Spring in the air

When it comes to a change of seasons, I’ve always preferred to go by the astronomical dates (solstices and equinoxes) rather than the meteorological dates; the latter are, I suppose, mathematically neater and perhaps more consumer friendly but I’m still not a huge fan. All of that said, I also think whether a new season has truly arrived or not depends very much on what is actually happening outside and a sort of intuitive feel . . . and so I would say, spring arrived for us here during the second week of March. Listening to the return of the chiffchaff’s song and watching a pair of them flitting about the garden, I suddenly realised that the fieldfares had left to spend the summer in more northern climes; we have had huge flocks locally, their garrulous clacking such a feature of the colder months here, but now it is time for the songbirds to gather strength and dominate the choral scene instead. Pied wagtails aren’t migratory but they don’t spend winter in the garden so it was lovely to see a pair back again, chirping from the rooftop and wagging their way across the grass, especially after Roger had done the first small cut. There is much interested activity around all the birdboxes ~ including the brand new one I mentioned last time ~ and a good deal of territorial behaviour, too: I watched with fascination as three robins, helping to clear the remnants of seed from beneath the feeders, held a showy stand-off, puffing up their chests and arching their heads backwards in an attempt to display the reddest breast. The plum and blackthorn blossom are fully out, the air is dancing with insects and tawny owls are calling night and day; no swallows yet, but I think we can say spring is well and truly here.

Of course, we’re not out of the woods yet where wintry weather is concerned. As a naturalist, it’s a wonderful time of celebration, seeing new life burgeoning, everything waking and stretching and responding to the lengthening days and rising temperatures; as a gardener, in some ways it’s time to sit on my hands. It’s so easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by a run of pleasant days and feel the temptation to plant, plant, plant . . . but there is no rush since we have such a mellow autumn here and I haven’t forgotten that the only snow we had last year fell on 1st April. Patience is a virtue (even if not an easy one). The good news is that it has continued to rain and the butts are all full to overflowing, including the two new ones; this means we have the best part of 3000 litres of stored water now, and as the ground is finally getting the steady soaking it needs, I’m tentatively hoping this bodes well for a less frustrating summer. Roger has been shifting buckets of water from the fast-filling butts to the slower ones to ensure they are all full and I have been carting cans from the biggest collection system near the house to give the polytunnel a good soaking; it’s a fair trek each time but I’d rather do it in 13°C now than 31°C in summer when the smaller butts nearer the tunnel are definitely more attractive! It would be very typical after all this if we end up having a dismally wet summer but I’d rather be over-provisioned than scratching around to keep things alive like we did last year. Let’s see what the season brings.

Collecting rainwater is one valuable way of tapping into the waste stream and making garden compost is another. For us it’s a way of life and I simply can’t imagine not doing it; I visit the compost heap daily, sometimes more than once, and empty the bucket of biodegradable kitchen scraps (as we eat piles of vegetables, there’s always plenty) on to the current pile, adding other ‘green’ materials like annual weeds and grass clippings layered with ‘browns’ such as dead leaves, sawdust and cardboard until the bay is full to the top. I also add the occasional handful of comfrey and yarrow leaves which are great activators and help to speed up the decomposition process and bless the pile with liquid gold (urine) whenever possible. As the current pile had reached its height limit this week, it was time to start a new one, not as straightforward as it sounds because there’s a knock-on effect here: first, the bay of ‘finished’ compost needed emptying, so that the other two could be turned and a fresh one started in an empty bay. Time to get busy and shift that pile of gorgeousness.

Although everything had rotted down well, the compost was a bit on the coarse side as a fair amount of bulky woody material had gone into this particular mix; not a problem in itself, as my intention was to spread it as a top dressing over the lasagne beds where I plan to plant greedy feeders like sweetcorn, beans and squash. The compost was heaving with tiny pink worms ~ perfect! The fact that I could even contemplate tackling this task yet alone do it is testament to how well my back is healing now and I can’t begin to describe how happy that makes me feel. 😊

Given the drought earlier this year, it’s amazing how green the grass has stayed and with a rise in temperatures it has started to grow rapidly. Roger did a first cut of some grassy areas this week and that produced another of my favourite ‘waste’ materials: grass clippings mixed with chopped dead leaves, perfect for layering in lasagne beds, the compost heap or in this case, mulching the broad bean plants which haven’t looked back since going in the ground last week.

Now let’s talk about peas because the next (and most crucial) stage of Operation Pea-off Rodents had arrived. Some of the plants weren’t quite as big as I’d liked but the roots were so immense that there was no question they had to be planted out before they knitted themselves into an intricate tangled mat and, given that peas hate root disturbance, that was something that needed to be avoided at all costs. I split 30 tubes of three plants each into a double staggered row which I have to admit felt a bit weird and formal because normally we would just rake a wide row and scatter pea seed all over it. Having found a couple of random bags of pea seed knocking about in the cave (who knows when we last bought loose pea seed and why weren’t they labelled?), I had planted small trays some weeks ago to check viability and between them they yielded 20 or so extra plants which I stuffed in between the rows. Well, fingers crossed this will work, it’s all part of the fun . . . and when it came to taking a photo, I didn’t have arms telescopic enough to capture the length of the roots so apologies for a split picture!

We have a trip to the UK looming (hence this quick post trotted out sooner than normal as I shall be ‘off air’ for a while) and the question is what to do about certain plants in our absence. As gardeners trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, there is never a ‘perfect’ time to go away; certainly, it’s better now than in a month’s time or the middle of summer, but even so there are decisions to be made. Our heated propagator is one of the best investments we ever made but it’s well over 20 years old now and a possible fire hazard if left untended so I’ve potted on all the resident sweet pepper and Cape gooseberry seedlings which can now sit in mini cloches on sunny windowsills until we’re back. The tunnel is a wonderful asset but also a bit tricky at this time of year, when things can feel totally tropical during the day but tumble to slightly arctic at night: we had a frost so hard this time last year that it turned the potato plants completely black, a serious hit from which they never fully recovered. There is no question that the door has to stay closed because of overnight temperatures but I don’t want things like the summer cabbage or lettuce plants cooking during the day. What do do? It’s hard to know where best to leave trays of young plants so that they don’t dry out or get too weather-beaten although my biggest concern is something scoffing them. In the end, I decided to put half of them in the ground, even though they’re a bit wee, and chance the rest left outside in their trays; I’m beginning to think I should fashion a colourful ‘belt and braces’ to wear with my gardening togs as it seems to be the number one mantra these days.

Perhaps a special pocket for our battered old magnifying glass would also be a good idea since I now carry it around with me everywhere just in case I see something small that needs examining closely. Roger was highly amused when I whipped it out to study a green cutworm he’d found in the soil although if I’m honest, they are the sort of insect presence we could manage without especially with young plants going into the ground. Fingers crossed the robins will do their duty. With a few days of warm and sunny weather between the rain showers, I have noticed quite an increase both in the number and variety of insects out and about this week; for instance, as well as the red admiral butterflies that have been flying for a while, I have also seen brimstones, small tortoiseshells and commas. Things got very exciting when I saw two Orange-tailed mining bees, also known as the early mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa), exploring a patch of mud under the washing line and later feeding on the flowering currant, then doing a circuit round the flowering dandelions, I saw my first Yellow-tailed mining bee (Andrena flavipes). Note how the flower is full of tiny black beetles, too.

Something I am becoming more aware of, too, are the feeding patterns that seem to exist; for instance, on that same day, the heathers had been full of honeybees all day but mostly White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) in the morning and Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) in the afternoon, all queens. As I watched one of the latter feeding in a purple heather, she took flight and landed nearby in the wilder of our two flower beds. I was very chuffed because it had so far been impossible to follow any bumbles after take-off, they all seem to fly off too high or too quickly into the distance, so here was my chance . . . and maybe ~ just maybe ~ she would lead me to her nest site, especially as that particular bed is full of old vole holes which I know are a favourite spot. No such luck, she alighted and sat very still on a dead leaf in the sun but as I homed in with the camera and took a few shots, she started to lift a middle leg and wave it at me. In my previous bee-ignorant life, this would have been a meaningless gesture but I knew from reading Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s Dancing With Bees precisely what was going on here. Quite simply, she was indicating that she didn’t like my presence and was asking me to step away and give her some space. The next move would have been to lift other legs before turning over to show me her sting but I decided against pushing things that far, not because I was frightened of receiving a sting (highly unlikely) but because it felt rude and disrespectful to stay when she was obviously looking for some peace.

I went back to trimming old growth from the perennial plants in the Mandala Bed (which is what I had been doing before wandering off to look at the heathers) and I don’t know whether it was good karma coming round or simply coincidence, but as I snipped away, breathing in the wonderful herbal scents and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face, a huge White-tailed bumblebee queen flew down to join me. She took herself to the section which has turned itself into a strawberry bed, wriggled underneath a pile of leaf mulch and disappeared down a big black hole below. Had I found my first nest of the season? I truly hoped so. The next day, I found a second, this time by following a Buff-tailed bumblebee queen who dived down a vole hole above a stone wall below the huge bay tree near the house; this is a pretty canny spot by all accounts, well-hidden and camouflaged, and one I won’t be nosing at too much in the coming weeks since the tree will be full of nesting birds.

Busy lifting and potting up another tray of volunteer lettuce plants in the tunnel and off in my own little world as usual, I suddenly became aware of a bumble buzz amongst the salad leaves: a beautiful Buff-tailed queen rummaging through the mizuna flowers. Crouching down for a closer look, I could see that she wasn’t taking pollen but sipping nectar with the most incredibly long tongue. What a perfect partnership; she was enjoying a hearty breakfast in the warmest spot on the property and we should benefit from a crop of mizuna seeds if the dusting of pollen on her face was anything to go by. There have been butterflies and honeybees in the tunnel this week along with a host of small flying insects so I’m hoping the flowers on the peas and broad beans will appeal to some of them. Leaving a few plants to flower in this way is a great strategy as it allows us to collect and dry seed for future crops and also encourages volunteer seedlings to pop up in a self-perpetuating way; we will probably never need to sow rocket, lamb’s lettuce, mizuna, landcress, lettuce, coriander, flat-leaved parsley or calendula in here again and many of the plants in the photo appeared of their own volition.

When Roger discovered an old trough hanger (we’re still finding ‘stuff’ left by the previous owners, even after more than two years) and suggested he could fix it to the fence by the front gate, I was delighted and wasted no time finding some pansies to plant in it; I love the way that very slowly, the house is beginning to look like it’s set in a garden rather than a car park, and as the perennials and self-set annuals in the gravel start to bloom we should have a riot of colour this year. I’m not a huge fan of bedding plants but I do love winter-flowering pansies, they flower for so many months, cheering everything up and setting a bit of seed in the gravel as a bonus. What I have found interesting is that they are a flower that strongly divides opinion when it comes to the question, are they of benefit to bees? On one side, there are plenty of people advocating pansies as being one of the best flowers you can grow for bees being very attractive ~ ‘perfect’, even; on the other, those who say they are of no use whatsoever because they either have no pollen and nectar, or bees can’t access them if they do. I’ve even come across people castigating gardeners for growing them, saying they should be banned and everyone should grow primroses instead.

