunlight, warmth and water, I think time, space, money, energy, enthusiasm, patience, optimism, a good sense of humour and a strong back (ha ha!😂 ) are all useful additions. Not all essential, though. It’s just as possible to apply the ideas and approaches I’ve discussed to a windowbox as to a large garden, it’s simply a matter of scale. I think that when nature is given more freedom it actually leaves us with far fewer garden tasks to do so the time element is greatly reduced. It’s also possible to grow in abundance on a tiny budget; the mandala bed cost nothing more than the price of a few seeds and yet we have harvested kilo after kilo of food from it for many months. Joking about my hobbled state aside, one of the redeeming factors has been seeing just how well the garden has coped without me for the best part of five months now; Roger has kept on top of the essential jobs such as watering during the worst of the drought and planting out winter cabbages, but otherwise it has all ticked over brilliantly without any input from me. Perhaps I should be upset about that, but when soil is building itself, ‘weeds’ are smothered in mulch or more tolerated as part of the ecosystem, the wildlife is maintaining its own balance and minimising crop damage, self-set volunteers are welcomed and left to thrive where they choose to grow . . . well, what more do I need to do, anyway? Which is why my heading for this final paragraph might seem an indulgent or arbitrary choice but I believe it is so important to have seats in favourite spots, and what’s more, to use them. Often! As gardeners, we are part of a wonderful, thriving ecosystem and it’s crucial that our needs are met as well as those of all the life we share the space with. If we can see our time outdoors as being an integral part of our life rather than a set of chores, then I think we’ve cracked it . . . so, place a seat (or hammock or whatever) somewhere appropriate and plant yourself there; breathe in the air, acknowledge the life around you, watch your carrots grow. Above all, relax and smile: the garden is taking care of itself! 😊

Sunshine, soup and summits

After a short spell of wet and gloomy weather, we have been luxuriating in a run of the most beautiful days imaginable. Early mists have dissolved quickly to leave skies of aching blue and bright, golden sunshine that sets the landscape alight. The mornings are dew-drenched, all slanting shadows and spider silk, and the afternoons are hung with a sweet softness that belies the season. Forget renovation work, the guest room will have to wait! We have been spending every moment possible outside, it is simply too good to miss. We’ve even dug out a couple of garden chairs again so we can sit and enjoy a coffee break outside, watching the birdlife and butterflies, turning our faces to the sun and generally making the most of every minute. These are such precious moments.

Warm weather aside, ’tis the season of soup and nothing brings me greater joy as lunchtime approaches than knowing there’s a bowl of steaming gorgeousness awaiting my attention. Soup is such an easy and forgiving food to make, simple, filling, comforting, delicious, nutritious . . . and when most (if not all) of the ingredients have come out of the garden, so much the better. This is food security at its best. The basic ingredients for our current mixes are garlic, onion, squash, beans and stock, and beyond that, anything can happen and no two soups are ever the same! Sometimes we use a homemade vegetable stock, others a meat stock and there’s nothing strange about that in a vegetable soup, classic French onion soup is made with a rich beef stock, after all. We might leave everything unblended so that it’s more of a broth, purée the lot into a creamy soup or ~ my favourite ~ blend everything bar the cooked beans and stir them in to finish. Flavours and extra ingredients change depending on mood or whatever comes to hand first so that it might be the addition of a rich tomato sauce from the freezer, a whack of fresh or dried chilli, some chunks of potato or carrot, parsnip or Jerusalem artichoke, sliced leeks, shredded greens or maybe some chopped celeriac leaves with their hunger-inducing herbal scent. The latter always reminds me of the delicious fasolada (bean soup) that our landlady Olga used to make when we lived in Cyprus and of which I ate huge quantities when I was expecting our first baby there. Cypriot tradition maintained that if a pregnant woman smelt food cooking, she had to eat some of it to ensure the baby’s good health, so the ever-generous Olga would send her girls knocking on our door with a plate or bowl of whatever culinary magic she was working in the kitchen. How I loved fasolada days . . . and how I didn’t end up the size of a house (pregnancy aside) I will never know! Olga used to buy and use flat-leafed parsley in gargantuan bunches and so given we still have a garden full of the stuff, I’ve been making my favourite soup topper which is a twist on Italian gremolata. Simply take a large bunch of parsley and chop finely with a couple of fat garlic cloves. Stir in a generous piece of hard cheese, finely grated (the classic recipe uses lemon zest of course, but I love a bit of cheese in my soup); in France, I use something tasty and unpasteurised like Comté or our local Tomme de Pail, in the UK a mature Cheddar is just the job. Add a glug of olive oil, bring it together into a thickish paste and that’s it: stir a dollop into hot soup, let that cheese start to melt then tuck in. Bliss in a bowl.

Parsley forest!

Happily, the fine weather has coincided with me feeling better than I have for months, not exactly pain-free yet and still a long way from normal but certainly far more mobile again at last. As standing up and moving about are now the most comfortable things I can do, I’ve been able to enjoy longer walks along the lanes, drinking in the beauty of the season and the colours of the trees now finally on the turn. There are birds everywhere, including several newly-arrived migrant species, fieldfares being without doubt the most vocal amongst them. There are huge gangs of them in the orchards, clacking away noisily and making fast work of clearing up the windfalls. The bramblings are back, too, chattering cheerfully in busy flocks mixed through with chaffinches and once again, great white egrets are striking statuesque poses in the wetter fields. Perhaps the most exciting sight, though, was a male hen harrier (busard Saint Martin in French) swooping overhead, unmistakeable in its snowy-white plumage with black wingtips and stunning against the blue sky. They are year-round residents here and the focus of a local environmental project to protect them through regeneration of the heathland habitat they prefer: something that obviously appears to be working. Closer to home, I’ve put out the bird table and feeders and it hasn’t taken long for them to become Takeaway Central once again; not that there’s any great shortage of natural food given the weather but I like to think this sort of nutritional support will be paid back next growing season when the aphids and caterpillars appear (are you listening, birds?). One thing I’ve noticed on my walks is what a tremendous crop of holly berries there is everywhere, still very much untouched but no doubt next on the menu for the fieldfares once the apples are all finished.

I’ve been managing a bit of light pottering about the garden, nothing too drastic but it’s been good to feel useful once again. I’ve been spreading mulch around the vegetable beds, tucking everything up before winter and giving the worms a lovely feast to work on in the coming months. Green manure of all kinds is flourishing, and not only in the garden; a short way up the lane, a field of phacelia has started to bloom and a little further on, a huge crop of mustard is in full flower, primrose yellow and smelling of spring. We have carpets of white clover and pockets of buckwheat, linseed and crimson clover volunteers all in flower but as ever, it’s phacelia that’s being a complete thug and I’ve had to chop it and drop it in several places where it was threatening to engulf food plants.

Rescuing leeks from a phacelia takeover bid.

I’ve also started sorting things out in the mandala bed where the first proper year of cultivation has seen an unexpected abundance of growth and harvests. Of the 32 herbs I planted round the edge, only two failed to survive the summer so I’m planning to replace them with a couple of self-set rosemary plants lifted from the gravel. The others have thrived, particularly sage and hyssop, and in many places they have already closed the gaps between them to make a hedge which is what I’d hoped for. I weeded around them, leaving the weeds as a mulch and cut back some of the more enthusiastic growth where it was impinging on other plants. In places, annual flowers had collapsed on top of the herbs and those needed cutting back, too; hard to believe how much I struggled to get them to germinate looking at so much prolific and woody growth now! I worked at ground level which gave me a wonderful insect’s eye view of everything that is still flowering and the abundance of creatures still feeding ~ honeybees, bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies and many different kinds of butterflies, including a clouded yellow. The latter is an interesting case as it is a migratory species, following the swallows up from northern Africa in the spring, and part of me suspects it shouldn’t still be lingering in Mayenne. Is this a reaction to climate change? Will there come a time when the clouded yellow stays here all winter? Now for a cautionary tale, the moral of which is never let yourself be distracted by the wonders of nature whilst wielding a pair of wickedly sharp secateurs . . . I was so engrossed in the fragile beauty and extraordinary journey of the clouded yellow that it took me more than a few seconds lo realise I’d made a half decent job of slicing the top off a finger. Mmm, I’m not exactly in a fit state to go running for first aid at any great speed, either! As Roger patched up the damage, he wryly observed how typical it was that no sooner had I recovered enough from one thing to be let loose in the garden again than I had started trying to chop another bit off. He’s right, of course; personally, I blame my butterfly mind. 😉

The garden is full of these small copper butterflies.

