Fade to grey

It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly a year since we moved here. We’re usually fairly cool customers but this time last year, the stress levels were running pretty high as we headed into the final days of negotiating the obstacle course of lockdowns and travel restrictions in the scramble for that magical pre-Brexit deadline date. I still feel nothing but complete gratitude that we made it, even if it was by the skin of our teeth! Things are certainly calmer this year and that extends to the weather; gone are the winds that stripped the last of the leaves from trees and hedges, gone are the rainstorms and the spiteful flurries of sleet that drove us indoors, gone are the frosty mornings that turned everything to a rimey crisp. This is what I think of as ‘nothing’ weather: quiet, still, dry . . . and very, very grey.

Flocks of bramblings silhouetted in the oak trees at sunset.

In an effort to persuade my pupils to use imaginative language in their writing, I made a series of ‘colour clouds’ for my classroom wall to help them choose more descriptive words than just plain old red or blue. I don’t remember the list I had for alternatives to grey but I swear we have seen the lot in the sky and landscape over the last couple of weeks: gunmetal, slate, pewter, dove, smoke, mushroom, ash, silver, pearl . . . how is it possible to have so many nuances of something that barely qualifies as a colour? Some days, the cloud has been down to the ground, creating an eerie, drippy stillness in the garden and an almost claustrophobic sense of oppression and gloom; on others, the sky has been blanketed in higher, billowy mounds, soft as a pigeon’s breast and shot through with ripples and blushes of palest blues and pinks as the sun sinks towards the unseen horizon. It might not be as uplifting as sunshine in a blue sky, but there is a certain seasonal beauty to it, nonetheless, and it is definitely no excuse to be stuck indoors. Hedging, logging and gardening continue undaunted!

Stripped back to basics: the winter garden under grey skies.

What a surprise, then, to wake in the middle of this pervasive grey to a clear sky and day of brilliant sunshine. It was like one of those children’s magic painting books where a sweep of water transforms a white page into soft rainbows; suddenly, the blues and greens are back and pops of colour seem to shine from every corner. The birds are no longer black silhouettes against a grey canvas but bright in their winter plumage: yellows and blues of tits, red of robins and bramblings, rose of chaffinches and linnets. Squadrons of starlings fly fast and low through the garden then alight, chattering and whistling, in the top of an oak tree, their sleek metallic plumage dappled like oil on water. Jays, raucous and ever more daring it seems, move in flashes of pink and blue mischief whilst green woodpeckers shimmy up trunks and branches in coiffered caps of startling scarlet. There are still colourful beads of berries strung through the hedges and even here and there, a little burst of floral sunshine, too.

This ancient cider apple tree was the first to drop its leaves but has held on to plenty of fruit. The birds are feasting well!
Calendula living up to its name . . . they have flowered every month in the last year.
Spindleberries in a bare hedge.

Despite all this, the garden suddenly seems so bare, stripped back to its skeletal framework in complete contrast to the fecund fullness and colour of summer. It’s not totally devoid of interest and beauty, though, and above all, this is the perfect time to assess what we have done so far and make plans to add to the structure during these dormant months. Roger has finished laying the long run of hazel hedge and now we are planning to plant new ones to break up the spaces and create shelter for the potager. Several weeks ago, we spent a morning lifting young tree seedlings which had self-set around the patch and potted them up in the polytunnel to use as part of a native hedge: oak, hazel, holly, hawthorn, ash, honeysuckle and spindleberry made for a very good start. I’ve also taken hardwood cuttings of red dogwood and flowering currant which will be worthy additions to a hedge or stand alone as shrubs depending on how we feel. I love creating gardens in this way, using what is to hand and spreading it around; one of the smaller lasagne beds I made has been planted up with blackcurrant seedlings lifted from beneath the parent bush and a clump of chives split into several decent roots. That said, at this early stage of the garden’s construction we need to buy in plants to help things along, too, so we are waiting for a delivery of bare-rooted plants in early January as well as the replacement rugosa roses which hopefully this time will be red.

Red dogwood makes a brilliant splash of winter colour; soon we will be planting yellow and orange varieties, too.
Cuttings and young plants overwintering in the tunnel ‘nursery.’