Such extremes . . . and who’s right? Well, as I’ve said before, observation is important and all I can say is that we have had bumblebees visiting the pansies for some time; the black carpenter bees in particular seem to like them and one actually made me jump this week when it flew up out of the hanging basket I was watering. Of the spring flowers on our patch, it’s the ‘weeds’ like dandelion, celandine, speedwell, daisy and red deadnettle that are being visited the most but I can categorically say, hand on heart, I haven’t seen a single insect in the primroses, despite us having drifts of the pale yellow native variety and a few pink crosses, too. There have even been more visitors in the daffodils which aren’t usually a first choice for foraging so I’m not altogether sure what to make of the expert advice. At the end of the day, I think we just have to keep leaving as many patches of wildflowers to flourish as we can throughout the year whilst constantly adding to the range of flowering plants in the garden . . . and no, I’m not going to apologise for those pansies! 😊

March meanderings

So many weeks have passed without rain that waking to the sound of it pelting down on the roof one night last week left me momentarily confused. What a strange time of year to experience such prolonged drought! The next morning, after setting my pot of tea to brew, I opened the kitchen door, stood on the step in my pyjamas and breathed in that wonderfully powerful smell of rain after a long spell of dry weather. It’s officially called ‘petrichlor’ but there is something about the word that I’ve never really liked, to my ear it’s just too harsh and clumpy a name for something so beautiful that it almost defies description. How can I find the right words for the rich mineral scent of wet stone, the spiciness of damp leaves and bark, the sharp herbal breath of rain-drenched grass, the mushroomy, mossy perfume of moist earth or the penetrating, dizzying freshness of rain-laden air? It’s a good job my teapot was wrapped in a thick cosy, I’d as good as forgotten about it so immersed was I in the sparkling morning. Sparkling it was, too; after weeks of everything looking so pinched and dusty, so crouched and clemmed, suddenly ~ like the sweep of a wet brush across a page in one of those children’s magic painting books ~ the bleached grey landscape was awash with vibrant colour. I wasn’t the only one to be revelling in the change, either; there is a pair of blackbirds building their nest in the bay tree and the male was singing his heart out in the way only blackbirds can after rain. What a wonderful start to the day.

Incredible how quickly everything responds, too; there is a sudden burst of blooms around the garden now, the first of the blossom opening in delicate pinks and whites, daffodils in bright drifts above celandines and violets and by the kitchen door, Vita’s dainty narcissi fill the air with their sweet perfume, reminding me of a wonderfully kind neighbour and soft Asturian springs.

It’s still too early to launch into full-scale planting as things could go horribly wrong with the weather for a while yet but it’s felt good to be able to do at least a few bits and pieces this week. For starters, I pricked out a tray of aubergine plants; given these little seedlings have so far spent their lives in the wrap-around warmth of a heated propagator, it always feels a bit cruel to turf them out but they had their first true leaves and were getting very leggy so D-Day (or Jour-J as it is in France) had arrived. I always try to be as kind as I can, taking them down to the polytunnel where the air is calm and toasty and the compost and water are both several degrees warmer than their counterparts outside. I talk to the seedlings soothingly and stroke them gently as I uproot them and place them into individual pots ~ I’m not sure it benefits them, but it makes me feel better about the whole thing. I then put them in mini- cloches (upturned former fat ball buckets) on the sunniest windowsill in the house where they now receive lots of daily love; they will do their utmost to die over the next couple of weeks but hopefully the majority will toughen up and make it to the next stage like last years’ brave little troopers.

No such Softy Walter stuff from the broad beans, I’d been hardening my pre-sown plants off outside for several days and with the ground now wetter and warmer, it was time for planting. Not a moment too soon, either; their root balls were tremendous to the point it was a struggle getting them out of their pots. Of the double row of beans planted in late autumn, only a single plant has survived; they grew too quickly in the unusually mild conditions then blackened and crumpled when the first hard frosts rolled in. It’s all part of the learning curve we’re still travelling along but we’ve decided there is absolutely no point in autumn sowing in the future, better to pre-sow under cover in February and start the spring with strong, healthy plants.

You might have spotted a few rogue lettuce plants amongst the beans, the result of using our own non-sterile compost and a bit of a bonus in my book. These are ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’ or ‘Wonder of Four Seasons’ or ‘Four Seasons Wonder’ or ‘Four Seasons Marvel’ depending on where you look (and that’s just in English!) but the point is they’re robust little things that aren’t too bothered by inclement weather and can be grown as a winter variety. As we already have a tunnel full of volunteer lettuce plants and a tray of seedlings growing on for outdoors planting, I decided to stick the extras straight into the ground outside; they’ve got two chances and my hunch is they will be just fine. Next to go in were the three perennial kale plants grown from gift cuttings; I’ve been warned they need lots of space which is fine because that’s what the big perennial food bed is all about. I’ve spaced them out generously between raspberries and rhubarb and hopefully they will be providing us with a reliable crop of leafy greens at this time of year in the future. Note the phacelia seedlings bottom left, they are popping up all over this bed where I scattered dead seedheads around last autumn in a self-planting green manure sort of way. Lazy gardening once again. I love it. Mind you, I’ve made a mental note not to let phacelia out-thug the row of newly-planted Jerusalem artichokes like it did last year; of course, I’ll leave plenty to flower and set seed but certain patches are most definitely in for the chop and drop treatment sooner rather than later.

Back inside the tunnel, and all things ‘pea’ are doing well. The early planted peas are climbing their supports and, like the broad beans beside them, starting to think about flowers. I have several pots of sweet peas bombing up and a couple of trays of peas planted as microgreens which I’m picking and tossing over salads. On which subject, at this time of year the tunnel really comes into its own, offering a wealth of delicious fresh ingredients for daily salads: several varieties of lettuce, rocket and mizuna (both with flowers, too), baby beetroot and chard, radicchio, spinach, landcress, lamb’s lettuce, chickweed, pea shoots, flat-leaved parsley, coriander, chervil, spring onions, calendula petals . . . I’m spoilt for choice, and soon there will be crunchy little radish in the mix, too. Outside, the new growth on chives, mint and lemon balm in particular make for tasty herbal additions, along with edible flowers such as daisy, primrose and violet.

Microgreen peas: I’ve already had several pickings of shoots from these little plants.

I’m happy to report that Operation Pea-Off Rodents is going well. Germination rate is high and although some of the seeds have pushed themselves above the compost line, this isn’t a problem in itself. The roots are ridiculously long, already out of the bottom of the tubes and beyond; I need the plants to be bigger before they go outside but at this rate, I don’t think it will be too long.

The whole allium family struggled badly right from the start last year but things are already looking more hopeful for the new season. The autumn-planted white (soft neck) garlic is going strong and this week I planted a couple of rows of pink (hard neck) garlic to join it, plugging a few gaps in the white rows as I went. The shoots should emerge at the same time as the first decent leaves on the comfrey plants which I will chop and tuck round as a mulch. I’ve left space between the rows to sow carrots as companion plants in a bid to outsmart carrot rootfly ~ not that we’ve had any at all so far, but you can’t be too careful. In the tunnel, I already have a tray of red and white Welsh onion seedlings doing very well; these are perennial clumping onions which did better than most in last summer’s conditions so I intend to plant them all over the place this year. The white and red annual onion seeds are also germinating and I’ve bought a net of sets, too, in the hope of covering all bases. Just the leeks to go . . .

A particularly cold and wet morning a few days ago which was neither conducive to gardening (me) or foraging (bees) presented itself as the perfect opportunity to make a concrete start on Project Bee. I trawled carefully through a pile of resources making a list of plant species identified as being beneficial to wild bees, then sorted them into three groups: those we have growing here in abundance, those we have but only in small amounts and those we don’t have at all. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, more a working document to which I can add as I read more articles and research as well as from my own observations, of course. For example, the list of preferred species I’ve made for the Long-horned bee (eucera longicornis) includes bramble, bugle, comfrey, clovers, vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and everlasting peas ~ all of which we have ~ but the female I saw in the garden last year was feeding on strawberry flowers (I can’t speak for the male, he was just ‘hanging out’ in the polytunnel doing nothing in particular). Also, basil hasn’t appeared on any list and yet I would argue it’s one of the most bumblebee-visited plants we grow; I plant lots of it in the tunnel with the express purpose of tempting the furry little beauties inside in the hope they will work their buzz pollination magic on the aubergines while they’re in there.

From this . . .
. . . to this, thanks to busy pollinators.

I compiled my list from sources focused on catering for wild bees and avoided anything too generic; I have a gardening book which lists over 100 ‘food plants for bees’ but without any indication of which particular species they cater for. Also, from what I’ve already learned about solitary bees in particular, it’s not just about food forage as certain species need leaves to cut, plant hairs to collect or hollow stems to nest in, too. My finished list came to 90 plants and I was quite pleased with the initial breakdown: we have 48% in abundance, 33% to a lesser extent and 19% missing from the garden (although some of those grow in the coppice and along the lane side). It’s a decent start and gives me plenty to think about as I plan this year’s garden activities. For instance, I’ve already been dividing and moving some roots of lamb’s ear; there were two plants here when we arrived, both of which are planted in less than ideal spots ~ as a Mediterranean, drought-tolerant plant I think it will be happier in the sunny gravel garden than a very damp and cold north-facing bed. It’s a nectar-rich plant, particularly helpful for bumblebees and very important for the Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) which I am desperate to attract; I mean, if ever there was a bee designed to appeal to me, here it is (well, the female, at least). She gathers fibres from the furry leaves, takes them back to her nest and ‘felts’ them into a cosy cell lining and door plug, fills it with pollen and then lays an egg inside so that the young hatch out inside their own personal woolly blanket with food on tap. Meanwhile, the males are extremely territorial, guarding patches of flowers by wrestling, headbutting or crushing to death potential enemies against spikes on their abdomen. Wow! Given that we have an abundance of great mullein which is another furry-leaved plant, I’m very hopeful of being able to see all this fascinating activity play out in the summer. Who needs television?

Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) on a knautia flower last spring.

