A matter of principle

I’ve just come to the end of my French course; the fact that 30 days morphed into almost three months shows just how challenging and resource-rich it was and I’ve enjoyed every minute (well, okay ~ maybe not grappling with the subjunctive). Now I’m going to give myself time to absorb everything, read back through my copious notes and then start again right from the beginning, this time spending more time dipping in and out of the incredible range of linked resources; that should keep me busy for another year, at least!

Having re-established a fairly disciplined study habit, it’s time to get stuck once more into the 52-week permaculture course I started almost two years ago. I must be the slowest student on earth, but in my defence I have been a bit busy moving home and countries and at least I’ve spent a good deal of the last 18 months actually putting what I’ve been learning into practice. One of the many things I like about Heather Jo Flores’s teaching is her reminder that permaculture isn’t it; there are many different approaches to living an ecologically-sound, regenerative, abundant lifestyle and it’s important and enriching to consider a broad mix. However, I do feel that the principles of permaculture provide a pretty good framework for life so, as I pick up the course once again, it seems a good point to do a quick assessment of how we’re doing in our new home so far. I did this when we had been living in Asturias for several years using David Holmgren’s 12 permaculture principles, so I’m going to use the same idea but keep it fairly brief and choose just one current example to illustrate each point. If nothing else, this should give me something to refer back to and build on in the future.

Red longhorn beetle (as you can see, the male isn’t red at all!)

Observe and interact Last year was a nightmare where growing beans was concerned; having initially planted directly into the ground, I ended up replanting several times and then finally resorting to planting in trays as each successive crop failed. Close observation of the beans’ attempts to germinate and (in very rare cases) grow beyond their cotyledons suggested that there were undesirable creatures tucking in ~ bean seed fly and wireworm being the worst culprits ~ and given the less-than-great condition of the soil, they were really up against it. This year I have pre-sown everything in trays of good compost, starting them off in the warmth of the tunnel; this has meant nearly 100% germination, no pests and trays of plants that are strong and healthy when they go into the ground. I’ve been working hard on soil improvement and every planting hole has been carefully prepared; that’s been quite a task in itself as so far I’ve planted 40 climbing borlotti beans, 84 Asturian climbing fabas, and between 40 and 50 each of Dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’, ‘Stanley’ and ‘Delinel’ with more to come as we go through the summer. To date, I’ve lost just one plant, which suggests this is a principle well worth spending time on.

Capture and store energy When he hasn’t been picking cherries, Roger has been busy fetching logs from the coppice this week. This is all dead, fallen wood; we haven’t cut any live trees, and in fact there is so much wood already down that I doubt we ever will (we prefer to plant trees where we can!). For us, the coppice is a precious environment to be cherished and preserved so we take the minimum from it and leave plenty of dead wood in place for the wildlife. Logs need to be properly seasoned before they are burnt, so we are always working on a supply for a couple of years’ time, splitting the logs and stacking them outside to air dry before eventually moving them into the barn. This store of captured ‘solar’ energy will heat the whole house through the colder months as well as provide us with heat for cooking and water.

Obtain a yield Permaculture isn’t just about gardening so a ‘yield’ can mean many things, but since being as self-sufficient as we can be in fruit and vegetables is a top priority for us, then obviously garden produce is high up the list. This week has seen us eating globe artichokes, broad beans, peas, courgettes, cucumbers, peppers and chillies (from the tunnel), lettuce, chard, radish, a wide range of fresh herbs and edible flowers, strawberries, cherries, gooseberries and raspberries all fresh from the garden.

Gherkin cucumber: perfect for eating while small and sweet or for pickling with dill.
Cardoons reaching for the sky.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback When I was teaching, I used to encourage my pupils to be brave about making mistakes as that is the best way to learn and, as a learner myself, I’ve been relieved to hear the same advice being shared in both the French and permaculture courses. I love the challenge of learning new skills or exploring different ways of doing things but life isn’t perfect, and inevitably some things will go wrong along the way. Using mulches of organic materials in the garden is a practice we have embraced more and more and there are many benefits: weed suppression, moisture retention, topsoil protection, improvement of soil structure, creation of worm heaven . . . however, this week has seen me removing all the mulch from around the potato plants in what has been something of a cautionary lesson. Common sense should have told me that the ground needs to be full of moisture before applying a generous layer of mulch; with the significant reduction in winter and spring rainfall plus a period of prolonged drought through April and May, the ground remains very dry despite some recent rain, and scratching our heads as to why the potatoes aren’t exactly flourishing, our thoughts turned to the mulch. Scraping back revealed earth that was damp in some places but dry as toast in others ~ where rain had fallen, the mulch had absorbed the moisture but prevented it from passing through. Feedback accepted: I need to be more mindful of mulch and moisture in the future.

Unmulched: ‘Blue Danube’ potatoes.

Use and value renewable resources and services Hanging washing out on the line beneath a beautiful blue sky this week, I have been thinking what a blessing sunshine and warm breezes are, free and natural renewable resources that have the laundry dry and smelling sweet in no time. That said, it’s flowers I want to talk about under this heading. I have always loved flowers, preferring those of a wilder nature than what I tend to think of as more formal ‘florists’ flowers’, and our garden has always burst with colour and scent in a fairly chaotic scramble of blooms. I’ve grown them for aesthetic reasons and for the benefit of wildlife but increasingly now, I also see flowers as an essential and precious resource in other ways. Herbalism has long been an interest of mine and the strengthening, healing and balancing nature of using flowers as gentle home medicine has become something of a priority in recent years. This week I’ve been drying elderflowers, yarrow, rose petals, clover, daisies, thyme, calendula and honeysuckle to use in infusions to take as tea, to steep in oil and use in salves and soaps or simply to float in a soothing bath.

Next will be lavender which has so many applications, then meadowsweet and soapwort to follow. Flowers have much to give in the kitchen, too, and a salad without a sprinkling of delectable floral edibles just isn’t a salad in my book! I haven’t had any time for spinning or dyeing lately but I will get back to it, and flowers will play an important part in making natural dyestuffs then. What a wonderful resource ~ and the real beauty lies in the fact that they will be there again for more of the same next year.

Produce no waste Moving towards zero waste is an ongoing activity both in terms of applying the ‘refuse, reduce, re-use’ mantra and at the same time tapping into our waste streams to (in permaculture terms) turn pollutants into resources. Making compost has long been hailed as a positive and beneficial activity yet I am puzzled by the amount of local people ~ especially in such a rural area ~ who trail off to the local recycling centre every week with piles of green waste; it’s no exaggeration to say that last time we were there, the green waste bay was like a huge towering cliff face. I contacted the council out of interest to ask what they do with it all, as I know some councils in Mayenne turn it into compost and offer it back to local people; apparently in our council, it’s all chopped periodically and given to farmers. When I started the permaculture course, I had to sketch designs for three systems I wanted to put into place and, knowing we were soon to be moving here to a flat garden with plenty of space, a decent three-bay compost system was top of my list. We made it from found materials (other people’s waste) and it’s now in full swing, packed with compost at various stages of production.

Ugly but functional: we’ve since added another bay to the right and corrugated tin fronts which allow us to pile the bays to the top. The large left hand bay is used for breaking turfs down into loam and tough stuff like brassica stems left to rot under a very hot pile of grass clippings.

Every scrap of biodegradable waste goes in to the current pile; I ‘feed’ it daily with a compost bucket we keep in the kitchen and when each nitrogen-rich green layer is sufficient, I cover it with a carbon-rich brown layer of sawdust, dead leaves, shredded cardboard and the like. I also throw in small amounts of comfrey and yarrow leaves from time to time, natural activators growing in the garden that help to speed the decomposition process along. It’s a closed loop which is exactly what this principle aims for. Last autumn, I spread a thick layer of compost in the tunnel and let the worms work it down before spring planting; this week, we have harvested the first peppers grown in that compost and the trimmings from them have gone back into the compost heap. No waste. Not a scrap!

A bit prettier than the compost heap!

Design from pattern to detail This is a principle I wasn’t very sure about at first but now I see it as meaning to start with the big picture, an overall (vague?) plan for a project and then work it down to the finer details, using patterns found in nature wherever possible. I’ve written a lot about my mandala bed (sorry about that, I’m just a teeny bit pleased with it) which, following on from the composting system above, was the second design project I sketched out so I’m going to use it here, although I would argue we worked along the same lines when designing the Utility Cabin and Love Shack and also renovating the kitchen. I started with a plain circle and having fiddled around with several pattern ideas for paths and beds, decided to keep it simple with a radiating pattern, the kind that can be seen in snowflakes, starfish and many types of flower.

Radiating pattern in nature . . .

I’ve added each element one at a time and the planting has evolved slowly, working with intuition as much as anything. It wouldn’t win a Chelsea gold, but it’s brimming with food and life (although I’m not sure the blackbirds scratching the mulch onto the paths every morning is much of a bonus) and the beauty of it is that, if in the final analysis I feel things could be improved, it’s simple enough to go back to the starter circle and find inspiration in a different pattern for next year.

. . . reflected in the mandala bed.

Use slow, small solutions If we had to name just one priority for the garden, then soil improvement would probably be it. Making a productive garden from grassland was always going to take time: on the one hand, the soil here is a very deep and stone-free sandy loam; on the other, it is sadly lacking in nutrients and organic matter and also riddled with pests. We have been working at it from day one but there is no rushing this process; good soil takes time and we have to go patiently, step by step. I’ve been looking at the work of Ian ‘Tolly’ Tolhurst who, for several decades, has run a vibrant and productive organic market garden without any animal inputs. This interests me greatly as we currently have no livestock in our system here and, as I have written before, there can be serious drawbacks in importing manure from other sources. If we can manage to improve the soil using only inputs from our land then that would not only be desirable, but another no-waste, closed loop. So, how can we do it? Obviously, the aforementioned compost is an important element but since we can’t produce enough for the whole garden quickly, then when a finished bay is ready for emptying, we have to prioritise where it goes. Another very beneficial addition is soil from the coppice which we collect in modest amounts from time to time; this is such a valuable and nutrient-rich material that it can be used in tiny amounts ~ it is said that even a single trowel of woodland soil stirred into a bucket of water and then watered onto the soil brings huge benefits.

Mulches are helpful, too (putting aside the potato experience). As we have a large amount of mature trees, grass clippings tend to come mixed through with chopped leaves which is an excellent mulch mixture. Having established seven large comfrey plants, I am regularly chopping the leaves and laying them on the soil surface (I did the same with nettles before they flowered) as a natural fertiliser, and I also make comfrey and nettle tea to water on for the same purpose. Where we’ve needed to really boost planting areas, such as the lasagne beds for courgettes and sweetcorn, I kept coffee grounds separate from the compost bucket and sprinkled them over the surface. Dilute urine went on, too; I know this can evoke a ‘yuk!’ response even from many hardened gardeners but honestly, it’s one of nature’s finest fertilisers, it’s plentiful and free so why waste it? The Love Shack has lent itself to yet another function ~ the perfect place for a ‘wild wee’! 😂 Tolly is a huge advocate of green manure and that’s another area I’ve been exploring and expanding over several years now.

Phacelia left to flower around a bed of young summer brassicas: it’s literally buzzing with insect life.

Phacelia is a great favourite and certainly the most enthusiastic, freely setting itself over and over if left to seed. I grow swathes of it in places to cut very young when the nutrients are at their highest ~ I’m about to cut a mix of phacelia and crimson clover in a patch for planting winter brassicas ~ and in other spaces, I let it bloom as it is one of the top flowers for bees. I’m hoping that by introducing it to all areas of the garden, I shall never have to buy seed again! Buckwheat and crimson clover are also successful and I’m planning to sow vetch along with phacelia as an overwintering cover crop this year. I let nitrogen-fixing white clover run wherever I can and where we grow peas and beans, the roots are left to rot away underground after the plants have finished. I haven’t been able to source trefoil seeds to undersow the summer brassicas so I’ve pushed a few nasturtium seeds in between them to do the job instead. It’s a slow and steady process, but we will get there.

Buckwheat flower plus admirers.

Integrate, don’t segregate Our property is surrounded by monoculture: to the west, a huge field of maize, to the north and east what seems like a prairie of wheat. The view to the south is green and leafy, a pretty pond surrounded by grass and trees . . . but look beyond the few oaks and silver birches and in fact, it’s really a conifer plantation. Inside our boundaries (please let those hedges grow quickly!) it is polyculture all the way: the greater diversity of plant species and varieties we grow, the greater our potential yield and the most diverse ecosystem possible. When it comes to planting, I’m a bit of a crammer and I love a fairly chaotic jumble so this principle suits me just fine. I haven’t tried planting an ‘official’ plant guild yet but that’s something I might dabble in a bit next year.

In the potager: lettuce, summer cabbage, broad beans, peas, parsnips, flat-leaved parsley, borage, heartsease, dill, sweet peas, celeriac, French beans, cauliflowers, calabrese, summer broccoli, tomatoes and calendula all crammed into in one bed.
In the mandala bed: lettuce, rainbow chard, strawberries, tomatoes, flat-leaved parsley, lemon bergamot, summer cabbages, French beans, calendula, Welsh onions, hyssop, lavender, sage and thyme growing in two sections.

Value diversity This follows on from the last principle and diversity is certainly something we embrace and encourage. When it comes to planting, several different varieties of things makes more sense than one and in fact, doing a quick mental assessment, there are very few vegetables of a single variety that we are growing this year (and those are mostly the ‘wild cards’ like swedes, cauliflowers and melons: if they’re successful in this first season, I’ll extend the range next year.) What has truly thrilled us this year is the noticeable increase in the diversity of wildlife and wild flowers on our patch; I’m hoping at some point in the future to have time to catalogue everything I see here but for the time being, it’s a pleasure to wander round and observe ~ then very often, head to some reference materials to identify the latest ‘new’ arrival, especially where insects are concerned. It’s very exciting and we have plenty of ideas for increasing the range of habitats in the future; the pond is filling at snail’s pace (it would help if it rained occasionally, ha ha!) but there are other things we can be doing in the meantime. For example, Roger has been using some scrap materials to make a base for a bug hotel which we’re hoping Annie and Matthew will help us fill when they visit next month.