There’s nothing too unusual about a November day that brings clear blue skies and unbroken sunshine except that normally it would follow a night of hard glittering frost and offer a daytime temperature in single figures at best; 18C in the second week of the month isn’t unheard of, but neither is it ‘right’ and once again I’m wondering if this isn’t yet more proof of climate change. I’m not a great fan of cold weather and I love these warm, sunlit days that are such a bonus at this time of year . . . but it would be facile to even think for one moment that they are a good idea long term. Frustratingly, I can’t find a particular report I was reading about COP27 this week so I’m unable to say who I’m paraphrasing (scientist? politician? campaigner? journalist? protester?) but the gist of their comment was that we must guard against releasing a single extra tonne of carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere that isn’t strictly necessary. Call me cynical, but that comment had me immediately pondering just how much an event like COP itself contributes to the problem; according to this CNBC report from a year ago, emissions from the Glasgow COP26 summit were estimated to be about 102,500 tons (93 000 tonnes) of carbon dioxide. This figure is roughly double that of the emissions from the COP25 Madrid summit in 2019 and around 60% was accounted for by air travel. Now I am no expert, so I don’t feel qualified to judge whether the benefits of these climate summits outweigh the detrimental impact they have on the environment but am I alone in thinking there is a certain irony in thousands of people travelling from all over the globe to discuss solutions to the problems in no small part caused by, er, thousands of people travelling all over the globe? I know I’m part of the problem, even when consciously trying to tread lightly on the Earth: I put fuel in a car, use electricity and the internet, buy industrially-produced goods and foods, even if in small quantities; I rarely fly but I did climb aboard a plane to Norway in the summer. I am no environmental angel and I am the first to admit I have to do my bit if there is any hope of leaving an optimistic and viable world for my children and grandchildren. I don’t blame others or expect someone else to solve all the issues . . . but I do think, in these days of clever technology, that there has to be a better way for countries to seek a way forward than gathering together at a huge annual summit.

As I’m happy to put my money where my mouth is, I’ve been having another look at my own carbon footprint again this week. It’s something I like to do from time to time, if nothing else as a reminder of which areas of my life I need to keep tackling in order to reduce my carbon dioxide emissions. I knew that the flight to Norway would skew things a bit this year but even so, it’s always good to look for a downward trend with each analysis. As an interesting bit of research, I used several different carbon footprint calculator websites in English and French and ended up with results ranging from 3.44 tonnes to 7.94 tonnes per annum and yielding an average of 5.5 tonnes. In each case, I was well below the national or European average, but not always the global average ~ there was a surprising variation in figures for that ~ and I certainly have some way to go in reaching the global target of 2 tonnes. These calculators are useful tools as a basic guide but there’s a lot of discrepancy between them and I have to admit I found some aspects very frustrating. For starters, the information I keyed in was for our household of two, not myself personally, and I’ve been unable to clarify whether the algorithms automatically adjust to give the amount of emissions per capita. Also, I think our rural lifestyle counts against us as so many questions didn’t offer appropriate answers: one site didn’t give the option of our house being built from stone, several insisted that heating a home with wood meant burning pellets, none allowed for us growing our own food; one site automatically added figures for municipal sewage treatment when we have a private septic tank (no question of a compost toilet!), one refused to let me ride any kind of bike other than electric and several considered gardening to be a ‘hobby’ so that expenditure in that area seemed like an indulgence.

Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ was a free gift from a garden nursery and has flowered for months.

    I liked the fact that in some cases I was able to select a statement that best described my behaviour (for example, that I only buy new clothes when necessary to replace old ones) rather than give a rough figure for average expenditure. I was also pleased that some sites took water usage into consideration since treated water piped to homes has a carbon footprint which is all too often overlooked. There was, however, a good deal of cherry-picking going on with detailed questions about showers, baths, laundry and dishes but nothing about toilet flushes, car washing or irrigating the garden; in a similar vein, there was a lot of focus on how much and what kinds of meat people were eating with no consideration of how many meat-eating pets they might be feeding. I think there is also a danger of making simplistic assumptions. Where diet is concerned, I believe people have to make up their own mind and if someone wishes to be a vegan, then that is their right; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean any particular individual vegan is eating a ‘better’ diet than those who choose to eat meat, especially if it is based on imported foods with questionable provenance such as soy, almonds and avocados or highly-processed and packaged plant-based junk food and fizzy drinks. Without knowing more specific details, it’s difficult to make a meaningful judgement.

    Local, seasonal food: parsley, rainbow chard and Welsh onions in the mandala bed.

    This, I think, is one of the biggest drawbacks of using footprint calculators; as I said earlier, they are a great basic tool but in so many cases, the information needs to be qualified in order to give an accurate picture. So much of the assessment is dependent on consumption in a linear economy and there’s no leeway to break out of that mould; there’s much attention paid to the accumulation of ‘stuff’ but very little acknowledgement of the accompanying waste stream. For example:

    • Driving a medium-sized diesel car makes us instant environmental pariahs but I would point out that we bought our car second hand, it is six years old, has been regularly and well-serviced, is extremely fuel-efficient and we do so few miles annually that we only put fuel in it once in every three months or so ~ and that includes any UK trips we make. Would it honestly be better for us to scrap the car and replace it with a new electric model, or should we try to eke as much ‘life’ out of this one as we can first?
    • When it comes to books, I have to admit to regularly buying big piles of them . . . but they are second hand from a local charity shop so we buy, read and then return for re-sale in a simple yet satisfying and very successful example of a circular economy.
    • Heating water on the stove using logs from our coppice (which provide space heating and cooking heat at the same time) to make a herbal tea from plant materials collected from the garden, dried naturally then composted when used, is an example of a closed-loop system which it is impossible to describe within the set parameters of algorithms.

    We have recently bought a new washing machine to replace the one that was left here by the previous owners; to be honest, it was in a pretty poor state when we moved here and I’m amazed we managed to have nearly two year’s use from it. When it finally stopped working, our first thought was to repair it; Roger is an engineer who once built a car, so a washing machine is well within his capabilities but unfortunately, it wasn’t that straightforward. For starters, the replacement parts needed were so expensive that it didn’t cost much more for a complete new machine (and what guarantee that having replaced those bits, something else wouldn’t break, given the age of the old machine?) The bearings were one of the things that needed replacing and according to the manufacturer’s guidance, in order to do this the drum and its casing had to be split and separated, but when Roger investigated it became clear that it would be totally impossible to do that without breaking them. Talk about planned obsolescence: an expensive machine with a ‘quality’ brand name and A+++ efficiency rating, deliberately designed and priced out of the repair market. What hope for anyone’s carbon footprint when this is the way of the modern world? (Even worse, when we took the dismantled machine for recycling, the site assistant decided that the drum/casing part had to go into the general waste skip ~ and ultimately landfill, I assume ~ because it was impossible to separate plastic from metal. Waste in every sense of the word.)

    Overall, it’s been an interesting exercise and the upshot is that I need to keep on reading and learning from a broad spectrum of research and opinion, but I think any decisions about changes in behaviour still need to be based on pragmatism and common sense. After all, it could be argued that it would be best to ditch the car and washing machine altogether: that wouldn’t be impossible, but it would make life less comfortable and more difficult. Looking at the smaller things, should I carry on writing a blog, buying books and feeding the birds or are those all unnecessary indulgences? There’s a lot to think about and much of it isn’t easy, but in the end all I can do is try my best in practical terms and not become too weighed down by it all in the process. I’m not being flippant when I say that bright sides are important, too; that the weather is unseasonably warm could be an indication of very serious things going on but it does mean no heating needed in the house, the laundry drying on a line in the sunshine and a garden full of food . . . and in the short term at least, that’s a little silver lining on a November day.

    November notes

    Poor old November. It attracts such a bad press at times, given that on the face of it there is so little to recommend it by. Darkness wraps itself increasingly round each end of the day, the weather cools and deteriorates rapidly, gloom and fog descend oppressively and the leaves that so recently painted a pageant of autumn glory across the landscape now lie in a mucky slush. It’s little wonder that our ancient forebears, having brought in the last harvest and celebrated the end of the old year, saw this as a natural time of rest; there’s nothing but winter ahead, after all. I have to confess that after all the busyness and brightness of previous months, when a November day brings howling gales and lashing rain, I am happy to stay in the warmth of the house and turn my attention to cooking and crafting, studying, reading, making music . . . and yet, I can’t bring myself to write the month off completely when there is still so much to embrace and enjoy.

    It’s not all grey and gloom!

    For starters, October’s unusually mild and calm weather means the leaves are still very much on the trees and the main fall is yet to come; certainly, a more turbulent trend this week has brought a ripple of restlessness and more in the way of leaf dance, but it’s far from the sort of blast that that can strip the trees to bare bones overnight. The local countryside, heavily cloaked in deciduous woodland, is still full and beautiful and it’s a joy to be out and about wandering along the lanes from home, albeit at my current frustrating snail’s pace. Sunshine and warmth are wonderful but I’m not a fair weather walker, so I was encouraged to read a newspaper article this week extolling the virtues of walking in bad weather and all the benefits to physical and mental health that it can bring. I would most definitely agree, although with the caveat that setting off in dangerously high winds, thunderstorms or blizzards wouldn’t be anyone’s best idea! It’s so easy to find excuses not to venture out in bad weather and to hunker down in our ‘caves’ instead but I know that even a short walk in wind or rain, fog or frost will always make me feel better. It’s a great way to boost Vitamin D and immunity levels which are so important at this time of year and to release the endorphins that make us feel good ~ plus I always think there’s something incredibly life-affirming and smile-inducing about being outdoors and getting wet or wind-blown (or maybe I’m just a crazy woman?). Good clothes are key and one of the best things I ever bought was a a pair of waterproof trousers, light enough to fold into a deep coat pocket or rucksack and roomy enough to pull on over my trousers without being unduly baggy. I’ve had them for over 20 years now and they are still going strong, keeping me dry as dry on even the wettest of days. I’ve blown the cobwebs off my warm winter waterproof coat this week and dug out a woolly hat and gloves to keep me snug when the temperature starts to nip, so I’m all set. Let November do its worst . . .

