Beans and berries

I’ve written a good deal about the importance (for me, at least) of building resilience into the garden in order to create a space that continues to produce food, flowers and a haven for wildlife come what may. The best test of this must surely be seeing how everything holds up in a period of neglect so our recent 10-day trip away provided just such an opportunity for observation. Typically, the weather forecast promised the hottest spell to date which didn’t fill me with a lot of hope, so we emptied the rainwater butts in order to soak the tunnel and the window boxes and plant nursery, which we also moved into the shade. (As a brief aside, moving them back I felt very guilty at disturbing a couple of huge toads hiding under the foliage – isn’t it amazing how quickly wildlife moves in and takes advantage?) I had my fingers crossed that, left to their own devices, most things would hold up without too much trouble but then, who can ever be sure? The garden is still so much in its infancy, the soil in particular nowhere near as rich in moisture-retentive organic matter as I would like; I have to confess I felt a tad nervous about it all.

In the event, I needn’t have worried; yes, it most certainly had been hot but thankfully it had rained, too, so everything apart from a couple of trays of seedlings had survived and continued to flourish in our absence. Although the presence of deer and wild boar in the locality has been more noticeable of late, thankfully neither had found their way into the garden; our food crops were safe.

I loved the fact that save for a bit of cheese, some natural yogurts and eggs picked up in St P, we didn’t need to shop for anything on our return. We keep a decent stock of milk and meat from the local market in the freezer, a store cupboard of staples like grains and pulses, several shelves of preserves and herbal teas and make all our own bread; the rest all comes straight from the garden and there is something about that self-reliance that I love. I never tire of eating piles of homegrown vegetables and a small bowl of strawberries and autumn raspberries provides the perfect addition to my breakfast oats.

Of course, it’s not all rosy and as always there have been a few issues to deal with. The first job was definitely getting some water into the tunnel which must have experienced searing daytime temperatures during the mini heatwave. The aubergines and butternut squash had held up well but the winter salads and herbs I planted before leaving had suffered without daily watering, rocket and coriander the only survivors. I shall sow again and hope there are still enough hours of daylight to get some young plants going. One very unexpected bonus is that a tiny pepper plant – the only one of two that survived rubbish germination and growing on, poor soil and wireworm damage – is fruiting! I’d totally given up on it weeks ago but couldn’t quite bring myself to pull it out of the ground, so what a lovely surprise that is. Next year we should be far more organised with raising young plants but in the meantime, the aubergines take top prize for tunnel produce.

Caterpillars and slugs have wasted no time steaming into the brassicas and I’m reminded of how valuable those few minutes a day spent checking and de-bugging plants can be. A couple of hours’ concerted effort had things back on an even keel and I must say, after such a difficult start, I’m really delighted with how healthy and lush the brassicas are looking despite those pesky nibblers.

The temporary strawberry bed had all but disappeared under a jungle of ‘weeds’, mostly clover but also a fair few docks and creeping buttercups. I lifted the greenstuff from around the plants and piled it to rot down so it can be returned as a green layer mulch once I’ve shifted the plants to the Strawberry Circle in autumn; of all the potager beds, this one has enjoyed the least improvement this year so I need to rectify that in the coming months. The plants have been fruiting for several months now and are still going strong so I gave them a good liquid comfrey feed and tucked clean hay around them to lift the ripening fruit. There are a dozen established plants to move plus the same in runners I found in the undergrowth; I’ve potted those up to grow on and I’m thinking perhaps a few plants for grazing along the mandala bed paths will be just the thing next year. If they grow half as well as the young herb hedge I planted around the mandala edge a few weeks ago, I shall be mightly chuffed.

Despite having cut and eaten every single tiny courgette before we left, we were greeted by a regiment of giant marrows on our return. Does anything else grow so fast? I see them as inevitable collateral damage and don’t feel too guilty recycling them via the compost heap; there are still plenty of young courgettes coming and the flowers make a bright starburst of beauty in the low light of early morning.

What a change in the squash patch! Having spent the summer spreading across the garden like some monstrous tentacled beast, the plants have started to die back and reveal their hidden treasures; it’s too early to harvest them yet but my heart skips with joy at the thought of all that wonderful winter comfort food to come.

The first rows of dwarf beans left to fatten have started rattling in their pods so that means it’s time to begin the harvest. This is one of those slow old jobs that takes a good deal of time, but what’s the hurry? I love to sit and tackle the pod mountain outside in the fresh air, enjoying the September warmth and making the most of the chattering swallows who surely will be leaving us very soon. There’s a simple, therapeutic rhythm to the task, splitting the pods and putting the drier beans aside for next year’s seed and the rest for the freezer; these are such good food, eaten fresh for four or five months of the summer and providing a nutritious staple through the winter months. We’ve grown three varieties this year and all have cropped heavily: ‘Purple Teepee’ with deep purple pods and beige seeds, ‘Stanley’ with green pods and pearly white seeds and ‘Delinel’ with its incredibly long fine green pods and seeds so darkly purple they seem black.

Watching the separate piles grow, I reflected on how it is little wonder people talk of seed ‘banks’ – this is our currency, our investment in the future and a very precious one at that. Seed saving is an ancient art and one that is absolutely vital to the survival of the human species; it’s a sobering thought that such a huge percentage of seed varieties have been lost since the advent of seed companies and catalogues, a fact that has me determined to hugely increase the amount of seed saving I currently do. Genetic biodiversity is crucial for survival: it’s that resilience thing all over again.

I love the way our food production activities reflect the gentle ticking of the seasons; barely were the windowsills cleared of drying flowers and leaves that I started covering them with plates and trays of seeds, some for culinary purposes, most for sowing next year. The house that smelt of summery floral things like lavender, lemon verbena and peppermint is now scented with the more robust, spicier notes of coriander and dill and the warm fruity fragrance of apples straight from the tree. What a wonderful celebration of September!

Looking at the abundance of produce we have, I know it is only a matter of time before the house will be smelling of chutney, too. We aren’t great jam eaters but a tree of tiny sharp apples (a cider variety, I think, but not far off being crabs) has me hankering to make some autumnal jellies just for a change and I’m picking and freezing the huge tomato red hips from the rogosa roses with a view to making a cordial. We don’t have quite the thuggery of Asturian nasturtiums here but I see enough seeds now to set about pickling them to use in place of capers. Our kitchen renovation might not be finished but I’m going to have to spend some time being busy in it, all the same.

This is also a wonderful time of year for some wild food foraging and I’m delighted that we don’t even have to leave the patch to enjoy some decent pickings. It’s a tremendous year for berries and the hedgerows are alight with vibrant shades of red as rowan, guelder rose, rosehips and hawthorn berries all jostle for attention. I’ve been picking and drying the latter for tea, acknowledging the health benefits they bring (they are a good heart tonic); I love hawthorn leaves and berries combined with lemon verbena, lavender and lemon balm and have decided to call the mix ‘Best Brew’.

In contrast to the riot of red, our blackthorn trees are hung with dusky blue sloes, strung along the thorny branches like pearls on a necklace. We haven’t made sloe gin for many years – it’s not something we normally drink – but this year is going to be an exception as Sam and Adrienne have booked to visit us from Norway for a few days in late December. I’m not shouting too loudly about it as I know there’s every chance the Covid situation could scupper their plans but it will be two years since we last saw them and to say I’m excited is an understatement; it will most certainly be a time of much laughter and good comfort food and what better way to toast some Yuletide happiness than with a nip or two of warming sloe gin?

Looking from our bedroom window earlier in the summer, I was puzzled to see what appeared to be a cascade of pink blossom in a large holly tree. Closer inspection proved it was exactly that: not holly, obviously, but a mass of bramble flowers tumbling from the top of the tree and literally shimmering with bee activity. Fast forward a couple of months and the cascade is now one of blackberries at the perfect stage for harvesting – well, those I can reach, at least! Is there a more iconic seasonal fruit? Their fruity scent wafts across the garden in the afternoon sunshine and for me, there is something quintessentially autumnal about their flavour and glossy fruits that brings to mind woodsmoke, mushrooms and leaves on the turn.

