Blue skies and bike rides

I love a good sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning glory

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

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

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

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

Morning spotlight on the rhubarb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come on, hurry up!

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

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

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

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

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

Whether the weather be fine

Oh, the lovely fickleness of an April day!

W.H. Gibson

Is it possible to have four seasons in one day? That’s certainly what it has felt like at times this past week. I’m not sure about April being the cruellest month but it’s most definitely been an interesting and restless one so far and our days in the garden have been unpredictable, to say the least. One moment we’ve been wrapped up in hats and gloves, eyes streaming in a bitterly cold wind carrying the iron scent of winter, the type that goes straight through you because it’s too lazy to go round; the next, we’ve been stripped to t-shirts and shorts, searching for the suncream and organising a barbecue for our evening meal. We’ve enjoyed skies of pure unbroken blue and those studded with soft billowy clouds like little children draw; we’ve worked under sheets of sullen steely grey and watched curtains of snow drift from clouds of deeply bruised purple; we’ve woken to heavy frosts that have set the world sparkling and the softest, gentlest of mornings showered with warm sunshine and birdsong. We’ve had the first rainfall in weeks. Capricious nature has been at its fickle best, that’s for sure.

Weather or not, ’tis the season to be planting and I have to admit, we haven’t been holding back on that score. This year we are taking a pragmatic – boring? – approach and sticking very much to tried and tested varieties, the reliable good doers which promise us a decent harvest in our first year here while there is so much to do. The time for experiment, indulgence and frivolity will come in due course, although I do have one little exception that I’m very excited about: a pack of nine new tomato varieties (of which more in a later post) that has winged its way to Mayenne from my lovely gardening friend in Finland: thank you, Anja! They are a colourful bunch, the idea being I should be able to create a tomato rainbow which, of course, is something that appeals greatly to my imagination and sense of fun; this is serious tomato country, so fingers crossed we will be blight-free and I can really do them justice. They’ve travelled a long way, after all!

We’re picking flowers and fresh herbs from the garden for salads but it will be so much better when all the ingredients are home grown.

So, in an attempt to keep things simple and also create a bit of a reference for next year, here is our planting diary:

  • 26th March Outdoors: Jerusalem artichoke tubers (8).
  • 27th March Outdoors: Potatoes – Charlotte 43, Blue Danube 11, Mystery Spud 3. Onions Stuttgarter Riesin 139 (sets). Peas Kelvedon Wonder (or Merveille de Kelvedon as they are here!). Comfrey (plant). Outdoors in trays: Summer cabbage Greyhound. Lettuce – White Romaine, Little Gem & Red Salad Bowl. Indoors: Tomatoes – Super Marmande, Rosella, Gardener’s Delight & San Marzano. Anja’s 9 tomatoes. Peppers – Long Red Marconi, Mini Red and Del Piquello. Chillies – Scotch Bonnet, Early Jalapeño, Long Slim Cayenne and Hotscotch (mix).
  • 28th March Indoors: sage, thyme, lavender, hyssop, Good King Henry, rudbeckia, cosmos mixed and pink, marshmallow, basil, Black-Eyed Susan.
  • 29th March Indoors: Aubergines- Black Beauty and Long Purple. Asparagus, globe artichoke, cardoon, French marigold, moss-leaved parsley. Outdoors: Carrots – Nantes, Chantenay Red Cored and Autumn King. Spring onions – White Lisbon. Spanish cebollitas – Barletta. Radish – French Breakfast. Freesias (corms), sweet peas, lupins and sweet rocket.
  • 7th April Indoors: Cucumbers – Marketmore and Conil (gherkin). Courgette – Black Beauty. Squash- Hunter, Crown Prince and seed saved from one of our mongrels. Outdoors: Calendula and yellow trefoil between rows in Shed Patch.
  • 8th April Outdoors: Peas – Kelvedon Wonder (2nd sowing, first crop in The Potager Patch). Secret Garden: Beetroot -Bona, Solist and Multicoloured Mix. Leaf beet – Bright Lights, Ruby Red and perpetual spinach. Celery – Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin. Leeks- Musselburgh (160). Kale – Scarlet Curled and Thousandhead. Dill, coriander, flat-leaf parsley, rocket, American landcress, fennel, borage and calendula. Broccoli in trays – Green Autumn Calabrese, Romanesco, Apollo, Purple Summer, Early Purple Sprouting and Late Purple Sprouting. Long strip of annual flower mix (26 varieties).
Our new picnic table is the perfect place for sorting through the seed basket!

