Notes from a new garden

I’ve become so used to those soft southern winters that I’ve forgotten how it can go in more northern climes. The days lengthen, the birds find their voices again as they flit and flirt round the garden, tree buds noticeably thicken, sprinklings of sweet flowers open . . . it is so easy to believe that there is a delicious, longed-for, gentle hint of spring in the air. Cue nature, in its indomitable way, reminding me that winter is still very much here, sending several centimetres of snow blown in on a bitter north-easterly, the kind of wind that makes my eyes run and toes tingle within moments of stepping outside.

The snow is soft and powdery, turning readily to crunchy ice beneath my feet; the sullen grey skies of morning clear to the sharpest and most brittle of blues, the sun sparkles on the snow like dusted sugar. The landscape has been transformed and it is hard to believe we spent the previous few days beavering away in the garden.

When we lived in this area before, our neighbour Rolande was completely baffled as to why I wanted to work in the garden at this time of year. Growing vegetables is a local way of life but the approach is very different to our own: do nothing until mid-April, then rotavate the entire patch and plant everything at once – potatoes, carrots, onions, haricot beans and salad stuff, with the addition of some tomato plants a little later on. To be out in the cold weather, puttering about the patch was to her complete madness on my part and as for actually planting anything . . . what could possibly be going into the ground in February? Broad beans? Cattle feed! Parsnips? Horse fodder! Honestly, Rolande, they’re good food and really tasty. Bof! (As an aside, the year I decided to plant purple and white carrots as well as orange ones, she was horrified and declared them to be only fit for rabbits; the look on her face was second only to Roger’s when he discovered my precious gift of seeds from Finland contained 26 varieties of squash and I intended to plant them all . . . ๐Ÿ˜‚). Back out in a chilly Mayenne garden, I’ve been thinking fondly about Rolande this week; she is one of the kindest and loveliest people I have ever known and one of these days, I shall cycle along the lanes to visit her. She introduced me to Rustica, a French gardening magazine which is packed with useful information and fascinating articles in a holistic approach that focuses on health and well-being as much as growing a beautiful garden. I love the way state-of-the-art science rubs shoulders happily with the lunar gardening calendar, it’s a wonderful eclectic mix and a very pleasant way to improve my French. I did smile to read that February is the time to be planting rose garlic; phew, that’s alright, then . . . just don’t tell the neighbours I’ve done it!

I’ve also been remembering how it was here that I cut my blogging teeth, starting seven years ago with what was, in effect, a garden diary; when it comes to jotting down what and when we’ve planted and harvested through any year I’m a hopeless case, so at least flicking back through a few blog posts is helpful. This is what we’ve been up to this week:

  • Planted rose garlic – 83 cloves
  • Sowed a row of parsnips ‘Demi-long de Guernesey’
  • Marked out main vegetable patch and space for tunnels
  • Started digging main vegetable patch
  • Put potatoes to chit in the cave – 50 ‘Charlotte’, 12 ‘Blue Danube’ and 10 ‘Mystery Spud’ (ones I’ve dug out of the garden, a waxy salad variety but beyond that, who knows?)
  • Lifted small grapevine and potted up to grow on terrace this year
  • Lifted several self-set ash saplings and relocated in hedge
  • Transplanted oak tree sapling and found perfect spot for pond!
  • Pulled brambles out of hedges
  • Cut down ‘arch’ and left brush as wildlife habitat
  • Replaced support for large grape vine
  • Cleared around soft fruit bushes

It seems somehow very apt that garlic was our first crop planted in this deep, fertile soil; it’s not enough to see us through a year of cooking but we have to be pragmatic in this first season; it will take time to prepare the size of growing area we need so we will have to curtail our planting habits a little. Still, it was a lovely thing to be doing, as well as sowing a row of parsnips which will be a staple next winter. What a difference a day made, though.

It probably sounds faintly ridiculous coming from a (lapsed) student of permaculture but I really struggle with garden design. It’s not because I lack ideas or don’t know what to do but I’ve always felt that gardens are more about evolution than creation. It takes time to get to know a new space, to grasp the essential factors such as aspect, sunshine and shade, prevailing wind, rainfall, topography, soil, resident wildlife and that unique mix of benefits and drawbacks that comes with every patch. Strictly speaking, what we should do is leave everything as it is for a year, sit on our hands and observe. Well, that’s not going to happen but there’s much truth in the old adage that fools rush in so it’s important to give ourselves time and let ideas develop and mature like a good cheese, rather than commit anything to paper at this stage. One of the features we are planning to add is a pond; they are very typical of the area and are one of the best wildlife habitats we could possibly create – I’ve been astonished at how many birds are drinking from our temporary water bath when there is a stream at the front of the house and a wealth of ponds nearby. What a special moment it was earlier this week to draw back the curtains and watch a huge hare taking an early morning drink from the pond across the lane; I could watch many wildlife documentaries with stunning photography from all around the world and yet nothing could beat the magic of that moment, the peace, simplicity and complete ‘naturalness’ of it. I smiled to realise I was holding my breath! So, we had come up with a rough idea of where to site our new pond but all that changed this week when we dug out a random oak sapling and relocated it in a hedge; we’ve had a lot of rainfall but as Roger lifted the spade from the hole, it became obvious our pond plan was in the wrong spot.

