Gardening, naturally.

Les giboulées are very much a feature of our weather forecasts at the moment; in English, I suppose we would call them April showers, short and sharp bursts of heavy rain often accompanied by strong winds and hail, with blue skies and sunshine in between. It’s definitely a case of dodging the downpours to get anything done outside as I don’t find a sudden torrent of hail down the back of my neck very conducive to happy gardening. Thankfully, there’s a lot to be done in the polytunnel so that has been my warm and dry refuge when the heavens open yet again. Fairweather gardener? You bet! 😊

The sound of heavy rain drumming on the tunnel roof reminds me of two things (above and beyond dismal camping holidays 😂 ). First, not a single drop of rain ever falls inside and so it’s essential that we keep the tunnel well-watered throughout the year; as soon as the temperature rises to a point where the door needs to be propped open during the day, evaporation rate increases rapidly and it’s all too easy for the the soil to dry out. Second, I am feeling hugely grateful and relieved that we are finally clawing back the rainfall deficit which has been an issue since September 2022. Despite the drought in February delivering a whopping 94% shortfall, we were back up to 91.8% of normal expected precipitation at the end of March and with plenty of wet weather at the moment, I am feeling cautiously optimistic about a better year ahead. With that in mind, it’s a good time to make the most of overflowing butts and carry copious cans into the tunnel to really soak the ground. Between the storms, obviously.

The cherry blossom is still beautiful against a grey sky.

First job in the tunnel was to plant a ‘Latino’ courgette; this is something we experimented with last year and it worked a treat, one plant in the tunnel to give us an early crop and the rest outside once all risk of frost has passed. It will need a fairly big space and will be producing fruits for many months so good soil preparation is essential, especially as it will be what I think of as a greedy feeder. There’s a ‘natural gardening’ event happening locally at the moment, with information in various libraries and people welcoming others to their garden to share tips and ideas, so while I prepped the soil I was mulling over exactly what natural gardening means and in what ways the approach plays out in our patch. The space earmarked for the courgette plant grew chillies last summer and once the spent plants were out, I gave the area a good mulch of chopped comfrey leaves, compost and well-rotted donkey dung and in recent weeks I’ve been adding coffee grounds and diluted urine. There were a few weeds easily lifted with my handfork; it will be impossible to reach behind the plant once it gets going so I like to start with a fairly clean slate. I then carried cans of rainwater in to give the whole area a really thorough soaking.

Digging a planting hole, I was chuffed to see how the work we’ve been putting into soil improvement is really starting to pay off now; the soil is ferrous and naturally red but examining a handful closely I could see just how much darker, organic material it now contains, thanks to the regular addition of natural amendments. I put a good dollop of compost into the bottom of the planting hole, spread chopped comfrey leaves over the entire area and then mulched the lot with grass clippings; this does mean the sweet perfume of broad bean and rocket flowers is now overpowered by the pungent aroma of rotting grass but it is worth the short-term pain for the benefits such a mulch brings. Roger had left me a pile of grass clippings after mowing that had built a good deal of heat at its centre which meant a warm blanket going down onto warm soil, just right to nudge the courgette along; the grass will not only retain heat but help to hold moisture in the soil and over the next few months, will break down along with the comfrey leaves and add its own nutritional and structural benefits to the soil.

Although I’ve been mulching the outdoor lettuce in a similar way, I haven’t bothered with the indoor ones as you can see in the photo above. The reasons for this are twofold. First, there is space between and around the lettuce to transplant seedlings of things like coriander and dill which are popping up like mushrooms in other parts of the tunnel and second, I’m interested to see what else appears on its own. There are already plenty of little chilli/pepper seedlings and although I’m not growing any chillies this year (even I had to admit last year’s abundant crop was enough to last us for several years), a big part of me is tempted to let one or two seedlings grow to maturity just to see what they produce. All the varieties I grew last year were open-pollinated so it’s possible we could have tiny sweet chillies or huge fiery peppers in a vast array of colours and the curious cat in me is interested to find out. What I do love is the fact that the seedlings have all come from fruits that dropped right at the end of the season, the seeds surviving the winter inside the rotting husks and now germinating in abundance; it makes me wonder why there can be such a fuss about seed saving at times when nature makes it all look so easy. This little patch alone epitomises some of my ideas about natural gardening: not a single synthetic element involved, just a lot of soil love and a willingness to let nature have plenty of leeway . . . and to observe and learn from what happens. Integrated pest management plays a huge role, too, so that I’m fairly confident that the two slugs I found lurking at the margins will be slurped up by the resident toad or beautifully iridescent golden ground beetles while the decent crop of broad beans and peas rapidly forming at the other end of the tunnel is testament to the busyness of various insects rummaging about in the flowers.