Of course, it’s all about food first and we’re fast approaching that point of the year where we know we will be scrabbling for planting space if we don’t keep digging; it’s so easy to see a large patch and think it’s enough but by the time several rows of peas and beans alone have gone in, the space will diminish rapidly. We don’t want to be left scratching our heads and wondering where exactly the leeks and winter greens can go . . . so we haven’t finished with the spade yet. Roger has been cutting a wealth of paths which will become ever more tempting as the grass grows longer and the meadow appears and I love the way that we are now curving the vegetable beds to fit snugly into their bends; life is simply too short for straight lines!

I like the way our ideas and plans are already shifting and changing like the April weather: we’ve relocated a garden shed and planned another planting patch in The Potager in our mind’s eye, as well as talked about creating an area between The Orchard and Flower Garden with some hard surfacing (slate?) as an outdoor eating space. We love to use the materials that are already to hand so several large piles of stones are slowly morphing into a drystone wall and stout hazel poles have become a rustic trellis and sweet pea / climbing bean supports. We’ve moved two clematis that were pot-bound in wooden planters and growing in an unsuitable place; I’ve given the planters a makeover in ‘Vert de Provence’ paint and moved a rescued grapevine into one so it can scramble up the front of the house. A Christmas rose and three lavenders have also been moved to happier spots and I’ve introduced verbena bonariensis, granny’s bonnets, madder, dyer’s chamomile, mint, chives, parsley and soapwort from my Asturian collection. Things are happening . . . and it has been a joy to be outside.

Wrapped up against the icy wind . . . but it was good to be planting potatoes.

Although we’ve been blessed to have always lived in beautiful rural areas, I don’t think we’ve ever had a garden where we are so surrounded by wildlife. It’s as if everything that was already here has shrugged off our arrival, accepted us unconditionally and carried on as normal without being at all fazed by us sharing their space. We are completely immersed and I love it, this chance to be up close and personal, to be able to look at creatures so closely I can discover fresh new things about them. Bumble bees, honey bees, mortar bees, solitary wasps, ladybirds, shield bugs, butterflies and a whole host of other insects I don’t recognise have all landed on me at some point during the week; I’ve watched with fascination as a lizard scurried in and out of the kitchen without a care in the world, a treecreeper shimmied up the wall outside the kitchen door, a blue tit sat nonchalently in a windowbox of pansies and a red squirrel nosed about under the solar panels as if it belonged there. Unlike their Asturian cousins which are richly sabled in dark chocolate coats, these squirrels are firebright streaks of foxy fur, all tufted ears, white bib and important tails. They are so busy now, zipping up and down tree trunks, dancing along branches like acrobatic tightrope walkers and leapfrogging across the grass in a vivid flash of russet.

It’s the birdlife, however, that is centre stage. Two male blackcaps have taken up residence on opposite sides of the front gateway, one in the coppery foliage of the cherry plum, the other in the dainty white blooms of the cherry. They spend their days trying to outsing each other, their mellifluous melodies rising in a tumultuous crescendo to a point where it’s hard to hear yourself think. Once they’ve exhausted their repertoire (and possibly their vocal chords, too), they move to hurling loud clacking curses at each other, like harsh pebbles shaken in a sack. Finally, they resort to gladatorial violence, rolling and wrestling one another in the gravelled arena before retreating to their personal castles and starting the whole process all over again. They are not the only songsters, of course; robins, blackbirds, wrens, song thrushes, dunnocks and a variety of warblers are all flaunting their considerable musical ranges against the more percussive performances of cuckoo and chaffinch, house sparrow and great tit, chiffchaff and wagtail; redstarts gargle, green woodpeckers chortle and swallows stitch the air with their babbling chatter. It would be easy to romanticise it all but let’s face it, this is a war zone, a battle that has raged every spring down the millenia; it’s about territory, dominance, superiority, survival and the impelling urge to procreate and it is only me with my non-avian ears that imagines it’s set to a beautiful, musical theme tune.