This sparked a happy half hour reconsidering our original ideas, because if we moved the pond, then the areas we’d pencilled in for the main vegetable garden and polytunnel would need changing. We love this kind of activity, pacing areas out this way and that, looking at everything from new angles, chewing the fat and considering a range of possibilites. What has transpired is that the area I had covered with tarpaulins for the beginnings of a veg patch will now be inside the tunnel, and the potager itself will shift towards the house and eventually form an L-shape. We stuck markers in the ground as a reminder, then Roger started the mammoth task of digging; of course, I would be happy to help but we currently only have one spade between us . . .

Not that I’ve been idle. With two of the existing patches prepared and ready for planting, I turned my attention to the last one. This is planted mainly with soft fruit bushes: a few currants, a couple of gooseberries and a pile of raspberries plus one or two as yet unknown. It’s a real bonus to inherit something like this but I think they are going to need a lot of love and attention as they are hardly in the the best of shape. The fact that so many of them are lichen-encrusted suggests they are growing somewhere that is too shady and damp (a quick squint at the surrounding bowl of tall trees confirms that one, even at this time of year) and also that they are lacking in vitality – in short, they are struggling. No surprise, really, when I counted twenty plants crammed into an area that scarcely amounts to four square metres and also clocked a rather bizarre pruning method which seems to have involved cutting out all the young vigorous growth and leaving old and dead stems behind. I’ve cleared the weeds from around them so we can give them a good feed of organic matter and assess exactly what we have as the season unfolds. What they really need is a designated spot, open and sunny with lots of space between them and we’re planning to give them just that as part of the main potager, where hopefully they will flourish.

The cutting back of healthy growth seems to have been a bit of a theme here and there is hardly a tree on the property that hasn’t had the chainsaw treatment; this isn’t pruning, coppicing or pollarding but simply the lopping of strong and healthy trunks and limbs, in many cases of very mature trees. It’s brutal and monstrous, and the damage that has been wrought in some cases makes me want to weep. Who thinks to cut the top out of a beautiful cherry?

Its neighbour hasn’t fared much better but at least stands some chance of survival.

As for this poor little apple (I think), what can I say?

Wanton destruction of living things is not something we’re prone to but some removal of plant material is going to be necessary in the first instance here; I console myself that we will – without question – plant far more trees, shrubs and other plants than those that have to go. In fact, the receipt of a generous ‘new home’ gift has us already planning to spend it on something special, an unusual fruit tree perhaps, to grace our new garden. That poor old cherry really has to go but our first job was to clear out the rubbish it is growing in, including an arched ‘entrance’ to the so-called Secret Garden. The entrance hadn’t been made by shaping or training plant growth but rather by pulling a conifer to horizontal then fixing it to the privet hedge beyond with a variety of devices; in short, it was a complete mess and impossibly low. We took the whole lot out and piled the brush under a hedge to rot down in its own time; it will be an excellent temporary wildlife habitat and the wrens were in there straight away! Removing it has let more light in and gives us the chance to sort the hedges out – it would be good to lay the hazel properly – and create a tidier entrance that doesn’t require limbo dancing. It also revealed just what a state that cherry tree is in. Time to look for a replacement, I think.

The arched entrance on the other side of the Secret Garden is in much better shape and high enough to walk under. The hedge to one side of it is an interesting mix of plants, including what looks to me like a long run of bachelor’s buttons (kerria japonica) which – if it flowers – should give a sunny splash of colour in spring. The whole hedge was being choked by brambles (they’ve even been laid deliberately as a hedge in another area of the garden which is a new concept for us) so I spent several hours pulling out what felt like miles of stems, and then several days picking thorns out of my fingers, despite wearing leather gloves. A patch of brambles in the right place is a hugely beneficial wildlife habitat and blackberries are always welcome but they do need to be contained at times. The hedge and arch look so much better without them, the stems standing tall again where they had been pulled down. I’m excited to see just what this will look like in leaf; several grey velvety seedpods suggest there is wisteria in the mix and that will be a wonderful floral treat indeed.

Discovering what is here is all part of gaining an understanding of the garden’s history and for me it’s as important as grasping those physical factors I wrote about earlier. There’s a rich and colourful story woven into this garden and like all good tales, it evokes a mixture of responses and emotions. We all have different ideas and tastes and that’s a very healthy thing, it’s what makes life and people interesting. I might hold strong opinions about what I do and don’t like in the garden but I’m always happy to debate them and to consider, appreciate and embrace alternative views. There are many plants here I wouldn’t have chosen for the garden myself, but they are a thread in that story that I’m not going to rush to unpick; let’s live with them for a while and see what transpires. On that note, I realise that there are people who would consider the structure below that had been built to support a grapevine to be an innovative, artistic and funky feature to have in the garden. The vine is mature and was dripping with black grapes when we first visited the property: no question that it is staying, but as for the structure? Mmm, we were not so much seeing ‘art’ as a pile of rusty metal, concrete blocks and a whole host of tangled mess holding it together.