    A bright and breezy November afternoon . . . perfect for a wander.

    I love my walking boots but I’m in a somewhat embarrassing situation that they and my wellies are the only waterproof winter boots I have at the moment. For 99% of the time that worries me not one jot as they are all I need but on the rare occasion I have to be semi-civilised somewhere, it leaves me with a bit of a problem. Six years ago, I bought a pair of green ankle boots which turned out to be the most comfortable footwear I’d ever owned; I practically lived in them and literally wore them to death. Earlier this year, in very wet weather, they simultaneously fell to pieces, leaving me with two soggy socks and a pair of boots beyond resuscitation by even the most talented of cobblers. On our recent UK trip, I called in at the Welsh country store where I bought them on the admittedly slim off-chance they were still available; no such luck ~ the manufacturer no longer makes that design ~ but it wasn’t the lack of replacement boots that left me feeling hollow. It was the 21st of October. We were greeted in the shop foyer by a life-sized model of Father Christmas and a large tree decorated in coloured fairy lights and in order to reach the footwear department, we had to pass aisles of Christmas items ~ mostly of the plastic, sparkly tat kind ~ and shelves piled high with over-packaged tiny amounts of festive foods at extortionate prices, the whole place heaving with eager shoppers. Regular readers will know that I am not exactly the world’s greatest fan of Christmas and its ingrained consumerism so a rant at some point in the year is inevitable, but for me this situation really took the (overpriced) biscuit. Outside, nature was putting on a dazzling display: it was blissfully mild, the sky was blue and the sun was illuminating the landscape in a bright fire of seasonal beauty, the sort of stunning day that makes me glad to be alive and desperate to be outdoors. Yet, looking around at the other customers all piling their baskets high with purchases, I wondered if we were the only ones to have noticed. I know and accept that we’re all different, and that shopping and Christmas both bring much pleasure to many people; it’s not for me to preach and indeed, I agree with author Isabel Losada that as an environmentalist, it’s better to ditch the soapbox and focus on making meaningful changes to my own life in an optimistic and joyful way rather than being a crabby, outspoken critic. My point here is the degree of sadness I felt that the accumulation of so much artificial ‘stuff’ for an occasion over two months away was taking obvious precedence over the seasonal gifts of the moment. You might not agree (and that’s fine) but I think it’s a terrible shame.

    Okay, so maybe a little indulgent soapbox moment coming up because what struck me about the shopping behaviour was that it wasn’t so much presents that were being chosen but rather piles and piles of decorations, most of which I didn’t even know existed yet alone thought I needed. This had me wondering how much tinsel a person needs to buy in a lifetime? Perhaps we were strange, but in the days when we had children at home and a tree to decorate, our family tradition always began with fetching a dusty box of decorations from the attic and rummaging through to rediscover all the little treasures it held, year after year. Many of the bits and pieces were homemade and a bit moth-eaten if I’m honest but there was never any question of replacing them. Other things were faintly ridiculous, such as the fat robin which refused to perch politely on the tree and repeatedly ended up hanging upside down from a branch before nosediving to the floor in a shower of pine needles. Christmas just wouldn’t have been the same without it. It was quite an eye opener, then, to be told by one of my pupils that her family bought new decorations every year because they chose a different colour scheme ~ that particular Christmas was going to be white and purple, starting with a white artificial tree festooned in purple tinsel and baubles and spreading through the entire house and across the festive dinner table. Save me from this madness, please. The clothing industry thrives on perceived obsolescence (I mean, who in their right mind would want to buy the same kind of boots they bought six years ago?) but when it filters through to Christmas and other festivals and celebrations, I do start to lose my hope for the future of the planet. How much plastic rubbish was generated for Hallowe’en last week, I wonder? How many of those decorations being bought were truly needed? What about the so-called cost of living crisis? Whether late December’s celebration is about the birth of a Son in a stable, the rebirth of the Sun at midwinter or simply a jolly old secular knees-up with friends and family, I fail to see how all this dubious, artificial frippery is necessary or relevant. Purple Christmas? No thanks, I think I’d rather have dull November with its honest grey gloom!

    To prove that I’m not a complete humbug, I’ve been making mincemeat this week, a task I always enjoy. Mince pies are our one festive essential and I like to give the mincemeat a month or so to mature before baking the first batch to celebrate my birthday in early December (this is strictly for quality control purposes, of course 😆 ). My recipe is ever-changing depending on what we have to hand so for instance, last year we still had Asturian walnuts in store but this year I’ve used chestnuts from the garden instead. Mincemeat is the easiest thing on earth to make but I like to complicate it a tad by making my own candied peel first and I was astounded to realise that the oranges and lemons were the first fruit I’d bought since a crate of peaches and apricots when Sarah and her family came to stay in July. I never imagined that we could come even close to being self-sufficient in fruit, especially given how much I like to eat it, but on reflection we really haven’t done too badly at all this year. We’ve enjoyed rhubarb (well, I did!), cherries, gooseberries, strawberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, blackberries, whimberries (foraged locally), melons, grapes, pears, apples and figs, some in modest amounts and others in gluts that allowed us to preserve stores for future use. I’m very encouraged by this, especially as things should get better each year, as our young trees start to fruit and new additions to the fruit list become established. The pathetic bare-rooted twigs I potted up last winter have flourished into healthy, robust honeyberry, gojiberry, yellow raspberry and jostaberry plants; the blackcurrant seedlings lifted last year and nurtured through a tough summer are promising great things next season; relocating raspberry canes and a young grapevine should encourage better crops, as will cutting back hedging around a mature vine and fig tree to let in more light, air and sunshine. I have seeds to grow Cape gooseberries in the spring and plenty of strawberry runners to spread around the patch; I haven’t made proper use of elderberries, rosehips and sloes this year but hopefully a fully fit back will allow me to do that next autumn. Some cooler days this week have meant we could light the stove without cooking ourselves and this has seen a mad scramble to dry as many apple rings as we can; our apples aren’t keepers and even the handpicked ones are fading fast so speed is of the essence. I’m also experimenting with making scrap apple cider (thanks to Marita for this idea in her wonderful blog) and if it’s successful, then I’m planning to turn some of it into fire cider. Let’s see what happens . . .

    Chopped apples, filtered water and lots of lovely microbes to do the work . . . what could be simpler?

    Roger also has a fermentation experiment going on, one of those totally unplanned things that seem to be a regular feature of our life. He has been busy with lots of outdoor projects this week, including planting a serpentine Hügel bed with grass and wildflowers to make a screen and ‘living’ seat next to the pond. We packed all sorts of organic matter into the bed last year and obviously a stray Jerusalem artichoke was in the mix somewhere, a single unexpected plant that yielded several kilos of creamy tubers when Roger pulled it out a few days ago. They are such a great food, so versatile in the kitchen and packed with prebiotic goodies, but we’ve never tried fermenting them so cue a bubbling jar of grated artichoke mixed with horseradish and chilli ~ possibly a serious blow-your-socks-off experience to come, but these things have to be done. Meanwhile, back at the pond and at long last it is filling with water; considering the liner went down in April, it has certainly taken some time. It’s not completely full yet but we can at least see how the levels fall now and where we are going to need some extra turfs to cover the exposed liner. We’ve planted marshmallow and purple loosestrife grown from seed around the edges so next we need to add some pond plants, starting with a yellow flag iris rescued from our ditch and currently living in a bucket. It all looks a bit stark at the moment but give it a year and it should be transformed into an abundant habitat for a wide range of wildlife; it’s already teeming with great diving beetles, water boatmen and pond skaters, living proof that if we provide the right sort of conditions, nature soon rushes in with the rest.

    Roger has also made a good start on the next phase of hedge sorting and laying, one of our biggest projects for this time of year. He has been making informal ‘dead hedges’ with the brush in various places but I particularly like the brush dome he has created; these are such great wildlife habitats and a big part of me is hoping that little hedgehog is tucked up safe and snug deep inside.

    Joël has been cracking on with his work in the barn, producing an ever-growing heap of stones and a pile of dry earth which was packed round them in the traditional way of building here. As ‘make no waste’ is one of our defining principles, Roger has been using both to create a feature that reminds me a little of an Andy Goldsworthy sheepfold, a circular drystone wall packed with layers of organic matter including that packed earth. Our plan is to fetch a large quartz rock from the quarry in the coppice to stand in the centre, then surround it with native wildflowers at the entrance to what will eventually be a small woodland. Our garden needs to be a productive, practical and sustainable ecosystem but that doesn’t mean it has to be totally utilitarian and a few quirky features here and there that raise eyebrows or smiles are all part of the fun.