The flower garden is still full of colour but in a way that speaks of the changing season, too; the patches of annuals are thinning and fading, taller plants have started to bend and collapse, seed heads are fattening and popping while the likes of perennial rudbeckia, Michaelmas daisies and sedum send the butterflies into delirium. It’s a week of starry, owl-haunted nights followed by soft, misty mornings, full of the robin’s song and laced with dewy cobwebs. Summer is bowing out, autumn is tiptoeing onto stage and the garden has survived without me. Happy days, indeed. 😊

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. 😉

Fruit salad

It’s been a strange couple of weeks with far too many necessary chores distracting us from projects in the garden and a rollercoaster of good news, bad news, sad news . . . I’ve spent several days in a flat spin, chasing my tail, juggling too many balls and running the whole gamut of emotions. That said, I’m not given to wearing my heart on my sleeve too much or making dramas out of situations – it’s simply life, after all. They say life’s a peach, but personally I’ve always considered it to be more of a fruit salad: sometimes you get the sweet strawberry and other times, the slimy banana. Ups and downs, smiles and tears, worry and relief: what I need in moments like these is a sense of balance, of perspective and calm. Where better to find those than in the garden?

Although I’ve not spent anywhere near as much time outside as I would have liked recently, I’m pleased at how suddenly it is starting to feel like the space we imagined when we moved here. Everything is going full tilt, the trees heavy with their fullest, deepest summer foliage and other plants stretching, blooming, jostling for elbow room; it’s a time of exuberant fullness and plump plenty. The stark canvas we started with now flaunts shameless curves and hidden places in a cheerful kaleidoscope of colour and an energetic buzz of life. Slowly, slowly, a garden is emerging . . .

I’ve been piling layers onto the mandala bed, the latest being a thick blanket of hay cut from one of the meadow areas. It’s a big job, but there’s no rush and I can potter away at it in snatched moments. With any luck, this time next year it will be a joyful expression of all that is good in the summer garden.

Adding height to the garden is a long term project – trees take time to grow, pergolas to build and cover – but desperate for at least some vertical interest (and to screen that ugly shed), earlier this year we made a basic and very rustic ‘thing’ from hazel poles. It has looked a bit odd, although a rescued clematis has done a decent job of prettying it up with deep purple velvety blooms, and sweet peas (sooooo slow this year) and climbing nasturtiums have now joined the scramble. Suddenly, there seems to have been a huge surge in growth upwards, not least from the sunflowers. Just over a week ago, I was soaked to the skin trying to tether them as they flailed about in a brutal storm; several were snapped off, a couple blown out of the ground – little surprise, the soil was saturated – but the survivors are well above my head now and really going for it. Well, it is sunflower country after all, despite the rough weather of late.

One of the saddest things about this week is that Sarah and her family should be here with us, enjoying a long-awaited summer holiday, but that was cancelled in light of the ongoing Covid situation. It’s eighteen months since we last saw them – saw any of our family, in fact – and that is starting to feel like an unhealthily long time, especially with our little grandchildren growing up so quickly. It’s so easy to dwell on what we should be doing: planning picnics, barbecues and camping nights in the garden, playing tag and hide-and-seek, building dens and houses for unicorns, splashing in the paddling pool, building stone domes and bug hotels, doing art and craftwork on the picnic table or a quilt thrown on the grass, telling stories, singing silly songs, making muffins and ice cream . . . I should be feeling the impatient tug of little hands eager to explore the garden, to wander and sniff and poke and pick and nibble, to hunt for squirrels and ladybirds, to collect pebbles and feathers, stroke petals, pick posies, steal strawberries. There is no substitute for this, no consolation to be had: this is most definitely a horrible slimy banana moment. Yet in spending time with the flowers, bright and cheery as a child’s paintbox and buzzing with as much noise and boundless energy as those little monkeys I’m missing, there is a certain peace and solace to be found. We are all safe and well, and for that I am truly grateful. We will see our loved ones again, we just need to be patient. Hush now and wait. Smell the flowers. Watch the bees and butterflies. Breathe.

There are flowers in the vegetable garden, too, which is just how I like it to be. After a slow and seriously unpromising start, the Bean Circle is now thickly abundant, the Asturian fabas spiralling to the tops of their poles, cucumbers clambering up their tripods and trailing chaotically through everything else, thick clumps of coriander and dill scenting the air and bright flashes of calendula and cosmos pulling in the pollinators, with the fire of sunny rudbeckia to follow.

Then there’s the squash. If ever I needed any proof that hügelkultur works, then I need look no further than the squash plants that have tumbled down the sides of their hill and are now zipping enthusiastically across the grass in every direction. They are covered in yellow flower trumpets, full of pollen-dusted bees, and are setting a grand amount of fruit. Our Spanish specials – five seeds saved from the same squash last year – have done their usual trick of forming totally different fruits to each other, a process that never fails to fascinate me. Good old ‘Crown Prince’ and butternut ‘Hunter’ are hard on their heels and it looks like we’re in for a decent harvest. We have to move that seat on a regular basis for fear of being ‘squashed,’ as it were!

As the squash looked far from pleased when they first went out, I put a couple of butternuts – always the most diffident of the lot – in the tunnel as a sort of insurance policy. I think it’s fair to say they’re very happy in all that heat and they are certainly doing what’s expected of them.

Creating a productive vegetable garden from what was in essence a barren field has been – and continues to be – a big task, what the locals would call a boulot. The Potager certainly lacks any sense of maturity and there is still so much work to be done, but it’s wonderful to be at the point once again that all our vegetables are home grown; wandering around in the sunshine one evening, filling my trug with goodies for the table, I recalled the day we planted potatoes in a forlornly empty patch of earth, wrapped up against a bitter northerly wind.

Well, we’re tucking into those (delicious!) new potatoes now and the rest of the patch looks a little different to say the least; I’m glad to report it feels a lot warmer, too.

It’s hard to believe those thuggish courgette plants needed so much pampering in the early days; we’re keeping on top of the harvest for now . . . but only just.

We’ve had a good crop of broad beans and peas with surplus left for the freezer but in the last couple of weeks, the French beans have shimmied into the limelight. We’re eating the beautiful waxy purple ones daily and the next crop (a green variety) is following on closely behind.

I’ve just planted a third row of mixed plants grown in a tray of compost; this method of pre-sowing seems to have worked a treat in beating the bean seed fly problem we’ve had and the plants never look back. If we have a ‘normal’ run of weather now (do I even dare think that after the year so far?) then we could easily be cropping beans well into the autumn. They’re not alone; in what has become a bit of a nursery bed are rows of chard, carrots and leeks, a block of celery, winter cabbages to transplant, a selection of young brassicas and a newly sown row of Florence fennel. I’ve had to hazard a bit of a guess with the right planting time for the fennel, it hates the heat but needs enough time to grow and develop. It’s all a bit of a learning curve this year, but fingers crossed at least some of these young crops will be successful.

On which subject, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the permaculture principle of ‘observe and interact.’ I believe gardening should always be about observation but this first year in particular is crucial; we’ve gardened together for well over 30 years so yes, we have a lot of experience but that doesn’t automatically mean that what we know or do are the best things for this particular patch of land. There are many adjustments to make, much trial and error going on and a lot of considerations to take on board. We’ve been up against terrible weather, terrible soil and a rush to put enough land into cultivation to suit our needs this year but it’s vitally important that we watch and learn, accept feedback from what’s happening and adapt our approach and plans accordingly. So, for example, I’ve come up with a new plan for strawberries this week.

Early last spring, we bought the most unpromising bundle of bare-rooted strawberry plants from the farmers’ co-op; they were tiny, pathetic little things and quite honestly, I thought if any of them grew it would be a bonus. Grow they did, flowered and fruited too (photo above); I know I probably wasn’t supposed to let that happen but I have no patience with all that plant control stuff. We planted some in pots and left them in Asturias when we moved, collecting them on a trip back there in February. Poor things! They’d had a mild winter and were happily flowering and setting fruit, only to be plunged into the shock of icy northern weather. They suffered a fair bit of neglect, too, drying out in their pots several times – my fault completely, but things were a bit hectic at the time. With nowhere ideal to plant them, I stuffed them into a hastily cleared bed of rubbish soil, little expecting them to do much apart from maybe die. Well, how wrong was I? They have romped away and we have been eating the fruit for weeks, such sweet and flavoursome berries, some of which are enormous.

