May moments #1

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

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

Sichuan pepper
Bladder senna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner cooking itself while we carried on with the gardening.

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

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

Sweetcorn: happy to be in the ground at last.

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

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

Peas, preserves and planting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soft fruit is already setting: these are redcurrants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least the potatoes are coping with the drought.

Spring clean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American landcress

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

Lamb’s lettuce
Red kale

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

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

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

The first flowers are opening on the indoor peas.

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

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

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

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

January jottings

January can be a dismal month at the best of times: spring is still a long way off, but every hopeful little sign is a reason to be cheerful. The days are slowly drawing out, the evenings noticeably longer with some cracking sunsets when the skies are clear; each day brings more snippets of birdsong and the squirrels are back in the garden, bushy-tailed and bursting with busyness. In the hedgerows, pollen-dusted hazel catkins dance in the breeze, fresh green spears of bulbs are hurtling up everywhere and we are just days away from having drifts of snowdrops in bloom. In sheltered spots I’ve found primroses flowering, their delicate blooms a welcome contrast to the surrounding mud and muck. Yes, it’s still only the middle of January but there’s a faint whiff of optimism in the air all the same.

Our post lady in her cheerful yellow van has been delivering goodies all week: packets of seeds (of which more later), balls of yarn and letters from our grandchildren to say thank you for their Christmas gifts, complete with some wonderful ornithological artwork that made me smile. Feeding the birds in winter is something I’ve always loved doing and I really missed it in Asturias, where the mild winters rendered it completely unnecessary. However, I have to say I have never experienced anything like the current situation we have here, not just in terms of the sheer number of birds feeding but their incredible audacity, too. If I head out to the bird table with sunflower seeds, a squadron of great tits and blue tits swoops straight in and starts taking them before I’ve even had time to empty the pot; they are so tame, I can stand right next to the table as they feed and if I had the patience to try, I’m sure I could have them literally eating out of my hand.

By William, age 6

Worse, if the feeders are empty and (heaven forbid!) I haven’t noticed and refilled them instantly, I find myself literally hassled by birds coming to find me in the garden. Seriously, I’m not imagining this: they follow me around, alighting as close as they can and eyeballing me until I deliver the goodies. Meanwhile, the less energetic types simply sit in the window boxes looking expectantly into the kitchen or tap shamelessly at the windows and glazed door panes; I know some people believe this to be bad luck but personally, I think it’s a case of uncannily intelligent birds knowing where their meals are coming from, a sort of fast food fly-through. They are eating us out of house and home and I am expecting some serious payback on the caterpillar and aphid front come summer! Still, they’re lovely to watch, all the same.

Great tit waiting for the next free lunch.

That snowy picture is from several weeks ago and so far (am I tempting fate by saying this?) it’s the only fall of white stuff we’ve had this winter. The weather has stayed conducive to being outdoors which always feels like such a bonus at this time of year: anything that allows us to enjoy some fresh air and daylight, boosting our Vitamin D and seretonin levels has got to be good. Outdoor living is a hugely important part of our life and many of our plans for the property are based around making it possible in any weather and at all times of year. For instance, the covered area adjoining what has become the utility cabin is slowly being transformed into a space where we can cook, eat and do practical tasks that need a table to work at.

At the moment, it’s fairly basic – a picnic table and a tripod barbecue – but we’ve cleared the junk out of it, lined that white area of wall with wood panels to match the rest and have lots of ideas to develop the space in the future. In the meantime, we’ve used it a good deal, including for several winter barbecues which is something we love to do; barbecues really shouldn’t just be left for hot days, there is something very special about wrapping up and cooking over wood in cold air so that is just what we decided to do on New Year’s Eve. It was a beautifully still and mild night so we lit an ice lantern and candles, stoked the barbecue with fragrant fruit tree prunings and cooked our dinner to the sound of tawny owls calling in the garden. Magical.

Head torch . . . essential chef equipment.

Back to work, and Roger has been busy constructing the new shed in the vegetable patch from the old one we dismantled a couple of weeks ago. This has got to be one of our most successful ‘reusing’ projects ever – even most of the nails and screws were out of the original shed. (Roger has asked me to mention that the main expense was 35 euros of paint which apparently is mine. Mmm, not sure how that works!) Anyway, what we’ve ended up with is an enclosed area for storing tools which is very light thanks to the transluscent roof panel and old shed windows, a covered area perfect for parking wheelbarrows and watering cans and ample space at the front for a seat. Initially, of course, it looked like a less-than-beautiful structure built from a daggy old shed . . .