Time for a makeover. We removed the entire structure and replaced it with a support running parallel to the hedge made from stout hazel poles and wires. It is only temporary as the hazel will rot eventually, but it will do the job until we can make something more permanent with better posts. There was a second vine nearby, much smaller and visibly struggling as it had been planted in the shade of a huge oak tree; we lifted it and potted it up as a temporary measure. It can spend the summer sunbathing outside the kitchen door and eventually we will find it a permanent home; like the soft fruit, I think the potager will be the perfect sun-drenched place for a few grapes.

Although I am keeping a fairly open and tolerant mind about what has gone before, there are some things that simply have to leave. I’ve written previously about the plague of solar lights and they’ve been joined in the recycling pile by various other bits and pieces, including a wealth of rusty metal containers minus their bottoms and several baskets so rotten I consigned them to the compost heap. Then there’s the plastic lion water feature (without water) stuffed ignominiously under the bay tree. I rescued that little patio rose it was harbouring but as for Aslan? No, no and no again.

Who needs lions when we have so much native wildlife to enjoy here? The blanket of snow has revealed another chapter of the garden’s story, one that usually remains hidden from us: the secret, nocturnal visitors. I’ve had a fascinating time following their tracks and discovering the favourite exit and entry points of those silent night-time ramblers and the paths they forge for themselves around the garden; I’ve been particularly amused by the fox pawprints perfectly stitched in a straight line but making a very deliberate detour to check out the compost heap!

There’s no doubt that we’re having a ‘real’ winter that feels every bit as glacial as the local weather forecast suggests. It’s all part and parcel of the natural turning of the year and brings its own kind of magic in a way. However . . . it’s a very long time since we were grappling with the chill of minus nine and I’ll cheerfully admit I shall be happy to see warmer weather any time it likes to arrive! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Break time

We know from previous experience that once we get stuck into a renovation project, it can be all too easy to do nothing else. In part, this is because it is new and exciting and there is an enjoyable buzz to being physically busy, the perfect antedote to all the correspondence, paperwork and travelling that has gone before. Also, although we love a plan, we are not given to too much procrastination; once we’ve decided what we’re doing, we like to get on and do it, to make our new home more comfortable and organised, to start putting our own stamp on it. I realise, however, that there is another element involved: it’s that ingrained work ethic that can leave us feeling guilty if we’re not being busy, a sense that rest and relaxation are not only downright lazy but also some kind of failing. I know that simply isn’t true; there is a need for balance, for time spent away from the ‘work’ – even if we don’t see it as such – to recharge our batteries and seek wider horizons. After all, moving isn’t just about our new home but the locality and community, too. Also – let’s face it – we didn’t really expect to be putting in new ceilings and insulation this time; it’s making an incredible difference to the house but we’d both rather be outside making a start on the new garden. Sigh.

With this in mind, we decided to down tools one afternoon this week and go for a circular walk from home in what we’re hoping will become a pleasant habit. The lanes had been so icy that morning that Roger had abandoned his usual early run, but a few hours of sunshine had rendered things a little safer underfoot and it felt good to be moving in the crisp air. A few hundred metres along the lane from home, we passed through a small hamlet and reached a spot that gave a lovely open view to the north. The higher land on the horizon might seem very modest in comparison to the soaring peaks of Asturias, but the Mont des Avaloirs is not to be mocked: at 416 metres, it is the highest point in western France and often called the ‘Everest of the West.’ For those with a head for heights, it is possible to climb 108 steps up a 18.5 metre high tower (for free) and enjoy a spectacular panorama above the tree tops; on a clear day, it’s possible to see Mont Saint Michel and in fact, were it physically feasible, the Brecon Beacons too, since there is nothing higher in between. Even more extreme, there is no higher land westwards until you reach the Americas . . ! As I have a problem with high places, I prefer to leave the tower to braver souls and enjoy walking the many woodland trails which are particularly stunning in autumn and a popular spot for serious mushroom hunters. That is most definitely a treat to look forward to later in the year.

On the subject of woodland, our walk took us past the coppice which we will be signing for shortly. It’s about a hectare (or two and a half acres) of mostly native broadleaf woodland within a much bigger wood and I’m very, very excited about it. It seems a bit rude to spend too much time writing about something we don’t actually own yet so I will leave that for another day.

From this point, we left the lane and took a gravelled track through the woodland; it’s part of an official waymarked walking route so typical of this area, although we intended to veer off and do our own thing later. I was trying to remember when I had last seen Roger so bundled up for a walk, we really have got out of the winter habit. (Mind you, he has still been running in shorts in the sub-zero temperatures, which makes me feel cold just thinking about it.)