Even better, they have sent out runners in all directions (I think they’ve been watching those squash) and as I love a bit of easy propogation, I’ve been pegging them down into pots of compost and wow! Not only have the new plants already formed healthy rootballs, but they’ve started flowering too. I’ve decided that such enthusiastic troopers really need a bit of proper love and recognition, so enter the idea of a designated Strawberry Circle; Roger has cut another swathe of hay to make room and once I’ve fetched my next load of cardboard from the déchetterie (the lovely, lovely, lovely Monsieur in charge there says I can go back as often as I need and take away as much as I want every time 😊 ), I shall start sheet mulching in preparation for a gorgeous circle of strawberries next year. I know curves cause a bit of chaos when the grass needs cutting around them but I don’t like straight lines much and this is going to look so pretty – especially when I’ve added that best of all companions, beautiful blue borage – and the plants can send their runners out without bothering anything else and we will have strawberries for ever and ever.

I’ve always thought gardening to be a great metaphor for life so it’s only to be expected that not all is rosy all of the time. We have had many frustrations and several failed crops but without doubt, the most ongoing and maddening of those is what I’ve come to think of as the Battle of the Evil Weevil. I knew from living in the area before that brassicas were going to be high maintenance – well worth the effort, but up against it all the same. I was totally prepared for flea beetle, whitefly, caterpillars, pigeons and heat to be an issue but nothing had prepared me for the horror that is the cabbage stem weevil. We’ve never had them in the garden before and given that most of the available information about them refers to infestations in oilseed rape and other cruciferous crops, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a price we’re paying for gardening in an arable landscape. Whilst there are no OSR crops close by, it is definitely part of the local crop rotation system and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has been grown in the neighbouring fields in recent years. The weevils are like a rash; I can pick them off every brassica plant (there’s 110 of those so you can imagine that’s a boulot all on its own) only for them to be back the next day. It’s a bit like the Sorceror’s Apprentice with ugly brown snouty-faced insects in place of brooms and, much as I love wildlife and understand they are part of a natural system, I have to confess I’m getting very tired of them now. They are devastating our crop and it’s no exaggeration to say I’m not hopeful about harvesting a single plant. I’m desperately scrabbling to keep them going in the assumption that surely we must soon reach ‘peak weevil’ but whereas neighbouring vegetables are thriving, the poor little things are really, really struggling.

Back to permaculture once again, not just ‘observe and interact’ this time but also ‘the problem is the solution.’ What do we do about weevils? For starters, we’d already been discussing the possibility of some large moveable net tunnels for brassicas even before Weevilgate began; I can’t find any information about whether they would be effective against weevils, but they would at least help keep the butterflies away – the plants are weakened so of course, everything else is now piling in. Learning from our experience with French beans and sweetcorn this year, I’m planning to pre-sow lots of things into modules next year, brassicas now included; if they can go into the ground as strong established plants, they might withstand attack more easily. An holistic approach is definitely called for and soil improvement is top of that list; all our plants have been up against it this year but a richer, more nourishing soil should help them build resilience and resistance. I probably spend about 70% of my gardening time spreading mulch around all our fruit and vegetable plants and it’s a job I love; there’s something very nurturing about it, it’s a good excuse to get down and personal with every plant and check their health and progress and of course, it’s helping to build good soil all the time. I’ve done what I can to support the brassicas this year: filled their planting holes with compost, planted them between rows of beans, carrots and beetroot to afford them a bit of shade from the most intense heat, let naturally-occurring white clover run between them as a green manure and fed them regularly with comfrey and nettle tea. Given the general poor state of the soil and the scale of the weevil population it might not be enough this year. I can but try.

Something else to try and find out is what eats weevils: is there a natural predator I can encourage to come and fill their boots? Blackfly are another scourge of the garden at present, but my goodness, do we have some ladybirds tucking in! Breeding, too; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many larvae. Such welcome allies, but sadly I don’t think weevils are on their menu.

Sitting in a shady spot and enjoying the beauty and warmth of the evening several times this week, we have been captivated by the antics of a young red squirrel, one of the brood born in the eaves of the stone outhouse. It is so small and fragile, nothing more than a streak of fiery fur with a white bib and oversized bottlebrush tail but what it lacks in staure, it certainly makes up for in attitude. It has no fear of us, gambolling about the grass, rummaging in piles of mulch and shooting up the myrobalan to check for plums (mmm, cheeky), casually passing so close we could reach out and touch it. I find myself almost holding my breath and smiling from ear to ear; we might be missing Annie and Matthew this week but we can still enjoy the unrestrained energy and high jinks of other youngsters. Ups and downs, smiles and tears, worry and relief: it’s the great fruit salad of life . . . and everybody deserves the sweet strawberry sometimes!

Solar power

A couple of weeks ago, finding myself wide awake at 4.45am, I pulled on my dressing gown and wellies (how chic am I?), grabbed a blanket and headed out into the garden. The moon and Venus were still bright in the southern sky as I settled myself into a chair to watch the sun rise and the world around me waken. I’m often dozily aware of the growing light and dawn chorus drifting in through the bedroom window but to be outside in the thick of it was truly magical. It’s not just the birdsong, the different species flowing in and out of the chorus like a well-directed choir, but all the movement that goes with it – the rustle and bustle, the flitting and flying and feeding – that is quite astonishing. The sun rose in a bright fire, blushing a few wispy clouds and sending long fingers of shadow whispering across the garden; the grey shapes of tree and flower came into sharp focus as colour seeped into everything around me. It was beautiful, an hour of stillness and peace that left me feeling alive and invigorated for the rest of the day.

I had planned to repeat the experience on the summer solstice, excited by the fact that for the first time ever, we are living somewhere where the lie of the land means we can see both sunrise and sunset on that pivotal day; I’d wanted to take photos, to be able to pinpoint the sun’s journey precisely at the high point of its year. Ha ha, how the weather gods laughed. Cloud and thunderstorms were the order of the day; all was green and fresh and sparkling but there wasn’t a hope of seeing the sun do its stuff above the bank of glowering grey. The best I could manage was an indifferent, moody cloudscape in the evening. Ah well, there’s always next year . . .

. . . and that’s the point, really. I can’t feel downhearted. I love midsummer and think it is worthy of celebration, it is such a joyful time of year with so much light and warmth and growth. I know it’s not the same for everyone and there are those who feel wistful – mournful, even – at the thought of shorter days and everything being ‘downhill’ from here. Well, I’ve never been one to race ahead of the season and it frustrates me the way in which modern society encourages that. In a blink of an eye, it will be the summer sales bonanza; as children prepare to break up for their summer holiday, the shops will be full of ‘Back to School’ stuff; far too soon after their return to the classroom, the shelves will be cleared in preparation for that gross consumerfest in December. Why be miserable about dark nights and cold weather when it’s still warm and light and there is so much yet to come, not least most of our harvest? We’re only halfway through the year . . . let’s enjoy ourselves and celebrate the moment!

I think this moment as the sun briefly stands still is the perfect point for a pause; it’s a time to look back over the waxing half of the year and reflect on what I have – or haven’t – accomplished and look forward to the next six months with optimism and a fresh sense of purpose. For us this year it is particularly pertinent since this week marks six months since we moved to our new home here . . . wow, that time seems to have flown by! There have been ups and downs, steps forward and back, much hard work and a fair amount of play, too; at times, our progress has seemed painfully slow but we have achieved much and some time spent in reflection also helps us to see more clearly what our next steps need to be.

The garden, as ever, has been our main priority, and at last there is a feeling that we are actually getting somewhere. The summer harvest has started in earnest and it’s a wonderful feeling to be shelling peas and broad beans and picking cherries daily; we eat vast quantities of fruit and vegetables and it has been a strange experience for us having to buy them since December. No more! I love the way that a sense of abundance is creeping into various patches; I am happy to admit that I am a terrible crammer when it comes to sowing and planting but I love that sense of everything hugged together, jostling for elbow room. Out of necessity this year, the larger veg patches look more formal than I like with most things in tidy rows but in the Secret Garden, I have managed to indulge my own brand of chaos with bits and bobs stuffed in here and there, a crazy patchwork quilt of food and flowers.