The warmer weather has brought a return to insect activity around the garden and I have been wandering, camera in hand, to see who’s about. I have to say, strong winds (a rarity here) are not conducive to snapping small creatures on waving stems but I have at least managed to see and identify a few things, if not capture good photos of them. We’ve been toying with the idea of investing in some extra camera lenses for a while now but having done a bit of research this week, I was left giddy by both the choice and the prices. Ouch! When it comes down to it, if I can get one decent snap in focus then it’s simple enough to crop and zoom on the laptop to help with identification; otherwise, I’ve been carrying an old hand lens around in my pocket which has helped me to observe quietly and try to commit salient features to memory. It’s an ancient thing, scratched and battered, so I’m wondering if a half-decent botanist’s loupe would be a better investment. In the meantime, my eye was drawn to movement in a patch of sunny celandines growing in the gravel, I crouched down to eye level and snapped . . .

Mmm, a honeybee. No problem identifying that one. Wait, though: there was something else, not feeding in the flowers but rummaging about in the leaf litter. A European paper wasp (Polistes dominula), sporting bright orange antennae and possibly contemplating a nesting site in the barn. They are a very common species here and given their voracious appetite for caterpillars, a welcome ally in the garden.

Celandines are definitely proving to be a popular food source this week and as we have probably more than anyone needs (they are gorgeous sunny things but a bit of a pain when they creep into cultivated patches), there has been no shortage of visitors. I tried in vain to take a decent photo of a solitary bee in the hope of identifying the species; it (she?) was so tiny, several could have easily sat on my little finger nail. Zooming hasn’t helped with this one, but for what it’s worth, here’s the photo anyway; if nothing else, it shows just how wee she was.

Roger has commented that my garden activities seem to have become very ‘scientific’ this week, but I am still trying to concentrate on the jobs in hand as much as possible; we need our fruit and vegetable crops, after all, and there’s a lot of work to be done where flowers are concerned, too. That said, could I help but be distracted from weeding the gravel garden when a large carpenter bee (Xylocopa violacea) appeared in a potted rosemary plant? Still more brown than blue on those wings, but with a teasing little hint of that metallic brilliance this time.

Photo shoot over, I popped the camera back in through the door, only to grab it again instantly as with a squeal of excitement (yes, I really squealed ~ what is happening to me?) I spotted something different sunning itself on the stone wall next to the door frame. Needless to say, the instant I tried to take a picture she flew off but I did manage to catch her among the pansies in a nearby windowbox: not the best of snaps but enough to identify that ball of gorgeous gingery fluff as a tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva).

As an offshoot of this insect activity, I’ve realised that it would be a good idea to brush up on a bit of botany, too; if put to the test, my recognition and knowledge of plants far surpasses my insect awareness but there are still some gaps that need addressing. In my last post, I wrote that we didn’t grow viper’s bugloss which was ridiculous considering we had a mass of it growing wherever I’d sprinkled mixed flower seed . . . it’s just that I’ve always known it as ‘echium’ and wasn’t aware of the common name. Doh! Anyway, in the interests of blowing a few botanical cobwebs away, I’m doing a handy course on Memrise called ‘Common and Native Plants of Britain’ which is designed to help commit the names and pictures of over 300 plants to memory. As I’m already fairly clued up it would be easy just to zip through clicking on answers at top speed but I’m making myself take things slowly, really focusing on every detail in the photographs and illustrations: it’s amazing what tiny details come into focus, features of such well-known plants I’ve never really clocked properly. Also, there is most definitely a level of challenge in distinguishing accurately between several different types of forget-me-not or speedwell, for example.

There is so much that’s new and fascinating, too; for instance, I had no idea that scarlet pimpernel could sometimes have blue flowers. I’m also trying to absorb the Latin names correctly as I’ve always been a bit slapdash where they are concerned: if you put a Latin name in front of me, I could probably tell you what plant it is ~ or at least make a pretty good guess ~ but it’s going the other way that I always struggle with. I’ve already said that I don’t want to become a Latin-spouting know-it-all (horrible thought) but if I’m going to match the right insect with the plant(s) it needs, then I have to be accurate in my observations. At a fairly basic level, it’s a good idea to be able to identify typical features of different plant families but I’m also intrigued by some of the names, given my love of language; I never knew that the name of the ranunculus (buttercup) family comes from the Latin rana, which I recognise from Spanish to mean ‘frog’ because the plants can often be found growing in damp places.

For anyone wondering why I’m doing a refresher on British plants, the fact is that the wild flora here in Mayenne is very similar to that of Britain but where there are differences or new species to identify, there is a wealth of excellent French resources I can tap into as need be. Nothing replaces fieldwork when it comes to observation and familiarisation so I’m expecting to spend much of the summer crawling about on my hands and knees (now that I can again), getting down and personal with the native flora as well as the insects. Head down, bottom up. Probably a good job we don’t have any near neighbours. 🤣

Bring on the natives . . .

Wandering back to the house after a happy time planting beans and wondering if it was time to put the kettle on, I saw what Roger had been up to while I was busy in the potager. What a lovely surprise, another little birdbox made from offcuts and scraps of wood left over from the renovation work and coated with wildlife-friendly oil (he’s also added a smart green waterproof roof since I took the photo). It’s not difficult making this sort of box, even I have managed to make them with zero carpentry skills, and it’s wonderful to provide a safe space for birds to raise their families. Official advice tends to be to site new boxes in autumn to allow birds time to familiarise themselves with them but I think it’s easy to fuss about things like that too much; I’m not a gambling woman but if I were, I’d happily put money on there being a resident family in the new box this season. Looking round the patch for a good spot to site the box, we were aware of the grim sound of a tractor and hedgecutter flailing not too far away and not for the first time, I wondered whether the laws around hedgecutting should be reviewed, especially given climate change. The season ends here on 15th March yet I know we have birds building nests in our hedges already, particularly where there is holly, ivy and dense bramble so I can’t imagine it’s any different in field hedgerows.

We’ve also installed a new batbox in what we’re hoping is an appropriate south-facing spot, on a mature oak tree which forms part of a long hedge line and is adjacent to the orchard where we often see bats flitting through on summer evenings. The box is designed to feel like a cavern with a crawling board at the base to help them access the entrance and should be suitable for several species of bat (chauve souris in French, literally ‘bald mouse’); we’ll be watching with great interest to see if someone decides it’s their perfect des-res. In the meantime, one of the aspects of increasing biodiversity I’m working on this year is to grow a good selection of night-scented flowers which are a perfect food source for moths . . . which in turn are fairly high on the bat menu. To that end, I’ve been sowing nicotiana seeds this week in the warmth of a mini-cloche inside the tunnel; also called tobacco flowers, they are a great favourite of mine, giving tall structure to a summer flower border in a fairly underwhelming way during the day but then as evening comes, opening their colourful trumpets in shades of white, pink and purple and releasing the most incredible perfume. I stopped growing them several years ago when the standard seed became difficult to find since dwarf lime-coloured ones without any scent had become highly fashionable. Why would you, I ask? What is the use of fashion in a garden that is all about providing as many habitats and food sources as possible for a wide range of fauna? I’d far rather be a ‘so yesterday’ dinosaur with a garden that brims with life than an on-trend flower fashionista. I’m just hoping the moths (and bats) agree. 😉

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant

When we lived on top of a windswept Welsh hillside, the chances of having daffodils ~ the national flower of Wales ~ in bloom for Saint David’s Day on 1st March were very slim; in fact, it was often close to the vernal equinox later in the month before drifts of yellow painted the garden with their welcome springtime beauty.

No such problems here! Tucked into sheltered, south-facing places, they are already weaving golden sunshine beneath hedgerows and trees in a joyful celebration of the season; like the primroses and violets scattered amongst them, their sweet pollen-rich scent is truly evocative and like nothing else. I love them.

I’m happy these beauties are growing in sheltered spots because March has certainly come in like a lion, with a powerful north-easterly wind snatching the smoke from the chimney and wreaking havoc where it can. It is eye-wateringly glacial, all iron and ice and ozone, swirling dead leaves in spiralling eddies and sending the crows skittering sideways across the sky. It is seriously drying, too, and the brittle air crackles and fizzes with static; my hair, usually a wild and wavy mop in more humid times now clings to my head here and sticks out at crazy angles there . . . I feel like Albert Einstein (without the genius part, obviously 😂).

The ground is baked hard, the soil dry and powdery, so much so that a tractor passing along the lane yesterday left a huge cloud of red dust in its wake. We are losing plants to drought, heart-breaking at any time but rather surreal so early in the year. There is nothing for it but to hope: hope for warmer days, for soft, steady rainfall and gentle breezes, for strong roots hanging on doggedly deep beneath the soil, for the promise of fresh new growth emerging from this wintry desert.

I’ve said many times before that gardening is a great metaphor for life, coping with the rough and the smooth, the ups and downs, the smiles and tears; at times like this, it can be hard to maintain a balanced perspective and sense of humour but if ever there was a symbol of optimism, it must be the daffies with sunshine in their frilly hearts. Here’s to March going out like a lamb . . . and in the meantime, Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus! Happy Saint David’s Day! 😊

Fair February

 February, a form pale-vestured, wildly fair. One of the North Wind’s daughters with icicles in her hair.

-Edgar Fawcett

February. A short month and one that is often maligned but so far, ours has most definitely been wildly fair with not too many icicles. True, there have been a few grey days and frosty mornings but mostly it has been fine, bright and sun-blessed, and it has been a pleasure to be outside ~ not just busy in the garden, but enjoying al fresco coffee breaks or a few minutes of evening sunshine before cooking dinner and inevitably, the first official barbecue of the year. It never fails to make my heart sing to see a line of laundry blowing in a soft breeze and coming back into the house smelling of spring. There has definitely been a bit of a bustle in the hedgerows, too, as the birds seek partners and nesting places, or in the case of the bramblings, come and fill their boots at the feeders before heading north once again. A multitude of plump, velvety bumble bees has emerged from winter nests to feed along with carpenter bees flaunting their metallic blue wings and the first red admiral butterflies sipping nectar wherever they can find it. The first daffies have opened their frilly blooms above a carpet of primroses, celandines, daisies and crocus; it has been an exceptional year for the snowdrops which are still flowering merrily and the hazel catkins are truly spectacular, cloaking the hedges in a shower of gold and full of pollen-hungry bees.

Of course, there’s always a flip-side and in this case it is most definitely the sad lack of rain; although we’ve had far more than last winter, recent weeks have been so dry that the soil is light and friable rather than the more usual heavy mud and I am having to water everything in pots and troughs on a regular basis. According to official sources, the 21st January to 20th February marked 31 days of sécheresse ~ a period devoid of rain in France, and an overall precipitation deficit for the month of 50%. After last year’s drought, this is seriously bad news and doesn’t augur well for the new growing season. We have installed two new 210 litre butts in our overflow catchment systems but there’s no chance of them filling at the moment, especially as I am quietly emptying the existing butts through essential watering activities. It is a bit of a worry given what happened last summer and I can only hope that if February won’t fill the dyke, then maybe March or April will. We haven’t quite reached the point of saving grey water yet but I have started to save any water used to wash vegetables; it’s a tip in Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and one so simple and blindingly obvious, I don’t know why I’ve never thought of it before. Veggie washing water is full of nutrients, especially in winter when seasonal produce tends to come to the kitchen covered in soil, and this makes a good feed for plants so it’s a waste to let it go down the drain.