These wildflowers arrived of their own accord.
Bug hotel-to-be.
Blister beetle: very beautiful but not to be touched!

Use edges and margins Permaculture is very big on using edges and margins as places that are often extremely fertile; in abstract terms, that also means stretching ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone and thought processes to encourage innovation. In the garden, we see the boundaries both as sources of food and natural materials for ourselves and also as important habitats for wildlife. Tackling that enormous hazel hedge last year was a huge job but it was definitely the right decision; it has let in more light which in turn has encouraged a wider diversity of wildflowers to grow below it, and as it thickens out it is creating a perfect habitat for birds. We leave the grass uncut inside every boundary, several metres deep in some places, and these margins create their own little ecosystems bursting with life and all-important wildlife corridors for useful predators which theoretically then feast on the beasties that love to tuck into the veggie plants. It’s fascinating to see how each ‘edge’ is currently frequented by a different array of wildlife: butterflies and burnet moths here, damsel flies and ground beetles there, grass snakes in one corner, toads in another.

The hazel hedge Roger laid last winter is filling out well.

Respond positively to change Unexpected changes aren’t always welcome or easy to deal with, but since change is a constant in life, I appreciate that developing a positive attitude towards it makes for a more balanced and sustainable approach. A couple of weeks ago, I finally had to admit that my Purple Peril, the bike I’ve had for almost 20 years, had reached the end of the road (actually, it was no longer capable of getting to the end of the road which is the very point). It is a rust bucket, bent and buckled with gears that are totally shot; Roger has fixed it and patched it more times than I can remember but there are limits, even with his super engineering abilities. Please don’t get me wrong and think me a spoilt thing, I appreciate how blessed I am to be able to go out and buy a shiny new bike. My reluctance in replacing it stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t convinced I would be able to find a worthy replacement: everything on offer seemed to be either a roughty-toughty mountain bike or a genteel Dutch (town) bike and I need something in between. Ta-dah . . . enter New Blue (I haven’t come up with a proper name yet so that will have to do for now)! This is just perfect, designed for riding on our rural lanes, zipping about town and going off down forest trails and the like when I fancy a bit of off-roading. There’s a fair bit to adjust to: the gear controls are all on one side and involve flicking levers to and fro; the handlebars have a sort of flat paddle shape to them which seems a bit strange; the seat isn’t as comfy as my old bike but the riding position is much better; the pedals are ~ well ~ a bit weird, if I’m honest. On the plus side, the gears are incredibly smooth and the chain doesn’t jump off and jam every time I change up, there are good lights, my basket fits and, joy of joys, without rear suspension there’s room for a luggage rack and panniers. Hopefully, this is the start of a beautiful relationship that sees us notching up many a happy mile together and cutting car use to the very barest of minimums. Before we moved here, I promised I would ride my bike whenever I could, not using bad weather or mechanical unreliability as an excuse. Well, there shouldn’t be any of the latter now. Time to stick to my principles. 😊

The 3 Cs

Roger has spent days harvesting cherries and the amount of fruit coming from one single tree is astounding.

It’s not the easiest of jobs, balancing at the top of a high ladder and being scolded soundly by a pair of redstarts who have built a nest in an old woodpecker hole in one of the bigger boughs; they really aren’t too happy to be sharing ‘their’ tree with the cherry picker and the angry flick of their scarlet underskirts matches the colour of the fruit perfectly. Nothing daunted, the cherries are coming down in kilos, with plenty of breaks to give the birds time to feed their babies, and the kitchen has become Cherry Processing Central.

Spot the cherry picker. I swear he wears that old Welsh rugby shirt for camouflage but the redstarts still know he’s there.

We’re eating plenty of them raw and I’m wondering if there is another fresh fruit quite so moreish ~ mmm, just one (two, three, four . . . ) more, then I’ll stop! With so much fruit to deal with, the simplest thing would be to wash it and stick it straight into the freezer, but we think it’s worth the effort of de-stoning first; not only does it mean more freezer space, but it makes things easier when we come to use the cherries in the future. We’re not too precious about the preparation, though, we simply squeeze the fruit and the stone pops out. We’re freezing most of them raw but stewing some, too, and these will be perfect for my breakfast bowl when we run out of seasonal fruit options. We’re making clafoutis, the traditional French batter pudding which has replaced squash tarte tatin as our gardener’s treat, and we’ve also made a few jars of spiced cherry jam. Roger is experimenting with bottling some fruit, too, packing them into jars with a hot, deeply-spiced red wine syrup, the fragrant aroma of which has me thinking that the darkest, bitterest chocolate could be a perfect partner in future dishes.

While Roger shimmies up and down the ladder, I’ve been tackling the gooseberry harvest; it’s by far the easier shout, but not all plain sailing as I think we must have the thorniest bushes on the planet and I rip my fingers to shreds every time I pick. It’s worth it, though. I know gooseberries (like rhubarb) can be an acquired taste and many people aren’t fans but I love them, they have such a unique flavour. I like the way they combine so well with other seasonal foods: they make a sharp sauce that cuts perfectly through the oiliness of fresh mackerel (their French name is groseille à maquereau) and a head of elderflowers tossed into the simmering water raises their flavour to a whole new level. I keep a bowl of stewed goosegogs in the fridge for a seasonal breakfast treat; stirred through with oats, a drizzle of honey, a dollop of Greek yogurt and some sliced strawberries ~ our other current heavy fruit harvest ~ it’s a wonderful way to start the day. We also love cooked gooseberries blended with a thick, creamy homemade custard to make gooseberry fool which, when frozen, also makes a fabulous summery ice cream.

Like the cherries, I am packing as many gooseberries into the freezer as possible; the bushes are dripping with fruit and it’s a pleasant task to sit and prepare them outside at the picnic table, nipping off the tops and tails with my fingers. In the same way as people talk of developing ‘muscle memory’ through repeated physical movements, I like to cultivate a ‘senses memory’ by doing simple tasks like these outdoors. Visually, I can appreciate the pearly green translucence and pale filigree of veins in each berry, or lift my eyes to the lushness of the landscape around me. I can listen to the contented afternoon warbling of a blackbird, the incessant squeaking of the latest brood of blue tit fledglings, the deep hum of insects in the oak tree canopy above me. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, the soft breeze on my face and breathe in the sweet scent of honeysuckle that it carries. Then, come a dark and dreary day in November, when I set a pot of frozen gooseberries on the stove to cook, all those memories will come flooding back and infuse the kitchen with a little blast of early June. I always prefer to eat foods in season but there is something quite special about these memory moments ~ opening a bottle of sweet apple juice or a jar of spiced chutney, enjoying the crunch of a dill-pickled cucumber or the buttery softness of a dried apple ring, spooning a floral, herbal mix into a warm teapot, tossing a basil ice cube into a sauce ~ no, not seasonal . . . but a world away from Spanish strawberries in December, that’s for sure.

Summer herbs for winter teas: several mints, thyme, lemon verbena, ribwort plantain, yarrow, clover, daisies and rose petals ready to be dried.

I love reading, and although I’m happy to lose myself in a good novel, I have to admit I’d rather read non-fiction most of the time. When it comes to inspiration, I am spoilt for choice whether looking for books or internet resources to devour, and find myself returning time and again to writers whose work has struck a chord with me: Mary Reynolds, Patrick Whitefield, Donald Norfolk, Masanobu Fukuoka, David Holmgren, Heather Jo Flores, Alys Fowler, Sepp Holzer, Dana O’Driscoll, John Seymour, Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer, Robin Harford . . . the list is almost endless, to be honest, and that’s before I start on the wealth of interesting blogs I follow. Although I accept that the somewhat esoteric approach of some of these authors wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, for me there is a salient theme that runs through their work, that of connection or relationship with the land and the life it supports. Now, this doesn’t need to mean it involves magic, religion or spirituality (although for those who want it that way, why not?) and for me, it can be summed up by what I think of as the ‘3Cs’ ~ concentration, curiosity and care. (A less alliterative interpretation might be focus / mindfulness, learning / wonder and nurture / responsibility.) In practical terms, it means I don’t just swan about the garden planting, controlling, harvesting or whatever, wrapped up in my own little world, tunnel vision to the fore. Neither do I imagine myself to be the greatest or most important life form out there; there are many trees bigger, older and unquestionably wiser than me, a countless number of microscopic creatures whose role is essential for life and an abundance of incredible living things of every shape, size and hue which form an intricate and many-faceted web of life.

I rarely use long-handled garden tools these days, preferring to work at ground level with perhaps a small hand fork but more often than not, just my bare hands. It’s a slow and gentle approach that allows me to check on the health of every plant and make any adjustments or corrections as necessary, as well as observe the state of the soil. I apply the same philosophy to harvesting, so that gathering herbs and flowers for drying this week has been as much about watching and learning as picking and collecting. For instance, in the mandala bed I noticed that the thyme is full of honey bees . . .

. . . whilst the bumbles and black carpenter bees are favouring sage and phacelia.

The yarrow is covered in ladybirds ~ so many different kinds! ~ and also large brown shield bugs.

Meanwhile, in the shadier spots, the mint leaves are full of the metallic shine of the rather predictably-named mint leaf beetle. Honestly, it’s like being on safari out there.

You can imagine, I’m sure, that with this sort of attitude, even simple garden tasks can take me a while to complete, and I often get lost in other things along the way. Roger has appeared at my side many times without me even noticing (he swears blind anyone could wander into the garden and I wouldn’t have a clue ~ he’s right) or else comes in search of me to find out what has happened to the ingredients I went to fetch for him to use in his role of Head Chef. I think it was J.R.R Tolkien who wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost” and I reckon the man knew what he was talking about (although he possibly wasn’t trying to prepare a meal from absent vegetables at the time 😆 ).

The chef’s trug finally arrives at the kitchen door . . . 😁

Roger has floated the idea this week that perhaps there’s a little bit too much plant love going on in my life at times and that it might be a good idea to let things just get on with growing, maybe even thrive on a little abuse. I know he’s right on this one, too . . . although I hate to admit it! Take the squash, for instance. I’ve planted more than 20 of them in the garden and if they all produce just two fruits each, that will be more than enough for us. The problem is, some of the butternuts aren’t looking too enthusiastic: one has already succumbed to ant undermining and another couple seem determined to fade away. I’ve come to the conclusion that they are the aubergines of the squash world, poor fragile little things that need a lot of mollycoddling, but is it really a sensible use of my time? Let’s face it, the more robust varieties we grow produce orange flesh that is every bit as dense and full of flavour and what’s more, they keep a darn sight longer. We built a new hügel bed a couple of months ago and although I hadn’t been planning to use it this year, it seemed silly not to when faced with so many squashes to plant. Good call ~ it’s looking great, and I’m already impressed with ‘Musquée de Provence’, the French heirloom variety we’re growing for the first time, which is bombing down the hügel slopes, covered in promising female flowers.

Even more impressive is the Japanese hubbard squash ‘Tetsukabuto’ which is another first for us, grown from seeds given by my Finnish gardening friend, Anja, who said it went straight to the top of her favourites list last year. Well, Anja knows a thing or three about squash so I trust her judgement on this one completely, especially as the plants are not only thriving but setting fruit already.

The polytunnel is another source of constant angst and again, I’m probably definitely guilty of spending far too much time faffing about in there. The merest hint of a curled leaf or drooping stem has me fussing and fretting: too wet? too dry? too hot? too cold? over-fed? under-fed? I think I’m overcompensating for the fact that last year wasn’t the best ~ the tunnel went up late, the soil was rubbish, germination was poor, pests were voracious ~ so I just want everything to thrive. Well, it is; with the exception of a single cayenne chilli which looks a bit feeble (but hasn’t actually died yet), everything is doing pretty well. Last year, only one pepper and chilli plant survived; the former produced a few small fruits, the latter zilch. This year, in terms of plants we have 12 chillies, 12 sweet peppers, 9 aubergines and 9 melons which are filling one side of the tunnel, along with basil, flat-leaved parsley and French marigolds; on the other side (which will be planted in late summer for winter crops) a giant ‘Latino’ courgette, coriander and lettuce left for a seed harvest and a smattering of self-set peas, calendula, red sorrel, squash and sunflowers. Down the middle, 8 tomatoes in pots as part of this year’s experiment to scatter them around in the hope of beating blight (I’ve planted 35 altogether, another ridiculous overreaction, surely?😬 ).

What a difference three weeks make: mid-May . . .
. . . and early June.
Flower on a ‘Black Beauty’ aubergine.
‘Petit Marseillais’ pepper which should ripen to a light orange colour.
The French marigolds are all grown from volunteer seedlings this year (this one appears to have come with bonus parsley, too).
‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melon ~ I’m very excited about these!

Mmm. On reflection, perhaps I need to stop fretting quite so much and start thinking in terms of 4Cs rather than three: concentration, curiosity, care and CALM. Relax. Let nature get on with the job. Sit back and watch the flowers grow ~ with a bowl of cherries to hand, of course. 😊

It’s not all a bed of roses . . .

The rose season has begun and the garden is heavy with their gorgeous perfume and showy blooms; we have planted several new ones since moving here and it’s good to see them becoming established and making splashes of colour in different corners of the garden. There are more wild roses here this year, too, and I love the simple, delicate beauty of their soft pink and white flowers, such a poignant symbol of the season. Rose petals turned out to be a surprise favourite ingredient in herbal teas through the winter so I have them drying all over the windowsills and the house currently smells every bit as delicious as the garden!