The other patches look starker, lacking any real sense of height or structure as yet, but after several days of warm rain everything seems to have shifted up a gear. The climbing beans are at last spiralling upwards and the squash have tumbled down their hügel bed and set off across the grass. The ‘Purple Teepee’ dwarf beans (my absolute favourite variety) are flaunting their gorgeous flowers, and the ‘Charlotte’ potatoes have added their mauve and white blooms to the purple of ‘Blue Danube.’ Throw in the sunny yellow starbursts of courgette and squash and it’s all looking rather pretty.

Saving seeds, roots and tubers for replanting is something we’ve practised for a long time and an area that I’m committed to developing more each year. Growing heirloom varieties is an obvious way to help this along and offers the added possibility of creating our own varieties; we’ve had a lot of fun with saving squash seed in the last few years and it has come as no great surprise that the Casa Victorio Specials are leading the chase across our French garden! As well as actively saving seed, I like to let plants do their own thing and regenerate as they like; self-set seedlings often thrive, even if they do pop up in the craziest of places. Rocket is very much a spring crop here and has been flowering in the Secret Garden for a couple of weeks now, the creamy white blooms being a dainty but peppery addition to salads. In no time at all, it will be setting seed and then hopefully spreading itself about along with the neighbouring land cress, coriander, parsley, calendula and borage. There are already little red sorrel seedlings appearing of their own accord and chard and New Zealand spinach are likely to join in . . . a self-perpetuating salad bowl in the making!

Rocket flowers in a salad

It’s not just about seeds, either. I’ve been transplanting small lettuce plants into any available spaces for several weeks now and we have a good crop to choose from. Trying to persuade more to germinate at this time of year can be tricky as they don’t like the heat very much and to be honest, it makes more sense to save the seed and plant it in the tunnel later in the year as an overwintering crop. In the meantime, I’m cutting them as we need them and leaving the root in the ground: it’s amazing how quickly they regrow into perfectly pickable leaves. Two lettuce for the price of one – can’t be bad.

Blond romaine lettuce: the two in the foreground have been cut and eaten once!

Herbalism is something that has interested me for as long as I can remember and I think the study of the therapeutic applications of plants is a fascinating and joyful lifetime’s work. Each year, I try to focus on different plants and add new knowledge, awareness and application in our daily lives, both of cultivated and garden species. Midsummer feels like the perfect time to begin harvesting and processing aromatic herbs, now in the full flush of growth before flowering, their leaves bursting with heady scent. I’ve been thrilled to discover a reasonable selection of established plants already here – including several varieties of mint – and I’ve been raising more from seed to add to the mix. I must confess, I’ve let things slide a bit since we’ve moved, too busy with many, many things to be exploring new possibilites of herbal teas, medicines, toiletries and the like; however, I sense a shift in the wind and the strong draw of the plant kingdom once again. Even the simplest activity can be hugely enjoyable and beneficial. After a day of planting out hundreds of brassicas and leeks, a soak in a warm bath (such a luxury after five years of shower only) was a temptation I couldn’t resist; I picked lemon balm, lavender and rose petals, tied them in a linen square and tossed them into the water. Bliss, pure and simple.

As a Briton, it’s hard to think of the summer solstice without summoning the evocative image of Stonehenge so it seems apt that we have been having another standing stone moment here ourselves this week. Having planted an arc of cardoons to mark the last boundary of the flower garden, I could at last see exactly how much space was left for the third planting area and was thrilled to find there is room for my longed-for mandala bed. I don’t want anything too complicated – simple concentric rings will do – but when Roger found a huge lump of quartz lurking in a corner, we both agreed it would make a perfect focal point at the centre. It would have been interesting to move it over rolling logs but in the end a sack trolley did the job; well, times change, after all! On sunny days, it has acted as a perfect sundial, its shadow shrinking and growing across the grass through the day; now comes the job of creating what I hope will be a beautiful, thriving mandala bed by this time next year, something which will keep me busy in the coming months.

The smaller stone we placed in the hügel bed has disappeared into the undergrowth and I’m very delighted about that; not because I want the stone hidden, but I’ve been doubting whether anything would grow there successfully this year. Making hügel beds is a new experience for us, a game of patience which should pay dividends long term; certainly the squash seem happy enough on their high mound, but this flatter bed has bothered me a bit, especially as the topsoil is very thin. I’ve been adding to it from molehills but those little tunnellers seem to have shaken spring out of their system now and aren’t quite as busy about the place as they were. I knew that only annual seeds stood any chance this year, so I scattered a couple of flower mixes and put the rest down to green manure, mostly phacelia and buckwheat, with a late sowing of crimson clover to fill the gaps. In the hot, dry weather this bed really suffered and, with the water butts rapidly emptying, I saved every scrap of grey water from the house to try and keep things alive. After rain, though, it is literally blooming and fills me with optimism that the bed will work and we will have something resembling a flower garden in time.

We are still in the early days of learning and listening to this land and one of the best ways of doing that is to look at the pioneer plants. In a stubbornly empty patch of the hügel flower bed, a swathe of yarrow has established itself which pleases me very much. Like the elder I wrote about last time, yarrow is a crucially important healing plant; together, their dried flowers make effective remedies for winter colds and fevers, especially when combined with peppermint whilst yarrow alone has a wide range of applications. I’m happy that it’s here and it’s welcome to stay where it’s growing; far from wanting a formal flower garden, I see this space being a mix of cultivated and wild, of flowers and food, of things deliberately planted and others wandering in of their own accord. Close by, it has appeared in deep pink, too, making a pretty palette amongst the other ‘weeds’. . . how I love this wild gardening!

Permaculture places an emphasis on margins and edges, seeing them as fertile places offering much in the way of growth and possibility. I love the way that where we have left nature to its own devices, more and more species are creeping in from the edges, including the St John’s wort in my third photo – a midsummer flower if ever there was one. The verges are currently full of pale mauve campanula, indigo vetch and the rich magenta of knapweed, all flowers that I’m happy to have found in the garden, too. Looking back over the last six months, we have made changes here in order to create a garden but there is a distinct feeling that we are doing it within and alongside the wilder nature of the space and I’m happy with that. I like the blurring of boundaries and the sense of an holistic, inclusive approach; of course, the cultivated areas are contrived and not what nature would do on its own but they are not being made in a ‘beat back nature at all costs’ sort of way.

There’s a lot to be said for (re)wilding and it’s another area that interests me greatly, but things don’t have to be black and white on either side of a deep divide; the shades of grey, that mingling and mixing and merging, can be so very rich and mutually beneficial if done properly. The flower garden, now gaining in leaf, colour and height is at last starting to look more like a garden and less like a carved up field; this morning, I watched with delight as a family of young thrushes bounced their way across the mown grass and picked juicy bits out of a solitary molehill; a robin sat on top of the new standing stone and sang; a redstart perched on the edge of the new (and very full) water butt, dipping in and out to drink while a spotted flycatcher used the sweet pea wigwams as a launch pad for its aerial acrobatics. There is infinite room and opportunity for us all to share this precious place and our plans for the garden in the second half of the year are firmly rooted in that premise. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

It all comes down to a question of vision and focus, something that was brought home to me in a lovely way this week as I was trying to capture some new blooms with the camera. It was set to autofocus so all I had to do was press the shutter button; there was me, totally absorbed by the beauty of the flowers, but the camera chose to capture other life I hadn’t even noticed. Another lesson from the Small Things. I had to smile.

This made me smile, too. Checking some newly transplanted purple sprouting broccoli plants, I glanced at the neighbouring row of carrots and saw a fabulous swallowtail caterpillar, so vivid and vibrant in its smart colours which indicate that it’s close to pupation. Living life cycles, right under my nose. Incredible.

We have so much more to do here but I’m looking at our plans with a sense of optimism and excitement; we’re not afraid of the work, we know there will be downs as well as ups and our ideas may well have to be changed or even binned as we move forwards and come to know this beautiful space better. In the meantime, the sunshine has returned after a week of cloud and rain and I am feeling the pull of the warmth and light, the power of the sun at its height. It’s time to be outside again, basking in the comfort and joy of the season. Summer. Yes, I’m celebrating. 😊

Poppies and permaculture

In early June the world of leaf and blade and flowers explodes, and every sunset is different.