    As the dark evenings tighten their grip, my mind naturally turns to all things woolly and since knitting and spinning are out of the question until I can sit properly upright again, crochet is my current craft of choice. I’ve finished the ‘Harmony’ blanket at long last, it must have been the most drawn-out project ever, but I’m pleased with the final result and I’m planning to team it with the ripple ‘Cottage’ blanket (which is a similar palette of colours) as pretty bedcovers in the family guestroom we’re in the throes of creating.

    While I was working the border, I found myself mulling over the possibility of a new blanket project, something smaller and bulkier which can live on the sofa for those times in winter when a little bit of extra cosiness is required. I fancied working with soft earthy tones to complement the colours in our sitting room ~ predominantly cream, terracotta and sea green ~ in another patchwork of squares but with a more limited colour palette than the ‘Harmony’ blanket. As my ideas started to take shape, I realised I hadn’t checked the ever-inspirational Attic 24 website for months and quite unbelievably, I discovered that Lucy was launching her new ‘Fireside’ blanket, which couldn’t have been closer to my thoughts if she’d tried, on that very same day. Talk about serendipity! Much as I enjoy the process of design and colour selection, I don’t see the point in reinventing the wheel so I jumped straight in and ordered a pack. It seems like ages since I embarked on a new blanket project and looking back, I see it was this time last year when I started a cotton rainbow blanket for the arrival of our new baby grandson Celyn (his name means ‘holly’ in Welsh and I love that). There is something so joyful about the anticipation of being creative with such gorgeous colours: I couldn’t wait to start.

    The squares themselves are a simple enough design but the pattern is a little complicated and has to be worked in a specific order ~ no chance of going off-piste with this one! It’s unusual in that it mixes large and small squares which is a new one for me but I already love how it looks and feels. It’s not going to be a rushed job but I already find myself torn between wanting the pleasure of the crafting to last as long as possible and the desire to have the blanket finished and ready for use. Mind you, we do have two sofas . . . 😉 The evenings might be long and dark but mine are filled with colour: who says November has to be dull?

    The silly season

    A local friend remarked this week that Mayenne seems to be moving from having four seasons in a year to just two: summer and winter. I understand what he means. Spring can be pitifully slow to arrive, especially if April is dominated by glacial drying winds blasting down from the north-east whilst come October ~ and particularly this year ~ it seems that summer is extremely reluctant to slip away. With a current daytime temperature of 23°C falling only to 16°C over night, we are enjoying a soft, wrap-around warmth that feels anything but autumnal. The ash trees have made some sort of seasonal effort, fading to yellow and dropping their leaves, but apart from the cherries, nothing else is hurrying to join them; in fact, the mature oaks which form the greater part of our boundaries are still sporting a deep summer green. The single chestnut tree has made no move towards its beautiful coppery autumn tones but it is at least dropping a bounty of fat nuts onto the carpet of ash leaves which makes for very lazy foraging. Halved and peeled, drizzled with a little olive oil and seasoning, tucked through with sprigs of rosemary then roasted, they make a simple but fabulous dish ~ truly seasonal, even if the weather is anything but.

    The garden is looking so lush and green that it reminds me of Asturias; even the squash and courgette plants that were caught by a frost a couple of weeks ago have put on lots of new growth and the globe artichokes and cardoons have grown so much new silvery foliage that I fear for their survival should the winter be hard. The Not Garden which I partly cleared some weeks ago, scattering rocket and landcress seed as I went, is a carpet of growth, with plants like New Zealand spinach and oca which really should be winding down now looking more enthusiastic and abundant than they have all year. Even the little fig tree is giving a second crop of sweet fruits. It’s complete madness, if I’m honest.

    In the main potager, Roger has been planting white garlic and broad beans this week, the main problem being trying to find appropriate spaces for them amongst all the vegetation. There are already several volunteer broad bean plants where the crop was grown this year, plus peas, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, coriander and lettuce (which are literally everywhere) and I’m pretty sure that those tender individuals are in for a very rude awakening as soon as the weather turns. There’s also a mass of self-set buckwheat and I can’t even begin to describe what is going on with phacelia, which really should have had a growth check by now to hold it as a sensible winter cover crop but it’s romping away so quickly that it’s in danger of flowering. I’ve had to chop it with a hoe from around the young Savoy cabbage plants for the second time in a month as it was threatening to completely engulf them: part of me suspects I may have to do it again before we’re finished.

    Then there’s the polytunnel. We’ve just spent a week in the UK and on our return, I couldn’t quite believe what had happened in our absence. The winter salad crops have exploded into a mass of colourful peppery leaves, punctuated by enough self-set lettuce to feed an army but more astoundingly, the sweet pepper and aubergine plants have all decided to have another go and are literally dripping with heavy fruits. No chance of clearing the plants out and prepping the soil for next year just yet, then! The tomatoes have finally given up the ghost in the mandala bed but there are peppers and aubergines still for the picking plus a bonus crop of borlotti beans that have appeared on plants I almost pulled out last month. At this time of year, we really should be starting on the starchier winter vegetables along with leeks and kale but it seems there is still much of summer to be had on our plates.

    Wonderful though this might be from a culinary point of view, there is a more sobering side to this unseasonal weather. In the UK, which like mainland Europe is experiencing unusually mild weather, environmental experts are expressing concern about the effect on fragile ecosystems such as chalk downs and the future of the rare and seriously endangered dormouse. Certainly, there is still an unusually high level of animal activity on our patch of land. Normally by now I would be setting up bird-feeding stations but there remains an abundance of natural foods for the avian population to tuck into so no need for fat balls just yet; the garden is still full of flowers which in turn are heaving with insect visitors; lizards continue to skitter about the stone walls and I almost tripped over an enormous grass snake winding its way through the grass earlier in the week. Arriving home from our UK trip late at night, we were unable to park the car in its usual place because a very large hedgehog was busy snuffling through the gravel! What a complete treat to see this beautiful nocturnal creature going about its business, and a poignant reminder of why we don’t use slug pellets (or any other toxic substances, for that matter) in the garden. On a sadder note, the next day we found a small juvenile hedgehog dead in the garden, quickly followed by a live one the same size ~ a sibling? ~ bumbling about near the Oak Shed. It looks like, in keeping with many pairs of birds this year, the hedgehogs had a late brood and I can’t imagine that seeing a young hedgepig like this out and about in broad daylight at the end of October is a good thing. That said, I don’t like interfering with the way of nature unless absolutely necessary as it’s possible to end up causing serious problems and distress. A little research told me that this youngster was above the critical size and weight deemed necessary for survival and as it wasn’t apparently ailing, I only hope it has the maturity and fat reserves to make it through the winter. I haven’t seen any trace of it since ~ dead or alive ~ and I have my fingers crossed that’s a good sign.

    I’ve recently treated myself to a copy of Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, an esteemed permaculture bible, and I love the way he talks about an ‘ecological garden’ because I think it sums up exactly the approach we practise. There is no shortage of places for creatures great and small to overwinter here as we make a conscious effort to leave plentiful piles of natural materials such as logs, brushwood, stone, hay, leaves and grass clippings in every corner of the patch and no official autumn ‘tidy up’ means there is a jungle of dried stems favoured by so many insects. Roger has been catching up with some mowing this week ~ the grass is growing at a phenomenal rate! ~ and the clippings are truly lush, full of clover and wormcasts and mixed with chopped dead leaves which makes for an excellent soil improver, mulch and compost ingredient. Under normal circumstances, I would be cutting things like the French beans off at ground level now, chopping the spent plant material over the soil surface and then mulching the lot but as I can’t get down down to the soil thanks to my dratted back problem, I’m gently trampling the plants under my wellies instead and then raking a thick pile of mulch over the top. We’re also piling the mulch straight on top of the courgette and squash plants in the lasagne and Hügel beds; it’s a bit rough and ready but will have to do for this year and as long as winter and the worms do their job, it should all help with building good soil for next season.

    I smile to see how the master mower leaves large swathes of uncut grass where fungi are blooming; it’s quite a job avoiding them and I tread carefully on the grass paths so as not to crush any. It has certainly been an incredible year for them and their varied colours and often strange forms continue to fascinate me.