It’s very much a ‘between seasons’ time in the tunnel and it feels a bit like one big obstacle course with an ever-expanding trail of tender plants snaking down the path and overblown growth collapsing in all directions. With temperatures pegged back and those savage hail storms still raging, there has been no question of starting to drag everything outside to harden off during the day so I’ve had to work as best I can around the crowd of pots whilst starting to clear the ground for the indoor peppers, aubergines and melons. The only way to tackle the jungle is piecemeal so I’ve been working in strips, taking vast amounts of spent growth out to the compost heap.

As an aside, it took me days to sort those compost bays out a couple of weeks ago but now at long last they are in a logical order with bay 1 on the right being the current pile, bay 2 in the middle a maturing pile and bay 3 on the left the ‘almost done’ pile; this means in future it will be a simple job of emptying the third bay and tossing the other two one place to the left. As the lidded dustbin I was using to store finished compost has been pressed into water storage service, Roger has rigged up an old dumpy bag on the end for me to use instead; the whole system isn’t the prettiest but it’s highly functional and the rugosa roses in front are finally growing so hopefully it will be screened from view in the not-too-distant future, especially as I’m tempted to stick a few spare raspberry plants between them to plug the gaps for the time being. As the new compost pile is still relatively low, we keep the front off it so it can be trampled regularly ~ Huw Richards is a big advocate of this ~ and also used as a pissoir should we need a garden pee; for every big pile of green stuff that goes in, I add a layer of sawdust, dry dead leaves and other small woody bits to keep a balance and stop the whole lot descending into a smelly anaerobic sludge. Crumbly, rich, dark compost must surely be one of the greatest blessings of a natural garden.

Anyway, back to the Tunnel World where very slowly, a clear(er) planting patch has been emerging; I can’t truthfully say clear because I’ve been leaving all sorts of random self-set bits and pieces such as lettuce, coriander and parsley plus a few bigger radicchio, all of which will have to go eventually but have a chance to grow to useful size before the summer plants around them get too big. I’ve also been potting up a few things I’ve found in the undergrowth which is really just a bad habit of mine; why we need more rainbow chard plants when I already have enough for several gardens is beyond me but I can’t bear to see little plants go to waste. Perhaps I’ll be able to give them away to a good home, along with all the other waifs and strays I’m bound to gather in the coming weeks. I’m also rescuing as much food from the jungle as I can so that this week’s menus have been based on using as much coriander, spinach, landcress, rocket and beetroot (amongst others) as possible. We shouldn’t really have a hungry gap, just a short time with less variety than usual . . . and if I know courgettes, we will be picking the first ones from the tunnel in no time at all.

We don’t need huge quantities of seasonal vegetables to make a delicious meal: purple sprouting broccoli, fresh peas and asparagus from the garden are many times better than their shop-bought counterparts, a true luxury in themselves.

This week has seen the next wave of indoor seed propagation with ‘Crown Prince’ squash seeds planted in individual pots along with a few butternuts and our mongrel Blues; just the tomatoes, sweetcorn and beans to go now. Everything sown from saved seed has done well so far with the exception of the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which failed totally; whereas the cucumbers I sowed alongside them bombed up and begged to be potted on within days, the melons did absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada. With nothing to lose, I dug them up to find they were all just empty husks, so ~ scratching my head in bemusement ~ I went back to the packet I’d stored them in and had a good look at the rest. Many of those were simply flat shells full of nothing, too, but I did manage to find enough plump seeds to replant and bingo! up they shot. This is definitely a lesson learned: melon seeds are hardly difficult to save but I think I just wasn’t concentrating hard enough on what I was doing (in my defence, last summer wasn’t the easiest of times so the fact I managed to save anything was a small miracle); this year, I need to be very selective and make sure all the saved seed is good and as plump as can be.