The Secret Garden is full of birdsong; it’s time to eat that rhubarb, too!

Working in the Secret Garden, I have been keeping company with a pair of blue tits who are nesting in a hole in the wall of our stone outbuilding; it’s a canny choice, as few predators are likely to threaten their young tucked away in such a safe house. Apart from the occasional mild chivvying, they seem quite tolerant of my presence and entertain me greatly with their acrobatic antics as they search for insect delicacies among the blossomed boughs. I’m hoping it’s a habit they will shift to the vegetables later in the season, knocking back the aphid and caterpillar populations to feed their demanding family. In the poplar trees across the lane, the wood pigeons take a break from building their untidy nest, cooing at me softly and entreating me to, ‘Sow peeeeas pleeeese, Lizzie!’ Ah yes, my little friends; brassicas, too, no doubt, given your thieving, gluttonous ways. I suspect we will need to invest in some netting before the spring is out.

Blue tit in the blossom.

At the back of the house, the new flower borders have become the happy haunt of pied wagtails and redstarts who are plucking a wealth of good food from the bare earth. They seem to tolerate each other quite amicably, strutting and circling in solemn fashion, stepping out in a strange bobbing dance like guests at a masked ball; one decked out in simple, sober monochrome, the other in glorious technicolour, they make a perfectly balanced pair. Beyond them, a bevvy of ground feeders is enjoying the mown grass and this, I think, is excellent evidence in the the argument for balance. Meadows are quite rightly esteemed as wonderful environments for hundreds of species but I think it’s important not to dismiss cut grass, either. Please don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely no time for those perfectly manicured bowling green lawns, where everything that is not grass has been eliminated – physically, chemically, brutally – to leave an expanse of sterile and supremely boring space. Areas of short sward where mixed species have been allowed to grow are, however, a different matter, allowing an even wider range of flora and fauna to thrive. I think there’s room for both; after all, in my opinion, you cannot have too many ecosystems or too much biodiversity in one garden. Roger thinks you can have too many dandelions in the grass, mind you, but of course I can’t bring myself to agree.

A lawn full of sunshine!

I love their cheery, sunny faces and I’m not alone in that: they are full of honey bees wiggling around their centres, sultry belly dancers, their pollen baskets like silken harem pants laden with an astonishingly orange pollen. ‘Dandelion’, from the French dents de lion describing their ragged lion’s teeth leaves; the French, however, call them pissenlit – literally ‘wet-the-bed’ – in recognition of their diuretic properties. Doctors here recommend eating their fresh young leaves as a spring tonic, the perfect antidote to winter’s sluggishness, straight from nature’s medicine chest.

One of the most inspiring gardens I’ve ever visited was created by Gertrude Jekyll on Holy Island in 1911, from a former vegetable garden tucked behind a stone wall below the castle at Lindisfarne. It’s a wild, windswept landscape, beautiful in a somewhat bleak and forlorn way; it struck me as being a place on the edge of things, somehow, with its mist-shrouded, seaweed-strewn margins haunted by the plaintive whistle of oystercatchers and the mournful songs of seals.

I’ve been thinking about it again this week on the days when that wintry wind has been blowing down from the north-east. We visited one bitterly cold April when the sea was troubled and hostile, the landscape grey, scoured, foreboding. Spring seemed a long way off and the little garden with its geometrical patterns, wooden obelisks and quirky shed was stripped back to the barest bones yet still bright with spots and splashes of colour. What an unlikely backdrop for a quintessential English country garden it is, yet by the time Miss Jekyll had worked her magic, that is precisely what it became: a riot of summer colour and scent, of hollyhocks and marigolds and sweet peas, like a bright patchwork quilt spread incongruously in the middle of a barren moorland. The owner, Edward Hudson, had fancied a water garden and tennis court: the lady had other ideas!