    One light gardening job that I managed (and thoroughly enjoyed) this week was planting a few pots of spring bulbs and revamping the window boxes to bring some colour and interest to the front of the house. Roger emptied and shifted the large plastic pots of spent tomato plants, leaving a few glazed ones that I’ve planted with mixed tulips and a double narcissus called ‘Cheerfulness’ which we’ve placed right by the front door ~ beats a ‘welcome’ mat in my book any day. I’m not a fan of bought bedding plants but with circumstances having prevented me raising my own winter-flowering pansies this summer, we bought a few trays from the tiny nursery in St P; Monsieur Verraquin, who is very friendly and chatty, sells a good selection of quality plants quite literally from his front yard and I’m happy to support a local business like this that serves the community so well. The pansies look lovely and should flourish, no doubt seeding themselves all around the gravel and still going strong next May when I’m champing at the bit to put some summer colour in the boxes. This year, I decided to experiment with some different ideas in an attempt to get away from the ubiquitous and somewhat sterile pelargoniums, and planted the boxes with zinnias and violas raised from seed with a few nasturtiums poked in amongst them. The result was a bit underwhelming, in all truth. The violas made a lovely early show but faded away rapidly as soon as the hot weather arrived; the nasturtiums hated the heat and never really got going, producing a few pathetic leaves at best before promptly dying. The zinnias were the definite stars, they have flowered for many months and have been a-buzz with insect attention, but they grew way too tall and so looked more than a little odd without the underplanting I had hoped would balance their height. Well, nothing ventured and all that. There are still many zinnias flowering in the garden and I have collected and dried plenty of seed for next year; they might not be perfect candidates for window displays but they are worth their weight in gold when it comes to colour, resilience and sheer cheerfulness ~ the narcissi definitely don’t hold a monopoly on that one.

    No sooner were we back from our travels this week but Joël the stonemason arrived to start his bit of the upper barn renovation. It’s an exciting time, since once he has worked his magic, we will have the shell of a large family guestroom at last; there will be much for us to do, all the fiddly finishing bits that take so much time plus laying a floor and applying numerous coats of paint, not to mention sourcing some furniture (Depot Vente, here we come again . . . ). That’s fine, we have all winter and I’ll share more about this project in a later post when the days are dark, cold and miserable. I’m assuming we’ll have a winter, of course, but in the meantime it’s far too warm and pleasant to be indoors. We’re squeezing every last minute out of this incredible weather while it lasts and it’s a joy to be busy in the garden ~ even if it does feel ridiculously unseasonal. 😊

    Indian summer

    It has been the most beautiful week in this little corner of Mayenne, the sort that makes my heart sing with joy. The weather has been stunning and unbelievably warm ~ hot, in fact; I have spent several afternoons stretched out on a lounger in shorts, vest and suncream, indulging unashamedly in some solar therapy, and enjoying the very best of this lovely season. I must confess, this is a benefit of being out of action (well, there has to be something, doesn’t there?) . . . the normally fit and active me wouldn’t dream of lazy sunbathing like that at such a busy time of year. Mmm, but it’s truly idyllic. 😊 The trees are just on the turn, painting warm autumnal colours against the clear blue sky, and there is an abundance of nuts and bright berries woven through the hedgerows. It is perfectly still and calm, the air as soporific as the sleepy butterflies floating through the flowers or the leisurely wingbeats of the grey heron heading sedately to fish in a neighbouring pond. Days like this are such a bonus, a bright memory to be stored and visited in the dark, miserable months of winter.

    The warm weather is not the only bonus: many things in the garden are having another crack at summer, too, and it is a riot of lush green and colour. A friend commented in August how sad it was that the garden looked so different compared to the same time last year, so brown and burnt up and lacking the floral rainbows I love. He was absolutely right . . . but my goodness, it’s a different story now.

    Many of the perennials are having a second flush ~ the roses in particular are putting on quite a show ~ but a large amount of the colour comes from annuals that have self-set; they might have been over in a flash and run to dry seedheads far too quickly in summer, but the second generation of plants is more than making up for lost time. We have mallow and borage, calendula and cornflowers, poppies and cosmos in broad drifts and bright pops, as well as a few newbies like coreopsis that have suddenly appeared for the first time. It’s a crazy, chaotic jungle buzzing with insects, lizards and bird life and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

    We know we live in a bit of a frost pocket but we weren’t quite expecting a frost sharp enough to take some squash and courgette plants just yet ~ one of the prices we’ve paid for such gorgeous afternoons, I suppose. Not that it matters, the courgettes had finished fruiting and the squash are ready for harvesting so there’s no harm done. In more sheltered spots, tender plants are still thriving and producing; in the jumble of growth that is the mandala bed, the bright crimson of sweet peppers makes an eye-catching palette above trailing orange nasturtiums, blue borage and magenta mallow.

    We’re still picking oodles of tomatoes out of that bed and the climbing borlotti beans have decided to have a second crop, their speckled red pods adding to the celebration of colour. The rainbow chard, which we almost lost to a plague of aphids in spring, has been a real trooper all summer and goes from strength to strength, so pretty in the autumn light. Here it nestles happily with Welsh onions, flat-leaved parsley and Asturian beans in the kind of exuberant and productive polyculture I love.

    I’ve managed to do a few more units of study from my permaculture course, including one about preserving food: well, there’s no problem putting that one into practice at the moment! The biggest issue for us is finding enough space in appropriate places to store everything because despite having plenty of outbuildings, they don’t all tick the frost-free, dry and beastie-proof boxes, so much of this week has been spent getting more organised. As much of our harvest ends up in the freezer, we have been using up what we can to free up space for new things such as eating frozen peas alongside fresh veggies from the garden and turning several bags of cherries into jam. It’s very easy to get sucked into the classic storeman’s mentality and keep preserved food that would be better off being used; sweet summer peas (especially with gravy, I think) are lovely with a winter meal but we will have leeks, cabbages, chard and kale for greens then, so what are we saving the peas for? In the same way, I’ve been making a pile of cabbages into sauerkraut this week but we will eat it sooner rather than later, as we already have a good store of pickles and chutneys . . . and there will be plenty more cabbages to come for future sauerkraut moments.

    One of our best storage spaces is the cave that adjoins the kitchen and Roger has been busy this week giving it a much-needed spring clean, evicting things that don’t need to be in there (like my dyeing equipment) and freeing up shelves and floor space for more important things. It’s a great place for jars of preserves and the bottles of apple juice that have been pasteurised, for crates of potatoes, carrots, oca, onions and garlic, strings of dried chillies and of course, the squash. Mmm, they are going to need some room; we haven’t even harvested half of them yet . . .

    Our apple harvest just goes on and on, but again we are making sensible decisions about what to do with them as it is a pointless waste to spend time and energy (plus the cost of any additional ingredients) processing, preserving and storing food we will never get round to eating. Where the permaculture principle of ‘produce no waste’ is concerned, I think this is an important consideration; we need to stand back and look at our waste stream in a completely holistic way. We’re making as much apple juice as we can but 50 or so litres will do us for a year; we’re freezing pots of compote but I’m also keeping a large bowl of fresh stuff going in the fridge, perfect for my cold ‘porridge’ breakfasts. If the weather ever cools enough to light the stove ~ and I’m not wishing that on us just yet ~ we will dry several jars of apple rings and I will make a few trays of apple and cinnamon leather. We will store as many of the best hand-picked fruits for as long as they will keep but we have to accept that we simply can’t use them all and the last of the windfalls will feed the birds and the compost heap. I don’t see that as waste, just natural recycling.

    In my last post I mentioned the tremendous amount of self-setting that is going on around the patch and this week has seen the trend continuing, with peas being the seed of the moment; there’s even a very healthy plant that’s popped up between the paving setts outside the kitchen door and I have no idea quite how it got there. The first row of outdoor peas I sowed in spring were a disaster and needed replanting several times due to patchy germination and the fact that something (small and furry, I suspect) dug them up and scoffed them. It seems nothing short of ironic that we now seem to have a far more enthusiastic row that have self-set in their place! More and more, I find myself thinking that it makes increasing sense to let nature get on with these things and we’ll just harvest bits and pieces whenever and wherever they decide to grow. I do have a cunning plan where next year’s early outdoor peas are concerned, though, and I’m collecting the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls to do a bit of pre-sowing; given that we buy eco-rolls, recycled and compacted so that one goes a long, long way, I doubt I’ll have enough even by spring but it’s a start. I’ll be planting some early peas in the tunnel again as they were highly successful (despite the mice transplanting them), and I’m also going to put in a few broad beans this time which will crop ahead of the outdoor ones, which by all accounts were pretty disappointing this year. Belt and braces all the way . . .

    April peas ~ the benefit of growing under cover.

    Another plan we have for next year is to extend the existing Hügel beds as well as create at least one new one. It’s been interesting so see just how successfully they retain moisture and support growth even in their first season and next year I intend to branch out from planting squash on them and experiment with other food plants as well. As the ‘Crown Prince’ foliage dies back to reveal a bumper crop of blue-skinned squash, an unexpected and very welcome bonus has appeared in the shape of some huge and very beautiful field mushrooms growing beneath them.

    It is a tremendous year for fungi and every morning sees more and more blooms around the garden and in the verges along the lanes; the local woodlands are always brimming at this time of year and Roger tells me that amongst other things, there are parasol mushrooms in our coppice ~ interesting, as I have only ever seen them growing in pasture land before. They are every bit as edible as field mushrooms, although slightly different in texture, and along with the current abundance of chestnuts they offer an opportunity for some satisfying seasonal foraging. Mushroom hunting is a very popular pastime here and one day in the future, I’d like to head into the woods on an organised foraging session with an expert and learn to identify more of the kinds that grow locally. Anyone feeling unsure about fungi they have collected can take them to the pharmacy for accurate identification but personally I prefer to leave them well alone unless I know for sure they are safe to eat (and touch). It’s an interesting exercise trying to put names to the fungi around the garden, but even using comprehensive and detailed guides, I end up with many labelled ‘No Idea’ ~ and they are definitely best left to do their thing undisturbed.