‘Dirty’ parsnip and leeks from the garden this week. My fork is there to give an idea of scale: that parsnip was enormous!

What else can we do about the water situation? I went in optimistic search for an old well only to discover that when the original fermette was parcelled off, the well ended up in the field just the other side of our boundary. Darn it. I have been looking for a bowser which we could pull behind the garden tractor to make watering easier in the summer but the cost of them, even second-hand, is prohibitive so it looks like we’ll be hauling cans once again, although the extra butt on the Love Shack system will help where keeping the tunnel watered is concerned. Increasing moisture retention in the soil is an obvious partial solution and as I’ve been weeding, mucking and mulching the last couple of beds this week, I’ve been pleased at how much more organic matter there is in the soil than when we first arrived here. I’m hoping things are moving in the right direction.

There has at least been enough rain over winter to fill the pond at long last so Roger has been able to adjust the turfs around the edge now we can see the levels and also create a couple of areas of stones to allow wildlife to reach the water. It still looks stark as all new ponds do, and we will have to wait until later in the year for nurseries to have their full stock of aquatic plants; we’ve made a start, though, and the wonderful thing is that there is a lot of busyness in the area with birds drinking and bathing and a large population of great diving beetles and back swimmers already very much at home in the water. If we can get enough vegetation established in and around the pond over summer, then it will be fingers crossed for some amphibian spawn this time next year.

When I stumbled quite by chance on a nursery advertising bare-rooted Bramley ~ or to be completely correct ~ Bramley’s Seedling apple trees, I knew we just had to go and check it out; our sweet cider apples are wonderful for juicing and they make a very presentable compote with the help of a potato masher but there is nothing quite like a good old-fashioned British cooking apple when it comes to pie! True, they’re a sour fruit that, unlike the cider varieties, will need some sweetening but it’s the delightful fluffy pulp they cook down to that makes them perfect for so many things in the kitchen. (As an aside, although Bramleys tend to snatch the headlines, I really rate Howgate Wonder as an excellent cooker, too). To say they are a rare find in France is a bit of an understatement, so this was an opportunity not to be missed even though it was an hour’s drive away. What a complete gem of a nursery, I was in paradise! Run by an Anglo-French husband and wife team, I can honestly say it is the most immaculate nursery I’ve ever visited, the plants are so well-cared for and the choice is dizzying: cue one serious ‘child in a sweet shop’ moment . . . 😁 Needless to say, I came away with a few extra treasures and seeing as we were given a mug of excellent Italian coffee dusted with chocolate and a very generous discount on our purchases, we will definitely be going back. As rather too many of our young trees have been pruned over winter by nocturnal visitors, we invested in a top-notch anti-deer tree guard; this is one tree we really don’t want to lose. I’m already thinking of those pies . . .

Something a little bit different we bought from the nursery was a selection of sempervivum to plant in the low stone wall Roger built some time ago. I remember being fascinated by these ‘hen and chicks’ as a child but we haven’t grown any since our own children were small so it’s interesting to have another go and they already look just right planted in pockets between the stones. I hope the resident lizards will approve of their new succulent garden.

Staying with the theme of drystone walls, last autumn Roger created a circular stone feature which I called ‘The Sheepfold’ because it reminded me of an Andy Goldsworthy creation. We’ve been umming and ahhing about what to put in the centre so I was delighted when the perfect specimen presented itself at the nursery, a red witch hazel (Hamamelis ‘Ruby Glow’) which was simply too exquisite to leave there. In summer, it will provide some fairly innocuous green height above the rainbow of annual flowers I plan to plant beneath it but in winter, oh my goodness ~ what a stunner it will be, especially lit by the low sunshine and seen against a dark backdrop of holly. I went to fetch water while Roger finished planting it and by the time I arrived back with my can, there was already a honey bee in one of the flowers. What a perfect seal of approval.

With our Persephone period well and truly over, the time to get stuck into the first batch of seed sowing has arrived. The light levels are now conducive to encouraging plant growth once again but a balmy warmth takes a little longer to arrive outside! The soil is still cold but we have planted a row of parsnips from our saved seed this week; they are tough little characters and need a long growing season so we always plant them at this time of year, whatever the weather. We didn’t have a huge crop last year but the lack of quantity has certainly been made up for in quality, every parsnip being huge but still sweet and very tender. In fact, we are going to have a surplus as we will never eat what’s left in the ground before they start growing again so Roger is planning to freeze batches of parsnip, squash and preserved lemon tagine which he made this week and is absolutely delicious. The propagator is of course not bothered by cold temperatures and we already have a tray of aubergine seedlings basking in the warmth along with sweet peppers and Cape gooseberries, sown but yet to emerge. The difference the shelter of the polytunnel makes becomes startlingly obvious at this time of year: there is no way we would have potatoes through the ground outside before April.

The salad crops in the tunnel are still going well although the rocket and lamb’s lettuce are starting to flower and I will leave some of them to set and scatter seed; I’ve planted a row of radish between the leaves and they bombed up almost overnight. On the potting bench, there are trays of ‘Greyhound’ cabbage and red Welsh onion seedlings looking grand along with broad beans and ‘microgreen’ peas plus numerous pots and trays of sown flower seeds. I’ve been lifting lettuce volunteers and potting them up to give us the first batch for planting outside when the temperature lifts a bit; I saved masses of lettuce seed last year, but the hundreds that are popping up in the tunnel make me wonder if I’ll actually need to sow any of it this year!

I’ve also put Operation Pea-Off Rodents into action and sown the first batch of ‘Téléphone’ and ‘Merveille de Kelvedon’ in cardboard tubes of compost; I’ve stood them in sturdy plastic crates with wide mesh bottoms sitting in a solid tray which I hope will make watering easier and prevent the tubes from becoming soggy and collapsing. I’ve sown thirty tubes with three peas each which should give us a decent row in the garden and my plan is to simply dig a hole and pop each tube in to avoid any root disturbance once the plants have reached critical mass. Read it and weep, voles. 😆

With outdoor living mode firmly re-established, I’ve been sprucing up the Love Shack table and chairs with a fresh lick of paint in readiness for much use in the coming months. I’m also pleased at how our idea of turning the south-facing former car parking space at the front of the house into a gravelled courtyard garden is starting to take shape, as fresh new growth from the perennials we planted last year starts to make an impact. The fences and gates Roger made have certainly created a more intimate and enclosed feel and with a freshly-oiled picnic table and couple of wooden ‘coffee break’ chairs out there in the sunshine, it is becoming an ever more inviting spot. With gravel, pots and window boxes all planted up we shouldn’t lack for colour this summer but having found the dregs of some bright turquoise paint I’d used in Asturias, I finally got round to painting an old milk churn that had been left here just to brighten things up a bit and provide a colourful welcome at the front gate.

When I was reading up about microgreens a couple of weeks ago, I came across the idea of Buddha bowls for the first time. I realise I’m probably light years behind everyone else in this so maybe I should pay more attention to what’s ‘trending’ (or is it ‘on trend’?) but that really isn’t my way ~ plus I’m always a bit sceptical of anything that can seem to be there just to look pretty on social media. The first article I found left me with the impression that the food involved had to be vegan and eaten with chopsticks but wider reading soon suggested that a whole spectrum of ingredients was possible ranging from strict vegan to unapologetic omnivore and that really (and unsurprisingly) you can eat them however you want. My interest piqued, I decided that the forthcoming few days of being left to my own devices would be a perfect opportunity for a bit of culinary experimentation; I’m happy with my own company and have no problem filling long days with busyness but the evenings without Roger always feel a bit strange as that is when we spend time preparing a meal together. Cooking for one can seem a bit of a faff and it’s all too tempting to resort to something simple on toast ~ or else I usually end up with a vat of soup that’s enough to feed me for several days. I thought that perhaps setting out to make a Buddha bowl might fill the being-busy-in-the-kitchen gap and allow me to focus on creating an interesting meal for one without piles of leftovers. I don’t have an official Buddha bowl so decided to use a big pasta bowl instead with a small Japanese tea bowl in the centre to hold the dressing. Here we go . . .

Self-set lettuce, rocket and coriander . . . perfect Buddha bowl ingredients.

The concept of a Buddha bowl is very simple as each one is based on just five elements ~ whole grains, vegetables, a protein source, a dressing and ‘sprinkles’ to finish ~ within which the range of possibilities is seemingly endless. I set out to see just what I could create using as much of our own produce as possible so the bought ingredients are marked with an asterisk. (There are a couple of ingredients which don’t really fall into either camp: the honey was a gift from a beekeeper and the preserved lemons are homemade, even though obviously the lemons and salt were bought originally.)

Buddha bowl #1

  • Whole grain: brown rice*
  • Vegetables: squash and red and golden beetroot roasted in olive oil* with chilli and coriander seed; sliced black radish; sliced oca; shredded red kale; rocket leaves; radicchio heart; grated carrot.*
  • Source of protein: borlotti beans
  • Dressing: tahini paste* whisked with chopped garlic*, orange zest and juice*, honey and olive oil*.
  • Sprinkles: pumpkin seeds*, chopped preserved lemon, chopped flat-leaved parsley and fresh coriander leaves.

Buddha bowl #2

  • Whole grain: bulgar wheat*
  • Vegetables: red kale, mixed sweet peppers and baby leeks, lightly fried in olive oil*; grated beetroot; Welsh onion;, sliced black radish; radicchio, mizuna, baby beet leaves, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and ruby sorrel.
  • Source of protein: hard-boiled egg*
  • Dressing: herby vinaigrette made from olive oil*, Dijon mustard*, scrap apple cider vinegar, finely chopped flat-leaved parsley, fennel and mint.
  • Sprinkles: sunflower seeds*, primroses, rosemary flowers, chervil and chopped chives.

