Food and flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six on Saturday 29th May 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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