    A huge blessing of the current weather is that we have not wanted or needed to light a fire in the house yet. There has been no question of lighting the kitchen stove since because of the way the system was installed, it means having the radiators on upstairs and the house is so warm, we would cook in bed! With sunshine streaming in through the windows for several hours each day, we are still enjoying passive solar heating so that even when it goes dark, we haven’t felt the need to light the sitting room woodburner either. All this will change soon enough but in the meantime, every day where we are not burning logs is a bonus and helps to keep our log store looking healthy. Roger has spent some time in the coppice this week, cutting fallen deadwood to season for future winters; it’s an ongoing task, but there are enough fallen trees to last us several years and although burning wood is currently being much maligned by certain governments, we like the independence it gives us, especially in the light of the current energy crisis.

    We have just changed electricity providers and had quite a time of it trying to persuade them that our consumption is next to nothing; despite the proof being there loud and clear in nearly two years of bills, no-one seems to want to accept that we can survive on so little! In some ways, we are a bit of an anomaly as our electricity consumption falls over the winter months when we use the stove for cooking and heating water as well as a space heater. The French government has capped electricity price rises to 4% and strategies are being put in place to safeguard supplies but to be honest, if there are power cuts over winter they won’t bother us too much. Keeping the freezer functioning is our biggest priority and we have a generator to hand for that should it become necessary, otherwise we are well-provisioned with logs, candles and matches and dab hands at rustling up hot meals over wood. It pays to be prepared for all eventualities but at the moment, it’s hard to imagine those long, dark days of howling wind and lashing rain or snow and ice and winter storms . . . for now, I am more than happy basking in this rather beautiful last blast of summer living.

    October already?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A time of balance

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

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

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

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

    Fruit bowl!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Seasonal treasures

    It’s apple time once again and the soft air is laced with their redolent, cidery perfume. In the orchard, the trees are heavy with ripe, rosy orbs whilst beneath them, butterflies and wasps seek sweetness in fallen fruits. As we head towards the equinox with shortening days and lower light, I love the sense of balance, the way in which the delicate drifting beauty of April’s blossom has given way to a treasure trove of precious fruit. It’s one of nature’s miracles and a true celebration of the season.

    We are picking them by the crateful and trying to process one lot into juice every other day. It’s a slow job, even with both of us working together, but we know from last year that all that washing, chopping, mashing, pressing, filtering, bottling and pasteurising is well worth the effort as the juice is sublime; despite my earlier reservations about the extent of the harvest, it looks like we should be able to press enough juice to last us a year. The apples aren’t bad eaters straight from the tree, either, and we’ve also been enjoying them cooked with the last hedgerow blackberries, topped with an oaty, nutty crumble mix; with a dollop of crème fraîche d’Isigny, it is the food of the gods, the flavoursome, comforting essence of September. Once we’ve juiced enough, I shall turn my attention to making compote to freeze for future use and we will dry as many trays of apple rings as we can once the stove goes in (despite the fresher mornings, it’s still far too warm to light it). Yes, I think we have several weeks of serious apple business ahead!

    Then there’s the small matter of the tomatoes. It feels like we are making up for ten virtually barren years in one fell swoop, picking several kilos of ripe fruits every day ~ they just keep on coming. The kitchen has become something of a tomato processing plant as we try to preserve them in every way possible. We’re using as many fresh as we can, then turning the rest into something we can store: we’re cooking vats of them, often with onion, garlic and red wine, to make rich and flavoursome sauces to bottle or freeze; we’re bottling them whole; we’re cooking them and pushing them through a sieve to make juice, again bottled or frozen; we’re turning them into spicy chutneys. With so much pressure on the freezer, we are trying to use up things like last year’s roast squash combined with tomatoes to make a delicious, creamy soup and not a single day goes by without ‘tomatoes with something’ being on the menu. It is an incredible harvest and after such a dearth, I am truly grateful; nothing shop-bought comes even close in terms of flavour and it will certainly be a long, long time before we need to put tinned tomatoes on the shopping list again. As the weather cools, there will inevitably be a harvest of green tomatoes to follow but we’ll worry about that when the time comes . . .

    The whole tomato thing was one big experiment this year so knowing now that we can beat blight, I won’t be planting anywhere near as many next year and they can all go into the ground rather than being scattered about in pots that take so much nurturing. The beefsteak varieties have all done us proud but ‘Black from Tula’ remains the firm favourite, its soft and juicy flesh bursting with flavour ~ the perfect cooking tomato, definitely top of next year’s planting list (I have seeds saved and ready to go). In contrast, the cherry ‘Glossy Rose Blue’ is extraordinarily pretty with its shiny blue fruits ripening to a deep rose colour but they are sadly lacking in flavour; in fact, if anything, they have a slight bitter tang which for me is all wrong in cherry tomatoes which surely should ooze sweetness? They’ve been fun and interesting but given that flavour comes a lot higher up the list than aesthetics for me, I’m not sure I’ll be growing them again.

    Like the tomatoes, the sunflowers have had an incredible year and are presently putting on a stunning display in the garden. The prolonged drought and severe heat didn’t bother them one jot but after a decent dollop of rain, they seem to have gathered a second wind, not to mention climbing to ever more dizzying heights.

    Where there are petals, the flowers still bristle with bumble bees busy in their spiralled centres, but once the seed heads form, the birds move in to feast. The plants literally bustle and sway with their attention all day long, but particularly first thing in the morning; it’s like nature’s own bird table, wonderfully colourful and entertaining with no need to top up the feeders . . . which is a good thing, seeing as I have no hope of reaching that high!

    I sense a definite drift towards autumn amongst the flowers now, but that isn’t to say the garden is lacking in colour. In the gravel garden we planted earlier this year, verbena bonariensis, golden yarrow and sedum make a pretty combination that the butterflies find irresistible; heleniums and Michaelmas daisies are making their presence known whilst those reliable summer troopers ~ cosmos, rudbeckia, gaillardia and zinnias – are still providing splashes of colour and interest, albeit it in a more muted end-of-season sort of way.

    As usual, I’ve lost track of what I planted earlier in the year so it’s always a delight to find little surprises lurking amongst the chaotic growth.

    Another delight is to see the garden looking green again after so many weeks of scorched grass and earth. We haven’t had a huge amount of rain and even saw a couple of days with temperatures nudging 30°C again but it’s incredible how lush everything has become in a short time and how much happier so many of the plants are looking.

    Two weeks ago . . .
    . . . and now. Note the hosepipe has gone away at last!

    We’ve been discussing plans for our next wave of projects and Roger has already started on one, planting some of the native trees we potted up from seedlings in the spring to create an area of woodland at the western end of the narrower strip of garden. We’ve opted for species like birch, rowan, hazel and wild cherry that have light and airy habits as we don’t want the area to become too dark and dense; there is no shortage of heavyweights like oak and holly around the margins so with any luck, there will be a feeling of balance to the space. Creating a no-dig mandala bed was one of my favourite pet projects last year and it’s been interesting to watch how it has developed and fared through the summer months.

    May
    June
    July
    August
    September

    Well, it’s currently a long way from the tidy, well-ordered patch it was in May but I still feel very positive about what has been achieved this year and particularly at how well it held up through the drought. As far as food is concerned, there has been a plentiful harvest: lettuces, pointy cabbages (now sporting fresh new growth from where they were cut), strawberries, courgettes, borlotti beans, purple French beans, cucumbers, aubergines, sweet peppers, chillies, rainbow chard and an unbelievable forest of flat-leaved parsley to complement the perennial herbs around the edge. There are still Asturian beans to come but the story of the moment is ~ surprise, surprise ~ an overwhelming amount of tomatoes from four spare plants that went in as an afterthought and which have created their own little rainforest event. There have only been three disappointments: it looks like one or two of the perennial herbs succumbed to the drought, the melons failed to thrive and the rogue phacelia created total chaos, collapsing over everything around it and proving impossible to tackle because it was so full of bees! In the two sections where it grew, there is now a carpet of volunteer seedlings once again, along with those of a pretty magenta mallow (one of the few annual flowers that deigned to grow). That’s fine for now; I’m calling it green manure and it will be chopped and dropped well before flowering to nourish the soil but most definitely under control from here on in. As the vegetable plants come to the end of the road, I’ll chop and drop them, too, ~ hopefully recovering the hidden paths in the process ~ spread some of that wonderful horse manure about and then make plans for next year’s planting.

    The outdoor melons were a bit of an experiment and I’m not too bothered about their failure because we have enjoyed an excellent crop from the tunnel. In July we harvested 25 fruit, twelve of them on the same day, which makes me inclined to try staggering the planting a bit next year to try and spread the load. The plants are currently enjoying a second flush, unexpected but very welcome; the fruits are a good size, not quite as sweet as the first crop but delicious all the same and a real bonus in the fruit bowl.

    ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons ~ one of this year’s stars.