Extending the range of fruit here is a top priority and we’ve made good progress with that over the last few weeks. We’ve planted two cherry trees, both bigarreau varieties and highly recommended for their flavour: ‘Tardif de Vignola’ is an Italian variety, late flowering so hopefully frost-resistant and ‘Coeur de Pigeon’ is a French heirloom variety dating back to1540 with heart-shaped fruits that give it its name. We’d like to add a couple more to the collection and after that, our priority will be plums. The neglected soft fruit bushes and raspberry canes have recovered well with lots of loving care through this year and I’m hopeful of a good crop next season. I’ve planted a jostaberry (a cross between a blackcurrant and gooseberry) for a bit of fun and also a ‘Fall Gold’ raspberry which I’m very excited about as it is apparently capable of producing two crops of yellow fruits in a year. Roger has started to make a plant support structure by the mandala bed using stout hazel poles from the hedge laying; we’ve planted a rescued grapevine at one end and a thornless blackberry ‘Black Satin’ at the other in the hope that between them they will make an attractive and edible hedge. I also have several honeyberries, a goji berry and a self-fertile sea buckthorn to go in, all new plants for us and interesting additions to our food plants, as is a Sichuan pepper already planted.

Young jostaberry

We have quite a reputation now of being the crazy couple who arrive at the déchetterie with an empty trailer and take away other people’s rubbish – namely piles of cardboard, which the attendants are only too pleased to help us load from the grand carton skip. This week we have been using it to extend several beds in the vegetable patch by sheet mulching and I have to admit, I’ve found the change in the box contents a fascinating study in human behaviour: where previously, the cardboard had wrapped barbecues, patio sets and metal-framed paddling pools, now it’s all heat pumps, woodburners and oversized televisions. Cardboard boxes have clearly-defined seasons, it seems (or perhaps I just need to get out more)!

Removing staples and tape from a pile of cardboard.
Laying and watering sheets to extend a soft fruit patch . . .
. . . then piling on the organic layers to build soil.

Having plenty of piles of organic matter to hand, we soon managed to build several lasagne layers on top of the cardboard, but changed our plans in a couple of places after having chewed over our ideas a bit. I’d marked out a fairly huge bed in one place but given we plan to plant a curve of hedge near one end of it, Roger suggested we left an area to keep as grass as it will make the perfect sheltered, sun-drenched spot for a seat. I love the way our garden designs evolve like this, it’s partly why I never feel inclined to draw a proper design . . . which is a terrible confession for someone studying permaculture, I know. 😆 We often come up with our best ideas spontaneously and I like the fluid nature of this, the fact that nothing is set in stone and we can change our plans if that’s what feels right. I read a timely reminder this week that gardeners are an integral part of their ecosystem and whilst it’s all too easy to focus on the practicalities of producing food or supporting wildlife, we need to bear in mind that a little ornamental planting simply for the sake of beauty or some scattered seats and hammocks for rest and relaxation are not sinful indulgences. Ah well, a seat in the sun it is, then!

The garden is constantly changing and evolving.

Although this can feel such a dead and empty time of year, we are still enjoying a decent fresh harvest from the garden, namely cabbage, kale, chard, leeks, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes along with rocket from the tunnel. Digging a few bits and pieces for a tray of mixed roast veg this week, we lifted what must be the biggest crop we’ve ever had from a single Jerusalem artichoke tuber, incredible when I remember how we literally just shoved them in the ground last winter and forgot all about them. Talk about thriving on neglect! The white garlic I planted a few weeks ago has sent up rows of glossy green shoots; there is something wonderful about that brave new growth and the promise of food to come next summer.

Garlic shoot
There’s still a colourful jumble of fresh veggies to enjoy.
The biggest, most productive Jerusalem artichokes ever. For a sense of scale, the knife is 20cm (8″) long.