The verdict

Starting with the drawbacks, the preparation of so many different elements meant I needed to be very organised; for instance, I had to cook rice, bulgar wheat, borlotti beans, egg, roast and fried vegetables and allow them plenty of time to cool so it felt like the meal preparation was stretched out over a long time. It’s not something you can do in a hurry unless using bought pre-cooked pulses or grains but that said, things can be cooked ahead and stored in the fridge. I tried to be as energy-efficient as I could, too, so the roast vegetables for the first bowl were actually cooked the previous evening when the oven was on to cook our meal and I cooked the beans, rice, bulgar wheat and egg in a pan on top of the woodburner; I couldn’t help feeling that my usual ‘lone meal’ choices like a mushroom and herb omelette with salad or a vegetable risotto were far more fuel-efficient . . . not to mention a lot lighter on the washing up! That aside, I certainly had the enjoyable and engaging meal preparation activity I wanted and ended up with two nutritious bowls that looked and smelt wonderful, were completely delicious, very sustaining and which somehow oozed good health. There was also something about them that encouraged slow, mindful and appreciative eating; I even felt inspired to put on some soft music and light candles. Eating alone doesn’t have to be miserable.

I was really pleased that I managed to make two quite different bowls, especially given that we are in a relatively lean season when it comes to what’s available in the garden. The beans, squash and peppers all came out of our stores and everything else was fresh from the garden or tunnel; the only bought vegetable was the local French carrot. It’s also a great way of stretching tiny amounts of anything and using up scrappy bits and pieces in a meaningful way. For instance, we’re very much at the tail end of the black radish with only small ones left and the ‘baby leeks’ were a few straggly specimens that have never filled out into grown-ups but the scale of both was just perfect for the job.

It’s been interesting this week to see press reports of shortages of fresh foods such as broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers in UK supermarkets, especially as the supermarket shelves and market stalls here in northern France are currently heaving with produce from Morocco and Spain, so I’m not convinced about the cold Mediterranean winter being totally to blame. Whatever the reasons, it’s a good opportunity to bang the drum for eating seasonal produce once again, something I feel will become increasingly important in the years ahead. Yes, we have a polytunnel but it’s not heated and we’re not trying to grow hothouse vegetables through the cold months; if I can rustle up a couple of Buddha bowls from the garden in late February, packed with colour, flavour, texture and good nutrition whilst notching up zero packaging and air miles, then who needs ‘summer’ veggies at this time of year? Sadly, there wasn’t quite enough purple sprouting broccoli ready to use and my ‘microgreen’ pea shoots are still a couple of days away from being pickable, but even so there is still no need to resort to imported vegetables . . . I just wish the purple sprouting broccoli would hurry up because I love it!😊

Lazy gardening

For the first time in over seven months, I have just spent an entire week being busy in the garden and I can’t even begin to say how happy I feel. It’s still a case of ‘modified movement’ so I can’t zip about at my usual preferred pace and I have to be sensible when it comes to lifting and carrying but I can live with that for the simple pleasure of being back to doing what I love. The weather has been kind ~ dry, still and mostly not too cold ~ and I have enjoyed being out there and getting stuck in to all the things I should have been doing weeks ago. The joy at having to pull stray bits of leaf from my hair and scrub soil from under my fingernails once again has been exquisite!

With my hands literally back in the earth, I realise it’s what I think of as connection that I have missed the most; there’s a huge difference between wandering about the garden looking at this and that, and actually being fully and physically engaged with what is going on. I’ve never warmed to the term ‘low-maintenance garden’ for two main reasons. First, it suggests that everything in the garden is a chore, requiring us to spend time and energy on boring tasks that eat into time we could spend doing other things, so the quicker the jobs can be over and done with, the better. Also for me, there is a strong sense of disconnection, of the garden being something ‘out there’ that holds us responsible for management and maintenance, rather than an integral part of our lives and living spaces.

Of course, I understand that gardening isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and busy lives or physical impairments can make the idea of low-maintenance an attractive one; if I’m completely honest, I quite like the idea of a ‘low-maintenance’ house when it comes to cleaning! 😂 However, I just wish we could change the language a bit so that instead of focusing on the idea of work, tasks, chores and jobs we think about caring, nurturing, helping, supporting ~ in a word, love. I don’t mean it in any touchy-feely, woo-woo way either (although I have no problem with that attitude), I simply believe the world would be happier if gardens were seen as places of peace and pleasure where working with nature rather than beating it into submission or resenting its intrusion is the main thrust. After all, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the best thing to be doing in a garden is absolutely nothing!

Time to watch the grass grow . . .

I also believe passionately that growing and nurturing plants is an incredibly therapeutic activity, one that can help to bring a sense of balance and calm in a hectic world of push and shove. I am grateful to live in such a beautiful spot with plenty of space for creating a garden but raising and tending a few plants on a windowsill can bring just as much pleasure; our first ‘garden’ constituted a few pots on the balcony of a first-floor flat, tiny and limited . . . but a garden, nonetheless. There are, of course, many additional benefits to spending time out of doors, especially in these months of low light levels in northern Europe; what better way to boost Vitamin D, serotonin and endorphin levels than getting outside and connecting with the winter garden? At first glance, there might not be a lot to see or do but it’s amazing just how much is going on if we take the time to stop and stare. I love the fact that I can once again get down comfortably to ground level and observe all the silent busyness that is happening without any input from me whatsoever: layers of organic material being slowly but surely transformed into rich, friable soil; fresh green spears of bulbs piercing the earth and pushing skywards; brave little seedlings popping up in sheltered places; fungi trailing through the grass in snaking pathways and the muddy squiggles of thousands of wormcasts, evidence of such intensive and essential labour going on underground.

I’ve always been a bit of a laissez-faire (or do I mean lazy?) sort of gardener, preferring a chaotic abundance over manicured perfection every time so the system of no-dig gardening suits me down to the ground ~ no pun intended. We build and improve our soil from the top downwards, adding layers of organic material and natural amendments throughout the year and trusting the mind-blowing numbers and diversity of life-forms in the soil to do all the hard work for us. Beats wielding a spade any day. Mulching is a way of life and brings many well-documented benefits: it protects against soil erosion, acts as an insulator, helps to trap moisture, suppresses weed growth and itself becomes another ingredient in the soil recipe. Most importantly (in my opinion), the worms love it and happy worms are to be encouraged, dragging the top layer down into their burrows and turning them into something beautiful. Much of my week, then, has been spent lifting perennial weeds where they have appeared, distributing piles of dumped donkey dung more evenly then adding or topping up mulch wherever needed. For instance, I’d let white clover run between the red kale plants as a green manure, fixing nitrogen at the roots of the kale which has been in the ground for many months; now, after spreading a good dollop of manure around, I topped the whole bed with a mulch of grass clippings and dead leaves.

I know there is an argument against mulching with dead leaves based on the fact that they can create an environment that is temporarily deficient in nitrogen but I’m not too bothered on that score. This is because they will in effect form the filling of a nitrogen-rich sandwich: below them is a layer of green manure, chopped plant foliage, manure and compost and the next layer to go on top will undoubtedly be grass clippings. They are the carbon-rich balance and have already done much to improve the structure and friability of our soil; admittedly, I prefer to use them chopped but it’s a case of needs must at the moment. A more general drawback of any mulch is that insulating properties can work both ways so that they can actually prevent the soil from warming up quickly in spring; to this end, I’ve ensured that the beds we’ve identified for early and direct sowing have had the ‘light touch’ treatment with a thin layer of finely chopped matter scattered across the surface. Elsewhere, although the mulch is deeper, I know that very soon an army of blackbirds will be busy from dawn to dusk scratching it up in search of those precious worms so there is no chance of anything becoming too cold and compacted.

How long before the blackbirds start rearranging the mandala bed, I wonder?

Although they’re producing well, it struck me how much smaller the kale plants are this year compared to last and I’m convinced it has everything to do with the heat and drought of last summer. Next to them, a patch of Savoy cabbages tells the same story: a complete lack of enthusiasm in germinating and growing, they went into the ground far too late and far too small with no chance of us ever eating them as the winter cabbages they are supposed to be. However, the plants have hung on and as as spring tends to be a slow-burn affair here (let’s face it, we could still be having the same bitterly cold weather well into April) then I think there’s every chance we will enjoy a decent if late harvest from them yet.

Something that hasn’t struggled in the last couple of years whatever the weather has thrown at it is comfrey, such an essential and useful plant in any organic garden. As Roger had lifted all the remaining canes from the old raspberry bed I felt it was time to have the comfrey out of there, too, and relocate it to several new homes scattered around the patch. How the two modest roots that came with us from Asturias had grown and spread! I’ve stuffed plants into a few places where nothing else has thrived and if they all continue to grow in the same vein we should have more than enough for our needs, even chopping four or more times a year. The first fresh foliage is already on its way . . . why toddle off and buy commercial NPK fertilisers with their associated synthetic ingredients, manufacturing production, packaging and air miles when it’s as simple as chopping and spreading comfrey leaves or leaving them to steep into a wonderfully rich (if smelly) liquid feed? In a similar vein, I’ve written before about that greatest of fertilisers ~ urine ~ and without going into too much detail, I’m very glad to have reinstated my P-Bucket in the Love Shack this week. If you’re having a yuk moment, bear with me because dilute urine is liquid gold when it comes to feeding plants and soil or making compost . . . and it’s readily available . . . and free. Don’t fret about digging, raking, hoeing, forking, pruning, weeding and all the rest of it: the best thing you can do for your garden and compost heap is pee on them. I mean, it’s hardly work, is it? 😉

New growth on comfrey plants.

On very cold sunny days, the tunnel is the place to be and the difference in temperature never fails to astound me. Outside, I needed several layers of clothing, a thick padded coat and woolly hat yet once in the tunnel, I stripped down to a vest under my overalls with sleeves rolled up and hat discarded. No wonder the plants are so happy in there, the soil is already warm so I decided it was time to plant a dozen potatoes; these are ‘Charlottes’ saved from last year’s crop which had made an excellent job of the chitting process all on their own in the cave and hopefully will give us an early harvest well ahead of the outdoor spuds. Basking in all that wonderful warmth, it seemed like the right time to sort the tunnel out ready for the new planting season. First, I tidied up the potting bench and stacked pots and trays underneath, then carried in water to fill the butt and two large cans. Next, I turned my attention to what at some point had been a salad patch but had since become a chickweed jungle. Chickweed (mouron des oiseaux in French) is a great early spring green that is full of beneficial nutrients and I’ve been tossing a few succulent shoots into our salads for several weeks now. I generally tolerate it in the garden but it had got totally out of hand in the tunnel so the time had come for a bit of a tidy.

Are there any salad leaves under there?

I love gentle jobs like this, down at ground level using my hands or small fork; it gives me the chance to engage with what is going on, checking the health of plants, looking for any signs of disease or pest issues and gauging the state of the soil. As the chickweed carpet was rolled back, several buried treasures emerged including a wealth of coriander, rocket and lettuce seedlings, a row of rainbow chard plants that had been missing in action for some time and some rosettes of lamb’s lettuce which must be volunteers from last winter’s crop as we’ve grown a longer-leafed variety this time. Given the time of year, it’s amazing what an abundant salad we can pick: red and gold beetroot leaves, mizuna, radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, ruby sorrel, rocket, baby chard leaves, landcress, flat-leaved parsley, chervil and chives along with chickweed, sorrel and young dandelion leaves as foraged foods.