    Roger has been planting seeds in the tunnel this week, an assortment of leaves, herbs and other salad ingredients to see us through winter along with the black radish and radicchio which are growing well outside. I’ve started off a tray of ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ lettuce, tough little customers which will grow happily outdoors all winter, but my biggest smile this week came when I wandered past the Not Garden (scene of last week’s lazy smart gardening) to see a green carpet of rocket and landcress seedlings where I had thrown seed pods about between the leeks and oca. Something tells me we’re sorted for salads this winter.

    It saddens me to feel that summer pretty much passed me by this year: I was so taken up with the frustration of dealing with constant pain and immobility that I missed out on far too many wonderful things. Not necessarily big things, either; I love to pack a simple picnic and flask of coffee then head off walking or on our bikes, exploring the locality and enjoying all that is good about the season. We just haven’t been able to do those things and as three months later, I’m being told by those who are caring for me that my condition is still un boulot (a big job), it seems I’m not going to be jumping on my bike or lacing up my walking boots any time soon. However, I love this time of year and I’m determined not to miss out completely, so I’m steeling myself to wander a little from home every morning. If I make it to the end of the lane and back that’s a mile, which I feel is a decent effort under the circumstances, but it’s really not about distance at all ~ if I only manage a couple of hundred metres, so be it. I can only walk very slowly but that gives me the chance to observe properly all that is going on around me and to connect with the spirit of nature which I know is so important for my well-being.

    What strikes me more than anything is how after so much heat, dryness and dust, water is now a dominant element and I love the atmospheric effects of mist and low cloud moving and morphing across the landscape.

    There have been some fairly artistic skies to revel in, too.

    Thankfully, no-one has been along to cut the hedges yet which is a blessing as they are still full of food, colour and interest . . . and it’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that they are bustling with birdlife.

    I liked the startling contrast between the colours of these oak leaves . . .

    . . . and the new catkins appearing on the hazels as they shed their leaves.

    Most of the swallows have gone now save for a few stragglers swooping and chatting above me, ready for their long trek south. The woodlarks, quiet over the summer months, are now filling the air with their melodic trilling whilst kestrels cruise on silent wings, hunting for prey in the maize stubble. The weather is still warm and sunny but the wind has a fresher edge to it; the ground remains packed and dry yet exudes a damp, earthy scent and throws up necklaces of fungi in the cool of morning; the shifting angle of the sun throws intricate patterns of light and shadow across the landscape, the colours softer and more muted as we slide into autumn. Yes, it truly is a beautiful time of year. I really can’t let this one pass me by.😊

    Observations

    There’s an old adage among beekeepers that says if you ask five of them for apiary-related advice, you’ll end up with six different opinions. I’m beginning to think that it’s much the same state of affairs with permaculture: the more I study, the more I find myself spiralling off in different directions or wading through a wealth of diverse ideas on a single subject. In a way, I suppose this is a good thing. After all, it must surely be proof that permaculture is a vibrant and evolving movement and that so many people involved aren’t simply following like sheep but thinking laterally and bringing their own energy and innovation to the field. It certainly makes it an endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking area for contemplation! I have to admit, though, that I keep coming back to David Holmgren’s twelve key principles as the basis for my own practice, partly because he is one of the founding fathers and I like what he says, but also because I think they provide a useful set of tools which suits my way of thinking. As we finally emerge from what has been a year of extraordinary weather coupled with two months where I have been largely out of action, Principle 1 ‘Observe and interact’ has been very much at the forefront of my mind this week . . . as well as what to do with the wonderful daily harvest we are still enjoying. 😊

    For me, observation is as much about having an open mind as open eyes; it’s all very well wandering about assessing how well things have or haven’t stood up to the difficult conditions but making decisions about how to move forward or what to change (the ‘interact’ bit) may need several different lines of thought. This is partly because to some extent, we are dealing in unknowns: last year was abnormally cool and wet, this year abnormally hot and dry . . . who’s to say what next year will bring? In the absence of a crystal ball, we need to prepare for all eventualities and be ready to adapt our plans as we go along. Something that has been apparent is how well the lasagne beds and Hügel beds have held up, despite being newly-established and seriously short of rain since last September. They will definitely be the model for any future planting areas we create: I think I can safely say our digging days are over.

    Squash ripening happily on their hill.

    One of the things that has struck me this week is how much better the hedges that Roger laid last winter are looking in comparison to the others. Although it might seem like a drastic thing to do at the time, this traditional approach to hedge maintenance reaps dividends in the long run, encouraging rejuvenation from the base and the renewal of the hedge’s life cycle in a way that the common practice of over- management, mechanical flailing and hard trimming to the same height every year cannot do. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the laid hedges are currently abundant in growth and green leaves and so thick that it’s impossible to see daylight through them whereas the others have been yellowing and shedding leaves at a rate of knots for some time now. We are on red alert to stop the council contractors from siding and topping the boundary hedge along the lane when they inevitably pass through on their tractors as that is the next one to be laid once the dormant period arrives. It’s a slow job but an ancient country craft well worth preserving and if it makes our hedges of native plants more robust and resilient, then it’s definitely worth the effort.

    Principle 9: ‘Use small and slow solutions’ ~ like laying hedges, for example.

    An undisputable benefit of good hedges is the habitat they provide for wildlife and it’s been noticeable this week just how many late fledges of young birds have been flitting around the garden, including blue tits, greenfinches and goldfinches. The latter are particularly active, little washed-out versions of their brightly-coloured parents feasting on an abundance of seeds around the garden with a special liking for the cosmos in the potager. Watching them swaying on the delicate stems and tucking in to the copious seedheads with their perfectly adapted tweezer beaks, I was reminded once more how important it is to always include such beneficial flowers in our planting plans.

    The young goldfinches’ favourite feeding ground . . .
    . . . but they’re not the only ones filling their boots.

    I’m saving more seed than ever this year, both food and flowers, and one benefit of the weather is that they are all beautifully dry ~ which is a good thing, as I’m running out of space indoors for processing them all. Where flowers are concerned, we’ve already reached a point where certain characters are readily self-setting all over the place: we will certainly never have to buy calendula, borage, phacelia, buckwheat, Californian poppy or pansy seed ever again and there has been an encouraging number of cosmos, verbena and rudbeckia volunteers this year, too. Whether I will be able to salvage any viable sunflower seed for planting and the winter bird table is anybody’s guess at the moment as every ripe head becomes a feeding frenzy of birds, not just the predictable finches but also a good number of great tits and coal tits. Well, they can only eat them once!

    Taking the time to look properly around the somewhat neglected garden, I was delighted to find a few pleasant surprises. I like to indulge in a bit of companion planting, albeit often in a very informal way, so for that reason I’m happy to let dill spread itself far and wide (there’s another seed we’ll never need to buy again). It’s a great culinary and medicinal herb, the flowers are attractive to helpful predators like hoverflies and parasitic wasps and at the same time, the smell is said to deter white butterflies so it’s particularly useful around brassicas. Nasturtiums are another helpful plant when it comes to an integrated pest management system and so I poked a few seeds in among the summer brassicas as a sacrificial plant for when those dratted butterflies appeared on the scene. Where the dill has revelled in a wonderful summer, the poor nasturtiums have hated it; in fact, the only ones that have grown are self-set volunteers from last year (and I think there’s a lesson there, somewhere). So, I was very pleased to find a couple of courageous little souls flowering beneath the cabbages, brave splashes of orange sunshine amongst the tired foliage, and with any luck they’ll be back next year. It’s been a tough season for the brassicas, too, not helped by the fact that there has been no let-up in flea beetle activity, but I did find a couple of gems. First, some crisp stems of green calabrese . . .

    . . . and then ~ drum roll, please ~ a cauliflower! Well, okay, it’s not much of a cauliflower and I admit one out of twelve is hardly anything to crow about, but these were very definitely an experiment this summer and under the circumstances, I’m amazed even this one survived.

    The caulis were a wild card this year and I believe very strongly that we musn’t be afraid to experiment, to push against the boundaries of perceived wisdom, taking ourselves beyond our comfort zone and into those marginal areas of thinking and doing that permaculture sees as such rich and fertile places (Principle 11 ‘Use edges and value the marginal’). Orthodoxy and tradition are good starting points for most things but when we are dealing with uncertainty and change, then we need to be flexible and open to new ideas . . . not to mention that being a bit of a rebel now and then can be fun, especially when it brings success! A good case in point is the asparagus bed that I created last year, first doing lots of research and reading into the dos and don’ts and then completely ignoring all advice and going full pelt down the maverick route.

    Young asparagus plant last year.
    Conventional adviceWhat I did
    Clear ground of all weeds, especially perennials.Spread cardboard over grass and weeds and soaked with rainwater.
    Dig a deep trench and fill with rotted manure and/or compost.Piled on several layers of organic matter, all to hand on our patch, to make a lasagne bed.
    Create a ridge, plant crowns of F1 male plants and cover with more compost.Raised non-F1 plants from seed, planted each into a deep pocket of homemade compost and mulched the lot with hay.
    Under no circumstances allow the plants to dry out, especially in prolonged spells of hot weather.Watered the plants initially last year until established; this year, they have barely been watered despite the drought.
    Do not harvest spears until the third year (crowns) or fourth year (seeds).Mmm, we’ll see about that one . . . 😉

    If I’m honest, my approach was based as much on laziness and impatience as anything else. The idea of clearing and digging such a huge patch of grassland and hauling all that compost didn’t appeal any more than having to wait until autumn to buy crowns (and the price of those compared to a packet of seeds soon had me sowing rather than ordering). I didn’t want the work or the wait, Charles Dowding assured me a no-dig bed was possible so I just went for it; to quote the mantra Roger and I have used a great deal over the years, what’s the worst that could happen?