The wind might be as light as thistledown but it’s a north-easterly, sharp as honed steel, the kind that makes our nose and eyes stream and nips at fingers and toes even when they’re snuggly wrapped in many layers. It has a brittle, metallic tang that makes me think of pine forests and snowfields so many miles to the north, places where the land is deeply frozen and daylight scant and scarce. I think, too, of Sam and Adrienne in Norway and our shared sadness and disappointment that their long hoped-for visit has been cancelled as a result of the Covid situation. How many more times must we go through this? 😪 I can take or leave Christmas at the best times but now I have no stomach for it at all; my healing will come – as it always does – from immersing myself in the garden and local landscape, no matter how grey and drear it might look. I will bring in some greenery and light a few candles to celebrate the passing of the solstice; we will cook a lovely meal together and raise a toast to our loved ones, wherever they may be, in the hope that 2022 will bring us the time together we crave. On a kitchen shelf sits a Kilner jar of sloe gin I made specially for Sam and Adrienne and I shall keep it as a gift until we are finally able to see them. For me, the rich jewelled magenta of the macerating fruits, a celebration of nature’s autumnal bounty, is now a symbol of hope and optimism, something to bring smiles and banish sadness. The days might be dark and the landscape bleached but there is still joy and comfort to be found in colour, light and love. To everyone kind enough to read my ramblings, whether you are celebrating this festive season or not, I wish you a healthy, happy and peaceful time. Until next year, my friends . . ! 😊

How typical that the only clear night in weeks coincided with a full moon: not much good for looking at the stars so I did some holly gazing instead!

Slowlydays

There’s a definite hint of change in the air. The sun’s path is shorter, the shadows morning and evening creeping ever lower and longer. The birdsong has faded, the cuckoo and hoopoe now silent, although the soft turr-turr of turtle doves still sweetens the air. The swallows are looping high and fast, feeding and fattening before their compasses swing south, and flocks of chattering goldfinches are picking fluffy seeds from the meadow. The dense hazel hedges are dripping with nuts, and dripping with red squirrels, too, feasting on the milky kernels; I doubt there will be much of a harvest left for us! The trees and hedges are heavy with dark summer growth, the rowans bright with scarlet berries, the verges sprawling with chaotic vegetation and explosions of loosestrife, valerian, mint and mallow. The days are full of butterflies and crickets, the evenings peppered with glow-worms and moths. This is, without question, summer in all its maturity.

. . . and yet, it’s not quite right somehow. We have had several weeks of unusual weather, temperatures well below average, glowering leaden skies and days and days of torrential rain which have left the landscape abnormally green and lush for the time of year. The neighbouring field of grain was cut early in a tiny window of opportunity but other farmers have not been so lucky; the combines have been standing silent, the crops blackening in the fields and the frustration locally has been palpable.

Harvest home: our neighbour was one of the lucky ones.

In the garden, the grass is growing as fast as it does in May, the dew so heavy now that I soak my feet on my morning wanders. The vegetables are loving it, there is so much growth and abundance and I have to admit, it’s a treat not having to haul cans of water in an attempt to keep things alive. In fact, with the water butts full to the brim, we’re wondering why we rushed to install another one at all. (Its time will come, of that we’re sure!)

Butthead???? 🤣
In situ and full to the brim.

There is change and movement in our life here, too. We’ve finally drawn a line under what I’ve come to think of over the last few months as the ‘Big Three’: we have our residency cards, our healthcare cards and the car is sporting shiny new French plates. Now we can turn our attention to the next tasks on the list, mainly getting the house knocked into shape and at the very least, the heating sorted out and kitchen revamped before winter. There’s much to be done. We’ve made great strides outside since moving here and the garden is slowly evolving into an organised and productive patch; I am happy to go off foraging with my trusty trug in hand each day, hauling back piles of fresh vegetables for the table. I’ve had a busy time drying jars and jars of herbs and other plant material, and now the food preserving season has begun in earnest. I’m enjoying my commitment to using my bike as much as possible, doing all the recycling and much of our shopping on two wheels now, but – like all good things in a simple life – it takes up a lot of time. The Mayenne tourist board attracts visitors through a scheme called ‘Slowlydays’ which I think applies perfectly to our own approach to life . . . although I can honestly report, that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t work hard!

