January jottings

January can be a dismal month at the best of times: spring is still a long way off, but every hopeful little sign is a reason to be cheerful. The days are slowly drawing out, the evenings noticeably longer with some cracking sunsets when the skies are clear; each day brings more snippets of birdsong and the squirrels are back in the garden, bushy-tailed and bursting with busyness. In the hedgerows, pollen-dusted hazel catkins dance in the breeze, fresh green spears of bulbs are hurtling up everywhere and we are just days away from having drifts of snowdrops in bloom. In sheltered spots I’ve found primroses flowering, their delicate blooms a welcome contrast to the surrounding mud and muck. Yes, it’s still only the middle of January but there’s a faint whiff of optimism in the air all the same.

Our post lady in her cheerful yellow van has been delivering goodies all week: packets of seeds (of which more later), balls of yarn and letters from our grandchildren to say thank you for their Christmas gifts, complete with some wonderful ornithological artwork that made me smile. Feeding the birds in winter is something I’ve always loved doing and I really missed it in Asturias, where the mild winters rendered it completely unnecessary. However, I have to say I have never experienced anything like the current situation we have here, not just in terms of the sheer number of birds feeding but their incredible audacity, too. If I head out to the bird table with sunflower seeds, a squadron of great tits and blue tits swoops straight in and starts taking them before I’ve even had time to empty the pot; they are so tame, I can stand right next to the table as they feed and if I had the patience to try, I’m sure I could have them literally eating out of my hand.

By William, age 6

Worse, if the feeders are empty and (heaven forbid!) I haven’t noticed and refilled them instantly, I find myself literally hassled by birds coming to find me in the garden. Seriously, I’m not imagining this: they follow me around, alighting as close as they can and eyeballing me until I deliver the goodies. Meanwhile, the less energetic types simply sit in the window boxes looking expectantly into the kitchen or tap shamelessly at the windows and glazed door panes; I know some people believe this to be bad luck but personally, I think it’s a case of uncannily intelligent birds knowing where their meals are coming from, a sort of fast food fly-through. They are eating us out of house and home and I am expecting some serious payback on the caterpillar and aphid front come summer! Still, they’re lovely to watch, all the same.

Great tit waiting for the next free lunch.

That snowy picture is from several weeks ago and so far (am I tempting fate by saying this?) it’s the only fall of white stuff we’ve had this winter. The weather has stayed conducive to being outdoors which always feels like such a bonus at this time of year: anything that allows us to enjoy some fresh air and daylight, boosting our Vitamin D and seretonin levels has got to be good. Outdoor living is a hugely important part of our life and many of our plans for the property are based around making it possible in any weather and at all times of year. For instance, the covered area adjoining what has become the utility cabin is slowly being transformed into a space where we can cook, eat and do practical tasks that need a table to work at.

At the moment, it’s fairly basic – a picnic table and a tripod barbecue – but we’ve cleared the junk out of it, lined that white area of wall with wood panels to match the rest and have lots of ideas to develop the space in the future. In the meantime, we’ve used it a good deal, including for several winter barbecues which is something we love to do; barbecues really shouldn’t just be left for hot days, there is something very special about wrapping up and cooking over wood in cold air so that is just what we decided to do on New Year’s Eve. It was a beautifully still and mild night so we lit an ice lantern and candles, stoked the barbecue with fragrant fruit tree prunings and cooked our dinner to the sound of tawny owls calling in the garden. Magical.

Head torch . . . essential chef equipment.

Back to work, and Roger has been busy constructing the new shed in the vegetable patch from the old one we dismantled a couple of weeks ago. This has got to be one of our most successful ‘reusing’ projects ever – even most of the nails and screws were out of the original shed. (Roger has asked me to mention that the main expense was 35 euros of paint which apparently is mine. Mmm, not sure how that works!) Anyway, what we’ve ended up with is an enclosed area for storing tools which is very light thanks to the transluscent roof panel and old shed windows, a covered area perfect for parking wheelbarrows and watering cans and ample space at the front for a seat. Initially, of course, it looked like a less-than-beautiful structure built from a daggy old shed . . .

Almost finished but in need of a serious facelift.

. . . which meant it was time to call in the painter and decorator (that’s me and my paint, obviously). Now, I love a bit of colour so it was no surprise that, faced with the available shed paint range, I was immediately drawn to the bright Bleu Méditerranéen and the soft Vert Provence I used to perk up a couple of wooden planters last year.

Vert Provence

However, this isn’t a beach hut or summer house and the whole point of making it was to change an ugly eyesore into a structure that is both more useful and more sympathetic to its surroundings. It was time to be sensible (!) so in the end, we agreed on Vert Basque, which I would describe as a deep holly green according to the colour on the tin lid and label. I have to confess, I was just a tad delighted when the paint itself turned out to be slightly more blue than suggested, more of a ‘Vert Océan‘ in my book and definitely prettier than expected. It’s not the best time of year for outdoor painting; trying to get a run of days that are warm enough and dry enough is a problem, and needless to say, the moment I’d lifted the lid, several very wet days ensued. Talk about frustrated! Still, I’ve managed to make a start and a quiet transformation is under way. Just the rainwater capture system to connect now.

Projects like these tend to change and evolve as we go along; it’s always good to have a plan, but there’s room for flexibility, too, as sometimes ideas and possibilities we hadn’t even considered suddenly emerge as part of the process. Contemplating the gap along one side of the finished shelter, Roger suggested it would be a great place to make a trellis to grow something beautiful up and he must have known there was suitable timber lurking in the Man Cave because the next time I trundled down there with my paint, it had magically appeared. Having finally got round to sorting out a pile of junk that had been left by the previous owners behind the water butts by the house, I found a couple of serviceable metal hanging baskets which will be perfect to hang from the front beams later in the year. So, we’ve added yet another function – support for growing plants – and I’m beginning to think that, come the summer, this shelter is going to be an even more attractive addition to the garden than I ever imagined.

Looping back to that painted planter, the rescued grapevine that I nurtured in there all last year has gone into its final planting place in the garden, next to the mandala bed where hopefully it will enjoy the space, air and sunshine it needs to flourish. In the matching planter, there is a passionflower grown from a cutting we brought with us from Asturias and that’s heading out to grow up the front of the Oak Shed this year. That leaves two empty planters just crying out for a climbing rose each which we can train up the front of the house. I do love it when a plan comes together . . . and a visit to a nursery beckons! Not quite the same, but I’ve been having a very happy time buying seeds this week, both from the local country store and online. It’s such an optimistic thing to do at this time of year, especially in the face of all that is currently going on in the world. I bought a few seeds from the French online company EnGraineToi last year and everything grew brilliantly so I’m more than happy to buy from them again. I love the modest greaseproof paper bags, so small yet stuffed with seeds and packed with growing information and, coupled with free postage and a gift packet, too, what’s not to like?

I’ve written before about my sadness at no longer being able to buy from several wonderful small family seed firms in the UK who I have supported for many years and, having used up my saved stocks, it would be easy to slide into a sort of post-Brexit blues, especially when it’s proving difficult to source specific varieties I like to grow. I feel desperately sorry for those businesses who are suffering and struggling (especially if they didn’t want Brexit in the first place) but personally, I now have to turn it into a positive situation, an opportunity for change and exploration – after all, I still enjoy the freedom of being able to buy seeds from all the countries in the EU without any worries about phytosanitary rules, plant passports and customs duty. So, instead of ‘Crown Prince’ squash we will be growing ‘Musquée de Provence’ and ‘Latino’ courgette will be replaced by ‘Coucourzelle.’ I’m mourning the loss of ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce, especially as the fluffy seeds I’d been trying to save all disappeared while we were away last September, but I think ‘Rouge d’hiver’ will do the job, along with ‘Buttercrunch’ instead of ‘Little Gem’ and the pretty speckled ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ which is so popular here. I’m also trying laitue asperge (celtuce) for the first time which hopefully will give us a handy dual-purpose crop.

We had a tremendous harvest of squash last year but they are not keeping as well as they did in Asturias, despite our best efforts to use them daily in the kitchen. The plan for this year is to ease back on the squash numbers (yes, honestly!) and expand the variety of other winter vegetables available. We’ve grown swede, Brussels sprouts, celeriac, black radish and cauliflower successfully in previous gardens but here it will be a case of careful timings, especially if we have a hot summer, so this year will be a bit of an experiment. We’ve also grown ‘Bleu de Solaise’ leeks before but ‘Monstreux de Carentan’ is a new one to try alongside them and I’m planning to let a couple of the ‘Musselburgh’ plants currently in the garden go to seed so we can add them back into the mix next year. On the subject of alliums, I’m raising all our onions from seed this time as I always find them more successful than sets, and I’ve included wild garlic (ail de ours in French, literally ‘bear garlic’) to plant as forage in our woodland area. The white softneck garlic planted in autumn is bombing up and in spring I’ll add some ‘Rose de Lautrec,’ a pink variety we grew last year which has proved to be an unexpectedly good keeper considering it’s a hardneck variety. With luck, we should be able to grow enough to last us all year.

Happy garlic

We didn’t manage to get the polytunnel up in time to make the most of it last year but this year we should really start to reap the benefits, particularly in terms of having somewhere sheltered to give seedlings and young plants a good start and also a planting space to extend the growing season and harvest. I’d forgotten what a great place it is to ‘garden’ in less than pleasant winter weather, too, so I enjoyed a very happy afternoon this week pottering about in preparation for the sowing season. First, having spread more broken slates to make a hardstanding area, we carried a couple of decorating trestles and an old door down to make some staging; I then sorted and stacked trays and pots underneath and carried in a bag of compost (we will have to rely on bought stuff this year, at least for sowing seeds). The rain butts on the new shed will eventually give us 500 litres of water close by but I carried cans to fill a large dustbin in the tunnel anyway; it makes it easy to dip a small can of slightly warmed water for watering seed trays and the whole thing also acts as a heat sink. I then prepped a patch ready for planting some potatoes, a dozen ‘Charlotte’ from last year’s crop that have been chitting for a while in the cave. They will give us a super early crop in May which, seeing as we don’t eat potatoes every day, will carry us through to the first early harvest outside. As we’re using a no-dig policy, I simply lifted a few perennial weeds with a small hand fork and was really pleased at how much better the soil is looking in there compared to a year ago and also how many worms there are . . . I exaggerate not, there was one big enough to give those small grass snakes a run for their money. Great stuff.