    Asparagus bed this week.

    As you can see, the asparagus bed is currently full of vibrant green ferny foliage, some of the plants being almost as tall as I am; they haven’t suffered at all through the heat and drought and are, in fact, still sending up thick spears. Inevitably, there are some female plants among them but I’m really not bothered as they will still produce spears (with 30 plants, we will have more than enough asparagus anyway) and I can’t imagine that whipping out any seedlings that might appear is as onerous a task as some horticulturists make out. The only weeds to have appeared in the bed are a few clumps of sorrel which are easily pulled and scattered on the surface; I shall soon be giving the plants a feed of compost and manure then I’ll chop and drop the ferns around them once they have died back to add another layer of organic material to the bed. No dig? No problem, I say. 😃

    On which subject, it has been interesting to look closely this week at what has been going on in my ‘absence’ and a huge relief (1) to have had a night of proper heavy rainfall at long last and (2) to have regained enough mobility to get back to a few garden tasks. The really good news is that all the beds have remained virtually free of weeds which just goes to show how effective mulch is as a suppressant. Weeding for me these days means working at ground level with a hand fork; I can’t remember the last time I used a hoe, and I much prefer this close contact with the plants and soil plus the opportunity to leave any volunteer seedlings which might be useful. The Not Garden seemed like a good place to start and is a good example of how our holistic approach to gardening works. I started by carefully weeding between the leeks, the most common intruder being various euphorbias including the ubiquitous mole weed. I then used a trowel to spread manure around the plants; it is so well-rotted and dry that it goes on as a top dressing almost in powder form, ideal for feeding soil still in cultivation. I then chopped a pile of comfrey leaves and used them as a mulch on top of the manure; leeks are one of our staple winter and spring foods so it’s important to keep the plants well-fed over many months.

    Before the makeover . . . looking at the state of those bent tines, I’m wondering if it’s time to invest in a new little fork?

    Next to the leeks were a couple of rows of peas, long since harvested. Roger had started removing the plants to make room for the manure pile, so I finished the job, separating the spent plants from the twiggy hazel sticks they had grown up as I went along. The hazel was a by-product of the hedge laying mentioned earlier; the sticks have supported pea plants through the summer and now, dry as a bone, have been piled up to be used as barbecue kindling. I think that ticks two boxes ~ Principle 5 ‘Use and value renewable resources’ and Principle 6 ‘Produce no waste’ ~ quite nicely. The only ‘weeds’ in the peas were self-set calendula which had already dropped their seeds so I removed them, spread some more manure and then put the chopped pea straw on top (there’s no art to that, I just hack things roughly with a pair of garden scissors). On top of that, I laid a few dead rocket and landcress plants that I had left to form seedpods at the other end of the bed; the theory is that winter and the worms will work all that organic matter into the soil and the seeds will germinate to give us some winter salad leaves without any need for raking or sowing. (Yep, lazy gardening once again.) Beyond the peas is a strip of oca, New Zealand spinach and swedes which needed no attention at all. The swedes are another experiment and I’m not holding out for a crop given the tough time they’ve had; the New Zealand spinach has also struggled but looks better for cooler temperatures and a bit of rain and should now give us a decent crop through to the first frosts. The oca has resented the heat but has bounced back this week and hopefully there will be a good harvest of crunchy tubers to come in late autumn.

    Oca looking more enthusiastic after rain.

    This patch of garden is one of only two that were in cultivation when we moved here and inheriting it was something of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it gave us a planting area straight away, a mature rosemary bush and a crown of rhubarb I’ve since relocated but it wasn’t without its problems, some of which still persist . . . the euphorbia already mentioned, horseradish which is almost impossible to eradicate with those long persistent tap roots, wild strawberry plants which run amok but never flower or fruit, and the nightmare that is bindweed, to name but a few. Quite a bit of tidying to be done here, then, but in the process I discovered rows of golden and red beetroot I’d forgotten about (I’ve left them in the ground to provide winter salad leaves) and a carpet of young red sorrel plants. The red kale and rainbow chard have struggled but should go well now the weather is kinder; a sprinkle of manure and mulch of grass clippings and chopped dead leaves will keep everything snug and nourished over winter.

    Manured and mulched: the rest of the muck will be spread when the oca and New Zealand spinach have been harvested.
    It’s not a very big or impressive patch, but there’s plenty of future food in there (Principle 2 ‘Catch and store energy’ and Principle 3 ‘Obtain a yield’).

    It has occurred to me that this piecemeal approach to garden maintenance is a bit like medieval strip farming but I think that in a system based on abundant polyculture and successional planting, it works a treat. There’s something very satisfying about giving small strips and patches focused attention and responding to their specific needs, rather than giving bulk treatment to the entire cultivated area and it means I can really get to grips with what’s going on in terms of sun and shade, moisture, soil structure, plant health, biodiversity and so on in a meaningful rather than superficial way. The second patch of leeks in the potager also received the muck and mulch treatment but here the weed of the week was white clover, not euphorbia. Now, don’t get me wrong: white clover is a fabulous plant and one that plays a crucial role in our ecosystem, especially as it stayed lush and green and continued to flower whilst everything around it was fried to a crisp. It makes a useful groundcover green manure, fixing nitrogen in the soil, helping to retain moisture, providing cover for beneficial predators like ground beetles and of course, is a fantastic source of nectar. On the downside, its spreading habit can make it invasive and if it grows for too long in the same space, it can cause clover sickness in the soil. I tend to give it the ‘enthusiastic toddler’ treatment, letting it bound about madly wherever it pops up in the patch, then reining it in when it becomes over-excited. So, I cleared it from around the leeks which had become rather engulfed, but I’ve left it to run to its heart’s content in other places, particularly beneath the winter brassicas. (Principle 8 ‘Integrate rather than segregate’ and Principle 10 ‘Use and value diversity’.)

    White and crimson clover under kale.

    Another candidate for the strip treatment was the row of climbing borlotti beans which have finished cropping well ahead of their Asturian neighbours. I cut the plants off at ground level and left the roots where they will continue to benefit the soil (and much life within it) by decomposing slowly over the coming months. I then unwound the spent plants from their poles which is less of a faff than it sounds, chopped them into smaller bits and scattered them on the ground along with a good dollop of manure. Finally, I gathered some dead phacelia plants from the mandala bed and laid them on top in the hope the seeds will germinate to give a green manure cover over winter. I shall do the same with the Asturian beans when they have finished, probably in a month’s time. The Three Sisters bed was unintentional but has proved an interesting exercise in observation, nonetheless. The beans have been incredibly slow to climb up the corn stalks and are lagging several weeks behind those grown up hazel poles while the volunteer squash trailing beneath are probably the least enthusiastic and productive on the whole patch. I acknowledge this epitome of companion planting as an ancient and wise tradition but on reflection, I’m not convinced it’s appropriate to our situation (Principle 4 ‘Apply self-regulation and accept feedback’).

    The beans climbing the sweetcorn plants have only just started to flower.

    It’s exactly two years since we decided to buy this property and we have been talking this week about how we now need to flesh out our plans for the next phase of projects here, retaining the flexibility to make changes as we go along but at least moving from some vague ideas to concrete intentions (Principle 7 ‘Design from patterns to details’). We want to keep adding structure and breaking up the space to create more interest and intimacy in the garden while at the same time increasing and enriching the ecosystems and food production within it. It’s not all about the garden, either; an organised outdoor cooking area under the shelter of the outhouse has been on the cards ever since we moved here and it’s definitely time to pin down our ideas and put that particular plan into action. When I set out to draft this blog post, my intention was to hang it loosely on the peg of ‘Observe and interact’ but what I didn’t bargain for was how the other principles of permaculture would muscle in on the act unannounced as the writing took shape. Looking back, there’s only one unaccounted for, Principle 12 ‘Creatively use and respond to change’ ~ but then, in many ways, it’s also precisely what this post has been about. The garden (and house, for that matter) has survived a hot, dry summer and weeks of casual neglect; it’s not looking very tidy or particularly attractive but it is bursting with an abundance of life and food, all managing very nicely on minimum attention. I’m happy that we’re getting there, building the resilience and regeneration that was always part of our plan: the task now is to keep on observing, reflecting, connecting, adapting and ~ most importantly ~ learning and enjoying, as we move forward into the next stage. We’ll keep experimenting, too; after all, what’s the worst that can happen? 😁

    Principle 12 ‘Creatively use and respond to change’ ~ grapes could well become a staple fruit crop if our summers are going to be hotter!