John Steinbeck

As we move through the seasons, we are gathering many ideas for our garden and, given that we plan to leave a good deal of the space to nature, there is much inspiration to be found in the wilder places around us. It’s incredible how quickly everything has changed in the last couple of weeks: the air is scented with elderflower, honeysuckle and hay, the verges are bright with oxeye daisies, buttercups and poppies and the hedges above them are embroidered with trails of pink and white wild roses. What a garden that would all make!

The weather here has shifted from the sublime to the ridiculous: following a colder than normal April and May, the temperatures now are much higher than expected and still climbing – it’s ‘flaming’ June, for sure. As we’re not given to too much exertion once the thermometer climbs above 30 degrees, we decided to grab a bike ride before the high heat arrives and set off with a picnic on a 20-mile loop to St-Léonard-des-Bois. Our route from home took us along lanes through farmland and woodland and gave us some spectacular views of the Mayenne countryside; now that the maize fields have lost the brown of their bare earth, it is all wonderfully, deeply, sumptuously, summery green.

I love the way the mix of flowers in the verges has changed through spring and even now, when the grasses are tall and the carpets of bluebells and orchids have faded, there is still much to enjoy. The deep indigo of granny’s bonnets, white stars of campion, pink bursts of ragged robin and delicate mauve bells of campanula would all be welcome treasures in the garden.

There is no question, though, that poppies are the absolute star of the moment; whether drifting along field edges or in bolder swathes across entire meadows, they are utterly stunning.

As we stopped to admire and photograph one particular field, a friendly chap delivering bread around the hamlets stopped to ask if we were enjoying les coquelicots; we were in complete agreement that the beauty of the sunlit flowers under an intensely blue sky was certainly worth savouring – how could we not stop and stare? I was particularly taken with a planting mix of poppies and white and crimson clover, so pretty together, a good green manure and great for insects; that is definitely one that has been noted for next summer’s garden.

Then, of course, there is that classic cornfield mix of poppies with cornflowers. So gorgeous. Who could resist?

With distractions like these, it’s a wonder I ever arrive anywhere on my bike, but happily we did eventually make it to our destination. St-Léonard-des-Bois is a small town in the Alpes Mancelles, close to St-Céneri-le-Gérei which I wrote about in an earlier post. It’s a pretty place, a classic French ville fleurie on the Sarthe river and an understandably popular spot for holiday makers, but it wasn’t the town we had come for. About a kilometre away, and a steep climb out of the town, is the Domaine du Gasseau. Our first stop was at the pretty orchard picnic site where we sat in the shade of an apple tree and enjoyed our lunch: homemade pasties stuffed with goat’s cheese, walnuts, red sorrel and thyme and a salad of young perpetual spinach, rainbow chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, land cress, radish, mint, marjoram, chives and chive flowers – our first official garden harvest! (We could have taken a pot of strawberries, too, but they don’t tend to travel very happily in a rucksack.) There are several attractions at Gasseau: an attractive stone hotel with pale green shutters and a courtyard cafe, a small art gallery, a riding school and an adventure park where braver souls than me can connect with their inner ape by swinging about in the treetops. For me, though, the main attraction is the potager, open free of charge to the public all year round.

We have been going there for years and it has been fascinating to watch it develop and mature over time. It has always been organic but has now moved very much into the sphere of permaculture so there were plenty of new things to see, including a couple of mandala beds. I have to admit I did feel slightly ashamed at the state of our garden in comparison to this beauty, but then it is a walled garden in a sheltered spot so probably hasn’t had to cope with the same winds and heavy frosts and certainly, that lush soil has been built over decades. No wonder it is already so full of food, colour and life. I could easily spend a whole day there, wandering about, looking and musing; there are so many ideas, so much inspiration – where do I start? Perhaps with more poppies . . .

One of the main issues our visit to the potager really brought home to us was the need to feed our soil. We are trying to create a garden from possibly the worst starting point, grassland – formerly a field – that has been mowed with a heavy tractor for the last thirteen years; the soil is compacted, full of wireworm and chafer grubs and very, very tired. The lack of goodness in the soil is reflected in the unenthusiastic growth of much of what we have planted and who can blame the plants? No-one thrives on a poor diet, after all. It would be easy to feel frustrated and pessimistic but it’s not all bad news; the soil is deep and stone free, there is a lot we can do to improve it and some things are trying their best, despite everything.

So, although we are still creating and extending planting spaces, the focus this week has been very much on building and improving soil. First, Roger repurposed pallets and sheets of corrugated iron to build a three-bay compost system. The third bay is currently taken up with a turf walled enclosure filled with a mix of green and brown materials; once it has broken down into compost, we will move it and finish building the last bay. In the other two bays, we turned a broken blackthorn bough into a chopped base layer and then covered it in grass clippings. The first bay has become our new compost heap with materials added daily from the kitchen, the second one kept me busy for a while . . .

. . . time to shift the old compost heap out of the Secret Garden at last! I can’t say how happy I am to see the back of those ugly concrete slabs and rusted metal poles but to fair, the system has yielded a decent amount of black stuff; I love that whole cross-section thing, the layers becoming darker, crumblier and more and more deliciously composty from top to bottom. I’ve inverted most of the heap into the second bay and that will be left untouched now to complete the wonderful alchemy (sorry, I do get a bit excited around the whole compost thing); the very bottom layer was used to fill the black bin where the worms will carry on with their good work until we put that beautiful stuff to use.

Once cleared, I realised what I had left was probably the most fertile patch of land in the entire garden . . . mmm, now there was an opportunity not to be missed. Yes, it’s also very shady but there are plants that will go a long way to tolerating that so I transplanted a few rainbow chard and lettuce into the space; at least they won’t be short of nutrition.

When it comes to nourishing the soil, I know what it really needs is a good deep layer of well-rotted manure but we don’t have a ready supply of that at the moment and anyway, autumn is the best time to apply it so that the weather and worms can work it down over winter. Remembering Mary Reynold’s advice that anything organic coming from a patch of land should be returned to it and the goal within permaculture to strive for as many closed loops as possible, the leading question must be what have we already got that we can use? I was really thrilled that my bottles of comfrey tea and two more good roots to plant were on the load Roger brought back from Asturias last week; for me, it’s the most important plant in the garden and although the single root I brought here in December is romping away, it isn’t enough for this year. We do have an abundance of nettles, though, and so I’ve set a bucket of them to brew into a nutrient-rich tea that when diluted, will make an excellent plant food. Meanwhile – in a bit of a lightbulb moment – it occurred to us that we have a ready supply of wonderful rich soil packed with organic matter in the coppice.

An hour with a spade and couple of buckets yielded a decent trailer load lifted carefully from deep pockets of woodland floor soil with the minimal disturbance – we have pledged to care for and protect the coppice, after all! Not only is it fantastically rich but also abundant in the microscopic life we can’t see, the mycelium and bacteria that should be hugely beneficial to the garden. One day, I hope all our soil looks that dark.

The terrible spring weather wreaked some havoc in the garden, particularly where the beans were concerned; it was simply too cold and too wet, perfect conditions for bean seed flies to do their worst (and they did) and dismal for plants already struggling in poor soil. The climbing beans (borlotti and Asturian) were so badly hammered that as soon as the tunnel was up, I planted replacements in a very crammed tray and what a difference – within three days they were up, as green and healthy as you like! I fed the bean circle soil with an organic fertiliser, replanted with a dollop of our compost in the bottom of each hole, watered well and mulched. The weather is now perfect for them, the soil beneath their roots much healthier, their companion plants (calendula, coriander dill and cucumbers) filling out and they are off up their poles at long last. Phew, that’s better.

The dwarf beans have been a similar nightmare, with a row of ‘Purple Teepee’ and handful of ‘Stanley’ desperately struggling to survive, although they have pulled through better than the climbers. What has really frustrated us is the row we have sown twice now with no sign of a single bean . . . literally, digging down it seems they all completely disappeared. I’ve come to the conclusion that trench warfare is the only way forward with planting for the rest of this summer and starting beans in trays is the best practice to adopt. I dug out the bean trench and lined the bottom with shredded comfrey leaves and a dollop of compost; that will be topped with grass clippings and soil so that when I transplant the plants currently racing up in their trays, they will have plenty underneath them and – fingers crossed – with regular doses of comfrey and nettle tea, this time they might even grow!