A break in the trees gave us a lovely view which really captures the essence of the area, a church, village and scattered farms nestled between woods in the rolling landscape. I have discovered that there is an organic dairy farm there with a shop selling milk, yogurt and an incredible range of cheeses from their Normandie and  Montbรฉliarde herd . . . now there’s one to visit on my bike as soon as I have the chance. ๐Ÿ˜Š

I am a great lover of woodland and I think there is something very special about watching the changes through the seasons. Now, everything is as bare and pared back as it can be, the ground underfoot wet and muddy or frozen into puddles of ice, and yet there is a beauty to this wintry simplicity which I appreciate. The busyness of birds in the branches above us, the first tentative splashes of fresh green growth on honeysuckle vines and the pale warmth of the sun all hold the promise of spring. It’s not here yet, but it’s on its way.

This is a land of traditional mixed farming and I have a particular soft spot for the scattered herds of pedigree cattle; there are many breeds, so very different to the Asturian Valley cattle we have become used to and, of course, no hint of a cowbell which seems a little strange. I think this bunch were slightly put out to have their lunch disturbed by the new neighbours!

Leaving the woodland, we turned onto lanes once again and looped back towards home, enjoying the pleasant views and abundance of birdlife. An early clump of primroses was a reminder of how in a few weeks’ time, these verges will be carpeted with wildflowers; their beauty is one of my enduring memories from when we lived here before. There will most definitely be photos to come in a springtime blog post.

Something I haven’t managed to capture with the camera yet is one of the white herons which seem ubiquitous here; they are such stately birds, standing tall and still in a streak of pure white against the winter fields. We came across one as we started to climb the hill back to ‘our’ coppice but it lifted and flapped away on casual wings before I could get a good snap. Ah well, I’ll keep on trying . . . and in the meantime, I was pretty chuffed to find I can at least still find some of my favourite skies to enjoy.

Winter has certainly been baring its teeth this week and we seem to have run the whole gamut of weather possibilities: rain, hail, sleet, snow, ice, fog and wind. The snowdrops spent several days living up to their French name of perce-neige but in the current (blissful!) milder conditions, they are more like Tennyson’s February fair-maids, sitting in pretty drifts beneath the hedges which are full of nodding hazel catkins.

I’m hoping the mild weather persists during the weekend as I’m planning to take a break from Ceiling World to take part in the LPO’s Comptage national des oiseaux des jardins, the French equivalent of the British RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. The process is the same, simply spending an hour watching the birds in the garden and recording the maximum number of any species seen at once. Roger has pointed out that trying to count all the blue tits or great tits at the feeding station at any one time is going to be nigh on impossible and he has a point; they are there in droves, it hasn’t taken long for word of free and plentiful nosh to get around and keeping the feeders topped up is a full-time job. Still, I love to see them, there is such pleasure in watching their behaviour at close quarters and there’s plenty more of the garden to survey, too. I’m looking forward to participating in such a worthwhile project – there is another one here in May to allow seasonal comparisons as the breeding season gets into full swing – and it’s going to be useful for refreshing my knowledge of bird names in French and learning some new ones, too.

Our other important engagement this weekend is to pop along to the local charity shop and stock up on some reading material. Charity shops are not overly common in France so we are blessed to have one close by, especially when it has a tremendous choice of books in English and French. Regular readers will know that running out of books was one of the biggest frustrations for us last year – we are both avid readers and always fill the car boot from various charity shops on our trips to the UK – so this feels like a little bit of heaven! At 20 cents for paperbacks and 30 cents for hardbacks, they are fantastic value and as always, we look after them, read them and return them for resale. I’ve been invited to join the team of volunteers and do a few hours in the shop or behind the scenes and it’s something I’m really looking forward to doing; it will be great to give something back to the community, to support local animal welfare, to meet new people and to improve my French. The only condition is that I am allowed time to get the vegetable patch up and running before I start; yes, it’s good to take a break now and again but I really do have to earn (and grow) my crust first! ๐Ÿ˜‰

New horizons

They say that moving house is one of the most stressful life events, which is not surprising really considering how much there is to think about, organise and do; it can be completely exhausting, both physically and mentally. Thankfully, the house buying and selling system in France (and Spain) is more straightforward than the UK in as much as the commitment from both parties comes very early on in the process; this means the worries about being ‘gazumped’ or ‘gazundered’, losing a purchase or sale or chains collapsing are removed which helps to relieve much of the usual uncertainty and anxiety. Nevertheless, it’s always a relief to get through to the other side and into the next phase; for us, that’s a case of adjusting to the change from a home that was comfortable, organised, warm and familiar to one that is currently not really any of the above!

Part of the problem for us is the piecemeal way in which we are moving. We don’t have a lot of stuff, but much of it is still in Spain and we’re already at a point where we’re missing some key items such as the long ladder, the tractor, the basket of seeds (how did I ever not think to squeeze that into the last load?), various essential tools for house and garden and our favourite recipe books. It was certainly an interesting activity prioritising what could come when packing a very limited space: stepladder or wheelbarrow? propagator or sewing machine? food processor or stockpot . . ? One of the biggies was whose bike to bring – there was only room for one on the trailer – and here I have to say Roger was a perfect gentleman and loaded my Trusty Rusty Purple Peril without a second thought. Well, that makes me very happy and I definitely need to make sure I bring him some special thank you patisserie back from my forays into town!