Slow food

I was given an unexpected but welcome prod recently to pick up where I left off last December on the free year-long online permaculture course I started last September. I haven’t had a spare minute to think about it since but having started again, I realise just how much I’ve been missing it and also how resource rich it is – it took me several days just to read through all the notes I had taken. There are so many ideas I’d like to put into practice, but I realise there is much we are already applying here and our approach to tackling new projects has certainly taking a distinctive permaculture twist. Take, for example, the recently finished ‘utility cabin’ we have created in one end of the stone outbuilding adjacent to the house. When we first looked around the property, it was an open area with a toilet and basin at the back and a storage area for logs and various piles of garden equipment at the front.

Having moved in and lived here for a while, we felt the space could be made into something far more useful by closing the front, especially as the wind swirled round and blew rain in – we didn’t store our logs in there for that very reason – and played havoc with the modesty curtain hung to screen the toilet from view. Adding insulation would mean we could move the washing machine and freezer in there, freeing up space for better things in the kitchen and cave, and shifting some cupboards and work surfaces as part of the kitchen makeover would create a handy place for storage and various practical activities . . . I’m already planning to install my dyeing and soap making materials in there. Re-routing the water supply allowed us to add an outside tap, a useful resource missing from the property. We did the work using as many found and recycled materials as possible, such as timber posts liberated after removing a section of the huge car port, lengths of white plastic cladding (we think?) which had been draped high over the outhouse rafters and various scraps of woodstain, which is why the finished cabin is a mix of shades. Connecting the basin to a drain (novel idea!), adding a window, fresh coat of paint, homemade towel rail and a found tie-back for that crazy curtain has made the bathroom area a really useful facility, perfect for our outdoor lifestyle. Ideally, I’d like a compost toilet but for the time being, I’ve initiated a flush bucket system using grey water from the kitchen or rainwater from the butts which will save wasting mains water and keep water in our ‘system’ a little bit longer – perfect permaculture thinking.

I’ve been asked several times why I never post photos of the house; it’s partly because our focus has been very much on outdoors activities since we moved here and also, the garden has always been my favourite ‘room’ so that’s where my enthusiasm tends to lie. However, we have been tackling a few indoor projects of late and there are plenty more to come so I promise to those who are interested that I will devote a future post to the great indoors! We have made a start on sorting the kitchen out this week, so as I write it’s something of a bomb site from which (hopefully) an area far more suited to our lifestyle will emerge. Like the utility cabin, we are determined to use as many resources as are already here which will not only save waste and money but also challenge us to be innovative and inventive in our design plan. Although I am currently revamping cupboard doors with a new paint colour (yes, that red really has to go), we want to move away from a completely fitted kitchen feel so we were thrilled to find the perfect piece of freestanding furniture in a local dépôt vente, an Aladdin’s cave of secondhand furniture and household accessories. I’m not sure what exactly this piece was originally used for (it was in the bedroom furniture section), but it is already very much at home at one end of the kitchen and the amount of storage space is incredible.

So, back to the garden and the bulk of my time in recent weeks seems to have been spent barrowing piles and piles of biomass in a frenzy of lasagne bed creation. Well, it certainly beats weeding or digging, and the garden is so full of colour and life that it is a joy to be busy out there, even if I am walking miles with various loads of green and brown materials.

In truth, I have become something of a woman possessed, gathering up every scrap of organic matter and putting it to use in lasagne building, mulching or on various compost heaps. I’ve even started homing in on other people’s stuff as I cycle around the lanes – it’s very much garden hedge cutting season, so there’s plenty about – but so far I’ve resisted the temptation to accost anyone and beg a pile! To be honest, there is actually something incredibly satisfying to be tapping into our own waste stream and using what we have on the property and in the coppice; it would be much easier to buy in some bulk manure or municipal compost but there’s a growing awareness that doing so can import unwanted problems from outside. There’s little point in trying to build rich living soil if it’s full of animal antibiotics or bits of plastic and the more I do, the more convinced I am that the materials we have already will suffice. The only thing we are sourcing from outside is cardboard from the déchetterie where we are building an amusing reputation as the only people who turn up with an empty trailer to haul away other people’s waste!

From cardboard to compost to carrots and cabbages . . . satisfying recycling!