All ready to go.

When it came to raising tender summer plants for the tunnel last year, we were literally all over the place with our slow-time house move still going on so this spring I’m determined to have the propagator bursting at the seams. We already had plenty of aubergine seeds but I’ve gone to town on a whole set of new capsicums; we’re still eating our way through the mass of chillies we dried two years ago but I think it’s time to grow some more and this year, I’d also like to raise enough sweet peppers to put a pile in the freezer. So, I’ve bought ‘Long Red Marconi,’ ‘Sweet Banana’ (yellow) and ‘Petit Marseillais’ (French heirloom orange) to go with the ‘Mini Red Bell’ and ‘Largo de Reus’ seed we had left over. On the hotter side of things, there’s an ever-reliable ‘Cayenne Long Slim,’ the classic Spanish ‘Padrón’ for one of my favourite tapas dishes and something called ‘Piment Poisson’ (Fish Pepper) which I’m trying not only because it’s apparently a good hot one, but also because I just love the mix of colours and stripy patterns. Well, I have to be allowed a bit of whimsical nonsense occasionally . . . for the same reason, I’ve bought seeds for golden beetroot and violet globe artichokes, too. Nothing like planting a rainbow for the kitchen.

Aubergines will have to share the tunnel with peppers and chillies this summer.

Given that arguably the best peppers and aubergines we’ve ever grown were outdoors in our last garden here, I don’t think we can have too many plants this year; once the tunnel is filled, I’m planning to spread them everywhere around the garden. For instance, I’d like at least half the mandala bed to be planted with food crops and those colourful summer fruiters will be just the job. Talking of summer fruit, I’m also having another go at growing melons in the tunnel so I’ve opted for ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ which, as its name suggests, is an ideal variety for cropping north of the Loire. I’m very excited about that one!

One set of seeds I haven’t sourced yet is tomatoes as I’m still researching blight resistance and waiting to pick the brains of an Asturian friend who grew a variety last year which succumbed to the inevitable blight but then recovered and produced an astonishing late crop of enormous beefsteak toms – perhaps that’s the strain for us to try here this year? It seemed a bit sad that the free packet of seeds in my EnGraineToi envelope was the interesting looking ‘Black From Tula’ tomato (sigh) until Roger pointed out that we had at least managed a modest crop of ripened tomatoes from the ‘Alaska’ and ‘Black Sea Man’ plants grown in pots at the front of the house despite the blight last year. Well, it’s worth a go so ‘Black From Tula’ will be getting star treatment outside the kitchen door in the hope of us enjoying some of those tasty fruits.

Black Sea Man last summer . . . blighted but beautiful!

Of course, I have lots of plans for flowers this year, too. I’m going to raise several perennials from seed and start to increase the range and quantity of bulbs; I love annuals, but there is a definite need to improve the permanent planting here so we have a reliable framework of form and colour throughout the seasons. I’ve still got plenty of hardy annual seed but I’m interested to see what volunteers from last year’s plantings will pop up in spring; it’s no surprise to find foxglove and calendula seedlings everywhere but I’m amazed at how carpets of self-set Californian poppies are thriving through winter; we even had one flowering in the gravel by the kitchen door until very recently along with self-set lobelia which continues to bloom even now. A prolonged cold snap will surely do for them but I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one.

Winter sunshine

I’m not a huge fan of half-hardy annuals simply because they’re a faff with all that starting off in warmth, pricking out and potting on. If the seed can be thrown straight into the garden in May, fine; otherwise, I don’t tend to bother with them much. I’ve left several French marigold plants in the tunnel where they were planted along the edge of the path and I’m hoping some of the tremendous seed heads they’ve formed will lead to a ready-made supply of young plants to scatter around the veg patch (why work if nature will do it for you?). The only two lots of half-hardy seeds I shall sow are cosmos and rudbeckia, both of which were truly beautiful last year, filling huge spaces and flowering for months. In fact, the last of the rudbeckia with its deep brown pincushion centre and velvety russet petals only finished flowering just before Christmas. A garden full of flowers . . . now there’s a bright and lovely thought to lift the January gloom. 😊

Restoration

A new year, and for us in more than way than one: not only the calendar clicking round towards 2022 but also – on the 28th December – the end of our first twelve months back living in Mayenne. It was sad not to be celebrating our first ‘anniversary’ as part of Sam and Adrienne’s planned (and subsequently cancelled) visit but I suppose that just about epitomised the rollercoaster year it had been since moving here. We lit the ice lantern anyway and raised an optimistic glass to a calmer and kinder time of it over the next twelve months. We shall see.

I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions, not because I think there’s anything inherently wrong in trying to make ourselves into better beings but because I simply think it’s the wrong time of year for it. For many people living in northern climes, January is a difficult and depressing enough month as it is without beating ourselves up with an almighty guilt trip following the excesses of the festive season; since according to many studies, improving health and fitness tends to be top of the new habits bill, then I would suggest a slightly lighter, warmer month might be a better time to start. It’s a personal thing, of course (feel free to disagree!) but I believe that the idea of ‘restoration’ – meaning to renew, repair, rebuild and, ultimately, to heal – is a more appropriate one just now. A time for reflection and a promise of change are no bad things but for me, the important point is that it is done with kindness and compassion, a sense of positive growth that mirrors the lengthening days and brings hope and happiness rather than self-sabotaging guilt and fear of failure.

I’ve been pondering this idea a fair bit over the last few days as all of our activity in the garden has been very much along the lines of restoration work. Our local weather forecast is very detailed and pretty accurate but it has been a fairly depressing given that for most of our twelve months here, the daily temperature values have remained stubbornly below the expected norm; what a wonderful Yuletide gift, then, as suddenly we moved from ‘minus two feels like minus eight’ (and yes, it certainly did) to a blissfully kind plus fourteen and double figures overnight. Okay, so it’s been a bit grey and damp at times but a real joy to spend our days outside together, getting stuck in to several tasks which have been waiting a long time.

There was never any chance of us following the classic rule of waiting for twelve months before making any changes to the garden; it was bad enough coping for several months without a garden full of fresh produce, yet alone prolonging the agony for a complete year. The vegetable patch was a huge priority right from the moment we arrived here but now, with everything stripped back to its bare bones, it is the perfect time to assess the overall design of the garden and start working in earnest on its structure. Although I accept that some of what we are doing might look more like destruction than restoration, it’s all part of a big plan which (we hope) will ultimately result in a garden that is full of life and colour, interest and food, an intimate place to wander and wonder that will continue to grow and evolve year on year. So, let’s start with trees. We have already planted several new fruit trees along with a handful of native deciduous varieties and next week’s delivery of bare-rooted plants will mean many more specimens to add colour, interest and structure; we will continue to plant trees during the dormant period for many years to come, and although they might look a bit small and diffident to start with, they should grow into elegant, mature beauties in no time.

On the flip side, there are a number of ancient, half-dead trees which really have to go such as the old apple tree we cut down this week. Like most of the mature fruit trees here, it had suffered terrible abuse in its lifetime, bent over at awkward angles, great boughs having been lopped off in grotesque amputations (we can only think for firewood but why would you do that?) and the crown left broken and rotten. The scanty fruits it produced were tasteless to the point of being unpleasant and not even the birds would touch them. Neither of us likes felling trees but there comes a point where it is the only sensible course of action and trust me, nothing will be wasted: it will make room for new, healthy replacement trees, the trunk and bigger boughs will be used for firewood, the smaller branches for the barbecue and the twiggy sticks for mulch and compost. As soon as the tree was down, we could see it had been the right decision as the trunk was almost completely hollow and yet, in death, there was the promise of life . . . the whole thing was full of a rich, black compost, enough to fill a large dustbin, the best of nature’s nourishment which will sustain many other plants through the coming year. Thank you, tree!

Something we had no qualms about felling was the ugly garden shed, even more of an eyesore now the leaves have gone and the hedge behind it has been laid. It’s been a useful place to keep a few tools but was in entirely the wrong spot; the roof had been leaking for years and consequently was totally rotten and the fibreboard lining was peeling off the walls like wet spongy carpet. The wall panels themselves and and the doors were all pretty sound, though, so our plan was to dismantle the whole thing and reuse what we can in building a new, improved shed whilst clearing the area of the piles of junk we had never got round to shifting and turning it into something more attractive.

We knew from experience that this kind of job always takes longer than expected, especially as we have a habit of buying properties from previous owners with a nail fetish – not in the buffed, polished and manicured sense but more of a “I’ve got a hammer and I’m going to use it – everywhere!” sort of way. I’m sure there’s probably a deep psychological reason for belting in twenty long nails where a single screw would do the job but honestly, I wish they wouldn’t. It took ages to remove the piles of rusted ironwork and every time we thought we were done, we discovered several more lurking in dark corners. We would have liked to lift the roof off but despite being rotten, it was way too heavy so we decided a controlled collapse was the only way to bring it down; unfortunately, I was a fraction of a second too slow in jumping back at the crucial moment and the roof caught my legs on its downwards trajectory, leaving me with thighs and knees so colourfully bruised they would be fascinating if they weren’t so sore! Well, I could have chosen to have a ‘normal’ Christmas Day instead, stuffing a turkey, swigging port and scoffing chocolates, but where’s the fun in that? 😆 Shed down, we set about sorting the materials into piles: rotten roofing felt and fibreboard to go to the déchetterie, timbers to be reused or chopped for firewood, good panels shifted ready for the new shed. Time for a teabreak and fortifying mince pie (or two).