Let’s not get too carried away, though. I’ve written before about my thoughts on the ‘rosy-coloured spectacles’ of social media and whilst I appreciate that in a world that seems dominated by doom and gloom, it’s uplifting to see joyful and beautiful things, the stark reality is that life is not all smiley faces and happy pictures. I love to blog about pleasant things and upload (you may have noticed) far too many pretty photographs but I would hate anyone to imagine that we float about here in some fairy-dusted, unicorn-infested, perfect paradise: we don’t! So, in pursuit of balance, here is the warts ‘n’ all news from the garden this week.

The garden is full of rose chafer beetles, their iridescent green and gold bodies shining in the sun. They’re feasting on anything but the roses, though!

First of all, I found a Colorado beetle on a rogue potato plant that had appeared where we grew them last year. The beetles have been present in France since 1945 are are not a notifiable species here but that doesn’t make them any less potentially devastating to our crop, and the fact that we have purposely planted far more potatoes this year makes it doubly frustrating. We checked every leaf of every plant ~ all 124 of them ~ straight away, and didn’t find a single beetle or any signs of eggs or larvae. Thankfully, that situation hasn’t changed, although we continue to be vigilant; I planted linseed alongside the spuds as a beetle deterrent and we have a very healthy population of ladybirds and shield bugs (both voracious predators) so who knows, maybe that’s all playing a part? The potatoes themselves suffered in the drought but many are now flowering and bringing their own kind of beauty to the patch; even so, I find I can’t quite relax and enjoy them whilst constantly scanning for the merest hint of those humbug-striped invaders.

‘Acoustic’ potato flowers
‘Blue Danube’ potato flower
Lurking in the potato patch . . . but this is a red and black leafhopper, not a Colorado beetle.

I made a note to self not to sound too complacent in future blog posts since just after writing last time that our young trees were looking fine, Roger discovered that two of them had been stripped of their bark during the night: an alder buckthorn, which suffered the worst damage, but also ~ and more frustrating ~ a pear tree we planted last year and which was looking wonderful. Our first thought was roe deer, as they are very common in the area and the damage seems typical of deer nibbling; that said, we’ve never had them in the garden before and I’d have expected to see further damage to more trees and the garden in general. Perhaps it was a one-off thing?

However, the next evening a huge hare came lolloping through the garden and had us wondering if it was the culprit. I know hares will eat bark, although I thought that was more of a winter trick when grasses weren’t so available, and we’re not sure even standing on those long hind legs that a hare could have reached so high. There is no way we can fence the garden against these visitors so the only thing to do in this situation is protect what we can; Roger wrapped the damage trees in twine in the hope they will heal (the bark wasn’t completely stripped so there is a slim chance of recovery) and built wire guards for several other trees which we thought might be potential targets. So far ~ touch wood ~ there has been no further damage.

Could things get worse? Yes, they could, in the shape of a visiting rabbit that took it upon itself to prune the sweetcorn plants. Now, in complete contrast to the UK, rabbits are a very rare occurrence here; we are in fact far more likely to see hares, and this one is the first we have seen anywhere near ~ yet alone in ~ the garden. It seems to be living in one of the uncut meadow areas and, in a way, I suppose it’s one of the drawbacks of ‘wilding’ our patch: if we create something of an animal ark, we can’t really grumble when the wildlife moves in! The really frustrating part is that one of our huge neighbouring fields is planted with maize; the young plants are at the same stage as our sweetcorn and there are hundreds of thousands of them . . . so why pick on our few measly plants? Maybe it’s a fan of ‘Rustler’ corn or perhaps it just feels happier surrounded by chaotic polyculture but whatever the reason, it’s not to be encouraged, because the sweetcorn will likely be just the start of bunny’s menu du jour. Roger has rigged up a temporary netting around the corn patch and so far there has been no damage to anything else, so perhaps the rabbit has got the message. I hope so.

With the rocket having formed copious seed pods and the mesclun leaves all eaten, I decided it was time to clear the tunnel bed and add soil improvers and mulch ready for planting overwintering crops in the autumn. That meant lifting those poor sickly potatoes and in doing so, had a couple of surprises. The first was that there were far more potatoes than expected and we have enjoyed them in several meals; the first new potatoes of the year must be one of the biggest garden treats! The second is that although I had been maligning wireworm, it turned out that the problem was actually ants ~ there was a huge ants’ nest under every single root! I have read several gardening experts claiming that ants don’t really cause any problems in the garden and I’m afraid I have to disagree; not only do they farm aphids ~and boy, are they having a great time with that particular hobby this year ~ but their mining exploits can create havoc for young plants. Noticing that one of the butternut squashes on the hügel bed had gone into a state of collapse, I lifted it to find a horrendous amount of ant business going on underneath; last year, we lost aubergine plants in this way and I’m not holding out too much hope for the rescued squash.

Healthy, happy butternut squash plant . . .
. . . and the one the ants have probably done for.

We were very relieved when the rain finally arrived and gave everything a good soaking but of course, that meant the slugs and snails were in their element, too, and needless to say, they haven’t been holding back where the vegetables are concerned. I’m presowing all our beans this year in an attempt to outwit the bean seed fly and wireworm that caused such problems last year; so far, dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’ and ‘Stanley’ have been planted out, along with the climbing borlotti ‘Lingua di Fuoco’ and Asturian fabas. The slimy ones appear to have a preference for Italian cuisine this year as it’s the borlotti beans that are taking the worst hammering.

What can I do? Well, one of the beauties of starting these plants off in trays is that I can sow plenty of extras so there are always spares should I need to replace any. The real blessing with beans, though, is that we have an abundance of plants: 96 climbing beans in the potager, plus another 24 in the mandala bed. If we lose one or two, we probably aren’t going to suffer too much.

Climbing borlotti beans and Asturian beans (with the darker foliage) behind.
I planted 16 spare Asturian bean plants in the mandala garden, too . . . just in case.

Brassicas are probably one of the most difficult family of plants to grow well here; just the mere hint of a young cabbage plant going into the ground, and you can almost see the problems lining up in wait: flea beetle, whitefly, caterpillars, weevils, pigeons, heat . . . I’ve planted a few cauliflowers this year as a bit of a wild card (Brussels sprouts and swedes are the others) and quite frankly, given how tricky they are to grow at the best of times, I must need my bumps reading. Aphids ~ not usually a problem ~ have been a nightmare in the summer cabbages already and as for flea beetle, what can I say? I planted a sacrificial row of radishes next to a nursery row of brassicas in the hope of tempting the flea beetles away. Oh yes, they were tempted alright.

Unfortunately, not enough to keep them away from the brassicas, though. The purple sprouting broccoli seedlings are a miserable sight; I’ve covered them in the hope they will recover and have some extras sown in pots in the tunnel as back-up: PSB is one spring vegetable we can’t manage without!

Ever since we moved here, we’ve been sharing the garden with a feral cat. Black as night and sporting only half a tail, we nicknamed her ‘Slink’ after the way she moved, low-bellied and furtively, like a jaguar. She just about tolerated us ~ she was here first, after all! ~ and we respected her presence, never trying to befriend or feed her but happy to let her patrol the space. She never bothered the birds, voles were her speciality, and she particularly loved the log seat, sitting as still as a statue for hours on end and listening for the rustle of her next meal in the long grass. A few days ago, she was run over and killed along the lane and, despite the fact that she wasn’t ‘our’ cat, I feel a deep sadness at her loss. I miss her shadowy presence in the garden, her daily checking of the compost heap and her strident, undemanding independence. I also think it’s no coincidence that we suddenly have a rabbit in the garden . . .

Slink’s seat (minus Slink 😥)

Well, enough of the bad news: I mentioned balance earlier on and for every niggle there’s usually more than enough smiles to compensate. This must officially be the Week of the Baby Bird as the garden is full of them: blackbirds, song thrushes, mistle thrushes, robins, redstarts, blue tits, chaffinches and goldfinches have all hatched, and the fluffy fledglings are all over the place, trying to find their feet and wings. There are plenty more to follow, too, including cirl buntings in the hedge (a new one for us), spotted flycatchers in a stone wall niche and swallows in the Oak Shed. I’m particularly thrilled about the latter as they didn’t nest on our property at all last year; it does mean I’ll have to forego my wet weather washing line for a bit, but I’m happy to forgive them, they are so beautiful.

The cherry tree is full of young birds learning the art of PYO.

The garden is literally smiling in flowers and not just roses; there are drifts of colour in many places and the first cosmos and sweet peas are bringing a touch of soft pinks and purples to the vegetable garden. The passionflower that I brought here from Asturias as a less-than-promising twig has decided that it’s very happy in its new home. Those flowers are exquisite.

In keeping with the trend of incredible blossom this spring, the elderflowers are making a fantastic show and, unlike last year, I haven’t needed to go any further than our own hedgerows to forage for their foamy flowers. I’ve been making cordial and freezing it in batches to share with our summer visitors and also setting plenty of flowers to dry for winter teas ~ they are an excellent medicinal herb, especially if winter colds come calling. Naturally, I’ve left plenty to become autumn berries when there will be more foraging to be done and I suspect, a lot of birds tucking in, too.

Elderflowers and mints ready for drying.

On the food front, the harvest has started to come thick and fast: it’s amazing how quickly things take off once we reach a certain point in spring. Courgettes, artichokes, peas, broad beans, lettuce, chard, sorrel, gooseberries, strawberries, cherries . . . the season of plenty has begun.

As we start to set down stores of this year’s crops, it’s the perfect time to be using up anything left from last year. I’ve finished nearly all the dried herbs and flowers for tea and we have just eaten the last bag of beans from the freezer. We’ve also started working our way through the last (enormous) squash, one of our Asturian ‘specials’ which was harvested in October and has kept brilliantly, its dense orange flesh still firm and sweet. As we don’t tend to use the oven much this time of year, we’re making more summery dishes than roast tray bakes ~ squash soup, seed-encrusted squash patties, a squash dip with tahini and squash foldovers (a spicy squash and new potato filling stuffed inside garlic wraps) are some firm favourites. We love to try new things, though, and I have to say that squash tarte tatin has been a complete revelation with its buttery rough-puff pastry, soft, mallowy squash and bitter caramel; a small slice with our afternoon break (coffee for Roger, lemon verbena and lavender tea for me) is the perfect gardener’s treat . . . and on hot days, I’m beginning to wonder how we ever managed without the shade of the Love Shack! 😊

May moments #1

I’ve always been pretty hopeless when it comes to choosing ‘memorable data’ for website security purposes because I think life is too rich with possibilities to reduce everything to favourites. My favourite colour? I love blue, but then there’s green and purple, all in so many delicious shades, not to mention an entire rainbow of other choices depending on my mood. Memorable place? Favourite food? Forget it. However, I think if anyone asked me at the moment about a favourite month, I might just be tempted to say May, for it surely must be one of the most beautiful times of the year. I love the sheer energy of it, the bursting, burgeoning, buzzing life, the growth, the warmth, the light, the lushness, the softness of the air, the scent of flowers and the downright dazzling green of it all. It’s not just the beauty of the landscape, either; the hungry gap is behind us, the garden gathering strength and delivering on its promise of new seasonal goodies, fresh and inspiring. How can I feel anything other than sheer delight when gathering trugs of such green gorgeousness?

It’s not all rosy in the garden, though. The dry weather has taken its toll on a few things, even large established trees like one of our hollies which is dropping its leaves. Roger has been painstakingly watering all the small trees and hedging plants we have put in, a labour of love considering how many there are. The timing of this extraordinary and extended dry spell is just bad luck but we really don’t want to lose these plants which will bring so much to the patch in years to come. Most of them are hanging on and looking fine; it’s wonderful to have red rugosa roses at last and it’s interesting to see several new (for us) varieties bursting into life.

Sichuan pepper
Bladder senna

Sticking with my commitment to not buying bedding plants, I decided to sow a couple of baskets for the Love Shack with a mix of edible annual flowers; they are hanging on the north side, so get plenty of sun this time of year but miss the worst of the heat and they’re looking very promising so far. I’m hoping they should make a colourful splash that’s completely in keeping with the nature of a potager in a few weeks’ time.

The newly-planted window boxes are looking a bit stark, but they will get there given time and the first tiny violas (or heartsease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fantasy, Jack-Jump-up-and-kiss-me . . . so much more fun!) have just opened their perfectly exquisite flowers. Meanwhile, in the other troughs, the lettuces are not holding back. Mmm, pelargoniums have definitely had their day.

This week’s culinary delights haven’t all been green: here is a sight to gladden the heart . . . and my breakfast bowl. 🥰

In fact, it looks like being a bumper year for fruit ~ one of the benefits of several weeks of settled, warm weather at blossom time. We are close to the first picking of gooseberries and the currant bushes are covered with trusses of green fruit. The cherry trees are loaded, including a couple that produced nothing last year, and the apple trees are looking equally as good; what they all need now is a good dollop of rain.

I’m very excited about the prospect of raspberries this year. Last season, we had a tiny handful, just enough to help identify all but one plant as summer-fruiting varieties. If the previous owners cut the canes to ground level every winter as they had done just before we moved in, they must never have had any fruit! Last year’s growth is covered in dainty white flowers which in turn are literally buzzing with honey bees; someone will be enjoying a good floral honey and we should reap the benefits of all that industrious pollination. Note the lack of poles, wires or fruit cage: I’m with Bob Flowerdew on that one, horizontal canes are far easier to pick and I’m happy to wade into the jungle when the time comes. If the birds want to tuck in a bit, I’m happy to share, too; we’ve never lost an entire soft fruit crop to them, the secret is to have plenty to go round.