I loved the cheery optimism of it all, the spirited can-do attitude; as gardeners, we are fools not to work with the seasons and weather, the stones and the soil, the ebb and flow of nature as it shifts to the pull its own tide, but that doesn’t mean we musn’t experiment or can’t dream. April days may be fickle, but if that sense of fidgety change and restlessness encourages me to be more imaginative, courageous and creative in the garden we are making here, then so be it . . . although I’d be very happy if we could skip the snow from now on. 😉

Heaven scent: the garden is full of these beauties at the moment.

Treasures

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

Jan Struther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mole whisperer

Having spent much of another week on hard, physical work outside, I’ve found myself recalling Einstein’s famous take on insanity. How many times in our lives together have Roger and I left a beautiful and highly productive garden to start all over again from scratch, carving a new one out of a field . . . and why am I surprised that it doesn’t get any easier? Well, Albert knew a thing or two and perhaps we really are mad but I have to admit that, despite the aching muscles, the sore hands and the need to be tucked up asleep by nine o’clock every night, I still get a huge buzz from this kind of thing. It’s hard-going and progress can seem very slow: our ideas and plans twist and change and there’s a certain impatience in wanting to do everything at once, but gradually some sort of framework – a garden skeleton, if you like – is beginning to emerge. It’s fresh and new and exciting, like the spring growth unfurling so rapidly around us.

Without doubt, one of the hardest parts of our move is that we have gone from being almost self sufficient in fresh fruit and vegetables to having nothing to harvest except a few herbs. It feels strange having to buy them all but in a way, it’s an interesting experience which has given me the opportunity to reflect on how central the kitchen garden is to our lives and what an enormous proportion of our shopping the fruit and veg haul now is! It’s pretty expensive here (not that I mind that, I don’t believe food should be cheap) but there is a great range to choose from, the quality is excellent and I’m impressed by how much things have swung towards organic in recent years in France. Still, it’s just not the same as wandering around our own patch, foraging bits and pieces for dinner, so the race is on to get prepared and start planting . . . and if I seem a bit over-excited about the prospect of that first crop of fresh rhubarb (all mine, Roger doesn’t like it) then that’s because I truly am!

Although digging beds is still the predominant activity, there have been several other key jobs to be done this week and I’ve finally got round to tackling a couple of monstrous things that have been bugging me ever since we moved here. First, the compost heap, a bit of a Heath Robinson affair which looked to be a mess in need of sorting out. We have plans for a bigger and more organised system of (hopefully) three bays; anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know I’m a bit of a compost monster and I do love a good heap so I’m very excited at the prospect of eventually having an all singing, all dancing set-up on the flat. Like everything else that will take time, so for now we will carry on with what was already here, albeit after a bit of a makeover. The left bay was full of oak leaves so I shifted them onto a hügel bed, then set about moving the compost pile across from the other side. Now I don’t mind jobs like this; partly-rotted vegetation really doesn’t bother me, it’s all part of a wonderful natural cycle, but I do have an issue when it’s all wrapped up in plastic, piles and piles of cellophane-type stuff plus various bits of metal and other non-biodegradable rubbish. Cue a lot of Muttleyesque muttering and cursing: this is not what composting is about! As with so many other things, what had seemed a fairly straightforward job took much longer than expected but the good news is I did find some decent compost at the bottom – enough to almost fill a dustbin, in fact – so it was well worth the effort. I’ve covered the heap in thick cardboard to allow nature to work its magic and started a new plastic-free pile on the right.

The second big task to be tackled was the bonfire site at the north end of the Potager area. Given it was a large circle of bare earth, this promised to be an almost ready-made planting bed once the pile of unburnt leaves and bits of wood had been removed but I hadn’t reckoned on the mess I’d find on closer inspection. The area had obviously been used to burn household rubbish and bits of furniture (illegal in France, and totally unnecessary given the highly efficient and accessible local rubbish and recycling facilities) and was full of plastic and metal detritus. Even worse, an old unburnt tarpaulin had been dumped on top and had shattered into thousands of tiny blue plastic strands which were everywhere; to say picking them all out of the soil was painstaking would be an understatement but it had to be done. Still, with the warm sun on my back and the air full of joyful bird noise and the sweet smell of spring, I did at least have lovelier things to focus on.