Sheds like this one generally come with a ready made floor, the whole thing being designed to sit up on blocks, but for some reason this one simply had more fibreboard nailed onto a couple of palettes which in turn sat on piles of organic matter, including a dessicated rat, mixed with broken slates. It was a painstaking process raking up the organic stuff for the compost heap and picking out as much slate as we could to top up the polytunnel path. We’d decided the cleared area would be perfect for growing a colourful mass of annual flowers so, wanting to test the depth of soil, I fetched a fork and speared it into the ground, only to send excrutiatingly painful shocks into my wrists and up my arms (I was obviously determined to do myself a serious injury one way or another, maybe port and chocolates would have been a better idea after all?🤣). I’d hit concrete, and from the sound of the echo, it had a big drop beneath it. Scraping off the soil, we were quite excited to think we might have found a well; there would certainly have been one here somewhere before the house was connected to mains water and it would be a useful resource if our rain butts run dry in a hot summer. Roger levered the cover up and I leaned in for a closer look . . .

Ha ha, not a well but the old privvy – my goodness, that must have been a long old dash from the house with plaited legs! I’m always astounded at how nature fills a vacuum and here was no exception: a group of sleepy-headed grass snakes curled up where the ‘throne’ had once been, slumbering their way through the winter months.

Not wanting to disturb the snakes, we replaced the cover quickly and gently, but Roger had at least had time to see that the whole concrete affair will lift out easily once they have vacated their winter quarters. We will then fill it with topsoil from digging the pond and scatter flower seeds for a riot of summer colour. Rather than get rid of the scrappy area of hardstanding that was in front of the shed, we will make a proper edge for it, top it up with more broken slate then put a seat and maybe some glazed pots on it. It will be the perfect spot to catch the evening sun, somewhere we can sit and watch the fruit ripen and listen to the buzz of insects in the flowers. I’ll take that over a grotty shed, any day.

Where the new shed is concerned, I’m pretty chuffed that we’ve managed to tick several permaculture boxes, not only because it will mostly be built from reclaimed materials but also because we are designing it to perform several functions. Last summer, Roger removed a bay from the carport behind the house; it’s not a structure we would choose to have, especially not one long enough to park a bus, and it added nothing to the view from the house. Some of the timbers were used to make the utility cabin and the rest, along with the roof panels, were used to build the beginnings of a new structure in the vegetable garden.

The most important function will be water catchment; our current rainwater butts are about as far from the veggie patch as they can be and although dragging back and forth with heavy cans helps to keep me fit, the novelty of that will certainly wear off in a hot summer. A length of guttering, a couple of downpipes and decent sized butts will make things more efficient and life a lot easier, especially when it comes to keeping the tunnel watered. The rescued shed panels will be used to make shelter sides and a much smaller enclosed shed, just enough to house things like handtools, buckets, pots and trays which we need in that part of the garden; they are currently leaning against the frame, waiting for us to finalise our design, but the actual building shouldn’t take too long once we get started.

We carried the garden bench into the shelter to give it a bit of protection over winter but it’s incredible how much we’ve continued to use it so we are planning to leave space for a couple of chairs to live in there permanently. That will give us somewhere to shelter from heavy showers or grab a bit of shade when we’re working in heat (please note how optimistic I’m being about a good summer to come!); it will also be a great spot to sit and watch the veggies grow. If this sitting about is starting to seem like a bit of a theme, then it is; observation is an important part of gardening and it’s crucial to make places to sit and watch, to listen and read the land. It’s not all about work, work, work . . . restoration begins with rest, after all. 😉

I’ve also started to sort out the long stretch of bank behind the house, a job I’ve been itching to do ever since we moved here but at the same time I’ve been dreading starting as it was always going to be an onerous task. Basically, when the renovations were done here about fourteen years ago, a large gravelled area was dug out on the north side of the house; it was done well and must have cost a pretty penny, the resulting earth bank being shored up with mighty railway sleepers and stone walls . . . but then came the planting. Now I know we all have different tastes and ideas and I celebrate that diversity of choice and character, but personally, I cannot stand what I call supermarket carpark planting schemes – those predictable, banal, ‘low maintenance’ shrubs and groundcover plants which it might be deemed suitable for an urban retail landscape but are so completely wrong in a cottage garden in rural France.

I would never, ever choose to plant those things myself; for me, a south-facing bank like that with house windows looking out over it just cries out for a rumbustuous paradise of herbs, flowers and fruit; why, oh why, plant creeping conifers when you could have roses and raspberries and a riot of rainbows? I am trying very hard to be generously pragmatic where some plants are concerned, knowing that cotoneaster and heather, for example, are great for insects; in fact, the reason I haven’t been able to get stuck in until this late in the year is the busy population of bees and it would be wrong to destroy what is such a good food source for them. I’m not going to pull everything out and start again but rather try and get it all under control first then tip the balance in favour of plants I prefer by introducing more and more new things in the future and encouraging the few wild beauties that appeared last year of their own volition. Far more my cup of tea.

To be fair, I have found a few treasures buried among the chaos: lavender, thyme, a couple of different mints and lots of strawberries, all of which can stay and hopefully will thrive with more light and attention. There is a lot of couch grass in the mix and I can’t do much about that apart from cut it right back and encourage other things to grow more strongly. The shrubs have all grown into one another and most have a lot of dead woody matter that I’m removing in the hope they will be rejuvenated while a few young self-set native trees have been lifted to plant elsewhere. I’m not sure what to make of things like two tiny ornamental conifers (which I don’t like) planted in the shade of a twisted willow (which I do) and I can’t say I was too thrilled to find a hideous resin statue lurking under the bigger of the two, a cat in sunglasses wielding a garden spade: the mind boggles – and yes, it had to leave!

The biggest nightmare by far, however, is the periwinkle. As a native plant, it makes for lovely groundcover in the right spot with its glossy, deep green leaves and pretty blue flowers but this one is monstrous, having run amok and choked everything in sight, including itself; it’s even grown right through the stone wall Roger built in the summer which is downright rude in my opinion. Where it has formed thick mats, I’m chopping it right back in the hope that any new growth will look healthier and darker (that sick yellow colour just isn’t right) but that’s the easy bit; to remove it from the other plants, I’m having to get right into the middle of them and pull it out strand by single strand which is a painstaking job, the wheelbarrow rapidly filling with trails of the stuff yet with little apparent progress made on the ground. I’m beginning to wonder if at this rate, I shall have finished before the bees are back but I shall soldier on in the belief that one day, it will be beautiful. It might just take a long time . . .

Pausing in my busyness, I take a few moments to luxuriate in the unbelievably mild temperature, the softness of the air and the pared-back beauty of the season. In ancient times, wrens were of particular significance at this time of year but here it is the sweet fluttering melody of dunnocks that rings from the hedgerows. There is magic, too, in the haunting daylight calls of tawny owls from the woods, the trilling woodlarks and the strident whistle of the mistle thrush, that most optimistic of winter songs. There is so much still to be done on this precious patch of land but I am happy that we have started to make our mark. When we arrived here, the summer raspberry canes had been sheared off at ground level, only a few missed survivors being left to bear fruit last summer; this year, they have grown tall and strong, now making a bold splash of winter colour that promises a wonderful harvest to come. Perhaps they are an apt symbol of what time, love and healing can do, real restoration in every sense of the word. Yes, I like that. Happy New Year, one and all! 😊

Time, space and spirals

I enjoy waking, whenever I feel like it, to a choice of interesting creative tasks all of which I want to do; or, best of all, just stepping out into the world and responding to it: total immersion. Paradise gardening.

Joe Hollis

Window dressing is quite an art form here and I love the displays that appear in the local boulangerie in particular, they are always so creative and colourful, such joyful expressions of the season. I’m thankful that there is currently no headlong rush into all things tinsel; in the windows of St P’s friendly little shops it is autumn leaves, nuts and berries, hedgehogs and squirrels that still capture the essence of the season so perfectly. The surrounding landscape is on fire with breathtaking autumnal colours and I am giving myself the time and space to revel in this transient beauty. Leaf fall is accelerating, the sun sinking a little lower every day. Soon it will all be gone. Time to enjoy it while we can.

When Roger asked me last Saturday what my plans were for the day, I smiled and said I was thinking about having a weekend for a change; this was a tongue in cheek reference to our farmer friend who grumbles that for him, it’s ‘never Saturday, always Monday.’ Looking at us from afar, I suppose others might say our life is the opposite of that – one big permanent weekend or holiday – and I will be honest, not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for the fact that we no longer dance to the tune of paid employment, timetables and deadlines. However, we are still incredibly busy people, spending most of our time on outdoor projects; in fact, apart from the occasional essential shopping trip or a walk or bike ride somewhere together, we never actually stop to draw breath. Please don’t get me wrong: this is a lifestyle choice and I am not complaining about it one little bit. Like the quote at the top of this post, I don’t regard what we do here as ‘work’ when every day is filled with the possibility of being active, creative, productive and reflective without even leaving our patch. To open the door and know I can spend the entire day immersed in the beauty of our garden, whatever the weather or season, is the greatest luxury imaginable. Paradise indeed.

My reference to fancying a ‘weekend’ really means some time where I can ignore outside jobs for a while and turn my attention to a few other activities, some which perhaps otherwise feel like a bit of an indulgence. In modern society, lives can so often be starved of time but even in a more relaxed setting, I believe we still need time and space to ourselves to use however we wish; it is often cited that hunter-gatherer peoples have a greater amount of leisure time than any others and I think there’s a valuable lesson there for all of us. Also, when you think about it, it’s quite difficult to do nothing; I’m not great at sitting still so reading a book for hours or watching television (which we don’t have anyway) are not my thing, but they are still engaging the brain at some level. Even daydreaming requires a bit of effort!

So, how did I spend my real Saturday? I did a session of yoga; I read some blog posts and replied to comments from other people on my own post; I sewed tiny buttons on to a couple of baby jumpers I’d knitted and finished making a little hat to go with them; I made a batch of solid hand lotion to get my sore hands and feet through a winter of gardening; I collected, peeled, cored and chopped another vat of windfall apples and cooked them into compote and leather, while listening to a French podcast; I blended wool and silk on my hand carders to make rolags for spinning, then set up my wheel and started the first bobbin; I wrote postcards to our grandchildren and messaged a friend who wasn’t feeling great; I sorted and packed the last batches of seeds I had drying – coriander and nigella for the kitchen, basil for next year’s garden; I looked at the next unit of my permaculture course and turned a few articles into PDF files to put on the Kindle for bedtime reading. Thinking I’d done for the day, I then started making a crochet teddy from scraps to match the baby knitting. On reflection, I had a pretty productive and very enjoyable time without setting out with any specific intentions in mind and I think that’s a healthy and rewarding thing to do occasionally – to allow ourselves to just go with the flow, not setting any goals, abandoning all ideas of a must-do list and then seeing what happens!