As a demonstration of what I’m doing, this is how I have built the Strawberry Circle:

  • Layer 1: cardboard laid directly on top of mown grass. I’ll admit the air (unlike the sky) was somewhat blue when the wind picked up from nowhere and blew the sheets halfway to Normandy. Once retrieved, I weighed them down with heavy stones and left the rain to soak them overnight; I’ve read this week that permaculture can be described as ‘Lazy Technology’ and I’m happy to be the living proof of that. Why haul water when so much of it is falling readily from the sky?
  • Layer 2: grass clippings from mowing the Potager paths.
  • Layer 3: huge pile of twiggy hazel sticks from two rows of finished peas plus the spent plants.
  • Layer 4: weeds that had come up through the peas.
  • Layer 5: a mix of woody stuff collected when we felled a dead tree for logs in the coppice – pieces of rotten bark, sawdust, twiggy sticks, dead leaves, etc.
  • Layer 6: hay cut from the meadow.
  • Layer 7: composty loam from a stack of turfs mixed with grass clippings and dead leaves that we put to rot down months ago.

I’m ready to start planting the young strawberry plants raised from runners, but as the mature plants (still fruiting like billy-o, are they a perpetual variety, I wonder?) can’t be lifted until autumn, I’ve sprinkled a green manure mix of phacelia, crimson clover and buckwheat in the centre of the circle for an extra chop-and-drop nutrition addition. Fingers crossed, we will be guaranteed an even better crop next year.

Not just a green manure: phacelia flowers are currently shimmering with bees throughout the garden.

We have never tried to be self-sufficient but I’ve believed for a long time that it is important to be self-reliant; more and more so, in fact, as the planet and all life on it faces so much unpredictability and uncertainty. We need to build resilience and I’m keen to explore the many ways in which we can do that, the extent to which it’s possible to shift for ourselves and weaken the hold of consumerist society on our lives. Making our own compost and plant fertilisers, growing and preserving food, saving seed, using rainwater, solar heating and logs, cycling everywhere and making and mending things are just a few ways in which we can stand on our own two feet as well as do our bit for the planet. In fact, I’ve heard such lifestyles described as ‘subversive’ and I love the idea of being a rebel! Our to-do list is fairly long, planting more trees over winter being a high priority and extending the range of perennial foods in the garden being another. To that end, I’ve been building a large lasagne bed for asparagus plants which, once established, should crop for a good twenty years. Asparagus is ridiculously easy and cheap to grow from seed, although it does mean waiting a bit longer for the first harvest than if we’d planted crowns; there are likely to be a few female plants in the mix, too, but given I’ve planted 30 of them I don’t think we’ll be short of spears. It’s a good – and delicious – investment for the future.

As well as propogating new strawberry plants from runners, I’ve been increasing the number of soft fruit bushes we have by lifting and potting up self-set seedlings which have quickly grown into healthy young plants. I’ve also raised trays of perennial herbs from seeds, 32 of which (sage, thyme, hyssop, lavender and Welsh onion) I’ve recently planted around the edge of the mandala bed as they were literally bursting out of their pots. I’m still working on building the bed but a pile of compost round the edge made for easy planting and with any luck, we should have a thriving aromatic and edible hedge for years to come.

Young herbs planted around the edge of the mandala bed (the white stones mark the positon of a path to the centre)

Preserving food is another investment for the future and something I love to do, so it’s been a slighlty chaotic week trying to get a few things processed in the chaos of Kitchen Makeover World. We have more French beans than we know what to do with, even after leaving the first row to fatten their pods for dried winter beans and seed saving. We’re eating them every day cooked in a variety of ways but last week I decided to experiment with lacto-fermentation. I had mixed results with this last year – sauerkraut was fabulous, courgettes were horrible – but that’s no reason not to try again, so I set a jar of mixed purple and green beans to ferment. The result? A crunchy, slightly salty pickle delicious with bread and cheese; they’re scrummy – we’re on our second jar already! I’ve been a bit remiss where harvesting cucumbers is concerned, my habit of crammed polyculture planting not always making it easy to pick things. The cosmos through which the cukes are trailing are so full of bees I can’t go wading into the jungly depths in search of bounty, so I have to remember to do it very early in the morning before the insects are out and about. The result is dew-soaked feet, hair full of dill and cosmos pollen and a very large haul of food.

Time to play Hunt The Cucumber.