Lamb’s lettuce (or corn salad if you prefer): la mâche is a hugely popular winter salad leaf in France.

Growing microgreens isn’t something I’ve done much of apart from the inevitable mustard and cress mixes when our children were little; perhaps it’s my frugal side, but I’ve always thought that if I’m planting seeds, I might as well let them grow into full-size plants and enjoy them at a macro level, albeit often nipping off young shoots and leaves to eat along the way. Of course, I’m lucky enough to have the space to do that but I think for anyone who fancies growing some fresh, nutritious food in a lowest-of-low-maintenance way, then microgreens could be a great starting point. My interest has been piqued recently when we were introduced to the activities of David and Tracey Fenner who run a market garden and permaculture teaching site at La Ferme du Moulin des Monts in the Limousin region of France. I’ve been engrossed in their beautiful website (techno-numpty that I am, I didn’t realise there was an English version so it’s been a great workout for my French, too 🤣 ) and it seems they have taken growing microgreens to enthusiastic and inspirational new heights. There’s much that I’m finding interesting and thought-provoking; for instance, I’ve been growing crimson clover as a green manure for years without ever realising it was edible. Pottering about in the tunnel and watching the pea plants responding to the blissful warmth, I decided I’d give microgreens a little go. As I don’t have any coir matting or sterile compost, I didn’t want to plant anything which would have tiny seedlings as there will undoubtedly be other things emerging from our own compost so I’ve plumped for peas, which I’ll be able to pick several times as cut-and-come-again shoots.

I’ve also sown some giant red mustard, a packet of seeds which has been in the seed basket for donkeys’ years and I haven’t dared plant for some time as it’s such a mega-thug. Perhaps it will be more manageable at a micro level but that will depend on whether the seeds germinate at all . . . when I checked the packet, the date was 2002, although a few seed pod husks suggests they are our own saved seed from a later date. Even so, it’s probably a big ask but we’ll see; I shall be checking daily for signs of germination and with any luck, within a couple of weeks I’ll be snipping the little nutrient-packed sprouts to add yet more interest and flavour to those winter salad bowls.

I’m also keeping a close eye on the 30 broad beans I planted in pots a few days ago, eager to see those first wonderful shoots unfurling with the promise of so much good food to come. I’ve decided that for the most part, pre-sowing our vegetable seeds is the best way to go here and although it might entail a bit more work initially than throwing them directly into the ground, the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. Obviously, root crops like carrot, parsnip, beetroot and radish need to be sown straight into the soil but pretty much everything else can be started off in pots, modules or trays and planted out at a later date. To be honest, I’ve learned the hard way with this one: French beans wiped out by bean fly, lettuce roots destroyed by wireworm, peas decimated by mice and now the autumn-sown broad beans which germinated then disappeared (reason unknown), the tiny handful left being blackened by severe frost and struggling to survive. Forget autumn sowings in future, I shall raise broad bean plants in the tunnel as I’m doing now and they can go into the ground in spring where they will undoubtedly catch up anyway.

I’ve been collecting toilet roll tubes to use as root-training planters for peas in the hope of beating the rodents at their own game and now have ample for the first early row; all subsequent sowings were fine last year so I’m hoping we will be able to direct sow the successional crops. There’s a lot to be said for this approach, not least that it makes assessment of seed viability so much easier: if the seeds are initially raised in an environment where factors like growing medium, temperature, moisture and light are controlled and pests can be easily spotted, then sporadic germination is probably down to the quality or age of the seed. Also, young robust plants that have been given a good start and planted out in optimum conditions have a good chance of coping with extremes; we have had two completely different growing seasons here in two years so who knows what to expect this time? Our garden has to be ready for anything!

Sowing lettuce seeds in trays then potting them on before planting out produced a bumper crop last year.

With all this in mind, I’ve been sorting through the seed basket this week and drawing up a planting calendar to try and keep on top of what needs doing in the busy coming months. I can’t believe it’s almost time to dig out the heated propagator again and start this year’s aubergine adventure. It’s wonderful to see so many of our own saved seeds in there although I must confess I still feel a bit nervous around them, fretting about what happens if they fail to germinate. All I can do is plant them and see, although I’m so worried about the amazing ‘Black from Tula’ tomatoes failing that I have bought a packet of organic ‘Noir Russe’ seeds as back-up. Just in case. (As a tongue-in-cheek aside, I’m quite relieved to be using the French name because although it translates as ‘Russian Black’ rather than ‘Black Russian’ it still brings to mind Edmund Blackadders’s infamous codpiece which is far too much of an unnecessary distraction in my peaceful gardening world. 🤣) We’ve been making a few decisions based on observation, too; for instance, the ‘Musquée de Provence’ squash which grew strongly and looked so beautiful ripening from green to orange last year have turned out to be poor keepers which is disappointing; they have an incredible deep orange-coloured flesh but a fairly average flavour and a texture which is too far on the watery side for our liking. This year, apart from a couple of butternuts (which are always high maintenance so I’m not sure why I bother) I shall be sticking with the tried and tested blue varieties ~ ‘Crown Prince’ plus our home-bred mongrels ~ which have served our purposes so well for many years.

Allez les bleus !

Last summer, a swarm of honey bees decided to make a nest in the end of the house, the ‘scouts’ having found a way in through a tiny hole under the eaves and obviously what they decided was a perfect nesting space deep within the stone wall. It wasn’t an ideal situation, especially given that several bees each day all through summer found their way into the bathroom (there must be a hole along one of the roof beams which we can’t see) where they either got themselves embroiled in the roof window blinds making it a performance trying to let them out or crawled about stunned on the floor as a sting hazard for unwary bare feet. I love bees but in the nicest possible way I found myself hoping their new home would prove unsatisfactory and they would leave to find another; if they’d chosen a hole in the barn, there would be no problem! Anyway, far from slinging their hook, they set about building a strong colony which has so far survived the winter if the number of them boiling out of the sun-warmed wall this week is anything to go by.

We have kept bees in the past and it’s something we’d like to do again, especially using the French Warré hives which are kinder and a far more ‘natural’ home to bees than many other designs. It’s tempting to put a bait hive out this year and see if we can attract some occupants but a big part of me has serious reservations given the presence of Asian hornets here. They’re nowhere near as prevalent as they were in Asturias, where our friend Jairo saw ten out of his twelve colonies wiped out in one season, but I’m wondering whether morally it would be right to set up a hive of honey bees which could well become a handy feeding station for hornets at the end of the summer ~ first picking off the bees from the hive entrance, then stealing their honey stores. Perhaps it’s better to enjoy the colony that has chosen to live with us, safe within the house wall, and leading lives that are totally natural without any interference or attempt at control on our part. After all, honey bees need all the help they can get and if that means I just have to remember to wear slippers in the bathroom, so be it. It has been lovely to watch them out and about on milder days this week, foraging wherever they can find flowers. The drifts of snowdrops have been literally buzzing with their activity as they collect the bright orange pollen on offer. I couldn’t persuade one of the busy ladies to pose for a close-up but if you look carefully, you should be able to spot an orange pollen basket lurking in a snowdrop.

Who needs Where’s Wally? 😊

It has always fascinated me the way honey bees respond to temperature, forming a tight two-layered cluster in the nest to preserve heat during winter but venturing out to forage (and void their bowels) on those days when the weather is mild enough to do so. The fact that they are gathering pollen suggests the queen is laying; if I put my ear against the bathroom wall on these warmer days, I can hear the sound of their industry, hidden from view like the busy worms beneath the soil. So much work going on round the garden, so much of it not being done by me! A run of frosty mornings has been a reminder that winter is far from over; it will be some time yet before the bees can fly daily or the birds, now embarking on the beginnings of a dawn chorus, can turn their thoughts to serious nest-building.

These frosty mornings give way to days of flawless blue skies and bright sunshine, very welcome as it streams in through the windows but only giving warmth outside in sheltered spots as the wind, brittle and iron-tanged, bites savagely from the north-east. It’s fresh, cleansing sort of weather but not conducive to spending too much time outside unless we are well wrapped up and on the move. The warmth of the stove definitely beckons come evening but it has been worth venturing back outside to enjoy nature’s late show. Another moment of garden loveliness . . . and I didn’t need to lift a finger. 😊

Grey days

January has rolled itself across the landscape like a thick grey blanket, leaching colour from the countryside and paring everything back to bare bones. It is eerily quiet outside, as if the glowering sky muffles all sound and yet, there is a strange amplification to the noises coming from places unseen: the persistent percussion of a woodpecker, the rigid flap of a rook’s black wing, the spine-tingling call of a lonely vixen. The weather ricochets from bitterly cold when the glacial north wind makes eyes run and toes tingle to mild and damp, the precipitation so fine it leaves a silver haze on my woollen gardening hat. Always grey skies, though; how I crave sunshine and blue skies in this weirdly wrapped world. It’s all part of the natural wheel of the year, of course, this chilly washed-out nothingness, and I can’t be downhearted since there is always colour to be found if I search for it, along with those little treasures that whisper of spring. There are snowdrops in abundance and the first buttery primroses scattered in sheltered places, soft green buds fattening and hazel catkins powdering the air with pollen, while the robin’s sweet song wakes me ever earlier each morning. There is still so much of winter yet to come and I won’t wish the time away but I love the gentle subtle shift that is underway.

I also love the fact that I have been granted official permission to get back outside and busy in the garden once again after seven long months of pain and frustration. The orthopaedic surgeon has confirmed this week that my body is making a grand (if slow) job of healing itself without any need for intervention which is good news and a huge relief all round. Next came those magic words, that it’s time to recommence le jardinage. No need for physiotherapy or a formal exercise regimen because everything I do in my gardening day will help to restore strength and flexibility in my spine. Thank you, you lovely man! Needless to say, I didn’t need telling twice; I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since hearing those words and if I could turn a cartwheel I would, although it’s perhaps still a little early for that sort of behaviour. 😉

To the garden, then, and at last the chance to start putting right what has felt like months of sad neglect. That said, I have been very encouraged at how well everything has held up without me (should I feel insulted? 😆) and is in fact the living proof that our no-dig, organic, permaculture approach is paying dividends. Last year was a tough one in terms of severe weather conditions so I’m relieved that this winter has seen a return to more normal levels of rainfall, the ground welcoming the soaking it so badly needs, the water butts overflowing and ~ after nine long months of waiting ~ the new pond finally full to the brim. Regular rainfall percolating down through the layers of the lasagne beds is a much-needed final ingredient in our soil-building efforts; where last year the brown layers stayed too crisp and dry, now everything is bedding down nicely and I can almost smell the alchemy of compost formation. The areas of mown grass are an ocean of muddy wormcasts, so worryingly absent when we moved here, and as I rummage about in the beds with my hand fork lifting the occasional perennial weed, I am astounded by the thriving worm population in the soil. The garden is still full of fungi, too, with fruiting blooms of all shapes, sizes and colours revealing the secrets of their hidden mycelium trails. Mmm, good things are happening.