Enthusiastic cucumbers

I can’t decide whether I like tulips or not. I realise that might seem a strange statement from someone who loves colour and flowers, and to be fair they are making a bold splash at the moment but even so . . . I don’t think it helps that I usually underplant with wallflowers but never got round to raising any plants last year, so those heavy heads on long straight stems just seem too formal for me, somehow. I’m far more charmed by the chaotic carpets of primroses, now stitched through with pretty blue forget-me-not in the gravel, or the swathes of wild cowslips, bluebells and orchids in our verges. When the tulips are over, I think I’ll shift them off into a corner of the garden somewhere to do their own thing in coming years and not bother with them in pots again; certainly, the large blue glazed pot has been earmarked for a fig tree Roger was given for his birthday and with any luck, as nature has its way more and more in the gravel garden, the need for pots of planted colour will be seriously reduced.

My head tells me they’re a bright splash of colour at the front of the house . . .
. . . but heart says these are what I love.

When I really started to think about it, the idea of a ‘natural’ garden seems something of an oxymoron as once we move from foraging for wild food to cultivating an area specifically for raising crops then we are surely controlling nature? If we left our garden to its own devices then in a relatively short time it would revert to a woodland of mainly oak, birch, hazel, blackthorn and wild cherry with gorse and brambles beneath; much as I admire the concept of forest gardens, the truth is there would be very little food available in comparison to what we can produce from our cultivated plot.

Our garden is a human creation . . . but we work with nature at every step.

Doing a bit of research into natural gardening, it seems to be a difficult definition to pin down, often coming back to being the same as ‘organic’ gardening ~ as in no use of synthetic fertilisers or other chemicals. Personally, I think it is something far more holistic than that, so that definitions I found referring to ‘gardening in tune with nature’ or ‘ecological gardening’ seem closer to the mark, the emphasis being on treating the garden as a complete living organism where each part is intrinsically linked to all the others and the approach to raising food crops is based on how nature goes about things. I’ve recently been given a couple of (English language) gardening magazines, one of which contains an article about ‘nature-friendly’ soil (no-dig, mulch, compost, green manure . . . ); it’s wonderful that this sort of thinking is becoming more mainstream but honestly, how as a species have we managed to get so far away from what soil naturally wants to be? At what point did it become a good idea to try and banish nature from every corner of the garden? I know not everyone would agree but I like to keep words like cherish, nurture, honour, respect, wonder, reverence and gratitude in mind every time I plant a seed, harvest a crop, water or feed plants, thrust my hands into the soil or simply sit and absorb the essence of the elements, life and biodiversity which make our garden the place it is.

The spring-planted rose garlic has been mulched with comfrey and grass clippings this week.

I was interested to see that ‘providing habitat for pollinators’ appeared in several lists of requirements for organic/natural gardening which is fine but what about providing food, too . . . and how about all the other creatures that reside in the garden? There’s no point in putting up nestboxes or creating habitats for living things if there’s nothing appropriate on hand for them to eat and likewise, a supply of food is all well and good but they need relevant places for living and breeding, too. I believe that a natural garden is as complex and multi-layered as nature itself, something that goes far beyond any simple formula or list of suggestions, but yet a very attainable and hugely rewarding undertaking if we are willing to learn through observation and practice. Polyculture is a key concept and one that flies in the face of the monoculture apparent in the fields that surround us; the farmers may be hauling in many tonnes of grass, maize and grain from their vast fields but we certainly win the prize for diversity. Obviously, we’re not running a business or feeding sheds full of cattle but we often speculate on just how many people we could feed from our patch if we really needed to.

Cramming it in: the summer garden is a celebration of polyculture.

With all the benefits of polyculture in mind, this week I’ve been sowing a range of hardy crops into a bed that is already home to pointy summer cabbages, garlic, broad beans, parsnip, lettuce and violas as well as an explosion of dill and calendula volunteers which have surfaced this week. First in were the carrots, without doubt one of our most successful crops last year despite the hot, dry weather; the sandy loam suits them so well and this might be tempting fate, but so far there has been no sign of the dreaded root fly. We had a long row of an orange ‘Nantes’ variety which cropped for many months so I’ve planted the same again plus a second row of purple, red and a rainbow mix because two people really, really need that many carrots. 😂 Next came red and golden beetroot, radish, spring onions, swede, turnips (only because I was give free seed but we’ll see how they go), coriander, two lots of cabbage and autumn calabrese; the cauliflowers went into individual pots in the tunnel as they need a bit more nurturing. I also planted a patch of mixed nectar-rich flowers and another of buckwheat to attract our insect allies and then popped in a patch of spare red onion seedlings left over from the main planting. There’s still room for a square of chard once the plants are ready to go in the ground and rows of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines plus basil which I’m planning to spread all over the garden again this year. Oh, and a row of something else where the old parsnips are, possibly some French beans; by my reckoning that’s about 25 edibles in a bed that is roughly thirty square metres in area. True, the autumn brassica plants will be transplanted elsewhere but there will be space for successional planting of other crops when things like the lettuce, summer cabbage and broad beans come out . . . and I haven’t even started on most of the other beds yet.