Enthusiastic raspberries plus a couple of blackcurrants and (companion plant) comfrey.
A honey bee does the business.

Temperatures in the tunnel have been sweltering, meaning both doors are propped open all day and it dries out quickly . . . but rather that than losing plants to the heat. I’m pleased with how much better the soil is retaining moisture this year which means we don’t have to worry about watering so often. I’ve put a mix of chopped nettle and comfrey leaves around the base of each plant as a slow-release fertiliser and then mulched the lot with grass clippings. The first flowers have appeared on the chillies, peppers and melons and there are plenty of busy insects in there so I’m hoping this will be a far more productive space than last year.

From the far end: chillies, sweet peppers, aubergines and melons (plus bonus mouse-planted peas) with basil, flat-leaved parsley and French marigolds along the front.

The indoor courgette is enormous, and with the first outdoor ones now also cropping, they are compulsory daily eating. We’ve had a better harvest from the very short row of peas than any we ever planted in Asturias (we never understood why they wouldn’t grow well there), lots of meals and a couple of bags in the freezer; even the little Mouse Gardens have been producing. On the downside, the potatoes are not looking great and we suspect they are full of wireworm, but if they have to be a sacrificial crop to clear the pests out, so be it. The lettuce are still going strong, however; in the photo below, the middle one was cut last week and has already re-grown from the stem I left in the ground. Lazy Regenerative gardening at its best. 😆

We’re not given to doing the tourist thing very often, a local walk or bike ride from home with a picnic is as far as we ever really feel inclined to go. However, when an appointment in Falaise (about an hour’s drive away) became inevitable last week, we decided to make a day of it, treat ourselves to lunch en terrasse and have a wander round this attractive Norman town that we haven’t visited for many years.

Falaise was the birthplace of one of Normandy’s most famous figures, Guillame le Bâtard – better know to anglophones as William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and, following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, King of England. William had many obstacles to overcome in his life, not least the stain of illegitimacy and inheriting the duchy from his father as a very young child, but the imposing statue of him close to Falaise castle, dressed in full battle gear and sitting astride a monstrous horse, leaves the visitor in no doubt of the burly, powerful and often-feared leader he was to become.

Britain is littered with Norman castles and, whether they are crumbling ruins or spectacularly preserved monuments, at times it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of romanticising about them. Falaise castle, for me, has always seemed like the epitome of what these buildings actually represented: power, control and military might. It’s grim and forbidding, perched high on a rocky outcrop (la falaise means ‘cliff’) and dominated the surrounding landscape in a way that left no-one in doubt as to who was in charge; forget knights in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress, this was the real formidable and authoritarian deal.

The castle keep had an inspired interior makeover some years ago and for a modest entrance fee, it’s possible to walk on glass floors and follow an illuminating audio tour; we did it a couple of times on holiday with our children some years ago, so decided instead just to enjoy the rest of the castle grounds within the walls which are freely open to all. There’s much to see and learn, helped by plenty of information boards in French and English and viewing posts where you look through ‘binoculars’ to see an artist’s impression of what different parts of the castle looked like in its heyday. It’s worth wandering about simply to enjoy the elevated views over the old town and the surrounding countryside, rolling and richly wooded ~ such a stark contrast to the wide open Norman plains just a stone’s throw to the north.

A feature that wasn’t there last time we visited is a medieval garden, small but perfectly formed, and which (of course) drew me like a magnet. It was crammed with plants and thoughtfully organised into different sections including food plants, complete with medieval recipes, and a jardin des simples for medicines, with descriptions of the ailments each was used to treat.

Given my natural fibre addiction, I loved the section containing plants like flax for linen, woad (the indigo of the north) for dyeing, teasels for carding wool and soapwort for washing textiles. It was fascinating to see just how many of the same plants we grow in our own garden today, and of the missing few, we’ve grown several in the past but don’t bother with now ~ things like tansy, which I don’t grow any more because I can’t stand the smell of it. Pathetic, I know, but it struck me how lucky I am to have that choice; no matter where people stood in the medieval feudal hierarchy, they all needed food, medicines and clothes and the ability to grow and process these plants was an essential skill for the survival of all.

Yellow woad flowers and blue flax: what a gorgeous combination.

Back home, and we had a ‘medieval moment’ of our own when we decided to cook dinner using our Dutch cauldron, something we haven’t done in ages. It’s a brilliantly simple way of cooking and perfect for creating a long, slow-cooked meal at this time of year when the stove isn’t lit and we don’t want the electric oven on for hours. We remove the hanging grill from the tripod barbecue and hang the pot from the chains over a fire of waste wood which is kept ticking over as embers rather than flames; we always save wood from pruning or logging to use for barbecues but as in this instance the food is inside the cauldron, any old scraps of wood will do. Into the pot went a piece of high welfare pork from a local farm along with garlic, onions, herbs and spices and an old bottle of Asturian cider which Roger was given at a race eons ago and we never fancied drinking. The cauldron was left to simmer away for a good three hours and the smell of cooking that drifted around the garden as we worked was completely tantalising! It’s perfectly possible to create an entire meal by adding potatoes and other vegetables to the mix or else tucking some baking potatoes into the embers along with foil packages of veggies ~ Swiss chard works very well cooked that way. We seem to be a source of endless fascination to certain local people who drive slowly along the lane with (as Roger puts it) their ‘heads on sideways’, having a good look at what The Crazies are up to now; I’m not sure whether it’s curiosity, amusement, admiration or horror but I think our bubbling cauldron scored a few extra points on the raised eyebrow front. Ah well, it’s better than being boring, I say. 😉

Dinner cooking itself while we carried on with the gardening.

Our bedroom window is, in fact, a full length glass door and I’m happy that we’ve reached the time of year when it can stay wide open all night; there’s a screen door beyond it to ensure we don’t get eaten by beasties and having added the balcony last year, there’s no danger of falling if we decide to take up sleepwalking. The nights here are blissfully quiet, the silence only punctuated by the occasional bark of a fox, the call of owls and, in the warmer months, the pulsating chirrup of crickets, so I was a bit puzzled to wake one night hours ahead of the rowdy dawn chorus to hear woodlarks singing. Woodlarks? At 2am? Really? Knowing it probably wouldn’t be appreciated if I woke Roger to ask if he could hear them, I tiptoed downstairs and went outside to listen . . . and yes, there really were woodlarks singing somewhere close to the garden. It was quite magical, even though I was still wondering if it wasn’t my ears or imagination playing tricks (or me just simply losing the plot). A quick scout on the internet reassured me that I wasn’t: apparently, it’s a fairly common phenomenon but since woodlarks tend to live in areas of wild heathland, their night song isn’t often heard by humans. Not going mad then, just very blessed. A few nights later, a cuckoo spent several hours in the trees around the garden, calling madly in the moonlight, and this time Roger heard it, too. Is there something in the May air that means the birds are too busy to sleep?

One thing I had really been hoping to hear at night was the sound of rain falling on the roof and gurgling down the gutters into the water butts below but, despite the promise of showers in the forecast, nothing transpired. We have been hauling water to keep plants alive but everything has looked so pinched and miserable and many things have failed to thrive, plus the weather conditions seem to have sparked a massive boom in the aphid population; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. The French meteorological report makes for interesting ~ if sobering ~ reading: since September 2021, France has had 20% less precipitation than normal, December being the only month in that period that delivered anything close to average rainfall and with the problem exacerbated by higher than normal temperatures, many areas including ours have been officially deemed ‘very dry’ to a degree that is more usual in August than May. Local farmers have held off planting maize and sunflowers and when they can wait no longer, they have been drilling into a dust bowl. I’ve been playing the same waiting game with the last of our pre-sown plants to go in, the sweetcorn, beans, leeks and artichokes, all bursting out of pots and trays but in desperate need of moister, softer ground.

Sweetcorn: happy to be in the ground at last.

It’s been frustrating but finally – finally! – the rain arrived in the form of an almighty thunderstorm and pelted down for twenty minutes or so; I stood on the doorstep watching it and listening to the blackbirds warbling loudly through it, as thrilled as me to be getting wet at last. The strangest thing was the smell, though: it wasn’t that lovely, fresh, earthy, herbal scent that so often comes with the first rain after a dry spell but something slightly unpleasant like a stagnant muddy pond, I think because of the sheer amount of dust everywhere. It was nowhere near enough rain, just sufficient to damp things down and put a bit back in the butts, but it was incredible how much perkier everything looked the next morning: we can water as much as we like, but there is nothing like rain! We’ve had other storms since, this time leaving everything fresh and sparkling; there’s a good chance things will survive now and I shall be very relieved not to be carrying heavy cans for a while. I even have time to enjoy the flowers . . . but that’s for another post!😊

Storm clouds over the garden . . . rain at last.

Peas, preserves and planting

It’s quite the year for blossom and the air is so heavily scented, it’s almost intoxicating. Setting my morning tea to brew, I wander outside in my pyjamas, listen to the babble of the birds and simply breathe. In France, lily-of-the-valley with its delicate waxen flowers and heavenly perfume is traditionally associated with May Day, but in the local landscape there is no doubting that the wilder, more seductive hawthorn is the May queen; the trees and hedgerows are a blizzard of come-hither white and alive with the attention of pollinators. I’ve been watching the honey bees working in the large hawthorn next to the (still very empty) pond and I’m struck by their rather agitated and feisty attitude, the kind that beekeepers expect in August when the honey stores are full and in need of protection. Is there something about the may blossom that puts them on edge, I wonder? Or maybe it’s the weather, this strange mix of hot sunshine, cold wind and air so dry it almost crackles? Whatever is going on, the little honeys certainly wouldn’t sit still for a photo.

A bit wound up – but just look at those bulging pollen baskets.

The moles are restless, too, pushing up mountainous tumps as they tunnel ever deeper in search of worms; this dry weather doesn’t seem to suit them much, either. Where the hills appear in grass, I’m gathering the soil to mix with compost and use as a planting mix for the tender outdoor vegetables but I really wish they would stop tunnelling under the garden and lifting young plants; I’ve had to tread more cabbages, lettuce, garlic and broad beans back in than I can count, but at least the deep mulch around them is doing its job and there is still moisture around their roots. That’s more than can be said for the seedlings which are struggling enough already without being pushed out of the ground on a regular basis; I just have to keep tucking them back in, watering and hoping they survive the ongoing battle.

Mulched and moled . . . hopefully we will be eating these ‘Greyhound’ cabbages in a few weeks’ time.

On the subject of battles, I was born a few miles from the site of the Battle of Shrewsbury where, in July 1403, King Henry IV fought an army of rebel barons led by Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, and English archers unleashed the deadly longbow on each other for the first time. The events of the battle are well-documented but for me, the most poignant fact is that the battle took place in a field of peas. I can’t begin to imagine the terrible carnage wrought by medieval warfare but I’ve often wondered what sort of longer term misery the destruction of that valuable crop must have brought. The pea plants would have been fixing nitrogen and so enriching the soil (centuries before the advent of synthetic agricultural fertilisers), the straw made good fodder for animals, especially cattle, and the peas themselves would have been destined to be dried and stored to be eaten as an essential source of vegetable protein during the lean months of winter and spring, with some saved for planting the following year. History tells how young Prince Hal made a miraculous recovery from an arrow wound in the face and lived to become the famous soldier-king, Henry V . . . but how many ordinary folk struggled (or failed) to survive the winter because a vital harvest was trampled beneath the hooves of destriers?

Not the field peas of Shrewsbury but an early crop of green peas in the tunnel, perfect to eat raw in salads.

These days, of course, the citizens of Shrewsbury have a wide choice of commercial outlets where they can buy a huge range of food in all seasons and from all over the globe . . . and yet food security remains a salient concern; the effects of the pandemic and events in Ukraine have highlighted just how fragile and vulnerable the ‘just in time’ food supply chain is and if we add climate change, loss of topsoil, scarcity of water and the like, the picture can seem somewhat gloomy. For me, the answer is simply to get out there and grow food; we are very lucky that we have the time, space and wherewithal and for that, I am extremely grateful. We have never set out to be self-sufficient but more and more, it makes sense to produce and use as much as we can.

The first ‘Latino’ courgette ready for harvest in the tunnel: crisp and nutty, we sliced it raw into a salad.

On a recent foray to the charity shop to buy some ‘new’ books, I was delighted to pick up a copy of Tribes of Britain by eminent archaeologist David Miles; I’m thoroughly enjoying it and I’m glad that at 450 pages long, I shouldn’t finish it too quickly. Agriculture (and by association, gardening) arrived in the British Isles relatively late and I find myself fascinated by the lives of those early peoples who hunted and gathered in my native land before they became farmers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not given to romanticising history; life was tough and brutally short and I’m not planning to take up flint knapping any time soon, although I suspect it would be an interesting activity and a skill I would struggle to perfect. I simply find that the more I read, the more I find inspiration in the innovation, resilience and above all, adaptability, that those people demonstrated; there are still valuable lessons there for us today, so many millennia later. Having spent the last year establishing a garden where we can grow food, our focus this year is on using every scrap of what we manage to produce. In many ways, it’s an exciting project and we’re busy researching a wealth of different methods of using and preserving our harvest. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks; we’re never too old to learn and the fact that things like sourdough bread, herbal teas and lacto-fermented vegetables have become a part of our everyday lives in recent years is testament to that. It’s only taken us 30 years to discover that Jerusalem artichokes are delicious raw and there is still a list of new foods I’d like to try growing. Interesting times ahead!

We don’t see globe artichokes as a veggie portion, more like an opportunity: even a single heart can be the star attraction on a homemade pizza.