Back to the digging, and although it feels like we’re making progress in creating planting spaces, when we stop to consider everything we’re intending to grow, it still seems woefully inadequate. The original Shed Bed already has garlic, broad beans and parsnips in it and once we’ve added onions it will be full. The Secret Garden will be the shadiest patch through summer so perfect for lettuce and other salad leaves, beetroot, chard, celery, parsley, radicchio and overwintering brassicas like kale and broccoli which we know will flag in the full heat of summer.

The Bonfire Circle will be just the place for climbing beans with perhaps some cucumbers for company, underplanted with salad crops and (of course) some floral beauties to tempt the pollinators in. The potatoes get their own super-mulched patch and the squash will go on the hügelkultur hump from where they can scramble to their hearts’ content all over the grass; oh my, what a treat it’s going to be this year not having to chase them off down a mountainside! It doesn’t sound too bad until we think about all the crops that still need somewhere to grow and then it’s obvious the remaining bed isn’t going to cut the mustard, despite the fact we are extending it daily. I think the Flower Garden hügel (of which more in a moment) will have to house courgettes this year, the potatoes will have to accept some close neighbours in an extension to their bed and we will need to tackle the space currently covered for the eventual polytunnel sooner than expected if there is going to be anywhere for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. Phew! Maybe it would be easier to carry on buying veggies after all . . .

Given the pressure to organise the Potager, it might seem an indulgence to be busy creating the Flower Garden, too, but knowing from experience how long it can take for things to become established, it’s important to at least make a start. I have to say that ‘flower garden’ is a bit misleading in some ways; the ‘flower’ bit simply implies they will be the predominant feature but there will be no shortage of vegetables and herbs in there, too. Although I’m capitalising the various areas for ease of description we don’t see the patch as separate gardens but something more holistic, so the Flower Garden is somewhere that should sit comfortably behind the house, morphing into a Wild Patch on one side and Orchard on the other. The fly in the ointment is the shed on the north side which is something of an eyesore; we know from old photos that originally it was much smaller – just the part on the right with the guttering – but it has been extended greatly in recent years and yes, that poor oak tree really is now ‘growing’ from inside it! In the long term we’d like to shrink it again and at the very least I’m planning to paint it a gentle green and grow plants up it to soften the impact.

I wrote last time about starting to dig the first bed (where that tarpaulin was) and this week Roger has been cutting stout hazel poles from the hedge to create a rustic trellis-type structure along the back of it; covered in climbers, it should help to screen the shed even more and give a sense of height and a colourful backdrop. I’ve made a bit of progress in digging the bed and plan to use some finer hazel poles to make support structures for sweet peas and the like; the rest will almost certainly be scattered with annual flower seeds for a cheap and cheerful whack of colour and insect heaven in this first season.

I’m very aware that in a perfect world, we would be creating all the planting spaces without digging but there are a couple of problems with that one. For starters, we would need vast amounts of cardboard, manure and compost which we just don’t have; also, the ground here has been mown for the last thirteen years with a heavy tractor like the kind used in town parks and has become horrendously compacted. I understand the whole no-dig thing, and after the initial preparation we will be using a minimal disturbance approach but I think there has to be an acceptance that just occasionally, digging is the right thing to do. In order to maintain a semblance of balance, though, (and not totally shred my permaculture credentials) we decided to start a second bed in the Flower Garden using the hügel principle; after all, there’s not so much of a rush to create immediate planting space there. Rather than the classic arched profile, this is much flatter – less German hügel, more Welsh twmp. I’m not quite sure what we’ve created, maybe an Anglo-French-hügel-lasagne-pancake bed, which sounds either like a delightful cultural co-operation or diabolical confusion, depending on your outlook! We started by breaking up a stack of rotten hazel poles that had been left leaning against a tree and used them to make the base.