Almost finished but in need of a serious facelift.

. . . which meant it was time to call in the painter and decorator (that’s me and my paint, obviously). Now, I love a bit of colour so it was no surprise that, faced with the available shed paint range, I was immediately drawn to the bright Bleu Méditerranéen and the soft Vert Provence I used to perk up a couple of wooden planters last year.

Vert Provence

However, this isn’t a beach hut or summer house and the whole point of making it was to change an ugly eyesore into a structure that is both more useful and more sympathetic to its surroundings. It was time to be sensible (!) so in the end, we agreed on Vert Basque, which I would describe as a deep holly green according to the colour on the tin lid and label. I have to confess, I was just a tad delighted when the paint itself turned out to be slightly more blue than suggested, more of a ‘Vert Océan‘ in my book and definitely prettier than expected. It’s not the best time of year for outdoor painting; trying to get a run of days that are warm enough and dry enough is a problem, and needless to say, the moment I’d lifted the lid, several very wet days ensued. Talk about frustrated! Still, I’ve managed to make a start and a quiet transformation is under way. Just the rainwater capture system to connect now.

Projects like these tend to change and evolve as we go along; it’s always good to have a plan, but there’s room for flexibility, too, as sometimes ideas and possibilities we hadn’t even considered suddenly emerge as part of the process. Contemplating the gap along one side of the finished shelter, Roger suggested it would be a great place to make a trellis to grow something beautiful up and he must have known there was suitable timber lurking in the Man Cave because the next time I trundled down there with my paint, it had magically appeared. Having finally got round to sorting out a pile of junk that had been left by the previous owners behind the water butts by the house, I found a couple of serviceable metal hanging baskets which will be perfect to hang from the front beams later in the year. So, we’ve added yet another function – support for growing plants – and I’m beginning to think that, come the summer, this shelter is going to be an even more attractive addition to the garden than I ever imagined.

Looping back to that painted planter, the rescued grapevine that I nurtured in there all last year has gone into its final planting place in the garden, next to the mandala bed where hopefully it will enjoy the space, air and sunshine it needs to flourish. In the matching planter, there is a passionflower grown from a cutting we brought with us from Asturias and that’s heading out to grow up the front of the Oak Shed this year. That leaves two empty planters just crying out for a climbing rose each which we can train up the front of the house. I do love it when a plan comes together . . . and a visit to a nursery beckons! Not quite the same, but I’ve been having a very happy time buying seeds this week, both from the local country store and online. It’s such an optimistic thing to do at this time of year, especially in the face of all that is currently going on in the world. I bought a few seeds from the French online company EnGraineToi last year and everything grew brilliantly so I’m more than happy to buy from them again. I love the modest greaseproof paper bags, so small yet stuffed with seeds and packed with growing information and, coupled with free postage and a gift packet, too, what’s not to like?

I’ve written before about my sadness at no longer being able to buy from several wonderful small family seed firms in the UK who I have supported for many years and, having used up my saved stocks, it would be easy to slide into a sort of post-Brexit blues, especially when it’s proving difficult to source specific varieties I like to grow. I feel desperately sorry for those businesses who are suffering and struggling (especially if they didn’t want Brexit in the first place) but personally, I now have to turn it into a positive situation, an opportunity for change and exploration – after all, I still enjoy the freedom of being able to buy seeds from all the countries in the EU without any worries about phytosanitary rules, plant passports and customs duty. So, instead of ‘Crown Prince’ squash we will be growing ‘Musquée de Provence’ and ‘Latino’ courgette will be replaced by ‘Coucourzelle.’ I’m mourning the loss of ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce, especially as the fluffy seeds I’d been trying to save all disappeared while we were away last September, but I think ‘Rouge d’hiver’ will do the job, along with ‘Buttercrunch’ instead of ‘Little Gem’ and the pretty speckled ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ which is so popular here. I’m also trying laitue asperge (celtuce) for the first time which hopefully will give us a handy dual-purpose crop.