Although we are in need of a few things we haven’t brought, it’s also shown that even with our simple lifestyle, there’s a lot of things we can manage without or which, long term, it makes sense to change or replace. It will be a while until we’re all sorted out but in the meantime I’ve always felt that if there is a fire in the hearth, bread in the oven, a kettle singing on the hob and washing blowing on the line, then we are a long way towards being home.

The biggest issue for us so far has been warmth. It goes without saying that after so many blissfully mild, sun-drenched Asturian winters, returning to northern Europe at the coldest time of year has been a bit of a shock to the system. Of course, we’ve spent most of our lives in this sort of climate so it’s not as if we’re not familiar with the need for coats, hats, gloves and warm boots – we’re just seriously out of the habit! The woodstove is great but it’s struggling to do anything well and is incredibly inefficient given the amount of logs it’s devouring. We’ve discovered several issues with it and need to give some serious thought as to how to revamp the heating system before next winter; luckily, we already have several options in mind.

We have photos of the house pre-renovation, complete with a tin roof! Certainly, whoever did the work here made a fabulous job; the quality of crafstmanship and materials is superb, and everything has been beautifully finished – which begs the question, why oh why wasn’t any insulation put in under the smart new slate roof? It’s no secret that good insulation is key to warmth and energy efficiency so it seems completely nonsensical not to have bothered. The answer, I suspect, may well lie in those glossy country lifestyle magazines whose staged photos tend to suggest that for rural dwellers, true happiness comes from having exposed beams rather than reduced energy bills or even (perish the thought) being warm. Well, that’s most definitely not true: we’re not hothouse flowers, but with the upstairs ceilings reaching right up to the ridge, it feels like we’re living in – and trying to heat – a cathedral.

The irony is these aren’t even beautiful oak beams seasoned over centuries and notched with rune-like carpenters’ marks but modern pine purlins and rafters that have been stained black for effect. It’s bloomin’ freezing upstairs (apart from the toasty bathroom which has been – wait for it – insulated) and conversely, must be stifling in summer when the Mayenne sunshine strikes the dark slates. Sorry, but they have to go in the name of warmth, economy, efficiency and generally saving the planet. So, having said we really, really, really didn’t want to be doing any serious renovation work this time, here we are spending our week putting a ceiling in our bedroom. I’ve been painting wooden panels of sustainably-grown Gascon maritime pine; the house is full of their sweet resinious scent, so reminiscent of the miles of plantations we have driven through many times between Bordeaux and Bayonne. Meanwhile, Roger has been doing the fiddly carpentry stuff and investigating the band saw which he found in the barn; it needed sharpening and the switch is broken, but he managed to fix it enough to help cut timber for the joists.

It’s a slow process but with half the ceiling done, there is already a definite feeling of change; with a lower ceiling, the room has taken on a cosier air and the white panelling has lifted the light level. We are packing 200 millimetres of insulation into every nook and cranny behind the boards and it’s incredible how quickly the ambient temperature is rising and the noise of rain and wind is being reduced. We’d both far rather be outside, but hopefully before too long the promise of a frosty night to follow those colourful sunsets won’t be quite so daunting!

As paint needs time to dry between coats (well, that’s my excuse, anyway), I have been able to spend some time outside making a start on a vegetable garden; the temperature has been occasionally bracing but it’s been lovely to boost my vitamin D levels and burn off some winter calories in the sunshine. The main veg patch that we have planned is going to take a lot of work and preparation so we decided it was worth investigating a couple of patches which have been previously cultivated, even if only to use them as temporary stop-gaps this year. Neither is in an ideal position, as when the trees are in leaf, they will be quite shady but since it’s toughies like parsnips and broad beans that will be planted in them initially, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. One of them had been fenced with a makeshift arrangement of chicken wire and rotten poles so first job was to have all that out.

Eventually, I’d like the garden to be managed on a low/no dig basis, feeding the soil from top down with minimal disturbance and using annual weeds as a mulch. However, despite having been planted last year, the soil was netted with couch grass roots, buttercups and celandines, so a proper dig to clear those was definitely called for. It feels like ages since I spent time preparing beds like this; I love the physical activity but I must admit I’m missing the little border fork I prefer to use!

The good news is that, despite the season, the soil – a rich sandy loam typical of the area – is beautifully friable. It will benefit in the future from good feeds of manure, compost, comfrey mulches and green manure cover but for now I’ve bought an organic all-purpose fertiliser to rake in (aarrgh, where’s the rake????) and give it a boost. I’ve been very thrilled to find a healthy worm population and I’m not the only one, it seems; a fat little robin has been my constant companion, watching proceedings with bright beady eyes and willing me to go in for a tea break so it can inspect my handiwork more closely. Go and find the fat balls, you rascal – we need all the worms we can get!