We’re already researching a number of new techniques to try and different preserves to make through the summer and autumn seasons, especially using what we hope will be a bumper crop of peppers, aubergines, beans and courgettes (I don’t use the word ‘glut’ any more, we simply can’t have too much of anything!). Chutneys and pickles are top of the list and where fruit is concerned, the juice press doesn’t have to be limited to apples.

The soft fruit is already setting: these are redcurrants.

We’re planning to build a simple smoker and Roger fancies a go at home brewing, something we haven’t done for years. There’ll be lots of drying to be be done, too; dried apple rings and fruit leathers have been a hit and we’ve pretty much emptied the herbal tea jars so I have a good idea of what we need to collect more of this year – I’ve already started drying peppermint on the windowsills and as Roger has developed a taste for meadowsweet, we definitely need a few good foraging trips along the lanes once that’s in flower.

Pre-sown French beans emerging from the compost: the plants grow so quickly, they are ready to plant out within days.

I’m not a big fan of bedding plants although I recognise their usefulness and have been guilty on occasion of succumbing to their ease-of-life attractions. They are, however, something of an ecological nightmare, requiring vast quantities of heat, water, compost, plastic, chemical treatments and transportation in order to provide what amounts to a few weeks of colour before next season’s offerings arrive in the shops; they’re a sort of ‘fast fashion’ of the floral world. This time last year, having so many other things to do, I bought a tray of trailing pelargoniums in the hope of having a reliable splash of summer colour in the window boxes at the front of the house, something that wouldn’t require too much fuss and which could cope with the heat. To be fair to the plants, they did the job.

The problem for me, though, is that they are pretty sterile things and offer very little else: they have no scent, they don’t really work as cut flowers and the insects shun them, Also, despite my best nurturing efforts in the tunnel, only three of them made it through the winter. In contrast, the pansies that preceded them were far more generous. Yes, they were also bedding plants but they provided a wider range of colour and a valuable food supply for bumble bees in particular in early spring; they are an edible flower for us, too, and popped their seeds all over the gravel giving me plenty of seedlings to lift and replant. I have to admit the babies were very slow to get going – we’ve had a few slug issues – but they’ve been worth the wait. It’s has had me thinking that for this summer I’m going to do things differently: it could be a raging success or an unmitigated disaster but I won’t know until I’ve tried. I’ve planted the three pelargoniums in a hanging basket for the little courtyard outside the back door and filled the troughs they were in last year with mixed lettuce plants and a few nasturtium seeds. I’ve also planted a blue glazed pot with flat-leaved parsley and violas in the hope that, together with the pots of herbs on the wall, this area will sing out the ‘food and flowers’ thing I’ve got going on everywhere.

Mixed lettuce are an attractive feature: these in the tunnel are growing with self-set red sorrel.

For the window boxes, I’m raising some zinnias from seed, which I’m hoping will provide long-lasting pops of bright colours and a feast for butterflies and hoverflies, with violas and a few trailing nasturtiums sown between to pick for salads. It’s going to be a long way from the traditional look but I can’t help feeling it’s a better way of doing things. We’ll see . . .

The zinnias which came in a seed mix were a big hit in the garden last year.

The annual flower seedlings are struggling in this dry weather, the soil is so parched and they desperately need rain. Not surprisingly, it’s the sunflowers that are looking the happiest and nasturtium volunteers are bombing up everywhere. There is certainly no shortage of flowers to enjoy at the moment, though; I just hope we still manage a riot of summer colour. Come on, rain.

Today is officially the Big Plant-a-thon: I’ve started planting a few things out, but the next few hours are going to be spent getting everything into the ground – French, borlotti and Asturian beans, squash, aubergines, peppers, chillies, melons and the rest of the courgettes. They’ll all need watering which is going to pretty much empty the last of our rain butts but there is a tiny glimmer of hope on the horizon with a slight possibility of showers this afternoon before the temperature hikes up into the mid-twenties for the foreseeable future. There’s an old country saying that goes Be it dry or be it wet, Nature always pays the debt . . . I have all my fingers and toes crossed that it’s sooner rather than later! 😬

At least the potatoes are coping with the drought.

April showers? I wish!

There has been such a bursting of leaf and life this week, I can almost hear the crackle and pop of burgeoning growth all around me as I work. Trees are suddenly clothed in fresh new growth, the woods are a soft haze of greens and yellows and the verges are bursting with cowslips, bluebells and orchids. At the front of the house, the double lilac is in full scented bloom and, together with a cascade of bright laburnum flowers above it, makes a gorgeous palette against the blue sky. There are baby birds squeaking in every corner and the whole garden is fragrant with the sweet perfume of apple blossom. It feels more like the middle of May and I’m loving every moment.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week wandering about the patch at all times of day, or simply just sitting and absorbing the bustle of springtime around me; an early morning breakfast on the Love Shack ‘veranda’ catches the sunrise now and is a magical thing to do. We’ve also been talking a lot about our plans for this piece of land and how we would like it to develop in the coming years. In The Garden Awakening, Mary Reynolds states that gardens belong to nature, not the other way round, and it’s a philosophy that resonates very strongly with me; we’re seeking a balance between being able to produce the greater part of our fresh food whilst maintaining and improving the environment and ecosystem(s) for all who share it. It’s not always easy, but something we are both very much committed to and leaving space for nature to do its own thing is key. The hazel hedge that Roger laid over winter is bursting with fresh new growth, whilst beneath it there is a riot of wild flowers – stitchwort, celandines, violets, wild strawberries, ground ivy, pignut, speedwell – which in turn are buzzing with insect attention. These ‘wild’ areas are fundamental to our vision and a precious asset in this space.

Although there are many simple ways in which we can encourage wildlife such as leaving areas of grass unmown or making piles of organic materials in various places, other projects need a bit more work. One of the most important habitats which we are missing is a pond but Roger has been working to rectify that situation. He has dug a hole out by hand at the lowest point of the garden and used the turfs to cover a snaking hügel bed which will help to ‘hide’ the pond within a wilder patch we have planted with young dogwoods and willows and should eventually make a turf seat where we can sit and watch the pondlife. Unfortunately, the pond liner we had ordered went astray and was delivered several weeks late so wasn’t in place for the last bout of decent rainfall; now we’re in a prolonged dry spell so we just have to be patient.

Thankfully, we know from experience that it doesn’t take long for the wildlife to appear once a pond is established, especially one that is surrounded by vegetation; we have yellow flag iris waiting in a bucket and I’ve raised purple loosestrife and marshmallow plants from seed so those should give us a good start. There’s no shortage of potential customers in the area, either . . .

Amphibians are an important and welcome part of our ecosystems; they’re always wonderful to see and a strong reminder of why we don’t use chemicals anywhere. There’s a small toad that seems to live very happily amongst the plant pots under the bench in the tunnel and is possibly the reason we don’t have a slug problem in there. I’ve been watching the golden ground beetles in there, too; they’re incredibly smart creatures decked out in metallic green with red legs that scuttle out from under the plant trays when I move them. The insect highlight of the week, however, was spotting a female long-horned bee – the red-listed species I wrote about last time – among the strawberry flowers.

Having recently read a long and detailed permaculture article, it seems that if there is one topic that divides opinion within the community, it’s mandala beds. Permies either love them or loathe them – there’s a definite ‘Marmite moment’ going on! I like them (and just for the record, I like Marmite, too 😊) and I’m very excited to watch ours evolve this year despite the fact that an expert would be quick to point out that I’ve fallen short of the mark in doing things properly. For starters, I should really have opted for looping keyhole beds rather than straight paths and triangular wedges; instead of a pointless rock in the middle, there ought to be a geodome chicken home and somewhere in the vicinity, a hot composting system. Well, I’m not trying to do it perfectly so I shan’t be losing too much sleep over my shortcomings and after all, the whole project is so much more than ticking a permaculture box . . . so why am I doing it?

  • I’ve fancied making a garden feature based on a large circle for a long time. For many years, I had a vague notion of a spiral maze floating about in my mind, but never actually got round to making it for many reasons, not least the fact that most of our gardens have either been too small or too steep. Now at last I have plenty of flat space to play with and a mandala bed rather than a maze feels like the better option.
  • I wanted to create something a little bit different in our ‘flower’ garden, a feature that would perhaps become a bit of a talking point and capture people’s attention and interest. It’s not the most elaborate of patterns but I like the sunburst of paths radiating out from the centre and the play of light across it at different times of the day and, although it’s not a maze as such, I’m hoping our little visitors in the summer will have fun running in and out of it along the paths. For me, it’s like a giant compass and a useful anchor point for tracking the sun’s path through the year but I want it to be completely open to interpretation. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk talks about seeing a garden feature as the centre of the universe since space stretches out infinitely in every direction from one point and I like that idea, too. Some might see fractions or pie charts or those of a more religious or spiritual bent might think of a Dharma Wheel or a Wheel of the Year. I have a friend who calls it my ‘yoga garden’ and Sam said it reminded him of playing Trivial Pursuit. Good, it’s already capturing imaginations!
  • On a less whimsical note, I’m trying to make a case for blurring the boundaries between flowers and food in the garden. Obviously, flowers are traditionally grown alongside vegetables in the sort of potager we are making at the other end of the patch but I think there’s an argument for having plenty of food plants in the flower garden, too. It’s not a new idea but so often consists of highly predictable suggestions (ruby chard, anyone?) which are based totally on aesthetics rather than usefulness. My argument is simple: why grow things like ornamental cabbages and gourds when you can grow equally interesting plants in the same space and eat them, too?
  • Finally – and I suppose this is the proper permaculture bit – I’m interested to explore just what is possible when creating a planting area using a no-dig approach and only the materials we have to hand. Apart from some of the cardboard which we scrounged (and which was, after all, other people’s waste), everything else including several layers of organic materials, the standing stone, the wood mulch for paths and the plants have all come from our patch of land and apart from two sections where I have sown annual flower seeds, the beds will be filled with our spare plants. So far, it has definitely been another case of something from nothing.

Like many other things going on in our garden, the mandala bed is a bit of an experiment and as such, I’m prepared for things to go horribly wrong. I’ve covered two sections with soil rescued from molehills plus a bit of compost and sown a mix of nectar-rich annual flowers on them . . . but whether the soil will be deep enough to sustain the growth, especially in hot dry spells, is questionable. I was encouraged to find a couple of phacelia volunteers had appeared there already (what a trooper that plant is!) but even so, I’m a bit doubtful. It hasn’t been all plain sailing with the food plants, either: strawberries, summer cabbages and a ‘Courcourzelle’ courgette are looking fine, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to replant lettuces thanks to the destructive presence of wireworms. I’m a bit frustrated that the little orange pests seem capable of working their way up through all the lasagne layers to munch away at roots but I’ve got hundreds of lettuce plants and I’m nothing if not determined so the battle continues. I’m hopeful that by the time the tender plants like peppers, aubergines, melons and cucumbers go out, the beasties (who apparently don’t like warm soil) will have beaten a retreat. We’ll see.

The state of the other two beds in the flower garden has been an interesting situation to consider. One was created by stripping turf and digging, the other was a sort of flat hügel bed experiment and both were mostly planted with annual flowers last year and deeply mulched with leaves and dead plant material over winter. When I stripped back the mulch ready for planting, there were two very different stories underneath. The dug bed was a carpet of perennial weeds (mostly creeping buttercup), so densely matted that I’ve had to dig it all again, and some of the perennial plants in there had taken a real bashing from various pests. In complete contrast, in the ‘pancake lasagne hügel’ bed there were hardly any weeds and the native plants that have appeared and decided to stay such as knapweed, campion, ox-eye daisy, mallow, yarrow and a lone teasel are looking incredibly healthy.

There was also a good crop of young oak trees from the acorns that went in with a brown layer, so we’ve lifted several to add to the tree nursery. I want to keep this border on the wild side so I’ve sown it with all sorts of annual seed for an unapologetic splash of summer colour and wealth of wildlife busyness. The dug border will make the transition to a mostly perennial one this year which, apart from anything else, will allow me to keep it mulched to help improve the soil; I’ve sown a narrow strip along the front with annuals and added a few dahlias but otherwise my plan is to fill it with perennial plants as I go along. I’m raising lots in the tunnel, favourites like scabious, aquilegia, globe thistle, gaillardia and echinacea, but they won’t be big enough to plant until later in the year. On the bright side, the soapwort, Michaelmas daisies, madder and cardoons are all going great guns so I’m wondering if maybe this needs to be a bed for thugs? When we visited the medieval garden in Lassay-les-Châteaux last summer, I liked the way the cardoons there had been underplanted with wild strawberries so I’ve done the same with ours and hope it will look as effective once the little plants are established. Whatever happens, we should at least be guaranteed a bit of summer colour once again.

Shifting to the vegetable garden and, given the wireworm issue in the mandala bed, I’ve been fretting a bit about the asparagus. I must admit to having had severe reservations about sheet mulching an asparagus bed, knowing how perennial weeds (and grass in particular) can be a major problem but several leading authorities on the matter convinced me it was possible so the lasagne bed was built, the plants raised from seed and 30 of them planted in deep pockets of rich compost. The apparent lack of life this spring has been bothering me, and I’ve been wondering if maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all; it takes three years to establish plants big enough to harvest, so a year’s setback is the last thing we need. Well, I should know by now to be a little more patient and have more faith: this week, tiny purplish spears of asparagus have shot up from all but one planting hole (and I have spare plants in reserve) and I am so happy. I’ve lifted the few weeds – mostly sorrel – from around them, mulched them heavily with grass clippings and told them what beautiful plants they are: a little encouragement and flattery goes a long way.