Young lettuce plants with self-set violas growing between and a row of newly-germinated parsnip seedlings just beyond the edge of the mulch.

The storms have been tearing blossom from the cherry trees in a blizzard of white petal confetti and I am thankful that the trees on our patch flower at slightly different times so we should be assured a harvest from at least some of them. We have a few bags of cherries left in the freezer but having just pulled the first sticks of rhubarb, I am confident now that we can get through an entire year on our own fruit. I for one am very happy to tuck into a bowl of sharp gooseberries or a sweet red berry mix or spiced apple compote rather than peel a Spanish orange or buy southern hemisphere grapes in winter and this year should be even better as our new bushes start to bear fruit ~ literally. The strawberries have their first flowers and the currants have opened tresses of blooms this week, such tiny insignificant flowers but like a delightful deli for epicurean insects if the buzz and fuss between showers is anything to go by. The currant flowers seem to be a particular favourite of the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) which are regular visitors and hopefully doing the pollination business for us; the bumbles manage to keep flying despite the weather, better able to cope than the honeybees who find themselves confined to overcrowded barracks and I suspect our feral colony is busy raising new queens with the intention of swarming very soon.

The wind blew a lot of the honeyberry flowers off but I can see tiny fruits forming and I’m also keeping an eye on the saskatoon which has been a mass of starry white blooms so there might be some berries to follow. My favourite flowers, though, are those on the jostaberry, such a striking combination of red and cream and I can’t wait to sample the fruits that are a complex cross between gooseberries and blackcurrants. Roger, who isn’t fond of either fruit, is still puzzled as to why anyone would want to create such a thing yet alone eat it but I’m curious to try and as far as I’m concerned if it’s another variety to add to our fruit harvest, then it’s welcome . . . and if I end up eating them all myself, well so be it!

At the end of a busy gardening day, during a moment when the rain had finally stopped and sunshine burst through to warm the evening, I sat and contemplated the time I had spent outside. One way or another, it had added up to most of the day and I think for me that is what ‘natural gardening’ is all about: not so much me being in the garden as being part of the garden, just a single and fairly irrelevant element interwoven with a cast of many. The list of jobs I’d ticked off was a long one ~ uncovering/covering tender plants, sowing seeds, pricking out, potting on, planting out, watering, mulching, tying in, carting stuff about in buckets and barrows ~ but my day of gardening had felt so much more than that, and compared to the industry of other life forms around me, my application to tasks wasn’t hugely impressive. I’d watched with delight as swallows swooped through the garden then alighted on rain-soaked beds to gather mud and a red squirrel did circus tricks along a grapevine support wire; my ears had been full of the sound of birdsong, the blackcaps doing their best to out-sing each other and everything else whilst they all go about the business of nest-building and chick rearing; a pair of blackbirds hopped across the cut grass and scratched up havoc in the mulched beds, heads tilted, as they hunted tirelessly for nourishment for the clutch of young I can hear in the depths of the bay tree; a mole, all snout and pink paws, pushed up chains of dark earthy eruptions across the grass. The entire patch was teeming with insects, the soil with earthworms and a myriad creatures I can’t even see and everywhere, there was the silent greening and growth of plants both cultivated and wild. I don’t think of soil as ‘dirt’ or slugs as ‘pests’ or dandelions as ‘weeds’ because whether I’m fond of things or not (and I confess, I’m not a slug hugger by any means) we’re all in it together, doing the best we can on this precious piece of land. For me, it’s not a hobby or pastime, but a way of life . . . and if we manage to produce some decent food along the way, then I’m a very happy gardener. Naturally. 😊

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! 😊