The second patch is in what was described to us as being a ‘secret garden’ since it has hedges on three sides. It’s a bit of a strange one, to be honest, but I don’t have time to be picky. There’s a huge rosemary growing in it and also some rhubarb which I was very delighted to find (Roger wasn’t!); despite being a large crown, it was a very miserable looking specimen as its growth was being constrained by a low square chimney pot that had been crammed over it and something had been munching away at its leaves.

It has perked up considerably since being liberated and with a good feed of muck and a lot of love, I’m hopeful for some delicious pickings in the future . . . and yes, I am happy to eat it all myself!

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do – ever since our children were small, in fact – is to create a garden space based on the idea of a maze; not the hiding kind with high hedges, but areas of planting chosen to appeal to all the senses between a spiral or labrynthine path that can be used for games of chase or simply to wind round into the centre. Some kind of seat for quiet contemplation or a gardener’s coffee break in the middle would be essential. These days, they tend to be called mandala gardens and I have actually already designed one as part of my permaculture course (which has currently been put on hold for obvious reasons) so I’m beginning to think that, as soon as it’s no longer needed for vegetables, this might be the perfect location to finally get on and do it. Mmm, I’m already seeing all those bright bursts of floral gorgeousness in my mind’s eye. . .

In the meantime, though, it’s all about food. It seems very strange for us not to be able to wander out and pick our dinner, growing our own food is so central to our lifestyle. That said, I’m quite enjoying the novelty of tucking into bought seasonal veg we haven’t eaten for a while: plump bitter chicons of endive, nutty cauliflowers, earthy red cabbage and the long, flavoursome carrots that come coated in sandy Breton soil. The local weekly market has a fantastic fruit and veg stall which will keep us supplied until our own harvests start; I can take reusable bags to fill which I’m very happy about although the ride home with several kilos of food on my back makes for a pretty good workout – don’t think I’ll be buying any big sacks of spuds! If nothing else, there are a few herbs scattered about the property which we are using in the kitchen, including a beautiful bay tree with the most fragrant leaves we’ve ever come across and of course, it goes without saying, we managed to squeeze some Asturian squash into our moving loads to keep us ticking over.

I’m truly enjoying the chance to be outside, to plunge my hands into the earth and start that all important process of bonding with this place, of learning who and what was here before us and finding my own niche in such a beautiful space. The wildlife is atonishing: red squirrels in abundance, hares a-plenty, a nonchalent fox which mooches through the garden without a care in the world and roe deer everywhere we turn. Roger opened the door to go out for a run shortly after sunrise a few days ago and surprised a posse of seven wild boar who were just across the lane; I’d forgotten how hefty they are here, their Asturian cousins being dainty fairies in comparison. Wonderful though this is, I’m not sure it bodes well for happy gardening so we are already planning a good fence and hedges around the main vegetable patch. My temporary feeding station is alive with constant bird traffic; it’s lovely to watch, especially as more and more species move in each day – the arrival of a female reed bunting was very exciting. The rest of the garden is teeming with birds, too, and straightening up for a mid-dig stretch I stood captivated by a firecrest busy in the hedge, nothing more than a tiny puff of feathers and so close I could have touched it, swiftly followed by a plump treecreeper shimmying up a cherry tree and meeting me at eye level.

Temporary feeding station in the old cherry plum tree . . . not the most refined, but the birds are happy (and very full!).

I love these priceless moments completely immersed in the natural world, they are treasure indeed. There are flowers, too, sweet harbingers of spring; the hedge bottoms are filled with drifts of snowdrops and the glossy leaves of a scrambling periwinkle flaunting dainty mauve flowers. There are masses of daffies to follow, their spears of buds fattening with each day that passes. This is the magic of a new garden, watching to see the secrets unfold as we travel through the first year together.

If I had to choose one plant that defines this area (apart from cherry trees at certain times of the year) then it would be mistletoe, that weird and wonderful hemiparasite so traditionally linked with the Christmas season yet in reality something of a pest if it weakens the host trees. It grows in abundance in local apple orchards but I think it is most significant in the tall poplars, where the huge lime green globes, seemingly skewered by skeletal branches, form a winter silhouette of striking contrasts.

There is only one plant in our garden; it’s a relatively small affair and yet the berries suggest it has been there for five or six years. Magical, mythical or a menace? I suppose it depends on your point of view, but since for me it captures so well the essence of this rolling landscape with its wide tracts of woodlands and myriad ponds, then I’m glad it’s here. I’m glad we’re here, too. New home, new horizons – our journey has well and truly begun. ๐Ÿฅฐ

Journeys

We are back in Asturias to collect the second load of our belongings and I have to say the weather is being less than kind.