The current unit of permaculture I’m studying is about forest gardening and I am certainly leaving plenty of time to immerse myself completely and absorb as much information as I can. It’s arguably one of the most important topics to consider and I know there will be a wealth of additional material to absorb and enjoy. I’ve long liked the idea of planting a food forest but my personal opinion is that it must be tempered to some extent. In Miraculous Abundance, Charles Hervé-Gruyer tells of an indigenous Amazonian family he lived with who kept no breakfast in the house because they could simply walk outside and find it every morning. What a wonderful thought, to be able to harvest everything we needed by simply wandering outside! However, let’s be realistic for a moment: far from living in an equatorial rainforest, we are in sub-maritime temperate northern France and here we are very much at the mercy of the seasons with fluctuating weather patterns and light levels. The idea of planting many more food-bearing trees and shrubs and extending the list of perennial food plants is very high on our to-do list but I would be loathe to give up on our annual crops as fresh, stored or preserved, they form such a key part of our diet.

Despite this being the ninth garden we’ve created together, in many ways the first year here has been as much a learning curve as ever. Even though we have gardened in this area before, there was no certainty at the outset what we could expect from this piece of land: it takes time to understand how factors such as aspect, prevailing winds, weather patterns and soil composition affect growing conditions. In the event, despite numerous less-than-ideal situations, we’re pleased with the overall harvest we have enjoyed and, as we move into the realms of winter vegetables, it’s still interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) worked. For instance, the Florence fennel has been very disappointing and that comes down to sowing times; it’s a tricky customer, needing to be planted relatively late so as to miss the worst of the summer heat but early enough to put on plenty of growth before the season has shifted too much. I was probably a week too late in sowing the seeds and my decision to cram them between patches of leafy beans and burly Savoy cabbages actually led to them being shaded rather too much. It’s no big deal, we are eating the small bulbs and foliage anyway but next year will require a rethink. Purple sprouting broccoli is an early spring staple and the plants are looking wonderfully healthy but I’m concerned about the possible effects of savage winter winds blasting in from the west, so Roger has used some of the hedge prunings to weave a protective hurdle; obviously, the hazel leaves will die back but I’m hoping it will be enough to at least break up the wind a bit or divert the worst of it away from the plants.

The Secret Garden was always going to be a bit of an experiment this year and I feel the results were a bit mixed. I certainly won’t be planting brassicas in there again, it was just too shady and they were hammered far more badly by weevils and caterpillars than those grown in more open sites. That said, a few ‘Thousandhead’ kale plants have rallied with lots of delicious fresh growth and there is still a carpet of New Zealand spinach to tuck into. What a good trooper it is. I’m also pleased to see patches of self-set rocket and land cress, I love it when the garden starts to grow itself. There will be more light next year once we’ve finished the hedging but I think this will be the best patch for things like salad crops and leafy greens and I’ll move the needier varieties out. There is still a decent picking of beetroot and they add a splash of rich colour to what we are calling our ‘Root Downs’ (as opposed to our ‘Green Ups’) – trays of mixed root veg like parsnips, carrots, potatoes, oca and Jerusalem artichokes, such lovely sweet and starchy treats. Gone are the days of summery basil, mint and coriander, these strong earthy flavours call for something more robust in the way of herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme or savoury. Toss in some onion chunks and fat, creamy garlic cloves, and we practically have a complete meal.

A simple ‘root up’ ready for the oven.

I’m happy to admit that brassica planting registered very high on the chaos scale this year, not helped by the fact I’m a lazy labeller. I knew I’d planted out some romanesco broccoli somewhere but lack of any obvious evidence suggested they’d been a casualty of the Weevil Wars. Imagine my delight, then, to discover three large heads hidden deep within the foliage this week, their fractal patterns the living embodiment of Fibonacci’s mathematical sequence, the golden ratio that spins exquisite spirals in nature. They are astonishing things, I am happy to grow them simply to look at them – although they do happen to taste pretty amazing, too!

As the leaves fall and spaces open up in the garden once again, we have a chance to assess the changes we have made here so far and to make plans for other things we would like to do. We’ve recently planted a couple of young bigarreau cherry trees in the hope of increasing the harvest in years to come, and we plan to plant more fruit trees – plums are a must! – during the dormant period. I’ve found a good online nursery in Pays de la Loire and have started putting together an order for some of those plants which will add more edible options to our ‘food forest’: sea buckthorn, autumn olive, honey berry, goumi berry, goji berry, jostaberry, yellow raspberry and the like. I don’t want to order until the bare-rooted willows are available; Roger has started to dig the pond (despite us agreeing a mini-digger hire would be the sensible plan, it comes as no surprise that he’s doing it by hand!) and I want to create a ‘wild’ area between it and the veggie patch with a mass of willows and dogwoods to add a splash of winter colour. The willows I’m after are saule des vanniers in French, literally basket makers’ willow; I’ve always had a soft spot for baskets but have never made one myself so that’s an interesting project for the future, as well as using some withies to create other features around the garden. Some of the features we already have here have become more prominant as the dense green of summer growth fades away and bring a new perspective to the garden.

Log ‘seat’ framed by hazel and blackthorn.
Stone pyramid wildlife habitat . . .
. . . and a more temporary one made from hedge prunings.

Away from the garden, the 30-day yoga programme is going well. I’m sticking to my daily practice and really enjoying it – so much so, in fact, that I started to feel a bit disappointed that the sessions come to an end far too quickly. I decided it was time to look for something else to add to my morning exercise and wondered if I could find a simple dance lesson or two. I’ve always loved dancing: contemporary dance was my thing as a teen (yep – footless tights, legwarmers, the whole Fame shebang 😆 ) but as an adult, my dancing exploits have been pretty much limited to a bit of a boogie at parties and weddings. I have mentioned before that after a rush of blood to the head, Roger and I signed up for salsa evening classes a few years ago and spent most of our time in fits of giggles as we tried to work out what on earth our feet should be doing. The tutor was unquestionably a very talented dancer but I had the impression he felt he’d drawn the short straw teaching a class of hapless beginners. He made a good fist of giving us a taste of different Latin American dance styles but for me it was all too fast and furious; we’d learn a new routine and would just get to the point where it actually felt like we were dancing then he would move us on to something new, often never to revisit anything. As soon as we were home, I would scribble down everything I could remember to help us practise but it ended up a complete jumble as there was too much to recall.

As a teacher, I am all too aware that learners need many things: clear instruction and demonstration, motivation, fun, repetition, time to practise and permission to make mistakes in a safe and supportive environment but overload isn’t at all helpful. I would have loved just to focus on one routine each week so that at least we would have had twelve basic dances under our belt at the end of the term; as it was, we didn’t crack a single one. We persevered for another couple of terms without any real improvement so we put it down to experience and bowed out gracefully . . . but I’ve never lost my desire to do better. So, I was pleased to hit on the short video lessons by Oleg Astakhov, although I was highly sceptical about learning nine dances in twelve minutes: I’d be happy to suss one, to be honest! Mmm, it sounded like an interesting challenge, all the same and – all credit to the teaching – twelve minutes later I was indeed nine dances wiser. The best and most unexpected thing, though, was that suddenly everything clicked and fell into place, all the things I’d found so difficult in those dance classes suddenly became as clear as day.

I’ve always been an advocate of spiral (as opposed to linear) learning, the idea that we are not essentially programmed to learn anything first time round – or second or third, for that matter – and that it’s important to keep circling back to what we are trying to learn, perhaps in a broader or deeper sense, in a different context or from a new angle; sometimes, we don’t grasp something simply because we’re not ready to at that moment. Learning new dances is great brain gym, a brilliant workout for the mind as well as the body, and I’m suddenly having so much fun! I don’t suppose solo dancing will ever catch on but finding time and space to spend a few minutes getting my head (and feet) round waltz and polka, rumba and hustle, jive and jazz, not to mention mambo, merengue, bachata and cha cha is certainly keeping me out of mischief and making me smile! I’m not sure I’m ready for hip hop just yet but there may be a little zumba in the pipeline. Lifelong learning and laughing. I love it. 😊

Autumn arrives

Autumn is most definitely here. It has thrown so many different kinds of weather at us this week that it has been hard to keep up. We had a blissful couple of bright sunny days at 20C (‘feels like’ 24C – and it did), dropping to only 15C at night: shorts and t-shirts all the way and maximum time spent outside. We’ve had days of heavy showers – the first in weeks – with the temperature hovering in the low teens and evenings cool enough to light our new woodburner for the first time; mmm, so cosy! There was a morning chilly enough to put a skim of frost on everything, another so shrouded in cloud the world was all white and muffled; several days have treated us to brilliantly artistic sunrises and equally fiery sunsets. There has been the gentlest of breezes sending a dry whisper through the hedgerows and teasing leaves here and there to drift down in slow and dainty pirouettes from the trees, and a night of gusty storms that rattled round the chimney and dumped a pile of colourful leaves outside the kitchen door as if nature had decided to indulge in a little seasonal window dressing.

Out on my bike, I’ve worn a t-shirt one day but three layers plus gloves on another and have spent days in the garden working up and down through various layers of clothing and switching between old trainers and wellies, sometimes from hour to hour. I planted white garlic in the warmest of soils on a beautiful sun-drenched afternoon and rescued wind-damaged brassica plants on a cold and soggy morning. Well, ’tis the joy of the season and I quite enjoy the whole unpredictability of it all; at least it hasn’t been cold enough to light the kitchen woodstove – yet – and glimpses of sunlit autumn colours against a blue sky have been exquisite.