We had a tremendous harvest of squash last year but they are not keeping as well as they did in Asturias, despite our best efforts to use them daily in the kitchen. The plan for this year is to ease back on the squash numbers (yes, honestly!) and expand the variety of other winter vegetables available. We’ve grown swede, Brussels sprouts, celeriac, black radish and cauliflower successfully in previous gardens but here it will be a case of careful timings, especially if we have a hot summer, so this year will be a bit of an experiment. We’ve also grown ‘Bleu de Solaise’ leeks before but ‘Monstreux de Carentan’ is a new one to try alongside them and I’m planning to let a couple of the ‘Musselburgh’ plants currently in the garden go to seed so we can add them back into the mix next year. On the subject of alliums, I’m raising all our onions from seed this time as I always find them more successful than sets, and I’ve included wild garlic (ail de ours in French, literally ‘bear garlic’) to plant as forage in our woodland area. The white softneck garlic planted in autumn is bombing up and in spring I’ll add some ‘Rose de Lautrec,’ a pink variety we grew last year which has proved to be an unexpectedly good keeper considering it’s a hardneck variety. With luck, we should be able to grow enough to last us all year.

Happy garlic

We didn’t manage to get the polytunnel up in time to make the most of it last year but this year we should really start to reap the benefits, particularly in terms of having somewhere sheltered to give seedlings and young plants a good start and also a planting space to extend the growing season and harvest. I’d forgotten what a great place it is to ‘garden’ in less than pleasant winter weather, too, so I enjoyed a very happy afternoon this week pottering about in preparation for the sowing season. First, having spread more broken slates to make a hardstanding area, we carried a couple of decorating trestles and an old door down to make some staging; I then sorted and stacked trays and pots underneath and carried in a bag of compost (we will have to rely on bought stuff this year, at least for sowing seeds). The rain butts on the new shed will eventually give us 500 litres of water close by but I carried cans to fill a large dustbin in the tunnel anyway; it makes it easy to dip a small can of slightly warmed water for watering seed trays and the whole thing also acts as a heat sink. I then prepped a patch ready for planting some potatoes, a dozen ‘Charlotte’ from last year’s crop that have been chitting for a while in the cave. They will give us a super early crop in May which, seeing as we don’t eat potatoes every day, will carry us through to the first early harvest outside. As we’re using a no-dig policy, I simply lifted a few perennial weeds with a small hand fork and was really pleased at how much better the soil is looking in there compared to a year ago and also how many worms there are . . . I exaggerate not, there was one big enough to give those small grass snakes a run for their money. Great stuff.

All ready to go.

When it came to raising tender summer plants for the tunnel last year, we were literally all over the place with our slow-time house move still going on so this spring I’m determined to have the propagator bursting at the seams. We already had plenty of aubergine seeds but I’ve gone to town on a whole set of new capsicums; we’re still eating our way through the mass of chillies we dried two years ago but I think it’s time to grow some more and this year, I’d also like to raise enough sweet peppers to put a pile in the freezer. So, I’ve bought ‘Long Red Marconi,’ ‘Sweet Banana’ (yellow) and ‘Petit Marseillais’ (French heirloom orange) to go with the ‘Mini Red Bell’ and ‘Largo de Reus’ seed we had left over. On the hotter side of things, there’s an ever-reliable ‘Cayenne Long Slim,’ the classic Spanish ‘Padrón’ for one of my favourite tapas dishes and something called ‘Piment Poisson’ (Fish Pepper) which I’m trying not only because it’s apparently a good hot one, but also because I just love the mix of colours and stripy patterns. Well, I have to be allowed a bit of whimsical nonsense occasionally . . . for the same reason, I’ve bought seeds for golden beetroot and violet globe artichokes, too. Nothing like planting a rainbow for the kitchen.

Aubergines will have to share the tunnel with peppers and chillies this summer.

Given that arguably the best peppers and aubergines we’ve ever grown were outdoors in our last garden here, I don’t think we can have too many plants this year; once the tunnel is filled, I’m planning to spread them everywhere around the garden. For instance, I’d like at least half the mandala bed to be planted with food crops and those colourful summer fruiters will be just the job. Talking of summer fruit, I’m also having another go at growing melons in the tunnel so I’ve opted for ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ which, as its name suggests, is an ideal variety for cropping north of the Loire. I’m very excited about that one!

One set of seeds I haven’t sourced yet is tomatoes as I’m still researching blight resistance and waiting to pick the brains of an Asturian friend who grew a variety last year which succumbed to the inevitable blight but then recovered and produced an astonishing late crop of enormous beefsteak toms – perhaps that’s the strain for us to try here this year? It seemed a bit sad that the free packet of seeds in my EnGraineToi envelope was the interesting looking ‘Black From Tula’ tomato (sigh) until Roger pointed out that we had at least managed a modest crop of ripened tomatoes from the ‘Alaska’ and ‘Black Sea Man’ plants grown in pots at the front of the house despite the blight last year. Well, it’s worth a go so ‘Black From Tula’ will be getting star treatment outside the kitchen door in the hope of us enjoying some of those tasty fruits.