It is the coldest, wintriest spell we have ever experienced here and I am feeling very grateful for a shed full of dry, seasoned logs and a well-insulated house – two glaring omissions at our new home in Mayenne which we need to rectify as soon as we possibly can. The journey between places is the same as that from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, in other words the entire length of Great Britain; it usually takes us between twelve and fourteen hours depending on whether or not we are pulling a trailer, weather conditions, roadworks, how many times we stop en route and the dreaded extras like flat tyres, traffic jams and road closures. Most of the trip is on motorways which helps to eat up the miles but it is incredibly dull, like a long haul flight without the films. By the weekend, we will have done it three times in thirteen days; to say we are already feeling travel weary would be an understatement, for sure.

In a perfect world, all this would be happening very differently. Our Big Plan was to sell our home in Spain first, then move lock, stock and barrel all in one go to France, preferably at a better time of year when the days are longer and the weather less unpredictable. Life, of course, is never that simple and the twin evils of Brexit and Covid-19 well and truly scuppered our original plans. It’s going to be a complicated and messy few months for us but, rather than moaning or stressing about it, I am thanking my lucky stars that we made it to France before the 31st December deadline. I feel desperately sorry for the many people who wanted to do the same but simply ran out of time; to have lost such a precious opportunity and freedom is a crushing blow which I imagine no amount of blue passports will ever heal. We did it. We are the fortunate ones. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

So, to happier things and the unexpected opportunity to hug the fire and write a blog post; it’s too horrible to do anything outside and too soon to start packing all our kitchen equipment which will form the bulk of the next car load so I have a little time to start reflecting on the next chapter of our life’s journey. Why not grab a brew and come with me? Let me give you a quick guided tour . . . ๐Ÿ˜Š

Our new home is a traditional stone cottage with an attached barn at one end and a smaller cave at the other. We have a kitchen, sitting room, two bedrooms and a bathroom which is ample living room for the two of us and, as always, we have plans for making plenty of outdoor living spaces, too. The house faces south-east, so the gravelled area in front of it will no longer be used for parking but as a sunny terrace with table and chairs for morning mugs of coffee, al fresco dining or simply soaking up a few rays. That rather glamourous blue tarp is covering solar panels which will provide us with hot water for most of the year; the possibility for a greener and more sustainable lifestyle was one of the factors that attracted us to this property ~ of which, more next time. Behind the cave is a lovely sheltered area which used to house a bread oven and this, I think, has great potential to make a pretty and more intimate space for sitting.

The barn is a hugely useful space and, although we seem to have inherited a fair amount of junk in it, I can report that there is one very happy bunny who at long, long last has a proper fixed workbench for the first time in his life!

I’m equally delighted to have probably the best rainwater capture system we’ve ever had, collecting run-off from a further stone outbuilding and perfect for those long hot spells that are so typical of a Mayennais summer.

Compared to some of our previous purchases, the house is very habitable and civilised; a comfortable kitchen, bathroom and central heating are a bit of a shock to the system! There is, however, plenty to be done to the house interior and those activities will, I’m sure, feature in future posts. For us, though, it is ultimately the outside space that is the most important factor and here we have a wonderful long-term project in waiting.

It is fair to say, our new garden lacks the stunning views, wow factor and quirky character of our Asturian patch, but it certainly has its attractions. For starters, it is flat and as we intend to live here for a long time ~ maybe forever ~ that has positive practical implications. There is a degree of maturity in the shape of trees, shrubs, hedges and partial landscaping but overall it is a blank canvas waiting for ideas. Mmm, we might have a few of those.

Our first few days were spent signing for the house, unpacking the car and trailer (in a blizzard!) and getting a feel for the property and a real idea of the problems and potential. It always fascinates me how little time we actually spend studying a house before we buy it, especially considering how much money is involved; it’s common practice to test drive a car before parting with money for it, but how often do we get the chance to test ‘occupy’ a house? Our most pressing issue right from the start was warmth: we were dismayed to find that the logs we had been told would be left were not the dry, chopped, stacked kind we will happily leave in the shed for our eventual buyers in Asturias but random lumps of wood scattered about the property where they were rotting, rather than seasoning. Even the pile under a tarpaulin was soaking wet. Having been under the impression we wouldn’t need the chainsaw on this first trip, we had decided not to pack it so first job was to dash to the nearest farmers’ shop (thankfully, we know exactly where to find such essential places locally) and buy a bow saw. Roger then spent a day cutting all the smaller, drier stuff he could find into logs and shifting that pile into the dry shed next to it.

A good supply of seasoned logs has been part of our lives for many years and our new home will be no exception. There is a mighty wood stove in the kitchen which is great for cooking and heating water (we didn’t take the hob kettle either, hence the saucepan of water on top!) and also runs four radiators. It’s a greedy log gobbler, though, and will take some feeding so logging will be a top priority for us through this year . . . and one of the reasons we are also buying a coppice a short distance away.