Where the weather is concerned, it’s a tricky time of year as the wind has a habit of going into the cold east and a frost is still possible; it’s still too early to plant out tender things but this is where the tunnel comes into its own. Having nurtured far too many young plants on windowsills and then in the tunnel, the time came to get them in the ground so I spent a very happy (and incredibly hot!) afternoon planting the whole of one side with peppers, chillies, aubergines and melons. I’ve got plenty of spares in case they’re needed, and if not, they can go outside next month. I shift all the plants-in-waiting and trays of seedlings out every day as the tunnel is hot and they need to harden off, then tuck them up safely back inside at night. Some of the courgettes had grown so big that they really had to go into the ground this week so I’ve made some windbreaks from slates again and if there’s a hint of frost, I’m covering them overnight with buckets; it’s a bit of a gamble but I think they’ll be OK. The squash are desperate, too, but they really do have to wait a bit longer. No such problems with onions, the seedlings seemed big enough to go out so I’ve planted three rows (about 75) so far with more to come. Now what we really, really need is some rain.

The protective climate of the tunnel is a good reminder now of how the whole garden should look later in the year. I love the way that baby mesclun leaves are nestled next to radish under peas, all one big jostling jungle. I’ve just watched our neighbours making an incredibly impressive and precise job of their potato patch, digging in muck, rotovating twice, raking down to a very fine tilth and then using a tape measure to ensure the exact distance between each plant. I wonder what on earth they must think of my wayward, messy ways? 😬

I was just about to publish this post when we had a freak storm. It was nothing really, a few rumbles of thunder, barely enough rain to dampen the seed beds yet alone start filling the pond and a single ferocious crack of lightning which tripped the power and fried the phoneline. End of internet, end of blogging! It’s taken several very frustrating days trying to report the fault and get it fixed but we’re there at last, back on air and I can hit the ‘Publish’ button bearing in mind my photos are all well out of date now. I wouldn’t have minded if the storm had at least delivered the rain we so desperately need. I’m just off to bail out the bath water in the hope of keeping some seedlings alive. Time for a rain dance, perhaps? 😉

Something from nothing

For those of us growing food in temperate northern climes, the next few weeks tend to be the trickiest in terms of having enough fresh produce from the garden: the winter vegetables are over, our stores running low and new crops still in their infancy. As this is our first proper year of cultivation here, I’m interested to see just how far we can go in trying to close – or even eradicate? – the so-called ‘hungry gap’.

A good test of our current situation came when we were writing a short shopping list before cycling into St P to collect a few supplies; as there is a limit to how much we can carry on our bikes, we have to be very precise about what we do or don’t require. So, did we need to buy any vegetables to supplement what we already had at home? We finished our own potatoes and onions some time ago but now buy those in bulk so we have plenty to hand; we still have garlic, squash, chillies and beans in store along with the last few parsnips; in the garden, there are leeks, kale, chard, perpetual spinach, beetroot, rocket, Florence fennel, landcress and red sorrel, a variety of fresh herbs and various young ‘wild’ leaves, too. We don’t have huge quantities of anything, but when it comes to making meals, it’s amazing how we can still rustle up something from nothing. No need to buy veg, then: oh good, that leaves room in the rucksack for a bottle of wine! 😉

The ‘something from nothing’ idea has been a bit of a theme in the garden this week. Roger has been lifting and potting up birch seedlings that have appeared in the gravel to make a start on our next little tree nursery and we have planted five flowering currants and five red dogwoods grown from hardwood cuttings I took in the winter. On the strength of that success, I’ve taken softwood cuttings of viburnum tinus which has been flowering for weeks and also lilac which is just coming into bloom; this is such a great way of increasing our stock of shrubs for nothing. Last summer I sowed the last few wallflower seeds from a packet so ancient I doubted there was any chance of them germinating, yet alone making decent plants; really, I should have more faith! I stuffed the tiny plants in pots with some daffodil bulbs at the front of the house and they are making a gorgeous splash of colour at the moment. I’m particularly chuffed that every plant has different coloured flowers so I’m planning to collect a bit of seed from each of them and then let the rest scatter themselves in the hope of adding to our gravel garden.

This self-setting strategy is one that I love and it’s incredible how many little treasures are appearing and spreading themselves through the gravel – and all in such appropriate places, as if they’ve read their own planting instructions! Under the oak tree there are primroses, foxgloves, forget-me-nots and verbascum and in front of the house, Californian poppies, rosemary, pansies and wild strawberries. It’s lazy gardening but definitely to be encouraged.

We have made a commitment to only use the car when completely necessary and it’s an interesting exercise in seeing just how much we can accomplish on our bikes or on foot. Roger is currently spending a lot of time in the coppice cutting fallen wood for logs but instead of going in the car and taking the chainsaw, he is cycling there with a bow saw and cutting the wood by hand. Yes, it’s slower and more laborious in some ways but he’s enjoying himself, finding it far more pleasant to work quietly and gently without disturbing the peace of the place. Obviously, at some point we will need to take the car and trailer to collect the logs – perhaps we should look at bike trailers? – but in the meantime, the two-wheeled approach is working well.

The coppice is somewhere we plan to spend far more time this year and to that end, Roger has been cutting back brambles to make paths and has cleared a space for us to eventually site a picnic table so we have a permanent seat and somewhere to eat. At the heart of the wood there is an old quarry whose high rock walls create a natural sheltered bowl full of trees, undergrowth and moss-covered rocks; Sam and Adrienne are keen boulderers (is that the right term?) and were sizing up the possibility of scaling the quarry wall on their recent visit.

Well, I’m certainly not brave enough for that one, but I’m definitely happy to spend more time in such a pleasant spot. One morning this week saw us leaving the house before dawn, with our super lightweight portable camping chairs slung over our shoulders and a flask of coffee to hand, heading off up the lane on foot. There was no need for a torch as the moon was full and there was something rather lovely about walking the half mile or so by moonlight with the first rustlings of bird activity all around us. Once in the coppice, we settled down with our coffee and listened to the magical dawn chorus in ‘surround sound’ as light slowly seeped into the day. I know there are people who think we’re a bit crazy for doing such things but for me the alternative – not to have these simple yet wonderful experiences – would be even crazier, a life not lived to the full. Cost: nothing (we’d have made morning coffee anyway). Value: priceless.

I learnt the French word for badger – un blaireau – the last time we lived here and remembered it because at the time, Tony Blair(eau) was prime minister of the UK; as far as I can recall, the former PM bears no resemblance whatsoever to a badger, but my wiring obviously works in weird ways and the word was committed to my long-term memory. I came across it again this week, during a lesson which involved watching a French TEDx talk and learned from the speaker that to refer to someone in France as un blaireau is basically to call them a moron. Two things struck me: first, I think it’s a bit harsh on badgers, an animal I’ve always had a soft spot for, and second, as I try to be polite and well-mannered (in public, at least 😆), I doubted there would ever be an occasion for me to apply my newly-acquired knowledge. Ha, how the language gods were laughing! That same afternoon, Roger returned from the wood to find that someone had run over and killed a large grass snake on the lane outside our house. I suspect it was one of the several that live peacefully in our attached barn and which, particularly in warm weather, cross the lane to drink and hunt in Gilles’s pond. Grass snakes are totally harmless creatures: they are not poisonous and offer no danger whatsoever to human beings. They are also a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem, so we are blessed to have them on our patch; sadly, there is a fair bit of grass snake hate about but we certainly wouldn’t dream of doing anything to hurt or disturb them. It is not an animal to hurl itself from nowhere under car tyres and this was a big and very visible one so I suspect it met its end because the driver was either going too fast round the corner on the narrow lane, wasn’t concentrating or deliberately went for the kill. I’m not rude enough to put it in print, but yes, I was definitely thinking it. 🤬🦡

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not a deluded bunny hugger and I accept that nature is red in tooth and claw and death is part of the natural cycle. I know that our patch might be a haven for wildlife but that doesn’t necessarily make it a sanctuary; ecosystems are built on food webs and that means living things eating others. It’s life. What saddens me is when that life is destroyed unnecessarily, but all we can do is carry on trying to improve and create a wide diversity of habitats here and enjoy the good moments . . . of which there have been many this week. The blue tits in our nestbox have decided the entrance hole is not up to their exacting standards (despite it having been made to a very precise 25mm) so between bustling in and out with beaks full of nesting materials, they are bashing away at the hole, from inside and out, like a couple of demented mini woodpeckers. A pair of chaffinches has taken to camping on the doorstep waiting for us to sweep the breadboard crumbs through the door for them and the duelling blackcaps are back, trying to out-sing one another in ever more ear-splitting crescendos. I found a couple of delicate empty shells in the garden, the sweet blue of a robin’s egg; I don’t know where they are nesting but there are certainly blackbirds feeding young in a small hedgerow holly, cursing us soundly if we try to use the sun loungers by the Oak Shed. We had an incredible view of a male cuckoo that alighted on top of the oak tree, shouting his wares – such a rare thing to see. I literally came eyeball to eyeball with a swallow when I was sowing flower seeds in the mandala bed; it landed and started picking something from the soil which had me a bit puzzled as I thought they were insectivores, not seed eaters. On closer inspection, it wasn’t feeding but collecting small pieces of the vermiculite that were in the seed mix. Grit for shell formation? An insulating building material to add to mud? I’m not sure, but to be so close to what is one of my favourite birds was a very special moment. I’ve lost count of the number of shield bugs and butterflies that have landed on me this week; the weather has been incredibly warm so I’m wondering if my it’s my tatty, bright pink summer gardening t-shirt that’s attracting them? 😊

One insect I wasn’t expecting to see when I was checking the young plants in the tunnel was a male long-horned bee, sporting a pair of antennae to be proud of. This is eucara longicornis, a species which is in decline; it has been identified as a UK priority species and is on the European Red List, so it’s in need of all the help it can get. It has a symbiotic relationship with bee orchids, which we don’t have, but apparently prefers flowers from the pea/ vetch /clover family which is definitely something we can provide. I’m wondering if it was the pea flowers that had attracted it to the tunnel in the first place? Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera to hand but I was at least more organised when it came to the other candidate for Insect of the Week award . . .

. . . meet meloe violaceus, the violet oil beetle (or should I say beetles) which I saw totally by chance while I was mulching our young hedging plants; I have to say it didn’t look like the most comfortable of couplings! Like the long-horned bee, this was a new species for me so thank goodness for the internet. The ‘oil’ is actually a poisonous substance which can cause painful skin blisters, hardly a problem as I’m not given to bug snuggling, but its presence here is great news indeed. Apparently, it is a good indicator species for the health of the environment; it has a symbiotic (parasitic) relationship with solitary mining bees, the larvae or ‘triungulins’ (what a great word!) hitching a ride to the bee’s nest and raiding the pollen stores until they emerge as adults. The beetles have suffered a drastic decline in the UK due to changes in countryside management and are a Biodiversity Action Plan priority species; however, in France its status as a non-protected species suggests that the picture here is a little brighter, for the time being, at least. Even so, for them to be present on our patch, there needs to be a healthy mining bee population and wildflower-rich grassland so it looks like we are doing something right.

We’ve just eaten the last cherries from the freezer and I’m hoping for a bumper crop to replace them this year. Everything certainly bodes well for that at the moment: the blossom is stunning and staggered, and the prolonged spell of warm, dry, still weather is giving the pollinators every chance to do their business. With the hedge beneath it laid, even the poor abused old tree looks better this year and with any luck will be dripping with sweet red fruits by July.

If we can preserve enough cherries this year along with soft fruit and apples, as well as have a decent early harvest from the new rhubarb patch next spring, then this time next year with any luck we won’t need to be carrying bought fruit on our bikes, either. Even more room in the rucksack for naughty things, then! 😊

Spring clean

Last week, I did a bit of spring cleaning on two counts. First, with Sam and Adrienne’s long-awaited visit finally looking like it would go ahead, I decided it was time to spruce the house up a bit in their honour. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of cleaning – it generally seems like a waste of good gardening time to me 😆 – but there is something lovely about making our home clean, comfortable and welcoming for guests, especially ones we’ve waited for 27 months to see. There’s a simple pleasure to be found in the small things: old wooden furniture polished to a shine with essential oils, crisp cotton sheets line-dried and smelling of fresh air, a pile of soft fluffy bath towels and a vase of sweet-scented narcissi for the bedroom (even if I did have to pick them in a blizzard). This sort of cleaning feels more like a gift than a grind and I quite enjoyed myself, especially since the house felt so warm and cosy whilst outside the snow swirled past the windows in huge, downy goose feathers. Spring? Ha!

We have a long-standing joke with Sam and Adrienne that they always bring terrible weather with them when they visit; actually, it’s not really a joke, more of a foregone conclusion to be honest. I think they truly excelled themselves this time: after enjoying two weeks of what was really summer weather here, living and eating outside and looking as brown as berries, the day before they arrived we were suddenly hurled into weather worse than any we had over winter. The temperature plunged to below freezing and snow blew in on the back of a bitter north wind as if Norwegian weather had been sent on ahead to make them feel at home! The change was almost surreal and everything that had been luxuriating in the warm sunshine – the blossom, the birds, the bees – suddenly looked as surprised and shivery as us.

Thankfully, the weather did pick up a bit, at least enough for us to wrap up and enjoy some good local walks; the wind remained desperately cold but there is heat in the sun at this time of year and in sheltered spots, it was pleasant enough to shed a few layers. Walking is something we’ve always enjoyed doing together and it felt like far too long since our last hikes, so much lost time to catch up on, so much nattering to be done; despite the unseasonal weather, it was a complete joy . . . and we are very excited about the return match in Norway in June (fingers firmly crossed for that one, of course).

A flask of coffee and some amazing patisserie have always been an important feature of our walks!