In the garden, there has been a feeling of season’s end for many plants. We have eaten the last of the aubergines from the tunnel and the final outdoor courgette. The sweetcorn ran out of steam and with the last small cobs consigned to the freezer, I chopped and dropped the spent plants where they stood. I intend to plant climbing beans on their patch next year and have been busy making up for lost time, adding organic material to feed the soil; having planted up the neighbouring Strawberry Circle – and blimey, those new little plants are looking good! – I now need to shift the remaining four from the sweetcorn bed to give myself a clear run at feeding and extending it before spring. However, there is a bit of a problem in that the strawbs are still fruiting merrily after five months of berries and I am still picking them daily to eat on my breakfast oats; yes, I have pointed out it’s October (actually, almost November) but nothing so far has deterred them. They go on and on.

Crazy strawberries apart, it always feels a bit odd to see the lush summer growth of the garden fade and die back but it is all part of the natural way of things and we still have so much good food to come that I don’t find it sad. The ‘Autumn King’ carrots are living up to their name in every way and are without doubt the biggest we have ever grown; whether seasoned with warming spices and roasted with squash or grated with cabbage and topped with rocket, landcress, New Zealand spinach, pickled nasturtium seeds and herbs in a crunchy salad, they are sweet and delicious. We are ploughing our way through an incredible harvest of crisp and enormous pointy (early summer) and drumhead (late summer) cabbage while the Savoy (winter??? Not a hope . . .) are charging on behind. I love their huge crinkly leaves backlit in sunlight or sugared with frost, such beautiful seasonal textures to delight in. I’ve gathered up a few of the smaller summer cabbages to make sauerkraut and also set a jar of beetroot to ferment; things might be feeling a bit end of season but there is so much left to enjoy. Needless to say, the apple pressing goes on and on . . .

The Jerusalem artichoke flowers brought a bold splash of late colour to the vegetable patch but the plants outgrew themselves and toppled over a couple of weeks ago; I didn’t have the heart to do anything about them as they carried on blooming at ground level and were still buzzing with insects. This week saw the end of the flowers, however, so I have finally cut them down, leaving stalks to help us locate the tubers in the depths of winter. I chopped the plants and added them to the sweetcorn bed as a mulch which should rot down nicely over winter and encourage the worms to do their stuff. As well as a fascinating range of fungi (including some very tasty field mushrooms), the cut grass is now teeming with valuable wormcasts; it’s good to see these most precious of gardening companions are busy again and when it comes to mowing, we will leave the final clips on the surface to feed them. It’s probably no great coincidence that the moles are also back to their industrious ways, bless their little velvet socks, so I’m back to shovelling up their hills to spread as topsoil on various lasagne beds. They seem to be in cahoots with the jays, since every tump has a strategically placed acorn on top of it; no question, nature would plant an oak forest here in the blink of an eye if we turned our backs long enough.

Along with the other summery veg and flowers, it’s also been time to bid hasta luego to the climbing beans which have finally reached the end of the road. In Asturias, our neighbours grow the plants up strings instead of poles (although last year, netting had become the new fashion) and harvest the whole lot at once, draping the pulled plants over horreo balconies to dry before threshing out the beans. My approach is a bit different, probably not as efficient but one that suits our lifestyle and organic gardening principles better. For starters, we prefer to freeze the beans rather than dry them; for us, they are a winter staple and it’s much easier to grab a batch last minute out of the freezer than have to remember to soak them overnight, so I’ve been picking and processing them over a number of weeks as they ripen. As they are legumes, I cut the plants off at ground level, leaving the roots to break down naturally underground in their own time. I then unravel the twisted stems up the poles, picking the last beans as I go. This is a bit laborious – especially as there has been a shameful amount of pole-hopping going on this year, so it’s like unravelling tangled balls of wool – but it means I can chop the vegetation as I go along, letting it fall to the ground as a mulch.

I’m planning to plant courgettes in this space next year; as greedy feeders, I think they’ll appreciate following the nitrogen-fixing beans and this additional layer of green fertiliser should encourage the worms to do their stuff and enrich the soil. It’s well worth the effort and not a bad job on a warm October afternoon. The twine I used to tie the poles is biodegradable so that joined the mulch mix, the hazel poles have gone into dry storage for next year and we have a freezer drawer full of fat creamy beans to enjoy in the months to come. We’ve had a great crop of seed from the dill and coriander that grew with the beans, all dried and stored for use in the kitchen. I’m leaving the dead plants untouched as their hollow stalks provide excellent overwintering homes for a wealth of beneficial insects – and I’d far rather we can count on their presence next year than worry about having a tidy garden. One of the things that has really struck me this week is the sheer number and variety of ladybirds we have and that is definitely something worth celebrating.

In the local neighbourhood, the maize harvest is in full swing; the field behind our garden is being munched by headlight as I write (it’s 9pm!), but one further along the lane was cut earlier in the week and the subsequent hauling of manure left an opportunity too good to be missed: as I set off to St P on my bike one morning, I met Roger running home pulling a wheelbarrow loaded with well-rotted muck behind him! Well, I’ve heard of people training by pulling tyres behind them but this did look a bit extreme . . . such is the life we lead. The farmer did scrape the lane clean once he’d finished, but why let nutritious stuff like that be flattened by cars when it can do so much good in the garden? This was my cue to take a deep breath and move the crown of rhubarb we inherited here and which I have been nurturing for many months. It really was long in the tooth, the central root thick and pappy but very deep so it took a lot of lifting. I split it into four crowns, each with a couple of fresh young buds and planted three of them in the Perennial Thug bed along with plenty of that manure: I’m hoping that at least two will flourish so I can alternate between them in forcing a crown each spring. The fourth root was potted up as a long overdue plant swap with a friend, so fingers crossed it will do the business. It’s good to see that bed filling up and I’m beginning to think it will be the best spot for planting some purple globe artichokes next year (once I’ve raised the plants from seed). This year’s green ones haven’t looked back, although we really shouldn’t be eating them at this time of year; in fact, I ought to be thinking about covering the crowns to protect them from cold weather over winter . . . once the spiders have finished with them, of course.

Foraging for wild food has become very popular – some might even say trendy – in recent times and the bigger part of me welcomes this. I believe that anything that encourages people to spend time outdoors, exploring their local environment in depth, connecting with nature and the seasonal cycles and broadening an appreciation of foods that haven’t been processed or bought from a supermarket is a good thing. The flip side, though, is that in some places, too many people have piled in and allowed over-enthusiasm (and yes, let’s be honest, greed) to rule, stripping hedges, woodlands, moorlands or wherever bare of the bounty on offer. The consequences of this don’t need spelling out: surely it’s simple common sense, for example, that elder and hawthorn stripped of summer blossom won’t bring forth autumn berries? Also, once the novelty of seeking and gathering is over, for some the idea of actually eating these wild foods doesn’t seem quite so attractive and consequently they are wasted . . . and that sort of behaviour I really can’t condone. I feel very grateful that we are privileged to be able to forage on our own patch and that alone serves as a useful check against over-indulgence. The red squirrel watching me with unwavering attention as I gather chestnuts or the flap and clack of departing blackbirds as I approach the hawthorn bushes serve as timely reminders that these goodies are there to be shared; it would be pure hypocrisy to wax lyrical about working to preserve and enhance our ecosystem if we then strip it bare of what are essential foodstuffs for others who share this space. We are lucky: we don’t need to live on wild foods, but we can forage small amounts to enjoy as celebrations of the season, or even enough to preserve for the leaner months, but we can leave most for those whose need is greater than ours.

There is a current school of thought that, in the face of the climate crisis and general uncertainty over the future, we must look back towards the wild foods that sustained our ancestors in order to move forward. That is for greater brains than mine to analyse but in the meantime, I think it is interesting and informative to experiment with the possibilities of the wild foods we can gather here. Turning to foraging in times of crisis is nothing new; the log books of a Welsh village school where I once taught described how during World War II, children were released from lessons to gather rosehips for syrup . . . and were even given government issue wellies to help them on their way. I have been collecting rosehips for some weeks now and freezing them ready to make into a cordial once we are back to kitchen stove days; my plan is to use it as a hot vitamin-rich drink in the dark depths of winter. Hawthorn berries are also in the freezer, waiting for my first experiment with making fruit leather – thanks to Jonathan for the recipe idea. I’m going to combine them with apple and (hopefully!) dry them into a decent leather overnight in the stove, something that should then keep for a year or more and serve as a healthy and nutritious snack.

Roger took the ladder down into the hedgerows a few weeks ago and picked a large bag of fat blue-black sloes. We haven’t made sloe gin for many years but with Sam and Adrienne due to visit from Norway for a few days before New Year, I thought it would be a lovely seasonal treat to share with them (we won’t have seen them for almost exactly two years, to say it will be a full-on foodie fest is something of an understatement). As gin is never on our shopping list and we rarely go near a supermarket, it has taken me a while to remember to buy the necessary bottle so in the meantime, the sloes have been enjoying a deep frost in the freezer. This is a brilliant hack for sloe gin, as they burst on defrosting, releasing all those precious juices without the tiresome need to prick each one several times. They are now macerating happily in a jar with the gin and some sugar, I’m giving it all a good shake every day and then next week, I’ll strain the liquid back into the gin bottle and forget about it until Christmas.

Since foraging is not a precise science (especially practised at the top of a ladder), we ended up with more sloes than were needed, so what to do with the spares? While I messed about with gin, Roger did a quick internet search for ideas and came across Rachel Lambert’s inspiring foraging and wild food website at https://www.wildwalks-southwest.co.uk/. In no time at all, he had made a jar of her sloe syrup, rich, dark and fruity with just the right hint of astringency; Rachel suggests drizzling it over porridge but we also think it will make an ideal substitute where recipes call for pomegranate molasses. Why stop there? Before I could turn round, our walnut store had been raided and, using the fruits left over from syrup making, Le Chef had turned out a batch of sticky sloe and nut clusters. We are not great lovers of sweet things but sometimes there’s a need for a little boost after a long run, walk or bike ride and these gooey, chewy, fruity, nutty little numbers just hit the spot perfectly and taste like nothing else. Even better, with the stones consigned to the compost heap, there wasn’t a scrap of waste from our sloe harvest (and still plenty left on the blackthorns in the garden). Just as foraging should be, surely?