We’ve taken this idea a step forward in creating a lasagne bed for the ‘Green Globe’artichokes I’ve raised from seed, half a dozen plants which are perennial and therefore will be in the ground for many years. The concept of lasagne beds is one that was illustrated in theory and practice at the Gasseau potager so, fully inspired, we decided to have a go.

First down was a layer of cardboard. The plants have had enough of their pots and I’d like to get them planted soon rather than first build the bed over several months, so Roger marked spaces with them using inverted plant pots.

Next, a layer of the long meadow grass cut from the strip behind the bed to allow the artichokes some growing room.

Then came a woody layer from the compost heap, one that had been created by the oak leaves I collected and added to the pile some months ago.

This is just the beginning; I shall plant the artichokes, then continue to build green and brown layers around them. Not quite the orthodox approach, but with luck it will result in a bed of rich soil and perhaps a first harvest this time next year. I hope our little garden companion approves!

Back to that bike ride, and the last hill took us past our coppice, now in full leaf, ringing with birdsong and lit with the creamy lace of elder flowers. We returned the next day to pick enough heads to make a cordial; it’s a simple process (I use this recipe from River Cottage) and makes a light, refreshing drink that surely must be the very taste of the season.

We are working hard to build soil and heal the land, to create a patch that is healthy, vital and productive but I realise that will take time; however, it’s good to know that even if we lack produce from the garden, we can still forage for wild food and enjoy with gratitude the bounty that nature has to offer. This surely must be one of the very best ways of connecting with the earth and celebrating this most beautiful of seasons. Flaming June is blessing us with flowers. How lovely is that? 😊

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! 😊

Whether the weather be fine

Oh, the lovely fickleness of an April day!

W.H. Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue tit in the blossom.

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

A lawn full of sunshine!

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

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

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

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

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

The mole whisperer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my food every day but at this time of year, when we are surrounded by such abundance, it seems even more pertinent. It isn’t just that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh foods from the garden but also the fact that we are able to process and store so much of nature’s bounty to sustain us through the colder, darker months ~ and that is a very wonderful thing.

As soon as the squash plants start climbing through the walnut trees and endangering the local sheep by hurling themselves down the mountainside at great speed, we know it must be time to start the annual harvest. It’s not easy to capture the steepness of the orchard on camera but Operation Squash Salvage is definitely a two-person job which generally sees Roger slithering and sliding about on the slope, wielding a knife and trying to stop the squash from escaping once cut while I meet him halfway down the slope to collect the prizes and pile them into the wheelbarrow (oh, and do useful things like take photos, too).

Squash plants climbing the walnut tree: time to start the harvest.
The bemused harvester wonders where to start on the terrace . . . you’d have thought he would be used to my excessive squash habits by now!
Meanwhile, the first barrowload is ready to go.

I love cleaning the squash up and laying them out in the yard for their first drying session; in a few days’ time, I will carry them up to the horreo balcony where they can ripen slowly in the autumn sunshine over the next few weeks before moving into their winter store. This is just the beginning: there are still plenty more to come but already I find myself enthralled by this year’s array.

The three blue-skinned ‘Crown Prince’ ( at the front of the photo) and all the butternuts were grown from commercial F1 seed but the rest all came from seed saved from a single squash we grew last year . . . and that in turn had been grown from seed saved in the same way from the year before. I find it endlessly fascinating that so many different types can come from the same fruit, such an incredible diversity of genes from the open-pollinated varieties we have grown in recent years. Last year, every single squash had firm, orange flesh, great flavour and made excellent eating; they kept brilliantly, too (we ate the last one in May) so fingers crossed, those traits have been passed down to their mongrel offspring.

The squash will form a large part of our winter diet but there will be plenty of other things on offer, too. We have a terrace full of Jerusalem artichokes and a good row of parsnips, both of which make great starchy comfort food, while in the main patch a selection of different kales will provide a reliable source of greens.

Rainbow chard (or leaf beet) grows pretty much as a perpetual crop here; the stalks and mature leaves giving us a useful and versatile vegetable and we can pick the baby leaves all through winter for salads. The plants suffered a bit in the last hot dry spell of weather but I’ve cut back the tired foliage and they are already putting on vigorous new growth.

Actually, despite the season and the shortening of the days as we head towards the equinox, there is still a tremendous feeling of growth and abundance everywhere around our patch and it never fails to amaze me just how much food it is possible to yield from a relatively small space. The terrace in the main garden would probably amuse many ‘expert’ gardeners, given that its shallow width only allows for the shortest of rows . . . but currently there are several varieties of lettuce, land cress, rocket, spring onions, purslane, calendula, nasturtiums, Florence fennel, cabbages and leeks all flourishing cheek by jowl and promising good food for several months to come.

Earlier this year, we created a mini hugel bed for the tomatoes in their blight-free shelter and we have certainly enjoyed the best ever crop this season; all that chopping of wood and carting of compost was well worth the effort and once the plants have finished this year, I shall be topping it up with another dollop of good organic matter.

The tomato crop is slowing down now but we are still enjoying plenty of summer on our plate. The tunnel is literally heaving with peppers and aubergines and also the best melon crop ever (their fruity perfume greets us at the door), while outside the globe artichokes have produced a bonus crop.

We are not self-sufficient by any means (and we’re not trying to be); in order to produce all our own food, we would need to keep livestock and grow grains to mill for flour, as well as find homegrown alternatives for the luxuries like tea, coffee and olive oil that we enjoy. However, there is something very satisfying and downright joyful about gathering the bulk of every meal from the garden. I’m still enjoying my ‘fruit burst’ breakfast; the figs are cropping very early this year and so heavily that we can’t hope to keep on top of them, but we’re trying our best. I feel like a monkey in a David Attenborough documentary, reaching up with expectant paws to pluck sweet fruits from the heavily laden branches.

For lunch, there are plenty of goodies on offer from the ‘salad bar’: romaine, cos and oak-leaved lettuce, baby chard and beet leaves, land cress, rocket, baby nasturtium leaves, purslane, spring onions, celery, peppers and cucumbers along with a wide range of herbs and edible flowers.

We’re not vegetarians but we eat (and love!) a lot of vegetarian meals; it makes perfect sense when we have so many wonderful ingredients to hand. One of our favourite dishes is roasted aubergines stuffed with quinoa (or bulgar wheat, pearl barley, rice or whatever grain is to hand), lentils, garlic, chilli and preserved lemons with natural yogurt. To accompany that this week, we made a vegetable ‘hash’ from courgette, peppers, French beans and New Zealand spinach. The courgette in the picture was really verging on the baby marrow but the beauty of ‘Black Beauty’ is that it stays firm and flavoursome even at that size. The beans are the fifth crop we’ve grown this year and are as tender and delicious as the first one, while the New Zealand spinach is creating a wonderful sprawl of succulent groundcover and proving itself a real winner in the kitchen. Mmm, not missing the meat! 🙂

I do enjoy a bit of foraging for wild food, too, and we’ve recently had a real treat in the shape of a bowl of blackberries. I realise that probably sounds a tad tame but the fact is, this is not berry country and despite having oodles of brambles with pink flowers full of pollinators every year, the fruits are either tiny and dry or non-existent. This season, though, has brought us treasure, and while I realise they don’t look too spectacular in the photo, they were totally scrummy cooked with pears and topped with an oaty, walnutty crumble. The polite way to eat that, of course, is as a hot pudding but I prefer it cold for breakfast with a dollop of yogurt. Well, why not? It’s a tasty, nutritious and sustaining start to the day . . . there is most definitely life beyond cornflakes!

It would be easy to become complacent with all this wonderful food to hand but we have been doing a fair bit of experimenting lately, both in the garden and kitchen. We usually sow a row of overwintering peas in November and then make further sowings in spring but beyond June, mildew becomes too much of an issue to make it worth growing more. This year, we’ve decided to try a very late sowing out of interest and there is a promising little row of new plants bombing up their sticks. We’ve also planted pointy (summer) cabbage to try for an autumn crop and they are looking very fine and beginning to heart up nicely. I noticed a while ago that where I have cut lettuce and (very lazily) left the stalks in the ground, lots of new lush growth has sprung up so I’m wondering if this would be a more sustainable approach in future, rather than growing endless successions throughout the summer?