Next, we added the chopped remains of a couple of sacrificial ornamental conifers; please don’t mourn for them, they were nasty things and we’ve already more than replaced everything we’ve removed with native species better suited to the ecosystem. A thick blanket of grass clippings and dead leaves went on next, and finally a covering of inverted turf. I’ve read a couple of interesting articles suggesting that if the final layers of compost and topsoil are in short supply, then it’s possible to just keep adding organic matter – like a slow-burn compost heap – and simply plant into deep pockets of compost in the first season. I’d decided this would be the best approach; we could find enough topsoil but as that would mean digging a very big hole, it would sort of defeat the object, and perhaps courgettes planted in plenty of that retrieved compost is a good plan for this summer. However . . . I would, of course, love to have a few flowers in there too, and it occurred to me that I might be able to sow at least part of the bed this summer thanks to our very active population of moles. I must confess, I have a bit of a soft spot for moles with their velvety coats and outrageous paws but I know I’m the only member of the household who feels that way, especially when the evidence of their activity sweeps across the entire garden like chains of volcanic islands. The soil they throw up is amazing stuff, however, and I reckoned that a few minutes spent with spade and barrow scraping off the hills (or ‘oonty tumps’ as they’re charmingly called in Shropshire dialect) might render a bit of topsoil for a corner of the bed. A few minutes? Try well over an hour! In the end, there was enough soil to cover a good quarter of the bed to a depth that will readily allow me to scatter annual seed. Scraping each hill, I whispered my thanks down into the darkness of those secret tunnels and encouraged the little diggories to keep up their good work; well, for the time being at least – I probably won’t be feeling the love quite so much when they’re ploughing up the onions.

To an outsider, what is going on in the garden at the moment might well seem a chaotic puzzle but eventually some sort of shape will emerge and I’m hoping that by summer, it will all look very different – even if it’s currently hard to imagine. Looking at the stark layout of the Potager with its different shaped beds, hügel mound and mown avenues, I’m reminded of one of those computer- simulated models of Avebury Ring or Stonehenge and wonder if we should be incorporating some standing stones somewhere?

From front right: potato patch, general patch, hügel bed, bonfire circle. From front left: soft fruit patch, polytunnel patch (covered).

On a slightly smaller geological scale, and certainly more Hansel and Gretel than Neolithic Man, Roger has used a bag of white mulching pebbles left by the previous occupants to mark paths through what we’re planning as a Woodland Edge. The hedge against the lane is in a poor state but the row of mature trees is lovely and adding native planting to create a mini woodland below them seems just the right thing to do. Like our other projects, it will take time, especially as we’re planning to raise a lot of plants from seed, but in the meantime I’m enjoying following those moonlit pebbles on night rambles around the garden, whilst surrounded by the urgently romantic calls of barn owls and tawnies; ah, spring is definitely in the night air!

So, back to digging and although it’s hard, repetitive work, the one blessing for us is that this is the first of seven gardens spanning 24 years where we haven’t been digging up piles of other people’s rubbish. Yes, the compost heap and bonfire patch were pretty disgusting, but elsewhere the soil is blissfully deep, rich and remarkably free of stones. It is also full of the biggest worms you can imagine; no exaggeration, I’ve seen smaller grass snakes – no wonder the moles are so happy. I’m working as gently as possible so as not to disturb them too much and remembering the last French garden we created just a stone’s throw from here; there, instead of beautiful worms, every forkful turned up rubbish, mostly huge pieces of black plastic silage wrap and baler twine that wrapped itself around our tools and was a complete nightmare to deal with. It seemed to take forever to clear and yet we ended up with a very productive patch buzzing with life and colour, and crammed with food and flowers, in a relatively short time.

Mayenne potager #1: fingers crossed the second will be as good.

I know we will manage the same here, I just need to be patient and keep on digging. When my aching back suggests it’s time for a break, it’s lovely simply to wander about and see how things are changing with the season, the fattening leaf buds and first fresh green burst of willow and hawthorn, the delicate haze of plum blossom, the busyness of bees and butterflies and territorial posturing of birds. I can stand in the garden and watch roe deer grazing in a neighbouring field, red squirrels scuttling about in the oak trees and skylarks singing high above me. It’s all truly wonderful but – simple soul that I am – I find myself drawn time and time again to the Shed Bed where the glossy green spears of garlic push a little higher each day. Here is the wonder of nature, the miracle of springtime, the joy of growing vegetables. Here is our food of the future . . . and that makes me very happy. 😊