As the season shifts, so does our focus on the list of jobs to tackle. It’s a good time to reflect a bit on what we’ve achieved so far and to get stuck in to priority projects outside while the weather still holds. Some kind of shed and rainwater collection system in the veg patch is top of the list as hauling water from elsewhere isn’t very efficient (and also a lot of hard work), so Roger has sketched out a design and made an impressive start, re-purposing timber and roof panels from the carport bay he removed earlier in the year. We need to tackle the hazel hedge which has been allowed to grow into tall trees and casts a lot of shade across the growing areas for too much of the year; we are planning to reduce the height considerably, thin it out and then lay it properly – that will be quite a task. We’ve made good progress in creating habitats for wildlife but a pond is the one key thing we are really missing so there will be that to dig out, too. There’s also some work to be done in the coppice and logging is an ongoing task as always. Of course, there’s still the kitchen to finish (!), curtains to line, a bedroom to decorate and a pile of other indoor bits and pieces to be done . . . but while the sun is shining, we will be outside enjoying the very best of autumn while it lasts.

A life of luxury

I love this time of year, when the weather is kind; there is such a wonderful, gentle, subtle sense of the seasons changing, of sliding softly into autumn without any great jolt or shock to the system. I love the cooler, misty, cobwebby mornings leading to balmy, sun-drenched afternoons. I love how the still-green landscape starts to fade at the edges, leaves mellowing into artistic tinges of yellow and orange that hint at the bright fire to come. I feel wistful to see the last of the swallows leave but amused by the chattering of goldfinch flocks feasting on the sunflower seeds (I’d planned to harvest those heavy heads for the bird table but it seems I’ve been beaten to it). I love the straggly mingling of rudbeckia and Michaelmas daisies and the shameless colour of the red admiral and peacock butterflies who sip nectar from their depths. I love the scent of apples and mushrooms and wet leaves and wood smoke.

What I don’t love is an overnight forecast of 5°C, which at 7°C below normal on 30th September seemed very unnecessary. I don’t need to be waking to frost-encrusted grass yet, no matter how pretty it might look in the morning sunshine: there’s all winter to enjoy that kind of parky malarkey. Thankfully, it was just a blip; the temperature recovered rapidly and nothing seemed to have suffered, except for the squash plants. To be fair, they had been dying back naturally for some time anyway but that chilly night left the leaves limp and blackened – just the prod I needed to get on and harvest them. Now, those of you who have followed my blog for some time will know what a chaotic event the squash harvest always was in our Asturian garden: it was definitely a two-person job, one sliding up and down the slopes rescuing heavy squash before they barrelled off down the mountainside, the other ferrying them about in a wheelbarrow under a very worrying pull of gravity. Once cleaned, they then all needed hauling up many steps to the horreo for seasoning and storage: all in all, quite a workout. What a difference it was this week on the flat, managing the whole thing on my own without a single escapee. Here’s the result . . . from outside, 14 ‘Crown Prince’, 6 butternut ‘Hunter’ and 15 Casa Victorio Specials and from the tunnel,15 butternut ‘Hunter.’

Six butternuts from two outdoor plants, fifteen (plus two more to come) from two indoor plants. Note the size difference, too. That’s the benefit of a polytunnel!

There are a couple of butternuts still ripening in the tunnel but the total so far is 50 squash. Should be enough! 🤣 Okay, probably far too many, but they represent an important staple food for us and will keep until next May: eight months of delicious, nutritious sustenance – who can argue with that? I love the fact that they have grown so prolifically on their hügel bed: for me it’s the perfect recycling of an ugly ornamental conifer that had outlived its usefulness. I also love what happens with our Specials, that crazy mix of different fruits grown from the seed of a single squash. ‘Crown Prince’ and ‘Hunter’ are commercial F1 varieties; we grow them because they make good eating and they do exactly what it says on the packet. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing. The open-pollinated varieties are far more fun, though, and have the benefit of a wider genetic biodiversity which it is so important to sustain. In the middle row below, you can see five distinct types of squash all from the same ‘parent’ (which is usually the final squash to be eaten last season so I suppose, if nothing else, we are selecting for good keeping qualities); if we continued to grow selectively over a number of years by closing the flowers to pollinators and doing the job ourselves, we could eventually create our own variety – something I’d like a crack at in the future.

In the meantime, having been wiped clean and dry, the beauties are now seasoning in the shelter of the outhouse before going into the barn for winter storage. Mmm, the comforting luxury of lunchtime squash, bean and chilli soup beckons . . .

Talking of luxuries, we are enjoying what can only be described as a glut of aubergines from the tunnel; no matter how many we harvest, there always seems to be at least another twenty to pick, so much so that I’m even looking into spicy aubergine chutney and pickle recipes in an attempt to make the most of such bounty. We’re having a lot of fun using them and I can happily report that grilled slices over crème fraîche and mozzarella make a great homemade pizza topping; in fact, drizzled with pesto made from the last of the outdoor basil and stored garlic and walnuts, scattered with a handful of peppery rocket from the tunnel and served with a chunky slaw of autumn cabbage and carrots, aubergine pizzas are a wonderful celebration of the changing of the seasons. Then there’s the sweetcorn, something we haven’t managed to grow in any great quantity for many years; boy, are we making up for it now! The cobs are huge and covered in sweet, succulent kernels, to be honest a meal in themselves.

Like other seasonal luxuries such as asparagus, globe artichokes and strawberries, I think sweetcorn is best cooked and eaten as simply as possible and for us, the absolute favourite treatment is to cook whole cobs on the barbecue. If you’ve never tried it then trust me, it’s the food of kings, a true culinary delight we learned about in our years spent living in Cyprus. The merest whiff takes me straight back to Limassol seafront where, under bright moth-circled lanterns, the corn sellers wafted air across their charcoal braziers sending the appetising scent of caramelising corn to mingle with those of jasmine and sea breezes. Delicious, definitely my kind of takeaway food – and isn’t it incredible how evocative simple scents can be?

Not quite seasonal: one of the globe artichoke plants raised from seed this year has decided to have a bit of an October moment.

Having enjoyed plentiful harvests of peaches, figs and kiwis in recent years it might seem a bit mundane to be excited about an abundant apple harvest but I am, I really am. Apples are, after all, a fundamental part of my heritage and culture as well as being an incredibly versatile and reliable food source. Picking a sun-kissed apple straight from the tree, running a fingernail across its smooth skin, inhaling the unique scent and then taking a bite is a world away from any experience on offer from a supermarket. I love all the folklore and mythology that surrounds this humble fruit but more than anything, the wonderful variety and charming names: Keswick Codlin, Pitmaston Pineapple, Cornish Gilliflower, Peasgood’s Nonsuch and King of the Pippins trip off the English tongue like a spellbinding fairy tale whilst the French Orleans Reinette, Calville Blanc d’Hiver, Bonne Hotture, Binet Rouge and Franc Rambour sound completely delightful.

For us, this year is a voyage of Discovery (aargh, I’ve just realised what I did there – no pun intended) as we sample the fruit from the nine exceedingly mature trees that came with the property; I am spending many happy moments picking and wandering and munching. One is most definitely a cider apple, another has large yellow fruits that are almost completely tasteless; there are three varieties grafted onto a single tree, of which one is an acceptable russet type and the others fair to middling. The rest are a pretty mixed bunch but in general, the further up the tree we go, the bigger the fruit and better the flavour. By far the best is the old tree in the Secret Garden; it was the first to bloom in spring and the apples are small but delicious, very juicy and without question up there with a Cox’s Orange Pippin for flavour.

A bowl of delights, fresh from the tree.

Now we need to decide where to go from here: we will pick and store the better fruit as dessert apples but there are no cookers (which comes as no surprise) so one or two of those are on the top of our late autumn tree planting list. This is apple territory and much of the local orchard harvest goes to making three big regional products: cider, pommeau and calvados. We would prefer to use ours for fresh juice – another local speciality – but that comes with problems, not least the lack of a press. The local country store offers days where we could take our bulk harvest along to be pressed, but then how could we keep the juice? Without being pasteurised it would go off or ferment and freezing would require a lot of space. Perhaps the better bet would be to store the apples as long as possible and juice them as we go along – but how? We had an electric juicer once but it was hopeless for apples, we spent more time cleaning it and removing the pulp than drinking the juice. Decisions, decisions . . . in the end, I’ve ordered a traditional wooden 12 litre press to be delivered this week and we’ve decided the time has come to put the chest freezer (left here by the previous owners) to use, no bad thing really since the upright freezer is rapidly filling with produce anyway. Time to pick apples, then!

Harvesting and preserving food aside, there are other things we have turned our attention to this week in preparation for the colder months to come. Where laundry is concerned, I’ve always preferred to line-dry outdoors but a run of short, cold, wet days makes that impossible. We don’t have (or want) a dryer and I’m sad to have waved goodbye to my trusty wooden airer as there simply isn’t any practical way of mounting it over the kitchen woodstove, so a Plan C has been called for. We rigged a temporary zigzag of a line in the outhouse earlier in the year but it’s far from ideal for several reasons; first, it’s too small to take a full load of washing and no good for things like bed sheets; second, until we get the barn sorted – another winter project – this space is being used as a sheltered workshop and washing just gets in the way; third, it’s the only place we have to season the squash haul and they make access to the line very tricky. In any case, we don’t really want a washing line there as our eventual plan is to use the space as a practical outdoor area for activities such as soapmaking and, most definitely, a sheltered dining area so we can eat out and barbecue in all weathers.

The solution we hit on in the end was to relocate to the Oak Shed where there is ample room for a long stretch of line and two wide, open doorways allow a good breeze to blow through without letting the rain in. It’s much further from the house but that really doesn’t bother me; at least the laundry can start its drying process if nothing else and will come in smelling of fresh air to finish drying on a stand-up airer in a warm room. Job done . . . well, not quite that quickly: as with so many other tasks here, there was a bit of a knock-on effect and the line couldn’t go up until a pile of huge seasoned tree sections had been split and stacked out of the way. Which brings me on to the next autumnal preparation . . .

. . . logs! Our house is heated with wood and hauling, chopping and stacking enough logs to see us through a winter is hard, ongoing work; ideally, they need to be seasoned for two years before burning so we are always working well ahead of ourselves. We have stacks at various stages scattered about the property; those below are the latest to be collected from the coppice, birch logs split and stacked to dry in the fresh air.