Despite the fickle weather, this is a gorgeous time of year and it was lovely to have an excuse to be out and about in our walking boots enjoying the best of it. For me, cherry is the defining tree of the region and it is at its best now, a drift of billowy white across the landscape, those petals far more welcome than the snow.

Beneath the trees there are carpets of hazy bluebells, their heady and evocative perfume mingling with the coconut scent of gorse; with the call of the cuckoo and arrival of the first swallows this week, it all just shouts, “Spring is here!” to me in the most joyful of ways.

I took a break from my French studies, not wanting to miss a minute with our visitors, and in a way some time off to assimilate what I’ve learned so far was exactly what I needed. There’s so much to take on board and it’s certainly keeping my brain busy but it definitely sounds a lot easier than learning Norwegian, that’s for sure! In the middle of St P, there’s a quirky little structure that looks a bit like an overgrown bird table but which is actually a community book borrow scheme; in the past few months, it’s gone from holding a handful of forlorn looking titles to being full to bursting with a wide range of reading material. I’ve borrowed La Colline d’en Face by Catherine Paysan, a novel set in rural Sarthe and one which is incredibly rich in language describing the natural world. Sarthe is our neighbouring department, just a stone’s throw from home and it’s where we did the ‘bluebell’ walk so the book seemed like the perfect choice. It will be quite a challenge but more than anything, I’m hoping to learn plenty of new vocabulary to describe the natural features and life within our locality in detail. Having just read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines for the umpteenth time, I was reminded of the beautiful concept of naming or ‘singing’ a landscape as we walk through it, recognising the importance and connection between each plant, animal, tree, stone . . . how wonderful to be able to do that in two languages.

Back to spring cleaning, and the second focus for a good tidy up has been my blog. With my subscription due for renewal and free space rapidly running out (my own fault, I post far too many photos) I decided it was time for some drastic action and deleted all the posts I wrote in Asturias plus the hundreds if not thousands of accompanying photos. There was nothing hard or sad about this; in the nine years I’ve been blogging, I’ve recognised that my blog needs to change and evolve just as my life does and it’s important to reflect, enjoy and then move on. It’s a refreshing life laundry of sorts, a decluttering and tidying up which has freed up lots of lovely space to share our continued adventure in France. Not to mention plenty more photos, too . . .

Our days with Sam and Adrienne were over all too soon, but with them (and their atrocious weather) safely returned to Norway, it was time for us to get busy in the garden once again. The mild temperatures, soft air and hectic bird and insect activity in the garden have made it a pleasure to be outside and at last, the time for outdoor planting has begun. In the potager, I’ve planted spare broad bean plants to plug a few inevitable gaps, another row of peas, a patch of pointy summer cabbage under a tripod of sweet peas, and rows of carrots, Florence fennel, spring onions plus seven different brassicas in ‘nursery’ beds; dill, coriander and marigolds are next on the list. The parsnip seedlings are emerging in their usual slow time but are still too small to mulch, unlike the garlic and broad beans which have been tucked round with a good layer of grass clippings. Conscious of possible food shortages, we have opted to seriously increase the number of potatoes we grow this year, 124 in all of which most are ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ from saved seed, but also 13 ‘Acoustic’ which I was given as freebies from our local country store; they were planted a couple of weeks ago and I’m currently ‘feeding’ the bed with coffee grounds and tea leaves before applying a heavy mulch as soon as the first leaves appear.

Roger has never been a fan of what was sold to us as the Secret Garden, which we have renamed the Not Garden (not to be confused with an Elizabethan knot garden) – as in, now he has laid the hedges and we have removed the shed and let in a lot more light, it’s not very secret anymore. 😁 It’s still a useful growing area, though, and one where I can indulge my love of chaotic planting in small rows or patches with everything jostling for elbow room. I’ve planted rainbow chard along with red, golden and stripy beetroot, and also a patch of swedes which is a bit of an experiment as we’re not sure how they will fare here, especially if we have a hot summer. I’ve also sown a shady patch with wild garlic seed in the hope of having plants to move to our woodland edge for future ‘wild’ forage. We’re still harvesting kale, perpetual spinach, beetroot (roots and leaves) and chard from this patch and there is also rocket and landcress which have overwintered well and I’m now letting flower in the hope they will fling their seeds far and wide.

American landcress

Seed saving becomes more and more important to us every year, so there are plenty of other plants being deliberately left to flower and set seed including leeks, Savoy cabbage, red kale, thousandhead kale, parsnips, coriander and lamb’s lettuce. I love the colour and form they bring to the garden and the insects go crazy for them . . . which bodes well for the seed harvest, of course.

Lamb’s lettuce
Red kale

In the tunnel, I’ve planted a tray of celeriac and pots of cauliflowers, a couple of things we’ve grown before but like those swedes, are a bit of an experiment here this year. I’m hoping a bit of initial cossetting will set them on their way but only time will tell. To be honest, I’m beginning to wonder how on earth we managed without the tunnel last year, it is bursting at the seams with plants and I haven’t even moved the capsicums and aubergines in there yet (although their days of luxuriating on windowsills are most definitely numbered now the overnight temperatures have risen to double figures).

Pampered aubergines . . . the time is coming to toughen up.

Having promised to curb my planting enthusiasm this year, I have predictably gone way over the top with numbers and, in my defence (a phrase Roger hears far too often 😉), I think it’s just the sheer delight of being able to grow so much after the struggle we had last year. I’m the first to admit that 25 squash, 36 capsicums, 7 courgettes, 13 cucumbers and 10 melons add up to far too many plants for two people but we have the planting space and I can always give surplus away to anyone who wants it. Only the chillies, peppers, aubergines and some melons will be planted in the tunnel, everything else will go outside; I’ve planted one ‘Latino’ courgette in the tunnel which, like the potatoes and peas, will give us an early crop and by the time it starts to do the triffid thing and needs curbing (and probably evicting), there should be plenty coming outside.

The first flowers are opening on the indoor peas.

Where tomatoes are concerned, we’re holding our nerve; we don’t want the plants going out until well into June in the hope of beating blight, and given how quickly they grow, we can’t sow them too early. The exception are the few we want to grow in pots at the front of the house so I’ve sown just nine seeds this week – three each of ‘Marmande’, ‘Saint-Pierre’ and ‘Black from Tulsa’ – to give them a head start. The rest, including some very interesting and new varieties for us (thank you again, Anja!) will follow in due course. Something that is certainly not struggling with disease or anything else are the ‘Pernot’ radishes in the tunnel, probably one of the best crops we’ve ever had; I’m sowing small rows every couple of weeks and they are bringing a peppery crunch and splash of colour to our leafy salads.

Outside, the purple sprouting broccoli goes from strength to strength and is compulsory eating every day. I am happy to eat piles of it hot or cold, and I also love it raw, especially the smaller florets tossed into a salad; there will be a bit of seed saving to be done there, too, once the plants run to flowers. I love the fresh green of new hawthorn leaves at this time of year – the country children’s ‘bread and cheese’ – and they are another nutritious addition to our salads, great for heart health in particular.

One of the aspects we are enjoying so much about our new garden is that it is perfect for wandering around at any time, but particularly in the evenings, and especially now with the days lengthening rapidly. We often spend our days busy with different activities so it’s lovely to catch up once we’ve finished for the day and see what each other has been up to around the patch (or in my case, to try and pretend I haven’t planted quite so many things 😆). It’s times like this that I really notice and appreciate the small things as the season unfolds around us: how can I not be charmed by the fascinating forms of ear willow and ash flowers, the delicate beauty of peach blossom and tiny, self-set forget-me-nots, the sweet fragrance of the first apple blossom?

So, the season turns, the garden evolves, my blog writing goes on and my incurable photo obsession continues. Thank goodness for spring cleaning! 😊

Chez nous

There are some things I miss about Asturias but one of them is definitely not the steepness of things that made the simplest of tasks such hard work: the interminable hairpin bends, the fifteen steps up into the house, the soil rolling to the bottom of the garden, the near impossibility of using a wheelbarrow or riding my bike . . . having spent the last couple of weeks going full tilt in our Mayenne garden, I have to concede that life in a flatter environment certainly has its attractions!

The cherry plum blossom is falling like confetti now but is still buzzing with insect activity.

I also realise how challenging it was to stumble through five years in my basic Spanish, a beautiful language which I loved learning but despite a lot of time and effort spent in study and practice, I never really cracked. I’m happy that we managed to get things done but in part that was thanks to the patient understanding and tolerance of the people I was speaking to and there is no doubt that I am far more comfortable and confident in speaking French, happy to chat away in conversation and use the phone in a way I never managed in Spanish. Learning new languages is one of the best workouts for the old grey matter and is never wasted but suspecting our recent return to Asturias for several weeks was likely to frazzle my linguistic brain, I knew I had to find time for a little French every day just to keep my hand in. I bought a French copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca from the charity shop, a novel I read in English many years ago, and set myself the goal of reading two chapters a day while we were away. The translation was excellent, truly evoking the spirit and voice of the original and I found myself so surprisingly engrossed, I could hardly put it down.

One of the few plants I brought back from Asturias, a dainty and deeply-scented narcissus given to me by Vita.

Since moving back to France, I’ve been dipping in and out of various study materials but couldn’t really settle to anything before discovering the excellent InnerFrench website hosted by Hugo, a young French teacher who lives and works in Poland. Passionate and enthusiastic about language learning, Hugo has a brilliant perception of the problems facing intermediate learners when it comes to sourcing interesting and stimulating materials that are more than just a minefield of ever more complex grammatical constructions. His podcasts are excellent, covering a huge range of fascinating subjects and I listen to several each week, especially if I’m doing something boring but necessary (like cleaning the kitchen). They have helped me push my listening and comprehension skills along big time and I have no doubt my enjoyment and almost fluent reading of Rebecca was thanks to the Hugo effect! I’ve now started his ‘Build a Core Strength’ course; thirty lessons might not sound like much but it is going to take me several months to complete them, they are so resource-rich and stimulating. It is quite a challenge – my brain already feels a little fried – but I’m hoping they will continue to prod me in the right direction, stop me from becoming complacent and encourage me to become a more fluent and natural French speaker.

We have planted a forsythia in our eclectic hedge for a splash of sunny spring colour.

The upshot of this is that I won’t be doing much blogging for some time, partly because I can only stand so long on a computer each day (I’m currently doing my French early in the morning so as not to miss out on any garden time!) but also because I really need to focus on using French as much as possible, rather than writing reams of English. So, for the foreseeable future, my posts will probably be mostly photos with captions rather than a lot of waffle . . . which may well come as a relief to some people anyway! 😂

It has been a stunning year for primroses, they are everywhere.

It seems that finally saying goodbye to Asturias has unleashed a huge surge of energy and enthusiasm in us both and we have practically lived in the garden over the last four weeks. It feels so good to really knuckle down to all the plans and projects we’ve had in mind and see some of our ideas come into fruition. Apart from one wet day, the weather has been dry and bright (if a little cold some days thanks to the easterly wind) and it has been a joy to be outside enjoying the scent of primroses and blossom and the raucous birdsong while we work. The fieldfares and bramblings have gone, the garden is full of chiffchaffs, the sky rings with the trilling of sky larks and wood larks and the swallows must surely be on their way back now the wind has swung into the south!

A day of rainfall filled the water butts and covered everything in a fine layer of orange Saharan dust.

Here, then, in the spirit of micro-blogging, is the news in brief . . .

Roger has been shredding the brush from hedge laying and we used the resultant mulch to make an area of hardstanding in the Love Shack.
I also used the shredded wood to make paths in my mandala bed – hardwearing but soft underfoot, sustainable and biodegradable, it’s the perfect medium and has made a beautiful sunburst pattern. Can’t wait to start planting . . .
I’ve painted the Oak Shed green, sorted out the borders in front of it and planted the passionflower we brought from Asturias on the left. Can’t do much about that ugly tin roof but hopefully it will all look less of an eyesore this year.
Remember the shed demolition on Christmas Day? Roger used spare timber and gravel to make a seating area where before there was broken slate in mud. With the hibernating grass snakes gone, he filled the old privy hole with spoil from the pond digging and has made a border now sown with mixed annuals. The ‘table’ has been fashioned from part of that poor deformed cherry tree we had to remove; it’s the perfect spot to sit in the evening sunshine and should just get better and better as we go through the year.
There are still plenty of parsnips, leeks, kale, chard and a forest of purple sprouting broccoli in the garden but we had to harvest all the Jerusalem artichokes this week as they had started to grow again. We have re-planted 10 tubers for next year (selecting for straight, knobble-less ones); I have sown their bed with phacelia as a quick green manure, then plan to plant violet globe artichokes to complement the row of green ones.
The ones that got away . . . Jerusalem artichokes we missed on the first dig! They are such an underrated (and often maligned) vegetable which is a shame as they are dead easy to grow – practically indestructible, in fact – are packed with nutritional goodies and incredibly versatile in the kitchen. They are delicious raw in a slaw or roasted, used in a mixed root mash or made into a gratin. Our current favourite approach is to grate them and fry them in butter with spices like a rosti; even better finished with a decadent splosh of cream or crème fraîche, it’s a great dish on its own but also makes a fabulous filling for jacket potatoes.
We would never choose to plant peach trees here, especially in the exposed position where this one is located. That said, the blossom is gorgeous and who knows what might happen if we are blessed with a warm spring and hot summer?
In the balmy warmth of the tunnel, the potatoes are bombing up and, despite Mousegate, there’s a good row of peas (and several scattered little mouse gardens, too – I’m picking those as peashoots for salad) and I’ve pricked out the first patch of lettuce seedlings. As predicted, the bench is already heaving and I’ve barely even started yet . . .
. . . so thank goodness for sunny windowsills! Three of them are home to peppers, chillies, courgettes and squash plants with cucumbers and melons still in the propagator. I’m covering them at night with plastic box cloches but they spend their days sunbathing: next stop, the tunnel.
One of our long-term projects is to turn the gravelled area in front of the house into a pretty courtyard – but how to get rid of that previous car park feel? We’ve taken a leaf out of Beth Chatto’s book and decided to plant a gravel garden. It’s a huge experiment which could go horribly wrong, but we’ve made a start; it doesn’t look like much at the moment, but hopefully I’ll be able to post some wonderful follow-up photos later in the year. 😉
I love foraging for salad ingredients and it’s amazing how we can make something from nothing at this time of year: rocket, landcress, chard, beetroot leaves (I purposely left a few in the ground last year to re-grow fresh leaves), red kale, red sorrel, chives, lemon balm and the first pickings of fresh mint, along with primroses, violets, rocket flowers and marigold petals. There’s also plenty of young dandelion, wild sorrel and hawthorn leaves for a touch of the wild.
I don’t know whether it’s down to a milder winter but the spring flowers have been gorgeous this year and the garden and grass verges are alive with drifts of colour. There have been several types of butterfly in the garden this week, not the usual early suspects like orange tips and yellow brimstones, but peacocks, tortoiseshell and painted ladies – emerged from hibernation to stretch their dusty wings, perhaps? I’ve seen the first lizards, too, and – wonderful news – there is a pair of blue tits in the nestbox we made last year. They seem to be very much at home. Well, so are we! 😊