It’s early days in my fermentation career and so far the results have been mixed. The sauerkraut was a complete revelation and instantly converted me from someone who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole to a crazy woman now willing those cabbage to get going so I can make some more. On the flipside, fermented cucumbers and courgettes made a promising start but quickly deteriorated into a foul-smelling, slimy mess fit only for the compost heap. However, I am not a quitter by nature and having been encouraged by my fermentation guru (you know who you are! 🙂 ) to try with grated courgettes rather than sticks, I’m having another crack at it. So, far, so good; the jar is bubbling away like an Icelandic mudpool and smells very fresh and fragrant. Just a few more days to go before the moment of truth . . .

Something else I’ve been experimenting with is making cottage cheese to go with those lunchtime salads. I would love to be able to buy fresh milk for making yogurt and cheese straight from the producer in refillable bulk containers but unfortunately, I haven’t managed to crack that one yet. We usually buy whole milk but having read in several places that any fat from the cream would end up in the whey, I plumped for a litre of semi-skimmed; the only other ingredient was the juice from one lemon. The process couldn’t have been simpler: I warmed the milk and lemon juice slowly over a low heat, stirring occasionally, and turned the heat off once it boiled. I left it to stand for a few minutes, then poured the whole lot into muslin over a bowl to separate the curds and whey, squeezing the muslin ‘bag’ to remove as much moisture as possible. Job done! In truth, this isn’t really what I know as cottage cheese (which is made using rennet) but more like a ricotta or paneer; I had read several criticisms of it being dry and tasteless, requiring the addition of cream and lots of flavourings to make it palatable, but I didn’t find that at all. It had a very fresh, clean, slightly lemony flavour and needed just a tiny sprinkle of sea salt, although I can see that some chopped fresh herbs would make a tasty addition. One litre of milk yielded 150g of cheese and 850ml of whey, a nutrient-rich liquid which is perfect for bread making. It was a lovely exercise . . . maybe we should have a house cow, after all? 🙂

Next experiment in the kitchen laboratory: fig jam! Of course, having a productive veggie patch isn’t just all about the harvesting, we do have to spend a certain amount of time looking after everything, not least the soil. I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to feeding the soil and the circle of the year sees well-rotted manure, homemade compost, green manures and green mulches being used on a rolling basis. I’ve been clearing a patch for winter salads in the tunnel this week where I’ve been trying a no-dig approach for the last couple of years, simply piling manure and compost on to the surface. I used a hand fork to lift a few oxalis seeds but otherwise just pulled the other weeds plus lemon balm and nasturtium volunteers and chopped them to use as a mulch between plants elsewhere, then sowed with a mix of lettuce, oriental leaves, chard and rocket. I’ve been making good use of the very prolific beds of comfrey scattered around the patch, too.

I regularly add chopped leaves to my comfrey tea bucket ~ this patch has been cut five times this year and seems to grow back overnight! The resulting potion is foul-smelling but to me it’s a black gold, making a wonderful feed when for everything in the garden when diluted in water, whether growing in pots or in the ground.

I also use comfrey leaves as a mulch, chopped and placed in a thick layer directly on the soil and this week, I’ve been tucking a decent blanket of it around the purple sprouting broccoli plants on the terrace above the squash garden. Broccoli is one of our favourite staple crops and we usually enjoy a prolonged harvest stretching from January to May, but I have to admit it is a bit of a high maintenance character in our little corner of Asturias. It doesn’t enjoy hot, dry spells so we have been hauling cans of water a fair bit over the summer to keep it happy. It also attracts a plethora of pests and a constant bombardment from flea beetle, whitefly, slugs, snails and caterpillars means we have to be very vigilant gardeners, checking every single leaf every couple of days to remove the little critters. By this time of year, the worst is over and the plants have started to romp away; as they spend a long time in the ground ~ almost twelve months, in fact ~ I felt it was time to give them a bit of a boost. The terrace was planted with a green manure cover crop of Hungarian grazing rye and vetch last winter, then topped with well-rotted manure. I’m hoping the comfrey mulch will provide a natural slow-release fertiliser to see the plants through the autumn . . . now the only problem I have is the blackbird population scratching it and scattering it in their morning hunt for food!

Finally ~ and just to prove it’s not all about food ~ an interesting little story from the world of flowers. For reasons I have never been able to pin down, I have struggled to grow French marigolds every year here which is disappointing because they are such an excellent and beneficial companion plant as well as very pretty, a great food source for pollinators and a useful natural dyestuff. I love them but they just don’t want to grow; germination is scanty to say the least, even using fresh seed, and most of the seedlings fail to thrive. Given how I used to end up in trouble for the jungle of volunteers that popped up in our less-than-tropical tunnel in upland Wales, I can’t for the life of me understand why they don’t self-set readily around the patch. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Anyway, thankful for the tiniest crumb, I was thrilled to find a single late volunteer hiding beneath the cucumbers which has grown to bush proportions in recent weeks and has just started to bloom.

Here’s the incredible thing: it has produced four totally different blooms all on one plant in a way I have never seen on French marigolds before. Maybe it’s taking those mongrel squash on at their own game? I don’t know, but it was certainly well worth the wait! 🙂

Loving Lammas

The true harvest of my life is intangible – a little stardust caught, a portion of the rainbow I have clutched.

Henry David Thoreau

At the halfway point between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, the beginning of August marks the festival of Lammas, which takes its name from the Saxon hlaf – mas or ‘loaf mass.’ Although at one level it is a Christian festival celebrated in some northern hemisphere countries, it is based on much older origins and coincides with the ancient Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh. It is a celebration of the first fruits of harvest and, in particular, the first cut of grain. Traditionally, harvest thanksgiving tends to fall later in the year, I suppose because then all harvests have been gathered ~ fruits from the orchard, roots from the earth, nuts and berries from the hedgerows, honey from the hives ~ but I believe it is very important to acknowledge the beginning of this season, too, as people have since ancient times. It’s the celebration and overwhelming relief that after so much growth and effort, nature has provided: there will be food on the table.

In France, we lived in an area of mixed farming where our home was surrounded by apple orchards and fields of maize, sunflowers and wheat. Coming from a land where hay and wool were the biggest harvests, it was fascinating to watch the seasonal changes in the wheat fields, from the first tentative green blades emerging from the dark soil in late winter or early spring to the standing corn, ripened ears popping and crackling in the summer heat. The rumble of combines left us in no doubt that the grain harvest had begun.

To celebrate the season, I learned how to make simple corn dollies and plaited a bridal horseshoe to give to Sarah on her wedding day, a seasonal gift from mother to daughter to mark such a joyful milestone in her life. It seemed very fitting for a country bride who gathered most of her bouquet from a hedgerow!

Here in Asturias, we are back to grass and the farmers, for the most part, are ganaderos who raise cows, not grain. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the importance of the grain harvest ~ in fact, we do it several times a week. Baking our own bread is a way of life for us and involves a little co-operative teamwork. I take responsibility for our sourdough starter which lives in a Kilner jar in the fridge and is fondly known as Yeasty Beastie. On baking days, I love my morning ritual of opening the lid and breathing in that sharp, beery scent of natural yeasts at work before gently stirring in a warm paste of water and rye flour to ‘feed’ it. Several hours later, after it has sat at room temperature and developed a lively covering of new bubbles, Roger uses some of it to make a dough.

There is something very special about the yeasty, floury smell in the kitchen and the silent miracle of the dough rising beneath a clean tea towel, the wonderful appetising scent of the bread as it bakes and the thrill of that first taste, straight from the oven and almost too hot to touch. It’s like a special little Lammas every time.

We are blessed to enjoy a good harvest of fruit and vegetables from our garden all the year round thanks to the mild climate, but this time of year signals the greatest productivity with a shift from enough to abundance. Now we can pick and eat almost a whole day’s meals from the garden ~ peaches, strawberries and walnuts for breakfast, soups or salads for lunch, hearty vegetable bakes or curries or stir fries for dinner. There is so much to choose from!