While Roger organised logs, I decided to repurpose that tarp and make a start on the vegetable patch. We have ample space for a large and productive potager with masses of veggies, fruit, herbs and flowers, a polytunnel and net tunnel, a proper two- or three- bay compost system (I’m very excited about that one) but as always, it has to start with the soil. We’ve created enough gardens from fields in our time to know the first step is to knock back the vegetation; yes, it would be lovely to do the proper no-dig thing and start with cardboard sheets but we don’t have the vast amount of compost and muck that would require and couch grass roots are hellish things so a first dig will be necessary to get things started. After days spent packing, travelling, unpacking and going off in search of important things like a new fridge, it was lovely to be outside in the fresh air doing some honest physical work; I walked miles back and forth to collect and carry all those stones (a wheelbarrow and trug are definitely on the next load) but it was a joy. I’d forgotten how wonderful the birdlife is in this landscape and revelled in the sight of a pair of pure white herons stalking on long stilted legs in the neighbouring field, the garrulous clacking of bossy fielfares raiding the globes of mistletoe, the looping and tumbling of flocks of lapwings, rippling and shadowing the sky in perfectly synchronised murmurations. There are roe deer and red squirrels a-plenty here and spring will bring the mad boxing hares. It’s a beautiful place to be.

There is an abundance of birds in our Asturian garden and it is possible to see many different varieties in any given day; however, with the exception of robins, wrens, blackbirds and blackcaps, they tend to be just passing through rather than permanent residents. Bullfinches are very much front and centre at the moment, the vivid deep pink of the males’ plumage a vibrant flash against the grey and white landscape. I suspect they are coursing the peach trees in the hope of nipping off some early buds! We don’t feed the birds in winter here as there is simply no need; even in the current cold weather, there is no shortage of natural food to be found and anyway, I have never seen wild bird food in the shops. In contrast, our new garden is teeming with birdlife on the lookout for an easy meal and making a proper bird table, as well as some nesting boxes, is definitely on the to-do list. When Roger made the surprise discovery of a large bag of mixed seed in the cave, I decided to rig up a temporary feeding station out of some of our inherited junk by drilling drainage holes in a large plastic tray and sitting it on an old stool, weighed down with a rock. It’s not the most glamourous and a bit low (although I didn’t see signs of a single neighbourhood cat while we were there) but it wasn’t long before a robin and great tit were vying for occupancy. I filled it to overflowing before we left and will happily be back at the farmers’ store stocking up on an array of feeders and bird foods next week. Having enjoyed the sweet moment of a red squirrel sitting on the kitchen windowsill, I have a feeling we might attract some little furry visitors, too.

Among the mature trees on the property are several large oaks, one of which had dumped a thick carpet of leaves on the gravel in front of the house. This was certainly something that needed tackling, not from any aesthetic reason (fallen leaves don’t bother me one jot) but because the soil here is going to need a lot of love and this is a golden resource not to be wasted: wonderful, rich, friable compost in the making. Having found a flimsy but functional rake in the junk pile, I set about creating several huge piles of leaves, then shifting them a bucket at a time (no question we need that wheelbarrow and trug pronto!) to form an enormous heap in a sheltered place. It was lovely, warming work and a good job done; now I can forget all about them and let nature do the important bit.

One of the many things I love about gardens is the way in which individual gardeners put their own stamp on a patch, making the space an expression of their own personalities and characters; it would be so very dull if every garden was created to be identical to the next one or people felt constrained by a set of horticultural rules and regulations that stifle individuality and creativity. I’ve always felt that the medium of plants offers a satisfying and fun way of playing with colour and form for someone like myself who could never do the same with paints and I love taking inspiration from other people’s clever and creative ideas. There are things here I would never choose to plant ~ ornamental conifers, camelias and heathers have never really been my cup of tea ~ but each to their own, I say. However . . . there are some limits to what we’re happy to tolerate in our garden and I was pretty horrified to find that we have inherited the mother lode of plastic solar garden lights. They were every shape, size and design imaginable and it is no exaggeration to say they were absolutely everywhere ~ truly, not a single nook or cranny had escaped. I can’t bear the things. I’m a country mouse, born and bred and I’ve never been afraid of the dark; nature blesses us with moonlight and starlight and in the absence of either, the darkness simply brings a balance that I’m happy to embrace. This is a land of barn owls and I’m excited about watching their silent ghostly flights through the garden without the whole place being lit up like a Christmas tree! So, the lights had to go; I’m not entirely convinced I’ve found them all yet, but we now have an enormous pile ready to take to the local household recycling centre and nothing to detract from the wondrous beauty of this wide sky on starry, starry nights.

It’s interesting how our first tasks here have been such a reflection of our approach to life in general, that close connection to the natural process of things and the awareness that we share this space with a wealth of other living things. From leaves to compost to soil to seeds to plants to food and logs for warmth and energy: these are the endless loops and circles and cycles of which we are a tiny yet privileged part and our intention is to support and enhance them in whatever ways we can. We’ve taken our first steps on a new and exciting journey; we have started the all important process of bonding with this piece of land and turning a house into a new home. We have no way of knowing exactly where this journey will take us, in which direction each new step will lead . . . but then, that’s all part of the fun. Isn’t it? ๐Ÿ˜‰