Down to earth

As human beings, we can sometimes find it hard to say goodbye, often clinging to people, places, things and ideals when the time has really come to let go. I’m not sure whether this hanging on and hoarding is some kind of atavistic survival mechanism, a symptom of modern society or something else altogether but I have to admit that when it comes to houses, I’ve never had a problem literally or metaphorically in moving on. For me, ‘home’ has never been about bricks and mortar but rather wherever we happen to have made our lives together as a couple or family; we have only ever been a tiny part of the history of all the houses we have lived in (and crikey, we’ve lived in a lot) and, once the decision has been made to leave, I have never looked back no matter how many happy memories have been made there. So, it was something of a relief to hear that at last we had sold our former home in Asturias; it is a house that needs constant love and care so we were delighted to be finally handing the reins over to someone else. There was much to be done before completion, however – especially when it was brought forward out of the blue – so we have just spent several weeks there packing, cleaning and dealing with the administrative stuff as well as building in time to enjoy a little holiday while we were at it. What a wonderful way to say goodbye: enjoying some of our favourite walks in beautiful places, treating ourselves to a couple of meals out, luxuriating in the the bliss of winter sunshine, laughing and chatting with friends, sitting on the terrace and drinking in the view and those stunning sunsets. Arriving home exhausted but happy to have it all behind us at last, it was good to see a little bit of spring had sprung in our absence.

We’ve done a fair bit since we arrived here at the end of December 2020 but finally it feels like we have permission to really knuckle down and concentrate on being here properly, to completely immerse ourselves in all the projects we have planned and put some strong roots down in this rich Mayenne soil. It’s not just about what happens on the homestead: I’ve started walking regularly as a way to explore our neighbourhood and connect with neighbours in this scattered, rural community and Roger has entered several races and is planning to join the local running club; we are both committed to French courses to keep pushing our language skills forward and (hopefully) become increasingly confident and fluent speakers. That said, since our return home, it’s the garden that has exerted the strongest pull on me and I haven’t been able to resist. Forget unpacking: the sun is shining, the sap rising and I need – yes, need – to thrust my hands into the earth.

Creating a no-dig garden from a field is a long term project and perhaps initially ‘low-dig’ is a better description while we get to grips with the two biggest problems: perennial weeds and grassland soil dwellers such as chafer bugs, wireworm and leather jackets, which between them can devastate a vegetable garden. Last year, we made some planting beds by either inverting or stripping turf and forking the soil over so we had a few areas to plant straight away and then subsequent beds were created (or at least started) by sheet mulching. The soil was in a pretty poor state; thirteen years of mowing by a too-heavy tractor had left it seriously compacted, short of nutrition, full of beasties and worryingly devoid of worms. Applying mulches of organic matter and natural fertilisers such as comfrey, nettle and yarrow was a constant activity throughout the year so, heading out to start preparing for spring planting, I was eager to assess what (if any) impact our approach has had so far.

No patch of cultivated earth was left bare over winter; everything was heavily mulched and in a couple of places I experimented with a late-sown cover crop of phacelia which absolutely thrived through autumn and winter – there will be more of that this year, for sure. Where we’d mulched with hay, I’ve stripped it back to allow the soil to warm up in direct sunshine and set it to rot down in an empty compost bay which I’ve nicknamed our Gentleman’s Pissoir in the hope that resident and visiting chaps will give it the occasional ‘watering’ to help things along! 😆 To prepare the soil beneath, I haven’t had a spade or fork near it or turned the surface over at all, just used a small hand fork to gently lift perennial weeds (mostly buttercup) and tickle the soil to aerate it. It’s all very low level work which I love because it gives me the chance to literally be down at soil level and really connect with what’s going on . . . and I’m pleased to report, there’s a lot that’s good on that score. For starters, the compaction has gone, the soil structure feels so much lighter and airier and, despite there obviously having been some heavy rain in our absence, it is very friable. The colour is darker than last year, not the deep shade we would eventually like to see, but it feels like we’re on the right track. I found far fewer pests than this time last year, which isn’t to say they aren’t lurking deeper down waiting for the soil to warm up but I do feel encouraged by the reduced numbers. What I did find, though, is earthworms – hundreds and hundreds of them. Their precious casts are everywhere and the soil is heaving with their pink bodies; if ever proof were needed that surface mulching with organic matter activates the worm population, then we have it in bucket loads. They are our greatest allies and what a job they are doing, that poor soil is being transformed into something wonderful . . . and that alone is a good enough reason to banish the spade for evermore.

Where the lasagne beds we started building last year are concerned, the Strawberry Circle is probably the best example of what I’m hoping for from them all. It had nine layers of alternate green and brown materials plus a light sprinkling of phacelia as a cover crop which I have just chopped and dropped. There are hardly any weeds, just a few small roots of sorrel which is edible and easily lifted; otherwise, rummaging down through the layers and worms, there is a lot of good stuff going on – wonderful rich soil in the making. The strawberry plants have kept leaves over winter and the new growth has started so I’m hopeful for a decent crop this year; I shall sprinkle borage seed as a companion between the plants and that will almost certainly self-set around the patch for years to come. The other lasagne beds are lagging behind in terms of how many layers they have been given so far, but there is still plenty of time to keep adding to them over the next few months. Everything going into them will be pre-sown in pots so should make good, strong plants with decent rootballs that can be popped into pockets of compost; it’s a strategy that worked well last year for perennial plants so I’m extending it to some annuals (beans, sweetcorn, peppers, aubergines and the like) this season. In the official perennial lasagne bed, the comfrey has started throwing up new green spears of growth and – hooray, hooray! – the roots I took from an ancient rhubarb crown last year are suggesting they’re pretty happy with the whole sheet mulching thing.

The existing soft fruit bushes were given a lot of love last year which with any luck should pay dividends this summer and if the bright new leafburst on the raspberries and young blackcurrants I lifted as found seedlings are anything to go by, we could be in for a bounty. It’s getting towards the end of the bare-rooted planting season but we’ve managed to put in three more trees, a ‘Doyenné du Comice’ pear, ‘Reine Claude doré’ plum and ‘hâtif Burlat’ cherry and it’s good to see our young orchard slowly taking shape. The little bare-rooted josta berry is covered in promising fat buds whilst in the balmy warmth of the tunnel, the honeyberries and goji berry that arrived as doubtful tiny twigs are covered in fresh new foliage. Our fruit options for the future are increasing all the time.

Back to the tunnel, and it’s good to see the beginnings of a new year’s harvest. The soil outside is too cold for sowing anything but parsnips and broad beans (both of which have gone in, along with a several bulbs of hardneck rose garlic) but the tunnel is a different matter altogether. The dozen ‘Charlotte’ potatoes are through the ground and there’s a decent row of radish, too; I’d like to say the same about the ‘Douce Provence’ peas but unfortunately the mice have been feasting on the seed and left us with – so far – the sum total of six plants. Mmm. I’ve replanted after much muttering but had to smile when, whilst tickling and watering the soil throughout the tunnel, I found several little caches of germinating peas hidden under the mulch; the mice are doing their own bit of gardening, it seems! Our local country store advises sowing linseed between rows of potatoes to help repel troublesome beetles so I’m trialling that in the tunnel; if nothing else, the flowers will make a pretty splash of blue and an early draw for pollinators. There has already been an explosion of ladybirds in there, the whole place is teeming with them which is great news indeed, hopefully that means any potential aphid situation is covered. It’s so good to have somewhere to start our plants off this year, to date some pointy summer cabbage, lettuce, onions, spare broad beans and sweet peas . . . but give it a few weeks and the bench will be heaving.

Adding structure to the garden is an ongoing activity, so as well as the new fruit trees, we have been planting out the seedling trees we potted up in autumn to finish creating a curving hedge between the orchard and veggie patch. They are mostly native species we found on site but we’ve also added a few rugosa roses and buddleia grown from cuttings and there will be flowering currant, too, once my hardwood cuttings have rooted properly (they’re currently blooming away madly in the tunnel, not sure if that is a good thing or not!). We’ve also planted a drift of trees along the edge which we’re planning to keep wild and Roger has made great progress in digging (by hand) a wildlife pond in the wettest corner – I just knew the mini-digger hire thing would never happen! It will be a couple of years before the real impact of these projects will start to be felt but it’s good to see the big flat spaces being broken up and the landscape becoming more interesting and developing the promise of new ecosystems. If everything grows at the same rate as the willows we planted a few weeks ago, then we won’t be waiting too long for our new hedge.

I never fail to feel a sense of wonder and optimism when the time for planting seeds arrives. It’s seems incredible that the tender little seedlings tucked up in the tropical atmosphere of the propagator will (we hope) be tall, strong plants producing a bumper harvest of aubergines, peppers and chillies in the summer months. It’s always a tricky time booting them out to make space for the next crowd – tomatoes, courgettes, squash and melons – but this year I have a plan which I hope will keep them happy and, most importantly, warm. I don’t like single-use plastic and avoid it as much as possible but this winter, the only way I’ve been able to bulk buy eco-friendly fat balls with no plastic netting, no palm oil and made from sustainable ingredients is in big rigid lidded containers. (If anyone is wondering why I don’t make them myself, it’s because solid fats such as lard are very high quality here and consequently expensive; I also read on a French wildlife site that we shouldn’t actually feed animal fats to wild birds anyway.) It strikes me that the empty containers could be very useful and for starters I’m going to invert them over tender plants as mini unheated propagators which on our sunny south-facing windowsills might even stop the aubergines sulking.

Winter veg are of course made of far tougher stuff and, although the hungry gap beckons, we are still enjoying a good crop from the garden. After months of harvesting, the leeks, Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips are winding down slowly but we are enjoying regular pickings of greens which have found a second wind – cottager’s kale and frilly purple kale, rainbow chard, perpetual spinach and young beetroot leaves – and purple sprouting broccoli, the star of the season, has just begun. We had none last year because of our move so this year calls for total overindulgence. I’m definitely not complaining.

The weather over the last week has been lovely so we carried the garden bench out from in front of the shed (which incidentally, Roger has started calling the ‘Love Shack’ for no other reason than I am so thrilled with it – he has pointed out yet again that it is supposed to be a shed, not an art installation 😆) and put it where we can take a tea break in the sunshine and enjoy the sights and sounds of spring. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the idea of putting a little bistro set in front of the shed for when we are seeking shade or shelter from the rain and, having dragged a couple of folding chairs back from Spain, I decided the time had come to leave the soil alone for a bit and get on the case. It feels like we have had those chairs forever, they were originally plain wood which I painted years ago and they were looking very bashed and shabby again. The previous owners had left a small folding table here which had been painted white and then decorated with a couple of butterfly stickers, it’s nothing we would ever use in the house but seemed to fit the bill for outside. Pieces of junk? Definitely, but it’s incredible what can be achieved with a bit of effort and a tin of paint. I fancied a shade of blue that would sit prettily with the green of the shed and opted for one called Bleu Orage (storm blue), set up a little painting workshop outside and got busy.

We’re planning to put gravel down as permanent hardstanding in front of the shed to stop everything becoming a mudbath in winter but for now the furniture can sit on the grass; as it’s all folding, it’s easy to pop it away in the shed and although it’s not exactly designed for comfort, I have a feeling it will be getting a lot of use through the year. I’m really pleased with the makeover, it’s very in keeping with the whole shed-building project and permaculture principles of creating no waste and making use of what we have to hand . . . and yes, that is bunting you can see. Just couldn’t help myself. 😉

That bunting was crocheted from yarn scraps and has been hanging in our spare bedroom in Asturias so it seemed fitting somehow to be finishing another crochet project in between the madness of moving preparations. I started a rainbow colourwash baby blanket months ago but progress had been pitifully slow so it felt like a good opportunity to get on and finish it before the baby arrives, even managing to sit on the terrace and work a few squares in blissful sunshine just like old times. The cotton yarn has been a delight to work with and the finished blanket it soft and light enough to tuck round a tiny body yet weighty enough to spread on the floor as a playmat. It was a lovely project and I have enough yarn left to make a string of rainbow bunting to match. After all the disappointment of the last two years, we haven’t dared book a trip to greet our new grandchild yet but it will most certainly happen; I might not have a problem with goodbyes, but that is most definitely one very important ‘hello’ to look forward to. 😊