Their final resting place is a store in the barn, along with several bags of chopped dry morning sticks. There’s every chance we don’t have enough to see us through our first complete winter here, in which case we will buy in a ready-seasoned load if stocks start to run low. It might be work, but the beauty is it boosts our self-reliance; we aren’t depending on energy companies to keep us warm (and isn’t that a topic of conversation at the moment?) and with careful management of the coppice, we should have the best, renewable ‘solar’ power for years to come.

In terms of stoves, there has been a bit of work to be done there, too. The kitchen stove works well as a space heater and runs two radiators comfortably but struggles with all four; to that end, we’ve installed a woodburner in the sitting room which will tick over nicely on minimum logs, heating that room and the open upstairs room which means we can turn two radiators off. With reduced pressure on the kitchen stove, it should be a lot better to cook on, too; the hob is brilliant but the oven temperature was disappointing last year – giving the internal workings a good clean has helped matters, so fingers crossed for roast dinners as well as casseroles this winter! One of the problems with the system is that there was no thermostat and the pump switch is outside in the cave, meaning we either had to get up in the night and go outside to switch it off or waste electricity letting it pump cold water round the system for several hours. We’ve just fitted a flue thermostat, it’s not the prettiest of things but it does mean we can control the pump from inside now. The other major concern was that the way the system is set up, if there is a power cut then the water could boil and the tank explode unless we put the fire out quickly (not easy!); to that end, we’ve set the pump on an uninterrupted power supply which will keep going for 24 hours in the event of a power cut, giving us time to get things under control and the option of continuing to be able to cook hot meals without electricity. Phew! With power cuts in mind, I’ve also been putting candles and lamps in strategic positions ‘just in case’ as it’s a bit frustrating trying to find the things once the lights have all gone out. I think we’re ready; cue the mildest, power cut-free winter on record . . .

Overhauled and ready to go: the woodstove with candles and lamp on the mantel (plus a tiny sneak preview of the new-look kitchen for those readers who are impatient to see it: more pics soon, I promise!)

Lack of insulation was a problem when we moved in last December so putting up new wood panel ceilings and packing a deep layer of insulation behind was a priority and one that made a noticeable difference to the temperature of the house. The windows are large and the south-facing aspect means we can benefit from passive solar heating all year round but unlike many local properties, we don’t have wooden shutters to help with night-time insulation. Instead, I’ve hung heavy lined curtains wherever possible which should help to keep things cosy. In the two upstairs rooms, the windows on the back of the house are in fact full-length glass doors; they let in plenty of light and as they face north, overheating in summer isn’t an issue. The previous owners left single full-length curtains in colourful Indian batik patterns which I’m happy to keep but they are so very thin that I definitely need to make some linings for them (luckily, I’ve just discovered a very handy local fabric and wool shop – oh happy, happy days!). The other problem with the door-windows is that they opened onto a long drop into thin air . . . aaargh, who ever thought that was a good idea? We decided the best way of making things safer was to add a balcony and the result is beautifully crafted, the kind of skilled workmanship in natural materials I love. The carpenter suggested Douglas fir as it has so much natural resin that it only requires a couple of coats of linseed oil a year; it feels like something of a luxury, the perfect spot to greet the morning or sit in the evening, but at least I’m no longer worrying about either of us taking up sleepwalking. It also happens to be the perfect size for my yoga mat . . . 😊

I’m not a great fan of seasonal bedding plants as they are an environmental nightmare, but craving some colour in early spring I succumbed to buying a few trays of pansies and planted up three window boxes. I have to admit they were worth every centime; they flowered for months and months in a cheery mix of bright colours and scattered plenty of seeds which have spent all summer popping up as new plants in the gravel below. I’ve refreshed the troughs this week, scraping back the top layer of soil and compost, filling the trench with shredded comfrey leaves for a slow-release fertiliser and replacing the top layer with added homemade compost, then planting little self-set pansies lifted from the gravel. Hopefully, they will give us months of floral colour which haven’t cost a thing – or the planet.

For the summer months, I replaced the pansy troughs with ivy-leaved geraniums (or pelargoniums, if you prefer), another bought indulgence which proved unexpectedly popular with hummingbird hawkmoths. In fairness, they have been amazing, tumbling enthusiastically down the front of the house and coping admirably with whatever the weather has thrown at them. They are still going strong but my plan is to cut them back soon, give them a good feed and move them to the polytunnel where I can coddle them all through winter in the hope of a repeat performance next year. Flowers aside, looking at the photo below I had two thoughts. One, those beautifully colour co-ordinated trainers were not a result of deliberate set-dressing, they were simply drying in the sunshine after a dismally wet morning run. Two, that inherited ‘welcome’ sign really has to go; I’m not keen on such things at the best of times but at the very least it should be written in French!

On our recent trip to Asturias, I remembered to collect our copy of John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency which I’m now enjoying reading for the umpteenth time. The regular references to the ‘Law of Returns’ are very apt for what I’ve been up to in the garden this week, returning every scrap of organic matter to the land being a key part of our organic husbandry. Having harvested the squash, I pulled up what felt like miles of spent vines and deposited them on top of the hügel bed along with the impossibly long grass that had grown between them; this should all rot down over winter, along with any extra organic matter I might add, and feed the soil for next year’s crop. I’ve chopped and dropped the crimson clover sown between the soft fruit bushes, leaving the nitrogen-fixing roots in place and scattering the ‘straw’ as a fertilising mulch. I’ve gathered up barrows of bruised windfall apples and sawdust from the logging sessions to add alternate green and brown layers to the current compost heap. I’ve turned the resting compost heap, adding water as it seemed rather dry despite the plentiful rainfall of late plus a scattering of yarrow leaves to act as a natural accelerator; I know ‘cold’ heaps are usually left to rest but giving them a tickle like this helps to kickstart the heating process again and anyway, I have my own approach to these things – I’m impatient and I have to check what’s going on (lots of worms, hoorah!). I’ve started planting the Perennial Thugs bed with a couple of slips of soapwort and a few roots of comfrey brought back from Asturias; the latter are already sending up new shoots, is there any stopping that amazing, beneficial plant?

Yarrow, a great compost accelerator.

To finish where I started, the gentle journey through early autumn. I feel my body clock responding naturally to the changing light, sleeping in a little longer in the mornings (and what a luxury that is!) and needing to be out and busy in the brighter hours of daylight. Taking the compost bucket down to the veggie patch to empty each evening, I can mark the passage of the sun ever southwards, breathe in the deep, earthy autumnal scents and watch dark crows flapping languorously across the sunset, homewards to roost. Time for me to turn ‘homewards’ with my empty bucket, too. . . but I might linger just a few minutes more and enjoy the beauty of this October moment.

Beans and berries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food and flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruit salad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A place of peace

The rain has driven me in from the garden. I don’t mind working on through showers – I quite enjoy it sometimes, in fact – but these are serious downpours from a bruised sky, heavy and laced with thunder. I’m not grumbling. Steady, warm rainfall is exactly what’s needed and I love the change it has brought: dusty red earth turned a deep, moist brown, the blackbirds’ mellifluous melodies amplified, the invigorating scent of all things fresh and green wafting in through the open window. Delicious.

In truth, it’s the first time in days I’ve been indoors for any length of time. Roger is away for a week so I have been left to my own devices and in complete charge of the patch with just my bike for transport and the wildlife for company. I’ve written before about how I don’t mind a bit of solitude now and then; naturally, I shall be very pleased to have him home 😊, but being alone has never bothered me, especially when I have so much to do. I also think it’s a good thing to be shaken out of my comfort zone once in a while, even if that does mean having to indulge in the dark arts of the Man Shed; I’m happy to report that the lawnmower and I have been getting along just fine – blimey, I even managed to put petrol in it. That said, I’m definitely pleased we have left most of the grassy areas as no-mow meadow with simple paths cut through.

I should mention before I go any further that Roger has taken the camera with him, so the photos I’m using are lagging a bit behind the times. The oak tree and hedge at the top are now dense with deep green summer foliage, the hawthorn blossom has handed over to elder and the meadow grasses reach to my shoulder in places. With maximum light and a gentle balance between warmth and wet, everything is growing at full tilt. What a truly incredible, energising time of year it is.

I’ve been so occupied with outdoor things that my gardening diary has completely fallen by the wayside; it had grown so immense that it would fill several blog posts and then some (which is why I don’t intend to publish) but I know I will be cursing this time next year when my hoped-for reference material yields a great black hole. Oh well, it’s not the end of the world. As always, the vegetable garden has been taking up most of my time and attention, not only in terms of maintenance but also in continued expansion and development. It’s been so frustrating in the five months since we arrived not to be able to harvest any produce apart from herbs and rhubarb but that is set to change. I have managed to pick a modest salad of rocket, land cress, red sorrel, baby chard, radish and herbs, so crisp, fresh and zinging with colour and flavour; it made me realise just how much I’ve been missing my garden foraging habit. The broad beans and peas are dripping with bee-ridden flowers and setting their first precious pods, the French beans at long last have shaken off their miserable hunched look and rocketed skywards and at least one courgette is flirting with the idea of opening its fat yellow flower buds. There is light – and food – at the end of the tunnel.

Although I’m happy pootling about on my own, it was lovely to have visitors one afternoon and to spend a couple of hours sharing a pot of tea and having a good natter, in the relaxed, sociable way that was taken for granted pre-Covid. They were interested to see what we have been up to in the garden and, showing them round, I was struck by how illuminating it is to see our efforts through someone else’s eyes. I realised just how stark it all seems – brutal, almost – as if digging borders and beds, still relatively bare of vegetation and colour, has made indelible scars on the original landscape. We have a vision of how we would like the garden to be eventually, not ‘in the end’ since it will keep on evolving, but at the moment it hardly looks like great progress.

At least we can argue that the vegetable garden is functional; the part-done flower garden, on the other hand, looks – well – downright weird, if I’m honest.