Black Sea Man last summer . . . blighted but beautiful!

Of course, I have lots of plans for flowers this year, too. I’m going to raise several perennials from seed and start to increase the range and quantity of bulbs; I love annuals, but there is a definite need to improve the permanent planting here so we have a reliable framework of form and colour throughout the seasons. I’ve still got plenty of hardy annual seed but I’m interested to see what volunteers from last year’s plantings will pop up in spring; it’s no surprise to find foxglove and calendula seedlings everywhere but I’m amazed at how carpets of self-set Californian poppies are thriving through winter; we even had one flowering in the gravel by the kitchen door until very recently along with self-set lobelia which continues to bloom even now. A prolonged cold snap will surely do for them but I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one.

Winter sunshine

I’m not a huge fan of half-hardy annuals simply because they’re a faff with all that starting off in warmth, pricking out and potting on. If the seed can be thrown straight into the garden in May, fine; otherwise, I don’t tend to bother with them much. I’ve left several French marigold plants in the tunnel where they were planted along the edge of the path and I’m hoping some of the tremendous seed heads they’ve formed will lead to a ready-made supply of young plants to scatter around the veg patch (why work if nature will do it for you?). The only two lots of half-hardy seeds I shall sow are cosmos and rudbeckia, both of which were truly beautiful last year, filling huge spaces and flowering for months. In fact, the last of the rudbeckia with its deep brown pincushion centre and velvety russet petals only finished flowering just before Christmas. A garden full of flowers . . . now there’s a bright and lovely thought to lift the January gloom. 😊

Time, space and spirals

I enjoy waking, whenever I feel like it, to a choice of interesting creative tasks all of which I want to do; or, best of all, just stepping out into the world and responding to it: total immersion. Paradise gardening.

Joe Hollis

Window dressing is quite an art form here and I love the displays that appear in the local boulangerie in particular, they are always so creative and colourful, such joyful expressions of the season. I’m thankful that there is currently no headlong rush into all things tinsel; in the windows of St P’s friendly little shops it is autumn leaves, nuts and berries, hedgehogs and squirrels that still capture the essence of the season so perfectly. The surrounding landscape is on fire with breathtaking autumnal colours and I am giving myself the time and space to revel in this transient beauty. Leaf fall is accelerating, the sun sinking a little lower every day. Soon it will all be gone. Time to enjoy it while we can.

When Roger asked me last Saturday what my plans were for the day, I smiled and said I was thinking about having a weekend for a change; this was a tongue in cheek reference to our farmer friend who grumbles that for him, it’s ‘never Saturday, always Monday.’ Looking at us from afar, I suppose others might say our life is the opposite of that – one big permanent weekend or holiday – and I will be honest, not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for the fact that we no longer dance to the tune of paid employment, timetables and deadlines. However, we are still incredibly busy people, spending most of our time on outdoor projects; in fact, apart from the occasional essential shopping trip or a walk or bike ride somewhere together, we never actually stop to draw breath. Please don’t get me wrong: this is a lifestyle choice and I am not complaining about it one little bit. Like the quote at the top of this post, I don’t regard what we do here as ‘work’ when every day is filled with the possibility of being active, creative, productive and reflective without even leaving our patch. To open the door and know I can spend the entire day immersed in the beauty of our garden, whatever the weather or season, is the greatest luxury imaginable. Paradise indeed.

My reference to fancying a ‘weekend’ really means some time where I can ignore outside jobs for a while and turn my attention to a few other activities, some which perhaps otherwise feel like a bit of an indulgence. In modern society, lives can so often be starved of time but even in a more relaxed setting, I believe we still need time and space to ourselves to use however we wish; it is often cited that hunter-gatherer peoples have a greater amount of leisure time than any others and I think there’s a valuable lesson there for all of us. Also, when you think about it, it’s quite difficult to do nothing; I’m not great at sitting still so reading a book for hours or watching television (which we don’t have anyway) are not my thing, but they are still engaging the brain at some level. Even daydreaming requires a bit of effort!