Creating a garden like this is a long, slow process and two years in there seems to be as much to do as ever. I’m happy, though, that we are making real progress where soft fruit is concerned. The raspberry bed we inherited has always bothered me, it’s in a daft place so little wonder the plants fail to thrive. We’ve decided to do away with it completely, moving a handful of healthy summer-fruiting canes into a designated area of the large perennial bed where they can keep the rhubarb company, and scattering the rest to fill holes along the hedges. Last autumn, we extended the lasagne bed in front of the polytunnel and what for me were the two greatest treasures in the raspberry patch ~ a single autumn fruiter and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ we planted last year ~ have now been relocated to their new home. We’ve added a couple of small bare-rooted newbies, too, a tayberry and a Japanese wineberry, the latter being something we’ve never grown before. Along with blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry, jostaberry, goji berry and honeyberry, we now have a fine eclectic mix in this patch which should keep us well-supplied with berry fruits.

The blackcurrant bushes I raised from seedlings have made incredibly strong plants and we should enjoy our first harvest from them this summer. When I was mulching around them, I noticed a large branch had broken off one but since it was covered in promising buds, I chopped it into pieces and potted them up as cuttings in the shelter of the tunnel. I’m not sure we need any more bushes but at the very least, they can be used to fill some holes like the spare raspberries; I’ve said before that we haven’t set out to plant a food forest as such but I love the idea of grazing along edible hedges and I’m pretty sure the blackbirds will agree.

Sticking with the fruit theme, one of my priorities this week has been to tidy the Strawberry Circle up a bit. Planting a ring of annual flowers around the edge last year turned it into a pretty patch and certainly ensured plentiful pollinator attention but things did get a bit out of hand at ground level. The strawberry plants didn’t enjoy the hot, dry summer very much and certainly our harvest was down on the previous year; I’d planned to peg down a few runners to generate new plants and then keep on top of any more the plants sent out but my back problem put paid to all that and the strawbs ended up doing their own thing. I’ve lifted a few perennial weeds and spare runners, planted up a few gaps, sprinkled in some donkey dung and given the lot a light mulching of chopped dead leaves and grass. Fingers crossed this summer I can keep a closer eye on things and we’ll enjoy a bumper harvest again.

The mandala bed was one of last year’s big successes; despite looking burnt-up and sad in the worst of the heat and drought it found a second wind in September and much of the foliage has only recently died back. It produced an incredible amount of food and became a much-used vegetable patch in the middle of the flower garden which was exactly what I’d hoped for. Like the Strawberry Circle, it was in desperate need of some attention so I started by chopping and dropping the remaining foliage, leaving it on the surface as a new layer of organic material. I then set about replacing the paths that had completely disappeared under the jungle of growth. In itself that’s not a problem as the whole idea of using shredded woody material for the paths is that it eventually becomes another brown layer to feed the soil and as Roger has been busy shredding the brush from his hedging and tree-pruning activities this week, it seemed as good a time as any to get cracking. Another benefit of this approach is that I can experiment with designs and change the configuration of the paths every year if I want although I’ve decided to stick with the ‘compass points’ wheel this year simply for ease. Perhaps next spring I will be brave enough to be a bit more artistic. With the paths back in place, I’m now concentrating on one planting section at a time ~ lifting the occasional weed (mostly small clumps of grass), spreading some more donkey dung about, sprinkling over molehill soil and wormcasts from the orchard floor and topping with a leaf mulch. Hidden beneath the chaotic tomatoes, a couple of small strawberry plants went berserk and have practically colonised an entire section and red sorrel has popped up in several places along with salad burnet which has come from who-knows-where but is a welcome addition to our edible leaf collection. I love it when the garden starts to evolve on its own in this way, plants turning up to grow where they are happy.

When the weather is spiteful, the polytunnel is the place to be and there is plenty to keep me busy in there. First job was to pull up the spent pepper and chilli plants which had fruited right into December before finally calling it a day when the temperature plummeted. The plants had stayed very healthy and disease-free so I chopped the foliage and spread it as a green layer on the newest Hügel bed outside; as we’d kept the ground under the plants mulched there were no weeds to deal with so it was just a case of spreading some manure and chopped comfrey leaves across the surface. Roger has been carrying in buckets of rainwater to soak the ground on a regular basis; not for the first time, I wish there was a way of peeling back the roof and letting nature do all the hard work but that’s a price we pay for having a warm, sheltered growing space. Extending the seasons and enjoying early (and late) crops is one of the main reasons we have a tunnel and it’s good to see a few rows of peas and broad beans bombing up to give us a first harvest well in advance of the one outside.

The warmer temperatures inside the tunnel can bring their own problems occasionally and it’s frustrating to see many of our winter salad crops being hammered by fat green caterpillars; it’s not a normal state of affairs but I suspect the unusually mild autumn had something to do with it. Luckily, we’re not short of salad leaves, both in the tunnel and outside, and there will be plenty to make up for the losses once the temperature and light levels pick up if the number of self-set lettuce and red sorrel plants are anything to go by.

One salad leaf that stays blissfully problem-free is radicchio and I never fail to be amazed at how something that beautiful can be so tough. Throw any kind of winter weather at the plants but, whether deep glossy red or speckled with green, they just keep on growing and add a vibrant splash of colour to the food garden and plate at this time of year. I love them both cooked and raw, their fresh bitterness bringing a balance to the heavy, starchy foods so typical of winter.

Another reliable leaf for us this month is kale and both the bold leafy ‘Cottager’s’ and daintier frilly ‘Russian Red’ varieties are keeping us well-supplied in the kitchen. It’s not to everyone’s taste but there are plenty of imaginative and interesting ways to cook it and I always think it’s one of those vegetables that oozes health and well-being; it’s also a ‘clean’ vegetable to gather even on the grimmest of winter days when wrestling parsnips and leeks out of frozen ground or a muddy quagmire isn’t so attractive. I’ve just been given some kale cuttings and this is the kind of gift that makes my heart jump for joy because it represents (hopefully) years of good, nutritious food to come . . . plus there’s always something reassuring about growing a plant that has been tried, tested and recommended by someone who knows their onions (thank you, my friend ~ you know who you are! 😊). The reason I’m so excited about these three different varieties ~ Purple Tree collard, Taunton Deane and Daubenton’s ~ is that they are perennial which makes them a great addition to the garden in terms of building resilience which regular readers will know is a big thing for me. There’s also a Vietnamese coriander in the mix, something I’ve never grown before but I’m already intrigued by its unusual scent so can’t wait to introduce that into the kitchen. The cuttings are currently sitting in water on the kitchen windowsill, growing a mass of rootlets and unfurling new foliage; in a few days’ time I shall pot them up and continue to nurture them until they have formed decent rootballs at which point they will take their place in the perennial bed.

Another new gift this week is a ‘pre-loved’ bird feeding station which has allowed me to organise things so much better . . . gone are the days of a mishmash of random feeders dangling from trees! It didn’t take the feathered squadrons long to discover their new breakfast table and I’m delighted by the fact that the big triple feeder means I don’t have to be running around topping up feed so often: even they can’t clear that much food in a day. What has been interesting ~ and of course, it may simply be coincidence ~ is how many more finches are now coming to feed, mainly goldfinches but also the occasional greenfinch (how sad they have become such a rarity). I haven’t changed the foods on offer so perhaps there’s just something about the feeder set-up that suits them better.

Garden aside, the fact that I can stand and sit more comfortably now has meant an indulgence in pastimes I have missed so desperately since last June. I’ve been busy with language study, daily French in many forms of course, but also having a lot of fun with learning some basic Norwegian. I’m wondering if the fact that I can now order two coffees and two ice creams means I’m ready to visit Sam and Adrienne once again? 😉

I’ve also dug out my recorder and started to rediscover my love of making music. In a moment of uncharacteristic indulgence, along with some new music books I bought myself a treble recorder; I had one as a youngster but was too idle at the time to learn to play it properly, so I’ve set myself the challenge to put that right after all these years. The fingering is totally different to that of a descant recorder so I am having to literally retrain my brain in how to read music: let’s say there’s a lot of laughter and restarts going on as I fluff note after note . . . but I can’t help feeling it’s a great workout for my grey cells, not to mention I’m having a lot of fun. It’s been wonderful to get back to my favourite woolly crafts, too. Christmas presents of money for our grandchildren might not seem too imaginative but it was a case of needs must this time (and in truth, they were all pretty chuffed!). I like to personalise gifts whenever I can so I set out to make some colourful origami envelopes for them all . . . and ended up completely underwhelmed with the results. There was nothing for it but to resort to my comfort zone, dig out some scraps of yarn and explore the possibilities of crocheting some little purses. Yep, that beats folding paper every time.

I’ve also managed to finish the ‘Fireside’ blanket I’ve been working on for a couple of months and I have to say it’s most definitely one of my favourite blanket projects ever ~ the pattern and yarn are both delightful and the finished article is just perfect for snuggling under in these chilly times.

What next? Well, needless to say I have another project waiting in the wings, a gift blanket this time so every stitch will be worked with much mindfulness and love. My wool basket is fully charged and I’m ready to dive in although I’m also happy to simply enjoy those yummy colours, guaranteed to brighten my day no matter how grey the skies might be. 😊


Walking is man’s best medicine.


What an incredible change. One day I was sitting outside with a coffee, wearing a t-shirt and lifting my face to the sun, the next I was piling on layers of warm clothes and hugging the stove. We literally went from summer to winter overnight which has come as something of a shock after such a mild, sun-drenched autumn. It is, of course, far more seasonal despite the field behind the house having been cut for silage this week and the hollies in the garden covered in tiny white blossoms rather then berries. As the temperature plummeted, we had several days under leaden skies with a biting north-easterly wind which is fairly dismal and more typical of March here . . . but there has been sunshine, too, lighting the frozen garden and landscape both of which are still so full of colour, while overnight fog has dusted everything in a sparkling, crystalline hoar frost. Cold but magical.

Our mature oaks are still hanging on to their leaves and have looked quite spectacular against the blue sky on bright days; the time of bare branches and skeletal silhouettes will come but there is certainly no rush this year. Where Roger has finished laying the laneside hedge, sunlight has been flooding in and this bodes well for our ‘woodland edge’ planting plans as well as the poor pear trees that have been struggling to thrive in deep shade. The hedge will green up and thicken next year but we will be able to keep it down to a more sensible height in the future.