These are a gherkin variety, perfect for making the easiest pickles in the world. I can’t be bothered with any of that ‘spices in a muslin bag’ faff, it makes far more sense to me to leave them in the jar for flavour. So, I simply wash the cucumbers, sprinkle with salt and leave overnight, then pack them into sterilised jars (chopping the bigger ones into chunks) with garlic, peppercorns, coriander seed, whole chillies, heads of dill and anything else that comes to hand before covering with hot white vinegar and sealing. Job done in a trice, even working round a muttering husband balanciing on a ladder whilst trying to move wall cupboards that have been very badly put together by previous DIYers. Where the dill pickles are concerned, the difficult bit now is trying not to open the jars for three months . . .

An important aspect of building resilience is learning to cope with (and learn from) failure and disappointment. It’s not always easy to see things going badly wrong, but the permaculture adage ‘the problem is the solution’ gives a pragmatic and optimistic reminder that these things can be overcome with the right attitude and approach. I’m not even going to describe how it felt some weeks ago to watch our potentially fantastic tomato harvest disappear before our eyes as 30 plants in the tunnel and garden went into total collapse thanks to our old enemy, blight. Within two days, we’d lost the lot, very frustrating after battling the same problem for so many years in Asturias.

Not a happy sight.

We are as sure as we can be that this was a result of the atrocious weather and airborne spores rather than infected soil so we will try again next year, adjusting our ideas based on what has happened. Perhaps we need to consider early varieties or later ones to miss the main blight period; certainly, a few spare plants that I planted in desperation after the others had died haven’t been anywhere near as vigorous but are now producing ripe fruits. Also interesting is that of the three plants growing in pots at the front of the house, ‘Orion’s Belt’ collapsed very quickly but ‘Alaska’ and ‘Black Sea Man’ have clung on and we are picking ripe and flavoursome tomatoes daily. The solution is definitely to be found here somewhere! On the bright side (and yes, we needed one of those) we were left with several kilos of green tomatoes and I’d like to sing in praise of these as a great food. Contrary to some popular belief, they are not inedible or poisonous and shouldn’t be consigned only to the chutney pan or compost heap. Blitzed with onion, garlic, fresh coriander and lime juice they make a zingy salsa that rivals any tomatillo; we love them fried in olive oil with onion, garlic, whole spices and balsamic vinegar and they also make an awesome curry. They freeze like a dream and I’ve stashed several bags ready-chopped to fling into hearty winter dishes. Nothing is wasted.

Sticking with threatened crops for a moment, and I’m delighted to announce that I think we are finally over the nightmare of the Evil Weevil. I’m still seeing the little bugrats in my sleep but the first cabbage harvested and eaten this week was sublime and felt like a huge achievement: half was simply steamed and eaten with copious amounts of rich Normandy butter, the rest shredded with carrot and onion and dressed in yogurt to make a light, summery slaw. We have to celebrate other successes, too, the crops that have just got on and grown despite everything thrown at them in this strange first year: potatoes, courgettes, carrots (the best ever, they love this sandy loam), beetroot, beans, onions, garlic, chard, spinach. salad leaves, herbs . . . we are spoilt for choice. We might be short of tomatoes, but in the tunnel is the best harvest of aubergines we have enjoyed in seven years. I’m certainly not grumbling about that.

Weevils 0 Dogged gardening 1: result!

In the last couple of days, summer has returned bringing us flawless blue skies and high heat. It’s not forecast to last very long, but there’s time enough at least to turn a few more swathes of meadow grass into hay for future chicken bedding. The combines are rolling, too, starting late in the afternoon because of the heavy dew then rumbling through the night to the wee small hours, giant nocturnal monsters bringing the harvest in at last. In the garden, it’s amazing how quickly everything has responded to the dry, sunny weather. The sunflowers, towering several feet above my head, have at last opened their shaggy blooms to the delight of the neighbourhood bumblebees; the Asturian beans and climbing borlottis have started to set pods, while the other two ‘sisters’ – squash and sweetcorn – are plumping up before our eyes. Slow, slow food, the best in the world. We are so very blessed. 🥰

One of our ‘mongrel’ squash grown from saved seed – it promises to be a good ‘un.