So, how did I spend my real Saturday? I did a session of yoga; I read some blog posts and replied to comments from other people on my own post; I sewed tiny buttons on to a couple of baby jumpers I’d knitted and finished making a little hat to go with them; I made a batch of solid hand lotion to get my sore hands and feet through a winter of gardening; I collected, peeled, cored and chopped another vat of windfall apples and cooked them into compote and leather, while listening to a French podcast; I blended wool and silk on my hand carders to make rolags for spinning, then set up my wheel and started the first bobbin; I wrote postcards to our grandchildren and messaged a friend who wasn’t feeling great; I sorted and packed the last batches of seeds I had drying – coriander and nigella for the kitchen, basil for next year’s garden; I looked at the next unit of my permaculture course and turned a few articles into PDF files to put on the Kindle for bedtime reading. Thinking I’d done for the day, I then started making a crochet teddy from scraps to match the baby knitting. On reflection, I had a pretty productive and very enjoyable time without setting out with any specific intentions in mind and I think that’s a healthy and rewarding thing to do occasionally – to allow ourselves to just go with the flow, not setting any goals, abandoning all ideas of a must-do list and then seeing what happens!

The current unit of permaculture I’m studying is about forest gardening and I am certainly leaving plenty of time to immerse myself completely and absorb as much information as I can. It’s arguably one of the most important topics to consider and I know there will be a wealth of additional material to absorb and enjoy. I’ve long liked the idea of planting a food forest but my personal opinion is that it must be tempered to some extent. In Miraculous Abundance, Charles Hervé-Gruyer tells of an indigenous Amazonian family he lived with who kept no breakfast in the house because they could simply walk outside and find it every morning. What a wonderful thought, to be able to harvest everything we needed by simply wandering outside! However, let’s be realistic for a moment: far from living in an equatorial rainforest, we are in sub-maritime temperate northern France and here we are very much at the mercy of the seasons with fluctuating weather patterns and light levels. The idea of planting many more food-bearing trees and shrubs and extending the list of perennial food plants is very high on our to-do list but I would be loathe to give up on our annual crops as fresh, stored or preserved, they form such a key part of our diet.

Despite this being the ninth garden we’ve created together, in many ways the first year here has been as much a learning curve as ever. Even though we have gardened in this area before, there was no certainty at the outset what we could expect from this piece of land: it takes time to understand how factors such as aspect, prevailing winds, weather patterns and soil composition affect growing conditions. In the event, despite numerous less-than-ideal situations, we’re pleased with the overall harvest we have enjoyed and, as we move into the realms of winter vegetables, it’s still interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) worked. For instance, the Florence fennel has been very disappointing and that comes down to sowing times; it’s a tricky customer, needing to be planted relatively late so as to miss the worst of the summer heat but early enough to put on plenty of growth before the season has shifted too much. I was probably a week too late in sowing the seeds and my decision to cram them between patches of leafy beans and burly Savoy cabbages actually led to them being shaded rather too much. It’s no big deal, we are eating the small bulbs and foliage anyway but next year will require a rethink. Purple sprouting broccoli is an early spring staple and the plants are looking wonderfully healthy but I’m concerned about the possible effects of savage winter winds blasting in from the west, so Roger has used some of the hedge prunings to weave a protective hurdle; obviously, the hazel leaves will die back but I’m hoping it will be enough to at least break up the wind a bit or divert the worst of it away from the plants.

The Secret Garden was always going to be a bit of an experiment this year and I feel the results were a bit mixed. I certainly won’t be planting brassicas in there again, it was just too shady and they were hammered far more badly by weevils and caterpillars than those grown in more open sites. That said, a few ‘Thousandhead’ kale plants have rallied with lots of delicious fresh growth and there is still a carpet of New Zealand spinach to tuck into. What a good trooper it is. I’m also pleased to see patches of self-set rocket and land cress, I love it when the garden starts to grow itself. There will be more light next year once we’ve finished the hedging but I think this will be the best patch for things like salad crops and leafy greens and I’ll move the needier varieties out. There is still a decent picking of beetroot and they add a splash of rich colour to what we are calling our ‘Root Downs’ (as opposed to our ‘Green Ups’) – trays of mixed root veg like parsnips, carrots, potatoes, oca and Jerusalem artichokes, such lovely sweet and starchy treats. Gone are the days of summery basil, mint and coriander, these strong earthy flavours call for something more robust in the way of herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme or savoury. Toss in some onion chunks and fat, creamy garlic cloves, and we practically have a complete meal.

A simple ‘root up’ ready for the oven.

I’m happy to admit that brassica planting registered very high on the chaos scale this year, not helped by the fact I’m a lazy labeller. I knew I’d planted out some romanesco broccoli somewhere but lack of any obvious evidence suggested they’d been a casualty of the Weevil Wars. Imagine my delight, then, to discover three large heads hidden deep within the foliage this week, their fractal patterns the living embodiment of Fibonacci’s mathematical sequence, the golden ratio that spins exquisite spirals in nature. They are astonishing things, I am happy to grow them simply to look at them – although they do happen to taste pretty amazing, too!