As we head towards the winter solstice, the low sun throws dappled light and shadow across the garden and the frost lingers in north-facing shade all day long. The difference in temperature between those bright and shady spots is palpable!

The garden has been full of growth and energy for so long that I have been dreading the inevitable arrival of a cold snap; certainly, it’s done for tender annuals such as nasturtiums which was to be expected and I think we can finally say goodbye to a tunnel full of peppers, too. In the perennial lasagne bed, the thugs are all now looking sad and flattened in the cold; the rhubarb and comfrey will tough it out but the globe artichokes have been tucked round with hay to protect their roots and crowns ~ they have put on far too much growth this autumn. As for the asparagus ferns, surely now they will yellow and die so that we can chop them and drop them as a mulch around the crowns?

Elsewhere, crops like kale and chard are looking a bit surprised but they are hardy little troopers and should continue to provide us with fresh pickings well into spring. Roots and tubers have come into their own in the kitchen this week, and we have been enjoying (amongst other things) grated celeriac, golden beetroot and black radish in a piquant rémoulade sauce and parsnips puréed with fresh horseradish and cream: seasonal comfort food at its best.

Young red kale, chard and beetroot flopped in the frost.

Who cares about grey skies when there is still colour like this in the garden?

One of the noticeable things about the weather over the last few months is the distinct lack of wind and in particular, the absence of strong gales sweeping in from the west and wreaking havoc in the potager. The young hedging plants we put in the first spring after we moved here are growing well but it will be another couple of seasons at least before they have any impact in terms of breaking up the wind flow and helping to protect the winter garden. The most likely victims of wind damage are the purple sprouting broccoli plants which are currently looking magnificent, so Roger has built them a temporary windbreak using some of the hazel branches left over from hedge laying; we did a similar thing last year and it worked a treat so hopefully we will enjoy another bumper harvest next spring.

It’s pure coincidence, but with the change in weather I felt like I had turned a huge corner where my back problem is concerned; there’s still a long way to go and much I can’t do yet (I am so desperate to be back on my bike!) but in terms of discomfort and mobility, great progress is being made at long, long last. I’ve also experienced a huge surge in enthusiasm and energy as if all those months of supressed motivation and activity have come bubbling to the surface and suddenly I want to be properly busy again ~ not to mention useful. I can’t do much outside but I’ve been extending the bird feeding station and what a full-time job it is in this weather keeping the feathered ones fed and watered! I’ve enjoyed being busy in the kitchen, too, baking batches of mince pies and making the Christmas pudding; we celebrate the solstice and midwinter rather than Christmas as such but that pudding is always an important part of our special feast. I’ve been able to wander about with the camera to try and capture the beauty of the season in small details; I’m so grateful to be able to bend down again, something I won’t be taking for granted in a hurry.

Perhaps the craziest thing I’ve done in the name of feeling better is to sign up for Country Walking magazine’s #Walk1000miles challenge. It’s not the first time I’ve participated in this event; six years ago, I decided to do the #Walk500miles option but came upon it two months late so I ended up having to walk 500 miles in four months. It wasn’t particularly easy going in the Asturian mountains and I just remember the huge sense of relief as I literally squeaked in with the last few miles on New Year’s Eve! In comparison, 1000 miles in a year doesn’t seem so daunting, especially as the registration system has changed which means walkers can choose to start at any point during the year rather than having to wait until 1st January. That suits me very well as there is no time for procrastination or talking myself out of it and I’ve always found New Year’s resolutions dismal, soul-destroying things anyway, so as my fit of madness flash of inspiration came on 1st December, it seemed like a decent time to start. Except of course it wasn’t really, given the list of negative factors involved:

  • It’s the darkest time of year with months of winter weather ahead ~ not always conducive to getting out and walking, even when wrapped up in suitable clothing.
  • I still can’t walk properly. I have a shortened stride, a slight hobbling limp and I am painfully slow. Hills are a nightmare and it takes me forever to get anywhere.
  • That week was the first when I was been able to walk for more than two consecutive days without needing at least one day’s break.
  • On my first day, I only managed to walk 1.86 miles, woefully short of the 2.74 miles daily average I need.
  • There is no chance of throwing in a ten-miler to catch up any time soon!

Well, I’m starting on the back foot literally and metaphorically and maybe it isn’t the most sensible of ideas but I do enjoy a challenge.😆 Can I walk 1000 miles in a year? Under normal circumstances I would say yes, no problem; earlier this year, I established a good walking habit, going out every morning when Roger was running and building the distance to a point I could almost justify carrying a flask of coffee. I’d like to think I can get back to that again, although whether it will be in enough time to catch up on all the miles I’m missing only time will tell. For me, the most important thing is that it’s an incentive to get out there and walk, to help my body continue to heal itself, to regain the fitness and strength I’ve lost during five months of reduced mobility, to have a daily dose of fresh air and daylight, to watch the seasons unfold, and to connect with nature and the local landscape on foot once again.

When walking was easy . . .

As I’m not a herd animal by nature, I’m planning to tiptoe quietly around the edges of this challenge: I’m happy to promote it on my blog and encourage others to explore it but I don’t intend joining a forum or finding a walking buddy, and I certainly don’t feel the need for a badge, medal or progress tracker chart. I don’t have a smartphone, Garmin, Fitbit or any other technological gubbins so it’s all going to be very low-tech. I’m using the excellent Plotaroute.com website which allows me to map my miles and save route information, and I’m logging my distance ~ and nothing else ~ for each outing in a basic spreadsheet. I have no interest in recording the time taken for my walk, the elevation climbed, calories burned, the weather conditions, my mood . . . each to their own, but for me it’s simply about the miles. I’m not beating myself up about being behind target, either; as a realist (rather than defeatist) I know the chances of cracking this one are stacked against me but I’m determined to give it my best shot, head up, eyes open and one step at a time. Let’s see where it takes me . . . Sarah pointed out that 1000 miles would get me to all sorts of interesting places which reminded me of a wonderful line from Ellen DeGeneres: ‘My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.’ Ha, find me if you can! 😁

It’s been wonderful to finally find some motivation in getting back to my French studies, too; for months, it’s felt hard enough to function cognitively in English yet alone concentrate on the complexities of a second language so I’m delighted to be back on track. I plan to repeat the excellent course I followed earlier this year but in the meantime, I’m taking Hugo’s advice to expose myself to as many different ‘points de contact‘ as I can. It doesn’t matter whether I’m reading, writing, watching, listening or chatting in French as long as I’m doing some every day so I’ve had a lot of fun organising access to a range of resources I can tap into over the coming weeks. Daily immersion makes such a difference and I was happy to be able to hold an informal chatty conversation with other customers in the boucherie at the weekend as well as a detailed and somewhat technical discussion with the butcher as to which of her cuts of local beef was best suited to my needs; I know it’s a bit of a cliché but we rosbifs have a reputation to uphold. 😉 Actually, we hardly ever eat beef but I was hankering after the full monty roast for my birthday meal. On which subject, I’m really not precious about my birthday ~ a good meal cooked together with lots of music and laughter is all I ask for. What I didn’t particularly need was snow; I know it snowed the day I was born in Shropshire but honestly, that’s a tradition I’m happy to pass on. I often think it would be fun to have a ‘half’ birthday in June with maximum daylight, sunshine, warmth and roses but I suppose it’s all part of life’s lottery. In truth, I’m just happy to be here and celebrating another wonderful year of life, even though it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster at times.

Beech leaves in the sunshine this week: well worth the walk to see.

I’ve also started learning Norwegian and there is no sane explanation for that. 😂 We hope to visit Sam and Adrienne again but there is absolutely no reason to try and get my head (and tongue) around norsk as English is so widely and fluently spoken in Norway. That said, I always feel it’s interesting and polite to learn a few words and phrases when visiting a foreign country but given that I know the dialect spoken in the Stavanger region bears little resemblance to the standard written Bokmål Norwegian I’m learning, it’s a pretty pointless task. Well, what the heck? Languages fascinate me, especially where they collide; I’ve never learned another Germanic language before so my first thought was how logical it seems, there are so many similarities to English. As many words entered English via Old Norse I’m having no problems with nouns such as mann, katt, bok, hus, egg and melk . . . if only it were all that easy. I’ve learned that barn, for instance is not a useful rural outbuilding but ‘child’ and bra means ‘alright’ rather than a female undergarment! On a less flippant note, learning a new language is often cited as an excellent way to improve brain function and I’ve seen research that suggests learning two languages at once enhances the ability to absorb and retain both of them, so I’m curious to see how French and Norwegian rub along together. Apart from anything else, it’s simply a whole lot of fun.

Fjord spotting with Adrienne and Sam in June.

When I was studying French A-level, my teacher often told the class that the best way to improve our understanding was to think in French as much as possible. That’s something I’m trying on my walks and if nothing else, it gives me a list of new vocabulary to check and learn as I try to put names to the things I see on my wanderings; for instance, this week I’ve learned that a kestrel is une crécerelle, coming from a Middle French word meaning ‘rattle’. I’ve also found myself repeating simple Norwegian phrases as I go along, although I’m not sure det er en glad and (it’s a happy duck) is ever going to be of much use in conversation and having cracked jeg snakker ikke norsk (I don’t speak Norwegian) is there any need to go further? Well, sometimes we just have to do mad things for the sake of it, don’t we?

Hei hei, Norge!

On the subject of Norway, this week has also seen me getting back to knitting and finishing a pair of socks which, if everything had gone to plan, should have winged their way north with us in June. Sam and Adrienne love knitted socks and giving them as gifts has become something of a tradition so naturally I decided to make a couple of pairs to take with me when we went to visit. I hadn’t left myself a lot of time to make them so I was hopping mad when halfway down Adrienne’s second sock, I realised something was very wrong: the two balls of wool I had bought were supposed to be identical but very obviously weren’t as no green and gold bands had appeared on the cuff of the second sock. Now, I don’t mind wearing mismatched socks myself but there is no question of giving them as a gift so I abandoned the project and knitted up a different (matching) pair literally just in the nick of time. I could of course complain to the supplier and manufacturer but really, life is too short and these things happen . . . and as I now find myself with a bonus pair of snuggly woolly socks just perfect for the chilly weather, I’m not grumbling. Actually, two of my favourite pairs of socks are ones I knitted from scraps left over from other sock projects, stripes of different self-patterning yarns in similar colours that made quirky, loveable socks which I have worn and worn. Thinking I probably had enough scraps to knit another pair, I was delighted to find the leftovers will stretch to two pairs; I’m not a fan of the cold and I’m looking forward to the return of milder weather later in the month, but at least in the meantime I’m sorted for a bit of happy wool messing these cold evenings. 😊

Spot the difference.


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. 😉


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.