This is where it is so crucial to hold fast to optimism and patience, those most important of garden tools! I’ve been looking at some old photos of what was our biggest garden project, thirteen years of turning four acres of rough hill pasture in mid-Wales into a productive vegetable patch, orchard, woodland and flower garden. It was bloomin’ hard work, especially as we were raising our family and both working full-time, but it was an invaluable experience in terms of developing our gardening knowledge and skills, battling the elements and realising exactly what can be rendered possible with a positive, pragmatic attitude and plenty of energy. Please excuse the quality of the photos, they hark back to the dinosaur days of glossy prints!

I’m not going to spend a lot of time reminiscing but a couple of projects in that garden are good illustrations of how things can change, develop, improve and mature in a relatively short time. Let’s start with the pond. There was a naturally boggy area in the field (soon to be orchard) next to a defunct concrete water trough which suggested itself as the perfect site for a wildlife pond. We talked about hiring a mini-digger to do the job, but I came home from work one day to find that Roger, who must have had a day ‘off’, had done the whole lot by hand.

We lined it with a heavy-duty butyl liner, made a wooden top for the trough to form a bench seat, planted a few bits and pieces around the margins and waited for the pond to fill naturally with rainwater . . . which took a while!

Within weeks, wildlife had started to move in: pond snails, great diving beetles, water boatman, pond skaters . . . isn’t it incredible how they all appear as if from nowhere? After a couple of years, as the pond and surrounding area developed in maturity, frogs, toads and newts (smooth and palmate) appeared along with damsel flies and dragonflies; birds drank and bathed, and pathways through the undergrowth suggested larger nocturnal visitors. The pond and the life it supported became a focal point for us as a family and that basic wooden seat was probably the most used on the whole property!

Unlike our current cottage, that house was not remotely pretty; originally an 18th century half-timbered farmhouse, it had been ‘modernised’ over the years which had stripped it of most of its exterior character. (Roger thought it so ugly that he eventually painted it terracotta; I thought the colour was more akin to tangerine myself, but it certainly cheered things up a bit and gave the neighbours something to talk about.) When we arrived, the view from the back of the house constituted a scrappy area of grass in front of a solid wall of high ornamental conifers, which made everything feel dark, closed-in and thoroughly depressing. We needed light and colour – and fast; I’ll happily admit, Roger went forth with the chainsaw and had those trees felled the morning after moving day, letting light flood in through the windows. The colour took slightly longer, but with the help of my little gardening elf, there was soon a flower border in the making. Note how the bird table was the first thing to be planted.

I realise now how quickly gardens – and children! – grow; a bare stretch of earth with a few puny perennials and scattering of seeds (much as we have here now) can be transformed in the blink of an eye once nature gets to work.

When we were selling the house, one lady who came to look round was so enthralled that she said she thought we had created a ‘magical pagan paradise.’ She didn’t buy it, but that really didn’t matter because unwittingly, she had paid us the greatest compliment possible in finding such delight in that chaotic, crammed tumble and jumble of colour, scent, form and life. Our garden wasn’t to everyone’s taste, of course, but it was very much an expression of ourselves and that’s something we want to replicate here. Everyone is entitled to their own preferences and opinions but I will always wonder why anyone would choose to hide behind a black conifer hedge when in front of it was the possibility of a living rainbow singing with life . . . and beyond it, the most stunning of views.

So, back to our emerging flower garden here. What is the plan? Towards the end of my time as a primary school teacher, the concept of creating a ‘Sacred Space’ in the school grounds was very much in vogue. Break times are essential for children to enjoy some freedom, fresh air, exercise, to burn up some of their boundless energy and generally let off steam. They need those opportunities to express themselves through play. (I’ll spare you the soapbox, but I wish we could cut this current popular jargon. Children play. Enough said.) However, not every child wants to spend their playtime wellying a football or haring about capturing flags, so the idea of a Sacred Space is to provide a designated footy-free area of the playground or school field where they can go to enjoy a quiet time – a safe sanctuary, if you like. This is exactly the sort of idea I have for our flower garden, although I prefer to think of it as a Place of Peace, with all the same benefits but no religious connotations. I want it to be somewhere that draws me in, a safe and nurturing space where I can rest, contemplate or simply just be. I’ve mentioned before that I’m hopeless at meditation but to sit in quiet stillness free of intellectual thought and open my senses to the sights, sounds and scents around me must surely be halfway there, and just as restorative. I’m hoping so . . . but there is much work to be done in the meantime. Back to that photo and I’ll expain the story so far.

We’ve chosen to create the flower garden where it can be seen from the house which is to the south, with a ‘wild’ area to the east, orchard and the rest of the garden to the west and shed and hedge to the north with fields beyond. The building in the picture is a tumbledown cottage which suggests this was once a hamlet; ours is the only house here now, a poignant reminder of decades of rural depopulation in the area (although interestingly, the tide has now turned). We really don’t like those conifers but we’ve planted between them with native hedging – hawthorn, beech and hornbeam – in the hope of incorporating them into a proper hedge and softening their impact. We’re trying to create a sense of enclosure for the garden, not in the strict way of a medieval hortus conclusus but somewhere that gives the feeling of a contained and more intimate space. The front edge of the garden is straight as it is the top of a bank created when a gravelled area was dug out behind the house; the rest of the garden, however, is most definitely all about softer sweeping lines and curves, far more my cup of tea. Eventually, there will be an archway covered in scented climbers at the entrance between the stone wall and rose hedge – all in good time. A few months ago, we planted a curved hedge of bare-rooted rugosa roses, one of my favourite plants; I smiled to read a warning on the nursery website that they can be ‘wild and untameable’ which is exactly the point! They will form a sumptuous hedge of great beauty and perfume which will drive the bees mad and send up suckers which we can lift and plant elsewhere. They’ve all taken well but there is just one tiny fly in the ointment: I ordered red ones, or at least rose foncé as they were advertised.

Five out of twenty five are flowering and dark pink they ain’t! What’s a person supposed to do? I have no intention of removing them or painting them (never could stand Alice in Wonderland) and ranting and raging at the suppliers will solve nothing. There’s a chance they could be mixed and the white ones are flowering first but only time will tell. It’s not quite what I’d envisaged but already it seems the flower garden is off on its own trajectory. Mmm. I could think of it as a Yorkshire hedge, but we both have ancestry that lies in red rose country on t’other side of the Pennines so that doesn’t quite work! Better to remember that white roses are traditionally symbols of peace which, after all, is very fitting to the sort of space I’m hoping it will become.

A path inside the rose hedge curves around our experimental hügel bed; the topsoil layer is fairly thin this year so I’ve scattered lots of annual flower seeds and large patches of flowering green manure like buckwheat and crimson clover which will bring beauty and benefit insects but can then be chopped and dropped to help build and nourish the soil. I was really thrilled when Roger surprised me with a standing stone as this is something I love to have in the garden. Standing stones are a fascinating and evocative element of our British heritage but they were common in ancient Gaul, too; it’s easy to think Asterix and Obelix at this point, but in all seriousness, the Carnac (Brittany) menhir alignment sites are some of the most mind-blowing and mysterious places I’ve ever visited. Heritage and history aside, I simply love stone and think it’s something that is so easy to take for granted; how incredible to have a focal point in the garden that has come from deep within the earth and is hundreds of millions of years old.

Staying with natural materials and at the back of the second border, we have built a rustic support for climbing plants using hazel poles out of our hedges. It looks very strange and stark at the moment but given time it should look more integrated and hopefully it will help to bring height and structure to the garden as well as screen the shed. We found two clematis here that had been planted in plastic bags inside wooden containers so we have released both from captivity and one of them is currently scrambling up the structure. It has the most exquisite velvety purple flowers which I can’t photograph until my beloved returns from his travels; watch out for them in my next post! We’ve also planted a couple of climbing roses for company, and I’ve put up three wigwams of sweet peas and climbing nasturtiums to add temporary height this year. I’m quietly adding perennials to the border, including a hedge of cardoons, but again it will mostly be annual colour this summer in shamelessly bright colours – think Mondrian rather than Monet for the time being.

Over the summer, I’m planning to dig at least one more large crazy-shaped border within the space, leaving room for a seat in the centre as a reminder that this is a place to linger and be savoured. I quite fancy one of those Jack and Jill seats as I imagine this as the perfect spot to settle down with a mug of coffee (or whatever) so some sort of table would be handy. We’re also thinking about an area of shrubs to create height at the edge of the garden and I’d like another curving hedge to compliment the rose one, maybe of shrubby flowering herbs like sage, lavender, thyme and hyssop. Beyond that, we are enouraging a ‘wild area’ to flourish with long grass under trees; there is already a twisted willow and I fancy adding other light and airy specimens like silver birch. At some point in the property’s history, there has been a garden area here as amongst the grasses there are poppies, cornflowers, mallow and Californian poppies creating a splash of colour in that wild ‘nature does its own thing’ way I love. They are welcome to stay and spread and I shall certainly be collecting and scattering seed to help them along the way. (This photo is a couple of weeks old, it’s all gone a bit colour crazy out there since.)

This wild element is something I desperately want to hold within the garden space; yes, there is structure and deliberate planting but I don’t want it to feel manicured or formal in any way. It’s going to be a fine balance between a certain amount of control and a lot of letting nature get on with it. After all, I could spend vast amounts of time and money arranging fancy plants in clever colour schemes but to my mind, nothing can match the simple but vibrant allure of beauties like this one.

Coming back full circle to the only straight edge in the story where Roger has built a drystone wall to create a boundary and separate the top of the bank from the garden. That bank is a nighmare; it has been planted with what I think of as supermarket car park shrubs and whereas I accept that cotoneaster and heathers are great nectar plants, the banality and downright sterile ugliness of things like prostrate conifers leave me completely cold. There are a few herbs buried in there but the entire bank has been overrun with weeds, particularly couch grass, and is going to be a mammoth task to sort out. In the meantime, though, the daisies I included in an earlier post have been joined by pink spires of foxgloves (photo to follow, please just imagine them for now) and further along the bank, a dainty clump of ragged robin has appeared. This gives me that first tool – optimism – to believe that one day, this bare, strange-looking patch really will be the wildly beautiful Place of Peace I hope for; all I need now is the patience to go with it.

Six on Saturday 29th May 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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