As the leaves fall and spaces open up in the garden once again, we have a chance to assess the changes we have made here so far and to make plans for other things we would like to do. We’ve recently planted a couple of young bigarreau cherry trees in the hope of increasing the harvest in years to come, and we plan to plant more fruit trees – plums are a must! – during the dormant period. I’ve found a good online nursery in Pays de la Loire and have started putting together an order for some of those plants which will add more edible options to our ‘food forest’: sea buckthorn, autumn olive, honey berry, goumi berry, goji berry, jostaberry, yellow raspberry and the like. I don’t want to order until the bare-rooted willows are available; Roger has started to dig the pond (despite us agreeing a mini-digger hire would be the sensible plan, it comes as no surprise that he’s doing it by hand!) and I want to create a ‘wild’ area between it and the veggie patch with a mass of willows and dogwoods to add a splash of winter colour. The willows I’m after are saule des vanniers in French, literally basket makers’ willow; I’ve always had a soft spot for baskets but have never made one myself so that’s an interesting project for the future, as well as using some withies to create other features around the garden. Some of the features we already have here have become more prominant as the dense green of summer growth fades away and bring a new perspective to the garden.

Log ‘seat’ framed by hazel and blackthorn.
Stone pyramid wildlife habitat . . .
. . . and a more temporary one made from hedge prunings.

Away from the garden, the 30-day yoga programme is going well. I’m sticking to my daily practice and really enjoying it – so much so, in fact, that I started to feel a bit disappointed that the sessions come to an end far too quickly. I decided it was time to look for something else to add to my morning exercise and wondered if I could find a simple dance lesson or two. I’ve always loved dancing: contemporary dance was my thing as a teen (yep – footless tights, legwarmers, the whole Fame shebang 😆 ) but as an adult, my dancing exploits have been pretty much limited to a bit of a boogie at parties and weddings. I have mentioned before that after a rush of blood to the head, Roger and I signed up for salsa evening classes a few years ago and spent most of our time in fits of giggles as we tried to work out what on earth our feet should be doing. The tutor was unquestionably a very talented dancer but I had the impression he felt he’d drawn the short straw teaching a class of hapless beginners. He made a good fist of giving us a taste of different Latin American dance styles but for me it was all too fast and furious; we’d learn a new routine and would just get to the point where it actually felt like we were dancing then he would move us on to something new, often never to revisit anything. As soon as we were home, I would scribble down everything I could remember to help us practise but it ended up a complete jumble as there was too much to recall.

As a teacher, I am all too aware that learners need many things: clear instruction and demonstration, motivation, fun, repetition, time to practise and permission to make mistakes in a safe and supportive environment but overload isn’t at all helpful. I would have loved just to focus on one routine each week so that at least we would have had twelve basic dances under our belt at the end of the term; as it was, we didn’t crack a single one. We persevered for another couple of terms without any real improvement so we put it down to experience and bowed out gracefully . . . but I’ve never lost my desire to do better. So, I was pleased to hit on the short video lessons by Oleg Astakhov, although I was highly sceptical about learning nine dances in twelve minutes: I’d be happy to suss one, to be honest! Mmm, it sounded like an interesting challenge, all the same and – all credit to the teaching – twelve minutes later I was indeed nine dances wiser. The best and most unexpected thing, though, was that suddenly everything clicked and fell into place, all the things I’d found so difficult in those dance classes suddenly became as clear as day.

I’ve always been an advocate of spiral (as opposed to linear) learning, the idea that we are not essentially programmed to learn anything first time round – or second or third, for that matter – and that it’s important to keep circling back to what we are trying to learn, perhaps in a broader or deeper sense, in a different context or from a new angle; sometimes, we don’t grasp something simply because we’re not ready to at that moment. Learning new dances is great brain gym, a brilliant workout for the mind as well as the body, and I’m suddenly having so much fun! I don’t suppose solo dancing will ever catch on but finding time and space to spend a few minutes getting my head (and feet) round waltz and polka, rumba and hustle, jive and jazz, not to mention mambo, merengue, bachata and cha cha is certainly keeping me out of mischief and making me smile! I’m not sure I’m ready for hip hop just yet but there may be a little zumba in the pipeline. Lifelong learning and laughing. I love it. 😊

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? 😊