This week has also seen a flurry of preserving activity, as we have been processing gluts of fresh produce to enjoy in leaner times; we are so very lucky to have the technology and ingredients that allow us to do this. We would be lost without our freezer but space now is at a premium so there is an immense juggling game in progress as we try to use up foods such as roast squash and homemade stock to make room for new things. We are enjoying possibly the best harvest of French beans ever, but despite staggering the planting, the rows are all fruiting at once and we are literally picking kilos at a time.

I’ve been brewing up vats of chutney, with a sort of ‘half the garden’ recipe going on ~ beans, courgettes, onions, peaches, garlic, chillies, coriander seed, bay and anything else that comes to hand ~ all cooked down to a rich, spicy preserve; I’ve also pickled more cucumbers and nasturtium seeds.

A trugload of courgettes and cabbages suggested it was time at long last to have a go at lacto-fermenting some vegetables, something I know is a very beneficial thing to do but keep wriggling out of. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’ve never been a fan of sauerkraut but then I’ve never tried a homemade version; Roger, on the other hand, loves it so there really is no excuse. Well, in for a penny and all that . . . I decided at the same time to have a go at fermenting a jar of courgettes, too. Like the chutney, I used flavourings I could pick ~ garlic, chillies, coriander and bay ~ and the two jars sat bubbling away happily in the corner of the kitchen for several days. I can’t say they looked too appetising but appearances aren’t everything, although I did need to muster some courage to taste the results . . . Opinion? Well, I have to admit to being nicely surprised; it’s definitely the first time I’ve enjoyed sauerkraut (it’s really good!) and the courgettes are like a crunchy, tasty pickle. Think I might try some cucumbers next . . .

Something I have no problem eating is peaches and this week has seen many hours spent in picking and processing these most luxurious of fruits. They ripen so quickly that we can’t afford to ignore them, they demand instant (and what feels like constant) attention if they aren’t to fall off the trees and be wasted; Roger has spent much of his time up a ladder filling the trug and then processing each batch before returning to pick the next one. Jams and chutneys, bottling and freezing . . . there has been a busy peach-centred buzz about the kitchen in recent days.

Spending hours each day peeling, stoning and slicing kilos of peaches might not sound too appealing but for me, there is something very sensuous about the whole thing: the soft velvet nap and sunset blush of their skins, the pink starburst of the wrinkled stone hidden inside, the soft melting flesh, the juice running down my arms . . . it’s all a complete connection with the gift of food, a joyful celebration of this wonderful fruit. We have watched the story of this harvest unfold: nervous days in February where the delicate blossoms run the gauntlet with uncertain weather yet sunny days bring the busy and essential attention of pollinators; the velvety nubs of tiny developing fruit, swelling amongst the leaves; branches drooping under the weight of ripening fruits, tantalisingly close to being ready to eat. Arriving at that long-awaited moment of picking the first sun-warmed fruit, feeling its weight in our hand and breathing in its sweet fragrance, knowing there is a harvest to be had, is surely the perfect essence of Lammas.

Of course, it’s not all about gluts and an almost overwhelming abundance; after all, a couple of years ago, our entire peach harvest ran to a single fruit. I think it’s every bit as important to do honour to the tiniest crops, too. We’re enjoying tasty little pickings of cape gooseberries from a self-set plant that suddenly appeared from nowhere last year and I savoured every second of the three ~ yep, three ~ unexpected autumn raspberries. Earlier in the year, we planted strawberries in a trough Roger had made from scrap timber; we didn’t really expect much in this first season, but those little plants have surprised us with a slow and steady stream of delicious fruits. They tend to ripen a few at a time, usually no more than three or four in a week and often just one at a time, but they are truly wonderful. Is there a lovelier thing than sharing a strawberry? 🙂

Precious harvests like this call for special treatment; we seldom eat puddings of any kind but everyone needs a little indulgence now and then!

I’ve read two very contrasting reports in the British press this week which I felt were both very pertinent to my reflections on Lammas and harvest in general. The first reported that the amount of food waste in the UK, which dropped significantly during lockdown, is now rising rapidly once more towards its previous (and, in my opinion, appalling) level. I wish that someone could explain it to me: how did we arrive at this place in society, where food has become such an unvalued, disrespected, throw-away commodity? Why is it apparently ‘alright’ to throw away millions of tonnes of food every year, 70% of which is food that could have been eaten (according to latest WRAP research) ? It makes me very, very sad. 😦 On a more positive note, the second report, written by a doctor, suggested that an answer to tackling the problem of obesity could well lie in gardening, and in particular, in developing community gardens where people of all ages can come together to grow vegetables and fruit to eat. What a wonderfully positive and hopeful idea that is.

I think that much of it comes down to making changes in habits and that’s not always an easy thing to address: change might be the only constant in life, but it’s not always a comfortable thing. Take, for instance, my current tea situation. Cancellation of our UK trips has meant I am running dangerously low on the good quality, loose-leaf Assam tea I love; along with a pile of secondhand books, topping up my tea supply is top of the shopping list and I love to take my (well-travelled!) reusable brown bags back to the Broad Bean deli in Ludlow for refills. I am now having to limit myself to one mug a day to eke out my remaining tea for as long as possible, but really, I think this is a situation which is doing me a lot of good because I am having to look for viable alternatives. (I should say that of course, I could buy black tea here but it tends to come in boxes of individually wrapped teabags and I’m not happy buying into that kind of packaging nightmare.)

I still don’t love green tea ~ which I can buy here loose in paper bags ~ but I’m persevering with it and find that mixed with mint, it’s reasonably palatable; I’ve been drying bunches of mint to use through the winter months. I’m getting along much better with fresh herbal teas from the garden, especially a blend of lemon balm, lavender and thyme and I know that from a health and environmental perspective, it is far better to wander outside and pick my tea rather than buy something that has been processed, packaged and carted around the world. It’s another little ritual I’ve come to love.

I’ve also replaced one of my daily cuppas with a smoothie, something that presented itself as an answer to what you do when life deals you cucumbers. I’m not the world’s greatest smoothie fan as I tend to prefer eating my fruit and veg whole but one of the biggest issues I’ve always had is that so many recipes call for imported or expensive (or both) ingredients like bananas, avocados, blueberries, pineapples, lime, coconut water, almond butter and a whole load of other things I’ve never even heard of. Quite simply, if I can’t pick it from the garden, I’m not doing it.

So . . . chard, romaine lettuce, celery, cucumbers, mint and coriander from the patch, plus a piece of ginger and a squeeze of lemon juice (which are both bought foods but ones we always have to hand anyway). Given we have a basic food processor rather than a high speed blender, the results are always a ‘less-than-smoothie’ but I’m enjoying them and they exude a great air of healthy living. At this rate, I might never go back to tea . . .

Food is not the only harvest I am grateful for. In the recent hot, dry spell of weather we have needed to water the vegetable patches as well as the tunnel, and the constant and reliable supply of sweet, chemical-free water from a mountain spring is something we never take for granted. Our woodland provides us with all the fuel we need for warmth and cooking in the winter months and now is the time we start moving the seasoned logs into the woodstore, stacked and ready for the woodstove in autumn.

We have cut stout hazel props to support heavy branches on several peach and fig trees, used finer branches as supports for pepper, aubergine and cucumber plants in the tunnel and twiggier sticks in the pea rows; once they become too brittle to use again, we chop them and cook over them on the barbecue. Everything is valued, nothing is wasted.

I am thankful, too, for the wide variety of plantstuffs I can collect and use as herbal remedies, in toiletries and for natural dyeing.

I am very excited to see my new soapwort plant flowering, how have I never had such a pretty thing in the garden before? Grown from a slip of root given as a gift, this holds the future promise of household soap and I can’t wait to start using it.

The garden has been alive with clouds of butterflies this week, including some new additions like the huge and beautiful green-washed fritillary, which refuses to stay still long enough for a photo! In fact, there are insects everywhere, and I am reminded of our dependence on them for so much food, the importance of connection once again.

In many ways, our harvest has barely begun; in the tunnel, vegetable patches, orchard, nuttery, fields and woodland there are still so many treasures to come, so much of nature’s bounty to enjoy. In the meantime, it’s back to the kitchen . . ! 🙂